Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Domestication of Christmas

There is a problem with Christmas. The problem is that it has become domesticated. Its earth shattering, revolutionary character has been covered up by saccharine and Santa Claus. The Christmas stories found in Luke and Matthew have become so familiar that most people no longer hear what the gospel writers are saying. The meaning of the incarnation has been smothered by the sentimentality the church has laid over Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the angels and the infant Jesus.

To see how domesticated this celebration of the incarnation has become consider the following:

• The God of the universe, the creator of all that has been, all that is, and all that will be entered humankind through the flesh, blood and water of Mary’s womb. The fullness of God became a helpless baby.

• The fullness of God became a helpless baby born to a young Jewish girl betrothed to a simple carpenter living in a region known for insurrection. Mary gave birth to Jesus in the equivalent of a barn and laid the infant in a feed trough. Why did God choose Mary of Nazareth rather than a daughter of one of the priests or scribes in Jerusalem, or a member of the emperor’s family? God chose to enter into humankind as a child of the poor and humble.

• The birth was announced first to shepherds in the field. God chose to give the good news of the incarnation to poor laborers who made their living with their hands. Because they worked with animals, the shepherds were often treated as outcasts. Why did God not send the angels to the religious authorities so they would be the first to hear the good news? Why did God not send the angels to the Emperor or Governor of Judea?

• According to the Matthew, soon after Jesus’ birth King Herod sent soldiers to Bethlehem to murder all boys two years old and younger. Those boys were killed for the crime of being like Jesus. They were also killed because the incarnation was rightly perceived by the powers of the world to be a real threat to their order.

We see in these four points that the incarnation is God’s surprising, revolutionary entry into human history. It tells us that God acts in unexpected ways through unlikely, even disreputable, people. It also tells us that the powers and principalities of the world, represented by Herod, rightly see God’s action in and through Mary as a real threat to them and the status quo. The good news and meaning of the incarnation are beautifully expressed in the song of Mary:

“My soul magnifies the Lord.
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever”
(Luke 1:46b-55, NRSV).

Christmas is good news for the poor and all who are poor in spirit. It is not good news for the powerful and wealthy who seek to increase their power and wealth through violence and domination because the one whose birth we celebrate is the crucified and risen Lord who is coming again to set things right, just as Mary said he would.

Rick Warren is NOT a homophobe

I’ll begin by saying that I’m not one of Rev. Rick Warren’s fans. However, over the past couple of years I will admit to becoming a grudging admirer of his. In particular, I greatly respect his work fighting HIV/AIDS and poverty. I learned a few months ago that he and his wife are “reverse tithers.” This means that they give 90% of their income to fight poverty and HIV/AIDS. They are able to do this because of the incredible wealth they receive from the sale of his book, The Purpose Driven Life. I am convinced that Warren is a man of deep faith, compassion, and integrity. He is genuinely living the gospel of Jesus Christ, to the best of his ability.

The recent controversy surrounding his accepting President-elect Obama’s invitation to deliver the invocation at his inauguration has not changed my opinion of Rick Warren. It has, however, caused me to rethink my opinion about some of the columnists and media personalities who have distorted his statements in order to create controversy. They have stated over and over again that Warren equated gay relationships with pederasty and incest. He did no such thing. What he did was to give a poorly worded response to an interview question that left the door open to anyone who wanted to believe that he was a homophobe. Warren has since released to the members of Saddleback Church an excellent clarification of his position.

The truth is that Warren objects to the redefinition of marriage. He does not object to gay couples living together as consenting, loving adults in committed partnership with one another. He just does not want the law or the church to call such relatonships marriage. Warren's is a valid, well-reasoned position that does not deserve the vitriol or distortion that have been thrown his way.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Prepare the Way of the Lord

            The texts for the second Sunday of Advent speak about preparing the way of the Lord. It’s quite clear in these texts (Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15; Mark 1:1-8) that the Lord we are to be prepared to greet is the one who was born in Bethlehem. It is equally clear that these texts are not about preparing for the birth of the Messiah. Rather, they are about the one who is coming to judge the living and the dead. The Scriptures for this Sunday are looking to the future when the crucified and risen Christ will come to usher in the new heavens and the new earth; the time when his prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” is realized in all fullness. 

            It seems to me that the Scriptures for this Sunday (December 7) admonish the church to be like John the Baptist. In other words, the mission of the church is to prepare the way of the Lord by preparing this planet for the coming reign of God. This means the church is to be a witness to God’s righteousness and justice by proclaiming and living the good news of Jesus Christ for the world described in Psalm 85:10-13 

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;

     righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground

     and righteousness will look down from the sky.

The Lord will give what is good,

      and our land will yield its increase.

Righteousness will go before him,

      and will make a path for his steps.

Imagine what could happen if the churches spent the weeks of Advent in fasting, prayer, worship, and serving alongside the poor, the sick, prisoners, and victims of violence and war? What if we stopped abetting the culture’s rush toward Christmas and fasted from its consumerism, gluttony, and self-indulgence? What if the church acted like John and proclaimed the need for repentance and forgiveness of sins? What could happen if the church told the world about how the one who came as a baby born in a Bethlehem stable is the crucified and risen Lord who is coming to judge? 

            “But, in accordance with [God’s] promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of the Lord as salvation” (2Peter 3:13-15a).