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Christmas and the crowds

December 3, 2012

Christmas is popular with the crowds; it’s a public holiday and a prolonged season full of festivities. Many who seldom attend churches now join in religious festivals and worship services. Musical and ministerial performances make much of the miracle of Christmas: the baby Jesus, God’s son; the mother Mary, a tender virgin; God’s gifts, salvation and peace for all who believe.

Jesus’ miracles were also popular with the crowds of his day: he healed all kinds of diseases, cast out demons, and fed hungry multitudes. These crowds believed in this miracle worker–and hoped he would do even greater miracles for their nation and world. But Jesus did not trust the excitement of the crowds; his miracles were signs of something greater than they imagined; their imaginations were locked in on personal, family, and national longings.

Jesus’ miracles were signs of his new kingdom; but most did not have eyes to see the mystery (secret) of this powerful and merciful king and kingdom from heaven. For this king was not a Santa Claus giving people all the desires of their heart; and his kingdom was not a national multitude of believers in him. This king from heaven started a new international kingdom of disciples who would faithfully follow him and his lowly, difficult way through the power of his Spirit from heaven.

Unlike the Christmas spirit that inspires crowds to show a little mercy to the needy this one time, Jesus’ Spirit empowers disciples to show generous help to the poor regularly. And unlike the sentimental religious performances that impress–and inspire the hopes and dreams of all the years, this new king and his disciples speak the truth about human pride and power and performance, calling people to follow a poor king who was persecuted by the powers that be. True disciples recognize the greed and pride of the crowds; true disciples see beyond the adorable baby, the awesome miracle, and the religious sentiment; they see the demanding king, whose way is hard; those who find it are few.

  1. I’ve intended to be in touch more often. Thanks for a blog which demystifies Christmas. Perhaps I can ask you respectfully how you interptet the bibical witness about the God who gives as well as demands, forgives as well as convicts.

    I wish you all happiness at this season and blessings for 2013

    • Hi Mike,
      Thanks for your best wishes; and my best wishes go to you.
      In my post on Christmas, I contrasted the demanding king with the adorable baby God gives; and I contrasted the spirit of Christmas with the Spirit of God. It is this Spirit that Jesus gives to his disciples that enables us to pay attention to, and obey, his commands (demands). I think Paul’s letters also contrast the time of the law (of Moses) with Jesus’ new time of grace (the gift and power of the Spirit), so that those led by the Spirit can fulfill the righteous requirements (not all the requirements) of the law (of Moses). I’m quoting partly here from Rom. 8, after Paul has portrayed the inability of the flesh (especially Jewish flesh) to keep the (righteous requirement or) law of “do not covet” (in Rom. 7). The great grace gift our king Jesus gives us is his Spirit, and this Spirit enables us to focus on Jesus’ difficult demands, and to fulfill those commands in our lives.
      Of course, we do not do this perfectly; and our understanding of those demands develops over time. So we do need to continually ask for forgiveness (which is too often thought of as the main “grace” or “mercy” of the new covenant); and we should continually ask the Spirit to convict us of areas in our life where we are “blind” or obstinate (to the New Testament message). To grow in grace means especially to grow in listening to, and being transformed by, the Spirit; forgiveness can be a gift of grace that frees us to begin or to continue that journey, a journey that includes ongoing repentance–turning away from sin and to the fruit of the Spirit. But forgiveness without repentance ends up being futile, useless (unless one is like the proverbial “thief on the cross,” whose death was imminent, but it is not recommended to try and “con” God by planning on ending life that way).

  2. Yes, I agree the commands are part of grace, but there does seem to be, especially in the gospels a note of scandalous forgiveness and joy on the part of the forgiven, which means that forgiveness is not only the starting point but also the climate in which we learn obedience. Paul’s word “justification” includes both elements: we are rescued from sin and made into just people. The New Jerusalem translation of the Bible often translates “righteousness ” as “saving justice” a phrase which describes well all operations of God’s Spirit, the exposing, the rescuing and the transforming. The story of Zacchaeus is a good illustration of what I mean.
    Thanks for your thoughts

    • Thanks for your comment. The “scandal” is indeed that God can forgive and transform even the worst sinners, even a rich tax collector like Zacchaeus (“what is impossible with men is possible with God”), and even a persecutor of the church like Paul. So Zacchaeus becomes a joyful, cheerful giver–to the poor. And joy is an ongoing fruit of the Spirit. Also, the fruits of love and kindness include forgiving others; the “climate” of God forgiving us (both at the starting point and ongoing) includes our forgiving others (rather than getting revenge or punishing them). So “saving justice” can be a good translation as long as we understand that the “justice” the Spirit produces is not punishment of those who do wrong (saving their victims from evildoers) but showing love and kindness. In the O.T. prophets, justice and righteousness often relate to helping the poor and weak; as with Zacchaeus’s gifts to the poor, the N.T. shows this is also a focus of righteousness (and justice) for Jesus.

      • Amen, Lucas. I agree with your views and the passion with which you hold them. I think maybe the justice of the Spirit includes the civil law whch however imperfectly, restrains evil people; and the international law which passes judgement on crimes against humanity. The latter is very weak as it is dependent on the powerful nations of the world, so we don’t expect to see Blair, Bush or Putin standing where Mladic stood. But I believe those who work to establish international justice are prompted by the Spirit of God

      • There is a biblical “justice” that also punishes, as when God’s wrath against disobedient Israel punished it with (an also evil) Assyria and then Babylonia. In the N.T. Rom. 13 comes to mind: ruling authorities can restrain evil (people) as instruments of the wrath of God.
        These instruments of God’s wrath are a contrast to Jesus’ kingdom of disciples, who are instruments of God’s love. Thus in Rom. 12:14-21 Christians are not to return evil for evil but give way to the wrath of God (which in Rom. 13 can include working through non-Christian authorities, and can even restrain or punish evil Christians if they choose to return evil for evil).
        I think the work of the Spirit in the N.T. is explicitly with Jesus and his disciples, and produces the fruit of the Spirit. The law of nations, especially the law of Israel, is exposed as being weak due to the (sinful) flesh of those under that law; such law (“the law of sin and death”) is contrasted with the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:2). The law of the Spirit is the “just requirement of the law” (not all the laws of Moses) that is fulfilled in those who walk according to the Spirit (8:4).
        An interesting portrait in this regard is Paul before the Roman governor Felix in Acts 24:24-25. Paul speaks to him about faith in Christ (king) Jesus, “and as he argued about justice and self-control and future judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, ‘Go away . . .'”

      • mmn. Romans 13 is a tricky text, inasmuch as it ascribes all governmental authority to God, whereas elesewhere Paul is clear that there are “powers and authorities” that are evil, as of course, the book of The Revelation also shows.. Be that as it may, it’s right to ask the Paul of Romans 13 if any institution can serve God in the positive way he indictes (Government is not just retribution) without sharing God’s spirit I agree that the Spirit is reserved for believers in the NT but the wider witness of the Bible is that God’s spirit moves in creation, in the inspiration of judges, kings, prophets and sages. Indeed if we are to see the Spirit as the communication of God’s life, then it may share his anger as well as his love, his “no” as well as his “yes”.

        We need to be careful not to turn the persons of the Trinity into “things”: they are all God bringing goodness and justice to the world.

      • I think the context of Rom. 12:14-13:10 limits the kind of authority Paul is saying God can give ruling authorities. The focus of 12:14-21 is that when Christians suffer evil persecution they should not return evil (revenge) for evil (persecution); instead they should even feed their enemies if they are hungry. Then Paul adds parenthetically that Christians should leave any vengeance to the Lord; he will repay. This prepares for 13:1-7, where Paul shows how God can (sometimes) repay evil (persecutors) by punishing them. And if Christians do evil (revenge), they also could be punished by the authorities. Then in 13:8-10 Paul returns again to his main theme (from 12:14-21): they should not owe anyone anything (revenge), except to love one another; love does no wrong (evil) to a neighbor.
        An example of this happening would be Acts 18:12-16, where the Roman proconsul of Achaia, Gallio, drove Paul’s Jewish accusers from the tribunal. Thus a Roman ruling authority squashes this attack on Paul; he helps Paul because he concludes Paul is not doing anything evil. In this way, the authority is an unwitting servant of God “for your good” (for the persecuted Christian’s good). But if you (the Christian) do evil (also), be afraid, for the authority could bear the sword against you (Rom. 13:3-4). So the emphasis is on authorities who punish evil: “therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience (of the Christian, who knows they should love their enemies) (13:5).

        Beyond that more limited context, Paul could speak more generally of the wrath of God shown against all the ungodliness and evil of men (including authorities), as in Rom. 1:18. Paul adds in 1:23 that instead of honoring God they glorified images of mortal men (like the statues of Roman emperors); so they worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (1:25). So I don’t think Paul is saying God is using them to bring goodness and justice to the world in general. While the wrath of God (and his Spirit) can sometimes use evil authorities as instruments for the good of persecuted Christians, bringing a temporary peace by stopping or punishing their persecutors, in general God’s wrath is aimed also at those same authorities.

  3. I think we need a discussion about “authorities” and “powers” to find agreement on what Paul (and the New Testament authors) thinks they are. I’ll give some thought to this.Meanwhile, blessings!

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