A New Neo-Orthodoxy?
Karl Barth sits on the top shelf with C.S. Lewis and Charles Hodge and a compendium of poetry. I smile at him, and he (even though he lost his dust cover many years ago now) smiles back at me. All that to say, I've read and benefited from some of the writings of Barth. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I have had some very inspiring, even devotional-like moments in the presence of the German theologian. As many have pointed out, his greatest weakness is that for all of the insight and blessing he offers the church with one hand, he (perhaps unwittingly) attempts to take it away with the other. As I understand it, Barth's doctrine of revelation, in the attempt to protect the sovereignty of God, insists that true revelation cannot be tamed. And therefore Scripture, a witness to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the Word of God, cannot be said to be itself revelation. Revelation occurs when, where, and how the sovereign God deigns. Encounters with God are like lightening strikes, and one can only do so much (doing the spiritual equivalents of the lightening rod) and live by faith that these moments of crisis will occur. Thus all that Barth offers in the course of his Dogmatics he only offers tentatively it seems. One is left wondering whether what Barth insists upon can rightly be spoken of as true given his premises concerning revelation. And even if revelation has been redefined to mean something far more specialized, e.g. a more direct experience/event with the Triune God, we are still left with a less than certain knowledge of truth and reality. As Van Til suggests, this aspect of Barthianism is based upon a skeptical view of knowledge which is ultimately related to an incipient monism. But for those of us who do not share Barth's assumptions regarding the nature of revelation as well as deeper philosophical presuppositions concerning the nature of being, there are many gems to mine from the caverns of Karl Barth. So I continue to smile up at Dr. Barth on the top shelf.
But my point is actually on a little different subject. In the current Federal Vision discussion; part of the freak out of certain quarters of reformed Presbyterianism has been a result of the insistence that God's Word and Ordinances can be trusted. Now most of these brothers would be repulsed by any hint of some sort of neo-orthodoxy (Barthianism) in the ranks of reformed Presbyterians. But I would suggest that this is actually occurring. There are some (let's call them Vantilians) who insist that God is both completely transcendent and other and at the same time immanent and near to the created order. This insistence on these two extremes protects the ultimate autonomy and freedom of God, and simultaneously protects his freedom to speak and act in whatever way he pleases. These Vantilians are currently stressing the fact that God has established his covenant in history, and that this covenant is entered through the covenant sign of baptism and that all the benefits of Christ are truly offered in this covenant seal and re-offered and re-affirmed in the covenant meal of the Eucharist. However, there are others (let's call them neo-Barthians) who are insisting that this infringes upon God's sovereignty and does not take into account the great chasm between creator and creation, between the infinite and the finite, along with vague yet frequent claims of sacerdotalism and quasi-arminianism. These neo-Barthians insist that while the sacraments and covenant are historical, the *real* recipients of grace in the sacraments and the *real* covenant members are so only through the mysterious, random, lightening strikes of the Holy Spirit. While this discussion is centered on the covenant and sacraments, it's really the same conversation all over again. Can the Triune God be trusted here and now? Must we only hope vaguely that our covenant Lord has spoken and acted through the means he has ordained, or may we speak with confidence in faith knowing that our God has indeed come near to us? I would suggest that the radical heresy hunters out for the blood of these various FVers are going down the path of Barthianism preferring a Theology of Crisis (as Van Til termed it) with its inherent skepticism of knowledge rather than the certainty of faith, which clings to the gifts of our sovereign God.
Friday, December 29, 2006
A New Neo-Orthodoxy?
Thursday, December 28, 2006
Inspirations, Gifts, and Fun
Friends up in Lancaster, PA have started a new business to help churches and families grow in their ability to party down on the Lord's Day. Abondante Living is up and running and filled with meals, decorations, and hosting ideas. Don't be overwhelmed by all the details or finery; this is a vision that many of us share of growing a joyful Sabbath feasting culture. Many of us are still learning the basics as well. But there's a wealth of resources here. Check it out.
In addition to Van Til's "Christian Apologetics", Dumas' "The Count of Monte Christ", and a $50 gift certificate to Amazon.com (!), for Christmas, I also received Jan Karon's
At Home in Mitford, the world of Father Tim, an episcopalian rector and the parish he serves full of colorful characters and mysterious events, centered upon the small town of Mitford in North Carolina. George Grant mentioned Jan Karon on his blog a couple months back when they awarded her with the Chalmers Award (scroll down to the entries for November 2 and 4).
In addition to picking up Rachmoninov's celebrated All Night Vigil ("Vespers") for 2 bucks at a local used CD shop, Jenny and gave our selves His Majestie's Clerke's Early American Choral Music which can be sampled here at Sky Cow Books. My brother and sister in-law gave me Mark Knopfler's The Ragpicker's Dream. Great folk-rock album.
Oh, I almost forgot: if you haven't yet perused the menu and descriptions of West of Paris, you are not yet hungry. Speaking of learning to feast and celebrate the good things of God, Francis Foucachon is beginning to teach us how. These friends in Moscow, Idaho have just opened for business early this Fall. Jenny and I are hoping to find some way to at least enjoy a few moments here during our visit in January. In addition to being a guest in the Foucachon home, I've had the priviledge of teaching the Foucachon's youngest daughter Latin for a year. Go ahead, take a peak.
I hope your fourth day of Christmas has been quite merry. And even if you didn't receive 'four colly birds' from your true love (shame on them!), I do trust it's been good all the same. Happy Christmas!
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Rejoicing under His Wings
One of the things Israel is most remembered for is her grumbling and complaining in the wilderness, all while God is miraculously feeding his people with bread and water and later even meat, literally falling from heaven. Bread is a picture of life and sustenance, and because of this, bread has always meant the word and life of God. How is it that dead grains can be baked and make us live a little longer? This is a great mystery; but it is by the Word of God and the power of the Spirit. How is it that bread, blessed, and shared in a fellowship of believers is the flesh of Christ come down from heaven? This is a great mystery; but it is by the Word of God and the power of the Spirit. We have come under the wings of Yahweh; we are his priestly people gathered here at this table to celebrate the life giving word of God made flesh and tabernacled here in our midst. But do not go from this miraculous table having fed on the Word of God to grumble and complain. Do not go out there acting as though there is a famine in Bethlehem. This is the new Bethlehem, the new house of bread, where you behold the glory of God, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. You are eating grace and truth. You are feasting on glory. Jesus is our new Joseph giving bread to the nations. Therefore rejoice: God has visited his people, Israel. God is visiting us even now in the power of His Spirit. Rejoice and give thanks, glory in this miracle that you who were once far off have been brought near to rest under the shadow of His wings.
Fourth Sunday in Advent: Christmas Eve Day: Luke 2:1-20: Bread and Glory
Prayer: Almighty and everlasting God, we know that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of your mouth. And therefore we come to you now hungry for your word. We are your children; so feed us now with the bread of life. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Yahweh, my fortress and nearest kinsman. Amen!
In the story of Ruth, there is a key phrase that occurs twice in the book, “under your wing” (3:19) or “under his wings” (2:12). The parallel created is a very intentional picture of God’s redemption of Israel. When God redeemed Israel from bondage in Egypt, he brought them out to the mountain and made a covenant with them and gave them bread (manna). At the center of the camp was God’s very own glory presence “above the Cherubim” above the wings of the Cherubim (e.g. Ez. 10:19, 11:22). To be “under the wings” is literally to be in the shadow of the Holy of Holies, at the foot of the ark. To be under these wings is to be in the glory-house of God where the “bread” of God is offered, to be in the camp of Israel where God gave bread to his people. To be under the shadow of the wings of Yahweh, to be redeemed out of bondage in Egypt, was to be among the people who ate the bread of Yahweh and to be led by his glory cloud.
Luke 2 begins with a census and Joseph returning to the city of his heritage, Bethlehem, the city of David. The name Bethlehem means “house of bread.” In Genesis 35:19, we are told this is near where Jacob buried Rachel, the father of Joseph and Benjamin. Remember that one of Rachel’s two sons was Joseph who gave bread to the nations in Egypt. Joshua 19:15 tells us that Bethlehem was one of the cities included in the inheritance of the tribe of Zebulun. And the book of Judges ends with two horrific tales of wickedness that both involve connections to Bethlehem, showing us that the house of Israel is not being fed by the bread of God. The corrupt, young Levite and the unfaithful concubine both come from Bethlehem. And Ruth opens with this same bleak picture, Elimelech having left Bethlehem, perhaps faithlessly seeking for a blessing out from under the wings of God. But God raised up Boaz to picture God’s determination to be the near kinsman of Israel, the redeemer of Israel. The city of Bethlehem is the city of David, where God raised up a redeemer for his people. And the angels announce that this is happening again (2:11).
The Glory of the Lord
Here we are told that the “glory of the Lord shone around them.” Throughout Scripture God is identified closely with light and fire; God is light (1 Jn. 1:5). God dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16). God wraps himself in light (Psalm 104:1ff). God is surrounded in lightening and thunder (Psalm 18:8). Lightening and fire goes out from his throne (Ps. 97). Remember the pillars of cloud and fire in the Exodus. The Spirit is likened to fire; Christ came to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12). But lightening does not come alone. It is loud; it is a storm. We see this in the visions of Ezekiel and Isaiah and Revelation: there are wheels and eyes and voices like rushing waters. There around the throne of God are terrifying angelic creatures rushing around with wings and roars of praise and adoration. Throughout the Scriptures there is a close association between angels and stars (Deut. 4:19, 17:3, Jdgs. 5:20, 1 Kgs. 22:19, Neh. 9:6, Dan. 8:10, Acts 7:42-43). This “host” is something like a cosmic hurricane. The glory of the Lord is an angelic tempest. The glory of the Lord is bright and loud. The shepherds were not just afraid of bright colored men with wings floating down out of the sky singing Handel; the rush and explosion of light and sound was enough to make these men really terrified.
Making Known Christ the Lord
The response to the announcement is immediate discussion and encouragement (2:15). And even after their visit of the Child, they are making “widely known the saying which was told them concerning the Child” (2:17). It’s also worth remembering that shepherds were some of the least respected members of society. Also, Israel was a nation of shepherds (Moses, wilderness generation, David). Finally, remember that “shepherd” was a title for the rulers of Israel. The shepherds are the kings (e.g. Ez. 34). The prophets promise new, faithful shepherds that will feed and protect the flock of Israel rather than feeding upon them. Shepherds picture perfectly all of these things: despised for their unfaithfulness as a class, but apparently faithful (keeping watch by night), and certainly willing to listen and obey. Notice also that the glory of the Lord has been transferred to the shepherds by the end of the episode. The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God (like the angels 2:13-14).
Conclusion & Application
We have only considered slices of this story. The story is centered on a geographical location with thick connotations; the glorious storm presence of God comes down to announce the birth of the Christ to shepherds, an apt picture of Israel and her history. But one way to read this is as the story of the birth of a new Obed, the dead/virgin womb of Ruth/Naomi has been glorified in the virgin birth of Jesus. As Boaz overshadowed Ruth with his wings, so Yahweh came down and overshadowed Mary and she conceived and brought forth a Son. As Yahweh blessed Israel with fruitfulness and bread, so he is now redeeming Israel through the birth of Jesus. The Father is the kinsman-redeemer coming to the aid of dead and barren Israel. Jesus is the Son who will reclaim the inheritance. And grace upon grace, we have been invited to share in this inheritance, to be adopted by the Father as co-heirs with his Son. And he gives us the bread of life.
Concluding Prayer: Great and Majestic God, you who set your glory above the heavens, who clothe yourself in lightening and fire, you have come near to us. You have given your glory flesh; you have given your glory hands and feet and a name; a name that is above every name. We glory in this name. We glory in his cross. We glory in this gospel. We glory in your glory. And we plead with you to never make us Ichabod; let not your glory depart, for we are your people, called by your name. Give us more glory, O, God, fill us till we burst with the glory of Christ our God.
Reactions reveal our hearts. When the cup tips over, when the toast burns, when the employee is late again, when your child disobeys again, when she says that or he makes that face, how do you react? In the Hebrew worldview the heart was down in the guts, in the kidneys. We still recognize this phenomenon when we refer to our “gut reactions” or “gut feelings.” Advent and Christmas are busy times of the year; more people, more food, less sleep, and it’s easy to make a million excuses for being ungracious. But we are celebrating God’s reaction to a messed up world. God’s reaction was grace and sacrifice. He did not respond to our mess and sin with the thundering vengeance it well deserved. He responded by drawing near to us; he responded by taking flesh upon himself to sympathize with us and experience life as we know it. This is the gospel, and all ugly reactions are false gospels. Are your words, actions, facial expressions and tones of voice declaring the gospel of pure, undeserved grace in Jesus? Or have you lived a false gospel, one where God begrudgingly comes to our aid, or where God’s anger overflows in torrent of harsh words. Christmas is God’s gracious reaction to our sin, and we are called not only to worship this newborn king, but to imitate him, stirring up grace in our hearts.
Saturday, December 23, 2006
Don't know how many of you have been following the recent tragedy on Mt. Hood, but my dad forwarded me the link to this blog here, and it has a number of powerful moments if you scroll down through the last number of days. Particularly the post from Father Jonathan seems to indicate the faithful witness of these families in such a trying time. One of the climbers who died, Kelly James, was the brother of Frank James, the president of Reformed Theological Seminary in Oviedo, FL.
I recognize full well that the reformed world, particularly that portion of its unmentionables protruding out into cyberspace, is running all amok with the Federal Vision and Auburn Avenue mêlée. Did to’s and did not’s and nuh-uh’s and uh-huh’s are multiplying at a rate to make the bunnies a little jealous. What's another blog post? A few paragraphs here is about as helpful as a water pistol in a monsoon. But all the same, here I am at the fountain of “reformedom” and I don’t mind heaving my two pennies into the aquatic piggy bank.
The Federal Vision is a conversation. The word “federal” simply means covenantal, a representative form of government, a part for whole understanding of both blessings and benefits, as well as responsibility. The conversation is a spider web of tangents and meandering side conversations that center on how the covenant is tied to salvation and the sovereignty of God.
But what I’d like to point out is that we’re all Calvinists here. We love the five points; we get giddy with excitement at the mention of the Institutes. The Synod of Dordt is, like, my favorite. We believe that God knows the end from the beginning and that in his inexhaustible goodness foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. God is not caught off guard; he is not surprised. He does everything that happens in the world; and nothing happens that is not the result of his immutable decrees. AND we believe that God uses means. God is not just a big one of us. We are not puddles while he is the ocean. We are not pebbles while he is Mt. Everest. He is the creator and we are the created. God’s decrees unfolding in the world are not like the work of a puppeteer, pulling so many strings and moving our mouths up and down. His will inhabits the order and story of the world in a mysterious, glorious way that far from restricting creation, actually enables and empowers creation to be creation. It is the love and joy and goodness of God that providentially sings the story of history filling stars and rivers and people with life and love and hunger. This means that we believe that while God is exhaustively sovereign, ruling the wild, spinning dance of every last atom from the beginning of the world to the very last second of time, at the very same time, God interacts with this creation, judging and saving, revealing and loving, hating and redeeming the world to himself. And because he is God, he is not merely playing with puppets. He is not arguing or fighting with himself. He has spun the worlds according to his glory AND that world fell into sin and misery, and he has been pleased to redeem and woo that world back to himself.
Why do I feel the necessity to defend and explain Calvinism to Reformed Presbyterians? Because I’m convinced that at least some of the extreme critics of this conversation have abandoned this central mystery and doctrine. Salvation is worked out in history. But we believe that God knows the names, birth weights, and last shoe size of every single person down from the beginning of the world to the end who trusts in Jesus for forgiveness and salvation. That number will not go up or down. It will not fluctuate with time or weather or politics. AND at the same time, it has pleased God to work in history through means. God uses people and books and circumstances and car accidents and conversations and sermons and sacraments and parents and diseases and children and employers and family pets and a million other things to tell the story of redemption in the world and draw individuals to himself. In other words, no one denies that we are saved through the completely unmerited grace of God, through faith which was not of ourselves but yet another completely gratuitous gift of God so that no one has a single syllable to boast about. This is because we are totally, completely, unassailably God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works which we did not dream up with our own brilliant minds, but which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.
The point of all this simply to suggest that this whole fracas is just about these very basic things. How is salvation accomplished? Well in one sense salvation is accomplished by the immutable plan of God; the name of Carl Robbins was written in the book of life before the foundations of the world and nothing can change that. His sins were atoned for by the perfect sacrifice of Christ, and he was raised to new life and righteousness in the resurrection. But God has deemed his salvation to be worked out in history through a gazillion diverse and interrelated means, and it unfolds in God’s good timing. But God has told us some of the basic means that he uses. The central one is faith. God gives us the gift of faith, and this faith clings to Jesus Christ. And this faith so clings to him that it follows in his steps. This faith is like one of those sea monkeys in a bathtub which expands and grows. This faith sees the world as the playhouse of God, the nursery of the Almighty. And it believes the Word of God without doubting. Thus, when the word of God says that spanking is a means a grace, teaching a child wisdom and driving foolishness from his heart, we believe, rejoice, and obey. When the Word of God says that God made the world in 144 hours we believe, rejoice, and get to work on the ramifications of that. And when God’s Word says that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are important aspects of our salvation we believe it and rejoice and obey.
Now none of this endangers any historic Christian doctrine. It’s all of grace because we already said that it’s all God’s doing, ultimately. Does God use means? Yes. This whole conversation, in my opinion, is just reaffirming this basic Calvinism. It’s all fine and good to assert that God uses means, but as soon as someone starts to name one of the means, the place comes apart. This is like a basketball coach giving some instructions on a whiteboard in the locker room and half the team freaking out when he gets out on to the court and expects them to play. Come on people, this is the game we’ve been talking about for the last 500 years. God is sovereign and rules over all. Man is responsible and free according to his nature and held liable for his actions. Trust and obey for there's no other way, and yes that too is the gift of God. Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and man. Sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura, solus christus, soli deo gloria. This is the gospel, friends. The gospel is not being compromised here; only the locker room ease and comfort of some people is at stake. The Word did not enter history as a confessional statement; the Word entered history as a person, a baby with ten fingers and ten toes. As Pearl Jam once put it, "It's Calvinism, Baby!"
Friday, December 22, 2006
Of Christmas, Trees, and St. Boniface
In 718, the man born as Winfrid of Wessex, England, now known as Boniface, set out on a mission to the Teutonic tribes of northern Germany. Finding the heart of these pagan tribes bound by the worship of gods connected to sacred groves and trees, Boniface began to attack their superstitions openly and boldly. Sometime in 723, Boniface marched to the top of Mt. Gudenberg and cut down the sacred Oak of Thor. Stunned, the crowds watched their god's shrine defiled and no judgment fell. Sometime later, the Christian Almanac records an occasion when a human sacrifice was to be made, a vestal virgin, offered to one of the deities. Boniface rushed to the scene of the sacrifice, and finding the Druid priest's hand raised high with the sacrificial knife ready to plunge down into the girl, Boniface is said to have lunged on to the altar catching the knife in a small wooden cross. The priest was knocked away from the victim, and Boniface immediately began to proclaim the gospel of Jesus, that in Him, all sacrifice had been fulfilled. Then making his way through the sacred grove nearby, Boniface began cutting down branches and handing them to the astonished onlookers. He told them to take the branches home, to decorate their homes to remember Jesus whose cross, the tree of Calvary, was the final sacrifice and their garuntee of life and salvation.
We still celebrate this same victory of Christ over sin and death and violence. As we decorate our homes with wreathes and trees all lit up, we remember that tree of Calvary, the proclamation of peace to the world, the ultimate olive branch. Peace and goodwill, indeed.
The sermon text for this Sunday will be from Luke 2:1-20. Our other lessons will be from Isaiah 9:2-7 and Titus 2:11-14.
Monday, December 18, 2006
This table is the Eucharist, the table of thanksgiving. There are really only two tables in the world, the table of demons (Paul names it) and the table of the Lord, the table of thanksgiving and Eucharist and the table of ingratitude and bitterness. And Paul says that we may not eat from both. Here at this table we are enacting thankfulness. We are speaking thankfulness and we are living the thankful life toward one another here, and that means that you cannot go out there and be unthankful for your homework. You cannot go out there and be unthankful for your job. You cannot go out there and complain about your children or your health or your parents. You may not go around acting like you eat at the table of bitterness and ingratitude. Remember your allegiance to Jesus. He is King. You are his people. Therefore be loyal subjects to the King. Come eat, drink, and rejoice and again I say, rejoice!
Third Sunday in Advent: Philippians 4:4-9: The Politics of Gratitude
It has been widely recognized that over the last 100/150 years, evangelical Christians have been in hiding culturally. We have made peace and struck a truce with secularism believing the lie of neutrality. They told us that they didn’t believe in God, but that they would allow us to as long as we could all meet in the middle somewhere, somewhere objective, somewhere without any religious demands. And we agreed. But our interaction with politics and culture cannot just be another bid for office, a petition, or somekind of rally or drive. Our interaction must be cruciform.
Overview of the Text
The context of this passage is exceedingly important. The section actually begins back in 3:17 where Paul exhorts his readers to follow his example. We see this same exhortation in the conclusion of this section in 4:9. Verse 17 says that the Ephesians are to “walk” in the manner of the apostles (“us”), having them for a “pattern.” The word for “pattern” is “tupos” which means image or imprint. The word literally means “a blow”, the mark left from a quick, sharp knock. Think about the seal of a king on important documents or letters. Paul says that this pattern is something we are to “walk in”, but others have walked as “enemies of the cross of Christ” (3:18). Their lifestyle, their culture, their loyalty is as enemies of the cross. The cross is not the pattern they are seeking to be conformed to. But Paul says that our citizenship is in heaven (3:20). The word for “citizenship” is “polyteuma” which is from the word “polis” from which we get the word “politics.” The word could be translated “state” or “commonwealth.” Our political allegiance and loyalty is to this state which is being poured out from heaven. Our citizenship is not in heaven because we will go there when we die; our citizenship is in heaven because that is where our King is. What is our hope? Not to go to heaven when we die; our hope is in the resurrection from the death, which, Paul says is the same power which is able to “subdue all things to himself” (3:21). Therefore, be of one mind, rejoice, and meditate on these things.
The Politics of Gratitude
Paul is explaining how to be citizens of this state, how to be faithful subjects in this commonwealth. The government of Jesus is set to bless us and give us peace (vv. 7, 9) as we follow this “pattern,” the pattern of the cross, the seal of the King imprinted in our lives. The center of this pattern is joy and gratitude. Hebrews tells us that Jesus went to the cross for the joy set before him (Heb. 12:2). The cross is not only the sign of great justice for God’s wrath against sin; it is not only the sign of God’s love for the world. It is also the sign of God’s deep joy and gratitude. For God was so thankful and grateful for the world that He gave his only begotten Son. What was the “joy set before Jesus”? Again, Hebrews 1 and Acts 2:34-36 says that Jesus has been made King. To what end? So that the nations of the earth might be made his possession (Ps. 2). To what end? For the salvation of the ends of the earth (Acts 13:33-48). What is the political program of Jesus? It is the declaration that Jesus is Lord. What is the central sign of submission to this rule? Gratitude, praise, thanksgiving, and rejoicing always.
Paul says that we are to be so full of gratitude that our gentleness is known to all (4:5). We are to be known for gentleness. The word “gentle” means patient, long suffering, fair, equitable, gracious, kind. Gentle doesn’t mean being a wimp. It doesn’t mean being quiet. It doesn’t mean being a pushover. It means being so full of faith and trust in the King, that you are not a crank or anxiety ridden. Manipulators and nervous breakdowns are both faithless; they just respond differently. One seizes everything; the other lets go of everything. Both are being unfaithful to the King. The King makes us patient and kind. We do not trust in the state of South Carolina; we do not trust in the Federal Government. We trust in our King. This is why verse 8 is so important. This verse is usually taken as only a prescription, but given the context it would probably fit even better as an explanation of the command to rejoice. Why are we to rejoice? The word translated “meditate” could just as easily be translated “count” or “reckon.” We are to count all the noble things, the just things, the pure things, the lovely things, the good reports, the virtue, the praiseworthy. We are to keep accounts of all the blessings of God. We are to meticulously keep track of them. We are to be so consumed with all of “these things” that we cannot but rejoice.
Application and Conclusion
The declaration of the angels to the shepherds is glory to God and peace and goodwill toward men. And this is what Paul promises (“peace” cf. vv. 7, 9) that the Kingdom of God, the commonwealth and state of God is here for peace. We do not rejoice because we are ignoring reality or pretending everything is noble, just, lovely, and good. We keep track of all the good things because we are so fully persuaded that our requests have been made known to God (v. 6).
Therefore begin with rejoicing. Keep track of the blessings of God in everything. Start there every day in everything. Make lists if you have to; say it out loud. Enumerate the blessings of God.
Make your requests to God with thanksgiving (v. 6) and do not worry; do not be anxious. Trust your King. Pray thankfully. And make sure your conversation reflects this kind of thankfulness even while seeking to correct or critique. Do not lie to God or your neighbor.
Finally, remember that the joy of the Lord is your strength. This is why Paul can say that the peace of God will “guard” our hearts and minds. Understand the political and military dimensions of gratitude. Thankfulness in our hearts and words is warfare. Our culture delights in complaining and bitterness. Even Christians talk and act like they are citizens of another kingdom. But we know better; let your gentleness be known to all. Trust in your King. The Lord is near; he is not far away. And he knows what he is doing. Therefore give thanks and rejoice always.
Christmas as Politics
We believe that the incarnation is the beginning of the Kingdom of God. Jesus was born the King of Israel; he was born a king, died a king, rose again as king, and he now sits enthroned at the right hand of God the Father as king ruling and reigning over all. This is the message of Advent that God has come to be the King of the world in Jesus. This means that Christmas is a political event. Herod was right to be worried about the birth of Jesus; while his attempts at ridding the world of this king were futile, the threat he felt was right and good. We live in a world that does not care if you celebrate some generic season or holiday. Our culture doesn’t care if you say ‘Jesus is the reason for the Season’. They don’t care as long as you keep that religious piety behind your eyes and between your ears. But the celebration of Christmas is the announcement of the birth of the King. He is King of America; He is King of the United Nations; He is King of Africa and Asia. And no amount of legislating can change that. The House of Representatives can debate all they want, but Jesus is King and he does what he pleases. Therefore as you go about your holiday business: your shopping, your celebrating, your going out and coming in, wish one another and those around you a Merry Christmas. Not Happy Holidays, not Season’s Greetings, but Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas because Jesus is King. Merry Christmas: Jesus is Lord.
Friday, December 15, 2006
Holy Trinity Weekly
This Lord's Day is the Third Sunday of Advent.
Ever since the first Christmas, the birth of Christ has been heralded with singing. Luke in particular draws attention to the songs surrounding the Savior's birth: Mary, Zacharias, the angels, and even the old man Simeon burst into song at the birth of our Lord. And it is no accident that Christians down through the ages have kept this tradition of singing hymns and psalms and carols celebrating the birth of Jesus. Francis Weiser reminds us that the word "carol" comes from the Greek word _choraulein_ which is a combination of two words _choros_ which means "dance" and _aulein_ which means "to play the flute." And therefore, in medieval Europe, a carol was a ring dance accompanied with singing.
We also see in the history of the Church that whenever God gives reformation to His people, it is accompanied with a robust reformation of music and singing. The Protestant Reformation itself is a witness to this fact, but other periods attest to this reality as well. And this fact is not unrelated to Christmas. Christmas is a celebration of the birth of the King, the Lord of all, and the birth of the King must be heralded with joyful carols. It is no accident that reformations are likewise filled with singing because all true reformation is the declaration of the Lordship of Jesus over all. May God be pleased to give us reformation, and as he does, may he be pleased to fill our mouths and hearts with joyful songs of praise.
The sermon text for this Sunday will be from Phil. 4:4-9. Our other lessons for the day will Zeph. 3:14-18 and Luke 3:7-18.
Monday, December 11, 2006
Table Fellowship as Gospel
We’ve said this morning that Advent means the coming of the Lord to reform worship, to enable a priestly people to offer sacrifices that are pleasing to God. In Leviticus the sacrifices of God are referred to as the “bread” of God (e.g. Lev. 3:11). And in those sacrifices there were usually portions that were burned on the altar for God to “consume” and portions that were taken and eaten by the Levites and priests. Of course we know that God was not literally hungry; it wasn’t as though if the priests forgot to offer the sacrifice God would starve. The point was that God wanted table fellowship with his people. He wanted to commune with them. This is one way worship has been reformed in Jesus: now we are all the sons of Levi in Jesus Christ. We have been washed and anointed in baptism like the Levites. We are the holy people of God, and therefore are all authorized to come to this table and eat bread with the Lord. But if the gospel of God is breaking bread with one another, offering it up as a sacrifice of praise to God, this means that this is what the gospel looks like. This is the gospel, the good news that we can have fellowship with God and one another here at this table through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is worship reformed; this is the grace and mercy of God: peace with God and man. This is tidings of comfort and joy; this is joy to the world; this is good news.
Second Sunday in Advent: Malachi 3:1-6: The Coming of Malachi
We considered last week the message of Jeremiah that it was necessary for Israel to go down into the death of exile in order for Israel to be restored to God. We considered in Jeremiah a political dimension of Advent: for Israel to be nation again she had to die in exile. Malachi is the record of prophet who confronted Israel after the exile. Part of returning from exile meant returning to the land. But return from exile also meant being in a right standing with God. Yet even after Israel returned to the land, things were still not right.
“Malachi” means “my messenger.” 1:1 names Malachi the author although some have speculated that it may be derived from its subject matter. This messenger will “prepare the way” before the Lord. The word for “prepare” literally means to “turn.” Yahweh will send his messenger to “turn the way” to Himself. This is the glory of our God, the God who bends down in His unfathomable grace and turns the way to Him. Notice that there is another Messenger in this passage, the “Messenger of the covenant.” This is Jesus who did suddenly appear in the temple and began over turning tables (e.g. Mk. 11:15).
Remember that the word “messenger” could just as easily be translated “angel.” The Angel of God has played an important role in Israel’s history. It was the Angel of God who found Hagar and Ishmael and provided for them. It was the Angel of God that appeared to Jacob and delivered him from Laban and brought him safely back to the land of his fathers. It was the Angel of God that led Israel out of Egypt and defended them from Pharaoh’s army (Ex. 14:19). It was the Angel of God who raised Gideon up to deliver Israel from the Midianites. It was the Angel of God who raised Samson up to fight the enemies of Israel. David is described as being “like the angel of God” a number of times during his reign, being able to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong. And finally, we see Paul in Galatians saying that they received him as an “angel of God, even as Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 4:14) This Angel/Messenger of God is the one from God who delivers Israel from slavery, starvation, oppression, and exile. And yet, Israel is back in Israel. Why are things not right in the land?
A Pleasant Offering
Malachi’s lawsuit is particularly brought against the “sons of Levi,” those who offer worship on behalf of the people. He is coming to purify and refine and purge the “sons of Levi” that they may offer to the Lord an offering in righteousness. Pure worship is the aim of God’s work. But this means that men do not offer pure worship to God automatically. What were the liturgical abuses of Israel? Despising the name of God (v. 1:6), offering “defiled food” (v. 7), offering blind, lame and sick sacrifices (v. 8), and therefore God has no pleasure in their offerings and he will not accept it (v. 10). But this is not an obstacle to God; he will be worshiped throughout the world, “his name will be great among the nations.” (v. 11) But those who continue to profane his name without taking his commandment to heart, he will curse (2:1-2). This curse will come upon their descendents as well; and the curse will be that God will give them what they have been offering Him (2:3). Their worship is crap (excrement, dung, manure), and therefore God is going to smear it all over their faces. But His Messenger is coming to purify the “sons of Levi” that they may offer to the Lord an offering in righteousness.
Crooked Places Straight
The first messenger was John the Baptist of course, whom we read about in our Gospel Lesson today. God called him out of the wilderness to proclaim a “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” He was the one foretold also by the prophet Isaiah, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.” John came to turn the way of the people to the straight path, the narrow road leading to the God of the Universe. In that passage in Isaiah, he begins by declaring comfort to Israel because her iniquity is pardoned, “for she has received form the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Is. 40:1-2) What is the “way of the Lord”? Where is this “comfort” to be found? Jesus is our “way”, our “truth”, and our “life.” He is the way to the Father. The story of the gospel is Adam and Eve thrust out into exile from the garden, God calling a specific family in Abraham and Israel to show the “way to the nations”. That way was witnessed in the tabernacle and temple systems, showing Israel and the nations how to “draw near” to the Lord. We have been estranged through sin and death, but in Jesus, God speaks comfort to us. Because He has brought us back into the garden. Jesus is the straight path; he is the way into the Holy of Holies. The “way of the Lord” is faithful worship in Jesus.
Conclusion & Applications
Advent celebrates the “cleansing of the Temple” not just that Jesus knocked a bunch of tables over two thousand years ago, but what he symbolized, the destruction of the old, polluted temple that was an offense to God and the reconstruction of a new temple in His own body to offer sacrifices of praise that are pleasing to God. True cultural reformation will necessarily flow out of a thoroughgoing reformation of worship. Worship is not something that comes natural to fallen man. We have inherited a lot of thoughtlessness when it comes to worship. And as we seek to recover a robust and faithful liturgy, at times it feels a bit like playing dress up with clothes that don’t quite seem to fit. But we offer all of our worship in Jesus who perfects it all before the Father. So trust God, search the Scriptures, seek God’s face, and join your hearts, hands and voices with thankfulness.
But we believe that God is blessing us in this. He is giving us a reformation of worship here and throughout the country and the world. Advent is the celebration of God’s coming to us in Christ. He has come in the Incarnation and he will come at the end, but He continues to come to us week by week in the Holy Spirit as we renew covenant together. He has not left us to ourselves. His Spirit is the “Comforter” John says. Therefore the advent of Jesus means the reformation of worship, access to the Father. And this is comfort indeed.
The Christian life is a martial life, a life of war, a life of fighting. Advent has traditionally been known as the ‘little Pascha’ or the little Lent. It is a penitential season often including a fast by the faithful leading up to the great Christmas Feast. The periodic seasons of penitence in the Christian calendar are not opportunities for dieting. Nor are they just excuses for pastors to get people to come to weekly services. The regular fasts are scheduled times for war. The war is constant. The battles are as regular as morning and night. This struggle is against the enemies of the flesh, the world, and the devil, wherever sin still stands in opposition to the Word and Work of Christ in our lives. Therefore as you celebrate Advent in your families, as you remember and consider the longing of God’s people both for the coming of Christ of old and the coming of Christ at the end, consider this longing as an act of war, an act of defiance against every godless hope and dream that we are somehow outside of God’s sight or reign. Join this rebellion, this struggle: confess your sins one to another, forgive one another, offer up prayers without ceasing, and come worship the Lord. This is our warfare; this is our battle.
Heretics, Icons, and the Incarnation
A little while ago I had a post on my son which included a reference to Nestorianism. In the post I made a connection between having pictures of Christ and Nestorianism. It should be pointed out that I was actually confusing my heretics. Although, I think in a way the connection still holds. First, the heresy I meant to reference was Docetism which teaches that the incarnation was an illusion, thus God the Son did not really take on human flesh; rather, it only seemed as though he did. This is part of the argument of the iconodules who defend the making of images of Christ: Where Deuteronomy forbids images on the basis that Moses and the elders did not see any form or likeness on the mountain, Christians have always maintained that we have now seen a form and a likeness, even Jesus Christ, the express image and icon of the invisible God (Heb. 1:3). Nestorious on the other hand, rather than down playing the humanity of Christ, downplayed the deity of Christ. His contention was the Jesus was empowered or inspired by God the Son, but that he was not himself God the Son incarnate. Even though I was mixing up my heresies, I think the association actually still works. Occasionally, iconodules argued that their artistic renderings were acceptable because they only depicted the humanity of Christ. To which the iconoclasts (the ones taking hammers to church) rightly argued that they were falling into Nestorianism, separating the natures of Christ. Which I would agree with, if that really were the rationale for artistic renderings of Christ. However, as it turns out, the absolute ban on images seems to actually go back the other way. If Christ cannot be depicted then it would appear that not only may there be an incipient docetism in the works, but Nestorianism is also a denial of the incarnation. According to that sorry Christology, Jesus was merely a man that got really lucky. But the point is that Nestorious saw no need for God to become a man. His soteriology only needed a good man to show us the way. But the story of the gospel is that we needed God to come down to us and bring us back to himself. We were not merely sick and in need of a few vitamins. We were dead and needed God to come down and touch us with his hands, die, and in his resurrection, raise us back to life. And all that just to say that pictures of Christ (done well and tastefully) can serve to remind the faithful that God has indeed become a man in Christ. We have beheld his glory, even the glory of the only begotten of the father, full of grace and truth. So I'm still sticking to my claim: we're not Nestorians but neither are we docetists. And if there's anything else that's bad, we're not it.
Lastly, I should add that while I'm generally more sympathetic to the icondules than to the iconoclasts. I am not in any way, shape, or form condoning the EO or RC practices of bowing to, making out with, dancing with, talking/praying to, or burning incense before the aforementioned pictures. Gives me the creeping fantods.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
How Body-piercing Didn't Save Andrew Beaujon's Life
Actually, here's some interesting discussion of this guy's book on the "Christian" music industry.
Monday, December 04, 2006
Return from Exile, Return to the Garden
In Scripture, exile means death. When Israel has gone into exile, God shows Ezekiel a valley full of bones and asks him if they can live, and Ezekiel says, “Only You know Lord.” Israel had become a graveyard, a cemetery in Assyria and Babylon. The gospels make it abundantly clear that Jesus came to be Israel, to be the true and faithful Israel but also to restore Israel. This meant that it was necessary for Jesus to go into exile, for Jesus to go down into the grave in order that Israel might come out of the grave. Jesus had to go into exile so that Israel could return to the land. This means that this meal is an exilic meal. It is the body and blood of our Lord, the death and the exile of Jesus. We are eating the exile of God incarnate. But this means that our exile has been served, our payment has been made. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden and so began the exile of the people of God, in the day they ate of the fruit they did truly die: they died the death of exile. Later, Israel received the land of promise as a type of the end of exile, but even they lost it due to sin. But now in Christ, our exile is over. We have returned to the garden, and God invites us to eat from the Tree Life, to eat and live forever.
First Sunday in Advent: Jeremiah 32-33: The Coming of Zedekiah Our Shepherd
This Sunday is the first Sunday of the Christian year. This is New Year’s Day of the Christian Calendar. The word “advent” means “coming”; it waits in expectation for the coming of the Lord, his visitation of his people in the Incarnation. The season of Advent has traditionally been a penitential season, but like Lent it is a hopeful penitential season. We know that Christ has come; so we are not waiting as though we don’t know about Christmas. But we join the story because we really are still waiting for the final Coming, and we mourn and repent of our sins longing for the final redemption.
Jeremiah was political problem for Zedekiah, the king of Judah. He would not stop telling everyone that Babylon was going to win the war and that the inhabitants of Jerusalem would be killed or marched into exile and that the city will be burned down. He was demoralizing. When we meet Jeremiah here, he is locked up in the “court of the prison.” The message of Jeremiah has not been all negative. The message has consistently been that this war with Babylon is a losing war, Judah will go into exile for 70 years, and at the end of those years God will gather his people back together in the land of promise. The issue was not that Jeremiah was a thoroughgoing pessimist; the problem was that his plan for Israelite greatness included losing a war and going into exile. The gospel of Jeremiah was to trust in God who was taking Israel into the death of exile, and to trust him to raise them back to life.
A Branch of Righteousness
Verses 15-16 are nearly word for word what is stated earlier in 23:5-6. Interestingly, both follow passages that describe Israel as a flock of sheep with wayward shepherds. Remember that a “shepherd” of the people of Israel is particularly a king or a ruler. And this is what is prophesied in vv. 15-16: a branch of righteousness out of David who rules righteously and a new name: Yahweh our Righteousness. The city of Jerusalem at the time of Jeremiah was known by the name of its king, Zedekiah which means “Yahweh is Righteous” or “the righteousness of Yah.” But Jeremiah says that God is going to raise up a new Zedekiah, a new king, that Jerusalem will be known for. And our Zedekiah was born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.
Just prior to this passage, God has told Jeremiah that things are not going to go well in the immediate future and then instructs Jeremiah to go out and buy a field because Israel will eventually return to the land (Jer. 32:1-15). Matthew says that this prophecy was fulfilled when the chief priests purchased the field with the blood money of Judas (Mt. 27:9-10). Although it appears he is alluding to Zechariah as well, the context is the same: God is delivering the shepherds and flock of Judah up to destruction and judgment (Zech. 11). The field is a witness against the wickedness that is bringing the judgment as well as a sign that Israel will return from exile. Matthew is saying that Jesus is Israel going down into the grave of exile, but if a field has been purchased (and it has) then Israel will return in joy (Jer. 33:10-11).
Conclusion & Application
As we enter in to the season of Advent and consider a new year, it is fitting to consider how our situation is in some ways similar to Jeremiah’s. We do not have the detailed prophetic voice of Jeremiah today, but we do have the prophetic promises of God that Christ must reign until all of his enemies are his footstool. He must reign until the earth is covered with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. He must rule until the nations have become his disciples, and of the increase of this kingdom there will be no end. This means our situation is strikingly better than Jeremiah’s. Our states and nations may turn from God; God may raise up other nations to humble us, but our king will not see his sons executed and then be blinded and led to a foreign land in fetters (like Zedekiah). But the application is the same: go buy some real estate. Plant a vineyard, build a house. Plan to be around for a while. Nations may rise and fall; peoples may come and go. But this land is claimed by King Jesus; it’s all his. Therefore it is ours. Whatever miniature exiles we may endure, we are citizens of a kingdom that will never end. This is the hope of Advent: Our King has come for us, and He will come for us.
Enemies come by Ones
As we enter the season of Advent, we are called to remember the coming of the Lord. Prior to the coming of the Lord, Israel was in exile for their sins and wickedness. When we sing, “Let every heart prepare him room” we are reminding all of the need we have to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord, to rid ourselves of sin. Every week we have a general confession of sin which we pray corporately together. This confession reminds us and God that we come before His presence in humility recognizing that we are here by grace. There is a place for confessing generally that we are sinful; that is what it is and why we have it. But sin is not normally to be confessed generally. When you confess sin, do not say I have been unloving, or disrespectful, or covetous. Say I was unloving when I barked a command at my wife, or I was disrespectful when I told another lady about my husband’s weakness, or I was covetous when my eyes lingered on the magazines behind the counter at the gas station. Yes, we are still fighting the effects of our former sin nature. But that nature has been put off and put to death. It is good to be reminded of how we got here and the fact that our standing is all of grace. But sin is particular. It is specific thoughts, words, and actions. And you will not have victory over nebulous, generic enemies. Enemies always come by ones. Sin is the enemy; therefore take your aim on whatever specific sins are in your life. Kill them and then move on.