This post is an article I wrote for First Alliance’s Storyline Magazine that was published December 2018. You can see this article & previous publications of my writings in Storyline by Clicking Here.
My eyes were fixed upon the news screen as police officers & tactical agents converged upon the Tree Of Life Synagogue. I didn’t really weep. I felt numb as I witnessed yet another story of a gunman entering a sanctuary, a place of hope, & committing senseless violence. It would be not even a week later & another gunman would enter a Californian nightclub & take the lives of twelve more innocent people.
What are we to do when violence pierces our society’s stories & place’s of hope? How are we suppose to respond to the events like the shootings at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs Texas, the Tree Of Life Synagogue, or a Californian nightclub? With Christmas fast approaching, these were some of the questions I found myself pondering.
It’s the season of colorful lights, beautifully decorated trees, & the shared sweet smells & experiences of hospitality with home baked goods amidst our family & friends. We sing joy filled carols & tell the story of the nativity in church pageants while eagerly looking forward to waking up early that special morning & seeing what’s under the tree. But what about the part of the Christmas story when the brutality of Herod’s anger & lust for power brought death to the quiet streets of Bethlehem.
Three wise men from the east came to Jerusalem searching for the new born baby king after seeing the prophesied star rise high in the sky overhead. Telling Herod of these foretelling’s, the mad king made them promise to return after finding this infant of divine royalty. But after seeing Herod’s poorly vailed jealousy, the wise men returned home going another way. Filled with rage, Herod would send soldiers to the hopeful town of Bethlehem with orders to kill every boy child two years & younger as their mother’s & father’s wailed with grief & loss. (Mt. 2:16-18)
Why does God include this horrific event in the Christmas gospel story? What could we possibly hear from such numbing cold violence & tragic loss? Perhaps in our own state of social numbness, fear, & grief amidst the violence invading our places of hope we can glean some truth & find renewed hope.
Where is God calling his church to courageously go? Who is speaking God’s Truth & wisdom to His people?
It was in a dream that God sent an angel to Joseph, who said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.”(Mt. 2:13) I don’t think God was seeing the coming violence & telling the young family to necessarily “flee” & run away in selfish senselessness. Rather, He was calling Joseph & Mary to courageously take the living presence of hope, Immanuel, to the people of Egypt. As the prophet Jeremiah figuratively describes, they were to, “build homes, plant gardens, multiply, & seek the welfare” of others! (Jer. 29:5-7)
It might seem tempting to find false security in fortifying our sanctuary’s & places of hope by creating barriers of membership & belong. Or as some have suggested, arm our leadership with weapons & guns while developing a counter force of potential violence meant to detour any attack & giving the illusion of security & safety. These thoughts seem to be at so much of a loss to the inspiration of Joseph as he sought not a gospel absent of strife & struggle, but a Christmas truth that brought hope to all people despite the violence of certain callused individuals. Like the wise men who visited them, Joseph & Mary embraced the hope of incarnation & chose to go another way.
Where do we find fear when we should be rejoicing?
“Fear not,” the angels cried before the shepherds in the hillsides & fields.“For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Lk. 2:10) The thought of violence from those with authority flooded the shepherd’s hearts with fear as they witnessed the powerful presence of God’s messengers. Yet God loves his people & wants his presence to be one of great joy & met with ecstatic worship as the promise of salvation & renewal is here.
In a press conference outside of The Tree Of Life Synagogue, I recall the Rabbi crying out, “My holy place has been defiled!” His words haunted me as I felt the grief he was going through. Yet I couldn’t help but think of the radical move that God took in the incarnation; seeing that the world had become shrouded in a spirit of fear & defiled judgment, he embraced it into His holiness through the birth of his Son, bringing not judgement but salvation, redemption, & reconciliation. It was the veiled reality that in-spite of such a violent act in the Rabbi’s holy place, God is still present, he is still holy, & worship will endure.
Our society seems to teach us to fear the worst in any given time or situation. But God wants us to be without fear & bear fruits that are of love, joy, & peace at Christmas & all times. (Gal. 5:22) These fruits of the Spirit bring a transformational freedom & presence both inside ourselves & those around us. We become the heavenly multitude shouting, “Glory to God in the highest, & on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk. 2:14)
It takes a great deal of work but, together with the Spirit’s help we can root out the places where fear creeps into our lives & overcome it as a community of faith, working to transform our society. This Spirit of joy reveals a third question of examination in finding hope through the Christmas story.
How can we bring justice in unexpected ways?
Following Herod’s murderous rage in Bethlehem, no one expected anything good to come from a small town in northern Israel. But after Herod had died, God sent word to Joseph through another dream, that he was to return to their homeland. Following in cautious obedience, Joseph took his young family &, “went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled.” (Mt. 2:23)
It was in this small city that Jesus would grow up, quietly observing & learning about his family’s traditions, culture, trade, & beliefs. He didn’t bring the conquering violent armies of God to overthrow the earthly realms by force. Rather, following the example of God’s love for the whole world, Jesus began to enflesh the word of justice & truth over time; fulfilling it in unexpected ways of increasing grace & mercy. (Jn. 3:16-17)
As I reflect upon how the Christmas story brings a light of truth & hope in a world pierced by violence, I’m reminded of my good friend Preston Pouteaux’s words from last week, “If your politics leads to fear; fear of neighbour, fear of losing out, fear of the other, then your politics no longer takes light into the dark. Go left, go right, but don’t pander to fear. Fear does not progress or conserve. It destroys.” And destruction is the works of the enemy.
The joy & promise of the Christmas story, both in its first shadows of Herod’s rage & in the piercing violence of today’s losses, give us tremendous hope that we are called to courageously go to our neighbor & the persons of difference, as together we can overcome fear with celebratory joy, & bear witness to the works of justice & freedom being brought to all. I wish you all a Peaceful & Joy Filled Merry Christmas!!