How shall we think of war as we pray for peace this Advent season? However we do, let’s be careful not to glorify war.
Peace negotiators strive in Yemen, parts of Syria are reduced to rubble, and South Sudan suffers a civil war. Meanwhile, Canadians recently recalled the First World War, a conflict of a century ago with lingering effects. In many parts of Europe, Asia, North America, and elsewhere, the legacy of World War Two remains just below the surface. The effects of the Korean War continue.
Canadian veterans of peacekeeping missions and the war in Afghanistan suffer and show it in various ways. For some it means PTSD, broken families, addiction, homelessness, or suicide. “War is hell,” said William T. Sherman, a general in the Union army during the American Civil War. Hell isn’t what we want to see on the earth (Matt. 6:10).
War takes a horrible physical, mental, and spiritual toll on soldiers and civilians; we know this. And yet it can still be more than we realize. William P. Mahedy, a Roman Catholic chaplain who served in Vietnam and then became an Episcopal priest, said, “A great many Vietnam veterans have become religious agnostics or are now hostile to religion because they took seriously what they learned in Bible classes or in the parochial schools about killing.”
Combat shattered their worldview, he said. “For great numbers of veterans, duty in Vietnam was a journey into spiritual darkness—the very darkest night of the soul.” The average age of Vietnam veterans was just over 19, Mahedy says.
Christ came into the world to save the world, not to condemn it (John 3:16-17). He came to restore humanity, reconcile us to himself and each other through the Cross (Eph. 2:11-22), and heal the planet (Rom. 8:18-22).
Because of Christ let’s be careful how we think about war. While our views might vary, let’s not glorify war. People need to hear about and follow Jesus, and for that they need to be alive.
For the first centuries of the Church’s life, there was much debate about exactly who this Jesus was the Church found itself worshipping and following. One of the simplest and most profound truths it discovered was this: you will never predict who Jesus is by thinking profound and lofty philosophical thoughts, hoping that your rational concepts somehow coincide with Christ.
The mistake that was so hard to overcome for these early Christians was the belief that by thinking philosophical Greek thoughts about natures and essences, eventually they would figure out who this God-man was. That never worked.
So if not by thinking, how else? By looking. By watching to see what he does, how he lives, and the manner of his speech. What kind of choice does he make here? What does he refuse there? How does he act in this situation here? The mystery of Jesus appears in the manner in which he takes the days his Father gave him, and weaves an utterly unique, never-anticipated tapestry from them.
Jesus arrives and lives so freely, with such dashing improv, that no human could ever guess what he would do next. When the Church finally came to this basic discovery in the 7th century (thank you, Maximus the Confessor) they arrived at a beautiful vision of who Jesus was that has never been surpassed. When you watch Jesus acting, the humanity and divinity appear in matchless unity.
Thus, the basic act of the disciple is looking. Staying alert. Watching intently. Noticing the subtle change in his bearing. Disciples do not predict where Jesus will go by trying to be super-smart—they can only follow.
Once we see Jesus, we can think about it. We can try to appreciate with our intellect something of the love we see unfolding. First we look and then we treasure up all these things, pondering them in our heart. For example, after Jesus lived, the disciples saw the Old Testament as full of references to Christ. Before Christ came and lived however, no one could have guessed his life would happen as it did.
But this order of first looking and then thinking is sure hard for us modern people. We have a hard time believing that after all these centuries we still need to keep tracking Christ’s every move. We constantly seek the “key” to Jesus’ life. We try to detect a pattern or principle that we can detach from Jesus and put to use in our lives.
I see this mistake happening often. We say for instance, Jesus showed hospitality; we then go and detach hospitality from Jesus and make it a kind of free-standing principle or idea in our lives and tell ourselves that we are still following Jesus.
It’s a lot easier just being generally hospitable than it is following Jesus. I can get hospitality. But you cannot be a disciple by following general principles like hospitality (or leadership, or counter-cultural resistance, or honesty, or nonviolence, or whatever other detachable principle). Jesus is simply unpredictable and he will always bust open my lousy principles and concepts. In order to be Christ-like I have to track his footsteps through the gospels in daily looking and attentive curious waiting.
What this means is that we must keep going back to the words, the phrases, the sentences in the Bible that tell the story of Jesus. Nothing can ever substitute for contemplation, for sitting with Mary at the feet of Jesus and listening to what he says next.
How adventurous will our churches be this Advent season? It might surprise you! Look around.
It’s fitting that Advent be a season of adventure. Advent recalls a time when the Greatest Adventurer came among us to share our human life; the Son of God became also a human being. Advent also looks ahead to His return.
Christ’s first coming was a wondrous event that involved risk and daring. The effects of Christ’s coming carry on, touching the lives of billions of people. And, true to the cliché, the best is yet to come.
Christians can take comfort in the great truths of which we are reminded. This is God’s world. The Son of God has come as our Saviour. Jesus lived, died, and rose for our reconciliation. He calls us together to follow Him. He is the Hope of the world and its history. By grace our lives have meaning, forgiveness, and an eternal future.
So how are our congregations responding? In Canada, from B.C. to southern Ontario, they are reaching out in creative ways. New congregations are being formed, younger churches are being strengthened, and established churches are changing.
Want more proof of adventure? Look at a world map and consider that the EMC supports nearly 100 cross-cultural workers working in many ministries in roughly 24 countries in about 60 different language groups.
Together we proclaim the One greater than our frailties and failures: Christ the Lord. Why do we do this? Because we rejoice in Immanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23). Come, join our celebration! Join the adventure.
One of the challenges I face around this time of year is figuring out what sort of gifts I want for Christmas. My wife, my mom, and my sister like buying gifts for people. They also like being organized and making lists, so some time between Canada Day and Thanksgiving Day they tell me to write down what I want for Christmas. This is a problem because last Christmas I didn’t know what I wanted and this year I have more stuff than I did last year.
In Luke 2:22-32 we meet an old character named Simeon. If there had been Christmas and Christmas gifts in his time I wonder if he would have been a hard person for which to buy. Though he had less than us, I wonder if the list with his name on it would have been empty or at least mostly empty.
It seems that there was only one thing Simeon wanted. If there had been Christmas and Christmas gifts and if he had had a sister who prodded him a bit and said, “Come on Simeon, there must be something you want.” what would he have done? Maybe, with a bit of smirk on his face, he would have finally written, “I’d like to see the Messiah.” Seeing the Messiah seemed to be the only thing that mattered to Simeon.
A Wish Come True
Simeon was probably an old man by the time Jesus was born. Luke tells us that he was devout and righteous and that the Holy Spirit was on him. The Holy Spirit had told Simeon he would not die before he had seen the Messiah.
One day, when Jesus was about 40 days old, Joseph and Mary went to the temple to dedicate their firstborn son. This was the ordinary thing for an obedient Jewish family to do (Lev.12). It was on this day that Simeon was “moved by the Spirit” and went to the temple courts (2:27). It was on that day that Simeon’s Christmas wish came true.
Simeon’s ‘Bucket List’
When Simeon saw the baby Messiah he held him and praised God. However, his first words of praise might sound weird to us. He said, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace” (2:29).In other words, “Lord, you have kept your promise. I’ve seen your Messiah and I’m ready to die now.”
Remember that imaginary Christmas list of Simeon’s with only one item? His “bucket list” also only had one item. Some of us have vacations we want to take, sights we want to see, and accomplishments we want to achieve before we “kick the bucket.” Not so with Simeon. He had wanted to see the Messiah. Now he had done so. Therefore, he was ready to die.
Who This Messiah Would Be
Simeon’s words of praise were also prophetic words about who the Messiah would be. In verse 30 Simeon said, “For my eyes have seen your salvation.” Simeon looked at Baby Jesus and simply said, “God, I have seen your salvation.” Notice Simeon did not announce, “God, I have seen part of your salvation plan,” or “God, I have seen the one who will show us salvation.” He simply said, “God, I have seen your salvation.” Period.
Simeon announced, “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations” (2:30-31). God sent Jesus to earth because He wants all people to be saved regardless of their ethnicity, religious history or worldview.
No Favourite Culture
Unlike many people, God does not have a favourite culture, ethnicity or country. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us would have to admit that there is at least a hint of racism or ethnocentrism in our hearts. Ethnocentrism is when someone views the world with the belief that their culture is superior to others.
Consequently, racism and ethnocentrism are almost everywhere in this world. But they do not exist in heaven. Therefore, God sent Jesus to earth because he wants all people to be saved. As Simeon put it, “God prepared this in the sight of all nations.”
Simeon also declared that Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (2:32). Jesus would reveal truth to the Gentiles, the non-Jews. He would give them understanding about God’s character and how he acts in the lives of people.
Unlike the Gentiles, the people of Israel had Moses and the prophets, so they had a clearer understanding o f God and needed revelation less than the Gentiles did. Simeon announced that Jesus would be revelation for the Gentiles and the glory of Israel.
Fixed on the Messiah
Jesus was the one that made Israel most praiseworthy. The Israelites were proud of their kings and their great prophets, but if they really understood who Jesus was they would be proud of him the most. They would say, “Moses was great, King David was great, but Jesus is the greatest of them all. Jesus is the one who makes Israel great.”
During this season may this passage help us see two important aspects of the Christian life. First, may it help us to see how our eyes should be fixed on the Messiah. Simeon’s deepest longing, maybe his only longing, was to see the Messiah. Everything else was second place in comparison to this.
May we be able to repeat what the Apostle Paul said, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). May we see that living the Christian life means “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2).
Second, may we also see that the Jesus, on whom we are fixing our eyes, came for all peoples.
May our whole lives agree with the Apostle Peter when he said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). May we see that living the Christian life means accepting and loving all people, no matter how different they are from us.
Eric Isaac loves his wife Jennifer and their three children (James, Clara, and Emily). He graduated from Steinbach Bible College (BA, Pastoral Ministries) and is pastoring the Morweena EMC in Manitoba’s Interlake region.
Back in high school, my friend John would regale us with jokes for hours on end and they were roaring funny. Watching him I could see that a good joke is a precarious thing. It has to come off perfectly or it’s worse than no joke at all. If the teller stumbled over words, or had to make corrections in the telling, it got unfunny fast.
A joke separates those who have the wit to “get it” and those too dull. If you don’t “get” a joke, there is no help for you. It’s hopeless to go over the joke again in slow-motion, trying to make it funny by explaining. It depends on a common culture and experience, but gives a sharp kicking surprise in the end.
All of this is an analogy to preaching about Jesus.
Did you ever notice that in the preaching of the apostles nobody once “explains” Jesus? Never do you hear Peter holding forth about the verb tenses that Jesus used when he called Lazarus from the dead. Paul, in his letters, never waxes on about the historical background of Zealots. John does not “take apart” the story of the prodigal, explaining why this story shocked Jews in Palestine. Nobody pontificates on the various word-choices for “love” in the Greek of John 21. Why not?
Maybe the story of Jesus has some of the same qualities a good joke has. It was all-together one event, a wondrous, startling, completed occasion in the life of the world. It was perfectly timed and delivered. Situated just-right within the culture of Christ’s time, it drew into one lightening-bolt a host of back-stories from Israel.
It was delivered once, caught the world unawares, and sent it rolling in sudden happiness—even laughter. In one strike, history was changed. Christ’s life was complete and had to stay complete—the resurrection was like the best punchline.
Could the good news arc across the divide between an Aramaic-speaking Jewish fisher-peasant from Capernaum and an urban Greek-speaking pagan in Rome? It’s a huge question for the apostles, but never once did it occur to them that the secret to the Gentiles “getting the joke” was sermonic rabbit-trails on rural Jewish culture, or tutoring in Aramaic, Jesus’ language. They moved in and told the story again and again to whoever would listen. Some got it and others definitely did not. There was little help for those who didn’t.
And if the apostles didn’t pulpiteer on Christ’s participles, maybe we shouldn’t either. Preaching is telling the good story again, now hilarious for Canadians. It’s proclamation, not dissection.
Now, I need to also say that if we preachers are going to tell the story faithfully so that listeners “get it,” we do need to know something about the language and ancient culture of Jesus. We need to study to get the rhythm, the timing, the tone down into our bones.
But as the old Methodist preacher W. R. Moltby said, “The well is deep, and you must have something to draw with. But there is no need to make people drink out of the bucket, still less to chew on the rope.”
A preacher that makes you chew on the rope just sounds like someone with no sense of humour, which in my high school was not the guy you wanted to be.
Temptation. Eve wanted the fruit; it was a delight to the eyes and desirable, and so she ate it. Raging Cain wanted to kill his brother and, in spite of God’s warning, he did so. The infuriating herders twice took wells that Isaac dug, but instead of quarrelling he moved again and dug a third well.
Young Joseph must have wanted Potiphar’s wife, but ran away. Eve and Cain failed; Isaac and Joseph did well. Either way, these Genesis stories make sense to us. Did Jesus get it in the same way we do? Yes, according to Hebrews.
A Claim That Looks Back
We know that the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, at the beginning of his ministry, and we know that in Gethsemane it was a fight for Jesus to obey the Father and go to the cross. The stories assume that he was tempted as we are, that he could have sinned but he didn’t. He was sinless, but that claim always looks back on his life.
If Gospel writers understood Jesus to be tempted differently than the rest of us, would they not have said so? These stories describe normal human temptation, only Jesus kept choosing like Isaac and Joseph, not like Eve and Cain.
Perhaps we don’t want Jesus to experience temptation as we do, because in our minds this threatens his deity and perfect glory. By “in our minds” I mean “devout Christian logic.” But what happens when our devout Christian logic opposes clear biblical teaching? Hebrews 1:1-4 announces the glorious deity of the Son, yet Hebrews also claims that concerning temptation, Jesus was made just like us, tempted like us, and felt weak like us. The Scriptures praise Jesus because he was weak but did not sin, not because he was strong and could not sin.
Near the end of Hebrews 2 we read that in every way Jesus had to be made like his brothers and sisters, so he could be a merciful priest and make atonement for us. He suffered when he was tempted, so he could help others when they are tempted. This is about motivation, about sympathy.
Jesus had to be made like us in all ways, specifically in the matter of temptation, so he would be motivated to be the best possible high priest. This requires Jesus saying to himself something like this: “Temptation is fierce, worse than I thought. I had no idea. No wonder they sin. I’ve got to help them.” Later we’ll read that Jesus’ temptations made him sympathetic to us, which means Jesus had to be feeling and thinking something like this.
A High Priest With Sympathy
Near the end of Hebrews 4 the writer comes back to Jesus’ sympathy. Our high priest can sympathize with our weakness because he has been tempted in every way, just like us, yet did not sin. Three things are crucial. One, he’s been tempted in all ways, as we are tempted. Not only was he made like us in every way, he’s been tempted like us in every way.
Two, he was weak. Mark 1 says Jesus was tempted for 40 days, then angels came to help him. Imagine weak Jesus saying to them, “That was too close. I would not have lasted two more days without sinning.” Three, sympathy for us because he knows about our weakness in temptation.
In Hebrews 5:2 the writer says that every high priest can deal gently with the ignorant and wandering, since the priest himself has weaknesses. A few verses later he deliberately includes Jesus in this. Since Jesus did not sin, we assume strength in the face of temptation, but Hebrews will have none of that. When Joseph fled Potiphar’s wife, did he feel strong? Probably not. Neither did Jesus.
A Brief Theological Detour
What about our sinful nature, our fallen nature? Did Jesus have that? Theologians debate about what fallen nature means exactly, and we will ignore that debate. Humans, left to their own nature, all join in the rebellion against God, and invariably need redemption. Let us leave it at that. I was taught that Jesus was born of a virgin to escape our fallen nature, but the virgin birth stories make no such claim, nor does any other New Testament text.
Following some of the early church fathers, T. F. Torrance holds that Jesus had the same fallen nature we all have—he had to assume it in order to redeem it. This violates my particular church tradition, but lines up nicely with how the NT describes Jesus’ temptations.
If Jesus had a different human nature than we do, then either (1) the writer of Hebrews had no knowledge of this, or (2) he deliberately misled us. Neither explanation is acceptable. Hebrews says Jesus was made like us and tempted like us, period. Yet I affirm, as did the church fathers, that Jesus was sinless.
Could Jesus know weakness if he never sinned? James 3 says we all sin in many ways, and I am decidedly in that camp. But sometimes I do not sin. I have had strong temptations where I was close to sinning, closer to “yes” than “no,” but before I could say “yes” the temptation went away. Afterward I felt not proud or strong, but weak and frightened. “How did I get so close?” If Hebrews is true (and it is), this must also have happened to Jesus.
I have decided to do something that would almost certainly have produced sin, and begun to act, and then circumstances blocked me, my car wouldn’t start or the phone rang. Later I wondered, “What was I thinking? How could I have been so foolish?” Jesus, too?
I have at different times lived with the same temptation almost daily for many weeks and months on end. I was determined not to sin, and did not. But it was tiring and discouraging because this vile thing pulled at me and distracted me every day. What was wrong with me, that I could not just walk away? I wished it would leave, but it didn’t. Jesus, too?
I sin in many ways; I’m just telling you stories where I did not. You each have a collection of such stories. Jesus was made like us in all ways, tempted like us in all ways, yet never sinned. He was weak in these episodes, stretched and desperate, and feels sorry for us. Jesus has many stories like ours.
In Hebrews this results in one clear call: Approach God. Don’t avoid God because of sin. Come boldly to the throne of grace. Draw near, enter, come close, because of Jesus the Priest.
The worst thing we can do is stay away from God. When we stand before him, ignorant and misguided, weak and sinful, the Great Priest stands beside us and says: “Father, I was too close to this myself. Many times. It is a horrible fight. No wonder they sin. Remember my sacrifice. I ask mercy and helping grace for this child.”
The Father, with love for the Son and for us, says to us: “I’m pleased you came. I will help.
Stay awhile, or go in peace with my mercy and grace.”
Dr. Ed Neufeld is a professor of biblical studies at Providence Theological Seminary and pastor of Kleefeld Christian Community, a part of the Canadian Baptists of Western Canada. He is also the speaker at SBC’s Leadership Conference on March 17-18, 2017.
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