IVP - Strangely Dim - December 2012 Archives

December 23, 2012

What Jesus Started: Part Five of Five

An Advent reflection based on the book What Jesus Started by Steve Addison. Read parts one, two, three and four here.

Advent is the beginning of the Christian calendar. While the world waits till January for its hard reboot, Christians have already moved on. Advent, which begins typically toward the end of November, ends with the beginning of Christmas, which itself is not a day but a season and carries the church over the changing of the civil calendar. By January 7 the church is in its third season, already marking Ordinary Time.

Advent is a beginning that culminates in Christmas, a time that has become a time of gathering. We travel far and wide to see and reconnect with friends and loved ones. We sing songs together and give gifts to one another. We share meals and make memories. If Christmas weren't sacred for what it marked--the incarnation of the Lord in the world--it would be sacred merely for what it elicits in us.

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Of course Christmas is sacred because God was made flesh and took up residence among us. But it's a false dichotomy to say that because the one is true, the other is insignificant. In fact Christmas is marked from the first by a gathering. Having seen the need of the world, and having purposed to make meaningful connection to the world, and having developed a plan that would involve training in the ways of the kingdom of God and sharing in the life of one another--having done all this, God inaugurates his incarnational mission by gathering people to himself.

  • Zechariah, a priest in the Temple of the Lord, is recruited even in his old age to parent a child who will prepare the way of the Lord.
  • Elizabeth, elderly wife of Zechariah, is commissioned to bear that son--a commission that fills her with joy.
  • Mary, a modest young woman from a backwater town, is asked to sacrifice her body and her reputation, with the accompanying promise of power and grace, and the utterly unique experience of carrying God inside her body.
  • Joseph, a righteous man of the lineage of the great ancient king David, is called upon to sacrifice his own reputation and serve as foster parent to the Son of God.
  • Shepherds keeping watch over their fields at night are invited to come and see a newborn king,
  • Kings from afar are beckoned westward to witness the fulfillment of ancient prophecies and to meet the child to whom the whole universe points.
  • Simeon and Anna are vindicated in their long wait with the joy of seeing the coming of the Lord with their own eyes and formally welcoming him into the covenant family of God.

In Christ God acts singularly, without need of anyone. But God does not act in solitude. The act of incarnation is at its foundation an act of solidarity: God willfully eliminating the distance between God and the Other. In Christ God binds himself to the people he created.

God is also, however, binding us one to another: Zechariah and Elizabeth to their son, John the Baptist; Mary to Joseph; Elizabeth to her cousin Mary; John to Jesus; Jesus to Israel and, through the ceremonial action of Anna and Simeon and later John, Israel to Jesus. Once, the apostle Peter tells us, we were not a people; but in Christ we have become the people of God (1 Peter 2:10).

So now, as Advent 2012 yields the floor to Christmas, and as our anticipation of Christ's coming gives way to our celebration of Emmanuel--God with us--let us not give up gathering, as so tragically many are in the habit of doing, but rather let us gather regularly--to encourage one another, to spur one another on in the mission God has for us, to remind ourselves that we are bound together by the God who made us and who so loved the world that he gave his only Son.

In this way the church is regularly birthed in the world. In this way it carries on the mission of God in the world. In this way the world, which year after year seems to turn on itself, gets set right and bound back together. Thanks be to God.

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Read chapters five and six of What Jesus Started, along with the interlude "Church on the Porch." Then go through sessions nine and ten in the implementation guide. (You can get the book here.)

As you gather for Christmas this year, make a concerted effort to see the need of the people you've surrounded yourself with. Then seek meaningful connection with them--beyond the polite conversation that too often subverts such gatherings. Share what you've been learning about What Jesus Started and how it might impact on the lives of the people you're with. And then make plans to gather again as the year continues in January and beyond.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 8:51 AM

December 16, 2012

What Jesus Started: Part Four of Five

An Advent series inspired by the book What Jesus Started. Read the entry for the first week of Advent here, and the prefatory post here.

Advent is an act of faith. In the weeks that lead up to Christmas we declare that God is, that God sees, that God reaches toward a people in profound need of God's touch. "O Come, Emmanuel," we sing, "and ransom captive Israel." We long for this Emmanuel--this "God with us"--to intervene in the desperate condition of every Israel among us--each of us who "strives with God."

The amazing thing is, God does in fact come to be with us, and the God with whom we so often strive makes equally forceful commitments to us. "Surely I am with you always," Jesus tells his followers at the moment he departs from the earth, "to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). It's not unusual to cry out to God for deliverance; it's life- and world-changing when God actually does it.

So, if our lives and our world are changed by this intervention from God, then our attitudes, perspectives and approach to life need to change as well. Jesus recognized this during his time on earth, and while we might anticipate that a great and cosmic God would invest his one and only incarnation in magisterial, majestic, world-altering acts, we find in the Scriptures that instead Jesus consistently started remarkably, frustratingly small.

  • Rather than starting in the house of the emperor, Jesus started in the womb of an unmarried adolescent girl, in a town of no account among a people of no power.
  • Rather than starting with the storming the temple or palace gates, seizing control and establishing his rule, Jesus started in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the Satan, and at the river Jordan, where he was baptized by his cousin.
  • Rather than starting with the best and brightest, the movers and shakers, Jesus started with a ragtag collection of followers from the margins of society.
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Whatever Jesus was starting, it would be unlike the movements and institutions it would be set against. It would, in fact, serve as a prophetic symbol against those movements and institutions. Everything that made sense to the world would be overturned by Jesus, from the merchandise tables at the temple to the presumption of power at the governor's residence. Even the presumed finality of death would be turned on its head, as Jesus emerged from a grave and declared himself the resurrection and the life.

This radical reordering of reality would blow anyone's mind. So Jesus invested himself not simply in restructuring the world but in training the people who followed him to live in the way of his counter-cultural kingdom.

  • "The greatest among you," he told them, "will be the servant of all."
  • "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you."
  • "Blessed are you who are poor . . . who hunger . . . who weep . . . who suffer because of me."

Time after time Jesus drilled into the minds of his followers principles that would sound absurd if they didn't feel so true. In Jesus the intuitive logic of the world God created came to the surface and confronted the imposed logic of the ways of the world. Those with eyes to see and ears to hear were confronted with a choice--the same choice that confronted Moses' followers on the mountain and which confronts us still today: Will we choose the ways that seem so sensible to us but which lead inevitably to death, or will we choose the ways that defy conventional wisdom but lead us steadily into life?

One of Jesus' more perceptive followers--we're not told which one--once said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray." Jesus taught them gladly, and he teaches us gladly today, as an act of service to the world, so that it might be set right in us and among us. Jesus taught and teaches his followers in joyful anticipation of an earth and everything in it recalibrated to be as it is in heaven. And even as he left earth for heaven and turned over the administration of his kingdom to us, he encouraged us to go and do likewise. So let's go do it.

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Read chapter four of What Jesus Started, and work through sessions seven and eight in the implementation guide. You can get the book here.

Get together with a friend or two, pick one of Jesus' provocative, counter-cultural teachings, and develop a plan for trying to live it out. See the experiments at the Jesus Dojo for some examples of what you might try.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:10 AM

December 9, 2012

What Jesus Started: Part Three of Five

An Advent series inspired by the book What Jesus Started. See week one's entry here, as well as a prefatory post here.

The season of Advent is the beginning of the Christian calendar. As the world around the church winds its year down, the church is starting its year up. This is appropriate, since Advent culminates in Christmas, where we remember the birth of our Lord and the inauguration of the Christian epoch.

It can be difficult, however, for the church to remember that Advent and Christmas are seasons of beginning. Ironically, the ways of the world encroach on the church at Christmastime in painfully evident ways. Rampant busyness, chronic materialism and corresponding consumerism subvert the sacred nature of the holiday. Remembering that Christ is born on Christmas day is tricky enough; remembering that Christ's birth symbolizes the beginning of Jesus' world-changing and history-changing movement is trickier still.

So this Advent season it's worth remembering that Jesus brought a message with him to the world.

  • An angel told Mary that her child "will be great . . . the Son of the Most High," and that "his kingdom will never end."
  • Mary recited to her cousin Elizabeth the great character of God, who would be manifested in her son: "His mercy extends to those who fear him. . . . He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty."
  • An angel told Joseph that Mary's child "will save his people from their sins."
  • An angel told the shepherds that they would soon be introduced to "a savior."

The New Testament springs from these pronouncements, fulfilling each in the story of Jesus. As an adult Jesus traveled the towns and villages and highways and byways, illuminating the scriptures and refocusing the faith of the people he encountered. He made promises to people and delivered on them. He demonstrated by his words and his acts that he had come for the people he encountered.

In previous posts in this Advent series we've considered that the movement that is Christianity would be nothing had God not first looked closely on the world he created. Every movement begins with a kind of seeing, and the movement Jesus started is no different. We've also considered that merely seeing something accomplishes nothing; the move toward the Other is what sets a movement in motion. But no movement sustains itself without a kind of mutuality, a shared life and vision that extends beyond the act of seeing and the moment of connection.

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Movements are ever-expanding shared experiences: what was true for the instigators is embraced as true by more and more people further and further removed from the point of inception. What the angel declared to Mary as Jesus gestated in her womb, what the heavenly host pronounced to shepherds up the hill from the manger where baby Jesus lay, what Jesus announced to his friends and neighbors and disciples and enemies--these are affirmed two thousand years later by people of every tribe and tongue and nation as an act of faith and a pledge of commitment: Our God who is with us is for us.

This enduring allegiance is one miracle of the Christian movement. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, "Christ is Christ, not just for himself, but in relation to me. His being Christ is his being for me." Christianity is a shared faith from the beginning; we share our faith freely and broadly because our movement's founder, Jesus, shared himself.

This sharing was not just lip service, nor was it simply random acts of kindness. From birth to death to resurrection Jesus was giving himself to us as merciful Savior and righteous King. This remains our task today: to share what has been shared with us, to invite others to share in the good news we have heard, in the goodness of God that we have seen and tasted and touched. Only by sharing will the world be set right.

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Read chapter three of What Jesus Started, as well as sessions five and six in the implementation guide. (You can get the book here.)

This week look for opportunities--whether by word or by deed--to share with others what in Christ God has shared with you.

Read the songs of Mary and Zechariah in Luke 1. Reflect on the character of God demonstrated in those songs. Try singing each of them yourself.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 9:00 AM

December 2, 2012

What Jesus Started: Part Two of Five

An Advent series inspired by What Jesus Started.

Advent is a time of anticipation. Whether in joyful hope ("Hark, the Herald Angels Sing") or pleading anxiety ("O Come, Emmanuel"), we wait for the world to be set right, symbolized by the birth of the world's Savior, Jesus the Christ. The thing that Advent anticipates is affirmation of a long-held article of faith, declared by Hagar and echoed by Hannah and Mary and countless others: "You are the God who sees me" (Genesis 16:13).

Steve Addison, in his book What Jesus Started, understands Jesus' incarnation as inaugurating not just a static kingdom but an expanding movement that stretches even to today. Seeing is the first incremental stage of this movement, and we are called likewise to see the world as God sees it: as a place in need of a God of love, as a drama moving steadily toward its redemptive resolution by the grace of God. But for God and us to see the world in this way is not nearly enough, even as for us to be seen by God is not enough to carry us through the challenges we face. Even pop singers affirm that God sees us, if only "from a distance." God goes further, and he calls us to go further as well. We must not only see, we must connect.

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Jesus didn't just come down from heaven, take a quick look at the earth, wave a magic wand and split. Jesus attached himself to the earth--and not by way of an emperor or tribal king or temple priest or even the head of a household. He literally connected himself, umbilically, to a young, unmarried girl from a backwoods town. He was born and moved around, learning the cultural practices and worldviews of a particular people, rehearsing their history and growing in wisdom and stature over the course of decades.

When it came time for him to act on behalf of God's creation, he was baptized, fulfilling all the righteousness his culture expected of him. He became a rabbi, embracing a role that the people could understand and interact with (this despite his conviction, expressed in Matthew 23:8, that "you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers"). He confronted people of power and sought out and befriended people of peace. He recruited followers from all corners of society and made them agents in his redemptive work. This Son of God, we affirm by faith as well as by all historical accounts, was fully human, a man of a particular time and place. He saw the world because he was there, and he loved the world enough to give himself to it.

The movement Jesus started is fueled by this connection. We reach out to others not as abstractions in need of some ethereal soul-redemption but as neighbors who were created to love and be loved, and who fall short of the glory of God but do not fall out of reach of God's grasp. We connect to the world because Christ first connected himself to us, and by those connections we and the world are saved.

What Jesus started begins with seeing and continues with connecting. But even these are not the whole story. Next week we'll reflect on how Jesus shares, and how we are called to do likewise. But for this week, it will be enough to remind ourselves that we are connected, and that the world needs more and fuller expressions of its connection to us and to God.

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Read chapter two of What Jesus Started, as well as sessions three and four in the implementation guide. (You can sample the book here.)

This week, pray for people who are disconnected in one way or another from God and neighbors. How is God inviting you to extend yourself toward those people?

Be on the lookout for "people of peace"--people who are open to new connections and who are themselves ports of entry into communities of people you've not interacted with before. Pray about how you might make meaningful connections with those people of peace in the days and weeks to come.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at 7:55 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a writer and copyeditor on the communications team for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. She likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a founder of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs occasionally at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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