“Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”—Mathew 2.2
A Revolution Lying in a Manger (Freedom from the Fear of Death)
Part 2 of 4
Before we look at this week’s subject, we must first review briefly what we covered last week. We looked at the first way in which the birth of Jesus challenged the culture of that day. We looked at how the birth of Jesus challenges every kingdom of this world (beginning with Rome) and the claims of every kingdom, nation, and superpower to be people’s lord and savior. In reality, the challenge the birth of Jesus presents to the kingdoms of this world is actually a very real challenge to the principalities and powers, which preside behind these kingdoms, and the claim of these powers over the masses. (Ephesians 6.12; Luke 4.5-6) You see, the Gospel, in its earliest form, was not an announcement of a private spiritual debt that had been paid so individuals could go to heaven when they die. The term Gospel was originally used by the Roman Empire. It was the message Rome gave to those who had been militaristically conquered to announce they had a new king (Caesar), which was their new lord and savior, bringing freedom, justice, and peace to their present hopeless state. This is why the Gospel of Jesus was seen as such a threat to the Roman Empire. It is true that during the time of Constantine, the revolutionary message of the apostles concerning King Jesus became domesticated. In order to no longer be a threat to the Empire, the Gospel then became about personal salvation, received into one’s heart and preoccupied with post-mortem bliss, rather than being about a new Kingdom on earth, a new King of this World, challenging all earthly kingdoms and the systematic injustice that the principalities and powers behind those kingdoms promote as illegitimate. The Gospel was a call to “the nations” (Matthew 28.19) to rethink their present allegiances, agendas, aims, and purposes, and to submit to the new universal reign of Christ. The Gospel in its earliest form was simply that there is a new King of the World and His Kingdom has come! (See Matthew 3.2, 4.17, 23, 6.10, 33, 9.35; Mark 1.15; Luke 4.43, 8.1, 9.2, 10.9.)
This is why Jesus was referred to as “the Christ.” As Egypt had Pharaohs, Rome had Caesars, Russia had czars, Great Britain has kings and queens, and the empire of America has a president, the Jews had been promised a Christ! He was the anointed one, the Messiah, who was to be born, from the lineage of King David, and to whom all the nations of the world would eventually bow to and worship as Lord. He would be given “authority, glory and sovereign power [a Kingdom]; and all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7.13, 14)
This is also exactly why the early Christians were martyred by the Roman Empire. Rome would not have given the Jesus movement a second thought if it only had to do with private piety focused primarily on afterlife affairs. But the message of the apostles was deeply concerned with matters of this life, this world. It was Earthly! The apostles were preaching another Gospel contrary to the gospel of Rome! They were proclaiming another king other than Caesar! They were proclaiming this Jesus as the Lord of the Earth, and the Savior of the World, who had come to give freedom, and establish justice and peace, rather than the Pax Romana. And to top it all off, they were proclaiming that this Jesus, whom Rome had executed (as Rome did with all political threats) had been raised back to life by God. They were preaching a God who had challenged and overturned Rome’s power to take other’s lives and that there was no longer any reason to fear what Rome could do to a follower of this Jesus. Jesus was offering a new world and Rome, with its threat of crucifixion, was powerless to stop it. As a matter of fact, crucifixion would only enlarge the reign of Christ faster. THIS is why Rome rightly saw the early Jesus movement as deeply subversive to its very existence. (When rightly understood, the Gospel is just as much a threat to the kingdoms of this world today.)
Herein lies this week’s point. The second way in which the birth of this little baby lying in a manger cut across the culture of its own day and continues to run crossways to the grain of our culture today is in the freedom that this baby brings.
What is this freedom? According to the author of Hebrews, this little baby, who was laid in a manger, broke “the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil [exercised through the nations]—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2.14, 15) You see, this freedom from the fear of death is not a death threatened upon us by an angry God, which Jesus has successfully appeased. NO, NO! This “power of death,” the ability to take life, is that which “the devil” wields over humanity and is exercised through the kingdoms of this world, to keep humanity subservient to their reign rather than this new Christ.
Consider Pilates words to Jesus. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” (John 19.10) Pilate’s words echo the words that every empire of this world has spoken to its citizens. It is their power to take life and our fear of having our life taken that keeps us enslaved to the kingdoms of this world, the principalities and powers to whom they belong, and the systemic injustice they together proliferate.
“Death and the fear of suffering unto death…serve as the deterrent system of every empire in history…the law of violence is that death is supreme. But if death so rules the world, what about those whose kingdom is not of this world of death? What about those who through interior struggle have been given the grace to overcome the fear of death? What about those who refuse to submit to the law of violence, who refuse to pledge allegiance to the empire of death? For those liberated from the fear of death, the law of violence is powerless…Nonviolence is the overcoming of death by a fearless love.” (James Douglass, The Nonviolent Coming of God.)
Today, everything in America is about death avoidance. When we stop to look around we see the power of the fear of death everywhere we turn. One example is the inordinate amount of money spent within American culture on modern medicine to avoid death. It is the very root and pulse of capitalism in the West. Stanley Hauerwas recently said, “The American desire to use medicine in an attempt to get out of life alive is but the domestic form of American foreign policy.” We must save an extended treatment of this specific application to another time. I only mention it here briefly to try and get you to notice again the water in which we are swimming. The fear of death actually governs our behavior in every area of our life. This is what made Constantinian Christianity so appealing to the early adherents of the American Dream. Constantinian Christianity, just like American culture, is enraptured with the goal of avoiding death. But the baby lying in a manger does not offer us a way to avoid death. On the contrary, this baby gives us a way through death. He has passed through death’s grasp and opened up a passageway on the other side. This baby has conquered death, and offers resurrection from it! Then, irony of all ironies, this baby takes death and turns it inside out as something to be embraced by His followers as the very means whereby His reign on earth is enlarged. (More on this next week.) Far from being a message about how to avoid death, the early Jesus story was a story that trained its adherents in how to die early, and how to die well. This baby conquered death and gives to the world the hope of a resurrection and a renewal where all opposition to Christ’s reign will be ultimately subverted.
I don’t want to steal too much from next week, but it’s difficult not to make certain bridges, as the freedom, peace, and justice this baby’s reign brings us are all interconnected. But in the name of practicality, it is this freedom from the fear of dying, freedom from the fear of having one’s own life taken, the willingness to have one’s own blood shed rather than to stain one’s hands with the blood of another, even in self-preservation, that keeps people from being shaped by the violence of their surrounding society and transforms them into that which shapes society instead. To say that violence must be met with violence, that violence is the lesser of two evils, only allows another person’s violence to create your environment rather than allowing that baby lying in a manger to recreate us all back into the image of the nonviolent God. It is the preservation of the fear of being killed that enables all of this. And it is freedom from this fear that makes impotent the power of death threatened by others. This is the truest meaning of being set free from the fear of death. The story of this new king lying in a manger is the story of one who came to us, giving us a better way, a way of freedom from the fear of dying, rather than being governed by it. This way is the way of a death-embracing (rather than avoiding) love coupled with the power of forgiveness for those who will take our lives. This is the story that yes, begins in a manger, and yes, includes our king’s death, but the story does not end there. The story of our new king ends in a resurrection, and not just His alone. The story of our king will climax in the resurrection of all those who follow this king, who join His revolution, His kingdom, in fearless love, and the hope of a world resurrected and transformed from the inside out by a fearless love of this nature.
1.This week I want you to ponder these words:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Matthew 2.1-13)
2.As you prayerfully meditate on Jesus’ kingship of this world and His special call to embrace His freedom from the fear of dying at the hands of the principalities and powers that now endeavor to rule this world (this really is the center piece of the Advent story), consider how the coming of these Magi was seen to be a threat by Herod. Allow these themes to permeate into your thinking today. Today we may not refer to kingdoms as such, but we do refer to nations and superpowers. What does it mean to embrace the Kingdom of Christ as the revolutionary competitor to nationalistic loyalties, loyalties to the present principalities and powers? How does the freedom from the fear of death, once embraced by the followers of Christ, liberate us to follow Him regardless of the threat of nations and superpowers today? (The fact that many here in America don’t even perceive this threat demonstrates how deeply we have been co-opted by civil religion here rather than captivated by the Jesus revolution.)
3.Share your thoughts this week with your HeartGroup.
Again, it is through the freedom from the fear of death, which enables us to lovingly embrace our enemies (with enemy-forgiving love) rather than resorting to retaliation or retreat, that the restorative justice and peace that comes through our Savior Jesus the Christ is enlarged here, once again, on Earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6.10) This was true of the early followers of Jesus for the first three hundred years, and it is to be true of us today as well. To follow that little baby lying in a manger today is to live under the reign of King Jesus in the here and now. It does not mean that we go around trying to force the world around us to change. Much more, we are called to put on display, to be an authentic revelation and demonstration of what the world changed by the reign of King Jesus looks like. To follow that little baby means to believe this unique proclamation: “Out of You, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, has come a King who will shepherd the nations!” His reign has come. Our first call is to let go of our fear of death, our striving to always be preserving our lives. Embrace the resurrection and embrace the cross. The cross is not simply part of the story we are proclaiming, it is the very means whereby the mustard seed of the kingdom subverts all the other plants in the garden, and becomes the tree in which all the birds of the heavens nest. Embracing the freedom from the fear of death, from being killed, is foundational to everything else Jesus’ reign is to accomplish. Compared to the next two aspects we will be looking at, embracing this freedom is where every follower of Jesus must begin.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12.25)
Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9.23, 24)
Come join the revolution, the King Jesus Revolution! For unto you is born this day a savior, who is Christ the Lord!
Again, may the truths proclaimed by the events that this season brings to the minds of so many be ever-present in your heart.
I love you guys. We’ll see you next week.