Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sentimental Does Not Equal Sacred

Sometimes I wonder if sentimentality contributes to a misunderstanding of the gospel more than just about anything else. We turn this cross-bearing way of life into an idyllic portrait of Jesus laughing and playing with little children and somehow the hope of all creation becomes nothing more than a Precious Moments figurine or a Thomas Kincaid painting or whatever other way we can find to turn the revolutionary message of Jesus into something that will stir our emotions and makes us feel more religious or good or spiritual for the moment.

Nowhere is this way of thinking more evident than during the Christmas season. We have these idealized versions of the birth of Jesus running through our heads (if we are even thinking about Jesus rather than the shopping we need to get done) where Joseph and Mary find a place to stay (after being turned away by the heartless innkeeper) just in time for her to give the world's cleanest and least painful birth to a child who "no crying he makes". Meanwhile, "the cattle are lowing", "the ox and the lamb kept time" while a little boy plays his drum, and "the ox and ass before him bow" (this must be a pretty gifted ox, bowing and tapping its foot in rhythm at the same time). Soon after the shepherds and wise men show up and the star which the wise men followed kindly serves as a spotlight on Jesus for a climactic end to the whole production. It's a little surprising we haven't found a way to get Santa himself into the story somehow. Perhaps his reindeer were pulling a sleigh filled with the wise men's gifts.

It's not surprising then that we try to make our own Christmas celebrations correspond in perfection to the idealized perfection we imagine encompassed that first Christmas. The tree, the gifts, the Christmas cards, the pictures, the dinner, must also be just as perfect as the perfect baby in the perfect manger or we'll have missed out on something. If the whole day doesn't culminate in some cataclysmic level of joy and absolute bliss, then it becomes a disappointment rather than a celebration.

But this all bears very little resemblance to the way Luke actually tells the story of Jesus' birth...or any birth story that has ever been told for that matter. Have we forgotten that this is an actual birth story of a real human baby?
The births
of my two children are two of the bloodiest, messiest, and most awkward experiences of my entire life and I wasn't even the one doing the birthing. If Jesus was indeed fully human as orthodox Christian faith claims, then why would we imagine that his birth would be any different? In fact, it seems that contrasting Jesus' kingly nature with the ordinary and even lowly nature of his birth is precisely part of the point that Luke is making in the way that he tells the story.

Luke begins the story of Jesus' birth by giving us some context. He tells us that it was in the days when Caesar Augustus had ordered a census to be taken of the whole Roman Empire. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria and everyone had to return to their hometown to be registered. So Joseph went with Mary to his hometown of Bethlehem. In telling us these things, Luke is giving us some historical background and setting the scene like the professional story teller that he is but he is also doing much more than that. When I talk about the birth of my son, I usually don't bother to mention that he was born during the Obama administration when Pat Quinn was governor of Illinois. That's because those details seem completely irrelevant to something as personal as the birth of my own child. For Luke, however, it is relevant to place the birth of Jesus in the context of the world powers of his day. This is because Luke wants us to see right away that this is not the birth of just another Jewish boy. It is not merely a personal, family event but one that has significance for the whole world. In fact, when many in the Roman Empire spoke about Caesar Augustus, they used words like savior and Lord. Augustus was known as the one who had brought peace to the empire. So when the angels proclaim to the shepherds that a savior had been born in the city of David who was Christ the Lord and they proclaimed peace on earth, this is no mere coincidence. Luke is saying in story form what all the early Christians believed; that even though Caesar was widely known as Lord and savior of the whole world, it was really only Jesus, a descendant of the great King David, who was the true Lord, savior, and prince of peace.

Of course, we might expect that if Jesus were the next world ruler then his birth would be announced in the capital city of Rome or at least at the Temple in Jerusalem and there would be trumpets and streamers and royal feasts with all of the most important people in attendance. Instead, he is born in a tiny village in the part of the house where animals slept. (This image of Mary being turned away by a heartless innkeeper even while she is having birth pangs in the middle of the night is reading a lot into the story that isn't there. Luke simply says "While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth" so they could have already been in Bethlehem for a while when it was time. Furthermore, the word often translated as "inn", the place where there was no room, is probably better translated as family room or guest room (as it is in Luke 22:11). Most ancient houses had an attached but somewhat separate room where the animals slept which is probably where Mary and Joseph were. It is likely that there simply wasn't enough room for the birthing process in the main room of the house with many other relatives staying there for the census.) Additionally, Jesus' birth is not announced to VIPs and heads of state. It is announced to lowly, unimportant shepherds in the fields nearby.

The one true king, lord, savior, and prince of peace is born among smelly animals, laid in the box where those animals ate, and worshiped by unnamed, lowly shepherds. This is our gospel, our good news; that the king of all did not cling to his kingly status and use it against us but humbled himself to our lowly position so that we might be a part of his kingdom. We only cheapen this magnificent reality when we turn it into a sentimental, feel good, greeting card kind of idea that we celebrate once a year by gorging ourselves on shopping and food. God calls us to humble ourselves as well; to lower ourselves to the position of those in need, to learn what it is like to live in their flesh because that is what God did for us...and not just in December, but everyday, as a way of life. Only then do we truly honor Jesus as Lord.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A New David

According to the opening verse of the book of Micah, the word of the Lord came to Micah "in the days Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah." This means that Micah was prophesying in the southern kingdom of Judah around the same time that the northern kingdom of Israel was being destroyed and exiled by Assyria. This brought the armies of superpower Assyria right to Judah's doorstep. In fact, Assyria did conquer many parts of Judah and Hezekiah was forced to pay tribute of gold and silver to prevent further destruction. Even then, Sennacherib, king of Assyria threatened to take all of Judah, especially the capital city of Jerusalem, by force. It was only because Hezekiah sought the Lord in prayer that Sennacherib was turned back and Jerusalem was spared.

Clearly, these were dark days for Judah, barely scrapping out an existence under the menacing shadow of Assyria's mighty power. Judah's spiritual health as God's people wasn't in any better shape either. The prophecies of Micah reflect this gloomy reality. The opening verses of Micah, which describe the mighty power of God as he comes to punish Judah for its harlotry, set the tone for the book as a whole.

While Micah certainly would not be mistaken for the most cheerful piece of literature ever written, it is not without its moments of hope and inspiration. One of those is the sermon text for the final week of Advent, Micah 5:2-5. There we are told that a ruler will rise up from Bethlehem, despite its small size, to shepherd the people of Israel. Bethlehem would be nothing but a small, completely insignificant place unworthy of mention by the prophet Micah, were not for one very important person who was born there. Bethlehem was the home of King David, the model king of Israel. Therefore, to say that a leader would arise from Bethlehem was to say that another David was on his way.

So often, this is the hope of the Old Testament. Repeatedly, the prophets find different ways to say basically this same thing: one day we will have a king like David again and he will be the savior of Israel, the one whose reign is the reign of God. Its no wonder then that the earliest Christians, who were mostly Jews and had their whole lives shaped by this hope, easily saw the promise fulfilled in Jesus. Matthew makes the connection to these verses from Micah explicit in his gospel by having the religious scholars quote them to the Magi who are seeking the new born king. It is this king and his kingdom whose beginning we celebrate at Christmas but the final fulfillment of which we still await.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Santa or Smelter?

We spend the season of Advent looking forward to the full establishment of Jesus' kingdom when he returns in glory. But what do you imagine that the coming of that kingdom will be like? Its so easy - especially this time of year - to think that Jesus is something like Santa; that upon his arrival everything we've ever hoped for will magically appear. Its easy to think that the kingdom of God will simply be the affirmation of all of our highest hopes and dreams for what the world should be. It comes naturally to us to think that we've got it all right, all figured out and that when Jesus shows up we will be vindicated and everyone will see how right we were. It seems to be human nature to assume that the arrival of God will require no change on our part; only on the part of others.

In other words, we are often all too eager to ask the question that the people of Israel ask in Malachi 2:17. "Where is the God of justice?" That is, "Why doesn't God show up and punish the wicked and reward the righteous?" Of course, in asking that we typically count ourselves among the righteous and therefore expect that there will be only reward for us.

In Malachi 3:1-4, God is indeed on his way. However, the messenger of the Lord reminds the people that he is not coming simply to dispense to them all of their wishes and desires. He comes as a refiner's fire and as a fuller's soap. It is Israel, God's own people, who are in need of cleansing and purification.

As the Church, we surely do look forward with great expectation to the coming of Jesus and his kingdom. We believe that it will bring the kind of peace, justice, and fullness of life for which we all long. But if we think that the coming of this kingdom will simply mean reward for us without refinement, then we have not understood Jesus' call to repentance. We too must be thrust into the flames and melted down so that all that contaminates our love for God and one another might be removed.

Lord, hold me in the fire, melt me, wash me, do whatever you have to do to to purify me until I am rid of everything that keeps me from being the beautiful and valuable creation you have made me to be.