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.