Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Eden restored
A follow-up to yesterday's post, here's the speech I gave in class last night.

I’ve been told that Jewish history can be summarized in three sentences: They tried to kill us. God saved us. Let’s eat.

I recently found a good story about the history of the Jewish people. This takes place during the time between the Old and New Testaments. It is the days following Alexander the Great, and Palestine has become thoroughly Hellenized by Greek culture. Despite this, the Jews have maintained their separateness from the wider culture, and so the for the most part, the wider culture considers them weird, at best, and a threat to national security, at worst.

King Ptolemy Philopater finds them to be a stubborn and hateful people and has the entire nation arrested and deported to Alexandria in Egypt. This king was a party king, constantly throwing festivals to his pagan gods and blaspheming the one true God. Bent on the destruction of the Jews, he hatched a plot. The Jews were being kept in the hippodrome, a public stadium, where all who passed by could see them in chains and mock them. The king would gather the army of 400 elephants and have the Jews trampled in a public display.

The king summoned Hermon the keeper of the elephants to drug the elephants with frankincense and concentrated wine and bring them to the stadium. When the Jews heard of this, they cried out to God in tears of helpless desperation. They think their story is over. So early in the morning, Hermon got the elephants ready. He marched them through the streets of the city to the stadium where all the city is waiting for the big show. But one person is missing: the king. He’s slept in. God has given him such a deep sleep that he doesn’t wake up until 4 in the afternoon. He wakes up enraged at Hermon and the rest of the partygoers that the Jews are still alive. He demands that the revelry go on that night, and they’ll kill the Jews in the morning.

So next morning, same thing—Hermon the keeper of the elephants drugs up the 400 elephants, parades them through the crowds to the city. Hermon the keeper of the elephants goes to get the king. The Jews again cry out to God. Their story is over. But the king is thoroughly confused about what all the unusual commotion is about. God has caused him to forget his order to kill the Jews. He threatened Hermon the keeper of the elephants and all the partygoers that he'll throw them to the elephants if they don’t leave him alone. Later in the evening, the king demands to know why the Jews are still alive, and all the partygoers are thoroughly confused by the madness of the crazy king.

So a third day, Hermon the keeper of the elephants drugs the elephants, marches them through innumerable crowds to the stadium, and this time, the king himself marches along with them to witness firsthand the massacre. At the thundering of 400 inebriated, charging elephants, and the billowing dust, the Jews huddled together, kissed one another, cried out to God and prepared for the end of their story.

Hold this thought.

We live in Eden being restored. Once upon a time there was a kingdom. There was a garden, but there was a serpent in the garden. Now there is a curse, and this curse runs through our veins. It has perverted how we understand God, one another, ourselves and this world we live in. We’re left with the ruins of that kingdom. We’re haunted by vague, inarticulate memories of it. It’s not supposed to be like this, be we can’t seem to remember why exactly. Like Hamlet, all we know to say is, “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark.” But this age of human history marked by suffering and misery is coming to a close.

I think my favorite time of the year is Advent. Notice I did not say “Christmas.” And I’m not talking about “The Holidays.” I’m talking about “Advent” – the season of the year that the Church worldwide remembers and celebrates the Incarnation. This is bigger than turning back windows on a pop-up calendar, counting down the days until Christmas. This is four weeks out of the year that we remember that there once was a time before Jesus, that there was a time in the story before God saved the day. You might be asking yourself, What’s the big deal about Advent?

Think about the words to “Silent Night” the next time you sing that song. If we're to take the angels' encounter with the shepherds seriously that night, then this is no "silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright." On the contrary, this is a night of supreme rejoicing: "Glory to God in the highest!" We interrupt this existence of suffering, despair, restlessness and death to bring you the news that the all-powerful God of the universe has infiltrated time and space on a solo reconnaissance mission of humankind in the form of a helpless, powerless baby. Peace and serenity violently invade a world that treats them as foreigners. This is the day the tide turns. This is the day the fool's hope is born. This is the day the promise to Eve, to Abraham, to Moses, to David will be fulfilled. The longing of all creation will be satisfied. Death will now indeed be broken. The dragon will be conquered.

Forget “'Twas the Night Before Christmas,” when I have kids, they are getting T.S. Elliott's “The Journey of the Magi” on Christmas Eve. Have you read this poem? The last four lines of it make me all tingly. Imagine you yourself are one of three wise men on your way home after encountering the Christ child: “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods. / I should be glad of another death.” Do you remember encountering Jesus for the first time and then having to go back to your old way of life?

So I don’t know about you, but I am deeply relieved at the sight of the baby in the manger. The sight of this seemingly helpless infant changes everything. All of our hopes for a better tomorrow are now born in this manger. What’s all the fuss about Advent? The infinite God of all creation squeezed Himself into the tiny fingers and toes of a newborn. The Word of God has made His home right here with us. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

I’ve met people who get all hot and bothered by the idea that Jesus was not born on December 25, 0 B.C. This is bigger than about celebrating Jesus’ birthday. This is about celebrating the light that ends forever the darkness. Even the proudest pagan would celebrate such a day, and celebrate they have on the winter solstice. The winter solstice represents the longest night of winter in the northern hemisphere. It is the darkest night of the year. Have you ever imagined what it might have been like for the first generations of human beings to experience a winter solstice? The days are getting shorter and shorter. Will the sun, our sole source of survival, disappear forever? But the following days grow increasingly longer and brighter until summer. And this is the very same place that Jesus comes into our own lives, at the moment of our darkest hopelessness. When it most seems that the night will never end, Jesus arrives to make everything new. On the darkest night of the year, here is Jesus to put everything back together that has been broken by sin and death. What is all the fuss about Advent? Jesus has come! The Kingdom is coming again!

Let’s return to our Jewish friends about to be trampled by the crazed elephants, shall we? The Jews are chained together in the stadium. The elephants are stampeding. The crowds are cheering. Eleazer, a wise old priest among the people silences their wailing and he lifts up a prayer to Almighty God. He remembers God’s victory over Pharoah at the Red Sea. He remembers God’s victory over the evil Sennacherib and the Assyrians. He remembers God’s deliverance of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the fiery furnace. He remembers God’s deliverance of Jonah from the belly of a whale. And he implores God to remember the wickedness of these oppressors and save his people once again.

Just as Eleazer finishes his prayer, the king entered the stadium with the charging elephants. All the Jews then cried out to God in unison, such that the sound echoed in all the surrounding valleys. And then, just then, God showed up. Two glorious terrible angels appeared in the stadium, visible to all but the Jews. Everyone was filled with confusion and terror as the angels shackled them. The drunken elephants turned back on the army that followed them trampling the enemy. The king’s anger immediately turned to pity and fear and he wept. And the people of God were saved that day. On that dark, dark day when hope was drying up, God intervened and saved his people.

And so at Advent, we celebrate God becoming a man. During Advent we celebrate God entering human history. At Advent we celebrate the Incarnation. Because that is what all the fuss is about, Charlie Brown. Yes, Christmas is about peace and love and goodwill toward men, too, but it is first about Jesus, about the grand God of the universe and his ridiculous love for all of us. What better day of the year to celebrate the coming of Jesus than the Winter Solstice, the darkest night of the year, when the day shines longer tomorrow. The kingdom is here. The kingdom is coming again.

I like to imagine all of us one day sitting around the table of the Great Banquet. Father Abraham stands up to say the blessing: “The serpent tried to kill us. God saved us. Let’s eat.”

We live in Eden being restored.

posted by Peter at 11:32 PM
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