God's Mission: the opposite of Despotic or Totalitarian Destruction
I’ve talked before about a book I’m reading on the origins of Totalitarianism: specifically, the regimes of Stalinist Russia and Hitler’s Germany. The author of the book, Hannah Arendt, argues that the ideology of totalitarianism operates with the assumption by, in this case, Stalin and Hitler, that they are part of a supranatural movement of history or of nature - that is to say, a movement that is natural to how things really are. And because this movement is unstoppable, since it’s how reality really is, those who manifest this movement in history (Stalin and Hitler) are justified in ignoring any positive or civil laws and they’re also justified in adjusting or making all events, all knowledge, all facts fit their version of this supranatural movement of history or nature.
The movement of history and nature will weed out inferior human beings, so the story went. And so the purification of human beings and execution of those who don’t conform, regardless of positive laws restraining murder or racism or hate speech, etc., or alternative perspectives or understandings about what a human being is, is perfectly justified. For their execution is proper outcome of where history and nature are headed. The particularity of people is rather irrelevant, so the person who is the executioner one day, can be the executed tomorrow if its found that they do not measure up in some way: they get cancer, or diabetes, or have a stroke, or have a child born with a disability whom they don't execute themselves. Needless to say no one is safe, and no one offering a different perspective or dissenting opinion is permitted a place or space to speak, let alone their lives.
The author suggests that Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes are the first Totalitarian governments who saw their actions as a participation in this supratemporal movement of nature and history. Yet we certainly see kindling for this sort of all consuming purification throughout history; a thirst for God-like power and control not just of other people, but of all reality: pure hubris. In our Gospel this morning, we hear that “an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take Jesus and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Of course we hear that Herod the Great, king of Judea, executes all male children who are two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus whom he’s told might challenge his power and his ability to fulfil his vision of how reality should be.
Go to Egypt and remain there until I tell you, says the angel. And Joseph took Mary and Jesus and remained in Egypt until Herod the Great died. And our Gospel reading says, ‘this was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son." This is a fascinating event precisely because it points to Jesus as the one whom God was calling out of Egypt, but also that only in Jesus - who we heard last week is God - could Israel leave slavery in Egypt.
And in Israel being in Jesus, we see ourselves. For just like Israel is enslaved in sin, and so also enslaved in their words and actions while in Egypt, so we too are enslaved in sin and so also in our words and actions in a world that is not yet fully in relationship to God. We are all, in effect, turned over to the very broken ways that people tend to perceive and live out their lives. Each one of us with the potential to presume that our ways are supranatural - caught up in the movement of history or nature. We sometimes put it as: that's just the way things are. And God forbid anyone stand in our way. We all live with the perceived potential to view reality through our own very myopic eyes and imagine that they show to us all that is or ever has been. The height of hubris indeed.
After Herod’s death is made known to Joseph through the angel, Joseph is then told to go to Israel. He sets out but in a dream, is warned not to continue on that journey, that he must make a detour and so he goes to the district of Galilee to a town called Nazareth. What a strange twist of events that Joseph would receive direction from angels that includes a kind of misstep. And yet we hear again that, ‘this was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophets, that Jesus will be called a Nazorean. Odd, because I was pretty sure that nothing good could come from Nazareth!
It would seem that the peculiar misstep had a purpose in God’s own mission: the light of redemption has shone and pointed right at Israel. God’s mission; a mission in which history and nature are moving toward a supranatural end. This should sound familiar by now. And yet. And yet. It should also seem radically different. Fundamentally different from the hideous distortion of Stalin or Hitler or Putin, who presume to take God’s place in their words and actions. Herod’s failure, Herod’s being the darkness, and Jesus’s very human and yet very divine overcoming that darkness pave a road, a path of light for others.
His literal walking on foot as a concrete sacrifice, not of others, but of himself for the sake of others: his eventual march into Jerusalem on a donkey to wear a crown of thorns and carry the cross on which he’s executed, a life filled with dissent and opposition to the powers of darkness not with divine force but with spoken words and physical acts of healing, of kindness, of compassion, of speaking with simultaneous love and correction.
This true human life proclaimed by the prophets should tell us something about the distinction between human contrived ideologies that purport to bring about what is natural and God’s consummation of all things: human contrived ideologies are so weak in true power that they must destroy others to accomplish their goal; whereas God’s love, the very substance of every creature’s existence, is so expansive as to include all who desire be with him. God's mission opens the way for the weakest in the world’s eyes. These are the first in his Kingdom. He knows the precise struggle through which each person goes in this life. This is not a supranatural mission or fulfillment of history or nature that is arrogant or hubristic. Rather it is a mission where the one who creates this history bears its very real, very concrete deviations and detours and missteps that involve, for all of us, suffering, broken bodies, broken thoughts, broken ways. He lives and bears these realities without sin, so that we might, in him, cross over from the darkness and hopelessness of suffering, into a life enlightened by one who CAN move us from death into life. The very life for which every single one of us, not just the few, were made. AMEN.