Friday, December 25, 2009

The Reason, or Defying Criticism

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3.17)
This day began like every other since the time of Moses. Jews (and Gentile worshipers of their God) arose and immediately undertook a complex cleansing ritual. Their wardrobe included several obligatory garments, some visible, some not. A series of prayers came next, followed by carefully observed etiquette for preparing and eating the first meal. After breakfast, men and boys went off to do what males were expected to do, while women and girls tended to their duties. Virtually everything they did adhered to an astringent set of edicts handed down centuries earlier to fugitive slaves

These rules, known as “The Law,” governed everything from social structure to legal contracts, from labor and healthcare to family and sexual relationships. Even mourning, burial, and inheritance were tightly regulated. Obeying The Law surpassed honoring tradition. Every edict (and there were hundreds) came directly from God under threat of severe punishment. Thus, a watchdog mentality besieged the Jews. Scholars and lawyers scrutinized everyone’s behavior and rallied to condemn anyone judged to be religiously incorrect. The Law was too intricate and invasive, however, which meant diligent conformity to its demands was hopeless. So this day, like every other, was consumed by fear of mistakes, fueled by fear of humiliation, and founded on terror of enraging God.

Independence Day

But unlike any day before or since, this one will be forever remembered as humanity’s Independence Day. While her countrymen tiptoed around The Law as they scurried to enroll in a Roman census, an unwed mother went into labor. Shoved into a filthy stable—perhaps because no one would accommodate a maiden in her shameful condition, perhaps because The Law decreed childbirth unclean, and hence her imminent delivery disqualified her for better housing—she had only her loyal fiancé beside her. No midwife helped deliver her baby. No family women comforted her. There were just Mary and Joseph, two undoubtedly frightened young people, fighting to bring the miraculous Life inside her into the world. And when the Infant took His first breath, nothing would ever be the same. Freedom in its purest, truest sense was born that day—freedom from sin, fear, shame, and condemnation. Many years later, speaking to His followers, the Child would explain: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8.31-32,36)

The Reason for Jesus

It’s nigh unto impossible to get to Christmas Day without bumping into a button, billboard, bumper sticker, or church marquee exclaiming “Jesus is the Reason for the season.” Trite though the slogan is, it’s obviously true. Yet it also falls short of capturing the real meaning of Christmas. To grasp that, we must ask: What is the reason for Jesus? “That’s easy,” we say, as we open our Bibles to John 3.16: “God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Yes, there it is in a nutshell—except that’s not quite all of it. In explaining Himself to Nicodemus, a legalistic scholar, Jesus feels compelled to reveal what His reason is not: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” In other words, Christ’s purpose goes further than providing eternal hope. He comes to restore present hope. By refusing to condemn, He lifts The Law’s burden so we can experience total freedom. Freedom to blunder, yes, but also freedom to trust, to repent, and to know we are forgiven and accepted.

Finally, then, Jesus frees us from the watchdog mentality that persists to this day, despite His constant opposition to its mindset and methods. This is a major theme of His ministry—not only in His determination to overturn condemnation, but also in His insistence we respond to it properly. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,” He says in Matthew 5.11-12. Defying criticism is firmly stitched into the reason for Jesus. We see it in Him. We see it in Mary and Joseph. We see it in anyone who is authentically free and filled with hope. In obedience to Him, we answer condemnation with rejoicing and gladness—in the words of the angels who announce His birth, with “good will to men.” I pray each of us celebrates this holiest of days for what it is: Independence Day. We are free indeed.

Wishing each of you a merry and most meaningful Christmas.

The Christ Child breathed His first breath and true freedom entered the world. Nothing would ever be the same again.

(Next: Yesterday's Tomorrow)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Defying Politics

Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2.12)
Their Savior, Too
Without the Magi, Christ's birth would play out as an inauspicious event featuring two young parents and a motley crew of shepherds. Despite their vigilant search for signs of the Messiah's appearance, the Nativity goes unnoticed by Bethlehem’s residents. That's because they don't anticipate a lowly entrance. They expect the coronation of a King, trumpeted by angelic heralds and brimming with majesty. The angels don’t come to town, though; their music fills the countryside. As for pomp and circumstance, well…

But how do locals miss the star? Living when people study celestial shifts like we watch market fluctuations, surely they notice a new light in the sky. Stellar activity is an important element of their faith. Daniel 6.27 directly links changes overhead with divine intervention: “He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth.” The addition of a supernova to the sky must pique curiosity. Yet no one in Palestine evidently reads the new star as the Advent of Christ. Perhaps it draws little interest because the star rises in the east, hundreds of miles from Bethlehem, where astute astronomers and scholars put everything together. They caravan across the desert to greet Israel’s King, fully aware they’re defying convention. Israel is infamously insular and suspicious of pagans, which the Magi are. It’s likely they won’t be welcome to pay homage to the newborn Savior. Nonetheless, driven by conviction the star is given to them, they seize the opportunity to worship Christ as their Savior, too.

The Magi’s Miracle

Matthew implies the Magi presume the Jews have also observed the star, understood its significance, and identified its Messiah. Quite possibly, they anticipate word of The Christ’s birth will be widespread when they reach Palestine. This isn’t the case. So they proceed to Jerusalem, where they call on King Herod. If the news hasn’t been publicly released yet, he must know the Child’s location. Their inquiry catches the king by surprise. He quizzes the men about the star and realizing its importance, he urges them: “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Matthew 2.8)
Herod misreads their their desire to meet the Christ Child as a politically ambitious effort to win Jerusalem's favor and respect. It's nothing of the sort.

While God’s people putter in darkness, oblivious to changes above them, the pagans look up for guidance. And that’s when the Magi’s miracle transpires. The star that illuminated their night and fixed itself in their hearts starts moving. Verse 9 says it “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Leading them step-by-step, it travels from Jerusalem’s palaces and temples, south-southwest over six hilly miles to rest over Jesus’s cradle. The issue of the Magi’s right to worship Christ is moot. Their star brings luminosity to His story, making them prophetic instruments: “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60.2-3)

When the Magi kneel at the manger, their reverence is displayed in the rare gifts they present: gold, incense, and myrrh—an exotic ointment primarily used to preserve corpses, and hence a precursor to Christ’s sacrificial death. Had the Magi not heeded the star’s message and followed its lead, Mary and Joseph may not have had sufficient resources to escape Herod’s attempt to destroy Jesus by murdering every infant born under His star. In a way, the Magi’s gifts become the newborn Savior’s salvation.

The Magi’s Mistake

On the other hand, seeking access to Jesus through political channels constitutes the Magi’s mistake. It indirectly threatens Him and puts them in a dicey situation. Herod waits for their report so he can undermine God’s plan. Jerusalem sits between them and home. Men of their stature and appearance can’t possibly pass through the city unnoticed. Meeting Jesus face-to-face relieves their anxieties about defying politics, however. A dream enlightens their understanding and strengthens their courage to go another way. And while their obedience to follow an alternative route doesn’t disable Herod from trying to stop God’s work, their decision delays his strike, buying time for Joseph and Mary to steal into Egypt to protect the Child.

John 1.11-12 reads, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” The Magi are the first in history to claim this right. It’s a right deeded to all—including anyone who’s been castigated as an outsider or pagan by “locals” who believe Christ is given exclusively to them. His star has risen in our lives, far though we may be from seats of power. It has fixed itself in our hearts and drawn us to Him. Many make the mistake of seeking access to Christ through political means, only to incite efforts to destroy God’s intention to accept all who receive Christ. If the Magi teach us anything, it’s the importance of defying politics to reach Christ. When we look up for guidance and follow His star, genuine believers will welcome us for the light and gifts we bring. The uniqueness of what we offer Christ and the wisdom in following our dreams for His sake can’t be undervalued. We are prophetic instruments, people of purpose, and vital to God’s plan.

His star is our star. It confirms He's our Savior, too, and guides us to worship Him.

(Next: The Reason, or Defying Criticism)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Defying Nature

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3.16)
Pure Love
In John 3.16, Jesus summarizes the rationale for His birth. His incarnation and mission are conceived by pure love. Believing this is the first rung in faith’s ladder. What’s more, faith in this negates discounting Christ’s virgin birth as naturally impossible or ancient myth. The prospect of human congress bringing Jesus to the world introduces happenstance He’s conceived for reasons beyond love—libidinal drive, marital obligation, or familial longevity, for example. Raising the odds Jesus is born of human intent acknowledges the chance there was never a plan for our redemption. It opens the door to theories that Jesus was no more than an extraordinary teacher and belief in His divinity evolved after the fact. The minute we credence anything other than pure love is responsible for Christ’s birth, our entire faith unravels.

Now let’s be reasonable. Is it not equally imaginable God’s strategy begins by endowing a naturally conceived infant with divine nature? Of course, it’s possible. In fact, the Christmas story lends credibility to not ruling it out. When Mary questions how can she be pregnant, the angel tells her, “Nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1.37) But God living in one of us is hugely different than God living with us, as us. The former includes margins of error the latter mitigates by defying nature from the get-go. And since defying nature is central to everything Jesus teaches, the Virgin Birth makes better sense. A second look at John 3.16 reveals why. Challenging us to accept Jesus as “His one and only Son,” conceived by pure love, enables our belief in God’s pure, absolute, and unconditional love for us. It’s the key to life.

Wisdom and Knowledge

Accepting the Virgin Birth daunts us in the same manner the Creation does. It asks us to ignore everything we know is empirically true in nature to believe it occurs as Biblical writers say. Rather than taking it at face value, many find it easier to disregard it as an ancient tall tale born of inferior knowledge. Yet this is no more legitimate than refuting proven facts to interpret Scripture literally. Each attitude exposes an all too human compulsion to exclude one for the other, when both are essential. They function on entirely different planes and achieve entirely different ends. Solomon realizes this, which is why he explicitly prays, “Give me wisdom and knowledge.” (1 Chronicles 1.10)

Knowledge explains how. It informs. In contrast, wisdom reveals why. It instructs. Each provides benefits we must seek and accept at no expense of the other. In terms of the Virgin Birth, whether we comprehend how it can be true has no bearing our capability to understand why it must be true. God sent His Son to live among us because He loves us. His plan is spawned by pure love. If we have to remove doubts about the Incarnation’s factuality to accept this, then that’s what we must do. In matters of faith, understanding why takes precedence over knowing how every time.

Innocence Incarnate

First John 4.14 and 16 makes the connection: “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world… And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love.” Defying our assumption that knowledge precedes understanding, the Virgin Birth asks us to understand pure love’s revelation in Christ’s birth in order to know the purity of God. As God Incarnate, Jesus becomes Innocence Incarnate. He is conceived, lives, and dies without sin specifically to restore our innocence and reconcile us to God. And once we understand this, we return to a place of innocence where we know and rely on God’s love instead of our wits. We stop reasoning and start believing.

It’s all there in John 3.16. God loved us so much—more than we’ll ever understand—that He conceived His one and only Son in love. Regardless if we comprehend it, because we believe it, eternal life is ours. Human nature opens a very short road paved by jaded knowledge that leads to a dead end. The pure love revealed in the Virgin Birth opens the endless opportunity to lead an unnatural life guided by faith. It teaches us the value of understanding more than we can know, rather than knowing more than we can understand.

When the angel informs Mary of her pregnancy, she asks, “How can this be?” We may ask the same question. Yet not knowing how it’s possible doesn’t preclude our understanding of why it must be.

(Next: Defying Politics)