Bonus! We only have audio of the teaching today - check out the podcast. We did enjoy the San Francisco Brass Company - enjoy their version of Joy to the World.
Alien abduction. We visited our kids last weekend to hear them perform in two concerts – one on a Thursday evening, the other the following Monday evening. That left us an entire weekend to fill. My family has a deep fondness for Disneyland, so we spent Saturday and Sunday reliving old memories while we created new ones. Pretty early on, however, we were shocked by our daughter Laiken’s behavior. When we rode Thunder Mountain Railroad, she informed us that she would be riding along with the rest of us. Laiken, historically, has never wanted to ride coasters. I’m pretty sure Lynne and I fostered her fear by pushing her to try it too early. So, for her to offer herself to this sacrifice without coercion, bribery, or guilt-tripping made us wonder, who are you and what have you done with our daughter?
We all have identifying characteristics that make us who we are and signal to others that its really us. I bet you have some things unique to your person, but I am certain there are things about you that betray your heritage – where you’ve come from. Skin tone. Surname. Language. Accent. Music preferences. Fashion. How you decorate your home. What you do for Christmas. What are some of those things for you that are very specific to just you? What about things that reach back to your heritage?
Todei or Tomarrow: The Divinity/Dust Tension. We know there are things that tip us off to who we are and where we’ve come from. What’s your take on Jesus? I grew up in church. Given that both of my grandpas and my father were pastors, you can imagine that I grew up well versed in the faith. I knew the Christmas story from day one of my life. Mary, always translated as a betrothed virgin, was told she would become pregnant with the Messiah via the Holy Spirit of God so that the child would be extra holy. Joseph, after hearing she was pregnant and having trouble believing her explanation, was going to end the relationship as graciously as possible until he got a vision from God confirming her story. The wedding was still on, but he didn’t get to know Mary, as it were, until after Jesus was born. Then they had a bunch more kids.
This story always served to create a certain amount of awe in me. How mysterious! God breaking into our dusty existence on planet earth to come in the flesh, to create a unique person who would save the world from the hopelessness and despair caused by living under the curse of sin. The context that was generally provided for me – and the prevailing message that still commands the most airtime today – is that the old sacrificial system wasn’t adequate, and something needed to be done. So, Jesus was gifted to humanity to become a final sacrifice to claim for the forgiveness of sins, in order that humanity might gain God’s favor now and, most importantly, after we die. Sacrifice meant death. Jesus came primarily to die in a particular way to satisfy God’s need for justice. As it was communicated to me, Jesus’ birth was clearly foretold in the Jewish scriptures, and everything lined up in his coming. God pulled off one incredible miracle out of love for the whole world. A great gift. The first century context that was steeped in the sacrificial system of appeasing the gods would readily get their brains around it. And it was easy enough to simply adopt the same way of thinking because so much of the arguments for Jesus in the early church letters referenced this way of thinking. Merry Christmas! The whole thing is a beautiful package for humanity to open year after year.
It is really important to immerse yourself in the first century sacrificial system context to fully appreciate how the message of Jesus’ life and, more importantly, his death were understood. Embrace it as fully as possible to appreciate what this facet of Good News was communicating to the original audience. This enables us to join the untold hundreds of millions of people who have gone before us who celebrated Jesus’ birth from that vantage point. Join them in the celebration.
I mention this because for many people, the entire birth narrative, when placed under a broader academic microscope, reveals some challenges to traditional, less critically-informed orientations to the story. For instance,
· The prophecy about the virgin birth actually was about a young woman who lived centuries before Jesus was born. She was no virgin; she was married. The Hebrew word in the original prophecy doesn’t give us “virgin”, but “young woman.”
· The two birth narratives (one in Matthew, the other in Luke), do not jibe – the geography doesn’t line up right – one or both of the stories is factually off. Attempts have been made to reconcile it, but they are not particularly satisfactory.
· Essentially Jesus, at face value, was a demigod. This held no place in Jewish theology at that time or since. That idea was prevalent in other cultures and theologies, but not Judaism. The idea that God would deliver the long-awaited Messiah through a means that ran completely counter to such a core Jewish understanding is unthinkable. This isn’t a mere scriptural interpretation issue. This is a radical shift of theology that would not likely happen or be embraced by a Jewish audience.
· Now that we are far removed (in our culture, anyway) from a sacrificial system of faith, the very idea that God would create Jesus simply to become the perfect, blemish free Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world via a horrific, torturous death to satisfy God’s need for retribution is more than ugly. It’s abhorrent. This is not an attractive image of God. Who would want to do life with that kind of tyrant?
· In a book offering two differing views of the central character of Christmas (The Meaning of Jesus, 170), N.T. Wright, one of the most revered-by-conservatives Jesus scholars admitted that if we never had the birth narratives in our Bible, it would not impact his faith. The virginal birth was not really the point to latch onto. Whoa!
Because of the above concerns (and more), a lot of people opt for Santa Claus over Jesus. The story itself appears to be so vulnerable that it cannot hold weight. So they walk away from that celebration of Christmas and instead focus on expressing love to people in various ways, including giving gifts. “Drop the divinity thing,” skeptics say under their breath, “it makes you look naïve.” Holding onto the demigod idea is great for movies, but not for real life. How can we relate to a demigod, really?
Dropping Jesus’ divinity may be going too far, however. Perhaps there is another way to think about it that is deeply relevant to us today, a way that allows the manger to stay in our celebration.
At the very beginning of the Bible we have the book of Genesis, a story of beginnings that lays out a Jewish understanding of the nature of God and the world. At the very beginning of the book, two stories written by two different author groups provide two renderings of how humanity came to be. The first story simply says that God created male and female in Gods’ image, and that in contrast to all of the good things God created before humanity, these image-bearing creatures were very good. God is seen as a proud parent. The second, more primitive creation story imagines God creating man from dust, like a potter with clay. Once made, God “breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostril’s, and the man became a living person” (Genesis 2:7 NLT). First, dirt. Then, breath. Dust brought to life by divinity. Deity and marrow. This is how the Jewish culture understood human beings: dusty yet divine; divinity and dust; walking incarnation. All of humanity has this origin. By extension, we remain a mixture of divinity and dust. Centuries into the Jewish nation’s story when things weren’t going well at all, a prophet is given a vision of a valley of dry bones. God asks the prophet, “Can these bones live?” The prophet Ezekiel is invited to call the breath of God into play. Once the breath-wind of God comes, what was mere dust before comes to life (Ezekiel 37). A mix of divinity and dust.
As I said before, we need to let the birth narratives be what they were for the original audience with all of its complications intact. But in terms of relating to the story now, and relating to Jesus more specifically, what if we look upon Jesus, the Son of Man (as he preferred to be called – “everyman”), as divinely infused dust (John 3)? What if that is a better way to think about divinity? What would that or our understanding of Jesus? What would that mean for our understanding of ourselves and every other human being on the planet?
Some might go all John Denver and take this to mean that our divine-dustiness implies that we are gods, and that one day we will get out own planets to rule. That’s certainly alluring, I suppose, but appears to be a bit arrogant as well. Being created, infused, and animated by God doesn’t make the created the creator. That might sound good to some, but it flies in the face of Jewish thought as much as the demigod idea does.
A perhaps healthier way to really think about our dusty divinity is with great humility, which requires tremendous vulnerability. We’re all pretty clear, I think, on our dustiness. We see plenty of examples of our dirt in the world around us and up close and personal. To think that we have divinity in our DNA, that perhaps we are animated by the same Life force we call God can change how we think about ourselves. We’re not just dirt clods. We are people of tremendous possibility and potential and power. We need not be defined any longer by the dirt of our past because we are infused with the divine. At least in part, I think this was Jesus’ growing understanding of himself and others. It’s why he was so strong, so full of the Spirit to heal and teach and call out dusty expressions of faith. It’s also why I think he looked upon the outcast with great affection and attention – he saw in them what nobody else could (including themselves): the breath of God. Divinity in the mix of dust.
I think Jesus realized that this great potential would remain unrealized potential is he didn’t cultivate it. Jesus was clear, I think, that he needed to recognize his vulnerability as a human being, that we tend toward pride and apathy pretty easily. I believe he was a lifelong learner and meditator because he knew that left to his own dustiness, he would miss the divinity. He cultivated the divine in his dust.
This, by the way, is one massive reason why we do things like come to church, discuss stuff in community, read the Bible and related works, and meditate: to form our minds more in divinity than dust. You may today feel some inner peace at the notion that you don’t have to think of yourself as a dirt clod anymore. But inner peace is just the beginning. Hope after death is just the beginning. Forgiveness of sin is just the beginning. You have inherent divine potential because divinity courses through your veins and fills your lungs with every breath. Left alone, it won’t do much for you or anybody else. Cultivated, however, it can change your world and the entire world toward the better.
You want world peace? You want to see things change for the better? You want to see your family system health up? You want to see your work environment shift toward health? You want to see everything, absolutely everything impacted by grace? Cultivate what is already within you.
How do you approach this? Paul gives us a clue in a letter to the church in Philippi:
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion. – Philippians 2:5-8 (Message)
May you cultivate the divine within your dust. May you be mangered in the way Jesus was, deeply humbled by what was taking place within him, so much so that he spent his life working out what it meant. May you see the world redeemed as you do.