N Is for Nazareth

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Christians around the world are changing their social media avatars to the arabic letter “n.” In so doing, these Christians are reminding others around them to pray, and to stand in solidarity with believers in Iraq who are being driven from their homes, and from their country, by Islamic militants. The Arabic letter comes from the mark the ISIS militants are placing on the homes of known Christians. “N” is for “Nazarene,” those who follow Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps it’s a good time to reflect on why Nazareth matters, to all of us. The truth that our Lord is a Nazarene is a sign to us of both the rooted locality and the global solidarity of the church.

Jesus is from somewhere. Yes, the eternal Son of God transcends time and space. He was with the Father and the Spirit in love and glory “before the world was” (Jn. 17:5). But in his Incarnation, Jesus identified with a tribe, with a genealogy, with a hometown.

He “went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene” (Matt. 2:23). Some of Jesus’ contemporaries rejected him because of where he was from. Nathaniel infamously asked Philip, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46). His question is entirely sensible. Nazareth was a powerless backwater, not the sort of urban, elite center that we are told drives cultural change. Philip’s response wasn’t an argument about Nazareth; it was simply to say, “Come and see.”

For some, the issue wasn’t just Nazareth particularly but rootedness itself. “But we know where this man comes from, and when the Christ appears, no one will know where he comes from” (Jn. 7:27). They were quite mistaken. It is “the Beast” who is from nowhere, “rising out of the sea” (Rev. 13:1), representing humanity in its origins-denying self-exaltation (Rev. 13:18). Our Lord Jesus, on the other hand, is from “the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” (Isa. 9:1). We know where this man is from.

Nazareth, though, reminds us that God’s purposes are global, transcending our tribal and national categories. When Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, he was received with joy and awe, until he told his fellow villagers that they really didn’t understand what he was saying. Jesus demonstrated that God’s purposes had always gone “outside the camp.” He showed how God had raised a Gentile woman’s son, and healed a Syrian leper. (Lk. 4:24-27). In Nazareth, Jesus was setting the stage for the Great Commission, as the Spirit drove the church to all of the nations (Acts 1).

God embedded us with a need to love home. When that’s absent what fills its place is pride and ingratitude, as though we came from no one and we are dependent upon no one. When a hurricane warning is issued for south Florida, I pay attention. But when one is issued for the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, my hometown, I’m riveted. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

In Christ, we have been brought into the life of Jesus. We are hidden with him, joined to him as a body to a head (Col. 3: Eph. 5). This means that, in a very real sense, Nazareth is our hometown. We belong to Jesus, and Jesus belongs to Nazareth. We are connected then to everyone who is also in Christ, not simply because we believe the same things but because we belong to the same Body.

We are “one new man,” and “fellow citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:15, 19). That’s why Christians in America and Australia and Nigeria ought to care, and to pray fervently, for persecuted Christians in Iraq, in Sudan, and everywhere else in the world where they are endangered.

The Islamic militants mean it for evil when they mark homes with “N” for “Nazarene.” They assume it’s an insult, an emblem of shame. Others once thought that of the cross. But in that intended slight, we are reminded of who we are, and why we belong to one another, across the barriers of space and time and language and nationality. We are Christians. We are citizens of the New Jerusalem. We are Nazarenes all.

The church may be hounded and jailed and even crucified. But the church can never be beheaded. The Head of the Church is alive, and engaged, and on his way back. In the meantime, there will always be those who will ask, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Our answer, from now until the Eastern skies explode should be simple: “Come and see.”

The Border Crisis & The Jericho Road

America’s southern border is engulfed in a humanitarian crisis, as refugees fleeing violence in central America, many of them unaccompanied children, seek safety. As Christians, we must recognize both the complexity of this situation and what it means to be people of justice and mercy.

I say that the situation is complex because some Christians would like a simple fix. Some would, it seems, like to hear that some organized mission trips to the border would alleviate the crisis here. This ignores the depths of the problem.

There is good work caring for human need at the border, much of it by Christians, but until the United States government steps in to solve the presenting problem, the crisis will go on.

Some would suggest that the border crisis should make us more fearful of immigration and of immigrants. This shows us, they would say, that the border is porous and any reform of our immigration system would lead to more children in harm’s way.

But, as the New York Times pointed out, these children (and their mothers) fleeing from Central America is a very different problem from that of Mexican migrants seeking work and opportunity. The problem is more akin to the situations we’ve seen on the African continent, with warlords dealing in human trafficking. These children and families are fleeing a drug war exploding in violence all around them.

Moreover, it’s the incoherence of the immigration system that fuels the problem, thus empowering the cartels and the traffickers. Immigration reform isn’t about making immigration easier. It’s about making the system coherent, so that we know who is here lawfully, and who isn’t. That done, reform is to try to make a way for those here under our “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to come out of the shadows and, where possible, make things right.

As Christians, we don’t have to agree on all the details of public policy to agree that our response ought to be, first, one of compassion for those penned up in detention centers on the border. These people are not seeking the overthrow of our government; they are, most of them, seeking the sort of freedom and opportunity they have heard is characteristic of the American project.

When responding to the vulnerable, our greatest obstacle isn’t the question of knowing what to do. Our greatest obstacle is fear. The Samaritan in Jesus’ parable (Lk. 10:27-37) has every reason to be afraid on the Road to Jericho. The presence of a beaten man tells him there are robbers around, potentially hiding in the caves around him. Fear, though, is cast out by love; love is not cast out by fear.

The Samaritan has no reason to claim accountability for this terrorized neighbor. He does so because he treats him, a stranger, as though he were kin. The lawyer questioning Jesus rightly sees this as showing mercy (Lk. 10:37). And Jesus says simply, “Go and do likewise.” That’s why Christians are at the border, ministering to people. And that’s why all of us should be praying for those in harm’s way on the border, and those trembling in fear in violence-torn Central American countries, as well as those exploited by traffickers and cartels.

The situation at the southern border is frightening indeed, for multiple reasons. Border security is important for the physical safety of any nation, and the care of those fleeing danger is important for the moral integrity of any people.

The gospel doesn’t fill in for us on the details on how we can simultaneously balance border security and respect for human life in this case. But the gospel does tell us that our instinct ought to be one of compassion toward those in need, not disgust or anger.

The border crisis will take careful work by government leaders. And it will take a church willing to pray and to love. Our answer to the border crisis cannot be quick and easy. But, for the people of God, our consciences must be informed by a kingdom more ancient and more permanent than the United States. Our response cannot be to say, in Spanish: “And who is my neighbor?” (Lk. 10:29).

Click here to access this article in Spanish.

With the recent release of the film "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" in theaters, I’m reminded of a few years ago when I launched a new semester of my Doctrine of the Last Things class with the showing of a clip from the original film, Planet of the Apes.

The clip my students watched was in the closing moments of the 1968 film, as Charlton Heston is fleeing a civilization in which gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutangs rule over non-verbal, animal-like human beings. Up to this point, Heston’s character assumes he’s on another planet, one that has evolved differently from life on earth. The final scene though tells the shocking truth.

Heston sees the Statue of Liberty in ruins, up to her torso in mud and sand. It’s then that he realizes he hasn’t traveled through space, but through time. He sees the wreckage of a civilization lost.

Contrast the ending of the 1968 film with the ending of the 2001 remake. In a similar attempt at a twist climax, the protagonist (this time, Mark Wahlberg) escapes the ape planet in his space ship, crash-landing in Washington D.C., skipping across the mall past the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, to land right in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Like Heston, Wahlberg is horrified by a national monument gone awry. In his case, it’s the Lincoln Memorial—with Lincoln’s face a chimpanzee. Wahlberg learns to his terror he hasn’t escaped at all.

And then, of course, there’s another recent Planet of the Apes film, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes(2011), starring James Franco. In this version, the apes are genetically mutated by a well-meaning scientist seeking a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. The hyper-intelligent apes escape, begin reproducing and lash back against their human perfecters. Again, the closing scene is meant to be chilling—the redwood trees of northern California filled with primates staring out over the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay.

All three of these movies, I insisted to my students, are about the intersection of eschatology with contemporary fears.

In the 1968 version, the era is worried about nuclear holocaust, as the U.S. and the Soviet Union are engaged in a high-stakes Cold War. By the remake in 2001, society’s fears focus on the more imperceptible threats of domestic and international terrorism, and of the loss of society from within. The 2011 film focuses on the fear of a future in which our technological prowess and our good intentions turn on us.

All three present a dystopian future in which our worst apprehensions are realized. That’s an eschatology, and a dark one.

The same point could be made with virtually every film and art genre. In the background or in the foreground, there’s a purpose, a goal, that’s either hopeful or tragic. Even in the realm of romantic dramas, there’s either a utopian goal (the “happily ever after”) or a dystopian end (the tragedy of love lost). But, whatever the genre, we have to live in light of the future.

As I went around the room with my students, I asked what their home churches had taught about the ultimate things: heaven, hell, kingdom, and so on. Most of them said their churches were reluctant to say much at all, beyond generalities. Many of their churches, it seems, were fearful to talk much about eschatology to keep from indulging in those speculative end-times enthusiasts we’ve all encountered.

But eschatology and discipleship in the church is kind of like sex education in the home. Just because you don’t talk about sex with your kids doesn’t mean they will grow up ignorant of sex. It means they’ll hear about sex from somewhere else.

Just because you don’t preach and teach about the Christian vision of the future, that doesn’t mean your church is void of eschatology. It means your church is picking up an eschatology from somewhere else, sometimes from the local cineplex.

A Christian vision of the future proves the dystopian movies to be right, in some sense. There’s a fire being kindled somewhere, and not even the Statue of Liberty can withstand it. But, after that, there’s the kind of new creation that makes everything new.

Thomas Jefferson and The Empty Tomb

A few years ago, I stood at the grave of Thomas Jefferson, and wondered. I was in Charlottesville to speak at the university Mr. Jefferson founded, and made my way up to his homeplace Monticello. Standing at his grave, I was prompted to give thanks for his life and legacy.

After all, if it weren’t for Jefferson and his majestic Declaration of Independence, there might not even be a United States of America, and certainly not a country quite like it is now. If it weren’t for Jefferson (and the Baptists), would I have grown up in some cold, dead, state-established Anglican church instead of the vibrancy of a free church in a free state? And, of course, if President Jefferson hadn’t purchased the Louisiana Territory, I would have grown up some place other than America.

But, much more than that, standing at Jefferson’s grave prompted me to realize that Jefferson is, well, in a grave. The Enlightenment ideals that gave this brilliant thinker a right understanding of natural rights led him to idolize human cerebral capacity. Jefferson’s anti-supernaturalism is seen in visual form in his famous Bible, with the miraculous parts cut out, most significantly the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I love Jefferson for standing up against King George, but not for standing up against King Jesus.

And yet, two hundred years later, belief in the resurrection of Jesus persists. Just days after I was at this hero’s grave, Christians from all over the world, despite all this science and all this progress and all this technology, confessed what the earliest believers in the catacombs of Rome cried out: “Christ is risen indeed.”

Thomas Jefferson is still dead. I thank God for him, but standing at his grave reminds me how limited even his legacy can be in the grand scheme of trillions of years of cosmic time. It also reminds me of the contrast with a Middle Eastern day-laborer whose monument isn’t a house or a temple made with hands, or even a simple grave-marker. It’s instead a borrowed tomb that isn’t filled anymore.

That empty tomb is, itself, a declaration of independence. By raising Jesus from the dead, God declared him (and all who are in him) to be free from death, free from the curse, free from Satan’s accusation. I suppose you could say that Jesus was endowed by his Father with certain unalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness… except that these blessings don’t end in a graveyard.

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