[For the abridged version of this reflection, click here.]
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor” (Isa. 61:1-2).
The verse actually doesn’t end there. It continues: “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God: to comfort all who mourn” (Isa. 61:2). “The year of the Lord’s favor” would begin on “the day of vengeance of our God.”
But this shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. This is the way the world works. For one to be favored, another has to be slighted; for one to be triumphant, another has to be defeated; for one to be “us,” another has to be “them.” In Isaiah’s world, the Lord’s favor would be seen when he unleashed his vengeance on Israel’s enemies. It was the same in Jesus’s world, until the day Jesus rewrote Isaiah, or at least rearranged it.
That day began like any other. Turns out it was a lazy Sabbath day, the day the Lord should have been resting. But Jesus was in Nazareth, one of the places he had created when he created the universe, which also happened to be the place he was born on Christmas #1. On this particular morning, Jesus woke up, brushed his teeth, and went to the local synagogue. Shortly after arriving, a man in robes called on volunteers to read. You know how it goes. Some tried not to make eye-contact. Others pretended to pray. John Paul Jr. raised his hand for the twelfth time in a row. The rabbi pretended not to see him. Lots of pretense at church.
But then a man with a half-familiar face stood up. It was the son of the carpenter, the one who had apparently abandoned his father’s business (cf. Lk. 2:49). But it was a break from JP Jr. So he handed him the scroll. The only visible letters were written in bold just under a tattered edge: “ISAIAH.” Jesus began unrolling the scroll, volunchoosing people to hold it up as he stretched it dang near across the entire sanctuary. Finally, just near the end, he put his finger on the passage above and began reading. But then he stopped. Making his way back up toward the top of the scroll, about five pews worth, he dragged his finger to another spot, read a few lines, then stopped again. Taking his sweet time, he then moved back down to toward the bottom to yet another passage, which he took the liberty of paraphrasing (cf. Isa. 61:1-2; 48:8-9; 58:6). He then rolled the scroll back up, gave it to the man in the robes, and shouted: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!” (Lk. 4:21, cf. vv. 16-20).
It wasn’t only that his choose-your-own-adventure approach to reading God’s Word rather unorthodox, or that he announced he was carrying the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy on his Person; it was that he hadn’t even chosen a favorable ending. He said nothing about “the day of vengeance of our God,” nothing about Rome or Caesar or Herod or any of Israel’s enemies or ISIS or illegals or even those dang Liberals! He simply said that “the year of the Lord’s favor” was commencing “today…in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21). And it was so, it seemed, simply in virtue of his presence.
But where was the vengeance?
That must have been the question the people were asking themselves. And when they didn’t get the answer they wanted, it must have been the reason they “were filled with wrath,” the reason they chased him out of the synagogue and tried to throw him off a cliff (Lk. 4:28-29). It must have been the reason the “year of the Lord’s favor” seemed to set in motion a “day of vengeance.” If so, perhaps the “day of the vengeance of our God” was never about a day God would begin taking his vengeance out on people but The Day people would begin taking their vengeance out on God.
In that case, it’s no wonder just after his announcement about “the year of the Lord’s favor” (in Greek: dektos) Jesus announced that “a prophet has no favor (dektos) in his hometown” (Lk. 4:19, 24). The Lord’s favor was too favorable toward Israel’s enemies, and so Israel made a new enemy out of their unfavorable Lord.
Perhaps those who have the biggest problem with Jesus are not His overt enemies, but rather those who insist He destroy His overt enemies, because by “His” they really mean “theirs” (cf., a person in the Bible called Jonah). The “Lord’s favor” on us is not all that favorable if it doesn’t involve the “Lord’s vengeance” on them–our enemies. When that happens, it’s all too easy to confuse the Lord as an enemy and to unwittingly make him the object of our vengeance, caught up in the crossfire. You’d think that would be a hard mistake to make, except that it turns out to be the hardest mistake not to make, because it’s as easy as making an enemy out of anyone.
No matter how confounded we are by the news of a God who was crucified as an object of human vengeance in order to make his enemies the objects of his love, we humanoids never fail to find ways of taking the objects of God’s love and making them the “rightful” objects of our vengeance and our violence and our grudges and our gossips. The people in Nazareth did it to his face, but we’ve all done it behind his back. That’s why Jesus would later explain in one of his last teachings that the way we treat our enemies and inconveniences, ISIS and illegals, the ones he commanded us to love in one of his first teachings (Mt. 5:44), would in the end be the measure for how we treated him. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me…As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Mt. 25:40, 45). He would then say something about sheep and goats.
It’s in this light that the following article, published yesterday by the BBC, should be read as something of a reminder, if not a warning, to the Church:
This is news worth reading: “Kenyan Muslims shield Christians in Mandera bus attack”
“A group of Kenyan Muslims traveling on a bus ambushed by Islamist gunmen protected Christian passengers by refusing to be split into two groups, according to eyewitnesses.”
I can’t help but be reminded upon reading this of the God who wrapped his righteousness in “sinful flesh”(Rom. 8:3; 1 Cor. 5:21) that day he was found wrapped in “swaddling clothes” (Lk. 2:12), because he refused to let Himself and His creation be split into two groups.
If this doesn’t call Christians to their own faith, I don’t know what will. In a few days, we will celebrate the Incarnation of God, the day two infinitely different ‘groups’ became One in the person of Jesus Christ, the day which began The Hour when the “enemies of God were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:10). And every week, when we put that piece of bread in our mouths, we remember the One who was made flesh who was broken in order that we who are broken can be made One in Spirit by his flesh.
If Muslims, who do not know Christ, stand with those who do on pain of public execution, then I hope that Christians, who do know Christ, will be willing to stand with those who don’t on pain of public opinion. *And not because everyone just worships the same God anyway(!), but because Christians worship the God who became the same as us, indeed, the God who became a shield for us.* I don’t know the reasons these particular Muslims acted the way they did, but I do know the reason every Christian is called to act this way:
“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:17-21; cf. esp. Eph. 2!).
If we are going to be entrusted with the ministry of reconciliation, then we are going to have to take seriously that our witness to Christ has at its very center a way of transforming our categories, so that “enemies” are given a new name. Our witness extends beyond the walls of the Church, even if it compromises the walls of our nation, just as Christ extended beyond the walls of heaven, even when it compromised the walls of Jerusalem. If our Muslim “enemies” are ever going to come to know their Savior, we are going to have to learn that our Muslim “enemies” from some other nation are nothing other than our fellow “neighbors” in some Other Kingdom (Lk. 10:25-37).
How else can we celebrate Christmas with a clear conscience? Is Christmas not the day Jesus crossed enemy lines to set up a neighborhood called the kingdom of God that is no respecter of borders, the day God made his dwelling with sinners?
Christians don’t identify with non-Christians on some higher ground than God–whether it be “humanity” or “peace” or “justice” or “love,” whatever, as is the popular way of our ‘peace-talking’ these days. Rather, Christians identify with non-Christians on the lower ground of guilt, where crosses are raised, because it is there we find our fellow man who has been found by our Fellow God.
“Precisely when we perceive that we are sinners do we perceive that we are brothers.”
~ Karl Barth
“For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
~ The Apostle Paul
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and all who dwell therein.”