Elf, Iran, and the Good News of Jesus

What’s your favorite Christmas movie? Whatever it may be, you’re sure to want to share it with the teenagers in your life. Watch the Rooted blog this holiday season, where we are uncovering the gospel in some of the all-time great Christmas films. We’ll help you keep Christ at the center of your Christmas celebrations, at home and at church. Enjoy!

Elf. Iran. Jesus. In my life, these three seemingly disconnected words can go together.

Elf. I. Love. Elf. Seriously, I’ve watched the movie every Christmas since it has come out. For me, setting up a Christmas tree and watching Elf are equally essential parts of my celebration of the season.

Iran. I am captivated by the story God is writing for Iran’s church. Through my work, I have met and heard the stories of hundreds of Iranian Christians, and they have left their mark on my faith and my understanding of the gospel.

Jesus. I’m a Christian. I love meditating on the story God is writing for this whole world. Christmas and Advent celebrate important aspects of this story — the Messiah’s arrival in Jesus, and the hope of Jesus’ second coming.

And while ten years ago I never would have imagined writing anything called “Elf, Iran, and the Good News of Jesus,” here I am. I firmly believe these three stories, when viewed together, can stir our imagination about new ways to celebrate and worship the Lord this holiday season.

“SANTA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I KNOW HIM! I KNOW HIM!”

It’s arguably the most iconic line from the movie Elf. It’s definitely my favorite. Buddy, all dolled up in his authentic elven wear, has just learned from the Gimbles toy department manager that Santa will be visiting the store tomorrow.

Buddy’s response is one of pure, visceral, unabashed joy. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know he jumps and shouts like a giddy child (despite being a full-grown adult) all while shouting, “SANTA!!! I know him! I know him!”

People’s reaction is a mix of amused, annoyed, and alarmed. Who is this man-child dressed as an elf acting as if Santa is real and actually going to show up? Doesn’t he know that Santa is just a made-up story designed to entertain kids in hopes they’ll be less naughty?

But the movie viewer knows something those in Gimbles don’t: Santa is real. And though Buddy is not an actual elf, Santa has allowed him to be adopted by an older elf into his family. Buddy has lived in the North Pole, so he knows what it means when Santa comes. Joy. Celebration. Christmas! (And LOTS of sugar.)

This is essentially the plot line of the gospel.

The Messiah is real. He has come in the person of Jesus. He will one day come again to make all things new. And miraculously, the God of the universe has lovingly grafted us into the vine of his family because he wants us as children. Also, we know what to expect when the Father comes to us in Jesus by the Spirit: joy, celebration, new creation, true fullness.

We should all be shouting, “JESUS! I know him! I know him!”

This is what I love about my Iranian brothers and sisters in Christ: so many of them ooze enthusiasm for Jesus. In fact, this is one of the primary ways the underground church is growing in Iran. New believers, caught up in the amazing reality presented to them in Jesus are literally going around saying, “Jesus! I know him! I know him!” to friends, family, and people in their community.

And as with Buddy, people see that something is different — it’s a bit weird, but it’s also strangely attractive. Other Iranians see and want this same joy. And so the church grows because Iranian Christians understand that the story of Jesus is truly good news worth celebrating.

Even many of the mature Iranians believers I know maintain their child-like wonder for the gospel. One dear friend who heads up our work in Iran reminds me so much of Buddy the elf. Anytime he talks about Jesus, his eye literally twinkle. It is beautiful and contagious.

Can you imagine how weird it would be if the next time one of our youth spoke of Jesus our response was like Buddy’s?

“JESUS! I know him! I know him!”

I’m sure we’d get similar looks of amusement, annoyance, and alarm. But just perhaps, our kids are like many people in Iran—or like Jovie, Michael, and others in Elf: discouraged, aimless, and looking for meaning and real love. Just perhaps, like in Iran and Elf, they too would come to be captured by the wonder of becoming a part of the story God is writing for this world.

As with Christmas, our familiarity with the truths of the gospel can cause us to lose our childlike wonder. The gospel, rather than being good news, can become old, stale news.

Or worse, the gospel can come across as bad news. Making a list? Checking it twice? Is it all about being naughty or nice? Sounds like a moralistic nanny-cam state. It also sounds like a lot of moralism kids are fed these days by the church: God is watching. He knows what you’re doing when you’re by yourself. Are you being good or bad?

But you’ll notice in Elf that Buddy isn’t ever really worried about being on the naughty list himself. He knows where he stands with Santa. He’s been adopted as an elf. His living out the Christmas spirit is less about staying on the nice list and more about living out of the joy and purpose he’s found having been written into the Christmas story. It’s not mere duty, but delight that drives Buddy.

If you are in Christ, your naughtiness is not counted against you any longer. Only Jesus’ niceness is left. Like Buddy, you don’t need to perform – for God loves you FAR more than Santa loved Buddy. As God’s child, you are free to enjoy and explore all of the treasures of heaven.

So I encourage you to watch the movie Elf. Watch and imagine what it would be like to inhabit the gospel story with all the passion and zeal Buddy the elf has for Christmas.

And then, maybe like Buddy and our Iranian brothers and sisters, this holiday season we can remember, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is to sing loud for all to hear.”

Conversation Starters:

  1. What character in the movie do you most relate to? Why?
  2. Buddy LOVES sugar and puts it on everything (“Does syrup have sugar? Then YES!”). What do you think is equivalent of sugar in the gospel story?
  3. What’s something you would want to do for Jesus if – like Buddy – you didn’t care what others thought? Have you ever met a Christian that felt like Buddy?

Mark Howard was a youth pastor for five years before joining Elam Ministries, an organization that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in Iran and surrounding areas. Through Elam, he's had the opportunity to work with Iranian youth as well as talk with American churches about God's work in Iran. Mark has his M.A. in Theological Studies from Wheaton College Graduate School and serves on Rooted's steering committee.

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