herod: fear and forfeited souls

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

-Mark 8:36

As with any great story, the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is surrounded and supported by a hundred other narratives from a variety of perspectives. There are so many players on the timeless stage of the nativity scene. There are so many storylines that intersect when a star casts its light on an unassuming stable below.

Mary, the bold and courageous mother of the promised Messiah. Who, great with child, endured a long journey – not intending to labor amongst straw and cattle – to register in the town of her husband’s lineage.

Joseph, the carpenter: betrothed to Mary, visited in dreams by an angel of the Lord, who travels to the city of David for a census, along with his very pregnant wife.

The shepherds. The wise men. The angels.

[Perhaps even a little drummer boy.]

And a tyrant king.

And thus, another storyline begins.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Scene: Southern Palestine, 73 BCE

A child is born to Antipater, a man of Arab descent, known for his wealth and influence and his close dealings with Rome. In fact, Antipater so ingratiated himself with Julius Caesar and his family, that Antipater and his son were granted Roman citizenship.

The name of his son?

Herod. Later to be known as Herod the Great, or King Herod.

Herod was thrust into political influence and rule by his father’s appointment. He was favored by others in power and nominated as the King of Judea in 37 BCE, after finding refuge in Rome in the aftermath of Palestine’s civil war.

This king was known for the palaces and fortresses he built, as well as the prestigious company he kept, such as Mark Antony, Cleopatra, and Agrippa, to name a few.

Perhaps his most fascinating and elaborate achievement was rebuilding the Temple of Jerusalem. The same Temple in which the Ark of the Covenant would later reside.

But at the intersection of Jesus’ birth, we know him as the tyrant king who ordered the genocide of all male children in and around Bethlehem. His paranoia and mental instability had gotten the better of him and in his fear of being second-best – of being relegated to a lesser title and a less formidable rule – he sought to end the lives of all would-be competitors for the throne.

In his attempt to eliminate the possibility of a rumored “king of the Jews,” Herod sent out the Magi as spies to seek out Jesus’ location and report back their findings. When the Magi never returned to Herod, he took matters into his own hands by ordering the slaughter of all male children under two years old.

What history tells us, that is left out from the Biblical narrative, is that Herod was in deteriorating physical and mental health. He even murdered one of his wives, in a fit of jealousy, along with her entire family and her two sons. He later murdered his oldest son.

“His mental instability, moreover, was fed by the intrigue and deception that went on within his own family…He was in great pain and in mental and physical disorder. He altered his will three times and finally disinherited and killed his firstborn, Antipater. The slaying, shortly before his death, of the infants of Bethlehem was wholly consistent with the disarray into which he had fallen.” [Source: Brittanica.com]

Herod the Great was, in spite of his title, a tortured and paranoid ruler, perhaps inflicted with a touch of narcissism that fueled his belief that he was the great savior that his nation and the Jewish people so desperately needed.  

I cannot help but notice the similarities between the infamous antagonist of the nativity story and the modern day political figure who continues to plague the nation of his rule with paranoia, fear, and violence.

And yet, amidst the reckless and devastating dealings of a tormented and mentally unstable king…

Amidst bloodshed and fear and devastation as an entire generation of men was annihilated in one town….

Amidst injustice and dirty politics and unfathomable wrongs…

The scene we find in that stable in Bethlehem is one of hope and redemption and love and victory. As light dawned in the darkness of that long, not-so-silent night, a Great Light also arose over the Jewish people – and over all humankind – as a prophecy was fulfilled and the King with no throne, and everlasting rule, was born.

It is no small miracle that the story of Jesus’ birth unfolds amidst a political climate of greed and violence and seeming hopelessness. It is no small coincidence that, in slaughtering so many children, Herod was fulfilling Jeremiah’s long foretold prophecy. And it is no small miracle that, steered away from the dangers of Judea, Joseph led his family to settle in Nazareth, thus, fulfilling the prophecies that Jesus would be from the city of David.

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

Amidst our present political climate, we are witnessing so many, who proclaim to follow Jesus, sell out the poor, the sick, the forgotten, and the marginalized, all for the sake of political gain. In spite of this devastation, it can be easy to lose hope in faith, in religion, in the promise that light will conquer darkness.

However, we must remember that the promised Messiah defied the empire from birth, merely by existing. 

And throughout his life, Jesus continued to defy political tyrants and hypocritical religious figures by countering their culture of division and hierarchy with a culture of inclusion and love, in which equity and justice reign.

Just as we remember the narrative of Mary and Joseph –

Just as we remember the shepherds in the fields and the Magi who brought gifts of great worth –

Just as we remember the innkeeper who turned away the Christ child and the animals who witnessed Jesus’ birth –

May we also remember the tyranny into which Jesus was born. The world may have been bleak, but it was not without hope. A tyrant felt threatened by the presence of a small baby, whose legacy of love and hope preceded him. Whose promise of deep and abiding peace upset an entire empire.

May we continue to run into love and hope, this Advent season. And into the fullness of the peace of Christ – that such peace may reign wherever fear threatens to linger.

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the baby behind Christmas

I have a confession to make. I don’t really love the Jesus I grew up believing in. In fact, I don’t even really like him. Sure, my understanding was skewed. Even though he was an outcast, I still managed to view him as the holier-than-thou symbol of religiosity who spoke eloquently yet was an unapproachable leader. Marked by those mantle-framed blue eyes, pale skin, and long, flowing golden brown hair, my image of Jesus was skewed in nearly every way.
However, my own broken journey of being misunderstood, alienated, and in search of justice amidst a culture of religiosity left me aching for a more tangible spiritual leader. And wouldn’t you know it…in all of my searching, I found that ragamuffin Jesus on the margins as well. I recently stumbled on a love letter I wrote to Jesus – the actual Jesus – and wondered if perhaps, as we enter the Christmas season, more of us need to be reminded of who we are celebrating and why.
Remember…
  
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating a refugee child born into humanity’s leftovers. We didn’t make room for him then, and we hardly make room for him now.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the Limitless Universe (read: God) appearing in our midst for the first time – as a helpless child – to show us how to be fully human and how to see and know and love one another.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the overthrow of an empire – the meekest and mildest baby upsetting the entire rule of a wealthy king.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the divine purpose entrusted to a young woman, named Mary, who was chosen by the the God of Abraham to carry a deep and secret miracle (that was only explained to her betrothed husband, and other men, later on in the story).
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the truth that it is often the humble and the unsuspecting that shake up the culture and make a way for the oppressed when it seems as if there is no way.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the beauty of belonging to something other than yourself; Mary knew it, Joseph came to know it, the shepherds knew it, the wise men knew it. Something compelled them all to be a part of this great and divine mystery, that mere words could not explain.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the turning of the tides – religiosity being flipped over like tables in a temple as the new temple of faithful spirituality rises in its place.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the gift of Love offered to ALL – without exception.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating the miracle of new beginnings, new hope, and prophetic fulfillment.
 
If you are celebrating Christmas, you are celebrating light quietly rising, amidst the darkness, and calmly growing up and into a tiny revolution of remarkable faith that pierces through every injustice, oppression, sorrow, and ailment.
 
If these truths seem new or unfamiliar to you, I challenge you to enter this Advent season with an openness to who Jesus really is and all that his birth really represents.
 
Chances are, these new revelations will make an astonishing difference in your life and in how you interact with your own faith story – no matter what chapter you are in.
 
So what would you add?
 
If you, dear reader, are celebrating Christmas…what are you celebrating?
 
May light and hope find you this Advent season,
 
-s

dear one

oh dear one,

you there with the burden of memory and the longing to be soothed and safe and seen – come lay down that back-breaking load.

has no one held your face in their hands, eyes laid upon soul-bearing eyes, and told you that you are a walking miracle?

has no one taken your troubles into the chambers of their well-worn heart and watered the ground under your feet with an ocean of empathy?

has no one reminded you how brave and beautiful you are? or that the cracks running through you like seams – your fragile places – are where the light gets in?

has no one held your hand in theirs and kissed your scars and told you that you are beloved? that your life is a brilliant flame – an enchanting wonder all of its own – that is even more captivating in the darkness?

oh dear heart…take these words in like water for the barren desert that has surely become of your tender heart – seeking moment by moment for an oasis.

you are the treasure.
you are the brilliance.
you are the beauty of the earth.

and you are loved
loved, loved.

you are loved.
you are loved.
you are loved.

to the One I love the most

Jesus,

I love you. I love that you love me no matter what I’m going through or struggling with. I love that you were misunderstood and that your radical words and way of life and love were different than the religious interactions, rules, and experiences the people were accustomed to.

I love that you knew WHO you were even when you were despised and rejected and people talked amongst themselves about how you should be someone else entirely. I love the way you spoke to the woman at the well, the way you saw beyond the crook Zaccheus was and LOVED him deeply and let others know, publicly, that Zaccheus was loved, valued, and worth your time.

I love the way you communed with your Father.

I love the way you didn’t see people as issues but instead saw them as wounded souls in need of fountains of grace and torrents of healing love.

I love how you didn’t just give people a temporary fix to physical ailments but you actually reached far beyond their blindness, deafness, and sickness in order to mend the brokenness in their spirits – to resurrect the death of their souls. I love how you rescued people not only from physical disease, but also from the anguish of social alienation. I love how you came not just to feed the 5,000 but to demonstrate that you care for our every need – see our every ache, groaning, and longing – and notice our deep need for a Provider and Rescuer.

I love the simplicity of your conversations, the depth of your compassion, the boldness of your confrontations with religious Pharisees.

I love the miracle of your birth – how you trusted your created beings to care for you in your helpless, infantile state.

I love your humility – how you didn’t always try to defend yourself from attacks on your character and true self and I love your determination to protect those you love – how you didn’t shy away from confronting injustice – against the children, the adulteress, the leper, the Samaritan woman. I love how you revealed yourself to those who truly hungered for you. I love how you pursued those who were running from themselves and hiding behind authority, influence, and power but really just wanted to be sought.

I love how you questioned the commitment of the rich young ruler, stepped in between the adulteress woman and her violent accusers, and I love how you let the outcast woman anoint your feet with her tears and hair and kisses. Because it was pure worship from her heart. I love how you don’t see us as the same but instead, connect with us intimately because you know each of us deeply and are well-acquainted with our most crippling fears, our most daring dreams, and our darkest, most well-kept secrets.

I love how you retreated from the crowds to spend time with the men in your inner circle. And I love how you had an intimate and different relationship with each of them. I love your wild at heart approach to your vagabond life. I love that the people you recruited to be your ambassadors don’t fit the profile the world thinks they should. I love that you introduced a new definition of greatness to mankind. That in spite of your unassuming nature, you walked and talked with authority.

I love that you believed in those you created and called to follow you. I love that you don’t prevent our mistakes – that you let us mess up and let us realize the gravity of our mistakes and grieve them and then find freedom in your love and grace in your eyes. I love that you want us to be carefree and childlike – I love that you can be trusted to meet our needs and care for our souls.

I love that you can’t be explained, confined, or fully interpreted. I love that you are mysterious. I love that you are here and now. I love that you speak to all of us – each of us – in different ways – in ways that penetrate the walls we’ve built and flood into our empty places. I love that you are the God of seeing.

I love that you say I’m fearfully and wonderfully made and I love that you sacrificed much for me – and that I can’t repay the debt I owe – because grace is such a weighty gift to bestow. I love that when the Father looks at me, he sees you. And I love that you meet me in the mess and want to know me even when I don’t feel worthy of being known. I love that you bless me not because of what I do or don’t do but because of who you are.

I love that you have an awesome sense of humor and know how to make me laugh. 

I love that you are LOVE. Feed and nourish my soul, precious Jesus.

Because you are exactly who I need.

-s

my tragic flaw

tragic flaw (n):  a flaw in character that brings about the downfall of the hero of a tragedy

My name is Sarah. And my tragic flaw is that I don’t know how to live in the present.

In my last post, you might have noticed that I’ve lived in a lot of different places in the past 5 years. Which is beautiful and amazing, and yes, it’s an adventure.

But with every new adventure, there is a slew of new goodbyes and a cold wave of loneliness which sweeps across my heart.

And this has become a lifestyle. Maybe it will always be my lifestyle.

I don’t know.

What I do know is that when I started to pull out of my friend’s driveway last month and her son ran around to my car, crying, to give me one more hug and say goodbye, something inside me broke.

And all the way home, I cried my eyes out and cried aloud,

“Why do I always have to say goodbye? Will the goodbyes ever end?”

And the simple answer is no, they will not end. Because even if everything about our lives stayed the same for the rest of our lives (not likely), the lives of those around us would change.

And goodbyes are bound to happen. Because this isn’t Heaven. This earth is the place of goodbyes.

So how do I live faithfully in this life? With a heart surrendered and longing, but not broken? How do I give God the pieces of my loneliness, aching, and questioning and just believe that He is enough in the present?

When I was in the Czech Republic in 2011, my heart was often in Nashville. And when I was in Nashville after a summer in the Northwoods of Wisconsin in 2010, my heart stayed in the Northwoods. And the rest of me longed to be back there. Often.

In South Africa, I missed my church family. A lot. But South Africa became home. Yet the tension remained…my heart was never just in one place. Which caused me to miss out on what was happening right in front of me because too often, my mind was consumed with what had happened in another time, in another place.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have daydreamed about living in Colorado. Years worth of daydreaming, let me assure you. And now I’m here – in this beautiful state. And I see pictures of my friends returning to South Africa and my heart weakens. And my soul longs for that home. Because Muizenberg became home and the people there from 15 different nations became my family.

Yet God has called me here. For such a time as this. And it is one thing to believe that He called me here and has reasons and purposes for me. But it is quite another to learn to be content in every situation, as my brother Paul learned as he engaged in a life of continual ministry. 

See, a tragic flaw is a trait that leads to a character’s downfall. And I know that if my gaze is continually fixed on a time, place, or group of people other than Christ and the place and people He has placed in front of me now, then 

I will 

surely

fall. 

I know that in past transitions – and oh, how there have been many transitions – God has used the feeling of loneliness and isolation to draw me into deeper intimacy with Him.

Yet sometimes, I run to my memories and call upon my old friend nostalgia to keep me company. But this is poisonous to my soul. Because while there is so much value in memories and recalling the beautiful adventures God has already brought me through, to dwell on those memories and think of them as better than the life before me is nothing less than idolatry. 

What? A memory can be an idol?

Sure. Anything that we place as more important or preferable to God in our midst now can be an idol.

And while I don’t intend to disappoint…this post doesn’t have a resolution. There is no “and this is what God showed me and how it is all going to be better.” Because I haven’t arrived at that point yet.

I’m living in the middle of this tension. Recognizing my tragic flaw and living in the awareness that a tragic downfall is the most logical conclusion if I continue down this path of the restless heart. 

But there is hope.

Because Jesus.

Simply put, there is hope because JESUS.

He is. He was. He will continue to be.

And He is the hero that has redeemed me and will redeem all of my flaws.

So hands open, heart hoping, I confess my weakness and pray that He will tame this restless heart. 

a wretch like me: running into marvelous light

My face is wet with hot, salty tears. I have been sobbing for the past hour as I have listened to the wise words of my brother Erik and the compelling testimonies of two women who are dear to my heart.

Though I am 1200 miles away from my church family, the Spirit of God is certainly closing in the distance. Geographical distance has no bearing when it comes to the work of the Holy Spirit. As I listened to Erik’s message, I felt like I was in the sanctuary with everyone else. Last week, my dear friend Lisa gave her testimony along with Erik’s phenomenal talk on homosexuality as a part of the Journey’s Counter Culture series. And yesterday, my amazing roomie Kelly and my good friend Mercedes both shared during Erik’s talk on abortion.

The conviction, humility, and passion of Erik’s message and the incredible boldness and courage of three women to share their stories has absolutely wrecked me. For I, too, am a sinner with a story that God has been speaking truth and light into over the past few years – out of darkness, out of shame. I, too, am a broken person who has fears, regret, guilt, and shame from struggles that have far too long been kept hidden away, for fear of man.

And I know that in this season, God is bringing more healing and life and light into the wounded and shameful areas of my heart and I look forward to the day when I can soon share details of my story that have not been shared before. I look forward to the day when the painful and shameful parts of my past will become part of my public testimony. Because I know that God is BIGGER than my fears and His light is more POWERFUL than any darkness and His truth is more PIERCING than any lies of the enemy. And I know that He will be glorified through my brokenness and weakness, because that is the kind of champion God that we serve. 

So I wept because I know that His grace is sufficient for me.

And I wept because I know that when men and women of God begin to bring their sin and struggles into the light, that sin and shame loses its power. And as men and women of God step through the fear and lies and speak openly and honestly about their shortcomings, fears, and failures, light overpowers the darkness.

And the captives are set free.

Something happens in the heavenly realms when we, as broken people, admit our sin and our need for a Savior. Truly – something breaks in the spiritual realm when we confess our sins and ask God for the grace and forgiveness and strength to carry us. When we admit that we cannot heal by concealing our sins or striving for perfection or trying to keep it all together, then God’s grace abounds and He is glorified and we are FREED.

And friends, as individuals like Lisa, Kelly, and Mercedes publicly declare what God has done in their lives, then other people are led into freedom.

In Revelation 12:11, it says, “And they have conquered him [the accuser, the enemy, the Father of lies] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”

When we choose not to love our own lives or try to make much of ourselves or make our sin and struggles look good and when we choose to let Christ’s truth spill over us and break the chains of the enemy’s lies, then the enemy loses his power. 

We are encouraged and commanded in James 5:16 – “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”

This confession is not God’s ploy to get us to air all of our dirty laundry so we can feel horrible about ourselves. No – on the contrary – God knows that in speaking our sins to each other and confessing our sin and brokenness, coming before our Lord and Savior in prayer, we will be healed of all of the shame and guilt of our sins.

Because Jesus bore the punishment of our sins on the cross. And while we have already been freed and forgiven by Christ’s blood, unconfessed sin – both to God and to others – keeps us in a prison of bondage, and we remain slaves to the memory of our sins even if the sin itself is far behind us. 

We serve a God of love who is all about freedom.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

-Galatians 5:1

Jesus wants us to live as FREE men and women! He delights when His children cast off their heavy weights and chains and take up his yoke, which is easy, and his burden, which is light (Matthew 11:29-30).

So friends, will you please take a moment to listen to the testimonies of these women? Will you take a moment to come to Jesus or to a friend regarding your own sin, which maybe you have tried to push down over the years?

“Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)

This is true. We have an enemy, called the “father of lies,” who is constantly trying to destroy us from the inside out. But we also have a great hope – a great Advocate in Jesus, who is fighting for our freedom.

Did you know Jesus prays for you? He does. Check out John 17:20-23 if you want to see for yourself. And just as Jesus prays for us, we should pray for each other. And be willing to share and confess our sins and struggles to each other. Because freedom is found in confession and repentance and declaring the glory and grace of God in the midst of our deepest darkness and most futile efforts to fix our brokenness. 

I don’t know what you are struggling with. I don’t know what lies are battling for control of your mind and possession of your soul. But I do not that our God is bigger. And that He has called us into marvelous light – out of darkness and out of shame (1 Peter 2:9-10).

I urge you, brothers and sisters, pursue this great God who grants healing and hope to the hopeless and defeated places of our hearts. He is worthy and He is able to turn our stories of pain and shame into testimonies of redemption, grace, and victory. 

I love what Erik said about God’s grace – which is the crux of why we can live as free even though, at one point, we bore the stain of our sin. He said, “Grace does not force us to make much of ourselves. It forces us to make much of our great Savior.”

Hallelujah. Thank you, Jesus.

This is my prayer and I invite you to pray this along with me today if you are feeling attacked by the enemy or torn down by the shame of a sin and a burden God is calling you to lay down:

Sweet Jesus, you know the depths of my heart. And you love me the same – which amazes me! Father, your grace ASTOUNDS me. Lord, that you know the weight of my sin and still forgive me and love me and want to journey with me towards complete healing and freedom amazes me. Flood the darkness with your light, precious Redeemer! In the name of Jesus, keep the enemy – the father of lies – far from me. See me and shower me with your Truth and light and love, most Holy God.

Please provide friends and mentors and lovers of God who will help point my eyes to You, precious Lord, and will walk with me in this journey towards hope and healing. Help me, Father, as I continue to step into the light. Give me the courage and boldness to step in obedience and walk the road you have laid before me. Jesus, please grant me the peace and hope that I need in this journey.

Thank you, Lord, thank you for your grace! Thank you for saving a wretch like me! Thank you for freedom and light and life! Grant us grace as the Body of Christ to walk with and love each other with the love of Christ as we walk with each other. Give us the courage to live honestly and to be transparent with each other. Father, we are broken. We have no goodness in and of ourselves. Please help us to see You and to look to you and to live in the light of your Truth. 

You are beautiful, Jesus, and your grace is truly amazing. Thank you, Father, for your love and care for me. Precious Lord, bring freedom into our hearts today. Right now, God, shine into our hearts and lead us out of shame and into healing and hope. For you are worthy of all glory and honor and power, and we believe You can be glorified through even the darkest parts of our stories. Thank you that you are a God who pursues us and desires freedom for us. We praise your name, most High God! Amen.

May we walk in the light as He is in the light. And may we encourage our brothers and sisters who are faithfully walking in boldness and truth and accepting the grace and mercy He so freely gives. Hallelujah! What a Savior!