It's hard wired into our brain. We can't help ourselves. When we imagine God's character, discuss our beliefs, and chew on the big picture questions about life, the universe, and everything else, we tend to picture God as a radiant, white-bearded Santa Claus who lives at the edge of the Milky Way.
It's the old, old story of sin and lost glory. When the woman and man took the fruit and ate their eyes were opened. They looked away from God's Word toward each other and discovered they were naked. They were overcome by shame. They were naked now, vulnerable, exposed, and they knew it just by staring at each others bodies. Then there was the Creator. He'd said they'd die when they ate the fruit. Surely, he must have meant, when they ate the fruit he would kill them. So, when they heard him walking toward them they hid behind some trees. Then the attempted cover-up. The invention of religion.
At it's foundation, all human religions are the same. We're naked and exposed. We're vulnerable, ashamed, and overwhelmed by the fact that even though we're "like God" knowing good and evil, we're still mortal. And, despite all the stuff that makes us different from each other, death is one thing we all share in common. That's why, at root, what we call "living" is really just our attempts to avoid and escape death. We're not alive so much as we're not dead yet. It's this truth, like a cartoon Grim Reaper, that hovers over everything we think, and say, and do.
What can we do though? Well, like our first parents, we attempt to shift blame. "It's not my fault, God, it's the woman you gave me." "It's not my fault either, the serpent deceived me." If we can just shift blame, we imagine, like the kid on the playground who instigates a fight between two people then runs to the principal to tattle, then God will punish someone else. We don't have to suffer the Creator's furious anger. We don't have to endure divine punishment. We don't have to die.
All religion at it's base is our attempt to escape punishment and earn rewards through the sacrifice of another. Whether it's another person or an animal or a thing like time, energy, and money, we hope that by our sacrifice God will say, "Good job! Now here's your well-earned reward!" We construct a Santa Claus theology. We teach that God rewards good little boys and girls, but punishes bad little boys and girls. Then the "gospel" gets boiled down to: "Be good for God's sake (and after all, only bad boys and girls are thrown into hell).
But, the Jesus who takes our sin and death upon himself at Golgotha announces that Santa Claus' theological factory of idols is closed for business. Jesus' death and resurrection reveals that God doesn't operate a "tit-for-tat" religious sweatshop. Instead, it's always been the same with God. He's the God of grace and mercy. The God who keeps his promises. The God who comes to us, just as he did when our first parents tried to dumbly hide from him. Just our Savior has always done.
God doesn't reward good people and punish bad people. Instead, Jesus, God's Word in the flesh, reveals to us that our Santa Claus theology is nothing more than the original sin repeated day after day, religion after religion trying to do good and avoid evil so we can become gods and escape death.
Then Jesus comes and dies. God's Word in the flesh announces that rewarding what we call "good" and punishing all those we call "evil" has never been God's way of doing business with sinners. Instead, God chooses the lost, last, least, littlest, and dead, the people the world judges as losers, to be the receivers of his faithful, loving, kindness. It's not the good who are rewarded and the bad who are punished. It's the undeserving, unworthy, unlovable losers who're rewarded with grace and peace in Christ Jesus. And the ones who try to be good, who imagine they can play God, who treat him as a Santa Claus kind of deity, because they want to be winners in the game of life (and escape suffering and death), play the part of the elder brother, stand outside, and refuse to come in and join the party.
So, this year for Christmas, join the party and enjoy all the gifts God has showered upon us. The Gospel is free gift given to us for Christ's sake. We get to enjoy our baptism into Christ. Baptism "now saves you." What a gift! We get to enjoy the body and blood of Jesus given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sin. All free gift from the Father, given away to sinful boys and girls without any discrimination or prejudice or price-tag from God's side of the counter.
And, don't worry, God's gifts will change us. That's the way of his gifts. They're how God prepares us for the Last Day, how he cleans us up and prepares us for our wedding day. The wedding feast of the Lamb without end. The greatest gift of all... and it's given to us, for free, for Christ's sake.
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.