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If you read the blog or listened to Pete’s teaching last week, you’ll know we’re talking about peace for Advent. But, as Pete shared, the concept of peace in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures isn’t always what we think it is. It’s not just the absence of conflict or some sort of inner tranquility, although those are both great. It’s what Jewish communities called shalom: a holistic thriving, where all of creation has the ability to flourish through deep connection to the divine. This is a really big idea, and deserves some unpacking. So, I want to dive a little deeper into shalom, specifically looking at how it happens. What is powerful enough to move us toward that sort of big, beautiful vision for our world?
When I think of power, I often think of large, imposing figures who can make decisions that affect tons of people, or who can impose their will on others through force or manipulation. It’s a distant sort of power, one that’s removed from my everyday life, like a president or a king. Whether we mean to or not, this understanding of power often shapes our understanding of God’s power. If a king is the most powerful figure we can think of, God must be like a super king, right? And that understanding of God works for awhile. It makes us feel safe, like someone else is in control…until it doesn’t.
Sometimes something so horrible happens, that believing in a superking sort of God just doesn’t make sense anymore. It seems like shalom is something that God either doesn’t want, or can’t do. Many times, we just jump ship from the whole God thing at this point, which is totally understandable. But I don’t think we have to. I think if we really look at Jesus, we’ll see that the problem wasn’t God’s power, but our understanding of it. Jesus totally flips the script on our definition of power, and how God is powerful. So, let’s look at Jesus and see what is really powerful enough to bring about the shalom we seek.
To do this, I’m going to look at three different parts of Jesus’ life, and ask three sort of absurd questions that Jesus and his followers seem to be implying. Here’s the first one:
What’s more powerful: a baby or a king?
To see and answer this question, let’s start at the beginning of Jesus’ life, which is appropriate since it’s Christmas. Check out Luke 2:26-33.
26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” (CEB)
Lovely stuff, right? It’s the sort of thing we put on Christmas cards and love to hear Linus quote in a Charlie Brown Christmas. In all the warm fuzzies of Christmas, we miss how controversial this passage is. It’s less about a peaceful nativity scene and more about a really dangerous message to those in power.
What we have to understand is that much of the New Testament is written with the backdrop of Roman imperial power, and this passage is no different. What Luke is doing when he tells this story is setting up an alternative power to Caesar, who ruled much like our superking image of God: from a distance, with an iron fist, trying to control people. To see this, we have to understand how a first century listener would have heard these stories.
When Luke talks about Mary being visited by a divine messenger and having a child from God, this would have sounded familiar to any one in the Roman empire. Legend had it that Caesar Augustus’ mother, Atia, was visited by the god Apollo, and out of that visit, Caesar Augustus was born. So when Jesus’ birth narrative includes these details, it’s making a competing claim to power. As if that weren’t enough, Luke’s passage calls Jesus “Son of the Most High” and in other places “savior” and “lord”. Again, this wasn’t the first time these titles had been used. Many Caesars throughout Roman history claimed these titles. They were thought to be part divine, part human, and brought salvation and peace through a standing army and an iron fist. But Luke is calling BS. He’s saying that’s not actually what’s powerful. True power is seen in a Jewish baby, born in a barn, to an unwed mom and welcomed to the world by a bunch of disgusting shepherds, who were seen as some of the grossest people in society. If this is the case, then we have to look at more of Jesus to understand how he defines power and moves toward shalom.
What’s more powerful: a father or a king?
Jesus doesn’t ask this question in one particular spot, but rather over and over again in all four of the accounts of his life. He does it by changing the primary metaphor we use to talk about God, which has big implications for God's power and how that power brings shalom.
Before we look at the metaphor Jesus uses, it’s important to note that almost everything we, and the writers of scripture, say about God, we say through metaphor or image. In some ways, God is deeply knowable, but in other ways, we’ll never have an image or statement that fully encompasses God. So, we get glimpses of God through metaphor and figurative language. Scripture uses tons of different metaphors for God. New ones are picked up along the way, and others are left behind. Here is where Jesus comes in.
In the Old Testament, the primary metaphor for God was king. It’s used 43 times directly, plus dozens of other allusions to it. While God was viewed as a good king, the metaphor also encompassed some problematic views of power that we discussed earlier – distance, heavy-handedness, being prone to anger. When Jesus comes on the scene though, he totally drops the metaphor of God as king. He never uses it. (He will talk about God’s kingdom, but that word can be translated several different ways that don’t have to involve God as king.)
Instead, Jesus most frequently refers to God as father – 165 times in the four gospels! The Old Testament, on the other hand, only refers to God as father about fifteen times, and usually it’s referring to God as father over a few specific people or communities. So Jesus must really be trying to drive home a different understanding of God.
You might be thinking to yourself, “I don’t like that metaphor any better.” I hear you. We all have flawed fathers, which skew our understanding of God as father. We might think of fathers much like we think of kings – heavy handed, manipulating, angry. We’ve also talked about God as a man for way too much of Christian history, and have done some incredibly sexist things because of it. But I don’t think Jesus’ metaphor switch is meant to imply either of those things. Here’s why:
In Greek, in which most of the New Testament is written, the word Jesus uses is pretty straight forward – pater , which just means “father.” But Jesus likely didn’t speak Greek. He spoke Aramaic. In Aramaic, the word for father is abba. This is a much more tender, familial term, that implies a consistent, loving, non-coercive presence in one’s life. So Jesus’ metaphor switch has much more to do with how God is powerful and present than what gender God is.
The implication of Jesus’ understanding of God is that God is not a distant, occasionally intervening king who rules through force- the kind that leads us to abandon God when tragedy strikes. Rather, God is a loving, non-coercive presence in the world, always seeking to nurture us toward shalom. That is a much different understanding of power! Theologian Andrew Sung Park says it better than I can:
True power is not the will to control others. True power is the strength to help others to become what they can be.
Jesus’ shift in understanding God can be alarming. It can feel like things are less in control. But it is also empowering. It implies that the way God moves toward shalom is through us. Our actions, lives, words and relationships matter. They are key in seeing the wholeness God longs for in creation become reality.
Jesus lives out this understanding of God through his entire life. He models the always present loving nature of God for us, trying to show us the way to shalom. He even takes it to its darkest and hardest place to live out – death. For Rome, the cross was the ultimate sign of heavy-handed power. It showed that if you stepped out of line or challenged Rome, you were going to die a slow, shameful death in front of all of your friends and family. But resurrection challenges that definition of power. It says that on the other side of suffering under corrupt rulers, new life can take place. Jesus’ way of love is truly what is powerful.
Of course, there are a lot of moments where Jesus’ definition of power and path to shalom seem far from reality, which is where our last question comes in.
What’s more powerful: a lamb or a king?
Revelation 5:1-7, 13 (CEB)
Then I saw a scroll in the right hand of the one seated on the throne. It had writing on the front and the back, and it was sealed with seven seals. 2 I saw a powerful angel, who proclaimed in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” 3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or look inside it. 4 So I began to weep and weep, because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look inside it. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Don’t weep. Look! The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has emerged victorious so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” 6 Then, in between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb, standing as if it had been slain. It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are God’s seven spirits, sent out into the whole earth. 7 He came forward and took the scroll from the right hand of the one seated on the throne.
Really straight forward and clear passage, right?
Revelation can be weird, which can lead us to do weird things with it…like make movies about it starring Nicholas Cage. But once we understand the context and language of it, Revelation makes some really incredible statements about power.
Here are the basics of Revelation. It was likely written to seven churches in modern day Turkey. These small communities were probably meeting in homes, trying to live in the way of love Jesus taught. But, because they were saying things like, “Jesus is lord” and “Jesus is savior”, Rome, and its loyal followers, began to feel threatened and persecuted them. While they hadn’t experienced physical violence yet, the heavy hand of Rome was making it harder and harder for them to make money, stay connected socially and be a part of their families who weren’t following Jesus.
Revelation was written to these communities suffering under Rome’s power to lift their heads up and remind them what was truly powerful. It’s written in veiled language so that if someone outside of their community got their hands on it, they wouldn’t be able to read it clearly.
Now, back to our passage and question.
Scholars think the scrolls referred to in Revelation 5 represent the way in which the story of creation will play out – in shalom. But, since they’re sealed, it appears that shalom won’t occur. No one is powerful enough to open them, so the violent power of Rome must win out. This leads John to weep, because it seems like corruption and violence have the final word. Perhaps you’ve felt that way lately.
Then, out of nowhere, a lion comes in and opens the scrolls. Apparently, there is a force strong enough to move us toward shalom! Then something weird happens. That force, which at first was a mighty lion, then becomes a slaughtered lamb (presumably Jesus) next to a throne, holding the scrolls. How absurd! The one thing that is strong enough to move us toward wholeness and peace is the very appearance of weakness and sacrificial love.
This is a declaration of power, specifically what is powerful. Rome, or any chest thumping, muscle flexing, loud mouthed, violent expression of power is NOT truly powerful. The humble, consistent, loving, all-encompassing way that Jesus modeled is true power.
But the scene doesn’t stop there. At first, just a few people notice this sacrificial power, and they begin to praise it. Then, more notice and join in. Then, finally, John says he sees this:
13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea—I heard everything everywhere say,
“Blessing, honor, glory, and power belong
to the one seated on the throne
and to the Lamb
forever and always.”
Eventually, Jesus’ understanding of power wins, and encompasses all of creation in the shalom we so desperately need. It’s the one thing strong enough to bring together everything, everywhere.
Of course, John’s vision takes a few minutes to move from a few people embracing this way of love to all of creation being joined together. In our reality though, it’s a much slower moving story. There are moments when it appears that this vision is so far from real life, when shalom is elusive. But hear the good news of this passage: no matter how corrupt, marginalizing and heavy handed those in power are, the way of Jesus will, in time, win out. Not in a way that says “I told you so”, but in a way that envelops us all in the shalom God desires.