Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Unlikely Family

A good friend of mine, Lee Adams, just published her third book and second novel, Unlikely Family, available in paperback and on KindleCan’t wait to start reading it! 

If it’s as good as her first novel, Strawberry Wine, you’ll be in for a treat.  Check them both out!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Family Food

Did anyone eat anything new at Christmas dinner? Maybe a new side dish or dessert, perhaps, but in the main, probably not.

There are certain foods I want to have on Christmas Day. Pam’s mother (Mema) makes a carrot cake that has no equal, and she makes it every December for Christmas. When we are there on Christmas, I have to have a piece, probably two. It can be 9 a.m., and I'm eating carrot cake.

That’s what my Christmas breakfast generally consists of: Mema’s carrot cake.

Hey, it’s one day out of the year. I can eat eggs or yogurt for breakfast the other 364 days.
My mom can serve whatever she wants for Christmas dinner—ham, turkey, kielbasa, I don’t care—but her potato salad better be there. Nobody’s potato salad is like Mom’s. She doesn’t think it’s anything special, but my kids and I disagree. It has its own distinctive flavor and appearance, and she always serves it in the same Tupperware bowl that she’s been using since I was a kid. It has to be there.

You may not think it’s anything special, but she’s been serving it for years, and it better be there. And it will. We don’t have to tell her, “It better be there.” It just always is.

Can’t have Christmas without Mom’s potato salad. If, like this year, we’re having Christmas dinner with Pam’s family, I'll still eat some of Mom’s potato salad when I go back over there later in the day.

The other day Pam and Angela got together to make Mema’s carrot cake. I did a taste test, and, yes, the tradition will be carried on for many, many years. They nailed it.

I’ve also given Angela strict instructions to learn how to make Mom’s potato salad. When I am an old man I want to still be eating Mema’s carrot cake and Mom’s potato salad on Christmas Day.

I'm not against trying new foods, nor am I opposed to improving old dishes. But sometimes old is better. Sometimes things don’t need improving. Sometimes you want to eat something that you’ve eaten all your life because it reminds you of every other Christmas you’ve ever had. All the joy. All the laughter. All the comfort. All the family.

And at some point, when the people who made it for you all your life are no longer there, seeing it there in the same bowl, tasting just like it always did, somehow brings them into the celebration.

Nobody could make chicken and dumplings like my Grandmother Eubanks. Nobody. I only got to have them once a year at the annual Eubanks reunion in Lucedale, Mississippi at Easter, but, man, were they good. And we’d eat them all day long.

Of course, Grandmother Eubanks didn’t use a recipe. She’d been making chicken and dumplings all her life and just knew how to do it. So her dumplings were not reproducible.

As a consequence I haven’t tasted really, really good chicken and dumplings since it became too much for her to cook for all of us, sometime when I was in high school.

When I pastored in Georgia there were a couple of women in my church who came pretty close, and I would get excited whenever they invited me over for chicken and dumplings. They were good. But they weren’t my Grandmother Eubanks’ chicken and dumplings.

I don’t know if, in the age to come, we are still cooking and eating and doing a lot of the things we are doing now; I rather think so. And if that is the case, Grandmother Eubanks may be a little surprised if one of the first things I say to her after our reunion is, “Can you make some chicken and dumplings?”

Or maybe she won’t be surprised at all.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Truly Wise King

Photo by Carolyn Burnam
The birth narrative of Matthew presents Jesus as a new Moses coming out of Egypt to deliver his people. But have we missed another connection that Matthew is making between Jesus and another famous Old Testament figure?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote how the mention of swaddling cloths in Matthew's nativity scene connected the birth of Jesus with that of Solomon found in the intertestamental book, The Wisdom of Solomon 7:1-6. It’s possible that there is an even stronger connection between Jesus and Solomon.

On her wonderful blog, Our Rabbi Jesus: His Jewish Life and Teaching, Lois Tverberg wrote an article about the Magi in which she references 1 Kings 10:1-2; 10—
When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon (fame due to the name of the LORD), she came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon…Then she gave the king one hundred twenty talents of gold, a great quantity of spices, and precious stones; never again did spices come in such quantity as that which the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.
Gold and spices like frankincense and myrrh were brought to the king. It’s not a far stretch to see the visit of the Magi as a re-enactment of the queen’s visit to Solomon.

As a child I remember being taught about the wonderful scene in which God promises to give Solomon anything he wants, and all he asks for is wisdom in ruling the people of Israel. And there is that wonderful story of the two women who both claimed to be the mother of a baby, when Solomon used his wisdom to expose the imposter.

Solomon is extolled to this day as the wisest of the Israelite kings, but few seem to notice that he does some very unwise things.
  • His alliances with foreign kings were sealed with marriages to their daughters, who brought their gods and idols with them.
  • Solomon’s building programs were accomplished through a labor tax: each Israelite male was required to work for the king for an entire month each year. The Israelites likened this to their slavery in Egypt.
  • There was one exception to this forced-labor tax: the men of Solomon’s tribe, Judah, were exempt. Only the northern tribes had to contribute their labor, and they resented it.
  • Solomon thus built up great wealth, but did so at the expense of the common Israelite who had to work twelve months just to survive. The rich got richer and the poor got poorer, all because of Solomon.
As a direct result of his actions, the nation fractured after Solomon’s death, dividing into the nations of Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Idolatry and neglect of the poor flourished in both lands, leading to their eventual destruction. A reign that began with promise ended in idolatry, injustice, rebellion, and exile.

With these allusions to the birth and reign of Solomon, Jesus is presented as a “New Solomon,” one who will truly reign with justice for the poor, will deliver the people from slavery, and who will finally end Israel’s exile and bring them back together as one nation.

“People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.” (1 Kings 4:34) Solomon blew it, unfortunately, so God sent a new king from the line of David, one “who became for us the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:30)

In Jesus a truly wise king has been born, and the promise of his kingdom will be fulfilled.

A new Moses, a new Solomon.

What child is this, indeed?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Those Troublesome Magi

They’ve been called kings, wise men, and astrologers, sorcerers, and magicians, but we ought to call them what they are: Magi.  I know, that doesn’t tell you anything, but that’s just the point; we know what all those other things are, so we think we understand, at least a little, who these guys were.  At least when we call them Magi, we know we don’t know, and maybe we’ll do a little investigation.

Matthew doesn’t just call them Magi, however; he tells us they are from the East.  Of the four great empires mentioned in the Old Testament, only the Egyptian Empire is not from the east.  The Assyrian, Babylonian, and the Medo-Persian Empires are from the east; in fact, these empires covered much of the same territory.  The Babylonians wrested it from the Assyrians, and Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians (and also the kingdoms of Lydia and Media, thus forming the Medo-Persian Empire.)

Magi were priests of Zoroastrianism, and were originally from Media, where they were actually a priestly tribe not unlike the tribe of Levi in Israel.  They were very powerful in the courts of the Babylonians and the Medo-Persians, so much so that Cyrus sought to put them down.  They survived enough to revolt against his son Cambyses and install their own king, though he was murdered shortly thereafter when Darius became king. Still, their influence in the east continued even into the Greek and Roman empires.

They were politically powerful, rumored to be able to practice magic and sorcery, interpret dreams, and divine the stars.  They influenced empires, overthrew empires, outlasted empires.

So Herod wasn’t just upset that some guys showed up asking about a newborn king of the Jews.   If some guys just walked in off the street talking about a baby king he might have been curious, but he might not have taken it seriously.

But not Magi.  Not from the East.  Magi from the East asking about a new king and talking about a magical star; this was not to be ignored.

Herod knew to take this seriously, because this couldn’t be good. Especially when they said they came to give homage to this king.

Nothing mentioned about these Magi paying homage to Herod.

They apparently didn’t give him any gifts either.

Uh oh.

When guys with a history of deposing and installing kings show up and don’t leave any gold, frankincense, and myrrh, there’s trouble afoot.  And when they blew Herod off and skirted Jerusalem on their way back home, Herod understood what was going on:



Coup d'├ętat.

It was brewing.  A new king.  A new kingdom.

If was just, as we often think of it, a spiritual kingdom, a heavenly kingdom, then Herod didn’t have anything to worry about.  But Herod knew.

He knew that spiritual matters have earthly consequences, just as earthly matters have spiritual consequences.  He knew that a king in heaven was king on earth, that in fact a heavenly king was king of the entire earth.

King not just of Jerusalem, but of Rome, Herod’s protector.

Magi don’t concern themselves with mere kingdoms—Magi deal with whole empires.

Matthew is telling us that Jesus didn’t come just to increase the population of heaven, he came to change the world.

And he did.  And does.  And will.

Will you join him?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A King for the Poor

When reading the Bible, it’s good to observe the details.  Since not every detail in a story can be included, it’s useful to ask, “Why this one?”  Some details are just descriptive, but some point to something significant.

Take, for instance, Luke’s statement that Mary wrapped Jesus in bands of cloth, or swaddling cloths.  He could have easily just written that Mary laid Jesus in the manger; we would have assumed she wrapped him in something.

But he specifically mentions the swaddling cloths.  So what’s up?  To find out, let’s back up and do a little background work.

If Caesar Augustus is lurking in the background of Matthew’s birth narrative, obscured behind his puppet king Herod, he takes center stage in Luke’s birth narrative. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”

The purpose of this registration was taxation, and here are a couple of important points that need to be made about taxation in 1st century Israel.

First, taxation imposed on the common person was a terrible burden. Israel was a conquered people, and Rome exacted punitive tribute from its conquered territories.

In addition, the Jews were still obligated to give their tithes to their own country. Tithes in biblical days weren’t simply to provide funds for their religious institutions; they were in fact the Israelite taxes. 
Two tithes, or 20%, were required each year, and every third year an additional tithe was required to provide for the poor. (This is the “full tithe” referred to in Malachi 3:10.)

That’s a lot of money being paid out by the average person, but that’s not all. Herod needed to stay in good graces with Rome, so he named cities after Caesar and built imperial temples and fortresses in each of them. He also expanded the Temple in Jerusalem, using features of Greco-Roman architecture. These building programs required funds, which Herod acquired through additional taxes on the people of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea.

As a result of all of this taxation, poverty was widespread. Families went into debt in order to pay all the taxes and feed themselves. The interest rates charged would make loan shark blush, and many people literally lost the farm. They lost the land that was part of the original apportionment when the Israelites settled the Promised Land.

This brings up the second aspect of 1st century taxation: the poor—which increasingly was just about everybody—received little or no benefit from the taxes. Caesar used the money to enrich himself and the elite class of Romans. The average Roman citizen didn’t even benefit beyond receiving some free grain each month.

Likewise, tithes were used to support the Temple cult, which had become very powerful in Judea; and, as I’ve mentioned, Herod used the extra taxes he collected to ingratiate himself to Rome.

Herod was king, but he was king for the rich and elite; Caesar was emperor, but he was emperor for the rich and elite.

What was needed was someone who would be king for the poor.

And that is what Luke’s birth narrative proclaims Jesus to be.  He is born in the city of King David.  And he is wrapped in swaddling clothes, just as is claimed for King David’s firstborn son, King Solomon, in The Wisdom of Solomon, which was written just a few decades before Jesus’s birth.

In 7:1-6, in which Solomon is emphasizing his humble roots, he says, “I also am mortal, like everyone else….And when I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth; my first sound was a cry, as is true of all. I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all one entrance into life, and one way out.”

Luke uses this as a slap in the face of Augustus, who had declared that Julius was divine, allowing him to claim to be “the son of God.” Further, it was claimed that his birth was the beginning of “good news,” that a savior had been born who would bring “peace” to the world.

So when the angel says to the shepherds, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger," this is a direct challenge to Augustus.

A new king has been born, Luke proclaims.

Most significant is that the angel announces the birth of this king to shepherds, common peasants barely surviving under Augustus and Herod.  And he proclaims that this birth is the real good news.
Well, maybe not good news to the rich, the powerful, the elite, the puppet rulers and emperors claiming to be divine.

But good news to the poor, the widows, the orphans.

So at last a king has come, Luke proclaims, born to common peasants, in lowly circumstances; a king who is a friend, not to the rich and powerful, but to the poor and lowly.

And the government that is upon his shoulders will be full of justice and peace (Isa. 9:6-7).

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Dangerous Baby

We don’t normally think of babies as dangerous, and certainly not the baby Jesus, but that’s exactly how Matthew portrays him. He’s a dangerous baby, a threat to the most powerful man on earth at the time, the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus.

True, Augustus is never mentioned in Matthew’s version of the birth narrative, but if you know what to look for, you can see that baby Jesus is challenging the legitimacy of Augustus’ kingship in Israel.

To begin with, Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy that traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham, the father of Israel. The most significant aspect of this genealogy, however, is that it is a royal lineage. Beginning with King David, every king of Judah is named, all the way to the Babylonian Exile and the end of the monarchy, which ended with the deportation and death in Babylon of King Jeconiah.

Thus Matthew is asserting that Jesus, not Augustus, comes from the long line of kings of Judah, and he does so by birth. This is not insignificant because Augustus, the royal name of the man born Octavian, was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Could it be that, among the Jews, where the first-born son was always seen as the legitimate heir, Matthew was calling into question Augustus’ right to be king?

After the genealogy, Matthew simply reports that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and quickly moves ahead almost two years to the arrival of star-diviners from the East, inquiring of King Herod where “the king of the Jews” could be found. This sets Herod off on a paranoid search for the baby, and when the Easterners slip off without reporting where they found the baby king, Herod goes on a murderous rampage of the young boys around Bethlehem.

Herod sat uneasy on his throne because most of the Jews did not view him as a legitimate king. His family was from Idumea, the Roman province that included ancient Edom, and though he had converted to Judaism, he, like most Edomites, weren’t considered authentic Jews by the Pharisees of the day.

The overriding issue, however, is that he was a puppet king in the service of Augustus. He was a collaborator with the very regime that had conquered, occupied, and brutalized the Jewish people. To challenge his legitimacy as king was to challenge the legitimacy of the emperor who placed him on his “throne.”

Matthew’s birth narrative, therefore, is subversive literature, challenging the legitimacy of the Roman emperor and his turncoat “Jewish” king. There is a new king in the land, Matthew declares, and even as a baby he is a threat that needs to be dealt with. He is a very dangerous baby.

And he grew to be a very dangerous man. Walking around proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand was a direct challenge to Caesar.

In many ways, Christians are called to be subversives in our culture. As much as many decry secular culture “taking the Christ out of Christmas,” perhaps the far greater harm is done by Christians themselves when they ignore—either by ignorance or by choice—the subversive nature of the Nativity, domesticating it into a sweet, heartwarming story of a baby in a manger surrounded by shepherds, donkeys and sheep.

This frees us from having to be subversive ourselves. We can enjoy a nice Christmas, thankful that our personal sins have been taken care of without concerning ourselves with the societal sins that continue to burden the “least of these” in our own culture.

We need to remember that Christ is the Greek form of the Hebrew word messiah, and for the Jews messiah meant “king.” Anyone claiming to be a king anywhere in the Roman Empire was challenging Caesar’s claim to the throne.

But by domesticating the baby Jesus, we have removed this threat. Christ is no longer a word for the one challenging the guy on the throne; it’s simply a word for someone who takes away our personal sin.

And when we do that, we are the ones taking the Christ out of Christmas.

Check out a related Bible limerick from Bible Bus Limericks