Before and after

Humanity began a winnowing at the first Christmas

Issue: "Daniel of the year 2001," Dec. 22, 2001

Now there are only two kinds of time: time before Sept. 11; time after. Time when war was an exotic pestilence in unpronounceable lands; time when it has washed ashore to towns we raise our kids in. Our investments, our travel, our commerce, are forevermore dated from that obscene wedge into history, courtesy of a faith that honors Muhammed as the last of the prophets.

Seven centuries earlier is born another claimant to that title. Even the Pharisees do not mistake His meaning when Jesus casts Himself as the landowner's son in the Matthew 21 parable of the wicked tenants. The vineyard owner has sent the prophets to collect his due, and they have killed them one by one. So be it, plenty more where they came from. It's none too arduous for the great Potter to fashion one more Jeremiah or Joel or Obadiah.

But this time is different. This Jesus is last, not as the end of a sequence, or the final bead of an abacus row. He is last as in a new species, as in the inauguration of a new configuration. He is last in the bifurcating sense that "in the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these days He has spoken to us by His Son" (Hebrews 1:1). He is last in the sense that "in the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent"(Acts 17:30). He is the clearest Word. He is the final appeal before canon falls silent and the scroll is sealed up, awaiting the final chapter, Judgment.

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If things were murky still in Micah's day, if there was any wiggle room or place for double-mindedness when Amos's strident call rang out, that time gave way the day the Heir of the estate appeared, of whom old Simeon said, "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many ... , so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed" (Luke 2:34). Humanity began a winnowing at the first Christmas. It was henceforth "fish or cut bait"; it was "either with Me or against Me"; it was fall in line behind your Lord or go back into the darkness.

Jesus is the holy one. And if that isn't what you want in your life, Jesus is the inconvenient one. Jesus has come into the world "to destroy the devil's work" (1 John 3:8). That means bin Laden has to go, McVeigh has to go, Milosevic has to go. But the Lord is talking about all evil, including the evil in your life. "He appeared so that He might take away our sins" (1 John 3:5). And if you have a warm spot in your heart for some of those sins, Jesus will have to be dealt with.

Like the Jews dealt with Him and chose Barabbas to go free rather than the righteous one (Matthew 27:26). Like Cain, who slew his brother Abel "because his own actions were evil and his brother's were righteous" (1 John 3:12). Like Madison Avenue has dealt with Jesus in the most breathtaking PR coup in history, the incredible shrinking of the cosmic cataclysmic of good and evil to the sentimentality of a Hallmark card, the proportions of a churchyard creche.

Sept. 11 seemed to have been an enobling episode in America, which rose to the occasion with alms and time and blood. And God bless the common grace that restrains the full flexing of evil till the end. But Christmas, not the World Trade Center, is the test of hearts, and the rock on which men stumble. For a man will give up many a possession before he will give up the lordship of his life, and more's the pity if we start to feel we've become generally "Christianized" without Christ.

Shall we not let Jesus show us the worst about ourselves so that we can accept His gift of life? Shall we not choose the "tough love" of the Cross over ignorant self-worship, and so be purified of everything foolish and counterproductive in our lives? If we survive the present national convulsions, and if we then retreat into the "warm fuzzies" of a Currier and Ives Christmas, after all that we have seen of man-Auschwitz, the Gulag, the "killing fields" of Cambodia, the blood bath of Rwanda, al-Qaeda-a greater tragedy is yet to come, as when a man escapes from a bear and runs into a shelter, only to be bitten by a scorpion.

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