The Silence of Jesus–And Ours

Our age is an age of voice. Everyone has a voice that we want heard by others.

But the inevitable corollary to living in such an age is that many, many voices crying out in the Wilderness of Twitter means also that there will be a bewildering cacophony of voices are all striving to be heard at once.

That can mean only one thing: if some voices are to be heard at all, others will necessarily need to be silenced.

But as has been abundantly, and rightly, noted these days: Having a voice silenced is one of the signs of living under oppression of some sort.

But what if silence were golden, as the old saying goes? What if there is, as Scripture says, a time to speak and a time to be silent? (Interestingly, the verse I’m alluding to, Ecclesiastes 3:7 actually reverses the saying: “a time to be silent and a time to speak”–might silence logically precede speaking?)


I’m writing this in the midst of a massive social upheaval, which, by the way, I won’t name or describe, for fear that whatever I say about it, the main import of what I would want to say will be–silenced. Silenced either because what I say does not align with mainstream attitudes, or with the attitudes of my peers; silenced because I have no authority to speak on it; or silenced just because I haven’t simply said it loud or brash enough. So if you are reading this at some future date, you will have to look at the original posting date to piece together what I am referring to. For those reading right now as this is posted, it will be obvious.

As a public theologian, I often feel under tremendous pressure to say something to each and every issue that comes up. I’m feeling that pressure right now, to be sure. Especially because I see so many of my fellow theologians saying such important stuff. Good on them.

But whether it be fear, or simply a kind of intellectual paralysis that keeps me from speaking directly to the issues at hand, or more likely, a deep sense of spiritual inadequacy to speak to the issues, I’ve tended to view my silence in such times as a kind of fault, a sign of theological or professional or even personal weakness.

I’m reminded of a criticism that Karl Barth faced often in his life. Why don’t you address issue X or debate Y? For example, though Barth directly and often addressed the problem of German National Socialism head on, he was silent on the invasion of communism in the Eastern bloc countries. Why a scathing critique of Nazism, and yet silence on Soviet Communism, his critics demanded? To which Barth, for the most part, remained silent.

Perhaps Barth failed. (He certainly had his share of personal, moral and yes, theological failures). Perhaps I am failing right now. (That’s certainly a good possibility). Maybe Barth should have given as much effort to critique Stalin as he did Hitler. Maybe I should be putting more effort to speak to the current issues as some of the issues I’ve spoken to in the past. God will be the judge. However, I am instructed and inspired by Barth’s decision, and maybe even discipline, to remain silent, despite the harsh criticism, even condemnation, he subsequently received.

I’ve also, more importantly, been comforted deeply as of late by the words of Jesus who says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:38)

In the midst of the current crises (yes, I use the plural there), I admit that I am feeling weary and burdened by it all. And my burden just grows as I feel increasing pressure to say something profound, incisive, sharp, definitive, witty, even. So I find myself silent on today’s pressing issues dominating air and (a)ether(net). And so Jesus’ words have been a balm to my soul in these trying times. I’m a theologian, yes, charged to speak God’s Word to the situation we find ourselves in. But sometimes, I think, theologians, too, should be quiet. Sometimes I have to resign myself that it’s okay not to speak all of the time.

Notice, I didn’t say theologians should always be silent. I do not judge those who are seeking to speak a word into our current situation. God bless them, God bless you who read this and are labouring to speak God’s Word to our situation.

But for those who do speak: Be sure to protect your soul as you speak. And be sure you have to speak. Just because you can speak and have a platform and audience to whom to speak, don’t presume you are thereby bound to speak. Speak out of the well-spring of Spirit-filled prayer and Spirit-led biblical reflection, not just out of an intellectual guttural reaction.

This all comes to me as I’ve been reflecting lately, and deeply struck by, the places in the Gospels where we sometimes see Jesus in silence.

As I see it, there are three types of silence we can observe in Jesus. I think all of them can be instructive to us at this time.

The Silence of parable

The first type of silence that Jesus practiced was the silence of parable. Now this isn’t a direct kind of verbal silence but is a kind of verbal indirection and/or redirection. It’s speech that does not say something head on, but which expects that which is not said to have the impact.

Anyone familiar with the Gospel accounts knows that Jesus often spoke in parables as a way of indirectly saying something. It’s why he sometimes said, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.” (e.g., Mark 4:9, 23).

The silence of parable is such that a story or analogy or even a personal account might have greater impact than speaking to an issue head on. Jesus spoke in parables very intentionally, knowing that there would be three types of responses.

Some, of course, would hear a parable from Jesus and with frustration, say, “What in the world is he talking about?”

This response might seem like a failure to communicate. But for these people, a parable is actually a grace to them because their hearts may not have been in a place either to accept or reject the truth to which the parable points.  To them the parable is simply verbal nonsense, a kind of encoded message for which they did not have the cipher.  Receiving the message doesn’t necessarily mean that they reject it. It may have been that they simply weren’t capable or equipped or in a place to hear it or understand it. Perhaps days and weeks later, as they mulled over that verbal nonsense in their head, the Spirit would enlighten them a with spiritual decoding Key such that they joyfully accept it. Others, tragically, harden their hearts even further in outright rejection, even once the key is given. (Cf. Heb 6:1-9)

Others would hear Jesus speak a parable and be offended, sometimes even to the point of responding in utter rage. I think of the time Jesus quoted the Proverb (a super-short parable, of sorts), “Physician, heal thyself” only to face an angry mob wanting to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4). These heard the parable and understood its meaning quite well, thank you very much. It wasn’t for lack of understanding, but refusal of will to bend their hearts and minds to it.

(I’m reminded of a friend in my McGill days who was doing his PhD in NT. He probably understood the meaning of Jesus’ parables at one level better than I ever will, but who outrightly confessed to me that he rejected them not because he couldn’t understand them, but because he could not commit himself to the life of discipleship that he knew Jesus demanded. Sad!)

And yet others, whose heart-soil was freshly cultivated by the Spirit to receive the seed of the Word, received the hidden truth of the parable with joy–and repented.

Today, I wonder: Who are the parable-theologians we ought to be listening to? And to what extent might we be called, not to face issues head on, but to work with story, with analogy, with testimony, not to solve an otherwise insoluble puzzle, but to throw something into the mix that the Spirit might choose to use, whether that be for the sake of repentance, comfort, or exhortation, or all.

Maybe sometimes the stories being told are the theological words that need to be heard. Maybe the key to hearing them isn’t for me to come along and give a theological explanation. Maybe the Spirit can use those stories on their own to reveal the truths people need to absorb deep within their spirits and souls. Maybe we don’t always need a theologian to come alongside to clarify what is already clear. As in digital image manipulation, sometimes over-clarifying something actually leads to distortion.

We need more poet theologians. More novel (as in the book) theologians. More creative arts theologians. More story-tellers. More spoken-word artists. More painters. More musicians. More Christians who simply say, “I don’t have all the answers but here’s a little story about something that Jesus has done for me.” These parables of life, literature art, and story may well be used of God in sometimes more powerful ways than the “direct-speech” in which we theologians so often engage.

The Silence of Rest

If the silence of parable is a kind of indirect speech, a type of verbal Judo whereby we redirect speech away from direct speaking to a critical issue, the second is all-out bodily silence–a silence of rest.

In Mark 6, we read:

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

As I write this, I confess that this is the place from which I write. I am exhausted by a year filled with double-duty, with family crisis and distance, with personal health issues, with various global crises, and with the tiredness that comes just weeks before some slated time-off.

It’s perhaps a good reason why I need probably need to simply to shut up and not pretend to have the energy or words to say that I might otherwise wish I had.

As the apostles excitedly report to Jesus a résumé of their accomplishments, all the good things they had done and all the good stuff they had said, they turn around and–there are more people in need!

The response we might have expected from our Loving Lord is that of compassion. Based on his responses elsewhere in the Gospels, we might expect him to look at the multitudes in need with deep love and care. We expect his heart to break for them. We expect him to turn to the apostles and say, “You feed them.” (He did direct the apostles to do just that on other occasions).

What a mighty surprise it must have been when Jesus said, “You know what? Let’s go. You’re all tired and hungry–and so am I. Let’s find a quiet place where we can eat, and rest. Enough working, enough talking. Let’s take a personal day.”

As I wrote the previous paragraph, the image of a kindergarten or pre-school class came to mind. I think of the tremendous amount of energy expended by a class of pre-schoolers throughout the course of the day, and I’m not surprised that, in the midst of it all, both kids and teachers need “nap time.” (Maybe teachers more than kids, but kids for sure, need it, too!)

Humans are “soulish” creatures (Cf. Gen2:7) which means that who we are as humans is not simply the sum total of our words and actions. Far too often, we derive our worth precisely in that, as rewarding as it can be. The apostles, I’m sure, were thrilled beyond imagination to be on the Lord’s mission, speaking and doing and helping as they were. But Jesus knew them better than themselves. Humans cannot be sustained alone on the bread of their words and actions. Such bread will eventually lead to malnourishment of the soul.

I guess the rather simple but oft-overlooked point is this: Sometimes, even when the multitude of people and issues seem to be raising more urgent need than ever, the best thing is to pull away, to rest, to be silent, to have a snack and a nap. Elijah and Jesus did it. So, too, should we.

And so today, I covenant with the Lord, and maybe some of you, too, that today, and perhaps even for the next while, it’s okay that I have little reserve of words to say and actions to do in the face of the current crises.

I will rest in silence.

The Silence in the Face of Power

And sometimes The Word said–Nothing.

There are a few occasions in the Gospels where Jesus surprises us with nothing.

For example, sometimes he refuses to answer a question.

Luke 20 One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, together with the elders, came up to him. “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”

He replied, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me: John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”

So they answered, “We don’t know where it was from.”

Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Now granted, Jesus does speak here, but I’m awed by how here, at least, he answers a question with a question. And when the answer was not forthcoming, Jesus decided that therefore, he too, would not answer. I wish the editors of the text would have entitled this section, “When Christ clammed up!”

I think this little incident is instructive for us, especially in situations where, perhaps, we are being forced to take a side, fully knowing that whatever answer we give, we will be condemned from both sides.

Jesus saw through these power plays. And he simply refused to play along. How refreshing is that!

For me, at least, I am the kind of person who always wants to be on the right side. I’m not inherently a rebellious personality or a rhetorical provocateur. I want peace and quiet and order. That can, to be sure, good at times, but it can also be a bad thing. It can be a sign of complicity, duplicity, and cowardice.

So yes, sometimes we have to stand up for the right things, even if we are unpopular with our peers for doing so and even when it causes high level of stress and discomfort. I’ve been there and frankly, I don’t like it.

But sometimes, is there not an overwhelming sense of pressure to answer every question and respond to every critique? Maybe it’s just me but it seems to me that theologians and pastors and Bible teachers here are flooding the internet (“Hey, look at me as I post yet another blog post!” Smirk…) with an attempt to be heard, to provide answers, to guide the flock.

Again, I do not judge those who do this. May God bless you.

But for others, let me suggest that though Jesus often and regularly calls out injustice and hypocrisy and, yes, sin itself, other times, he knows that sometimes, anything he says will be condemned from every side and that sometimes, it is just better to be silent. It serves no purpose, ours or God’s, when we speak and it does nothing but create a deeper trench of division or even hatred. Sometimes we have to hang on to our pearls.

So Jesus is my exemplar here: If Jesus doesn’t have to answer every question thrown at him, I would hope he will be okay when I don’t answer every question either. May I simply have the grace and discernment to know when to speak and when to be silent. And it is in those times of silence when in fact, my actions will need to speak louder than my words.

But there’s another crucial moment of silence in Jesus’ ministry:

62 Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. (Matt 26)

If you want to do a fascinating study, read through the various Gospel accounts and observe how Jesus responded, or didn’t, before the authorities leading up to his crucifixion. Whole books could be written on how Jesus responded, or didn’t, to various audiences.

Both before the high priest and Pilate, Jesus spoke. And was silent. Matthew records that Pilate was amazed that “Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge.” (Matt 27:14)

In the face of false accusation, in the face of power seeking to divide and conquer, Jesus is silent.

Now, I acknowledge that we have to be so very careful here. When Jesus was accused of wrongdoing, we know the charges were false. He is the man in whom no fault or deceit can be found. In that regard, he isn’t like us. Unlike Jesus, we have plenty of accusations that could be lodged against us for good and right reason. And if we are silent, it is because we know the accusations to be true. Such silence, in the face of a direct confrontation of grace (L. Gregory Jones) would be tantamount to a denial. When we’ve sinned, we ought to confess with our mouth.

Nevertheless, we need to be instructed here by Jesus: He is silent at a crucial moment, that is, when the rhetoric directed toward him is being used as means of exerting power over him.

It’s in those moments, Jesus refuses to play and meets the rhetoric with silence.

Isn’t it ironic? The crowds wanted Jesus to be quiet, and Pilate wanted him to speak.

To the crowds Jesus spoke, and to Pilate Jesus refused to speak. What’s the commonality?

In both cases, speech was being used as a power-play. The crowds demanded silence from Jesus because his words to them were uncomfortable. “We had better shut him up, then!” the crowds reasoned.

Pilate on the other hand, wanted answers from Jesus because he knew that Jesus was being unjustly accused. For Pilate to condemn and innocent man would call into question his own concern for justice.  “Answer me, dammit!” we can hear Pilate demand. “I have the power of life and death over you and you refuse to answer me?”

But again, Jesus knew the truth. As he says in John 10:17-18, “I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”

So, when being threatened to speak lest we overpower you, the appropriate response seems to be silence. Not rolling over and cowering, but standing firm in silence. Sometimes those verbal power-plays come at us from without–from those outside the Church, outside the faith. But tragically, all too often those power plays are coming at us from within. Even Christians are being forced to line up on sides and say the right words. In such instances, I think we need to have the courage of silence.

Undoubtedly, we are in time when speech is being used in both good and wicked and yes, even in trivial ways. Speech is a gift of God and having a voice is part of what it means to be created as the ambassador image of God. We speak and preach and instruct and praise and worship with our mouths to the Glory of God.

But speech, we so well know, can divide and conquer as well. And so when demands are placed upon us, demands and pressures to speak so that the other side can be overwhelmed or silenced, we had better weigh our speech carefully and prayerfully. If we are being called upon to silence others, our speech is violence.

In that case, it is better, I believe, to be silent.







Christmas Longings—and the Desire of the Nations

Do you remember as a child anxiously and breathlessly waiting for Christmas to come?

In my childhood home, we followed the tradition of gathering as a family to read the Christmas story and open gifts on Christmas Eve (followed by stocking stuffers on Christmas morning!). I remember when I was about 8 years old that the wait was particularly difficult. I anticipated and dreamed of getting a Meccano set, though I wasn’t quite sure if I was getting it. So it seemed like torture waiting for gift opening time.

However, after Dad’s customary reading of the Christmas story, we were ready to open our presents. I tore into my present and was thrilled with the discovery of my Meccano set!


And even though that toy was the source of many hours of enjoyment and learning in months and years to come, I also distinctly remember that by the end of Christmas Day, I had these strange feelings of let-down, or mild disappointment.

It wasn’t disapppointment about the gifts—I loved what I had received. But it was that all the anticipation and euphoria was followed by a strange feeling of sadness and even a tinge of emptiness. I’m sure it had a lot to do with how much I worked myself up into an emotional frenzy that made coming down from the euphoria a bit more noticeable to my eight-year old self.

C.S. Lewis, Sehnsucht, and Christmas

C.S. Lewis adopted a German word for this feeling: Sehnsucht (ZANE-zookt). It was a word Lewis used often to describe the deep longings and desires of the soul that were often left unfulfilled. Oxford English Dictionary defines it simply as “yearning, or wistful longing.” It’s a difficult concept to put into words (though Lewis is one of the best to do so), but most of us get it because we’ve all felt it at one point or another. We’ve hoped, and despaired when hope did not play out, often enough in our life that we intuitively understand Sehnsucht. 

Christmas can be a dangerous and depressing time of year for many. We put so much stock into the season, anticipating that it will somehow be “magical” and deeply satisfying, only to find ourselves with that feeling of emptiness again. It probably doesn’t help either when we find ourselves wondering why many of us don’t have the same excitement or anticipation in the Christmas season as we once did when we were kids.

However, rather than seeing the unsatisfied longings that are sparked and dashed often at Christmas, it may be better to ask ourselves what that longing, that wistfulness, is itself pointing to.

Here Lewis comes to the rescue. In discussing Sehnsucht in his famous little book, Mere Christianity, he puts it this way:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

I’m a bit theologically nervous with Lewis’ last phrase which speaks of being made for another world, even though I do buy into what I think he intends to say. In saying that we were made for another world, we need to be careful not to read into Lewis here a kind of escapism or even a tinge of Gnosticism: Lewis is too careful a thinker to do that. He wasn’t saying that we need somehow to escape God’s creation or that only an escape from this world will satisfy our deepest longings.

Rather, I think Lewis’ sense here is more along the lines of Jesus’ own words when he said, “I am not of this world.”  (John 8:23). Here Jesus isn’t saying that he does not share our humanity—he most certainly did and does, and Christmas is that time when we affirm that God’s Son took on full and permanent humanity. Rather, he is saying is that the origin or source of his identity and person is not derived from the created world, but from his Father in heaven.

The true Desire of our Desires

Christmas is ironically a time when we hope to see our deepest longings and desires to be fulfilled, only to find ourselves over and over again deeply disappointed. The gifts and family times and turkey meals are all great, and I’m not critiquing those things which can serve up good moments of joy delight.

However, the strange paradox of Christmas is that so many hopes are placed in things that cannot ultimately satisfy, even though Christmas is the time to commemorate the coming of the One who truly is the “desire of the nations.” As the prophet Haggai foretold:

I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty.

Hard to believe that the babe in a manger is the one who will shake the nations, and yet he is indeed the one whom the nations truly desire—despite their, and our, unwillingness or failure to acknowledge him as the fulfilment of the deepest desires and longings of our hearts.


The Prophetic and Political Significance of Jesus’ Natal Announcement

We tend to be aware of the prophetic significance of the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in Luke 2. As Christian readers we are likely to grasp how the announcement was directed to Jewish shepherds who (likely) would have seen it as a fulfilment of Hebrew prophecy.

But we may be less attuned to fact that the announcement would have also been heard by Gentile recipients reading Luke’s Gospel as a radical political statement. Both of these aspects are important to understand, so let’s look at them in order. How might a typical Jewish person hear the angelic announcement? And how might a typical Gentile or Greek hear it?

The Prophetic Significance of the Angelic Announcement

First, let’s recall what the angel told the shepherds:

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11).

Here I want to highlight four words or phrases from the angel of the Lord’s announcement: 1) Good News; 2) Saviour; 3) Messiah; and 4) the Lord. (2:10-11)

From a Jewish perspective, the four words would likely be received as an announcement of the fulfillment of the prophetic hope of the Hebrew Bible.

Good news – The prophet Isaiah (which has sometimes been called “The Fifth Gospel”) makes repeated mention of “good news.” (E.g., Isaiah 40:9, 41:27; 52:7). Thus, when the angel of the Lord announces that he is bringing “good news that will cause great joy for all the people,” Jewish shepherds are likely to have their minds drawn to these promises.For example, think of Isaiah 40:9 which says,

You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem, 
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”

What is the good news? “Here is your God!” It’s no wonder the shepherds went for a look!

Saviour – The word Saviour is derived from the Hebrew name “Joshua” which literally means, “Yahweh is salvation.” When the shepherds arrive at the manger side and find out his name is “Jesus” (the Greek version of Hebrew Joshua), the connection of this baby to Israel’s promises of deliverance embodied in Joshua would have been obvious.

Messiah – This word, of course, is at the heart of Jewish hopes. The Hebrew Scriptures long predicted the coming of the anointed one. And any Jewish person who was even minimally attentive knew that the Messiah would come from the line and house of King David. Of course, that the shepherds were directed to and found their way to Bethlehem, the city of David, well, that just was icing on the cake!

Lord – But just in case the shepherds missed it, the angel of the Lord declared that the baby is “the Messiah, the Lord.” The word “Lord” (Greek, kyrios) here is loaded with significance. As Larry Hurtado points out, the word Lord or kyrios, “had become a widely-used oral substitute for YHWH among Greek-speaking Jews.” I don’t know what language the angels spoke to the shepherds in, but for Luke, there is a clear connection of the identity of the Messiah with the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible.

In short, for Jewish readers of Luke’s account, it is clear that Jesus is to be understood as the fulfillment of Jewish hopes as testified to in Hebrew Scripture. The long awaited Messiah had come, and the shepherd’s did not delay in going to see him. And when they did, they went out, witnessing to what they’d heard the angels tell them about the child (Lk. 2:17). (Notice here that their witness consisted primarily in what they heard. Although they speak both of what they heard and saw (v.20), it is the angelic message which gives content to their witness, not so much what they saw.)

The Political Significance of the Angelic Announcement

But what about for Gentiles or Greek speaking readers? How would Luke’s record of the angelic announcement resonate with them?

Here we need to run through these four words once again, but this time I want to argue that for our Gentile author, Luke, and for what we assume would be in the first instance a predominantly Gentile audience, the words elicit a radical political announcement.

Here we must not miss the connection between the opening line (“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree . . .”) and the proclamation of the angel of the Lord in Luke 2:10-12. It is easier to see, as above, how this announcement aligns with Hebrew expectation because we are more likely to be familiar with the Old Testament. But it is a bit less obvious to see the radical political implications of the angelic announcement apart from some extra-biblical information that most readers of the Gospel today do not have immediately at their fingertips. Remember that for most Gentiles reading or hearing the Gospel of Luke for the first time, they would have far less familiarity with the Hebrew Bible than, say, Matthew’s readers and hearers. Thus, when Luke provides his account, it is in the context of the historic figure of Caesar Augustus. Thus, the political allusions would have more likely resonated with Greek/Gentile hearers.

In short, everything that is said about Jesus by the angel as recorded by Luke was previously directly or indirectly attributed to Caesar Augustus himself. So let’s go through these four words again,but this time from the perspective of how Caesar Augustus would have been understood.

Good News – In his book, Divine Honours for the Caesars, Bruce W. Winter draws attention to a decree written by the Proconsul of the League of Asia around 8 BC which extols the virtues of Caesar Augustus—the very same Caesar spoken of in Luke 2:1. At one point, the Augustan decree says, “with his appearance Caesar [Augustus] exceeded hopes of all those who anticipated good tidings [‘euangelia’ – Gospel, good news] before us, not only surpassing those who had been benefactors before him, but not even leaving those to come any hope of surpassing him the future.” (Winter, 37).Historians generally agree that the birth of Jesus took place around 4 BC, which means that the Augustan decree spoken of by Winter had been written just four years earlier. It isn’t hard to see the radical nature, then, of the angelic announcement which declared that the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was “good news” for “all the people.”We shouldn’t underestimate how this account is a direct  “poking the bear” of none other than the mighty Caesar Augustus which just four years previously had been declared to have been the greatest leader ever and with no hope of any coming after who would surpass him. And yet, here came Jesus on the scene, announced as “good news for all the people.”All this to say: The angelic announcement as “good news” isn’t political subtlety, but a forthright declaration of challenge to the Augustan decree! One simply has to say that this was a statement of political boldness at its best!

Saviour – A year prior to the Proconsul’s 8 BC decree, there is also evidence that this same Caesar August was declared publicly to be a saviour to the people.  On a Priene calendar inscription we find this:“Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order” (Emphasis added).

Moreover, an inscription from the city of Halicarnassus declared Augustus to be “saviour of the common race of man” (Cited in Winter, 72) and scholars have commonly noted how he was repeatedly called “the savior of the world” and “the savior of the inhabited earth.”The fact that Augustus was issuing a decree, according to Luke, to the “entire Roman world” (Lk 2:1) and that Luke’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3 traces Jesus all the way back to Adam (unlike Matthew who traces all the way back to Abraham) indicates that when Jesus is declared to be “saviour”, in a first century Gentile familiar with the honours accorded Augustus as “saviour of the common race of man,” it is beyond doubt the counter narrative Luke is providing for us. No, Luke’s Gospel says, it is not Augustus who is the Saviour of humanity, but Jesus, the man for all people.

Messiah – English translations of Luke 2:11 (such as the NIV I’m citing from) translate the last clause as “he is the Messiah, the Lord.” The word Messiah is the English transliteration of Hebrew word “Mashiach.” However, Luke, writing in Greek, records that the baby is the Christos Kurios, more directly translated in English as “Christ the Lord.” (I think English translations should opt to translate the word as “Christ” here, given Luke’s Gentile orientation, but I digress.) At any rate, both Messiah and Christ mean “anointed one.”

In Judaism, of course, the anointed one, the Messiah, is clearly associated with the prophetic anticipation of the one to come from the house of David, as noted above. Its noteworthy, then, that Jews were predisposed to be awaiting and looking for the Messiah to come, and in their looking, they were aware that the Messiah was going to be born in “Bethlehem in Judea” (Matt 2:5).

So, when Luke then goes on to begin his account of Jesus (right before the genealogy) by recording a birth announcement, the parallel to imperial power cannot be ignored. Jesus cames as Messiah and saviour for all, including all right back to the time of Adam! But Jesus also comes as the one who will be Messiah and Saviour of all to come.Here Winter points to a lengthy resolution passed by the members of the Koinon of the province of Asia. In that resolution, the birth of Caesar Augustus is viewed as the beginning of a new Golden Age and they declared that Augustus’ birthday should mark the beginning of a new calendar year to represent how with the appearance of Augustus, a new world age had begun. Indeed, an inscription to Augustus read: “the birthday of our god marked for the world the beginning of good news through his coming.” (Winter 37).

An anointing is a marking, a designating, so here again, it is not difficult to see how Luke’s portrayal of Jesus birth is so closely tied to the decree of Caesar Augustus who himself was portrayed as the harbinger of a new age. And yet it is Jesus, the angels announce, who is the anointed one, and the one who “Today” (2:11) (usually a word used in the Bible connected to the announcement of the present day arrival of the kingdom of God) has come as one bringing joy to all people.

Lord – It is as if the best is saved til last with this word. As noted above, the word Lord (kyrios) was clearly associated in Jewish thought with Yahweh, but what about in the Gentile mind?

N.T. Wright makes the claim that at the time of Jesus’ birth, “as far as most of the Roman world was concerned, the ‘divinity’ of the emperor was obvious and uncontroversial” (Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective, 65)Here the full significance of Luke’s record of the angelic announcement comes into focus. Indeed, Caesar Augustus declared his father a deity, thus making Augustus a “son of deity (or as inscriptions put it, “a son of a god” (Cf. the title ascribed to Jesus: the son of God!).

It is widely known that the Emperors were commonly acknowledged and honoured as nothing less than deities themselves. In fact, it was because of their divine status as deities that eventually Christians found themselves in trouble whenever they found themselves declaring, “Jesus is Lord!”–but that’s for another post some day!

So, the natal announcement plays a dual role for both Jewish and Gentile hearers. For the Jew reading Luke’s account, the angelic announcement encourages them to see Jesus as the fulfillment of all Hebrew prophetic anticipation and as the one to come, the Messiah, the Son of David.

But for Gentile hearers, the natal announcement is shot through with political significance and challenge. Indeed, for many of Luke’s readers, the natal announcement is nothing less than a political counter challenge to the highest political authority of their day, namely, the Emperor himself.

And so Jesus Christ is to us today: the hope of Israel (Jeremiah 17:13) and the desire of the nations (Haggai 2:7).

No, you aren’t the only Jesus some people will see…

jesus_in_mirrorYou’ve probably heard it one time or another. Someone, well meaning, says, “You know, lots of people will never darken the doors of a church or go to an evangelistic meeting. So if you are working with someone, or going through the line at the grocery story, remember, You might be the only Jesus some people will see.”

There’s even songs written to this effect. Like the old Imperials song, “You’re the Only Jesus.”

But is that true?

Karl Barth, in a remarkably short sentence (for Barth), puts it this way (with light edits for quotability):

“Jesus is immanent in the Church only as He is transcendent to it.” (CD 1/1, 100-1)

Barth’s big point, I think, is to remind us that while indeed Jesus is the one who is present to and in his people, the Church, he is always and only the transcendent Lord of the Church.

I happen to think Barth has it right here. There is an asymmetrical relationship between Jesus, the Head, and the Church, the Body of Christ. We can’t put a big equal sign between “Head” and “Body.” They are vitally (literally vitally!) connected, but they are far from being the same thing.

So if Barth is right, that means:

  • Jesus is a self-giving Gift to the Church, but he is never a “Given.” Just because the Church is Christ’s chosen covenant partner doesn’t mean that the Church can presume that Jesus is present in all of the church’s witness and actions. Indeed, there may well be times when the Body acts independently (and rebelliously) against the Head. In those instances, we should be thankful that we aren’t the only Jesus people can see.
  • Jesus works and acts in the Church, but is not constrained only to work and act in the Church. It is true again that Christ has chosen the Church to be his primary covenant partner by which he carries out his Father’s mission in the world. But we should be under no delusion that somehow Jesus is restricted to working only in the church and no where else. If God could use Balaam’s ass to speak his word then, he can surely use some other ass to speak his word today.
  • The Church can point others to Jesus in their midst, but they can only point to the Jesus who is in their midst. That is to say, we shouldn’t think that by introducing people to ourselves as Christians that we have somehow automatically introduced these people to Jesus. Just because he’s in the room doesn’t mean people know him just because we are there. You might see something of me in my children, but there is no way you would make the mistake of assuming that because you’ve met my children that you’ve met me. Now if you’ve met Jesus, on the other hand, then you have met his Father (John 14:9)…but that’s a little bit different story!
  • No, you and I aren’t the only Jesus some people will see. Actually, if Barth is right, people may very well  see Jesus in our midst. But it is nearly blasphemous, or at least we are putting a little too much faith in ourselves and a little bit too much pressure on ourselves, to think that somehow we “need to be Jesus” to others.

Let’s make it simple this Christmas Season. If we want people to know Jesus, let’s be sure to do our utmost actually to introduce them to Him. In the words of the Samaritan woman,

“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did!” (John 4:29)


Thinking about Faith and Politics: A Non-Partisan Reflection

IMG_4537Last week, I was asked to participate in a Faith and Politics faculty forum here at Briercrest. We had a good representation of college and seminary students attend. It was a great experience! We were asked to prepare answers to three questions. Although I didn’t end up reading these verbatim, I thought I’d share them with you.

Question #1: Should faith inform our voting? To what extent?

Yes. Fully.

Christian faith, as I understand it, is founded upon the confession of God’s divine sovereignty revealed most fully in his Son, Jesus Christ. For Christians, the fundamental and primal confession of our faith is “Jesus is Lord.” Lordship, as confessed in the first century context, was fully political in its connotations. Roman citizens of Jesus’ and Paul’s day were encouraged to declare, “Caesar is Lord” and so the confession, Jesus is Lord, was undeniably political, and indeed, confrontational to the political powers of the first century. Beyond that, it would be difficult to understand what Christ could have meant when he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” if political authority was somehow not included in the “all.” Jesus is Lord means that every authority—political, ecclesiastical, familial, cultural, corporate, etc.—is ultimately answerable to Christ.

Although in some sectors of Christianity through history “faith” has been compartmentalized or isolated from public and political life, I believe such privatization of faith cannot be legitimately sustained. So, in my view, not every issue is necessarily directed by matters of Christian doctrine or by Scripture, but no issue can be viewed as being irrelevant or inconsequential to our faith–political issues no less.

When we take these two elements together—the Lordship of Christ and his all-encompassing authority received from God—it seems to me that voting, like every other aspect of our life, needs to be informed by our faith. Paul understands this when he claims that he is seeking to take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ. If voting is about making an intellectually, morally, and civic decision, then it is about making such a decision in obedience to Christ as part of our discipleship.

[I also made a point that the exercise of voting, of course, would have been foreign to the NT audience. Although I believe that Christians should always consider voting, I also believe that under circumstances, Christians should also be prepared purposely not to vote as a form of protest. I’ve not yet faced that scenario in my voting years, but it isn’t inconceivable that at a local level, I might be uncomfortable voting for any of the members running in my riding, and federally or provincially, I may believe no party deserves even qualified support.]

Question #2: Should a specific area of a political platform take priority in a Christian’s decision in voting? E.g. economy, military, foreign affairs. How much should an individual moral/ethical issue influence a Christian’s vote?

I’m of firm conviction that there are indeed specific areas of attention to political platforms that should have heightened priority for scrutiny in a Christian’s decision to vote. But I am the first to admit that sorting that out can be a very difficult thing to do. Nevertheless, I believe that we have to do our best to sort through the political platforms and promises, and discern what a political party’s fundamental priorities are. Is it about safety and comfort—whether economically or social? Is it about wealth creation? Is it about a sense of fairness? (and don’t assume that fairness equals justice—I don’t think it does, nor do I think the Bible does). And so on.

Furthermore, I believe that Christians need to realize that our own context is constantly shifting and issues that might be the most pressing in a previous election campaign may not be the most pressing issues today, no matter what the parties themselves state. For me, especially in the current election we are about to engage in, I am more interested in what the parties are not saying rather than what they are saying. Silence is more often an indicator of what a platform is either not concerned about or what they may be wanting to avoid or hide.

Martin Luther (supposedly) said, “‘If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.” That means that Christians need to discern, by the Spirit’s help, what issues may need to take priority in an election and push the representatives to speak about those issues and reveal their stances on their issues, even if the party platforms dictate that they would rather talk about other issues.

In practice, I think this means starting with a sense of realism about political parties and making sure that we clearly understand the dangers of seeing political parties as the primary instrument of bringing about Gospel justice or some form of Christian moral ideals. They are not replacement Messiahs. There are no perfect political platforms other than God’s own sovereign purposes, but I do think there are better and worse platforms. Therefore, I think we need to think in terms of a hierarchy of issues facing us and decide which issue is indeed more important—morally, theologically, even politically—than other issues, and then choose to vote for a party (or a person) who best represents that stance.

[Related to the above, one of the panelists made reference to Winston Churchill’s famous quip, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”]

If I may speak a bit more personally, for example, I believe we are in a position in Canada where NO political platform of the main political parties speaks about protecting the most vulnerable lives, the unborn, as a priority. God seems especially concerned for those without a voice, and the unborn are the most voiceless of all. To me, that is simply unacceptable from a Christian point of view. Canada is one of only a few countries in the entire world—we are in same club as North Korea—where protection for the unborn is completely unlegislated. Indeed, I would argue that one of the most dangerous and unprotected places to be in Canada is in a mother’s womb. In that regard, difference of opinion on economic policy or social programs or even medical or employment issues, seem to me to pale in significance. Consequently, we may have to realize that we will need to vote for those who at least are most likely to take a stance, or have taken a stance, where such justice and protection of life itself is most likely to be advocated or protected. Personally for me, that means that I will plan to vote for an individual in my riding that I can count on to take that stance rather than voting on the basis of a political platform of a Party per se.

As for the second part of the question, I suppose I would want to reword it differently. If by “individual” we mean a matter of individual conscience on a disputable area, then I would say, we should not vote primarily on the basis of convictions on issues that Christians can genuinely disagree about, e.g, economic policy; level of  support of business or arts, etc. If by “individual”, though, we mean, an issue that is clearly spoken to by Scripture and which pertains to the sanctity of life or the freedom for worship, then, yes, we may and probably should allow that individual issue to influence our vote.

Question 3: How does our faith shape our expectations of what government should do/what a party should promise? I.e. what is the role of government from a Christian perspective?

I believe this is one of the central questions of political theology because it is asking the question of how we believe God uses the secular state in the outworking of his providential plan. Fundamentally, I think there are really only two main starting points or assumptions by which we can answer this question. Every Christian tradition would agree that the State is under God’s authority, but traditions differ on whether the State is a part of God’s good creation as originally instituted, or whether the State is instituted by God as a result of the Fall of humanity into sin. How you answer that question will answer the question of what you believe the Government should do and what we expect the Government to do, and of course, give us insight into when we think the Government is failing. In the first view, the State is a gift of God to mediate good things to humanity, even while ideally protecting humans from the evils of sin. In the second view, the State is also a gift of God, but is given primarily to protect from the evils of sin, and secondarily and incidently (and sometimes accidently) to mediate good things to humans. These two positions might seem only to be a difference in emphasis, but the end view of what Government should be expected to do has resulted in great differences. Thus, those who see Government primarily as God’s post-Fall means of restraining evil will likely have far less confidence in seeing government doing much more than punishing wrong doers and keeping people relatively safe. Those who see Government as part of God’s original creation, however, believe the Government, fallen as it is, still has responsibility to be doing what it can to bring about common good for all peoples.

I personally believe that State is part of God’s good creation (and here we distinguish between the State and particular governments) and that even mankind had not fallen into sin, there would have been need to “govern” how people lived together in harmony. Indeed, the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God present in both OT and NT scriptures, indicates that even in the eschaton, things will be “governed” and God will Reign forever. In the meantime, however, humans and Governments and States are fallen, but are nevertheless accountable to God. So it is the Church’s job to remind the State of what it is supposed to accomplish.

Interestingly, in 1 Tim 2, Paul enjoins his readers to pray for all the authorities “that we would live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” I think that encapsulates the fundamental and central reason that the State is supposed to exist: To ensure peaceable relations amongst all peoples, regardless of their faith stance, and to allow the Gospel of God’s righteousness and holiness to be proclaimed freely to everyone because, as Paul says shortly after, God desires everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth of salvation. Thus, where the preaching and promulgation of the Gospel is hindered, the State is, by definition, not doing its job. Thus, for me, the State’s fundamental role is to ensure that all peoples, regardless of religious affiliation (or not) are free to worship (or not), to speak of their faith in freedom without fear of persecution. When the State fails to ensure these conditions are met, the Church is obligated to resist it, and when necessary, obey God rather than men. In that regard, there is going to be tremendous differences of opinion on how best to take care of social issues like health care and employment insurance, how to run the economy, whether to balance the budget or to be in deficit. But I am going to be especially attuned to the question of whether the Church is, in smaller or greater ways, being hindered legislatively to carry out the task of proclaiming and living the Gospel, including restrictions on speech and carrying out good deeds.

John Calvin and the “Selfie”

I recently saw a collection of pictures from people around the world using selfie-sticks. (Think of the potential for infinite regress: pictures of people taking pictures of themselves taking pictures of others taking pictures of themselves, etc….but I digress.)

What is it about this whole phenomenon?  Why do we like the selfie, let alone the selfie-stick, so much? Are we just a bunch of narcissists? Narcissism is probably a part of it, but I don’t think that descriptor says enough.

Here’s my guess: The selfie (and by extension, pun intended, the selfie-stick) allows us to present ourselves to others as we have chosen to frame ourselves, that is, as we want them to see us.

Recently, I took part in a family photo session to celebrate my Mom’s 80th birthday. Problem is, I had no control over the pictures. I just had to try to smile nice and not close my eyes (which is near impossible for me, it seems). But the selfie-stick changes all that. It allows me to take a picture of myself–repeatedly even–until it is framed just as I want, even to the point where my eyes are actually open! The selfie lets me show myself to others as I would hope they would see me.

But here’s the thing: Does it really matter about how I frame myself? Is it really so important that I try to convince others to see me as I want to be seen?

At this point, you probably are thinking, “This is a theological blog, so obviously Guretzki is leading up to a theological point.” (Indeed). And you might think that my conclusion is,  “No, it doesn’t really matter how others see me, because what is more important is that people see God (or Jesus), not me.” Well, you would be thinking wrongly.

Recently I was reviewing the opening of John Calvin’s famous Institutes of the Christian Religion and I began to wonder, “Would Calvin take a selfie?” Ok,  not really, but I think his discussion may help us here.

In book 1 (1559 edition, Battles’ translation, McNeil’s edition, pp. 35-39), Calvin leads off with a nice three point sermon. (To be clear, the headings are supplied by theologian Otto Weber in his German edition of the Institutes.) Here it is:

  1. Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. (35)
    What?? Shouldn’t we expect Calvin to start from the other direction? Wouldn’t we expect Calvin to start with the claim, “Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self”? Yes, we might expect that. But he doesn’t!

    Even though I’ve read this passage dozens of times, I have to admit, even I was surprised. Calvin is so often portrayed as a theologian of God’s glory that he is underappreciated for his positive anthropology.  You see, Calvin recognizes that it is possible, justifiably, for humans to be aware of their own unique giftedness and the great advantages they have over the rest of creation. Humans are indeed glorious creatures.

    So Calvin doesn’t start by denigrating the human, but by acknowledging their created glory. However, Calvin goes on to observe that it is only once we begin to understand “these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us” that we shortly thereafter start to become disillusioned with an increased awareness of our imperfections. For all of our giftedness, we quickly become painfully aware that we lack something–that we don’t quite measure up.

    But this is good, Calvin says, because as we become aware of this lack, this want, this failure, we are actually in  a position, hopefully, to contemplate that all this goodness has a source. The dew of heaven, hopefully, leads us to the spring itself (36), Calvin says.

    In other words, after looking at a thousand selfies, we begin to realize that no angle, no longer selfie-stick, no better pixel depth, will reduce our feelings of failure or inadequacy. But make no mistake, Calvin insists, having that self-framed portrait of ourselves is a good place to start, because it is through our own self-awareness that God “leads us by the hand to find him” (37).

    He goes on…

  2. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self. (37)
    Ok, that is what we expected! In good “Calvinist” fashion, Calvin makes the point that we cannot truly frame ourselves properly as humans apart from a knowledge of God.

    Most of us who have come up in Protestant churches have absorbed very well this truth of Calvin, even if we don’t realize it. But unfortunately, our understanding of this claim usually comes out, tragically, I think, this way: “Compared to God we are nothing.”

    Some have justifiably called this perspective “worm theology” (i.e., we are but worms) and many have associated worm theology with Calvinism. And although worm theology may in fact be Calvinist, I’m not sure it is from Calvin. Certainly the opening of the Institutes does not bear this out. Indeed, every human is endowed with “mighty gifts.” This doesn’t sound like a worm to me.

    So it is important to note well: Calvin does not start with an axiomatic understanding of the failure of humans (that is where, far too often, popular presentations of the Gospel start), but with an acknowledgement of the goodness of humans. Sure, it is followed quickly with a clear statement of the subsequent failure recognized within ourselves. But let’s not miss Calvin’s actual starting point.

    You see, for Calvin, it is not a simple, “Human is bad, God is good” contrast. Rather, Calvin says, set alongside God, whatever we might think of as pure and perfect and righteous shows itself to be “miserable weakness” when compared to the glory of God’s perfect goodness. Human knowledge is, in other words, dialectically derived by a relationship of comparison to God, not by delving either into the depths of the human essence or condition, neither by flight into the contemplating the depths of the divine mystery. In fact, these have been the twin theological temptations theologians have faced throughout Christian history: Either theology ends up being anthropology, or theology ends up being abstract divinity, disconnected from human reality. On the contrary, Calvin helpfully reminds us, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves as human go intimately together.

    In short, if we don’t have a point of comparison, mainly, comparison with God, we wouldn’t know that our self-framed “perfect selfie” isn’t, well, perfect.

    Moving on…

  3. Man before God’s majesty. 
    In essence, Calvin goes to note the various stories in Scripture where men and women–saints even–came into contact with the presence of God. It is clear, Calvin observes, that wherever and whenever God’s glory is revealed to humans, they are invariably “shaken and struck dumb as to be laid low by the dread of death…almost annihiliated.”

    And so, Calvin says (or at least, I infer that he says!): No amount of self-framing, no “selfie stick”, will be up to the task of helping us either to know ourselves, or to present ourselves to others in such a way as we really are created to be: To live before and in the presence of God. As Calvin points out, “We must infer that man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty” (39).

But here’s the Good News….

We do not have to frame ourselves with our phones and selfie-sticks, because God has already framed us in his own self-portrait–a self portrait named Immanuel, Jesus the friend of sinners. You see, God is no narcissist because he elected, from eternity past, to include us, his human creatures, in his selfie from the start.

It is just too bad that we keep trying to duck out of the family portrait.

Christmas Story Redux

I’ve been working on Luke 2:1-20 for a Christmas sermon. My study of the passage led me to consider the response of Mary in verse 19: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” If we ask how it is that we should respond to Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, it seems to me that he is saying that the right response is going to be something similar to Mary’s: to treasure up all these things and ponder them in our heart.

But as I thought about Mary’s response (and ours),  I asked myself: What exactly am I supposed to treasure and ponder from this story? I think if we are honest, it can be easy to assume that Mary’s pondering of the events which had just unfolded was somewhat sentimental and nostalgic. Yet when I read both Mary’s own song (the so-called “Magnificat” in Luke 1:46-55), I am convinced that Mary’s ponderings were anything but sentimental. I think here especially of 1:52 where Mary declares, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” This isn’t the language of sentimentality. Mary was beginning to perceive the monumental event which the birth of Jesus was.

However, I think that we have actually ended up far too often sentimentalizing the Christmas story. It might in fact explain why we have gradually embellished the narrative with details that serve well to fill out the story but actually detract from (Luke’s, at least) biblical narrative. And so I ask,  Might the traditional embellishments to the Christmas story (Mary riding on a donkey, the grumpy innkeeper, the animals in the stable, etc.) actually work against Luke’s simple telling of the story? Is not the birth of Jesus according to Luke to be understood as nothing less than the culmination of OT history (Cf. Luke 1 and the long story of the birth of the Baptist prophet) and the invasion and inversion of secular history (cf. Luke 2:1-3 – Caesar’s global census)? All the details we add to Luke’s account makes for entertaining Christmas plays but might actually unwittingly undercut Luke the historian’s (Cf. Luke 1:1) main point: That history serves Jesus and not the other way around.

Isolating Luke 2 from Luke 1 and then proceeding to embellish the story with details to meant to fill out the sparseness of Luke’s natal account may actually serve to defang the cosmic and political force of the story. For in doing so, we make the birth narrative into a comfy tale or legend rather than the earth-shaking, history-altering, divine-invading event that it is.

Philippians 2 Restated

I’ve been working through the first couple of chapters of Philippians with one of my seminary classes this week. The following is a paraphrase and prayer of response in today’s vernacular that I wrote as I reflected upon the great christological hymn of Philippians 2:5-11.


Jesus, you didn’t come from God’s side as a big shot, going around trying to prove to us that which you already knew to be true. You knew you were God and didn’t see a need to chase after our accolades. Instead, you blended in amongst us as God incognito. We didn’t even recognize you, you were so much like us. Yet something about your pure humanity repulsed us, so much so that we thought the best thing to do was to get rid of you. And so, we acted the judge and sent you to the executioner. Yet you went willingly and quietly. To us, such willingness to die is human folly. But to you, it was God’s sovereign will that you should accomplish what you did by submitting yourself to torture and the grave.

But…no sooner were you gone when God took action and by His Spirit brought you back to life and recalled you to his side. Once there God appointed you by his authority to the highest political office—the King with jurisdiction over all kings, dictators, presidents and tyrants alike. Indeed, a day is coming, and is nearly come, when your simple name, Jesus, will mean that no one—no one who has lived, is living or ever will live—will be able to deny what you long ago already knew: That you are God. You are King. You are Creator. You are Judge. You are Saviour and there is none like you. And even in that highest of all positions, you now rule in humble honour to God your heavenly Father.

But you say our attitude should be like yours.

If that be the case, then guard me against the pride that makes me want to impress people with greatness, when all you ask of me is to live as I was created to be—a human creature reflecting your image. Rather than seeking ways to stand out, help me to seek ways to stoop alongside others, to perceive, and to accomplish, what needs to be done in service to them. But above all, let me be ready to share in your death. Even if it doesn’t mean I need to die a martyr’s death, nevertheless let me be a living martyr every day—a witness that continually says, “Not I, but Christ.”

And Lord, give my spirit the hope that you yourself had. Yours wasn’t a hope that sought for more stuff and greater comfort, but a hope in the raising of this corrupt and fragile body from the dead. And give my me a yearning for your true justice today in the midst of all present injustices perpetrated by human judges and criminals, and indeed, myself, alike. Let my voice be one that exalts your name above my own, a life that seeks God the Father’s Kingly purposes. And let me do it all in your mighty Name. Amen.


I’ve been trying to eat and live a bit healthier in these past few months. One of the things I’ve been forcing myself to do is to drink a lot more water than I have been accustomed to doing. It hasn’t always been easy, but something I read in a health email newsletter recently reminded me of the importance of water to physical health:

The human body is comprised of about 70% water. Next to air, water is the most vital substance our systems need to function properly. Water is involved in every aspect of the body’s functions . . . The human body can survive for five weeks without food, but only five days without water.

Many of us no longer experience the urge to drink, making water consumption feel like a chore. If you no longer get thirsty, this is the most important time to hydrate. A lack of the thirst sensation is an indication that the body has adapted to its state of dehydration and no longer tells the brain to trigger the thirst signal. Once you begin to hydrate yourself with water on a daily basis, you will find your thirst sensation is quickly restored and drinking water will become part of your normal routine.

The last line certain seems somewhat counterintuitive, but I can personally attest to its truth. Yes indeed, it is true: the more water I’ve been drinking lately, the more often I actually “feel” thirsty. There really IS something about actually taking in more water which makes you more sensitive for your need for it.

This little “H20 factoid” reminded me of Jesus’ invitation in the Gospel of John: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37b).

If we accept that physiologically, it is possible to be thirsty and not even know it, it isn’t difficult to think that this could also happen to us spiritually as well. You see, the problem isn’t that we really aren’t thirsty (we are!) and don’t need Christ’s Life Giving Spirit (we do!); on the contrary, we may be so desperately thirsty that our own bodies and souls have actually shut off the signal telling us of our need. The less I’ve eaten and drank of Jesus body and blood (cf. John 6:55), the more likely it is that I may be in danger of losing my spiritual thirst sensations! (Kind of makes sense why some ecclesiological traditions are so committed to observing the Eucharist each Sunday, doesn’t it?)

For me, at least, it is a startling realization to discover that the times when I am most “spiritually dehydrated” are precisely the times when I may be least likely to recognize it. Furthermore as a teacher of the Gospel, I probably shouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t clear evidence of the “streams of living water flowing from within” when I am living in such a spiritually dehydrated state.

So today, I ask, “Are you thirsty?”

Jesus Evicted: A Short Advent Story

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7)

It was the usual row which came up year after year on town council for the past 10 years straight: Could the crèche be located on the lawn of City Hall or not?

Lines were drawn, as usual, between the “pro” and “con” crowds. Prominent on one side was cranky old Bartholomew (“Bart”) Collins, a part-time Social Studies substitute teacher for Bethel High, who faithfully reminded everyone on council of the principled need to keep “church and state” separated. His position was clear:  City Hall is no place for Baby Jesus! On the other side was Miriam Dominique (or as more commonly known, Sister Mary), well known as the town’s longest-employed and most beloved kindergarten teacher at St. Peter’s Elementary. Not surprisingly, Sister Mary argued consistently and vociferously to “keep Christ in Christmas”!

Every year for the past decade,  Sister Mary’s sensible voice had prevailed, and every year for the past decade, Baby Jesus lay quietly, but prominently, on City Hall lawn. But every year the vote edged closer and closer toward a “secular upset.” Two years ago, the usual 8 to 1 vote had been 6 to 3, and last year, Jesus had only narrowly avoided being ousted with a 5 to 4 vote.

Given this history, the city’s council chamber this year was buzzing with both nervous and gleeful energy. Whether one was nervous or gleeful, depended on which side of the hall one sat: Sister Mary’s “Bible thumpers” occupied stage left and nervously fidgeted and frowned across the aisle toward Bart’s fellow “commies” clustered in strategic spots on the right. But tonight, the Bart-contingent was poised for a well deserved victory. Victory indeed! For rumour had it that Bart had successfully swayed the new-comer and youngest member of council , one Lisbeth Johnson, to the cause. But only time–and a fateful vote–would tell.

“I now moo-ve to the last item of bizness,” the Chair drawled. “We have here a motion on the floor from thuh last meetin’ which reads, “Moved by Councillor Dominique that a Nativity scene be located on the East Lawn of City Hall for the full month of December to commemorate the Christmas holiday.”

As was the custom, various members of council rose, one by one, to speak for or against the motion. The speeches were short and to the point, and civic respect marked both sides of the debate. By now, virtually everyone in the room knew Bart and Mary’s speeches–neither had bothered to change a word in their argument from year to year. Consequently, few really listened to their arguments while they spoke, including the town reporter who momentarily suspended her scribbling to sip her Starbucks and send an SMS message.

Beyond Bart and Mary, everybody else’s position also became clear: three Councillors each supported Bart and Mary, leaving only one more to speak–the newcomer. Now, the commonplace gave way to suspense, as if there were an invisible scoreboard showing a 4 to 4 tied hockey game! Onlookers sat on the edge of their seats, waiting for sudden death overtime to decide the game!

And then, Lisbeth rose to her feet to speak.

Mary looked down with despondency. Word on the street was that the newcomer would come in like an clumsy ox and upset the manger. Sister Mary prayed silently that the onslaught of evil forces pervading the room would be vanquished by the heavenly host, while Bart’s countenance shone brighter than the star in the East as he already sensed victory!

“Most of you are still getting to know me,” young Lisbeth began. “So let me tell you just a bit about myself before I argue for or against this motion.”

“I was raised in a little town, not too far from here, where every Sunday I attended a little white church with my parents. There I heard weekly the stories of the Bible. Of course, you won’t be surprised that I heard the story about Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the angels, the shepherds and the wisemen over and over again. And to be honest, I loved that story and I still love it today. In fact, the Christmas story really gives me a warm feeling inside whenever I hear it. And whenever I see a Nativity scene, I get that same feeling all over again.”

Sister Mary raised her head, pondering these words. Perhaps all was not lost. Perhaps Lisbeth would rise up and support the Christ Child!

Bart, on the hand, nervously nudged his pen back and forth on the desk. Was Lisbeth going to cave in to emotion and nostalgia over against clear-headed rationality and civic principles? Would she give in to the self-righteous duress imposed by those–those–fundamentalists?

Lisbeth continued. “But today, the decision to put a crèche on the lawn of City Hall cannot be decided by memories of days gone past or of personal nostalgia, even my own. Rather, we must decide on the basis of what really is for the good of all us citizens, whether Christian or not. And those of you here today who claim to be Christians, I don’t think I need to remind you that Christmas story itself says something about having ‘peace on earth and good will amongst all the people’.”

Lisbeth paused. Those in attendance held their breath. The clock ticked more slowly than it ought to have.

“I realize that my vote on this issue will likely be a tie-breaker, and that whatever I vote, I will likely be vilified by the other side.

“But today, let it be known here and now that I will vote against my own warm feelings, and therefore, I will vote against the motion to allow the crèche on City Hall Lawn. Not everyone in this town is a Christian and since City Hall is a public space, I declare my conviction that the Nativity does not belong there.” And with this, Lisbeth  sat confidently down.

The room was, momentarily, silent, only to erupt a full 3.5 seconds later with a grand cheer from the right when Lisbeth’s intended vote sank in! Bart and company had finally won! Council had finally seen the light. Time to send Jesus packing!

On the left, Mary’s supporters were sullen. A few even sobbed quietly. Moments later, when the chair called for the vote, the crèche, for the first time in a decade, was prohibited from occupying public space. 5 to 4 against the motion. The motion was defeated!

The next morning, a busy businessman,  having finished his morning newspaper, latte and cigarette, stuffed paper, cup and butt into the garbage can on the corner.

Emerging from the alley, a frail,  straggly-haired, old man, reeking of urine, shuffled toward the receptacle, grabbed the paper, snatched the cup and rescued the smoldering cigarette.  Pausing momentarily, he scanned the paper’s front headline: “Baby Jesus Evicted!

“I know the feelin’,” he muttered as he stuffed the newspaper into his jacket, if only to battle the bitter cold yet one more day.