Joseph Avenue Christmas is the story of one man's journey to the true meaning of Christmas. Not just the birth of the babe, but the salvation of the soul. Set on the wintry streets of Rochester, NY it is a visit to the heart of that city and the hearts of some of its best and bravest people. From their good example, and the simple lessons of their own lives and faith, a troubled man finds on a dark Christmas Eve an escape from an increasingly failed life.
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The Central New York leaders of four major Christian denominations released a joint Christmas message yesterday.
It displayed a stunning ignorance of Christianity.
Worse, it seemed almost to be a betrayal of Christianity. Instead of proclaiming truths, it pawned off lies. It seemed ripped from the Gospel of Karl Marx, not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I recognize that that is an impertinent claim for a religiously backsliding layman like myself to make. And yet it is true. And I can’t conceive of any true follower of Christ saying anything different.
Let’s start with the message.
It is signed by Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, of the Catholic diocese of Syracuse, who is also the apostolic administrator of the diocese of Rochester; Bishop Gladstone B. Adams III, of the Episcopal diocese in Syracuse; Bishop Marie C. Jerge, of the local Evangelical Lutheran synod; and the Rev. Mark J. Webb, who leads the region’s United Methodists.
Here is what they wrote:
“To a world struggling with such planetary issues as war and peace, global climate change, poverty and wealth, the Gospel of Luke from the Christian scriptures informs us that a sign has been given, albeit two thousand years ago. What might this sign be, even for those of different faith traditions, or even those of no faith tradition?
“In the early Roman empire of Jesus' day there were two saviors being offered to the people. One, represented in the person of the Emperor Caesar Augustus, ruled with supreme military strength in order to help guarantee prosperity and wealth to the elite of the society as enjoyed in Rome. Historically this is well marked in shrines and monuments throughout the imperial empire.
“The other savior, according to Luke, was born in a manger, a feed trough for the animals of the stable. His parents had gone to Bethlehem to pay the forced tribute that held up the opulence of Rome. The central point of the Bible's birth stories of Jesus was to challenge Rome's propaganda and subvert the hierarchy of wealth and power. They were to be a word of promise for the oppressed and marginalized of the society. The shepherds, representing the poorest of the poor, praise God as they hear the news of the Child born who values everyone, especially the least and the lost.
“The vulnerable Baby of the manger points to a call in our time that we are to work for a vision of the human community that seeks the good of all over personal gain. The way of Jesus, no matter how you may honor him or what you may call him, is a way of life for all creation. He embodies the complete opposite of ways of domination and power. We get to create the possibility of a new world with visions of a new peace and a new justice that respects the dignity of every human being. It is the sign of the infant of Bethlehem. It is the Christmas hope.”
At first blush, that may sound fine.
But if you look at what it actually says, you find major problems.
Ignore the “global climate change,” and the misstating of the social dynamic of Jesus’ time, and the fact that Joseph and Mary probably went to Bethlehem for a census, not a tax. Pretend you don’t notice that the bishops site the oppression of imperial Rome when Jesus was actually persecuted by and eventually killed at the insistence of local Jewish authorities. Even overlook the assertion that a God who the Bible says is no respecter of persons “especially” values one group of people more than another, and that his favor is based on socioeconomic status and not righteousness. Ignore even the choppy and weak writing. Chalk all that up to the ignorance and enthusiasm of the liberals who have taken over the mainstream American pulpit.
My intent is not to challenge misinterpretations, misplaced emphases or historical inaccuracies, my intent is to challenge heresy.
Like these two sentences.
First: “The central point of the Bible's birth stories of Jesus was to challenge Rome's propaganda and subvert the hierarchy of wealth and power.”
Read those words and understand what they mean.
Does the Roman Catholic Bishop of Syracuse really believe that the biblical account of Jesus’ birth was written to challenge Roman “propaganda?” Those decades later, when the four Gospel writers put down their biographies of Jesus, were the accounts of his birth intended as counterpoints in a political fight with the Roman Empire?
You know, when Linus read the second chapter of Luke in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, I didn’t get that.
And if these accounts were written to attack Rome, does that mean that they are now moot, 1,600 years after the Roman empire fell?
Specifically, the bishops said that the nativity accounts of Luke and Matthew – the two gospels which recount the birth of Jesus – were meant to “subvert the hierarchy of wealth and power.”
Honestly? They believe that the New Testament’s account of the birth of Jesus was a sociopolitical effort to reshuffle the class structure of ancient Rome?
That is all it is about?
The angels heralded the birth of a community organizer?
The purpose of the Bible and Jesus’ birth is to subvert, not convert?
Jesus Christ, meet Che Guevara.
The bishops’ distortion of the purpose of the biblical account is exacerbated in the next sentence:
“They (the Matthew and Luke stories) were to be a word of promise for the oppressed and marginalized of the society.”
The oppressed and marginalized of society? Not sinners and lost souls, but the oppressed and marginalized? Does that mean that if you’re above the federal poverty level that the Bible wasn’t written for you? And when they use the phrase “of society,” are we to deduce that the gospel is really about our status with other people, rather than our status with God? When Jesus himself taught the gospel to a wealthy tax collector for the Romans, had he forgotten what he was doing? When he said “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and when he told Peter where to find tribute money to pay the government, had he taken a temporary leave from the social subversion?
A promise for the oppressed and marginalized of society?
Actually, the biblical accounts and the incidents they describe were no such thing.
Let me tell you what they are.
The biblical accounts of the nativity of Jesus are a sacred and literal retelling of the birth of the Son of God. They are not allegories on social struggle. He was not born to challenge the momentary social structure of a fleeting world power in one obscure and essentially meaningless corner of the world, he was born to save mankind.
Jesus came not to fight Rome, he came to save the world.
The mission of Jesus is clear, and dramatically different from that described by the bishops. He was born to free men from death and hell, to allow humankind to be saved from sin and redeemed from the grave.
He didn’t open the doors of social equality, he opened the doors of eternity. Rich and poor, bond and free, Jew and Gentile, black and white.
He was not reforming the society, he was saving the soul.
Man is a sinful creature. The Bible says that all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God.
Justice demands that there be a punishment for our sin. God sent his son, to sacrifice himself as a payment to justice, and to thereby open the door to mercy.
The babe of Bethlehem died on the cross to wash away the sins of those who would repent and accept him as their Savior.
That is how Jesus saved us from hell.
He saved us from death by overcoming death himself – by being resurrected and, as the Bible teaches, allowing us to be resurrected as well.
Jesus was sent to earth so that we could overcome the spiritual death of sin and the physical death of the grave. He fulfilled that mission, and that mission began in the stable in Bethlehem.
That is what the gospel writers said, that is why they wrote, that is what we must learn.
It is not, astoundingly, what the bishops have declared.
If Jesus’ birth was meant to change the social structure of his day, it failed. Israel would be destroyed 40 years after his death and Rome would stand for another half millennium.
But Jesus’ birth was not meant to do that.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
That is what Jesus’ birth was, and that is why it was
No matter what the bishops say.