True privilege is our need

I’ve been slowly reading this wonderful book, Cultural Identity and the Purposes of God: A Biblical Theology of Ethnicity, Nationality, and Race. As the subtitle denotes, it’s a biblical theology which means the author, Steven M. Bryan, is considering his thesis from a perspective of what the whole counsel of Scripture communicates with emphasis on God’s plan for redemption. I recently read through the chapter on Matthew where he explains how Jesus’ first advent demonstrates that identity of Israel as a holy nation has shifted, pointing to the encompassing of the previously excluded. I was struck by these few paragraphs on his exegesis of Matthew 8-9 and thought it to be a timely read as the Advent season draws to a close;

The point of Psalm 107 is that Israel restored by God is not Israel in its experience of ethnic identity, whether inside or outside its own land. Rather, it is Israel in its experience of distress, desperation, and forced dispersion–circumstances brought about by God to turn them from their sin. This is Israel with no place to lay its head; Israel at the point of death; Israel imperiled on the sea; Israel harassed by Satan; Israel dispossessed and despairing because of its rebellion.

This is a new way of thinking about Israel and its privilege. Jesus privileges the unprivileged, to be sure, but the unprivileged are all those whom he saves when they cry out to him. Those who will sit down at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and not the putative heirs, the privileged sons of the kingdom, but the outsiders, the marginal, those considered excluded from Israel. The phrase ‘many [who] will come from east and west’ is, thus, neither a designation of Gentiles, as such, nor of Diaspora Jews, Rather, it designates those whose desperation and affliction under the hand of God mirror the conditions of Israel in its distress–they are the meek, the poor in spirit, and those who mourn (Matt. 5:3-5), and therefore stand over against the privileged ‘sons of the kingdom.’

If in Matthew 8, Jesus speaks of sitting at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Matthew 9, he enacts this meal by eating the tax collectors and sinners. The eschatological scandal of the many who come from east and west to sit down at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob parallels the scandal caused when tax collectors and sinners sit down at table with Jesus. Commentators regularly overlook the parallel, but it goes to the heart of Matthew’s central point in these chapters. They don’t so much tell us as show us what it means to be Israel. The table of the patriarchs–Israel’s table–is a table for the underprivileged, the unincluded, the undeserving. Israel’s table is open to those whose faith and righteousness mirror that of Abraham. The excluded ‘sons of the kingdom’ are identified in Matthew 9 as the scribe and the Pharisees, who object to Jesus’ practice of gathering tax collectors and sinners over a meal. They object because they know what it means. It is the symbolic enactment of Jesus’ vision of restored Israel–an Israel based not on ethnic descent but on a kinship formed through faith and the righteousness it generates. However, unexpected, Israel’s privileges belong to such as these.

Amen. This new identity of Israel is not based on earthly ethnicity but a heavenly need. We have no privilege to exert, only what has been afforded to us through Jesus’ fulfillment of promises based on HIS person and work. I hope that sense remains with us long past the Advent season and Christmas.

Have yourself a Merry Nicene Christmas

No, this is not one of those nerdy academic posts.  On this Christmas day I wanted to sketch out some brief thoughts over some observations I’ve made recently that really points to something broader I’ve witnessed in how we can make false choices with respect to the Christian faith. And particularly, this time of year with reflections of Christmas and the purpose for which we celebrate this unprecedented occasion of the incarnation. So I will get to the title in a bit.

Let me start with a gospel music production that we watched last night. The program was mostly music (and it was pretty spectacular too!) interspersed with acting scenes centered on three characters whose lives, we learn after awhile, are interconnected.  The overriding message I got was Jesus is a means to make your life better. If you have the Lord and tragedy happens you have the power to “speak life.” You feel empty? Try Jesus. You witnessed a miraculous event points to the fact that you need God.

What was missing for me in this presentation is why God the Son, eternally existent with the Father humbled himself and left his throne of glory. It was to rescue us from our sin, the sin that plunged humanity into sin because of the events that happened in Genesis 3.  This sin that we are all born into, that impacted all of God’s good creation into anticipated decay and ongoing corruption (see Romans 8:20). From Gen. 3:15 onward in the Old Testament, God promised a reversal of this curse. The incarnation was for the purpose of fulfillment of God’s promises to redeem a people for himself not so much to fulfill our every life demand. Continue reading

Choose this day whom you will serve: Jesus or skin color

As the Advent season is now upon us, I’m reminded of an unfortunate Twitter exchange I got into last year during the middle of the season. I had wanted to write more about it but at the time was a little over a month away from my wedding and in the throws of packing for the out of state move. Taking a breaking from the pile of responsibility, I stumbled upon this statement made in a tweet;

 Still hearing way too many white church leaders uncritically equating darkness with evil this Advent. I mean what are you thinking while you’re looking into the (few) black faces of your congregants, colleagues, and sometimes children?

My immediate retort was that the darkness spoken of at Advent relates to the corruption of this world because of the Fall that happened through one man’s disobedience. So yes, it is associated with evil because of the sin that entered into the world (see Rom. 5:12). Advent points us to the hope in Christ in his overcoming the impact of the Fall.  After all, Advent IS about him and what he came to do in this world on our behalf. The darkness associated with Advent has absolutely nothing to do with skin color although historically, some have made that association (I’ll get to that in a minute).

Furthermore, the theme of darkness as it relates to the corruption of sin in contrast to light is a central theme in John’s writings and he certainly wasn’t referring to skin color. Are we really going to undermine the very expression of Scripture itself for some type of validation of ourselves and undermine the significance of Advent in the process?  It is not only perfectly acceptable to speak in these terms related to sin but more importantly, direct attention to the remedy for it. Continue reading