The Singing Army (Luke 2:13)

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Just a quick post today, because my mind has been blown by a post from Pastor Brian Zahnd and I wanted to get the thoughts down quickly, at least while we’re still in the Christmas season.

See, Luke 2:13 talks of a heavenly host of angels appearing to the shepherds and announcing the birth of Jesus. And we’re so used to nativity plays depicting this as little girls in white frocks and tinsel halos that we miss something important.

The ‘host’ is an army.

The Greek word used is ‘stratia’, which has martial connotations, and throughout the Old Testament, God is described as the Lord of Hosts, which again is military imagery. This may be a choir, but it’s a choir of soldiers.

Now, put this into context: Israel is ruled by the Roman Empire. There are troops on the streets. The inhabitants have a long history of knowing what it means for an army to turn up. But this time the army is on their side, right? After all, the angels talk about good news and a saviour and peace; all terms associated with Caesar but which are now being given to Israel’s Messiah.

A choir singing this would be radical enough. Make it an army and maybe the shepherds could be forgiven for thinking that God was about to sweep in and destroy Herod and Caesar and any other enemy of God.

And yet that’s not what happens; as Zahnd points out, there’s more singing than fighting. The Kingdom of God does not arrive through violence, even violence from righteous angels. It arrives through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The story starts here with a song, but it truly finds its ultimate fulfilment in Easter.

Maybe that exposes some of our idolatry. Military might can appear a whole lot more present and physical than the Now-But-Not-Yet Kingdom of Christ, and maybe we’d prefer the reign of God to come through guns and drones and aircraft carriers; praise the Lord and pray he’ll pass us the ammunition. Heck, not long after the angels appeared to the shepherds, Herod slaughtered innocent children in an attempt to assassinate the Messiah. There were parents around Bethlehem who might have been glad of an angelic army.

It’s hard to see a kingdom of peace when your standing in the craters of empire, so hard, in fact, that we can lose the ability to remember that God doesn’t have to play by our rules and with our toys; he can create and resurrect his own Kingdom, rather than build on our broken foundations, no matter how hard that may be to see from the perspective of a year like 2014.

Maybe this is why a particular line from a carol has resonated with me this week:

And man at war with man hears not,
The love song that they bring.
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

We look to God’s army, but we don’t listen to their song; we look for power but we don’t recognise it in cross or cradle. In 2015, let’s pray that this would change.

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Setting the Lonely in Families (Psalm 68)

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Our house is going to be busy tomorrow, nine people bustling around talking, cooking, unwrapping presents, acting as crowd control… Christmas can really fill a home.

It can also accentuate loss. Christmas can often be a reminder of absence, a space where someone would have once been. For all that the next few days are meant to be about joy and music and celebration, some won’t be able to enter in to those festivities. Sadly that’s sometimes avoidable.

There’s an interview with Nadia Bolz Webber in which she talks about how her church, which was pitched at more ‘alternative’ communities, started being visited by a more mainstream crowd. Suddenly there was a sense of mission creep – tattoos and piercings on one hand, shirts and ties on the other – until a young women spoke out:

“I’m glad there are people here who look like my parents. Because they love me when my real mom and dad can’t.”

It’s a statement that’s heart-breaking and prophetic at the same time, a statement that should make each one of us look at what our church is and what it could be. Psalm 68 sings of the Lord setting the lonely in families; often, I think, those families are the church, empowered and blessed and guided by the Immanuel God.

“God with us”. We hear that a lot this time of year, and it’s true, but when we’re called to be family to the lonely, things can get tough and messy, because we’re called to love people who’ve been hurt and ostracised and abused. No-one said being family was easy. Sometimes it even means putting aside our own prejudices and politics and past, because it’s an act of grace that transforms all those involved. It’s not a one-way street.

It’s getting close to the moment when we remember God himself becoming part of an ordinary human family and, in doing so, we remember the lonely, remember we’re brothers and sisters, and remember that our dysfunction can be overcome by grace.

‘Fairytale of New York’ and the Mess of Christmas

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“It was Christmas Eve, babe, in the drunk tank…”

Christmas music comes in many shapes and forms, soaring epics of angelic beauty, fromagey pop songs and glam rock anthems all coexisting on the radio. Other than the season, there’s not much commonality; heck, one well-known Christmas song even manages to be both blasphemous and scientifically inaccurate at the same time, which frankly takes a lot of doing.

But for me, one Christmas song stands head and shoulders above the rest. It’s not religious, it’s not tidy, it’s not even PG. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Fairytale of New York.

It’s the story of two reprobates, spending Christmas Eve in a cell and a hospital. They have blazing rows and the language is pretty problematic and they’re not even sure they’ll survive the next twelve months. And yet despite all this, they find a glimmer of hope in a police choir singingĀ ‘Galway Bay’. And somehow the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl turn a potentially depressing story into something glorious.

So we’re not exactly talking O Holy Night here, so what makes this a philosophically great Christmas song?

Well, there’s a thread of darkness that runs through the Christmas story: the disgrace that threatens Mary, the betrayal felt by Joseph, the lingering threat of Herod… Nativity plays only go so far, keeping well away from the murder of children and the Holy Family running for their lives. The Christmas card scenes are a pause among the chaos and confusion.

And that’s how it should be: if Christmas can’t reach into the drunk tank, if Jesus can’t be found among junkies and drunks, then we limit the Incarnation to cathedrals and church council meetings – and we should never, ever try to contain Jesus in that way. The joy of Christmas isn’t always found in the absence of darkness, it’s found in the middle of it; the light shines in the darkness but the darkness hasn’t overcome it. And so, if Jesus was physically walking the streets of New York or London today, he’d make time for the hobos and drunks and panhandlers – of course he would, because grace means that our imperfections aren’t a barrier to the joy of Christmas; maybe they’re the whole point of Christmas.

In the middle of the arguments and the disappointments, there is hope – sometimes we may only glimpse this, maybe in the music of the NYPD choir or a Salvation Army brass band, but sometimes the Incarnation is closer than we’d ever imagine and we need to watch for it, recognise it, listen for the grace in the darkness.

The bells are ringing out for Christmas Day.

Did Cain Have an Identity Crisis? (Genesis 3:15)

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This post is inspired by a sermon I heard fairly recently but I can’t remember who gave it! I’ll update this when I find out.

Did Cain have an identity crisis?

He rocks up presenting God with an offering of fruit and vegetables and then next thing we know he’s murdering his brother and going into exile; frankly, Genesis 4 is depressing. But does Cain’s behaviour have its roots in something that happens earlier.

In Genesis 3:15, as Adam and Eve are thrown out of Eden, God tells them of the future: there’ll be hostility between the Serpent and Eve’s offspring, leading ultimately to the Serpent’s destruction. In Christian thought this is the Protoevangelium, the first hint of God’s plan of redemption that would culminate in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Straightforward enough, but here’s where the identity crisis kicks in – how might Eve and Cain have misinterpreted things?

See, Eden must have been a painful, recent memory casting it’s shadow over everything that happened after the Fall. And then Eve gives birth to Cain and maybe, just maybe, hope is reborn, maybe Cain is the offspring to crush the Serpent’s head. Maybe there’s even a chance to get back to Eden.

Thinking like that, is it really a surprise that Cain grows up to be a farmer? Maybe he’s preparing to return to the Garden. Maybe he thinks he can create a new Eden himself. Maybe his offering of “the fruits of the soil” is an attempt to return to God the Fruit that caused all this mess in the first place.

Lots of maybes, sure, but it would explain his rage against Abel, who is adapting to this new world as a nomadic herdsman and whose offering is acceptable to God. It may also help explain some of the tension Genesis shows between herdsmen and settlers. Even after Cain becomes a murderer he’s still trying to get the world under control by building a city.

When someone thinks they’re doing God’s will without actually involving God in the process, that’s dangerous. A crusade to crush serpents, empowered only by broken sinfulness is a terrifying thing. Hey, why wait for Jesus’s thoughts on things? Aren’t we capable of weeding out the Devil ourselves?

You’ll recognise those crusades by the trail of destruction left in their wake. Cain didn’t crush the Serpent, he crushed his brother instead.

And while this is a weird reflection in run up to Christmas, it’s relevant. The Christmas story presents us with kings and emperors trying to bend the world to their will, but real power comes in the form of a baby, in the actions of God and the true descendant of Eve destined to crush the Serpent. Let’s not second guess God, let’s just faithfully listen and learn and follow instead.

After all, Jesus is a way better Gardener than we are.

How Jesus Queues at the Foodbank (Matthew 25:31-46)

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Inspired by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s words on the rise of food banks in the UK.

In Matthew 25, Jesus presents an image – a flock of sheep and goats separated, a metaphor for humanity at the last judgement. The sheep are praised for feeding Jesus when he was hungry, for visiting him in prison; likewise, the goats are condemned for leaving him to starve and leaving him to rot. Both sides are confused – neither remember helping or ignoring Jesus like that. Then comes the twist: whatever they did or didn’t do for the lowliest members of society, they did/didn’t do for Jesus himself.

It’s shocking how Jesus identifies himself here. We might like the idea of him hanging out with us at church, patting us on the back, but he’s more likely to be queuing up for the food bank, sleeping in a doorway under a piece of cardboard, fleeing ISIS and hoping that someone’s going to open the border.

Notice that, because it’s important; Jesus isn’t helping at the food bank, he’s using it; he’s not an NGO aid worker, he’s a refugee. The difference is significant. Jesus here expresses an intimate solidarity with the marginalised and that transforms our mental landscape. That homeless guy I ran past when I was late for a meeting? Jesus identifies with him. The victims of natural disasters who fade from our memories as quickly as they fade from the headlines? Jesus again. The immigrants the media tell us to fear? Jesus.

It’s shocking enough that God became a man. It’s even more radical to think that God became a man and then associates with the poorest, weakest, most oppressed of society.

Neither the Sheep or the Goats see it like this. The Sheep just get on with helping individuals; they’re expecting to see Jesus there but they’re going to help anyway. It is, after all, the right thing to do.

The Goats are equally shocked, probably for a different reason. They don’t seem to be helping anyone much but hey, maybe it would have been different if Jesus had been there. Sure, they’d’ve taken Jesus out for dinner if only they’d spotted him cosplaying a hobo that morning. Everyone else should go away and get a job, but not Jesus; Jesus is important.

The anonymity of Jesus in this story exposes what’s really going on in our hearts. Anyone can look like a good little church-goer, but if that doesn’t translate into how we treat others, if the live and grace and compassion of Christ doesn’t get deep into our bones, then our worship is just the sort of empty religion the Old Testament prophets railed against. Jesus isn’t fooled by cynical photo opportunities. Rather, he’s present for every moment of shame, every moment of humiliation, every punch thrown, every second of suffering. “Immanuel, God with us” is something we hear a lot at this time of year. The implications of that aren’t just stunning, they’re also heartbreaking. We don’t always recognise him, not unless we have eyes to see, but he’s there.

But then again, that anonymity is shattered the moment he reveals himself to the Sheep and the Goats. We’re invited to see the image of Christ – the image of God – in the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned and the starving. That should have a radical impact on how we live life, everything from how we shop to how we vote. Too often it doesn’t: we sanitise things like the incarnation, the Imago Dei, the Sermon on the Mount. States proclaim Christian values then arrest a 90 year old man for feeding the homeless.

So, are we Sheep or are we Goats? The answer isn’t in what we claim, it’s in what we do. And while we’re figuring that out, Jesus still queues at a foodbank.