A new God, not of the empire

Photo by Jonathan Meyer

Welcome to my weekly ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s opinions, doubts, fears, and hopes about modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Epiphany of the Lord
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Jesus’ message wasn’t originally intended for people like us in America. It wasn’t for people who are on the side of the empire. Rather, it emerged as an uprising designed for those who live under the boot heel of empire.

Early Christians lived in a part of the world that was destroyed, time and time again, by every world power that had swept across the globe — their men killed, women raped, and kids (who survived) made into slaves.

In this week’s readings, we see words from people who are announcing the birth of a new kind of God. The previous gods of their day were ones who exalted the powerful and pious — the supernatural forces that propelled war and brought tyrants to power. They showered these tyrants and their chosen people with wealth. And they laid waste to everything that opposed them.

The Christian message is deeply political and culturally subversive.

Epiphany marks the stirring of a new God. These people aren’t calling for a god to uphold the status quo, maintain the peace, and support ‘upstanding citizens’.

They’re calling for a God who tends to the poor and lays waste to cruel tyrants.

Herod catches wind of this newborn king and, in such a predictable fashion, sets out to murder it. This is the proclivity of empire.

And so, it’s hard for us out West today to relate to this Christian message. Because we reside in and benefit from the empire of our day. And so, what’s our role in this? What can we, who were born and live among the graces of this world empire that is America, do to live as these early Christians proclaimed?

I’d say our role is huge in the way this revelation of Christ plays out. It’s up to us to recognize our privilege and use it to exalt the poor and marginalized. In order to do that, it helps to question how our Western world has spun this story.

For example, the part of the narrative this very week, the story of Epiphany, has been slanted from many a pulpit. It’s been told that we should be like the wise men who bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Christ. We should be as ‘good’ and ‘obedient’ as they were.

But this story has nothing to do with being ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘upstanding citizens’. This God doesn’t give two stuffings about gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This newborn king is one that cannot be idolized or bought. He is one born not in the capital, but in a poor village on the other side of the hill (in Matthew’s account, the wise men visited him in a house, not a manger, interestingly enough).

These wise men weren’t ‘upstanding citizens’ of their day in the orthodox sense. These were crystal-reading, star-mapping pagan mystics. And I say that, not as a slight, but otherwise to note even further that this Christian message includes key players who are outliers of their day.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we see a rollicking testimony. He’s been imprisoned for his missionary work after traveling around and spreading the word of this new Christian social order.

As he announces, he’s taken up the cause of outsiders in that both outsiders and insiders stand on the same ground with this God. The love of Christ is one that’s accessible and welcoming to everyone.

This Christian path is not an individualized, personal one. It cuts deeper than the small self. Our tiny egotistical identity will surely die and turn to dust. As Paul proclaims, he was the least qualified of all Christians to do the work he embraced. God saw to it that he was equipped, but as he wrote, it had nothing to do with his natural abilities. It was all from the God who communes with the eternal part of us that underlies our personalized identities.

If Paul were to fully identify with his small self — the Saul of Tarsus who’s recorded to have murdered a number of Christians prior to his revelation — his work (God’s work) would never have been done. But he surrendered to God’s call. He died to himself and he rode that horse in the opposite direction as fast and as hard as he could. And his small self suffered greatly for it.

This is the radical humbleness of the Christian message and it comes into such vibrancy this week during the Epiphany. A new God, a newborn king was born — one who goes towards us in our weakest, lowest moments and loves us back into life.

Is the world — symbolized by the three wise men — moving towards this God, or is this God moving towards the world? In my layman’s opinion, I’d say the latter.

Happy Epiphany Sunday. May you be the one who bites into the bean or the baby Jesus figurine (without breaking a tooth) and gets the silly looking crown to show for it. And may you, like Paul, die to your small identity so as to live into the identity of Christ that underlies the life force and divine flow of the entire universe.

P.S. If you have a nativity scene at home, like me, you probably did it wrong:)

Unlike American culture signals to us, Christmas doesn’t start after Halloween and end on Christmas day. From the beginning of advent in early December, there is a story unfolding here...

During Advent, your manger shouldn’t have a baby Jesus or wise men in it. It should be empty. On Christmas day, you add baby Jesus. And then, on Epiphany, you add the wise men. I just learned this, so I’m spreading the word. Let’s get our mangers in order, friends.

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