John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
God became a human and moved into the neighborhood. In a moments time God became a man – divinity arrived – heaven opened and Jesus descended – the creator of the universe became an embryo – God as a fetus – holiness slept in a womb – the creator of life got eyebrows, arms, lungs, and swam in amniotic fluid – the sustainer of the world became dependent upon a young woman.
God became like us, lived like us and with us, affirming the value of our humanity, identifying with our human struggle, living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died. God became an innocent baby to die the death of an innocent criminal and to pay for the life of a guilty humanity.
God became flesh, moved into the neighborhood so that man could see God’s glory and in seeing, everything would change. It changes everything because the nature of God’s glory is full of grace and truth – and grace and truth fills us with joy, drives us to adoration and like the Wise Men directs us home a different way.
A baby moved into the neighborhood and changed everything but when he left the neighborhood he left the door open for his return. And although some have let his first coming go unnoticed his second coming will not go unnoticed. It will bring the fullness of God’s glory and all who believed him will fall down and worship Him.
Henry Nouwen, in his book The Wounded Healer, compares his experience as a chaplain on a cruise ship to the role of the church in our culture today – only needed if the ship encounters a serious storm “but not taken very seriously when the weather is fine.”
The culture we live in wants the church out of the way so life can continue on its vacation cruise and if there is real trouble only then will we be invited to offer a token prayer. Too much of the church has gone along with this assessment that it no longer has any thing distinctive to offer. Rodney Clapp refers to this as “sentimental capitulation” and points to one proponent who claims, “The only genuine way to ‘interact with the emerging world’ is to concede most of the game to it.” There is no need to make disciples because we are just along for the ride and to offer a ceremonial role at weddings and funerals.
Another response to the church being shoved to the sidelines is what Clapp calls “retrenchment”. He sees two forms of this; the first is the desire to recapture the power the church had during Christendom and the second, and more popular today, is the idea that Christianity is really about making people prosperous and is a necessary component in the successful pursuit of happiness.
Reinforcing this approach are the many “isms” that surround us today offering to numb and buffer us from anything that would disturb our happiness. To be happy life must be practical (pragmatism) and pleasurable (hedonism with a moral acceptability). In order for life to be practical and pleasurable we need the philosophy of materialism – making material goods the center of life rather than God. The result is consumerism has become the American worldview not just an economic system and church is just one more brand we consume on a given Sunday. And as one author wrote, Jesus has been demoted from Lord to label.
Instead of recapitulation or retrenchment the church needs to reengage the culture. Not with placation, power or prosperity but with an ear to listen, a mind to learn and a heart to love. In the humility of the cross and the boldness of the resurrection. we cross the cultural barriers of race, socioeconomics, vocation and politics to be the body of Christ. I love Clapp’s picture, “We sail … in shipping lanes shared by hundreds of other vessels, with a willingness to learn from the shipbuilding and seafaring skill of others, eager to trade at ports, Christian or not, never satisfied merely to stay afloat, since we bear a cargo we believe to be of infinite value to all other sailors.”
After Cain killed his brother he “left the Lord’s presence and settled in the land of Nod.” The word Nod means fugitive, separated from God and cut off from community. Nod is that place where you can not find God for the same reason a thief can’t find a policeman – you’re not looking. Yet Nod is still a place that is never beyond God’s grace, for God not only protects Cain, but allows him to establish a city and start a family. Cain’s descendants become the fathers of livestock, musical instruments and metal work. Much of our world’s artistic culture was started by the descendants of Cain.
There may not be a better example of common grace. Cain was a selfish brat who used worship to get his own way, murdered his brother, denied responsibility and then asks God to protect him. God agrees and puts a mark on him as a sign of both judgment and grace. God is saying to Cain, you’re a mess but no one is going to mess with you. What Cain should have done for his little brother God now does for Cain.
So many today are living in the land of Nod. Separated from God and not looking for God, yet living under the common grace that allows them to develop the very culture we live in. It is in that common grace, the common good of cultural development, that we can engage those living as fugitives from God and embrace them with the saving grace of the gospel.
Most of us are aware of Matthew’s mention of four women with questionable character in his genealogy of the Messiah. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, incestuousness, prostitution, foreigners, and adultery. All anomalous in their ancestry and, with the exception of Ruth, in their moral character. Yet even Ruth was a Moabite and a descendant of Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughters. Not exactly the role models parents use to instruct their daughters or the kind of women they would want their sons to marry.
It almost appears Matthew has gone out of his way to find women who contaminate Jesus’s bloodline, who tarnish his pure Jewish ancestry. In order to own land in Israel you had to show public documents concerning your genealogy to prove you had a right to own a piece of the Holy Land. Even more importantly people expected the Messiah to come from the pure kingly line of David. Yet curiously there is no record in the gospels of any disputes over Jesus being a descendant of David.
So why didn’t Matthew record the more prestigious names of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachael, the wives of the patriarchs? Because Matthew is preaching the gospel of divine mercy. A gospel that not only comes for sinners but through sinners. A gospel that presents a savior for all people, a light for all nations, and a mercy bigger than our sins. Matthew’s genealogy drips with the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. The blood of all nations flows through the Savior of the world and his family tree condemns our prejudices in the opening pages of the New Testament.
As we enter this advent season and our Christmas celebrations with church and family may we remember that Jesus didn’t just fall out of heaven on Christmas morning. He was born in the usual way into a very real human family, from a very real human ancestry, just like ours, full of saints and sinners, and all in need of God’s great mercy.
In the midst of our disunity these days I have found some optimism when Paul writes in Ephesians 1:10, “At the right time he (God) will bring everything together under the authority of Christ”. The Greek phrase “everything together” is used only one other time in the New Testament – Romans 13:19 – “For the commandments…are all summed up in this one commandment: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’”. All the commandments are brought together in love your neighbor as yourself. This summation of everything, this bringing together of everything , this uniting of everything, finds its place under the authority of Christ.
Some day in this already but not yet future of Christ’s Lordship, all things in heaven and earth will be united. That means no more discord, all things will be brought into a meaningful relationship, no more fragmentation, no more frustration, no more divisions and no more derision. Things don’t add up right now, but in the future they will all be summed up, they will all be brought together in unity. The lion will lay with the lamb, racial tensions will disappear and yes even the democrats and the republicans will embrace across the dividing walls of hostility.
This coming unity, according to Ephesians, was preceded by God choosing us in Christ and adopting us into His family. This was not for our individual benefit but as a corporate one – “for the benefit of the church” (Ephesians 1:22). In other words the church should not only be a model of unity but a catalyst for unity in the divided world in which we live. Our first allegiance is to the Lordship of Christ who has guaranteed us a future unity of all things. That optimism should call us to walk in that unity and not participate in disunity.
“So we have stopped evaluating others by what the world thinks about them” (2 Corinthians 5:16, NLT). It seems that the most powerful four letter word today is “them” – them other folks who are different than us. Different in race, ethnicity, politics, religion, sex, or them whose views are different than ours. Much of our identity, community and power are established by the measurement of our differences from “them”.
The church at Corinth had become seers instead of believers, they were seeing others from a human point of view. They were measuring “them” based on the distinctions of their world – male and female, Jew and Greek , slave and free. Paul writes “that those who become Christians become new persons. They are not the same anymore, for the old life is gone. A new life has begun!” This new humanity was only made possible by the grace of a God who shows no partiality and the blood of His Son who hung out with women, Samaritans, lepers, tax collectors and an assortment of sinners.
When we bring our yardsticks to church and ask God to bless them we nullify God’s grace. No wonder so much of the unbelieving world has stopped responding to us. Instead we should bring our dueling yardsticks to the cross and ask God to crucify them. From the world’s point of view life is about control but at the cross we surrender our control, especially our control over the measurement of others. The way out of the garden of evaluating others by what the world thinks about them and into the new humanity of God’s kingdom is surrendering our yardsticks.
The great revivalist preacher, Jonathan Edwards, spoke of religion in terms of our affections – that part of us that orients our mind, will and emotions towards an object. Sin has caused our affections to stray, to focus on other things, anything other than God. Author Alfred Adler says we usually are drawn toward something related to control, or power or comfort or approval. We obsess over these things, comfort ourselves with them and fantasize about them. Biblically speaking they become idols in our lives.
I wonder how much of our recent lack of neighbor-loving dialogue over racial, social, economic and political issues, is really our need for control, power, comfort or approval. A need that finds fulfillment as we obsess over and find comfort in our racial or social group and our political or economic ideology. We love the comfort and control of being right and the power and approval of those who agree with us. But without an honest and graceful conversation with those who differ with us we can become blinded to our idol worship.
Pastor Tim Keller says “worship is pulling our affections off our idols and putting them on God.” It is seeing God for who He is, pondering His worth, treasuring Him and then doing something about it. Through creation, scripture reading, exhortation and sermons we are shown what God is worth. We respond to God’s worth through our praises, prayers of confession and thanksgiving and the giving of our time, talent and treasures to the advancement of God’s Kingdom and the common good of our neighbors. It is in loving those neighbors, even those who disagree with us, that we are helped further to identify our cultural and ideological idols.
Every Sunday’s worship should lead us to Monday’s work of neighbor loving. Loving God and loving our neighbor – there is a reason Jesus called them the two greatest commandments – they pull our affections off our idols and put them back on God.
Augustine wrote, “Disturbers are to be rebuked, the low-spirited to be encouraged, the infirm to be supported, objectors confuted, the treacherous guarded against, the unskilled taught, the lazy aroused, the contentious restrained, the haughty repressed, litigants pacified, the poor relieved, the oppressed liberated, the good approved, the evil borne with, and all are to be loved.
The apostle Paul taught that we are to pay all our debts except the debt of love for others and according to Jesus that would include our enemies. But we don’t like to be indebted to anybody. We want to pay back injuries from our enemies or even pay back favors from our friends. We desperately want to keep things even with either revenge or recompense.
This is often the preferred method of the proud, a justice that we control ourselves so that no one can get the upper hand on us. However it is a method that exalts ourselves above God rather than gives ourselves away like God. Jesus’ wondrous works and wise words are not as much the focus of the gospel as is his life and death – his selfless love for us. We can not claim the benefits of a crucified Christ and reject his way of self giving love.
So many of Jesus’ parables pointed to this self giving love: a lovesick father who runs to meet his prodigal son, a landlord who cancels a debt too large for anyone to pay, an employer who pays 11th hour workers the same as the first hour crew, a banquet giver who goes to the highways and byways in search of undeserving guests – all stories of an unnatural self-donation. This self giving love steps over the need for gratitude and affirmation, it steps over the wounds and wrongs suffered at the hands of our enemies.
Jesus not only stepped over our sins, he paid for them while we were his enemies, donating his life in an unnatural act of love so that we might become sons and daughters of the God most high. Jesus is simply asking us to show ourselves as his Father’s children by loving our enemies.
Carl Sandburg, the American poet and novelist once wrote, “Love your neighbor as yourself; but don’t take down the fence”. That’s how the Jews had interpreted the law to love thy neighbor. A law they believed had limits and which then gave them permission to hate their enemies. Their understanding of love was driven by self-interest instead of God’s self-donating love.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount brings a new and deeper understanding of what it means to be a Kingdom Christian and it is unnatural. It is much more natural to abide by the principles of the kingdom of this world which at best encourages us to ignore our enemies. But God’s Kingdom calls us to an unnatural love – a love of enemies – a self-donating love.
Jesus points out that His heavenly Father loves His enemies everyday. He gives sunlight and sends rain on the evil and the unjust. He has every right to withhold that common grace to the unrighteous but instead He shows mercy and patience. Anyone can love a lover, even corrupt tax collectors do that much. It’s natural. So Jesus asks us, what more are you doing than that? How are you different than the pagans who are kind to their friends?
The one thing that sets Christianity apart from all other religions is the love of Jesus Christ who went patiently and obediently to the cross. The cross is the peculiar, extraordinary, unnatural hallmark of the Christian religion. A distinction that is displayed in the self-donating love of enemies. A love that prays for those who persecute us.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Through the medium of prayer we go to our enemy, stand by his side, and plead for him to God….so long as we pray for them, we are doing vicariously for them what they can not do for themselves”. Can we imagine how things might be different if the politicians who claim to be followers of Christ prayed for their opponents, if pro-lifers prayed for Planned Parenthood, if our soldiers prayed for the Taliban, if Blacks and Whites prayed for each other? It would be unnatural but this self-donating love, this acting like true children of our Father in heaven, just might allow the world to see more of God’s coming Kingdom.
Author and speaker Tony Campolo often asks students at secular universities what they know about Jesus. He asks if they can recall anything Jesus said. The clear reply, time and time again, is “love your enemies”. More than any other teaching of Jesus, that one stands out to unbelievers. Maybe the most unnatural act of any of Jesus’ commands.
Most people would prefer to agree with the philosopher Immanuel Kant who argued that a person should only be loved and forgiven if they deserve it. Let’s be honest it is hard enough to love our brothers and sisters in Christ never the less someone who is an enemy. Love the thugs and drug dealers poisoning our neighborhoods, love that neighbor who parties too loud and too late, love the Islamic terrorist who kills innocent people, and love that political ideologist on the other side of the aisle – it’s just too unnatural.
We all have our enemies, someone who has hurt us, hates us, persecutes us or just disagrees with us. Someone we have walled off for protection or excluded for convenience. These are the people Jesus requires us to love – an unnatural act that goes against our primal instincts. So what makes loving our enemies such a priority that it becomes central to our faith? Jesus gives a simple theological answer to why we are to love our enemies: “In that way you will be a acting as true children of your Father in heaven.” A simple answer but an unnatural act. Yet in my lifetime there has never been a more needful time for children of the Kingdom to act like our heavenly Father. For that reason I want to take us a little deeper into this unnatural act of loving our enemies over the next few weeks.