By Brian Johnson
One of my favorite Christmas songs is Jackson Browne’s “The Rebel Jesus.” It’s not quite a traditional song, but every year, when it’s time for us to start reading Chapter 1 of Luke, there’s something about this song that just – well, I think this song captures something essential about the Christmas story story.
It’s not really a very Christian song. In fact, in the song, Browne describes himself as “a heathen and a Pagan” but also as someone “on the side of the rebel Jesus.” I don’t agree with everything Browne is saying in the song, but here’s what I think he gets right: so often, our celebrations of Christmas turn very cute-sy very Hallmark-y – this time of year, it’s easy for the Christmas story to be sentimentalized and sanitized, and when we do that, we run the risk of draining the story of it’s very radical message. Christmas gives us warm and fuzzy feelings, as we celebrate the birth of this baby, and sometimes we forget that this baby grew up to be a man who fought against injustice, challenged dishonest and oppressive political elites, and spoke up against corrupt religious leaders. Jesus isn’t just an “infant tender and mild” – he is also a rebel, someone who challenges oppressive systems, who overturns exploitation and bigotry of all kinds. Jesus didn’t just come to comfort us. He came to challenge us – to challenge everything that is less than it should be, every system that hurts or exploits others. And every time I listen to “The Rebel Jesus,” I am reminded of that fact, and I’m thankful for it. This time of year, I want – I need – tidings of comfort and joy. But “The Rebel Jesus” also reminds me that I need the Jesus who sometimes makes me uncomfortable, who sometimes challenges me, who encourages me to give away my possessions, to care for the poor and the hungry and the vulnerable, to live in his upside-down Kingdom where the first are last and the last are first.
Take a moment to read Luke 1:46-55. (You can click this link to read it.) This is the song that Mary sings after she finds out that she’s going to have this baby – after she finds out what God is doing in and through her. Her song sounds an awful lot like what Jackson Browne is singing. What’s Jesus about? Lifting up the poor. Tearing down injustice. Filling the hungry with good things.
“Rebel Jesus” challenges a lot of our Christmas traditions and forces us to ask if the real Jesus – the rebel Jesus – would have been welcome at our celebrations. And then, after a few verses of intense critique, Browne ends the song with words that strike me as really gentle and hopeful:
But pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There’s a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus
So, pardon me if I have seemed to challenge too much about Christmas in this reflection. I love the season of comfort and joy. I love the traditions of caroling and hot chocolate and presents. In a life of hardship, we need them. And I also love, need, and am challenged by the Jesus who challenged our comfortable habits – the rebel Jesus.
So, I bid you pleasure, and I bid you cheer, from a pastor who is doing his best to be on the side of the rebel Jesus.
May Jesus challenge you today and every day.
You can listen to the full song here:
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