The (Dis)comfort of Christmas

In a moving piece, Kevin D. Williamson laid out the thoughts of Mary and Joseph against the backdrop of the story of Abraham and Isaac. Mimicking the thoughts of unbelievers when facing these stories that make up the canon of Christianity, Williamson returns to a refrain: “All that stuff must be very comforting. I wish I could believe it.”

But the picture Scripture paints is not comforting—not in the sense that most might believe. The title of the article, “He himself carried the fire”—a reference to Abraham carrying that which would burn his son as a sacrifice—directs us to consider the faith of Abraham. Not a faith that served as a crutch to ameliorate discomfort, but a faith that drove the aged father into what was surely the greatest trial of his life.

But the story of Abraham and Isaac, of Noah and the ark, of the Exodus, of David and Goliath, and most dramatically the story of Jesus’ birth have all been made comfortable. I remember when my oldest, who is remarkably intelligent, at around four years old was being read the story of Noah from a children’s book. It was drawn and presented for the very young, but she noticed what was happening, and asked my wife: “Are all those other people under the water?” The pictures of cute, smiling animals were not enough to hide the horror that lies beneath the surface.

These stories, domesticated and made palatable for the wider public, and made believable by temporal and cultural distance from those events, take on the appearance of easy comfort. But the comfort offered by them is not the easy consolation that simply declares that every pain you experience will be “paid off,” or the pleasant sense that, no matter what happens, I get to win in the end. Cheap comfort is like a participation trophy—you needn’t worry about walking away empty-handed, but what you hold in your hand is quite empty.

“All that stuff must be very comforting. I wish I could believe it.” Indeed, it is difficult to believe a Disney-ified form of the Bible, when the world around us is full of complex sufferings that the simple morals of these polite stories are to teach us.

The gospel was a scandal and foolishness to the world of the first century. It still is. And if it what is said does not sound foolish or scandalous, then we should consider carefully that which we say.

The Infinite took on the finite. The Creator became the created. The Eternal became the temporal. The Son of God became the Son of Man. This is all surely worthy of ridicule.

And it is no simple comfort. Jesus’ entry into the world was followed swiftly by great and horrible violence, the slaughter of innocents at the hand of a king maddened by his desire to maintain his throne. The many murders arose only because a group of wise men, seeking the King of the Jews, haplessly alerted Herod to the identity of the young Jesus.
Jesus’ entry into the public eye in His ministry brought comfort to many, but not a simple “everything will be alright” comfort. Nor, indeed, did He simply embrace all no matter what. No, Jesus called for people to drop that which they held dear to follow Him.

We who claim to hold firmly to the teaching of Scripture may find this claim appealing, for it is useful against those who try to suggest that Jesus never judged and simply welcomed all with open arms. Such simplistic reasoning is used to undermine thousands of years of unanimous interpretation regarding things such as homosexual behavior. But Jesus did not command only the adulterous woman to sin no more. He also condemned the religious leaders who had found a rational balance between the demands of the Torah and the demands of their political, economic, and social circumstances. Most notably, the Sadducees rejected the notion of a resurrection. Why? For a few reasons, not least of which involved their comfortable situation in relation to the Romans and the recognition that the resurrection was an idea inextricably tied to revolution and the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel.

Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God. His entry into the world naturally leads the powers of this world to attack in fear. Not because Jesus and His followers will rise up, swords in hand to overthrow the political powers of this world.

No, it is because the birth of Jesus is the entry of the infinite and eternal into the finite and temporal. In human form we behold God. No finite, temporal kingdom can stand against the kingdom of the eternal and infinite Three-in-One. Not because God is raising up an army wielding swords or clever placards, but because God’s kingdom simply makes all these other authorities irrelevant to the way we live.

Irrelevant because laws against murder mean nothing to those motivated by love. Irrelevant because threats of death from the authorities (and, ultimately, all human governments rule through the threat of death) do not matter to those who live in hope of the resurrection. We do not seek to overthrow a nation to establish a theocracy. If that were so, shouldn’t Jesus have been born in a palace? Would He not have called His followers to fight? Would He not have overthrown the Romans and established a throne in Jerusalem?

But He didn’t. He was born to bring into the world the kingdom of God. And He died so as to overthrow death (the very stuff of worldly power). Herod was acting with surprising political cunning in wielding death as he did against the young innocents in order to eradicate Jesus’ kingship. But it was useless. Just as the crucifixion could not stomp out the kingdom of God.

The comfort that arises from the story of Christmas is not a comfort about all things going swimmingly in our lives, nor about confidence that we will be healthy, have enough money, or that the United States will flourish. It is not that, with Jesus on our side, we can “take back our country for God” or that we will be successful in our business or church outreach program. God already owns all nations, and can do without your success.

What God wants are those who will exhibit in their finite, temporal lives the eternal. What does that look like? Carrying upon oneself the worldly instruments of torture and death, and following Jesus into suffering and death. And through it all, to forgive those who would mock you because your way of life does not bring the results they think are the measure of power. And to forgive those who see you as some kind of threat and so exclude, hurt, or even kill you.

For something new has come with the birth of Christ. And that new thing seems worthy of ridicule—a little, helpless baby in a feeding trough, born in lowly circumstances, having to fly from threats of death by the government, coming to adulthood in a disrespected part of society, and dying humiliated like a wicked criminal.

But throughout, power and authority flowed from Him. Not the kind of power the political and religious masterminds were practiced at. He didn’t exhibit the shrewdness that we’re used to. He didn’t speak or act the way someone seeking a kingdom of this world would speak or act. Jesus did not come to fight for a kingdom, raising an army or prudent counselors. He came to announce a kingdom, one that is on a different level. He didn’t make Israel great again. He didn’t take it back for Yahweh. He didn’t confront injustices in the courts, nor did he organize protests. He didn’t need to overturn anything. He brought the kingdom—a kingdom against which no power of this world can fight, for all the weapons of this world, whether the sword or rhetoric or mockery, have no power against the kingdom of God.

That the kingdom of God is simply beyond the powers of this world is indeed comforting, but not the comfort that the world—and our world-influenced view of Christianity—offers. Our usual sense of comfort means getting the things that fulfill the desires that are attached to the powers of this world: being proven correct, finding time to relax, winning an election, an argument, a battle or war, gaining fame for our virtues. In short, to have the cross of suffering taken from our shoulders.

But the kingdom of God does not come that way. It comes lowly, unnoticed, bearing the pain and diseases of those around. It comes without whining or complaining, without bitter anger, without propping oneself up by showing “them” to be evil or ignorant or the cause of one’s own failures. The kingdom of God offers neither the comfort of the victor nor the comfort of the victim, neither the pleasure of glory and spoils, nor the pleasure of resentment and blame. These are the means that the world takes to gain power.

The kingdom of God need gain no power. The citizen of that kingdom carries a cross from an abundance of power. The citizen of the kingdom of God humbles herself because she needs no glory. The citizen of the kingdom of God does not blame because his value is secure in the kingdom.

The worldly way of power, glory, value—they are insecure, and we must always be at war with our neighbor to maintain them. The power of the kingdom of God need not war against neighbor—the citizen of the kingdom of God loves the neighbor, even the enemy. For all things are ours.

Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Corinthians 3:18-23 ESV).

With the birth of Jesus comes something new, something unknown. An unknown that brings fear such that the messengers of the news must constantly reassure their auditors: Fear not. Fear not. For though your world is about to be undone. Though One will soon tread on this ground who surpasses all the systems by which you organize and make sense of the world, by which you define where people belong and what counts as success. You’ll recognize Him because He won’t belong in this worldly system. He’ll have no place to lay His head. And if you’d find peace and hope, you too must take the life of homelessness in the ways of this world. Surely, suffering and death will find you. But you will be part of the kingdom of God, the kingdom breaking into this world through this humble baby, a kingdom that surpasses all the weaknesses of worldly power. Fear not.

Christmas is no simple, childish comfort. It is the beginning of the crumbling of the world we inhabit. One cannot domesticate the story, make it palatable, without betraying it. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1) indeed. But not the comfort you think.

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