Sunday, November 29, 2015

Nativity Stories: The Farmer and the Shepherd

It's hard to believe that Advent is here again! Now that Thanksgiving has passed us by – and hopefully we paused to be thankful, and we're still thankful, “giving thanks in all circumstances” whatever they may be (1 Thessalonians 5:18) – we can set our sights firmly on the next celebration around the corner. Christmas is coming. Get ready! That's called Advent. But why is Advent important? Why don't we just call it Shopping Season? Traditionally, Advent was a lot like Lent: a time of fasting and repentance. That may seem strange to us. We connect Advent with joy, with celebration, with singing Christmas carols before their time's come. But there's something to the idea of Advent as a Nativity Fast. Advent is a time of expectant self-denial. The whole church calendar is meant to help us appreciate the great events of salvation-history as it unfolds in Jesus, and Advent is there to remind us that Jesus didn't just pop into the little town of Bethlehem one day at random. No, for the entire span of thousands of years covered by the Old Testament, the believing world had watched and waited in desperate yearning for the day Jesus would arrive.

But why was it so important for Jesus to come at all? Wasn't the world doing just fine without him? Aren't we just fine without him? The Christian answer is no – obviously no! But why does the Bible's Nativity Story matter so much that such a big chunk of the year is devoted to thinking about it? Why is Christmas such an important holiday? I'd like to suggest that the Bible answers that question in a long and roundabout way. The Bible doesn't have just the Nativity Story. It's littered with nativity stories, in the plural. If we want to appreciate what the Nativity Story means, we might do well to ask what the nativity stories mean. Through that long season of waiting described in the Old Testament, plenty of important babies were born into this dark world. How do their nativity stories explain what's so great about the Nativity Story that's coming?

The start of Genesis really says it all, as to why we need Jesus. The world was meant to go one way, and we chose to take a peek at what's behind Door #2. We were offered paradise, a pure world to build up and make truly perfect in obedience to God, and we gave in to temptation's voice when that old snake suggested God was holding out on us. If we'd listened to the sweet voice of the Father instead of the hissing trickery wrapped around that tree, all the nativity stories in the Bible would be a lot different, wouldn't they? But that isn't how we acted. Instead of God's vision for the world, we substituted our own. It's like God handed us a snow globe, and we dropped it off the roof. The order of God's good creation was shattered on the ground. Instead of being on the track to a world of paradise, it was back to the drawing board. Nothing was left untouched. Nativity has never been the same. God warns that children won't come easily into the world, and they won't be born into sinless families. Childbirth will happen painfully in the midst of painful circumstances – painful children to painful families (Genesis 3:16). Even so, childbirth – nativity – is the gateway to salvation. It's the woman's offspring, the Promised Seed, who, when injured by the serpent, will crush his head once and for all: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel” (Genesis 3:15). That's the answer to the curse: the Promised Seed. God never tells Adam and Eve how long they'll have to wait.

Now, we could debate 'til the cows come home, and then some after that, how Genesis relates to the biological history of the human race – what it means to call Adam the first human, whether the story is straightforward history or a summary in symbols or something in between. That might make a fun Sunday School class someday, but what's important for right here and now is that the first nativity story that the Bible's sacred history recounts isn't a nativity of Adam. Genesis gives him an origin story, but not a nativity story about entering the world in the vulnerability of infancy. We don't get a nativity story for Eve, either. The first time the Bible actually describes someone being born, it happens east of Eden, in an already thorny land to fairly thorny people. The first nativity is a child being born to parents who squabble, parents who blame each other, parents who live through hard labor and might neglect their kids or make mistakes raising them, parents whose worries keep them up at night. The Bible's first nativity story is a child born onto a painful earth.

The first baby whose nativity is set forth in the Bible gets the name “Cain.” We all know Cain's story and how it turns out. But that name, “Cain” – where does it come from? Remember, names in the Bible have meaning. “Adam” means “human being,” and “Eve” means “living.” So the man Human and the woman Life bring this first baby into the world, remembering God's words spoken right in front of them about the fact that the tables will turn on the serpent because of a child born to the woman. Is this the one, the promised one?

Eve names him “Cain,” which she explains by saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (Genesis 4:1). “Cain” sounds like the Hebrew word for “I-have-gotten,” or “I-have-acquired,” “I-have-purchased,” “I-have-possessed.” Eve is still enthralled by what the serpent offered her: to be a god, someone on God's level, one of God's peers, a law and authority unto herself. Eve's statement is all about what Eve does. Sure, God helps, but Eve portrays herself as an equal partner with him. She is Cain's co-creator. Cain is her achievement: something she acquired, something she purchased or achieved, something she manufactured. Eve looks at her little baby with a technological mindset, like she's an inventor whose ingenuity produced her own salvation. The future comes into the world through her labor: she's created it.

And Cain's whole lifestyle was forever afterwards marked by this same mindset of acquisition, wasn't it? He accumulated crops; he wanted to trade some for God's favor. It shouldn't matter which part, as long as it's the right percentage, as long as he's calculated the exchange rate well enough. That's what Cain thinks: that sacrifice is cosmic bribery, a negotiation in the marketplace. Cain refuses to understand that God's favor can't be bought or earned with actions; God's looking at his heart, his attitude, and Cain wants to keep this relationship strictly professional. So when God refuses to give Cain a return on his investments, Cain is furious: he put in the effort, but didn't acquire anything for it, and in his mindset, that's all that matters.

Cain reacts by eliminating the competition – maybe out of pure jealousy, maybe as a human sacrifice, trying to bribe God one last time. Doesn't work, but that won't stop Cain from caring more about what he can get than about his own flesh and blood – unless it can be sold. Cain leaves the presence of the LORD, sent away to live a life where he owns nothing (Genesis 4:16) – but in the very land of wandering itself, he insists on accumulating all he can: wife, kids, a city, builds civilization, founds a dynasty (Genesis 4:17). Cain goes and lives the American Dream. And a lot of the time, we live in imitation of Cain.

Advent is here to remind us that we live in a Cain-world, a world where our natural tendency is to view things in terms of acquiring or possessing. Ever since the Fall, human civilization has been built on the bedrock of getting, grabbing, seizing, owning. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps – that's Cain's motto. Get it while the getting's good! The measure of a man is what he owns, what he does, what he makes, what he leaves behind him. That's Cain's world. Building a better world with smarts, brawn, and elbow grease – that's Cain's vision. He builds the first city; his line runs down to Lamech, whose children are the ancestors of all who play musical instruments or work with metal tools. The ingenuity! But Lamech is Cain on steroids: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Lamech will be avenged seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24). Lamech is the first to treat wives as things to accumulate, to take and seize and collect and own (Genesis 4:19). That's where Cain's mindset leads: everything can be measured in dollar signs; everything is possible with works. What matters is what you own, Cain says. That's what his mama taught him, whether she meant to or not.

That's the world we see around us, isn't it? That's how people behave – sometimes, how we behave. We can't help ourselves from tacking Black Friday on the back of Thanksgiving – can't settle down and give thanks before we're already dreaming of what else we could have, what else we could acquire. We yearn for power, we long for control. We want an orderly world where we can customize what we get out of it by what we put into it. If we want blessings, we pop a token sacrifice into the slot, and out they'll pour – just like clockwork. We want a world where we can manage our own salvation with careful planning, following a step-by-step guide. We want a world where we can protect ourselves from disappointment or danger by following a few simple rules. We want a world we can engineer to our liking, a world whose problems can be solved with the resources we have at hand.

That's all Cain ever wanted, and that's all Cain – and most of us – have ever tried to accomplish. In the end, Cain's story was one of ownership – tragic ownership, not by Cain, but of Cain. God warns Cain that sin is very eager to get him, to own him (Genesis 4:7). Sin anxiously desires to say, “I have gotten this man.” And Cain, in his selfish wrath, in his pity party or temper tantrum or what-have-you, declined to put up a fight against it. Cain, thinking of the world as acquisition, thought it no big deal to let sin acquire him; to sell his soul at a discount price. In Cain's world, everything's for sale, even Cain. That's his bottom line.

But there's more to the story than Cain and all he means. The second nativity – maybe you'd say it's part of the first nativity story, just the second act – is the birth of Cain's younger counterpart, another son, the second one born in sacred history: Abel (Genesis 4:2). “Abel” – can you believe that name? It makes you wonder what went through Eve's mind after Cain's birth, that she and Adam changed their tune so much since then. “Cain” – that was all about self-assertion, accomplishment, the limitless power of human might and ingenuity. But the second boy's name abandons all that pomposity. “Abel” is a familiar word in the Bible, especially in Ecclesiastes: “Abel, Abel, everything is Abel!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Ecclesiastes is all about an Abel-world. Abel, hevel – some Bibles translate it as “meaningless” or “vanity.” More precisely, it's “mist” or “vapor,” the kind you might see early in the morning. It's your visible breath in the winter: there before you for a moment, but don't bother trying to catch it or hold onto it, because it dissipates in moments. It's impermanent. It doesn't last: “Where the name Cain speaks of grasping after divinity, then, the name Abel signifies the transient nature of human existence” (Iain Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters [2014], page 193).

Abel's name is a humble, even pessimistic commentary on the fallen world, now that Adam and Eve have experienced more of it, seen it more truly. It's pointless to be obsessed with acquiring, with getting; pointless to brag about what you've done. Everything is hevel: nothing lasts. “Surely everyone stands as a mere breath” (Psalm 39:5). “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16). “Vapor, vapor, … everything is vapor! What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3) – what good is all the tedious work to scratch out a living, all our vaunted claims to have power to reshape the world on our terms? “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vapor” (Ecclesiastes 2:22-23). “A generation goes, and a generation comes” (Ecclesiastes 1:4), and “what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). And all of it “is vapor and a shepherding of the wind,” a fruitless task (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Even kingship, everything we could dream of in this fallen world imagined as a closed system, “also is vapor and a shepherding of the wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:16). “There was nothing to be gained under the sun” from all the luxuries and all the work we could do in an Abel-world (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

And his name proves prophetic, doesn't it? Abel, the Vapor with hands and feet and face, is first of the human race to blow away. One well-placed rock to the back of the head, and Abel is gone, no longer part of this world. That's how fragile human life is. That's mortality. Abel is proof that Cain won't last, that Adam and Eve won't last, that no one and nothing lasts – not anything or anyone they get, not anything they achieve. Words spoken around a fire at night – gone. The fields where Cain tilled the soil and raised his crops – gone. The sheep Abel held in his arms when they first came into the world – gone. Everything is mortal, everything is fragile. Nothing is guaranteed. Nothing is certain. That's a fallen world, alright.

And Cain and Abel together – their meanings, I mean – really do encapsulate a fallen world: nothing lasts, everything is falling apart and unstable, yet we can't shake this desperate thirst to acquire. We can't stop grasping, clutching. The more we see that nothing lasts, the more anxious we are to cobble together something to hold on to. We try to brew immortality in a lab; we try to chisel our legacy in stone. The best victory we can dream up in a dreary world of sin is to die with the most toys, as they say: to live it up like Cain until Abel's fate catches up to us all, and we blow away like dust in the wind.

If Cain and Abel were the whole story of our world, we'd have no Advent hope. Advent would be like Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot: standing around, waiting endlessly, and nothing ever shows up, no event of importance ever happens. If Cain and Abel were all the story, there'd be no story, there'd be no plot. But keep reading past the list of all Cain's descendants and their legacy of culture-making triumph. Go further, past the conspicuous gap where you'd read of Abel's faithful sons and grandsons, had Abel lived long enough to have any. And there you'll find the only way out of these doldrums, an avenue that might just complicate the world's story and make it interesting again. You'll read of a third nativity that reminds us there's more to the universe than meaningless drudgery under the sun. There's more than grabbing, more than vapor; there's more to life than pointless misadventures in shepherding the wind.

Eve bears another son, the centerpiece of this third nativity story. And he gets the name “Seth” – why? Let Eve herself explain it: “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, for Cain killed him” (Genesis 4:25). “Seth” sounds like the Hebrew verb for “he-has-appointed.” See, back when Eve named Cain, her thoughts were focused on what she did – on her own power, on her own greed. She was the star, she was the lead role on history's stage, and God was a supporting character there for her own benefit. When Eve named Abel, her thoughts were on the world around her, and how little they looked like a stage at all. There were no stars, no roles, whether lead or supporting – the plot had broken down, and that's all she could see.

But when Eve, with tears in her eyes over Cain and Abel, went on to name Seth, she rediscovered the real plot of the story. And she saw that she wasn't the star. Neither was Seth. The star was God. She doesn't explain Seth's name by saying, “I did this,” or “I did that.” She says, “God has appointed...” Seth's meaning, his purpose and identity, were anchored from birth in something beyond the sun, in the Love that moves that sun and all the other stars, as Dante might say. And notice, Seth wasn't obtained, or acquired, or bought, or owned. Seth has no price. Seth isn't technology. Seth is made in Adam's likeness, which reflects the image of God, the representation of God's continued involvement in our otherwise pointless world (Genesis 5:1-3). Seth was appointed. Seth was a gift. Cain's story was a story of works. Seth's is a story of grace – grace, the only hope beyond greed and beyond vapor, beyond Cain and Abel.

With Seth, Eve had realized something about God's promise. With Cain, she'd thought she could will the Promised Seed into existence – that with her own power, she could reach up to heaven to bring the promise down (Romans 10:6). With Abel, maybe Eve despaired of all hope. But after all that tragic mess, God trusted Adam and Eve – who'd raised one son and found him a killer, and raised the other son to die where they couldn't protect him – with new life, a new baby. And in that moment, Eve realized that the Promised Seed would only come – would certainly come – by grace, by God's appointment in God's time by God's means and method.

Until then, all there is to do is to wait patiently, expectantly and faithfully for the advent of the Promised Seed. Like Seth, the Promised Seed would come by God's appointment. Like Seth, he'd be God's answer to what sin has killed in us and stolen from us. Unlike Cain, he'd be free from the clutches of sin – sin would have no mastery over him. Unlike Cain, he wouldn't grasp or cling. The Promised Seed wouldn't be about acquiring, owning: instead of boasting in his power, he wouldn't see his lofty station to mean a lifestyle of grasping greedily to hoard all he could, but he'd empty himself, humble himself, to a life of exuberant generosity (Philippians 2:6-8). He'd practice his own preaching that giving is grander than getting (Acts 20:35). Like Abel, the Promised Seed would be slain. But instead of crying out for vengeance, his blood would cry out for God to forgive a foolish world (Hebrews 12:24). And unlike Abel, the Promised Seed, even though slain, would be permanent (Hebrews 7:24), for “death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). Even against the backdrop of a Cain-and-Abel world, “whatever God does endures forever” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).

The Promised Seed would answer a Cain-world with humble peace, replacing anger with joy and retaliation with love. He would answer an Abel-world by being the Source of a lasting world to come. The Promised Seed would be the solution to all this darkness. But Adam, Eve, and Seth had to wait. If we want to really appreciate the tremendousness of Bethlehem's manger, we'll wait with them – just as we still wait for Advent #2, no longer a Nativity Story, but the return that ends all Cain's violence and greed, pacifies and resolves Abel's outcry for justice, and leaves standing a whole kingdom that can't be shaken (Hebrews 12:28). Maranatha – “even so, come, Lord Jesus! The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Revelation 22:20-21).

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