Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Lamb’

Christmas Warfare

December 19th, 2013 No comments

Christmas Warfare
Every year, I just have to chuckle a little bit about the pundits and pastors weeping and wailing over the so-called “War on Christmas.” Apparently businesses frantically trying to respect their clientele by saying “Happy Holidays” and government sensitivity to religious freedom and the separation of church and state are ruining Christmas for us all. Of course, not even Herod’s bloody War on Christmas was able to destroy Christmas, and the Powers that Be would later kill the Christ but still lose the War on Christmas. I don’t think today’s religious hyper-sensitivity will destroy Christmas, either.

But as I was reading through the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke this year, I was struck that Christmas really has much to do with warfare.

“Fear not, the Lord is with you”
In the Christmas stories, unlikely people are repeatedly given the promise, “Fear not. . . the Lord is with you.”1 In fact, the entire Gospel of Matthew is framed by this promise.2 This is more than mere pious platitude; it is, among other things, traditional holy war language. It is the ancient battle cry of the children of Israel.3 This is the cry with which Moses rallies the people of Israel in the quintessential Old Testament Holy War at the Exodus (Ex. 14:13-14).

Political Intrigue and Subversion
Curiously, both Matthew and Luke make mention of significant political authorities in their birth narratives. What could a baby born into rags have to do with kings and emperors? Matthew’s narrative revolves around the sinister machinations of Herod, Rome’s client “King of the Jews.” Herod became king when, with the backing of Rome, he besieged and captured Jerusalem and ordered the execution of the ruling “King of the Jews,” Antigonus II. The Magi from the east come searching specifically for the child born “King of the Jews.” Herod perceived the child as a rival king and therefore a military, political, and mortal threat. Thus Herod launched the horrific War on Christmas (Mt. 2:16).

Political themes whispered in Matthew are shouted in Luke. It is Caesar Augustus’s census decree that lands Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Augustus’s birth was hailed as “the beginning of the good tidings [“gospel”] of the world.” Because he established the Roman Peace (Pax Romana/Augusti), he was revered as a shining light, a Savior sent by Providence. Augustus was all too happy to oblige, eagerly claiming the title of “Son of the Divine.”4 Later Caesars would require their subjects to confess them as Lord and God.5 Strikingly, Luke refers to Jesus as Son of God (1:35), Savior, and Lord (2:11).6 His birth is hailed as “good tidings [“gospel”]. . . for all people” (2:10), which marks the “shining” of an age of peace (1:78-79; 2:13).

Mary’s prophetic song (1:46-55) makes all these undertones explicit: proud hearts are scattered; the powerful are dethroned; the lowly are lifted up; the hungry are filled; and the rich leave empty-handed. It is the subversive language of revolution. The true Lord has arrived in the frailty of a tiny newborn, wrapped not in royal robes, but rag cloths; laid not in a bassinet fit for a king’s palace, but in a feed trough because this baby was apparently not considered important enough for more refined accommodations. This, we are told, is the true King.

Angels
Often the Christian imagination conjures up images of Precious Moments angel children singing sweetly through the night. But the heavenly host of the Christmas stories are more like God’s battle-hardened soldiers (lit. “army”) who combat the spiritual forces that oppose the purposes of God.7 Their message is not a pious table grace, but a triumphant battle cry. No wonder the shepherds were quaking in their sandals.

Gabriel in particular, whose name means roughly “God is my strength,” is mentioned only in Daniel and Luke. He is of some slightly lower or similar rank to his comrade, the illustrious archangel Michael, “one of the chief princes.” Both Gabriel and Michael join battle with the forces opposed to the purposes of God, identified with worldly kingdoms.8 In Daniel, he is “the man Gabriel” (9:21), “having the appearance of a man” (9:15). The presence of this battle-hardened messenger evokes fear (9:17). When the priest Zechariah dares to question Gabriel, Gabriel thunders indignantly, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the presence of God!” (Luke 1:19). Zechariah was scared speechless! The angels come announcing the very invasion of God into human life. A Savior is at hand, the Christ, the Lord, the Son of God, and Gabriel is the chief recruitment officer of heaven’s armies.

To War!
It would seem to be an incredibly bizarre way to frame the coming of a child born into rags. What could be more commonplace, more frail, more human? What does a baby have to do with battles and bloodshed? Yet this child’s advent is surrounded by a terrible war of cosmic proportion!

Depending on your view of holy war in the trajectory of biblical revelation, the New Testament completely replaces, rejects, redeems, upends, transposes, subverts, and/or fulfills OT holy war traditions. Following the lead lamb-of-godof Zech. 9:9-10, Jesus and his disciples make a pure mockery of military-royal pomposity in the (Anti-)Triumphal Entry. The Pauline writings spiritualize warfare (2 Cor. 10:3-4; Eph 6:12) and explicitly describe the “gospel of peace” as battle gear (Eph. 6:15)! In Revelation, Jesus’ weapon is his word of truth (19:15), and his robe is dipped in blood prior to battle. As John watches, suddenly the mighty pride fighter Lion shimmers into the Lamb Who Was Slain (5:5ff), the subversively true image of divine power and victory in battle. The faithful conquer by this Lamb’s blood, which they themselves also shed; by the courageous word of their testimony (martyria, 12:11); and by “following the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).

The pathos of battle is retained in the mission and identity of God’s people, but its assault is redirected against the “spiritual forces of evil,” “principalities,” and “powers.” Its weaponry is remade into gear forged not of steel, but of truth, justice, gospel-peace, faith, salvation, and God’s Word. Its tactics and strategies are prayer in the Spirit, service, sacrifice, martyrdom, peacemaking, patience, testimony, and obedience.

At any rate, if you want to know what holy warfare truly looks like, Christmas is the place to start. God was invading the world not with the power of coercion, but with the power of grace. Heaven’s army was singing its battle hymn, not of yet more war-making, but of unprecedented peace-making. Its general is a helpless baby clothed in rags squirming in a feed trough in a backwater town. Its heralds are lowly shepherds. Its crushing defeat is its moment of greatest triumph, sealing forever the victory of the Kingdom of God.

God is invading every corner of human life with grace and peace!

And the Infant King wants you! Join now the Child of Rags, the Lamb Who Was Slain, in the battle of the age against domination, violence, hatred, oppression, lust, deceit, bondage, Satan, Sin, and Death! Join now the Infant’s piercing cry of defiant hope! Join now invasion of justice, mercy, grace, and love! Join this Christmastide the whole host of the Kingdom of God in Bethlehem’s onslaught of peace and salvation! By the Lamb’s blood flowing in and from our veins will we conquer. By God’s word of truth will we overcome. By the gentle word of our testimony will we gain victory in the Spirit. By following the Lamb wherever he goes will we share his triumph. Do not be afraid! The child is named Immanuel, God with Us!

Notes:
1 Mt. 1:20, 23; Luke 1:13, 28, 30; 2:10-11
2 Mt. 1:20, 23; 28:5, 10, 20.
3 See, e.g. Deut. 20:1; Joshua 1:5, 9; Judges 6:12; Isa. 7:4, 14; 41:10-13; cf. Gen. 21:22; Num. 14:42-43; Ps. 23:4-5; 27:1; 27; 46; 118:6.
4 Also in reference to his popular posthumous adoptive father, Julius Caesar, who had been divinized by the Senate.
5 Cf. John 20:28; Rom. 10:9.
6 Here Jesus is also called Christ, the title by which the Romans believed the Jews called their rulers.
7 See also Joshua 5:13-15.
8 Dan. 10:13, 21; cf Jude 1:9; Rev. 12:7.

Categories: Bible, Essays Tags: , ,