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Few things capture the spirit of Christmas better than a traditional nativity scene for many people. The star shines down on the serene baby Jesus, sleeping in a nice little manger with golden straw spilling out from the edges. He’s surrounded by Mary, Joseph, three wise men and several shepherds. They are all radiantly peaceful as they gaze in wonder at the newborn Christ child. Even the animals lying in their nice clean hay seem almost Spirit-filled as they look serenely upon the infant Savior. As the song goes, even when the cattle start lowing and the poor baby wakes, the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes. It’s a cute, quaint scene, capturing the spirit of a cute, quaint holiday.
Now, I don’t mean to be a scrooge, and I’m not suggesting there’s anything heretical about this cute, quaint scene. I’m all for tradition – our family sets up a nativity every year. On the other hand, I think it’s important to realize that this scene is not completely accurate.
Try to imagine for a moment how things most likely unfolded the night Jesus was born. Mary and Joseph were probably teenagers when they traveled to Bethlehem, for in first century Jewish culture girls were usually engaged around the age of 12 or 13 and boys around 16 or 17. The two were undoubtedly exhausted from their long journey when they arrived at the inn, but all the rooms were taken. The two decided to bed down with the animals in the inn’s stable, which must have been an act of utter desperation (was Mary beginning to have contractions?). They really had no choice, since the possibility of Mary giving birth in public was (especially in first century Jewish culture) completely unthinkable.
Plus, an early church tradition tells us that the stable was a cave, a suggestion many scholars find plausible. So the young, unwed mother and her fiancé make their way to this cave, which was probably animal-packed if the inn was full. We should probably imagine these two exhausted and desperate teenagers squeezing past livestock, stepping over animal droppings, making their way to a corner of an unventilated, smelly, dimly lit cave so Mary can have her baby with some degree of privacy.
Suddenly the manger scene is beginning to look a bit less cute and quaint.
Now try to imagine what the actual process of giving birth might have been like. Even with the best preparation and medical assistance, the birthing process is painful, “messy” and, at times, terrifying. Yet, Mary and Joseph would have had little preparation, and likely no medical assistance. They were alone.
When the child was born, they placed him in a manger – which in this context can only refer to a trough the animals ate or drank from. This certainly couldn’t have been their first choice! It’s hard to imagine anyone remaining calm and serene given these circumstances.
If even half of these assumptions are accurate, they suggest a nativity scene that was much less cute and quaint than what we traditionally picture. We should imagine two desperate, exhausted teenagers passed out on bloody, manure-filled hay in a crowded, smelly, dark cave while their baby sleeps – and sometimes wails – in a slimy feeding trough. The original audiences of the Gospels would probably have imagined something like this, and it would have shocked them. I believe this is a central point of the story.
Our God uses his almighty power to dive into the worst this world has to offer. He dives into the shame of an unwed Jewish mother. He dives into the rejection of an already-full inn and the darkness, odor and inconvenience of an overcrowded stable. He dives into the desperation and fear of a young, ostracized couple. He dives into our humanity; and not humanity at our best, but humanity at our worst. He’s not a God who gravitates toward the cute and the quaint, but a God who immerses himself in our mess, our manure, our pain, our fear, our sin and our shame.
He is a God who takes on himself everything that is shockingly ugly and redeems it all – and by doing so, he reveals himself to be a God who’s shockingly loving and beautiful.
This Christmas if you set up a nativity scene, don’t worry too much about what it looks like. There’s a place for tradition, and I doubt many stores sell “realistic” manure-filled caves to put on your end table! But remember that our God isn’t cute and quaint. He is a God who’s beautiful because he takes on our shocking ugliness and lovingly transforms us.
And I’ll take that Christmas story over cute and quaint any day.
You didn’t need an army
You didn’t need a sword
You didn’t need the president
that they are fighting for
You spread your holy Kingdom
with words and deeds alone
And that makes you the greatest King
that I have ever known
You didn’t need a building
You didn’t need a car
The latest tech and fancy clothes
you didn’t need at all
You didn’t need that I were
good-looking, friendly, smart
The only thing you need from me
is just my fragile heart
You didn’t need to suffer
You didn’t need to die
You could have stayed upon your throne
and still be glorified
You didn’t need to save us
You didn’t need to care
But yet you did and that is why
I offer you my prayer
You thought that we had enough wars, hunger, and diseases. You thought that the current refugee crisis was big. You thought that natural disasters were too severe already.
Well, you were wrong.
The recent IPCC report cannot be taken lightly. It is based on 6,000 scientific studies and has received input from 40,000 peer-reviews. This is the scientific consensus. It’s time we stop getting distracted by climate change deniers and face the facts.
And the facts are that we are heading right into enormous environmental disasters that will kill and hurt hundreds of millions of people.
There is still time to change course, but it has to be done immediately. The modern, Western lifestyle is doomed. Either we choose to abandon it, or we will be forced to do so when the climate crisis hits. Many are confused as they are not sure how they ought to live in order to reduce their ecological impact on others.
What if I told you that we as Christians have had the solution to this problem for 2,000 years? What if I told you that if we simply lived like the early Christians, there would be no climate change? (more…)
Originally posted at Jesus Army’s Forward Blog.
The Arctic is alarmingly warm this year, in fact, 20 degrees hotter than usual. What scientists have been warning us against for decades is becoming reality. If nothing is done, we might see an enormous climate catastrophe that would kill and displace hundreds of millions.
The vast majority of scientists have also been telling us for years that we do far too little to stop climate change. Even if the relatively ambitious Paris Climate Accord is implemented by all countries, it will not be enough. And the outcome of the American election puts into question whether the Accord even will be implemented.
The main root cause of these problems is an industrially driven economic growth that is not restricted to areas that seem necessary and beneficial like better healthcare and education. The astonishingly high consumption level that has driven climate change for decades deals a lot with fashion, technology, entertainment and luxury products that we, if we’re honest with ourselves, simply don’t need. (more…)
I often hear that the Biblical views on the sinfulness of wealth, the need for simplicity and the universal calling to economic equality are radical ideas. But they’re actually extremely realistic, in contrast to the mammonistic and neoclassical ideas of the necessity of wealth, growth and inequality. Not only because the Biblical ideas, if put in practice, fights poverty much more effectively, but also because they’re the only ones that can reduce the devastating impacts of the upcoming climate change catastrophe.
The other day I listened to a very interesting lecture by professor Kevin Anderson from Manchester University. He talked about the really dangerous form of climate change denial, which isn’t the goofy ideas that the planet isn’t warming or that its warming but we’re not the primary cause and so on. Those views are rejected by the vast majority of scientists and most ordinary people don’t believe in them either. No, the real problem is when scientists adjust or deny their results in order to communicate that we can mitigate and adapt to climate change without too much reduction in economic growth and without adjusting our economic system. He writes on his website:
In several important respects the modelling community is self-censoring its research to conform to the dominant political and economic paradigm. Moreover, there is a widespread reluctance of many within the climate change community to speak out against unsupported assertions that an evolution of ‘business as usual’ is compatible with the IPCC’s 2°C carbon budgets. With specific reference to energy, this analysis concludes that even a slim chance of “keeping below” a 2°C rise, now demands a revolution in how we both consume and produce energy. Such a rapid and deep transition will have profound implications for the framing of contemporary society and is far removed from the rhetoric of green growth that increasingly dominates the climate change agenda.
Are there any reasons to believe that colourful stage lights and fog machines are anything else than the toys of Christian stage technicians and a compensation for lack of Biblical revival? No. The global trend of churches investing billions of dollars in superfluous show equipment has increased dramatically over just the last few decades, but not many have asked themselves why we do it and what happens to church when we do it.
Of course, if someone dares to question this unbiblical practice that person is easily dismissed as someone who doesn’t understand young people or who isn’t into culturally relevant evangelism. So hi, I’m a young evangelist, and I hate stage lights. And fog machines, those horrible, stupid fog machines! How painfully obvious isn’t it that modern, Western churches lack God when they literally try to fabricate something which the Scriptures describes as a manifestation of the Lord’s presence?
As I’ve explained in my God vs Wealth series, Jesus doesn’t want us to be rich but live as simply as possible so that we can give as much to the poor as possible. This applies not just to individual disciples but to churches as well. There are hundreds of millions of Christians around the world living in poverty. If we truly think that they are our brothers and sisters, we can’t ignore their suffering by spending loads of money on superfluities.
As John puts it: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 Jn 3:17) (more…)
Half a year ago I cofounded an association here in Sweden called the Jerusalem Project, which promotes Christian community life and aspires to make community of goods like in the book of Acts more common in the churches. I and the others in the board have been planning for some months to start an intentional community if our own next year, and as a preparation we follow a common rule that outlines a simple lifestyle, prayer routines, Bible reading and ethics. We also read The Intentional Christian Community Handbook by David Janzen together and discuss it over Skype.
In Janzen’s book, Brandon Rhodes has contributed with some great chapters on how modern culture impacts the prospects for increasing Christian community life. In the West, people are more individualistic than they used to be, which is both an obstacle to community since such a life is very communal, as well as an opportunity since it may stir a longing for an alternative social way of living.
Rhodes also point out that more people than ever before come from divorced families, that the line between youth and adulthood has been completely blurred, and the fact that people are online more than ever. These things, and many more, pose challenges to community life that need to be taken seriously. (more…)
Prepare to be uncomfortable.
I wrote three years ago about how absurd it is that Christians often are expected to “dress up” as they attend church meetings, wearing clothing that’s more expensive and “proper” than what they normally wear. The reason this is absurd is that the Bible never commands it – on the contrary, it prohibits Christians to wear expensive clothes at all times, not just on church meetings. I’ve made a video when I discuss this:
The New Testament particularly addresses Christian women, telling them to not wear jewelry or expensive clothing:
“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” (1 Tim 2:9-10)
“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes.” (1 Peter 3:3)
I had the privilege of joining the MennoNerds Panel talk on simplicity and sustainiability last Tuesday. I had proposed the topic since fighting personal wealth and promoting a simple lifestyle are issues that God really has put on my heart. Participating were MennoNerds Hillary Watson, Paul Walker and myself, with Mark Groleau as moderator. You can listen to it in the MennoNerds podcast as well as in the YouTube clips down below:
During the first hour, we talked about theological and theoretical perspectives, such as:
- How do we define simplicity?
- What are the Biblical arguments for the need of simplicity?
- What are the Biblical arguments for the need of environmental sustainability and creation care?
- Should Christianity be seen as an anthropocentric religion, i.e. how do we deal with ideas like having dominion over the Earth?
It should be noted that we were a bit divided on anthropocentrism, whereas some questioned this I for example argued that it’s not just Biblical but morally necessary. (more…)
In Biblical times, local churches met primarily in homes as a complement to their public evangelism (Acts 2:46, 20:20, Rom 16:5). For at least 250 years home churches were the norm – the earliest discovered church building that wasn’t used as a home is from the late third century. With Constantine stuff changed, basilicas and cathedrals were established, and these were the norm in the state churches.
Radical restorationist groups have often started in the homes, this includes the early Anabaptists, Baptists and the Pietist movement. When less persecuted and more established, they have often built church buildings as their state church counterparts. In the 18th century, Methodist leader John Wesley introduced the concept of having meetings in homes as a complement to the Sunday service in a church building.
In the 20th century this practice has become very popular. Realizing that meetings in church buildings aren’t designed to effectively promote fellowship and discipleship, many church leaders have welcomed cell groups/small groups/house groups in their congregations.
However, there are no fixed standards to what a cell group is and what it should do. Since it’s not viewed as a church of its own, there are usually no requirements of it to include the things that we see that New Testament churches were expected to include. For this reason, there’s basically anarchy when it comes to how cell groups look like. Here are some examples: (more…)
2015 was a year I had been looking forward to. It was the year when the new, global goals of sustainable development would be established, and when the extremely important climate summit in Paris hopefully would manage the greenhouse gas threat. It was going to be a global year, and I decided to focus on simplicity, together with Bible reading and miracles, promoting community life and the value of equality.
I had not foreseen that refugees would be in focus though. Here in Sweden we had an election in 2014, and the racist party Sweden Democrats had a breakthrough with much Christian support, which made me write about the importance of welcoming and blessing back then. However, as most of you know, migration became a hot topic as more refugees than expected entered Europe. This gave rise to yet another horrible wave of xenophobia. Meanwhile, Australia increased their fight against refugees and immigrants, and in the US we have a loud white supremacist called Donald Trump who constantly hits the headlines with his hatred towards Mexicans and Muslims.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to stand against this Anti-gospel of hatred and preach the peaceful, welcoming and loving Kingdom of God. We should also point to the real issues on the global scale; one of the greatest ironies of this year is that white xenophobic people have argues that their rich countries can’t afford immigration. Meanwhile, the world is destroyed by white consumption and greed, as we would need three planets if everybody lived like Europeans and five if we were all like Americans.
Mammonism, the idea that it’s OK for Christians to accumulate and possess wealth, has brought too many saints into ruin and destruction. This teaching kills poor people, as well as corrupts the sanctification process of the rich. Mammon, Wealth, is an enemy to God and it’s really important that we strive for simplicity and equality instead of trying to be as rich as possible.
I have been talking a lot about this in my God vs Wealth Youtube series, and I’ve written about it in my e-book God vs Inequality, but I still felt the need to gather all arguments I have for why Christians shouldn’t be rich in one lecture. It’s one hour long, and you can watch it right here:
In the video I discuss Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching on wealth and poverty, the wealth of patriarchs and kings in the Old Testament and why it’s not normative for Christians, the woman and the alabaster jar, prosperity theology, and much more. I pray that this will equip God’s people to promote simplicity and equality even more.
It’s funny, and a bit tragic, how some extremely radical words of Jesus which should make all rich people very uncomfortable, can be misinterpreted into some cosy, fluffy inspiration that rich people can quote on their living room wall and feel warm inside about. I’m specifically thinking on Jesus’ words about the birds and the lilies:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?”
Notice the word “therefore” in the beginning of the passage. This is obviously a word that links it to what is immediately said before it, which in this case is:
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Building stuff is very Biblical: Jesus our Lord and Saviour worked as a carpenter, Paul was a tent-maker and the whole people of Israel were commissioned to build cities and villages across Canaan after they had colonized it in a not very pacifist way (I’m really looking forward to Greg Boyd’s book on how to deal with Old Testament violence that’s coming out soon). God realizes that shelter is important, He does not want us to be homeless.
1 Tim 6:8 is often translated as “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that”, and even though Paul’s point clearly is that we should live simply and reject wealth, he isn’t saying that we should be content with homelessness. The word used for “clothing” is in Greek skepasmata, which literally means “coverings”, which can both refer to clothes and shelter. Similarly, the word translated as “food” literally means sustenance.
Historically, the church has indeed built a lot of stuff, but have we really built the right things? As you may know I’m very critical to church buildings, for various reasons that I give in the video above. In Europe where I live, we have hundreds of thousands of church buildings, most of which stand empty at night. We also have four million homeless people, and millions of refugees are expected to seek refuge in our rich subcontinent during the coming years. (more…)
Who needs buildings when you have homes? Here’s a video I made where I describe why I’m such a passionate promoter for house churches. The seven reasons are the following;
1. They’re biblical – Acts 2:46, 1 Cor 16:19, Col 4:15 and other passages tell us that the early Christians met in homes. The earliest archeologically discovered church, the Dura Europos church, was a house church. In fact, church buildings where people didn’t eat and sleep wasn’t constructed until the late third and early fourth century.
2. They’re utilized – again, people actually eat and sleep there. Most church auditoriums – the big room with a lot of pews – stands empty for the most part of the week. Homes, in contrast, are usually used daily.
3. They’re small – and this is a good thing! 1 Cor 14:26 tells us that everyone attending a church meeting should contribute with something. When was the last time you’ve experienced that? Frankly, you need a small group to have such a wonderful spiritual interaction. (more…)