Heirs of Hope
Fourth Sunday of Advent
by Daniel Harrell
As with most every Christmas, the angels’ song of “peace on earth” is being mocked again―this year with suicide bombs going off daily in Pakistan and Iraq and the United States announcing a troop escalation in Afghanistan. Ironically, President Obama accepted his Nobel Prize for Peace right after authorizing the military buildup. To the President’s credit, he did acknowledge the irony, remarking in his acceptance speech how, “The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.” In other words, in the real world, when it comes to peace, war is sometimes required. Ironically again, New York Times commentator David Brooks labeled Obama’s speech as a classic example of Christian realism. And I thought, waging war for the sake of peace may be realistic from a foreign policy perspective, but since when is it Christian?
Many trace Christian realism back to the 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas set forth the principle of double effect, which basically states that when a decision has to be made where the act will have both a good and an evil effect, the moral decision must be made on the principle that the good effect outweighs the evil. It’s the main principle behind the theory of just war—to which Obama alluded. Yet Aquinas developed his own theology based upon his reading of Scripture, passages such as the one we read from Paul’s letter to Titus. Paul writes that followers of Jesus must submit themselves to rulers and authorities―even if the rulers and authorities are Roman tyrants. After all, this what Jesus did. His submission to Roman rule was the epitome of double effect. The evil of his unjust death was outweighed by the good of his atoning sacrifice for human sin. “The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.”
No doubt some of you are checking your calendars: Isn’t this the Sunday before Christmas? There’s a beautiful snow outside with lights all aglow. Where’s my manger? How about some shepherds? I came to hear some joy to the world! Why are we reading Titus? Interestingly, this text from Titus is actually assigned for Christmas by the Christian Lectionary—a schedule of readings for each Sunday of the year shared by churches the world over. Park Street doesn’t follow the Lectionary as a rule, but I do check it from time to time to see what’s being read in churches that do. And I was surprised to see the Titus text too. The reason it’s listed is verses 4-7. In Greek these verses comprise a single, poetic sentence leading many scholars to conclude that this is some sort of early Christian hymn or creed. Paul calls it a “trustworthy saying.” It is as tight a summary of the gospel as exists anywhere in the Bible—which is what makes it so appropriate for Christmas. Christmas is about nothing if it’s not about Jesus coming into the world to save sinners.
But how do you do that as fallen people in a fallen world? Well, technically, we’re not fallen people anymore. We’ve been bathed and reborn. And yet one of the paradoxes of the Christian faith is that the very people who’ve been bathed and reborn still need a bath. Using another analogy, Paul described the Christian life as having to run a race he’d already won. The problem is that we run the race more like hamsters on a wheel of sin and forgiveness and sin and forgiveness. Rather than treating grace as motivation for obedience, we treat the Bible’s commands as unreachable ideals only good for making us feel guilty. But grace is not supposed to make you feel guilty. It’s supposed to inspire you and empower you to do better. When Paul says “to do whatever is good, speak bad of nobody, avoid quarreling, be considerate, show courtesy and genuine humility,” he’s not being idealistic. You can actually do that that. It’s hard, but you can do it.
Of course the victory Mary declares hardly looked like a victory. Her own life went from triumphant singing to scandalous hand-wringing. Her husband Joseph considered divorcing her since everybody knew the baby wasn’t his (and nobody was going to believe God did it). Caesar’s coerced relocation induced Mary to give birth in a feed trough. And as for the Son of God himself, rather than toppling tyrants, Jesus gets toppled himself. Instead of lifting up the humble, Jesus gets humiliated himself. But that’s what the gospel looks like. Even in heaven. Turn to the last pages of the New Testament and you’d expect to find a risen Jesus all ferocious and victorious in heaven, an Aslan the Lion figure, especially since he gets announced that way. Yet when Jesus shows up what you see is not a ferocious King of the Beasts but a bleeding baby of beasts, a vulnerable lamb having been butchered. It doesn’t seem to be much of a victory. But that’s what the gospel looks like. A Lion conquers by inflicting death, but the Lamb conquers by dying. The Successor to King David’s rides out to wage war, but the Lamb of God suffers all the casualties.
Christ came at Christmas in humility and weakness, only to die as victim and enemy on account of the human sins he bore. A Lion conquers by inflicting death, but the Lamb conquers by dying. The Successor to King David’s rides out to wage war, but the Lamb of God suffers all the casualties. However death is at work so that resurrection can work. Salvation comes not by political uprising but by Jesus rising up from the dead and bringing with him a new heaven and a whole new earth. Jesus takes our blame and wins our race―and all that’s left for us is to run the race we’ve already won. As long as our hope is in Christ we can wait. And if we can wait, we can live like a hopeful people. We can run.
Third Sunday of Advent
by Daniel Harrell
It’s one thing to get all you ever wanted for Christmas. It’s quite another thing to get what you never wanted. To guard against the latter, my wife’s family has this helpful tradition of making gift lists with the exact specifications and locations of acceptable presents. It makes for a very stress-free Christmas on both the giving and receiving ends. However, such practicality deletes the unpredictability that was always a part of Christmas in my house. Our family placed a high value on insightfulness and understanding. It’s one thing to get someone the perfect gift because they told you exactly what to get, quite another to know someone so well that you can figure it out for yourself. It is more risky, I know. It requires that you actually pay attention to the people in your family. That you understand their needs. That you know what makes them happy. That you really care about them enough to pick up on the little things. Which is why I just give cash. I’ve blown it too many times.
I had to laugh at the latest MasterCard commercial with Colts’ quarterback Peyton Manning and actress Alyson Hannigan. My patriotic dislike of the Colts notwithstanding, the commercial reminded me so much of me. Take a look.
Nevertheless, some Christmases I get in the Christmas spirit for the gift-giving challenge. A few years back, just before Christmas, my grandfather, rest his soul, died after a battle with Alzheimer’s. The family gathered at the funeral home to honor his life and bid him safe passage to glory, taking turns to view the open casket containing a body that never looks like the person―which perhaps is how it should be. Afterwards, reflecting upon our own mortality, my wife Dawn―who is an avid fan of both Tolkien and Norse mythology―mentioned off-handedly how when it comes her time to go, she’d like to be buried holding a sword. And I thought: Jingle bells! What a perfect chance to show Dawn how well I pay attention and understand her! How well I know what she really wants! How well I pick up on the little things. So I jumped online and Googled broadswords and lo and behold, eBay was stocked to the hilt. I found the perfect present.
While this was hard to wrap and disguise under the tree, I managed to pull it off. Christmas morning came and Dawn tried to guess what it was. She thought maybe an extension for the vacuum cleaner. Or an ironing board. Something sexy like that. Boy was she in for a surprise! She eagerly unwrapped it―unsheathed it―and I saw that look in her eyes. I could tell she was thrilled. She hardly knew what to say. “A sword. You bought me a sword. Why did you buy me a sword?” I said, “remember how you mentioned that when you died you wanted to be buried holding a sword? Now you have one!” “Well, thank you, dear. How sweet. It’s good to get those funeral arrangements out of the way early. It’s a shame Santa couldn’t get a casket down the chimney too.” “Oh, don’t be silly,” I said. We don’t―have―a―chimney. Wait a minute. Was she being sarcastic? Nah. She loved it. I could tell. She couldn’t sleep for nights afterwards. She’d just lie there in bed with her eyes wide open clutching that sword in her hand, staring at me in shock. I could tell she was excited. She was so excited that she could hardly eat. She refused to put a single morsel of anything I cooked in her mouth for the next several weeks. She wouldn’t ride with me in the car either. Though come to think of it, that was a little weird.
I wonder how Mary felt when the magi rolled out their third gift of myrrh. On the one hand, myrrh was a luxury aromatic spice fit for a priest. It was used to anoint a Jewish high priest for service. That certainly fit. The Magi had come to worship the newborn king, but Jesus was the newborn priest too. To be priest is to intercede and make sacrifices to God for the sake of his people. But on the other hand, myrrh was also used to anoint dead bodies. In a day before funeral homes, preservatives and caskets, myrrh kept corpses from stinking. Was this any present to give to a baby? What would you do as a mother if someone showed up to your baby shower bearing embalming fluid? Why not just give Mary a sword too?
Actually, that would come a few weeks later. Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple to be presented to God as the Torah commanded of every firstborn male. While there, an aged priest named Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit enough to recognize Jesus as the Savior he’d been waiting for, let loose praising God. He blessed Mary too―only his blessing was about as welcome as that box of myrrh. Simeon said to Mary, “a sword will pierce your soul too.” “Too” because Mary, along with Jesus, was due to suffer deep anguish: Mary at the loss of her son. Jesus at the loss of his life. After his dreaful death, there was no suitable place for Jesus to be buried, just as there had been no place for him to be born. A sympathetic Pharisee named Joseph offered up a spare burial tomb, and another Pharisee named Nicodemus offered the myrrh. The Magi were right after all.
Simeon was right too. A sword no doubt pierced Mary’s heart. What mother can ever endure the death of her child? As for Jesus, the sword he suffered was the cross on which he was killed. Like a sword, the cross was an instrument of death. Author Andy Crouch reminds that there were crosses long before there was the cross. The Romans designed it in world in which rebellion against the empire’s peace needed to be brutally and publically punished. But what began in the minds of some as a grim necessity, was perverted in Jesus’ case into an instrument of senseless violence against the innocent. Jesus was “literally impaled on the worst that the world could do—an instrument of torture that stood for all the other dead ends of history, from spears to bombs, from gas chambers to water boards. There is nothing good that can be affirmed about the cross; it was designed to extinguish life in most horrifying fashion. The cross represents the culmination of human history gone wrong. If “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in Jesus birth, they were shattered at Jesus’ death. On the cross, Jesus suffered the full weight of human rebellion―not against Rome―but against God. And yet, as Andy puts it, “The strangest and most wonderful paradox of the biblical story is that its most consequential moment is not an action but a passion—not a doing but a suffering.” Jesus is priest, but he is also the sacrifice.
What kind of Christmas present is this? You come expecting birth but all you get is death? The great American poet TS Eliot, in his poem Journey of the Magi, asked, “were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”
And yet in another strange and wonderful paradox of the biblical story, this death―our death―is also our birth. The Nicodemus who brought the myrrh for Jesus’ burial is the same Nicodemus whom Jesus told that he needed to be born again. This made no sense to Nicodemus, of course, how can someone already born enter his mother’s womb a second time? Jesus answered that the Spirit gives birth to spirit, by which he meant God makes it possible. God turns death into new birth through the cross. The full weight of human rebellion―our rebellion―suffered by Jesus, dies and gets buried with Jesus. And then he rises from the dead three days later, bringing with him the full weight of God’s redemption, the full weight of God’s grace and forgiveness―for us. It is this redemption, this grace, that makes spiritual rebirth possible. As we will sing tonight, “born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them―give us―second birth.” A new birth, a new beginning, a new life, a new start―starting now: It’s all you could ever want for Christmas. And with Jesus, all you could ever want is what you always get.
O Little Town of Bethlehem (Micah 5)
Second Sunday of Advent
by Daniel Harrell
Tonight’s installment from Micah features one of the most familiar passages in all of the Old Testament. We hear it read every Advent in Matthew’s Christmas story. You know it well: After Jesus was born in