Christmas 2013 has come and gone. While we were unwrapping presents, stuffing ourselves with succulent food, arguing whether Santa Claus is black or white, and bemoaning our loss of freedom of speech because a television character is silenced (very temporarily) for speaking out for the faith, it is significantly different in other parts of the world.
In Syria things are much different for followers of Christ. Christian leaders have been kidnapped, tortured, and killed. Church buildings have been destroyed and mass graves discovered. Those who are taken hostage are given the option of Islam or death. This is Syria, probably along the Damascus Road where the Apostle Paul had his own conversion experience.
A “60 Minutes” episode a few weeks back detailed how Coptic Christians, what followers of Christ are called in Egypt, are being violently persecuted. Their worship places are being shattered, many of them centuries old. Remember, this is the land where they took the infant Jesus while fleeing persecution shortly after the first Christmas.
We have a friend from Nigeria who has told us for several years about Christians being brutalized and murdered in his home country. A Nigerian Christian testified last month about what happened to him:
For the second time, they asked me “are you ready to die as a Christian.” And I told them, “I am ready.” But before I closed my mouth, they fired [shot] me through my nose and the bullet came out the back. I fell on the ground. The gunmen thought I was already dead . . . and cried out “Allah Akbar.” I told [my wife] that I am alive. . . . I asked her to look for help and she went out. She found that our Christian neighbors have been killed. We have one elder in my church, himself and his son were killed that night, including twelve others. . . . I am alive because God wants you to hear a message: Do everything you can to end this ruthless persecution in northern Nigeria.
Some will argue that is why we have to stand up for our rights. If we don’t, these same things could happen to us and our children. If we allow them to make Santa a black man now, or if they silence a duck hunter today, tomorrow they might tell me I can’t attend church.
As I reread that last paragraph I confess I have exasperated myself. How is it that I heard nothing on the news or saw nothing on my Facebook page about these terrible things happening to our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world? We can quickly organize a boycott forcing a restaurant to reverse a decision or a television network to say, “Never mind,” but we say nothing about real people suffering real persecution.
And all of this happening at Christmastime. The time when God took the lowliest form of existence and became one of us – a helpless baby, cared for by impoverished parents. Christmas is a powerful reminder that if we really want to find the Christ child we should not look in palaces or American television networks. He is found kneeling next to the man staring death in the face as he refuses to renounce his own faith. It is much more likely that the God who came to us as a helpless child will be found in Syria, or Egypt, or Nigeria, or dozens of other hellish places in the world.
While we rally the troops to stand against the “War on Christmas” we discover that the Christ child may not be in our Christmas celebrations. We are expected to be appalled that someone says, “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” It is a sign of the last days when our local school schedules a “Winter Break” instead of a “Christmas Break.” We must not allow God to be dishonored by such slights.
However, we may have forgotten that God came to us as a helpless baby covered in amniotic fluid. He would have died within hours if not for the care of a poor carpenter and his young soon-to-be bride. This initial appearance of Jesus is prescriptive of his other appearances. He shows up in the most unexpected, unattractive places and rubs shoulders with the least likely characters – a blind beggar, a group of lepers, an adulterous woman, rugged fishermen, a demonic cemetery dweller.
What I read about Jesus in the New Testament makes me wonder if that is still true today. Instead of looking for Jesus in our school pageants, our church extravaganzas, and our elaborate gift giving, it is more likely we will find him among those who refuse to deny Him in order to live or those who are living day-to-day hoping not to freeze to death.
That is the beauty of Christmas. Jesus came to us when we needed Him the most. He came, not to preserve our way of life, but to save us from our sins and ourselves. I will most gladly admit that I do need saving from myself.