December 17, 2006
2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.
3 Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God; and they shall abide: for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth.
Have you noticed that the stores seem to be putting up their Christmas decorations earlier each year? Now they decorate sometime around Labor Day. But in any case, wherever you go these days, you see Christmas trees with beautiful green boughs narrowing upward to the point where you put the star.
But there is a hot new trend that you might want to check out this year--the upside-down, ceiling-mounted Christmas tree. I am not kidding. Some people are actually attaching their Christmas trees upside down with the base on the ceiling — a holiday stalactite, if you will.
Retailers like Target are manufacturing trees for this purpose — ranging in price from $300 to $600. You probably will not find one, though. They are sold out for this year and people are already placing orders for next Christmas.
What is the point of sticking your tree on the ceiling? Well, other than just being different, the upside-down tree has several practical applications. For one thing, Target says, you can put more and larger presents under it, which makes it the perfect option for big spenders. If you live in a cramped apartment, a ceiling-mounted tree takes up less floor space, making it attractive to some city-dwellers.
Of course, there are drawbacks. For example, where do you put the star? Answer: you don’t. How do you water a tree that’s upside down. Again, you don’t. Its artificial. Some folks with a theological turn of mind say that the shape of the tree points to heaven, and if you nail it to the ceiling it points the other way.
But most people do not like the upsidedown Christmas tree simply because they don’t like anybody messing around with Christmas. Christmas is the ultimate holiday, and most people want it traditional and planned. The biggest fear of the season is that something will go awry and ruin Christmas.
We have been trained to think this way. Remember all your childhood animated Christmas specials? The Grinch, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Charlie Brown — what’s the basis for those stories? Someone is out to ruin Christmas and they must be stopped. We must do Christmas as we have always done Christmas.
I heard a story about a new pastor that discovered this to his sorrow. It was a Christmas Eve service. They had a good crowd. He thought everything went off well. He went to the door to greet people after the service, believing all was right with the world. A long-time church member came to the door but refused to shake the pastor’s hand. Scowling, he said, “Thanks for ruining my Christmas.” The poor pastor was stunned. The church member said, “We didn’t sing ‘The First Noel’ as the second carol. We always sing “The First Noel” as the second carol on Christmas Eve. Without that, it’s just not Christmas.”
Well, pity that poor pastor, but that story is not surprising. I have often noticed that people get all bent out of shape at this time of the year about the smallest things. We have our expectations, our hopes, our “perfect” scenarios, for Christmas and we will not stand for deviation. We do not want anybody turning Christmas upsidedown.
But the Scriptures tell us that turning things upside down is exactly what happened on the first Christmas.
The prophet Micah wrote about a coming reversal in fortune for the people of Israel. The nation faced God’s judgment because they had turned away from God. This judgment would be carried out by enemies who would build a wall of siege against them and “strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek” in an open display of disdain (Micah 5:1). The old patterns of idolatry and corruption that characterized the reign of many of their kings had made Israel almost Grinch-like in its devotion to self-interest, material gain, and oppression of the weak (Micah 2:1-2).
In the midst of this prophecy of judgment and tough times, Micah offers hope. A new king will arise who will break this old pattern and, in effect, turn things upside down. His origins from the town of Bethlehem, which was “little among the thousands of Judah,” are a signal that God will overturn human expectations of power and prestige in favor of uplifting the weak.
The word “Messiah” is not mentioned by Micah in this passage, but Christians have long read this as a messianic prophecy, naturally applying it to Jesus as the one who would secure his people and, as v5 says, “be the one of peace.”
Jesus came amidst a swirl of expectations about a messiah who would save his people and do it according to plan. He was expected to wield a sword instead of a shepherd’s crook and make peace by eliminating the enemies of Israel, particularly the Romans.
Instead, Jesus turned their expectations upside down and hung them from the spiritual ceiling as a way of making room for everyone. He preached not vengeance but love. He spent time with the outcasts and proclaimed that they would be the new Israel. He was the messiah but he washed feet like a slave. For Jesus the categories of rich and poor, in and out, great and humble, even life and death were all reversed. It’s no wonder that traditionalists argued that he was ruining everything and wanted him out of the picture.
For example, conventional wisdom said: “To the strong go the spoils.” Jesus said, The meek shall inherit the earth. Conventional wisdom is that Christmas is about being happy. No it isn’t. It’s about preparing for the presence of Jesus in the world. Conventional wisdom is that Christmas is about gift giving, wrapping paper and pretty bows. No, its about receiving a Gift — the gift of the Christ-child.
We all want a perfect Christmas. We don’t want to deviate from the traditional script. There’s the tree, there’s the manger. Let’s sing some Christmas carols and go home and wrap presents. But Jesus is the real present of Christmas, and this baby turns the whole world upside down and demands that we prepare for citizenship in the kingdom of God.
Instead of celebrating sameness and traditional uniformity during the Christmas season, we should be celebrating the upside downness that Jesus ushered into the world. A Messiah is born in a manger, and rebels against the society that expected him. He becomes a crucified King and a resurrected Redeemer. Nobody expected anything like that. If talking about upsidedown Christmas trees nailed to the ceiling sounded strange to you. Imagine how strange Jesus must have sounded to a first century Jew. It was off the chart. Christ turned the whole world upsidedown, and brought us a new way of thinking and living.
So accept your Christmas present—which is Christ himself, and live his way. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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