God is in the Manger

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
(Hebrews 1:1-3 ESV)

There will likely be a Christmas party or get-together of some kind at your place of work.  Every church, Sunday School class and public school will have something to attend at this very special time of year.  There is family to visit and food to prepare.  I keep hearing “It’s the most stressful time of the year.”  Even if you’re keeping the Christ in Christmas there is so much to be distracted by.  There is peace and joy as the angels visit the shepherds.  The wise men brings precious gifts.  Our hearts go out to Joseph and especially Mary as they make their pilgrimage in faith to Bethlehem.  It is a tender, precious story of God’s love for mankind.  But don’t forget to look in the manger.

It’s not just a story of an unwed mother being particularly blessed.  The birth of Jesus is the beginning of heaven touching earth.  Hebrews 1 is at the top of the page; take a look at Philippians 2 and Colossians 1.  That’s not just a baby in the manger, that’s God.  Jesus said that he and the Father are one. Isaiah prophesied his name would be called “Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Jesus is God, God is Jesus.  He left heaven to come here and do this.  When we could not come to God, he came looking for us.

If there is anything in your manger other than God himself, it’s time to re-evaluate.  He is not just bringing peace, he is our peace.  Emmanuel means God with us.  He is near; he is here.  God is in the manger.  This is good news for all people.

The Gospel According to Allegory

In a second-grade Sunday School class, the students are told to guess what is being described.  “It has brown fur, a bushy tail, climbs trees…”  Finally a student shyly responds “I know it has to be Jesus, but it sure sounds like you’re talking about a squirrel.”

There is so much analogy, metaphor and allegory in and out of scripture that I’m having a hard time deciding where to start.  The Bible is rich in symbolism and imagery.  Let’s start with something simple in the Old Testament.  When the camp of Israel was being plagued by snakes, Moses was told to fashion a brass serpent and place it on top of a pole.  If anyone was bitten by a “fiery asp” all he had to do was look at the pole and live.  The serpent on the pole is a metaphor for Jesus.  We are all bitten by sin.  (Serpent, Eden, see how many levels this works on?)  We will die if we do not look to Jesus on the cross.  Jesus himself even says that as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

That’s an easy one to follow.  I contend that everything in Judaism is about Jesus – Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery, through the wilderness and entering the promised land; the Passover; circumcision; Adam; the alter, temple, and high priest.  I could go on.  The events of the Old Testament are historical facts and help us to understand New Testament theology.  By understanding the role of the high priest we can better understand what Jesus does as he continually goes into God’s presence to intercede on our behalf.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.

The Apostle Paul refers to two sons of Abraham, one by Sara and the other by Hagar.  Paul recounts the history and explains that the events may be interrupted allegorically.  (Galatians 4:24)  So the Old Testament is metaphorical for the New.  What about Jesus’ use of symbolism?  Over and over he draws comparisons to what the Kingdom of God is like.  It’s like a collector searching for pearls; it’s like a woman that looses a gold coin; it’s like planting a field; it’s like the return of the Prodigal, and so forth.  Jesus is like a shepherd, except when he is like a sheep.  We are all like sheep that have gone astray, unless we’re fishers of men.  Or fish.

Can you remember the first time you saw The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?  Did you realize it was about anything other than a magical land with talking animals?  I wonder what C.S. Lewis would think about Veggie Tales.  So what’s the point of all this?  We are finite in our understanding.  God cannot simply come right out in the Bible and tell us what he is thinking.  Even if we understood our tendency is to disbelieve.  We – collective, human-kind we – often have to be told things again and again.  So stories and themes are repeated, many times.  Jesus is a burning bush, and a sweet branch that makes water potable, and a serpent on a pole, et. al.  God’s kingdom is like a little child on Jesus’ lap.  The church is the body of Christ, or else the bride of Christ.  Why?  Because we need the symbols and pictures to even hope to understand.  We cannot understand God otherwise.  He loved us while we were unlovable, enough to send his only Son.  Jesus loved the same way, enough to not only die but suffer abuse, torment and the cross.  It just doesn’t make sense.

Our minds are small.  Like a child that hasn’t learned to read, we open the Bible and look at the pictures.  (See what I did there?)

Red, White and Jesus

Happy Independence Day.  In honor of America, red, white and blue has been added to this otherwise boring cross shape.  It’s Christian, it’s American.  Perfect.

Yes, I am poking the hornet’s nest.  I want to know if you think this is okay.  There are a little over 1 billion Christians in the world, while only about 300 million or so Americans.  Can we as American Christians take two things we love and shove them together?  Is it good for America/ good for Christianity to do so?  I want to hear the wheels turning on this one.

Is there such a thing as a Christian nation?  We live in a free country, where freedom of religion and expression are guaranteed rights of every individual.  For many, that means we can practice Christianity openly and without fear.  But the “establishment of religion” by the state is strictly forbidden.  We do not live in a Christian nation the way Muslims in Iran or Afghanistan live in Islamic nations.  We have separation of church and state; in those countries the church is the state.  Ever hear of Islamic Law?  Americans are not ruled by Christian law.

Sound Christians principles may be good for ruling America.  But look at the red, white and blue cross again.  Is that good for the cross?  God established nations and thrones, and ordains the events of history.  Heaven and earth will pass away – and that includes this great nation.  Does making the cross of Christ overtly American demean the Gospel in some way?  How do Christians in Russia feel about that cross?  Or China, India or Ethiopia?  I’m sure blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus has no problem with it.  But what about the New Testament Jesus?  You know, the one that was Jewish.

I’ve been American since the day I was born.  My dad was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, and my grandfather fought in World War II.  I am not a veteran, but do teach American history.  I have been a Christian since age 12.  I am not ashamed of the Gospel or Jesus’ name.  But think about the issue at hand a few moments and decide how you really feel.   How mixed together should our Christianity and patriotism be?  I feel very strongly both ways: let me know what you think.

The Challenge to be Christ-Like

Paul tells us to have the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus.  That’s in Philippians 2 right before he describes how Jesus was an obedient servant even to the point of death.  Obviously Christ lived a life perfectly without sin, and we will all fall short every day.  Still the challenge is there and we are expected, by Jesus himself no less, to try.

Jesus said and did some things that we probably wouldn’t mind imitating.  He was boldly outspoken on a few occasions, and at times silenced even his most vocal critics.  He challenged the religious authorities, flipped tables in Temple, and in short answered to no man.  The command to imitate Christ isn’t about walking on water or turning it to wine, but who hasn’t at least thought about it?  Perhaps cursing the fig tree and calming storms are things we’d like to try.

Most of Jesus’s life as recorded by the Gospels is a little less Hollywood motion picture.  Some Christians attempt to love the unlovable; the drunkard, the prostitute, the homeless and the sick.  Perhaps we have visited those in jail, or given sacrificially of our resources.  Some of what Jesus demonstrated and commanded his followers to do requires a grace that only comes from God.

But follow Jesus to the end.  He is falsely accused and does not answer.  He is whipped with 39 lashes, struck in the face and spat upon.  He is nailed to the cross and hung to die, the slow miserable death of Roman crucifixion.  The one that created water hangs dying the cross and thirsts.  And what is his response?  He prays for those crucifying him. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  It is the prayer of intercession.  He is acting in his role as high priest, entering the presence of God on our behalf.  How many of us could do that?  Pay our taxes to Caesar, that’s one thing.  Maybe give one’s own life for a friend.  We are told to pray for our enemies, and maybe you have done that.  Jesus asks forgiveness for the very ones driving the nails into his hands.  We flip out if someone cuts us off in traffic.  As he hangs on the cross, the crowd mocks him by saying “He saved others, he cannot save himself.”  And for your sake and mine, he did not save himself.  To do the will of the Father, he stayed on the cross.  And it was for those Pharisees as well as the Romans he prayed for that day.  THAT’S the Christ we are commanded to be like.

Two Books on Christianity to Look Out For

Jesus: a 21st Century Biography

Edit: it just occurred to me that in addition to being terrible, the title of this post sounds negative. I did not intend it that way.

If the following two books are any indication, it looks like the spring is going to be an exciting time for Christian history. Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the History of the Church at Oxford and Paul Johnson, controversial historian and journalist, are both set to release major works on Jesus and the Church.

The first book is Jesus: a 21st Century Biography by Paul Johnson. Johnson, author of Modern Times and A History of Christianity attempts to prove the importance of Jesus in the 21st century by constructing a portrait of “Jesus of Nazareth, his life, death, resurrection, and ascent into heaven, as simply and factually as possible.”

From the History Book Club:

Accepting the historical fact of Jesus’ existence as given, including his divinity as asserted in the New Testament, the author provides a wealth of detail about the Roman world as a backdrop to Jesus’ life. He weaves the complementary accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John into an integrated chronicle—a base upon which he adds his own informed speculations and deductions about Jesus’ education, his acculturation, and his whereabouts and activities during the 18 “missing” years of his life. In the absence of contemporaneous accounts of Jesus’ physical appearance, Johnson uncovers clues within the texts. The historian’s facility for finding the humanizing detail parallels the habit of penetrating observation that he attributes to Jesus: “He missed nothing. …His all-seeing eyes were, almost certainly, the first thing that struck people about him.” The author’s perception extends even to the Messiah’s personal affinities: for example, his predilection for high elevations during momentous events.

Christianity by MacCullochThe second book is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. This ambitious and magisterial work begins one thousand years before Jesus’ birth and continues on until the present day, showing the constant evolution and reformation of Christianity.

In this book:

We follow the Christian story to all corners of the globe, filling in often neglected accounts of conversions and confrontations in Africa and Asia. And we discover the roots of the faith that galvanized America, charting the rise of the evangelical movement from its origins in Germany and England. This book encompasses all of intellectual history-we meet monks and crusaders, heretics and saints, slave traders and abolitionists, and discover Christianity’s essential role in driving the enlightenment and the age of exploration, and shaping the course of World War I and World War II.

Look for reviews of these books soon, if I can get my hands on them.

3rd Week of Advent

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  John 3:16

Those living in exile were waiting for God to speak.  Some were in a foreign land, forced to live under alien laws and customs; others were in the promised land, living under the rule of a foreign king.  Regardless, all were waiting on God to speak, to act, to intervene on his people’s behalf.

Many waited for God to return the kingdom to Israel so they could defeat the foreign oppressors.  They longed for a military victory the likes that had not been seen for centuries.  Some took those hopes into their hands and failed miserably.

What few expected was for God to speak in the way he did.  He did not speak in military conquest, nor in a renewed kingdom.  Instead, God’s intervention in the world consisted of a baby born in the meanest of conditions.  God spoke in love, sending his only son, not to conquer, but to die.

In doing the unexpected, what most did not want him to do, God did in fact conquer.  He didn’t carve out a piece of land for his people to live, instead he changed the entire order of things.  The king in Rome was deposed on Christmas day, but never felt the losing blow.  The prince of this world was cast down without a fight.  Death was put away, never to harrass us again.

N.T. Wright on Biblical Authority

Debates about the authority of scripture have tended to get off on the wrong foot and to turn into an unproductive shouting-match. This is partly because here, as in matters of political theology, in the words of Jim Wallis ‘the Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn’t get it’. And sometimes the other way round as well. We have allowed our debates to be polarized within the false either/or of post-enlightenment categories, so that we either see the Bible as a holy book, almost a magic book, in which we can simply look up detached answers to troubling questions, or see it within its historical context and therefore claim the right to relativize anything and everything we don’t immediately like about it. These categories are themselves mistaken; the Bible itself helps us to challenge them; and when we probe deeper into the question, ‘what does it mean to say that the Bible is authoritative’, we discover a new and richer framework which simultaneously enables us to be deeply faithful to scripture and energizes and shapes us, corporately and individually, for our urgent mission into tomorrow’s world. Read the rest here.

Bishop Wright, as he is wont to do, seems to put things into categories that no one is going to be comfortable with.  In that sense, I would kind-of, sort-of disagree with him.  The rest of the section, which is linked to, is spot on.  Talking about the authority of the Scriptures without first talking about the authority of Jesus Christ himself is pointless.  As he says, “When the risen Jesus commissions his followers for their worldwide mission, he does not say ‘all authority in heaven and earth is given to – the books you people are going to go and write.’.”  The Scriptures, in so far as they have authority, speak from Christ’s authority and nothing less.

Critiquing the Emerging Church

Over the past few weeks I’ve overheard a number of discussions about the emerging church. The people involved in these discussions are intelligent and godly people, but the discussion bothered me because of their lack of charity, accuracy, and honesty. Because of that, I’ve come up with a few ideas to consider when critiquing any movement, although in this case it’s the emerging church movement.  (And keep in mind, I write this as someone who is not “emerging” and has no stake in the debate; all I want is honest dialogue by all involved.)

One of the things you hear a lot is “The emerging church believes…” as if everyone who remotely identifies themselves as emerging believes the same thing.  You can say “they” don’t believe in absolute truth, but you can’t possibly mean everyone believes that.  It’s like saying “Baptists believe drinking alcohol is a sin.”  Really?  Every Baptist does?  Understand there is diversity in the emerging church just as there is in Protestantism, evangelicalism, and Reformed Christianity.

In critiquing any movement, make sure you’ve actually read at least something by someone representing that movement.  It never ceases to amaze me how Calvinists on the one hand get so angry at Arminians who have only read Dave Hunt’s critique of the doctrines of grace while on the other hand critique the emerging church having only read John MacArthur.  Read some of their stuff and engage with that, don’t take someone else’s word for it, even if you respect that person completely. 

Along the same lines, if you read a critique of the emerging church by someone who has not actually conversed with the people he is calling out, be suspicious.  It’s all about being honest when you make a critique, something I hope people would be towards me.

One of the things I’ve observed is people making the worst possible assumptions when an emerging church does something or a leader says something.  Imagine if everything you said was taken to an extreme end, making you seem as if you’re a nutball (assuming of course that aren’t a nutball).  Extend some charity to those with whom you disagree, the same charity you would extend to someone like John Piper, who has been known to say some pretty outrageous things.  It does not mean you have to agree with them, only that you don’t have to assume the worst until you are certain.

As I said before, I have no stake in this.  I’m not emerging, and I really don’t know anyone who is (in real life), so I don’t have a need to defend anyone.  What bothers me is when people I love, people who are my family, people who are godly Christians behave in a way that is unseemly towards other Christians.  This bothers me because in it I see the way I have treated other traditions and how un-Christlike I have been toward other members of the family of God.