So what now? Christmas is over, the tree comes down, the decorations go back in the box, the lights come off the house, life goes back to normal? For many the climax of Christmas leaves them wanting. There is a buildup to the big morning where gift wrapping paper is thrown all over the living room, a feast is had with family and friends, and we laugh at the Grinch because Christmas DID come, and it was exhilarating. But what now?
My friend Jonathan Cleveland gave a brilliant Christmas Eve message two days ago on the smallness of the first Christmas (here I am stealing some of his thoughts). When we survey our current Christmas traditions, we find a culture that works itself into a fervor where lights on houses syncopate to music. Stores vie for our attention with percentages off of the price new stuff for our already packed closets. We go into a frenzy of holiday madness and focus that has little bang for the buck the day after. Jonathan’s point, and a good one, was that the real Christmas came without all this hub-bub. It was really pretty boring (outside of some Angels freaking out some Shepherds). God brought the real Christmas to us without lights, loud music, department stores, trees, or even feasts. The lone celebration was likely a the joy of two parents and a new baby crying. Christmas, really, is small not big.
This inclination of ours to make small things big got me thinking about the church in general. How we have created a religion out of simple instruction. Israel created a maze of rules and rituals that left any God-seeking person dizzy from simply reading them. Most theologians put the rule book of Israel, by the time Jesus arrived, at upwards of 600 instructions for the God-following life. This would leave anyone feeling tired.
When Jesus arrives, one of his primary missions is to simply the code of following God; to deconstruct religion as a “good Jew” knew it. Jesus’ message was simple, “to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind…and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22). Love God, love other people. This is a pretty radical cliff note version for over 600 rules of life!
Now that Christmas is over, it’s back to living our lives as Christ-seekers and followers. What will we make of our faith as we enter 2018? Might I suggest that we try not to make a mountain out of a mole hill, that we don’t build a religion out of some simple instructions, but that we work out our faith in the way Jesus explained it. Most of us belong to church communities. Many of these communities have a long list of programs for you to get involved in…things to give you more knowledge about the Bible, more ammunition to ward off culture, more ways to have a better marriage, family, or finances. Most churches fall into the same trap that Israel did…to think that “more is better.” Who can blame them? Offering more programs and stuff will bring more people into the club, right? And so, we build an institution that will help us navigate the complexities of living as a Christian. We build systems that will keep us buoyant in turbulent waters. The church has no shortage of life jackets for those sinking in life. The problem is in trying to wear multiple life jackets. Have you ever been on a cruise and just had to wear one of those things during the pre-cruise safety talk? Imagine wearing multiple life jackets! Yet this is the system we settle for.
Might I encourage you as a reader of this to take back the simplicity of the faith Jesus gave you. Don’t demand more from your church, demand less! Ask your leaders, pastors and fellow community members how you can simply Love God and Love Others this coming year. If they start rattling off a list of programs and studies, run the other way! Activity doesn’t equal worship, and you don’t need a program to love another person well.
Jesus came quietly, softly (except for those angels), and in the dark of night. Christmas was small, the light that would (and will) light the world, started with a small flicker. When he was older, he still exemplified the smallness of religious activity. He sought to love the widow, the blind man, the prostitute, the adulterous, the enemy soldier. He ate with those that usually ate alone. He walked with the simple people and made them his disciples. He simply loved his Father by loving others. My prayer for you this coming year (and for me) is that your faith is small. When you feel inclined to engage religion in a bigger way this year, maybe just find a simple way to love someone else. Remember, small is big, less is more.