Christmas and Epiphany are times filled with wonder. “I wonder as I wander out under the sky” and “star of wonder, star of light” are just some of the words sung to express this wonderment. Wonder fills the air of the holidays, as well as the literal and metaphorical language of light and darkness—alluded to in stars and skies, both sentimentally as well as cosmically. All of which has me dwelling upon the words of the prophet even now as the ornaments are re-wrapped and the spruce needles are vacuumed up, I’m wondering. I’m pondering in my heart this idea of authority that Isaiah promises.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7)
I’m wondering about the authority that rests upon this child born for us, this authority that shall grow continually. I’m wondering what that looks like in the world and how it happens? How is this authority practiced? I’m wondering especially how severely it contrasts to various other forms of authority we experience?
Matthew’s gospel seems to certainly hint at a great contrast as the Magi who seek the child go first to the palace of “King” Herod. Consequently, Herod uses his authority to use, deceive, and violently destroy life. In contrast how is authority demonstrated in a fleeing refugee family? Thus I’m wondering, especially how those soldiers could follow the authority of their king? Suppose it’s the orders they have to follow, the system they’re apart of…
And the child grew and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom. Which seems to imply this takes a long time.
When grown, the authority appears quite evident, yet still amazingly contrasted to the authority practiced by others. “For he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” (Matthew 7.29) Almost thirty times in the gospels does Christ’s authority get referenced. What did the people see in him? How did they understand his authority? What do the people see in him? How do they see his authority?
I am still wondering about authority.
When I was a child I was raised to respect authority. As I got older I learned that one sometimes needs to question authority. I have yet to find any good formula to easily discern how much respect goes with how much questioning. Still, Jesus demonstrates a different way of dealing and practicing authority all together, although not formulaic and certainly not all tidy.
We reformed folk often like tidy and formulaic. Our confessions help us with that, as they ought to do! For instance Article 36 of the Belgic Confession expresses our relationship to the state:
We believe that
because of the depravity of the human race,
our good God has ordained kings, princes, and civil officers.
God wants the world to be governed by laws and policies
so that human lawlessness may be restrained
and that everything may be conducted in good order
among human beings.
For that purpose God has placed the sword
in the hands of the government,
to punish evil people
and protect the good.
Still I wonder if this is the authority that rests upon the shoulders of Christ? I wonder if after acknowledging the depravity of the human race we too readily divide the evil from the good? I wonder especially about the place of the sword, God ordained and otherwise?
Thus I wonder about authority as we experience and practice it in community, government, and politics from the local to the national levels. I wonder about authority as we practice it at the personal and communal level. I wonder about authority as we express it in the church.
I don’t think I come to my wondering naively. Rather, I don’t want to too readily accommodate to myself, and to my privileges and prejudices, for the prophet did speak of the people who walked in darkness. While Christ’s light has surely shined, we may not all be as entirely enlightened as we think ourselves. Ultimately Christ’s authority comes through more humility than overconfidence, more wonder than assuredness. Christ still seems to have more to grow in us.
What are the effects of Christmas and Epiphany upon our world? Upon you? Looking ahead, I’d like to explore more about authority, and what it means for us. What are the wonderments that you bring into our present reality?