Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Promises

Hundreds of years before Mary and Joseph wandered around Bethlehem, searching desperately for a place where she could give birth, God told Isaiah what Christmas means from heaven's perspective.

"For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."

In other words, Isaiah was told that a king was coming with authority upon him, and his reign would be marked by the wisdom he gave his people, the power with which he rescued his people, his intimate fatherly kindness to his people, and the peace in which his people would live.

But the greatest part of the promise is what follows.

"Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this."

God promised that what was set in motion in the manger, in the obscurity and stench of farm animals, would never stop increasing in influence upon the earth. Like a snowball tumbling down the mountain, the rule of this child would only expand in size and power over time. 2000 years later, Jesus the King continues to transform lives. The seed of Jesus's Kingdom never stops growing- even in the face of persecution, materialism, and opposing ideologies. Day after day the sick are healed, the oppressed set free, and the dead brought to life.

We can take courage that the story we celebrate on Christmas did not end 2000 years ago- it is our own epic of a Kingdom of hope breaking through with redemption to every corner of the earth God loves. We are right in the middle of it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Lessons from Atticus Finch

This term I am having my high school students read the familiar classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. Since I myself hadn’t read it since I was sixteen, I figured it would be a good idea to pick the book up again.

It was amazing. What a wonderful story- a vivid journey into a different time and place, a gripping drama about courage and truth and human nature. I felt so moved by the themes of the novel, and could not help but wondering how they speak to us today.

One particular exchange struck me. Late in the book, after (SPOILER ALERT) Atticus’ black defendent is wrongfully found guilty because his accuser is white, Jem (Atticus’ son) is speaking with his neighbor about his deep disappointment in his community.

“I always thought Maycomb folks were the best folks in the world, least that’s what they seemed like,” young Jem laments.

“We’re the safest folks in the world,” replies his sagely neighbor, Miss Maudie. She goes on. “We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.”

I was struck by the insight. Often times our greatest priority is “safety.” We want a safe neighborhood, a safe town, a safe car, and a safe home. I recognize the common sense wisdom in that- the survival instinct is human nature. Yet sometimes when we say “safe”, what it turns out to mean is “insulated” from anything and anyone that is different than us. Our pursuit of safety leaves us surrounded by neighbors and friends that think like we think, and behave like we behave.

And yet Jesus said “If you only love those who are your brothers (insert here: people similar to you) than what makes you different than everyone else? Everyone does that.” Jesus demands we love our “enemies”- aka people who believe, act, talk and live differently than we do. And the love Jesus is calling for is not an intellectual exercise- it must be substantiated in the context of actual relationships. How can you love someone you avoid? How can you love people who are different than you, if every single person in your life is just like you?

Here is another thought to chew on: If safety is your number one priority, then fear is your number one influence. What does it say about your belief system if fear is the loudest voice in your heart and mind, if fear casts the deciding vote? Now, if compassion were to be our number one influence, if as obedient disciples loving our “enemies” (insert here: people different than us) was the driving call and vision of our lives, what would our number one priority become? How would it influence where we live, and who we hang out with, and what type of activities we engage in?

It cost Atticus a great deal to take a stand for a black man’s rights in 1935 Alabama. It cost Jesus a great deal to love and honor sinners, tax collectors, Samaritans and women in first century Palestine. And the courageous love that Christ calls for, a love that crosses every barrier in existence and makes no exceptions, will cost you and I no less today. If we haven’t paid a price, then maybe it means we haven’t understood the instructions.