Blogging toward CHRISTMAS: O little island of Crete

December 21, 2009

So who is actually on the Revised Common Lectionary committee, and why
do they have us visiting the island of Crete when everyone knows the
focus should be on the little town of Bethlehem? Sure, there is some
Christmas-like language in Paul’s letter to Titus: “salvation for all,”
“waiting for blessed hope,” “manifestation of glory” and all that. But
most of the letter is a bit of a Christmas downer; it feels like the
Grinch trying to steal Christmas by inserting words and behavior that
frustrate goodwill and holiday cheer, turning our minds to consider
theft, greed, grumbling and sin.

Chronologically, the happenings
in Crete follow the happenings in Bethlehem, but just for kicks, it
might be fun to work our way backwards from the island to the manger to
see what illumination Paul’s words to Titus might shed on the angels’
message to shepherds.

Imagine the difficulty and frustration of
Pastor Titus’s ministry in Crete—what it might be like to be left behind
on an island full of fractious, stubborn and unruly people, and to have
been told to build up and strengthen a Christian community against all
odds. Paul’s charge to Titus implies a laundry list of challenges followed by a frank and shocking assessment of what Titus was up against:

“Cretans
are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.” That testimony is
true. For this reason rebuke them sharply, so that they may become sound
in the faith.

Ouch. The phrase “behaving like a Cretan” no
doubt traces its origins to this text. (Apologies to contemporary
residents of Crete!)

How is that for a challenging mission for a
new pastor? What possible good could Titus do in the midst of so many
others hellbent on doing the opposite?

In truth, nothing; nothing, that is, apart from the grace of God
that alone can bring salvation, train new Christians to renounce
impiety and worldly passions and purify an entire people from their
iniquity through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In
other words, God can do on Crete what God is intent on doing everywhere
else: save human beings from their sin and rebellion and empower them to
live lives that are “self-controlled, upright, and godly.” This is what
God is up to in the mystery of the incarnation, and we should not let
all the holiday trappings of Christmas cause us to forget it. Christ
came into the world in order to redeem it. Just in case we skip over
that part in our rush to open gifts, Luke brings us back down to earth, literally:

A decree went out from Emperor Augustus....and the first registration was taken while Quirinius was governor.

It
is an odd way to start a birthday story. But these details are more
than historical window dressing. The beginning to this story—this first
verse in the birth narrative—actually strikes a theme that will be
repeated over and over again in Luke’s Gospel and in his sequel, Acts.
Luke reminds all of us that Jesus’ birth took place in the world;
it happened in real time among real people. Jesus was born amidst the
ordinary human backdrop of political leaders with political agendas;
people going to work in nearby fields; families seeking shelter for the
night and citizens busy paying taxes, eating, sleeping and traveling.

Imagine
for a moment what it might be like to come into a world full of
fractious, stubborn and unruly people—people like you and me. This is
the world God so loved that he sent his only son. This is the world
Jesus came to live in, laugh in and love in; the world he came to heal
and save. It’s the world we, like Pastor Titus, are called to live,
laugh, love and serve in, proclaiming the “good news of great joy for
all people” that has come to us whether we live in Crete, Bethlehem or
(in my case) North Carolina.