Christmas on Location: The Temple Courts

PLEASE NOTE: THE GROUP LIFE BLOG WILL BE MIGRATING TO UPPC’S BLOG AS OF JANUARY 2020. PLEASE CONTINUE TO VISIT THE BLOG THERE!

The week or two after Christmas is always interesting. Some are relieved, while others are already excited for next Christmas! But all of us have to “go back to normal.” So it was also with the shepherds, who had to return to their fields after seeing the messiah. But they didn’t return unchanged — they praised God for what he had revealed to them!

Like the shepherds, we can return to our normal routines with praise and thanksgiving on our lips. Because the Christmas event is reminder that God is with us at all times, in all places, even the most ordinary! So we are invited, even beckoned, to seek God in our everyday, because with him we will find the purpose for our lives.

Luke is a master storyteller, and the first two chapters of his gospel sketch the outline for the rest of the story. This week, we looked at the final part of his outline — Jesus presented in the temple courts.

As we’ve journeyed through Christmas “on location” this year, you can note that the story begins and ends in the same place — Jerusalem, in the temple of the Lord. Luke is careful to also note that Mary and Joseph obey all the Jewish laws concerning childbirth (2:39). This setting concretizes who Jesus is and will become. But Jesus’ role as messiah will achieve victory for God’s people in a way that no one could see coming. No one, that is, except for Simeon.

One of the first, stunning features of Simeon’s song is that God intends the messiah for “all nations” as a light” to the Gentiles.” The Jewish people had every reason to believe that the messiah — a purely Jewish concept — was for their national benefit over against Rome or any other surrounding nation (note that the Greek for “Gentile” is ethnos from which we derive the word “ethnic.”) But Simeon’s prophecy here, which echoes much earlier prophecies even in our Old Testament canon, would still have been a reversal of the idea of messiah at the time.

Second, there is the troubling notion that Christ would cause the “falling” and not just rising of many in Israel, and that he would be spoken against. But mostly, that because of him, a “sword would pierce” his own mother’s heart. Not exactly what you want to hear on your firstborn’s big day at church.

Of course, the benefit of hindsight and the New Testament scriptures that follow help us understand that this falling, strife, and soul-piercing would be at least in part because of the upside-down method by which the messiah would win Israel’s victory — not by conquering suffering, but by joining it, and ultimately taking it onto himself.

Christmas on Location means that the arrival of the messiah (Greek, “Christ”) transforms the everyday lives of the entire world. It means that each of us can find the part that we are invited to play in the ongoing story of Christmas. It means that the Christmas story can be your story, too.

For reflection:
– When is the last time you actively inquired about the purpose of your life?
– Have you ever considered that you are being called to live out a specific role in God’s ongoing work (i.e. the story God is telling)?
– Do you believe that anyone, by God’s grace, can be part of God’s ongoing work (story) in the world? What assumptions does that statement challenge?
– How does it make you feel to consider that God is calling you to be part of his ongoing work (story) in the world? Is it scary? Exciting? Both? Other?

Christmas on Location: Magi

PLEASE NOTE: THE GROUP LIFE BLOG WILL BE MIGRATING TO UPPC’S BLOG AS OF JANUARY 2020. PLEASE CONTINUE TO VISIT THE BLOG THERE!

There are a lot of ways to experience the Christmas season, but perhaps the best is through the eyes of children. Youth minister Rob shared this morning some of his own good memories of Christmas, and now some of the ways his daughter is experiencing it, too. In the end, it’s all about how we respond to the season. In the biblical account of the events surrounding Christmas, there were two parties who had an equal opportunity to respond…but they responded in exactly opposite ways.

Matthew 2:1-12 record the visit of the Magi from the east. Many of us know of the “wise men” or the “three kings,” but the word “magi” is less familiar. In English it shares its root with “magic.” Elsewhere in the New Testament the same word translated “magi” here is translated “sorcerer!” Imagine that — sorcerers in the Bible!

What makes that word study relevant and frankly shocking is the revelation that the Christ child was not private business, intended only for the people already in covenant relationship with God. Rather, Christ came for the entire world, even those whom, in the view of first century Judeans, would be as far outside of God’s covenant community as possible. (There is a lot we can learn even from the motif of “east” as it’s used throughout the Old Testament and now alluded to here by Matthew.)

So the magi are the first “party” in this passage to have a chance to respond to the announcement that God has anointed a new king. And their famous response is to bring gifts, and of course, to worship the new king. And remember, they would not have known all the stories of the Jews, or the prophecies of the messiah. They were outsiders. And this is what makes the other party’s response ironic.

King Herod was actually not of Jewish descent but had been appointed king of Judea by Caesar. So not only did he not share their bloodlines, he was also in cahoots with their occupier, Rome. Moreover, Herod was paranoid and power hungry, even to the extent of putting three of his own sons to death to avoid dissent. Nevertheless, Herod represents someone with high status and power, who had license to do whatever he pleased throughout Judea. He was an insider. So much so that he got to define who the insiders and outsiders were in his region. His reaction to the newborn king is exactly the opposite of the magi, despite being an “insider.” Rather than worshiping Jesus, Herod plots to have him killed, to the dismay of many grieving parents later who lost their sons to his bloody decree.

There are many things we could make of the dichotomy between the magi’s and Herod’s responses to Jesus’ birth. Certainly one of the most obvious is to ask ourselves: “How will I respond?” Will you acknowledge Jesus’ kingship, worship him, give him your life, and trust that as your King he will preserve your life and show the way of living as you were meant to live? Or will you deny Jesus’ kingship, cling to your life, and trust only yourself to determine the life you should live?

Another challenge from this passage is for today’s “insiders,” i.e. the Church. We must consider whether or not we have the courage to let God offer Jesus to whomever God will, regardless of if they fit our paradigm for God’s people. Are there “sorcerers” in your neighborhoods, workplaces, even congregations, whom you can’t imagine God would include in the kingdom?

Finally, it is helpful to remember that God is already on the move. God invites his Church to participate in living and sharing the Gospel (“good news”) of Jesus, but God doesn’t “need” us, per se. So as the new year approaches, let us humbly respond to the ways God is already working in our midst to invite the world into a covenant relationship with Him.

For reflection:
– It is said that “power corrupts.” How does that sentiment influence your understanding of today’s story?
– Why is power such a temptation? Why is it so hard to relinquish power?
– PRAY: When you pray, consider asking God to show you your blind spots, i.e., the people whom you might otherwise not realize God loves and wants in the family of faith.
– STUDY JESUS: When you read the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), take it slow and meditate on the character of Jesus. Who were his friends? Who did he scold? In what ways did Jesus’ life reflect the great reversal of expectations we see in the magi’s visit?
– GIVE: Perhaps the most powerful way to experience the Holy Spirit in our midst is to give of ourselves. Where can your pour your treasure, time, and talent in this new year?

Blessings
MM

Christmas on Location: Mary & Joseph

This morning, Dec. 15, 2019, we had a blessed time of music at UPPC!  First and foremost of course we thank God for the people, place, and resources that make such a celebration possible!  If you missed it, you can watch the live stream on Facebook.

During this Advent season, we are contemplating “Christmas on Location,” the real place, people, and circumstances into which the messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, was born.  The lyrics of Michael W. Smith’s song “The Promise” beautifully remind us to “Fear not, oh Israel, for there is peace still to come.”  But it would take an arduous journey to get there.

Luke tells us about this journey.  The route Nazareth to Bethlehem is difficult to say the least.  Only 64 miles as the crow flies, the journey on foot would take 6-7 days due to rough terrain and elevation changes.  In the end, the road was over 100 miles long.  Can you imagine making the journey on foot, let along while pregnant?  The home stretch was perhaps the hardest, as Mary and Joseph would have to ascend from the area of the Dead Sea to Bethlehem, about 4000 feet of elevation gain.  

But they made it.  And once they were there the baby arrived.  The baby who would topple an empire.  The baby who would topple sin and death.  The baby who is the Son of the Most High God.  And yet, the baby born in humility and the reality of flesh and blood.

Jesus’ relatively unremarkable birth can be a source of comfort for so many of us.  Had he been born to royalty, wealth, or power, who could relate to him?  And who would believe he could understand us, most of whom exist in “humble estate.”  Even the Church in 20 centuries has, at times, become its own institution, whose customs are hard for most people to relate to.  If this is the case for you, then know this Christmas that amidst the many questions Christianity evokes, there is one thing you need to know: God came to us as a baby born to a young mother in a humble home.  This is how available Jesus still is.  He is both humble and powerful, strong in his meekness.  He is both majestically divine, and humbly human.  

This is what we all need to remember about who God is and the lengths Jesus would go to love us weary people.  He’s come so that you may know the purpose and meaning of your life.  He’s come to remind us that despite your holiday season anxiety, or the worries and fears that define so much of the world, Jesus is enough for us this December.  And every day.  Everything else can be imperfect, clunky, messy.  So this Christmas season, may your hearts be full of adoration for the newborn King of kings, who knows you by name and loves you so much.  

For reflection:
– What do you think would be the hardest part of Joseph and Mary’s journey?
– When you think of this chapter in the Christmas story (the journey to Bethlehem), what stands out to you the most?
– Do you believe that “Jesus is enough” for you this Christmas season?  Why or why not?
– For prayer: bring to Jesus those parts of your life which seem inadequate, incomplete, unsatisfactory.  Ask him to show you the ways that he is enough for you.

Christmas on Location: Nazareth

Do you believe God is still active in the world? Walter Brueggemann said: “Few of our people imagine God to be an active character in the story of their lives.” Many of us may believe in God. But there’s a lot of room within that phrase, to “believe in.” Does God exist, but removed from daily life? Is God occasionally involved? Or is God intricately involved in the world, even in ways we can’t always see?

This week, “Christmas on Location” moves from its starting point in the most common sense place — Jerusalem — to the least common sense — Nazareth. A village of only about 300 people, 64 miles north of Jerusalem, Nazareth was not remotely the kind of village any first century Jew would expect God to give life to his messiah. Moreover, to a teenage girl of the most ordinary status.

Mary’s obedient response to Gabriel’s news stands in stark contrast to Zechariah’s doubt. But it doesn’t mean she didn’t have a moment of pause. This was a real girl in a real village, and she was being given real, risky news. A new king? In Mary’s world, only one person got to choose who reigned as king, and that was Caesar. And it was common sense that Caesar had no intention of sharing his power.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, Mary is venerated as particularly holy; people even pray to her, and in some Catholic cultures Mary is at the forefront of the sanctuary while Jesus is in the margins. On the other hand, protestants sometimes fail to give Mary due credit. The truth is probably in between: Mary, like other human beings before her (Moses, David, Elijah, etc.) was an extraordinary person to whom God gave a special revelation, and through whom God brought forth a special grace. Don’t forget — Mary knew and eventually followed Jesus longer than any other disciple. But it doesn’t change the fact that Mary was as real as real gets.

When Pastor Aaron visited Nazareth last month, he was able to see the home which historians believe belonged to Mary and Joseph. It was a humble, small stone home (little larger than Yoda’s). No carbon scoring where Gabriel’s brilliance shone. No sense that Mary deserved special treatment.

So what do these ordinary people mean for us today?

It comes back to how you answer the question at the top: Do you believe God is still active in the world? Moreover, do you believe God can be active in the world through you?

And that question raises another: Are you, an ordinary person, willing to play your part in God’s extraordinary story? Could Mary have ever known the breadth of the impact that this moment with Gabriel would ultimately have? Even after having watched Jesus grow up, seeing him acquire followers and perform miracles…could she have known that 20 centuries later billions of people would still call Jesus “Lord?”

And the life of that extraordinary man, the Son of God incarnate, started with the obedience of an ordinary young woman. “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.

For reflection:
– What stands out the most to you when you read this encounter between Gabriel and Mary?
– If you were Mary, how do you think you would react?
– Why do you think her hesitation isn’t considered doubt (as Zechariah had doubted in the previous story)?
– Where might God be calling you to be part of God’s story of redemption, right here in your ordinary, everyday life?

Blessings
MM

Photo: Hulki Okan Tabak, Unsplash

Christmas on Location: Jerusalem

Christmas is coming soon, but Dec. 1 was the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent basically means “Get ready, something is coming!”  It’s our opportunity to enter back into our spiritual ancestors’ experience of emptiness, silence, and waiting for generations for God’s Messiah, God’s “chosen king,” to bring a final peace and stability to the land.  

Speaking of “the land,” this year, we are having “Christmas on Location” in the holy land.  So, we’re going do some good ol’ fashioned learning as we also contemplate the meaning of Advent and Christmas.  We are going on a journey together to discover that what has become holiday sentiment for many of us, happened at a real time, to real people, in real places.

Luke’s account of the story (Luke 1:5-25) begins with “the time of Herod king of Judea.” It was a politically divided, tense, and violent time and place. Not exactly the way many of our Christmas stories are told.   But then the story takes a sharp turn!  In this corrupt and volatile place, “There was a priest” and his wife, both descendants of priests, and both seen as righteous in God’s sight.  These two are in stark contrast to King Herod.  But despite their righteousness, they were sadly unable to have children (see Elizabeth’s description of her experience in v. 25).

The temple was an enormous complex! The outer courts are where people would have been gathered to pray while Zechariah was inside the “holy place,” the temple itself (through the double doors in the middle).

The Incense Offering was given in the nave, which was adjacent to the holiest place, believed to house the real presence of God on earth. So, this was the closest Zechariah would ever get to God’s presence…or so he thought.

Priests function as mediators between God and people. But nevertheless, Zechariah is surprised when he has an divine encounter with the angel called Gabriel! The angel assures Zechariah that his prayer has been heard. We don’t know what prayer this means, but given God’s response to the prayer (v.13) I’m convinced it refers to Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s prayers to conceive a child.

Perhaps understandably, Zechariah has his doubts and asks for a sign. He is given one, though not one he might want — the inability to speak until the child was born.

And so, the beginning of the Christmas story, according to Luke, begins with emphasis on emptiness, silence, and waiting.

Emptiness: Earlier this week I asked the church staff to think of a time when emptiness is a good thing, and perhaps other times when it’s a bad thing.  (It’s good conversation starter over coffee, too).  For example, an empty stomach might be thought a bad thing — unless it’s the moment before you dig into a delicious Thanksgiving meal.  Then the emptiness makes the meal taste even better!   Surely it was painful for Z and E to have a home that was empty of children.  And I know that this part of their story resonates with the pain some of you have felt as you’ve longed for children, too.  But without minimizing their pain, this story is clearly telling us that their emptiness set the stage for the Christmas story, the arrival of the Messiah.  They became like their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah — miraculous parents whose child changed history.  They couldn’t have known that before today’s story.  But it would still happen.  It compels us all to consider how we might be experiencing emptiness this Christmas season. 

Silence:  Remember that as a priest, Zechariah’s job was to mediate God to the people.  Now, the people rightly concluded that he had a divine encounter.  But with the benefit of hindsight, I think there was much more to his silence than that.  This was the very beginning of God ushering in a new era, when God’s real, earthly presence would no longer need a human mediator.  In the language of the Message, an era when God, in Christ, would “move into the neighborhood.”  God’s presence would go from being mediated to being IM-mediate.  And what better way to demonstrate that immediacy than to silence this priest? We can only try to imagine how frustrating it would have been for Zechariah to be unable to speak, especially as they prepared for their firstborn.  Like emptiness, silence can be undesirable, even scary.  But it is usually what we need to be more aware of God.    

Waiting: We know that waiting was very familiar to these people.  Their ancestors waited to be saved from exile.  And they had been waiting ever since then for God to restore Israel.  They were agrarian and waited for their crops to grow and animals to mature.  The entire pace of life was slower than most of us can imagine as we have everything from air travel to Amazon.  But…we still have to wait for some things. Just last night, my mom, dad, wife and I were talking about how quickly time goes by.  But I remember one season that didn’t go by very quickly — about eight months of waiting for our daughter to be born.  Time has flown by ever since!  But those months were one of the most acute seasons of waiting I’ve ever had (I can only try to imagine what the waiting was like for my wife!)  I was excited and scared, and time just stretched on and on. It seemed like our daughter would never arrive!  But thank God for the waiting, because it allowed us to get ready (even though when she was born we didn’t feel ready!) Like Zechariah and Elizabeth’s experiences of emptiness and silence, this story compels us to ask about our own waiting this season.  700 years before today’s story, the prophet Isaiah gave God’s word to his people in exile: “They that wait on the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly with wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not faint.”  

For Reflection:
Emptiness: In what ways is emptiness painful for you this season?  Acknowledge to God that your pain is real and needn’t be glossed over.  But at the same time, this story is a reminder that even our emptiness can set the stage for God to work, even in life-changing ways.
Silence: As the Christmas season begins, how do you feel about your experience of silence?  Does silence make you uneasy, or more calm?  Are your days already silent enough, and you’re excited to fill your ears with music, family, and friends?  Or are you in need of more silence, like Zechariah was, to become more aware of God in your midst?
Waiting: In what ways are you being forced to wait?  What are you waiting for? What are you going to do as you wait?  How will you spend that time? Does your waiting feel exciting, or burdensome? Or both?  What might the Holy Spirit be trying to tell you, or mature in you, during this season of waiting? 

Blessings this Advent,
MM

Perplexity, Inquiry, Clarity

I was pretty baffled as a kid about twelve days the famous Christmas song referred to. There were 24 days on the Advent calendar, 8 days in Hanukkah, 4 Sundays of Advent in church…which 12 days was it?

The Twelve Days of Christmas refers to the twelve days starting with Christmas and ending the night before Epiphany on January 6, which commemorates the visit of the wise men, or Magi, to the baby Jesus. Along with the rich theological meaning of their visit, this year I got to wondering about their personalities — what kind of people sacrifice so much out of curiosity?

The Magi must have been perplexed by what they saw in the stars, and their willingness to inquire resulted in their clarity — a moment of epiphany that inspired them to rejoice with exceeding greatness (“overjoyed” in the NIV.) Jesus’ life would continue to puzzle people, including his closest followers. As the Magi did at the beginning of Jesus’ life, so Jesus’ disciples would do toward the end of his earthly life. John 16:16-24 records part of a longer dialogue where we can see the disciples moving from perplexity, through inquiry, and eventually to clarity.

When we are perplexed, or even when our worldview feels threatened, there are some unhealthy ways to react. We can react with fear, by fighting new ideas or running away from them. We can react with cynicism, deciding that it’s not worth it to seek knowledge and understanding. But as author Carey Nieuwhof puts it: “An incredibly effective antidote to cynicism is curiosity” (Didn’t See It Coming, 2018, p. 26). That leads to inquiry.

When we inquire about Jesus, God, or other aspects of life and faith, we should remember that asking is part of faith, not antithetical to it. The disciples had no idea what was going on for most of their experience with Jesus recorded in the gospels. And yet they were people of great faith. And if you are someone who gets asked a lot of questions, do what Jesus did: engage. Graciously offer Biblical answers if you have them. Humbly admit when answers elude you. And then reengage the process of inquiry again, even with others who are asking good questions.

Finally, clarity is promised by Jesus, but on the one condition that we make our inquiries and requests “in Jesus’ name.” What does that mean? It means aligning our desires with God’s will, just as Jesus’ will was perfectly aligned with the Father’s. It means, to the best of our ability, asking for what Jesus asks for. Seeking what Jesus seeks. Relinquishing our own agendas for the world and anticipating God to give us the clarity we need, when we need it.

For reflection:
– What is something the Christian faith proclaims that you find perplexing? (If you can’t think of anything, what do you think other people might find perplexing?)
– What sorts of things might you ask God for that you believe align with God’s will?
– Have you ever had an “epiphany” about Jesus, God, or yourself? Find someone to tell that story to!

Many blessings in this new year!
MM

The Manger Is the Message

In Philippians 2:6-7, we read about the second person of the divine Trinity, the Son of God, “making himself nothing.” What does Paul mean? The theological term for this is kenosis which essentially means “emptying.” But it doesn’t mean Jesus was no longer divine, but rather that Jesus refused to take advantage of his divinity as he lived out his human life. He fully entered the brokenness of humanity — the brokenness we do and don’t create ourselves.

Jesus was born into an ethnic minority that had experienced the ravages of persecution and genocide throughout the generations. Jesus reveals a God who identifies with refugees, the poor, and the underprivileged. If you’ve ever had a personal experience of a truly impoverished person, you’re not likely to forget it. Pastor Aaron shared a story of meeting a boy named Pedro in Mexico who had only two things to his name: one square of toilet paper a day, and a tattered toy bear. That was it. Something runs deep within each of us that screams “This just isn’t right.” Not because the goal of life is to have more stuff. But because of the injustice of a child living without the essentials of a healthy life. And Jesus himself claimed to be Pedro’s servant by taking Pedro’s form.

In Luke 4:17-21, Jesus himself recalled the words of Isaiah, who described the purpose of the Messiah. And as followers of the Messiah, we the Church have not only a lot of work to do, but a clear manner in which to do it: with humility. Thomas Merton wrote: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire about whether or not they are worthy.”

As we move into 2019, consider the impact of not only bringing the good message of Jesus to the broken world, but embodying that message in the same way Jesus did: with humility.

For Reflection:
– What would it look like for you to take a step toward serving your community with more humility that you did last year?
– What might be holding you back from serving more humbly? Money? Time? Fear? Consider bringing those obstacles honestly to God in prayer.
– If you live in the UPPC community, consider new upcoming opportunities to serve.  Visit UPPC.org > Serve

Rewriting the Tape

We are caught between two stories. One tells us what we are supposed to be. The other tells us what we are. One tells us what is possible if we try. The other tells us what is possible in spite of our failures. One tells us what Christmas can be. The other tells us what Christmas is. Which story will you be a part of?

Theologian Karl Barth was once asked by a student to articulate the most important of all Christian doctrines. He answered in six words: “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Despite so many things we think we might need, especially during the holidays, the most pressing need of the human experience is to understand the meaning of these six words. Why?

Each of us has a sort of “tape recorder” that plays in our minds (okay younger readers, a DVR). It repeats basic messages, usually about who we are. And they’re usually discouraging. It says things like “You’re not good enough.” “You’re too (insert any physical feature here like thin, fat, hairy, etc.)” “You’re just average.” “You’ll never find someone who loves you.” And so on.

The gospel (“good news”) of Jesus also repeats a message about who we are. It’s a simple, down-to-earth message. Its simplicity might actually be why so many people miss it. But it has been on repeat since the first Christmas, but each new generation has to discover its meaning. The message is: In Jesus, you are a child of God.

Understanding our identity as children of God has nothing to do with our efforts or achievements. It has nothing to do with anything that might bolster our self-esteem. Jesus did not come to give us better self-esteem; Jesus came to share with us “God-esteem.” In Pastor Aaron’s words: “Jesus came to empower us with all the rights, blessings, and responsibilities of what it means to be God’s children and to transform us from fear-based life to a confident, love-filled life. This is our new identity.” Never forget the sequence of events. First, God so loved the world. Then God gave his Son.

Rather than reflection questions today, I’d like to offer the four one-line prayers we prayed today, and invite you to pray these prayers throughout the Christmas season:
– Lord, rewind the tape in my mind and rewrite the message I hear.
– Lord, renew my mind that I may believe in your esteem for me.
– Lord, soften my heart that I may feel your embrace and acceptance.
– Lord, ready my hands that they may respond with love to others.

Merry Christmas,
MM

A Baby Changes Everything

Emmanuel — God with us.

In Jesus Christ, God chose to dwell with us in the most ordinary way. What does this mean? At the very least, it means you do not have to earn God’s attention. God is seeking and pursuing you.

God’s pursuit of humanity came in the form of a baby, and as the song says, “A Baby Changes Everything.” Anyone who has ever had a baby knows that is true in so many ways. But in the case of this baby, the Christ-child, everything that matters most to us and to the world is changed.

Or…it isn’t. But it can’t be both. The fact is that we get to make our own decision about whether or not Jesus changed everything. If God did not choose to become flesh, if the baby Jesus doesn’t change everything, then the world and the universe in which it resides is a cold and empty place. The task defining life’s meaning falls to us. The burden of judging and forgiving sin falls to us. The burden of saving the world falls to us. Are we up to the task?

But if God does dwell with us, first in the Christ-child, then by the Holy Spirit, the everything that matters most is changed. It’s changed forever. It’s changed for good, and for the good, and for everyone.

For reflection:
1) Did the baby Jesus change “everything?” What part of “everything” do you see that Jesus changed, and what part of “everything” do you feel has remained the same as always?
2) Does it change how you might relate to God to realize that God is first pursuing you, rather than the other way around?

A blessed Christmas,
MM

Down to Earth: Flesh Comes Down

I’ve noticed a disconnect in our midst.  Pretty much everything I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to bemoans the divisiveness in our culture these days.  No one seems to be celebrating it.  But on the other hand, most people seem to also agree that the divisions are increasing, not decreasing.  So, why the disconnect? 

One possible reason is because of all of the talking.  Beyond interpersonal dialogue, the internet has become a free-for-all of anyone’s ideas about anything.  So much talk that can lead us to create our identities around ideas, rather than actual issues.  And these “identity-based ideologies” are “by the far the more potent predictor of social distance.”*

In his brief letter to the Philippians, Paul is writing  to a church struggling with divisiveness, and he offers one of the most theologically and poetically rich passages about Jesus in all of scripture, and maybe in all Christian literature.  In only 3 verses, Paul describes the lengths to which God went to surpass mere talk of love and instead show his love to us in the flesh.

In Jesus, God is present in the flesh. 
Jesus’ birth in the manger is much more than just the arrival of a great prophet or teacher.  And Paul describes God’s presence in Jesus in two distinct ways.

1) In Jesus, God is present in the flesh as God.  
Jesus “very nature” is God, and he shares “equality” with God.  Paul begins this way because if we miss Jesus’ divinity, we miss the miracle of Jesus’ birth in the flesh.  It is precisely because Jesus’ very nature is divine that his birth fulfills the promise of Isaiah, that God would dwell with us.  Jesus’ birth as God among us fulfills the deepest human longing to be near the Creator.

2) In Jesus, God is present in the flesh as human.
God’s choice to be human does not empty him of his divinity.  The phrase in the NIV “made himself nothing” can be misleading.  The Greek verb kenoō denotes an emptying but is used figuratively to connote a neutralization of effect, or an emptying of significance.  So Jesus did not relinquish his equality with God, but rather chose to lay his divine power aside in his life in the flesh.  N.T. Wright puts it this way: “The decision to become human, and to go all the way along the road of obedience — this decision was not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine,” which is to offer self-sacrificial love.**

Jesus’ human life reveals what it means to be divine, and also what it means to be human.  It is to be God’s image-bearers, capable of loving our communities as God loves — in the flesh.  

Faith in Action: 
1) What is one practical step you could take this Christmas season to embody God’s loving kindness in person?  Who needs to hear in your voice or see in your face God’s down-to-earth love?
2) Maybe even more challenging — from whom are you longing to experience that in-person kindness?  Is there someone who should know that you need to reconnect, even reconcile with them? 

Many blessings this Advent,
MM   

*”Why Has America Become So Divided?” Psychology Today, 9/5/18.
**N.T. Wright, NT for Everyone, Philippians 2:6-8.