The Third Day of Christmas: The World That Was

27 December 2020

We have come so far from the world Jesus was born into that we forget how that world was a place of stifling stability. In the classical world, the major markers of your life were all predictable the day you were born: your trade, friends, spouse, residence, all of it. The twin powers of blood and soil dictated everything. Today we call that fascism; they called it common sense.

Jesus was born into that fascist world. The blood ties of His clan and the soil of His birthplace dictated a certain kind of life: He should practice His (presumed) father’s trade, marry a girl of equivalent station in the village, listen to the rabbis, pay His taxes to the Romans. Being born out of wedlock, He was also expected to submit to lifelong shame: they were still throwing that in His face in His 30s (John 8:41).

But a human partaking in the divine nature is not bound by blood and soil. Simply by incarnating and living the life His Father set before Him, Jesus broke that world forever. Everywhere His followers have gone, pursuing our common Father’s business, we have done unexpected things: care for orphans and widows, heal the sick, lift the last, the lost, and the least. We have called tyrants to repentance, founded hospitals, funded scientists, freed slaves. The progress has been slow—the Kingdom of God is like leaven—and because slow, easily forgotten.

Let us remember, that we might be grateful.

The Second Day of Christmas: The Offense of Particularity

26 December 2020

The ancient Jews were preoccupied with social station and purity before God, the Greeks with finding unchanging certainty beyond the messy and decaying physical realm. God offended both groups in the incarnation, the Jews by becoming this particular man—born out of wedlock to a nobody—and the Greeks by incarnating at all. In different ways, the incarnation was blasphemy to both groups.

The incarnation is just as blasphemous today. We vaunt our identity categories above everything—male, female, gay, straight, black, white, asian, 1%ers or 1%, you name it. We don’t believe anyone can represent us or grasp our lived experience unless they tick all the same boxes. We flatter ourselves that we can claim, create, or discover for ourselves an identity that is more important that the human identity we were given as a gift from our loving Creator.

But God became a particular human, born in a specific place and time, having a particular ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic station. In that one particular person, Jesus shared in all that is essentially human, in order that all humans might be able to share in the divine nature. That which we already have in common with Jesus—our essential humanity—we also have in common with each other. The more we come to share in the divine nature, the closer we will draw to one another.

Let us be grateful that this is the case; the alternatives are not attractive.

The First Day of Christmas: This is our God!

25 December 2020

Have you ever wondered how the shepherds found Jesus? The angels had only given them a single clue: a swaddled newborn in a feed trough. Bethlehem was full of strangers that night, travellers from elsewhere. But labor is not a quiet process, and everybody would have known about the teenaged mom that gave birth in a barn. If the shepherds hadn’t already heard about it through small-town gossip, a few minutes of asking around would lead them to the right place.

What did they expect to find? Surely not a scene of great majesty, given the clue they were chasing. And what they did find was simple enough: a new teenaged mother, exhausted from labor, her not-quite-husband (bit of a scandal there, no doubt the talk of the town), and a baby, wrapped up and deposited in a feed trough.

Had we asked the shepherds a day earlier what the birth of their Messiah would be like, I doubt any of them would have predicted this. How vulgar. How…blasphemous, even. It is the first of many offenses yet to come. But the shepherds couldn’t shut up about what they’d seen and heard. They told everybody, and departed rejoicing and praising God.

And so should we.

Epiphany: The Astrologers Find Jesus

6 January 2020

Contrary to the popular song, the Magi were not “three kings.” The Magi were diviners, astrologers, prophets, wise counselors — not kings, but king-makers, the power behind the throne of the Parthian Empire, Rome’s enemy to the east. So when their delegation arrived inside the Roman Empire, in the court of Herod, Rome’s puppet king in the province of Judea, it made a bit of a splash. The fact that they were looking for a new king only made it worse. 

How did they come to be looking for a king? “We saw his star,” they said. Five hundred years earlier, Daniel had become the chief of the Magi, not only recording his own dreams and visions of Israel’s promised Messiah, but also bringing the Hebrew Scriptures with him. A thousand years before that, those Scriptures reported, Balaam had prophesied that a star would rise out of Jacob. 

The Magi watched the heavens as a matter of course. And when the star appeared, they searched their books, learned what it meant, and came to meet the king. Took a little doing, but they found Him. 

Christians sometimes get a little possessive of Jesus, and start thinking that “outsiders” (however defined) can’t possibly know what we know about Him. How could the Magi find Jesus by watching the stars? Because He made them, and rightly understood, they point to Him.  

As does everything else. 

The Twelfth Day of Christmas: Weird Trust

5 January 2020

God often shows us what He’s going to do by giving us a word that initially makes no sense. 

The coming of Jesus is first foretold to Adam and Eve as the Seed of the woman, who will crush the serpent’s head. As the centuries pass, God slowly adds more detail to the picture. Balaam, a strange and greedy figure, foretold a royal star rising out of Jacob (Israel). Many other prophets also spoke of a coming king that would conquer and reign. Others saw a suffering servant who would die for his people. It was so hard to reconcile these themes that some of the rabbis suggested the prophets were speaking of two different messiahs, which they called the (royal) son of David and the (suffering) son of Jacob. During Jesus’ lifetime, His closest followers glommed onto the ‘royal conqueror’ theme, and totally neglected the ‘suffering servant’ theme. 

What they did not want to see was the truth that Jesus embraced: by obeying the path of suffering, He was also walking the path to reigning. It only became clear in the doing: Jesus has transformed the world; He dethroned the divine kings, confounded the philosophers with the good of Creation, and sidelined the religious elite so that you and I can know God directly. And He’s not done yet.

He lived a life of service, and in His death gathered every sin, every character flaw and weakness and sickness of the world into Himself. They died on the cross that day, and were buried in the heart of the earth, and when He rose to new life, He brought none of that out of the grave. Whatever holds you back from the purposes God built into you, you could let it go today and be free for the rest of your life — because Jesus has already settled accounts with your limitations. 

So what are you called to? What have you been told you could do, what has God shown you, but you haven’t pursued it because it just makes no sense? What might happen if you just obey by doing what you can do now?

The Eleventh Day of Christmas: It Doesn’t Have to Look Like You Think

4 January 2020

We have a bad habit of refusing to accept what God does because it doesn’t look like we expected it to. 

It was not just the divine kings and the philosophers who were scandalized by the coming of Jesus. In the prologue to his gospel, the Apostle John remembers, “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” The very idea of a divine human being was a scandal to the religious establishment…a scandal that had been vexing them in their own Scriptures going back 500 years before Christ. 

During that time, the entire nation was enslaved and deported to captivity in Babylon, an experience that God told them (correctly) would cure them of idolatry forever. The prophet Daniel was an advisor to the Babylonian kings, and one day Daniel saw a vision that was nothing but trouble. He saw “one like the Son of Man” — a human, in other words — riding on the clouds. Now, this is already a problem, because in Daniel’s world, only God rides on the clouds. A human being can’t do that. But it got worse. The Son of Man rode on the clouds to the Ancient of Days (God, again), and received a kingdom from Him. For a good Jewish boy whose nation has just given up worshipping idols, this is one too many gods — and one of them is a human. The whole thing is no good. Daniel 7 says he was grieved in his spirit. In the dream, he gets an explanation for part of what he sees, but this part of the vision is not explained, and even after he’s given an interpretation, he says that his thoughts greatly troubled him, and he kept the matter to himself.

The riddle posed by that vision had been troubling interpreters ever since Daniel wrote it down. And the religious powers that be had a very hard time accepting that a child born to a construction worker could be the answer to the riddle. 

What is God doing in your life that doesn’t look like you expected?

The Tenth Day of Christmas: Flesh is Good

3 January 2020

This time of year, people get caught up in all kinds of resolutions–a modern, if short-lived, renunciate lifestyle that would do the monks of yesteryear proud. Now, far be it from me to talk you out of going to the gym or passing on that second helping of pie, but let’s not lose our balance. Like the Preacher said, eat your bread and drink your wine with a merry heart all the days of your fleeting life, for God has already accepted your work.

In the teeth of the philosophers’ disapproval, the early Jesus-followers stubbornly maintained the goodness of material things. If the Divine Order of the universe–the Logos–could become flesh, then flesh had to be good. 
They even put this into their early baptismal formulas: the closing of the early versions of the Apostles’ Creed have a line that we translate, “I believe…in the resurrection of the body.” Except it doesn’t quite say that. The Greek word for “body” is soma, and that’s not the word they used. They used the word sarx, which is the same word the apostle John used in the shocking climax of his prologue: “The Word became flesh.”

What the creed actually says–and remember, this is the creed you would memorize and say in public in order to be baptized; every Christian knew it–is “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” That which Christ assumed–full humanity, including the physical, fleshly body–is good, and will be fully redeemed on the last day.

So eat the fat and drink the sweet before God with a merry heart; He has given us all things richly to enjoy, and every gift of God is good, if it is received with thanksgiving. 

The Ninth Day of Christmas: Junk on the Mirror

2 January 2020

In the beginning, God made the world as a temple, and no temple is complete without the image of the deity inside. As His last act in creation, God installed man and woman in the temple as His image. You can’t escape this; it is the very core of who you are. Mystics and meditators the world over testify that if you dig far enough inside yourself, if you can peel back layers of ego and shame and damage, you will find, deep within, a light so bright you will consider worshipping it. What you are seeing is what the Desert Fathers and Mothers described as the Created Light — the very image of God, a mirror that reflects the beauty of God Himself. 

It’s very hard to find that beauty in some people, isn’t it? If we’re honest, it’s often very hard to find in ourselves, too. We excel at piling all kinds of junk on the mirror, and we’re not good at cleaning it off. On top of that, we’re really good at rationalizing the junk we pile up for ourselves. Maybe this is what we’re supposed to look like….

The incarnation of God as His own image — the coming of Jesus — blew away all our rationalizations. He reflected God’s beauty Himself, and He never failed to find it in others. Jesus showed us a whole new set of possibilities. Possibilities that only become visible to us when we hear them from God directly, as He did.

So listen. What would the day be like if it were one long, running conversation between you and God? 

The Eighth Day of Christmas: Nothing Like You’d Expect

1 January 2020

An individual can have an awakening overnight, but the consciousness of societies changes very slowly—and the whole human race takes even longer. In the realm of politics after Jesus, it took nearly 2,000 years to get rid of fake divine kings. The incarnation of God did something similar to philosophy, and it’s taking even longer to work itself out. 

The Greeks were the finest academic minds of the time; even today, Greek thought is the foundation of Western philosophy. The Greeks observed that despite its constant flux, the material world follows orderly rules. The source of this order couldn’t be in the material world itself, they reasoned, because the material world is constantly decaying. In fact, the source of order couldn’t be on the chain of being at all, since everything on the chain of being—from beach sand to the gods—is subject to time and change. They postulated an underlying order, distinct from everything else that is, which they called the Logos (literally “Word”).

That order was behind, and expressed by, the regularity of the material universe. It was bigger than the world, certainly bigger than any person or god — after all, persons have emotions and change; persons can’t be trusted. By contrast, the Logos was an impersonal, trustworthy order, an unchanging source of certainty.  

And then the Apostle John comes and says “The Logos became flesh and lived among us, and we saw His glory.” To the philosophers, that was ridiculous. No mere god could be trusted with the order of the world. And how would that even work? The order of the world certainly could not become flesh. 

Ridiculous as it sounds, John says, it’s true all the same: you aren’t floating loose through an impersonal universe, nor are you at the dubious mercy of a character like Zeus. “The Order of the Universe has a name,” John says. “I met Him. He’s nothing like you’d expect.” 

If you’ve never read John’s firsthand account of what that was like, you might be surprised. Give it a shot — John’s Gospel is only 16,000 words or so, divided into 21 short chapters. It takes about an hour for an average reader.

The Seventh Day of Christmas: God’s Slow Pace

31 December 2019

The last of the “divine” kings fell on New Year’s Day, 1946, when Japanese emperor Hirohito issued the Humanity Declaration: “The ties between us and our people…are not predicated on the false conception that the emperor is divine.” The god-kings of the ancient world are dead, and they’re never coming back. As the world came to know the true divine Man, He made the fake ones a laughingstock. 

This was not a quick or painless process. The pretenders objected mightily to being exposed. Many Christian martyrs all over the world reinforced their testimony with their very lives, but their stubborn witness bore fruit. At the epicenter in the Roman Empire, it only took a few centuries. Suddenly there were no more “divine” emperors, and in their place rose a new breed of ruler. These rulers believed God had made them uniquely fit to rule–they called it “the divine right of kings”–which sounds awful, but remember what it replaced. A king that believes himself appointed by Jesus and answerable to Jesus is a huge improvement over a king who thinks he is God. All of a sudden, the pope could–and sometimes did–excommunicate the emperor for being insufficiently like Jesus. That bred healthy conflict between church and state, and out of those healthy conflicts, Europe was born. 

But it was still led by an aristocracy. The power of the aristocracy is the power of contempt: the ability to look down on the common rabble. The aristocracy did not fall until a new idea entered Europe’s consciousness. The theological term is “justification by faith,” but what that really means is that when you entrust yourself to Jesus, when you acknowledge your failures and leave them in His hands, then God says you’re ok.

Nobody has a right to look down on you — God says you’re ok. It took a little time, but this new consciousness broke the power, first of the aristocracy, and then of every slaveholder throughout the Christian world (the US was unique in needing to fight a war to end slavery — every other Western nation managed it peaceably.) The logic is simple and inescapable: if God says you’re ok, then who could dare to look down on you? 

Who indeed?

Who do you let look down on you? Who do you look down on? Why?