What Then Will This Child Be?

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son…

The last notes of Luke’s prelude to Christ ring out in the Benedictus, deaf and dumb Zechariah’s song of praise; this is the first of the great signs of the times, the things Jesus will point to when this same baby boy sends his disciples to ask whether he is indeed the One to Come.

5865915298_fa6ffef241What is announced by the birth of John, Luke wants us to see, is the Day of the Lord’s Vengeance. It’s no coincidence that the tongue of the mute sings for joy at the birth of the one who is to prepare his way in the wilderness. We’re to see the Day dawning here, blazing forth in the healing ministry of the Anointed, continuing in the at once blinding and eye-opening self-disclosure of the Resurrected to another blameless Jew.

The hand of the Lord was with him, it says, to save his people from the hand of those who hate them, the hand of their enemies. Hands in the Bible are, by and large, not for caressing, not for acts of gentleness. Hands wield, are raised against adversaries, are trained for war. This child is a weapon in the hands of the Almighty, an instrument of judgment, vengeance, overthrow. Luke’s first chapter is overwhelmingly martial in tone – God is coming to Israel, the King of Glory, mighty in battle. It is a great and terrible Day that is dawning; the Sun of Righteousness rising on the elect will set the wicked ablaze.

What will this child be? He will be the prophet who comes in order that his people might not all be burned to stubble by that dawn. No wonder all the neighbors were gripped by fear; they must have had some inkling of the answer to their whispered question.

Do we realize that this is what Christmas is – the beginning of the decisive offensive in the real War To End All Wars? Do we grasp that there is a war on, one with only two sides, one with only one possible outcome, of which every one of us on either side of it must become a casualty?

The band Wilco put it this way: You have to lose / You have to learn how to die / If you wanna, wanna be alive. I don’t claim to know what Jeff Tweedy thought he was getting at with those words, but it’s an incomparably efficient expression of what this gospel in Zechariah’s song demands. Deliverance, serving God without fear, knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of sins, light to those seated in death’s shadow, guidance into the way of peace: John will die a sad and ugly death for proclaiming these things. His relative Jesus will die a worse one in order to realize them.

Light and life lie on the far side of darkness and death. God’s people would be saved from the hand of their enemies because Jesus would fall into that hand. He would pass through the darkness and out the other side so that we might learn how to die without being lost forever.

The life we know how to live, the one we are born into and are trained up in, is living death. It is enlistment in the army of a power hostile to the proper Sovereign of the world it seeks to dominate. You have to lose if you want to live. You have to die if you want to conquer. This would be John’s message: act as if God is coming to kill you, and when He does, He will raise you up on the last day.

Jesus Christ, the baby in the manger, the man of sorrows, will show us how. Get ready for
Christmas: believe that, in the truest sense, the End Is Near. Learn from this Jesus how to die. Learn from Zechariah, from Mary and Elizabeth and Gabriel, just what will dawn on you when you do.

And now: by the tender mercy of our God, may the sunrise visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Amen and amen.

No One Is Safe and We Are All Going To Die

We are a few days out from the latest horror of 2016, a deadly attack on apparently random bystanders by means of a hijacked transport truck. This one hit my city, targeting a Christmas market I’ve strolled through in the past, in one of the busier tourist and pedestrian areas of central Berlin. It’s right by the zoo, where we have an annual family pass and take the boys often. It’s a fairly important transit hub, where it’s not uncommon for us to change trains or buses on the way to somewhere across town.

14932a005c9ffb48The initial suspect, now cleared, is Afghan or Pakistani (it’s never been quite clear exactly which), a man who came to Germany seeking asylum. We have had a decent amount of contact with refugees from both countries, hearing their stories, sharing meals and glasses of tea. The current suspect, still at large and being sought, is said to be Tunisian. We have Tunisian acquaintances here as well, though they’re people who have been in Berlin a long time. These descriptions are not abstractions for us, imaginary bugbears from far away. Both victims and perpetrators could be (though they’re not, as far as we know) our neighbors, acquaintances, friends.

It seems wrong, just at the moment, not to have Something To Say. The politicians all do. Social media are alight with calls to prayer and expressions of sympathy, calls for tighter immigration controls and calls for compassion for refugees, all the usual back-and-forth.

I have no policy proposals. Opinions on immigration policy and Islam, sure, some of them probably better informed than others. My take, though, more than anything, is a very basic, not at all original to me observation about what we – we human beings, I mean, or at any rate certainly contemporary Westerners – are like, and what we assume mistakenly to be the case about the world.

The problem is what we all implicitly acknowledge the question to be: how can we be safe? How can we make it so this doesn’t happen? Do we need to be nicer to or tougher on Muslims? Do we need more video surveillance or less? Do our borders need to be more closed or more open? Do our gun laws need to be more or less restrictive? How can we get Them to stop hating our freedom?

Perhaps, if we were to get the answers right on every single one of these things, we would be perceptibly more safe. Perhaps. For a time. But at some point, we would find some new questions, questions which would seem equally, terrifyingly urgent to answer rightly, as once again we ran headfirst into the brick wall of the reality that no one is safe and we are all going to die.

It’s a perennial observation, a truism, something so obvious as not to need stating: we are all going to die, and our safety is really an illusion. The world is out of our control; even the forces and phenomena we understand relatively well are too complex for us ever to truly master. Someday, sooner or later, cancer or terrorism or heart disease or drunk driving or a falling piano or just sheer time or something is going to be more powerful than we are, and we will succumb to death.

And yet we spend untold emotional, physical, and mental energy trying either to combat this inevitability or to ignore it. I dare say just about everything we do for pleasure or comfort, for self- or civic improvement, has one of these as its ultimate goal: to stave off death, or to numb ourselves to its sting.

Hence the real outrage at evil deeds like the Breitscheidplatz attack, the inevitable this could have been prevented if only… declarations that well up in our throats and pour forth from every pundit. Death has intruded into our fun, asserted itself in a public and powerful and horrific way, and given the lie to all our distractions and efforts at achieving control over our fate. Any number of things could have prevented this – but they didn’t.

In the end, then, we are shaking our fists at an unsafe God who has made an unsafe world. Like so many evangelicals of the last half-century (and may the Lord make them a thousand times as many as they are), I’m a bit of a C.S. Lewis disciple. One of his many indelible sayings comes from the description of Christ figure Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “Safe? … ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

We like this. It sounds romantic and exciting. But Lewis provides some exposition of the saying in The Silver Chair, in Aslan’s own self-description: “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms.” Our God is unsafe, in the deepest and most meaningful sense of the word: it is up to Him when and how we will all die. And He may have us die at a time and in a way for which we are not ready.

And we cannot, of ourselves, ever be ready. In our world, the devil – our cosmic Accuser – has the power of death, because death has the sting of sin, and sin the power of God’s holy and righteous law. We cannot be ready for death, because death dooms those who stand condemned. That’s why it strikes such a tender nerve when death intrudes on our “normalcy.” Our normalcy is nothing normative for God, nothing He has promised, nothing He may not at any time lay aside, to our destruction.

How then shall we live and grieve and have our celebration this unsafe Christmas? It is easy enough to appeal to vaguely hopeful bromides about love conquering hate, light shining in the darkness, that sort of thing. Berlin is full of them right now. But too often, I think, these sentiments are just as light, insubstantial, ephemeral as the “joy” of the season that dissipates in the face of tragedy (and Breitscheidplatz is only one facet of the darkness all around). What we need is heavy joy, substantial hope, solemn and solid festivity.

I love the trappings of Christmas: pretty shiny things on the tree, unreasonable amounts of sugar all around, tchotchkes and sentimental songs and all that good stuff. It is good stuff, and stuff is good. But let us, us Christians at least, not use these in the way we’re inclined to by nature – to paper over the cracks in our world with the notion that people really aren’t so bad deep down, or to drown our sorrows in tinsel and eggnog and nostalgia. The way to resist the power of evil in our world is not found in resenting it for crashing our party.

To deliver those enslaved through the fear of death, the Scripture says, our Christ partook of flesh and blood. He signed up for this, for life in a world where tyrants slay the little childer, life in which every millisecond of continued existence succeeds only at the pleasure of the Father in heaven. He came, in fact, to succumb to the danger – in order to rob the devil of the power to secure his people’s damnation. He came as the token of God’s good will, the promise that God is not only vaguely well-disposed toward His benighted creatures, but that He will not be kept from them, not by death or violence or any other damned thing, and that in the end “it was all worth it” will be the understatement of all eternity. The only real resistance we can put up to this world’s evil is to think, speak, and act as if all of this is true.

We are not safe. He is not safe. But He’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.

-Ben

He Has Shown Strength With His Arm

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth…

So the first thing Mary does is, she heads off to visit Auntie (maybe even Great-Aunt, or Cousin or something) Elizabeth, who has thus far been keeping her big news under wraps. It makes sense: who else do you talk to about a thing like this? What better way to make sure the whole Gabriel thing wasn’t a crazy hallucination than to have a tête-à-tête with somebody right in the middle of her own miracle?

And on her arrival, lo! John the Fetus did give a mighty leap of exultation before Mary and the Holy Clump of Cells within her.

It is magnificent, this little scene of two mothers, old and young, virgin and barren, prophesying to one another. Their words fly in the face of all reason, weaving a tapestry of Scriptural thanksgiving and praise for their God’s bestowing the honor of a (to all reasonable appearances) illegitimate child on a girl who certainly will face divorce as a consequence of her apparent adultery, and perhaps death.

Yet once again, the echoes down the centuries of Israel’s history paint the encounter in an astonishing light. Gabriel has already met Mary with a hero’s greeting; now Elizabeth does the same: having arisen as a mother in Israel, she hails a new Jael as the most blessed of women, one whose words – “let it be to me according to your word” – are a mallet and tent peg in her hand to drive through the serpent’s skull.

magnificat-illuminated-msMary’s song, the Magnificat, is likewise – always catching me more by surprise than it ought to – brash, defiant, exultant, not merely in the “God gives me amazing feelings” sort of contemporary Christian mode of expression but in a way that positions her as a worthy heir to her namesake Miriam (likewise unmarried, as far as one can glean from Exodus and Numbers), the singer-prophetess who led the women of Israel in their triumph over defeated Pharaoh so many generations before.

This child, newly created in the virgin’s womb, already constitutes a stunning victory over the powers of earth.

Such is the whole tone and tenor of this song; in a nod to barren Hannah’s victory chant over her contemptuous rival, she exults in the “scattering” of the proud, the dethroning of the mighty, the hunger of the rich. One hesitates to drag the done-to-death college-essay word juxtaposition into the mix, but it fits: Hannah’s boast in the Lord, who has just brought her from an estate of shame into one of honor, on the lips of one who is, as soon as her situation becomes public, going to be ruined in the eyes of all respectable people.

The coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh overturns – from the very moment of his conception – fundamental things about the way the world works. No longer is the present defined on its own terms; the future, a future in which Mary is known universally as Blessed Among Women, in which Abraham’s Seed is a blessing to all the families of earth, in which David’s Seed sits on his father’s throne forever and ever, has invaded, planted its flag in the soil of the vale of tears.

Why? Because the future is this: Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will  dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. This is what will surely be, what all the energy of God is at work to bring about in the Day of Christ Jesus. This is what it is to be a Christian: to live under the flag of that future, to know that God will dwell with us because He already does, to know that we will be His people because one of us already sits at His right hand.

Because of these things, we can laugh all the darkness, pain, and hostility of the present age to scorn. Our attitude ought to be not unlike the proverbial nervous public speaker visualizing his audience in their unmentionables: we are to look at those with every earthly reason for pride as those who are already sacrificing their dignity at the altar of escape from a lost battle; to look at those enthroned on public opinion or seats of influence as already fallen into obscurity; to look at those who seem immune to justice as already knocked down several pegs.

We are not to fear these people or the powers that puff them up. We are not to fear obscurity; we are known where it counts. We are not to fear want; we have a seat at the King’s table.

The Sixth Month With Her Who Was Called Barren

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary…

the-cestello-annunciation-by-botticelli“Hail, Mary,” says the busy-these-days Gabriel, “you lucky girl, you.”

And Mary said unto him: who, me?

It’s tempting to try to claw our way into Mary’s head when we read the account of the Annunciation; it’s perhaps the archetypal story of the nobody-who-discovers-one-day-that-he-is-Very-Special-Indeed. You’re a wizard, Harry; the Force is strong with this one; yep, that’s a Ring of Power you’ve got there, Frodo. What must this Mary, the proverbial small-town girl, be thinking, when she’s told that God has had His eye on her for a while now? Continue reading

He Will Turn Many

I had the privilege this morning to start our Advent sermon series at Gospel Haus with Luke 1:5-20. I’ve translated my sermon below (and probably taken some liberties to make myself sound more articulate than I was, and thrown some things back in that I had to cut to keep the thing from being unreasonably long), hoping that it will be a help to others this Advent season.


In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth…

Continue reading

One Year In

Today, I got to share the gospel with somebody – not, I’m vaguely sorry to admit, with a German, or even in German – but it was a good and unexpected opportunity, and it felt beautifully right to be given that opportunity on this of all days.

20140813_200105659_iOSOne year ago today, we landed: parents of one, not knowing where we’d live, having just finished a frantic scramble to sort out the details of moving overseas, jet-lagging and wondering how well the language would come back, hoping the stuff we’d shipped would find us someday, wondering what life was going to look like.

Just a week from today, we’ll be able to celebrate a year in our apartment. Two days after that, we’ll celebrate three months as parents of #anotherboy (as the hashtag of the hour goes). We’ve each put in a lot of hours trying to recover and strengthen our German, and we’ll never really be satisfied with our abilities, but we live and work, write emails and sermons and lecture notes, make small talk with neighbors and pray with friends, all in our second language. We’re long-term legal residents of Germany now. We have a church and a neighborhood where people know our faces, if not our names. We belong, in some small way.

What was life going to look like? A year isn’t quite enough to say more than the obvious: there will be ups and downs, failures and triumphs, trial and error and hopefully trial and success here and there. I dearly hope that life will yet look more and more often like this afternoon’s conversation, in response to friends’ and acquaintances’ questions about the workings of our marriage or our parenting, or why we’re here in the first place.

One year in, and it’s still the beginning. Thank you, friends, all of you who have financed this long beginning, who have cheered us on, who have prayed us through it. Here’s to many more August 14ths full of thanksgiving and wonder at what a difference a year makes.

-Ben

Good Friday, A.D. 2015

Much of my spiritual formation, as I’ve said before in this space, came through Reformed University Fellowship. Not least among the things I’m thankful for from my time as a student involved in that ministry is my introduction to many great hymns of the church through the Indelible Grace project, one of various efforts to revive hymn texts that have fallen out of use (or at least that are missing a generation of Christians) by pairing them with contemporary melodies.

Thankful as I am for that introduction, I’ve grown more critical of much of what has come out of Indelible Grace since I’ve been out of college. A lot of that has to do with treatments of hymns like “O Come and Mourn with Me Awhile,” whose new tune is major-key, syncopated, and altogether too peppy for its text.

Yet there’s something to the weird effect of singing those words with that tune, something that expresses the strangeness of Good Friday.

It’s a public holiday here in Berlin, so the streets are unusually quiet. We’ll have a worship service in a couple of hours, a simple affair with readings from Mark’s crucifixion account, songs centered on the Cross, and a brief homily. As I type, I can hear church bells tolling the hour of the Lord’s death. It’s a quiet holiday, a day where it’s easy to wallow in the hard things going on in our lives and those of our loved ones – and there’s no shortage of those, at least for us. It’s a day (along with Holy Saturday) that can feel dominated by that “sort of quietness” C.S. Lewis describes in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: “If you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you… You feel as if nothing is ever going to happen again.”

But we’re commemorating the only time it was ever like that. We’re not left with the misery of disappointed hopes, as the disciples were; we can’t really feel that nothing is ever going to happen again. It did. We are celebrating Good Friday in the Age of Easter. And that transforms what we’re doing. Can our mourning really be grief, since we know what was really happening on Golgotha that spring day?

It’s a good time to try to revive and cultivate our sensibility for solemnity, for that which is solempne, which Lewis writes about in his Preface to Paradise Lost (cited here): “the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary” yet with no suggestion of “gloom, oppression, or austerity.” Lewis says in that context, “Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not.” Here I have to differ with him. The dreadful day itself, of course – as experienced by those who stood by the Cross and laid their Master in the virgin tomb – was not solempne. There was no joy then. But Lewis’s words in the mouth of Aslan the risen Lion are too true to keep all the rest of our Good Fridays devoid of festal joy: “Death itself [started] working backwards.”

Jesus came to defeat death from the inside out, and he did. Death’s victory is gone, and not only now: death’s victory on the Cross is retroactively its defeat.

When we look to the Cross, we can now see what was really happening: not a disaster undone only by the emergency intervention of the Resurrection, but the undoing of all that kept us from the joy God intended for His creatures. The Man on the Cross is the hero sallying forth against the dragon: there’s only one way for this to end. The Suffering Servant is carrying our sins into the grave, to leave them there forever.

The writer to the Hebrews said this: “for the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame.” We cannot but be humbled; there is nothing so sobering as to contemplate the cost of our sins, the cost of new creation, but this verse says something unfathomable: Jesus despised the shame of the cross – in a culture where nothing was more to be avoided than shame – in favor of promised joy. Joy weighed heavier on Jesus’ heart than all the world’s wickedness.

So yes, come and mourn with me, but let us mourn joyfully over the beautiful and terrible scene. Let us delight in the solemnity of the quiet day. Christ our Passover is sacrificed: let us keep the feast. Jesus our Lord is crucified!

-Ben