Thursday, December 8, 2016

Advent - First Move

Jesus chose to live here
Photo credit: Jonathan McIntosh

How delightful it is to see approaching over the mountains    the feet of a messenger who announces       peace, a messenger who brings good news,      who announces deliverance,      who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Listen, your watchmen shout;   in unison they shout for joy, for they see with their very own eyes    the Lord’s return to Zion. In unison give a joyful shout,     ruins of Jerusalem! 
For the Lord consoles his people;    he protects Jerusalem. The Lord reveals his royal power     in the sight of all the nations; the entire earth sees    our God deliver.

Advent, as we noted in the introduction to this series, originally referred to a state visit by the Roman Emperor. For him, messengers would have been sent out far and wide, preparations would have been going on for months, and everyone would know that Caesar Augustus was coming.

For the official state visit of the High King of the Universe there had indeed been an announcement -- but it was made to unknown peasant women.  And preparations were certainly being made, but they were being made in the womb of an unmarried teenage girl.

Make no mistake: The Lord was certainly "returning to Zion" and he would "reveal his royal power" in ways that still reverberate today.  The announcement found in today's scripture would come true; everyone who cared to look would know that God reigns. But the way the Messiah went about mounting his revolution was totally unexpected in almost every respect.

We're all familiar with how this plays out: Mary and Joseph, because of Caesar's orders, must travel 90 miles to an unfamiliar town, live with the work animals, and as a result the transcendent God who normally lives in unapproachable glory is born in a mule's feed box. Then they return to the minuscule, hardscrabble village of Nazareth where Jesus grows up among a few hundred people, most of them barely able to scrape together enough of a living to survive day by day.

But wait a minute. This is the Son of the all-powerful God we're talking about. This was not by chance. His birth could have occurred under any circumstances he desired -- in a palace, in a room at the temple, in the home of a prosperous merchant. Even an ordinary, fairly comfortable home would have been a step up. Perhaps Joseph could have worked a choice carpentry job for a wealthy client before leaving for Bethlehem so he and Mary could have a few hundred denarii in their pockets. With the wave of his hand God could easily have made this story much different.

But that is not how the Messiah wanted to come into this world. Instead he thought it was of supreme importance to be incarnated among the poor and the powerless.

Think about that. What does this say about the kind of God we Christians worship?

All throughout the Hebrew scriptures God had shown intense concern with the weakest members of society. "Don’t oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor..." his prophets had cried.  Now, in his inaugural act as Messiah (an unborn act, no less), he freely chooses to become one of them.

Yes, this is God's strategy for invading the world and fomenting revolution, for founding the Kingdom of God. This King has chosen to stand up from among the weak and helpless of the world whose ranks he purposefully joined and, "announce peace... announce deliverance... and say to Zion, 'Your God reigns!'"

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Father of the Fatherless, Advocate of the poor, thank you for becoming one of us at our most abject. In all we do enable us to proclaim peace, deliverance, and Jesus' reign.  It is in Jesus' name that we pray. Amen.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Gospel of Invasion

Jesus Preaching, by Tissot

It might be held... that the ethics of Confucianism have an independent value quite apart from the story of the life of Confucius himself, just as the philosophy of Plato must be considered on its own merits, quite apart from the traditions that have come down to us about the life of Plato and the question of the extent of his indebtedness to Socrates.

But the argument can be applied to the New Testament only if we ignore the real essence of Christianity. For the Christian gospel is not primarily a code of ethics or a metaphysical system; it is first and foremost good news, and as such it was proclaimed by its earliest preachers.

True, they called Christianity 'The Way' and 'The Life'; but Christianity as a way of life depends upon the acceptance of Christianity as good news. And this good news is intimately bound up with the historical order, for it tells how for the world's redemption God entered into history, the eternal came into time, the kingdom of heaven invaded the realm of earth, in the great events of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The first recorded words of our Lord's public preaching in Galilee are: 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe the good news."

F. F. Bruce
The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?

(This is a reprint of an earlier post by one of my all-time favorite Bible scholars.)

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent - The Revolutionary

Jesus and his comrade in arms
Photo credit: Susan WD

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
     For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
     and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
     from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
     he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
     he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
     and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
     and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
     in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
     to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”


As the birth of the Messiah draws nearer, let's pause for a moment and notice the young peasant girl chosen to be his mother.

According to some historians she may have been as young as 12. Nazareth, where she lived, had only a few hundred inhabitants at the most. Everybody there would know in short order that Mary was unmarried and pregnant -- an enormous stigma in 1st century Galilee, worthy of stoning under Jewish law. In movies and art she is almost always portrayed as calm, serene, perhaps a bit shy and submissive. If we are not careful our cultural assumptions may cause us to take it for granted that she just assented meekly to the Angel Gabriel's request, a mere passive, resigned "bondservant" of the Lord.

But this song of Mary's shows her to be nothing of the sort...

Far from being the plaintive melody of a serene, submissive maiden, this is the battle hymn of a rebel! Quite aware of her "low status" as an unwed, teenage pregnant nobody in grungy little Nazareth she shakes her fist in the faces of the powers that be. "Watch out," she cries, "the true King is coming and he is going to turn things upside down!" The days of the "proud", the "rulers", the "rich" are numbered; the revolution has begun.

Mary meets her cousin Elizabeth

Painting by Claire Joy
Mary knew her Bible. Her song echos the one sung by Hannah, the mother of the Prophet Samuel, also miraculously born a thousand years before. They both sang of a revolution: Samuel's would be one that overturned the oppressive Philistines, who ground his people's faces into the dust. The revolution of Mary's coming child would be one that overturned the cosmic powers of sin and evil -- the powers that oppress and crush all humanity. 

Mary locked arms with Hannah, and with Sarah, and Rachel, and Samson's unnamed mother, and with her own cousin Elizabeth, with all the mothers of miracle babies that made up the the backbone of Israel's history, and sang of the great revolution that they had all been promised and eagerly looked for. Now her own child would finally fulfill that promise.

The early Christian movement never got over this young girl. They groped about for words sufficient to describe it. She was "sordid humanity's solitary boast," as Augustine said. The essence of a Saint is willingness to do what God asks; she was the greatest of all Saints, the church fathers said. Before her messianic son was even conceived and began to do his holy work, this girl firmly planted the flag of The Resistance against the forces of evil and declared in effect, "This is where it stops. This is where God finally finds someone who will do his will whatever it takes, and act as his instrument to turn this whole thing around."

"“Yes, I am a servant of the Lord," Mary proclaimed. "Let this happen to me according to your word." And to Jesus' early followers this one act -- Mary's bold, "Yes!" -- began the process of reversing Eve's "No." She brought the King into the world, gave him his first lessons (somewhat radical ones, no doubt!) and set him on the road to his final victory at Golgotha Hill.

Admittedly, she did not always understand him.  He was not the King anyone expected, after all, nor did he fight his battles as the Messiah was supposed to. But even though she knew that by doing so a sword would pierce her very soul, she followed him right down to the cross and beyond.

No, Mary was far from a passive womb or a meek bystander to the drama of her son's mission. She was a comrade in arms, a fellow revolutionary. She was a worthy mother of the Messiah.

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Prayer: Lord of The Revolution, thank you for this young woman whose dauntless courage helped make our faith possible. As the day on which we celebrate the coming of the King draws near, help us to have the courage always to say, "Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let it happen to me just as you have said." In Jesus Christ's name we pray. Amen.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Advent - What Was So Important?

What was so important to God that he did this?
Photo credit: Bob Swain
The snake was the most clever of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. The snake spoke to the woman and said, “Woman, did God really tell you that you must not eat from any tree in the garden?” 
The woman answered the snake, “No, we can eat fruit from the trees in the garden. But there is one tree we must not eat from. God told us, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden. You must not even touch that tree, or you will die.’”

But the snake said to the woman, “You will not die. God knows that if you eat the fruit from that tree you will learn about good and evil, and then you will be like God!”

The woman could see that the tree was beautiful and the fruit looked so good to eat. She also liked the idea that it would make her wise. So she took some of the fruit from the tree and ate it. Her husband was there with her, so she gave him some of the fruit, and he ate it.

Genesis 3.1-6, ERV


We can get so used to the Christmas season that we may not notice how peculiar the whole story is.  Doesn't it strike you as odd that the transcendent God of the universe decided he should spend 9 months in a young woman's womb and then find himself a helpless baby laying in a feeding trough (that's what a "manger" is), dependent on two subsistence-level peasants (Mary and Joseph) for every last little thing?

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight we know that this was the miracle of the Incarnation and that it led down a path that culminated in the only event even more absurd: God being executed by his own creation.  But that only deepens the mystery.  This was an incredibly drastic move on God's part -- almost desperate, if one can say that about God.  What could possibly be so important that he would commit himself to a plan so extreme?

The Genesis scripture quoted above may seem a strange choice for the beginning of a series about Advent, but actually it's integral to the Christmas story. Why was the King of Creation willing to become a tiny infant? Why would a being used to everything being done with just a word voluntarily put that all aside and throw himself into a life of utter powerlessness -- into having his diapers changed in a dirty, frigid stable? 

What was so important to him?

At its core the Genesis story tells us that we and the world around us were created good, but our disobedience to God's simple, loving request doomed his children. Why are there wars and slavery and economic meltdowns, but also first responders, Shakespeare and Mozart, and sunsets that move you to tears?  Because this is a good world that is broken, and we are the ones that broke it. We ourselves released the terminal disease of evil upon the world, we don't know how to cure it, and it eats away at our souls. There is no cure, no hope, unless...

Unless, as Advent tells us (and as we will discuss as we move through this series), God himself enters into the stream of time, becomes a finite human, fights the climactic battle that defeats Evil, and absorbs the disease of sin into himself so that his children can live. 

In other words, unless the child comes.

Traditionally, on the first Sunday of Advent, members of the Christian Movement light a candle called The Candle of Hope. When we were without hope, God did not turn his back and walk away, counting us as a failed experiment. At the crucial time, he came for us. Amidst all the presents and joy, the ho-ho-ho and mistletoe, this is what we must never forget about Christmas: The thing that was so important to God was us.

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Prayer: God of hope and of love at all costs, although we rebel against you, you do not give up on us. Thank you for going to the utmost extreme to save your helpless children. Thank you for being the wondrous child who came to our rescue.  In the name of Jesus Christ we pray.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

What We Need the Bible For

An N T Wright quote I like on the purpose and authority of the Bible in the Christian Movement.

We live under scripture because that is the way we live under the authority of God that has been vested in Jesus the Messiah, the Lord.
But what is God’s authority there for? Certainly not to give us a large amount of true but miscellaneous information. Solomon made lists of natural phenomena, but they didn’t get into the Bible. The Bible is not an early version of the Encyclop√¶dia Britannica. Here is the central element: the point about God’s authority is that the whole Bible is about God establishing his kingdom on earth as in heaven, completing (in other words) the project begun but aborted in Genesis 1–3. This is the big story that we must learn how to tell. It isn’t just about how to get saved, with some cosmology bolted onto the side. This is an organic story about God and the world.
God’s authority is exercised not to give his people lots of true information, not even true information about how they get saved (though that comes en route). God’s authority, vested in Jesus the Messiah, is about God reclaiming his proper lordship over all creation. And the way God planned to rule over his creation from the start was through obedient humanity. The Bible’s witness to Jesus declares that he, the obedient Man, has done this. But the Bible is then the God-given equipment through which the followers of Jesus are themselves equipped to be obedient stewards, the royal priesthood, bringing that saving rule of God in Christ to the world.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent - The Approaching King

Caesar comes for a visit
Photo by NoJin

This year Advent begins today, November 27th. Every Sunday and Thursday until Christmas, I'll be posting a series of short essays to help us listen for the approaching footsteps of the True King.

"Listen, I am coming soon!"
(Revelation 22.12, ERV)

Advent has been celebrated by Jesus' followers for millennia but these days it tends to get short shrift. In today's society it's been largely replaced by that hectic period of shopping, card writing, and drunken partying between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But at one time this was perhaps the most seditious season of all. And all because a peasant girl was in her last trimester.

Advent is an old Roman word that means, "the arrival of someone or something important." We use it today when we wonder how anyone managed to live "before the advent of the Internet," for instance.  For the ancient Romans though, an advent was the arrival of the Emperor himself on an official state visit. Heralds were sent out months ahead of time to announce the coming visit.  Buildings would be spruced up, the best food and entertainment would be arranged, and the richest family in the region would open up their estate to Caesar's use.

 We Christians announce the ultimate state visit: The arrival of the Christ, the King of the Universe. As Jesus' early followers understood (and as we still do today if the US President visits us in Montana or Morocco), a time of preparation is the appropriate response to a visit of this magnitude. And that is what the celebration called Advent is: A time of happy preparation for our King's imminent arrival.  As he draws ever nearer, we prepare ourselves for the moment when God invades history in the form of a poor family's baby.

Advent Gospel

It is this arrival of the Universal King that the Gospel -- the "Great Announcement" -- proclaims. The  Christian Movement announces a rival King, not just a sweet little baby in a manger or a man with nice ideas. As we have said elsewhere on this site, if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.  That is why authority figures tended to be rather hostile toward us for the first 300 years of our existence (and sporadically since -- when they aren't trying to co-opt us!). The peasant girl's baby that Advent warns of and Christmas extols has been in head-to-head conflict with the powers of this world for the last 2000 years.

You've no doubt been aware of this since you first heard the Christmas story, though it may not have fully registered. But what after all were the "Wise Men" looking for when they arrived in Jerusalem and asked, "'Where is the one who is born king of the Jews?'" (Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2, verses 1 and 2). Or as the old carols proclaim: "Joy to the world... let Earth receive her King."

Christianity is, in the final analysis, a subversive little religion.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving -- Ancient Israelite Style!

Creative Commons: "Laughs and Clean Plates" by Dinner Series is licensed under CC BY 2.0
To thank the Lord for his many blessings many of us gather together with our families at this time of year. We bring our best food, lots of meat and baked goods made from scratch with the best ingredients. Then we offer a prayer of thanks, recounting what we are grateful for. After that we spend the day eating, talking, and laughing, enjoying each other's company -- and God's blessing. We don't have to do this, but it's a tradition and we always look forward to it.

No, I'm not bragging about the Thanksgiving my extended family is having today. This is thanksgiving the way that ancient Israelites did it, 3000+ years ago.

It's buried in the depths of the almost-never-read Book of Leviticus, the third book in your Bible. Here is how the Voice Bible translates it:
If someone offers a sacrifice out of thanksgiving, then in addition to the sacrifice he must offer loaves of unleavened bread mixed with oil, unleavened wafers topped with oil, and loaves of the finest flour mixed with oil. Along with the peace offerings for thanksgiving, a person must include loaves of leavened bread. He must present one of each kind of bread as a gift to Me; it will belong to the priest who officiates the sacrifice and splatters the blood of the peace offerings against the sides of the altar.
The meat of the sacrifice for the thanksgiving peace offering must be eaten on the day it is offered. None of it is to be left over for the next day. (Book of Leviticus 7.12 - 15, Voice )
 There are obvious differences of course and the last thing I'm trying to do is suggest that Americans are modern Israelites (although the Puritans, who started our Thanksgiving tradition, are just the kind of guys who would read Leviticus).


But it is interesting to me that there is a more than passing similarity between their thanksgiving and our thanksgiving. In this book God is setting up a way for Israel to relate to their God. As part of that he includes a way to spontaneously say "thank you" to him when they are so moved.

Most of the other sacrifices ordained in the first 7 chapters of Leviticus are either completely consumed in the altar fire or part is set aside for the Priests. But when it comes to thanksgiving, God's idea is: Get your family together, bring your best animal (which is what a sacrifice had to be), make 3 kinds of baked goods, and then gather before me (at the 'congregation tent' -- the forerunner of Solomon's Temple) and we'll have a good time together. And eat all you want because there won't be any leftovers.

Throughout the Scriptures we find God working through community and food. He is not an austere, far-off deity or the kind who does everything himself. God is constantly, intimately involved with every mundane thing in his people's lives, working through them to fulfill his eternal purposes. Even the most profound, sacred thing we do as the Christian movement, taking Holy Communion, is God working through food to transform his people and through them the world.

That's a good reason to be thankful. And it's a good reason to give thanks in this ancient way that also seems  so natural to us.

Note: This a repeat of a previous post so I can have Thanksgiving off.