Wednesday, December 17, 2014

That Other Nativity Story!

Did you realize there are three stories of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament?  There’s Matthew’s and there’s Luke’s and there’s . . . John’s.  No not the John of the Fourth Gospel but John the Seer of book of Revelation fame!

Yes, he too has a birth story of Jesus.  It’s found in the twelfth chapter of his visions of the “revelation” of Jesus Christ (1:1).  In it he takes us back behind the personal and historical dramas we find in Matthew and Luke (though, of course, they hint and allude to this in various ways in their stories too).  We might say that if

-the John of the Fourth Gospel takes us back to find Jesus in the eternal being of God, and  

-Matthew and Luke tell us of his actual birth from the perspectives of Joseph and Mary respectively, then

-John the Seer takes us into the heavenly realm itself and reveals the cosmic meaning of what Matthew and Luke narrate for us.  In his enigmatic (to us) imagery and lurid detail the Seer enables us to grasp at a visceral level the story in which our lives truly makes sense, the reality that we live between the D-D-Day of Jesus’ resurrection and the V-Day of his return (to use World War II imagery), who we are and what we are to do within that story, and in particular, the authority we have as the people of the Son of the Woman clothed with the Sun.  Here’s John vision:

12 Then a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant, and she cried out because she was in labor, in pain from giving birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: it was a great fiery red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven royal crowns on his heads. His tail swept down a third of heaven’s stars and threw them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth so that when she gave birth, he might devour her child. She gave birth to a son, a male child who is to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was snatched up to God and his throne. Then the woman fled into the desert, where God has prepared a place for her. There she will be taken care of for one thousand two hundred sixty days.

Then there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they did not prevail, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. So the great dragon was thrown down. The old snake, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, was thrown down to the earth; and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say,

“Now the salvation and power and kingdom of our God,
        and the authority of his Christ have come.
The accuser of our brothers and sisters,
        who accuses them day and night before our God,
        has been thrown down.
11 They gained the victory over him on account of the blood of the Lamb
        and the word of their witness.
Love for their own lives didn’t make them afraid to die.
12 Therefore, rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them.
But oh! The horror for the earth and sea!
        The devil has come down to you with great rage,
            for he knows that he only has a short time.”

13 When the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he chased the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she could fly to her place in the desert. There she would be taken care of—out of the snake’s reach—for a time and times and half a time. 15 Then from his mouth the snake poured a river of water after the woman so that the river would sweep her away. 16 But the earth helped the woman. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon poured out of his mouth. 17 So the dragon was furious with the woman, and he went off to make war on the rest of her children, on those who keep God’s commandments and hold firmly to the witness of Jesus.

We live in a story of cosmic warfare! This was not God’s original intent but given our rebellion against him, God launched what I like to call a subversive counter-revolutionary movement to reclaim his creatures and creation and restore all thing to his original intent. To live as God’s people in this kind of world where we face the “fury” of the enraged but defeated dragon (v.17) means we too are caught up in this conflict.  

I know some don’t like the use of military images and metaphors because of the terrible misuse those images and metaphors have been and still sometimes are put.  However, to lose this imagery, which is pervasive in the Bible even though re-visioned for us through the nonviolent cruciform life and ministry of Jesus, is to lose the purpose, cogency, urgency, and intentionality of living for God.

In other words, living within this story of cosmic warfare won but not yet fully consolidated is living as God always meant for us to live in a world not yet fully redeemed!

We are, therefore, according to Seer John’s nativity story, those who live between the D-D-Day of Jesus’ resurrection and the V-Day of his return (to use World War II imagery).  The “fit” between this metaphor and our experience suggests its aptness. Like the Allied forces after the landing and battle of Normandy in World War II, we know we are on the winning side of this war.  The decisive battle has been fought and won (v.7-9); the outcome is no longer in doubt (D-Day/Jesus’ resurrection, v.5)). But it will be nearly a year before treaties are signed and weapons laid down in the European theater (V-Day/Jesus’ return). In between we live enmeshed in the ongoing struggles to implement Jesus’ victory in our own lives (struggle with the “flesh”), in the “world,” and with the “principalities and powers” (the “devil”; vv.13-15; Eph.6:10-20). We must remain “battle-ready,” alert, in training, and focused if we are to participate in Christ’ victory. No time for the sentimental schmaltz and nostalgia that “is” Christmas for so many within and without the church – not if we take John the Seer’s nativity story seriously!  

We find our identity and vocation with this story. V.10-12 are worth a further look on this matter.  V.10 restates the victory that is already ours and our identity as victors in Christ. Reference to the “blood of the Lamb” points to at-one-ment, the reconciliation of all things in and with God.  It’s more than simply the forgiveness of sins but reaches out to include the restoration of humanity to its primal dignity as God’s children and royal representatives and its original vocation, caring for one another and the creation as priests in the temple of God’s creation.  This restoration underwrites our call and capacity to live as God desires us to live.

God through Christ has defeated and cast down the enemy, the great serpent, the devil.  His accusatory work which held us all in bondage heretofore has had the branch on which it sat sawed off by Jesus Christ.  His lies and illusions had been unveiled for what they are for all to see.  He has no more power over us but that which we, tragically, give him.  As long as we remember, internalize, and cling to the story we are caught up in, the time we live in, our identity and vocation in and through Christ, devilish lies and deceptions will roll off our backs and will not hinder us in the least.

On the ground of our reconciliation and restoration we go forth as faithful participants in the struggle, bearing witness to what Jesus has accomplished. The boldness we demonstrate in such witnessing is born of utter confidence in Jesus as the one God raised from the dead to live forevermore and over whom death no longer has any hold. Lives given for him, even poured out to death on his behalf, become pointer to the sovereign love that made them possible.  Death is not a defeat for us and God, but has been transformed into a most luminous witness that draws others into God’s kingdom.

In v.17 John adds to the witness of Jesus “keeping God’s commandments” as a description of what God’s people do. Part and parcel of participating in God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement is to live in such a way that our “warfare” is coextensive with living as God originally designed humanity to live!

Finally, we learned here that we have authority, authority to live and love, serve and sacrifice as members of the family God called to use as his instrument to spread his blessings throughout the world.

As people who live under the attack of the defeated but not fully pacified powers and by the cruciform pattern of Jesus and wage their battle with only the “violence of love” (Oscar Romero), cannot but celebrate Christmas with the joy of an oppressed people who hear the good news of a regime change!  This call changes life for all who embrace it.  It is a disturbing, profound challenge to the status quo and is not without its own dangers, disciplines, and demands.  Yet its promise far outweighs its cost and in taking up its call to “arms” (nonviolent, of course) we delightedly discover that this life in God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement is what we were meant for all along!

The joy of hearing this divine call, the realization that God “takes sides” in this world (remember Mary’s Magnificat) and the realism that’s its interface with the world will often be conflictual, even mortally dangerous, generates a way of facing that world that in good Jewish fashion holds together unblinking reality at the same time as extravagant hope.

In our world, so torn and riven with oppression, injustice, and war, living as this Revelation 12 people means we celebrate Christmas with a joy that refuses sentimentality and nostalgia and a realism that knows the undeniable present distress has been judged and is passing away.  Both such joy and such realism mark our worship and service of the crucified and risen Lamb.

Here is a sample written by J. Daniel Kirk that captures a Revelation 12 perspective on our lives and service in God’s world.

A Corporate Confession and Prayer for Peace (http://www.jrdkirk.com/2014/07/28/liturgy-peace/)

We gather in the name of the God of Peace
May grace and peace be ours from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ
We gather in the name of the Prince of Peace
The one who says, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.”
We gather in the Spirit
Who is our life and our bond of peace.

May peace be upon this place
May we be found worthy, that this blessing might to rest upon us.
Give light to those who sit in darkness and the valley of the shadow of death
To guide our feet into the way of peace
Open our eyes, Lord,
So that we might know the things which make for peace

We confess that we have not been peacemakers
But have sought our own good rather than the good of our neighbor
We confess that we have not been agents of your goodness and grace
But have looked out for our own interests rather than the interests of others
Gracious God, forgive us, your beloved children
In the name of Jesus, extend to us your reconciling peace
May we yearn for peace within our homes, in our neighborhoods, and in San Francisco
May this desire bear fruit in our lives through initiatives of love.

Mother of the world, and of all those who live within it,
You have reconciled this world to yourself in Christ
While were yet enemies, aligning ourselves against you,
You gave your Son Jesus to die for us, that we might be at peace with You
Teach us how to live into the reconciliation created by Christ
So that we might learn what it is to be reconciled to one another

We confess that in our desire for peace, we often assume the postures of conflict
We have taken sides and set up ourselves as judges
We have listened to one side of the story,
And decided in its favor without waiting for the voice we have not heard
We have yearned for victory
And have believed that one side must lose for the other to win
We have seen the conflicts in the world, spurred on by an economy of scarcity
And we have not allowed the upside down economy of your Kingdom’s
abundance to create fresh vision for a world suffused with peace.

Hear our cry on behalf of the Palestinians:
may they know the fullness of life that you have created this world to provide
May they know absence of war
So that they might have hope for their children
May they know freedom upon their own land
So that they might know the dignity of fruitful work
May they know security in their homes
So that they might remember the value of their precious human lives.

Hear our cry on behalf of the Israelis:
may they know the fullness of life that you have created this world to provide
May they know peace upon their own land
So that they might raise their children in a place free from fear.
We pray for the peace of Jerusalem
May they prosper who love her
For the sake of sisters and brothers of all faiths who live within her walls,
We say: “May peace be within her.”

You have promised, O God, that love and faithfulness will meet
That justice and peace will kiss each other.
As your justice and peace kissed in the reconciling love of Jesus,
May we see in the world the joining of justice and peace
Make faithfulness spring up from even the desert ground,
And may righteousness rain down from the sky
Make a way of life in the midst of the desert
Where it seems that only death will reign.
Yours is the Kingdom of extravagant abundance,
And so we ask for vision to see how there is enough for all.

As we cast our eyes around the globe,
we confess that our nation is not innocent.
As we mourn the deaths in Gaza,
our own nation’s war in Afghanistan has cost lives this very week
While we protest the aggressions of our allies
we turn away thousands who come to us for safety and comfort

Forgive us, Father above, for we have confused the absence of war at home for the presence of peace.

Of old you warned the people who called themselves yours,
But were greedy for gain at any cost.
Of old you warned those who did not attend to the wound of your people
But said, “Peace, peace,” when there was no peace.
Of old you warned your people not to rest in unjustly gained security,
And summoned us to be ashamed when we failed in justice and love.
Of old you warned your people not to speak falsely in your name,
And to hold our tongues from saying “peace,” where there is no peace.
Of old you warned your people, not to build up diving walls,
Or to white-wash them with in the name of the Lord.

And so, when we build,
May we build on the foundation of the reconciling love of Jesus.
And so, when we speak,
May our speech be seasoned with salt, to give grace to those who hear
And so when we seek security,
May we pursue it for those who are truly insecure:
For the alien at our borders,
For the civilian at the other ends of our guns,
Even for those whom we have labeled enemies.

Through the work of your son, Jesus, make us blessed peacemakers
So that we might be called children of God.
May our light of making peace upon the earth so shine before people
That they might see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven

Silent Meditation

Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Heb 13:20-21 NRS)

This litany breathes the spirit of Revelation 12 and betokens a people committed to living as God’s subversive counter-revolutionary movement. It also cries “Merry Christmas” to a world whose hopes and fears were met in Bethlehem that first Christmas night and every night since whenever more and people embrace this call of “that other nativity story”!

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