Popular and beloved author J. Ellsworth Kalas presents new insight into the biblical story of Christmas. Kalas approaches the season through the "back side"through a unique starting point, a creative retelling, a new "lens," or the eyes of a minor character.
Kalas's creative approach both clarifies basic teachings and introduces new possibilities of meaning, even for those who are most familiar with the Christmas story. Enriched with contemporary illustrations and personal experiences, this volume will provide new perspectives.
|Edition description:||Trade Paperback|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.21(d)|
About the Author
J. Ellsworth Kalas (1923-2015) was the author of over 35 books, including the popular Back Side series, A Faith of Her Own: Women of the Old Testament, Strong Was Her Faith: Women of the New Testament, I Bought a House on Gratitude Street, and the Christian Believer study, and was a presenter on DISCIPLE videos. He was part of the faculty of Asbury Theological Seminary since 1993, formerly serving as president and then as senior professor of homiletics. He was a United Methodist pastor for 38 years and also served five years in evangelism with the World Methodist Council.
Read an Excerpt
Christmas from the Back Side
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2003 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Scandal of Christmas
GENESIS 3:1-10: Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'" But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, "Where are you?" He said, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself."
I'm quite sure my title has offended you. Believe me, I mean no offense nor do I intend to shock. I suppose that sometimes the preacher in me has used a title to shock, but not this time. In truth, my only aim is to give you an honest title. I'm about to say something that needs to be said at Christmastime, something that is not often mentioned.
Christmas began with a scandal. It's easy to avoid this scandal, because the occasion of Christmas itself is bathed in so much loveliness. Think of the pictures, whether graphic or verbal. There's a Baby; what could be lovelier? And a star; of course, that has a heavenward pull. And there are angels singing, and wise men on a quest. The manger itself, if truth be told, was not a pretty place, but our artists through the ages have kindly hidden its distasteful elements in mystical shadows. And besides, in our increasingly urban age, a manger speaks of a simpler, quieter world, so that even its crudeness adds to the mystique of loveliness.
But the church calendar has prepared us for the Christmas scandal, and as a result, so has some of the music related to that calendar. I'm speaking of Advent, the season celebrated in the church since the sixth century. In liturgical churches, the color of Advent is purple, symbolic of repentance. It is in that mood of repentance that earnest Christians over scores of generations have prepared themselves for the celebration of our Lord's coming by reminding themselves of our great need for a Savior. We modern and postmodern Christians don't easily get into that mood. At Christmas, we're planning festivities, and the music around us encourages it. Not just "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "Jingle Bell Rock," but the festive church music. You may hear "Joy to the World" and "Silent Night" in a shopping mall, but you'll probably not hear "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," or "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."
That's because we don't face up to the Christmas scandal. And if we don't comprehend the scandal, we're not likely to get the full, magnificent impact of Christmas. It may well be that one of the reasons so many people have to deal with depression at the Christmas season is because in our cultural patterns, Christmas is so tied to fun, celebration, childhood memories, and a sense of belonging; and because we have so little grounding in the theology of Christmas, we can be quite bereft when these elements are missing. As a result, we're easily susceptible in the Christmas season to feelings of melancholy, loneliness, or depression.
So here's the hard fact. There wouldn't be a Christmas, wouldn't be a need for Christmas, if it weren't for our scandal. Note that I said our scandal. Stay with me, and I'll try to tell you what I mean. And if you'll stay with me, I promise to bring you out to a Christmas that has very substantial foundations—the kind of foundations, that is, upon which we can build a thoroughly celebrative Christmas.
There are many ways to tell the story, but the book of Genesis tells it best. In a peculiar, painful sense, it is the Christmas story, though you may be offended to hear me say so.
Genesis tells us that once there was this couple—let's call them Adam and Eve, since that's what the Bible calls them. In truth, we could just as well call them John and Mary, or Lance and Amber, because we know them well. Anyway, they had everything going for them, living as they were in a garden of exquisite beauty and perfection. But they turned their lives into a shambles by disobeying God.
There's a word for what happened to them, and for what they did. It's called sin, and that's where the scandal comes in. The human race became a race of sinners.
Now, let me be very clear about this, because most postmodern folks aren't very good at understanding sin; but for that matter, we humans never have been. If we think of sin (and a great many don't; they find the word distasteful and therefore judge it to be outmoded and inappropriate), we generally think of rather lurid, back-street matters. "Sin" brings to mind pictures of drug addiction, pornography shops, criminal conduct, or cheap adulteries. There's some truth in these images, but just enough truth to distract us from the larger, more compelling facts.
This is because sin is a problem all of us have to deal with. It's a fact of life for all of our lives. You see, the basic sin is disobeying God. The ways in which we disobey God may be crude or sophisticated, naive or knowing, but the root issue is the same. To be specific, it's the issue of self; and the reason it's so complicated is that we have to live with self, and self is so familiar that it doesn't really frighten us. Self is also complicated because we need a right view of self in order to survive. But if that view becomes distorted, or all-consuming, it destroys us. I think only the saints know how to live effectively with this issue called self, and I suspect they'd tell you that they have to keep alert to the issue every hour, else they'll be seduced into troublesome ways.
So there we have it. Sin is our problem, and it's related to that human essential called self. Every generation has found ways to excuse its sins, but our generation has raised this skill to a particularly high level. We have euphemisms for sin that take away its sting. We identify sin as a personality disorder, a genetic predisposition, a problem in our genetic code, a pattern of antisocial conduct. Or, at a simpler, everyday level, our synonym for sin is mistake. Do you realize how often we hear persons guilty of everything, from corporate fraud to child abuse or murder, offer explanation by saying, "I made a terrible mistake"? We find it very hard to describe our conduct for what it is. That is, we hate to admit that we are sinners—or, to put it another way, to confess that we're part of a scandal. The human scandal.
Incidentally, isn't it interesting that we sometimes identify newspapers as "scandal sheets"? Why? Because they tell us about some of the particular acts of sin that are going on in our world. Mind you, they rarely get at our deeper problem, nor do they often compel us to face some of the hidden sins that affect the lives of even model citizens. But it is quite true that when the newspapers report on the world in which we live—a world of war, poverty, rape, murder, fraud, slander—we call them scandal sheets. And the term is well chosen, because this is what we're dealing with—the scandal of our human condition.
But let me bring the matter closer to home, because probably not many of us feel very scandalous at this moment. We may well have some chapters in our lives that we wish we could forget, and certainly some thoughts that we'd rather were not broadcast in the late-night news. But because I've used such a strong word, scandal, we may think sin relates more to others than to ourselves. So hear me. When we live below our best potential, when we're mediocre when we ought to be fine, cheap when we ought to be noble, shoddy when we should be upright—this is sin. When we're anything less than godly, it's because we're involved in this scandal called sin.
Now what makes our human scandal even worse is the way we deal with it. I refer us once again to the story in Genesis 3 because the experience related there sounds so much like our own. By their sin, Adam and Eve felt guilty before God. Good sense would suggest that they therefore should have sought God's forgiveness, in order to get back on the right track. Instead, the Bible tells us, they "hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden" (Genesis 3:8). The trees of the garden ought to have been instruments for revealing God to them, and for giving them still another reason to appreciate God's blessings. Instead, Adam and Eve used these lovely instruments as a way of hiding from God.
And so do we. Almost any wondrous thing in this world of ours can be turned into a means of holding God at a distance. We absorb ourselves with "the trees of the garden"— family, work, civic activities, sports, politics, music—all of them good things, some of them very good. But we can so easily use these good things the way Adam and Eve used the trees of the garden, to hide ourselves from God—or perhaps more correctly, to distract ourselves from God. All of us know that people flee from God through alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography, but we aren't as quick to recognize that we may use the good things of life (yes, even some of the best things in life) to hide us from God and from God's demands.
Well, this is a scandal. God has provided a wonderful potential for our human race, and we squander it. Then, to make it worse, we flee from God, and we use God's own gifts of loveliness to hide ourselves from him.
And that's why we need Christmas. Christmas didn't come to our human race because we worked ourselves up to it, or because we evolved to a state of deserving such a favor; Christmas came because we're a scandalous lot. Christmas is, indeed, a Gift, the ultimate Gift, because it is a Gift undeserved and unjustified.
But we try, generally, to avoid these crucial facts about the Christmas story. That's why we don't really "get" Advent. When we sing, in a true Advent hymn, "from our sins and fears release us, let us find our rest in thee," we're inclined to sing it in a detached sort of way, not really applying it to ourselves. Who wants to be told that Christmas happened because there was a scandal, and that we are the obvious inheritors and perpetuators of that scandal?
So let me point out a peculiar and fascinating thing. The secular Christmas stories we love best are remarkably true to this original Christmas story, in their own special way. Perhaps the classic Christmas story of the Western world is Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol. It's the story, you'll probably remember, of a mean man, Scrooge. See how Dickens describes him: "Oh! But he was a tightfisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!"
Did you get that? Dickens called Scrooge a sinner! And so he was. Scrooge was the quintessential sinner, though he broke no laws and was quite safe from prison. But he was a miserable human being who was all wrapped up in himself (that word, self, again!), and who seemed almost to enjoy making other people miserable.
And do you remember how the story ends? Scrooge is converted! Dickens doesn't use that theological term, but that's what happened. So as the story ends, Dickens sums it up this way: "It was always said of [Scrooge], that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge." The man who violated Christmas worst became the man who kept it best. What a conversion!
These days one of the most popular secular Christmas stories comes to us from Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Dr. Seuss doesn't get around to Dickens, in calling the Grinch a sinner, but he surely describes him as such-so much so that the term "Grinch" now competes with the name "Scrooge" as the epitome of everything that is bad. But as many of us know, at the end of the story, the Grinch is completely changed (converted, though Dr. Seuss wouldn't use such a word), so that every "Who down in Who-ville" has the greatest Christmas ever.
I'm trying to say that our secular Christmas stories can't help saying what the original Christmas story has always said. We human beings have a scandal to deal with, whether our name is Scrooge, Grinch, Adam, Eve, Sally, or Bob. We all need to be converted—to be born again. And that's why we have Christmas.
And of course that's also why we change the style of the words, and often also the melody, when we move from Advent music to the songs of Christmas. Advent songs are so often cast in a minor key, and with slow, deliberate timing. They're the songs of longing and of waiting.
But Christmas music is an entirely different matter. Mind you, it may be quiet and pensive, as is "Silent Night" or "O Little Town of Bethlehem," but if so it is a tranquil quietness; the mood is peace, not longing. And more often than not, the words and music are light and celebrative. Sometimes, in fact, almost raucous, as in one of my favorites:
God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan's power when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;
O tidings of comfort and joy.
Now there's a song to be sung by people of scandal—people who need to be saved from Satan's power, and who realize it, and who now have found the way. This is the good news that turns our scandal into laughter. Tidings, indeed, of comfort and joy! The power of the scandal has been broken. The Savior Christ has come.CHAPTER 2
Three Votes for an Early Christmas
ISAIAH 9:2-7: The people who walked in darkness / have seen a great light; / those who lived in a land of deep darkness— / on them light has shined. / You have multiplied the nation, / you have increased its joy; / they rejoice before you / as with joy at the harvest, / as people exult when dividing plunder. / For the yoke of their burden, / and the bar across their shoulders, / the rod of their oppressor, / you have broken as on the day of Midian. / For all the boots of the tramping warriors / and all the garments rolled in blood / shall be burned as fuel for the fire. / 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 / for the throne of David and his kingdom. / He will establish and uphold it / with justice and with righteousness / from this time onward and forevermore. / The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
MICAH 5:2-5a: But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, / who are one of the little clans of Judah, / from you shall come forth for me / one who is to rule in Israel, / whose origin is from of old, / from ancient days. / Therefore he shall give them up until the time / when she who is in labor has brought forth; / then the rest of his kindred shall return / to the people of Israel. / And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, / in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. / And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great / to the ends of the earth; / and he shall be the one of peace.
Excerpted from Christmas from the Back Side by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2003 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1: The Scandal of Christmas GENESIS 3:1-10,
CHAPTER 2: Three Votes for an Early Christmas ISAIAH 9:2-7; MICAH 5:2-5a; JOB 9:25-33,
CHAPTER 3: Christmas Comes to a Back Fence LUKE 1:39-45,
CHAPTER 4: Celebrating Christmas in a Hotel LUKE 2:1-7,
CHAPTER 5: How the Government Helped the First Christmas Happen LUKE 2:1-7; MATTHEW 2:1-8,
CHAPTER 6: Christmas and the Impossible Dream MATTHEW 2:1-12,
CHAPTER 7: Christmas Comes to a Church LUKE 2:22-32,