The Incarnation is the most apostolic act recorded in the Bible. We often do not equate such an act with Christmas. We get caught up in the baby, decorations, gifts, and traditions. But here we have God the Father sending God the Son to fulfill the mission of God.
I have a problem with the Bible. Here’s my problem…
I’m an ancient Egyptian. I’m a comfortable Babylonian. I’m a Roman in his villa.
That’s my problem. See, I’m trying to read the Bible for all it’s worth, but I’m not a Hebrew slave suffering in Egypt. I’m not a conquered Judean deported to Babylon. I’m not a first century Jew living under Roman occupation.
I’m a citizen of a superpower. I was born among the conquerors. I live in the empire. But I want to read the Bible and think it’s talking to me. This is a problem.
I think he has a point. Perspective is important to be aware of, and we mostly view Scripture through our Western lens. There’s nothing inherently bad with our lens, we miss a lot when we can see outside of it.
But why make this an Advent reflection? Because one of the most revolutionary text occurs in the first chapter of Luke during the narrative of Jesus’ birth. Here, Mary sings her Magnificat:
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. (51-53)
You can hear the cry for justice, years in its formation. Remember, Mary lives as part of an oppressed people waiting on God’s redemption to rescue them. She first celebrates God’s favor on her and then she shifts her attention to the great reversal where the humble are lifted up in God’s plan and the proud are brought down.
And where do we find ourselves in the story? Be careful, because if we’re too quick to align ourselves with lowly Mary when we’re really much like her oppressors, we’ll miss out on something important. When we assume we’re already like her, we have quite a humiliating journey ahead of us.
So, we have to remember that even one our most cherished narratives has a revolutionary tone to it. And to understand it, we should pay fresh attention like Zahnd would have us do.
I have a problem with the Bible, but all is not lost. I just need to read it standing on my head. I need to change my perspective. If I can accept that the Bible is trying to lift up those who are unlike me, then perhaps I can read the Bible right.
Every year during Advent, I enjoy reflecting on this quote from St. Alphonse de Liguori:
My Jesus, supreme and true God! What has drawn Thee from heaven to be born in a cold stable, if not the love which Thou bearest us men? What has allured thee from the bosom of Thy Father, to place Thee in a hard manger? What has brought Thee from Thy throne above the stars to lay Thee down on a little straw? What has led Thee from the midst of the nine choirs of angels, to set Thee between two animals? Thou, who inflamest the seraphim with holy fire, are now shivering with cold in this stable! Thou, who settest the stars in the sky in motion, canst not now move unless others carry Thee in their arms! Thou, who givest men and beasts their food, has need now of a little milk to sustain Thy life! Thou, who art the joy of heaven, dost now whimper and cry in suffering! Tell me, who has reduced Thee to such misery? ‘Love has done it,’ says Saint Bernard. The love which Thou bearest us men has brought all this on Thee.
Too often, we rush through Christmas without reflecting on the extreme dichotomy of Jesus’ heavenly home and him becoming subject to his creation as a baby. There has never been such a scandalous display of love!
Most of us want our lives to matter, but many of us don’t know where to start. I recently shared my heart with The Well about what I believe God has called me to do. My prayer is for everyone to find their own purpose which coincides with Christ’s mission in His community.
My salvation experience came just over ten years ago and since that time I’ve made too many mistakes to count. Some of the ones that make me recoil the most about are those of the Pharisaical variety. You know the ones–when your self-righteousness rises up to help your superiority complex (or, shall I say, god complex?) which tries to subjugate everyone around you. We do this, perhaps, in response to our own insecurity. Sometimes it’s because somebody has put us down or make us look foolish. Sometimes we simply don’t know how to be relatable in our newly discovered faith.
Whatever the reason, I want to make the observation that as Christians we tend to adopt this psuedospirituality so we can show others around us how connected to God we are. But instead of inviting people into an authentic relationship with Jesus, we end up erecting roadblocks to genuine community with His church. And we land in this current situation in society where people have respect and affection for Jesus but not for His followers.
This all leads up to a quote I came across in the book Culture Making by Andy Crouch:
Jesus was a cultivator of culture. He did not just acquire enough maturity to get about his real, “spiritual” business of saving the world and then wash his hands of responsibility to tend and conserve his cultural heritage. He spent prime years simply absorbing, practicing and passing on his culture–not preaching, not healing, not introducing the dramatic innovations that would bring him into conflict with the nation’s leaders.
Simple wisdom for the proud. It’s good for those of us who are so bent on spiritual zeal to reach outsiders and impact society that what Jesus first did was to immerse Himself into His cultural heritage. What this means for us is, though Christianity is a culture of its own, we must work diligently to be in our culture to serve it. We can no longer settle for the wholesale rejection of our society and the resulting escapism into our Christian huddles. We need to drop the insider lingo that makes us sound pious and ultra-holy and relate to people on their level.
I know this brings up more questions than it answers, which is good. My simple point is that we need to look to Jesus as our example and to follow in His footsteps in cultural engagement. He was the most spiritual Man around, yet also the most approachable and connected to the goings on of His surroundings. We desperately need to recover and apply His approach.
In Part 1, I introduced the topic of spiritual violence using the life of John the Baptist as our prime example. In this post I’d like to give a few more examples from the pages of Scripture of people who, in their own way and their own time, lived lives that we spiritually violent.
First, let’s consider a hero of the faith from the Old Testament. King David was the simple shepherd boy who God referred to as the man after His own heart. As he sought God on those sprawling hills near Bethlehem, he became a diligent worshiper with the early skills of a leader preparing to care for the Lord’s nation. He was such a devoted servant that he sought to put comfort and convenience aside in order that God would be glorified. In Psalm 132, David was remembered to have said, “Surely I will not go into the chamber of my house, Or go up to the comfort of my bed; I will not give sleep to my eyes Or slumber to my eyelids, Until I find a place for the LORD, A dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob” (v. 3-5). This posture made David a man who embraced spiritual violence to serve God with all of his being.
Next, let’s consider the Apostle Paul. We all know Paul as the man who, after a radical conversion experience, gave up all of his social and religious clout to follow Jesus and spread the Gospel to the nations. If that weren’t enough to qualify as violent, you can look at the list of things he endured in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 to take the message abroad. To that list, Paul added a qualifier in Philippians 3:13-14 when he said, “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” In other words, all the good work that had been done, as well as all the bad things that occurred (consider again the list), Paul hit delete. He constantly wiped the slate clean to propel himself further into the grace and love of Jesus.
Lastly, we will consider the simple example of Mary of Bethany. In John 12:1-7, the story is told of how Mary anointed Jesus for burial. The oil of spikenard she used was worth an entire year’s salary, and she poured it out on Him without hesitation or regard to the disciples’ objections. All of her financial security and hope for a future–perhaps even a husband–was represented in the vial. Unfortunately, we don’t have time or space to consider all these heroes of spiritual violence, but you can always turn to Hebrews 11 to learn glean from their examples.
And don’t forget to consider the life and example of the One who gave it all for us in the most extravagant act of holy violence–Christ Jesus.
Just over a week ago at The Well I shared briefly on the topic of spiritual violence. It was just enough to evoke a few questions and comments, so I’d like to elaborate a bit on the topic.
The verse I quoted to begin the discussion was Matthew 11:12: “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force” (NKJV). Interesting, don’t you think? Here we find Jesus isolating something about John the Baptist that caught Jesus’ attention enough to merit His commentary. What was it that Jesus was saying here?
Just before He says what He does in verse 12, He says something that is so incredible that it’s hardly imaginable. Jesus says in verse 11, “Among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist.” In other words, of all the humans that have ever lived (except Himself, of course), John is the greatest of them all.
What made John the Baptist so great? Why did heaven “suffer violence” because of him? What does it mean to suffer violence anyway?
The first thing we can rule out is that heaven can be somehow injured because something humans can do. This isn’t suffering that we ordinarily think of. It’s more like “undergoes” or “puts up with.” Heaven is affected, for sure, but not in a negative way.
Next, the violence done isn’t physical violence. We don’t have a record of John hurting anyone. In fact, all the hurtin’ was put on him, in the end. So, “violence” is referring to a forceful act, but no animals have been harmed in its production.
What we’re left with is a picture of John the Baptist in the wilderness, fasting and praying, living a simple lifestyle, waiting on the voice of God. He was the last of the Old Testament prophets whose job it was to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. And, in all that, he got the attention of heaven. John the Baptist was a force to be reckoned with because of his faithful lifestyle and his obedience that ran right up until the end of his life. He said that he was a friend of the Bridegroom and because he heard the voice of the Bridegroom, he was full of joy (John 3:29). And he knew that as Jesus’ life and ministry increased, his job would be to fade to the background to put a brighter spotlight on Him (John 3:30). He is a picture of those who are completely sold out to the kingdom and its King and would do anything to bring honor and glory to Him. And that’s something that gets heaven’s attention.
Next, we’ll develop this a bit more and talk about others in Scriptures who embodied this reality along with John the Baptist.
Last Sunday, the folks at the Well extended a gracious invitation for me to speak at their meeting. Having just concluded a Bible study on the life of King David, I used the platform as an opportunity to speak about his desire to seek the Lord from Psalm 27, specifically verse 4:
One thing I have desired of the LORD,
That will I seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD
All the days of my life,
To behold the beauty of the LORD,
And to inquire in His temple.
As I continue to meditate upon this verse, I cannot help but to connect it to the scene in Luke 10, where Jesus is visiting his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus. As Martha is offering her services, she complains to the Master that her sister is doing little but sitting to listen to Him. His response is quite surprising, as He tells Martha, “One thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken from her.” In other words, Jesus affirms Mary’s (in)action as the response that He has been looking for. No where else in the Gospels do we find Jesus using such strong language to describe someone’s actions in response to Him or something that He does. All this in opposition to Martha’s request that something profitable be done.
King David: “One thing I seek….”
Jesus: “One thing is needed….”
Gazing and listening. Could it be that in the wisdom of God, this posture of receiving from Him could be much more important than anything that we could concoct to do for Him?
“If the believer would enter into a better, deeper, fuller knowledge of God he must prayerfully study the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in the scriptures! Let this be made our chief business, our great delight, to reverently scrutinize and meditate upon the excellencies of our Divine Savior as they are displayed upon the pages of Holy writ. Then, and only then, shall we ‘increase in the knowledge of God’. The ‘light of the knowledge of the glory of God’ is seen only ‘in the face of Jesus Christ.’”
A.W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John, p 23-4.
Over at Justin Taylor’s blog you’ll find a short blurb from an interview with a church leader who is talking about sanctification (there’s also a link to the entire interview). He highlights this section:
Sanctification here at The Village begins by answering two questions. What stirs your affections for Jesus Christ? And what robs you of those affections? Many of the things that stifle growth are morally neutral. They’re not bad things. Facebook is not bad. Television and movies are not bad. I enjoy TV, but it doesn’t take long for me to begin to find humorous on TV what the Lord finds heartbreaking.
The same goes for following sports. It’s not wrong, but if I start watching sports, I begin to care too much. I get stupid. If 19-year-old boys are ruining your day because of what they do with a ball, that’s a problem. These things rob my affections for Christ. I want to fill my life with things that stir my affections for him. . . .
We want our people to think beyond simply what’s right and wrong. We want them to fill their lives with things that stir their affections for Jesus Christ and, as best as they can, to walk away from things that rob those affections—even when they’re not immoral.
I thought it was so good I had to quote it here myself.