Saturday, December 28, 2019

A Voice Heard in Ramah

Today is the fourth day of Christmas, which in some Christian traditions is the day that commemorates the murder of the infant boys by Herod after he heard the news from the wise men that a new king had been born.

In all our feasting and gift giving and twinkle lighting, the mass murder of innocent children is a painful part of the Christmas story that is rarely mentioned—and even more rarely meditated on. Instead, we push that bloody massacre back into the shadows of history where it gets buried under fuzzy blankets and covered over with tinsel and hidden behind tempo-keeping farm animals (pah-rum-pah-pum-pum) as if it never happened. That part of the story just isn’t very cozy and glittery and cute. It elicits outrage. It forces us to take sides. It smacks of politics. So why dwell on it? Why not just forget about it and think only happy thoughts by the fire?

Well, for starters, we should remember it because it’s part of the story that God tells. *He* put it in the Book, which means He wants us to remember it. Hundreds of years earlier, He had also given it to the prophet Jeremiah to foretell: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” We remember it because with it, we can feel something of the weight of the events we celebrate at Christmas. It shows us, with blood and tears, what was at stake when God took on flesh and shone the Light into our darkness—a darkness that did not want to be exposed.

Some say that Christmas is a season that should be free from politics—a time for family and decorations and cozy feelings and setting aside our differences. And Christmas can involve all those things. But it isn’t *primarily* about those things. Christmas, from the moment the angel first appeared to Mary, has always been political. Politics, in fact, is very near the heart of the Christmas message: “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.”

Maybe we, in our modern democratic states like to think of this announcement about thrones and kings as something out of the fairy tales, removed by distance and time and from reality itself. Maybe this Jesus is a “king” like the modern European monarchs—a mere figurehead who exists to bestow knighthood on pop stars and wave white-gloved hands from marble balconies and populate the pages of the tabloids. This isn’t a king as in a real, you know, *KING*, is he? He’s not a political ruler who demands anything or affects my everyday life, right?


Christmas makes claims on your life, on your allegiances, on your body, on your choices. To celebrate the incarnation is to celebrate the God who spent the first nine months of his earthly life, fully God and fully man, inside the body of a young woman. God incarnate lived among us as a zygote, an embryo, a fetus—an unborn child whose unborn cousin, filled with the Spirit, lept for joy at His coming. To love the One born at Christmas is to love the unborn. The recognize the full divinity and full humanity of the unborn Christ is to recognize the full humanity of all children yet to be born. And you can hate Him and fear His influence and so join with Herod, bathing the world in innocent blood in an attempt to obliterate the claims His kingship and humanity makes on all of us. Or you can come from the ends the earth with gladness and all your costliest treasures to fall before Him in obedience and worship. There is no middle way. Christmas is political to the core.

This child born in Bethlehem is the King who rules the nations with a rod of iron—a king who can tell you what to do, and you must do it. A king whose favor is your life and whose fury is your destruction. He’s *that* kind of king, and Herod rightly feared it. Herod, in fact, understood it better than we do.

The announcement of the birth of this new King did to Jerusalem and its leaders something like what the election of a new president does to the United States. Fear. Joy. Handwringing. Elation. Confusion. Celebration. Anger. Disbelief.

In fact, the news of this King should still shake us to the core—even more greatly than the outcome of any presidential race. This isn’t just an election to a 4-year term over a single nation, with checks and balances carefully in place. No. Jesus didn’t come into the world asking, pretty please, for your vote. He, as the Son of God, came as the rightful King of everything, requiring our full allegiance, whether we like it or no. This Christmas news is the proclamation of a new ruler over *every* nation, the King that rules kings, with absolute authority—*forever*. “Of the increase of His government and discipline there shall be no end.” So you bet Herod was shaking in his boots: “He was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him.”

The terrible, wonderful news Herod learned from the gift-bearing eastern sages threatened to destroy everything he had worked for. What could be done to stop it? Something swift. Something drastic. He was so troubled, in fact, that “he became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.” If one infant threatened to usurp his power and his plans, he was prepared to destroy all the infants, just as a precaution. His kingdom. His choice.

Christmas apolitical? Hardly. “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones.” The angel proclaimed it. Mary sang of it. Herod feared it. The shepherds rejoiced at it. All Jerusalem was troubled by it. Joseph was warned of the coming politically-motivated violence and fled with Mary and the Christ child to the very land where Pharaoh had once done to Israel’s baby boys what Israel’s own ruler was now doing to the children of his own people. And so this, too, is Christmas.

The Christmas season *is* political. But it truly is a season for rejoicing. It is a season for giving gifts. It’s a season for spreading a feast—a table in the presence of our enemies. It is a season for laughter and singing. But mingled with the sound of our carols and joyful voices, we should still hear another sound that echoes down the centuries—the voice heard in Ramah, of Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they are no more.

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.”

“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.
He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them as their God.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes,
and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning,
nor crying, nor pain anymore,
for the former things have passed away.”

Oh, tidings of comfort and joy!

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Life-changing magic

The Life Changing Magic of Reading Your Bible

Thanks to her new television series, Marie Kondo and her "life-changing magic" have been all over my social media lately, eliciting a series of love-it and hate-it responses. Honestly, I'm not even interested in directly interacting with Kondo's show or book here, but before I begin what I have to say, I know that somebody's going to see the above image, immediately feel defensive, and respond with something along the lines of, "I don't agree with everything she says, but I did find Kondo's advice on _____ really helpful." So allow me to save you the trouble right at the outset.

I get it. I appreciate a clean closet, too. Go ahead and fold your T-shirts in whatever kind of origami makes your mornings easier. And feel free to purge that tangled mess that's metastasizing in your garage. I, too, enjoy being able to actually park a car in there, so I'm not silently judging your tidy home. But, at the risk of pulling a full-on Jesus juke, I do want to mention three brief points and push back a little against this
seeking-joy-through-simplifying impulse that Kondo seems to embody:

1. God is kind of a maximalist. Even a bit over-the-top rococo at times. I mean, how many kinds and colors of butterfly does one planet really need, anyway? And don't get me started on the sheer number and variety of birds and flowers—really excessive. And how about PEOPLE? So many kinds and colors and shapes of people everywhere you turn, just cluttering up the space and taking up His time!

But in all seriousness, if God delights in both the spare simplicity (deceptive simplicity, if you ask me) of the Mongolian steppes, and in the wild multiplicity of the Amazon jungle, then so can we. Whenever "my cup runneth over," I should not respond by asking Him to please try to show a little more restraint. When His kindness fills up our homes to bursting, the correct first response is "Thank you!" So I recommend that we refuse to purge the clutter until we have first received the clutter with gratitude. Every sweater that no longer fits is, first, a gift that was given by a good God. Every excess kitchen gadget is something that you've been blessed to receive, even if it was just for a short time. As the proverb says, "where no oxen are the manger is clean, but much increase comes from the strength of an ox." Mess and clutter can be evidence of laziness and greed, sure. But quite often, mess and clutter are simply the evidence of a full and productive life.

2. An ongoing lack of joy is symptomatic of deeper trouble than the jumble of cords and coffee cups on your desk. Again, I'm not saying that stuff can't present temptations, but the problem isn't in the stuff. The problem is in the heart. Always. Our anger, frustration, impatience, loathing, and every other ugly weed we produce is growing not from the pile of broken crayons in the junk drawer but from the rot in our own hearts. So if we must minimize something, I suggest we start with that inner mess first.

3. Bad news: We actually can't clean up that mess by ourselves. However, good news: There is someone who can. The Spirit of God is the one who can fully clean up the mess you've made of your heart. (And, yes, you have made a mess of it. And so have I. And so have we all. Don't let the tidy exteriors fool you.) Jesus is the only one who washes us clean on the inside so that love, joy, peace, patience, and all the other good fruit can start to grow where the weeds once were. So please, don't try to make the occasional "spark" of joy become a substitute for the unquenchable flame of joy that comes from a new life in Christ.

In other words, even if you pare your purse collection down to just one sleek, all-purpose handbag, you can still manage to carry yourself to hell in it. New year's resolutions can be helpful, but a slim waist and a tidy closet, as good as they may make you feel for a short while, are not going to cure anorexia of the soul. Stop starving yourself, and start feasting on the words your spirit needs in order to thrive. Open the Bible. Read the Word. Meet God there. That, my friends, is the lifelong habit where the real life-changing "magic" is found. In His presence is fullness of joy. At His right hand are pleasures forevermore.

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