Category: Kingdom of God

What #AltHolyWeek Teaches Us

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Holy Week is supposed to be a painful time for followers of Jesus.

However, I worry that it is painful for the wrong reasons.

For many Christians, the suffering and death of Jesus is simply understood as a sacrificial act on our behalf. Jesus, though without sin himself, had to die on a cross so that humanity’s sins could be forgiven. This requirement of a sacrificial victim, so this logic goes, stems from the idea that God requires perfection, or sinlessness, and cannot, in any way, accept the stain and corruption of a sinful humanity. The sin must be atoned for, and thus, Jesus steps in and takes our place as a substitute.

This idea is called “substitutionary atonement,” and is the standard evangelical Christian  view of what happened during Holy Week. This idea gives rise to an extremely sentimental and individualistic view of Jesus’ passion. I’ve heard preachers say things like, “You were on his mind, when he was on the cross.” I’ve sung songs that assert, “I owed a debt I could not pay/He paid a debt he did not owe.”

In the end, Jesus came to die. That’s it. Nothing else. Even the resurrection is not necessary — all that had to happen is that Jesus die as a substitute for our sins.

I will say it plainly here: this view of Jesus, salvation, the kingdom of God, history, heaven and hell is plainly incoherent, incorrect, and destructive.

That is why I wrote the Alternative Holy Week (#AltHolyWeek) stories on this blog. I wanted to engage with the original purpose, motive, and strategy of Jesus, and contrast it with our usual way of thinking about the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection.

First of all, it should be clear that Jesus’ mission was to proclaim and inaugurate the kingdom of God. This is what he himself said on numerous occasions. His first sermon was, “Repent, for the kingdom has come near” (Matt. 4:17, Mark 1:15). Everything he said and did flowed from that self-understanding. His parables illustrated what life in the kingdom is like. His miracles were pointers in the direction of kingdom-life.

Everyone who followed Jesus seemed to understand this mission fully only after his resurrection. To some extent, they thought that Jesus was going to set up the kingdom on earth. They thought that this kingdom of which he spoke, was going to look like the Roman kingdom, only better. Thus, when Jesus was crucified, they truly thought everything was over. They believed they had been likely mistaken about Jesus’ identity, because the powers of evil had defeated him.

The resurrection overturned their resignation, however, and they came to see that Jesus  was himself the kingdom, meaning that he had truly inaugurated a new order of things, that new life was possible, that God’s shalom could be found on earth. This is what the original Christian creed meant: “Jesus is Lord.”

The second point flows from the first: the kingdom of God is a radically different kind of thing than any of the earth’s kingdoms. For one, it cannot be ushered in by the world’s standards of power and authority. God’s kingdom purposes cannot be accomplished by violence and force. This is the simplest explanation of my story last week. We should take note of the simple fact that Jesus was nonviolent. Though his mission was to establish a kingdom, he did not gather an army, nor did he amass weapons.

This is why the story is so jarring. Jesus came to announce that there is a new king and a new order of things. Yet, he didn’t try to oust the people in power by force. He didn’t even seem interested in that. He simply lived in the reality of the kingdom of God at all times, and refused to acknowledge the idolatrous claims of the various kingdoms around him.

Not only is the kingdom of God nonviolent, but it inverts the values of the world. In God’s kingdom, the poor are lifted up, the sick are made well, the humble are exalted, the last are first. There is no selfish competition, no self-aggrandizement, no jockeying for position and power. Relationships are open, transparent, trusting.

But in the story I wrote last week, Jesus’ kingdom-building was not only physically violent, but also suspicious and cynical. This kind of kingdom rewards the powerful, centralizes authority in a single figure, and creates idols.

There is one more important point to be made, but it is one that is often skipped over, or ignored. Because the kingdom of God is fundamentally different from that of the earth’s kingdoms, many Christians jump over its implications for life on earth, and relegate it to a description of heaven. Then Jesus’ death becomes a substitutionary atonement performed on our behalf, so that we can go to heaven and live in the kingdom of God when we die.

But that is not what Jesus said!

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is here amongst you!”

Jesus said, “Let anyone who hears, listen!”

If we are going to participate in Jesus’ mission, if we are truly Jesus’ followers, then we must live in the kingdom of God now, just as Jesus did. We must be nonviolent. We must be merciful and gracious. We must reject the values of the world. We must live as if we truly believe the poor are being lifted up, the sick being made well, the humble are being exalted, and the last are becoming first.

If we don’t, then maybe we don’t really believe that Jesus is Lord after all.

Jesus. Alone.

jesus-alone

Today, I conclude my alternative Holy Week story. This creative writing exercise has profoundly impacted me. As I reflected on the Biblical story of Jesus, the radical, nonviolent nature of the Son of Man hit me in a powerful way. Tomorrow, I plan to blog about my conclusions as to what it means that Jesus didn’t storm Jerusalem with soldiers and swords. 

Chapter 7

Early on the first day of the week, as dawn was just beginning to lighten the eastern sky, Jesus stood alone at a window in his bedroom at the royal palace.

He hadn’t slept a wink.

The view of three men hanging on crosses had haunted him all night. From his window, he could just make out the crosses on the distant hill.

He didn’t know why he didn’t feel victorious. He had accomplished exactly what he’d set out to do. He had re-taken Jerusalem, restored the Davidic monarchy by proclaiming himself king, and begun a process of making the Torah the law of the land again. He had broken the yoke of the Romans, and had dismantled their oppressive tax system. All of this fulfilled the Scriptural prophecies of the Messiah.

But it was a hollow victory.

In the meantime, he had executed one of his closest friends, alienated himself from the rest of the disciples, and found himself racked with constant anxiety and worry.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, he thought. It had seemed clearer before. He’d felt so much closer to his Father then.

Another voice told him that this was simply the way things had to be in the real world. Nothing happens without struggle. A military force only understands military force. You can’t really trust anyone in this world. Every human heart is corrupt, deep down. History is written by the victors.

He knew all these things. But it didn’t keep him from fundamentally doubting whether he’d done the right thing.

For one thing, it would be a long time before he knew that his revolution had truly been successful. The Roman army had retreated, for now. His spies told him that these were merely restocking on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

Pilate had gotten away free, too, and Jesus knew that he had significant resources at his disposal. Once Caesar got wind of what was happening, it was likely that Jerusalem would be attacked again. Only this time, the force would be larger.

Jesus wondered how long they would be able to hold out in a siege. He was also exploring the possibility of a preemptive strike against the resting forces. But this would require recruiting a large number of Israelis, training them, and deploying them in a timely manner.

And speaking of the army, how long would he be able to keep them happy? Could he prevent a coup d’etat? If Judas was willing to sell him out for some money, what about the other disciples and leaders? What about that flimsy Peter? Would Peter disappoint him, too?

Besides the military threats, there were plenty of domestic problems.

A new constitution was hastily being written, but already significant sides had formed around various interpretations of Torah. Most of the city’s social services were in disarray, since they had been used to receiving direct orders from their Roman supervisors. And everyday, a line formed outside his throne room from people who wanted to complain about the potholes in their streets, or wanted to have their picture taken with him, or wanted to ask theological questions about their pets.

He was overwhelmed, exhausted, and even a little afraid.

From his window, he saw the distant hills of Galilee. He dreamed of going up into the forest by himself, alone, to spend time with his Father again. Just like it had been before.

But it would never be like that again. Never.

Jesus was the Savior now. For better or worse.

THE END

A Cross for the Charlatan Formerly Known as the King of the Jews

Type = ArtScans RGB : Gamma = 1.882

The following is the sixth of a series of posts which offer an alternative view of Holy Week. A warning: this is just a wacky exercise of creative writing that asks the question, “What if it had all happened like this?”

Chapter 6

Chuck spent most of the next morning busily chopping wood, measuring planks and assembling nails and ties. He worked tirelessly, without stopping, as if he was avoiding having to think too hard about what he was doing.

Yes, this new project bothered him. This didn’t seem consistent with the Jesus he knew. This wasn’t exactly what he’d signed up for.

He knew how to plan and execute successful military campaigns. He knew how to inspire and motivate men and women. He knew about weapons, armaments, security paraphernalia.

But he didn’t do torture.

And this Roman method of execution known as crucifixion was nothing but torture, according to Chuck. A cruel and unusual punishment.

The orders from the top had been to prepare three crosses, and to find a place just outside the city walls to hang three men. The command had a chilling effect among the citizenry.

They didn’t know exactly who the three condemned figures were, but there were plenty of wild guesses and rumors.

Chuck had briefly argued with the ranking officer who brought him the news. “I thought Jesus said something about overturning the ‘eye for an eye’ law,” he shot out. “Has he changed his mind already?”

The officer was surprised to hear Chuck’s resistance. “This bothers you? But Guantanomo Bay didn’t? Firebombing Dresden was acceptable?”

“I thought we were going to do things differently in this operation,” Chuck countered.

“Things change,” the officer said. “But don’t worry. This is an anomaly. Jesus wants to make a public statement here. Things will return to normal eventually.”

Chuck didn’t believe that.

He obeyed the orders anyway.

And that Friday afternoon, on a small hill called the Mount of the Skulls, the rebels led three men to their custom-made crosses.

The first was a two-bit common criminal named Barabbas. He was in Roman custody when Jesus invaded Jerusalem, but he had such a long rap sheet that Jesus didn’t dare set him free. The dungeon was getting a little cramped, so the decision was made to free up some room. And Barabbas’ fate was set.

When the crowd saw Barabbas, they roared with delight.

“It’s about time you got what you deserve!” shouted a merchant who’d been terrorized by Barabbas.

“Glad to see the new administration is getting tough on crime,” a voice was heard to say in the crowd.

The second man led to the hill was a weaselly fellow whom the crowd immediately recognized as one of Jesus’ original disciples. Judas looked worse than he ever had, eyes ringed with terror, hands nervously twisting.

“Where’s Jesus?” he shouted as he was being stretched on the cross. “I want him to forgive me! Tell him that I beg his forgiveness …. tell him, somebody tell him!”

Judas’ cries of agony were lost in a roar of cheers, as the crowd caught a glimpse of the third and final victim. It was none other than King Herod himself.

He was being forced to carry his own cross, an impossible task given the physical shape he was in. A mocking crown of thorns sat askew on his head, sending a constant stream of blood down the side of his face. A rebel soldier cracked a whip behind him, forcing him forward.

Herod stumbled up the hill slowly, which gave the crowd plenty of time to heckle and harass him. He had never been a greatly-loved king, but neither was he despised either. As Chuck watched on, he grimly wondered how much of the abuse was purely show for the new king.

At the top of the hill, Herod was stripped of his clothes, which were then flung to the eager watching crowd and torn to shreds. The soldiers laid him down on the cross, and nailed his arms and feet to the wood. A sign was affixed to the cross above Herod’s head, which read, “The Charlatan Formerly Known as the King of the Jews.”

Then they hoisted the cross up.

It was a bloody scene, worse than what Chuck had expected.

The men died slowly. So slowly that most of the crowd had thinned out before they finally succumbed. Chuck noticed, with some irony, that none of the other disciples showed up for this public event. Neither did Jesus.

Judas was the first to expire. At his moment of death, a look of satisfaction froze on his face.

Barabbas died not long after, choking and roaring expletives.

But Herod was calm, even peaceful. He seemed to take his death in stride. It was something every king had to be prepared to do eventually. It was one of the hazards of the job. At one point, he looked down at some jeering men and said in a pleading tone of voice, “I’m one of you, don’t forget that. I’m a Jew. I’m proud of you all. But this won’t last. Caesar will crush you.”

When Herod was no more, Chuck looked up at him and muttered under his breath, “Truly that man may have sold his soul to the Romans, but nobody deserves to die that way.”

TO BE CONTINUED

Judas’ Last Supper

andy_warhol_detail_of_the_last_supper

 

The following is the fifth of a series of posts which offer an alternative view of Holy Week. A warning: this is just a wacky exercise of creative writing that asks the question, “What if it had all happened like this?”

Chapter 5

Golda scurried around the kitchen, moving pots and sipping spoons. She had very little time left before the guests began to arrive.

She stopped to mop her brow with the edge of her apron, and reflected on the day’s crazy events.

Early in the morning, two men from the revolutionary guard had arrived and told her that they needed the use of the room on the second floor of the residence she shared with her children and grandchildren.

Wisely, she asked for a rental fee, and the guards accepted without even attempting to negotiate. She also asked if she could prepare a meal for the guests, and they readily agreed to this proposal.

Ever since, she’d been working hard on a meal for thirteen persons. But not just any meal, and not just a plain ol’ Passover meal. She was laying out all the works because she knew that Jesus himself would be present. She was preparing fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, loaves of fresh-baked bread, and apple pie.

But she had something else for Jesus. A request.

Her granddaughter was bright. Brighter than any of the other children in her class at school. Golda could prove it; she patted the report cards hidden in the pockets of her apron.

If she had just a moment alone with Jesus, she could ask him to help her get her granddaughter into the best school in Jerusalem, the Beth Yeshurun Academy. She was presently on a waiting list, but the chances of her moving up were hopeless, unless Jesus could perform some kind of miracle.

Golda checked her oven, then headed upstairs to set the table.

 

—–

 

Peter was the first to arrive in the upper room. He wanted time to carefully consider his strategy, and to check the room’s entrances and exits.

He needed to do something to endear himself to Jesus right off the bat, and had decided that he would dismiss the servant, and wash everyone’s feet before the meal. This would impress Jesus as being a humble act, and set the stage for Peter’s dramatic announcement, just before dinner was served, that Judas was a traitor.

Slowly, the guests began to trickle in. Peter watched them straggle in with a wary eye. He noticed that Matthew had recently shaved his long white beard, and that Thomas seemed obsessively concerned with his cell phone. James and John were engaged in a heated argument about the first draft of the new Israeli constitution.

When Judas entered, Peter noticed that he slunk into the room, noiselessly. He looked nervous, furtively glancing from face to face.

Finally Jesus himself arrived and closed the door. His bodyguards stayed outside the door, within earshot.

He raised his arms and said, “Mazel tov!”

The room erupted in applause and cheers. The men slapped each other on the back, exchanged fist pumps, and whooped it up for a good five minutes.

When things had calmed down, Peter seized his opportunity.

“Jesus, sit down,” he said, as he removed his outer robe, and grabbed a towel that had been stretched across the back of his chair. “Here, let me have the honor of washing your feet. In fact, I’ll wash everyone’s feet!”

But Jesus didn’t respond the way Peter expected. He took a step backward, and frowned.

“Wash my feet?” he said. “Why?”

Peter stammered, “Because I want to do something nice for you. I want to be in service to you.”

Jesus snatched the towel from his arms and said, “No thanks, I’ll do it myself. Rule number one for a rebel leader — don’t put yourself in vulnerable situations, even amongst friends. You never know who might have a knife hidden in his underwear, or might be about to betray you with a kiss.”

He leaned over, unbuckled his own sandals, and began to pour water over his dusty feet.

When he noticed that nobody else in the room was talking, he said, “Sorry, but we all have to be careful. Especially me. I can’t afford to be vulnerable and transparent. There are so many people out to get me. But let’s be honest — if they take me out, then this revolution has zero chance of sticking. I’ve got to stay alive.”

When his feet were clean, he tossed the towel to Peter. “Peter, don’t take it personally. Security — that’s my new commandment.”

After everyone had washed their own feet, they sat around the table as Golda brought in heaping plates of fried chicken, potatoes, corn and bread, and poured copious amounts of iced tea and lemonade.

Jesus picked up one of the loaves of bread and stood up ceremoniously.

“Men, the new kingdom has begun,” he said. “We have fulfilled the will of God for this time and this place, but there is much work to do. We are like this one loaf of bread. We have been baked together in the crucible of struggle. We are held together by common bonds of brotherhood.”

But suddenly Jesus grasped the loaf with both hands, and ripped it into two.

“Woe be to the one who would tear this unity, who would rend our fellowship and betray the cause.”

Then just as suddenly, he tossed half of the loaf in the direction of Judas, who instinctively reached out and caught it.

Bartholomew blurted, “But who among us would betray you?”

Looking directly at Judas, Jesus said, “Someone already has.”

The room collectively gasped.

“How much do you plan to make for this transaction?” Jesus asked Judas. “What do you plan to do with the money? Mediterranean cruise? Couple of weekends in Vegas?”

Judas stood up and backed away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about …”

“Guards!” shouted Jesus.

The soldiers burst through the door, and grabbed Judas by the arms.

“If he’s such good friends with Herod, then go put him in the cell next to him,” Jesus said. “But don’t feed him. He’s siphoned enough off our accounts already.”

Peter watched as Judas was dragged off to the dungeon. He was crushed, of course; his plans to ingratiate himself with Jesus had fallen through.

But now he was truly in awe of Jesus — how had he known about Judas?

TO BE CONTINUED

Spy Wednesday

spy

The following is the fourth of a series of posts which offer an alternative view of Holy Week. A warning: this is just a wacky exercise of creative writing that asks the question, “What if it had all happened like this?”

Chapter 4

Deep underground in a dank cell sat a poor substitute for a king. Herod groaned as he turned his head in the darkness. His bones ached, and he was worried that at least one of his arms was broken.

For hours, he simply groveled in his pain, and muttered over and over, “I should have seen it coming … I should have known.”

He’d had his eyes on Jesus for over a year now, but he’d been convinced finally that he was a harmless itinerant preacher, of less substance than that pesky John who couldn’t keep his nose out of everyone’s business. He had some good tricks up his sleeve, like multiplying food and healing people, but he didn’t think he had a knack for guerrilla warfare.

Herod had been fooled.

He knew that he himself hadn’t been a particularly good ruler. He had the title of “king” simply as an honorary designation from the Romans, which he’d paid dearly for. He didn’t have to do much but throw lavish dinner parties on a regular basis, because he got his direct marching orders from Pilate.

Yet the one thing that he was responsible to Rome to do, he’d failed spectacularly at. And that responsibility was to keep rogue Israelis from even thinking about rebellion.

Herod had already searched his cell for something to put an end to his misery. But it was bare.

He feared what Jesus and his army might do to him.

And when he heard the footsteps coming down the steps, his heart momentarily stopped.

But it was only a couple of ragged soldiers, followed by a little weasel of a man, who carried an enormous ledger. He was taking inventory of the cells and their inhabitants.

When he stopped in front of Herod’s cage, he did a brief double-take, then smiled sardonically, made a few notes, and began to walk away.

“Hey,” said Herod. “Is this any way to treat a royal prisoner? I’d have better accommodations in a Turkish dungeon.”

The man moved on, chuckling under his breath.

But the laughter seemed to enrage Herod.

He struggled to his feet and lunged against the bars of the cell. “You piece of dirt,” he roared. “You and your Messiah don’t know what you’re doing! This rebellion will never last. Who’s funding it? How much money do you have in your coffers anyway? You know, paying for an occupation is expensive!”

At the mention of the word “money,” the man with the ledger stopped where he was. Herod thought he saw him wince.

He motioned for the soldiers to move on without him. Slowly, he turned around.

“Yes, I suppose you have a point,” he said. “I don’t honestly know how we’re going to make this work. The mercenaries and consultants are costing us a fortune. The weapons were smuggled from Russia at a great cost. I’m trying to figure out how to make sure to keep everybody fed, including scum like you. Perhaps you can direct me to a hidden treasure box in your palace.”

Herod stared back at him.

“I’ve got something better for you … ” he said, searching for the man’s name.

“Call me Judas.”

“OK, Judas, if you can help me get out of here, I will share a small fortune with you, and you alone,” Herod said. “I have plenty of financial resources. But it will be no good to me, or to you, if I die here.”

“With all due respect, that would be like slitting my own throat,” said Judas. “You would lead the Romans right back to us, and we’d be doomed.”

Herod laughed. “You’re already doomed,” he said. “Don’t you understand that? There’s no way you’ll be able to keep this up. When Caesar hears what’s happening, he’ll send a million troops, plus tanks, airplanes, and nuclear submarines! You will never last!”

Judas seemed to go pale suddenly.

“Let me out and I’ll set you up for life,” Herod said. “And you can walk away before this place goes up in flames.”

By the time Judas left the dungeon, he’d made his decision and set the plan in motion that would make him a very rich man.

However, he failed to account for one very small detail.

One of the soldiers who’d accompanied him into the dungeon had hung back and overheard the conversation between Judas and Herod. One man knew Judas’ awful secret. That man was a handsome rebel named Lev.

——-

 

Lev had become a willing accomplice in the revolution. He and his friend, Gad, had immediately joined the new, makeshift army. He let it be known to his regiment commander, a Westerner named Chuck, that he was willing to do the dirty jobs, the things that nobody else wanted to do.

In so doing, he’d earned the trust of Jesus’ closest associates, and was slowly burrowing his way closer to the inner circle. When he wasn’t running messages for the army or serving as guard on the wall, he took his newest squeeze, Miriam, under his arm and paraded her through the streets.

In all honesty, she didn’t care much for the politics of it all. When Lev tried to explain to her the intricacies of the new provisional city government that Jesus was putting together, she shook her head.

“Who cares?” she said. “As long as those pig-headed Romans are gone, I don’t care if Jesus wants to set up a communist utopia. Anything will be better than what we had.”

Lev’s eyes darkened momentarily. “He’s not a communist,” he snarled. “He’s the Messiah. He’s going to restore Israel to the prominent place we once had among the nations. We’ll be a world power again.”

Lev’s fierce loyalty is what made him such a beloved comrade.

And once he’d caught wind of Judas’ disloyalty, he was ready to act.

He knew he couldn’t go straight to Jesus. He wasn’t high-ranking enough to have the ear of the Master. So he tried to identify someone close to Jesus, someone who Jesus trusted.

He saw Peter around the campfire that night, and approached him.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said.

Peter looked up at him and nodded.

“My name is Lev. I have something important to tell somebody,” he said. “About a betrayal …”

As he spilled the information, he saw Peter’s eyes grow large, then shrink into themselves. When he was finished, Peter said, simply, “Thank you, young man, thank you. Your diligence will not go unrewarded. I will be responsible for this information now.”

As he walked away from the fire, Peter was lost in a reverie of emotion. At last, his time had come. By revealing this news to Jesus, Peter would cement his place next to the Messiah. He would be celebrated for his faithfulness, his loyalty. Jesus would see that he needs him. He would say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

But when would be the right time to tell Jesus? He would need to do it at a crucial and dramatic moment, in front of many people. He needed witnesses, lots of them. Maybe even Judas should be present.

He began to smile as the thought occurred to him that on the following day, he and the rest of the original disciples would be dining with Jesus at a special celebration meal.

The perfect time, he thought.

TO BE CONTINUED

Advent Day 5 – The Shalom Zoo

Photo by wesmagruder

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy  mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 9:1-11

 

One of my favorite paintings hangs at the Dallas Museum of Art — “Peaceable Kingdom” by Edward Hicks. The museum also used to have a special, life-size 3D version of the painting in their children’s section, in which the animals featured in the piece are separate pieces. You could literally enter the painting; you could walk in and around the elements of the artwork.

This used to be one of my own favorite Advent exercises — to practice walking around in God’s peaceable kingdom.

Hicks was a Quaker from Pennsylvania born in 1780. In his lifetime he painted over a hundred versions of this same scenario, which is based on Isaiah 11:1-9. Each one of his paintings is a commentary on that text; you might say that Hicks’ entire body of work was an ongoing attempt to understand Isaiah’s vision. This passage illustrates the concept of the kingdom of God, which Jesus came to inaugurate. And the heart of the kingdom is “shalom,” the Hebrew word for “peace.”

The word “shalom” doesn’t appear in this passage, but the entire text is a word-picture of what shalom looks like. Shalom doesn’t simply mean the absence of conflict. When shalom is present, there is wellbeing, health, prosperity, justice, friendship, rest, and security.

In the picture, animals which are normally considered predators are found sitting, lying, relaxing — even playing! — with animals which are normally considered their prey. A child frolics among dangerous creatures. There is no violence, no harm, no destruction.

In fact, what makes this picture so compelling is the complete and utter innocence of it all. There’s simply no fear in the picture.

It’s hard to imagine a world without fear. Our politics is driven by it; our military strategies are determined by it; our economy is motivated by it. It is almost impossible to imagine a world that is not fueled by the fear of something or someone.

Yet Isaiah is convinced that a day of no-fear is coming. The hope of shalom is centered in a coming person who will be gifted with the spirit of God and empowered to bring justice into the world.

Our entire Advent hope is crystallized in these verses. This is the hope that cries out for realization every Christmas. It is the hope that tears at our heart and begs for fulfillment. We crave shalom.

And Hicks is convinced that that day had come, that shalom was already present in the world through Jesus Christ. He believed, in other words, that peace was possible — even between nations. He even included it in his painting.

On the left side of the picture, near the tree, is a picture of William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, making a peace treaty with native Americans. This scene happened a century before Hicks, but Hicks believed that Penn’s respectful treatment of American Indians was a concrete example of shalom between nations. The treaty which Penn made with Delaware tribes in 1701 was a peaceful agreement, a treaty that Penn never broke. His policies helped make Pennsylvania the last, safe asylum for native Americans.

Shalom is possible even now. Why not practice walking around in it a little?

Links of the day: Despite Hicks’ depiction of Penn’s peace treaty, the natives of North America have experienced very little shalom over the last four hundred years. Their culture is constantly ridiculed, their wellbeing is threatened, and they know little peace. Read the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and question whether this vision of shalom has been realized in America yet.

Prayer: God of shalom, we confess that we don’t see peace in our world, particularly between nations. Put our own hearts right, that we might be icons of peace for the rest of the world. Amen.

Advent Day 1 – On Servants and Elephants

Shortly after I finished my Ramadan fast, I promised a reader that I would return with a series of Advent devotionals. Today is the first Sunday in Advent, marking the period of preparation for the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day. Now is the time to unveil my new series of daily reflections.

The word “advent” simply means “coming,” or “arrival.” Advent is not a penitential period, nor is it a mournful time. Instead, the feeling is one of joy and anticipation.

Truly, the most accurate thing to say about Advent is that it is a time of waiting.

But waiting for what?

The people who were alive in Jesus’ time were waiting for a Messiah, a sort of political-religious figure who would literally deliver the land of Israel from the rule of the occupying Romans. This is clearly seen in the reaction of Simeon and Anna, two old Israelites who see the baby Jesus in the Temple eight days after his birth (Luke 2:22-38). Simeon had been looking forward to the “consolation of Israel,” and is convinced that this child is the one who will usher in this new, golden age.  

Yet, by the time Jesus is crucified on a cross by those same Romans, it has also become starkly apparent that he has not changed anything in the geopolitical landscape of the times. He has not raised an army, nor has he claimed any political position.

Jesus was and is, in fact, a different kind of Messiah. He was not precisely what people had been waiting for.

As we anticipate our own Christmas celebration in a few weeks, we must beware of waiting for the wrong kind of Jesus. 

In this series, I plan to reveal a different sort of Jesus than you might be used to seeing. I want to meditate on the nature of this man who is referred to as “Prince of Peace” in one of the great Advent scriptures, Isaiah 9:6, in which the prophet exclaims, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

I am afraid that many of us skip over this title glibly; surely this refers to “inner peace,” not to something as concrete as the cessation of war. We are comfortable with a certain level of acceptable violence in society, believing it to be necessary to maintain civilization, and even consonant with certain attributes of God, such as his power and might.

But look at this Jesus who came to us. He came humbly, without force of arms, loving enemies, and welcoming strangers.

He came nonviolently.

That’s what we’re waiting for.

Photo by wesmagruder

Day 1

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry of lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”
Isaiah 42:1-4

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers” goes an old Kenyan proverb.

Though I doubt the prophet Isaiah had ever heard this proverb, he makes an uncanny reference to it in the above text.

This passage comes from one of the four “Servant Songs” found in Isaiah, so-called because they refer to a future “servant” who will come and, through suffering, give new purpose and glory to God’s people. The earliest followers of Jesus read these passages as prophecies of Jesus, in contrast with some of the other prophecies in the Old Testament which speak of a conquering Messiah.

Jesus made a laughably awful Messiah, at least in the sense of being a military conqueror. He wore no uniform, raised no army, possessed no weapons.

He died a miserable death, and when he died, the Romans were still in power. Jesus’ movement never seemed to get off the ground, at least not from the perspective of the great expectations of a conquering Messiah.

But the “Servant Songs” seemed to match Jesus’ true modus operandi. In the passage quoted above, the servant is described as one who brings justice to the nations, but is strangely quiet and unassuming. He doesn’t shout loudly, doesn’t make a big show of his role, nor does he stand on his soapbox in the middle of town. He is so gentle that he doesn’t step on “bruised reeds,” nor does he blow out candles which are on the verge of being snuffed. In other words, no grass suffers.

This is the antithesis of the typical politician, general, or power-broker. This sounds like someone who would be completely ignored by the TV cameras, and overpowered by the rhetoric of the pundits. This is someone who wouldn’t even show up on our radar of our celebrity-obsessed landscape.

And that’s exactly the kind of person that Jesus turned out to be. He was largely overlooked by those in power, ignored by the cultural arbiters, dismissed by those in the know. He was instead incredibly popular with the masses, with the people down below. He was gentle with the bruised reeds of the day — children, the lame, lepers. He didn’t extinguish anyone’s hopes prematurely, nor did he dash the dreams of those who believed in the kingdom which he proclaimed. In fact, Jesus compared the kingdom to a mustard seed, the smallest and most inconsequential speck of them all.

From these humble beginnings, and from this meek man, came the revolution that truly upended everything, even though it seemingly ended with a whimper on Calvary. The kingdom which Jesus talked about has thrown everything upside down. The quietest whispers have become a roar in the ears of the powers-that-be; the smallest gestures of hospitality have frightened the armies of death; the tiniest ideas about love, humanity, freedom have been set into motion and put into practice.

And here’s the exciting conclusion — Jesus’ methods STILL work! In fact, Jesus’ methods and message are essentially the same. The powers of sin, evil, and death are defeated, not by grasping power, military invasion, or winged Marine angels. The only way to conquer these enemies is through nonviolent, suffering love.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way: “Somehow we must be able to stand up before out most embittered opponents and say we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force.”

That is precisely what Jesus did by permitting himself to be nailed to the cross. The crucifixion was Jesus’ great nonviolent victory.

And every victory left to be won against the enemies of peace must be won the same way.

Otherwise, we end up with fields of bruised reeds and stomped grass.

Link of the day: Where is the grass suffering in today’s world? The border areas of Pakistan are one such place. The elephants of the US and the terror organizations hiding inside Pakistan are tearing up huge chunks of land. One of the biggest and most dangerous elephants in this case is the US drone program, which has killed between 2,562 and 3,325 people in Pakistan since June 2004, of whom at least 474, and perhaps as many as 881, were civilians. A report on the program, Living Under Drones, released in September 2012, details the damaging effects of the strikes on the lives of innocent people in Pakistan, and raises the question for us whether Jesus would meet the threat of terrorism with drone strikes.  Take action against the CIA’s unmonitored, unmanned drone program here.

Prayer: God, make me mindful not to break bruised blades of grass or to snuff out the brittle dreams of those who hunger for justice. Teach me how to endure suffering, and to match hate with love. In the name of the Prince of Peace, amen.