Luke 2: A Shepherd’s Christmas Story on the Margins (Reflection 4)

 

Luke 2:13-16 Suddenly a vast, heavenly army appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among people with whom he is pleased!” When the angels left them and went back to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, that the Lord has made known to us.”16 So they hurried off and located Mary and Joseph, and found the baby lying in a manger.

This whole story of God’s messenger’s coming to Bethlehem to some shepherd’s out in the field and announcing the new king should seem oddly familiar to those who are knowledgeable of the Biblical narrative. Remember in 1 Samuel, when God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to pick out a new king for Israel. Jessie has his sons lined up for Samuel to check out which one might be the new king. However, David the youngest and smallest of them, was excluded from the entire process and was out in the field working as a shepherd. God reminds Samuel that he is not impressed with the outward things that impress people, and tells him to anoint David as the new king of Israel. It’s a story that echoes Jesus’ birth and also points out something common that we see weaved throughout the biblical narrative. God loves to take those on the Margins and place them on His Main Stage.

17-20 When they saw him, they related what they had been told about this child, and all who heard it were astonished at what the shepherds said. But Mary treasured up all these words, pondering in her heart what they might mean. Sot the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen; everything was just as they had been told.

And so it was in Bethlehem, a place on the margins, where these shepherd’s experienced the birth of God’s revolution, ushering in the Kingdom of peace and justice. I invite you to join in with the spirit of those shepherds and declare “Let us go to the margins (Bethlehem) and see this thing that has happened.” In joining in with God’s revolutionary mission, we will experience his divine presence in fresh ways. And we can bear witness to how God can make a way out of no way. And notice that the shepherd’s returned praising God for what they had experienced. I bet they were singing “angels bow before Him, heaven and earth adore Him, what a mighty God we serve.”  Therefore, like Mary, let’s stop and consider the significance and meaning of Jesus’ birth and particularly how Jesus, through his birth, finds solidarity with the marginalized in the world, and how God takes those on the margins and places them on His main stage of divine activity throughout history.

Luke 2: A Shepherd’s Christmas Story on the Margins (Reflection 3)

Luke 2:9-10 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people:

I can’t imagine what was going through the shepherd’s minds as these angels appeared before them. We do know that they are terrified, and I am sure they could not fathom any good reason why they would have such an encounter. They were just some everyday, round the way, shepherds’, trying to feed their families, trying to survive Roman oppression, and trying to keep their dignity in the midst of death-dealing marginalization. And yet it was to them whom the angels are sent, and it was these shepherds that were entrusted with the most important life-giving messages. This message of good news goes first to the marginalized. It was a life changing announcement that would change everything. This was a message that brings hope to the poor, uplifts the broken hearted, revitalizes the tired, liberates the oppressed, and declares that the Jubilee of God’s Kingdom has broken into our world.

Verse 11 Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord.

And here is what that good news that they shared was. It was that on that day, a savior, a deliverer, a liberator was to born in the city of David. He is the Messiah, the awaited King of Israel who was prophesied about in the Jewish scriptures. This Messiah, this Christ is the true Lord.  For us then that means that all those counterfeit lords that demand our full allegiance will be exposed as the frauds and fakes that they are in the moment of complete revelation and ultimate consummation. For Jesus is the fullness of the Deity in bodily form. He is the same Yahweh who made covenant and relationship with the Israelites. He is the same God who spoke all creation into existence. And it is in and through Him that all things are held together. He is Jesus the Christ.

Verse 12 This will be a sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Can you imagine how elated these shepherds must have been at this moment? Angels had just revealed to them the greatest news in all of human history, a message that will bring great joy to the world, because the liberator and king, the prophesied Christ on that day is to be born. But notice the sign that the angels give, which will identify Jesus to the shepherds as the Messiah. They told them that they would find Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords… laying in a feeding trough. That is the way that they will identify Jesus. He won’t be identified because of some royal procession, he won’t be identified for being born in a palace, and he won’t be identified because of a royal announcement that was given. No instead, he would be recognized for being born in some little town out in the country, laying in a humble feeding trough. The very location and circumstance of his birth was a symbol and sign of solidarity with the socially outcast. It bears witness to the fact that “God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something.” And so we must consider the significance of why the Most High God would choose to express himself in such lowly way. Howard Thurman, in his classic book Jesus and the Disinherited, noted three things that are often ignored about Jesus’ birth and life. 1st was that Jesus was Jewish culturally, religiously, and ethnically. 2nd Jesus was poor. And 3rd, Jesus lived a subdominant and oppressed life under the rule of the Roman Empire. These are more than merely interesting facts about Jesus, given that these are the precise ways that God chose to reveal himself to the world, it demonstrates God’s solidarity with the majority of the world who struggle in poverty and oppression. And it is in the place of marginalization that God has chosen to be victorious over sin and death, and over rulers and authorities. Jesus birth in the manger is a protest against the powers of this world that denigrate the dispossessed. In his incarnation, Jesus dismisses the narrative of the powerful and insists that the good news is for all. That is all who are willing to abandon self and embrace Jesus and His Kingdom.

Luke 2: A Shepherd’s Christmas Story on the Margins (Reflection 2)

What is interesting about discussing people who are marginalized, is that we never seem to like to talk about their subsequent counterparts. For example, it is very common to talk about those who are underprivileged. In our minds we have arrived at an arbitrary determination on what the standard of privilege is, and we recognize that some people happen to be under that level of privilege. Yet we never go further and ask how entire communities or even countries become “underprivileged”. As if North Philly just became poor on its own. As if Haiti’s poverty has nothing to do with France’s occupation, slavery, and exploitation of that nation. Take it a bit further and we must consider that if there is such a thing as “underprivileged”, then why don’t we ever talk about those who are “over-privileged”. For there to be an underprivileged means that there must be its grammatical opposite. But when we talk about people being “over-privileged” it gets us all uncomfortable. You see marginalized people are marginalized because others have claimed the center, something that only God has rights to. If people did not selfishly and sinfully prioritize themselves over others, people would not be marginalized. Marginalization requires that some are participating in the practice of centralization, that is the dominating and excluding of others for one’s own gain. The shepherd’s here are left on the fringes of society and under an empire that has a centralized mentality, which is opposite to the other-oriented love that we are called to share with the world as followers of Christ.

Let’s jump back to the beginning of the chapter…

Verse 1: Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the empire for taxes. (NET)

We are in the midst of exploring God’s special favor as he entrusts the good news with these mere marginalized shepherds. At the same exact point, we see in verse 1 of chapter 2, that Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, is making a decree that has the whole empire registering for taxes. What is ironic here is that Augustus has conquered and consolidated the Roman Empire, where he took captive control with a centralized power over the entire empire. Furthermore, he claimed that his adopted father, Julius Caesar was divine after he passed away, and even audaciously began to refer to himself as “a son of god”, believing his own press, which claimed that he had brought peace and justice to the world after controlling the Roman Empire. This was a claim that only God was rightfully due. And yet, with all his centralized power, the Emperor is clueless of what is taking place in the little town of Bethlehem. God was in the midst of enacting the greatest moment in human history, the birth of Jesus, which in a few decades would become an unstoppable subversive force that not even the most powerful empire in the world could halt. Even here at this moment in the story, Caesar is so distant from God’s presence, activity, and movement in the world. He is so removed from God’s Main Stage that he is clueless of Jesus’ birth. Despite his registering all people in his empire, he doesn’t even have Jesus on his radar. He will never even see Jesus face to face. In essence, the one who has attempted to occupy the center is actually the most marginalized one in God’s redemptive activity in the world, excluded from experiencing this most amazing moment in human history.

Luke 2 A Shepherd’s Christmas Story on The Margins (Reflection 1)

It’s Christmas eve, and we have approached the celebration of Christmas. Let’s reflect on a passage today that will hopefully open our eyes to God’s subversive and revolutionary act of incarnating into our world on the margins. And so we will jump into Luke’s account of the Shepherds receiving the announcement of Jesus’ birth. Let us consider the implications of what God was doing in this and why it matters for us not only during this Christmas season, but every day as we faithfully follow our Suffering and Crucified Servant in the Margins, in hopes that we might be exalted with our Majestic and Victorious Messiah on His Main Stage.

8 Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night.

Now, before we move any further, we need to park here for a second. We need to understand what it meant to be a shepherd in 1st century Palestine. You see the shepherd’s lived a life of marginalization. During this time, Rome was the ruling empire of the land, and so all of Israel understood what it meant to be oppressed and what it meant to live life with someone’s foot against your neck. The Jews despised their Roman occupiers and desperately wanted to see them kicked out of their land. They were oppressed, exploited, and humiliated. And yet, when we understand the social class of shepherd’s in this context, we remember that they themselves among their own people were despised and unwanted, seen as misfits and cheats, and left living on the margins of society.

There are lots of people who understand what it is like to be marginalized, what it is like to be unwanted, what it is like to be stereotyped and lied on. What a horrible thing it is when we lie on others claiming that they are something other than people made in God’s image and to whom God loves immensely. What a horrible thing it is when we exclude people from participating in the life of communities and societies, ignored and invisible to the masses. What a horrible thing it is when you are marginalized, and left on the fringes, only to encounter others who hold a spirit of apathy and contempt against you’re very existence. This was the life of a 1st century shepherd living in Galilee.

Dr. Jeremiah Wright

Dr. Jeremiah Wright and Drew Hart

So Jeremiah Wright was in Philly, on my block. He spoke on the 14th and the 15th at the traditional baptist church on the corner.  Unfortunately, I was sick and was only able to make it out on the 15th. He looked at how Paul and Silas were treated, along with how they responded to that treatment, and its final outcome. He compared their being put “in an awkward predicament” having done nothing wrong, and having been lied on, with the African American experience of slavery, suffering, and stereotypes (my alliteration, not his).

He called on folks to respond with prayer, realizing that our prayers are being heard by God in ways we cannot fathom. He also called on us to praise, in which he particularly highlighted the need to pass on the negro spirituals and old songs that have sustained our community for generations.

He also reminded us that God likes to work in the midnight hour, over and over again, he shows up in the midnight hour, turning the situation around. He said much more, unfortunately I didn’t take notes, and so this is the core of what I remember of the top of my head, two days later.

Jeremiah Wright in the Pulpit

Finally, I just want to state that Jeremiah Wright is a lyricist. Yes, he is a wordsmith, who carefully crafts and delivers words with power, courage, creativity, and prophetic imagination. I thoroughly enjoyed just hearing him speak, nonetheless actually receiving the content packaged in his brilliance.

I know that Jeremiah Wright is a controversial figure to many in our country, but I urge you to move past the sound bites, and you will see that he is nothing more than a continuation of the black prophetic tradition that we see in the likes of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other courageous black christian leaders who spoke truth to power, whether or not it was convenient or popular. In the case of speaking against racism on a systemic level in America, it has never been popular with the dominant culture.

11/11/11

In the 11th book of the Bible (1 Kings), in the 11th chapter, at verse 11, you find the following verse.

“So the Lord said to Solomon, “Because you insist on doing these things and have not kept the covenantal rules I gave you,t I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant.” (NET)

Solomon has hoarded wealth and has turned away from faithfully following God, instead worshiping the idols of his foreign wives. Here at 11/11/11 in the Bible we find God explicitly stating that this break in covenant will result in the losing the inheritance and legacy of the kingdom and throne.

Throughout the Bible two reoccurring themes that jump out and off the page is God’s impatience for those who participate in idolatry and injustice. Want to see God angry… according to the tradition of scripture, all you need to do is participate in idolatry and/or injustice and it will come to fruition.

11/11/11 only comes around every 100 years. It could be a great time to evaluate our relationship with God and our concern for the marginalized. For in this reminder, we may save ourselves from exclusion from Christ’s Kingdom and Table.

Woke Up This Mornin’ With My Mind Stayed On Jesus

I have never been one to tip toe around my opinion of mainstream american religiosity. I have trouble labeling what passes for Christianity in America as such. This is not a statement on whether or not folks are among God’s family (which isn’t really for me to decide), but rather it is an ecclesiological and theological concern which aims to critically consider what qualifies a group of people to be the Church, as well as what is the heart and substance of Christianity.

Unfortunately, American christianity-ism, has inundated itself with very elaborate abstract and systematized theology. The lack of theology being done rooted in specific 21st contexts as well as understood through situating Jesus in the biblical narrative, history, and his Palestinian socio-political context is at the core of our contemporary theological plight. In doing theology with the attempts of building universal systematic principles, we have in essence landed upon vague theological musings that can and often are manipulated regularly.

An example may prove helpful. Jesus challenged his followers to take up their cross and follow him. In America these verses are loved by so-called Christians. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear people talk about the various ways in which they daily take up their own cross and follow Jesus.  The only problem is that they have an abstract understanding of what that means. Taking up the cross of Jesus and following him hardly means to literally consider the actual life, deeds, and teachings of Jesus as they broke into the realities of 1st century life while reflecting and then living out its implications for 21st century American life.  No, instead we get to decide what that means based off of our own personal preferences. (Yes I am critiquing the way Americans read and apply scripture).  It is not strange to hear someone talk about getting up and throwing on a christian tee, listening to their favorite christian artist in the car on the way to work, and reading their bible at the work place as succesfully taking up their cross and following Jesus throughout the day.  While those things are not inherently wrong, they have little to do with taking up one’s cross and follow Jesus’ as was originally intended.  Our abstract and vague theology allows us to creatively reimagine the Christian life in light of our own comforts and unwillingness to have our lives disrupted by the Jesus way.

We have lost sight of Jesus, having replaced him for systematic theology. With our abstract and vague theology, we are able to justify and convince ourselves of just about anything we want. But when we consider Jesus, the Crucified One, who is situated and concrete in real human existence, it will disturb and disrupt our agenda. The realities of Jesus’ sermon on the mount subverts our american ethic, forcing us to wrestle with whether we are serious about following Jesus or not. It is only as we turn our eyes to the Revealed One that our religious justifications are undermined. This can not be done through our tainted imaginations of a nice western Jesus. This demands that we read the Gospels anew, examining the life and teachings of our Lord with utmost seriousness. May we all turn in our clean and pretty systematic theology for Jesus and the cross, which are often not so comfortable and nice, yet open our eyes to seeing the world in truly fresh ways.

Barabbas Comparison & Jesus’ Significance

My last post I considered how Western Christianity denigrated Barabbas by taking Barabbas’ ethnicity out of the equation as well as ignoring the socio-political context. This was all compounded by a tradition of sloppy exegesis which distorted the clear depiction of an insurrectionist into a mindless serial killer.

However, I would like to consider why Barabbas is important in the Jesus story. More often than not, Barabbas is the poster child and mascot for those who choose to impose penal substitutionary atonement on every passage, regardless of the biblical context. Why not, Barabbas deserved his crime and Jesus took his place, right? Well, yes and no.

The reality is that Barabbas’ presence in the story is not there primarily to teach us that Jesus is our substitute. Instead, Barabbas is supposed to help us consider Jesus’ significance and mission. Remember that Jesus was Jewish just like Barabbas, and both were born into oppressed bodies under the Roman Empire. Barabbas as noted in my last post was a well known revolutionist who attempted to violently overthrow his occupiers. However, Jesus is actually accused of participating in similar activities when before the Roman authorities. Consider these passages…

Luke 23:2 “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.”

Luke 23:5 “But they insisted, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.”

In fact, in Matthew 26:55 Jesus himself poses a rhetorical question as he is about to be arrested. He asks “Am I leading a rebellion?” However, the answer is not clear cut. In some ways he is, just not a violent one like the kind Barabbas leads. However his proclamations of a new Kingdom being ushered in certainly imply a certain type of overthrow.

So again we have Barabbas and we have Jesus.  In many ways you could say that they are both revolutionaries, just varying in kind. Matthew 27:15-27 goes a bit further and clues us in on Barabbas’ importance in the Jesus story. Barabbas’ name is Jesus Barabbas. Here in Matthew we see that there is a choice between Jesus Barabbas and Jesus the Messiah. Jesus itself means “the Lord Saves”. So the choice for the people comes down what type of revolution they want and who they believe God is going to use to bring them true liberation. They can try to achieve freedom using the same tools that currently oppress them (violence and manipulation) or Jesus’ methods (sacrifice and service).

Unfortunately they choose Barabbas, thinking that the way of force, violence, and oppression will some how turn into freedom and peace (often promised imperial deceptions).  Yet we all have a choice to make, who will you follow Jesus Barabbas the Violent One or Jesus the Crucified One. Do you expect the violent tools of the empire to suddenly create a new world of  peace and justice? Or are you willing to follow Jesus’ way, the way of the cross, as he flips this world upside-down? How does this impact our role as Christians in America, (the modern Roman Empire in the world)?

Denigrating the Oppressed: A Fresh Look At Barabbas

It seems that holy week would be an appropriate time to reconsider Barabbas, despite colonized depictions that disparage and belie the legacy of this man. I suggest that Barabbas is not the man often depicted in many Western Churches, rather through faithful study of the gospel records a clear alternative image is painted of this New Testament biblical character.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. Barabbas is a psycho criminal that went through the towns ravaging and murdering. In fact, he probably had one cocked eye and foamed at the mouth right? Wrong. Western Christian tradition has stripped Barabbas of his Jewishness and from the larger socio-political context that offers meaning to his presence in the story. To understand Barabbas one must remember his Jewish body (and all others) under the control, rule, and domination of the Roman Empire. Without the proper historical realities, Barabbas’ role in the story is missed (which also means we miss something about Jesus as well).

I have always contended that the Gospels portray Barabbas as a desperate freedom fighter, who much like Nat Turner (or American Revolutionaries) wanted to free himself from imperial and oppressive forces. It becomes clear that he was arrested for participating in a revolutionary movement. Consider the Biblical record…

  • Mark 15:7 “A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.”
  • Luke 23:19 & 25 “Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city and for murder” vs.25 “He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will”
  • John 18:40 “They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising.”

Clearly Barabbas was arrested for his leadership in an insurrection against the Roman Empire and not because he was a foaming at the mouth serial killer. It is convenient for Western Imperial Christianity to denigrate Barabbas in that way, completely dismissing the conditions that led to such behavior. Not only that, but it strips Jesus from his context as well, for he too is Jewish under the rule of the Roman Empire.  I will explore this more in a follow up post because there is a significant relationship between Barabbas and Jesus that ought not be overlooked. However, for the moment consider taking a fresh look at Barabbas and how his socio-political as well as Jewish significance plays out in the gospel narrative.  Barabbas was in the tradition of the radical Zealots (of which Jesus had such companions in his own entourage).

How have you been taught about Barabbas? Is your understanding of him in sync with the Gospel records? Freestyle with me…

Christ’s Victory In Light Of The Cross


How significant is it that Christ was victorious over the authorities and the empire, which were actually the ones to sentence him to death? American Christians do not often talk about the cross in that type of manner, not being necessarily concerned with the social implications, but rather emphasize the cross’ ability to offer personal redemption and forgiveness from sin. Yet the New Testament writers seem to have no problem talking about both its ability to cover our sin as well as its social implications over power (including, Sin, death, empire, rulers, authorities, and Satan). The cross was a low and humbling death, reserved for common thieves, and those involved in revolutions wanting to overthrow the Roman Empire. In many ways, the Cross contextually is an image of defeat, designed to shame and embarrass its victims, while serving as a visual warning for those who would find themselves with similar values. How then do we interpret Christ’s Victory in a place of utter defeat and shame? How do we in our own lives take up our own cross, going up against all the odds? How do we in wanting to save our lives, basically lose our lives for Christ? What does that look like in the 21st Century? What does that look like in your neighborhood?
I believe that when we find ourselves in that lowly place of despair and hopelessness, that we will most clearly understand Christ’s Victory. The significance of the victory seems to be directly contrasted with the seemingly drastic desperation and bleakness in which it comes out of. It is as though, God is choosing what is low and despised to reduce to nothing the things that are powerful and dominant (1 Cor. 1:28). Therefore by putting his money on the underdog or the impossible situation, God shows himself as sovereign over even the impossible. And so we reflect on the Cross, keeping it as the center point of everything that we do, as we seek to true comprehensive victory in every sphere and realm of life.

“And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” (Colossians 2:13-15)