I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
The words of the dreadful Christmas song “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” sum up perfectly how we all too-often imagine the Lord in our minds: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” We take those words to be Gospel truth and we believe that it will be like this into the dark night of all the tests that our broken world will never ever pass.
We do it with children this time every year with threats of the Elf On The Shelf returning to the North Pole to report certain behaviors to Mr. C.
We have it reiterated to us over and over again with movies and shows and songs asking us to discern whether or not we’ve behaved in such as way as to make it on the Nice or the Naughty list.
But Jesus (thanks be to God) ain’t Santa Claus.
Jesus will come to the world’s sin with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, and no scores to settle. He has already taken all of our sins, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.
Jesus saves not just the good little girls and boys, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, sinful children of this world who He, in all of his confounding glory, sets free in his death.
Grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully reminds us, cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapses away forever.
But it all sounds just a little too good, doesn’t it?
In a world run by meritocracy, the Good News of grace sounds ridiculous if not inadvisable. If we don’t have eternal punishment to hold over the heads of those who follow Jesus Christ, what will possibly keep them in line?
Part of the problem stems from the fact that most of us have our theological wires crossed. We assume that we’ve got to do something in order to get God to do something for us. We believe that so long as we show up to church (or watch worship on Facebook) and read our Bibles and say a few prayers and volunteer every once in a while that it will be enough to justify life everlasting.
And yet, so many of Jesus’ parables, and teachable moments, and healing miracles have nothing AT ALL to do with the behavior of those blessed prior to their blessing.
They’re not about how we justify ourselves, but about how God in Christ justifies us.
God, in all of God’s confounding wisdom, runs out to the prodigal in the street before he has a chance to apologize, offers the bread and wine to Judas knowing full and well what he will do, and chooses to forgive (rather than condemn) the world from the cross.
We don’t strive to change ourselves to get God on our side, but we are transformed by God who chooses to be for us when we deserve it not one bit.
That’s what grace is all about – the unmerited, unwarranted, undeserved gift from God.
And, when we see grace for what it really is, then Christmas can really come into its own. Like the gifts under the tree that are (hopefully) given not as a response to good works or as an expectation that good works will come from them – we can celebrate the great gift of God in Christ Jesus who comes to do what we could not do for ourselves.