Happy New Year to you on this Eighth Day. Once again, the Church Year reminds us that Jesus was born into a specific family situated in a specific culture on a specific day at a specific time in history. This so that He could be the Man for all men and born at a particular time for people of all times. Let this calendar year be ruled for you by the Church calendar and put everything in perspective. (Weedon has more here.)
I was at the Seattle zoo today with family and we saw the gorillas lounging in their enclosure. The sign next to the glass informed us that the gorilla is our closest non-human relative, humans having only split off three million years ago. And I wondered, as the gorilla in front of us was stuffing feces in its mouth: at what point in the last three million years did we stop eating feces and walking on all fours? Now that’s a question for evolutionary biology to explore. We wait with bated breath…
Somehow or other, and with the best of intentions, we have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-natured bore–and this in the name of one who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which he passed through the world like a flame.Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiments heaped upon it, and set in on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much worse for the pious–others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended because of Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended at something that is not Christ and is nothing like him? We do him singularly little honor by watering down his personality till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.
It is the dogma that is the drama–not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death–but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they may realize that here is something that a man might be glad to believe. (Dorothy Sayers, “The Dogma is the Drama,” Letters to a Diminished Church, 21)
The Gospel is not mission. The Gospel is not doing good works. The Gospel is not “meeting people where they’re at.” The Gospel is not worship. The Gospel is not fellowship. The Gospel is not friendship. The Gospel is not any number of things of which we’re accustomed to speak.
Why am I writing this? The Gospel would seem to be the most easily definable idea in Christianity. And yet, in our current ecclesiastical context, it is just about the most slippery word we have. Do we mean the Gospel, like the Gospel of John or Matthew? Do we mean the redemption of sinners? Do we mean the Gospel that “breaks the curse” of poverty? (The latter is very often what it means on TV.) Even in Lutheran circles, where the euangellion (most often translated as “Gospel”) is supposed to rule, ideas such as vocation and mission are far too often included. This is a dangerous category mistake. It is perhaps the most dangerous.
It is dangerous because once concepts foreign to the heart of the euangellion are included in it, sinners can be consoled no longer. The overriding concern of the Lutheran confessors, that burdened sinners be consoled, is so easily lost that it requires constant vigilance to make sure that it does not happen.
What is the Gospel, then? It is this, and this alone: Jesus Christ lived, died, rose again, ascended, and is coming back to redeem sinners from the sin that corrupts them. Once anything else is included in the “proclamation of the Gospel,” sinners will remain in their damnation, except, as always, by the intervention of God’s grace in Christ.
Of course, even Lutherans can speak of the Gospel in “the broad sense” as the narrative of Jesus’ life (which, when proclaimed, becomes the Gospel in the “narrow sense”). This does not negate my point, but strengthens it. It only makes clear that we must be very clear what we mean when we say “Gospel,” lest the comfort of that very Gospel be vitiated.
A last point. Other things, such as vocation or mission, should not be understood as the Gospel as such, but as, perhaps, implications of the Gospel. Thus, the Gospel is preserved to the salvation of sinners.
O Dayspring, Splendor of Light Everlasting, Son of Righteousness: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
O King of the Nations, the Ruler they long for, the Cornerstone uniting all people: Come and save humankind whom you formed out of clay.
O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Desire of all nations, and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God.
One more cool thing about these antiphons: moving from the last antiphon to the first, the first letter of each first word spells ERO CRAS (Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia), which means “I will come tomorrow” or “I will be [with you] tomorrow.” Indeed, come Lord Jesus.
It’s happened before and you can be sure it will happen again. Someone falling, that is. Ted Haggard and Paul Barnes are merely the latest. It causes the press to do all sorts of “soul” searching. (Frankly, I doubt the press is having any trouble deciding what’s right and wrong. Funny how the antinomians always end up the most legalistic, huh?) It gives newspapers the opportunity to highlight the oppressive nature of Christian churches that deny that God made homosexuals that way.
(Of course God didn’t make you that way, any more than He made all sinners that way. Now, whether someone is “born” homosexual–which I don’t believe–what difference would that make? As if that takes away a person’s responsibility to act correctly and obey the Law. The fact that I’m a sinner doesn’t absolve me from my responsibility to do what I’m supposed to do.)
But what I can’t understand is the desire to gloat over the downfall of these men. What does it prove if someone can’t restrain their sinful behavior? That they’re hypocrites? Who doesn’t say one thing and do the opposite? Who doesn’t wear different masks depending on the situation? Hypocrisy doesn’t disprove a particular truth any more than saying God doesn’t exist disproves His existence. The only thing that these “scandals” prove is that they’re sinners who allowed their sinful nature to take them down. Yeah, well, who’s next? Maybe you’re not the pastor of a mega-mega-church with the ear of the president, but your heart is as black as the next guy’s. So is mine. Your private life makes angels blush, and you know it. “Rejoice not when your enemy falls, and when he stumbles, let not your heart exult. Lest Yahweh see it, be displeased with you, and withdraw his wrath from your enemy” (Proverbs 24:17-18). “For the just man falls seven times and rises again, but the wicked stumble to ruin” (Proverbs 24:16). “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).
O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign before the peoples, before whom all kings are mute, to whom the nations will do homage: Come to deliver us, and delay not.
O Key of David, and Scepter of the House of Israel, you open and no one can close, you close and no one can open: Come and rescue the prisoners who are in darkness and in the shadow of death.
Dating from at least the 8th Century, the “O,” or “Great,” Antiphons were used with the Magnificat at Evening Prayer on the seven days prior to Christmas. (They also form the basis for the hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”) Since I missed the first one yesterday, here are the first two:
O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of understanding.
O Adonai, and Ruler of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the Law on Sinai: Come and with an outstretched arm redeem us.
As far from the banality of Christmas Muzak as one gets, I recommend some good Christmas music to have on hand. I’ve done this previously, but I’ve got some new ones to add.
Good Christmas music cds are few and far between so get these!
1. Over the Rhine, The Darkest Night of the Year
2. Bruce Cockburn, Christmas
3. Various, The Gift (this one might be hard to find, but it’s got Harrod and Funck and Vigilantes of Love)
4. Joy Electric, The Magic of Christmas (not for everyone!)
And two I’m currently awaiting in the mail:
1. Over the Rhine, Snow Angels
2. Sufjan Stevens, Songs for Christmas (42 of ’em!)
And one I haven’t ordered, but should:
1. Bill Mallonee, Yonder Shines the Infant Light
And my favorite sacred music cd:
1. The Messiah