Saturday, December 22, 2012

I Want to Wish You a Paradoxical Christmas

Feliz Navidad is one of the more popular and cheerful Christmas songs (one of my personal favorites) written and sung by Jose Feliciano in English and part Spanish. In this special season I join with Feliciano’s song to say, “I want to wish you a Merry Christmas”. I wish you this, but I want to wish you something more. Though not as festive and catchy as the song, admitting it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and though it is not a conventional yuletide greeting, I want to wish you a Paradoxical Christmas.

Consider Christmas paradox: on one hand it is an easy narrative, not too complex, a simple story. We often call it The Christmas Story - a story easily read by small children and complicated only by the beauty of the King James Version. The story seems to hover and glide along with effortless flow, like a cup of hot chocolate that’s not too hot to guzzle.

Simple enough, yet at the same time it carries a transcendent weightiness exceeding the plain words of the story. That is to say, the narrative delivers a sense of glory (The Hebrew kabowd, often translated glory, implies weightiness as in splendor or significance). The story is simple and yet it is splendid.

The paradox continues as the story juxtaposes the glorious with the common and every day. The parents in the story have come to Bethlehem merely for the census while wise men from the east come because they have seen his star. They have come to worship. Plain ole shepherds encounter an angel messenger and a heavenly host announcing “good news and tidings of great joy…Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior…” This glorious transaction is not given to magistrates, governors or king’s men, but to ordinary shepherds.

It is a story of livestock, stable and feeding troth - it is a story of treasure; gold, frankincense and myrrh. The earthly and the heavenly, the ordinary and the divine, the common and the holy…It is the revelation of God, heaven breaking in upon earth, eternity breaking in on time. Mortal man was given a glimpse into the other side while the temple veil that would be torn in two some thirty-three years later was already beginning to show a tear.

Some would eventually call this event Jesus’ birthday. “Happy Birthday Jesus” they glibly say. But perhaps in this they confuse (if not abuse), the paradox. Rather than juxtaposing the common and divine, as does the biblical narrative, they make the divine common which is, by definition, to profane.

This advent is something much more than a birthday and a baby. This is an event some still say never happened – that it could not happen – it is just too glorious to have happened. It was not a birthday so much as the moment of incarnation, a pivot point in history when the eternal Creator God (the Holy Other) is enfleshed, takes on humanity - the separated One suddenly becomes close.

A simple story - baby Jesus baby born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger - a story we can wrap our minds around, and yet a story that defies our absolute understanding. Incarnation of the Divine just isn’t a simple thing. It is paradox.

It may seem like a child’s story – something confined to fairytale books with other enchanted fables, myths and legends. But this story will not stay in a book or be confined to mere words. This story lives, breath off the page and into life. As heaven broke into earth some two thousand years ago, the Christmas story yet lives today. A simple story, but the glory it carries is undeniable.

A spirit accompanies the story that words and concepts cannot completely convey.  To do justice to the story requires an appeal to music and the other arts. Art can transcend words and the conceptual and we need this to tell this story. That is why some of the most majestic music in the world is Christmas music. Art is required to express the wonder of Christmas.

Words are insufficient, so Christmas is expressed with decorated trees, lights, ornamental pieces, golden angels, stars, tinsel and other things that sparkle, catch and divide light. We celebrate with gatherings, ceremony, festival, parade, dinner parties, dramatic presentations and gifts. Gift-giving is off the charts during the Christmas season.

 And note that it is a season. We do not observe a mere Christmas Day for it has claimed for itself a season, and so we make reference to Christmastime. One day cannot contain the glory, so it is not just a day of gift giving, but a time and a season for giving - a season of parties, pageant and parade. Words are not enough and neither is one day. It requires ornamentation, decoration, scents, lighted candles and music for an entire season.

The first Christmas was a great joy to some, a threat/offense to others and surprise to all. The same is true today. Some disparage the surrounding traditions of Christmas, but the entourage of customs that accompany and escort the season forward is testimony to the greatness of the holiday. The sacraments of Christmas are many. Someone say pumpkin pie, cookies and candy are not what Christmas is about. True, but the observance of Christmastime deserves these things and more.

Gift giving is not what Christmas is about, and yet gift giving is what Christmas is about. “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given” (Isa 9:6). So here’s wishing you a Paradoxical Christmas!

Enjoy the video. Feliz Navidad!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Old Scrolls and Dead Men Bones

 As I mentioned in a recent post, I teach a Sunday School class at my church. We have been working our way through the Gospel of Matthew in a series we titled, “Hearing Matthew”. Though it is impossible to come to the text without pre-understanding, our desire is to be willing to hear the text in its present form, allowing it permission to surprise, offend and delight us with undomesticated and unpredictable import.

About midway through the gospel we had a class discussion concerning Matthew’s continual focus on the Kingdom of heaven and wondered if we should not rather focus on the cross instead, even camp out there. I am sympathetic with this view and confessed my tendency to read this into the text. It is simpler to focus on the cross and it just sounds right. However, in this I may be caught the same as  first century Jewish leaders who resisted Jesus’ forward moving message which did not line up with convention and their longstanding presuppositions.

Jesus’ message of the Kingdom rocked the boat. He challenged settled interpretation of O.T. scriptures and rivaled venerated champions of the faith. The Jews knew how to honor the past (events) and dates on the calendar and to preserve the memory of dead heroes of the faith, but this did not impress Jesus.

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous," and say, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.' "Therefore you are witnesses against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets”. Matt 23:29-31

They were the best at honoring old scrolls and dead men bones - great at telling an old story, but hearing fresh the living Word was more of a problem. A word from the past can be kept at a safe distance - close enough to admire, far enough away to avoid being bitten. A distant word can be domesticated. You can roll up an old scroll and put it away, but this living Word will be un-tethered and free and so becomes a threat. It leaps from the past into the present, unexpected and often unwelcomed.

I’m in control when I tell an old story. I can manage an old story, but the living Word tells me the story and tells on me. Keeping the Word in the wistful past is safe; e.g., many today are comfortable saying the gifts of the Spirit are not for today. Why? Perhaps it is this - when the gifts are in operation things get messy. There is less control and less predictability. When the gifts are in operation un-credentialed people begin to minister and un-credentialed people do unconventional things. When the gifts are in operation some get healed and others don’t. This offends our sensitivities and does not jive with our propositional view of a mechanistic, predictable God, so rather than deal with the discomfort of inconsistency we reject it all.

“How could the Jews reject their Messiah,” we ask? Could it be much the same way we miss the fullness of God today? He messed up their filling cabinet and their calendar. Our God is not just Lord of the calendar, but Lord over the calendar – timeless, not limited by events and dates. Our timelines and prophecy charts cannot keep him and you must not throttle heaven with dispensational objections. Just when we get our commentaries to jive and our systematic theology all systematized, just when we settle up on what is normative and put the final touches on our creedal statements, this living Word, this living Kingdom shuffles the deck.

Moses’ bronze serpent lifted up on a pole (Num. 21:9) is seen to be prophetic of Christ who would be lifted up on a cross (Jn.3:14). That same symbol eventually had to be destroyed because people began to worship it (2Kgs 18:4). Very quickly the cross can be reduced to mere sentimentality. The Kingdom is mentioned many more times just in Matthew than the cross is mentioned in the entire New Testament. This is not to take anything away from the cross, of course. The cross is inaugural for the Kingdom. The best way to honor the cross is to live the Kingdom.

Without exception, when Jesus uses the term “cross” in Matthew, he refers not to his cross, but exhorts disciples to carrying their cross (“take up your cross and follow” – this is the antidote to sentimentality). We don’t camp out at the cross, we carry a cross. The cross for us is event and process. If we carry the cross we don’t have to go back to the cross. 

We often emphasize what the cross delivers us from and neglect to promote what the cross delivers us to. Is this why so many Christians today are bored with their Christianity? The embarrassing old bumper sticker, “Christians aren’t perfect just forgiven”, kind of says it all for this mentality. We got a Band-Aid for our boo-boo and that’s it. But we are not just forgiven. We are called to follow, called to righteousness, discipleship and the work of the Kingdom. We are called to be people of that Kingdom.

Pentecostals are good at not staying at the cross. To their credit, they go on to the empty tomb and from there they find the upper room. But all too often this is where we camp. We stay in Acts chapter two. But there are twenty-six chapters that follow and the final chapter itself lacks a proper conclusion. So don’t stop at two and don’t stop at twenty-eight. We are to be moving forward with the Kingdom, announcing the Kingdom to the uttermost parts of the earth.  

Jesus says “follow”, not “stay here”. This is not a campout. This is a hiking trip. This is more than old scrolls and dead men’s bones. This is living Word and the coming Kingdom. Try to keep up.