This image comes from a great ad campaign from the United Church of Canada and their provocative website WonderCafe. The tag line reads, "Would you still take your kids?"
This seems to have been the season for me to encounter Jesus and Santa hanging out together. A few weeks ago, on St. Nicholas Day, I had the opportunity to lead a program for a Christian women's group on the history of St. Nicholas. If you've never learned the story behind the guy we call Santa, it's worth a peek. Though likely more legend than fact, St. Nicholas is remembered as Catholic bishop known for his outreach to the poor and needy. The famous story of Nicholas tossing gold into the home of three poor, dowerless girls, is the basis for our modern-day image of Santa sneaking into our homes on Christmas Eve to deliver toys. Nicholas is also known for his resistance against Roman rule which eventually landed him in prison. How interesting then that we would take this symbol of true charity and persistent faith and turn him into a huckster for mall shopping. Why is it that we often take something radical and make it tame? We turn St. Nicholas into a department store Santa. We take a radical Jesus and turn him into just a good-deed-doer.
Last Sunday I returned to this theme in a sermon based on Matthew 11: 2-11. In this passage, John sends word from prison to Jesus, asking him: Are you the messiah, or should we wait for another?" John's concern is not so much what Jesus is doing (healing, preaching the good news) but what he is NOT doing: bringing down the eternal fire on the wicked and oppressors! John expects Jesus to lift up the poor and destroy the unrighteous. But even John has something to learn about just how radical Jesus' ministry will be. Jesus will make it clear that he has a much bolder mission. He has come to bring the good news of God's love and grace to ALL people.
Perhaps we are all guilty, like John, of trying to force God/Christ to meet our expectations. How many of us follow a Christ who thinks like we think, votes like we vote, loves all the people we love, and hates everyone we hate? How often do we expect Jesus to conform to our needs and expectations. As part of the sermon on Matthew 11, I shared the image above and asked the congregation to consider: "If you'd had gone to see Jesus instead of Santa in the mall as a child, would your wish list have been different? What would your wish list to Jesus look like today? What are your expectations of how Jesus would respond to your list?
It seems to me that we have to do a better job in youth ministry of helping youth to encounter the radical Christ -- one that goes beyond our pedestrian and often selfish and self-serving expectations. Youth need to encounter the Christ that pops into our lives when we least expect it ("Jesus? What are you doing at the mall?!"). The one who demands of us more than just being nice and occasionally helping someone less fortunate. I'm convinced that it is only the radical Christ, the one who turns our present world upside down and shouts "This is not all there is! You can do so much better! You must do better!" -- it is only this Christ who will slow the exodus of young adults who are leaving the Church in search of a faith that demands something of their lives.