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?


The Sixth Day of Christmas: A New Name

30 December 2019

What made people see the divine in Jesus? He wasn’t like the others in the ancient world who claimed deity for themselves. While they strained themselves to build more glorious palaces, greater monuments to their achievements, grander tombs for their corpses, Jesus skipped that whole competition. He displayed royal authority in a completely different way.  

If you read the beginning of John’s Gospel, you find a series of peculiar meetings. Philip brings his brother Nathaniel to meet Jesus, and Jesus greets him with “Look! It’s a true Israelite, with no deceit in him!” Now, that happens to be true, but Jesus has never met Nathaniel before. Nathaniel asks how He knows him, and Jesus says, “Before, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathaniel instantly proclaims Jesus as the promised Messiah…which begs the question: what was happening under the fig tree? We don’t know, but Nathaniel did, and it convinced him. 

In the same way, when Andrew brings his brother to meet Jesus, Jesus instantly renames him: “You are the son of Jonah, the one they call Indecisive. You will be called Rock.” (And he was, too–that man becomes St. Peter, the pillar of the early church.) What was his past like, that they called him Indecisive? We don’t know. But Jesus wasn’t looking at his past–He was looking at his future. 

This is what it looks like when God becomes a man. He knows every person He meets, sees them for who they really are. And He has a new name for them. A new name for you, just like He had for Peter. A name you wouldn’t dare choose for yourself, a name that’s about your future, not your past. Have you asked Him what it is? 


The Fifth Day of Christmas: Dethroning Caesar

29 December 2019

Ever hear people complain that things are too political today? That’s just the human condition. Jesus got very political. The New Testament uses politically freighted language all the time — we miss it because we don’t know the culture, the same way a visitor to the US might miss the political meaning of the words “red” and “blue” today. 

Jesus was born into the Roman empire, and the Romans didn’t care even slightly which gods you worshipped, or how many. You could do what you wanted, as long as you showed up once a year to burn your pinch of incense to the divine emperor and say your loyalty oath: “Caesar is Lord.” 

So when early Jesus-followers chose to express their faith in the words “Jesus is Lord,” everybody knew they also meant: “…and Caesar is not!” And true to their confession, they refused to confess Caesar as Lord, refused to burn the pinch of incense to a mere man. The Divine Word became flesh in Jesus, and once we’ve met the real thing, we can’t pretend some dude is divine just because he sits on a throne. They were maimed, burned, exiled, crucified, sent to the lions–ironically for the charge of “atheism”–because they would not worship a political leader as a god. Through it all, they maintained their confession: Jesus is Lord…and Caesar is not.

Is there someone who wrongly occupies that position of “Lord” in your life? Someone whose disapproval stops you from doing what you’re called to do, someone whose opinion matters more to you than right or wrong?

Perhaps it’s time to dethrone your personal “Caesar.”


The Fourth Day of Christmas: Eyes to See

28 December 2019

What God calls you to be, you can trust Him to display…but His way, not yours.  

When scandalously pregnant Mary was sent to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the Judean hill country, she found Elizabeth–an older woman, never able to have children–was also pregnant. And her miraculous baby leapt in the womb the moment they met. Elizabeth knew. (You can find the story in the first chapter of Luke.)

The night Jesus was born, angels announced His birth…not to the palace or the priests, but to a bunch of shepherds in the hills outside town. They rushed into town to meet Jesus for themselves, and Luke reports that they left the stable “praising God for all they’d seen.” What did they see? A teenage girl exhausted from labor, her construction worker fiance, and a newborn in a feed trough — a pretty unremarkable sight, surely. But they knew they were in the presence of something special.

Eight days later, when they took the baby to present Him at the Temple, a very old man named Simeon scooped the kid out of a surprised Mary’s arms. The man started raving about how he could die in peace now that he’d seen this kid, God’s salvation. Later the same day, a prophetess named Ana also recognized the baby for who He was. 

Do you notice a trend here? It’s not the kings, the high priests, the immediate family members or business associates that have eyes to see. Often, it’s common laborers, old people, distant relatives, folks outside the power structure. 

What are you called to be? If you think back, you may remember moments when God gave someone–not the person you expected or wanted, but someone–eyes to see what He put in you. Do as Jesus’ mother did: “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”


The Third Day of Christmas: The Humility of God

27 December 2019

How often does our fear of what people think stop us from doing what we know we’re called to do? 

Today is the Third Day of Christmas, and an appropriate moment to contemplate the humility of God. When He became man, God could have chosen to be born into circumstances appropriate to the majesty of the occasion. Instead, He chose to be born not to a king or a priest, but to a teenage girl who was engaged to a construction worker. Engaged, not married — in a strongly monogamous, patriarchal culture where that meant He was born under a cloud of family disapproval, to parents whose reputations would never recover from the scandal. If you didn’t grow up in a culture where sex was put off til the wedding night, it’s hard to wrap your head around the shame that Mary and Joseph were willingly signing up for, but trust me, it’s real, and very, very costly. 

The gospels describe Mary’s encounter with the angel who tells her what’s about to happen, but can you imagine her conversation with Joseph afterward? He knows the baby’s not his, but how is she supposed to tell him what’s happening? How is he supposed to believe her? The gospels tell us that an angel also appeared to Joseph in a dream, and that convinced him of the truth. But when he decided to go through with the wedding even though Mary was pregnant, Joseph was kissing his own reputation goodbye. If he couldn’t be trusted to do right by his future wife, what would you trust the man with? The scandalous birth cost Mary family support that she would need to raise a child, cost Joseph social connections and business deals he would need to support his family, and made Jesus an outsider from birth, a child that shouldn’t exist — in a small-town culture that would never, ever forget. 

Jesus willingly submitted to this scandalous birth, and it followed Him for His whole life. (For example, they throw it in His face in John 8:41.) He didn’t let it stop Him from fulfilling His calling.

What about you? What are you called to? Who is going to disapprove? Sit your reputation down on your lap, kiss its forehead, and say goodbye. You, too, are called to more important things than being respectable.


The Second Day of Christmas: Subversive Beginnings

26 December 2019

The First Day of Christmas was yesterday, but I’ve given up trying to get anything contemplative done on December 25th. It’s a day for raucous celebration, the bustle of the kitchen preparing a feast, the thrill of generous giving to friends and family. I hope you had a great time surrounded by the people you love, delicious food, and all the loot under the tree. I certainly did, and I regret none of it. And now, with my fridge stuffed with leftovers, a mug of homemade egg nog before me, and a half-eaten tray of cookies on the counter, I’d like to welcome you to Christmastide. 

Today is the Second Day of Christmas. Today, we begin the quieter side of Christmas: contemplating the incarnation of God. God became human, that humanity might share in the divine nature.

Jesus was born into a world of “divine” kings. From the Pharaohs of Egypt to the Roman Caesars, the ancient world was awash in rulers that claimed descent from the gods and demanded worship as gods themselves. 

Difficult as it is to imagine today, people took this entirely seriously, and many people still believe in the underlying logic to this day. If at bottom, reality is one great chain of being that runs from beach sand to transcendent deity, then there’s nothing inherently ridiculous about a human being ascending to godhood. The fellow might have been the captain of the palace guard yesterday, but he assassinated the king last night, and today he’s the son of Ra, or Marduk, or Jupiter, surrounded by palace walls of beaten gold, and building himself a tomb that will last five thousand years. He is a god, as his son will be after him. How could he not be? Everyone believed it, from the kings themselves to the priests that served them to the stonemasons that built their tombs — and paradoxically, that belief legitimated the whole stratified social system. 

Into this world of royal pretensions to divinity, the actual God of the universe chose to be born, not in a palace or a temple, but a stable. Not to royal parents, not even to a priest, but to a construction worker and a teenage girl. From this subversive beginning, the rest of the story flows.