Monday, December 24, 2007

Why did Jesus got born?

My four-year-old nephew, Liam, has developed a keen interest in the meaning of Christmas this year. He has asked several of us why we celebrate Christmas (no doubt checking the facts in order to make sure that no one has given him a faulty answer), and upon hearing the answer to that question asks why we celebrate Jesus' birth. Not bad questions for a kid in preschool.
A few nights ago, Liam stepped up his questions and asked his dad, "Why did Jesus got born?" My brother kindly told him that he should ask me that question, because I am "good at answering questions like that." This was, no doubt, a compassionate act on my brother's part. He works as a paramedic, and because of his schooling, is capable of saving a person's life in an emergency. I, on the other hand, am now a senior theology student and the only thing I really can do is answer questions like this. Redirecting the question to me is something like asking a toddler to carry the apples into the house while unloading groceries. It one of the few things he really can carry and it makes him feel as if he is doing something.
In accordance with his father's directive, Liam found me in the next room and posed the same question to me, "Uncle Sam, why did Jesus got born?"
As I took a moment to think about how I would answer his question, it occurred to me that this was in fact a huge question, the question. Why was Jesus born? This is the question of the Virgin Birth, the question of the meaning of Christmas, the question of why we celebrate Jesus' birth, the question of the very Incarnation. How could such a profound question come from such a young boy?
As I continued to chew on the question, it occurred to me that explaining Christmas would require me to explain Easter. "Why did Jesus got born?" is the same question as "Why the Incarnation?" I chuckled a little to myself as I reflected on the fact that Liam's question was the same one that St. Anselm of Canterbury devoted a book to answering. His book was even titled similarly: Cur Deus Homo? or Why did God become Man?
Once I had gone through this process of thought, which thankfully happened more quickly than it appears here, I began to attempt an answer for Jesus.

"Well Liam, do you remember celebrating Easter this year?"
"Yeah."
"Do you remember why we celebrate Easter?"
He looked at me with a befuddled expression.
"Well, you have learned about Jesus in Sunday School and from your parents right?"
"Yup."
"And about all the great things He did?"
He nodded.

And then it occurred to me that he might not have ever heard what I was about to tell him. Thoughts shot through my head like darts, "Is he too young to hear this? Will it upset him to much? How will he respond?" I knew, though, that I had to tell him. It was the only way to answer his question, and he needed to know this anyway.

"Well Liam, after Jesus did all those great things, the people got together and, and killed Him."
"They killed Him?"

Liam's grin disappeared and his eyes crinkled as he clearly began to fight back tears. He had never heard this before, or at least he had been too young to understand it when he had heard it. Going on with this would be painful.

"Yeah, Liam. They did kill Him."
Liam fought harder against the tears that were trying to work their way out.
"Why did He die?"
"Hm. Have you ever done anything bad Liam?"
He looked down at the train in his hand, "Yes."
"Me too. Everyone has. Jesus never did though, and when He died He took the punishment that should have been ours for all the bad things we did."
"But! Liam, the great news is why we celebrate Easter. Three days after they killed Him He got back up! He came back to life!"
"He did?! How did He do that?"
"Well, you heard that Jesus is God right? And that Jesus' Dad is God too?"
"Uh huh."
"Well God raised Him from the dead."
He smiled, "That's strange."
"Yes. Yes it is, and great. And that is why Jesus was born. So that He could die for us and come back to life so that we don't have to stay dead when we die."

At this point Liam was satisfied and contentedly returned to playing with his train. In that conversation with a four-year-old, God reminded me of something profoundly important. In fact, God reminded me of the most profoundly important thing in the history of the world. Jesus was born to die and to return to life. The story is so familiar to us that it can lose its impact, but for a brief moment I was reintroduced to the tragedy of Christ's death and the joy of His resurrection through the face of a little boy understanding the Gospel story for the first time. I'll leave off with Philippians 2:5-11, the best Christmas summary of all,

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Sin of the Sober

Recently, I have set myself upon the first five books of the Bible for my personal devotions. I have read these books (also known as the Torah, the Pentateuch, or the Law) before, but feel that it is time to read them again. Beginning in Genesis, my study has been interesting (especially with the accompaniment of the incredible Africa Bible Commentary), but up until now had not been particularly moving. Sometimes, it seems, simple familiarity with passages can cramp their impact upon me.
This changed, however, in reading Genesis 9:18-27. These verses contain a story of Noah, but not that story of Noah. This story takes place after the flood and after God's new covenant with His creation. Somehow (through the Holy Spirit, most likely) this passage jumped off the page to me. In it, Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine from his produce, drinks it until drunk, and passes out naked. His son, Ham, sees his father in his debauched and shameful state and goes off to tell his brothers about it. Shem and Japheth, Noah's other sons, walk in to Noah's tent backwards, so as not to see him in his shame, and cover him with a garment. Upon waking the next morning, and probably while hung over, Noah discovers what had gone on in the night and curses Ham's firstborn son. Clearly, this is the stuff of flannel-graphs.
While this story was familiar to me, it stood out as never before in my most recent reading. It abounds with important themes and lessons (e.g. honoring of parents, the dire consequences of family feuds, the bitter effects of drunkenness, etc.). One lesson in particular stands out among the rest, though. It is a lesson regarding the sin of the sober.
Although Noah's drunkenness stands out in our reading of the story, the sinfulness of his inebriated state does not appear to be the central theme of the passage. Instead, it is the wickedness of Ham's treatment of his drunken father that is most pronounced. This struck me as I realized that the vast majority of Christian literature regarding drunkenness focuses upon the sin involved in intoxication and the need for Christians to abstain from becoming drunk. This is, of course, an incredibly important principle for anyone who follows Christ (though I do not support a ban on drunkenness as a ban on all alcohol consumption). Still, this is not the only principle a Christian should have with regard to intoxication. A sober saint must learn to treat those who are drunk with respect.
Most know through experience or through story that there is a temptation for those who are sober around those who are inebriated to treat them worse than they generally would. This generally involves failing to discourage and sometimes encouraging the drunk person to do foolish things as their inhibitions have been lowered. The mental justification is something along the lines of, "It is their fault if they do what I am telling them to do. It is their decision and it was their decision to become drunk that allowed for it." The thought can be summed up with the words of Cain a few chapters before, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Such an excuse did not go well with God for Cain and will not serve the disciple of Jesus any better, for the answer to Cain's question stands out brilliantly against our ingrained individualism with a resounding "Yes!"
Although it was sinful for the drunk person to place themselves in a state of drunkenness, that in no way diminishes the responsibility of the saint. The drunk person is your brother or sister and you must love them as such. They are more easily taken advantage of, and so you must protect them. They are easily degraded but remain human made in God's image, and so you must respect them and preserve their integrity. They are often sick (or will be soon), and so must be cared for. There is almost no earthly reward for caring for a drunk or hungover person, but perhaps that should drive us to excel in caring for such a person all the more (see here, here, here, and here).
Following Christ entails the avoidance of intoxication, but what a shame it would be if it was defined by such avoidance. Would it not be an even higher example of true faith if Christians were known for their committed care for the drunk? I will end this post with the words of 1 Peter 4:8-10,
"Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms."