Immanuel, The Holy One of Israel in Your Midst—in Your Flesh!

prophet_isaiah-cut-760x276“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has long been my favorite Advent hymn. It’s marriage of rich, biblical theology and pathos perfectly capture the pain, longing, and anticipated joy of this season of expectation.

I’ve noticed that each year I return to it, a different line or stanza captures my imagination. It was the third that hooked me this year:

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.

Now, on the face of it, this stanza is highlighting the “great Lord of Might”, or God Almighty. While that is appropriate, the text upon which it reflects (Exod. 19), can also fittingly be considered under the rubric of God’s majestic, terrifying holiness; here Israel meets the Lord who has sanctified and elected her to be his own (Exod. 19:4-6).

Yet encountering the Holy One has ever been a harrowing experience. Facing God at Sinai, the Israelites quailed before him as he descended in the smoke of his fiery purity, causing the mountain to tremble with a voice like thunder (Ex. 19:16-20). For all the (valid) criticisms which can be registered against his generalized account of religion, Rudolf Otto’s articulation of the mysterium tremendum in The Idea of the Holy captures something of the awful, overpowering majesty communicated in the Biblical narrative.

Confronted with the prospect of hearing Yahweh’s awful voice once more, with concomitant threat destruction that attends it, the Israelites are overwhelmed, begging Moses to mediate: “You speak to us, and we will listen: but do not let God speak to us, let we die” (Ex. 20:19).

Isaiah’s personal Sinai encounter with the holiness, the incomparable majesty of God in the Temple is similarly overpowering (Isa. 6). To the seraphim’s refrain, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (v. 3), Isaiah must reply, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes of seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (v. 5). He is a sinner who has fallen short of the Law given at Sinai. In the overwhelming perfection of the presence of Holy King Yahweh, prepared to execute judgment from his throne, Isaiah is undone.

And yet, our hymn-writer, says that Israel ought rejoice at his coming of the Holy Law-giver from the Mountain. How can this be? Is not the coming of the Holy One wrath, judgment, and terror? Does not Isaiah testify the Lord is exalted as holy in his judgments (Isa. 5:16)?

Yes, yes, he is all that and more. But Isaiah came to know the Lord as Holy One, not only in his judgments, but in his merciful salvation:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (Isa. 6:6-7)

Isaiah experienced the mercy, the grace, the cleansing fire of God’s holy presence. For this reason, he could testify to Israel in her future affliction:

You shall rejoice in Yahweh, in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory. (41:16)

I am Yahweh your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Deliverer. (43:3)

I am Yahweh, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. (43:15)

Precisely as the Holy One—the only, majestic, incomparable, electing Lord—he is the Redeemer of Israel. At Sinai he gave the Law, but he also bound his Name—his self—to them as their Redeemer. Therefore Yahweh testifies to the faithless house of Israel:

I will not execute my burning anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath. (Hos. 11:9)

It is the holiness of God which sets him apart—he can restrain his anger against their betrayal, their violation of his holy Law, and come to redeem them. He can maintain relationship, purify them once more, and be the Holy One in their midst. Indeed, it is his will to be known has holy that moves him to save Israel from her enemies:

And my holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel, and I will not let my holy name be profaned anymore. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord, the Holy One in Israel. (Ezek. 39:7)

When the Lord redeems his people from their sins and their enemies in accordance with his perfect power and righteousness, he will be seen as the Holy One in Israel.

And this is the child for whom we rejoice and await in Advent.

Recall the Angel’s response to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). In the virgin-born, Christ-child, the Holy One comes into the midst of Israel, just as Isaiah foretold:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa. 7:14)

The holy marvel of Christmas is that the Lord did not simply give a sign himself, he gave himself as the thing signified. Jesus is Immanuel, the Holy One of Israel, in your midst—in your flesh!

The One who appeared in “cloud and majesty and awe” upon Sinai, incarnate in a mewling, powerless child, come not to destroy, but redeem us from sin, death, and the devil!

It is for the first coming of this Holy One, we rejoice. And it is for the second coming of this Holy One, we wait, again.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Mere Fidelity: Christmas v. Advent?

Mere FidelityMerry Christmas! Well, presuming that you haven’t had N.T. Wright steal away your Christmas fun. The usual crew shows up this week to discuss this article by Peter Leithart (a self-proclaimed Grinch of sorts). In a sense, what do we gain and what do we lose when we start to pit the Christmas of Faith against the Nativity of History? Is it Christmas v. Advent? Do our cultural expansions of the Christmas stories add or detract from our understanding of what happened all those years ago?

We hope this conversation deepens your Christmas reflections as it has ours.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Miracle of Christmas, or On the Incarnation (Advent Readings)

nativityChristmas is coming. Advent is upon us. In the rush and bluster of the season, it’s all too easy to still our hearts, to stop, wait, and prepare ourselves to receive the Savior in the manger. A few years ago I noticed my heart somewhat dry around this time and so I took up the project of listening to Christmas hymns and carols. While that can connect many of us to the spiritual reality we are celebrating, reading key texts on the theological reality we are approaching: the Incarnation of the Son of God in human flesh, the Creator humbling assuming creation in order to redeem us from the condition of alienation, oppression, and damnation.

For those looking to dive into some soul-stirring meditations on the miracle of Christmas, I would recommend two works: Athanasius and Karl Barth.

On the Incarnation

Athanasius wrote his classic treatise, “On the Incarnation of the Word” as a follow-up to his apologetic work, “Against the Heathen.” Building upon his critique of the various pagan philosophies of the time, Athanasius undertook to explain and defend the heart of the Christian gospel, the Son’s assumption of human nature in order to redeem his fallen creation. In 9 very brief chapters, he lays out the logic of creation, the dilemma of sin, the accomplishment of the cross, the Resurrection, and answers various objections from all directions (Jews, Pagans, etc.). It remains a standard work of orthodoxy Christology and Trinitarian faith. What’s more, it’s rigorous as well as beautiful.

You can purchase it, or read it for free online here. For those put off by the idea of reading an old book, either because of its difficulty, or irrelevance, I’ll merely quote from C.S. Lewis’ introduction to the work upon its republication:

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence.

As any reader of Athanasius will tell you, this little book is worth libraries of modern volumes.

The Miracle of Christmas

That said, sometimes the moderns have something to say. Karl Barth is one of them. Now, while I can’t endorse everything in this following recommendation, for the theological student, Barth’s reflection in the Church Dogmatics (vol. 1 part 2, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 172-202), is essential reading. The whole section is typical Barth: long, winding, extensive delving into the tradition, the narratives, and ultimately into the Christological heart of the event. No summary will do it justice, but this little quote in which he speaks of the Virgin Birth forming the corresponding limit to that of the Resurrection ought to whet your appetite:

The virgin birth denotes particularly the mystery of revelation. it denotes the fact that God stands at the start where real revelation takes place–God and not the arbitrary cleverness, capability, or piety of man. In Jesus Christ God comes forth out of the profound hiddenness of His divinity in order to act as God among us and upon us. That is revealed and made visible to us in the sign of the resurrection of the dead, but it is grounded  upno the fact signified by the Virgin Birth, that here is this Jesus God Himself has really come down and concealed Himself in humanity. It is because He was veiled here that He could and had to unveil Himself as He did at Easter. The empty tomb, on the other hand, denotes particular the revelation of the mystery. It denotes that it is not for nothing that God stands at the beginning, but that it is as such that He become active and knowable. He has no need of human pwoer and is free from all human caprice. Therefore even the ultimate extremities of human existence, as He submits too them and abandons Himself to death, offer no hindrance to His being and work. That God Himself in His complete majesty was one with us, as the Virgin birth indicates, is verified in what the empty tomb indicates, that here in this Jesus the living God has spoken to us men in accents we cannot fail to hear. Because He has unveiled Himself here as the One Heis, we may and must say what the Christmas message says, that unto you is born this day the Saviour. The mystery at the beginning is the basis of the mystery at the end; and by that mystery of the end the mystery of the beginning becomes active and knowable.  — CD 1/2, pp 182-183

That’s just a paragraph, but in that short excerpt, you see the way Barth masterfully develops the miracle of the Virgin birth in light of the doctrine of revelation and Resurrection of Christ. This is just one small part of the way Barth shows that the proclamation of Christ, born of a Virgin, is actually integral to understanding the mystery of the Gospel and Christ himself. Obviously, this chapter is probably not for everyone, but again, theological students and pastors only ignore it at the risk of their own spiritual and theological impoverishment. If you don’t own the Dogmatics, which is very possible, get to a seminary or theological library nearby, photocopy the section, and take it with you. The section stands alone quite nicely.

Well, those are my two recommendations for reading during the season. I hope they offer you some encouragement. If you all have any suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Soli Deo Gloria

N.T. Wright, Empire, and the Advent Hope of Eschatology

paul and the faithfulness of God “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” -Acts 17:30-31

While it’s become something of a truism in the last few years to note that much New Testament christology has an anti-imperial tone to it (as Wright puts it, the basic confession of the faith “Jesus is Lord”, means “Caesar is not”), what often goes unmentioned by many is the threat to Empire posed by its eschatology. N.T. Wright explains how this works:

…in particular, the developing discourse of imperial cult in Asia constantly stressed the fact that the Roman empire, once launched, was going to continue, and to bring its great blessings to the world, for ever. ‘The discourse of imperial cults was committed to preventing the imagination from imagining the end of the world.’ No, declared Paul: God has fixed a day on which he will have the world brought to justice.

That was, of course, an essentially Jewish view. The Jewish objections to the entire Roman view of the gods was not simply about monotheism (though that was of course the basis of he standard critique of idolatry), nor even about election (their belief that they, rather than the Romans or anybody else, were the chosen people of the one true God.) It was about eschatology: about their belief that the one God had determined on a divine justice that would be done, and would be seen to be done, in a way that Roman imperial justice somehow never quite managed. Rome’s claim to have brought the world into a new age of justice and peace flew, on eagle’s wings, in the face of the ancient Jewish belief that these things would finally be brought to birth through the establishment of a new kingdom, the one spoken of in the Psalms, in Isaiah, in Daniel. Thus, though their resistance to empire drew on the ancient critique of idolatry, the sense that Israel’s God would overthrow the pagan rule and establish his own proper kingdom in its place led the Jewish people to articulate their resistance in terms of eschatology. Sooner or later, the eagle would meet its match.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God, pp. 342-343

Rome might claim finality and ultimacy for its ‘peace’ and ‘justice’, but there is a greater judgment coming. Part of the political hope of early Christian eschatology is that no empire, or authority that sets itself up against the Lordship of Christ can last. There is one Lord who will judge and reign in righteousness, who will bring about the true Golden Age, and he doesn’t brook rivals forever.

As we celebrate the first week of Advent it’s important to remember this is not just hope for 1st Century Christians. Modern Tyrants still recognize a threat when they see one. When I was in college I took a class on Christianity and China and learned about some of the differences between the house churches and the government-approved Three-Self churches. One of the most surprising was their teaching on the end-times. In his work Jesus in Beijing David Aikman says while most are basically orthodox theologically, it is “unlikely a worshiper in a Three Self Church will ever hear a sermon the Second Coming of Christ.” Like all other Empires, the communist regime sees the coming consummation of Jesus’ reign as a threat to claims of its own.

One of the best ways to observe Advent this week is to pray for the persecuted church around the world. Lift up our brothers and sisters living in totalitarian or hostile religious environments that they might be protected and liberated. Pray that as they meditate on the First Coming of Jesus looking towards Christmas, they might be strengthened by the Spirit in the sure hope they have in his Second Coming. Pray that even the midst of their struggles they might be able to sing with Psalmist:

Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!

Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;

he will judge the peoples with equity.”

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

let the field exult, and everything in it!

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

before the Lord, for he comes,

for he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness,

and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Psalm 96:10-13, ESV)

Soli Deo Gloria

Have a very Hipster Indy/Metal Christmas (Or, the Spiritual Value of Christmas Music)

I have to confess that historically-speaking I have deplored Christmas music. (ducks) No, really, I just haven’t been the biggest fan. I liked classic Christmas hymns (“What Child is This?” Awesome!), and the occasional Jimmy Eat World song, but otherwise, I pretty much could do without it. Then a few years ago, I noticed that Christmas came and went without much of a fuss in my life. It was kind of just lost in the shuffle of the year. Like, I knew it was important. I probably understood it at a theological/spiritual level better than I ever had (Incarnation of God, Chalcedon, virginal conception v. virgin birth, etc.). Still, the experience of the season, preparing my heart, slowing down, and dwelling on the rich truth of Christmas was not something I’d encountered once I got over the “EHRMAGERD PRESENTS!!!” hysteria of childhood. I was missing something and I knew it. I felt like I’d lost Christmas. (cue Peanuts Christmas special music)

The Decision
In order to rectify this, I decided to listen to Christmas music the next year. Specifically, I decided to listen to Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas album Songs for Christmas every morning while I did my devotionals from Thanksgiving to Christmas to see what it would do. Kind of an informal Advent practice. I picked this album specifically because:

a. Stevens is a musical genius. His melodic, quirky, indie, whimsical-yet-pathos-filled compositions are not your average Christmas fare. For example:

b. The album has 42 songs which makes it harder to get sick of quickly. (42?! How does that even work?!)

c. Did I mention that Stevens is a musical genius?

It turned out to be a spiritually significant move for me. As I intentionally created space, embraced a disciplined rhythm to reflect on the season through the classic hymns and original compositions by Stevens,  I found myself drawn into a more worshipful awareness of the miracle of Christmas. I found myself longing for Emmanuel to come, to “ransom captive Israel”, and excited about the herald of the angels, proclaiming the birth of the Savior. When Christmas finally came around, I felt ready to welcome it; the month-long, discipline had prepared me. For the first time, I began to see some of the spiritual value of Christmas music.

This year, I’d encourage you do something similar. It’s so easy for the rush, the bustle, the technological hustle of life to keep us so busy we’re unable to reflect on what we’re celebrating: the birth of the Godman, grace incarnate, the reunion of God and humanity in one person. The mystery and the wonder of Christmas isn’t something to scramble past, or merely survive, but rather is something to be entered in, treasured, and cultivated.

If you’re trying to think of where to start, I’d suggest the Stevens’ album already mentioned. Also, here are two more options:

Sufjan Stevens “Silver and Gold” Yes, I know this is another Stevens’ album. No, this is not a mistake. Stevens just followed up his 2006 anthology this year with an even longer album (58 tracks) filled with more classics and something like 18 original compositions. I broke my usual “no Christmas stuff before Thanksgiving” rule just to check it out. Apparently I’m not alone in this as Christ and Pop Culture‘s Jason Morehead writes:

Call me a Grinch, but there’s absolutely no reason for getting into the Christmas spirit when Thanksgiving hasn’t even happened yet (Sorry super mega-department stores with your early Christmas decorations). But I will make an exception when it comes to Sufjan Stevens’ new Christmas offering, Silver & Gold.”

If that’s not enough of an endorsement for you, I don’t know what else to say.

August Burns Red “Sleddin Hill; A Holiday Album” Now, I understand that many of you might like a little more testosterone around the holidays. Being a semi-metal-head myself, I know I have. In the past I’ve mostly found awesome one-song pieces of genius like Becoming the Archetype’s “O Holy Night.” This year another one of my favorite metal acts, August Burns Red, decided to save the day and put out a full album of Christmas music. So maybe this isn’t the most reverent or meditative Christmas album you’ll find this year, but with furiously festive renditions of classics like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Carol of the Bells” this album doesn’t disappoint Christmas-loving metal-heads.

The point is, whether you celebrate in a hipster key, or a metal one, or maybe just some old-fashioned melodies, be sure to include some Christmas music in your life this year–it just might save your Christmas.

Soli Deo Gloria