Advent Week 1: The Virgin Will Conceive

Sillouette Madonna (2)When was Jesus born? What day? What year? We don’t have certain answers for these questions. The day used in Western tradition, December 25, was likely chosen for cultural or theological reasons (see this link for full discussion). The greater concern for the early church was the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, a practice that was not confined to a yearly Easter, but recognized weekly by gathering on the “first day of the week” (Acts 20:7, 1 Cor. 16:2).

The celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, whether weekly or yearly, is certainly important. His birth means little apart from his death and resurrection. But cultural tradition enjoys the celebration of birthdays rather than deathdays (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday is the Monday nearest his birthday in January, not in April when he was assassinated).

Celebration of Jesus’ birth brings out many beloved things for us: babies, gifts, music, and family to name a few. But at its heart, Christmas is a theological holiday. It looks at one of the greatest mysteries in human history: how could God become human? Was Jesus God or Man? Or both? In our moments of deepest theological honesty, we look at this mystery of the incarnation and must say, “I don’t know. I don’t understand it fully, but I am sure glad that it happened.”

Picture1God is great, and I’m sure he could have come up with another plan for human redemption from sin other than taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus. But this is what God chose to do. So, while Christmas is meaningless without Easter, Easter is impossible without Christmas.

This profound truth is conveyed in the simple and timeless words of the prophet Isaiah:

The virgin will conceive
and give birth to a son,

and will call him Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:14

Yes, I am aware of questions about whether this was intended by Isaiah as a prophecy for King Ahaz in the 8th century BC. I realize that the Hebrew word translated “virgin” is somewhat ambiguous and may mean no more than “young unmarried woman.”

But this is not the way the early church understood Isaiah. Matthew, who quotes this verse in 1:23, uses the Greek translation of the OT and its word, parthenos, which unequivocally means “virgin.” As in, never had sexual intercourse. As in, there was no male contribution to the conception of this child. As in, this could only be a miracle, designed and accomplished by God himself. While Matthew does not give us the exact date or year for the first Christmas, he frames our celebration in a powerful way by these three words (two in Greek):

virgin will conceive

As with many things in the Christian faith, I don’t understand this. I can understand the result, but if I am wearing my Mr. Scientist hat, I am lost. Virgin women don’t make babies all by themselves. Only God and do this. Let us not over-analyze, as is our wont in theology. Let us celebrate and be thankful.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Islam and Peace

eiffel tower peace symbolThe recent murderous attacks in Paris have again shocked the world by their barbarity. The supposed line between combatants and civilians is crossed again. Innocents were killed or maimed in a stadium, a theater, and on the streets of Paris.

To label this as “senseless” (as some have done) is not helpful. These murders made perfect sense to those who committed them, including some who gave their lives as suicide killers. Appalling, yes. Revolting, yes. Disgusting, yes. Senseless, no.

Some years ago in Los Angeles I baptized a young Iranian Muslim into Christ. He had rejected Islam and turned to Christianity. His reasons were complex, but a primary one was his observation that all the terrorist activity in the world was done by Muslims. He rejected any notion that Islam was a religion of peace and turned to what he saw as the best alternative, Christianity.

"Double Centenionalis Magnentius-XR-s4017" by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Double_Centenionalis_Magnentius-XR-s4017.jpg#/media/File:Double_Centenionalis_Magnentius-XR-s4017.jpg

“Double Centenionalis Magnentius-XR-s4017” by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Yet Christianity has a long history of war and barbarity. When Constantine claimed to be Christian and elevated the church to the state religion of the Eastern Roman Empire, a line was crossed. Constantine, the great warrior, did not lay down his sword and shield by a riverside. Instead, as church historians have long noted, he made it justifiable for Christians to engage in war, even against other Christians. The idea of a Christian army fighting another Christian army was no longer incredible. It happened. Soon after Constantine, the usurper Magnentius raised an army and revolted against Emperor Constans, the son of Constantine. Magnentius issued coins with the great Christian symbol of the chi-rho on the reverse, the recognized sign of Christ. Baptized Christians were fighting baptized Christians in no-holds-barred warfare.

It has taken many centuries of war and many millions of casualties for a consensus to emerge that Christianity, at its core, is a religion of peace. War, while sometimes necessary, is always a tragedy. Lives are of value, every one of them. Still, we currently see signs in Putin’s Russian of a politically ambitious and ruthless leader who is apparently flaming nationalism among his people with the flavor of Christianity and leading them in wars of aggression. So maybe we haven’t learned the lesson yet, either.

I am no expert on Islam, although I have studied it quite a bit. As with Christianity, it is mistaken to try and judge Islam on the basis of its Scriptures. Outsiders cannot reconstruct Christian history or fully understand the church by reading the Bible. They must understand how influential leaders in the church have used the Bible and their own ideas to achieve their goals. This sometimes involved going to war, even wars of aggression. Peace does not trump everything in the Christian world. It never has and never will until the Prince of Peace comes again.

So, too, we cannot judge Islam by a supposedly objective reading of the Koran. We must judge it by the actions of Muslims in power and realize that not all Muslims think alike. So, we can hear Muslim voices of peace (e.g., Fareed Zakaria) and commend them without assuming Islam is a religion of peace.

I think there is a primary difference, however, between Christianity and Islam when it comes to war. The founder of Islam, Muhammad, was eventually a military leader, leading his army to conquer Mecca in AD 630. (For that matter, many of the great heroes of Jewish history were military leaders: Moses, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabeus.) Jesus, however, rejected the attempts of the people to make him a king (John 6:15) because he knew this was a move of revolt against the Romans. Jesus was not a military leader. He did not lead his followers to war. The church was not founded by killing others. May we never think that murder is OK.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Hug Your Mother While You Can

Death 2Yesterday was a tough day for me. November 3 always is. This was the 27th Anniversary of the death of my beloved mother, Marjorie Vivien Krause. I was 33 years old. Yesterday, I was talking with a friend about this, and she said, “I just turned 33!” Yes, and go hug your mother while you can.

I want to say that was the most horrible day of my life, but it didn’t get any better the next day. Many well-meaning friends gave me advice that stuck with me. One said, “What are painful moments now will turn into loving memories later.” Well, I appreciate that, but it’s still pretty painful.

Another friend said, “You don’t get over this, you just learn how to live with it.” That is closer to what I experienced, and I have used that line many times as a pastor. I don’t know that this emotional wound ever heals. It scabs over and you learn how to cope. But I have never “gotten over” my mother’s sudden death. I’m not sure I want to.

Ironically, yesterday I was writing a lesson on a story from Acts 9 about the death of a woman named Tabitha. Her Greek name was Dorcas, and both names are the same as our English word “gazelle,” the tiny, graceful antelope that was native to Palestine at that time. Dorcas’s death seems very sudden in the story. In one of the most poignant scenes in all the Bible, the poor widows of her church gather around her dead body wearing the clothes Dorcas had made and given to them. Their weeping is uncontrolled, I imagine. She wasn’t just their charitable clothes supplier. She was their dear friend. She was their leader. She was their hero.

The story in Acts has a happy ending, for Peter is summoned and a with marvelous display of God’s power, he raises Dorcas from death. But we know in our hearts she died again later. Maybe they were more ready for it the second time.

My mother at one time wanted to be a fashion designer. I have a framed picture in my house of a design she did as a final project in college. It is of a fashionable woman from the 1940s wearing a simple but blousey dress. Whenever I look at that picture, I think of her. Simple but stylish. Bold but subdued. Smart but humble.

John Donne, the great poet-preacher of Elizabethan England, vented against death by charging, “Death, be not proud!” He ends he sonnet with these lines:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more;
Death, thou shalt die.

Donne draws on the promise found in Revelation 20:14:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.

This is what I hold on to on my November 3rds. Death does not destroy eternity. Death and its pain will be ended some day. There will be no more need for Hades, the realm of the dead. We will live again. I will live again. My mother lives again. And some day, I will be able to see her again. I do not know how non-believers cope with death without this hope. I’m glad I don’t have to.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College