Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Birth of the Rebel Jesus

"Long Live the Revolution"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

I am sometimes asked if I have a favorite Christmas carol and the answer I give is often quite surprising to people who expect me to name “Joy to the World” or maybe “Silent Night” as my number-one choice.  Instead, my all-time favorite is a rather obscure song written a few years back by singer and songwriter, Jackson Browne. The name of the carol is The Rebel Jesus:

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
As the sky darkens and freezes
They’ll be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for all God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

I’m quite sure that most people who gather around a “Christmas hearth” during this season will not be thinking of the newborn Baby Jesus as a “rebel.”  People usually picture “Baby Jesus” as a sweet little infant asleep on the hay.  And yet, in point of fact, the baby born in Bethlehem went on to become a rebel, a political subversive who would devote his entire life to planting the seeds of a revolution. In fact, that little baby boy would grow up to be a “thorn in the side” of the “status quo" and a dangerous threat to the “powers that be.” Throughout his entire life Jesus would constantly turn the acceptable norms of the culture of his day upside down.

The Baby of Bethlehem was born into a system of violence, extreme prejudice, oppression and revenge, a culture where the powerful crushed the weak and the rich controlled the poor - throughout his life and ministry Jesus did all in his power to “stand against” that system into which he was born. He preached about a just and compassionate society where no one was left outside looking in and where everyone had a place of equal dignity and respect at the table of life. Jesus sowed the seeds of revolution as he invited his followers to overthrow the old way and build up a new kingdom, a kingdom of love and compassion, a kingdom where forgiveness and tender mercy were the order of the day.

Jesus was very much a rebel. In fact, he was such a rebel that the religious institution and the government of his time finally arrested him and executed him for his revolutionary sedition.

It’s so paradoxical that Christian believers who celebrate the birth of the “Rebel Jesus” often think and do the very things that Jesus rebelled against.  As the world celebrates Christmas, people will sing the carols, exchange gifts and gather around family tables and as they do so they will condemn foreigners and build walls against strangers. During this season, many people who celebrate Christmas will do their best to exclude and crush those who do not belong, and many followers of Jesus will barely even know that they are remembering the birth of a rebel who expected his followers to continue his revolutionary way of love.

Over these days many Christians will make their way into some church or other where they will likely recite the words of the all-familiar Lord’s Prayer (The “Our Father”). I am reminded of something Professor Amy-Jill Levine once wrote about this prayer:

I do wonder, do all those who pray
‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done,’
really want a change of the status quo
or are they pretty satisfied with the kingdom we have here and now?
Do they really want the time, as Jesus promises,
when the first will be last and the last first,
when we are assessed on how well
we have loved our enemy and fed the hungry?

People who recite the Lord’s Prayer should be careful of what they are saying - it’s a pretty subversive prayer.

It seems to me that you don’t actually have to be a Christian to follow the way of the “Rebel Jesus.”  May that the revolution he first began be continued in the lives of all people of goodwill everywhere.

Long Live the Revolution!

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