When we read the Christmas story in both Matthew and Luke, we should be struck at how unassuming and insignificant an occasion it actually was. The real Christmas story should destroy our paradigms that suggest bigger is better, leveraged popularity is the pathway for success, and privilege and numbers are needed to produce results and yield an effective rate of return for donated resources. Everything about the original Christmas story should shake the foundations of our modern business-centered, attraction-model, theater-like structured church experience. It should render celebrity and high professionalism dead or at least as nothing in light of God’s promises, plans, and ways. It should destroy our notion that numbers have a better scaling affect on mission than the small insignificant moments and occasions set by God’s (pre)determined plan.
Mary could have started a movement; but the shepherds returned to their fields. Even the large magi entourage (and there were far more than just three wise men!) could have funded the project shortly left and is never heard of again. Reread the song Mary sung after she revealed to Elizabeth that she was with child by the Holy Spirit (how's that for explaining an illegitimate pregnancy in a shame culture). Listen for the lament and irony, how everything gets twisted and turned around:
A young couple, who was living with disgrace over what appeared to all family, friends, and onlookers to be an unplanned, pre-marriage pregnancy, had to endure ridicule and eventual banishment to a foreign country. Then shortly, numerous innocent children, two and under, were slaughtered (Matthew 2:16ff.) as a result of, by all outward human accounting, an illegitimate baby born in a dirty barn out back of a local, insignificant motel. The brief moments of rejoicing by shepherds quickly fade in the story and we are left with anguish and sorrow, and confusing mystery. Little about the story, as it is told in Luke and Matthew, is neat and proper; nor, is it a platform for success. It is messy, harmless to history, and is blatantly left mundane. Practically banal.
The Christmas story, nonetheless, is hopeful to every ordinary person, not because it is a spectacular church pageant, special evening production, or media broadcast, but for its insignificance. Like the poor, scandalous pregnant, unwed teenager sang (for Mary was most likely a mere young teenager in today’s standards), the Christmas scenes in the gospels are about God showing the strength of His arm in the most curious of ways and in the ordinary, messy life at the margins. And, then, right there in the actual Christmas story, God destroys the proud and arrogant thoughts of our hearts. Mary’s song is a lament for the arrogant and proud indeed rule the land and the rich are not empty-handed and too many go hungry—her lines lament the world as it is. It is praise also, for God’s Christmas story is his way in this world: a total reversal of what typically happens in “real” life; a reversal of what we are taught by those in power to expect—in life and, dare say, in church. Yet for a moment, in the biblical Christmas story, a small glimpse of ordinary life at the margins saves the day, bringing hope to all those who live upon the earth.
Think more deeply about Christmas.
Dangerous Sunday morning devotions: When lament and incarnational ministry meet, a disturbing thought
In some circles "incarnational" has become a standard, almost cliché, term for how ministry and mission are to be expressed. If it is not incarnational, then it isn't authentic biblical ministry goes the idea. I confess, for most of my Christian life, I have resisted using the term as a shibboleth for Christian ministry. Mostly because I am opposed to rating the authenticity of ministry through a trend and a cliché. Nor, am I convinced that it is a biblical term for ministry--in other words, it hasn't been exegetically vetted very well. It is a cliché.
The word "incarnational" means an imitation of the incarnation of the second person of the trinity, the Son of God, who became flesh (a man) and physically dwelling, as Jesus did, in the midst of people. Some just simply mean, "Being Jesus in the midst of people." An incarnational Christian enfleshes the good news of Jesus in ministry to others. In other words, the very same work that Jesus did--incarnational work—is now our task. I get this. Sounds, even, well, biblical—as if there are Bible verses that can be pointed to for backing up the concept. Yet, Jesus' incarnation will never be something I can actually do—I am not God become man, nor am I man who can become the Son of God. So I am cautious on using the term incarnational for how I view ministry. (I am less cautious when the incarnational image is applied to a local church's ministry, which at least should reflect Paul's teaching on the church being Messiah's body, as in Ephesians 1:22-23, and, thus, an ascension ministry, not an incarnation one. But this is for another post.)
I get the idea and the concept, but the way I have heard incarnational used has been mostly to indicate that if you are not doing ministry "this way," you are doing it wrong or not doing it Jesus' way. I know that doesn't make me popular within the more progressive Christian community (who seem very attracted to the word), but, as Inigo Montoya from the movie Princess Bride said, “You use that word a lot. I do not think it means what you think it does.”
With this said, there is yet another idea behind the concept of incarnation that isn't as cool or attractive to apply. I find Mary's song very instructive on the matter, for her song is about the incarnation of Jesus and it is a lament.
In order for true incarnational ministry and mission to happen, Mary’s song needs to come true. Her song is a good test for God-centered, Jesus-like incarnational ministry. (Reread the song above.) Mercy on those who fear God (for destruction like 70AD is coming upon us, too, when we least expect it.) Poor communities will become the wealthy and the privileged rich shall become the poor. For God will remember in these days of idolatrous modernity and affluence; days in which the marginalized are treated unjustly while abundance throughout the church is hoarded; times where Christians are more about status and celebrity, and the people of God trust in the structures of Empire for protection and prosperity—for God in the midst of these will remember His mercy as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham, the heir of the world, and as he spoke to that small band of believers facing peril and destruction at the birth of the church.
Just as the babies of Bethlehem and Jerusalem faced the sword at Jesus’ birth, his incarnation (shortly after Mary's song), praying for incarnational ministry may very well mean the destruction of the innocent around us. True incarnational ministry is not for the faint-hearted. We should be mindful for what we are advocating and calling Christians to do when we plead for incarnational ministry.
Mary's song is a lament. Rereading it brought to mind something that Soong-Chan Rah wrote in his Prophetic Lament, but with a slight twist in the direction of its application:
“The collapse of the old order of modernity may be the right event at the right time. However, like the nations that have grown rich from Babylon, how much has American Christianity grown rich from the systems that elevated Western expressions of modernity?” (Prophetic Lament, 77).
Soong-Chan Rah, my fellow Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary alum, isn’t wrong to raise this question. As modernity and with it Christendom (a form and system of civil religion built and sustained on American modernity) has begun to fail, we should not think we get to keep all our toys and get to maintain the ways our American evangelical churches prosper as these leveraged systems of thought and sustainability collapse around us.
I also fear that much of the rising privileged from among Christian social justice advocates, who call for incarnation ministry and who have taken on the mantle of speaking truth to power, are also sustained by the very system they denounce. It is hard to be prophetic with a secure bank account, the spot light of celebrity shining on them, now living in privileged neighborhoods, and, as well, hanging their prophetic angst on the hangers of modernity (e.g., mass production, advertising, and the glitter of spectacular conferences that magnifies their status as celebrity prophets). Do not think for one moment that the social advocacy industry (Christian or not) and our mega-social-justice stars (Christian or not) get to keep their own toys as modernity and, with it, Christendom collapses.
As Jeremiah, in his Lamentations reminds us, all will become victims of the destruction of idolatrous systems of society, civil and religious. Exile is (or will be) the condition for all as a result. Simply exchanging the place of the privileged with ourselves isn’t a prophetic voice. Like the captain of a ship, incarnational Christians must come to grips with the privilege of such a high calling and the code of such responsibility: Incarnational ministry means going down with the ship (i.e., down with those whom we are ministering to incarnationally as Jeremiah and as Jesus did--the cross is the end of an incarnation ministry, caught between two thieves).
We should, rather, expect, as the Old Testament prophets did, to share in the judgment of exile, in torture, mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. Maybe even being subject to death by the sword as well. (Not book deals, the affluence of celebrity status, and the adulation of conference speaking.) As those seeking to be that prophetic voice to the destructive and privileged powers of our times, until we are willing to go about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground (see Hebrews 11:35-38), we will not be the incarnational prophetic voice we claim, but simply those who want the power for ourselves and our kind (because they've had it long enough).
In the end, we cannot have incarnational ministry without the humbling of lament. Lament exposes, peels, scrapes and strips the powers of the age off our flesh, so we may have authentic incarnational ministry.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.