Incarnational Ministry as Submissive Defiance

This evening at Upper Room, I’m preaching a sermonĀ on Luke 2:41-52, the story of the boy Jesus in the temple. What struck me most about this text is how the incarnate Jesus interacts with his surrounding culture of religious institution and his family.

Firstly, Jesus is in some ways defiant to the culture. Jesus in the temple does not act like your typical 12 year old boy. Most 12 year olds don’t impress religious experts. He defies the expectations of the religious institution and remains in the temple even after the Passover feast has ended and everyone else goes home. He defies his parents and does not leave with them so that he can be “about his Father’s matters.”

Yet, Jesus is also submissive. When his parents find him, he submits to them and his role as their child. It seems to me that the text implies that Jesus was in some way punished by his parents for remaining behind. In other words, even though he was defiant, Jesus accepted the consequences of that defiance.

This is the pattern the church takes in Acts. Consider the example of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4. Peter and John’s testimony before them is this: “You must judge whether in God’s sight it is right to listen to you rather than God, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” In other words, Peter and John won’t stop preaching the gospel, regardless of how unpopular the message is. Yet, they also submit themselves to the consequences of that defiance as their culture dictates. They leave the judgment to the Sanhedrin.

I think one of the problems of post-Christendom churches is that they have forgotten this pattern of “submissive defiance.” As the Church loses it’s place in the center of culture, some churches have refused to be submissive to the culture, and attempt to assert their “rights” or whatever cultural influence they have left. Consider my previous post on the Focus on the Family Action statement regarding Obama’s election as an example. To what extent are such statements, largely coming from the right wing side of the church, nothing more than failed attempts to assert a power and influence the now-marginalized church does not have?

On the other side of the coin, there are churches that have lost their sense of cultural defiance. These churches have become so used to being at the center of the culture that they are willing, it seems, to go wherever the culture goes to remain in their place of privilege. Consider churches that have given in to “every wind of false doctrine” with regard to biblical standards of sexuality, or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ’s Lordship.

For the church to be faithful in the 21st century, it needs to recover this sense of “submissive defiance” that we find in Jesus’ incarnation and in the pattern of the Acts church. It means being relentless in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the holiness of God, even when that message is an unpopular one. It also means submitting to the surrounding culture’s reaction to that message, even when that means being pushed to the margins of the society.