Just a few hours ago I stood at the square in Kiev where one year ago over a million people gathered to protest Russia’s ruthless attempt at breaking Ukraine. The pictures, the flowers, the memory of the many dead scream in silence. Ukrainian youth and others paid with their lives, and the pictures reveal the savagery of the oppressors. It was a biting cold sixteen degrees as I recorded a message there while passersby stopped to listen. As I now fly back, I see another scene: a burning building and the threatening destruction in Ferguson, MO, the aftermath of the tragic death of a young man there. There are huge differences between these stories but the cries are similar. Sadly, speech makers often exploit such scenarios, provoking our baser instincts. When the jury in Missouri spoke, the words of supposed comfort were predictable: “We are a nation of laws.” That generally means, “We do not want this outcome.” Going back across the Scriptures, we see the same search for laws that would help people live with each other. That’s the key, isn’t it? To live and not die. To the mindset of that day they sought laws that reflected order and communal relationships. They often ran afoul of the disparate hungers within themselves. So the legal system moved toward social ethics and their enforcement. But much of it made no inner corrective. They became a nation of laws that ended up breeding lawlessness. For living together in harmony, Moses gave 613 laws to help build their community. About half a millennium later, David in the 15th Psalm, reduced them to 11. Isaiah, in his opening chapter, reduced them further to six. Micah, in his sixth chapter, narrowed them down to three: “To do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly before your God.” How much further could one go to find the essence of the law? Jesus, in the 22nd chapter of Matthew,was asked which was the greatest commandment. The point was to see if he would earn the wrath of the political or religious leaders who dictated social or religious practice with scores of laws. Jesus, knowing their intent, surprised them. He did not reduce the laws to one. He could have done that. Instead, he reduced them down to two: “To love the Lord your God with all your hearth, strength, soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two,” he said, “hang all of the laws and the prophets.” That caught them off guard. You see they could easily mystify or silence the first but they would still be left with having to live out the second. They could have exalted the second but they would have rendered it without foundation by losing the first.
All the platitudes of double-speak remind us that if we hope in politics and laws, we will make the suicidal blunder of thinking that laws change hearts. They do not. Societal laws are always at the mercy of power brokers, as language without integrity of heart lends itself to the machinations of demagogues. Oftentimes those machinations will dress up their own violations with noble purposes. Few evils rise to the insidious level as those that mask reality with purportedly benign intentions, cosmetically hiding a cancerous, self-serving motive.
We see again and again in the ebb and flow of history how laws have the power of letters, but they never win the soul of a person. Courts, agencies, police, military, EPA, FAA, FTC, IRS, the politically correct enforcers . . . my goodness, we have enough laws to make Rome look like a toy shop. All over the world we hear more talk about brotherhood and yet in reality we see more hoods than brothers.
But thank God, there is a law above our laws. There must be a law above our laws that gets to the innermost being of a person and breaks the pursuit of autocracy within. That happens when we admit the heart must humble itself before God, and this brings change. That surrender of the heart to God disarms the individual and engenders a love from God and for His will.
We look around today at the environment and mourn the abuse. Fair enough. But here is the greatest mystery of all. Why do we never think of the “invironment”? What stalks us within? Is there nothing sacred about this body? Is it only the trees that need protection? Is there nothing sacred about my relationships so long as I can pop something into the mouth to negate the behavior of the night before? Is there nothing sacred about work so long as the government will pay my bills? Is success all in the power to enforce and not in the power to change for eternal truths? Has the family no place in the building blocks of society? Is politics purely left and right without any up and down? Ah! There’s the question.
Having left that question unanswered, we are producing a generation of young people that are ready to cry “justice” when wronged, but seldom think of what is right in personal responsibility. They know everything about outer space and very little about inner space. They know how to hate; they simply don’t know how or why to love.
As Ferguson is being torn apart, what is the answer?
Picture two scenarios. Here’s one: the police officer who stands at the center of the story walks into the crowd to speak to them. What do you think will happen? In any crowd that feels victimized, there will be some who want to take the law into their own hands and their “justice” will not look pretty. The ends to them would justify the means, the very thing of which they accused the police officer.
Few would want to witness such a scene. When love is dead, glimpses of hell rise as unforgiveness wafts from the burning pyre. That is the end of a so-called nation of laws that has left the inner self unchanged. Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome all had their laws. Their stones speak.
Here’s the other: Michael Brown’s parents ask to speak to the officer. They visit him, give him a picture of their son, look him in the eye, speak of their irreparable loss, weep with anguish for what happened, reach out their arms and say, “Because of Jesus, we forgive you, we hold no ill will.” I realize we are talking about the almost impossible. But just think with me. What if that were to happen? It will be so riveting that if the eyes close, it will be to picture heaven. When love lives, grace abounds and life rises.
The first scenario is easier to give in to and satisfies the search for revenge, but leaves a pall of death . . . Michael Brown, the police officer and, yes, more catastrophically the future. It will change nothing except build more hate and distrust. The power for inflicting pain would have won the day. The victory would be pyrrhic.
The second is almost unimaginable but will spell life. The embrace of the parent for the one accused will put a light in a dark city that will shine around the world and give the shining possibility of hope. It is only unimaginable without God. With God it is possible. When Jacob met Esau his brother, he said, “I see in your face the face of God.” He said it because he found grace and forgiveness when he could have, by law, expected death. Esau didn’t say, “We are a family of laws.”
As we look at the Christmas season, we see the love of God at work. He sends and gives His Son so that we might not have to live with mere laws. We hear enough that we are a nation of laws. Laws don’t change flaws. They just reveal them. How about becoming a nation of grace? In Him, law and love converge. He brings the work of grace within us to make us hunger after the true, the good and the beautiful. That rises beyond mere laws. It is not surprising that the Christian message first came to a simple woman who just wanted to build a home, and then to a carpenter, one working with his hands. It was heralded to a band of shepherds, strangely blending their work both for the temple and the home. They knew about lambs and sheep. We were the sheep. We awaited a lamb that could be the ultimate sacrifice to bring us to God.
Sudden happenings through ordinary people can change history with profound truths.
Who stood in Mary and Joseph’s way? Religious and political authorities. Why? Because they lived by the power to enforce laws. Someone who transcended those laws would spell danger to their power. Herod felt threatened and wished to silence the message. We still have Herods today. “Silence the Christmas songs!” Don’t let our children hear the message in our schools. Take away anything that tells the Christmas story.” Why? Because we have our laws. Yes, Herod’s ghost looms large. Is it any wonder our young feel helpless?
Caesar felt threatened because he wanted to be all-powerful. Caesar knew how to make laws. He knew nothing about grace. His empire is gone and his crown rolled in the dust. He was powerless to build an eternal city. We still have the Caesars today.
The high priest felt threatened because he wanted to be the dispenser of salvation. Why give it free? Pilate felt threatened and so didn’t even wait for the answers.
We still have such interrogators today. Our academics surely know how to ask questions, but never give a platform to hear the answers. Standing in front of a microphone is easy. Taming the heart is ever elusive. Times may change, people don’t.
At the square in Kiev there is a section dedicated to the “Heavenly Hundred” memorializing the dead but with pointers to heaven. They died so that others may live. It is a reflection of a greater truth. Gospel truths sneak upon us in strange ways. It seems as though death is the loudest voice calling for life.
Several years ago, terrorists broke into two hotels in Mumbai and opened random fire. So many were killed. The carnage was bloody. One Indian actor was found alive amidst the pile of bodies under a table where several had dived for cover. In an interview he was asked, “Why didn’t they also shoot you when they walked by?” He said, “I was so covered with someone else’s blood that they thought it was mine and left me for dead.”
He didn’t know it, but he hinted at the Gospel. The blood of our Savior saves us.
Here’s the Christmas scene. What a contrast: a stable, a baby, talking about a throne and a king. Where is the penultimate scene for that child? On a hill. On a hill called Calvary. A place least expected. A place where blood was shed and we were covered. The Son cries out to the Father to forgive the murderers. He cries out to those closest to Him to comfort and take care of His mother. He tells all of us that the price has been paid for our isolated selves, isolated from God and from each other. What a story! May we hear the story afresh. It is our only hope.
“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
He opened the door to heaven.
When I finished my brief talk at the square in Kiev, our guide—whom I had met just moments before—walked up to me and wiping away her tears, kissed me on both sides of my face and said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Hope is attached to love. Love is the only root for peace. But it starts with love for God as we receive His gift at Christmas. All other gifts are wrapped in paper. His gift was wrapped in grace.
“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” A grace-filled Christmas season is my prayer for the streets of Ferguson, the square in Kiev, and, indeed, for our troubled world.