Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Response to “This Christmas Day”

[Below you will find a very well-written and thoughtful response to my post "This Christmas Day" by a close friend of mine, Emily Rains. After reading it, I asked Emily if I could post it here, and she gladly agreed. Shortly after posting this, I will post my response above. What you see below is her response in its entirety, minus slight edits to her citation (since my blog does not support footnotes). Any errors in citation are mine. I have always desired this blog to be a dialogue, and I am incredibly grateful to Emily for sharing her thoughts.]

Christmas. Christ Mass. Saturnalia. The birthday of Mithra. Jolly old St. Nick? It certainly doesn’t seem we have added much to the rich traditions surrounding the 25th of December. But though it is, indeed, highly unlikely that Jesus was born on this day, history and more importantly, the church has established this day to honor his birth, whenever it occurred. And that cloud of uncertainty in no way diminishes the hope we receive on account of that event. But as you argued, Drew, this story of a beginning is not complete with out the end. For in the end, the significance of the beginning is understood. If there had been no Good Friday, and no Easter, there would be no Christmas Day, for there would be nothing to celebrate. But Christ did die and rise again and so we celebrate, the day of his birth. Anyone who sees God’s hand in this event is compelled to look beyond the consumerism and religious triteness to seek what God was communicating in Christ’s birth and life and death. And thus, not only is the Christmas story not complete without the Passion story, the real beginning to the whole story came much, much earlier.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” (Ge 1:1). And so begins the story. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork,” (Ps. 19:1). And now the story is complete. We have the craftsman and his creation, the artist and his masterpiece, the man and his lover. The story might have ended there. But it didn’t. The Storyteller just kept telling and the heavens grew silent and listened. And God spoke man out of the earth, and in a flourish of creative extravagance the Storyteller gave this creature the opportunity to communicate with Him. The same voice that said, “Let there be light” spoke to the man and man understood. And man spoke to God and knew he was understood. God gave the man honor and distinction among his creation and a mandate to rule and subdue the creation (Ge. 1:27,28). So man stood in a relationship of beautiful communion with God, his maker, and the world, his fellow creation and God-given home. And it was good.

The history of man continued but it was no longer good. Man rebelled and destroyed the natural harmony of the creation and rent his perfect relationship with God. But God did not abandon man nor wipe out his creation. “For his steadfast love endures forever,” (Ps 136:1). God continued to interact with his creation, with mankind, and reveal himself to man. He spoke to Abram, who lived in Ur and called him out into the wilderness and promised him a son and descendents who would out number the stars (Ge 12:1, 2). Three strangers came upon Abram one day at his tents and Abram extended his hospitality to them. This unannounced guest was none other than God himself and over dinner he repeated this promise of a son (Ge 18:1-10). God? Visiting a man at a tent? Eating a meal? Promising a son? The Storyteller must have been really enjoying this moment, to be in his story, a fantastical embellishment to an already improbable storyline. But it just gets better. God is on his way to Sodom and Gomorrah to destroy them for their great sin. And a short time later, after removing Lot and his daughters from the doomed towns, God destroys the town with fire and sulpher leaving barren ground behind (Ge 19:23-26). This God of creation and amazing promises and cruel destruction brings life out of dead bodies and Isaac is born to Sarah and Abraham (Ge 21:1,2). But then comes the crisis and the point of decision. All creation holds its breath as the God of life and death demands the life of the promised son. In a testimony that speaks as powerfully today as it did when recited by the ancient Hebrews, Abraham obeyed and prepared to sacrifice his only, promised son of his old age to the God who had called him out of Ur and into the wilderness, walked and talked with him, blessed him and tested him. But in a dramatic twist echoing the eternal theme of redemption, God intervened before the fatal stroke and a ram was killed in Isaac’s stead (Ge. 22:1-19). What a story! What a Storyteller!

Abraham’s grandson must have known the stories of his grandfather’s eventful life and powerful God. But none of those stories prepared him for the night he slept under the stars, with only a stone for a pillow and estranged from family and home. For as he slept he dreamt he saw a ladder ascending up into heaven and God, the Lord stood at the top of it and he said, “I am the Lord, God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac,” (Ge. 28:13). God promised Jacob that he would bless him and be with him and bring him back again to his homeland (Ge 28:1-22). Once again the Storyteller reached in to his own story and spoke to his creature. And as always, it was a soul-shaking experience. Jacob, whether he had taken his father’s God seriously in the past, now stood in humble awe of him, recognizing the authority of his maker to do what he wills in the affairs of man. He saw that this God had the power to create and to destroy, and to him was due honor, fear and humble obedience.

As the story continued to be told, there were many men who honored God. They understood his authority over man and if perhaps they did not understand Him, they knew that theirs was to fear and to trust this great God of their fathers. David, the shepherd, warrior, king and poet, recognized the fearsomeness of the God who created him, and all the world, who brought the plans of the nations to naught, who saw all mankind and knew all their deeds. This God was the only true hope available to man. All other hope, in kings and horses and idols and even in one’s self, were vain. Only God could save (Ps 33: 1-19). And in light of all that David knew about his God, he concluded, “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you,” (Ps 33:20-22).

The story continued, Christ came and died and rose again. Men from around the known world acknowledged God and Christ his son and gave God the same awe-inspired fear and honor and obedience that had characterized the people of God from the beginning of the story. For God was no simpler, nor any safer, after the coming of the promised son. If possible, he was more enigmatic than ever. For now, the nation of Israel was set aside for a time while God called all men unto himself in the church. Paul felt the power of this mystery and the grandeur of the Storyteller behind it and burst forth in adoration and honor. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has know the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodes as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship,” (Ro 11:33-12:1). What other response can there be to a holy and all-powerful God, to whom we owe our lives, our world and without whose communication our world and existence would not hold together in a functional and cohesive whole?

This is the God who holds our lives in his hands today and who knows our hearts and our deeds. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is still the Holy One of Israel. He has not changed. And thus man is faced with a choice. He can respond in humble acknowledgement of the majesty of his maker, or he can ignore the burning bush and make his own god out of wood or stone, or money, or things, or people, or words. The challenge is being honest about what you are doing. In recognizing when you are being humble before God and when you are only being humble before man. I know you to be a very humble man, Drew. You are careful to avoid pushing your claims about the world on others, careful to avoid a worldview that tramples on the claims of others. You are self-effacing and open about the deficiencies of your beliefs and claims. In your post, you repeatedly deny any claim to literal truth in your retelling of the story of Jesus. But your attempt to be humble only serves to mask an intrinsic arrogance: the arrogance to make your own god and tell your own story. This arrogance lies hidden throughout much of your story as you cover the safe and unthreatening parts of God’s story. But it still springs to the surface when you arrive at the crux of the story: the crucifixion. You take God’s story into your own hands and rip out its guts. As you write, “there was no magical vindication in Christ’s death (or anyone else’s death) on the cross. No substitutionary atonement. Any God that needs to be appeased for the sin of the world by death (of any sort) is no God. No one (including God) did anything to vindicate Christ’s death. There was no magic in the moment, only tragedy. Christ’s death was like all the others, totally unremarkable and absolutely tragic.” And their stands your idol. You have taken the knife into your own hand and made yourself a graven image. You have been faced with the power of God and his story and you have defaced it. You have had the arrogance to tell God who he is and what he wrote.

What ever this self-made religion may be, it does not honor the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of David, and of Paul. They knew and worshipped a God who was bigger than any of their stories, who was bigger than any of their constructs, who wrote the terms and who demanded the consequences. They knew from experience that God never fit in any box you tried to make and that just when you thought you had him figured out, he surprised you. Theirs was a God who created worlds and created man, who thundered out of heavens and joined Abraham for a dinner, who demanded the life of a promised son and promised his own. A God who knows each sparrow and in whose hand the nations are but a tool. A God who chooses men and nations but who is impartial. A God who burns in almighty hatred of sin and yet His mercy endures forever. A God who created life and ordered death. A God who is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:21). The “I am who I am,” (Ex. 3:14). To a God like this, how do godly men respond? They respond like Abraham with humble trust and meek obedience. They respond like Jacob with reverential awe. They respond like David with a cup running over and a testimony before the congregation. Humility is undeniably a part of this response. Recognizing that God has written the rules, he has written the story and He has written us. There is nothing we can do to change the rules. The difficulty lies only in coming to know our God and to understand his rules and this most important pursuit has taken the human race several millennia, and we have not yet exhausted the task. But this pursuit must be governed by humility and honor toward God and cannot ever become the art of God construction. For only idols are constructed.

We simply must come to terms with who God is as we experience him ourselves and reflect on the experiences of others. It is futile to deny the testimony of this experience and say that such a God is not worthy to be a God. Such words are like the slap of an angry infant on his father’s face. It changes nothing about the nature of God and it only underlines the frailty of man in relation to God. Perhaps it would be more accurate to draw a picture of a mighty warrior holding a hollering infant in his firm grasp, his mother left without breath, eyes glued to her child. The infant, seemingly oblivious of the possible consequence, vents his fury on the face of his captor. It is futile; it would be laughable if it were not for the fate of the child trembling in the balance. In that moment, the infant’s protestations against the one who can kill or save him are more than futile; they are dangerously condemning. And although our God has a love for his creatures that is not captured in this picture, he is even more powerful in relation to us and holds our fate even more utterly in his hands.

If this God makes you uncomfortable, Drew, then you have truly seen him as he is. For he does not condescend to fit our guidelines, he soars above and beyond the mores and bounds of this created world and asserts his infinite transcendence in our lives. It is hardly surprising that when he acts, we are left shaking in our shoes and scratching our heads. God IS. We simply have to deal with that fact.

And if you don’t like the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, if you hold fast to your assertion that a God like this is not one you can respect, then go, meet God face to face. Challenge the Author of History with your objections. Demand that the Father of the stars defend his intentions. Tell the one who can kill both the body and the soul what the terms ought to be.
And although there may be no voice out of the whirlwind, you will find that the answer hasn’t changed much since Job demanded justice from God.

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