Advent – there’s resistance

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all the region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.         Matthew 2:16-17

"Massacre of the Innocents" Giotto, from the Scrovegni Chapel, 1305

“Massacre of the Innocents” Giotto, from the Scrovegni Chapel, 1305

Herod executes all the boys he can find, trying to stamp out the competition for Kings of the Jews. There were probably only a couple dozen, and this sort of thing may not have even made Herod’s top ten, but still…   How do piles of infant bodies fit in the Christmas story?  Does it make for good reading round the tree?

And yet, there it is, this gruesome account along with all the rest. The point? It’s that when God arrived into the world, to establish his kingdom and save his people from their sins, he was resisted.

He was resisted by Herod, a cruel, petty, puppet-king. And if we’re most honest, he can be resisted by us. Jesus was born not to remain cute baby Jesus. He was born to make a way for us to come to God through the plan of salvation he made.  How often is that resisted?

Jesus came to be King of the world. How often is his rule resisted, mocked, or sidelined?

Jesus came to be our Lord, the one who commands and we follow.  Do we ever want his gifts while refusing his demands?

Jesus came to shower us with the grace of God – the forgiveness of all our sins.  How often would we rather hang on to guilt rather than let him cleanse us?

If the Gospels tell us anything, it’s that it does not end well for those who resist Jesus’ arrival.  It doesn’t end well for Herod or his second rate sons (both also named Herod).  But we who believe are invited to always be laying down our resistance to God in Jesus. And when we surrender, we win.

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Advent – Born With Purpose (born to die)

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people for their sins.”       Matthew 1:20-21

 

Eric Drooker, crying baby

Eric Drooker, crying baby

Reflect on the birth of Jesus and some things easily emerge.  That while he most certainly had a normal birth, his conception was not normal. Virgins don’t normally become pregnant.  It’s impossible, actually.  To the skeptic who asserts “Virgins can’t give birth to babies!”, the Christian replies “we know, that’s kind of why it’s a big deal”.

But even as the amazing circumstances of his birth are being recorded, the end of his life is not far from view.  Matthew records that at the giving of his name, from the angel to Joseph, the very purpose of his coming is revealed.  Jesus means saviour. In greek and hebrew it reads the same as Joshua, recalling a figure who brought God’s people from where they were to where they needed to be. And in that name is embedded the purpose of his birth – to bring again God’s people out from where they are. Specifically, it is to save them from their sins.

Even prior to his birth, the purpose of that birth is revealed to his adoptive father. Salvation from sins through his death on the cross. The Gospel writers were never just rolling along without the entire story in sight. Even at before the cradle the cross was in sight.

Advent – God touches the dirty ground

And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.         Luke 2:6-7

Sigmund Abeles, crying baby, 1964

Sigmund Abeles, crying baby, 1964

Familiar words to many, they may even conjure sentimental images in our minds of baby Jesus laying no cozy hay, no crying he makes. Notwithstanding the traditional carol, the baby almost certainly did cry. And that is a great point to be made about the birth of Jesus – which is, the coming of God into the world.  The eternal, ineffable, untouchable, transcendent, unsearchable God entered as a human baby. And a very human baby he was.

It the story gets to familiar for us we’ll forget just how amazing this is. And just how scandalous it was for ancient Greeks and how it still is for our Muslim friends. How can God – who is so far above and beyond us – wear diapers and lay in the hay?

But that is exactly what is at the heart of Advent, Christmas, and the Gospel hope. That God has come  and put his clean feet on the dirty ground, so to speak. He of course does it to rescue his people. Becoming as human as we are, gives him the avenue to become saviour to human beings. It is also God’s great approval of this world, a great acting out of his first assessment of the world he made.

The world is ‘very good’ indeed. And God has loved it so much that he has entered it, diapers and all.

Baby Jesus vs The Bible – I’m not placing a bet on this match-up

jesus:bible fight posterThe Advent season is just behind us.  I, for one, had spent a great deal of time contemplating the Word of God made flesh in the person of Jesus.  Yes, the Christian teaching really is that the God’s eternal Word became a baby who lay in a manger.  But is confessing that Jesus is the Word a contradiction to the traditional belief that the written Scriptures are God’s Word?

I recently stumbled across an Advent Facebook post by a popular author/pastor.  God’s final Word is not a leather bound Bible, but a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. “*  I read this pithy statement and thought to myself something was a little off.  After all, an error is often not in the affirmation but in the denial.  

The infant Jesus is affirmed to be the eternal Word of God in human flesh – the great logos mysteriously wrapped in human nature.  So far so good.  This is one of the most amazing – and scandalous – truths of Christian orthodoxy.  It is proclaimed repeatedly and unambiguously in the New Testament – God has spoken in the person of his (human) Son.  It is especially relevant during Advent and Christmas to ponder this.  How appropriate then is the line from one of the finest Christmas hymns:  Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!  The Baby Jesus is God’s Word, enfleshed and made vulnerable, touchable, knowable in swaddling clothes.

But the problem is not in the affirmation but in the denial, remember?  And the statement in question seems to pit our leather bound Bibles against this Baby Jesus.  That certainly is the rhetorical thrust.  It seems to me then we are being placed in a position of making a false choice.  In Christian belief, avoidance of false choices is necessary to accurately acknowledge all the dimensions of Christian belief.  After all, we’re asked to believe in a Christ both human and divine, and a God both one and three.  Is it not too much to ask then to assert that both Baby Jesus and the Old and New Testaments are both rightly called God’s Word?

If the incarnate Word is pitted (falsely) against the written Word than one of the two has got to fall a little in our esteem of it.  And when you’re pitting Jesus against something it does not do to find yourself on the side against Jesus.  And so our assertion that the Bible is God’s Word slips a little.  But should it?  Do we really have to have a match-up between Jesus the Word and the God-breathed Word?

The best view of the Bible is the one which affirms that if the Bible says it, God has said it.  This does not mean to say that all interpretations ought to be woodenly literalistic and that there aren’t difficulties.  Still, we are to have the same confidence that St Augustine had in regards to the Scriptures:  Faith will falter if the authority of holy scripture is shaken… (On Christian Doctrine).  But Augustine didn’t come up with that all on his lonesome, who did he learn it from?

He learned it from Jesus Himself, who loved Himself some Holy Scripture.  Jesus did not have the completed Old and New Testaments bound in leather – that much is evident.  But whenever He quoted Scripture (the Old Testament), He spoke of it as though it were exactly what God had said.  Should we have less regard for the Bible than the human Word did?  The rhetorical gains we make by such a statement are not worth the undermining of the status of the Bible.  This is true even if we add a qualifier like the word ‘final’.

Nothing is worse than an ‘or’ when there should be an ‘and’.  The Word of God, is it the Baby Jesus or the Old and New Testaments?  Why make that match-up?  Better is the affirmation:  The Word of God, it is the Baby Jesus and the Old and New Testaments.  Of course, they are God’s Word in different senses but that is exactly the point.  They are both worthy of the affirmation and we need not minimize either.  This is why during Advent and at Christmas we can boldly sing of the Word of the Father, now appearing in flesh.  And it is also why when we hear the Bible read we can confidently respond “Thanks Be To God!” to the traditional call “This is God’s Word”.

 

Baby Jesus vs The Holy Bible.  Would I really want to pit one against the other?

 

I’m deciding that there is really no choice but to avoid this false choice.  In this “Word of God” match-up, I’m not placing a bet.

 

See?  Baby Jesus and the written Scriptures get along just fine.

See? Baby Jesus and the written Scriptures get along just fine.

* the man in question is not especially important.  I’m not terribly familiar with his ministry but a few quick glances tell me that we’d agree on a lot and also disagree on some important stuff.  This post isn’t a critique on his character or wider teaching which I know precious little about.  I always try to assume the best about people and I’ll just imagine this brother Z is a perfectly nice guy with a certain amount of unhelpful teaching.

God’s With Us – He Really Is With Us

 

Empty Manger

What does it mean for God to be with us?  Was he ever not with us?  And does it ever get more personal than God just visiting all of humanity?  Is God ever with us, that is, with you and me?

When Matthew gives his account of Jesus’ birth, he leaves no doubt as to the significance.  This is just like Isaiah has said, reports Matthew, the virgin’s son is “Immanuel”.  For those not versed in Hebrew nomenclature, he spells it out:  (which mean, God with us).  But what does it mean for us?  I’ll suggest three things:

God Really Wasn’t With Us.  This may seem like it goes against the Xmas story but wait, it has to be true.  Think about it.  You can’t announce that someone has just arrived home if they were never out, right?  The same is true of God.  In the various forms of paganism, God/the gods/spirits were always present in the world.  The divine lived in the rocks and trees and rivers.  Or in Eastern type religions, there is no distinction between the world and God.  But Christianity (Judaism and Islam as well) reveals something different about God.  There is a distinction between Creator and Creation.  He really is God and we, his creatures, really are not.  So for the power of “God with us” to hit you, first it must be acknowledged that he was kind of far away before.

God’s Really With Us.  But now God really has come – in the person of His Son, Jesus.  When that newborn baby was placed down in that manger, God was truly in the house.  In the world in a way He’d never been before.  That’s why it is such a big deal.  God has always been involved in His creation, acting in it and sustaining it by his word.  But now his feet had really touched the dusty ground.  God’s perfection isn’t sullied or lessened by entering the world.  There’s no hint of negativity that he shows towards the material, the physical, and the ordinary.  This world was good from the beginning, and even though it’s been broken, God has come into it.  He is really with us in his creation.

God Is Really With You.   Really.  God in the world and with humanity is a great truth but does it get more personal than that?  Is God really with me?  or with you?  To really grasp and enjoy his nearness we must acknowledge that he really has cause to be far away.  As sinners, we are estranged from God and have no right to come before him.  He really was far away.  But now, through the Gospel of his son, he has near to us.  Not counting our sins against us, not withholding his presence from us, he is with us.  If you believe God is at your service, easy to stroll right up to, you’ll never grasp that incredibleness of his grace and his condescension to us.  In Christ, he is really with you!

 

Full Sermon – God With Us – Matthew 1:18-25 – Week 2 of Advent