Jesus is born into the midst of deep longing for liberation. God’s people root their identity in their deliverance from Egyptian slavery into the promised land. They are the people who cried out under oppression, whose God heard their cries and came to be-there* with and for them.
“I have seen how My people in Egypt are being mistreated. I have heard their groaning when the slave drivers torment and harass them; for I know well their suffering. I have come to rescue them from the oppression of the Egyptians, to lead them from that land where they are slaves and to give them a good land – a wide, open space flowing with milk and honey.” (Exodus 3:7-8, The Voice)
By the first century, God’s people had endured wave after wave of foreign powers ruling over them. Though they had taken the promised land and established a king meant to maintain God’s rule, everything unraveled. The first wave crashed in 586 BC, when the Davidic monarchy was dethroned with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The people were taken into Babylonian captivity and exile became the new reality. The second wave hit: the Persians conquered the Babylonians. Though permitted to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, God’s people were still under foreign rule. The third wave rolled in with Alexander the Great conquering the region. The next wave of subjugation brings us to the Roman Empire into which Jesus is born.
Imagine hundreds of years of wrestling with your identity as God’s liberated people in the midst of constant captivity. Imagine gathering for worship and singing yet again:
“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” (Psalm 13:1-2, NRSV)
“My soul languishes for your salvation; I hope in your word. My eyes fail with watching for your promise; I ask, ‘When will you comfort me?’ How long must your servant endure? When will you judge those who persecute me?” (Psalm 119:81-82, 84, NRSV)
Your constant prayer in these dark times is – God, hear again; come down again; liberate again!
O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear!
In the thick of mourning and longing, of hoping and praying, God’s people are bombarded with the dominant reality of the Empire. The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) was celebrated as Lord and Savior, a Son of God, who brought good news for the whole world by establishing peace. Caesar’s gospel marked the beginning of a new era. His birthday was said to be “the beginning of the good tidings for the world” and “a way to honour Augustus” was to “reckon time from the date of his nativity” (see Priene Inscription article). Thus, his birthday was decreed the beginning of the New Year in many provinces. It is into this Empire, this reality of Roman power, that Jesus was born. The birth announcement in Luke proclaims a different Savior about to bring a different kingdom. This language is a direct challenge to Caesar and his gospel. This language is resistance language. Another reality is breaking in. Do you hear it?
Do not be afraid, because your story of exile and oppression has turned a page, and this chapter is titled, Promised One. The good news you have been desperate to hear, that salvation, liberation, rescue, deliverance has come, is breaking into this drama right now. (my paraphrase of Luke 2:10-11)
Bringing us back to Reframing the Gospel
Several weeks ago I shared about the workshop I presented, “Reframing the Gospel: How LGBTQ Inclusion is Central to Jesus’ Kingdom Vision.” In the post, “Moving the Conversation Forward,” I wrote:
If this discussion [about LGBTQ inclusion] is going to move forward, affirming biblical interpretations have to convincingly address this important concern [of biblical authority]. This is what Brownson is getting at when he insists on a “cross-cultural biblical vision.” While reading Romans Disarmed, a light came on for me that illuminated a possibility for reframing the conversation: “the good news of the kingdom” proclaimed and embodied by Jesus that Paul, in Romans 1, sets up as a radical counter to the Roman Empire’s gospel of Pax Romana, is the root from which the tree of LGBTQ inclusion is nourished and allowed to bear the good fruit of life in Christ.
In the next post, “Fruit and Roots,” I engaged Matthew Vines’ “test the fruit hermeneutic” and the traditionalist concern that becoming affirming would require rejecting the Bible as authoritative. Vines calls us to engage scripture with openness to new insights for the sake of LGBTQ people suffering great harm due to non-affirming interpretations.
As a first step toward demonstrating how LGBTQ inclusion is central to the gospel, I reflected on the story of Jesus’ birth and “good news” in the post, “What’s This All About?” Good news, or gospel, is connected to salvation – liberation from something; deliverance into something else. This brings us to today’s exploration of the context in which Jesus was born, one of longing for freedom from oppression and the restoration of God’s kingdom. The good news proclaimed at Jesus’ birth is that this freedom and restoration was breaking into the world where Caesar’s gospel of Roman peace dominated the landscape.
Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice by Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh inspired the connection for “Reframing the Gospel.” In the first chapter of this important book, they write:
In the face of an imperial gospel that proclaims that all salvation lies in Rome, and that identifies the emperor as both lord and savior, while bringing crosses, crippling taxes, agricultural exploitation, economic destruction, war, and violence wherever it goes, Paul brings a gospel of deep, transformative, creation-restoring salvation that turns the empire on its head. You have to realize that proclaiming Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, as Lord flies in the face of imperial ideology. This is seditious language because if Jesus is Lord, the Caesar is not. Moreover, this gospel reverses the order of the empire by coming to the Jew first and then to the gentile… And now if there is any gospel left to be proclaimed from the heart of the empire, it is that a struggling group of Jesus followers have bent the knee to the Messiah, have named him as their Lord, have embraced a faith alternative to fidelity to the empire, and have an obedience in their lives that subverts imperial obedience. (17)
In Paul’s letter to the Roman churches, opening with what seems to be one of the largest barriers to becoming affirming (Romans 1:18-32), he unpacks “the good news of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1) for the believers in the heart of the empire. Exploring this text in light of its imperial context leads us to reframe the gospel and see a trajectory pointing toward LGBTQ inclusion in our context. This is where we’re heading in the next post.
* Everett Fox translates God’s name in Exodus 3 (often translated “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”) to signify God’s presence – “God said to Moshe: EHYEH ASHER EHYEH / I will be-there howsoever I will be-there. And he said: Thus shall you say to the Children of Israel: EHYEH / I-WILL-BE-THERE sends me to you” (Ex. 3:14).