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The Rev. Michael Sullivan The Rev. Michael Sullivan
The Rev. Michael Sullivan is rector of Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church in Atlanta, GA, and the author of two books.

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Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church, Atlanta, GA


A Backroad County Sign and the Baby Jesus

December 01, 2011

On the way to the farm (where a barbequed pig awaited our arrival along with turkeys, one fried to make all the South Carolinians happy and one baked to appease the Northerners among us), I saw a sign.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen similar signs before. When you’re from the Palmetto State, you grow up with “Jesus Saves” or other religious signs on every roadside, from the one leading to the Piggly Wiggly downtown to the Country or Driving Club that really was in the country, as in way out in the middle of nowhere.  Jesus really did need to save some of those clubs, places that were definitely separate and certainly not equal.

The sign that caught my eye as we traveled to the farm, however, was not just a “Jesus Saves” variety or one of those Burma Shave meets religion pithy phrases painted on the side of something like a barn, store, or old junk car. No, this sign was on a church. 

Now, in the Deep South (which I did not know included South Carolina until I lived in Virginia a few years ago) church signs are an art form. They include colorful combinations of scripture with announcements of BBQ dinners, spaghetti suppers, prayer requests, and the like.  But on this particular day, a new twist to the end of time and our place of everlasting rest in it had found its way onto a blinking sign along the roadway. 

The sign, one of those pointing arrow portables that also announce used car sales, the arrival of babies, and the lowest beer prices in town, simply said “Get Baby Jesus soon or burn.”  Now despite my upbringing and being accustomed to eternal damnation signs at every crossroads, this one caught my eye like no other. Usually, the Jesus of Judgment is not the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  No, that judging Jesus is the Jesus of the Heavens, the one who has already ascended to the Father sitting on the Judgment Seat, a Jesus that in depictions of art looks remarkably similar to a one-eyed jack in a deck of Bicycle cards.

Seeing the sign that assigned Baby Jesus to such a role was a real shock, and I’m pretty sure it was intended to be. Any church that calls itself the “One, True, Apostolic Orthodox Evangelical Temple of our Only Lord and Savior” understands the value of words. For them, Jesus at any stage of life, even the innocent baby in Bethlehem, is about end times and judgment for eternity. Christianity, indeed life itself, is about the end. 

We don’t often admit it, but truth is, the world is always ending; the end of time is always coming. From the day we enter this world, we are growing toward the ultimate change, the ultimate end, our own death. In parts of the faith, the focus is on the judgment and only that judgment.  With such a view, life is all about getting right for that day, purging and cleansing from sin in order to be found spotless on the Ultimate Last Day. In a world standing on the cusp of unprecedented change, at least unprecedented in its rapidity, it’s understandable why the end can be so very mesmerizing to so very many.   

Jesus is different for me.  For those of us who preach grace instead of judgment, Jesus is has nothing to do with burning, nothing to do with damnation.  Instead of ushering in a period of weeping, Baby Jesus brings wondrous love. What separates us from the sign on the side of the road, blinking Baby Jesus into judgment, is not better theology or more education or more insight.  Those markers are all about being right, being certain, separating the world into black and white, right and wrong, dead and alive.  And as the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichi reminds us, “one cannot love from the place he is right,” from the place he is certain.

What distinguishes our message is the radical notion that God is not ending something in the future but that God is always ending things, always proclaiming that something new and good and holy is coming. Instead of finding the dark day of our complete and final end in the Baby Jesus, we find a journey into something amazing, evolving, and changing as life itself amazes, evolves and changes us!  We turn our gaze toward the sign of the baby in Bethlehem each Advent because we know that God proclaims something is ending in our lives and something new is beginning.

The Good News proclaims, and we proclaim as God’s people, that Jesus continually transforms us into new people with new missions and new insights into God’s presence among us. It’s not that we don’t believe in one final Judgment Day; it’s just that by believing that every day is the end of time we begin seeing how to live truly, honestly, and rightly in the now, the eternal now of one day at a time.

God’s proclamation does not take on a road to perfection, however.  The Good News of Jesus, the message of his coming is not about getting it perfect. The pursuit of our own perfection will prevent true relationship with the baby from Bethlehem.  Perfection, and the quest for it, breeds a false God, a false baby, by isolating the Word made Flesh from our own selves, souls, and bodies. We seek not perfection; we seek love: messy love with our mistakes, our incompleteness, our lack of insight, and our very vulnerability.

Judgment seeks perfection, pure right and wrong, the absence of love. The absence of grace.  The absence of mercy.  Love seeks not certainty but a journey into relationship.  This journey along every road of life leads to every sign of life in the holy Child, the one coming to end our old world and introduce us to the new world, in this moment, this moment of God’s amazing grace.

This Advent, seek the sign of love.  Seek the Baby that comes not to judge you but to invite you, just as you are, into the swaddling clothes of your very life.   

Veni veni Emmanuel.   God with you.  The ultimate sign of life.

 


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