Extravagance

The lists of odd and extravagant Christmas gifts are beginning to appear. Reminds me of something I wrote for the Hope for Life blog last year:

Extravagance

I have to confess: I like looking at extravagant Christmas gifts. Not out of any desire to give or receive them. I just like to marvel at what’s available.

Some of them are amazingly expensive. Like the Ferrari FF listed at Neiman Marcus; it can be yours for only $390,000. You may want to hurry. They only have 10 available.

For mom, Amazon lists a black pearl necklace for a mere $76,500 dollars. Don’t worry… the item ships for free.

Another option is a gift card from Halcyon jets. A $5 million gift card! Actually, it’s called a Dream Card, and it gives you full access to their complete fleet of jets, as well as a private aviation specialist and a personal concierge.

For the truly discriminating, might I suggest you consider purchasing an island? You can get a lovely 20-acre island off the coast of Rio de Janeiro for a mere $8 million. Sorry… only one per customer.

Most of us won’t be spending quite as much on Christmas gifts, though many will spend more than they should. There’s something about the Christmas season that makes us want to give gifts in a big way.

However, we know that the greatest gift has already been given. No one can match the extravagance of our Heavenly Father, who gave us what the apostle Paul calls an “indescribable gift.” (2 Corinthians 9:15) God gave us His own Son, not as a Christmas gift, but as the gift that never stops giving. God’s Son, Jesus, came and died, to give us all the right to claim the gift of eternal life.

The apostle John famously wrote, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16–17)

In this season of giving and receiving, let’s take time to remember the greatest gift of all: God’s Son. And let’s make sure that we’ve claimed the gift He offers each of us: the gift of eternal life.

photo by Michael Connors

The Case For Non-Participation: Jesus’ teachings

As we look at reasons for not participating in any nation’s military, it’s obvious that we need to look at what Jesus taught, as well as the rest of the New Testament. I read a piece by Patrick Mead where he claimed that the only way to support pacifism was to cut certain portions out of the New Testament. While I understand his feeling (I feel the same toward military involvement), such an attitude is counterproductive to biblical discussions. I won’t claim that those who choose to participate ignore Scripture. I disagree with them on how to interpret certain passages. And I think their interpretation is more reflective of our culture and society than it is of biblical teaching.

At some point, we have to take the Sermon on the Mount (and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke) seriously. The sayings are hard. As I’ve written about before, some want to explain them away through various creative strategies. But we can’t get away from the fact that Jesus taught that it’s better to let an evil man have his way than to retaliate. Turning the other cheek, letting people rob us and take advantage of us, loving enemies… none of these things are easy nor come naturally. Jesus was saying that what is natural isn’t right, that we have to overcome our human impulses and replace them with spiritual ones.

Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” These words were spoken as a rebuke, not merely as a commentary on life. Jesus wasn’t just saying that his disciples weren’t to defend him at that moment. He was saying that there are those who live by the sword… and they aren’t us! We aren’t them. Jesus’ followers are not to live by the sword.

What about the New Testament passages that talk about Jesus coming to execute judgment on his enemies? Aren’t those violent passages? Of course they are. Which is why Paul reminds us that vengeance belongs to God. He will do it. Just as we aren’t to judge because there is only one judge, we aren’t to avenge because there is only one avenger. Passages that show God doing violence argue against our doing the same.

We live in a militarized society. That colors the way we read Scripture. It leads us to look for every exception and every loophole to allow us to follow the current of our culture. We need to recapture the countercultural spirit. We need to seek to be a holy people. Jesus called us to a higher standard. I think we need to stop trying to talk our way around that and merely seek to live it.

The Sword-Bearing Prince of Peace

Since I’ve discussed Romans 13 at length in the past, I don’t really see the need to go back over that passage. So let’s turn our attention to the Book of Revelation. When seeking to refute pacifistic ideas, many look to Revelation 19. There we see Jesus in a robe dipped in blood, killing His enemies with a sword.

The word “dipped” can throw us off here, for, in Revelation, the martyrs have previously washed their robes in blood, but it wasn’t the blood of their enemies. It was the blood of the Lamb, the blood that won the victory over Satan. However, in Chapter 19, Jesus is “trampling the grapes of wrath.” In Chapter 14, when these grapes were harvested, it was said that the blood flowed as deep as the horses’ bridles. Whose blood? Probably a reference to God’s enemies, though that’s never made clear.

But no matter where the blood on His robe came from, Jesus’ intentions are clear. He is there to “strike down the nations.” This is a time for vengeance.

So there we have it. Christians are called to exact vengeance on God’s enemies. Or are they?

Let’s back up. Revelation is written to a group of Christians who are about to undergo persecution. The message to them is that they are to patiently endure, overcoming by being faithful witnesses. There’s a reason why the Greek word for “witness” became the English word “martyr,” for Jesus is held up as the example of what a faithful witness is. The mighty Lion of Judah turns out to be a lamb that was slain. He conquered on the cross, by dying for His faith. Now He calls His followers to be unafraid to risk the same.

The promise is that God will exact vengeance on their tormenters. Just as Second Thessalonians promises that those who persecute the Christians will be punished by God, so Revelation emphasizes that Christians are not to seek to bring about “justice” by their own hand, but they are to leave vengeance to God.

(By the way, did you notice what sword Jesus is using to strike down the nations? The sword which proceeds from His mouth. It doesn’t take much knowledge of apocalyptic symbolism to see that the judgment against the nations will be exacted by the Word of God. The scene is that of ultimate judgment, the final defeat of evil. The weapons are spiritual ones, just as the armies are heavenly armies and not earthly ones.)

So how did early Christians read Revelation? Did they see in it a call to arms, a summons to exact justice on the Romans via the sword? No. They saw it as a reminder that they were to submit to the authorities, honor the king, and leave vengeance to God. To get Revelation to say something else, you have to strip it from its original context.

(Do I really have to address the numbers question? Probably, because it always seems to come up. “Christians didn’t fight back because there weren’t enough of them. Had they had a chance of winning, God would have told them to fight.” Should you be clinging to that idea, might I suggest a quick perusal of the Old Testament? Stories like Gideon, Samson, David vs. Goliath, Jonathan and his armor bearer vs. the whole Philistine army… God doesn’t need numbers to win a battle. If violent resistance had been the answer, God was more than capable of enabling His people to triumph.)

I’d like to hear your thoughts, comments, questions and suggestions.

Undercover Lord

There’s a new show called Undercover Boss. The CEO of some big corporation disguises himself and tries his hand at some entry level positions in his own company. It’s really interesting to see what these executives come to find out about their own companies.

Scott McCown drew an analogy between this show and the incarnation of Jesus. That, in turn, made me think of Matthew 25, how our treatment of “the least of these” is the treatment we give Jesus. Thinking of that passage reminded me of a poem I heard in high school. So from Undercover Boss to Matthew 25, here’s a poem that fits the occasion:

The Story of the Christmas Guest
by Helen Steiner Rice

It happened one day at December’s end
Some neighbors called on an old-time friend.

And they found his shop so meager and mean,
Made gay with a thousand boughs of green.

And old Conrad was sitting with face ashine.
When he suddenly stopped as he stitched the twine.

And he said “My friends at dawn today,
When the cock was crowing the night away,

The Lord appeared in a dream to me.
And He said, ‘I’m coming your guest to be”

So I’ve been busy with feet astir,
Strewing my shop with branches of fir.

The table is spread and the kettle is shined,
And over the rafters the holly is twined.

And now I’ll wait for my Lord to appear;
And listen closely so I will hear,

His steps as he nears my humble place.
And I’ll open the door and I’ll look on his face.”

Then his friends went home and left Conrad alone,
For this was the happiest day he had known.

For long since his family had passed away.
And Conrad had spent many a sad Christmas Day.

But he knew with the Lord as his Christmas guest,
This Christmas would be the dearest and best.

So he listened with only joy in his heart,
And with every sound he would rise with a start,

And looked for the Lord to be at his door.
Like the vision that he had had a few hours before.

So he ran to the window after hearing a sound,
But all he could see on the snow covered ground

Was a shabby beggar whose shoes were torn.
And all his clothes were ragged and worn.

But old Conrad was touched and he went to the door
And he said, “Your feet must be cold and sore.

I have some shoes in my shop for you.
And I have a coat to keep you warmer, too.”

So with grateful heart the man went away.
But Conrad notice the time of day

And he wondered what made the dear Lord so late,
And how much longer he’d have to wait.

Then he heard another knock, and he ran to the door,
But it was only a stranger once more.

A bent old lady with a shawl of black,
And a bundle of kindling piled on her back.

But she asked only for a place to rest,
a place that was reserved, for Conrad’s great guest.

But her voice seemed to plead, “Don’t send me away,
Let me rest for awhile this Christmas Day.”

So Conrad brewed her a steaming cup
And told her to sit at the table and sup.

After she had left, he was filled with dismay
For he saw that the hours were slipping away

The Lord had not come as He said He would
And Conrad felt sure he had misunderstood.

When out of the stillness he heard a cry.
“Please help, me and tell me – Where am I?”

So again he opened his friendly door.
And stood disappointed as twice before.

It was a child who had wandered away,
And was lost from her family on Christmas Day.

Again Conrad’s heart was heavy and sad,
But he knew he could make this little girl glad.

So he called her in and he wiped her tears,
And he quieted all her childish fears.

Then he led her back to her home once more.
Then as he entered his own darkened door,

He knew that the Lord was not coming today,
For the hours of Christmas, had all passed away.

So he went to his room, and he knelt down to pray.
He said, “Lord, why did you delay?

What kept You from coming to call on me?
I wanted so much Your face to see.”

Then softly, in the silence, a voice he heard.
“Lift up your head – I have kept My word.

Three times my shadow crossed your floor.
Three times I came to your lowly door.

I was the beggar with bruised cold feet;
I was the woman you gave something to eat;
I was the child on the homeless street.

Three times I knocked, three times I came in,
And each time I found the warmth of a friend.

Of all the gifts, love is the best.
I was honored to be your Christmas guest.