Prequels and Sequels: Christmas in Retrospect

“You better watch out, you better not cry; Better not pout, I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is comin’ to town. He’s making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice. Santa Claus is comin’ to town  He sees you when you’re sleepin’. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”[1]

If that isn’t the most blatant example of propaganda ever, I don’t know what is. It is mind-control – plain and simple. St. Nicholas could sue for libel. St. Paul would decry it as a theology of works. Yet it plays on a thousand radio stations every December, and parents have it on their iTunes and Apple Music playlists. And when their kids start to act up, they just remind them that Santa is watching. Mind control. You ask me how I know this? I know this because that’s what my mother did. If my brother and I were getting a little rambunctious, it was: “Are you on the naughty or nice list right now?” When we were supposed to be sleeping but were instead goofing around, we were reminded that “Santa is watching.”

And my dad made things worse by putting candy canes on our window sills – it never occurred to us that they were the same candy canes he gave away in the barbershop at Christmastime – and made us think that Santa had been spying on us, peeking us through the windows. That’s creepy, isn’t it? A peeping Santa. I mean, how was a five-year-old supposed to think about that? I can remember going outside when I was little, and tracking Santa’s big boots – which were, suspiciously, size 10 and ½, just like my dad’s – with my pop gun at the ready. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I caught up with hi, but I was hot on his trail. And then I lost him when his boot prints looped back around the house and became confused in the myriad of other prints around our back porch. He was clever!

“He knows if you’ve been bad or good.” Bad or good, that was the question at Christmas time. Get in a fight with your brother, even when you didn’t start it, and your mother was saying: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good.” It was paralyzing. For the month before Christmas, we couldn’t get away with a thing.

But listen: Bad or good is not the issue, and Christmas is not a tool to make children grow up into responsible citizens and reliable tax payers. Christmas is more than you or I realize.

I’m sure many of you have gone to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi in the past week or so. (And before you ask me what I thought of it, I haven’t seen it yet. You know, I’m more of a Star Trek guy, but that’s probably because the resident adviser in my dorm almost ordered me to go and see the first Star Wars movie. He kept telling me (and everybody else), “There is a guy in the movie that looks exactly like Looper. Exactly. You’ll know him when you see him. His name is Chewy.” (My hair and beard were a little longer back then.)

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you know the story now in theaters is part of a much grander narrative. Even that first movie I went to see in the ’70s was part of a much bigger story, though most of us didn’t realize it at the time. It had a backstory – a prequel – and would have a fore-story – a sequel.

That’s the way it is with Christmas. It is a satisfying story in itself – this tale of an unwed mother and an ostracized family, of an angel messenger and noble shepherds. We can enjoy it without knowing the rest of the story – or even knowing there is a rest of the story. We can enjoy it, but we can’t really understand it, not until we know how Christmas fits into the larger narrative. Christmas has a prequel and a sequel, and we’ll only understand it within the context of the larger story of what God is doing in the world. What makes this story different from all others is that we are not merely viewers; we are participants. This story is interactive: we have a role.

What is the prequel to the Christmas story? It would take more time than we have available to give much detail – you can get a lot of it from the Old Testament – but I’ll summarize. The backstory is that a superior intelligence created carbon-based, physical-spiritual hybrid beings and placed them on a planet – as it turns out, our planet. The creator designed these beings to be a race of godlike and loving protectors and rulers of creation.

Unlike the other creatures he designed, the Creator engineered the humans with a high degree of autonomy: they can make choices, formulate plans, and carry them out, as they see fit. This autonomy was a key part of the design. Humans were the glory of the creation.

But as the story progresses, the nascent humans are co-opted by a dark power and drawn away from their creator and the result is disastrous. The spiritual part of humans, who were designed as physical-spiritual hybrids, underwent catastrophic failure. Without the spiritual component, humans became like other animals, only more intelligent. Chaos ensued: injustice, greed, hatred, and foolishness invaded human society.

The creator, though, does not give up on his human creatures. He rather communicates with the humans that are capable of interacting with him. There is no undoing the damage done by human rebellion, no going back, but the Creator plans to take humanity forward. He immediately sets in motion a plan to right what has gone wrong and restore humanity’s spiritual life. He begins shaping a millennia-long lineage chain among his human creatures. Within that lineage, he promotes a particular culture, and superintends a specific genetic line. He does this over a period of thousands of years. His plan is to enter humanity himself through the line he has prepared, in order to save humanity from the rebellion and restore its damaged spiritual function. That’s the metanarrative into which Christmas fits.

Once we are aware of the prequel, we realize that Christmas is not a stand-alone story about the birth of a beautiful child under trying circumstances. It is the story of a rescue, the story of an invasion. It is a bittersweet story, because when the creator entered his creation through the line he had spent thousands of years preparing, his creatures did not know him. So St. John writes, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John 1:10). Not only did they not recognize him, they did not accept him: “He came to His own,” the line and the people he had been preparing for millennia, “and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11).

Of course, in the tale we know as the Christmas story, there is all kinds of excitement: there is a tyrannical ruler who serves an Empire which is under the sway of the original dark power. As soon as the tyrant becomes aware that the Empire has been infiltrated, he makes an attempt on the creator’s life. There are bad guys aplenty in this story, but there are also friends and unexpected allies. There are covert messages. There is a dramatic escape.

But here is the thing we need to understand about Christmas: It is the middle of the story, not the beginning nor the end. And it is full of surprises. Instead of the creator going to war against the rebels, as we might expect, he goes to war for them. He could have impressed them with his vast power, or intimidated them with threats of punishment, or appealed to them on the basis of their greed or selfishness – the same old story of the ways of power in the world. But he did none of those things. His sights were set something more radical than conformity to a set of rules: He was out to change humanity from the inside; to change us from the inside.

To that end, the creator lived among humans as a human, modeling for them the life he makes possible and instructing them in how to live it. But they needed more than instruction. They needed the kind of life they had lost and didn’t even know was missing. To make that possible, the creator had to give his life on their behalf. He did this by dying and rising again. That is the climax of the story, and you can read about in the New Testament Gospels.

It is the climax of the story, but it is not the end of the story. The story continued on, as chronicled in the book known as The Acts of the Apostles. And the same story is going on still, and still being chronicled. (Remember what St. John wrote: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” And what’s recorded there will no doubt include the heroics and bravery and extraordinary faith of God’s people in this generation. We are a part of the story now, and have a role to play in it.

Think of it! We’re in the same story as Mary, only at a different point in the plot. What happened to Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and the magi – that’s the prequel to our part of the story. But while ours is a sequel, it is not the final installment. That is still to come, when the king who came comes again; this time, not a baby, but a hero; not in weakness, but in strength; not in poverty, but in glory.

And that final installment of that story is the beginning of the great story that goes on forever, in which each chapter is better than the last (Lewis). We join the heroes of the faith – Abraham and Moses, David and Jeremiah, Mary and Joseph, Paul and Timothy, and many others we don’t yet know. And we join them because of God’s grace delivered through the baby, the man, the king.

Preached on Christmas Eve at Lockwood Church, Coldwater, MI

[1]  Haven Gillespie and J. Fred Coots

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