The Crushing Place

olivepressThe word “Gethsemane” literally means “the place of the olive press.” Olive oil was essential to life in ancient Israel, and the way that it was produced was by putting the harvested and pitted olives into a great big stone trough and then rolling another enormous stone back and forth over them, crushing them and extracting their oil.  The Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus went to pray on the night that He was betrayed was an olive grove, and there would have been just such a press nearby.  The symbolism is obvious.

Jesus’ “crushing hours,” the place He went to struggle with the weight of doing God’s will, was the place of an olive press.  This was a time of real testing and a place of real struggle for Christ. “My soul is very sorrowful,” He told his disciples, “even to death” (Matthew 26:38), as He begged them to remain there and watch with Him. “Abba, Father,” He prayed, “all things are possible to thee, remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36).  And in a detail that only appears in some of the ancient manuscripts that we have of the Gospel of Luke – “being in agony, Jesus prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to upon the ground” (22:44).  It’s a powerful word picture.  Just like the oil being extracted from the olives through crushing in the press in that garden where Jesus prayed, Luke was telling us that the life of Jesus was being extracted from Him through the crushing experience of wrestling with God’s will.

fatherWhat God the Father asked of His only begotten Son that night long ago in the garden was a unique part of His work of redemption. This will never be a part of our experience.  We can’t do what He did.  We can only receive the benefit of it by faith.  But the Gethsemane experience of heaviness, that feeling of the moral and spiritual weight of the choices that are constantly in front of us, that’s always going to be a part of our experience as Christians, and Jesus knew it, which is why I think that the very first thing He said to His disciples when they got to the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of His testing was – “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (22:40).

The Greek word translated “temptation” here is a word that means “to test,” “to try,” “to prove.”

It may be used in a positive sense as in the case of Job, who said in the midst of his trail, “When the Lord has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (23:10).  Or it may be used in a negative sense: to tempt toward evil. (Ron Ritchie)

And the point is that this is going to be our experience as followers of Jesus Christ. We’re going to find ourselves in our own Gethsemanes constantly.   Every single day is crowded with choices great and small, and as Christians we’re going to make these choices acutely aware that there is always more than just one will that’s pulling at us.  There’s that adversarial something that crouches at the door of our lives just waiting to spring (Genesis 4:7).  There’s our own will, what it is that we think we want for ourselves. And then there’s the Lord who has a vital interest in everything we think, say and do as His disciples.  Paul told the Corinthians that the love of Christ “constrained” him (2 Corinthians 5:14).  The word that Paul used for “constrain” is a word that literally means to “press hard together,” and suddenly we’re back in Gethsemane, at the crushing place.  Faithfulness is all about this struggle of wills.  Every decision we make as Christians is made in the push and pull of these forces.  We will constantly feel the weight of them, and it’s always going to hard.  There’s simply no escaping it if Jesus is your Lord.

When we say “yes” to Jesus when he asks to be the Lord of our lives and worlds, Gethsemane becomes our home address.  It’s where we’re going to live the rest of our lives.  It’s in this crushing place of the contest of wills that we are going to find ourselves tested and changed, and through the experience, it’s where we’ll discover the best ways to cooperate with the God who’s will is one day going to be done on earth as it is in heaven.   And it all starts when, with Jesus in the place of the olive press where lots of different forces all seek to master us, we can pray – “Not what I will, but what will… not what I want, but what you want…” DBS +

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

Beloved

beloved
The great temptation of the church in an era of challenge and decline like the one that we currently find ourselves in is to want to pull back and take care of ourselves rather than to turn outward in Christ’s mission of extending God’s compassion to anyone and everyone who has been kicked to the curb and told that they don’t matter. And because this is just such an era of challenge and decline for churches like ours, the Jesus I believe we really need right now is the Jesus who meets us in the Gospel of Luke.

jesusesThe Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel is the Messiah of God’s complete faithfulness. The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is the Son of God’s mighty purpose and power. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel is the Son of Man whose compassion draws the least, the last, and the lost into the embrace of God’s inclusive love.  And the Jesus of John’s Gospel is the Word of God made flesh who comes to offer us the gift of eternal life.

I know all of these Jesuses.
I believe in all of these Jesuses.
I need all of these Jesuses.

When I struggle with knowing what’s true and who it is that I can finally trust, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Matthew I really need. When the days grow dark and it feels like chaos is winning the fight, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark I really need.  When loved ones die and I am confronted with the fact of my own mortality, I find that what I really need is the Jesus of the Gospel of John.  And when I am tempted to pull back into the cocoon of myself to pursue my own private interests and to seek my own selfish well-being, I find that it’s the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke I really need.  The most important thing for a church like ours to rediscover and then proclaim in a mean era when people are increasingly picking sides, drawing lines, and building barriers to keep others out is that we are God’s “beloved” — we are — all of us — God’s “beloved.” And this is precisely what the Jesus of the Gospel of Luke makes clear to me.

Near the end of his life, Henri Nouwen said that the central moment in the public ministry of Jesus as the Christ as far as he as concerned was His baptism in the Jordan by John when He heard the voice of God say – “You are my beloved.”  The last great theme of Henri Nouwen’s long and distinguished vocation as a spiritual teacher was the development of this idea that at the very center of the spiritual life for us as Christians is hearing the words – “You are my Beloved” – in “a deep way,” and then living out this truth as a contradiction to everything that the world believes.

belovedThe world says that our worth is determined by how we look, by what we weigh, by who we vote for, by where we live, by the level of our education and income, by who we love, by where we were born, by the color of our skin, or by any one of a hundred other things. But in the world our worth is always conditional.  It always depends on something else.  It’s something we have to deserve.  It’s something we have to be worthy of.  It’s something we have to earn.  But the Biblical word for “beloved” cuts through all of this and says that our worth is something that is established by God’s own determination and declaration instead.  The Biblical word for “beloved” is variant of the Biblical word “agape,” a word that refers to God’s love – a “deep, active, self-sacrificing, and absolutely unconditional” kind of love. To be “beloved” is literally to be “agape-ed.”

Jesus heard that He was “agape-ed” ~ “beloved” when He got baptized.  Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by John to fully identify Himself with the people He came to seek and save, and so when God declared Him “Beloved” I believe that it wasn’t just a statement about Him alone, but rather it was a statement for, and about us all.  As one of the greatest theologians that the church has ever produced, a man named Athanasius (296 – 373), put it – “He [Jesus Christ] became what we are so that he might makes us what He is.” Getting into line with all those people who were being baptized was part of Jesus “becoming what we are,” and God’s declaration of Jesus as His “Beloved” child is part of Jesus “making us what He is.”

In a sermon that he preached at the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis at the beginning of January in 2011 [http://yourcathedral.blogspot.com/2011/01/you-are-my-beloved-sermon-for-feast-of.html] the Rev. Mike Kinman explained that the truth of “Beloved-ness” is a truth that moves in three directions at once.  First it moves inward. It’s first a word that gets spoken to each one of us individually. Once we’ve internalized this truth and feel it in our bones, then it starts to move outward.  You see, not only am I God’s beloved, but so are you, as is everyone in this beloved community we call the church.  So, in your imagination tattoo the word “Beloved” onto the forehead of every other Christian you meet – the Conservative ones and the Liberal ones, the Progressive ones and the Fundamentalist ones, the ones who are most like you and the ones who couldn’t be more different from you – and then frame every thought you have of them and every word you speak to them, or about them, by the fact that they are numbered among God’s “agape-ed.”  And once we’ve started treating each other around here, inside the four walls of the church, as “beloved,” then it’s time to open up the doors and take this show on the road.

John 3:16 doesn’t say that God so loved the church that He sent his only begotten Son, but that God so loved the world. It’s the whole world and everyone in it that’s “Beloved” by God.  There are no exceptions.  And so Rev. Kinman told his congregation that Christians are people who –

…through prayer and [Bible] study listen to God’s voice saying: “You are my beloved,” and who every day grow a little less fearful and a little more trusting that it is true. It’s being people who look at each other and see before anything else someone whom God adores. [And] Who every day try just a little bit harder to be a part of God adoring everyone else…

cupJesus heard God say that He was “Beloved” while standing in the waters of His baptism.  I think that where we are most likely to hear God say that we are His “Beloved” is at the Lord’s Table where bread is broken and a cup is poured in remembrance of Christ’s saving acts and in celebration of His continuing presence.  We come to the Lord’s Table to hear God say – “You are my Beloved.” And then we go from the Lord’s Table knowing that every person we meet is God’s “Beloved” too, and understanding that we may very well be the only people in the world with the power at that moment to tell them, and to show them, who they truly are – God’s “Beloved.”  DBS +

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

The Week of the Two Babies

Babies

We’ve just come through the week of the two babies.  Two Sundays ago it was all about the baby Jesus.   Last Sunday it was another baby who demanded our attention — “Baby New Year.” A baby in a top hat, sash, and a diaper has been the symbol of New Year’s Day since the dawn of the 20th century when the Saturday Evening Post began putting a picture of a little baby on the cover of their year-end issues. The symbolism is clear.  The New Year arrives like a little baby who will age through the days of the coming year and after 12 months be old and withered in the end, like Father Time.

Carl Dennis, one of my favorite poets, saw these two babies – Jesus and the Baby New Year – with their respective celebrations just one week apart on the calendar as competitors of sorts.

More jubilant by far than many Christians
On the birthday of Jesus, [he wrote] the many pagans
Crowding into the square this New Year’s Eve,
Though by now they must realize that the baby
Whose birth they’re about to witness
Is doomed to grow old and die in a year,
Just as the last one did, and the one before,
Without a crumb of hope in a second coming.

I take a different view. Rather than competition for Christ, I find that Baby New Year with his message of growth and change is actually the perfect counterpoint to our tendency as Christians to linger too long at the manger.

We love Christmas. It pulls at our hearts. Christ the baby can be cuddled and cooed. We want to hold Him in our arms as he sleeps, and this is precisely the reason why we need Baby New Year to come along just a week after our visit to the Christmas crib with his urgent cry of “tempus fugit” – “time flies.” Halford Luccock, a Methodist minister who taught preaching at Yale Divinity School for a quarter of a century, warned about how our Christmas celebrations can actually become something of a liability to our Christianity. He said –

“[We can] become so entranced with the beautiful story of a baby in a manger that [we] miss the chief point of the story, and hence do not feel the compulsion which it lays on life. We can become so charmed with the story of a baby that we grow sentimental about it; it does not ask that we do anything about it; it does not demand any vital change in our way of thinking and living.”

And so Professor Luccock preached a famous Christmas sermon about how the baby Jesus did not remain a baby for very long. As significant as Christmas is, he insisted, it is far from the end of the story, and it is certainly not the bulk of the story. Christmas is just the story’s beginning. The baby Jesus grew up, and in his maturity we see a way of living that calls for a change in our own.  He asked –

“Is our Christmas only a story about a baby, or is it more, a deathless story about a person into whom the baby grew, who can redeem the world from its sins, and who calls us into partnership with his great and mighty purposes?”

You see, the baby grew up, and so must we. When Luke tells us that – “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (2:52)he was telling us that Jesus was a human being just like us who grew up just as we do.  And spiritually, because Jesus is the “new Adam,” the one who shows us the right way to live, the way God always intended us to live, I think that we can take the four categories of Jesus’ maturation as a human being that this verse describes – the intellectual, the physical, the spiritual, and the social – and use them as a way to plot and then keep track of our own maturation as human beings.

growthMy grandmother kept a record of my growth as a kid from year to year by making marks on a wall in her pantry right next to the marks of her other four grandchildren. And spiritually this is what Luke 2:52 does for us.  It tell us how Jesus grew up as a human being, and in doing this, it tells us about the different ways that we are to grow up as human beings as well.  We are in the season of New Year’s resolutions right now.  Many of us are considering the ways that we want to do better and to be better next year than we were last year.  I believe that this instinct is hardwired into us as human beings. We are built to grow, and according to Luke 2:52 the channels of our growth are going to be –

  • Intellectual because “Jesus steadily increased in wisdom.” The New Testament says that being a Christian is a matter of the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2), so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “What difference is Jesus Christ making in my thinking?”
  • Physical because “Jesus steadily increased in stature.” The New Testament calls our bodies “Temples of the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 6:19), and then it commands us to “glorify God in our bodies” (I Corinthians 6:20), so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “How does my physical life reflect my spiritual commitments and values?”
  • Spiritual because “Jesus steadily increased in favor with God.”  Every image that the New Testament uses to describe the spiritual life is an image of growth – a seed planted, sprouting and growing to the harvest, a building going up from a foundation, brick by brick to the roof, a footrace from the starting blocks, through the course to the finish line, a person growing from birth through childhood to adulthood, so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “Where am I growing right now in my relationship with God?
  • Social because “Jesus steadily increased in favor with people.” The New Testament is very clear that we can’t love a God we don’t see if we aren’t loving the people around us that we do see (I John 4:20). So, the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “How am I getting along with others these days?”

clock

For most of my life I have prayed the same Order for Morning Prayer. In part, it says –

 O merciful God, confirm and strengthen us; that, as we grow in age, we may grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I prayed these words when I was 12 years old. I prayed these words when I was 32 years old. I prayed these words when I was 52 years old. And I expect to still be praying these words when I am 72 years old. To live is to grow.  To live is to change.  This is not just a Christian truth, this is a human truth.  What makes it “Christian” is the direction that our growth as human beings takes.  As a Christian, I want to grow in grace as I grow in age, and what this aspiration means is that I know that I’m not finished yet.  I’m still very much a work in progress.  I’m still figuring out how Jesus Christ affects the way that I think, and how He determines what I do with my body, and how He makes it possible for me to relate to God, and how He informs the way that I treat you.  I was working on this when I was 12.  I was working on this when I was 32. I was working on this when I was 52.  And I expect to still be working on this when I am 72.  I expect to still be working on this when I am 72.

I find that this week of the two babies is my annual invitation to grow up in every way into Christ – intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially – and my timely reminder that I’m not finished yet. We’ve all still got some growing to do.  DBS +

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

Christmas Movies and the Gospel

movies

This Christmas at my house we watched “Elf,” “Christmas Vacation,” “The Santa Clause,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” part of “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” and the “Miracle on 34th Street.” Movies are some of our culture’s most familiar texts for interpreting the meaning of this season. And I predict that they will only grow in importance in the future as fewer and fewer people go to church and publicly identify themselves as Christians.

buddySomething Christmas movies buffs like to discuss are their favorite characters. Online you’ll find lists and lists of people’s favorite characters in Christmas movies – Buddy from “Elf,” Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Clark Griswold or Cousin Eddie from “Christmas Vacation,” or any one of the characters from “A Christmas Carol” — Jacob Marley… Tiny Tim… Ebenezer Scrooge.  The character from a Christmas movie that I personally find most spiritually intriguing is “old man Marley” from “Home Alone.” Old man Marley is the across-the-street neighbor of Kevin McCallister, the kid, who through a series of blunders, gets left behind when the rest of his family flies to France for the holidays. We are introduced to old man Marley in “Home Alone” when Kevin sees him shoveling the snow on his sidewalk.  Kevin’s older brother, Buzz, has convinced him that old man Marley is “the South Bend Shovel Slayer,” a man who had infamously murdered his family with a snow shovel, and so every time Kevin bumps into old man Marley early in the movie, he yelps, turns, and runs away.

HomeAloneThe best scene in the movie, in my opinion, is when, alone and afraid, Kevin slips into a dark church where a children’s’ choir is rehearsing for Christians Eve and old man Marley, who is also there, alone and afraid in the dark, slips into the pew beside Kevin. Their conversation eventually gets around to their families, and old man Marley tells Kevin that he’s there listening to that children’s choir rehearse because it was the only way that he could hear his granddaughter sing.  You see, old man Marley hadn’t murdered his family, they were estranged, they hadn’t talked to each other for years.  Old man Marley lived his life in the pain of this isolation, and poignantly he told Kevin, “You can say hello when you see me. You don’t have to be afraid.  There’s a lot of things going around about me, but none of it’s true.”  These are the words of someone who’s been pushed away and who just wants to belong somewhere, to somebody.  There’s Gospel in these words.  Paul told the Ephesians that Jesus Christ came to specifically bring people who felt pushed away back into the circle of God’s care and concern. “He is our peace… He broke down the barrier of the dividing wall… He came and preached peace to those who were far away” (2:13; 17).

shadowsIn Luke’s familiar version of the Christmas story, the shepherds are old man Marley. They were the ostracized ones, the people who were pushed away and lived in the shadows. Shepherding was hard and dirty work. Living with their flocks in the open fields, shepherds stank of sheep.  Nobody wanted to be around them, and not just because of their poor hygiene. Daily contact with blood, manure, and dead animals rendered shepherds unclean spiritually. And so they were excluded from the community of faith, and from the ceremonies in the Temple.  They didn’t belong.  They weren’t fit to be with God, and they weren’t fit to be with other people. They were the “far off” ones, and then on the night when Christ was born, Luke tells us that they were the very first people to be told of it and to be invited to come and see it.  This is not an insignificant detail of the story. The way that Luke tells us his story of Jesus, God makes His way in Christ to all of those who have been pushed away – the poor, the sick, the different, the unclean, the needy – and He invites them all back into the embrace of His love.  And here’s a secret that we all live with, every single one of us — in some way we’re all old man Marley.  In some way, we’re all the shepherds.  In some way, we’ve all been pushed away.  In some way, not one of us really feels like we quite belong.

hollowhillsIn her book, The Hollow Hills, the novelist Mary Stewart told the story of a young man who had been raised in one of the great households of Northern England. But deep inside, he knew that he didn’t belong there.  He’d been told the story for as long as he could remember about how he had been left in a basket at the gate of the castle as a baby.  He was unknown and unwanted — illegitimate, an embarrassment, an object or shame and scorn. He belonged to no one; no one belonged to him. He knew all too well the pain and fear of being pushed away. And then one day, unexpectedly, he was brought to the court of the king.  And as he stepped into that royal hall, the king stepped down from his throne, and gathered that boy up into his arms.  With tears in his eyes, the king explained that he was his son, his first-born, the heir of the throne, the next in line to become the king of the realm.  The king explained how he’d had to send him away at birth to shield him from the plot of an enemy who sought to destroy him, but that now the time had come to finally restore him to his rightful place, and this story is ours.

Somewhere deep inside we all feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for. There are painful ways that we have all been pushed away. We’re all familiar, in our own way, with the pain of not fitting in, and with the fear of never belonging to anyone, anywhere.  And then, in that darkness we’re told about a little baby born in Bethlehem to be our Savior, and we’re invited to come and see Him for ourselves.  And it’s there, kneeling at the manger that we discover that we are in fact wanted, that we are in fact loved, that we are in fact accepted, that we do in fact belong.  In Christ the “far off” are brought near (Ephesians 2:13-17), and that’s me… that’s you… that’s us… Merry Christmas!  DBS +

babyjesus

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

The Hopes and Fears of all the Years

blue

Genesis chapter 35 is where Bethlehem gets mentioned in the Bible for the first time. Ordinarily, when we hear about Bethlehem we hear about its connection with David.

Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Luke 2:4)

This is an important plank in the argument that the New Testament builds about Jesus being the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah promised throughout the Old Testament. Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem because He was the son of David (Matthew 1:1), and Bethlehem was David’s hometown.  But long before Bethlehem got associated with David in the story of salvation that the Bible tells, Bethlehem had an association with Rachel, the second wife, but first love of the Patriarch Jacob, and one of David’s great ancestors.

holylandOn my first trip to the Holy Land some thirty years ago, long before the partition and the scar of the wall that now separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem had been built, we stopped at a little domed shrine on the outskirts of Bethlehem on our way to see the Church of the Holy Nativity. It was Rachel’s Tomb, the traditional site of her burial, and it was crowded with people, especially women, who had come there to sit and ponder, weep and to pray.  The way Genesis 35 tells the story, Rachel died in childbirth on the road just outside of Bethlehem as Jacob and his household were making their way to Hebron, back to the home of his fathers.  Jacob buried Rachel right there on that lonely road outside of Bethlehem and erected a pillar over her grave as a memorial, and Jewish tradition says that from that moment on her grave became holy ground, a special place of prayer, especially for people who were discouraged, or distressed, or despairing.

Jewish tradition says that when Joseph got sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, as the caravan that was heading to Egypt passed by Bethlehem, that Joseph escaped and ran to his mother’s grave where he cried out in fear and was given hope in the promise that the Lord would always be with him no matter what. “Consoled and strengthened,” that tradition says that “Joseph voluntarily returned to the caravan” with “the courage he needed to face the future.”  Later Jewish tradition says that when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and carried off the Jews into their 70 years of exile after the destruction of the Temple, the dispirited captives passed by Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, and when they saw it, that their fears and sadness were immediately met by its witness to God’s faithfulness to His promises. In fact, Jewish tradition says that Rachel was deliberately buried by Jacob on the road outside of Bethlehem and not in Bethlehem itself so that later on when God’s people were being carried off into captivity that they would pass by it and remember the covenant that God made and kept with His people. [Dovid Rossoff, “Tomb of our Matriarch Rachel.” http://www.jewishmag.com].

motherIt’s appropriate that the memory of Rachel would elicit this kind of response. You see, Rachel is remembered and celebrated in the Jewish tradition as one of the Bible’s great mothers, and significantly, one of the words that gets translated “mercy” in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word for “womb.” In the Bible the mercy of God gets compared to the tender and tenacious love of a mother that will not let her children go. And so in the book of the prophet Isaiah, God asks “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb?” And then God says – “Even should a human mother forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).  Think of the finest, strongest love of a mother that you have ever seen, and then understand that God loves you even more than that!  Knowing that they were loved by God with a mother’s love like this, it was only natural that the tomb of one of Israel’s most revered mothers would become an important place for our spiritual parents, the Jews, to pray, especially when they were in trouble and needed some reassurance that God was still there for them, and that He still cared about them.  For generations, Jews have made pilgrimages to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem when they got to the end of their ropes, when they have felt alone and afraid in the universe, when the have been unsure of where God is or what God is doing, uncertain even if God was there, or if He cared. They went to Bethlehem looking for some tangible connection with the God of history and promise, and they found it in the story of their mother Rachel and in their remembrance of God’s “womb” love for her children.

nativityThe Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” contains what just might be my favorite line from a Christmas carol – “…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I am intrigued by this idea of Bethlehem being the place where our hopes and fears as human beings meet. I find this to be a really meaningful way to think and talk about the meaning of Christmas. We come to Bethlehem each year as Christians for the very same reason that our spiritual parents, the Jews, go to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem — to get some proof that we have not been forsaken or forgotten. And it’s in the story of another mother that gets told from a manger in Bethlehem in the middle of a dark night that we get our assurance that we are not alone in our dark nights or abandoned to our fears.  As the Swiss Theologian Emil Brunner (1889 – 1966) wrote in his book “Our Faith” in the chapter on “Prayer” –

sinisterAs children lost in a woods, are fearful of the sinister darkness – and then, suddenly, hearing a sound from the somber blackness, a familiar voice, a loving, seeking, helping voice, their mother’s voice — so prayer is our reply to the voice from the Word of God in Jesus Christ which suddenly cries out to us in the mysterious, dark universe. It is the Father calling us out of the world’s darkness. He calls us, seeks us, wants to bring us to Himself. “Where are you, my child?” Our prayers mean “Here I am. Father. I was afraid until you called. Since you have spoken, I am afraid no longer. Come, I am waiting for you, take me, lead me by the hand through the dark terrifying world.” It is a tremendous moment when a man hears this voice and knows he is safe. God is at hand!

Merry Christmas!

DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings

The Gospel in Christmas Cards

I remember the great care that my parents took every year with their Christmas cards. Early in the fall there was always a trip, and sometimes more than one, to the stationary store where together they poured over those big sample notebooks for hours looking for just the right Christmas card.  Mom and dad certainly had their standards.  It had to be traditional and not contemporary, religious and not secular, show Jesus and not Santa, and be about Bethlehem’s manger and not about Christmas trees, or reindeers, or snowy forests.  I learned my appreciation of Christmas cards from them, in fact, through the years I’ve become a kind of Christmas card connoisseur. While I appreciate every Christmas card that I’ve ever received, and honor the spirit of friendship and affection that they signal, purely on the level of image, symbol and art, I have my favorites.

card

Years ago Mary Lynn and I received a Christmas card that was a print of Pieter Bruegel’s painting “The Census at Bethlehem.” It shows a typical 16th century Flemish village on a cold winter’s day.  There’s nothing distinctively “religious” or “Christmas-y” about it, except for a “wreath” over an open window where a crowd has gathered and seems to be conducting some kind of business with the official looking people inside the building. In the middle of the picture there’s a man with a basket of tools on his arm leading a donkey with a pregnant woman sitting on it toward the crowd at that open window, and only gradually does it dawn on you that this is Bethlehem and that is Joseph and Mary!  Mary Lynn and I liked this Christmas card so much that we later bought a print of the painting, had it framed and it now hangs in our home.

egypt

Another favorite Christmas card of mine is one that shows Mary cradling her infant son against the cold of a winter’s night. Now that’s a familiar enough Christmas card image, isn’t it?  What makes this one so unique is where Mary and her baby happen to be.  You see, on this card she sits in the lap of the Sphinx in Egypt cradling the Christ, reminding us of the flight of the Holy family from Herod’s brutality.  It’s a powerful image, one made even more powerful today as a reminder that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were political refugees who had to flee the violence of a Middle Eastern tyrant and who found a home in a different culture where they were welcomed.

baby jesusI think my favorite Christmas card image is the one that I have of the baby Jesus reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a lamb with both of His hands. In my mind and heart, this is the perfect picture of what Christmas means. Now, technically, the Bible says nothing about there being any animals at the manger in Bethlehem.  Oh sure, we have them prominently positioned in our crèche scenes on the mantle at home, and they regularly show up in the Christmas carols that we sing in church.  But technically, there are no references to animals of any sort in the Bible’s story of the first Christmas apart from Luke’s note that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night (2:8).  But that wasn’t in Bethlehem at the manger.  No, that was in the fields outside of town.  The Bible actually says nothing about animals being present at the manger. Nevertheless, it seems perfectly logical to me to conclude that animals were there.

angels

In fact, when you go to Bethlehem and visit the church at the shepherd’s fields on its walls you will see a series of three wonderful frescoes that tell the story of the first Christmas, and prominent in them is another animal, a dog. In the first panel where the angels are making their announcement of the birth of Christ that dog cowers in fear behind a rock. In the second panel where the shepherds are shown going to Bethlehem see this thing that happened, that same dog runs ahead, leading the procession.  And in the third panel, that dog reverently sits at the side of the manger adding his devotion to that of his masters for Him who was born to be the Savior of all creation.  And as whimsical and attractive as all of this is, it is nevertheless a fanciful addition to the story.

We can only talk about sheep at the manger with any degree of Biblical certainty. And the symbolic significance of this for the Gospel comes later in the New Testament’s story of Jesus Christ when John the Baptist identified Him as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29; 36).  Gary Burge, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, says that he once asked a mature Christian why Jesus is called “the Lamb of God.” The answer given was this: “Because Jesus is so gentle and nice.” But this is the wrong answer.  The right answer is that Jesus was called the Lamb of God because in the world of the Bible lambs were the animals of choice for sacrifice.  We’ve never seen an animal sacrifice, and would probably be horrified if we did.  And the problem with this is that sacrifice was an enormously important part of the Biblical world, and if we can’t get our heads wrapped around what sacrifice meant in the Biblical world, then we will never understand what John the Baptist and the rest of the New Testament means when it tells us that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God.

lambIn ancient Israel sheep drove the economy. Their wool kept people clothed and warm.  Their meat kept people fed.  And so, when it was time to show God just how much He meant to someone, or just how desperate a person really was for God’s help, then something of real value to that person would be offered in sacrifice.  And nothing was of greater value to the people of ancient Israel than were their sheep, especially an unblemished male lamb.  That was your money maker.  His reproductive capabilities was the key to one’s prosperity, and so when offered up in sacrifice, that lamb became a powerful outward and visible expression of the intensity of the inward and invisible intentions of a person’s heart.

In the ancient ritual of sacrifice no gesture was more important than the laying on of hands. “You are to lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you,” is what the Law prescribed (Leviticus 1:4).  This point of contact, this physical connection between the animal being sacrificed and the person who was offering it as an expression of what was in his heart, this is what made this whole ritual of sacrifice personal.  And in that picture on my favorite Christmas card of the Son of God reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a shepherd’s lamb what the artist was symbolically telling us that just like the lamb that He touched, Jesus Christ came to be our Savior through an act of sacrifice.

adoration

Now, the Christmas Card that I really want to receive is the one with Benedetto Bonfigli’s (1420 – 1496) painting – “The Adoration of the Kings, and Christ on the Cross” (The National Gallery, London) – on it. This painting expresses my Christmas faith as powerfully and concisely as any image I have ever come across. The way that it surprisingly brings together Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the manger and the cross, the Magi’s Messianic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh with Messiah’s self-offering on the cross reminds me of Dag Hammarskjold’s famous observation in Markings (1964) that – “the Manger is situated on Golgotha, and the Cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.”  Rodney Clapp argued that the best way to keep Christ in Christmas was by always keeping it clear that Easter and not Christmas is the central Christian holiday. He said that when Christians are known “for our Easter, then we will have our Christmas back.” And that’s why I love this image.  That baby who sits on Mary’s lap is the Savior who will die on Calvary’s cross (Matthew 1:21; Luke 2:11), and when this is clear, so is the Gospel. DBS +

1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

“More than watchmen for the morning…”

sun

 Between graduating from Christian college in May of 1975 and starting seminary in the fall of 1976, I got married and worked as a youth minister at our church in Pocatello, Idaho.   Now, in Idaho they think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t hunt and fish, backpack and camp, snowmobile and ski.  And so part of my job description at the church in Pocatello was to serve as the assistant Scout Master for the church’s troop.  That’s what I was doing at 7800 feet in the Grand Tetons camped next to Hechtman Lake in the shadow of Mt. Berry.

I was with my Boy Scout troop one day out on a scheduled weeklong trek through the backcountry. It had taken the better part of that first day just to get from the trail head up to Hechtman Lake, and on the second day we were planning to go up and over the Mt. Berry pass into the high Alpine Meadows beyond it. We pitched camp, caught our dinner – dozens and dozens of small Dolly Varden trout that went straight from the frigid lake into our frying pans and then into our bellies, and then we sat around the camp fire telling stories and talking about how hard the next day’s climb was going to be.  A few hours after dark everybody was fast asleep in their tents.

The storm came up suddenly and violently as they do high in the mountains. There was a flash of lightening followed almost instantly by a clap of thunder and then it began to pour.  Too late did we realize that we had pitched out tents in a natural runoff for the rain from the granite peaks above us to the lake below us.  And thus began the longest and most desperate night of my life.

I was awakened by the screams of some of my boys being washed into the lake in their tents with all of their stuff. There was a mad scramble to get the boys untangled from their tents and out of the water.  And then once everybody was accounted for, the next critical task was to get out of the rain and to save our campfire for some warmth.  We quickly rigged a canopy over it and slowly fed it firewood that was just barely dry enough to burn.  We unzipped the sleeping bags that we still had to make blankets that we draped over little clusters of boys who looked like drowned rats and then we huddled around the fire against the dark, and the cold, and the rain, impatiently waiting for the sun to rise.

Psalm 130:5-6 says –

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

 My terrible night on that mountain with those boys helps me appreciate what the Psalmist was talking about when he wrote these words. The trouble he was in that prompted him to write this familiar prayer is unspecified in the text. Lots of interpreters say that they appreciate this ambiguity because it allows each reader to fill in the blank with his or her own particular crisis.  Our “depths” are different, and this cry from “out of the depths” is vague enough to be able to take them all in.  This is a prayer that anybody can pray no matter what it is that is threatening to undo them.

What drives the spirituality of this Psalm is the experience of waiting. Simone Weil, one of the great Christian mystics of the 20th century, said that the experience of “waiting patiently with expectation” is the “essence” of the spiritual life in the Bible, and I think that’s right.  The Bible defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), and that means that faithful people are going to have to get comfortable with waiting because it concerns things that are “hoped for,” things that are “not yet seen.”

The God of the Bible hears our prayers and acts on our cries for help, to be sure, but always on His terms and in His time. And so, in this Psalm, we who believe get compared with “watchmen for the morning” who wait for the rising of the sun.  That’s literally what I did with my Boy Scouts high up on that mountain in Wyoming back in 1976.   We watched and we waited for the rising of the morning sun.  We understood that with the coming of its light and warmth that everything would get better for us, and this is why the Bible frequently uses the image of dawn as a way of talking about salvation.

The Christmas Canticle that Mark preached on last Sunday morning, the “Benedictus” (Luke 67-70), is the hymn of praise that Zechariah sang to God on the day when his son, the baby who would grow up to be John the Baptist, was born.   This is a song that gets sung in many parts of the church every single day as part of Morning Prayer, at the beginning of the day, just as the sun is rising.   From personal experience I can tell you that there’s some real power in saying – “Because of our God’s tender mercy the dawn will break upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” – as the first streaks of light are crossing a dark night sky.  The sunrise – the “day spring” – is a good picture of the true meaning of Christmas.  Just as the first streaks of light on the far horizon signal the start of a new day, so the humble birth of Christ in Bethlehem’s stable signaled the fulfillment of a promise, the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, the coming of God’s Savior to begin the work of repairing all of creation.  But it takes faith to see, and it takes time to unfold.

I know that we are living in a time of real “depths” – personal, social, political, and cosmic.  And I understand the very real feelings that many of us have that God has inexplicably absented Himself from the very real struggle in which we find ourselves these days. “Where is God?” is our cry in the face of terrorism, and natural catastrophe, and glaring injustice, and inconceivable violence, and abusive power, and blatant greed.  Why, there’s even a theological category for this feeling, it’s called Deus Absconditus,” and it refers to the way that God so often appears hidden in our experience and world. Reflecting on this, theologian Peter Leithart says that it’s when the world spins out of control and our instincts are to “rush to cockpit to take over the controls before we crash,” what we need to remember is that this plane already has a pilot. And because of who that pilot is, we can know that “confusion is not the final word… that confusion will itself ultimately be confused and dispelled.” That’s the promise of Scripture.

dawnNo matter how dark the night, or chaotic the storm, God’s got this. And this is the kind of trust that the faithful waiting of Advent is meant to activate in us.  It’s by crying out from our depths, and then watching and waiting for God’s tender mercy to break upon us from on high like the dawn that we enter into the spiritual experience of Psalm 130, and the spiritual meaning of the season of Advent, and will wind up with hearts that are truly prepared for the celebration of the coming of Christ at Christmas. DBS +

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Soundings