Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag


Paul N. Walker


John :1 - 1:14
     When Jesus Christ came, when “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”,(v.14) as we read in the prologue to John’s gospel, something completely new happened.  Before he came, nobody had ever seen God (v.18). This includes all philosophies and religions prior to 4 B.C., including Judaism – nobody had ever seen God, at least not as He wished to be revealed. That’s quite an incredible thing to say and it’s quite a drought.
     But Christmas changed everything.  When God came to the world in human form, He was, as John writes in his 1st letter,  “heard with our ears, seen with our eyes…looked upon and…touched with our hands.”  Before Jesus Christ, God was inscrutable, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” as Winston Churchill said about Russia. But Christmas changed everything. That first Christmas, God did a new thing. In the words of James Brown, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag!”
     In Jesus Christ, the babe born in the manger, “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (v.14) With the coming of the true light in the world also comes hope and comfort. With Jesus Christ, God, at least is part, becomes touchable, visible, audible, understandable.
     The Bible tells us that the world apart from Jesus Christ is either a hospital or a courtroom, often a mixture of both. What do I mean? T.S. Eliot says “the whole earth is our hospital.” (Four Quartets) The world is a hospital in that you are always dealing with woundedness and hurt in some form. Your recent break-up, your parents divorce, your rejection from some job or group, the loneliness you feel in your marriage, the sudden or lingering death of someone you love.
     It’s no secret that Christmas time is a time where hurts rise to the surface, and depression rears its head. The most wonderful time of the year is often the most miserable time of the year for many who feel that the world is a hospital.
     The other metaphor – the world is a courtroom – is always in play too. We are constantly being judged and found wanting. This is called “the law”
theologically. Often, if you’re feeling stressed and tired, it’s because you are feeling judged.
     At Christmastime, present buying and present giving and present getting become the occasions of judgment. I didn’t get her something good enough; he didn’t get me something meaningful enough. The fact that the world is a courtroom is why many people medicate themselves in one form or another.
     All this is true, but Christmas changes everything. God did a new thing at Christmas. Papa’s got a brand new bag. With the birth of Jesus Christ comes comfort and hope! John says it this way: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (v.17) This is the key verse in this packed prologue from John. It’s the good news of Christmas! Into the wounds of the world comes the grace and truth of Jesus Christ. The hurt and condemnation of the law are taken away by the God who dwells among us. Law gives way to grace. And the grace comes in the form of a baby lying in a manger. Grace is the new thing God did at Christmas.
     Martin Luther, in his Christmas book says that God took the form of a baby so “that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor he should console and confirm.”  That’s help for those who feel the world is a hospital. Luther also invites us to trust babe of grace, to trust the new thing God has done at Christmas. “Look upon this Lord of Peace and your spirit will be at peace. See how God invites you in many ways. He places before you a Babe with whom you may take refuge. Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.” That’s help for those who feel the world is a courtroom.
     Marc Connelly wrote a play in 1929 about the new thing God would do at Christmas. It’s called “The Green Pastures” and it is written in the dialect of African – Americans in the Deep South. Most of it is set in heaven, with the occasional scene of the Lord on earth with Noah or Moses. The play charts God’s frustration with the bad behavior of the people he’s created. God tries the Law – threat and punishment and judgment – but to no avail. His people continue in their wicked ways. Eventually, God decides to just give up on people altogether.
     Finally the prophet Hosea and a fictional prophet named Hezdrel get the Lord’s attention with a different message. The last scene we see God changing His mind about how he will deal with his creation. God talks with Gabriel, who has been his agent of judgment.
Gabriel: “You look a little pensive, Lawd. (God nods his head) Have a seegar, Lawd?” God: “No thanks, Gabriel” Gabriel: “You look awful pensive, Lawd. You been sittin’ yere’, lookin dis way an awful long time. Is it something serious, Lawd?” God: “Very serious, Gabriel.” Gabriel: (Awed by his tone) “Lawd, is de time come for me to blow?” God: “Not yet, Gabriel. I’m just thinkin’” Gabriel: “What about, Lord?” God: “Bout somethin’ de boy tole me. Somethin’ bout Hosea and himself. How dey foun’ somethin’. Gabriel: What, Lawd? God: “Mercy.” (A Pause) “Through sufferin’, he said.” Gabriel: “Yes, Lawd.” God: “I’m tryin’ to find it too. It’s awful impo’tent. It’s awful impo’tent to all de people on my earth. Did he mean that even God must suffer?” God continues to look out over the audience for a moment then a look of surprise comes into his face. He sighs. In the distance a voice cries. The Voice: “Oh, look at him! O look! Dey goin’ make him carry it up dat high hill! Dey goin’ to nail him to it! O dat’s a terrible burden for one man to carry!” God rises and murmers “Yes!” as if in recognition. The heavenly beings have been watching him closely, and now, seeing him smile gently, draw back, relieved. All the angels burst into “Hallelujah, King Jesus!” God continues to smile as the lights fade away.
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
This Christmas and forevermore, the God who was absent is now here in Jesus Christ – with you and for you, ready, always ready to give you from his fullness, grace upon grace.
     Merry Christmas and Amen.
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