Archive for December, 2016

Turkey, Germany, Power, and Love

berlin-christmas-attack

Terror doesn’t take a break for Christmas.

This past Monday was a tragic day in Europe.  In Istanbul, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by Turkish police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas, who shouted “Allahu akbar!” and “Do not forget Aleppo!” in an apparent protestation of Russia’s recent bombings of the embattled city.  Then, later the same day, in Berlin, a Tunisian man, Anism Amri, is suspected to have driven a semi-truck into an open-air Christmas market, killing twelve and injuring scores of others.  ISIS has claimed involvement in the attack.

In one way, this is all too predictable.  Terrorists are trained and indoctrinated to be callous to human carnage.  They seek power through the exercise of brute force.  ISIS has made no secret of its goal of a global caliphate and, even if it knows it can never realize such a theocratic dream, it will lash out at every opportunity possible to, at the very least, wield power through fear.  Terror attacks will continue.

It is difficult to imagine how Christmas must have felt for the loved ones of those lost in these attacks.  A day that celebrates history’s greatest birth is now tinged by the stain of death.  And yet, Christmas is precisely the message this world needs in the face of these continuing attacks.  For Christmas reminds us how such attacks will ultimately be overcome.

On the one hand, we should be thankful that responsible governments work tirelessly both to prevent these attacks and to bring attackers to justice. On the other hand, we should never forget that such efforts, no matter how noble they may be, are ultimately stop gap measures.  The defeat of terrorism lies not in the power of human governments, but in the meekness and weakness of a babe in Bethlehem.  N.T. Wright explains why this is the case when he writes:

You cannot defeat the usual sort of power by the usual sort of means.  If one force overcomes another, it is still “force” that wins.  Rather, at the heart of the victory of God over all the powers of the world there lies self-giving love.[1]

Terrorism is rooted in a lust for power.  But a lust for power cannot, in an ultimate sense, be exorcised by a use, even if it’s an appropriate use, of power.  A lust for power can only be defeated by, to use N.T. Wright’s phrase, “self-giving love.”  And this is where Christmas comes in.  For it is self-giving love that moves God to give His one and only Son to the world as a babe at Christmas.  It is self-giving love that moves God’s one and only Son to give His life for the world on a cross.  And through the meekness and weakness of the manger and cross, victory is won over every sinful use of power.  To use the words of the apostle Paul: “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, Christ made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).

In the 1980s, one of TV’s most popular shows was MacGyver.  At the heart of the show’s popularity was the fact that no matter how perilous a situation he may have found himself in, MacGyver always seemed to find a way out of it using the simplest of means. A pair of binoculars that deflected a laser beam.  A paper clip that shorted out a missile on its countdown to launch.  MacGyver’s strange and unexpected hacks to disarm every danger imaginable have become so eponymous with MacGyver himself that his name has turned into a verb.  If there is a problem that calls for a creative solution, you can “MacGyver” it!

In a world that knows only the use of force in the face of force, Jesus pulls a MacGyver.  He solves the problem of the abuse of power in a way no one expected.  He uses a manger to enter the brokenness of our world.  And He uses a cross to overcome the sin of our world.  In this way, a Turkish assassin is no match for the manger.  And a Tunisian terrorist is no match for the cross.  Why?  Because though the former things may engender fear, the latter things hold forth hope.  And hope will win the day.

________________________

[1] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York:  HarperOne, 2016), 222.

Advertisements

December 26, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

A Tale of Three Kings

screen-shot-2016-12-15-at-2-29-18-pm

Growing up, one of my favorite yuletide carols was “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”  The lilting melody and encomium to the “star of wonder” and its “perfect light” captured my imagination.  So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that, at least from a historical perspective, this beloved song is probably all wrong.  The men who came to visit Jesus from far away were not kings, they were astrologers.  They also were probably not from the Orient, but instead from Babylon.  And although we assume that there were three of them because of the number of gifts they brought, we do not know this for sure.  There could have been more or fewer.

Even if the the song is wrong about the astrologers who come to visit Jesus, the Christmas story nevertheless does involve three kings.   The first is a king who sits on a throne in Rome.  His name is Caesar Augustus.  He received the name Augustus as an honorary title from the Roman senate thanks to, according to his own account, his “virtue, mercy, justice, and piety.”[1]  What a king Augustus must have been.

At the first waterfall of the Nile River, there is an inscription lauding Augustus that reads:

The emperor, ruler of oceans and continents, the divine father among men, who bears the same name as his heavenly father – Liberator, the marvelous star of the Greek world, shining with the brilliance of the great heavenly Savior.[2]

As it turns out, Caesar Augustus was hailed not only as a king, but as a divinity.  And it is this king who lifts his finger to issue a decree for a census that sends the whole world, including a couple of peasants from Nazareth, scrambling:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. (Luke 2:1, 3-5)

The second king of the Christmas story is local ruler named Herod the Great.  He too received a prestigious title from the Roman senate: “the king of the Jews.”  Though his title was more baronial than Caesar’s supernatural titles, he was also proud of his position and fiercely sought to protect it regardless of the cost.  He became exceedingly paranoid that those around him were jockeying for his throne so, one by one, he had them executed.  First it was his brother-in-law, Aristobulus III, who Herod ordered drown.  Then it was another brother-in-law, Kostobar.  He even executed two of his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, accusing them of high treason.  Herod’s murderous rampages became so infamous that Caesar Augustus is said to have once remarked, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”

Considering Herod’s insecurities, it is no surprise that when a group of astrologers from a faraway land come to Herod and ask him, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2), Herod impulsively and impetuously gives “orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:16).

This leads us to the third king in the Christmas story – the newborn king about which the Magi ask.  When Jesus was born, He certainly didn’t look like a king.  And yet, He inaugurated a kingdom that endures to this day, as a walk inside one of what are literally millions of churches will indicate.

Whether or not you believe Him to be an eternal king, Jesus is someone with whom everyone must grapple.   Caesar Augustus grapples with Jesus by means of indifference.  He didn’t know anything of Jesus and didn’t care to.  He was, after all, a much more important figure than some impoverished infant sleeping in straw in Bethlehem.  But what Caesar couldn’t have imagined is that it wouldn’t be his kingship that would eventually be celebrated with a worldwide holiday, it would be Jesus’ birth.  It would not be Jesus who would become Caesars’ footnote in history, it would be Caesar who became Jesus’ footnote.  We would nary talk about Caesar Augustus this time of year – or any time of year – were it not for Jesus.  Caesar’s indifference falls in the face of Jesus’ kingdom.

Herod the Great grapples with Jesus in a different manner – by that of hostility.  He hates Jesus and seeks to have Him killed.  But not only does he fail, he fails miserably.  Joseph takes his family and escapes to Egypt before Herod’s executioners can get to the child.  Herod fails to end Jesus’ life as a child even as Pontius Pilate ultimately fails to finish Him off as an adult, as the story of Easter so gloriously reveals.  Herod’s hostility, then, falls in the face of Jesus’ kingdom.

Though two millennia have passed, the reactions to Jesus’ kingship have not changed.  Many people treat the celebration of Christmas – at least the part that involves Jesus’ birth – with a mild indifference, a distant secondary feature of a holiday that primarily consists of the niceties of parties, decorations, and, of course, plenty of presents.  Others treat the story of the nativity with outright hostility – incensed that a holiday that has such blatantly Christian overtones would still be embraced and thought of as Christian by what should be an enlightened secular West.  But Christmas marches on.  And the fact that it does says something about Jesus’ kingdom.  It does not and will not fail or fall because of our responses to it.  Either it will endure for us and be a solace of salvation, or it will endure in spite of us and become an edict of execration.  Which way will it endure for you?  That’s the question of Christmas.

I hope you have an answer.

_______________________________

[1] Caesar Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, Thomas Bushnell, trans., par. 34.

[2] Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (Eugene:  Wipf and Stock, 1952), 99.

December 19, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Monogamish Is Nothing Like Monogamous

wedding-997605_1920

The opening of Zachary Zane’s op-ed piece for The Washington Post reads almost like satire:

During my exploratory college years, I was often confused about my sexuality. I knew I had loved women, but found myself, drunkenly, in the arms of various men. I wasn’t sure why I was doing it. Was I in denial of being gay? Was I simply an open-minded straight guy? Or was I just a drunk and horny hot mess?

These questions kept me up at night.

This has all the trappings of a hackneyed B-list movie about a frat guy caught in an existential crisis fueled by alcohol and lust.  But Mr. Zane isn’t playing on silly stereotypes.  He’s serious.  This becomes all too clear as he continues:

My senior year of college, I entertained the idea that I might be bisexual, but I didn’t embrace the label until a year after graduating. That’s when I learned that I didn’t have to like men and women equally to be bisexual. I learned that sexuality was a spectrum, and my point on the spectrum wasn’t fixed…

In my queer theory class in college, I also learned that gender, too, is on a spectrum. Some of us don’t view ourselves as strictly male or female. We can be both, neither, or somewhere in between, a.k.a. bigender, agender or genderqueer.

This led me to ask the question: Since sexuality and gender aren’t understood as binary anymore, does monogamy have to be?

The morphological ludicrousness of the claim that monogamy can be on a continuum aside – “mono,” after all, does mean “one” and “gamos” refers to marriage, which means that any romantic relationship that involves more than one person committing themselves to one other person is, by definition, no longer monogamy – this claim also brings with it a whole host of relational, emotional, and theological problems.

Relationally and emotionally, polyamorous relationships are recipes for ruin.  Narratively, the Bible makes this clear enough in its description of the disastrous polygamous relationships of patriarchs like Jacob and Solomon.  Theologically, however, the problem goes deeper than just ill-fated relationships.

Timothy Keller makes the point that Christianity places a high value on self-sacrifice.  Indeed, the heart of the Christian faith is found in a man who sacrificed Himself on a cross and invites us to deny ourselves by taking up our own crosses and following Him (cf. Matthew 16:24).  Our culture sees things differently.  Rather than placing a premium on self-sacrifice, our culture tends to value and even idolize self-assertion.  We are obsessed with asserting who we believe ourselves to be and demanding that those around us accept and celebrate who we say we are.

The problem with self-assertion is that it is often little more than a flimsy mask for self-indulgence and self-centeredness.  This is why polyamorous relationships are so dangerous.  When two people are more concerned with their own sexual desires than with committing themselves and giving themselves sexually to their partner, they wind up using each other instead of loving each other.  In this way, self-assertion is the very antithesis of love.  The words of the apostle Paul come to mind here: “Love is not self-seeking” (1 Corinthians 13:5).  You can’t love someone well and seek first yourself.

I understand that two people may freely agree to live in a polyamorous relationship.  But is this because they are truly committed to each other, or is this because they are secretly committed to themselves?  I also understand that monogamy can be difficult.  I have counseled enough couples rocked by affairs to know how easily and how often marriage vows can be broken.  But I have also seen how deeply an affair hurts the cheated upon and the children in a family.  The person having the affair may find some measure of self-indulgent satisfaction, but only while exacting out of others a steep and terrible price of brokenness and pain.

Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves:  what kind of people should we be?  People who indulge our fetishes, chase our desires, and flex our selfishness, even as we try to disguise our shamefully selfish selves under a facile moral-esque construct of self-assertion? Or should we be people who think about others before we think about ourselves, even if that means denying our desires and even if those desires include our sexuality?

Christianity’s answer is clear.  To repeat Jesus’ call to us all: “Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).

Deny themselves.”

Deny the money you could spend on yourself to give it to someone else.

Deny the time you could keep for yourself to be present with someone else.

And yes, deny the sexual desires you feel in yourself to be devoted to someone else.

Why?  Because when you deny the desire to assert yourself for the sake of someone else, that’s when you find the things in life that matter most.  Indeed, that’s when you find yourself.

“Whoever loses their life for Me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

That’s self-sacrifice.  And that’s a life well-lived.

December 12, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Castro’s Death and the Christian’s Hope

cuba-1638594_1920

When news first came a little over a week ago that the longtime brutal dictator of the island nation of Cuba, Fidel Castro, had died, the reactions to his death ranged from the viscerally ecstatic to the weirdly and inappropriately sublime.  Many reports simply sought to chronicle the events of Castro’s life without much moral commentary, but, as Christians, we know that a man who, over the course of his raucous reign, murdered, according to one Harvard-trained economist, close to 78,000 people is due at least some sort of moral scrutiny.  As Cuba concludes a time of mourning over the death of a man who himself brought much death, I humbly offer these few thoughts on how we, as Christians, should ethically process the life of one of history’s most famous and infamous leaders.

We should not be afraid to call wickedness what it is.

It is true that there were some bright spots in the midst of Castro’s morally dark oppression of Cuba.  Cuba’s literacy rate, for instance, stands at 99.8 percent thanks to its government’s emphasis on education.  It has also been reported that the robust healthcare system there has resulted in one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world at 5.8 deaths per 1,000 births, although The Wall Street Journal has called this number into question.

Whatever good Castro may have done should not excuse or serve as rationalization for his gruesome human rights violations.  As ABC News reports:

Over the course of Castro’s rule, his regime rounded up people for nonviolent opposition to his government and subjected many to torture and decades-long imprisonment.

In a January 1967 interview with Playboy magazine, Castro admitted there were 20,000 “counter-revolutionary criminals” in Cuba’s prisons…

Under his dictatorship, Castro arrested dissidents and gay citizens and forced them into labor or prison, according to human rights groups. He is also responsible for mass executions of people who spoke out against his government.

There is simply no way to mask or minimize the atrocities that Castro committed.  They were – and are – evil.  As Christians, we should be willing to call evil for what it is – not only for the sake of upholding moral standards, but for the sake of being honest about the way in which Castro’s immorality took countless human lives.

We should remember those who Castro brutalized and pay attention to those who are currently being brutalized.

The website cubaarchive.org is devoted to remembering those Castro murdered.  The stories in the “Case Profiles” section of the site are heart-rending.  In one case, a tugboat carrying children was intentionally sunk by order of Castro himself because the people on it were trying to escape Cuba.  In another case, U.S. citizen Francis Brown was given a lethal injection at a Guantanamo hospital that ultimately killed him while, on that same day, his daughter’s full term unborn child was murdered by doctors at a Havana hospital.  These stories should not be forgotten.  These are victims who should not fade into the recesses of history, for they remind us who Fidel Castro really was – an egomaniacal madman with no regard for any life besides his own.

These stories should also lead us to seek justice for those currently suffering under oppressive and brutal regimes.  The stories of people in places like Syria, Iraq, and Sudan should demand our attention and touch our hearts.

Though we should not eulogize Castro’s life, we also should not revel in his death.

It is understandable that many have celebrated the death of a despot like Castro.  Indeed, Scripture understands and points to this reality: “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy” (Proverbs 11:10).  But even if this is an understandable and natural reaction to the death of a dictator, we do well to remember that God’s reaction to the death of the wicked is more measured: “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways” (Ezekiel 33:11)!  God refuses to rejoice at the death of the wicked because He understands that such rejoicing ultimately serves no purpose. For when the wicked die, they stand eternally lost and condemned.  This helps no one and fixes nothing.  This is why God’s preference is not death, but repentance.  Death is merely the result of wickedness.  Repentance is the remedy to wickedness.  God would much prefer to fix wickedness than to let it run its course.

As Christians, we are called to mimic God’s character in our responses to the death of the wicked: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn His wrath away from them” (Proverbs 24:17-18).  These verses caution us not to revel in the death of an enemy while also reminding us that God will render a just judgment on the wicked.  And God’s justice is better than our jeers. 

We should find our hope in the One over whose death the world once reveled.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of God’s refusal to rejoice in the death of the wicked is the fact that the wicked once reveled in the death of His perfectly righteous Son.  The Gospel writer Mark records that when Jesus was on the cross:

Those who passed by hurled insults at Him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save Yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked Him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but He can’t save Himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”  (Mark 15:29-32)

For God not to rejoice in the death of the wicked when the wicked rejoiced in the death of His Son reveals not only God’s gracious character, but His perfect plan.  For God deigned that, by the mocking of the wicked, wickedness itself should be defeated.  Indeed, at the very moment the wicked thought they had succeeded in defeating God’s Holy One, God’s Holy One had accomplished His mission of opening salvation to the wicked.  Our hope, then, is not in the death of a wicked man, but in the crucifixion of a righteous One.  His righteousness is stronger than Castro’s wickedness.  That is the reason we can rejoice.

December 5, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments


Follow Zach

Enter your email address to subscribe to Pastor Zach's blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,935 other followers

Questions?

Email Icon Have a theological question? Email Zach at zachm@concordia-satx.com and he will post answers to common questions on his blog.

Zach’s Tweets

Calendar

December 2016
M T W T F S S
« Nov   Jan »
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728293031  

%d bloggers like this: