Have you seen this article
about fear being far and away the best political tool in our country? In case you haven’t seen it (and are too lazy to click the link), it basically says that if a politician wants to win an election, she doesn’t need to focus on convincing constituents of the strength of her policies. Instead, she just needs to convince constituents that her opponent’s policies will result in nuclear holocaust. Making people afraid of the other side is a far more powerful tool than getting them excited about your own. Politicians, pundits, cable news, and talk radio all know this to be true, and have been driving it at warp speed for a couple decades. Sadly, it’s only going to get worse.
If you need to go cry, I understand.
And because politics inevitably spills over into the Church, our religious culture has followed the Fear. The Church – especially mainstream evangelical churches – has found Herself stuck in a lose-lose situation culturally for one reason: we’ve lost the ability to distinguish between being fearful and being faithful.
We have, for too long, responded to cultural shifts and debates with fear while calling it faith. Ironically, fear and faith are opposites, so when we claim to be defending our faith, we’re actually fueling our fear. Faith is hospitable; fear is defensive.
Fear is never focused on policies or ideologies or even theologies; fear is always about a person or group of people.
The Fox News Watchers.
The Huff Post Readers.
The Black Lives Matter.
The All Lives Matter.
The Cat Lovers (this fear is legit)
The Dog Lovers.
The Left Handed.
They are to be feared.
They are ruining our country.
They are the reason for all that’s wrong.
One would think that people who believe in the Bible, in which the most oft-used command is “Do not fear,” would see right through this and reject such a juvenile approach to life. Sadly, though, the Church is among the worst offenders. We have become decidedly fearful of the Other, and quite adept at rallying church-goers to defend our “religious freedoms” in spite of practicing a faith that was conceived, born, and raised under persecution of the worst kind.
RESPONDING TO THE PRESENCE OF JESUS
One exercise I use when reading the gospels is to pay close attention to the way people respond to Jesus’ presence, or an announcement of his presence. For instance, Mary was “disturbed” when Gabriel told her the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:29). The man possessed by a legion of demons begged Jesus to go away before Jesus ever said a word (Mark 5:6). A woman suffering from severe blood loss quietly touched his cloak and vanished into the crowd (Mark 5:27). Some of the disciples immediately dropped what they were doing and followed Jesus down the road.
More often than not, people were bothered by Jesus. Because nothing was ever the same after he came and went. He was especially bothersome for the religious leaders. His radical love, warmth, and grace for the Other was troublesome for a people sustained by the belief that they were God’s chosen. You would think “The Chosen” would understand the gift they’ve been given, the love they’ve been shown, and the grace they’ve been afforded and want to share that with as many as possible. You would think “The Chosen” would celebrate that more people want to belong in such a beautiful community. Sadly, though, fear drives The Chosen toward violent exclusivity and self-preservation.
But Christ is most visibly present in the company of The Outsider. He was most often found at the table with sinners and hookers and drunks and druggies, with the diseased and crippled and poor. The rich had to schedule appointments or meet him at odd hours, while the poor had full access to God in the flesh.
When Jesus shows up, he shows up with the Other in tow. We cannot accept Jesus without loving the Other. And so long as we are led by fear, we are not led by faith. For the good of the Church, and for the good of the world, perhaps it’s time we got serious about distinguishing between the two.
HEROD AND SIMEON
This week I read two stories of people’s response to the presence of Christ – Simeon and Herod – and found them convicting in light of our tendencies toward fear.
First there’s Herod. In Matthew 2 we’re told that some Magi (kings) from the east came to Jerusalem, following a star that they somehow knew would lead them to the savior of the world. In a great twist of irony, these kings from the east (Gentiles, pagans, not God’s people) are the ones who told Herod, Israel’s king, that Israel’s messiah had come. Outsiders were the first to know God had arrived on earth.
How’s that for God’s sense of humor?
When the kings arrived and told Herod the news of the star and the newly born Messiah, Matthew wrote,
“[Herod] was disturbed,
and all Jerusalem with him.”
And all of Jerusalem with him?
Shouldn’t they have been celebrating that the person for whom they’d waited thousands of years was finally born?!”
Herod had spent his entire life building up a political empire for himself, being named king of Israel by Rome so that he might be their puppet and infuse Roman ideology into the Jewish faith. So a liberating Messiah was definitely disturbing to Herod, because he was part of the oppressors, not the oppressed.
When the Magi came and announced the arrival of the Messiah in the form of a child, Herod had great motivation to find out where that child was and kill it on the spot. He asked the Magi to return once they found Jesus so that Herod himself could worship him. The Magi, though, were alerted to his plans, and never returned.
When Herod realized he’d been duped, he gave in to fear and turned destructive. Herod “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” (Matthew 2:16)
That’s it, isn’t it? When we are consumed with fear, when we think our way of life – our way of seeing the world, our way of thinking about God – is under attack, we turn destructive. We declare “war” on the Outsider and every group by whom we feel threatened. We draw sides and pinpoint the enemy (despite’s Paul’s declaration that our struggle is not against flesh and blood in Ephesians 6). We won’t rest until everybody is subject to our way.
The problem with this way is that we assume God is only present in one form, one people, or one way. But that’s not only unBiblical, it’s actually antiBiblical. Because the Bible is filled with stories of God using The Other, The Outsider, The Gentile, The Pagan to do something good in the world, to the shock and dismay of “his people:”
Pharaoh’s Egyptian daughter
The widow of Zeraphath
Cyrus the Persian
The Magi (kings) from the east
An unwed virgin
A carpenter’s son
A prostitute with a jar of perfume in a religious man’s house
A Good Samaritan
A Younger Brother
A murderer named Saul
A “third-gender” eunuch from Ethiopia
A Gentile named Cornelius.
What if the person you fear is actually loved, welcomed, and gifted by God to carry out good things in the world, and you’re missing it because you think God only works one way?
I once saw a tweet from a guy named Brian Zahnd
“If it turns out that Jesus saves far more people than your theology anticipated, will you be mad or glad about it?”
Ahhhhhhh what a fantastic question!
If you were to somehow discover that God actually loves, uses, and gives grace to people you always thought he hated, would that fill you with anger or joy? Would you celebrate the fact that God’s love is bigger than you imagined, or would you join a rally about God’s lack of moral compass?
Here’s another good question: “To whom do you hope God shows no grace?”
And another: “Why are you afraid of certain people?”
And one more: “What does that tell you about yourself?”
What would it be like if you were unafraid of the Other? I think we would all look a little more like Simeon, a guy who wanted nothing but to see God do beautiful things in the world, and had no concern for the people through whom he did them.
Simeon was an old man with a deep connection to the Holy Spirit. He knew somehow that he would not die before he saw the One sent by God to redeem Israel. When Jesus was 8 days old his parents brought him to the temple to be dedicated and circumcised, per the Law of Moses. Simeon followed an inclination to go to the Temple himself. And when he arrived he saw Joesph and Mary carrying Jesus. Luke, the writer of this particular story, said Simeon “praised God.”
Where others were disturbed, terrified, afraid, or overwhelmed, Simeon praised God because he was looking for God and not hiding in fear.
Then he sang this song:
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
You may now dismiss you servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
Which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
A light for revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of your people, Israel.
I see two things in this song:
1) Simeon’s peace came from knowing God was up to something, not from having his own views validated by all people. He intentionally looked for what God was doing and lived with a peaceful posture rather than a defensive one, because all he wanted was to see the world redeemed. And when that moment came he was content to die, because he literally needed nothing else.
2) Simeon saw the arrival of Jesus as good news for the outsider (“light for revelation to the Gentiles), and he was glad! He was happy that the people the Jews always counted as enemies were enemies no longer, and he praised God for it.
HOW WILL YOU RESPOND?
Imagine the state of the world if followers of Jesus were more like Simeon and less like Herod. Imagine millions of hearts and eyes searching for glimpses of God in the Other rather than millions of fingers pointing and accusing.
When you encounter The Other, will you, like Herod, be disturbed and try to destroy, or will you, like Simeon, look for and celebrate the Image of God that rests gently upon all people?
How will you respond when Jesus shows up?