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F. Earle Fox
St. Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Advent III - Dec. 11, 2011
Is. 35; Ps. 85; I Cor. 4:1-5; Mt. 11:2-10
Advent focuses primarily on the coming of Jesus which we call the Incarnation, the coming of the spiritual Son of God into the flesh, into our world of time and space, with a human body. Many religions have imagined their gods and goddesses having a body of flesh. Almost all early paganism routinely imagined such things. And the pagan world would have been quite happy to have welcomed Jesus as another one of those kinds of divinities. The Roman pantheon, for example, almost always had room for one more.
But the Christians were, like the Jews, monotheists, and could not acknowledge the Lordship of any other than Jesus, the presence of the Triune God, one Being in three Personae. They could acknowledge Caesar as emperor of Rome, but not as Lord of all life, moral decider of the right and the wrong, the decider of the reason for existence of all things at all times. Only the triune God could be and do that.
For Biblical religion, Jewish or Christian, to be God, you had to be both Creator ex nihilo and Sovereign -- the Lord of all life was first the Creator of all life. No other would be acknowledged as God. Being Creator meant that you owned what you created, lock, stock, and barrel. That was the rub. Persons who valued their own top-of-the-pyramid control did not like being under the authority of anyone else, not in any way that might interfere with control of their empire.
So He who came into the world on that long-ago first
Christmas Day was the living Word of God, the eternally generated Son of God,
who could say, "If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father." And, "The
Father and I are one." If He was not in fact the Son of God, then Jesus was
not the Great Teacher many want to make of Him, He was either blaspheming or
There is no other religion on the face of the earth which says anything remotely like that. And most religions find claims about such an incarnation to be nonsense. So, with these fundamental differences, we can expect to find in relation to this new born Child a religion very different from other religions of the world.
Beginning early in the Old Testament, we hear of a God who has great love for His creation, especially for those personal beings, we humans, who, we are told, are made in the Image of that God who created us. That is unique to the Bible.
We being made in the Image of God meant that God did not have to twist Himself all out of shape to become one of us. He had only, as St. Paul relates in Philippians 2, to "empty" Himself, diminish Himself, scale Himself down to our size. But Jesus was no less of a personal being for doing so, no less God for doing so. He still carried in Himself sovereignty over all creation -- including over Caesar, that is, over civil government (a point we Westerners need to learn).
Again, no other religion in the world says such things. Comparisons with Eastern religions which assert that all religions are worshipping the same God, and are thus saying essentially the same thing -- are wide of the mark and require an inexcusable lapse of intellectual integrity. Christians are not saying the same thing at all, we are saying things in almost all cases quite contradictory about the nature of God, about our relation to Him, and about our future in Heaven.
The personal nature of the Biblical God has been attributed to our human tendency to make things personal, to make them look and feel personal, even if they are not really so. We talk about a ship as "she", or the Church as "she". We call God "Father", and so forth, but that is considered to be merely seeing through our own limited-to-human-reasoning way of understanding. That is not the Biblical message. God is inherently and eternally personal. The personality of God is not some temporary or culturally limited perception of God. That is the way He really is.
The whole of the Christian message hangs on these two
Comings, the Incarnation and the 2nd coming in which the sovereignty of God will
be administered in the final Judgement, the separating of the sheep from the
goats, those who love God and their neighbors from the evil-minded ones, those
who are not interested in loving either God or their neighbors. The separation
is between those who want what God is offering from those who cannot stand the
thought of living with such a God or with such a people. C. S. Lewis's book,
The Great Divorce, is a superb picture of that separation, that divorce.
The two Comings tell us something unique in all of religious history -- that God is creating a community based on love. Anyone familiar with human history will know that such an idea never surfaces in all of pagan or secular literature. The pagans occasionally could admire a person who loved other people at great cost to himself, a person who might die for another. Death was on every street corner, and so they admired people who died well. But that was almost always in a military sense -- for oneís king, commander, or comrade in arms, seldom for oneís family, neighbor, or religion. To suggest that they should form their communities on the basis of loving one another would have been, and was, treated with contempt. It was a notion with it's head in the clouds, totally unrealistic and impractical.
The world for pagans, and equally for secular folks, is a world of power politics. As Mao Tse Tung is said to have remarked, Morality comes out the other end of a gun barrel. Might makes right. The world is eat or be eaten. He who bases his life on love is a fool -- and will be eaten.
The final page from the life of Julius Caesar illustrates. It was fairly standard operating practice among those who gained power in the pagan political world to have their competition assassinated. The Roman winners were quite open about it. They simply posted the names of their enemies in public places with a bounty on their heads. Literally. You had to bring the head of that person to the winner to collect the bounty. Perhaps that is where the phrase, "bounty on their heads" originated.
Julius Caesar did not kill his opponents. Many congratulated him for his kindness. But it was those persons whom he did not assassinate -- that assassinated him. Eat or be eaten. Love in such a world makes no sense. It really does not. The world without God, for the sake of survival, cannot afford to take love very seriously.
Love, in the pagan world, was not an obligation. There was no Second Great Commandment saying so. Love was just a bit of good luck, a good idea if you can get it. But when push came to shove, force, the other end of the gun barrel, won out over love.
Even within your family, you must be very guarded -- as Able found out with Cain. The world went downhill from there, and has never recovered.
Except.... when God intruded.
It began, of course, in the Mesopotamian Valley with Abraham, who was plucked out of Babylon, the reigning pagan power of the time, and told to go to Canaan -- which was Podunk, Nowheresville, a desert crossroads between the two great powers, Egypt and Babylon.
And with painful slowness, the vision began to form in the lives of the Hebrews, that there was a Creator God who cared for them, who had chosen them out of all the peoples of the earth, not for themselves alone, but for sake of the whole world.
The Hebrews were told early on that they were to love the Lord their God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. And they learned also that they were to love their neighbors, and even the foreigners, the sojourners among them, just like they loved themselves. They were already unique in all the world.
Then one day, many centuries later, someone (Mt. 22) asked Jesus the meaning of the Law, to which Jesus replied with the two Great Commandments -- to love God and oneís neighbor. For the people of God, love was not a happenstance thing, a matter of good luck onto which you might stumble. Love was now commanded. It was an obligation. Moreover, Jesus was saying that love was the very meaning of the cosmos, the very reason for it's being created in the first place. If we want to fulfill our own reason for existence, we must love God and our neighbors.
Something new was happening on the face of our fallen
earth. Never before had love been made an obligation -- let alone a universal
obligation on all persons at all times. That which was absurd and wholly
impractical in the pagan world was now a universal obligation in the Biblical
But wait! Was impractical love now the center of Biblical religion? And do not many persons indeed mock love as the vision of a dreamer and still impractical? How are Christians to respond to this challenge?
Well, sadly, most who call themselves Christians, at least in the West, respond with silence or with agreement -- if their actions are any indication. We Christians are not known for our love today. It is not said today, "See how those Christians love one another!" We are too "practical". It was said at one time.
During the Roman period, when a plague came to town, if you had a country villa to which to flee, and had any common sense, you got out of the city. But the Christians, by and large, did not. At high cost to themselves, they stayed and helped one another through the plague, and reached out even to the pagans, visiting them with food and water, and cleaning them up. Some of them died for their neighbors.
Pagans began to notice that. Their admiration for those who knew how to die well told them that something special was happening. One emperor commanded the priests at the emperor-and-government-supported pagan shrines to teach their people the same kind of behavior, to love their neighbors. (see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity).
It never happened -- because pagan religion has no concept of love as a viable activity, and still less as a commandment of the gods or goddesses.
But many of the pagans said, "If having Jesus in your heart does that for you, then I want Jesus in my heart!" So converts were made by the willingness of Christians to risk their lives for those they loved -- even for pagans.
The law of God has turned loving oneís neighbor from the height of foolishness and impracticality to the height of wisdom and practicality. Love, Godís kind of love, is the only possible way of building strong relationships, strong families, strong societies. Love is the royal road to that only stabile and enduring of all societies, the Kingdom of God. Only people who love their neighbors are capable of building such a stabile community.
But to successfully love oneís neighbor, one must first be loved by God, and be loving God in return. The two great commandments work together or they do not work at all.
So, how are the people of God going ever to
experience that kind of love which they must have in order to love their
neighbors like they love themselves.
Enter the Son of God.... Incarnation....
The Incarnation tells us something: that the Kingdom of God is a community, and that it is formed by being in communion with God and our neighbors. So, God comes personally to make Himself known. Only in that communion with God can we find the inner strength and stability to love when we are not being loved. Only because God is willing to die for us can we commit ourselves even to die for our neighbors. The world, and all of its fallen religions, cannot do that. . None of this could make sense in a pagan religion.
The world treats heaven as a place to which you can buy a ticket, purchased with your good deeds. You buy your way in. Or in the mystical religions of the East, it is a state of being, transcending, floating upward into the heavenly state of existence where you merge with the cosmos, become one with the cosmos.
But in the Bible, heaven is a personal relationship, a community, neither a place nor a mystical state of being.
In the mystical heaven, there is no communion because we all lose our personhood and individuality as we merge with the cosmos. We all become one with each other, not by fulfilling our individual personhood, but by evacuating it. All of our separate individualities merge into the one Cosmic Consciousness (or whatever it is called). There is no longer an "I" as distinct from a "you". There is only the Infinite Self, the Great Ineffable One. But there is no time, no willing, no thinking, and no feelings for relationship because there is no relationship. Such a condition is indistinguishable from just plain death.
The Son of God comes to us the first time to prepare us for that Godly kind of love, and thus for that kind of Kingdom.
And then He comes again, as we anticipate, looking forward to the End of all things. But "End" does not mean stopping. It means reaching the fullness of our reason for existence, it means reaching our goal of life going well. It means reaching that state of relationship described by St. Paul in I Corinthians 13:13, where we are all -- always faithful, always loving, and always hopeful.
The Kingdom will not be a static abstraction, it will
be a dynamic, moving, changing community, with things happening. What else can
the world "hope" and "hopeful" mean? There continues in the Kingdom to be a
future as well as a past and a present. Time is a fundamental part of all
relationship and therefore of the Kingdom.
The Bible never hints toward a non-personal and non-active Kingdom. It is always pictured as the fulfillment of the time and space creation which we inhabit. There will be drastic changes, to be sure, but as the fulfillment of truth and righteousness, not the evacuation of all possibility of them.
In Isaiah 35: "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. For waters shall beak forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert." That is the fulfillment of creation, not the denial of it.
In Psalm 85, "For His salvation is nigh them that fear Him, that glory may dwell in our land. Mercy and truth are met together, and righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall flourish out of the earth, and righteousness hath looked down from heaven." These are all relationship terms, not mystical unknowns.
In the Gospel, the disciples of John the Baptist come to ask Jesus whether He might be the Messiah. Jesus responds indirectly: "Go and show John again those thing which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them..." These are not words of mysticism, these are words about life as we live it. This is what Jesus meant when He said to His disciples that, "The Kingdom of God is among you!" Right here in the hurly burly of life. The Kingdom of God is the power of relationship with the King right in the middle of the life we live here and now.
When Jesus comes back the second time, it is permanent.
Things will be different after the second coming, but the biggest difference will be a result of the righteous judgement with the separation of the sheep from the goats. The forces of evil will no longer be free to pollute the creation. And the righteous and loving commands of God will circulate freely among all the inhabitants of the earth -- so that even the physical world will run well. As Paul says in Romans 8:21, "...because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God."
The two Comings of Christ show us that God is a personal God, a Someone, not a something, a particular Individual, not an abstraction, not a principle. And that means that we must find God through the particular man Jesus, not any way we think we can. If heaven is a relationship with a particular and individual Someone, then the only possible way to have that relationship is through the Self-revelation of that Person, and not in any other way.
The Self-revelation of God comes through Jesus -- who comes to us as Man and God, making Himself known and available.
Lord, make us the kind of people who are available to You.
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Date Posted - 12/13/2009 - Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012