Thursday, December 20, 2018
There are two forces in the world that affect our human decisions and our motives. We know them as the political operations of the world and the spiritual operations of the heaven. They are constantly driving us and competing for our loyalty, but as Jesus says you cannot serve God and mammon. (He could have easily said, “You cannot serve God and Politics”) You must choose. Paul even addresses the issue with the following statement, “Jesus made inoperative the principalities and powers of this world.” His point being that we called upon to prioritize between Jesus’ way of life and a political way of life. What do we do? How are we to live amidst the two forces? We have a better idea of this battle and how to choose when we understand what both operations are trying to do in this world. Strangely Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus helps us to glean the purpose of both. In his telling of the story he exposes the motives of the political world and its assault on the life of the lowly of the world, and what God is trying to do in the world.
So what is the operation of politics? It is actually a very good word highlighting the purpose of the state to govern the communities it is responsible for. It is meant to express the desires of people to make decisions for the welfare of the state. It first came into existence during the Athenian Democracy. But what happened over the years in Athens and then throughout the centuries is that those rising to power didn’t want to give up power and they began to shape the political purpose instead of the people. Therefore, politics is a vulnerable operation that needs the voice of the many, but usually only receives the voice of the few. It makes it susceptible to corruption and moves against the spiritual sphere of life to quiet its voice.
In the subtle telling of the story of Jesus’ birth Luke exposes the operation of the political strategy of Rome. Luke says when Mary was pregnant, Quirinius, under obligation to Augustus, calls for a census of the people in Israel and other nations. They needed to put together an evaluation of tax income so it was determined that a census was necessary to provide this information. You can imagine it became a burden on the populace. The poor who did not live in their own place of birth had to travel, and travel was expensive. But for the wealthy it was not. The state did not care about the poor or the economically challenged. They just wanted to know the number. The spiritual sphere of kindness was under assault. The rich had their way of getting off the hook, but the poor had no power. Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem miles away from where they lived. Politics, instead of helping all its citizens, burdened them and their livelihood and personal life. Mary had to go while being pregnant. Politics may be necessary but when it is governed by indifference it does not help.
Luke continues with his story and tells of the divine announcement which was not to the powerful but to the lowly. The divine voice often moves the insignificant of the world and then makes them the ones who will hold the truth for those who want to believe. Politics can drown out the voice of the spiritual but it will always be carried by those who walk humbly in the world. The shepherds came running to Bethlehem but I wonder if the powerful would have done so. It is not that the political sphere is against the spiritual, according to Luke, it is just indifferent to its purpose. But Luke, and eventually Jesus himself, proclaims that the real life of the citizens of this world is lived outside the world of politics. We live in the world of the spiritual.
We will never live in a world without politics; that is the ordering of communities by a constitution driven by the powerful. It will always be imperfect and at times will be indifferent to the needs of all its citizens. What we can hope for is that the world of the spiritual will continue to affect the hearts of both citizens and leaders to bend their actions to God’s will. But what Luke reminds us of is that it is the humble who God entrusts with the Good News of salvation. That is a hopeful thing. God chooses the weak of the world to confound the wise. God chooses the lowly of the world to bend the knees of the proud. I love the way Luke describes the response of the Shepherds after hearing the news of the child born in Bethlehem, “Let’s go and see this thing the Lord has done.” No skepticism, no indifference and no ambivalence. In fact the original language suggests that they ran to Bethlehem. They couldn’t wait. The Angel’s excited them with their message. They were not only excited for themselves, they were excited for the world. The Messiah will come and bend the knee of all by his glory, not his message of fear. Politics will not be able to use his coming for its own ends, because the embrace of the message will expose the indifference of power for what it is. Instead the child will attempt to bring the world together, “I am bringing you good news of great joy to the entire world. Today is born to you a savior.”
Friday, December 14, 2018
We are moving thirty years ahead from the Wise-Men’s trip to Bethlehem where they came to pay tribute to the baby Jesus. We find ourselves beside a stream with a man that has taken up the vocation of a prophet, in the spirit of Isaiah and Elijah. He is rough and stern. He demands transparency from those that come to him confessing and demanding baptism of purification. He warns them that the day of judgment is coming but that God is merciful. He goes on to tell them that being a child of Abraham is not enough to escape God’s eventual judgment. God is going to judge us from the heart and not by our ethnicity. He also tells them that one is coming to baptize them with the Holy Spirit which is much stronger and purer than what he is offering. In other words, they are in the vortex, the crucible of danger and they need to repent from their dishonorable ways. John the Baptist proclaims a message of preparation while being a formidable advocate for God and for the coming new world.
Why does Matthew draw us into this story on the heels of Jesus’ birth? It is simple. The purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world is now on the brink of becoming real. The child is now coming into his own. He comes to John the Baptist demanding that John would baptize him. But why? Why would the chosen child need baptism? It is a complicated question, but it is a part of his purpose. Jesus is not coming to judge others; he is coming to love and let the love judge the hearts of others. John’s words burn with fear and apocalyptic intention. But when John says, “he will baptize with the Holy Spirit”, he is announcing a different kind of reason for repentance. That reason is that Jesus’ message will burn the hearts of people with his offer of love instead of his message of hellfire. Both have their place but Jesus wants to save people from themselves so they will be able to see God through a different prism.
Jesus’ purpose is to bring redemption to the world. John is rounding up all those who would listen to him. He pronounced a future where God will sift people through his truth and there will be people who will be found wanting. When religious leaders would come he wasn’t really excited. Before they came to offer their repentance he said, “You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” His point was unless you change your behavior you will have no part of this new redemptive world. Don’t count on being a Jew to save you. Those days are over.
This message is a far cry from the stories of Jesus’ birth that are filled with hope. There are no angels announcing “peace on earth” to people of good will in John’s message. Even when he announces “the one coming that is greater than I” it seems as though he is presenting someone who will be more exacting in their judgment on others. But what do the words mean “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Redemption is not complete unless people change. Confession is not enough. By baptizing people in the Holy Spirit Jesus is opening up their hearts through the spirit of truth. The Holy Spirit is truth. What John is getting at and what Jesus demonstrates is the building of a community that is based on humility. The spirit of truth stands before them and they are judged by their own convictions. In this way Jesus’ judgment is greater than John’s. It is also more impactful in the world. By Jesus creating people that stand under their own judgment through the spirit of truth the world then has a chance at peace.
We all know from experience that when we are confronted with the depth of our sinful self, realizing the pain we have caused, we are our most exacting judges. The gift of the spirit is the gift of life because it is the gift of freedom. So John is right that Jesus’ judgment in some way is more powerful. His judgment comes with the possibility of real change in people’s lives and therefore opens up the possibility of the experience of redemption here and now. After all, redemption is the experience that our sins are forgiven. The spirit of truth is not only revelatory but it is healing as well. When the spirit comes into our life we not only hear the words of condemnation, but we hear the words of forgiveness. Thus begins a life of renewal and hope. This is the purpose of the Christ child. He brings peace on earth because he brings truth and forgiveness.