Monday, January 7, 2019

Mystery Solved

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 3:1-12.

One of the things that motivated Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes was that he hated mystery stories that relied on coincidence or sudden hunches on the part of the detective. Consequently, he created Sherlock Holmes in the mold of his medical teacher Dr. Joseph Bell who could diagnose patients before they sat down by observation and logical inference. Doyle wanted to have his detective solve mysteries by using his intelligence to put together the clues. In the world of mystery writing, laying out all the facts is called “playing fair.” The writer is supposed to share all the information needed to solve the mystery with the reader, albeit in ways that are not obvious. Diverting the reader's attention from telling details are legitimate provided the crucial facts are there or can be worked out by the truly attentive. Ideally the clever reader should be able to figure out whodunnit or howdunnit before the detective reveals the solution. If the reader doesn't, he or she should be able to go back through the story and see that the clues were there all along. Unfortunately, Doyle wasn't always good at this as Holmes would sometimes get vital information from personal investigations or in telegrams he did not share with Watson, and therefore the reader, until he revealed his findings at the end. But subsequent mystery writers like Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers or J.K. Rowling have been scrupulous in laying out the clues that will reveal the solution to the discerning reader.

The word “epiphany” goes back to the Greek word for “revelation.” It is the day that the church celebrates the Jewish Messiah being revealed as the savior of the Gentiles as well. We remember the wise men or magi arriving at Bethlehem. We remember the prophesies that this would happen in the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh. And we remember Paul's ministry to the Gentiles, which initially came as a surprise to him.

In our passage from Ephesians Paul is playing with an idea that was current in the pagan world; namely, that the truth about existence was only known to initiates in what we call mystery religions. One of the most insidious was actually a philosophy called Gnosticism. Gnosis is Greek for knowledge. The core of the Gnostic mystery is that the material world is evil and only the realm of the spirit is good. Therefore the material world was not created by God who is pure spirit but by a lesser being. The divine spark is imprisoned in our bodies and could only be liberated by learning this secret knowledge, which was revealed only to the elite. Thus it is not about sin so much as ignorance. And some Gnostics were ascetic in an attempt to be as spiritual as possible while others, figuring that you couldn't avoid the body and material world in this life, indulged in anything they desired, while mentally trying to stay above all that.

These ideas were attractive, even to certain Christians, and I think they crept in and damaged the church regarding attitudes towards sex and the body. But they go against our basic beliefs. For instance, we believe that the material world is not inherently evil but was created by God and pronounced good by him. Evil is rather the misuse, abuse or neglect of those good gifts. While gaining knowledge is good, using that knowledge wisely is more important. And salvation comes not from merely knowing things about God but by putting your trust in him and in especially in Jesus who reveals what God is really like.

So Paul is using the then-popular idea of mystery differently. But he is using it appropriately. The Tanakh, the only Bible extant at the time of the apostles, was widely seen as God's message to the Jews, his chosen people. But like any good mystery the clues that God was interested in saving the whole world were there all along.

It begins in Genesis when God first calls Abram. “The Lord had said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.'” (Genesis 12:1-3, emphasis mine) So God may be choosing the descendants of Abram but not merely as recipients of his favor. He is choosing them as his instrument to bless the whole world.

Again, in Isaiah, God says to his servant, the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel, ie, the Messiah: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6) God intends to restore and save not only his people Israel but people from all nations. Like any mystery, the clues are there for the perceptive person to find.

But the mystery goes deeper and might surprise even the cleverest puzzle-solver. It is not that God has a different plan for non-Jews than for Jews but that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The largely Jewish church is not to provide a “separate but equal” ministry to the Gentiles but welcome them into the same group, that is, the body of Christ.

A lot of Jews missed the clues in the Tanakh that the blessings of Abraham were to go to the Gentiles as well, and that God's salvation was for all the nations of the earth. (“Nations” is the literal meaning of “Gentiles.”) Some even thought the purpose of the Gentiles was simply to fuel the fires of hell. But even the most charitable did not see that God would make one people of the Jews and the Gentiles. Indeed Paul did not see this at first.

When he entered a city on his early missionary journeys, Paul would go to the local synagogues and preach from the scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah. (Acts 13:5; 18:4) And while he did convince many Jews, he had more response among the God-fearers, Gentiles who, without quite converting to Judaism, nevertheless were attracted to it enough to come to the synagogue. When opposition from the leadership in the synagogues was fierce, Paul would turn to such Gentiles. (Acts 13:44-52) Eventually those who followed Jesus were no longer welcome in the synagogues and met in the houses of believers, usually those with homes big enough to accommodate such a gathering. There were churches that met in the house of Lydia, the first convert in what is now Greece (Acts 16:14-15, 40), the house of the husband and wife ministry team of Aquila and Priscilla (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:9), the house of Nymphas (Colossians 4:15), the house of Philemon and others. (Philemon 1:2) Indeed we have a lot of evidence that the way the number of believers grew was through the social networks of friends and families and so we have entire households who converted. (Romans 16:10-11; 1 Corinthians 1:11, 16) It is probable that on subsequent journeys Paul visited these house-churches more than the synagogues and they became his bases for his operations in the areas. The first buildings made specifically for Christian worship don't appear until the 2nd half of the 3rd century. Most were destroyed in the first half of the next century during the last great persecution of the church under Diocletian.

So hosting a church meant inviting both Jews and Gentiles into your house to worship and to dine together. Christian worship originally involved an agape or love feast, from which we retain the Eucharist. So do you serve only kosher food, so as not to offend Jewish Christians? Do you not serve meat, so as not to offend the consciences of new Christians who can't get over the fact that most meat markets sell the surplus of pagan sacrifices? These are some of the issues the churches had to deal with. And having people from different cultures complicated things.

But Paul would not back down on this. Not even when the self-described “least of the saints” saw Jesus' right hand man waver on the issues. In Galatians Paul describes how Peter, who baptized the Gentile household of Cornelius, withdrew from eating and associating with Gentile Christians because of Jewish Christians visiting from Jerusalem. Paul confronts him about this, reminding him that we are not saved by following the law but through trusting in Jesus. (Galatians 2:11-16)

Even though he was called to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13), Paul seems to always be conscious of the amount of difficulty this brought to the church. Thus he exhorts believers to unity and peace in practically every letter he sends to the churches. He wrote that Jesus went to the cross not only to reconcile God and humanity but to reconcile human beings of different types. (Ephesians 2:11-22) After all, our divisions are also the result of sin. In fact, God's plan ultimately is “through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:20)

We are given the “ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18) And so Paul says, “...from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view...if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17) What a person was before coming to Jesus is no longer relevant. And it goes beyond racial and cultural differences. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) And that statement of equality in Christ was quite radical.

In his book The Triumph of Christianity, sociologist Rodney Stark argues that “Women were especially drawn to Christianity because it offered them a life that was so greatly superior to the life they otherwise would have led.” Stark explains that Greek women lived in semi-seclusion, not only largely confined to the home but forbidden access to the front rooms in the house. When they went out they were covered from head to toe and accompanied by a male relative, very much like women today in very conservative Islamic countries. Roman women had a bit more freedom but not much. And even Jewish women, who were not sequestered, were under the control of men. Based on Roman funerary inscriptions, we know that half of pagan women married before the age of 15, with 20% aged 12 or younger. But nearly half of Christian women were not married until they were 18. At that time there were few if any barriers to men divorcing their wives, nor in the case of non-Jews, forcing them to have abortions (and there was no such thing as anesthesia!) In an era before soap or antiseptic technique, this led to the death of many women, with the survivors often left sterile. Husbands could decide to have a child “exposed” or left on the side of the road, if it was considered too sickly or if it was a daughter! Few Romans raised more than 1 daughter. Consequently there was shortage of pagan women.

On these matters Christianity dramatically differed from the culture. Christians did not support divorce, abortion or the exposure of infants, so more girls got to live and women lived longer. In fact, so lopsided was the ratio of men and women that Stark writes, “Many Christian girls had to marry pagan men or remain single, and for many pagan men, it was either a Christian bride or bachelorhood.” This led to secondary conversions of husbands to the Christianity of their wives, as well as more children raised in the faith of the more religious parent, which holds true today.

In addition early Christianity offered women a role in religion that most pagan religions didn't. In the last chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul sends personal greetings to 18 men and 15 women. Among them are Phoebe, a deaconess, Priscilla, who with her husband are called “my fellow workers in Christ Jesus,” and Junia, whom Paul calls an apostle! (Romans 16:1-3, 7) There are also 4 women who we are told “work hard in the Lord.” (Romans 16:6, 12) Women held positions of leadership rather like their Jewish counterparts. Stark writes, “in some Diasporan communities (beyond the reach of patriarchs in Palestine) women held leadership roles in some synagogues, including 'elder,' 'leader of the synagogue,' 'mother of the synagogue,' and 'presiding officer,' as is supported by inscriptions found in Smyrna and elsewhere.” We know that in early Christianity women held similar positions, whereas only in a few temples devoted to goddesses were pagan women allowed any significant religious roles. Stark concludes “The rise of Christianity depended upon women.”

In addition, though scripture did not call for the abolition of slavery, Christians could pick up on the clues on this issue. Paul tells slaves, whom Rome allowed to make and save money, that if they could buy their freedom they should. (1 Corinthians 7:21) He tells masters not to mistreat or threaten their slaves, because they are their siblings in Christ and both have a Master in heaven who will judge all. (Colossians 4:1; Ephesians 6:9) He hints pretty heavily that Philemon free his runaway slave Onesimus, rather than punish him. (Read the whole of Philemon.) It became so common for Christians to free their slaves, or buy fellow Christians out of slavery, that the practice was prohibited by the emperor Diocletian under the last great persecution of the church. Slaves were also allowed to become clergy, including 2 popes, and even a bishop of Ephesus named Onesimus!

God is love and love brings people together, including combinations of people you wouldn't think would go together. A good example is the House of All Sinners and Saints, an ELCA church started by recovering alcoholic and stand up comic turned Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber. Originally, it was for people who did not fit in at your average church. Preaching a message of God's radical grace and forgiveness, word of her church, which met in the parish hall of an Episcopal church, started to spread. And when people who look like they normally go to church began attending, Bolz-Weber was afraid it would lead to the dilution of her unique congregation. Then an LGBT parishioner said he liked that their church included people who looked like his parents but who accepted him. That convinced her that God was indeed at work in her mission.

Spoilers! The mystery of Christ has been revealed: God is love and there are no limits to whom God loves. So it doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out that as followers of his son, we should not exclude anyone from access to his grace. The body of Christ is open to all who respond to his call. The first few generations of Christians understood that and practiced radical inclusiveness and self-sacrificial love. It looks like we have forgotten the very thing that made the early church grow. In order to fulfill the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to us, we need to go out of our comfort zones and invite people of every variety to join us in following Jesus. As he said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also and they will listen to my voice. Then there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16) Any sheep who hears the call of Jesus and comes must be welcomed into the flock. We mustn't second-guess the Shepherd. He came to save the lost at any cost. As someone has said, Jesus leaving 99 sheep to find just one seems illogical, irrational and senseless...until that one is you.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Reason

The scriptures referred to are Colossians 3:12-17 and John 1:1-14.

I was watching a repeat of last year's Doctor Who Christmas special, seeing as there wasn't one this year. The Doctor is an alien who travels in time and space, righting wrongs. At one point, someone asks the Doctor why he stole his time machine in the first place and began touring the universe. He says it was to answer a question. Evil seems to be a better survival strategy than good. Yet good persists and even triumphs over evil. Why is that so? The series implies it is the Doctor's heroic activities that tip the scales.

But that's fiction; we live in reality. Still it is a good question. Let's restate it a bit. If we live in a universe where organisms compete for resources and are trying to survive, why do we seek to help others rather than harm them or simply leave them to their fates? Why do we have public hospitals, public schools, homeless shelters, charities and government help for the disadvantaged? Why did the eugenics movement, once widely supported here in the US, evaporate and why do we revile the Nazis who gassed the mentally and physically disabled? Why is the most popular religion in the world about God blessing the underdogs in society, to the point of becoming one himself and even letting himself be killed to save his disobedient creatures?

To be sure, humanity is a bit schizoid about this. On the one hand, we tout as virtues tolerance, compassion and looking out for the weak. On the other, we cheer on ruthless behavior on the part of leaders in business and politics. Our most popular movies say overwhelmingly that the way to solve problems is through violence. 9 of the top ten movies by box office this year were action films about superheroes and spies. But the top 10 TV shows in ratings this year are evenly split between family-friendly dramas and sitcoms, and football, a game with a growing legacy of brain-damaged former players. The US spends more on defense than the next 7 countries combined and yet we spend a slightly larger part of our budget on Social Security, which goes to retirees, the disabled and surviving spouses and children. Our values are all over the place.

Part of this is because a civilization of totally ruthless self-seeking individuals cannot last. And studies tell us that it is religion which made civilization possible. We tend to stick with those we are related to, rather like other animals. Hornets fight hives of honeybees. Ants go to war on termites and also other ants, taking slaves. Meerkats war on other meerkat clans. Groups of chimps wage guerrilla warfare on other families of chimps, killing them and annexing their territory. So it it with humans. In transitioning from tribal organizations to cities and kingdoms and empires, religion helped bind people of different kinship groups together into a greater whole. Still these kingdoms and empires typically went to war with other kingdoms and empires. Even in the Old Testament God is depicted as the Lord of Hosts, the God of the angel armies as Eugene Peterson renders the phrase. Israel was a tiny kingdom wedged between Egypt to the West and whichever empire lay to the East at the moment. There was no UN. The Israelites found comfort in the idea that God would fight for them.

In the New Testament, the situation has changed. A squabble between two brothers for the throne of Judea led one to ally himself with the Romans to decide the matter and the nation lost its independence and became a puppet of the empire. Though the Zealots wanted to fight and throw Rome out, that was seen as a non-starter by sensible Jews. Jesus preached an alternative to the usual see-sawing of power that comes from fighting. He counsels approaching conflicts in a different way. And in our passage from Colossians, Jesus' way of peace is explored in detail.

We are are told to clothe ourselves “with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Belligerent people cannot see any advantage in these. In regards to compassion, that is all well and good if it was limited to family and possibly friends, as Aristotle held. But why help those outside your own circle? This, as we have seen, is how the other animals think. 

As for mercy, the root of the Greek word translated “compassion” here, the bellicose see no sense in showing mercy to those who oppose them. You want to crush such people lest they get a second chance to do you harm. Kindness again should be confined to those we love or are related to. 

The arrogant don't see the sense in being humble or meek. The pagan world really could not see humility as a virtue. The greatest thing that could happen to you would be to receive glory and honor. We still have people who live primarily to be admired and lionized. Why admit that you have any flaws or weaknesses?

Patience is possibly the only thing in this list that an aggressive person might value, if he had any shrewdness at all. But that has to be weighed against the satisfaction of getting what you want now.

While anger and hatred towards the Other can unite people, such coalitions fall apart. If I give free reign to my hatred of group X, and someone within my group thwarts me in some other matter, it is difficult to reign in such an indiscriminate and uncontrolled emotion. Perhaps the ultimate example of this is the incident last year here in Florida where a former neo-Nazi shot his two neo-Nazi roommates because they were mocking his recent conversion to an extremist form of Islam! A recent satirical film, The Death of Stalin, had to tone down various aspects of the vicious fight for power that followed the dictator's demise because the director didn't think the audience would believe certain events, though they were factual. Encouraging people to give free reign to their rage is rather like releasing a bunch of hungry tigers; you can't predict whom they will ultimately maul and kill.

The qualities given in Colossians are precisely those required to maintain unity. As is the next bit of advice: “Bear with one another, and if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other...” The word translated “bear” literally means in Greek to “hold oneself up [against].” It could mean “endure” or “put up with” though I would be inclined to translate it “accept,” as does the Holman Christian Bible. None of us are identical in thought or our approach to things. We need to make allowance for such variations, especially when they are not on matters that are essential to our common life. If you think about the things that cause friction between you and your mate or a sibling, they are rarely of earthshaking stature but usually minor things that over time become more irritating.

If such things do rise to the level of actual harm being done to you, then we should, as Jesus outlines in Matthew 18:15-17, go and talk to the person and work out the problem and, as it says here, forgive each other. Rarely is a quarrel between two people entirely the fault of one party. In many cases, a small offense on one side prompts a bad or over-reaction on the other side and things escalate. I once witnesses two good church women get in a shouting match over the reimbursement for stamps! One actually left the church and took her family with her. Of course, there were other underlying issues and the leaders of the church were able to get one lady to return but try as we may, we could not get one side to even consider reconciliation with the other. Similarly, families often have to live with internal feuds between Aunt Claudia and Aunt Esther over some incident lost in the mists of the decades, to the point where sometimes even the persons involved have no clear memory of the triggering event. I have a friend whose grandfather had fallen out with his siblings. When my friend started researching his family tree, he found a host of relatives of whose existence he had been entirely unaware, including 2 cousins who turned out to work at the same company as his wife!

There is no magic way to undo the damage we inflict on each other and our relationships. The healing begins, however, with forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what happened but letting go of the negative emotions it generated: anger and shock and the sense of betrayal. It also means not giving into the impulse to hold a grudge or retaliate. It means accepting any good faith efforts of the other person to reconcile. It is not a moment but a process. But it starts with the decision to forgive, to not exacerbate the wound but to begin the process of healing.

Our passage tells us that we must forgive just as the Lord has forgiven us. One of the most difficult pastoral problems I was ever presented with was a man who said, “I know we are to forgive others but there is one guy I can't forgive.” He went on to explain that his sister was the victim of a serial killer and the killer was in a prison in California. How could he forgive that person? I remembered something a parishioner, Jackie Bond, pointed out to me. On the cross Jesus doesn't say to his executioners, “I forgive you” but “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” I told him that, never having been in his place or having suffered such a loss, I did not feel it my place to tell him to forgive the man right now. But he could ask God to forgive his sister's killer and ask God to help him get to the point when he also could forgive him. I also pointed out that this would be for his own peace of mind because obviously the killer's action was still tormenting him. If he did not let go of the anger, the man would in essence be another of the killer's victims. He would not forget his sister but one day his memories of her would not be dominated by the worst thing that happened to her. This would make room for memories of her in better days.

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Love is coming together, appreciating the other, seeking unity and doing what one can to maintain it. Which naturally leads to the next quality discussed.

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. ” It is said that when the first stuffed platypus was sent from Australia, English scientists thought it was a hoax, stitched together from bits of other animals. But this semi-aquatic mammal does have a duck bill, a beaver's tail, and an otter's webbed feet. It lays eggs,yet feeds its young on milk but has no teats. And it is venomous. Those things shouldn't go together but do. It's almost as if the platypus is God's way of saying, “If all the oddball parts of this body can work together, so can you.” And remember that peace in Hebrew means total well-being. Knowing that we are ultimately in the hands of the loving God revealed in Jesus gives us a sense of peace and gratitude.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in wisdom...” “Word” here might be better translated “message,” as when one says, “Just a word before we begin.” So the “word of Christ” is the gospel, the good news of what God has done and is doing through his son Jesus. That is the lens through which we see and approach everything in life. So you want to get it right. A few years ago Twitter had a hashtag that went #ExplainAFilmPlotBadly. For instance, you could summarize the Wizard of Oz as being about a young girl who kills a woman and then she and her friends hunt down the woman's sister. Obviously this misses the whole spirit of the story. And some so-called Christians seem unacquainted with the true thrust of the gospel and what Jesus did and did not actually say and do. So knowing the actual words of Christ helps you stay on track. To let the word of Christ dwell in you richly means to saturate yourself in it. Even the parts that you have to struggle with can yield wisdom and a new understanding of God and the Christian life. And this helps us teach one another, as Jackie Bond taught me by pointing out that detail about Jesus' saying from the cross.

And with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.” New research shows that music remains in the memory even of those with Alzheimer's. I remember seeing a documentary of a musician who, due to a brain injury, could not remember anything for more than a minute or two. He had a diary where he kept writing “I am now awake” over and over again with the time. Yet if you sat him at a piano he could play long musical compositions flawlessly. Music is evocative. It can take you back to certain times in your life. It can change your mood. It is wonderfully therapeutic. And here scripture is telling us to sing to God with gratitude. Try it some time when you are feeling down. Sing “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” or “It Is Well With My Soul” or “Amazing Grace” or your favorite. See if it doesn't make a difference. And, of course, you can always join our choir! Or just sing heartily during the service. A lot of people don't sing because they say they can't. Nonsense! The scripture says, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” (Psalm 100:1)

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Implied in this admonition is that you do it in the proper spirit as well. Too many people have done awful things in the name of Christ that run contrary to what he clearly said and did. You cannot do anything hateful or harmful and say you are truly following Jesus. Jesus does not rubber stamp whatever people do or say simply because they tag on the phrase “in the name of Jesus Christ.” That is a prime example of using the Lord's name in vain. Whatever we do or say we should see to it that it is in line with the teachings and the Spirit of the God who is love, for whose grace we should be grateful.

Since the series has returned, the title character in Doctor Who has been sometimes treated as a god, who rights wrongs wherever he finds them and rescues entire worlds from hopeless situations. And his companions, inspired by the Doctor, become heroes in their own right; disciples,as it were. The man who revived the series was an atheist. I think he was projecting onto the character his wish that someone was out there helping and healing people. I wish he would discover that there is such a person, and he is Jesus Christ, in whose image the Doctor has apparently been reimagined in the new series. We see it even if those make the series do not.

But Jesus is not the fallible alien warrior of sci-fi fever dreams. He is the actual reason why good makes sense even when evil seems to be the stronger option. He is the reason why good triumphs in the end. Sin cannot touch him. Falsehood cannot divert him. Death cannot stop him. He is the hand that lifts the little girl from her deathbed; he is the word of forgiveness from the cross; he is the life that strides from the  empty tomb; he is the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

Monday, December 24, 2018

A Tale of Two J.C.s

The scriptures referred to are John 1:1-14.

CT: Tonight we celebrate the miracle of Christmas, of God becoming a human being to save us.

EB: Bah, humbug!

CT: Excuse me, I didn't see you back there. Who are you?

EB: Ebenezer.

CT: Ebenezer? You're not that guy, uh, in that Dickens story...

EB: No, of course not. I'm his grand nephew.

CT: And so you also hate Christmas?

EB: No, I love it! My business makes a lot of money during Christmas season. It's great for the economy. Christmas is good business!

CT: What business is that?

EB: Scroogedrivers! A screwdriver that make things tight as my purse strings! Great stocking stuffer.

CT: Hmm. So if it's good for business, what is your objection to Christmas?

EB: All that stuff about God becoming a human. It just doesn't make sense.

CT: It's counterintuitive, I'll grant you.

EB: It's dumb. Even if, let's say, God does become a human, why an infant? In a family that's poor? Why would God do that?

CT: What would be the alternative?

EB: Be a king. Make laws. Make people obey your commandments.

CT: Odd you should say that. At Jesus' time that's what a lot of people expected God's Messiah to be: a king. Who would overthrow the Romans, set up a religious kingdom on earth and rule. Typical king stuff.

EB: That make sense! He'd have a lot more impact that way.

CT: Well in some ways. There was another guy back then with the initials J.C. who went that route. He was born into a politically powerful family. He made some sweeping changes. Not sure they were improvements.

EB: J.C...?

CT: Julius Caesar. He was born almost 100 years before Jesus. He was a great general who broke the laws of Rome by entering its territory with his armies, provoked a civil war, ended that war and was named dictator. He became the first Roman Emperor in everything but name.

EB: But he changed the world.

CT: Well, he changed the map. He changed the calendar. He changed Rome from a Republic to an Empire, with a lot more territory, but he also put the power over all of that into the hands of one man. Historians don't think he made things better for mankind in general. He made things better for one man: himself.

EB: But there are great leaders who have changed the world for the better.

CT: Sure. Cyrus the Great of Persia, who is mentioned in the Bible. He had a policy of religious toleration. You could practice your religion—after he conquered your country. The Mauryan Emperor Ashoka who ruled most of what is now India had laws prohibiting slavery, religious discrimination and cruelty towards both people and animals. 

EB: That's what I'm talking about!

CT: Funny thing then that those laws didn't apply to him when he blinded his son, or killed his youngest wife. But, as you said, they could make people obey laws. Because they were absolute monarchs who had the power of life and death over everyone else. You really think it is better to say “love your neighbor or I will have you killed?”

EB: No. And I know the old saying: absolute power corrupts absolutely. But why would God become a poor man?

CT: Well, I don't mean to speak for God...

EB: (looks CT up and down) You sure dress like someone who does.

CT: Let me rephrase that. I don't know all of God's reasons but think about this: political leaders can make external changes but who are the people who effect internal change in this world? What kind of people change the way folks think and then act?

EB: Thinkers...uh, philosophers?

CT: Yeah. And religious teachers and leaders. People who can't just say, “You need to do things this way because I have the power to make you,” but who say, “Here are the reasons why you should do things a certain way. Because it's the right way. Because it is in harmony with how God made us.”

EB: But why can't a king do that?

CT: Well, maybe a certain kind of king. Christ is the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah, so Jesus is a king. But he's not a typical earthly king. Kings and leaders like Julius Caesar tend to be born into wealth and power. But the vast majority of people in the world are not rich or powerful. If God's going to communicate to most people, who are they going to listen to for advice on how to live a moral life while dealing with the problems the ordinary person has: someone who's never done without the basics of life, who's never had to work hard just to eat, or someone who is a working person, someone who understands how hard it is to do the right thing when it costs you dearly, just like them?

EB: But who's going to listen to an average person?

CT: That's the challenge, isn't it? The powerful love to tell people what to do and we have to listen even if they don't make sense because they are powerful. But the guy who can't force us to listen has to make better arguments to bring people around to his views. They have to make sense. How many sayings of Julius Caesar can you quote?

EB: Uh...veni, vidi, vici?

CT: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Not exactly words the average person can live by. How many of Jesus' sayings can you come up with off the top of your head?

EB: “Love your neighbor?”

CT: Yeah.

EB: Treat others as you'd like to be treated.

CT: The Golden Rule. The basis of most social ethics.

EB: Oh, and that football verse.

CT: Football verse?

EB: You know, they put it on banners in the bleachers. It's got numbers in it.

CT: Oh, John 3:16!

EB: Yeah.

CT: “For God so loved the world that he gave his unique son so that whoever trusts in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

EB: Yeah. But so what? I can quote a lot of Jesus. What does that show?

CT: For one thing, that Jesus takes up more room in your brain than Caesar does. Earthly kings and emperors come and go. Their reforms can be repealed or forgotten. We don't even use the Julian calendar anymore. But Jesus Christ has had a greater effect on more lives throughout history than Julius Caesar.

EB: But don't we remember Caesar because he was a good ruler?

CT: We remember him because he changed history, and not necessarily for the better. Julius Caesar was a bully who has been compared, by some historians, to a Mafia thug. He was politically ambitious and rose through bribery and having his supporters beat his opponents and finally by simply seizing power. He was vain. He wanted a triumphal parade in Rome, which meant he had to kill at least 5000 enemies to qualify. So he started an unauthorized war in Gaul, wiping out 800 villages, killing a million people and taking another million, the entire population of one region of Gaul, as slaves. The brutality of his campaign even horrified the Romans. Terrified, they made him dictator for life.

EB: Reminds me of what Shakespeare said in Marc Antony's eulogy for Caesar, “The evil men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

CT: True. But the good Jesus did and his words of wisdom and comfort and challenge live on, inspiring people. Speaking of words, you could call Jesus the living Word of God, the concrete expression of God's love in human form. And even today if someone tries to live their life by asking themselves “What would Jesus do?” we find it commendable.

EB: Yeah, I guess if someone said they always asked themselves “What would Julius Caesar do?” we'd be worried.

CT: That would be disturbing. Jesus spent his time healing people, feeding the hungry, telling them the gospel.

EB: I hear that word a lot. What is the gospel?

CT: The word simply means “good news.” Folks back then thought God must love the rich and powerful because they had all the blessings of this life. The good news is that God loves everyone, not just the rich but the poor, the powerless, the sick, the foreigner, and the disadvantaged. God even loves those considered great sinners and forgives those who repent, that is, turn their lives around and return to God.

EB: That's easy to say. But what's the evidence God loves us?

CT: He sent his son, not to be another rich and powerful king, ruling with fear and violence, having his every desire fulfilled, but to live as one of us, the people with little or no power. Jesus had a job and family and friends who didn't always understand him and one friend who betrayed him. He knows what it's like to get tired and hungry and thirsty. He knows what it's like to feel pain and to fell all alone and to feel humiliation and even to experience death. The good news is God loves us enough to do all that to save us.

EB: Even rich people feel those things. So that's what Christmas is about. I thought it was about presents.

CT: It is. It's about God's presence among us. (EB groans.) Sorry, couldn't resist. But at Christmas we remember that God is not just out there. He is right here, beside us, in Jesus, helping us get through life. And, if we open our hearts to him, God is in us, in the form of his Spirit. (EB reacts.) That's where Jesus rules and he rules with love.

EB: We Scrooges don't like spirits.

CT: Yeah, they gave your grand uncle a wild time one night. And similarly God's Spirit helps us look back and remember what Jesus said and did for us in the past. He helps us apply those principles to our present situation and become more Christlike day by day. And he helps us look forward to the time when Jesus will return to set up the kingdom of the God who is love and restore the earth to the paradise that God intended when he created everything.

EB: But where do presen...uh, gifts come in?

CT: Through his Spirit God gives us gifts in the form of our individual talents and skills to plant the seeds of his kingdom by what we do daily wherever we find ourselves.

EB: Like running my company?

CT: Provided you are honest, generous, do a good job and what you do doesn't harm people but helps them, sure.

EB: Scroogedrivers are constructive. Maybe we could give a few thousand to Habitat for Humanity.

CT: That's a start. And you could treat your employees as you would like to be treated.

EB: Yeah. My grand uncle began doing that with Bob Cratchet. He gave him a living wage and help with medical expenses. In fact, he also started a fund for sick children. We could contribute to that.

CT: A fund for sick children. I've never heard of it. What's it called?

EB: The Tiny Tim Lives! Fund.

CT: That's definitely in the spirit of Christmas.

EB: And it's a spirit even a Scrooge can live with.

CT: Have a blessed Christmas, Ebenezer.

EB: And God bless us everyone!