The Great Role Reversal

28ae36946daf05c6172d09cad9686435-2Every married couple has to figure it out.

At the end of a long day when you’re both exhausted, it’s better to “divide and conquer.” Who will cook and who will wash the dishes?

Once in a while, it’s helpful to trade places. Do you normally cook? Tonight, clean up instead. If you typically wash the dishes, try your hand at cooking. Besides increasing versatility, role reversals let us walk in another’s shoes. Nothing fosters empathy more effectively.

Jesus modeled the Great Role Reversal. Paul captured this well:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9, NIV).

Christ, the Eternal Word, identified with us by becoming one of us. God put on skin. His name was Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:14-31) exemplifies role reversal. A man of wealth lived in luxury, oblivious to the plight of Lazarus, a sickly and hungry beggar.

[Note the subtle role reversal. Normally, everyone knows the name of a rich person, and poor people remain nameless. In Jesus’ story, the poor man has a name, and the rich man is nameless. Things work differently in God’s Kingdom!]

Jesus said that Lazarus “longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table” (v. 21, CEB). He lay at the pitiless rich man’s gate, where at least the dogs came and licked the poor man’s sores.

The rich man never saw the role reversal coming.

After death, Lazarus was comforted, carrried to Abraham’s side by angels (v. 22). There he found solace, while the rich man – who had also died – was tormented in the flames.  During their life on earth, Lazarus had longed for crumbs from the rich man’s table. Now, the tables are turned, and the rich man longs for a drop of water from Lazarus (v. 24). Abraham denies the request, reminding the rich man:

Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain (v. 25, CEB).

Likwise, at the close of a different parable about the coming Kingdom, Jesus concluded: “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last” (Matthew 20:16, NLT).

But I wonder:

Why do we need to wait until the end of time to live the Great Role Reversal?

How much closer to reflecting the Kingdom of God would our world be if those who bear Christ’s name (Christians) were willing to switch things up now?

 

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Two street children in Antananarivo, Madagascar, circa 2010

 

Gavin Rogers, a pastor from San Antonio, Texas, joined a caravan of Honduran immigrants that has been making its way north through Mexico. For five days, he chronicled the kindness and humanity he witnessed along the exhausting path. Rogers concluded: “The only Christian response to immigration is ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” He learned by coming close to people that every need has a name.

Stories like that of Lazarus or pastor Rogers and the Honduran immigrants challenge me. Unlike the rich man, I am not wealthy, yet am I not also attached to my “creature comforts”? How might God be calling me to step into the shoes of another, to journey alongside them, to see things from their point-of-view?

Jesus was the master of the Great Role Reversal. May we together learn to follow in his ways.

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Image credit: pngtree.com

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7 Unusual Things About the Incarnation

Gospel_of_Luke_Chapter_2-1_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media)Note: I preached this short message in the chapel of Africa Nazarene University (Nairobi, Kenya) on December 13, 2017. Thanks to Chalé Atikonda, a BTh student at ANU, who heard the sermon and later suggested a further point, i.e. “an unusual task,” which I’ve added to this revised version.


Scripture reading: Luke 1:26-38

All Scripture citations are from the Common English Bible.

INTRODUCTION

“How should a King come?”

Jimmy and Carol Owens penned these words to the popular Christmas song:

How should a King come?

Even a child knows the answer of course;

In a coach of gold with a pure white horse.

In the beautiful city in the prime of the day,

And the trumpets should cry

And the crowds make way.

And the flags fly high in the morning sun,

And the people all cheer for the sovereign one.

And everyone knows that’s the way that it’s done,

That’s the way that a king should come.

And yet the Gospel accounts of Christ’s coming to earth make it clear: God’s ways are not our ways. Today, let’s look at 7 unusual things about the Incarnation, based on Luke 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will give birth to a son.

 

FIRST, GOD SENT AN UNUSUAL MESSENGER.

The appearance of angels was hardly an everyday occurrence. This is implied when Gabriel says to Mary: “Fear not.” People aren’t afraid of everyday events, but when they’re rare, they might give you a scare. Here was God’s messenger coming to deliver stupendous news. The name “Gabriel” means “God is my strength.” Here was an unusual messenger, a mighty being sent by God, and Mary took notice.

SECOND, THE ANNOUNCEMENT CAME IN AN UNUSUAL PLACE.

If Nazareth were a Kenyan town, it might make the top 100 list, but somewhere at the bottom, nestled between Nambale and Tabaka. Then again, Nazareth might not make any list, for at the time, people said: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth” (John 1:46). Wouldn’t it make more sense for a King to come to Jerusalem, the Nairobi of its day, the main commercial and economic hub? But God’s ways are not our ways.

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The counterintuitive God

clockCounterintuitive: different from what you would expect (Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary). Like a clock that runs backwards, there’s little doubt: God is counterintuitive.

Take the incarnation, the eternal Christ clothing himself in human flesh. If the choice had been up to us, we might have chosen huge and flashy. Instead, to bear Emmanuel – “God with us” – the LORD chose someone humble and unknown.

Luke 1:28 (NIV) tells the story:

Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.

Who was this “highly favored” person? Mary was a young Jewish girl. There was nothing noteworthy about her. She had no powerful connections, no high birth to commend her. Yet God – who has a habit of doing the unexpected – chose her to bear the Christ child.

Besides using the unknown Mary as Christotokos – the mother of Christ –  another counterintuitive element of Christmas is tactics. Christ’s coming to earth was hardly the Powell Doctrine. The former American Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that – as a last resort – if the military must be used, then go big. Amass huge quantities of soldiers and equipment, then overwhelm the enemy. But on Christmas, God didn’t get the memo. He didn’t dispatch an army of angels (though an angel choir did sing for a handful of shepherds). Instead, God parachuted an infant Jesus quietly behind enemy lines, like a single SEAL in camouflage. In a world under the destructive thumb of the devil and his sinister band of brothers (1 John 5:19, Ephesians 6:12 ), this underwhelming response seemed counterintuitive.

Besides choice of people and tactics, a final counterintuitive aspect of the incarnation is love. For a creation that had hatefully snubbed its Creator, one might expect in return well-derserved wrath, God paying back hate with greater hate. Yet to our utter amazement, this “SEAL” sent by God came armed with only one “weapon.” Hate could never overcome hate; only love could do that:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…

Paul in the cross discerned heaven’s jujitsu, writing to the Romans: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, NIV). The cross is a counterintuitive demonstration of God’s love for us sinners who despised him (Romans 5:8). While God’s self-denying modus operandi makes little sense to human calculus, love is the powerful magnet that for twenty centuries has drawn people to their knees at manger, cross, and empty tomb.

Humble Mary, baby Jesus, love – These are three indications that we worship a counterintuitive God. The LORD acts differently than what you would expect. For the sake of our world, may we as Christ’s followers recommit ourselves to doing likewise.

Incarnation and holiness

mangerIt’s a persistent theme across the centuries. Spirit is good; flesh is evil.

Some of the ancient Greek philosophers taught the exaltation of the soul and the denigration of the body. Plato extolled the immortal soul while Gnosticism later picked up the theme, infecting early Christianity with the notion that salvation is achieved only when the soul is liberated from the prison house of corrupt flesh. Augustine never escaped the lure of this view, implying the dirtiness of the body by teaching that original sin is passed down through the procreative act.

The negative Greek view of human flesh is what makes the reaction to Paul’s teaching in Acts 17 understandable. He met with a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosphers at Mars Hill in Athens (17:18). At first, they gave him a polite hearing as he attempted to build a bridge to them, speaking of the altar he had discovered which bore the inscription “to an unknown God” (v. 23). But then Paul lost his audience as quickly as he had gained it. What did he do wrong? He affirmed that God had raised Jesus from the dead (v. 31). Nothing bespeaks the value and goodness of the human body like God’s willingness to restore one to life. The philosophers would have none of it.

But we’re getting a bit ahead of the story. Long before Easter comes Christmas. While Easter is the feast of the resurrection, Christmas is the feast of the incarnation:

The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, CEB).

The eternal, Triune God who had made all that is and pronounced it “good” (Genesis 1) tabernacles among us as Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23) thereby dignifying humble flesh. If the Gnostics were correct to believe that the pure spirit of divinity could never stoop to inhabit a corrupt human body, then the incarnation becomes a non-sense. Yet we are not Gnostics and should resist their false teaching. Christian orthodoxy affirms that whatever the disobedience of Adam and Eve may have done to the human condition, God still sees in our body something already very good, something worth saving and perfecting.

Christmas as the moment when the Word became flesh is the celebration of God’s good creation as symbolized by the tiny body of a baby boy. Our body was never meant to be viewed as a brake on our spiritual progress, as something that weighs down our escape from this world. Far from a hindrance to our relationship with God, the body – properly viewed – becomes an instrument of praise. For every follower of Christ, our body becomes the very temple of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Our body – what God already pronounced “supremely good” (Genesis 1:31, CEB) – we give back to the Lord so that it may be purified and set apart for sacred use (Romans 12:1-2). We worship God with our body. In so doing, our body becomes a vehicle the Lord can use for holy purposes.

The next time you are tempted to think of your body as an obstacle to fulfilling God’s mission in your life, remember that the eternal Christ never spurned a body. Instead, he saw the incarnation as necessary, a human body as essential to fulfilling his divine calling. This Christmas, let us thank God for the body he has given us, and with joy give our body back to him for his sacred use.

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Image credit: Tou Logoi Logou

 

What difference does Christmas make?

cross-and-manger“What difference does Christmas make?”

Galatians 4:1-7

Preached at African Nazarene University Church

Nairobi, Kenya

Sunday, December 16, 2012

– Read passage in the NLT, followed by opening prayer –

I.          INTRODUCTION

What difference does Christmas make?

Is it just about eating chicken, going up-country to visit with relatives? Or, in my native country, drawing on German customs, is it just about making cookies and putting up a fir trees with lights and decorations?

What difference does Christmas make?

To answer the question, first we must change the question.

The word “Christmas” never appears in the Bible. It comes from Middle English prior to the 12th century, and refers to the mass devoted to Christ celebrating Christ’s birth.

So really, we instead should ask:

What difference does the incarnation make?

Now, I’m not suggesting that we change our greeting from “Merry Christmas” to “Merry incarnation.” That would take some getting used to! But it would be a more accurate description of what we’re actually celebrating. It is the feast of Christ’s coming to earth to save us.

John 1:14 (KJV) tells us: And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”

In the same way, the Apostle Paul thought long and hard about what difference Christ’s coming to earth made. As a Jewish man, his first concern was to relate the old thing that God had done through His covenant people with the new thing God had done through Christ. That’s really what Galatians is all about.

So in Galatians 4:1-7, we find at least three answers to the question, “What difference does the incarnation make?” The answers to that question can be summarized in three words:

1) freedom

2) adoption

3) inheritance

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