Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Well of Bitterness, and the True Meaning of Christmas

Unlike some Christianistas, I've nothing against Christmas trees or Santa Claus. On the other hand, one has to recognize that these have little or nothing to do with the true meaning of Christmas. At the same time, many people talk of Christmas in terms of giving gifts and eternal brotherhood--peace on earth, good will towards man, etc. This view certainly contains some truth, but if limited to these themes, misses the big picture.
My own understanding of Christmas, and of its importance, began in the oddest of places. I was doing research on the meaning of the name "Mary". That was it. I was not looking for any big revelations or eternal truth. I was merely looking for the derivation of a name. Yet, when I found the definition, it troubled me, and raised yet more questions. This led me to Exodus, and to a certain well in the desert ....

but I am getting ahead of myself. So, let's start from the beginning.
Remember that old Charismatic worship song:

I will sing unto the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously,
The horse and rider thrown into the sea.

This song was taken from Exodus 15. The Israelites had just escaped from the Egyptian army, which had been swept away by the Red Sea. At this point, Moses and then Miriam sang this song in praise of God because of their deliverance. We all like to end the story there, but Exodus 15 continues:

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, "What are we to drink?"
Then Moses cried out to the LORD, and the LORD showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.
There the LORD made a decree and a law for them, and there he tested them. He said, "If you listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you."Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water.

One would think, after this great victory, that two things would have occurred:
1) God would take care of them.
2) The children of Israel would have trusted that God would take care of them.
Yet, that is not exactly what happened. God did take care of them, it is true, but not in the way that they would have liked or that they would readily understand. For this reason, the people grumbled. Now, before we all get high and mighty and say that we wouldn't have grumbled if it had been us instead of them, let's look at the situation: The children of Israel were promised deliverance; they were promised, well, the Promised Land. They had just seen God work a mighty miracle to deliver them, and so they had every reason to believe that the miracles would continue. Yet, what they got was three days of desert with no water, and then when they finally found water, it turned out to be a bitter well from which no one could drink.
For just a few seconds, let's get real: I would have grumbled if I were in their shoes, and you would have, too.
Now, while it is true that the water was turned sweet, and it is true that God still led the people to Elim where there were twelve springs and seventy palm trees, the plain fact of the matter is that the well's name was "bitterness", and the well is still named that today. The water may have been made sweet, but the name of the well, and the bitterness it represented, is still there even now.
Somehow, despite all of the miracles that God did for the children of Israel, there was a tension between him and them--a tension that never left. They trusted God and followed him out into the wilderness. Yet they grumbled against him, because the promise was not yet fulfilled (and no, the waters of Elim do not represent the Promised Land--it was but a respite before they entered into yet more desert).
"What do you mean by this? You promised deliverance, yet you led us out to the desert to die? What is going on with this?"
The children of Israel grumbled against and fought with God for more than forty years in the desert, and there were many times when God was not too thrilled with them either. More often than not, he simply wanted to destroy them. Instead of peace between God and man, there was enmity; enmity, no less, between God who had chosen these people and delivered them, and the people who had left everything behind to follow him. The well of bitterness was always with them.
This is why the name "Mary" became so popular among the Jews before the coming of Christ. (Mary's name means "bitterness"--she was named after that well.) Even after they entered the Promised Land and become a nation, the promise to the children of Abraham--God's eternal promise--was still unmet. The bitterness was still there, perhaps even more pungent after the more than 1,600 years since the time of the Exodus than ever before. And why shouldn't it have been stronger? The children of Israel had received a taste of God's salvation, but it had only been a taste. It would be like being invited to a king's palace for a banquet, and being told that one day all of the wealth of the palace would be yours and that you would be able to live there. Then after the banquet is over, you have to go back to your hardscrabble life, every day working your fingers to the bone, suffering. You can see the palace, that wonderful city in the sky, from afar, but you can't go there. Not yet. And all the while, you wonder when the promise will be kept. For centuries, they had waited for the Consolation of Israel, but this consolation never came, and there was no evidence that it would come anytime soon. This will lead to bitterness. Anyone who says otherwise is simply not being real.
But then, at a time when no one was expecting it, an angel appeared to a daughter of bitterness:

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."  Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

Troubled indeed. The children of Israel had undergone centuries of hardship because they were favored by God. How much more hardship could a girl like her stand?

But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

The Consolation of Israel had arrived!

"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."
"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.

Though still highly distrustful of what God's "favor" would mean to her, Mary showed true faith: "I am the Lord's servant. May it be as you have said." One should not think for a moment that Mary believed any of this to be good news. Based upon the history of Israel, and the track record of other people that had received angelic visitations, such as the prophets (they were all killed--and Isaiah was even sawn in two), she still had to have been greatly troubled by what she heard. Yet, her answer was that whatever the possible personal cost, she was the Lord's servant. This is faith. This is true faith, not the watered-down positive thinking called "faith" by the name-it-claim crowd.
To continue, Mary then hurried off to Elizabeth:

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!"

Suddenly, instead of being called "bitter", Mary's name became "blessed". Yet, how could this be accomplished? How can bitterness be turned into blessing?

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

And so, here we have it: The Holy Spirit had to come upon her, and the power of the Most High had to overshadow her, so that the Son of God would be born within her. This was the blessing. This was her consolation.
Several times in this essay, I have talked about "getting real". One has to ask people to get real, I think, because behind all of the glitter of Christmas tinsel, and all of the warm feelings of Christmas dinner by the fireside, there is something horribly fake about so much of what is called Christianity today. This falseness has to do with the fact that we have not yet entered the Promise Land. It is true that we have been given a taste of it, but this small taste is nothing more than a taste--the Promised Land is still far away. We can see it, but we cannot enter into it yet. At the same time, most evangelicals have been taught to ignore Hebrews 11 and all of its implications, and believe that we have entered into the Promised Land already. Too many Christians live hardscrabble lives, going under with day to day problems, all the while denying that Christian life has not turned out quite the way they expected. They thought all of their problems would disappear when they became Christians, yet becoming a Christian turned out to be just the beginning. So they live in the wilderness near a bitter well, all the while pretending that this is the Promised Land, that they have already arrived, and that anything less than a proclamation of this false "truth" is a manifestation of a lack of faith. Indeed, many Christians are effectively still living in the land of Egypt--slaves and mistreated, but well-fed and content--all the while proclaiming that Egypt is the Promised Land, and cursing anyone who would dare say otherwise.
The truth is, anyone who really follows God will end up in the wilderness, where there will be chastisement and suffering (and as we all should know, those who are not chastised by God are not really his children). Effectively, Israel--and its experience with God--is a foreshadowing of the Christian life. We are brought out of slavery in Egypt, through the baptism of the Red Sea, into the wilderness. There we wander, seeing the Promised Land from afar. Then when we enter the Promised Land, we must fight to get the abundance that God has for us. Along the way, there are times of exile, slavery, and defeat. And in the end, we realize that while the land of Israel is indeed the Promised Land, it is just a finite shadow of the true Promised Land that is yet to come, the Eternal City, which we have not yet entered. Throughout this, there is a well of bitterness, an enmity between God and us. We have left everything to follow him, yet at times it seems that he has not delivered, that he has led us out into the desert to die. At the same time, God is not always too happy about us.
Ironically, there is more than an element of truth to our complaints: God has led us out to the desert to die. Indeed, it was his purpose all along. Like it or not, our old sinful nature has to be destroyed, or we will not be able to enter into his promise. Such a journey is not pleasant. God knows that most people will serve him after they have received a miraculous deliverance by his hand. The real question is, will we serve him even if there are no miracles, and if there is no deliverance. Will we serve him if serving him means suffering and losing everything? Will we still serve him even when he does not appear to answer our prayers? He wants us to get to the point where we are willing to say, regardless of the circumstance or the cost, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." We cannot reach this point if we always live in a land of milk and honey.
Nevertheless, in all of this, there is a purpose: It is to turn our names from "bitter" to "blessed". Yet, how could this be accomplished? How can bitterness be turned into blessing? The Holy Spirit has to come upon us, and the power of the Most High has to overshadow us, so that the Son of God would be born within us. This is our blessing. This is our consolation.
We cannot do this in our own strength: The Son of God cannot be born within us without the power of the Holy Spirit. And anyone who would try to bring the Son of God into being within themselves through their own strength will only inherit the bitterness, and not the blessing.
So what are we to do? We must embrace the wilderness--God's chastisement, and acknowledge that there have been times when we have felt let down by God. In everyone's life, there will be times when we will say, "My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?" In everyone's life, there will be a cross and suffering. In everyone's life, there is a well of bitterness. Yet, within this, there is a consolation--a consolation that we can only receive when the power of the Most High overshadows us, and the Son of God is born within us. With this, there is a promise, a promise that we know will be kept because Christ has been born on this day. 
This is the meaning of Christmas.

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