Saturday, 27 December 2014

The (So-Called) Three Kings in Matthew's Nativity Story

Who were “the three kings” who came to worship Jesus? A few meditative reflections prompted by a comment in a sermon preached by Oliver O'Donovan and reprinted in The Word in Small Boats (Eerdmans, 2010), pages 16-18, on the wise men as intruders.

First, (verse 1) they seem to be the wrong people from the wrong place.
Magi from the East = magicians / astrologers, likely from Arabia or maybe Babylonia or Persia. The translation “wise men” may be an attempt to make them more respectable than they would have been in the eyes of loyal Bible readers at the time (Daniel 1:20; Isaiah 47:12-13). And note that the only other reference in the NT to someone of that profession is in Acts 13 (verses 6 and 8) and it’s not complimentary.
It is more than 1200 km from Babylon to Jerusalem, and another 800 km, if you came from further East, say Esfahan; in these cases it would have been a long, difficult, perilous and expensive journey. Even from Arabia it is a major journey. 
We, too, may consider some fellow worshippers the wrong sort of people from the wrong place. This report questions such an attitude and maybe encourages us to remember that for some the journey to Christian worship has been a very difficult one.

Secondly, (verses 1-3) they seem to be asking questions in the wrong place.
What are they doing in Jerusalem? Maybe their reasoning got in the way (“surely a child born to be king of the Jews must be in Jerusalem!”). Maybe the star had left them to their own devices for a moment, or maybe the star first led them to Jerusalem in order to get another part of the story going.
Certainly the confrontation with Herod highlights some of the implications of the kingship of Jesus. A different sort of king but one that does threaten (and frighten) the existing political establishment.
We may be tempted to put Jesus in a separate box, reserved for Sundays maybe. No, he must affect everything everywhere, not only in Bethlehem but also in Jerusalem.

Thirdly, they arrive in Bethlehem in a roundabout way and apparently at the wrong time.
If they had been truly wise, they could have gone to the Jewish Scriptures in the first place to find out that they had to go to Bethlehem. No need for a star, king Herod  and chief priests and scribes. Ok, they did need the star for the timing of the fulfilment of the prophecy. Except that they arrive not to find a newborn but a “child” (verses 9 and 11) already one year or so old. Too late to congratulate the parents on the birth of a child; too early to see the child enthroned.
But then our own journey to Christ was likely roundabout and in a sense we, too, arrive in the midst of time. The decisive event has happened (not only the birth but for us also the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ) but we do not see Jesus enthroned yet. The magi did not come to congratulate the parents but to offer homage to Jesus and it’s not too late for that. They offer homage to one who does not yet command homage.
We are in a similar situation. We have better reason, and maybe even a command, to pay homage to Jesus but he does not yet command worship with force. He invites worship and like the magi we need to trust the testimony before we see the full reality of his kingship and indeed divinity.

Fourthly, they are apparently doing the wrong thing.
They bring gifts. They are the only ones in the biblical nativity stories to bring gifts. And gifts which most people consider to be not particularly practical. In other words, they are responsible for the commercialisation of Christmas. All these gifts – all these things we don’t truly need…
I’m of course not entirely serious. Gifts that communicate joy are great, and the less they are needed the more they speak of grace. But gifts can be problematic.
If you’ve seen the Christmas Special of the BBC drama series Call the Midwife, you will have seen how Cynthia struggles with her call to the religious life in Nonnatus House, a High Anglican mission in the East End of London. She wants to become one of the sisters, but simply can't understand why Christ would want her when, as she admits, “I have nothing to give, nothing to sacrifice, nothing to offer up in exchange for all his love for me.” But that is grace, and we are closer to grasping it, if we realise that there is in reality nothing we can give Jesus that is not already his.
He could just take all the gold, frankincense and myrrh of the world, all the time and money we have, and he would not even need to ask our permission, but he loves to receive them as a gift because at its best giving and receiving presents is about relationships.

Finally, they are apparently still the wrong people on the wrong track.
If Jesus is “born king of the Jew” (verse 2), the Messiah (verse 4) “who is to shepherd my people Israel” (verse 6), what’s that got to do with people who are not Jews? What’s their relationship? And if they have a relationship with this king, why go back to their own country at all?
Matthew puts a lot of emphasis on Jesus being the son of David, the son of Abraham. It’s because the promises belong to the Jews but Gentiles can be fellow-heirs. And that is of course very encouraging for us who are not Jews. We don’t have the first claim on Jesus but we, too, have a claim. And we don’t have to become Jewish, we don’t have to be in a particular place with a particular people to belong to king Jesus. From now on every journey we make can be a route taken with Christ.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Three Kings of Luke’s Second Nativity Story

Prefatory remark 1: The three kings of our nativity plays have their origin in the Gospel of Matthew where they are wise men and not necessarily three.
Prefatory remark 2: Luke’s first nativity story is that of John the Baptist.

The first king to be mentioned looks more than just a king – he is in fact an emperor. He was born as Gaius Octavius on 23 September 63 BC and came to power after a period of political unrest following the murder of his maternal great-uncle Julius Caesar who in his testament designated Octavian as his heir. Soon after his death, Julius Caesar was officially deified and Octavian began to style himself “son of the divine”.
“Celebrated as a hero after the strife of civil war, Augustus was considered the great source of peace for Rome. After defeating the enemies of Rome, he was celebrated as a great “saviour” to the people who would have likely been hopeless had victory not been achieved. The themes of freedom, justice, peace and salvation permeated his reign. Whenever the great deeds of Augustus were proclaimed, they were presented with the Greek term euangelion, which is translated, “good news” or, “gospel”.”[1] 

He looks like the one in charge because it is desire for a census that gets our story going. And, indeed, is it not one of the marks of a king or any comparable ruler that they determine the movements of little people even at great distance? There he is in Rome, a long way away from the backwaters of his empire here in Syria, Galilee and Judea but his decree impacts directly on the daily life of Mary and Jospeh and countless others.

The second king is easily overlooked because he has long ceased to be on the throne by the time our story begins. But David is in fact mentioned three times in the story. Bethlehem is said to be the “city of David” (twice) with regard to his origins (Jerusalem also holds a claim to being city of David, as the place from which he ruled over all of Israel) and Joseph is introduced as being of the family of David. No longer being on his throne, David’s impact on the story is more indirect but no less significant for it. In fact, the divine promises made to David got all this going to a more significant extent than a mere Roman decree. The Roman decree was the starting pistol but David, his life and the words he said, the words that were given to him, and the words attributed to him were the training over many years that preceded the race.

But who runs the race? It is of course the third king; “a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” When his birth had been announced to Mary he was introduced as Jesus (Saviour), the one who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33). Jesus is of course not yet enthroned as king within the nativity story but he is born to be king and the only one of the three who is still on the throne.

How does kingship work? I think we can say that all kingship is mediated through words. The King of the universe created the world through his word (Genesis 1) and upholds it through his word day by day (cf. Hebrews 1:3). We and everything else exist because of his command. He put what we call “natural laws” in place and he created humanity in his image to rule over the earth (Genesis 1:28). If God’s kind of rule is mediated through words, it is maybe no surprise that one of the key differences between humans and other animals seems to be our quantitatively and qualitatively different use of language but that’s for another day.

Augustus is introduced to us as an emperor who rules by his word. His decree is the starting pistol, as we have observed. The other two kings in the story are very closely related with words as well, even if not in the nativity story itself. Kind David is most famous for his psalms. They remind us that proper rule is exercised relationally, and especially in relation to God. Those are the best rulers who know themselves servants of God and are in a genuine relationship with him. (Religion, knowing oneself bound to God, like every good thing, has been put to wicked purposes. Not everyone who is or claims to be religious is in a genuine relationship with the living God. But, again, that’s for another day.)

David’s kingship is superior to the rule of someone who does not know himself accountable to God. True kingship does not rest on brute force to back up commands people have to obey but with words inspires others to follow.

Augustus is counting people so as to get the most out of them – both in terms of taxes, it seems, and in terms of propaganda. (Augustus seems to have been keen to show that during his rule the population decline was reversed.[2]) David governed God’s people by inspiring them to follow in God’s ways. His exercise of authority was not flawless but in many ways exemplary nevertheless.

So what about baby Jesus? He is of course, as John’s Gospel tells us, the Word of God that came to tabernacle among us.Words can be powerful, especially when backed up with force. It seems that God’s Word cannot but be powerful, given the unlimited resources at his disposal. But what seems impossible to us has been made possible in Christ. God takes on human flesh, becomes vulnerable, mortal.

To be sure, there is a great deal of power at work in Christ. Not for him meek acquiescence to demonic forces or gentle tolerance of illness and disease. He has taken on flesh to allow himself to be victimised but he decides when and how. (He was not going to die falling down a cliff in Nazareth.) Yes, there is power at work in Jesus and never more so than in his resurrection (and ascension) which is the moment at which he became king (e.g., Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4; Ephesians 1:20). If his word were not powerful, we would have no hope of resurrection life being spoken into us.

But the power is creative rather than coercive. If, put simplistically, Augustus ruled by counting people and David ruled by inspiring people, Jesus rules by drawing people to himself, the source of life. David prefigures Jesus in his vulnerability (especially during the significant period between anointing and enthronement) and in using words to inspire as much as command. But Jesus inspires by drawing people to himself, promising eternal life. While Augustus used the threat of death to secure obedience and David’s rule was limited by death (cf. Acts 2:29), the rule of Christ gathers his people in resurrection life.

As we stand again before the crib, we may reflect on our own use of words. Do we use words mostly to get what we want? Do we encourage and inspire others? Do we make room for the voice of others by our vulnerability?

Even more importantly, we may reflect on what it is that governs our lives: the demands out upon us by other forces, the inspiration offered to us, or the promise held out by the one born to be king? Where for us the emphasis lies will shape our experience of 2015 and beyond.

[1] One spelling mistake corrected (“Augustus”) and one instance of US spelling changed to UK spelling (“saviour”).
[2] Augustus counts his censuses among his great achievements, see

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Believing in God and believing in fairies

Believing in God and believing in fairies are two completely different things. David B. Hart puts it well:
To speak of “God” properly, then—to use the word in a sense consonant with the teachings of Orthodox Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Baháí, a great deal of antique paganism, and so forth—is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something poised over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. …
Yet the most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God—especially, but not exclusively, on the atheist side—is the habit of conceiving of God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact. …
At a trivial level, one sees the confusion in some of the more shopworn witticism of popular atheism: “I believe neither in God nor in the fairies at the bottom of my garden,” for instance, or “All people are atheists in regard to Zeus, Wotan, and most other gods; I simply disbelieve in one god more.” … Beliefs regarding fairies are beliefs about a certain kind of object that may or may not exist within the world, and such beliefs have much the same sort of intentional shape and rational content as beliefs regarding one’s neighbors over the hill or whether there are such things as black swans. Beliefs regarding God concern the source and ground and end of all reality, the unity and existence of every particular thing and the totality of all things, the ground of the possibility of anything at all. Fairies and gods, if they exist, occupy something of the same conceptual space as organic cells, photons, and the force of gravity, and so the sciences might perhaps have something to say about them, if a proper medium for investigating them could be found. … God, by contrast, is the infinite actuality that makes it possible for either photons or (possibly) fairies to exist, and so can be “investigated” only, on the one hand, by acts of logical deduction and induction and conjecture or, on the other, by contemplative or sacramental or spiritual experiences. Belief or disbelief in fairies or gods could never be validated by philosophical arguments made from first principle; the existence or nonexistence of Zeus is not a matter that can be intelligibly discussed in the categories of modal logic or metaphysics, any more than the existence of tree frogs could be; if he is there at all, one must go on an expedition to find him.
The question of God, by contrast, is one that can and must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, potency and act, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence. … Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, saturates every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us. (The Experience of God, pp. 30, 32, 33-34)
Cited from