There are Christmases when I can’t help but think back to a church I served a number of years ago. On the Sunday of the Christmas program, the children were all lined up and ready to do their parts. There was plenty of humor scattered throughout the play. It was put on in the form of a television news report and interspersed among the on-location stories brought to us by journalists. There were TV commercials hawking such products as one that could be used to clean your camel. The children did a very nice job with their program. I know they had fun putting it all together and fun presenting it too.
Well, as with any Christmas program, there is always an unrehearsed surprise and that program was no exception. As Mary and Joseph knelt by the manger and gazed into it at the new baby Jesus, one of the younger members of the congregation strode up, picked up the baby doll Jesus by the arm and took him back to the pew with him! The baby was returned safely a few moments later, his blanket shaken out (I assume to remove the straw and camel smell), and the presentation went on. All of us got quite a kick out of it.
But as my week went on, and I reflected back to that children’s program and all that had been conveyed to us and to the kiddos about the doubtful beginnings of the Savior who is Christ the Lord, I also continued to think about the unrehearsed and unplanned kidnapping of the baby in the midst of the production. There was a certain irony to it.
After all, kidnapping Jesus is kind of what all of us do not only at Christmas but throughout the year and throughout our lives. We hear stories throughout our generations about the birth of the Messiah and the gift he was for all of us. But we tend not to go much further than that in deepening our relationship with him. We know the peripheral stuff and we know something of the stories of the life of Jesus and how he came to that ignominious end on the cross. We do know something about a reported resurrection. But it’s hard to get our arms around all of that – it’s hard for me too. The whole story sounds so far-fetched – that God would come to earth in human form to teach us how to live and then die for us and be raised from the grave – well, in a world where we put a premium on seeing and knowing and feeling and having (and it’s been this way from Day 1 – it’s nothing new), this story about Jesus is a little too much like magic. Still, millions of us have signed on to the idea to one extent or another.
The “kidnapping” of the baby Jesus during that church Christmas program, reminded me, however, that most of us who call ourselves Christians tend to kidnap the baby Jesus at various times of our weeks or years or lives. We jump on the bandwagon in our celebration of the birth of this baby, the sense of serenity that the whole idea gives us. Then we want to hold on to that for dear life – we want to hold on to that feeling of love because through so much of our lives hope, peace, joy, and love are elusive to us. Those four themes are echoed every year throughout Advent observances and we like those ideas, but we tend to jump right to Christmas, celebrate for a night and a day, and then either leave that baby lying in the manger or tuck him away for future use when he can come in handy. We hold the baby Jesus for ransom.
We hold Jesus for ransom. We kidnap God and we hold God for ransom, putting together a ransom note demanding a response when we run into tough times in our lives: when our families fall apart; when our marriages and relationships hit brick walls; when we get sick or don’t have enough money to pay the bills; when the world is at war and life is uncertain. That’s when we once again take a look at that baby Jesus we’ve been holding back in the stable, and we write a ransom demand to God. “God, we’ll be more like Jesus if you’ll just straighten out the mess in our lives.”
Here’s the irony of the kidnapping. There’s one verse in the Gospel according to Matthew that talks about kidnapping and ransoms. Jesus, for a third time, is foretelling his death and resurrection and then has to deal with the mother of his apostles James and John who is demanding her own ransom – that her sons be allowed to sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in the kingdom of heaven. This kind of blatant opportunism really ticks off the other apostles and it starts an argument among them. Perhaps they got angry because they didn’t think of asking first. Jesus responds by telling them that whoever is first among them, must be a slave or servant to all of them. Then he says this stuff about paying a ransom: “. . . just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:29)
We’ve got it all backward. We’re demanding a ransom that has already been paid for us. That baby Jesus grew into a man and when it came time for someone to pay a ransom for our sinfulness so that we could be set free, the Jesus that we think we’re holding for a ransom, that we have kidnapped to be used for our own purposes whenever we feel the need, that same Jesus took a look at us and determined that he would be the someone who would have to step up and pay the ransom to rescue us.
So he did. He came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
The irony is that Christians have allowed ourselves to be kidnapped by the world. But we need not worry about someone coming up with the cash to bring us back home.
Our ransom has been paid. All we need to do is have good manners – good manners as Jesus’ mother Mary showed when she sang her praise to God even in the midst of what must have been a terrifying time in her life – pregnant and unwed. Yet, she sang her thanksgiving to God, saying, “Even in the midst of these challenges I am facing, God has done great things for me – holy is his name.” That’s all we need to do: all we need to do is recognize the fact that nothing is impossible with God (even a virgin birth), and all we need to say is, “Thank you, God. Thank you for giving us the baby Jesus. And thank you, Jesus, for paying our ransom that we can always be free.”
“For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
“His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace . . .
from this time onward and forevermore. – Isaiah 9:2-7