The Spirit of the Lord, §2: Sanitized Savior of Suburbia

At the 2006 Christmas Eve service that I attended with my wife’s family, the preacher gave a message that was surely quite similar in content to thousands of other messages given across the country and around the world. He preached on the all-important name of the Christ-child: Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6). Not surprisingly—since this was at a conservative Baptist church—the preacher explicitly presented the peace of Christ as an inner peace, as opposed to an outer peace. He said that Christ came not to address the kinds of peace which we seek in our external relations with others—whether political, marital, familial, etc.—but he came rather to offer us internal spiritual peace. God came in Jesus Christ to be God with us so that we might have the spiritual comfort that we will live with God for eternity. End of story. Amen.

This is the kind of sermon that fits nicely in between the congregational singing of “Awake in a Manger” and “Silent Night.” The whole package is a saccharine, sentimental bedtime story which presents Jesus as a spiritual security blanket—and, quite appropriately, this preacher opened his sermon by relating the baby Jesus to Linus’ security blanket in the Peanuts cartoon strip. This Jesus is the Sanitized Savior for Suburbia (the SSS, we might say). He is innocuous, non-confrontational, safe for the consumeristic spirit of Santa. He has no beef with the materialistic society of America. He has no quarrel with the economic oppression perpetrated by First World countries against the Two-Thirds World. He puts up no nonviolent resistance against the political persecution of Muslims, against the military brutality in the numerous interrogation camps around the world, against the extreme poverty and disease that ravage entire continents. This Jesus is the one who blesses dualism: who only claims a person’s soul and leaves the body up to others, whether to the noncommittal social programs of the governmental or to the oppressive regimes of power which feed off of the subjugation of those lowest in society. This Jesus is the one who blesses suburban complacency, who wanders the urban streets in order to shop but never to sit and talk and love, who always walks on the other side of the road when there is a homeless person asking for money or a man beat up and left for dead. The SSS is the god of America, and insofar as the SSS is understood as “Christian,” we indeed live in a “Christian nation.”

I should come to this preacher’s defense for a minute. His sermon was, to his benefit, quite inconsistent. He began on the right track by strongly differentiating himself from the kind of commercialism and consumerism that plagues Christmas nowadays. And to illustrate the nature of peace, he told a story about a missionary to Papua New Guinea whose propagation of the gospel led to the establishment of peace between warring tribes. So in the midst of presenting the peace of Christ as an inner peace having nothing to do with external reality, he managed to illustrate this peace in opposition to economic and political turmoil. At the least he was inconsistent; at the most it was the Lord speaking truth through this fallible human being in spite of himself—and I would say both were true. Either way, he spoke more truth than he knew.

The problem with many of these Christmas sermons is that preachers use one of the standard SSS proof-texts without understanding the deeper cultural and theological contexts to the passage under discussion. For example, the pastor spoke on Isa. 9:6-7 and somehow came to the conclusion that peace (shalom) concerns the inner, spiritual realm of the human person. But even a cursory glance at v. 7 should demonstrate the indefensibility of that interpretation. The “throne of David” is not a spiritual throne but the actual throne over God’s covenant people. This verse is a reference to the eternal Davidic covenant established by God in 2 Sam. 7. The child promised in Isaiah is the king who will fulfill this covenantal promise and sustain an everlasting reign of “endless peace.” Justice and righteousness do not refer to some inner qualities but rather to the external ordering of life in correspondence to the righteousness of God. Justice and righteousness were the divine principles that Israel failed to abide by throughout its sociopolitical life and especially during the monarchy when kings worshiped foreign gods and exploited the poor. Moreover, rather than being two different problems, idolatry and oppression are two sides of the same problem; worship and ethics are intimately united in the theology of the Old Testament. Who or what you worship determines how you act. When the kings wandered into idolatry, the life of justice and righteousness to which God called them also turned into a life of exploitation and oppression. The child-king promised in Isa. 9 will return Israel to its promised identity as “a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6), as “a light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6), as the one through whom “salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).


Shane said…
two snaps in a circle for the best subsection title on a blog post.
JP Manzi said…
Good stuff Dave and so true.
Halden said…
Very good and well written. Sentimentality is the Christian seat of consumerism.

I look forward to more.
Kevin said…
Dave, This was a great post. Thanks for sharing it, and continual challenging us to see the gospel beyond the "sanitized" and beyond individualism. Hey, I really digged tghe sermon on Sunday. Glad I finally got to hear you preach after all these months
byron said…
He puts up no nonviolent resistance against the political persecution of Muslims
Presumably with both a subjective and an objective genitive?
About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You