Embrace the Crazy in Christmas

Today I wish to direct your attention to a piece by Mandy Rogers-Gates at the her.meneutics blog entitled “Let Christmas Be Complicated“.

As evangelicals, we crave a simple faith which breaks out neatly into categories of black and white, good and evil, right and wrong.  Something we can shove in the faces of all those godless postmodern liberals running around out there, clamoring about how it’s all relative and there’s no black and white only shades of gray.  Reality check:  There is good and there is evil but the boundary between the two is not nearly as straightforward as we would like it to be.

Consider how this plays out in the story of Christmas.  In the gospel of Matthew, almost immediately after the birth of Jesus we get the story of the flight to Egypt.  Joseph and Mary were warned in a dream that Herod was on the hunt for Jesus.  Why?  Because Herod had gotten wind that this baby Jesus would grow up to be king of the Jews.  But the Jews already had a king.  This did not sit well with him, so he wanted Jesus dead.  So Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt with Jesus, and laid low there until the situation cooled off.

But what about all the other babies in Bethlehem?  You see, Herod did not take too well to the news that Jesus was nowhere to be found.  He wanted to make sure Jesus was good and gone, so he had all the babies killed who could possibly be the same age as Jesus, and who therefore could potentially be Jesus.

There were lots of sad mothers that day.  Matthew tells us twice that all this happened so that Old Testament prophecy might be fulfilled:  First, the flight to Egypt, which fulfilled Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I called my son”).  Then there are the words of Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
Weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
And she refused to be comforted,
Because they were no more.

Imagine if you were one of those Jewish mothers in Bethlehem.  Your son had made it through that critical first year of life, which was by no means assured–life was hard in first century Israel–only to be killed brutally by Roman soldiers because the king up at Jerusalem had decided he posed a threat.  Now imagine someone telling you that your suffering and loss fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy concerning the coming of the Anointed One and was part and parcel of God’s plan.  It would ring a bit hollow to you, I bet.

Now, does the fact that this happened mean that it had to happen?  Did it have to happen this way, or could God have fulfilled these prophecies another way?  Put it another way:  Did God need for those babies to die–did God want those babies to die–in order for Jesus to come into the world?

There are no easy answers to these questions.  Yet too often we come to Scripture expecting easy answers.  We want everything simple, all wrapped up with a nice little bow on it.  Yet Scripture doesn’t always play by those rules.  Scripture doesn’t give us the easy answers we crave.  Instead it gives us questions and leaves us to wrestle with those questions.

Read: “Let Christmas Be Complicated” by Mandy Rogers-Gates

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Light of the World: The Christmas Story

nativity1

Today we are going to talk about the Christmas story.  Why?  Because it is entirely possible that some of you could have made it this far into the Advent/Christmas season without even once having heard the Christmas story.  We intend to remedy that today.

To begin with, we note that there are not one but four accounts of the life of Jesus.  These are the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Only two of these accounts mention the birth of Jesus:  Matthew and Luke.  Mark does not even mention the birth of Jesus.  John mentions it but does not say anything about what happened, instead he focuses on why it happened:

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

–John 1:9-13

First thing to note here:  Though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  We have this idea, if you listen to the ways in which evangelicals talk about such things, that the light shines in a room where it’s obvious that we’ve been needing some lightening up around here, and our Christianity has the best bulb for the job.  Reality check:  Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not understand it.

The other thing to note here is the words “believed in”.  This was a combination of two Greek words which had never before been combined.  It gave a twist to the idea of belief which had never before been expressed in language: that of belief not as the acceptance of and assent to a set of facts or a body of truth, but rather as trust in an actual person.

At this point, let us say a few words about the “personal relationship with Jesus” thing which is such a big idea in evangelicalism.  The idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus” is a flawed and incomplete truth, yet it gets to one of the core distinctives of evangelicalism which is the desire for a vital, meaningful connection with God and experience of His presence in our lives, and the belief that such a connection can be had.  Faith is more than just assenting to the statement of belief that is on file down at your church or denomination’s front office; instead it is a personal engagement with and trust in a God who became a person and lived among us.

Now, on to the Christmas story.  We go to Luke 1:

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

–Luke 1:26-38

First of all, there are lots of people running around out there saying that they have seen angels.  Heads up:  If you saw something and the first words out of his/her/its mouth were not “Do not be afraid”, then what you saw was not an angel.

Next:  We do not appreciate this yet here it is:  Mary’s life was about to be turned completely and totally upside down.  She was about to spend nine months carrying a child who was not hers and Joseph’s, when she and Joseph were not married yet.

We go to Matthew:

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

–Matthew 1:18-24

When Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, of course he is freaked out.  Who wouldn’t be?  He and Mary were engaged, except that this was more than engaged:  This was a legal marital status, meaning that they were promised to be married.  In all probability, they had been promised to each other from birth.  Now Joseph was a righteous man and he did not want to expose Mary to public ridicule, let alone the death penalty which the Old Testament prescribed for a situation such as this.  So he had in mind to break it off quietly–at least as quietly as it could possibly be done, considering that they were legally promised to each other and breaking it off would be a public, legal thing, sort of like a divorce.  It took a timely appearance by an angel to keep the whole thing on track.

Now the angel said to Joseph that the baby was to be named Jesus.  What Joseph heard was not “Jesus” (an Anglicized translation by way of Latin from Greek), but rather “Yeshua” (Hebrew), the same name as “Joshua”.  More than likely this evoked for him memories of the Old Testament stories of Joshua leading the Israelites into the Promised Land and subduing and driving out all Israel’s enemies.  More than likely he was thinking “Yeah, there are a lot of enemies here who could use some subduing and driving out”, so the next part of the angel’s message probably didn’t even register with him:  He (Jesus) would save his people from their sins.  It wasn’t until after Jesus died and rose from the dead that this would register with anyone.

Some decades later Paul would come to faith in Jesus.  Paul had been a zealous Pharisee, a persecutor of those who were part of what he considered to be a heretical knockoff Jewish sect.  As such, his concerns, like the concerns of most devout Jews of the time, were:  Who will save Israel from her present state of slavery and in-our-homeland-but-might-as-well-be-in-exile exile at the hands of her enemies?  Who will restore the kingdom and put the son of David back on the throne in Israel?  God showed him Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, as the answer to all these concerns.  As Paul reflected on this he began to realize that if that was the solution, then the problems Israel faced were much much deeper and much much worse than just Rome.  Indeed, Israel’s trouble extended all the way back to Adam and it affected not just Israel but all of humanity.  The true problem at issue here was sin, not just as bad behavior or failure to comply with a set of commands but as a condition of the human heart, a condition which would of necessity lead to complete and absolute separation from anything having to do with God.  The only remedy was for God Himself to become one of us, and ultimately to die and rise from the dead.

We now go back to Luke:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

–Luke 2:1-20

So Mary and Joseph were all settled in at Nazareth, getting ready to have the baby.  Yet the Old Testament prophets said that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem.  So Caesar Augustus (or one of his close advisors) gets it into his head that taking a census of all the known Roman world would be a good idea, and off we go.

Now we have this picture of Joseph and Mary on a donkey, trucking along all by themselves through the Israeli badlands to Bethlehem.  Great picture; not a shred of biblical evidence for it.  We don’t know what the picture was really like.  In all probability it wasn’t just Mary and Joseph; the journey was hard and it was too dangerous for two people to make all by themselves.  More than likely they had a bunch of other people along with them for the ride.

So now we get to Bethlehem and the birth goes off.  Mary treasures all these things and ponders them in her heart.  Of course she does; she can’t really tell anyone else about them because who would understand?

Our first passage came from the gospel of John.  Now John and Mary were with Jesus when he died; Jesus commanded John to take her in and take care of her.  Tradition has it that that is exactly what he did.  So John had several years, decades even, to live with Mary and hear from her all about Jesus’ birth and what it had meant to her and her reflections upon it all.  More than likely his account was formed on a deep level by this knowledge.

Pete Enns on Christmas in America and Ancient Israel

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post from Pete Enns entitled “What Christmas in “Christian America” tells us about ancient Israel“.  Enns’ big idea is that the way Christmas is celebrated nowadays in America, with it being a national, secular-ish holiday that has little if any religious significance for the majority of those who celebrate it, provides an analogy for life in Old Testament Israel.

We have this idea that the ancient Israelites were just as aware as we are of what one reads in the Old Testament.  As if every Israelite family was sitting around, having daily devotions, carrying their Bibles with them whenever they went to temple or synagogue.  Reality check:  There was no “Bible”–certainly not as we know it today–back in Old Testament times.  The Old Testament–such as it was back then–was not something which every rank-and-file Jew had in their home or to carry around with them.  Reading and writing were something which only trained scribes did.  The printing press and the Bible in every person’s possession were relatively recent innovations in the scope of human history.

Thus, the reality of Israelite faith as it was lived out on the ground during the time of the kings (prior to the exile in Babylon) was significantly different from what we read about in the Old Testament.  They had the Temple, the priests, the sacrifices, and all the religious feasts, to be sure, but it all made little if any difference in the daily, on-the-ground existence of Israelites living at the time.  Most of them–they were probably just going along with the cultural flow.  Just like the majority of people who celebrate Christmas in America nowadays.

So when you read the Old Testament, the story here is not so much one of out-and-out rebellion by the Israelites against clearly spelled-out and clearly understood commands from God, but rather one of a monumental disconnect between what was happening in Jerusalem among the religious elites and what was happening on the ground in the lives of average Israelites all over the land.

Read Pete Enns “What Christmas in “Christian America” tells us about ancient Israel”

Advent Week 4: Where Do We Go From Here?

advent4We are now in week 4 of the Advent season.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas; more precisely it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  Advent is a season of darkness; the general, pervasive darkness of a world in waiting for its long-promised Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ, whose coming we celebrate in a couple of weeks.

During this season, what we usually do around here is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.  This year, we are talking about exile because it is a timely thing to talk about, with that Supreme Court decision a few months back, the cultural shifts which made it possible, and many other things which are happening in the world today.  It is abundantly clear that we as Christians no longer enjoy the privilege, prestige, and influence in society at large that we once did.

Exile was God’s judgment on Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry.  For them it meant actual exile as the Babylonians invaded, sacked Jerusalem, and resettled the majority of the Israelite population in Babylon.  We as the present-day Church face nothing of the sort, yet all the same we find ourselves living in a new reality which in many ways resembles the reality Israel found herself living through during the Babylonian captivity and the centuries which followed.  In this series we are unpacking what exile looked like for Israel and what it looks like for us, how we got here, and how we are to adjust to this new reality and carry on as the people of God.

In previous weeks we saw Israel’s story as a cycle of obedience/blessing followed by disobedience/judgment followed by eventual redemption and restoration.  We saw that, as noted above, exile was God’s ultimate judgment on Israel’s disobedience.  We saw that Israel’s story is our story as the Church, and that we face conquest and exile, in a manner of speaking, because of our systemic capitulation to the false gods of Enlightenment-based modernity.  Enlightenment concepts such as the nation-state, economics, the social sciences, progress, the sexual revolution, moral progress, reason, romanticism, and historical idealism are all woven deeply into the very DNA of Western Christianity, and now it has come too far and the invading Babylonians are at the gates, as it were.  At this point the wise thing to do is to surrender or flee the city altogether.

Last week we looked at Jeremiah’s words to the Israelite exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29, and came around the idea that we should live and work peaceably in the world we find ourselves in, working for the good of our neighbors and our society at large while recognizing that we will probably not get any say in how things are run in society at large.  We cannot and should not try to “save” ourselves from the reality of our present situation–i. e. try to bring back the American Christendom of the 1940s and 1950s (for example); any such efforts cannot and will not end well.

Now we come to some practical, down-to-earth ideas as to how this plays out.

First, an example of how NOT to live in the new reality we are discussing here.

starwarsYou may have seen or heard this story; a megachurch up in New Jersey is attempting to capitalize on the current Star Wars buzz by doing a Star Wars-themed Christmas service, complete with a live nativity in which you get to hold a lightsaber and take your place with Luke, Leia, Han Solo, R2-D2, and other Star Wars characters.  Here is the link to the promo page on their website, where you can see it all for yourself.

This is just like so many of evangelicalism’s attempts to engage the culture.  It takes something which is getting lots of buzz right now and screams out loud to the entire watching world, “LOOK!!!!!  OVER HERE!!!!!  BEHIND THE POTTED PALM!!!!!  WE GOT JESUS, DON’T YOU WANNA COME SEE?!?!?!?”

What I’m talking about here is something completely different.  Here are some things TO do:

–First, be intensely and intentionally relational.  Modernity says that human beings are no more than things to be managed; used and then discarded when they have outlived their usefulness.  It is not to be so among us.

We must reclaim the value of Christian friendship.  Celebrate the Church as the family of God–as an alternative to the biological family.  This means conservative evangelicalism will have to give up its incessant fixation with the biological family.

Evangelicals have conflated faithfulness to God with faithfulness to the notion of family, as if the forces of evil are those godless liberals who are attacking the traditional family and traditional family values, and we are called upon to defend God and the Christian faith by defending the traditional family.  And yet, despite all the culture war rhetoric about queers and godless liberals run amok and other threats to the family, our society places a very high premium on family life.  It is increasingly difficult to live as a family of one in a world made for two.  There are many places in town where I could not live–would not want to live–because it is nothing but families with children who live there.  If I were to live in any such places as a single person, and especially as one who is getting on in years, I would be considered significantly out of place, and even creepy.  It is hard to eat out as a party of one when all the restaurants in the city are filled with parties of two or more, though I don’t let that stop me.

And the church has played right into this cultural idolatry of the biological family, even while claiming that the family is under attack.  People are confused about our message, to the point that many think the Gospel is synonymous with family values.  Much of the programming in churches is directed toward families and children, and churches are all trying to outdo each other in terms of what they can provide for YOUR family.  (Note that the Star Wars Christmas service mentioned above is promoted as a family-friendly event.)

To be sure, the institution of the family holds a high place in the economy of God. Throughout the Bible God’s love for His people is described in terms of family relationships–husband and wife, father and child, etc. Large portions of the New Testament are dedicated to how we are to live in our family relationships. Yet a lot of what Jesus says in the Gospels is about commitment to him in spite of family expectations. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51-53) “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50)

The Church is an alternative family, united in friendship and common love, where the unloved, abandoned, and unwanted, those who come from broken families, and yes, those who, like me, are families of one, can find home, belonging, community, and acceptance.  Let us reclaim this vision of the Church as the family of God, as an alternative to the biological family.

–Do not care about the world’s political arrangements.  We won’t get a say in that.  We still work to seek the welfare of the city, and that includes voting and holding office in places where we have the freedom and opportunity to do so, but we do so knowing that it is our conquerors’ city and not ours.  We will have little if any say in its governance.  We are subjects of the present world order, not participants in crafting it.

This means we are to be non-ideological.  Ideologies are incomplete truths.  They are useful in limited ways, but they always pretend to be more than what they really are.  Don’t be conservative or liberal, progressive or reactionary.  Instead, as followers of Jesus, we are to show the world that there is another way to live, grounded in the true story of a God who sacrificed Himself for us rather than demanding that we sacrifice for Him.

Power is being taken from us.  Why not lay it down freely, of our own accord?

–Embrace liturgy.  Accept the craziness of what we believe.  Stay grounded in the liturgy of the historic Church.  It is a time-tested means of keeping the main thing the main thing, of keeping the Christian story and message in front of us at all times.  It is a drama and story that connects us to God and to each other.  It forms us as a people who are waiting faithfully for our Redeemer who has come and is coming again.

If your church doesn’t do anything with the liturgy, then nip out the back door every once in a while and find one that does.  Evangelicals have historically been averse to liturgy, largely because of a general aversion to anything that looks, feels, or smells Catholic, but that is starting to change.  There are a lot of churches out there nowadays that are doing good things with the liturgy, and you won’t have to go too far to find one.

–Finally, live with hope.  The captivity of the Church to Enlightenment-based modernity is God’s judgment upon us, but our children will be redeemed.  Babylon was conquered by Persia, which was conquered by Greece and then Rome, which was conquered by the Church.  The lies and empty promises of Enlightenment-based modernity and secularization will be judged and will eventually fall.

Exile means living purposefully in the world and with each other.  Let us plant trees, have children, love our neighbors, and wish the best for our enemies.  What is truly important all belongs to God and will all come back to God no matter what.

When Being Human Isn’t Good Enough

Today I wish to direct your attention to a couple of posts from around the blogosphere this past week.

First is a post which appeared over at the Desiring God website entitled “Ransomed: He Sets the Prisoner Free” by Elizabeth Wann.  This is a piece by a self-confessed indie kid in which she describes how the indie lifestyle led to a certain arrogance and hardness of heart which was not becoming of a good Christian life.  This led her into a place of spiritual slavery which became apparent to her when a relationship ended badly.

This piece speaks to one of the standard anxieties of evangelicalism:  namely, that being human is simply not good enough for God.  Wann was into the indie lifestyle–liking new bands before they became popular, going to indie bars with all her indie friends to listen to indie bands.  Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the indie lifestyle per se, but when it comes into contact with the corrupt human heart, the result is an idolatrous devotion to the indie lifestyle.

Since when is this something to be repented of?  Since when is the human need and desire for belonging, expressed through a certain musical/lifestyle preference and community with others who share said musical/lifestyle preference, something to be repented of?

John Piper has been on my shit list ever since “Farewell Rob Bell” a couple of years back, and this is one of the primary reasons.  In his formulation of Christianity, being human is something to be repented of, in tears and on one’s knees.  I cannot and will not accept this.

The next piece I wish to share appeared at internetmonk.com this past week and is entitled “You don’t have to ‘do grief right’“.  It is a reflection on how evangelicals are taught to handle grief, with its jumping-off point the story of a nationally known up-and-coming pastor who recently lost his wife in horrific fashion.  His response to the loss has led to internet/Fox News conspiracy theories that he was involved in her death.  In his statements following her death, which are quoted copiously and linked in the article, the pastor talks at length about God’s purpose in the tragedy.

The takeaway:  We don’t know, and can’t know, God’s purpose in events of horrific loss.  We don’t know, and can’t know, what God wants to say to others/the church through such events.  The experience of losing someone close to you is not something to be “used” or “wasted”.

It is perfectly human to hurt and grieve in the face of horrific loss, to not know any of the answers as to God’s purpose in said loss, to not have positive feelings to balance out the negative, in short, to not be in control of the grieving process.  Yet in the universe of evangelicalism, we imagine that through the right tools and principles applied at the right time and in the right fashion, we can shortcut the grieving process and effect a return to happiness.  We imagine that we must remain positive at all times, in all circumstances, to bear a good “witness” to a world that needs to hear the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.  As a result, much that is part of the normal human experience has no place in evangelicalism.

Don’t accept this, people.  It is not right.

In both of these pieces, the recurring theme is that being human is not good enough in evangelicalism.  Don’t accept this, people.  God knows that we are human, and He is okay with it.  If your theology does not permit you to accept this, then change your theology.

Advent Week 3: What Does Exile Mean to Us?

advent3We are now in week 3 of the Advent season.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas; more precisely it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  Advent is a season of darkness; the general, pervasive darkness of a world in waiting for its long-promised Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ, whose coming we celebrate in a couple of weeks.

During this season, what we usually do around here is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.  This year, we are talking about exile because it is a timely thing to talk about, with that Supreme Court decision a few months back, the cultural shifts which made it possible, and many other things which are happening in the world today.  It is abundantly clear that we as Christians no longer enjoy the privilege, prestige, and influence in society at large that we once did.

Exile was God’s judgment on Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry.  For them it meant actual exile as the Babylonians invaded, sacked Jerusalem, and resettled the majority of the Israelite population in Babylon.  We as the present-day Church face nothing of the sort, yet all the same we find ourselves living in a new reality which in many ways resembles the reality Israel found herself living through during the Babylonian captivity and the centuries which followed.  In this series we are unpacking what exile looked like for Israel and what it looks like for us, how we got here, and how we are to adjust to this new reality and carry on as the people of God.

In previous weeks we saw Israel’s story as a cycle of obedience/blessing followed by disobedience/judgment followed by eventual redemption and restoration.  We saw that, as noted above, exile was God’s ultimate judgment on Israel’s disobedience.  We saw that Israel’s story is our story as the Church, and that we face conquest and exile, in a manner of speaking, because of our systemic capitulation to the false gods of Enlightenment-based modernity.  Enlightenment concepts such as the nation-state, economics, the social sciences, progress, the sexual revolution, moral progress, reason, romanticism, and historical idealism are all woven deeply into the very DNA of Western Christianity, and now it has come too far and the invading Babylonians are at the gates, as it were.  At this point the wise thing to do is to surrender or flee the city altogether.

So now we come to the question:  What does this look like?  What does all this mean for us?

We go to Jeremiah 29:

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

…”For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

–Jeremiah 29:4-7, 11-14

Here is the context:  The Babylonians had invaded and sacked Jerusalem and carried off most of the Israelite people to Babylon.  At this point there was still a remnant in Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, ruled over by Zedekiah who was basically a puppet king.  Jeremiah was with this remnant.  False prophets had been prophesying to the exiles in Babylon, saying basically that it would not be long until the Babylonians were defeated, the exiles returned home, and business as usual would resume.  So Jeremiah wrote this letter to the exiles in Babylon to tell them that, no, it was going to be a while.  Go ahead and settle down, build houses, plant fields, marry and have children.  This is your home now.  You will live out the rest of your days here, and so will your children.  But their children, or their children’s children, will see deliverance from Babylon.  They will return home, they will experience redemption and restoration.

Be patient.  There will be deliverance.  But in the meantime, act like this place of exile is your home.

For the Israelites in Babylon, this was no small thing.  When Jeremiah was asking the exiles to pray for the city where they settled, he was basically asking them to pray for the people who have enslaved them–their captors, their enemies, their tormentors.  They knew this, and it had to have gone against everything in them to accept this.  Recall that these are the same people about whom the Israelites prayed that they would be repaid for what they had done, that their babies would be dashed against the rocks (Psalm 137).

So how does this apply to us as the Church?

It means that we should be patient and live in the situation we find ourselves in.  This is where we are, and nothing we can do can change it.  There is no bringing back the American Christendom of the 1940’s and 1950’s, no reversing the cultural shifts which have led to its demise.  We should live and work in the world we find ourselves in, recognizing that we will probably not get to have any say in the prevailing ideas and trends of this world, just as the Israelites did not have any say in how things were run over in Babylon.

Occasionally we may be called upon to engage the powers that be in our world with the truth of God, just as Jonah preached to Nineveh to warn them of God’s coming judgment.  And Nineveh repented.  In the same way we may be called upon to speak truth to modernity, and it may be that modernity will listen and repent.

Or we may be called upon to be like Elijah and Elisha, who engaged the enemies of Israel, occasionally in fiery confrontation like Mount Carmel, but mostly grace and healing.

It all adds up to Jesus.  Basically we should be Jesus in a world that is at war with us, even murderously opposed to us.  Don’t be defensive or combative, but instead be hopeful, humble, and faithful.  Don’t attempt to “save” ourselves from the new reality of our present condition; this cannot and will not end well.  Wait upon the redemption of the Lord, knowing that we already have the reality and assurance of this in Christ.

Next week we will look at some practical, down-to-earth ways in which all this plays out.

Advent Week 2: What Does Exile Look Like?

advent2We are now in week 2 of the Advent season.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas; more precisely it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  Advent is a season of darkness; the general, pervasive darkness of a world in waiting for its long-promised Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ, whose coming we celebrate in a couple of weeks.

During this season, what we usually do around here is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.  This year, we are talking about exile because it is a timely thing to talk about, with that Supreme Court decision a few months back, the cultural shifts which made it possible, and many other things which are happening in the world today.  It is abundantly clear that we as Christians no longer enjoy the privilege, prestige, and influence in society at large that we once did.  We now find ourselves living in a new reality which in many ways resembles the reality Israel found herself living through during the Babylonian captivity and the centuries which followed.  In this series we are unpacking what exile looked like for Israel and what it looks like for us, how we got here, and how we are to adjust to the new reality we find ourselves in and carry on as the people of God.

Last week we laid out that exile is God’s judgment on Israel’s faithlessness and idolatry.  We saw Israel’s history as a cycle of obedience, blessing, disobedience, judgment, and eventual redemption/restoration.  We looked at some lengthy passages in Leviticus and Deuteronomy which spell this out in graphic detail.  We noted that this was not an if/then, either/or proposition (if obedience then blessings/if disobedience then judgment), but a both/and.  Israel experienced both blessings for obedience during the time of David, the greatest of Israel’s kings, and judgment for disobedience as it all unraveled in the centuries which followed, culminating in the exile to Babylon.

So why is all this important?  Because it is OUR story as the Church.  We currently face conquest and exile, in a manner of speaking, as a consequence of our own idolatry.  We serve the false gods of Enlightenment-based modernity.  We have no hope of accommodating the ideas and presuppositions of modernity–anymore than Israel had any hope of defeating Assyria or Babylon.  These idols of Enlightenment-based modernity do nothing for us, yet they demand much bloody sacrifice on our part.

The entire system is set up this way.  Enlightenment concepts such as the nation-state, economics, the social sciences, progress, the sexual revolution, moral progress, reason, romanticism, and historical idealism are all woven deeply into the very DNA of Western Christianity.  This is pervasive throughout all of Western Christianity, whether in the liberal mainlines which are all about science and progress and the next big intellectual fad, or in conservative evangelicalism which is completely enamoured of a church growth ideology which says that corporate America has told us who we are and whose we are.  We believe that the very same qualities which make one a good citizen of a modern nation-state also make one a good Christian disciple, and we have set up our churches and denominations along those lines.  We believe that Christian discipleship and community are things which can be industrialized, commoditized, and mass-produced, and we have built organizations which are adept at doing exactly that.

At this point an illustration is in order:  Every week as I come to church, I see lots of families with young children making their way in.  As I mentally contrast this with my own family which consists of me, my imaginary wife, and 2.6 imaginary kids, I cannot help seeing this as a reminder of everything that I ought to be but am not.  A reminder that, on a very fundamental level, I do not belong because I do not want the same things that so many around me want, in the way they ought to be wanted, nor can I bring myself to want those things.

I am not sure how much of this is due to factors inside of me which I do not fully understand, which make it difficult for me to experience belonging and connection, and which make me a difficult person to be connected to, and how much of this I can conveniently blame on how the Western church is set up.  But what I do know is that if enough people out there complain of having an experience similar to mine, the typical response in the vast majority of churches will be to establish a program for single people, or to look at the programs they currently have.  Well, you would be very hard-pressed to find a singles program anywhere in the country that is better than what my church has, so programming is clearly not the issue.  Yet whenever a certain class of people experiences difficulty connecting with the church, the knee-jerk reaction of the vast majority of churches out there is to look to programming:  What sort of programs would help these people connect?  What sort of programs do we have in place?  How can we improve our programs so that we get better results?

That these are the go-to questions to ask whenever somebody (or multiple somebodies) experiences difficulty connecting with the Church–shows how deeply the lies of Enlightenment-based modernity have penetrated the Church.  It is not about people; instead it is all about programs, institutions, processes, standards, structures, accountability, quantifiable results, and rigid controls.  Now contrast this with the so-called Islamic State, which is having tremendous success connecting with young people, especially here in the West, because they reach them organically, building supportive, empathetic relationships in which young people are able to see their story, their struggles, their lives, all in the context of a much bigger story.  Here is a money quote from a piece by Charles Featherstone which I linked a couple of weeks back:

Here the whole problem of the West (including the church) lies bare — we cannot conceive of anything or anyone working outside the confines of our bureaucratic and institutional structures. We cannot think outside of those structures, and we cannot hire (or call) people who don’t quite fit in them (or don’t fit in them at all) because fitting in those structures, conforming to them, is more important than actually accomplishing the things those structures and institutions are designed to accomplished. In our modern understanding, man was clearly made for the sabbath, and damned is the man who cannot or will not rest on the seventh day.

At this point, let me return to an earlier point regarding Israel’s cycle of obedience/blessing/disobedience/judgment.  This was not an either/or, if/then proposition (if obedience then blessing; if disobedience then judgment).  This was a both/and proposition:  You will experience obedience and blessing; you will ALSO experience disobedience and judgment.  And we know from Israel’s history that that is exactly how it played out.

This is freeing for us.  Why?  Because it shows us that we don’t have to “save” the Church by our own efforts.  It’s not going to happen.  The future of the Church is not dependent on our efforts to restore the American Christendom of the 1940s and 1950s or reverse the cultural shifts which have led to its demise.  Nor is it dependent on our efforts to purify the Church doctrinally by purging out all the “false Gospels” which have no power to save and all who hold to them and teach them.  What is coming next for the Church is coming, and there is nothing you or I or anyone else can do to alter that.

There is no “saving” the Church.  Not now.  It has come too far, and now the Babylonians are at the gates, as it were.  At this point, the wise thing to do is to flee the city or to surrender to the invading Babylonians.

What does all this mean?  And what does it all look like for us as the Church?  We will look closely at that in the weeks to come.