Saturday, February 27, 2010

Good Abominations?

Mary Douglas, in Leviticus as Literature, points out that Leviticus 11 should really stun the careful Bible reader. If we recall that God is the Creator of all things, and that He not only created all things but also declared all things good, how can some of them be "abominations" to the Hebrews? How are so many animals "unclean"? Why can't God's people touch or eat so many of His good creatures?

Even after the Fall, Noah saved unclean animals in his ark from the flood. If they were abominations, why would God want Noah to save them? Why not destroy them in the flood? Why not have Israel destroy them in the land of Canaan along with the Canaanites who do abominations?

How is separating from these creatures an act of "holiness" (Lev. 11:44)?


The Kingdom of Israel

When Yahweh makes covenant with Israel at Sinai, He inaugurates the kingdom of Israel. There, He says explicitly that He brought Israel out of Egypt in order that they might be a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:6). The "kingdom" does not begin with the anointing of Saul or David. The kingdom begins with the anointing of the whole people of Israel (Ex. 24), and the king is enthroned in their midst at the dedication of the Tabernacle (Ex. 40).


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Habakkuk, Abraham, Noah, and Lot

Habakkuk is a prophet like Abraham, talking with God about the destruction of the wicked and the righteous. Habakkuk is particularly concerned that God "do right" with regard to those who are righteous.

Running through chapter 2 is a theme of drunkenness (2:5, 15-16). This "drunkenness" appears to be summary of the kind of mindless wickedness, oppression, idolatry, and violence that Judah has become drunk with.

And this drunkenness has been encouraged by neighbors, who do this specifically in order to look at their neighbor's "nakedness" (Hab. 2:15). Thus, there is a Noah-Ham dynamic at work in Habakkuk's complaint. But this is also echoed in the Lot story when his daughters get him drunk in order to perpetuate their family line through their father, uncovering his nakedness.

But this comes in the midst of five "woes" (2:6, 9, 12, 15, 19). And the "woes" are fulfilled in Habakkuk's final prayer, which rejoices in Yahweh as the God of the Exodus, the God of Armies.

As with Noah and Lot and Israel in Egypt, there is always a remnant saved, the righteous are delivered, the wicked are defeated and put to shame. What's strange is the fact the "drunken-exposures" of Noah and Lot come on the far side of deliverance, after their respective exodus events (flood/fire & brimstone).

What is perhaps hopeful about Habakkuk is that the drunken-exposure of Israel will be exile itself, and so the new exodus-return will deliver precisely from that shame.


Monday, February 22, 2010

The Blood that Frees

This world is full of guilt, full of the weight and burden of sin. Everyone of us knows this. We know this in our brokenness and failures. We know this in the lives of our loved ones. And we know this in the lives and stories going on all around us in this world and throughout history. And this hurt, this guilt really must be dealt with. And there are ultimately only two ways to get rid of the guilt, to get rid of the pain, to be free. And both include death and the shedding of blood. One is the way of suicide. Sometimes this occurs in straightforward self-inflicted murder to ease the pain. But as many have noted, frequently it can take the form of finding scapegoats, transferring guilt to a victim in a society. It isn’t an accident that godless societies frequently are characterized by the shedding of blood whether through unjust warfare or child sacrifice. But even this transferring of guilt to an innocent victim is suicidal. A culture cannot survive on this bloodletting for very long. But Jesus has come to be the last innocent victim, the final scapegoat. His blood is for the remission of sins. Guilt is a kind of bondage, a form of slavery. Unconfessed and unforgiven sins manipulate people in powerful ways, and they become taskmasters. But Jesus says that He came to give His life as a ransom for many. He came to shed His innocent blood that the guilty might go free. His blood is the last and ultimate payment of blood money. Judas had innocent blood on his hands, and then the chief priests had the blood money on their hands. But what they could not see and would not believe was that Jesus’ innocent blood was for their guilt, for their betrayal, for their sins. And so we celebrate this week after week, and you must know that this blood that we give thanks for, this blood of the new covenant is for your sins. It was shed with you in mind, with your betrayal in mind, for your sins. This blood cleanses us and ransoms us. Confessing our sins is calling on God to deliver us from the evil one who manipulates us in our guilt. But the blood is already shed, the ransom has already been paid. So don’t keep lingering in Egypt while there is deliverance right in front of you. Wherever there is unconfessed sin in your life or guilt that lingers in your heart, confess your sins now and believe the gospel. Take up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. This blood was shed for you. You are free. You are forgiven.


Knowing Jesus, Sharing Jesus

This last week at the Ash Wednesday service, I invited the congregation to celebrate Lent through putting concentrated effort into evangelism: loving neighbors with the goal of sharing the life of Christ with them. I encouraged you to seriously consider and plan to have your neighbors over for a meal or to look for some way to bless them and show your care and love for them. And those neighbors who are not believers or do not attend church, I encouraged you to invite. We are called to be the marks of Christ, we are all called to embrace and follow after Jesus with radical determination and love and hope. But there was another point that I made that I want to reiterate here as well that ties into our sermon text. All ministry and evangelism must flow out of hearts that are full of joy in Christ. This means that while following Jesus is dangerous and difficult and frequently involves great risks, because we are casting our cares, our fears, our hurts, and all that we are upon the God who cares for us, we ought to be full of joy. All ministry and evangelism needs to be an overflow of delighting in the goodness and grace of God. The gospel that we preach and celebrate is in fact “good news,” the sufferings and death of Jesus are “good news,” but we cannot adequately proclaim that good news unless we are constantly reviewing and applying that good news in our lives and in our families. And so I would continue to urge you to celebrate Lent as a season of evangelism. But begin by preaching this gospel of the cross and God’s triumph over sin and death to yourself. Call on the name of the Lord, cast all your cares upon him, spend time in the Word and in prayer. Delight yourself in the Lord and in His gospel and then pour out this delight on your children, on your spouse, to your roommates. Blow on the coals and kindle a fire that is worth spreading around. And then invite your neighbors over with your homes ablaze. Apostasy is a mystery, and we cannot understand exactly how and why Judas fell away from Christ, but Judas was involved in ministry and evangelism right along with the other disciples. Somewhere along the line, he confused ministry and evangelism as duties separate from love and joy in the person of Jesus. The last thing we want is to turn the gospel and evangelism into a program or a job disconnected from real communion with Jesus Christ. That would be like Old Covenant believers offering sacrifices without broken hearts. The end of that road is betrayal and death. So let us urge one another on to rejoice in our king, and invite our neighbors into the joy of the Lord.

“Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, And uphold me by Your generous Spirit. Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners shall be converted to You.” (Ps. 51:12)

Frequently, we are unable to teach transgressors the ways of the Lord and sinners are not converted because we are not walking in the Spirit, and we have lost the joy of His salvation.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

The High Priest Leper

Another Mark 14 thought:

Upon hearing Jesus' "confession," the high priest tears his clothes. Not only is it forbidden in the law for the high priests to tear their clothes (Lev. 10:6, 21:10), but it is required that lepers go about with torn clothes. As the high priest cries out "blasphemy!" he inadvertently dons the uniform of a leper who was to tear his clothes and cry out "unclean!" (Lev. 13:45)

All this on the heels of Jesus' inspection of the temple for leprosy (compare Mk. 11:11-13:2 with Lev. 14:33-45). And meanwhile Jesus is lodging at the house of Simon the leper (Mk. 14:3), who has presumably been cleansed. The high priest and the old Jewish temple is powerless to cleanse and even worse it is infected with uncleanness and spreads uncleanness. But Jesus is the true temple and whoever He touches is cleansed. Jesus is the true high priest who offers the healing of God.


Cut without Hands

In Mark 14, one of the accusations brought against Jesus is that he had promised to destroy "this temple made with hands" and within three days he would build another "made without hands."

This is an allusion to Daniel's prophecy regarding the stone in Daniel 2:34 which is cut out "without hands." But Daniel's stone is probably based upon a specific description regarding the building of the temple. In 1 Kgs 6:7, it is said while the temple was being constructed all the stones were finished at the quarry so that no hammer or chisel or any iron tool was heard in the temple while it was being built.

The stones of the Solomonic temple arrived pre-cut, finished according to the design. They were stones cut "without hands." This is why Jesus can allude to Daniel's prophecy and apply it directly to the temple and building a new temple. If Jesus is the stone cut out "without hands" this means that He has come to be the new cornerstone, pre-cut, already prepared for the new temple which will grow up into the mountain that will fill the whole earth.

Last, note that Paul uses similar language to describe the true circumcision that is "without hands" (Col. 2:11). Our "cutting" and shaping into stones for the this new temple is not found in circumcision. In the new temple, we are quarried and finished in the death of Jesus, and baptism applies His "cutting" to us. There is no sound of a hammer or chisel or any iron tool in the construction of this new temple. We are justified, and we arrive pre-cut through the Cornerstone who was cut "without hands."


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ash Wednesday Homily: Lent is for Evangelism

Stephen was stoned to death. James was beheaded. Matthew was pinned to the ground and beheaded. James the brother of Jesus was thrown off the temple tower and clubbed to death. Following Jesus is dangerous.

Matthias was stoned and then beheaded. Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross. Mark was dragged to his death. Peter was crucified upside down.

Paul was beheaded. Jude was crucified. Bartholomew was beaten and crucified. Thomas was tortured, run through with spears, and thrown into the flames of an oven. Luke was hung from an olive tree.

If the season of Lent is an annual, concentrated reminder of the call of discipleship, the call to follow Jesus, then Lent is dangerous.

Lent is dangerous because there is historical controversy associated with it. While it had been celebrated for over a thousand years by the time of Calvin, there was so much superstition associated with it that he counseled against keeping Lent. Lent is dangerous because there are a number of ways to celebrate it badly: morbid introspection, conjuring up vague guilt and feeling holy for it, prideful abstaining from food and drink, looking down on those who don’t celebrate. False humility is as easy as lighting a dead Christmas tree on fire. One little spark and we puff up.

But Lent is dangerous ultimately because the cross is dangerous. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to those who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18). To those who want to find another way to grace, another path to mercy, the cross is an offense (Gal. 5:11). The sinful heart of man is offended by grace, offended by the folly of the cross. We would rather be proud in all sorts of ways.

In the first century it was Jews who wanted to put guard rails up around the cross, the old Jewish laws – circumcision and Sabbath – were safe and established “marks,” identifying the people of God. But Paul says that he will only boast in the cross of Christ, he will only boast in the victory of God in Jesus, “by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).

The cross is Paul’s mark, his only pride. He writes the Thessalonians: “You became followers of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became examples to all in Macedonia and Achaia who believe. For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place. Your faith toward God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything” (1 Thess. 1:6-8).

Paul says that the Thessalonians followed the apostles and the Lord Jesus such that they became examples or “marks” to everyone. They became “marks” to all those who believe in Macedonia and Achaia, but even beyond that, he says that the “word of the Lord has sounded forth” not just locally but “also in every place.” Paul says that they have become examples, types, marks displayed for the world to see so that the apostles don’t need to remind anyone about the Thessalonians. It’s clear for everyone to see; the apostles don’t need to say anything. Everyone knows.
And Paul describes how they became marks and examples for the world. They became these marks through receiving the word in affliction and with joy. From Acts we know that the city of Thessalonica had been roused into an angry mob by jealous Jews when some members of the synagogue began following the gospel preached by Paul. The Thessalonian Christians faced affliction and persecution for following Jesus, but they did so with joy in the Holy Spirit.

Following Jesus has always been a call to take risks, to risk reputation, risk danger, risk all pride. The call to follow Jesus is not a call to comfort, dignity, or respectability. Jesus says, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will keep yours also.” (Jn. 15:20) And the witness of thousands of Christians down through the centuries calls us to follow Jesus, taking up the cross, taking up the dangers, taking up the risks.

Ignatius was the pastor of the church in Antioch when he was arrested and extradited to Rome. He wrote to the Roman church pleading with them not to try to deliver him because that would deprive him of what he most longed and hoped for. He wrote: “Now I begin to be a disciple. I care for nothing of visible or invisible things so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus.” It is said that as he was sentenced to be fed to lions, Ignatius said, “I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread.”

Following Jesus is dangerous. The call to follow Jesus is the call to take up our cross and follow Him. And that cross is not just for decoration. The cross is not merely a symbol. The cross is the power of God for salvation. It displays God’s love and justice for the world. The cross is foolishness to Greeks and blasphemy to the Jews. The cross is the glory of God. God loves that part in the story where death dies, where weakness triumphs, where mercy bursts out of violence.

Peter exhorts the elders of the church not to rule the churches as “lords” over those entrusted to them, but as “examples to the flock.” As Paul said that the Thessalonians had become examples or marks, Peter calls the elders to be “marks” for the flock to see. Likewise, Paul exhorted Timothy and Titus to be “marks” for the believers in their churches (1 Tim. 4:12, Tit. 2:7). Where does this idea come from? What does it mean to be “marks” for others to see?

This idea goes back to Jesus. The same word is only used once in the gospels in John: Thomas says that he will not believe that Jesus is risen from the dead unless he sees the marks of the nails in the hands of Jesus and puts his fingers in the holes and places his hand into His side (Jn. 20:25).

What Paul and Peter and the rest of the apostles and disciples came to understand was their calling to be the marks of Jesus for all to see. We are called to be the nail marks of Jesus for the world so that the world will see and believe. The call to follow Jesus is always a call to look like Jesus, to display the life of Jesus in our lives, in our words, in our actions, to bear the marks of the Lord Jesus in our bodies. Many Christians are hunted down by unbelievers and God displays His grace in their suffering. But if we are not being turned into marks through violent oppression, our marching orders are pretty straightforward. We are called into all the world to preach the gospel. If Lent is for remembering the cross in order that the marks of Jesus might be evident in our lives then Lent is for evangelism.

Several Practical Suggestions
First, if you plan to fast during Lent, do not kid yourself into thinking that fasting is the same thing as suffering for Jesus. Just because the pastor said that Lent is dangerous doesn’t mean you’re being a great risk taker by abstaining from chocolate or coffee or beer. Do not come up here and take the sign of the cross upon your forehead and pat yourself on the back and say that you have somehow done something courageous for Jesus. The point of abstaining, the point of taking the cross upon your brow, the point of prayer and fasting, the point of all this must be evangelistic, inviting the gospel to fill our lives, our families, our communities. The point is to make time to pray for the lost, to love the lost, to invite the lost and the hurting into our homes, and to share life with the lost and dying in our community. Abstaining from something is not the mark of Christ, but if you give yourself to heart-aching prayer for your neighbors, you have begun to be a disciple. If you plead with an unbelieving loved one to submit to Christ, the word of the Lord is going forth. If you graciously confront your roommate for obvious sin and folly, realizing that you may lose or strain a friendship, you are beginning to be a disciple. If you love your wife like Christ loved the church, and give yourself away for her more and more sacrificially, you are beginning to be a disciple.

And if you fast, let your fasting and prayer be toward particular ends, particular needs, particular hurts, not vague feelings. Fasting does not benefit us. Fasting is a bodily posture. Just as you might kneel or lift your hands in prayer, so too fasting is a posture of humility and urgency. Some of you need to learn to fast and pray. You might dedicate one day a week, one meal a week, you might do it individually, or as a family. But the point is not for a show of piety, the point is not to harness some mystical power. The point is to cry out to God. Peter says that humility is evidenced in casting all our cares upon the God who cares for us. Some of you need to cry out to God because you haven’t been. Some of you need to cry out to God because you’ve been carrying all your cares yourself, because you are weighed down with burdens and stress and fear and unbelief. Use this season of Lent to repent. Set aside time to pray, to pour out your heart to the Lord. And pray it out. Pray until it’s all out. Pray your cares on to the God who cares for you.

Next, and related to the first point is that abstaining ought to always be pointed toward some sort of giving. If we celebrate Lent as a community it ought to be an obvious blessing to everyone around us. People ought to be glad that Trinity celebrates Lent. Last year, you will recall that we encouraged you all to consider spending one evening a week with the elderly folks at Aspen Park. That Tuesday evening visit is still going on every week, and I would encourage you to consider participating in that again. There are a number of students who still regularly attend, but those of you with young children cannot overestimate the kind of joy and blessing you can bring to the elderly by sharing your little ones with them. So consider visiting Aspen Park on a Tuesday evening during Lent. Or if you have other elderly friends or relatives, plan to visit them and encourage them and show them the love of Christ in the coming weeks.

Lastly, this year, the elders would like you to give particular attention and consideration to evangelism. First, we want to ask all of you to consider having your neighbors over for dinner or dessert. And by neighbors we mean the people who live next door and across the street. Maybe you could plan one meal a week or just two or three meals over the next number of weeks. And focus your attention particularly on neighbors who are unbelievers or who don’t attend church. The point is not to trap them in your house and then stand up on your chair at dinner and deliver a lengthy sermon. The point is to love them as your neighbors, get to know them and if possible invite them to church. The elders are also organizing a couple of other opportunities. Over the next number of weeks we are aiming to take time on at least two Saturdays to go into some of our neighborhoods, to introduce ourselves as members of Trinity Reformed Church and invite folks to come to church. Again, the idea isn’t for everyone in the church to be street preachers; the idea is that we all have neighbors that we are commanded to love. Watch your email over the next few days as we finalize details, and please plan to join us.

Lent is all about the cross, the message of the cross, the marks of the cross, the risk of the cross, the danger of the cross, the joy of the cross. And tonight we are gathered together to renew our commitment to this cross, to this scandal, to this danger, to this Savior.

Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John. He was arrested as an old man and taken before the governor who sentenced him to be burned at the stake. Yet the governor offered to release Polycarp if he would curse Christ, and Polycarp answered: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never once wronged me. How then shall I blaspheme my king who has saved me?” He was tied to the stake rather than nailed, as was the usual custom because he assured them that he would stand still in the flames. After the fire was lit and it had burned for a while without consuming him, the order was given and the executioner pierced him with a sword.

May God give us grace to follow the Lord Jesus with the same joy and faith and loyalty. And may we become the marks of Christ, calling the world to faith in our crucified and risen King.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Luke's Subtle Autobiography

John Foxe points out that St. Luke was likely a physician in Troas and probably converted there during Paul's ministry. He explains: "Notice in Acts 16:8-10, that it is at Troas that Luke switches from "they" to "we" in his text -- 'And they passing by Mysia came down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; there stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, come over into Macedonia, and help us. And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavored to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel unto them.'" (Foxe's Book of Martyrs, 6)


Monday, February 15, 2010

The Shepherd and the Lion

My friend and colleague, Joshua Appel, pointed out that 1 Peter 5 actually holds together fairly tightly: moving from exhortation to elders to "shepherd the flock" faithful as those who will give account to the Chief Shepherd ultimately to the exhortation to resist the devil who is a "prowling lion" seeking to devour them.

This is helpful in a couple of ways: First, if the "adversary" and the "the devil" is tied specifically in Peter's mind to the mechanism of persecution (which it seems to be, given 5:9), then the "devil" here would seem to be something similar to the "principalities and powers" spoken of elsewhere which seems to combine demonic beings with earthly, political rulers. The "devil" then is a sort of "ruler" who contrasts with the shepherds of the Chief Shepherd who are called to "rule" in an entirely different sort of way (5:2-3). If the Jews are specifically in Peter's mind, as seems implicit in a number of places in 1 Peter, then Peter is consciously comparing Christian elders to the "shepherds of Israel" who continue to "devour" the flock of God (Ez. 34:2-3).

But secondly the implication is that submission to the Christian elders is submission to protection from these false shepherds, protection from these lions who are seeking to devour the flock of God. Following these elder-shepherds as they follow the example of the Chief Shepherd may very well mean suffering and death, as it did for Jesus, the Chief Shepherd. But after they have suffered a little while, they will be raised up, whether they are delivered from persecution in this life or literally raised from the dead at the end. But notice that this submission is "resistance." The death of Jesus was the death blow of all principalities and powers, the death blow to Satan's project. This means that the suffering and death of Christians is likewise an act of war and resistance. As Revelation puts it: "they overcame [the devil] by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death" (Rev. 12:11).


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Beating the Future into the Present

A "type" in biblical literature is commonly understood as a kind of "preview." Paul says that Adam was a "type" of Jesus who was to come (Rom. 5:14). These previews can also work as "examples" or "patterns" to follow or learn from: the unbelieving Israelites in the wilderness are examples for Christians to warn them (1 Cor. 10:6), Moses saw the pattern of the tabernacle on the mountain and was to follow it in the construction of the house of God (Acts 7:44, Heb. 8:5)), and Paul will call upon believers to follow his "example" (Phil. 3:17, 2 Thess. 3:9) or commend others for becoming faithful examples (1 Thess. 1:7). A "type" is ultimately a sort of "image" (e.g. Acts 7:43). In this sense, the "image of God" in man is a replication of the "type" of God which comes to fulfillment in Jesus. It points to the origin; it refers to the archtype.

But the word tupos also means "mark" or "blow." It is only used once in the New Testament in this sense and refers to the "mark" of the nails in the hands of Jesus. Thomas says that unless he sees the "mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe" (Jn. 20:25). But the verb form of this word tupto occurs numerous times in the NT and means "beat" or "strike." Jesus is "struck" (Mt. 27:30, Mk. 15:19, Lk. 22:64), later Sosthenes is "beaten" (Acts 18:17), and Paul is beaten (Acts 21:32) and "struck" (Acts 23:2).

This suggests a couple of possible directions to run with this. First, to call people to follow the pattern/example of Jesus or the apostles, is to call them to be "pierced" or "struck" or "beaten" into conformity with the image. Jesus is the perfect image of the invisible God, the type of the image of God that we are striving to be conformed to. Second, this suggests that the "example" of Christ and the apostles and other believers so frequently associated with suffering should perhaps be taken more literally. To be "beaten" for Jesus, to be "struck" for His name is to bear in the body the "marks" of Christ. Paul uses a different word in Galatians 6:17, but the parallel seems unmistakable. The "type" is struck in the believer in so far as their suffering is suffering for good (like Christ) but the "mark" is not merely illustrative, it is also efficacious and transformative. Like a bit of soft wax pressed with the image of the King, the marks of Christ leave an indelible reality of God's Life pressed into the individual who suffers. No wonder the apostles call us to rejoice.

Lastly, and a bit more speculative, it seems like there is a temporal-eschatalogical promise implied in this picture. Given these previous points, "types" seem to function as prophetic signs. "Types" call upon God to fulfill them. Sacraments are the supreme types, but even people, persecution, and various patterns seem to function as invitations for God to interpose the reality into history to which the "type" points. Perhaps more provocatively, types strain forward into the future and at the same time pull the future back into the present. While God does know the end from the beginning and certainly orchestrates all things according to His good counsel, there is nevertheless clearly a mysterious way in which humanity is invited into influencing the course of history. Prophets speak in the divine assembly, and God listens to them. God changes His mind; the future is not fixed in an abstract filing cabinet in heaven. The future is held in the hand of our faithful Father.

This would mean that "pounding" an obedient type into the present is one of the ways that God invites our participation in the future. The imprint, the mark of faithfulness will remain, and more than that, perhaps we have far more impact on the future than we sometimes imagine.


Tweeting to Facebook from Blog

And, if this works, it will be my first ever Facebook status post. This is a historical moment, and I'm even a little sad. That empty Facebook status bar was kind of like a little trophy to me (and maybe for you). But no more pride for me. I repent. (Assuming this works.)


Monday, February 08, 2010

Brokenhearted Christians

"A truly Christian love, either to God or men, is a humble brokenhearted love. The desires of the saints, however earnest, are humble desires: their hope is a humble hope; and their joy, even when it is unspeakable, and full of glory, is a humble, brokenhearted joy, and leaves the Christian more poor in spirit, and more like a little child, and more disposed to a universal lowliness of behavior." - Jonathan Edwards (cited in Brothers, We are Not Professionals by John Piper, 117)


Friday, February 05, 2010

Where was God in Haiti when the earthquakes struck?

Update: Here's the recording of the talk: "Where was God in Haiti when the Earthquakes Struck Haiti?"

On January 12th, 2010 at 4:53pm, an earthquake measured at a magnitude of 7.0 struck the nation of Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, the epicenter some 15 miles west of Port-Au-Prince, the capital city and largest city in Haiti. The earthquake struck some 8 miles down into the earth’s crust. The death toll is now estimated to be over 200,000 with perhaps another 200,000 injured and somewhere around a million people displaced in and around the Port-au-Prince area.

A description of the tectonic phenomenon: “The January 12, 2010, Haiti earthquake occurred in the boundary region separating the Caribbean plate and the North America plate. This plate boundary is dominated by left-lateral strike slip motion and compression, and accommodates about 20 mm/y slip, with the Caribbean plate moving eastward with respect to the North America plate.

At the longitude of the January 12 earthquake, motion between the Caribbean and North American plates is partitioned between two major east-west trending, strike-slip fault systems -- the Septentrional fault system in northern Haiti and the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system in southern Haiti.

The location and focal mechanism of the earthquake are consistent with the event having occurred as left-lateral strike slip faulting on the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system. This fault system accommodates about 7 mm/y, nearly half the overall motion between the Caribbean plate and North American plate.”

Over 54 aftershocks over a magnitude of 4.5 have been recorded, the two largest were 5.9, one 7 minutes after the original main shock, and the second on January 20th.

Where was God in Haiti when the Earthquakes struck?

But when we ask this question, it is understood that we’re not just asking about this catastrophe. We’re really asking about ALL catastrophes. Where was God when the tsunami struck Myanmar? Where was God when Hurricane Katrina blasted the Southeast? But why limit ourselves to natural disasters? Where was God when George W. Bush was elected? Or Obama? Where was God when the economy tanked? Where was God when Pat Robertson said the earthquake was sent by God because the Haitian’s pact with the devil?

But really, to be fair, we have to expand this even further: Where was God when that brilliant sunrise broke over the Palouse hills one morning I remember a number of years ago when I had stayed up all night with some friends? Where was God when Bach composed the Brandenburg Concertos or when Handel composed his Messiah? Where was God when Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet? Where was God when my daughter was born 9 and half weeks premature, so beautiful, so small, and so awful?

There’s no sense in only choosing the bad things, the hard things. What we mean is: where was God? Where was God when it was awful and where was God when it was wonderful? Where was God when it was ugly and horrendous and where was God when it was heart-achingly beautiful?

The Atheist Response
One possible answer is to say that God wasn’t there. God wasn’t in any of those situations because there is no God. If the atheists are right, it’s pointless to answer this question, and it’s even more pointless for all of us to be gathered here to ask this question. But if there is no God, then there’s reasonable way to distinguish between the great variety of things we experience. There’s no reason why something should really be considered beautiful or ugly, harsh or lovely, evil or good. There’s no meaning to the words “suffering” or “justice.” Pain and ecstasy are just a biological phenomena, chemical reactions, atoms colliding in one way and not another. It’s all just “left-lateral strike-slip motion and compression.” Sure, you might prefer one thing over another. But that’s all it is: just a preference. If the earthquake was as much part of the evolutionary process as childbirth, sunsets, and laughter, then the earthquake just happened. Why struggle against Mother Nature? Why question fate? If there is no God, if there is no ultimate, transcendent right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful or ugly, then “who cares?” is just as appropriate a response to Haiti as sending aid and assisting in relief efforts. It’s only a matter of preference. Not only is this an empty, inhuman response, it is entirely unsatisfying and does not match our experience at all.

The Absent/Ignorant Deistic Response
This is really atheism for cowards. This person is willing to admit the existence of a god, and probably he created this world, but when the earthquake occurred, he was either busy with something else or simply didn’t know that it was happening. This god is not omniscient; this god is not omnipresent. He does not see all things or know all things. He is absent and ignorant. He is far removed. But this is no god. This is the god invented by rationalists who need a place holder for their orderly system of explaining the world. This is the generic god of American civics, the god of “god bless America” and “one nation under god,” the god who does not interfere or impose upon us. And that’s the root of this atheism-lite, this atheism for cowards. These cowards are also usually power hungry. This god does not speak, and cannot be counted upon to help in a time of need. But the worshippers of this god would be glad to help. Their god is useless, but that’s because this god is a front for tyranny. Deists want a distant god so that they can force their own moral vision on the world. They know what’s best for you. Hitler believed in a god like this. These moral fascists don’t know where god was when the earthquake struck, but they’ll be happy to play the part of god and exploit this horrific situation to their lust and greed.

The Absent Christian God
Unfortunately there are some Christians who embrace the Bible, embrace the revelation of the Father, Son, and Spirit, but for whatever reason refuse to listen to the clear teachings of Scripture. These Christians believe in a personal, present God, but when it comes to natural disasters and horrific events, they insist that God was in some way unable to stop the evil. These Christians (I think mostly unintentionally) are so infatuated with a particular form of “free will,” that they are willing to sacrifice many other Biblical truths on the altar of this conviction. In the name of the freedom of humans, they sacrifice the freedom of God. And they do this by insisting that God was only vaguely there. God heard the cries, God saw the plates of the earth moving together, and the buildings shaking, and for some reason God was not able to act to stop it. God was crying when the earthquake struck Haiti, crying for the hurt, crying for the pain. He wanted to stop it but couldn’t. This is little-old-lady Christianity, an anemic version of Christianity that’s trying to protect God from Himself. O God, don’t get mixed up with natural disasters; it’s not good for Your reputation. But not only is this unfaithful to the full teaching of Scripture, it is less than satisfying to the biblical standards of justice. This is a powerless God who cannot act to intervene and save lives when the earth shakes. This kind of God cannot be trusted. Can you pray to this kind of God?

The Christian God: Father, Son, and Spirit
1. God is the Creator and sustainer of all things. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). “In these last days [God has] spoken to us by His Son whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds… and upholding all things by the word of His power…” (Heb. 1:2-3) “I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord do all these things” (Is. 45:7). This includes earthquakes. While this is perhaps the hardest part of the answer, it ultimately rests in the conviction that God is love and that this love is supremely evidenced in the horror of the cross of Jesus Christ. Christians refuse to get their definitions of love, justice, and mercy from the newspapers, Hollywood, or sappy vampire romance novels. We insist that these and all other virtues must be grounded in the person of Jesus crucified. So we do not begin with an abstract notion of “God is love” or even that “God is good.”

We begin with Jesus crucified. And the Scriptures teach that in Jesus crucified the love and goodness of God was displayed to the world. By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us (1 Jn. 3:16). When Jesus was delivered up according to the foreknowledge of God the Father (Acts 2:23), He displayed justice and mercy and love and goodness for the world (Rom. 1:17). Jesus on the cross is the foundation for all Christian morality and theology. If we cannot accept that, then none of the rest will follow, none of the rest of the Bible will seem coherent or rational. But if Jesus crucified is the justice and goodness of God for the world, then everything is changed. The world isn’t what it seems. If the Christian God orchestrated the salvation of the world through the suffering of an innocent man on a cross and was raised up again three days later, then He can be trusted. The God who delivered Jesus up to be crucified for the salvation of the world, is the same God who orchestrates all things (even earthquakes) according to His wisdom for the salvation of the world.

2. This leads to the second point which is that the curse of sin is embedded in the earth. All of creation groans for the redemption of the sons of God (Gen. 3:17-18, Rom. 8:20-22). But it groans even louder after the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus is the first fruits Paul says of the renewal of all things. This means the renewal of families, the renewal of states, the renewal of economic policies, the renewal of the environment, and yes, the renewal of the tectonic plates of this planet. How can we trust that this is in fact happening? Because Jesus is risen from the dead. Where is Jesus now? What’s He doing? St. Paul says that He reigns in heaven until every enemy has been put beneath His feet (1 Cor. 15:25). And the last enemy will be death. Jesus is reigning until injustice is put beneath His feet. Jesus is reigning until economic oppression is put beneath His feet. He reigns until disease is put beneath His feet. The Scriptures teach us to believe that Jesus will reign until natural disasters are likewise put beneath His feet. How can we believe this? How can we trust that this is true? The answer of the Bible is the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus came back from the dead then the impossible is not only possible, not only likely, but absolutely certain. Who can stop Him now? The promise of the gospel of Jesus is that “creation itself will also be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).

3. God hates evil and suffering, but God is not bound by them. God is free.
He is free to overcome evil and suffering through bending it to His good purposes. Joseph says that what evil men meant for evil, God can and does turn to His good purposes.

“I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I the Lord, do all these things” (Is. 45:7). This is not a question of what is reasonable or conceivable; it is a question of God’s freedom and power. What is God up to in the world? The Bible presents God as the God of Freedom, the God who sets captives free, the God of the Exodus. And Jesus comes to fulfill all of it: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor, He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Lk. 4:18). Jesus is the freedom of God come for the world. But this freedom is not bound by our categories, by our standards. How could it be? God’s freedom is the definition of freedom and liberty. Jesus is the standard.

And so the question becomes: what is God’s freedom? What is God free to do? One of the central answers of the cross is that God is free to bend horror into beauty. He is free to display His glory in the cross, free to display His love, free to display His mercy and justice for the world. He is free to bring about His good purposes through the hardship of an earthquake in Haiti. God is free to do that, but we also know that He is strong enough to do it because Jesus is risen from the dead. What is possible? Is it possible to bring good out of evil? Is it possible to transform what from one perspective is awful into what becomes unflinchingly lovely? Is God free to do that?

4. God hates evil and suffering in itself, because it is the remnants of the old sin cursed world that still haunts all of us. But God is free to use this ugliness as He pleases, and He does. How does He use pain and suffering and death?

First of all, we know that God teaches us wisdom and hope through suffering (Job, Js. 1, Rom 5:3-5). Is God free to use hardship, even horrors to teach us wisdom? Jesus says that the truth will set us free.

Secondly, He confronts unbelievers with their mortality and their rebellion and frequently people need to be shaken awake from their sin-filled sleep. “But the idols He shall utterly abolish. They shall go into the holes of the rocks, And into the caves of the earth, from the terror of the LORD and the glory of His majesty, when He arises to shake the earth mightily. In that day a man will cast away his idols of silver and his idols of gold, which they made, each for himself to worship, to the moles and bats, to go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the crags of the rugged rocks, from the terror of the LORD and the glory of His majesty, when He arises to shake the earth mightily” (Isaiah 2:18-21). But this is not a mechanical equation (this is the problem with Pat Robertson’s declaration). When asked about a tower that fell in the town of Siloam in his own days, killed 18 people, Jesus said, they were not worse sinners than anyone else, but unless we repent we will likewise perish (Lk. 13:4).

Third, God does save lives and others He takes. “Now see that I, even I, am He, and there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive: I wound and I heal; Nor is there any who can deliver from my hand” (Dt. 32:39). He is the God of the living and the dead: the life of every living thing is in His absolute control (Job 12:10). He takes the lives of those who are wicked and in high handed rebellion, and He brings His own people home to rest in His presence until the resurrection.

In this, He is absolutely just and merciful. And our certainty of this does not rest in the images we see on the television. Our certainty rests in the crucified Jesus. In Jesus, the justice of God was revealed. In Jesus, all sin and evil was put to death. In Jesus, the way of life and freedom and joy was opened up to all who place their trust in Him. The God of the cross is the same God who continues to push history forward in every detail. And He can be trusted because Jesus is risen from the dead.

In conclusion: Where was God in Haiti when the earthquakes struck? Jesus said that not a hair can fall from our heads apart from the will of the Father. Where was God? God was in Haiti. Not one stone was outside the perfect control of our faithful Father. Not one life was taken accidentally, not one bone was broken by mistake. The same God who displayed His love and justice in the cross of Jesus, is the God who is free to use every circumstance, every disaster, even great horrors for good.
There are many metaphors that work well to illustrate how this could possibly work: Can a composer resolve dissonance into harmony? Can a master chef blend the bitter and the sour into a meal of exquisite fine dining? Can a sculptor turn an ugly stone into a lovely image? In every instance we know this is true, and the Christian God wields this freedom perfectly.

And despite the many trials we face in this world, we are likewise surrounded with piles of good things. And the same God is actively bestowing those gifts, and the question is: how will you respond? Will you give thanks for the good, and trust the God of the cross?

Where was God when chocolate was discovered? Where was God when I met my wife? Where was God when Mozart composed his requiem or stained glass was invented or we first saw the northern lights? God was there.

And where was God when my daughter died? The God of the cross was there.


Thursday, February 04, 2010

Theses on the Kindness of Christ

The Christ Church elders have just posted a new document titled "Theses on the Kindness of Christ," a working statement concerning the basis for mercy ministry. Since we work closely with the Christ Church session on a number issues and particularly mercy minister in our community, we worked on this statement with the Christ Church elders and have approved it as well.

You can find the text in its entirety at Doug Wilson's blog here.


Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Omnibus from Veritas Press

Here's a little shout out to the folks at Veritas Press, specifically their Omnibus series.

I've taught through the Omnibus III textbook through the Veritas Press Scholars Online Academy, used portions of the other texts in other venues, and written a few chapters throughout the series, but I think these texts are a good step in the right direction for classical education, schools, homeschoolers, and coop groups.

Here are a few of the highlights for me:

1. The entire series aims to include units of study on every book of the Bible. Until classical education makes studying the entire Bible a non-negotiable, I think words like "Christan worldview" are vague at best. The most important text for Christians is the Bible. Is that clear from our curriculum? The Omnibus series is pushing that aim forward.

2. The Omnibus series is consciously integrative. There are echoes throughout the books of other chapters, other readings, and many repeated themes. It challenges students to connect dots in literature, history, Bible, art, philosophy, ethics, politics, and practical every day life. These are the kinds of conversations every parent wants to be having with their kids on a regular basis.

3. The method seems very helpful to me. Every chapter begins with orientation material: What is this book about? Who wrote it? What's important about it? And then there's an essay drawing out the most important themes and lessons and evaluating the work by the standard of Scripture. Following this, there is a suggested lesson plan for reading the text, with discussion questions, recitation questions, and suggested projects and activities. These lesson plans lean heavily in the discussion direction, lots of discussion and conversation. Done right, it requires teachers to really dig into texts, raise very significant questions and issues, and challenges students to grapple with the ideas themselves.

4. Related to the last point is the fact that the series encourages natural conversations about just about everything. The book selection is fairly eclectic, though it draws heavily from what is widely considered the "western canon" of the Great Books. And the readings and discussions don't shy away from challenging ethical issues, sexuality, or particularly dark themes. The series doesn't bring these issues up in a preachy-moralistic way, rather, it comes up like real life, where teachers can naturally work through the issues and apply God's Word thoughtfully.

Lastly, a few warnings or guidelines that I would add (and I have said to a number of people who have asked):

1. No textbook can replace a faithful and gifted teacher. You can have the best curriculum in the world, and the students will hate learning, struggle to understand, and be worse for it in the end. While I think these textbooks are a significant step in the right direction, I would still rather have a faithful, Christian mom or dad or teacher teaching what he or she knows with joy and enthusiasm. If the textbooks help (and I think they could) then great.

2. Every good teacher knows that the curriculum is just a tool. The curriculum is not the teacher; the teacher is. This may be just another way of restating the previous point, but what I mean is that good teachers will pick and choose lessons, chapters, texts throughout the Omnibus series. The textbooks are just big piles of suggestions and ideas, and they need to be applied with wisdom to every classroom, every family, and every student.

3. If the Omnibus series errs on anything, it's probably in the overall reading load. But I always prefer this error. I'd rather aim high and have teachers use wisdom and cut certain readings or cut certain students a bit of slack. But this is why the centrality of the teacher is so crucial. A faithful and gifted teacher knows his/her students, knows their frames, and knows the difference between the student who is out of breath and loving it and the student who is out of breath and about to collapse.

I remember one time a parent telling me that his son had never worked so hard in all his life for school, and every morning he was waiting at the door with his backpack on asking if it was time to go yet. The dad said it was a strange but highly encouraging experience to see his son working so hard and eager for more. And that's what we want in our kids. We want them to learn to work hard, but we want them to grow up learning to love that hard work, loving learning, loving God and His world.

If I have any fear of the classical education scene it's definitely this last bit. Having a bunch of good books and high ideals is not the same thing as loving students and teaching them to love. If classical education is heading in the right direction, our students should be overflowing with the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, and peace. And those fruits are far more important than high SATs, fluency in Latin, or Ninja Logic skills.

Of course, we don't usually have to decide between the two. Usually we can do both. But we just want to make sure that all these "blessings" are being received as blessings. The great danger -- and this is the danger of bringing kids up in the Faith in general -- is that we can actually inoculate kids to truth, goodness, and beauty. We can pile these blessings all over them in a mechanical and thoughtless way, and when they graduate high school, they've had enough already.

Anyway, a few random thoughts, recommendations, and encouragement, hopefully. And again, I'd definitely recommend that you check out the Omnibus series if you haven't already. Some good stuff there.


Monday, February 01, 2010

Drag Me to Hell

I'm not usually into these sorts of flicks, but this review has me fairly intrigued.

Father Toms writes:

The title of the film hints that some of its characters are in danger of being dragged to hell. In the Bible, hell is often presented as something that devours, swallows—something that has a belly. Interestingly, the key images of this film center around food and eating. The movie is so replete with issues concerning food and dieting that some reviewers have felt that one of the subtexts of the movie is eating disorders. There is no question that the most repulsive and grotesque images of the film play with an idea about horrors connected with the mouth, both what goes in and comes out of it.


Burned Over

Some of you may know that upstate New York became known as the "Burned Over District" after the rivivalism of Charles Finney had worked the land over.

And out of that fertile waste arose such groups as the Mormons, the Jehovah's Witnesses, spiritualists, Millerites, a number of weird dietary cults (like Mr. Kellogg -- who was enamored with enemas and having "pure bowels" -- and yes, he was the original Kellogg who came up with the Corn Flakes), and a pile of people predicting the end of the world.

Anyway, on a recent exam, when asked to name three groups that arose out of upstate New York after the ministry of Charles Finney, one student named "Baptists" and "Lutherans." And no, he didn't get the question right.

It's the little things that keep teachers like me pushing through piles of papers to grade.