Peace on Earth

In the spirit of Christmas, Jerusalem is once again the battle ground for world politics, while decisions made the past few weeks in Washington, New York, and Pyongyang threaten the existence of us all. What else is new?

Ironically, Jerusalem can be said to mean “The City of Peace”, bearing the same root as the word shalom (Hebrew) or salaam (Arabic). That has certainly not been the experience of the actual city.

When the angels sang over a field outside Bethlem some 2,000 years ago, they could be forgiven for hoping that things would now change for the better.

Only 70 years later Jerusalem was burned to the ground, however. And through two millennia its fate has been more hotly contested than most cities on earth.

When I was younger I had an idea that a well-placed nuke over Jerusalem would take away the root cause of many of this world’s conflicts, never mind the collateral damage. It’s probably not that simple, but the battle continues.

“Peace on earth, good will to men.” What did we miss? Why are we still celebrating the occasion, singing that same tune?

What happened to the promise of peace?

There is no peace on earth. The American poet H.W. Longfellow put it as starkly when during the Civil War he penned the tragic poem Christmas Bells:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Wasn’t Jesus supposed to put an end all that? The prophets predicting his arrival sure hoped so, calling the Messiah the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), or saying, “He will proclaim peace to the nations.” (Zechariah 9:10)

Even Jesus himself expressed a desire for a better way when he said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

But the quote above is also one of resignation. An earthly restoration of peace was not possible, even if that was what his followers initially hoped for. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” said a disillusioned disciple a few days after his death (Luke 24:21).

Killing all the children

What then remains as the legacy of the Messiah? Good teachings of how to live your life? Love thy neighbour, and all that? If that was it, was it really worth it?

Consider the massacre of Bethlehem, a detail of the Christmas story we try not to focus on too much. King Herod, in fear of a supposed usurper, orders the killing of all boys under the age of two in Bethlehem.

Just picture that for a moment. Not even Joffrey Baratheon from King of Thrones could muster a cruelty of that magnitude.

It would be quite understandable if this tragedy spawned a certain resentment towards the one baby who survived the massacre from the families who suffered such a terrible loss.

Shalom incarnated

In earthly terms, it makes no sense. There is no peace on earth. But what the angels meant was something different.

First of all, peace is much too narrow a term to appreciate the full meaning of shalom. Secondly, it has a person as a focal point: God’s shalom has been incarnated, sowing a seed of love in the midst of a war zone.

But the mission was not to oust the Romans. It was not a restoration of Israel’s glory. It was not even a limited peace to the city of Jerusalem. The mission of the Messiah was grander: it was a restoration of all of humanity.

In a 16th century Christmas carol, Robert Southwell writes:

This little Babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at His presence quake,
Though He Himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell He will surprise.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

Rome is not the enemy, neither is Palestine, or North Korea for that matter. The enemy is evil itself. Concepts such as God’s Own Country, Holy City, Holy Land, and the like become obsolete with the Christmas message of the Messiah extending God’s peace to all the world.

We have not yet seen the end of this. The joy of Christmas is not peace here and now. Obviously. But what we do celebrate is the coming of hope: The First Advent gives us tangible proof, through the Son of God incarnate, that the Second Advent is more than just a fantasy. And one day there will be peace, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

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Rising From the Dead?

It’s Easter. Yellow bunnies, eggs, roast lamb and time off work. Great stuff. But what about that other thing? You know, God dying and all that?

In hugely secular Denmark, Easter is still the one time of year when Christianity does seem to gather some general interest, if only for the traditions. There are still people who may call themselves ‘spiritual’ or claim to believe in ‘Christian values’, whatever they are; but how many modern-day Northern Europeans believe literally in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on Sunday morning?

Does that really matter, you may ask? Can we not share the Christian message of love and peace without necessarily having to subscribe to a belief in a supernatural phenomenon that cannot be explained by rationally thinking people?

But that’s the whole point. It’s not supposed to be something we can explain. Even in the accounts from two thousand years ago, there was widespread disbelief. The closest followers of this man had given up hope. The first witnesses of the risen Christ were those with the lowest credibility at the time: women. The movement that Jesus had arguably started had died with him. What followed – the Christian church – was built solely on the belief that Jesus had in fact conquered death. Incredible, yes, but reality nonetheless.

Paul says: “If the dead aren’t raised, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless.” (1 Corinthians 15:16-17)

If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then there is no hope that we will be able to do so ourselves as humans. Without that hope, Christianity is moot. Without the hope of resurrection, the church is a bunch of traditions built on a lie, and not worth our time. There can be no church, no faith, without the resurrection.

If, however, we choose to grasp in faith that which we cannot explain rationally, then Easter morning carries a promise of hope that is without comparison. With all our advances and scientific revolutions, we are still no closer to conquering death. And nobody seriously believes that it is within our means to do so.

What happened on that morning two thousand years ago is still as unique, crazy and unbelievable today as it was then. I have chosen to believe, against the odds, in the hope that it is really true.

The Worst Story Ever Told

While the art of telling stories is hard to master, the basic syntax is surprisingly simple. The large majority of books and movies follow some variation on a standard template. Very simply put, it goes like this:

Harmony – harmony threatened/lost – hero enters – hero overcomes trials – harmony restored.

We like stories like this. Why? Because we like the idea that good will prevail in the end. We can identify with the loss of harmony and the trials, but we so want to believe in the Hollywood ending. We want to sing with Bob Marley: Everything’s gonna be alright.

But it doesn’t always turn out that way, does it? Real life is not Hollywood. And sometimes the happy ending is lost. It becomes even worse if we see the hero, but he fails to overcome the trials. We get our hopes up, only to be let down. When you’re neck-deep in the trials, do you really know how the ending will be? The more dramatic the story, the less faith on the part of the hero.

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo did give up hope before the end, and only by Sam’s assistance did he conquer and succeed. What if Sam hadn’t been with him? What if Frodo had failed his task and was captured by Sauron? No one would have been alive to tell the story (unless you speak Orcish).

The hero can be a person, but it can also be an idea. Take spring. Very appropriately, the hope of spring came early this year, with days of 18 degrees even in March. We Danes love speaking about the weather, seeing it as a major accomplishment simply surviving yet another winter. But what happened? Our hopes were ruined, and now we’re back to sub-zero night temperatures, and white flurries in April. What if spring never came?

Then take the aptly named Arab Spring of last year. Suddenly, it seemed, people from all over the Middle East were swept away by waves of hope: hope of freedom and prosperity. Governments have been overthrown in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. But what about the hopes of the people of Syria? Their country is still not free, and some estimates count 12,000 deaths to date in the uprising.

Not that far away, a similar story played out a number of years ago. An oppressed people in a Middle Eastern state, longing for freedom, yearning for redress after centuries of pain and disappointment. A new hero enters the stage, and many people believe that this time it’s for real. Finally, the Arab Spring had come (or was it Jewish?).

But the hero doesn’t win. He is misunderstood, and then he is betrayed and killed by his own people. The very people he came to save. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” one of his few followers says in despair while walking the long, hard road back to where he came from. No Hollywood ending. No hope. This was anything but a Good Friday.

Thank God for Prime Rib

I got to reading Romans 14 last night. And this chapter might as well have been titled something like “Paul’s 2nd letter to the Adventists”. For it focuses on what to eat and what not to eat; an issue that – although not at the centre of Adventist theology – has had a profound impact on our identity. Sadly, one might add, as Tvesok has done.

Consider these passages from The Message version:

“For instance, a person who has been around for a while might well be convinced that he can eat anything on the table, while another, with a different background, might assume all Christians should be vegetarians and eat accordingly. But since both are guests at Christ’s table, wouldn’t it be terribly rude if they fell to criticizing what the other ate or didn’t eat? God, after all, invited them both to the table.

If you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for the prime rib; if you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli.

If you confuse others by making a big issue over what they eat or don’t eat, you’re no longer a companion with them in love, are you? These, remember, are persons for whom Christ died. Would you risk sending them to hell over an item in their diet? Don’t you dare let a piece of God-blessed food become an occasion of soul-poisoning!” (Romans 14:2-4,6,15-16, Msg)

Some would no doubt be quick to point out that Paul is not talking about clean and unclean meats here, that he would not even regard unclean meats as food, and thus they are not part of this picture. Perhaps. But that is not the point – no, Paul is not talking about clean/unclean, he isn’t even talking about food per se, he’s talking about accepting other points of view than your own and embracing fellow Christians in spite of differing opinions.

“So let’s agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don’t drag them down by finding fault. You’re certainly not going to permit an argument over what is served or not served at supper to wreck God’s work among you, are you?” (Romans 14:19, Msg)

There are many Christian churches, and none will agree on every single issue. There are many Christians, and none will agree on every single issue. The question is, do you focus on the issues where you disagree, or on those where you agree? I say, let God do the judging.

The People that Walked in Darkness

In many ways Denmark is a nice place to live. Winter is not one of them, however. For the last many weeks, it seems, the sun has set before 4 p.m., and risen whenever it feels like it – that amounts to perhpaps once or twice a week.

So Christmas is a welcome celebration. Certain obscure theological purists object: Jesus was born in spring, not in winter, so celebrating his birth at midwinter is a heathen tradition. So what? Christ coming into this world is more of a turning point than winter solstice will ever be. Combining the two was a stroke of genius by whoever did it. Elijah says it clearly in this well-known passage:

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; and the that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” (Elijah 9:1)

This passage is also a well-known Aria in Händel’s Messiah, which I heard tonight with my extended family. The choir Camerata in their annual performance in Copenhagen’s Holmens Kirke – probably the best in town, and this year was no exception.

Christmas is finally here. Jesus has been born, and light is returning to the world (including Denmark). It is time to celebrate both. Happy holidays!

The Camel and the Needle’s Eye, Revisited

A well-known passage in the gospel is that of the man who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (The whole passage is recorded in Luke 18:18-27) Jesus’ first answer is “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

But we often focus on the next part: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, etc …'” The guy claims he keeps the commandments, so Jesus challenges him: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” And the man becomes sad and leaves. So Jesus delivers the punch-line: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Except this is not the punch-line. Our remembering the picture may be because of its memorability. But stopping the story here gives us a flawed version of the gospel, as I see it. I speculate that if the man had, in fact, sold everything he owned and given it to the poor, Jesus would still have met him with the reply: it’s not enough.

The point of the story is not that we have to sell everything or else we won’t get into heaven. The point of the story comes in verses 26-27. The onlookers asked Jesus: “Who can then be saved?” and he replied: “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” That is the punch-line. Remember in verse 19, he said, “No one is good except God alone.”

We are saved, not by our good deeds, but by the grace of God. No matter how hard we try keeping the commandments, giving everything to the poor we will always fall short in our own endeavor. Fortunately, we don’t have to earn credit with God. We must only trust Jesus and let him do what is impossible with men, but possible with God.