God’s Christmas Gift: Courage

Pay attention to the first words the Christmas angels speak.

angel

The archangel Gabriel, by Gerard David, 1506. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

In the gospels of Matthew and Luke, angels play a prominent role in all the stages of the unfolding Christmas story

In Luke an angel announces to the priest Zechariah that his aged wife Elizabeth will become pregnant and bear a son. The child will grow up to be the prophet we call John the Baptist. Again an angel, named Gabriel, announces to Mary that she will also become pregnant and bear a son. He is the Christ child of Bethlehem.

In Matthew an angel visits Joseph in a dream and removes his doubts about marrying the pregnant Mary. The angel assures him that Mary’s pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit. And Matthew says that this child, to be named Jesus, is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy of Emmanuel, God with Us.

An angel announces the birth of Jesus to the shepherds outside Bethlehem on Christmas eve. He tells them that the newborn child is the savior of the world.

And then if we return to Matthew and proceed to the end of his story, we find an angel again meets the women who visit Jesus’ tomb. He announces to them that they will not find Jesus there, for he has arisen.

One thing unites all these stories of angelic appearances. That is the opening words the angels always speak. They are variously translated “Fear not” or “Do not be afraid.”

I find this striking, and I ask why. One possible answer is that a direct encounter with a real live angel can be very upsetting. Here is a manifestation of the numinous, a figure out of the world of the holy. And as the German scholar Rudolph Otto reminds us, the holy both fascinates us and terrifies us. When we humans are in the realm of the holy, we are outside our natural element.

This suggests that we should not understand the angels in these scriptural stories as cuddly cupids or as fashion plates in diaphanous gowns. These angels must have been powerful energy forces, otherworldly in a kind of disorienting way.

If this is true, then the human beings encountering these numinous figures have reason for being scared. All the reason in the world, therefore, that the angels must put the humans at ease before they can deliver their messages.

The Deeper Resonance of the Angelic Words

But I like to think there is a deeper reason for their re-assurance. Their “do not be afraid” become the opening words of the gospel. The actions of God can be frightening to our limited perceptions. But those actions are motivated by divine good will, by God’s loving purposes.

Those actions can make us very anxious, but the angels re-assure us to not be alarmed. We can have confidence that God will accomplish his loving purposes not only for ourselves, but for the whole cosmos.

This does not mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. We may suffer deeply in our lives, through disappointments, losses, frustrations, tragedies, and malicious violence. The angelic messages promise no rose garden of a life.

But their messages do assure us that whatever we experience in life, we can be confident we do not experience it alone. God will be the enveloping presence in which we live and move and have our being. God will walk with us through fire and raging water as well as through green pastures.

That confidence can then nurture courage. We can be courageous in the face of all that life slings at us. And so courage becomes one of the great gifts of Christmas. It is a gift we all need in these anxious times.

What does that look like in lived life? For me Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives a great example. When the moment for Bonhoeffer’s execution came, the concentration camp doctor witnessed him kneeling in prayer before he was led to the gallows. He then described Bonhoeffer’s death as that of man “devout … brave and composed … I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

How could Bonhoeffer face his death with such courage? I wonder if it was not because he had spent a lifetime letting the message of the Christmas angels sink deep into his soul.

 

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God in the Center, not in the Gaps

When God moves from being a theological construct to being a divine Thou

Bible text: Psalm 23

I think it’s safe to say that Psalm 23 is the most beloved passage in all of the Bible. It is a hymn of quiet confidence in God. And for that reason it has spoken solace to many an agitated heart.

It is so familiar, however, that we can easily miss its remarkable artistry. Its author is a superb poet.

Two Dominant Metaphors

We see that in his use of metaphors. Two dominate the psalm. One is the metaphor of the shepherd. The psalm starts out with that ringing declaration: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. The line is like the mighty bells of a great cathedral reeling out their joy on Easter Sunday.

The shepherd leads his flock into nourishing pastures. He protects them from predators. He is the model of the ideal king, whose chief job is to provide for and protect his people, especially the most vulnerable in society. (For another Hebrew reflection on ideal kingship, read Psalm 72).

The second metaphor the poet uses is the metaphor of the host. God is said to be a superlative host. He welcomes the traveler. He spreads before him a wonderful meal. He grooms his guest’s hair with fragrant olive oil. He fills his guest’s cup with overflowing wine.

You can appreciate why this image would speak so powerfully to its original audience when you remember that travelers in the ancient Near East relied on the generosity of local residents to provide them with food, drink, and shelter from bandits. Inns and hotels were rare.

In the Old Testament when God is described as a good shepherd, he is usually seen as the shepherd of the people of Israel. But in Psalm 23, the poet sees God as more than a national provider. God is MY shepherd. Faith has moved from a community into an intimately personal level.

Trust against a Backdrop of Danger

Both of these metaphors play against a backdrop of danger and potential despair. The psalmist is walking through a valley of deep darkness. He consumes his meals aware that his enemies are jealously looking on. Evil lurks in the shadows, like a tiger just waiting for the opportune moment to pounce. Anxiety enwraps his life.

Yet the poet remains confident. At the moment in the poem of greatest danger, when he is walking through the valley of deep darkness, he sounds out his confidence in these resounding words: I fear no evil, for you [God] are with me.

Here is where we particularly glimpse his artistry. First, this is the point in the psalm where the poet stops talking about God and starts talking to God. The sentence turns from third-person discourse to second-person address. The language shifts from testimony to prayer.

This is the point when God becomes something more than an intellectual construct. God becomes someone whom the poet not only thinks about, but also meets. God as theological It has become God as divine Thou.

God at the Center

But here is something more amazing. The “you” in verse 4 comes at the exact middle of the psalm. The Hebrew word for “you” is atah. And in the psalm in Hebrew, 27 words precede it; 27 words follow it. At the exact center of the poem comes the divine “you.”

At the heart of biblical faith, God is not one who stands on the outskirts of life. God stands at the center of our lives as well as at the center of the universe. Now that needs to be said forcefully in our day and age.

In years past there was an old tradition in science of appealing to God when we confronted mysteries in nature. We looked at a natural process. We didn’t understand how that process worked. So we’d invoke God as the hidden hand behind nature. A scientist as eminent as Sir Isaac Newton did that when he ran up against puzzles in the universe that he could not solve.

But as science progresses and more and more of the mysteries of nature are solved, the God of puzzles keeps being pushed more and more to the margins of life and the universe. After a while, God is no longer needed as a hypothesis to explain the world.

That is the attitude of many people today, especially scientists. They can dispense with God, because they don’t need God as an explanation.

I was recently watching a TV interview by Bill Moyers with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson is the host of the new National Geographic TV series called Cosmos. It looks at what modern science tells us about the amazing evolution and structure of our universe.

In the interview Tyson comments that if we look upon God as the answer to nature’s mysteries, then we really have to abandon that kind of God. For that kind of God will be progressively whittled away by the advance of science.

“If you are going to stay religious at the end of the conversation,” he says, “God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian whom Hitler executed, said something similar in a letter he wrote a friend from his prison cell. As he reflected upon his prison experience, he said:

…how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. For the frontiers of knowledge are inevitably being pushed back further and further, which means that you only think of God as a stop-gap…[God] must be found at the center of life: in life and not only in death; in health and vigour, and not only in suffering; in activity, and not only in sin. [Letters and Papers from Prison, Letter dated March 25, 1944]

The psalmist does what Bonhoeffer says needs to happen. He finds God at the center of his life, not just in its gaps.

If we ask, How do we begin to do this?, I answer: Do what the poet does. Begin to pray. In prayer, we may not yet have truly placed God in the center of our being, but we begin that process. For in prayer, we relate to God as that eternal Thou, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. We not only speak to God, but in contemplative prayer, we also begin to listen to and for God. In this two-directional process of prayer, a relationship with God grows that in time becomes central to everything we are and do.

The Religious Life: Faithfulness or Betrayal?

Bible text: Joshua 2

Whether one applauds or condemns a character is a Biblical story all depends upon the perspective from which the reader reads the story. A good example is Joshua 2.

In this chapter, the text tells the story of how Joshua, leader of the Israelites, prepares to invade the Promised Land to take possession of it. As part of his preparations, he sends two spies over the Jordan River to scout out the land. They make a stop in the Canaanite city of Jericho.

There they spend the night in the house of a prostitute named Rahab. Whether they took part in her services, we are not told. If they did, this story takes on more of a James Bond flavor than we might expect in a Biblical story.

When the city’s king hears about their presence in his city, he commands Rahab to surrender them. Instead she hides them under newly harvested flax on her house roof.  Later that night she helps them escape through a house window that opens on the city wall.

She asks them to spare her and her family’s lives when the Israelites capture the city. The spies agree.

The text suggests her motivation, when verse 9 quotes Rahab as saying: “I know that the Lord has given you the land.” For this reason, she says, dread has descended upon all the inhabitants of the land.

Rahab looks into the future and decides to cast her lot with the future rather than the past. To the author of the text, that is prudent behavior, indeed possibly even faithful behavior.

Certainly later Biblical tradition saw it that way. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, includes Rahab within its genealogy for Jesus (Matthew 1:5). She is an ancestor of both King David and of Jesus. And the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews includes her in its great celebration of Old Testament saints (Hebrews 11:31). These two authors are looking back and judging Rahab from the perspective of the winning side of the story.

But what happens if you read the story of Rahab from the perspective of the king of Jericho and its inhabitants? Then Rahab appears a traitor. She harbors the spies and helps them escape. She is assisting the enemy. From their perspective Rahab’s behavior is something to damn, not praise.

This shows how a Biblical story can become very ambiguous depending upon the perspective from which you read it.

I like the story of Rahab because it suggests that this is often the way the behavior of religious people is seen in our contemporary world. Behavior which is admired and praised within the religious community may be soundly criticized and condemned by those outside or even by others within the community who do not share the same convictions.

An apt example is the career of Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s actions were deeply motivated by his Christian convictions. And for that reason, many religious people both black and white flocked to his cause. But to those who did not share his convictions he was a menace to civil order and a cause for great alarm, enough so that he could not be allowed to live.

Another apt example is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His decision to join the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler was motivated by deeply religious convictions. But was that decision an act of faithfulness or an act of betrayal to his nation?

In both cases, our judgment depends upon the perspective from which we are coming.

What this also indicates is the conflict that always arises when religious people are serious about living their lives on the basis of their religious convictions, whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or something other.

For the Christian the apostle Paul captures the conflict in his comment to the Christians living in Philippi that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Our primary loyalty is to the kingdom of God which is coming, not to the earthly country or culture in which we are currently living.

Our primary citizenship defines the ultimate values and practices by which we live, not the laws and customs and values of the culture into which we are born and raised. Christians may make very good citizens of their country, but that is not how others will always see it.

That’s why a deeply religious life will always be one that has to negotiate conflict. For loyalties will clash and be misunderstood by those who do not share our own religious perspective.