The Christmas Gospel of Jesus the Liberating King

The birth narratives at the beginnings of Matthew and Luke are packed full of the Christmas gospel. However, it seems to me that none of the birth narratives sit easily with the ‘gospel’ preached by much of modern Christendom – in either its liberal or more conservative forms. Both tend to be individualistic, focusing on individual ‘spiritual’ experience or the salvation of one’s individual soul. But this makes the gospel about us – and one thing that we can know for certain here, the Christmas gospel is not about us. To put it simply: the gospel is not about my guilt, nor is it a general theory of salvation, nor is it about my individual relationship with God, nor is it about giving Jesus my soul.  All these things have been made the gospel but these things are not the gospel. These things are important, there is no denying that, but the gospel is not ABOUT these things.

Jesus is (Not) My ‘Personal’ Lord and Savior…

What does this mean? One of the things it means is that the gospel can never primarily be about Jesus being my personal Lord and Savior. Jesus being my ‘personal’ Lord too often translates in modernity as my private Lord – and if Jesus is merely one’s private Lord then Jesus is not really Lord. Jesus is not content to be a private Lord; he demands to be one’s public Lord as well. Nor is Jesus merely my individual Lord; he is Lord and King precisely because he Lord and King of the whole world/cosmos. And neither can Jesus be merely my personal savior. I have an ongoing tension with what might be called the ‘plan of salvation’ gospel – what New Testament scholar Scot McKnight calls the ‘soterian’ gospel.

What’s this tension all about? Well its simple really – the tension here is that the ‘plan of salvation’ isn’t the gospel. The individualist plan of salvation both reduces the robust picture of salvation in the Scriptures and obscures the true gospel from us. It exchanges and confuses a small part for the whole and thereby distorts and loses the whole. Surely what evangelicals know as the plan of salvation is connected to the gospel (at least we hope it is) but we must avoid collapsing the gospel into the typical individualist plan of salvation of modern evangelicalism. This must be said, if we only know Jesus as ‘personal Lord and Savior’ in this sort of way we don’t really know Jesus.

A King and a Kingdom…

This is because there can be no good news apart from the gospel of the Kingdom. The gospel is about a Person (who is a king) and a Kingdom. The gospel is the good news of this King and Kingdom. If we fail to preach the gospel of the Kingdom, in favor of the plan of salvation, we have failed to preach the gospel. The gospel is the story about the Liberating King Jesus – how his life, death, burial, and resurrection of come to fulfill God’s promises to Israel and, through Israel and Jesus, God’s promises to the nations and all of the Created Order. The gospel story is the proclamation of the good news that Jesus is both Lord and King. There can be no good news apart from Jesus as the Liberating King.  This is why I love ‘the Voice’ New Testament which is the work of the Ecclesia Bible Society which is connected to Ecclesia Church in Houston.

I came to love the reading of the Scriptures from the Voice in worship at Ecclesia. The biggest reason for this is that the translators for the Voice project chose to translate ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ as ‘Liberating King’ or ‘Liberator’. Why do I like this so much? Its because so many today seem to have lost our story and consider the Old Testament superfluous. Disconnected from its story the term ‘Messiah’ (which is Hebrew) has no meaning. As a result when it comes to ‘Christ’ (which is Greek) these folks do no better. Many seem to think that ‘Christ’ is simply Jesus’ last name. I love the fact that the Voice makes clear that ‘Christ’ is not Jesus’ last name and that it gives some narrative content to ‘Messiah’ – Jesus is the Liberating King (a wonderful phrase that continues to capture my imagination about who Jesus really is). This is what the Christmas gospel in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are all about – the inbreaking of the Kingdom in the birth of the Liberating King of Israel and the world.

The Christmas Gospel in Matthew…

Scot McKnight at the Jesus Creed blog discusses the presence of the Christmas gospel of the Kingdom in the narratives of Matthew (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). He says in part,

“What is the good news, the gospel, at Christmas? Very simply there is one basic message we are invited to announce: Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, is the King. The Christmas gospel — it’s all here — is that Jesus is King” and “the gospel is to declare that the Story of Israel (or the Bible) has been fulfilled in the Story of Jesus, who is King (Messiah) and Lord who saves. At the heart of this gospel then is a Story, a Story that begins with Adam and then all over again with Abraham and winds and wends its way all the way to Jesus. That Story is told in the Old Testament. The Christmas Story is a Story fulfilled. Let me turn this around: these are Advent texts not just because they are about the birth of Jesus; they are Christmas texts because these texts singularly fulfill the OT Story’s anticipations.”

The Christmas Gospel in Luke…

Andrew Perriman at the P.OST blog has a good post on ‘Christmas now and then’ in which he traces the Kingdom theme present in Luke. He says,

“Jesus will be king over Israel, in the line of David: ‘And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’ (Lk. 1:32-33). The magi come looking for a new born king of the Jews, whose star they had seen. When many nations are assembled against Jerusalem, a ‘ruler in Israel’ will come from Bethlehem, who will ‘gather the rest of his brothers’ and deliver his people from the invader, and the ‘remnant of Jacob’ will be established amongst the nations (Mic. 4:11-5:9; cf. Matt. 2:6). Herod had the male infants of Bethlehem slaughtered not because he feared the arrival of a personal saviour but because he believed his rule over Israel was threatened.”

This kingdom theme ought to cause us to think differently about the pronouncements of peace in Luke (see 1:30 with Mary’s ‘Do not be afraid’ and 2:10-14 with the shepherds). At church we did a study by Rick Warren called ‘The Purpose of Christmas’. But I was terribly disappointed that his study never mentioned anything of the Kingdom theme. Instead, the guy who sold a ton of books proclaiming ‘its not about you’ ultimately made it all about us. Christmas it seems was so that we can individually experience peace with God and feel at peace with God. I confessed in our discussion group that I was not at peace with Warren’s take on Christmas peace. I wondered…where is the Kingdom? Christmas peace that’s not Kingdom peace actually misses the ‘purpose of Christmas.’ Christmas peace can never be merely individual peace. Christmas peace is only found within the context of the Kingdom.

Perriman again comments,

“the birth of Jesus in the city of David coincided with a registration of the whole empire ordered by Caesar Augustus (Lk. 2:1-7). The good news of Jesus’ birth as ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’, of peace for those in Israel with whom God is pleased (Lk. 2:10-14), clashes with pronouncements concerning the birth of the divine Augustus, who was Son of God, Saviour, Lord, who had brought peace and prosperity to the empire.”

The (counter) Kingdom theme runs all throughout the birth narratives and this is what the peace pronouncements are – royal, kingly pronouncements of the arrival of King Jesus. What we have here is the Kingdom favor, Kingdom good news, and Kingdom peace of Jesus the Liberating King. The point is clear, the true king of Israel and the world is neither Herod nor Caesar but Jesus.

The Christmas Gospel of Mary’s Magnificat…

Finally, Chaplain Mike at the Internet Monk blog has a great three part series on ‘Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) vs Today’s Gospel.’ (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). He concludes that Mary,

1) sees what God has done for her as personal but not the sense that its private;

2) sees herself in God’s Story, not just God in her story;

3) sees the coming of Jesus coming as the inaguration of The Great Reversal (versus merely The Great Exchange);

and 4) sees the coming of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.

He additionally says,

Mary has a BIG gospel! — a gospel that covers the whole Bible and the whole world. This isn’t something she learned as a ‘deeper truth’ for mature Christians; this was her hope and expectation, but it is something the soterians miss because they jump from Genesis to Jesus and don’t include the whole story in their understanding of Gospel as Mary did. From the beginning, Mary praised God as the King who rules the earth, who has called her to join him in the Missio Dei of bringing about the blessing of a New Creation.”

I think that pretty much hits the gospel nail on its head!

The Christmas Gospel is a BIG Gospel…

I will be honest, the individualist plan of salvation ‘gospel’ (if we can even call it a gospel) crumpled under the weight of my grief as Christie and I went through a devastating failed adoption and also lost three of our babies to miscarriage. Because of this Christmas can be hard for us. As I navigated my grief I needed more than a general theory of salvation, getting my guilt taken care of, or being sure my soul went to heaven when I died so that I could hang out with other souls (do we not see how Gnostic this is when we speak this way?). I needed a gospel that was not about me, that was bigger than me, that was bigger than my grief. As it turns out I needed what the rest of the world needs; that which is ultimately true – the reality that actually constitutes the world – the gospel of the Kingdom. I needed the Christmas gospel of the Liberating King. The Kingdom and the communion of Father, Son, and Spirit it seemed were the only realities bigger than my grief.

This Advent season we have prepared for the coming (again) of Christ with the themes of hope, joy, peace, and love. These are Kingdom realities first and foremost which are rooted in the Kingdom of the Liberating King, and in which our participation in these realities comes not primarily in existential ‘goose bump’  fashion but through participation in the triune communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is true hope, true joy, true peace, and true love. This is Kingdom hope, joy, peace, and love that draws us into the story of the Liberating King in which God is putting all things to rights, that gives us bodily resurrection, that includes a new heavens and a new earth, that calls us to join the Liberating King in the triune Missio Dei in the world of bringing new creation. This is the BIG gospel that Mary knew. Let us learn from Mary. Let us live within the Christmas gospel of the Liberating King, today and every day.

Happy Incarnation Day! May the hope, joy, peace, and love of the Liberating King Jesus be with you at all times.

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The First Christmas Sermon Ever Preached

Over at Tony Jone’s blog he has posted excerpts of what is thought to be the very first Christmas sermon ever preached. I like this sermon so much I decided I would steal his idea and post the excerpts myself here on my own blog. This sermon was preached by John ‘Golden Mouth’ Chrysostom (who got his nickname due to his oratory skill) in 386 AD. I first came upon Chrysostom’s sermon when I was an undergrad doing some research for a historical theology course I was taking. I then forgot about it for a number of years until I rediscovered it as a graduate MDiv student at Logsdon Seminary in Abilene, TX while doing research on the Trinitarian theology of the church fathers.

You will find the excerpts below and can read the whole thing for yourself in The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers. The full text is available on Google Books as well. Happy reading and Merry Christmas!

I behold a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.  The Angels sing.  The Archangels blend their voice in harmony.  The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise.  The Seraphim exalt His glory.  All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven.  He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice.  And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields.  For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God.  This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not.  For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His.  Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny.  Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech.  For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth.  The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace!  The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption.  For what reason?  That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see.  For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature’.  For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made.  Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator.  For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say!  And how shall I describe this Birth to you?  For this wonder fills me with astonishment.  The Ancient of days has become an infant.  He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger.  And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men.  He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands.  But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life.  He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity.  For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this?  Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh.  He did not become God.  He was God.  Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother.  So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him.  Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever.  Amen.

Black Friday, Thanksgiving, and Advent: Whose Story? Which Liturgy? What Kingdom?

I have to be honest, Thanksgiving holds a great deal of rather acute tension for me. Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful when Thanksgiving Day rolled around…thankful even. And not only for some time off from a job that had not been going as well as I’d hoped, but also for the provision that God has provided for us during a big time of transition. But its also clear that in the wider American culture Thanksgiving is just really Black Friday Eve, a day which serves as a convenient means to advertise while we watch football and stuff ourselves. As a culture we go from a day set aside (we are told) for thanks to a day specifically created for consumption and the cult of consumerism – Black Friday, a truly dark day in which people get trampled, pummeled, and even killed for cheap crap. But I ask: is it any surprise that with the entrenchment of such a formative cultural liturgy that people act in accordance with the narrative of consumerism in which they have been shaped?

It may seem strange to some to refer to Black Friday as part of a ‘cultural liturgy’, but James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom (rightly I think) advocates such a designation in order to “unveil the character of what presents itself as benign” and to even “recognize the charged, religious nature of cultural institutions [ie, the mall] that we all intend to inhabit as if they were neutral sites.” But as Smith contends, the mall is not a neutral site and it does indeed have its own liturgy, its own formative pedagogy of desire, its own form of worship that shapes what we love and forms us into particular kinds of persons who desire a certain kind of kingdom.

“The mall is a religious institution because it is a liturgical institution, and it is a pedagogical institution because it is a formative institution.” (Smith, 22-24, 54-55)

The Saturday after Black Friday I have come to think of as ‘Sandwich Saturday’, as it falls between Black Friday and the first Sunday of Advent. ‘Sandwich Saturday’ for me is filled with an eschatological tension of sorts between two ways of marking time, between two kingdoms if you will. The kingdom represented by Black Friday marks time with the narrative of consumerism and what we might call the ‘Hallmark Holy-days’ (Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Memorial Day, New Years), which create a distinctly American liturgy which feeds the narrative of consumerism. It is here that a co-opted Christmas day comes to basically serve as the bookend opposite to Black Friday in the quasi-holy observance of the ‘Holiday Sopping Season’.

During this time of year I have a confession to make: I really don’t care if store clerks tell me ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’. The so called ‘War on Christmas’ is really about the dissipation of Christendom and ‘cultural Christianity’ which are just as much co-optings of Christmas as American consumerism, and indeed, are most often wed tightly to the consumeristic narrative. Christians who insist that store clerks should say ‘Merry Christmas’ all the while ringing up the latest stack of presents on an already maxed out credit card are seriously missing the irony. In my opinion for stores to say ‘Happy Holidays’ is the most appropriate thing because it brings to the light exactly what the ‘Holiday Shopping Season’ is,  the staple of the American liturgical year – narrating us into the civil religion of consumerism, with the marketers serving as our chief priests, and retail stores and mall our cathedrals.

The season of Advent marks the beginning of the church year and specifically marks time with the narrative of Christ. Smith offers some instructive words to help us understand how Advent and the Christian liturgical year help us to mark time differently. He says,

“the Christian observation of Advent marks a different orientation to time, particularly when it is recognized that Advent is a penitential season of denial and self-examination rather than accumulation, consumption, and self-indulgence. The distinct marking of time that is integral to historic Christian worship establishes a sense that the church is a ‘peculiar people,’ and the liturgical calendar already constitutes a formative matrix that functions as a counter-formation to the incessant 24/7-ness of our frenetic commercial culture.” (156-57)

And he continues,

“During Advent each year, the Christian year teaches us to once again become Israel, recognizing our sin and need, that waiting, longing, hoping, calling, praying for the coming of the Messiah, the advent of justice, and the inbreaking of shalom. We go through the ritual of desiring the kingdom – a kind of holy impatience – by reenacting Israel’s longing for the coming of the King. We are called to be a people of expectancy – looking for the coming (again) of the Messiah.” (157-58)

And he finally concludes,

“We are called to be a people of memory…citizens of a kingdom that is both older and newer than anything offered by ‘the contemporary.’ The practices of Christian worship over the liturgical year form in us something of an ‘old soul’ that is perpetually pointed to a future, longing for a coming kingdom, and seeking to be such a stretched people in the present who are a foretaste of the coming kingdom.” (159, bold mine)

An ecclesia of people who are a ‘foretaste of the kingdom’ – this is what we are to be. My suggestion here is that the best way to go about being this sort of people (well, at least a first step) is not to take part in the civil religious culture war over ‘Happy Holidays’ vs ‘Merry Christmas’ but to adopt a counter liturgy and counter story to the ‘Holiday Shopping Season’ in the form of the ancient Christian observance of Advent – both individually and ecclesially/communally.  With Smith we can say that this counter liturgy and counter story of Advent and the church year shapes our desire, and our love, for an alternative Kingdom to the kingdom of the god of American consumerism.

At this point I have another confession to make: it frustrates me that it seems that everywhere I look there is a failure to make the Advent/Kingdom link that is essential. The missing piece in most Advent observances that I see (just as with the huge missing aspect in how we talk about the gospel) is the Kingdom piece. The stories surrounding the birth of Christ in the Gospels all have to do with the clash of kingdoms and the subversion of all earthly kingdoms. Advent is a recapitulation in liturgical form and celebration of the coming of, not merely a personal savior (I have become convinced that if you only know Jesus as personal savior you don’t really know Jesus!), but of the liberating King Jesus as a baby in the incarnation.

The four weeks of Advent traditionally focus on four themes with corresponding candles that lead up to the Christ candle. In the church we attend, the themes for this year are: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love (this is basically traditional but there can be variation. The Mosaic Bible uses Longing, Hope, Anticipation, and Preparation for its themes). My point here is that (it seems) most folks make these themes almost purely existential, that is, something they experience or feel on the inside as an individual. But, without denigrating the importance of feelings,  I want to suggest that these themes are ecclesial and communal more than they are individual and that they correspond most specifically to the Kingdom. The Kingdom of hope, peace, joy, and love that comes with liberating King Jesus is about so much more than existential goosebumps – not just the hope inside me somewhere, but Kingdom hope for the world; not just the peace I feel, but Kingdom peace for the world; not just the joy I experience inwardly, but Kingdom joy for the world; not just the love I have for myself, but Kingdom love for the world.

The season of waiting and preparation of Advent is a season of forming ourselves and our desires, our loves, into Kingdom people who desire the Kingdom and the liberating King Jesus above all things. Advent is about more than what we feel, it is about the Kingdom and King we love and serve.

Therefore I think the questions before us are thus:

Whose story do we tell?

Which liturgy shall form us?

The story and liturgy of the American cult of consumerism…

The story and liturgy of Christendom and ‘cultural Christianity’…

…or the story of Christ and the counter liturgy of the church year?

What Kingdom will we desire?

The consumerist kingdom and civil religion of Western/American capitalism…

The kingdom of Western Christendom and American civil religion…

…or the true Kingdom of our liberating King Jesus.

Whose story? Which liturgy? What Kingdom?

Our answers to these questions will determine the kind of people we are, the people whose we are, and what it is that we love.

While you’re here check out the latest Advent Conspiracy video from Chris Seay of Ecclesia in Houston, who echoes James K.A. Smith’s point about liturgy and formation well when he says, “Is the system we’ve invested our lives in, is it corrupt? Are these the people God made us to be?” [Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, Love All]

Advent Conspiracy – Black Friday

[AC] Black Friday from Advent Conspiracy on Vimeo.

Advent Conspiracy – Enter the Story 2011 [also check out Living Water International]