Tag Archives: Christmas

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 1:21-28

Read 1 Samuel 1:21-28

After the birth of Samuel Hannah did not return with the rest of the family for the annual sacrifice at Shiloh until after her son was weaned. In ancient times many children were nursed for over three years, and a child may have been over five years old before fully weaned (Evans, 29). Although Samuel would still have been a young child when he arrived at Shiloh, it is unlikely he was just an infant.

In bringing Samuel to the Lord at Shiloh, and placing him in Eli’s care Hannah was fulfilling the vow she had made to the Lord. Evans notes that it was Hannah who made the vow, and Hannah who took responsibility for its fulfilment (29). Along with the sacrifice of the bull, Hannah was making an even greater sacrifice, a sacrifice of the heart, giving her all, her best, to the Lord. She was returning that which she had received, to the Lord who had given it. Her gift to the Lord was the gift she had received from him. This pattern of reception and response suggests a manner of spiritual life (“Freely you have received, freely give…”). All that we are and have comes to us from the gracious hand of God; to offer ourselves in worship, gratitude and service back to God acknowledges and fulfils this gift of grace. The proper response to charis (grace) is eucharistia (gratitude).

Hannah’s prayer—actually a psalm or song of praise—is given not at Samuel’s birth, but at the time of her handing him over. This suggests perhaps that she was not so much “making a deal” with God, but in her heart of hearts had hoped for a son that she might devote him to Yahweh.

Hannah’s thanksgiving to God does not happen when she becomes pregnant or when Samuel is born, as if what she wanted was a child to rival Peninnah’s brood. … what Hannah wants from God is a deliverer for Israel (Murphy, 19).

In her sorrow she had cried out to God, and now in her joy she praises him. Either way, her heart is turned toward God. Little Samuel has caught the spirit of his mother, for he also “worshipped the Lord there” (1:28; though perhaps this is a reference to Elkanah?), and when his family left him and returned home, “the boy ministered to the Lord in the presence of Eli the priest” (2:11).

Francesca Murphy regards Hannah as an oddity in Israel, atypical in terms of Israel religion and culture:

Out of the human tendency to avoid unpleasantness, we tend to reconfigure the story in a moralistic way and imagine Hannah as though she were typical of Israelite culture, whereas in fact she is presented as atypical, an isolated oddity. We make the light that shines on Hannah alone shine on everyone around her, imposing our moralism on the story because its own realism is too grim for us to endure. … Hannah was a maverick in a culture that mixed soliciting the gods of sexual reproduction with pilgrimages to the shrine of Yahweh. What was outward and public in Israelite religious (sic) was not true to Israel’s God; only what was inward and secret, in Hannah, was genuinely committed to the God of Israel (Murphy, 21).

Hannah is presented in the narrative as a forerunner, leading to real Israel, and a genuine knowledge of and faith in God. Later in Israel’s history another faithful woman will sing another prophetic song based very much on Hannah’s song in 2:1-10: Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Christian tradition has long linked these two mother/son stories in iconography and liturgy, for in the former we see the latter prefigured, and in both, the one story of God’s redemption of his people through the birth of a child.

The Birthday of Every Christian

“It is true exegesis, not eisegesis, to say that the nativity of Christ is the nativity of the Christian; Christmas day is the birthday of every Christian”
(Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV/4: 15). 

What does Barth mean by this extraordinary statement? The Christian is one whose entire existence is grounded in the life and history of Jesus Christ. He is the Representative of all humanity, of each and every person. He was born, lived, died and was raised again for them, in their name and in their stead. As the Messiah and Saviour of all, Jesus entered into solidarity with us, identifying himself with us to the extent that his baptism includes within itself that of his disciples. So, too, his death includes within itself our death also, so that we die in him and with him.

Jesus does not drink that cup for Himself alone. He is not baptised with that baptism in isolation. This all takes place in their stead and for them. Hence they, too, will die in His death, and therewith their entry into glory will be secured (16). 

“In his death, therefore, He took the place of all….Inasmuch as He died the death in our place, we have it absolutely behind us. In His death we who deserved to die as He died are already put to death” (16).

His birth, life and death is our birth, life and death. His resurrection is our resurrection.
He is our Christmas, the wonder, mystery and miracle of grace.
Happy Christmas!

Meanderings

Hanukkah WindowThis article from the British Guardian argues that it not only okay, but necessary that Christians be allowed to celebrate Christmas without fear of offending anyone: “The nervousness over Christmas, or even over expressing religious belief, is an absurd expression of a real void at the heart of soulless technocracy.” It further argues that there is a place for Christianity in society, in the manner of virtue formation. I do not agree that Christian virtues ultimately derive from Socrates and Aristotle, although there is no doubt that Christian understanding of the virtues has been greatly influenced by these philosophers over the centuries. What I liked about the article was its insistence that

The central insight is that both individuals and societies, or social groups, develop their values by living them. Moral questions cannot be answered entirely by reasoning: we discover what kind of creatures we are by living; we develop virtues, like vices, by practising them.

A second article, also from The Guardian, is written by an Anglican minister married to a Jewish woman. He notes one way in which Jews and Christians differ: in the relation of their faith to their home life.

My Jewish relatives are all secular Israelis – yet it is they, not I, who have introduced religious liturgies into our house. And I thank them for bringing God home.

Finally, this article, written by woman, considers the seemingly all-pervasive reality of internet pornography, its effects, its widespread use in evangelical Christianity, and what response to it may look like. It is concerning, and a sign of the colonisation of the church by the culture, that many Christians consider “not recycling” a greater sin than use of pornography. Or perhaps it is a shamed conscience.

The commentators and researchers are, in part, right: Porn isn’t just an individual moral problem. It strikes to the heart of what it means to be human. This is why Paul urges believers to “flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body” (1 Cor. 6:18). Sexual sin can affect us in profound and devastating ways. Some sins we can fight. Others we must flee—even when temptation is only a Google search away.

A Hauerwasian Advent (3)

Stanley Hauerwas MatthewHauerwas reads the story of Matthew chapter 2 as the intersection of “apocalyptic time” with “everyday time.” That is, the eternal intersects times, enters time, and transforms time. The time of the kingdom challenges the time of Herod.

Herod is a pawn used by Rome to maintain order useful to Rome. Jesus is born in an occupied land, a small outpost, on the edge of a mighty empire. Jesus is eventually killed under Rome’s authority, and at the time his death will mean nothing to Rome. … Rome knew how to deal with enemies: you kill them or co-opt them. But how do you deal with a movement, a kingdom whose citizens refuse to believe that violence will determine the meaning of history? The movement that Jesus begins is constituted by people who believe that they have all the time in the world, made possible by God’s patience, to challenge the world’s impatient violence by cross and resurrection (37).

Too often the political significance of Jesus’ birth, a significance that Herod understood all too well, is lost because the church, particularly the church in America, reads the birth as a confirmation of the assumed position that religion has within the larger framework of politics. That is, the birth of Jesus is not seen as a threat to thrones and empires because religion concerns the private (38).

Such a privatised view of religion for Hauerwas, is anathema. That Matthew sets his story in the context of Herod indicates the public and political nature of Jesus’ life and ministry.

The gospel constructs an alternative world. It resists imperial claims. … The kingdom is not some inner sanctuary, but rather the kingdom is an alternative world, an alternative people, an alternative politics. That is what it means for Jesus to be an apocalyptic. He is, in his person and in his work, God’s embodied kingdom. The temptation for Christians in modernity is to equate the kingdom with ideals that we assume represent the best of human endeavour: freedom, equality, justice, respect for the dignity of each person. These are all worthy goals that Christians have every reason to support, but goals that are not in themselves the kingdom. To equate these ideals with the kingdom is to separate the kingdom from the one who proclaims the kingdom. …. “Jesus is Himself the established Kingdom of God” (Barth). Or in Origen’s classical phrase, Jesus is the autobasileia—the kingdom in person (38).

Thus the one born the King of the Jews is a present and enduring challenge to the existing king of the Jews—and to all worldly systems of power that dominate others and rule by fear. Over against a sentimentalised portrayal of the Christmas story, Hauerwas insists that

Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants. … The Herods of this world begin by hating the child, Jesus, but as Frederick Dale Bruner observes, end up hurting and murdering children. That is the politics, the politics of murder, to which the church is called to be the alternative (41).

In earlier comments on chapter one, Hauerwas describes the politics of Jesus represented by the incarnation and set forth by Matthew:

Matthew’s gospel is about “the politics of Jesus,” which entails an alternative to the power politics of the world. … A right reading of the gospel requires…a community whose fundamental political act is the sacrifice of the altar. …A theological reading of Matthew, therefore, reaffirms that the church be an alternative politics to the politics of the world. … (29)

In more strictly theological terms, the political character of Jesus “the son of David, the son of Abraham” means that the person and work of Christ cannot be separated. That Jesus’s teachings have been separated from what some understand to be salvation reflects the accommodation of Christians to the world. The doctrine of the incarnation has unfortunately been used by an accommodated church to give itself the illusion it is faithful because it believes the right doctrine. But incarnation properly understood means that Jesus’s person and work cannot be separated because Jesus saves by making us participants in a new way of life. The name of that way of life is church (30).

An Advent Prayer

To you O Lord we bring our lives
Troubled, broken or at ease
A sacrificial offering
For you to use
Take away our selfishness
And teach us to love as you loved
Take away our sense of pride
And show us the meaning of humility
Take away our blindness
And show us the world through your eyes
Take away our greed
And teach us how to give as you gave
Show us your ways
Teach us your paths
That we might walk with you more closely
Our hand in your hand
Our feet in your footsteps
From the baby in a stable
To eternity, Amen

Read more at: http://www.faithandworship.com/prayers_Advent.htm#ixzz4S4RThRFF

A Hauerwasian Advent (2)

Stanley Hauerwas MatthewFor my own benefit, I am using Stanley Hauerwas’s commentary on Matthew 1-2 to help me prepare for Christmas, and also in hope of spiritual renewal in this time of new birth. The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible is attentive to the biblical text, but in a theological and ecclesial rather than historical and linguistic manner. It is a different kind of commentary. Hauerwas reflects on the meaning of the Christmas story in the light of the church’s faith and for the church’s faithful response. In this week’s excerpt, he reflects on the work of the Holy Spirit in the virgin birth.

It is often said that the Holy Spirit is an afterthought in modern theology, but the Spirit is certainly present in Matthew’s gospel from the beginning. For Matthew, the work of the Spirit is to point to the humanity of Christ. … (33)

That the Holy Spirit is necessary for our recognition of Jesus as the Son of God is not surprising, given our presumption that it is surely not possible for God to be one of us. Our temptation is to believe that if God is God then God must be the biggest thing around. Accordingly we describe God with an unending list of superlatives: omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. God is all powerful, all knowing, and everywhere present, but these descriptions make it difficult for some to understand how God can be conceived by the Spirit in Mary. Yet that is to presume we know what it means for God to be omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent prior to God being found in Mary’s womb. Admittedly this challenges our presumption that we can assume we can know what God must be prior to knowing Jesus, but such presumption is just another word for sin. By Mary’s conception through the Spirit, our prideful assumption that we are capable of knowing God on our own terms is challenged. … (33-34)

Virgin births are not surprising given that this is the God who has created us without us, but (as Augustine observes) who will not save us without us. … What should startle us, what should stun us, is not that Mary is a virgin, but that God refuses to abandon us. … (34)

And so Hauerwas cites Karl Barth (“The Humanity of God,” 48-49):

God’s deity is thus no prison in which He can exist only in and for Himself. It is rather His freedom to be in and for Himself but also with and for us, to assert but also to sacrifice Himself, to be wholly exalted but also completely humble, not only almighty but also almighty mercy, not only Lord but also servant, not only judge but also Himself the judged, not only man’s eternal king but also his brother in time. And all that without in the slightest forfeiting His deity!

Hauerwas, like Matthew, makes no attempt to explain the virgin birth or seek to make sense of it. He simply asserts that this is the story of what God has done, and without it, “the story cannot be told. Mary’s virginity is simply required by the way the story runs. The one to whom she gave birth is none other than Emmanuel, “God with us,” and such a one can have no other father than the Father who is the first person of the Trinity” (36). The meaning of the passage is not the historical question of whether a virgin can or cannot have conceived a child, but the identification of God as the One who meets us in and through this child, and who in so doing, overturns all our presumptions about who and what God must be. We learn to know God here, or we do not know God at all.

An Advent Prayer

Restore us, O Lord, we pray,
bring us back to that place
where we once met,
as shepherds to the stable
after hearing angels sing.
Bring us back to that place
when our love was fresh,
not embarrassed
to express itself in praise
to our heavenly King.
Restore us, O Lord, we pray.

Read more at: http://www.faithandworship.com/prayers_Advent.htm#ixzz4S4OUrwch

A Hauerwasian Advent

HauerwasAdvent is a time of preparation, a time for returning again and again, year after year, to the first things. We who think we know the story probably do not know as we ought to know it. I, for one, do not live into it as it calls to be lived into. This year I hope to return again to the first things with the help of Stanley Hauerwas, and specifically, the first two chapters of his commentary on Matthew (Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Matthew (2006)).

“The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ” is not a modest beginning. Matthew starts by suggesting that … to rightly understand the story of this man Jesus, we must begin with God because this is God’s Messiah (23). …

Eschatology is the word that Christians use to describe this understanding of the ways things are. Eschatology indicates that the world is storied. The gospels and especially Matthew assume there is no more determinative way to understand existence than through the story found in scripture. Creation is the first movement in the story that, as we shall see spelled out in Matthew, involves the election of Israel, kingship, sin, exile, and redemption. For Matthew, indeed for all the gospels, Jesus is the “summing up” of the history of Israel so that Jew and Gentile alike can now live as God’s people. … Matthew believes that the story of Jesus is the story of a new creation (23-24).

For Matthew, Jesus has changed the world, requiring that our lives be changed if we are to live as people of the new creation. Accordingly, the gospel is not information that invites us to decide what we will take or leave. Our task is not to understand the story that Matthew tells in light of our understanding of the world. Rather, Matthew would have our understanding of the world fully transformed as the result of our reading of his gospel. Matthew writes so that we might become followers, be disciples, of Jesus. To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the way we live makes the change visible (25).

  An Advent Prayer

Advent God,
we journey with you,
to Bethlehem’s stable and a new-born King,
ears attuned to the song of angels,
eyes alert for Bethlehem’s star.
Forgive us, if on our journey
we are distracted by the tempting offers of this world.
Keep our hearts aflame
with the hope of Christmas,
and the promise of a Saviour.
Amen.

Read more at: http://www.faithandworship.com/prayers_Advent.htm#ixzz4RkyHGwPD
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

Reading Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics IV/4:10-17, Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

In this section Barth pauses to ask whether Christian experience, that is, the experience of renewal that characterises Christian life, is simply one (quite poor) variety of a more general and common human experience. Is it simply another manifestation of the endless parade of philosophies and panaceas, religions and spiritualities that characterise human life? (10-11)

Barth rejects the possibility: All kinds of religious and non-religious experiences and renewals may occur to people, and may in their own way be very significant. Nevertheless they are not this event. Rather, they presuppose a general concept of deity and a direct relation of this presupposed deity with the human agent. This, of course, is precisely what Barth rejects. For Barth, the decisive event which constitutes the ground of Christian life is the very particular history of Jesus Christ.

The freedom of God in which is grounded man’s becoming free to be faithful to God as God is faithful to him, the freedom in which the Christian life thus has its absolutely unique origin, is the freedom of which He, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, has made use in supreme majesty and condescension in the history of Jesus Christ. This history is the change, impossible with men but possible with God, and indeed possibly only by God’s actual judgment, in which a man becomes God’s friend instead of His enemy, a man who lives for Him instead of being dead for Him. It is the divine change which has been made for every man and which is valid for every man, but which is thankfully acknowledged, recognised and confessed by Christians. It is so as Jesus Christ is the One elected from eternity to be the Head and Saviour of all men, who in time responded to God’s faithfulness with human faithfulness as the Representative of all men. As and because He was this, as and because, in the name and stead of all, He was born and suffered and died as the Man of God, as and because He was manifested for all in His resurrection as the One who did this for all, the change which took place in His history took place for all. In it the turning of all from unfaithfulness to faithfulness took place. In this history of His the Christian life became an event as the life of all. A Christian, however, is a man from whom it is not hidden that his own history took place along with the history of Jesus Christ. As a word spoken to him and received by him in the living power of the Holy Spirit, this has been disclosed to him. … The Christian is a man whose life Jesus Christ has entered as the subject of that history of His. … He is a man to whom Jesus Christ has given not just a potential but an actual share in that history of His. Thus Jesus Christ, His history, became and is the foundation of Christian existence; this and this alone (13-14).

Thus Barth affirms the utter uniqueness of Christian life, distinguishing it from all other experiences of human renewal, while simultaneously rejecting any and all approaches from natural theology. Jesus Christ as the Elect Human, as the Saviour and Representative of all humanity and of every person, is the ground and origin of human faithfulness to God. It is clear that Barth views this history as constituting an ontological alteration of the human condition. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed the situation of every person whereby humanity is now God’s friend rather than God’s enemy; in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians are those who know this. More, Jesus Christ has entered their lives as the subject of this history in their life.

In a stunning statement Barth insists that “it is true exegesis, not eisegesis, to say that the nativity of Christ is the nativity of the Christian man; Christmas day is the birthday of every Christian” (15).

What does Barth mean by this extraordinary statement? Jesus Christ as the Representative of each and every person was born, lived, died and was raised again for them, in their name and in their stead. His solidarity and identification with all humanity is so complete that his baptism includes within itself that of his disciples. So, too, his death includes within itself our death also, so that we die in him and with him:

Jesus does not drink that cup for Himself alone. He is not baptised with that baptism in isolation. This all takes place in their stead and for them. Hence they, too, will die in His death, and therewith their entry into glory will be secured. In his death, therefore, He took the place of all….Inasmuch as He died the death in our place, we have it absolutely behind us. In His death we who deserved to die as He died are already put to death (16).

A Sermon on Sunday – John Chrysostom

johnchrysostomJohn Chrysostom (c. 349-407) was a celebrated preacher and archbishop of Constantinople in the ancient church. Chrysostom is a nick-name meaning “golden-mouth,” given to him on account of his eloquence. In this excerpt from a Christmas sermon we catch a glimpse of his oratory, but even more of his vision of Christ: his miraculous and marvellous birth, his deity and his humanity, his humility and exaltation, the victory of the cross and deliverance and exaltation of humanity: God is on earth and humanity in heaven!

*****

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests” (Luke 2:13-14)

I behold a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the shepherds’ song, piping no soft melody, but chanting forth a heavenly hymn. The angels sing. The archangels blend their voice in harmony. The cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The seraphim exalt his glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and humanity in heaven. He who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised up…

And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For he willed, he had the power, he descended, he redeemed; all things move in obedience to God. This day he who is, is born; and he who is, becomes what he was not. For when he was God, he became human; yet not departing from the Godhead that is his. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became he human, nor through increase became he God from being human; but being the Word he became flesh, his nature remaining unchanged…

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a mother who has brought forth new life; I see a child come to this light by birth. The manner of his conception I cannot comprehend. Nature here is overcome, the boundaries of the established order set aside, where God so wills. For not according to nature has this thing come to pass. Nature here has rested, while the will of God laboured. O, ineffable grace! The only begotten One, who is before all ages, who cannot be touched or perceived, who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, which is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that we mortals cannot see…

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He who sits upon the sublime and heavenly throne now lies in a manger. And he who cannot be touched, who is without complexity, incorporeal, now lies subject to human hands. He who has broken the bonds of sinners is now bound by an infant’s bands. But he has decreed that ignominy shall become honour, infamy be clothed with glory, and abject humiliation the measure of his goodness. For this he assumed my body, that I may become capable of his word; taking my flesh, he gives me his spirit; and so he bestowing and I receiving, he prepares for me the treasure of life. He takes my flesh to sanctify me; he gives me his Spirit, that he may save me.

Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take flight, the power of death is broken. For this day paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused and spread on every side—a heavenly way of life implanted on the earth, angels communicate with people without fear, and now we hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and humanity in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He has come on earth, while being fully in heaven; and while complete in heaven, he is without diminution on eaerth. Though he was God, he became human, not denying himself to be God. Though being the unchanging Word, he became flesh that he might dwell amongst us…

Mosaic of the Nativity – An Advent Poem

Mosaic of the Nativity

On the domed ceiling God
is thinking:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them.
But see what they do!
I know their hearts
and arguments:

“We’re descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and rash alike must
come for water?”

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
she curls in a brown pod,
and inside her the mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.

Jane Kenyon (1947-1995)

An Advent Poem

Advent-1

About a month or so ago, I preached at Bentley Baptist Church, and at the end of the service the pastor, Aaron, announced that the following week was the beginning of Advent. He asked the congregation, if they could remember, to wear green for that service, and that they would mark Advent with different colours each week, presumably one practice amongst a collection of practices that would help the congregation attune themselves to the coming of Christ, celebrated at Christmas. Something is lost, I think, when churches do not practice Advent. We rush, unthinking, toward Christmas and it becomes simply another secular holiday on the calendar.

I miss it.

Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn

Could but thy soul, O man
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.

(15th Century, from the frontispiece,
Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas)