Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Hope

When I was a kid, my Christmas hope was small: I hoped we’d have a tree.  For some reason, I took that seriously, and it often seemed to be in question. Times were hard, and trees cost money; adult energy was in short supply, and trees took time and effort to buy, wrestle into their stands, and decorate. We had quite a few “miracle” trees, but also some sad Christmases without.

Another Christmas hope, of course, was for presents. I knew there would be at least one, but that one would be practical (a coat? boots? pajamas?) So I hoped for an extra present – something fun? Would that be too much to ask?

Later, my hope turned to family: would I make it home for Christmas? would any of my siblings be there? would the larger family gather?

In young adulthood, hope seemed beside the point, as I slid into the Christmas dash of presents, decorating, cooking. Add cards, stockings, late-night wrapping. Did I mention cooking?

Looking back, I can see that my hopes for the Christian life were also rather small. Did I have my ticket to heaven?

I can hear objections. No. Of course that isn’t small. Eternal life is huge.

And yet. . . . My understanding of eternal life, of “salvation”, I’m afraid, was small. Very individual. Very far off.

As I grew older, my understanding of the Christian life was expanded, slightly, by the keeping of lists: things to do, things to not do. Ideas that fit. Ideas that didn’t fit. Did I mention things to not do?

I hear more objections. No. Of course those lists have nothing to do with eternal life.

And yet . . . What else were we up to, if not making sure we believed the right things, did the right things, didn’t do the wrong things?

Somehow, when I consider the words of the Old Testament prophecies, and the proclamations by John the Baptist, and then by Jesus, that “the kingdom of God is at hand,” it’s with a deep certainty that we should be hoping for more than eternal life somewhere in the distance.

There are prophetic passages from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, that sing of a powerful new global reality breaking into the sad, dark, broken world we live in. In this Christmas season, I’ve been puzzling over this prophecy from Isaiah 9:

 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. . .
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
   and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

Yes, it’s so familiar we no longer hear it. We read it every Christmas, and the words resonate and inspire, but we say “ah yes, Jesus,” and rarely think beyond it. Of course, the prophecy refers to the birth of Christ, and his coming kingdom. But there are parts that surprise me: what does it mean that “the government will be on his shoulders”?

And which part of the prophecy was fulfilled in Christ’s birth, which in his resurrection, which is yet to come?
Let me approach the question differently. The angel, speaking to the shepherds out in the hills, said “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.”

Was the good news, and great joy, meant to be immediate? Or was it far off? Was it for everyone, everywhere, or a narrowly chosen few?

I’ve been thinking about how often the prophets referred to “the nations.” Isaiah and Jeremiah alone refer to “the nations” 121 times. Enlightenment Christians have been led to believe that salvation is very individual, personal, rational: “believe the right thing, and you’re set.”

But the prophecies point to a salvation that is far more communal, global, interconnected, touching all of life.
Tim Keller, respected pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, explained the two conflicting views of the gospel in a Christianity Today article several years ago.

A generation ago, evangelicals agreed on “the simple gospel”: (1) God made you and wants to have a relationship with you, (2) but your sin separates you from God. (3) Jesus took the punishment your sins deserved, (4) so if you repent from sins and trust in him for your salvation, you will be forgiven, justified, accepted freely by grace, and indwelt with his Spirit until you die and go to heaven.
Today there are at least two major criticisms of this simple formulation. One criticism says it is too individualistic, that Christ’s salvation is not so much to bring individual happiness as to bring peace, justice, and a new creation. A second criticism says there is no one simple gospel, because everything is contextual and the Bible itself contains many gospel presentations that exist in tension with each other.

I’ve been trying to put in words my own view of “the gospel,” or the “good news” that the angels proclaimed to the shepherds. Here’s my best effort to date:

God, in allowing humans freedom, allowed us to set ourr wills, our plans, our agendas, against his own, in a way that brings broken relationships not only between humanity and God, but between man and brother, husband and wife, parent and child. This brokenness brings lasting harm to creation, our physical health, our understanding of work, our experience of love, joy, pleasure. On our own, we’re slaves to having it our own way, incapable of health in any aspect of our lives.

Jesus came to clarify God’s intent for us, to proclaim freedom, to show us what it looks like to be the people God created us to be, and then, through his death and resurrection, to give us the power to become those people: forgiven, restored, equipped to be agents of the kingdom, here, now, in this present reality.

So the good news is not just our own eternal relationship with God, but friendship with God, now, right here, in a way that impacts all creations, all people, all nations. And while we will praise God forever, in some way we can’t yet picture, we’re called to bring glory to him now, as we demonstrate his power, goodness, love. That calling is not for us as individuals, but for us as a community of faith, demonstrating the reality of God’s kingdom in every area of life: care of creation, care of the poor, welcome of the stranger, concern for justice in what we buy or sell, radical kindness to neighbors, children, the weak.

The implications of this good news are massive, explosive, uncontainable.

Working with youth, young adults, committed youth leaders, deeply committed Christians in difficult places, I’ve had the huge privilege of seeing what happens when this good news is taken seriously. I’ve also seen how easy it is for keepers of the status quo to dissuade young or new believers from allegiance to this vision of the good news.

The good news always brings demands. For Mary and Joseph: risk the simple comfort of your own private love story, face public scorn, leave your homes and run to Egypt with the wrath of Herod behind you.

For the shepherds: leave your flocks, go, see, then share the good news.

For the magi: leave the comfort of your wealth, embark on a dangerous journey that grows more dangerous as you near your puzzling destination.

For the disciples, the early believers, and every true follower since: put what you know and love on the line, be willing to risk ridicule, loss, abuse, for the sake of this life-changing reality.

N. T. Wright wrote a book a few years ago called Surprised by Hope; he argues that Christians have misunderstood the meaning of heaven, the promises of the kingdom of God, and as a result, have neglected the call to live in this present world as agents of that kingdom. He insists (and demonstrates persuasively) that when we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done,” we’re describing a current reality:

“God’s kingdom” and “kingdom of heaven” mean the same thing: the sovereign rule of God (that is, the rule of heaven, of the one who lives in heaven), which according to Jesus was and is breaking in to the present world, to earth. That is what Jesus taught us to pray for. . . This, as we have seen, is what the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit are all about. They are designed not to take us away from this earth but rather to make us agents of the transformation of this earth.

Wright’s Midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve 2008 is a helpful discussion of this Christmas hope; I’m tempted to quote the whole thing. I’d love to have a group of friends read it together, then sit down and say “what do we do next?”

 ‘The government shall be upon his shoulders’: that is the good news of the gospel. But the way Jesus Christ exercises his authority, consistent with the nature of that authority, is always through the healing and renewal of human beings, calling them as he called his first followers to the dangerous, difficult but glorious task of working as his agents, growing the kingdom as we say, making it happen for real people in the real world. Hence the to-and-fro between worship and witness, between what happens here at the altar and what happens down the street. With the story of the Christ-child in our hearts, and the Spirit of Jesus giving us energy and direction, we are called to be kingdom-bringers in whatever sphere we can. We have to think globally and act locally, campaigning for the big issues like debt remission and climate change, and working on the local issues like housing, asylum and unemployment. Isaiah spoke of the authority of the child growing continually, spreading justice and peace throughout the world, and it is through the work of Jesus’ followers that this is to come about, upheld and directed by what the prophet calls ‘the zeal of the Lord of hosts’.

My immediate hope is for much conversation in the year ahead about this good news, this life-changing call, and this eternal kingdom, visible in us as we choose to listen. And my deeper hope is to be a faithful part of this reality, and to see God’s kingdom lived, proclaimed, demonstrated here on earth.

May God bless you this Christmas. May He give you ears to hear the call of His good news, and wisdom and courage to obey.