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Christmas and Empire

When we sit down and read the Christmas story, as recorded for us in Luke, around our cozy living rooms surrounded by friends and families with warm drinks in our hands we often don’t pick up on the subversive nature of the story being read.  While sitting in our pews and holding our candles, raising them at the crescendo of our favorite Christmas hymns, we often miss the political message we are proclaiming.  Yet, the birth narrative is as political and subversive as they come.  Caesar Augustus, whom is referred to at the front end of the story, is regarded as the divine son of god who proclaims good news of salvation, peace, and victory (or peace through victory).  The Roman empire, as every empire does, promised that if one would submit to their rule, though oppressive, you will experience peace, stability, and (ah em) freedom.  And the more peace and stability one would experience, the more one, whether explicitly or implicitly, would revere the great lord Caesar all the more. Continue Reading »

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The Lesser to Be Greater

The Gospel lessons this year come predominately from Luke, thus this is where my studies have been focused.  It is well known that Luke is constantly showing how the marginalized are exalted in God’s Kingdom as clearly displayed in life of Jesus, showing that the lesser will be greater.  It is intriguing how Luke constructs the story in the first few chapters to show the reality that the lesser will be greater in the interplay between the birth of John and Jesus.  I will highlight a few of these areas in what follows.

First, Elizabeth and Zechariah, though commoners, are a married priestly family, thus having some status in the community.  On the other hand Mary, probably around 12 or 13 years old, and Joseph (Joseph plays little to no role in Luke’s narrative besides that of being a descendant of David) are not married, though betrothed, and are relative nobodies, with Mary being impregnated by the Holy Spirit (imagine explaining that one to your mother).  Though both Elizabeth’s and Mary’s pregnancies are miraculous, Mary’s is much more scandalous do the fact that she is not legally married, thus pushing her closer to the margins. Moreover, John is born earlier than Jesus, thus being the elder of the two (echos of the Jacob/ Esau story).  John’s birth is somewhat normal in that family and friends are witnesses and celebrants, as would be expected – though it is certainly mixed with the miraculous.  Jesus’ birth is celebrated by angels and lowly shepherds in a small town barn – again to a now newly wed, preteen girl who became pregnant before married.  Yet, out of this “nothingness,” being born to a faithful “nobody” the Son of God has come to “proclaim good news to the poor…freedom for the prisoners…sight for the blind…set the oppressed free…(and) proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19) –  take that Caesar.  Surely, Mary’s prophetic song become reality in that “(God) has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (1:46-55).  Jesus emerges from these stories as the greater, though being born in a more humble state, of course setting the stage for John playing his part as the one who “prepares the way of the Lord.”

Self-esteem is the human hunger for the divine dignity that God intended to be our emotional birthright as children created in his image. – Dr. Robert Schuller (Self-Esteem: The New Reformation)

Fred H. Klooster in his commentary of the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) makes a seemingly bold statement when discussing the questions and answers on the Ascension of Christ.  He says, “In fact, if there had been no theological controversy concerning the ascension of Christ after the completion of his earthly ministry, there might never have been a Heidelberg Catechism (v. 1, 592).”  Then he proceeds discuss the historical environment the HC was birthed from.  First, he makes the reader aware that the Catechism itself shows this in that there is only one Q & A over the the resurrection, an accepted doctrine by all, and four on the ascension.  Then he notes that the main theological issue was the ubiquity of Christ.  That is, Christ, in both his divinity and humanity, is omnipresent (or present everywhere).  This issue erupted in then Reformed leaning but German Heidelberg.  The Lutheran church in 1559 adopted the doctrine of Ubiquity, thus separating it from the wing of Lutheranism that was influenced by Philip Melanchthon and from the Reformed church following John Calvin.  Melanchthon and Calvin taught that Christ’s human nature is ascended and remains in heaven, and that Christ is present with us through the Holy Spirit, not physically but Spiritually.  

So, great debate exploded in Heidelberg, Germany but the elector could not subscribe to the doctrine of Ubiquity and thus needed a new catechism – prior to this they used a Lutheran catechism.  As a result, the Heidelberg Catechism was created and has been cherished by many around the world.  And sometimes we take such documents for granted, not realizing the struggle that they were created in.  Just think, a Christianity with the great Q & A 1 that so aptly points us to our true comfort in life and death.  It is especially interesting, that in light of this the ascension of Christ is often over looked by many Christians today.

Here is an interesting and thought provoking article on Christians and Torture.  – click here

Last week at Classis (the regional gathering of RCA elders and ministers) we discussed the topic of what it means to be both missional and Reformed.  The delegates were split into small groups to discuss different aspects of this topic.  One question for discussion was on how the delegates see a distinctly Reformed approach active in their churches.  The other delegates, who were all elders, mentioned how they love the welcoming atmosphere of the congregations.  Upon hearing this, I asked myself, “How does this have anything to do with being Reformed?”  “Did these people totally miss the question?”  “Do they even know what Reformed means?”  But then I began to think and reflect on what they were saying and a light went on.  Of course!  Reformed churches should be the most welcoming churches because at the very foundation of our understanding of God is that it is only by His grace that we are invited into His community.  God’s very nature is one of welcoming undeserving guests into participating in His Kingdom and subsequently His benefits.  Thus, to be Reformed is to be a welcoming community.  

(At this point I am close to delving into the hospitality of God at the Table and all sorts of other tangents so it is best to stop here)

Simon Chan makes the following provocative point:

“The Word proclaimed is truly the Word of God.  As the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) puts it, ‘The preaching of the word of God is the word of God.’ This is the closest that Protestants get to a doctrine of transubstantiation.  Human words do ‘become’ God’s Word in the event of preaching…If this is so, why is it so difficult to believe that created things like bread and wine could ‘become’ the body and blood of Christ in the event of the eucharistic celebration…?  Preaching and eucharistic celebration share the same logical function.  Could not the traditional doctrine of transubstantiation be understood in a similar way?”  

And as one of my seminary professors and well known radio personality ends his sermons and talks, “Now you think about that.”