Monday, December 26, 2011

The Herodians are Alive and Well

Herod the Great must have been shaking in his boots. He had fallen into disfavor with his longstanding friend Caesar Augustus, placing Herod’s powerbase on tenuous soil. This only fueled the paranoia that possessed Herod to the degree he had two of his sons assassinated for fear of a coup. Now three wealthy and influential Magi have arrived with their entourages from the East talking about some King who had recently been born, whom they wanted to honor. No doubt, Herod was wiping the sweat from his brow as he listened to these three calm, sincere, and determined men adulating a new usurper to Herod’s throne.

We know the rest of the story. Herod consulted the Scribes to teach him the prophecies concerning the Messiah, and then feigned his own interest in this King in the hopes of dispatching him quickly. But of course God had different ideas and warned the Magi of Herod’s schemes and sent them home by another route. Undaunted, Herod executed a reign of terror on Bethlehem, ordering the death of all male children aged two years or less. In a great piece of irony so typical of God, God protected His infant son by sending Him to Egypt until after Herod’s death.

Such was Herod’s response to the advent of the Christ. And, I fear, is the response of most of us.

To the secularists, as with Herod and his loyal Jewish subjects, the Herodians, who patronized the reigning government for their own gain, the advent of Christ threatens their position of power. By power is meant everything between and including political influence and security to self-determinism. We recognize it in the position of atheism today, where god is ostensibly Reason, yet in actuality is blatant self-authority. We see it in our politicians who instead of working for the good of the people who placed them in office, continue to manipulate the shells so as to always possess the pea. All of which is classic Herodianism, of course; Herodians in their many incarnations always turn their ships to the prevailing winds in order to keep sailing to their own secret destination, where they hope to land on high ground and reap the obeisance and fear of a compliant and desperate world.

To the religious, such as the Pharisees, the Calvinists, the Arminians, the Papists, the Evangelicals, the Baptists, the Wesleyans, the Lutherans, the Independents, the Pentecostals, the Presbyterians, and all others who have aligned themselves with personalities and doctrines as the basis of their faith, the advent of the Christ threatens their righteousness. For many of these pious people, their systems have become god; their carefully and meticulously laid out constructs of god defines their reason and practice of being, and the basis of excluding others. For the rest not so pious, religion is nothing more than a social status and the basis by which to be judged good—that is, acceptable--in the end.

Wait a minute. Surely the religious are threatened by the advent of Christ for different reasons than the secularists. But no, it’s all about power, isn’t it?—intellectual, or social, or both. At the end of the day, we are all only interested in power. We all end up surrounding ourselves with our intellect, our wealth, and our society, in order to insulate ourselves from our own frailty—the reality of our own powerlessness in the face of our conceit in being all-powerful. This was the reason the rich man walked downcast away from Christ after Jesus told the man that to receive eternal life, he only needed to sell all of his possessions and follow Christ.

That rich man, the secularists, and the religious, they are all Herodians of the highest rank.

Those three Magi of the Christmas story had seen it correctly, though. At least for that moment, they willingly placed their wisdom, their earthly authority, their wealth, their reputation, their social status, and all they held dear in themselves and what others held dear in them, at the feet of the King Jesus—despite the fact He was yet a child.

The gifts they offered Jesus suggested Jesus would have their total allegiance: Gold, Christ the sovereign King; Frankincense, Christ the divine high priest; and Myrrh, Christ the atoning sacrifice for Mankind. With that testimony, nothing remained for them but to knell before Jesus.

We all need to be like-minded. We need to humble ourselves before the King Jesus by trusting Him completely by loving Him with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength by obeying Him with unqualified abandon. We need to leap fearlessly in to the open arms of the terrible, loving, holy, infinite, and changeless God. This is what Christ demands and what He created us for--to be a kingdom of people who willingly forfeit their own agendas and even their own perceptions of God to the reality He carries them.

Most people are threatened by this awful demand of Christ—yes, even many who profess His name. Indeed, the Herodians are alive and well.

Monday, December 19, 2011

There Can be no Steppe Wolves in the Church

Our pastor’s sermon this week concerned the importance of body life: there can be no permanent steppe wolves in Christianity. I would perhaps state it more precisely that to be a Christian by definition means to be a kingdom dweller—a member of the covenant family of God. And the kingdom of God is a unified community of unique individuals bearing the image of God, without losing the distinction of each individual. Therefore, not only do we need each other to successfully live under the kingship of Christ—my pastor’s thesis—it’s ridiculous to conceive Christianity any other way.

The problem is we do tend to see Christianity as something less than a kingdom. My pastor confessed of how it breaks his heart to learn of people who have left our church because they could never fit in. Sometimes this is the fault of the person in question because of his unrealistic expectations. But to my pastor’s point, the lion-share of those disconnections is more likely due to a form of elitism that has built up within the congregation. Many people cannot fit in because they remain marginalized. This contradicts the very foundation of Christianity, for it is contrary to God’s purpose in creation; God created us to be a kingdom in which He dwells with us. And this holy kingdom is necessarily united in love.

In my book I spoke at length on what this love must look like. I pointed out, as did C.S. Lewis before me, we can easily supplant this essential and complete love with one of its subsidiary loves, and come to believe that what we end up practicing is the love God expresses. What my pastor grieves can be traced to this kind of misappropriation of love.

A very real and spiritual natural love is friendship, what we share with one or more persons in purpose. This love begins not just in common tasks but common visions and perceptions of the meanings behind those tasks. A deep and close camaraderie results in this love of friendship. It’s a beautiful thing until it turns bad by becoming exclusionary.

This is what can easily happen. We align ourselves with our friends because they see things the way we do, they support us when we need support, they stand with us when we’ve been wronged, and rejoice with us when we are right. They are like mobile fortresses. So when we join them in church or other places, we often give only half-hearted consideration of others who might approach our circle from the outside, instead of stopping and giving them our full attention.

Full attention to others means a lot of things; let me offer three that come to mind.

First, incorporating the person into the conversation, and allowing it to evolve in any direction, even if not specifically of one’s high-interest areas—those defining your intimate friendships—or the original topic. Take advantage of the situation to learn more about the person by truly caring about them and what they have to say. Do this by listening to their perspectives with an open heart and mind. Seek out to know and understand their interests, and then genuinely celebrate them. Perhaps the person will never be a bosom buddy, but they are and always will be your brother or sister in Christ. And that is the only circle that matters.

Second, don’t pick and choose whom you will associate, even if only casually on Sunday mornings, in terms of what you think you might gain through the association. Such prejudice is frankly an abomination to God. Poor or rich, educated or not, healthy or sickly, each of us are kingdom members, which means we were each created for a given purpose and meaning in the kingdom, and therefore vital and equally valued and loved.

Finally, forgive each other. Forgive out of the supreme humility of knowing God has forgiven you. Be merciful to each other with the sacrifice of mercy that necessarily forgets, retains no hidden debts or agendas, and seeks not its own justice.

Remember, if we are true Christ followers, we are dwellers in the kingdom of God that stands today, not some far off heavenly place where all our troubles and responsibilities will be behind us, and where we will play harps and eat grapes. The kingdom has come, and Christ is our king if we call ourselves Christians. It is and shall forever be a place of peace and contentment because God dwells with us and we are completely who He has named us to be, even if for a time the kingdom co-exists with a very fallen and dark world. Rightly so: this is why Christ came in the middle of history, that His kingdom might be a beacon of light shining in the darkness leading the way of as many who are willing to follow it back in to fellowship with their Creator.

Therefore if God’s purpose has always been an expanding holy community of beings bearing His image bound together with Him in love, then clearly there can be no steppe wolves, nor, for that matter, wolf packs in His kingdom. God’s love is giving and receiving, and receiving to give again. And God’s love does not want to be contained.