Sunday, December 31, 2017

Christmas, day seven

Every year I am more struck by the HUGENESS of the Incarnation, God taking on flesh.

YHWH, the creator of the Universe and everything which has been created, chooses to enter His own creation, and He does it in the most intimate and humble of ways: He enters as a zygote, exactly like every other human being (excepting Adam & Eve) ...barring the fact that the sperm wasn't delivered in the usual manner, by a human father, which would pass along the sin nature common to all humanity. Whatever the specific physiological details of the quickening of the Messiah in the womb of the Virgin Mary (in Luke 1:35, the angel Gabriel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”), this particular miracle is small, compared to all of Yahweh's amazing miracles of creation; after all, there's no reason the Maker of the Universe can't essentially snap His fingers and say, "Boom, you're pregnant."

But it's shocking that such a Being would humble Himself in such a way, submitting to the complete human experience from the inside. It's kind of like doing open heart surgery in utero, except the extremes of size and concept are even bigger.

And this year, as we sang Away in a Manger, I was staggered by the reality that no palace on earth would be sufficiently glorious for the Person of Jesus - yet He embraced the discomfort and the poverty and the risk that Mary accepted, and Joseph along with her, once he'd been directed not to divorce her quietly, on account of this surprising and embarrassing pregnancy. How many slurs and whispers did they all endure, through the years? We get the scribes and Pharisees' clear accusation in John 8:41 ("we are not born of fornication"). Yeshua was literally born in a barn, to a couple in duress and distress, a forced migration in order to comply with a Roman census (I submit this "cartoon"; it does a great job of reminding us of what it might be like, if it happened here and now).

So how do we celebrate and remember this most stunning and contradictory of miracles?

We spend nearly two months working ourselves into a frenzy of spending and fretting over obligations of frantic gift-giving and all the gift-buying, gift-wrapping, gift-mailing, and gift-receiving entailed, not to mention sending out the only snail-mail correspondence we may do all year. We decorate our homes and our pets. We travel great distances to spend the holiday with family or friends that we might not otherwise see and may not actually like; we overeat, indulging in special holiday meals, foods, and a plethora of seasonal cookies, cakes, pies, and candies. We feel huge pressure to deliver at an impossibly high standard - and many folks who are alone during the holidays battle the great black dog of depression.

And I can't help but wonder, is this really a response to the miracle of God physically entering His creation? And I can't help but think the answer is no.

It's sort of like misdirection, "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," sleight of hand... and even for those of us who believe the miracle and choose to worship the Incarnate Messiah, it's really hard to stay in the place of wonder, to not grow a callous over the nerves which otherwise scream, "God did WHAT?! Are you kidding me?!"

And I remember Him exhorting us to circumcise our hearts - and how often He instructs us to do it; clearly we need to be reminded. I need to be reminded. I hope somewhere in this season you've had the opportunity to just stand in awe of the great mystery which is the incarnation of Christ, God enrobed in flesh.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Here's a song I wrote nearly 40 years which tries to capture a little of that amazement
Can You Imagine That Night?" (live room sound, 2004 recording. Please visit the Moonbird Music Can You Imagine That Night? page for lyrics and link to the 1980s recorded pop version.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Today, if you hear His voice...

This year Bible Study Fellowship has been studying the gospel of John and I always think of John's gospel as a knife-edge, a blade which becomes sharper and sharper until finally it's a scalpel, impossible to sit-the-fence or stand on that surface: you are going to come down on one side or the other. John himself is explicit about this: in the penultimate chapter of his gospel he writes, "Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name." (John 20:30-31)

I'm seeing that God has a pattern of giving opportunities to hear, to engage with Him, to turn from our natural ways, to repent and be saved - but when we reject what He says, what He's showing us, He stops there. Jesus speaks of this dynamic when He instructs the disciples, sent to preach that the kingdom of heaven is at hand throughout Judea, "Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city." (Interesting that Sodom and Gomorrah, although physically destroyed by the LORD, have not yet experienced the day of judgment - wow).

Jesus said, "He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters. Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come." (Matthew 12:30-31).

Salvation is of the Jews (John 4:22) and Jesus came specifically to the Jews, teaching and healing, fulfilling the scriptures about His coming to them, but their religious leaders rejected Him and most of the common people, while fascinated by Him and eager to see the miracles He performed or eat the food He multiplied to feed them, didn't recognize Him as Messiah. The crowds, gathered for the Passover feast in Jerusalem, met Him as He entered the city riding on a donkey's colt, waved palm branches, threw down their coats, and cried "Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the LORD, even the King of Israel." (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, John 12) but the Pharisees were horrified, knowing it was a messianic proclamation and calling upon Jesus to rebuke the people and His disciples. Instead Jesus laments over the city, saying, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see Me until you say, ‘BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!’” (Matthew 23:37).

A few days later the crowds would cry out, "crucify Him!" and the religious leaders would get their way, eliminating this trouble-maker with the help of Pilate, who condemns a man he knows to be innocent to an horrific death, in an attempt to keep peace in Jerusalem. Yet within 40 years the Romans would flatten the city and destroy the temple and the Jews would not have their own nation again until 1948.

We know that Jesus came with the express purpose of dying on the cross: He was not a victim and had the power to stop it, at any point; instead He perfectly submitted to the will of His Father. But could things have gone differently for the Jews? Instead of crying out, "we have no king but Caesar!" (John 19:15) or “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25), the Jews might have embraced Him as Messiah and King, putting the onus on Rome to crucify Jesus. We saw that Jesus even gave Judas every opportunity to turn away from his plan to betray Jesus (for a lousy 30 pieces of silver!). But for the first time I'm seeing that Jesus also gave Pilate opportunities to be a just judge and not be the person responsible for crucifying Jesus.

John 18:28 begins the interaction between Jesus and Pilate, as recorded by John (all of the gospels have different details, each one focusing on specific elements and based on various accounts, but they harmonize beautifully), and we see Pilate consistently trying to hand this prisoner back to the Jews: "see to it yourselves!" and later, "I find no guilt in Him" as Pilate tries to use Jesus for the Passover prison release - but the Jews cry out for Barabbas: a thief, a murderer, an insurrectionist.

He passes Jesus off to King Herod, who is in Jerusalem at that time, but Herod also finds no cause to detain Jesus and throws the hot potato back to Pilate.

Perhaps it's in the misguided and cruel hope that the Jews will be satisfied with seeing Jesus suffering and bleeding that Pilate orders Him flogged (a punishment so brutal that it could not be done to a Roman citizen) and after that, presenting Him to the crowd with, "Behold the man!" as if to say, "this pitiful creature? What harm can He do you?" Yet what really disturbs Pilate is when the crowd still insists he crucify Jesus, saying “We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.”

Pilate was Roman and whether he was a religious Roman or not, his culture believed in many gods and goddesses and believed they did sometimes father children with humans-- what if this strange man really is the son of a god? But Jesus hasn't answered Pilate since Pilate's cynical response, "what is truth?" so Pilate is now almost desperate in his interaction with Jesus: “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” so Jesus clarifies the situation: “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”

But ultimately Pilate, like Caiaphas the high priest, decides it's more expedient for one man to die than to have a riot with much bloodshed (and dire political and personal consequences for himself) so, while attempting to wash his hands of responsibility, he turns Jesus over to be crucified.

What if Pilate had refused to crucify Jesus? I dare say that he would have been deposed and some ambitious Roman soldier, to stop the threatened upheaval in Jerusalem, would have done the job. Jesus was going to be crucified, raised up like the serpent on the pole in the wilderness (Numbers 21:8-9), so that anyone who might look upon Him for healing might be saved --but it didn't have to be at the hands of Pilate.

For He is our God, And we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you would hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness... (Psalm 95:7-8).

Pilate heard the voice of God that day: literally in Jesus; internally in his distressed reactions; externally in the warnings of his wife (Matthew 27:19) - but he ignored all of them, suppressing and denying the knowledge that something extraordinary was going on, that this Man was truly innocent, and opting instead to be Rome's appointee, sacrificing the innocent to keep an illusory peace and avoid charges that he allowed a threat to Caesar's rule to live.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

What's a Child of God to do?

It's been awhile since I've written here, because life intervenes and, this year, those interruptions were pretty extreme. But, entering 2016, I've seen a lot of different elements coalescing into patterns. I see the fragility of individual lives and the power of hate, the fury of the devil and his cohorts; I've seen some devilish assignments against godly people and his vengeful attempt to "poison the ground", to destroy reputations and undermine the life-work of some people close to me who are dedicated to Jesus Christ. I see the ongoing rise of terrorism and, as the world contorts itself more and more into the twisted shape which Jesus describes as "the end of the age," I think it's obvious we're closer than we've ever been.

Well, duh - of course we're closer than we've ever been. Ironically, there are those who fall into the "everything will continue as it has" camp; they're the ones who will be most surprised by the end of the age; this is effectively described by Peter in the third chapter of his second letter, particularly verses 3 & 4:
Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, 4 and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.” (2 Peter 3:3-4)

I appreciated a blogpost, "Why Pray About Terrorism?" by Doug TenNapel, written shortly after the December 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, in reaction to the cover of the New York Daily News screaming, "God Isn't Fixing This" and likewise another blog by Ken Ham - both ultimately shake their heads at 21st century American culture which, when it embraces God at all, too often embraces a God of its own manufacture, cobbled together out of carefully chosen nice-feeling snippets of scripture ("God is love"!) and pop-gospel and prosperity-gospel teachings which present God-as-Vending-Machine who will give you what you want if you pray enough, pray the right way, use the right scriptural phrases to demand this god do your will, etc.

But clearly that isn't the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of whom Jesus identified Himself as being uniquely the Son. Jesus not only knew the Hebrew scriptures, He embraced them and defended them. “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished." (Matthew 5:17-18) Yes, Jesus was highly critical of the scribes and pharisees - because these were the men educated in the Law and responsible for rightly teaching others, but instead they'd revised it to suit their own purposes; look at the exchange between Jesus and the pharisees and scribes in Mark 7 for several examples.

It seems pretty clear to me that either God (YHWH as presented in the Hebrew scriptures and worshipped by Jesus) is Who He Says He Is and we'd best come into a healthy, wholesome "fear of the LORD," or we've been unraveling a theological sweater since "The Age of Reason" and soon it will just be a whole lot of yarn. So what do we do? If you claim to believe in God, consider carefully the nature of the God in whom you believe — if the words, "the God of the Old Testament" or "the God I believe in" ever come out of your mouth, go back to the source material, the basis for your belief and examine yourself carefully to see if you are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5 - and if your faith doesn't conform to the gospel preached by the Apostles in the New Testament, on what basis do you believe what you choose to believe?

Because the God of the Bible has already "fixed" this, none of this is a surprise to Him and frankly shouldn't be much of a surprise to us. Oh, the details may be quite different from what we imagined but the core reality: a fallen world in the hands of a very powerful fallen creature, thrashing about in his last acts of rage and fury — that reality is recognizable. The days are shorter than they've ever been... so, people, get ready!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Death: It Could Be Worse!

Death isn't the worst thing that can happen to us—

Until we figure this out, God will appear cruel and mean. Unless we believe Jesus when He says that He goes to prepare a place for us, we will have only this life to "look forward to" and thus cling to it with desperation and, if we are disappointed in this life, we are tempted to become bitter toward God.

If we're going to wrestle with this idea, we have to go back to Genesis 3 and the introduction of death. Years ago I wrote a short story about the Fall (you can read it here) - how could Adam and Eve be so tempted? How could Adam and Eve, experiencing direct contact with the Creator, end up doubting Him and listening to the deceiver?

You realize how easy it is for us to read Genesis 3 in punitive terms: and God said, "If you disobey me, I'll kill you!" and it's completely over-the-top, an out-of-proportion overreaction.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

“Do you own or rent?”

So today I was asked one of those financial questions, "do you own or rent?" and, as we spent an hour this morning at my church studying Leviticus 25, I answered by the criteria the world uses but acknowledged, inwardly at least, that this is not how YHWH views the matter. Leviticus 25 is one of my favorite "law" chapters: it's about sabbath years and the year of jubilee, the "sabbath of sabbaths" as it were, and it contains some wonderful principles about restoration and redemption.

Apparently the rabbis still argue about exactly how and when to apply the sabbath years but, from my perspective as a gentile and only an amateur student of the Bible, it's pretty simple: you grow your crops and harvest for six years and the seventh year you allow the land itself to enjoy a sabbath rest. In the close reading we've been doing in our Wednesday morning class, I came to realize that the people could walk into the field and eat the produce of the field - but they couldn't do a full-on harvest and they couldn't prune the vines, etc. — the land needed to be allowed to entirely rest but the product of the land could be consumed (the grapes didn't have to fall to the ground and become compost, at least *not all of them*). God promised His people Israel that He would provide for them in the keeping of this commandment:
‘You shall thus observe My statutes and keep My judgments, so as to carry them out, that you may live securely on the land. Then the land will yield its produce, so that you can eat your fill and live securely on it. But if you say, “What are we going to eat on the seventh year if we do not sow or gather in our crops?” then I will so order My blessing for you in the sixth year that it will bring forth the crop for three years. When you are sowing the eighth year, you can still eat old things from the crop, eating the old until the ninth year when its crop comes in. (Leviticus 25:18-22)
This resonates with the dream the Lord sent to Pharaoh and Joseph interpreted, by the grace of God (Exodus 41), enabling Egypt to become a storehouse of plenty during a tremendous region-wide famine, doesn't it?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Reframing God in Our Image—

There's this interesting contrast between humanity, created in the image of God, and how humanity then turns around and recreates God in our image.

When you consider the pantheon of gods in the Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies, you see that the nature of these gods tends to be "humanity writ large," like a human, only with more power and fewer consequences. For example, Zeus was forever seducing women, usually human women (shades of Genesis 6:1-2,4?), and his wife-and-sister Hera was jealous and vengeful toward these women. Zeus could get away with his behavior but his lovers usually suffered, and sometimes his children. In reading these mythologies, the gods often take on qualities almost soap opera-esque in their scheming and pettiness.

Within the Biblical mythos, sometimes we fall into a form of reversed causality: we read in Genesis that God created humanity in His own image:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Gensis 1:26-27)*

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Narcissistic Dust

So we've agreed: I'm not big, we're not big. But we are special. We are not merely the most advanced member of the animal kingdom; we are a very particular, peculiar part of creation, made in the image of YHWH.

The number of ways we can misunderstand what that means is vast. And, frankly, I think the number of ways we can rightly understand it is not singular: God teaches us different things at different times and He often uses the same scriptures to teach different lessons - it's fascinating!
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)
Dorothy L. Sayers, brilliant woman, friend of the Inklings, creator of Lord Peter Wimsey, and wonderful lay theologian, observed that when God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness," the only thing we know about God is that He is creative, He has the desire and the ability to make things: