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!

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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.

 

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The Prophetic and Political Significance of Jesus’ Natal Announcement

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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.

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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.