Christmas Came to the Jungle

By Jon Jordan

I am a daydreamer. I always have been.

Before I started kindergarten, I remember daydreaming about life outside of my house: the freedom of being away from my parents and the rules they made and the chores I was forced to do. I could not wait to be in school, a place that I imagined to be without rules or authority or chores. In case you forgot what school was like – I was wrong.

When I was in the 7th grade, I had a short list of girls that I knew I would marry one day. (Never spoke to them … I would give you names but…) In my mind, once we were married, I would finally be free to love someone who loves me back. Marriage would be full of freedom. We would have however many kids we wanted, and go to movies and Six Flags any time we wanted. We could stay out late and eat candy. No one would make us do anything, because we were adults. Boy was I wrong…

I enjoyed an evening this week with a couple of Incarnation dads who, like me, have a wife and a toddler and an infant at home. We talked about a lot of things, including family and home life – and I guarantee you the word “freedom” was not mentioned once! Diapers, exhaustion, frustration? Yes. Freedom? Not so much…

When I was 15, like most of us, I literally ached with anticipation for the day I could drive. Turning 16 and getting a license didn’t just allow me to operate a motor vehicle, it gave me freedom – the freedom I had longed for since I was little. Well it turns out that freedom requires gas money, insurance money, and lots of trouble when you get a speeding ticket that goes unpaid for a year and a half.

I have since learned that the type of freedom I imagined growing up doesn’t really exist, or at least it doesn’t exist in the world I live in.

But just because that type of freedom doesn’t actually exist doesn’t mean that I don’t really, really want it at times.

And I don’t think I am alone.

We are Americans, and we love us some freedom. Are you living at home? You too probably daydream about the life ahead of you that is free from chores, free from curfews, and free from lectures that never seem to end.

Are you planning to run for president? Get used to discussing the word freedom ad nauseam, whether or not you understand its implications or its costs. We love freedom, we worship freedom, and we cannot stand it when people stand in the way of our freedom.

It would be tempting to turn to St. Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches in support of our passionate love-affair with freedom. Today’s passage seems ripe for the freedom-lovers amongst us. Before faith came, we are told, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to that disciplinarian. We are no longer under the law. St. Paul will also remind his readers that it was for freedom that Christ has set us free. These words are music to the ears of those who love their freedom.

And yet later in St. Paul’s letter we are warned that our understanding of freedom might need to be adjusted a bit if we are to speak of freedom in Christ. When we think of freedom, we often imagine an absolute lack of restriction – the removal of any behavioral, emotional, intellectual, or social obstacles that stand in the way of the complete living-out of our own individual wills. We do what we want went we want to do it. My way or the highway; No rules, just right.

Our national life has not helped us much here. Most of us are convinced that God has given us certain inalienable rights that no one, and we mean no-one can take away. In theory, this isn’t so bad. But in practice, it often takes a turn for the worse: We are so convinced that we have God-given rights that we sometimes even imagine that God himself cannot or will not call us as Christians to give up those rights. Having the legal right to do something slowly convinces us that it is the right thing to do; Amendments, at times, take precedent over commandments.

But this is not what the New Testament has in mind when it speaks of freedom. As much as St. Paul insists in Galatians 5:1 that Christ has set us free and that we are never to submit again to a yoke of slavery – he also commands us in 5:13 not to use our freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love to  become slaves to one another.

Christ has set you free; do not return to slavery.

And yet Paul tells us to be slaves to one another, and literally introduces himself as God’s slave in a majority of his letters.

Be free, but be slaves. What sense are we to make of this dichotomy? Our readings this morning, I think, provide us with a clue.

We read in Galatians—and in the rest of the New Testament for that matter—that a universe-shattering transition occurred in the coming of Jesus: movement has taken place from slavery to freedom, from bondage to adoption as God’s children, from being under the Law to being set free in Christ. And our two readings this morning provide us with wonderful language to describe this transition. Language that prevents us from thinking too little of the joy of true freedom in Christ, but also from thinking too lightly of the cost of that freedom.

If you attended Christmas or Christmas Eve services, you have likely heard the words to the prologue of St. John’s gospel multiple times this week. They are some of the most familiar words of the New Testament. “In the beginning was the Word…”

The Greek word translated as word here is λογος, and as far as words go it has a fairly rich history. Greek philosophy understood λογος to be “that universal reason that governs and permeates the entire world”. In the Old Testament, God’s word, his λογος, was not just how he communicated with the world, it was often how he acted within the world. Think back to the Genesis narrative: God said let there be light, and there was light. Hebrews in and around Jesus’ time began to personify this λογος, giving it names like Wisdom. To them, the λογος was many things: it was the “Divine pattern after which the world was made”, it was the “Divine power of the universe”, and it served as a link between God and humanity.

With all of this in mind, we now see that St. John is making an astonishing claim in our reading this morning: the wisdom that created the universe – the source of all truth and physics and life and light – God’s λογος – became an actual human being. The Λογος entered into the womb of a young virgin named Mary, gestated for nine months, and was born. Not sweet-movie-scene born, but dirty, dark, cold-floor-of-a-barn born.

So when we encounter Jesus in the Gospels, we are not encountering an ordinary human but rather the wisdom of the universe who has taken-on flesh. God’s wisdom in human form. When the wisdom that created and actively sustains the universe becomes a human being, we are fools to not do everything we can to become like that person.

And this means that in order to be truly human, we must become like Jesus. We must bind our wills to his will. We must love the things he loves, and despise the things he despises (and if you think Jesus does not despise anything, read the Gospels [unless you like thinking that Jesus does not despise anything. In that case, make sure you do not read the Gospels]).

This is one of the uncomfortable but necessary truths of the Incarnation: All of our attempts to be free human beings that are not rooted in becoming like Jesus will fail. The harder we try to be free on our own, apart from Christ, the further we will be from true life, from true freedom.

My daughter does not always like being buckled into the car seat. When she sees a car seat, she sees bondage. Freedom, to Zoë, looks like being free from the straps of her car seat.

What she does not see is that she (God-willing) has her entire life ahead of her: freedom and life and love that she cannot even begin to imagine as a toddler. And there is a very real chance that without being bound to that car seat, she will never experience any of that freedom.

If we want to be free, we must be bound to the λογος of the universe, we must be bound to Jesus. Sometimes being bound to Jesus feels like wearing a seatbelt when we really, really do not want to wear a seatbelt. But this is the only way to true freedom.

Something strange happens to our notion of freedom when we read these two New Testament passages side-by-side: we begin to realize that the type of freedom offered in Christ – true Freedom, you might say – is not the type of freedom that we have always thought we wanted. This is a sobering freedom, one that involves full, unqualified submission to the will of another person. But it is also a beautiful freedom, one in which we know we are being guided and formed by the One who created the world and the One who knows us best.

Two thousand years ago in the suburbs of Jerusalem God’s relationship with humanity transitioned from one marked by bondage to the Law to one marked by bondage to the life-giving Λογος.

And something about this transition, this coming of the Λογος in human flesh, makes the pursuit of the Christian life worthwhile – despite all its difficulties and sacrifices and moments where we are called to die to our own wishes.

The nation of Columbia is home to one of the longest standing guerrilla warfare conflicts in the world. For over 50 years, a group known as the FARC guerrillas has been wreaking havoc throughout the nation.

In 2006, Jose Miguel Sokoloff was hired by the government of Columbia to develop an advertising campaign to convince FARC guerrillas to leave their life as soldiers – to demobilize – a very, very dangerous thing to attempt if you are a guerrilla warrior. You see, leaving FARC was not without significant risks. You were in danger, your family was in danger, and you still had to wake up every morning remembering the life that you used to live.

But if you left, you were free, and there was a community in Columbia ready to walk alongside you as long as it took for you to learn how to live in that freedom. I imagine that life for recently freed former guerrilla warriors living in Columbia would be something like how Mr. Beaver describes life with Aslan in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe:

When Susan is learning more about Aslan, the true King of Narnia, she begins to ask whether she and her siblings will be finally be safe once they meet him. Mr. Beaver responds with those infamous words: Safe? Who said anything about being safe? Of course, he isnt safe, hes a lion. But hes good. Hes the King, I tell you.”

Life as a freed guerrilla would not be safe – but it would be good, and it was Jose Sokoloff’s job to convince current soldiers of this reality.

In the earliest advertisements that Jose and his company produced, actors were hired to play the roles of former guerrilla warriors, hoping that current guerrillas would want to quit after hearing about some of the brutality experienced by their fellow guerrillas at the hands of their leaders. These ads were not entirely useless, but they were not as effective as Jose – or Columbia, had hoped. In 2010, Jose and his team learned something that would forever change the way they approached their demobilization campaign: it turns out that more guerrillas leave FARC in December than in any other month. Without knowing exactly why this was the case, Jose and his team came up with one of the most brilliant advertising campaigns that most of us have never heard of.

The plan was to bring thousands of Christmas lights into the jungle to light up nine strategically-located trees. Each of these trees had a sign beside them – one that would only light up if a warrior were to walk past it. And on these signs was a message whose origins can be traced back to the Gospel of John, a message that can be heard ringing throughout the entire Bible, one that – if you listen closely – can be heard in the words of the Eucharistic Prayers we will participate in soon:

What was that message?

The signs read: “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home.”

Christmas came to the Jungle – or in John’s words: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Christmas came to the jungle, and you and I can come home.

But when we get there, when we arrive home and begin to experience all the freedom associated with being in Christ: don’t expect it to be the easiest place to stay, and don’t expect it to be without pain. It turns out that in order to be free we must be bound solely to the One who made us. Our wills must become secondary, at best. Our desires and passions must fall in line with what God has in mind for us. True freedom involves giving ourselves entirely to someone else. This doesn’t sit well with our culture, but the New Testament could not be more clear: Baptism is described as dying with Christ. In order to save our lives, we must lose them. We must, in a sense, die to our own wills, die to our own desires, and die to our own passions.

But what we get in return is life. Real, true, abundant life in the presence of the King. It is not safe, and it is not easy. But trust me when I tell you this: It is good, and it is worth it.

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Christmas has come to the jungle; you can go home.

 The Rev. Jon Jordan is priest associate of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, North, in Dallas, Texas, and campus administrator of Coram Deo Academy, Dallas.

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