Advent ends up being as human as it gets

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room.

Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Luke 2:7-14

We’re all too human. With that comes wonder, awe, beauty, and just plenty of blessing. But that’s accompanied with great difficulty, struggle, and many conundrums not to mention the unexpected problems and even tragedies which can happen. And we’re all mortal.

What if Advent was all about expecting and experiencing the supernatural in some kind of miraculous way breaking into our world and making everything A-OK? I think plenty of people might settle for that, maybe we all would, whatever works. But Advent and the beginning of its fulfillment which we celebrate at Christmas is as human as it gets. Its fulfillment comes in the birth of a baby boy, but with great promise.

This promise not only enters our world to be with us, which is magnificent enough, but even more, to be one of us, ultimately one with us. This is why it’s important to accept our full humanity and emphasize simply being human as in fully accepting all of that, and all the limitations it brings. It turns out that God in Christ is fully present in that and when it comes down to it, in nothing else, at least not in this promise.

That is how the Advent hope is answered, God humanizing divinity and divinizing humanity, maybe more than so to speak. But helpful for us since above everything else, as humans it would seem that we would benefit the most from human help that is of God, but just the same, human. And because of that, we have all the hope needed, all the hope in the world that no matter what, all will be well beginning in the present to be continued and finished when “the Human One,” Christ, returns.

not so much an individual, but a part of community

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:12

We live in a time and for many of us a place where individuals and individual rights reign supreme. Although exactly what that means differs depending on who you’re talking to. But ever since the Enlightenment, and probably somewhat before that, the individual has taken center stage.

But humans are meant to live in community. We actually are not what we’re meant to be apart from the other, apart from each other. The individual aspect within that is important. Yes, we’re all unique and we all have our special contribution to make. And we are to be known and to know in relationship with God and others. So yes, the individual aspect is important, even vital and a gift. And to acknowledge that there is such a thing as individual rights I think is to echo in our own way the Prophets and Jesus. Everyone deserves respect and dignity at least in the sense of being made in the image of God, being human. Even though that image will be more or less distorted in each person.

But individuals are meant to live in community. And the greatest community according to scripture are those who are seeking to follow Christ as he is portrayed in the gospels. There are other communities we might become a part of, some good for what they’re about, others not necessarily good or bad, and others downright not good. But again, humans are meant for community and whatever tribe we belong to will influence us for good or ill. So on the one hand, it’s not good for any of us to be isolated and alone. But on the other hand, we need to take care what group we associate with and become a part of. A clear illustration is what is popularly called “cults” which can be dangerous when an authoritarian leader is followed blindly.

All of that said, we need to go back to Christ and as Paul pointed out above, back to the body of Christ, those who are committed to learning to follow Christ in all of life. Together finding our true selves in that.

seeing each other as equals

Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.

Romans 12:16

There is nothing more evident in the world than someone who is condescending toward you. Some of that comes out overtly, but it is mostly undercover, but the smell, should I say the stench of it is evident.

Really all of us as humans are equals. I want to say that again and underscore it: All of us as human beings, and I include every human being who has ever lived, are equals. That doesn’t at all mean for a moment that some of us didn’t needed serious help and intervention at certain points, or that perhaps all of us haven’t experienced something of arrested development. Nor does it mean that anything and everything a person does should be accepted as okay. Of course not. But underlying everything, we need the firm, core conviction that we are all equals, period.

There is no doubt that in Christ we humans are taken into the sphere of the new creation, something God is doing through the redemption and reconciliation of all things to God’s self through Christ. We especially together, but individually as well, in Christ are a new creation. The fact that this is so of each of us in Christ should in our imaginations at least take our breath away. But let’s not forget for a moment that everyone, yes every single human being is made in God’s image, and has an imprint of the divine, and is a special subject of God’s favor because of that, God’s children in creation, just as we in Christ are God’s new children in the new creation.

That said, let’s work at accepting each other fully: warts and all, just as we are. That’s two sided of course. Just as others will have to accept me, which is more than alright, as long as I continue to make the needed adjustments along the way, we must accept others fully where they’re at and without qualification.

Yes, as they say, we’re all equals at the foot of the cross. None of us has a leg up on another. We’re all sinners in need of God’s grace. But we need to learn not to look down on anyone, including those of other religions and traditions who again like us, bear the image of God, even though for all of us that image carries with it a brokenness. We may learn something helpful through them, even as hopefully they see Christ in us. Because of the cross (Christ’s death and resurrection), Christ receives all who will come to him with open arms. And Christ reaches out his arms to all, regardless. And in the end, God will get God’s way. Yes, through much judgment even with mercy, but the full salvation for all, following.

Let’s see every human being as an equal whom we take seriously, from whom we might receive help, as we love them as well. Something I need from others, and something I must always give, even when there are challenging points in that process. In and through Jesus.

from heart to heart

Let mutual affection continue.

Hebrews 13:1

Oftentimes we like to emphasize the truth that love shows itself in actions. We can say we love someone, but unless we act accordingly, we don’t really. And we’ll go on to point out that we really don’t have to like someone to love them. I wonder about that. Yes, we might not like some things another does, and we may dislike some things about them. But we must remember that at the core of their being, they are made in God’s image.

Actually, we can have trouble loving ourselves in a healthy sense. There is a kind of self-love by definition which is self-centered and is unhealthy. But there is a certain self-acceptance and like or appreciation of ourselves as God created us which is healthy, even important for us. If we struggle liking ourselves, finding fault with this and that and everything else to the point that we really look down on ourselves, then we’ll likely project the same attitude on to others. We might see others as far better than ourselves in comparison, but if we don’t love the humanity God has given us in who we are, it’s likely we won’t really esteem or hold in proper regard the humanity of others.

The exhortation in Hebrews (quoted above) seems to indicate that something of paramount (especially when you consider other remarks on love in scripture) and first order importance is to really try to connect heart to heart with others. Not just because we know in our heads that’s the right thing to do, but because love in this way is something that somehow is at the core of existence, why we live, why we’re here in the first place.

There are many things that need to be done, but all somehow in a helpful way need to be related to this. God reaches out to us in becoming one of us in Jesus and by the Spirit. God meets us in this way, and in significant part through us meeting each other in the same way. People sometimes complain it’s hard to love a God you can’t see. But in a true sense we do see God through Christ in each other. At the very least, potentially, and in Christ, actually.

Something I need and am working on to become central in my existence. To grow into and remain in with all others. In and through Jesus.

 

the problem of patriarchalism, gender and the Bible

“Pray, then, in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
    may your name be revered as holy.”

Matthew 6:9; NRSVue

I recently read that the Bible is a sexist book, or something to that effect. That perhaps come across harshly. It was written into a patriarchal society in which men generally always ruled in government and were the head of their households. And often women were denigrated as second-class citizens, certainly below men in status. Scripture speaks into that world, but with the vision toward the kingdom (rule) of God promised in Jesus in which there’s no longer male nor female, master or slave, etc., but all are one in Christ (Galatians).

The best translations of Scripture in my view don’t obscure this reality, in fact you really can’t. What we need to do is read each part in its context, carry it forward to ours, and with the promise of God’s future rule in view. I think it’s important to see how Scripture deals with each cultural context. I tend to think that God accommodates God’s self to people and life as it is, to culture in general, but at the same time gradually pushes it toward what we see when Jesus comes and what follows with Pentecost and the church. And we also need to remember that Jesus needs to be the interpreter of Scripture, in other words we interpret it all through a Christological lens, and particularly in light of the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

That brings us to the subject of God. I’m part of a church which really tries to be inclusive in language, even with reference to God. We know that strictly speaking God is spirit, neither male nor female, but that humankind both female and male are made in God’s image. Most of Scripture again and again and again ascribes masculinity to God. Though we can see the spirit of God as neuter since that’s the vocabulary, though we also certainly know from Scripture that the spirit is not only wind or breath but is also personal. And God as wisdom actually is feminine tense. God is also likened to a mother in different ways in Scripture.

It’s fine to have a secondary use of a translation, perhaps like the Inclusive Bible which while not without problem, actually ended up much better than what was probably generally anticipated. But I think it’s best to use as one’s main translation a Bible which translates all gender as it was in the original while at the same time not translating male when it doesn’t mean that at all. The NRSV and now NRSVue is considered the most accurate by scholars. The CEB and the NIV are also good and some others with them. But some are more or less good with some problems, seemingly wanting to highlight patriarchalism as if it’s God’s will in creation (and new creation).

By all means if you want to, read Scripture in ways that get around it. The newish hymnbook in my tradition, Voices Together does precisely that. And it’s okay to pray the prayer the Lord taught us (see above) with something other than Father. But forever the original will say father. And there will be some debate and disagreement for sure.

In the end we don’t do well to dwell on such things. We just go on, together humbly trying to understand Scripture in its original context, how to see it in and through Christ, and what that means for us today. That’s where we should dwell. Let the other go. God will help us and in spite of our differences in all of this.

the need for self-understanding

…we are dust.

Psalm 103:14b

It is important for us to understand ourselves. Weaknesses. What helps us, what doesn’t. Strengths, too. To find where we excel as well as what helps us be resilient in the inevitable drama and trauma of life. To find our gifts, what we enjoy doing, what comes more or less natural to us, as well as what doesn’t.

Scripture tells us we’re dust. And that to dust we’ll return. But in and through God become human in Christ we receive the hope in the form of a promise of resurrection from a mortal into an immortal existence. And we’re taken up into a great family, God our Parent, Christ our Brother, the Spirit our love breath.

I really get tired of certain aspects of myself which are not what I believe God intends in the long run. Especially challenging to me is my propensity to worry about this and that and something else, everything else. I manage this much better than in the past. I realize that it’s important how I carry myself, not to be fake, but in faith looking to God to help me do better, trust in God, cast the burden on God, and experience some release from this. And that is happening more for which I’m thankful, but I’m still beset with a tendency to worry. Scripture addresses that. Though that helps I simply realize that this is a weakness that is part of who I am.

Thankfully we find that God accepts us completely just as we are. That should be the reason we can do the same. God helps us in the midst of our weaknesses, indeed the Lord’s strength somehow becomes evident in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12).   If God loves this dust made in God’s image, then we need to, too. Love each other, even ourselves. Know ourselves, and that the God who knows us completely through and through, completely accepts and loves us.

In and through Jesus.

God’s beloved

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him….

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:12-17, 28-39

We in Christ are much loved by God. As Henry Nouwen put it: “God’s beloved.” I believe God loves all he has made, especially everyone made in God’s image. And there’s a special bond for all who are “in Christ,” in God’s beloved Son. We are taken up into that love by God’s grace through faith and baptism.

It is often hard for us to think good of ourselves. So much is conditioned against that. The push for more and more work, especially on the backs of the poor, but working its way right up to the top with those who want more and more. And then the negative conditioning we’ve received from someone always looking down on us with a critical eye, with never a thing we do measuring up, never quite good enough, and oftentimes no good at all. And we take that in, absorb it, at least many of us, and it leaves its indelible mark on our hearts and lives, so that we see ourselves in much the same way.

But God enters into this through Christ. Lifts us up as God’s beloved children. Yes, God sees the faults, but looks past that with delight to see the sincere desire to do better, to follow Christ, to do well, and improvements by God’s grace and the Spirit which follow.

Everyone in the human race is loved by God, and God desires to receive one and all into God’s special family through Christ. Those in that family are held dear by our God. This is true no matter what they’re going through, no matter what mistakes they’ve made, no matter what sins. God remains present eagerly waiting for, even anticipating their return.

But again, it’s not easy to really believe and come to accept this. We’re so conditioned otherwise. So easy for us to call ourselves something derogatory and curse ourselves for our latest mistake or sin. Instead, like God, we need to look past that, not neglecting confession of sin and repentance for sure. But see past that to who we really are in Christ. The Beloved children of God. Loved now and forever.

In and through Jesus.

the black sheep along with the black or “every human” Christ (Messiah)

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Hebrews 2:14-18

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested[a] as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:14-16

I love depictions of images of Christ on stained glass windows, perhaps as the good shepherd carrying a little lamb with sheep trustingly following, or as Christ knocking on a door, along with other pictures. Usually what is depicted is a white Caucasian with mostly medieval or late medieval, a later culture imagery. That may have served in some ways well for its time, and to some extent even today. But it leaves behind so much of Scripture which Jesus is said to fulfill. Add to that, it also leaves behind many of us along with many of our struggles which simply are not taken into account within what we might call the privileged experience of so many of the rest of us.

This is not to attack those of us who love or have loved such pictures, probably having old Bible story books for children filled with such. But intended rather to give us a head’s up to more, what is beyond that, all that’s included in the great salvation Jesus brings.

We read in the above passages that Jesus went through all of the testing and temptations which befall all of us as a human family, being fully human himself. He knew what it was like to be marginalized as a Jew from Nazareth with Galilean, Gentile influence, as one of those who was not considered a fully pure descendant of Abraham. To live on the edges where he was not seen as legitimate since many did not understand his birth. Likely he lived with his needs met most of the time, but he did not live in the lap of luxury. And the way he taught us to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread,” suggests a daily dependence on God, rather than having all of that more than taken care of by one’s own efforts.

Jesus and the good news he brought has more than resonated not only to all in the slavery of sin, but to all who are in any kind of bondage imposed at all. The salvation the Lord brings won’t be complete and final in human experience until he returns, but it includes now care for the human experience in it entirety. Not just thinking one cares about them if they can get them to have assurance of eternal life for after this life. But caring for them in every way just as Jesus does. Being in this together as Christ’s body so that we care for each other in practical, down to earth ways, as well as through prayer. And to everyone else in the world, including our enemies. With a particular eye out for those marginalized, looked down and often falsely frowned upon. Realizing too that really we’re all in need of God’s mercy and grace. Remembering too that what we might often take for granted is something others can’t imagine.

So we need new images of Jesus given to us by the Spirit for the real world. Yes in painting but especially in lives, lives together in this world. The Jesus who wants to live that both for us, and in and through us individually, and especially as his body. In large part why we’re here. In and through Jesus.

finding common ground

He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’

Acts 17:25b-28; MSG

The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy, the angrier he got—all those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols.

Acts 17:16b; MSG

We see part of Paul’s response to the Athenians, particularly those who did what so many Athenians did at that time, philosophize and listen to philosophy with whatever large and small talk that was done. But what stood out to Paul was just how wrong and how lost they were in their concept of God, or lack thereof, including their pantheon of gods of their own making. When you read Scripture you’ll find that along with idolatry comes not only the loss of loving God, but also not loving one’s neighbor. All is dependent on the latest thoughts floating around.

And we see something of this in our world today. People living in fear for this or that reason with maybe some legitimacy. We all have deep concerns today, no matter who we are and where our disagreements lie. And there are some things which for the follower of Christ are non-negotiables. We can’t set aside love for our neighbor which goes hand in hand with our love for God. And followers of Jesus even include love for our enemies.

Paul looked for common ground, but that which could ultimately undermine and replace the idolatry all around him. Instead of attacking them and their gods, he appealed to the altar of “THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS” (Acts 17:23; MSG).

Trying to translate this today in the mess we’re currently in is no small challenge. Maybe just the thought here can help us imagine ways this might be achievable to some extent. I think of our common humanity which I believe comes from our common origin, yes through evolution, but ultimately by the hand of God. And in that, being made in God’s image. We are all made in God’s image, regardless of our beliefs, or how we see life. We need to start there.

And then we need to inquire and search for just who this god might be. For some of us it may seem mostly a stretch to imagine such. For others, we were raised in that tradition, and have hardly ever had a doubt. Regardless, it’s good to begin to understand at least the uniqueness of us as a human species, and then wonder why, where that uniqueness came from. 

What we’re referring to now should be more basic to us than anything else. But out of that will come a shaping of our thoughts in every way conceivable. For us who are followers of Jesus, that is shaped by Scripture, and ultimately Jesus and his fulfillment of it. And only in Jesus do we see God.

We will continue throughout this life to have our different perspectives, and won’t see eye to eye on everything. After all, it is said that even we Jesus followers see through a glass dimly and only know in part (1 Corinthians 13). What we do end up with is something of the sacredness of human beings. We need to appeal to the best, what’s good and beautiful. And find unity in that. 

Yes, through the good news in Jesus, and his death, all division is ultimately broken. Humanity becomes one in him. But we’re not there yet, though that’s supposed to be becoming evident in the church, and ultimately that’s true in what actually is church. We in Jesus want that grace to touch us and everyone. In the meantime we are thankful for God’s common grace which can help us live respectfully together in spite of whatever differences we have.

For us Jesus followers, we’re going to have to take the way of the cross. In sacrificial love finding what is most basic, what should center all of life. And living together with other Jesus followers in that. Always honoring the oneness we have as human beings in creation. As we live in the new creation in and through Jesus. 

 

what is the most important thing about you?

No matter what else, the most basic truth about us all is that we’re made in God’s image. And that we as individuals are part of the human community. And that God has placed us here to rule over the earth under God’s rulership and authority. That plays itself out in as many ways as there are people, but humankind is to be in that together.

Yes, sin has broken our relationship to God and to each other. So another basic truth about us is that we are sinners in need of salvation. That we’ve all disobeyed God’s will which is essentially our failure to love God in return for God’s love for us, and our failure to love our neighbor as ourselves, sometimes instead, sadly enough resorting to hatred. And violence in word and deed, tragically way too often.

Another basic truth about us is that we as human beings are indeed unique. Each and every animal and species deserves our appreciation and respect for their own importance and dignity. But human beings alone are said to be made in God’s image, as already stated. We need to protect God’s creation, the animals which are important for themselves and for the biosphere, and seek to manage all of that well.

That God became flesh, fully human and one of us in Jesus speaks volumes as to who we are. God forever becoming human in Jesus means that our humanity is valuable, as we read in the Psalms, we’re made a little lower than the angels or it can be translated there, a little lower than God.

That Jesus took our sin on himself, the wrath of humanity poured on him at the cross, and that God turned that very act into God’s means of forgiveness for all who believe is quite remarkable. In God’s purposes done before the creation of the world.

And Jesus rose from the dead, thus defeating death and ushering in the new creation. And all who have faith are destined to share in that new creation when all will be well at last. For all who have faith, and look to God. Through Christ.

But we must beware that this is only about making ourselves feel better, while failing to include others. Like our African American sisters and brothers who have suffered indignity after indignity. Or our Muslim friends, or the LGBTQ+ community. We’re all in this together in the human race. Each and everyone of us is important to God, indeed cherished by God. We need to stand with those whose humanity is falsely seen as diminished for this or that reason.

And so what is most important about you or I is not a whole host of things we might be thinking about now. Like how you voted or what your American political position is. We are loved by God, and out of that love we’re to love each other. All through the saving work of Christ. So that who we are is more and more fully known only in community together with everyone else. In God’s love in and through Jesus.