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Sunday, December 30, 2012

John 1 and the Ancient Covenant Text

Every baby raises the question “Who is he like?”
There is a family resemblance: how we look, move, speak, think, and react. Each of us has common features produced by genetics and our experiences in a family. As we age we catch a glimpse of our own parent (or grandparetns!) in the mirror, or hear their voice echoed in something we say. We “see through” our own self to see “the other” who is somehow living on “in us.”

Learning the skill of “seeing through” is also needed to read the Scripture.

To see the Face of God and hear His voice we must see through the NT to discern the Jewish Bible (and God's face/voice). Otherwise, we miss out on the deeper meaning.

In John 1 we read about ‘the Word’. John is a first century Jew. He speach is influenced by puns which is an ever-present feature of the Jewish Scriptures. Hebrew (and Aramaic) is built on roots words. So there are all manner of puns in the Bible which we do not see. We can not read Hebrew so we miss out on this. Sometimes the word play determines word choice in Hebrew which English translations cannot capture. We lose the fun of the game in Divine revelation and so we miss out on Who God is. Ironically, those who claim to take the Bible most seriously fail to encounter the God Who messes with us in language games and twists of phrase!

We read "The Word is made flesh", but what is “The Word?” One constant feature of the Fourth Gospel is John's multi-valent (meaning upon meaning) use of language. John plays with words and meanings. As you read a text it contains levels of meanings. The Greek word "Logos" has many meanings. One of them is “Scripture.” We call it the word of God. So Jesus is the revelation of God, the Book of God, or the Word. And we know the only Bible Jesus possessed is the Ancient Covenant text (Old Testament). It is that book which is alive and enfleshed and walking around first century Judah. we are invited to reflect on what that means...

So let us look at this first chapter of John to see if we can find the Father’s face in the face of the Son!

It doesn’t take long…. "En arche ho logos" = "In the beginning the word." John begins his Gospel with the same words as Genesis. The Jesus story, he communicates to us, is understood by the creation story. Genesis begins with darkness and chaos. God speaks and creation happens. Each symbolic day, we read again and again, consists of God speaking and His speech (word) creating. The ancient Jews sang of this in Psalm 33:6 (By the word of the Lord the heavens were made). The verb (speak) and noun (spoken content) are different aspects of the same thing.

The Ancient Covenant text also uses the terms Wisdom and Torah to communicate what John is saying here. Wisdom plays at the feet of God as a child and she is the guiding principle which shapes and forms creation. Torah is the Law, the reason and rationale for creation; the inner truth of creation. And, of course, there is the Word. The word of God which comes to the prophets:

Jeremiah 1:4 “the word of the Lord came to me saying.” (The word comes to the prophets) The Hebrew dabar means word, but it means so much more. It means a saying, a promise, a cause, a thing, a reason, an occupation, a deed. So we must read John through Hebrew thought:

The promise became flesh and lived among us.
God’s deed became Human.
The cause became a man.
God's Reason was enfleshed, living and breathing and walking the earth!

John continues:
what came to be in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness but the darkness does not katalambano it”

The first creative act in Genesis is the creation of light.
Jesus is the Source of light, He is light. Light is life. This is literally true. Plants absorb sunlight to grow. We eat the plants (or other plant eaters). We live. No sun, no light, no life.
This is true physically, but also spiritually.

The light is supernatural, but the natural state of things is darkness. Darkness is always here, we just can’t see it because of the light. But once the light leaves a room darkness is revealed. Darkness, the absence of light, is also death, the absence of life.

We live in a world where the dark always remains. It cannot katalambano= apprehend/understand the WORD. That is why unbelief is so prevalent. Jesus cannot be grasped by those who would remain in the dark, whatever the reason. But (the pun!) katalambano which means apprehend/understand also means apprehend/overcome. The light who is Jesus appears defeated by the power of the world, but He is not…. And we who suffer in the darkness must cling to that hope of Light.

The world does not understand Jesus….
The world cannot defeat Jesus…
This is why we pray canticle 11 (Isaiah 60) Arise shine for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you. For behold, darkness covers the land and deep gloom enshrouds the people; but over you the Lord will rise and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will stream to your light….”

But the appearance of Jesus is rife with paradox and contradiction.
He made the world but when He appeared the world did not know Him. How can this be? How can creation not know the creator?
Even worse, God’s own people do not accept him. If Jesus is the Messiah why is there so much doubt?

Once more Isaiah provides the answer, Isaiah 1:2-3 “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know and my people do not understand.”

The mystery of unbelief is all over the Hebrew text. Today I read it in Numbers 14 in my prayer time: The Lord said to Moses, 'How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me inspite of all the signs that I have done among them?"

As it was, it still is. The mystery of human freedom begets all manner of good and ill, faith and unbelief, obedience and rejection.

But there is also faith and great blessing: Those who do believe receive the gift (says John). Each becomes a child of God. It is not a biological process or an act of human will. It is a gift from God, the gift of life poured out upon all who embrace God’s Son.

“The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” and hidden in the Greek word is a deeper meaning. Dwelt is Skanoo and literally means to tabernacle or tent among us. Read Exodus 40:34, Numbers 35:34, Joshua 22:19 and the dozens of other places where the CLOUD of God’s presence would tabernacle/tent in Israel’s midst on their journey and finally in the Temple. God "tenting" with His people is the deepest meaning of the phrase in John.

This Jesus, He is God living among us. His body is the new tabernacle, the new tent of that presence. And the OT is fully-filled-up in Him whom we call Emmanuel!

The life of Jesus for us is grace after grace, blessing upon blessing. When we look in His face we see the Father. When we hear Him we hear the Father. And the Father’s word to each of us is salvation as in Jesus He says to you, to me, “My Son. My daughter.” This is Good News, the kind of message to take into a new year. I pray your 2013 is filled with an abundant insight into your status as a child of God and your belief will produce abundance in dabar (word and deed)!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Two Degrees of Separation

I woke early, ate breakfast, packed a lunch and arrived at work very early. I am spending most of my time preparing bible study notes on the parallel Gospels. It is tedious work, with lots of flipping from one commentary to another, cross referencing verses, pouring over the OT to find allusions and typing up something reasonably coherent for future use. Yesterday I created seven pages of text; roughly one an hour (I also worked on my Sunday sermon and did a few other things) and today I hope to match that.

As I drove in this dark and rainy morning, my car thermometer, sitting on 57 when I fired up the engine, continued to drop the entire drive. In 3.1 miles it had come to rest at 34 degrees. Two more degrees and the rain is snow or ice. And I know that when we say "about" that means plus or minus two or three degrees. So the "standard of error" covers the difference between wet and icy. Sometimes we are just that close. And the difference can be pretty radical. An inch of rain is a lot of snow (roughly 5-10 inches; the colder it is the more there is) and snow causes all manner of issues.

"Almost," therefore, is important. Missing by a few degrees, or a couple inches, or a few minutes can have radical impact. Ask a surgeon, an architect or an athlete. Or a priest. I am in a profession which focuses on ultimate things. In a sense, my "job" is "to help people go to heaven." While I find that turn of phrase problematic, in general, it is how most people describe what I do. It is literally what I have been told to my face numerous times. Now in a sense, it is quite easy. There is a reference book ("the Book," or as it sounds in Greek, biblios = Bible) and there are numerous passages in the Book which spell out pretty clearly what to do. There is also "The Church" which is the body of believers stretched out over twenty odd centuries which is led by the Holy Spirit and serves God by preaching His message. And, of course, we are equipped with minds and hearts, so reason, insight and 'feelings/intuition' are also at play. All of these together (starting with Revelation in Scripture) give us a pretty solid insight into what God wants. So that sums it up.

Except, The Book is full of all manner of things which trouble me. I worked on Matthew 9 and 10 all day yesterday; I was reading and pouring over several verses which shook me up. Some do not bother me [Mt 9:18 a man comes to Jesus and says, "My daughter just died" while Mk 5:21ff tells us the man (named Jairus) came to Jesus because his daughter was sick. She dies later.] because I believe the 'discrepencies' in factual detail are not important. I understand the writers are doing what we all do: shaping material to fit into the limited time and space needed to communicate and conforming to the message we are communicating. Now my Literalist brother or sister in Christ is upset by this. S/he will engage in all manner of pretzeling in order to twist and explain how this is possible (because The Word is "inerrant" and s/he defines inerrant by extra-biblical standards). Now I am only a few degrees away from a Literalist. Progressives and Secularists would call me a Fundamentalist (in fact they have, repeatedly!), but as we have seen, those few degrees make all the difference!

What bothers me is different. It is things like 10:1 (Jesus gave them power to exorcise and heal) and 10:7-8 (Jesus sent them to preach, heal, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and cast out demons) and especially the end of 10:8 (you received without paying, give without paying). First the former, although we have the healing ministry here and although we have had an exorcism, in reality, my normal day is not chock full of miracles. I do not know what the apostles experienced all day. The Book does not spell it out. However, signs and wonders are pretty rare around here. And cleaning lepers? I have seen little to no success with acne on a distressed teen. So it bothers me. We bury people but not one has been raised. At least not the physically dead. So, I wonder if my doubt or sin is a barrier to the power of Jesus at work in me? I wonder if it is a lack of prayer (and fasting)? I hear some folks claim that the power disappeared with the apostles. This raises another question, Why Jesus? Why give a gift and take it back? And even more confusing, what about all the places in the church where this happened (saints stories are full of miracles) or still happens today (like Africa)? And if the lack of signs and wonders is a measure of my faith, is it far off to wonder if I really have faith (and if faith is needed for salvation..... Well connect the dots and it looks potentially unpleasant).

I am even more troubled by the idea that the minister should be unpaid. As the commentary said, this may have been part of an early church debate on "professional" ministers. I read some theologians argue that ministers should not be paid, but they should work another job to support themselves (like Paul did). Of course, these theologians work at schools and, I assume, get paid. But that aside, the question still bubbles up: Is Jesus unhappy that I make a living doing what He meant to be done for free? What if at the judgment He asks me to explain all these years of a confortable life and good salary from church work? And what if He is frowning when He asks?

Lastly, there is 10:22 (which is repeated in 24:13) which comes in the midst of Jesus' promise that those who follow Him will be persecuted and suffer greatly. Here it is: "he who endures to the end will be saved." One commentator was obviously troubled by this verse as well. He said that there was a danger of misreading it because we are saved by faith not by works. He was clear. Perseverance is not part of salvation because salvation is by grace. And I beg to differ. I think holding on to the end is exactly what Jesus means. I think holding on is faith and I believe that it is in response to God's grace (a gracious call to be His people).

I was involved (very briefly) in a discussion group on marriage and Lent. One person, a highly respected Anglican priest in my circle (i.e. the people who are not happy with the way things are going in the Epsicopal church) wrote a comment in response to what I (and others) said. He called it "absurd." And the reason is because he is thoroughly protestant and I am not. We are both Christians, but we are separated by several degrees, probably 4 or 5. And that separation includes all manner of assumptions and modes of discerning. It impacts where we start, how we proceed and always where we end up. And our disagreements are not minor or insignificant. They impact daily pastoral decisions, the message we share and how we understand "getting to heaven." We both would say "Jesus" but the content of that message would differ. In fact, lots of Protestants would say we do not differ in degree, we differ in kind (sorry, my anaolgy shifted from thermometers to Aristotle!). We are, they say, not the same kind of thing (Christian) but two different kinds of things (they ar Christians, I am not, I am in error).

Some people say, "Don't worry about it. God loves us all." But, of course, that is also a position which may or may not be right. It may be close to truth, but off a couple of degrees.... And in a world where our choices make an impact (which medicine is best? which diet? which exercise program? which job? which spouse? etc.) it seems silly to say that choices about God do not matter. I do not advocate blowing off the eternal religous questions, even if and especially if the answers can never be arrived at with absolute surety. I think suffering through is part of the deal. And I do believe those who hang on and endure to the end will be saved. God's grace. Jesus' blood. (but with our blood, sweat and tears mixed in, too)

That is what I think the Holy Spirit has led the church to teach that the Bible says. And now it is your turn to decide what you think!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas Surprises

I wanted to share a couple moments from the recent Christmas celebration. First of all, I have had a terrible time getting my days and times right. I kept moving Christmas to Wednesday in my mind. It is interesting how one can do that sort of thing, even when you look and see it is not correct... Monday evening we had a pretty full house at 4 and 5:30. It was not crammed like it once was but there were plenty of folks. The early service, with kids dressed up to illustrate the story visually, is rather noisy. Ironically, three different parents sheepishly apologized that their little one had disrupted the service with noise. My angle on things, no one could disrupt what was already a stewing caldron of little voices and noises. I preached, briefly, on Mary treasuring and pondering the events of the day. I looked at the Greek words (the latter, symbalein, is where we get the English word symbol) and came to see that they both conveyed an active choice: to guard from forgetting and to discuss with one's self. I laid down an offer to choose to ponder and guard the memories of this birth and what they mean.

Between the first two and the late service I eat with my family. The past few years we had joined some friends, but for some sad reasons that was not possible this year. So we chose to go out and eat instead. I called and found two places which were open until 8pm, which fit with my need to be back at church by 8:30. To our surprise, the place was packed and we were told it was an hour and a half wait. Then my wife asked what I was thinking, "I thought you closed at eight." Poor folks would serve anyone who got there before eight, no matter how late they stayed. We left because we couldn't be sitting down at 8:30 for dinner. We drove around and found a Japanese resturaunt and ate there. Sort of like in the Christmas movie, though no "Fa-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra" or duck with a head on it! At one point my son heard the music playing (Feliz Navidad) and commented, "Spanish music at a Japanese resturaunt on Christmas." The meal was fine, but not what we expected to be doing.

Which brings me to the biggest surprise of that evening. At 4:00 we read the whole birth narrative and each priest comments briefly on a section and in middle we sing a carol. We both did our task in a brief time. This allows us to focus on Jesus like a  laser which is not easy with a church full of little ones. At the other two services, which are more typical of our regular worship, I preach and the other priest leads the prayer. As I sat listening to the first reading, from Isaiah (which I had prepared my sermon on) I noticed the opening included verses I forgot about. I smiled to myself. The smile disappeared on the second and third verses, which also did not sound familiar. Then I looked more closely, in horror, to see my sermon was based on a text which we were not going to read that night....

What came out instead worked fine. Fortunately I had just done this section of Luke in bible study a few weeks ago. More importantly, I had some clarity on my thoughts about the real meaning of Christmas in general. One thing that came out was this, If the people in Connecticut (or overseas serving, or without families anywhere) cannot sing "Joy to the World" then no one can. If our joy is based on happy family gatherings then it is no joy, it is pleasing circumstances. If we are able to see the joy due to Jesus even if our hearts ares sad, lonely, grieving, suffering then we understand the true meaning of Christmas. The message that night was less theologically developed than my orignal sermon, but it seemed to  have its impact. And so I offer that to you. The real meaning of Christmas (Christ's Mass) is worship before the manger. It is seeing that God has stripped Himself and enterred our world, clothed in our skin and living our life. Embracing all the evil and suffering it Himself, He redeems everything. And the time with family and friend, eating, drinking and celebrating--or--whatever circumstance one finds one's self in, is all taken up into that little tiny body and made one with God!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Snow White and Jesus

This comes from Advent 1. I planned to integrate it earlier in my writing about apocalyptic but things happen which change plans. While very well received as a sermon, it may not translate into a written format as easily. I do think I tend to write this blog the way I write my preaching/teaching notes (to the horror of all my English teacher and grammar-focused friends), so perhaps it will be more of the same:

I want to illustrate how apocalyptic works as literature. Maybe Walt Disney can help. Think of Snow White. She talks to animals and they help her. They even help clean a cottage. In Disney movies, the female hero can do that sort of thing. Though this is not “real life,”  we are not confused because we "get it." That is how the story goes in Disney world. Female heroines are able to talk to animals even when the rest of the story is more reflective of the rules of real life.

Apocalyptic is like that, too. It has different rules. It is not scientific. It has stereotypical images, symbols and language. It is a different literary type. Maybe looking at Snow White can help us see it more easily in the Bible.

Snow White's dad is a king. Her mother dies and he marries a beautiful, but vain woman. Royal imagery is often part of fairy tales as is some loss which places the heroine in a difficult situation. Cinderella, for example, had a similar problem. The “step” mother role is an apocalyptic image: she is the evil parody of true motherhood, just like the Anti-Christ, the Whore of Babylon and the Demonic Ram are fake imitations of the real thing (Christ, The Bride/Church and The Lamb that was slain). Driven by jealousy (note, in Christian legend this is the Sin of Lucifer) she tries to kill young Snow White (whose name symbolizes purity; see Isaiah though your sins are crimson red I make them white as snow). The assassin however, frees the girl in the woods. There she has a frightening ordeal (with scary music, darkness and monsters). This is tribulation, the time of testing so central to all apocalyptic narratives. When the night ends she is surrounded by friendly animals which aid her. Apocalyptically, the relationship of the girl and the animals is an expression of the reign of God. Human and nature back in sync, the Genesis curse is undone. [To quote the Bible, the lion lays down with the lamb and the babe plays with snakes.] This is why the great saints, like Francis, frequently are associated with miraculous animal stories: Shalom of God’s Kingdom.

Recall, Snow White sings “Some Day my Prince will come.” This is the apocalyptic promise: the future coming of the King. It is an excellent hymn for Advent: “MARANATHA come Jesus!” Of course in our age (more scientific) this is a much maligned part of the story and feminism detests the movie because of the implications that girls are to wait for their prince. We live in the post waiting for a prince world. The newer Disney cartoons emphasize self actualize warrior women (like Mulan). However valid and helpful this may be sociologically/psychologically it does not reflect our situation theologically.

Remember the wicked queen disguises herself as an old hag with apples. Symbolically her disguise reveals her heart as outer beauty gives way to her inner ugliness. She is a beast. In folk tales and in apocalyptic good=beauty and evil=ugly. Sadly, in regular life, good and evil are no so easily discerned. But the purpose of the literature is to clarify what is muddled in daily life. It gives us eyes to see what is really there!

Lastly, Snow White, poisoned by the apple, lies “dead” until the Prince comes and with a kiss wakens her. This wakening is, apocalyptically, the resurrection. The final image is marriage: the wedding of the prince and Snow White, the wedding feast of the Lord and His Church. In apocalyptic, Jesus will "wake" us all with a kiss and wedding! Calling death sleep is a frequent feature of NT writing (Jesus and Paul) and it is an image which makes symbolic sense to us all. It implies both the absence (of awareness and interaction) and the temporary nature of the situation ("arise sleeper rise from the dead and Christ will glorify you!")

Snow White resonates with the longing of our hearts. We want peace with all creation, evil unmasked and overthrown, death conquered, love and kisses. We want to live happily ever after. That is the story written by God. It is why all literature, be it great novels or folk tales, the fare of the most educated or simplest, ends up reflecting common themes. It is why we find truth where there are no facts....

The "world" teaches that we do not live happily ever after, but God’s story gives us hope and courage for some day we shall.
That is the message and meaning of all apocalyptic literature.

What Jesus tells us today is the same story [this refers to Luke 21:25ff]. It is horrible and beautiful with threat and a hope filled promise. It is motivation to believe that some day our Prince will come.

For Jesus says:
There will be signs in the skies. Ancient man believed planets and stars ruled so of course signs would be there. It is a word picture of God’s victory over all principalities and powers! That is the communication whether or not literal astral events are intended.
There will be distress. The powers aligned against God will not go quietly, Evil is jealous, ruthless, murderous. Each age has its own trouble and turmoil: it is the time of testing. Certainly the recent shootings and the other "bad news" which bombards us are a graphic presentation of the real suffering and pain. Inspite of what I read in our newspaper viewpoint section, evil is real. And psychologizing away causes while ignoring effects does not make evil disappear. Evil is real and we need deliverance and no human is up to the task, except the Divine Human Jesus Christ. But He has not and is not here with us, at least not in the sense of a concrete rule where everything is fine. No, we continue to see "sun, moon, stars=principalities and powers" exert their evil reign. Jesus has not come, not yet.

But He will come. He will appear. When your eyes behold Him come in glory (=with clouds) you will know that you did not hope in vain. His appearance will be salvation: rescue from all that harms and hurts and crushes us, from all that causes you to weep.

And He makes clear that His word is firm.
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will NOT pass away. So we believe, we trust, we repent, we walk together.

Jesus tells us not to be weighed down by life.
He identifies two alternatives: drunkenness and worries. Drunkenness is the “party life.” It is dissolute, worry-free and it focuses on pleasure—all types of appetites, not just alcohol. It ends in death.

But the alternative is death, too, though more appealing to us. It concerns the pursuit of success. It worries about things. My career. My wealth. My possessions. My reputation. My ego. It is so very busy and so very focused and so very tied up and tied into knots about everything that is passing away.

And neither group sings of the Prince who is to come.

Apocalyptic is wonderful. It is a real life "fantasy" narrative to see the deeper meaning of our lives. It shows in powerful pictures what we see and experience. It promises that for which we hope and dream.

We live in the time of signs in the sky and suffering on earth.
We experience fear, threat and pain.
We may shudder in darkness and weep in fear….
The stars and planets and wicked queens may still rule…

But our prince is coming
And His sweet kiss will deliver us.
And we will live happily ever after.
And it begins NOW.

Friday, December 21, 2012

How Fundamentalists Accidently Sell Out the Faith

Over the years, especially when I was a high school chaplain supporting the kids, I have been a spectator at games. Most of the time, I have a vested interest in a particular team winning. As such, I found I was keenly aware of analyzing referees and umpires to find times where they erred in their calls. It is a pretty universal phenomenon that people say "The ref/ump stole that game from us." I have never, ever heard anyone say, "The ref/ump handed us that game." In general, we quickly integrate a call in our favor as "balancing out other mistakes they made" or "finally we get a break." We experience the world through our beliefs and observations. We also observe the world through our beliefs. We are subjective and not objective.

I bring up the sports analogy because I think the concept of "our team" is a strong motivator for our subjectivity. It motivates us to maximize the negatives of adversaries and minimize the negatives of allies. It also means that we overstate the value of what we value and are ready to criticize the values of others with whom we disagree. This gap leads to breakdowns in communication and community. It also tends to increase over time and intensify as we divide into our sides and hurl our "arguments" back and forth.

Now, disagreements and conflicts are not all bad. In many cases they are good and needed. However, because of "team spirit" (or love of kin, country, church, or a particular position) we tend to quickly become blind to our blindness. An example, at a typical baseball game fans sit above, far away from and at an angle of home plate. There is not any doubt about this. There is also no doubt that a baseball is traveling at a pretty high rate of speed. So a spectator has a split second, literally, to observe a moving baseball passing through a "strike zone" (the area between the knees and mid-chest of the person at bat and over the white plate on the ground). The zone has to be constructed by your eyes and mind, it is not made of anything. And yet, on a constant basis, people whine and grown that the umpire, who is sitting directly behind the plate less than four or five feet behind it all, is somehow incorrect in calling balls and strikes, while we, sitting far away at an angle in the stands are able to critique what he is doing. [sometimes he is wrong and sometimes we are right, but based on the angles I am thinking we probably cannot really see what is going on] Less this seem to be something I am making up, I remember a game where I was upset about where my son was standing in relation to the plate. I thought he was too close, his foot almost appeared to be on the plate. As I walked over to get closer and tell him to move I was shocked to find that standing directly behind the plate it was clear that he was exactly where he should be. My perception was in error, not him.

So what does this have to do with faith and "selling out"? We live in a time where perhaps the Fundamentalist-Modernist battle is coming to a close. The main reason seems to be the rise of post-modernism. This is key. It is not because we (Christians) won or they ("Liberals" or "Modernists") won. It is beause the rules of engagement are changing. The ascendency of pure reason has peaked. The numerous critiques of the modern world (I think Romanticism was one), including the Christian, have often suffered from not realizing that the rules were the basis of victory.

What do I mean? Well, in simplest terms, Christians (I live in the Bible Belt) tend to read the Bible with the same assumptions as the people with whom they disagree. And, because of the heated controversy (us v. them) the reflective process gives way to more emotional battling. Whatever "they" say is wrong (like the ump) and whatever "we" say is treasure (go team go!). So, for example, the creation account is understood as science. Why? Because in our culture (which contains both Christian and Modernist) Scientism reigns. Truth means literal, concrete, measurable, countable, etc. And so Christians, while rejecting the Modern explanation (Bible is in error) embrace the opposite (the Bible describes exactly what took place over seven days--because that is what it says). Of course, it does not exactly say that. It seems to exactly say that. How can I be so obtuse and think this?

I do not think the Bible was written for Modern People. It was written for Ancient People, by Ancient People, in Ancient times. And not just any people, but particular people, most expressly, Jews and Greeks. So they use images and words and thought constructs which made sense to them. And it is one of Modern Man's arrogant beliefs that Modern is good, ancient is bad. Facts are good, truth is bad. Literal is good, figurative is bad. Science is good, myth is bad. Positivist history is good, legend is bad.

So the week of creation is a literal week because that is what Modernist say it isn't and we hate them so we will argue with them to prove our point. And that is the sell out. Right there, in the assumptions and the rules. You see, we let them (Modernist) set the rules on what matters and what has value. And then we try to fit our faith into that context. So we values things based on their criteria.

We turn salvation into an economic commodity and talk about Jesus in value add terms. [If you believe you go to heaven, great investment opportunity, just believe and you get eternal bliss] We talk about Jesus in therapeutic terms [He will fix your family life, or your emotional life, or relationships, or get you off drugs]. We speak of Jesus in competitive terms [He is better than "..." at fixing what ails you]. Modern people vote and are self directed, so we talk about "accepting Christ" as if He is a new kid in school who wants to join our cool group....

The Bible speaks in pre-modern terms. Ancient people get it. In many ways the Middle Ages got it. We don't. We vote and choose. They had kings. Jesus is not President, He is King of kings and Lord of lords. These are not concepts with which we are familiar.

We need to be aware that the values of God (found in the Bible) do not always fit in our world. We should not let the debate be on terms set by people who  have missed the boat on so much. And we need to stop sweating some of the problems which we are worried about and realize that they are only problems based on certain assumptions.

I long for the day when we move beyond it all. I think, we are seeing the dawn of that day. I long for the time when the veil is lifted and we see clearly. The "unveiling" (Greek word for that: apocalypse!!!) where our human culture's assumptions and prejudices will be removed. And we shall see clearly. And we won't sell out the faith by accident, because we have embraced and been embraced by a foreign culture, foreign to God's Kingdom.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Eye balls not bread

Apocalyptic hope is based on some assumptions. People are divided between two loyalities, either to the Kingdom of God or the other kingdom. The other kingdom is about the human desire for its own gratification (our "natural" state since the fall). Self gratification can be as base as pure pleasure found in food, drink, intoxicants, sexuality, etc. Such pleasures usually have a limited success and abuse has immediate repurcussions. One twinky good, two better, twenty-three--well you know. Same with intoxicants, a little give you a pleasant buzz but it is a short trip from feeling the high to overdosing and severe physical reactions. Doing things because "I want to" or "I think it would be enjoyable" is always a two edged sword.

In "the other kingdom" where fulfilling "my desires" is king, a person is ruled by "my hungers and desires." In such a state, people can and do choose all manner of bad things because it seems like it would be something that they want to do. And this opens one up to the dangerous forces at work around us. If "my pleasure" has traditionally been called "the Flesh" the other two forces have long been called "the World" and "the Devil." This encompasses the physical environment and the spiritual environment in which we abide. Because humans, even the best and brightest of us, are susceptible to being misled, the subtle forces of the world (called peer pressure, or pressure to conform, or societal 'values') and the more sinister actions of the demonic (whether understood impersonally or personally) do impact our freedom to think and choose. All of us are victims as well as perpetrators.

Jesus came to set us free from the negative, even bestial forces at work around us and within us. These forces (personal and impersonal) lead us to evil, sin, dis-integration and death. Death may be as total as the end of life and damnation or the truncated life of a person without the faculties they need for a whole, holy and happy life. But the freedom Jesus offers is not complete, YET. In other words, we continue to struggle. We wrestle with temptation, doubt and fear and with our own infidelities and sins. The promised peace of the 30-second religious commercial sometimes lasts little longer than the commercial itself. "No Jesus, No Peace...Know Jesus, Know Peace" is a terrific marketing slogan. Terrific but not totally accurate. Many people have known Jesus and continued to struggle, daily, to find peace.

Apocalyptic makes sense of that. Peace, in apocalyptic, is future tense. It is coming and it is going to happen but first is the time of trial, the period where steadfastness and courage are the needed virtues. We are in that time. Apocalyptic uses images of beasts and monsters and fanstatic images to capture the sheer horror. The horror which, in more mundane expression, is communicated to us with statistics and body counts and discussions about mental illness and social deviancy and public violence.

Confronted with such evil (in ourselves and in others) we learn that "the flesh, the world, the devil" is a pretty accurate and all encompassing assessment of the situation. And we know that our only way out is something above and beyond these three. And that is where Jesus II comes in. What we call "the return of the Lord" is, in apocalyptic terms, the final summation and consumation and hope and dream. We long to see Jesus (if not directly then indirectly: we long to see peace, love, kindness, etc. the fruits of His Kingdom rule). That desire is bigger and better than anything we have found or could find here. In fact, in apocalyptic, all desire is for God, but most desires are mis-shapen and twisted and foul the perfect. This is why the demonic is expressed in similar terms to the divine. It is an evil parody of God and His Goodness.

When my daughter was a little girl (4 or 5) she came to me in a state of aggitation. "I want to see God" she stammered, impatient and desperately sincere. "I want to see God, eye balls, not bread." For those familiar with traditional worship, it is eucharist centered. We say "the Body of Christ" and receive a piece of bread. My preschooler was clearly not satisfied with the sacramental presence. She wanted to see a face, as human and as really present as my own. She wanted to look into the eyes of God and be seen in return. She has become reconciled to living into God's rules, in His time. I only hope the hunger and desire have not abated.

Around the world, people are chirping about Friday. Will the world end? Did the Father reveal to Mayans what He kept hidden from His own Son (Who declared He did not know when the End will come)? My guess is not. I have written a Christmas sermon (two actually) and am well into my sermon for the Sunday after Christmas. I am obviously planning to be around long after this Friday....

But the good thing about this speculation is it is a reminder, I want to see Jesus: eye balls, not bread. I want His kingdom to come, His will to be done. I want no more tears. No more tragedies. No more little children shot, wars, famine, disease... No more... I want it to be on earth like it is in heaven. And that means walking away from me and all powers that would stand in God's place. That means repentance and a new life. It means preaching to others, yes, but more so to myself. I have to change. I have to change...

Many are pretenders to the throne and all of them false. Some display their evil more quickly and obviously than others. The shooter, the thief, the bad governor.. Others are longer acting and take longer to be unveiled as false messiahs; unveiling always happens eventually. In the end, we have a hunger and desire which only the Kingdom can fill. And the consolation of that unfulfilled desire is the recognition that the desire itself points beyond, to a pristine and holy Source. It is God's fingerprint on our soul. Some day we will see those Eye Balls, perfect and divine, and "the world, the flesh, and the devil" will hold sway no longer. Once the Real comes the unreal imitation will, to steal an image of apocalyptic, "dissolve in fire." And all will be well, and all will be well, in every manner of things all will be well.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sandy Hook Elementary School Slaughter

Like all of you, I wept as I reflected on the horror story of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown , Connecticut. Having spent the majority of my young adult life working with young children this story resonates deeply. I did not know the twenty children who were mowed down without mercy. But I have known thousands just like them. As a former teacher, I am also familiar with the kinds of people the brave women were who died trying to save those children. Vivacious and loving, committed to the education and formation of those youngsters, they spent their last moments of earth trying to do what was beyond them, "stop the killer" and yet, by their actions, saving other children. The carnage, awful as it was, could have been much higher. (I hope the radio talking heads spend some time praising teachers.) In the darkest hour their true colors were revealed. Sacrifice of self. There is no greater love than to give your life for another. We saw great love here.

I also worked ten years at Youth Villages. Our job was to reach, teach and help heal emotionally troubled youth. All were victims. Most were perpetrators. Any of them would have some similarities to the troubled young gunman (gun-boy). I have known and loved such children, too. At least one of my kids did become a murderer. I still remember seeing his name in the paper. Angry and low functioning, he also had a sweet side. I failed to turn him. Someone died because of it.

I live in Collierville, Tennesse. We are a half hour drive on the interstate from downtown Memphis. Memphis is regularly awarded the top spot, or near the top spot, in most "worst city" lists for a variety of maladies. Among the things with which we are too familiar is murder. While the nation mourns the senseless murders of the 26 in Newton, we, here in West Tennessee, are hearing the story of a Memphis police woman. She was the mother of four; a public servant who was shot by a teenager as she served a warrant. Her death was also senseless, unwarranted, a grave evil; but her story is not national news. Probably, in part, because we are used to such stories. Young black men frequently shoot and kill others. Statistically speaking, it is one more case of the same old thing. It is the reason why places like Newton, Conneticut, and Collierville, Tennessee are popular destinations for people who want to raise their kids in a better kind of environment.

One of the tragic ironies, of course, is the fact that our violence riddled inner city has never had a mass shooting of this sort. Fact is, and I am aware of this most every day, Colllierville schools are much more likely to be on national news for this sort of thing than inner city Memphis schools. That, too, is a fact. And it is horrid to contemplate. Predominantly White, middle and upper middle class, suburban, with a large rural population nearby, my neighbors are people just like the mourning victims of Sandy Hook. Our teachers are just like the teachers there. We know it and as we weep for the 26 the tears are more copious because we know, in a real sense, they are us. And we are in terror that we will be them some day.

I had planned to write on apocalyptic today, using a Disney story to explain the literary type. Instead, I find myself driven to reflect on what has consumed me these last two days. One question which will never be answered to anyone's satisfaction is "Why?" I have an answer. Evil. Sin. But most people refuse to accept that as sufficient. Surely, they say, we can know so we can keep this from happening again. And truth be told, we have learned some things and because our schools practice and prepare for things like this, many dozens of young lives were spared, many teachers and kids still walk among us today. They locked their doors and scurried into "safe" places and they avoided their doom. But in the end, really, we all know that there is a fragility to life and even the best laid plans fail to meet every contingency. If you can shoot a President, you can find a way to kill defenseless kids. I have seen two Presidents shot and a third narrowly escape because of an inept gun-woman. I have seen far more schools invaded and the resulting deaths to think we can ever perfectly solve the problem. And while guns are an issue lets be honest. A truck of fertilizer and gasoline also littered our streets with young corpses in Oklahoma City. Evil finds a way....

I am now a priest. A man immersed in Sacred Scripture, a preacher and teacher. It is my task to provide some insights from a faith perspective. As I pondered what I would say, walking my dog in the dark, misty morning, I knew that I must ask God for His message. In my experience God does not talk to me, much. I think He talks through me, or so many people report, but I am not a guy who hears voices, sees visions, or experiences some absolutely certain communicaton from the Creator. I believe God speaks to me through His Word and through the Tradition (the authentic and authoritative teaching voice of the Church). My own interpretation of the Word is Spirit-led, but I test it against the Orthodox Faith. In other words, I try to avoid making it say what I want it to say. With that in mind, I offer, in all humility a few things which have come to me (and I make no certain claim God initiated any of this).

First, the words from Matthew 2:16-18. We just reflected on this a few days ago on this blog. Herod sent and killed all the boys under two in Bethlehem. A murderous rampage with sword and spear, just as effective in horror and evil, it echoes what we saw at Sandy Hook. The Scripture, a NT use of an OT verse, has a chilling resonance. "A voice in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more." It breaks the heart to read and pray over the text. There are 26 Rachels connected to Sandy Hook, mothers bereft of their babies (be they 6 or 56). And many more of us feel like Rachel, mourning and weeping, wailing and unconsoled, for they are no more. And as I walked in the dark I reflected on that, over and over. And I found that I realized how full of violence and loss our Bible is. Anyone who reads it knows. God-lovers and Jesus-followers are not surprised by evil and death. We pray for its redemption.

In our Morning Prayer I read Psalms 79 & 80. It begins: "O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance; they have profaned your holy Temple; they have made Jerusalem a heap of rubble. They have give the bodies of your servants as food for the birds of the air, and the flesh of your faithful ones to the bessts of the field." Elementary schools are our sacred space. We demand that they be a safe place. And to see our babies, lifeless corpses, we cry out with the (Holy Spirit inspired) Psalmist "How long will you be angry, O Lord? Will your fury blase like fire forever?"

Is the massacre God's act? Well, Jesus' words about children are many and all positive. He loved children and still does. He calls them near and blesses them. Had Jesus been in that school He would have given His life to protect them. (He did, already, give His life to save them!) The shooter was not praying a rosary, quoting Scripture or singing hymns. He was not God directed. God's law includes, numerous times, "Thou shalt not murder." Killing those people goes against God's will. It is our world, we make our choices. It is our act. It is not God. And we do well to remember that this same God cannot be addressed in our schools. Did they pray, huddled in their closets as the shots were fired? Probably, but not officially. It is against our social will to invite God into our schools. And many have pointed out, in His absence, the void has too often been filled by demons. Demons with guns.

The only thought I feel I might have received from God in my prayer was these words. "He was my child, too." This is a horrible thought, but true. The shooter was once a little boy in that same school. According to some stories, he was socially inept and rather timid. What turned him into a cold blooded killer? The world, the flesh, the devil, those three are a deadly combination. And God did not create him to be a killer. That choice was against God's will. And the boy's problems are connected, to some extent, to rage and self hatred.For really, was he not killing himself, symbolically, as he shot, again and again those cowering, frightened children? I think so. They were him, at least a part of him. And so was his mother, the person we are closest too since birth. And the teachers were all mother symbols. And killing his mother, again and again, he was also killing himself. And in the end, he consumated the symbolic suicide, projected on other innocent people, by killing himself. And all of it a tragic waste of God's gift of life. And did God weep at such waste and carnage, such evil? human language cannot capture God, but I think the idea is closer to the reality than not.

So why did God allow it? Well, here, I think, is where our blindness is apparent. Our president wept as he told us his thoughts about this event. He was deeply touched. Yet God allows him to be our president, and God allows the majority of voters who elected him president, to live and choose and decide, even when the president supports, champions and energetically declares he will make sure a woman can abort her baby. Face it, killing innocent children is an American right and privilege which we have demonstrably embraced as a society. And lest this appear to be a political rant, truth be told, all of us are radically indifferent to starving children the world over. We live our lives, even well off middle class types, focused far more on our own pleasure than other's pain. We build schools to house our kids and shelter them but do very little to protect and nurture other children. We are not murderers like him, but our hands are not clean. Like the Australian DJ's whose radio prank with the the royal family was tied to a tragice suicide, for which they were blamed, we live in a place where many people are connected to this tragedy. Regular people go to work, they create guns and bullets, they transport and sell them. Lots of finger prints are on this shooting. (I am not an anti-gun guy or a pro-gun guy. I think guns and the right to bear arms are a reality with which we live. But while there is truth that guns don't kill people, people do; it is also hard to deny that guns make it alot easier to do hte killing).The media also has its role: asking some awful questions, abusing victims with cameras, intruding and demonstrating a hunger for story which often outstrips human compassion. And we watch and watch and watch; motivating the media to be more outrageous and feed our appetite for information. And our attention to every detail inspires other evil, sick fiends to make there own grab at national attention. So they plan their raid and load their guns and await their moment of twisted power and demonic destruction. Who is to blame?

Last night at the altar I lifted the victims of this latest shooting to God. We await deliverance and healing. We await a Kingdom ruled by Jesus, a kingdom where children are blessed and cared for. We await, knowing that when it comes, all of us will need to be made clean. Knowing none of us is worthy. And praying for forgiveness. I suggest there is need for all of us to pray, for them and for ourselves, and for the evil among some of us who do such things and the evil within all of us which allows any of us to do our own evil.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Baby Apocalyptic

Human development is pretty awesome. We look at a forming embryo, the size of a peanut, and we encounter there an entire human being. The only changes will be developmental. Having parented a couple of embryos through infancy, toddlerhood, right up into adolescence, for all the many changes (like looking up to my son instead of caring him in my arms) there is also a constant core which seems unchanging. The other day my wife and daughter had an exchange which echoed a similar experience they had had together when my daughter was 2 years old. hmmm

As we read the Prophets of the OT we encounter the same thing. This morning as I prayed over the Isaiah text from MP I noticed a couple of words which I have read (actually read over) dozens of times. Ironically, it is from Isaiah 7, the very chapter we looked at a few days ago as regards Messianic promises (the young woman will have a baby). In Isaiah 7:18 God says he will whistle to the flies in Egypt and the bees in Assyria. Bees and Flies. And I got to thinking about the wild description of beasts in the Book of Revelation and saw that the metaphor of the prophet had become full blown charaters in the apocalyptic drama of the latter work. We have seen in postings of the recent past some terminology (darkened sun, moon to blood, coming with clouds) which is metaphorical ways of describing the impact of God's action on the "ruling powers" of "the sky." It is far easier to see in another frequent image of apocalypse: earth quake.

The created world of Genesis, we are told, is a flat plate of land and water, separated from one another. This plate rests on columns, the so-called foundations of the earth, and a dome, similar to an upside down salad bowl, covers the plate to keep the waters of chaos at bay. On occassion, gates open above to let in the water (thereby explaining rain) and in Noah's case they were flung wide open (above and below) and the waters of chaos returned to reclaim the earth and all its non-ark abiding residents.

The image of God "shaking the foundations" and splitting stones and hurling mountains is not fanciful. Many of the locations in the Bible were frequently the victims of earthquakes and other natural disasters. However, these seismic events took on a spiritual-theological import. They conveyed ideas (and more importantly feelings) which took on a life of their own. Here is a handy list of some places:

While earthquakes are long connected to apocalyptic it also plays a role in prophecy. It is a way to describe God's awesome nature and His anger and His actions of judgment in the world. It is both actual earthquakes and metaphorical ones. It is a symbol of "the world turned upside down" or "things out of control" as God acts to change the status quo.

In Matthew's Gospel, he inserts several earthquakes into the passion story. It is more obvious in the Greek, where the word seismos can be readily seen. But as Jesus enters the city it is "shaken" and at His death and resurrection there are additional earthquakes. Whatever else Matthew may be saying, the language of earthquake conveys the apocalyptic idea that God has acted, He has "shaken the foundations" and done a new thing. It means that in Jesus' death and resurrection the "old world" passed away and "a new creation has begun." In more developed apocalyptic writng, the imagery becomes more graphic and 'realistic' leading to assumptions about historical events (rather than the meaning of such events) which may be erroneously over-literal. Just saying, what they are communicating may be more subtle (and artistic) than are sometimes wooden, literalist and shallow readings allow.

My next post will use a popular movie to illustrate some of what I am trying to explain here.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Prophets and Apocalypse

If the primary purpose of Prophets is to reveal God's will, to condemn our sins (especially false worship and injustice) and to provide warnings of judgment (when we sin) and provide words of hope (to the faithful who suffer and to those under the rod of wrath), then the next question is what part does the predictive play in their message? And what about Messiah Jesus, is He foretold in their words?

As we have discussed in the last ten posts, Jesus fully-fills-up the words of the ancient texts. NT writers frequently take the words of the OT (usually taken out of context) to connect the Jesus story with the OT story of salvation. As I hope is clear, this connecting is not to show a prediction is fulfilled, rather it is to show the saving power of God in the humanity of Jesus. He takes up all our lives (past, present, future) and in Him the fullness of God is present.

Yet there are places where an "ideal" King or "model" savior echoes in the texts of SS. Once more the multivalence is evident (this king may be Hezekiah, for example). But Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of our aspirations for the True Ruler. So the holy longing of the prophets really does point beyond to the greater horizon encompassed by Jesus the Messiah. And in every age, the prophet's and our own, there are false rulers and anti-Messiahs (anti-Christ) who align with the dark forces of fallen man, fallen nature and the demonic. Such people and institutions are pseudo-gods, demanding our worship and wealth, doling out largesse as they see fit. And always demanding that we take on some outward sign of comformity to their agenda and cause. Be it big business or labor, sports or recreational groups, social, or even church, communities there is always a proclivity to make the finite and limited into something more than it is. To turn a sacrament (in and through) into an idol (worship the thing). I pledge allegiance to the flag and at times the powers behind the flag set themselves up as superior to God and His Christ. And that is life on a fallen earth, populated with folks who don't get it much of the time. And no corner of our world is safe from this.

In prophetic literature, one popular theme is "The Day of the Lord." This is a designation of the time when the Creator God will save His creatures, when the God of Heaven comes to rule on earth. It is the day for which Israel longed, deliverance from her foes and glorification by her God. Yet, the prophets twisted this concept on its head. That exact phrase occurs two dozen times in the Bible, about half in prophets.

Is 13 is an oracle against Babylon, the nation which overwelmed and destroyed God's people. We know that this invasion was called God's judgment on His people. Yet the sin of Babylon was also great and Isaiah saw this oracle "...wail for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almigty...every human heart will melt...pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman....See the day of the Lord comes cruel, with wrath and fierce anger...For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising , and the moon will not shed its light. I will punish the world for its evil....therefore I will make the heaven tremble and the earth will be shaken out of its place."

Obviously, there is much judgment here, but the judgment is against Israel's enemies. Notice too the use of the "dark sun and stars" image. This refers to a time of judgment long ago, Babylon did fall after all. The use of the image, which is adopted and magnified in apocalyptic, is just that, an image. It reveals with a word picture the depth and power and meaning of what takes place. Remember, the heavens are the divine realm in ancient times. The powers rule from there! [see also Joel, "the sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood"]

As I said, however, the prophets turn this on its head. Amos 5:18 ("woe to you who desire the day of the Lord. For what good is the day of the Lord for you? It is darkness and not light") makes clear that some will be surprised that they are on the wrong side of God's day. Much like Jesus' parables on the judgment, people who think they are "in" end up "out" and vice-versa.

What apocalyptic writers do is convey a similar prophet message (judgment for and judgment against; wrath and hope) to a people. Their audiences are usually on the wrong end of oppression, often times under severe persecution. The imagery of the prophets (sun darkened) is intensified and the actors are identified in symbols and images. Babylon, for example, later becomes a symbol of Rome, or any nation state set against the God of Israel, the God and Father of Jesus Christ. There are also symbolic animals (eagles, monsters, lambs/rams) which can be applied to myriad individuals or groups. But the key is understanding that it is based in prophecy, and prophecy is not about a secret message to be decoded to foretell the future. It is clear as this: repent, believe, turn from sin, turn from the wrath to come.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Prophecy 10: Jesus comes to fulfill

The limited stories about Jesus the baby/child are found only in Mathew and Luke. There purpose is much more than biographical tidbits from the early life of the Savior. They are chock full of theological images and references which convey the full meaning of this Man. And the primary referent is the OT, because that is where God's plan for salvation is spelled out.

The typical Gospel proclamation about Jesus (we assume in earliest church preaching) begins with John the Baptist appearing, preaching and baptizing. He understood himself to be calling the Jews to repent before the Day of the Lord. He was influenced by the same apocalyptic understanding which we present in Judah the centuries surrounding his life. John looked expectantly for the kingdom to burst into the world. So he called people to repent, to be washed of their sins, and to lead a reformed life. John was confused by Jesus, Who did not act exactly how He expected. For example, when Jesus came to be baptized, Matthew says, John was reluctant, claiming roles should be reversed. But Jesus said that it was proper to "fulfill all righteousness." The idea of fully-filling is present here, but in a different context. I think it may help us to broaden our understanding of what fully-filling the Sacred Scriptures (SS) means.

Although Matthew does not say it, the temptation sequence is also a fully-filling of SS. Like ancient Israel Jesus is in the desert. One temptation, for bread, recalls the Israelites complaint in the desert for bread (manna). We also see echoes of Adam and Eve, who were tempted and failed. Israel's greatest sin, worshipping other gods, is also on display as Jesus rejects worldly power offered to Him if He worshipped the Satan. The use of the Bible is found throughout the debate/testing and Jesus' skill with SS is evident. We note that the story ends with Jesus being ministered to by angels, just like Satan's quote from Psalms indicates God has promised. Here is fulfillment and more fulfillment.

After the baptism and temptation, Jesus returns to Galilee (Mt 4:12-16). Located far north of Jerusalem, it is a remnant of the old nation of Israel and probably was inhabited by Zebulon and Naphtali in tribal times. When Assyrian conquered the area it brought in foreigners to stamp out the Jewish identity, hence the name "Galilee of the Gentiles." [The Assyrian province was known as Meggido, associated with har megido where we get the apocalyptic battle of Armageddon.] Isaiah's oracle of hope (Is 8&9) concerning the land over run by Assyria is seen in new light with the beginning of Jesus' minsitry here. This is such a wonderful example of the fulfillment of Scripture. Jesus is the fullness of that hope realized.

This is why, in Matthew 5:17ff Jesus says He has not come to abolish/destroy/overthrow the Law and prophets but to fulfill them. This includes almost all of what we call the Old Testament includes the Torah (first five books), our historical books and our written prophets (major and minor). We do not tend to think of Samuel or Kings as prophetic literature, but they are included as such in the Jewish Bible. This broadens our understanding of the word "prophecy" and helps illustrate why fully-fillling up the SS is Jesus' vocation. He is the summation, the purpose and souce, He is the ultimate meaning of all Bible revelation. In particular, His death and resurrection is the completion of the OT story. In Him all the stories make sense. The death of the first born (See Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac, see the last plague of Pharaoh and Egypt) and the Jewish sacrificial system and Temple both find their fullest meaning in Jesus (He is the Lamb). The hopes and dreams of Israel and for Israel are realized in the fulfillmenf to King David's Promise (in what God promised to him and in what he could have become if he had been the kind of righteous king he should have been). And, somewhat ironically, as Jesus fulfills all He also creates new hopes and promises, hopes and promises which wait to be fulfilled in The Great Day. So we pray, Come Lord Jesus! and we hope it is not long to wait.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Prophecy 9: Dead Babies

(continuing at Matthew 2:16) Herod, we are told, is furious when he finds out that the magi from the East have escaped undetected from his land. Now he must figure out where in Bethlehem the newborn threat to the throne abides...

A few details which might be of interest. [Raymond Brown's "The Birth of the Messiah" or a standard biblical commentary.] As we all know, a number of babies never make it to birth. It seems that about 1/3 of children died by age 6 and less than 20% made it through their twenties. The town of Nazareth is thought to have roughly 1,000. Based on expected birthrate in the neighborhood of thirty or so one can assume there were roughly two dozen baby boys available to Herod's sword.

One reasonable question is why would King Herod not know where the Magi had gone. We know the King is very distressed by the news so it seems that it would be a simple matter for him to get the information he needs. A village of this size is certainly large enough for some anonymity, but it is hardly large enough, nor would the magi be moving quick enough, to avoid detection. This is not clandestine Seals Ops in a major metropolitan Amereican city! Rather, it is an open and public visitation within the confines of a large village. Why did Herod not send someone with or have someone trail the magi from behind? The text does not address this, so we are left to speculate. Perhaps it is God's hand at work to deceive Herod and protect Jesus. Maybe the king's arrogance exceeded his paranoia. Most scholars offer the possibility that the birth narrative is a midrash of sorts. In such a case it is not simply scientific history. In other words, it is about Truth not facts.
[A review of other Jewish writings at this time shoes a tendency to expand on OT narratives with additonal stories about the figures involved, for example, Abraham and Moses, in numerous works (e.g. Josephus). Such stories serve as supplements which broaden our understanding of the figures involved. This is a common feature of all cultures. As a child I knew George Washington chopped down the cherry tree because he could not tell a lie. Legendary stories are almost always a layer of every "popular" historical narrative circulating among people.] [ ]

Matthew clearly is illustrating a parallel to the Moses story. The revelation of God here would be this: understand the Jesus story in light of Moses. Jesus, the New Moses, is the fully-filled-ment of the Moses story. Jesus is the true lawgiver and messenger of God. This is expressed in a culturally accepted mode of communication. In Ancient Jewish writing, like all ancient writings, there are different rules and accepted methods of telling the story.

If the latter is the case, then some of our questions are not relevant. Trying to make sense of the story remains the goal, but the "making sense" is not seeking to figure out what happened, rather it is seeing through the story to hear the message about Jesus, Moses and fully-filled OT stories.

Jesus is in Egypt, the babies left behind are massacred by the crazed king. Herod fails in his attempt to destroy Jesus. We also know God rescued Jesus from human agents bent on His destruction. Such delieverance is for our benefit.

[One disturbing feature of the story is the massacre. Even if it is only 20 babies (and not the hundreds I assumed) it is still twenty or so babies murdered. Twenty or so mothers and fathers destitute and heart broken. Twenty families and untold friends of families horrified. And the question bubbles up, why? Why would God save the Jesus but not them? I have wrestled with such questions elsewhere in this blog, but suffice to say this is a rescue intervention story. In such a story, the point is how someone (in this case the Holy Family) escapes the clutches of death. We do well to recall this is literature and as such, like all literature, intends to tell a story. It is as much about raising questions as it is answering. It calls us to think, why does God do this for this particular child? It never answers the other question, why not save others. In a world where everyon dies eventually and especially in their world where so few lived to early adulthood, the question is not important.]

The events, as unfolded by Matthew are identified as "full-filling" Jeremiah. Note, however, the absence of the term 'in order to.' There is no hint of divine causality as we saw in previous texts which we looked at earlier. Rather, we are told the words of Jeremiah are "full-filled." First of all, the words in Jeremiah 31 are an introduction to a longer prophecy. What Matthew quotes is the sad part, but immediately after that is a more upbeat message. The messge Jeremiah declares from God tells Rachel "Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is reward for your work, they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for the future, your children shall come back to their country." It is a propehcy of hope in the face of the loss and destruction of the invasion of Judah and the forced exile of her people.

This was no OT prediction that babies would be slaughtered, rather it is a connection of this slaughter to the OT story of God's people. It connects the time of Jesus to the time of the second exile. And it also connects the story of Moses (delivered from the fate of other babies who were to be slaughtered at Pharaoh's command) to the beginning of Jesus.

The last "fulfillment" for today is Mt 2:23. We are told that Jesus goes to Nazareth to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets: "He will be called a Nazorean." Note that no prophet name is given (like Jeremiah above). There is a reason for this. There is no verse which makes such a declaration in the OT. John Chrysostom (lived between 350-400), the great archbishop and preacher, said that Matthew was quoting a text long lost to Christian and Jew (because it was not accepted as scripture). Others think Matthew had a secondary text from which he is quoting, hence the vagueness. A third option, Brown offers the possibility that it is cobbled together Isaiah 4:3 ("Whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy") and Judges 16:17 (Samson said "for I have been a nazirite to God from my mother's womb"). The word Nazarene, while meaning from Nazareth, is also open to two other philological nuances. Recall, the Hebrew love of puns and play on word. Two other near-sounding terms Nazir (one consecrated and made holy by a vow) and Neser (a branch, a Mesianic image in Isaiah 11:1 "a shoot will go forth from the root of Jesse, and from his roots a branch") may well be alluded to here. Once again, not the way we prefer to do etymology, but it is the way that they did it. For my illustration it is even more important. It demonstrates fulfillment not of a particular verse (or promise/prediction) but a fulfillment of a non-specific referent. Yet, the general reference, with a multitude of nuances and meanings, is in fact true to Jesus' identity.

The story of Jesus, as told by Matthew, begins by creating intentional connecting points between Jesus and the story of salvation. The connection between Genesis' Joseph and Mt's Joseph (dreams) and Exodus' Moses and Jesus (birth situation) help us see that Jesus can only be known in and through the OT story. And fulfillment, much more than a realization of a freestanding prediction, is a taking up of the OT story--the whole OT story. Until we come to grips with that, our consideration of the prophets and the prohetic will have more in common with the National Inquirer's year end predictions than it does with the Divine promise and plan of the Bible.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Prophecy 8 "More fullness"

The Greek word pleroo (sounds like play + rue) means to fill up. There is a sense of pouring into a container until it is overflowing. It is often translated as fulfill which is certainly not wrong, but it misses the nuances of a broader and deeper sense of fullness. Perhaps we should spell it Full-Fill! And Matthew does not always use this term when referencing the prophets. Two more examples from Matthew 2:

The Magi come to Herod seeking the newborn King. Herod is in a tizzy and confers with the learned men of Judah. They identify Bethlehem as the likely place for the birth. In Matthew 2:5 we read: "For so it was written by the prophet: "And you , Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the princes of Judah; for from you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel." Where is the verse found? The closest we can come up with is Micah 5:1 (Hebrew original) or 5:2 (Greek original). [the Greek OT was popular in the time of Jesus and the preferred Bible of the early church, for obvious language reasons and contemporary Bible translations sometimes choose one or the other, hence different numbering].
Here is what Micah says, " But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Juda, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days." A closer reading than we might normally do reveals several minor changes and one rather major one. Judah replaces Ephrathah (which would serve to clarify the Judean ancestory) and clans replaces princes/rulers (but both words have a common Hebrew root). The biggie is Matthew says Bethlehem is not least whereas the original says the opposite. There is no reference at all to shepherding the people (that is found in 2 Sam 5:2; where the tribes of Israel tell David  "The Lord said to you: 'it is you shall shepherd my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.'")

The point of the "fulfillment" (although the word is not used, it is implied) is clear. The birthplace of Jesus is connected to the promise of a Messiah, the holy descendent of David who will rule Judah. The exact details are not so neat and tidy. How then do we understand it? First of all, in ancient times everyone did not have Bibles. Some texts were memorized. Sometimes a collection of exerpts were gathered. This process could have led to a combination of verses like we see above. Maybe Mt was working from memory and inadvertently added the 'not' or he felt compelled to out of respect--in both cases because calling Jesus' birthplace 'the least' is not in keeping with Who Jesus is! Maybe a collection of Messianic texts included this one, which was changed in the gathering process. Maybe Mt is using a story source written by someone else and the changes were there (though Mt is not uncomfortable changing the wording of his Gospel source, Mark's original, from time to time. For example, he changes Kingdom of God to Kingdom of Heaven throughout, probably out of respect for the Divine Name.) We do not know the why or how of the process. We only know it was chagned.

There is more fluidity with Biblical texts than we realize. I certainly have had many troubles over the years coming to grips with it. But once one sees it and knows, it is hard to pretend otherwise. The scientific, mechanistic approach does not work. But if we let the ancient texts speak in their ancient ways, what we hear is a connection of the Jesus story to King David. And the hope of the Jews, a Messiah, is connected to the birth of Jesus. If this is expressed through an ancient process of thought and writing which differs from ours, well, that is life! And in the end, it is about the message. The message is the truth they seek to convey. And it is the truth that sets us free!

The next instance is Mt 1:15. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus leave for Egypt to escape King Herod, who massacred the children under two trying to kill the newborn King. After Herod dies the holy family rerturns. We are told this "pleroo what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Israel I have called my son." The reference is not given, only a generic prophet, but we have found the text in Hosea 11:1. What we read there will more deeply inform our reading ot Mt 1:15. Hosea says, "When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I call my son. (v2 The more I called them , the farther they went from me. saacrificing to the Baals and burning incense to idols.) Hosea's original refers to God's faithfulness (He goes on that He taught Ephraim to walk, He encompassed him in arms of love, fostered and fed him. But Israel failed to recognize God was savior and turned, so another exile into Egypt with Assyria as master is coming.) Hosea is warning the people that doom (Assyria) will fall upon her. The reference to Egypt is a double reference, referring to the first Exodus and an impending escape to Egypt by those fleeing the invading armies of Assyria.

Hosea is making no predictions about Messiah. He is literally calling the people (Israel=Ephraim) His Son whom He rescued from slavery in the Exodus. This is contrasted to their disobedience. So what does fulfill mean here? Clearly, that in Jesus, the true Son, Israel's destiny is recapitulated and redeemed. As Israel went into Egypt and came out, so does Jesus. However!!!! Jesus will be faithful (unlike Israel) and He will recognize the Father and will be obedient (even to death on a cross). So what Jesus fully-fills is the destiny and identity of Israel. He will be what the people of God should  have been but weren't (a tradition of abject failure fully embraced and lived out by the church today!!!). It is not about predictions, it is about identity. Jesus fills up the empty places in salvation history. He makes the old story new by taking the place of the people who failed in days gone by and in taking their place acts righteously.

Such a reading may be different from what we are used to, but it is certainly truer to the texts. And I think it is richer and wider and deeper as well. I think, in the end, we are better off seeing what is there and hearing God speak....

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Prophecy: Virgin and Child 3 conclusion

I want to finish up "the virgin will be with child" but before I do look what my friend the Messianic Jew Derek Leman sent me in the e-mail today! You will note we have taken a very similar trek. Perhaps his slant will flesh mine out more?

Please note this is the third installment on this text and each one builds on the previous one.

Isaiah, accompanied by his son with a symbolic name (a remnant will return), confronts the king of Judah. He tells him there is no need for worry and fear. The threats of the nations surrounding Judah will come to naught. God says that they (Aram and Ephraim) will fall, but he warns, the king to be strong in faith in order to be strong. Then the Lord speaks to the King: "Ask for a sign, deep as Hades or high as Heaven!" To the Divine offer King Ahaz is disdainful, "I will not ask." He claims that he does not want to tempt the Lord, but it is the Lord Who has made the request. God's response is frustration. "Isn't it enough to weary men, must the king now weary God?" And what follows is the full promise, not just one verse....

"The Lord will give you (i.e. King Ahaz) this sign: the maiden is (the Hebrew is in the present tense, so a pregnant woman is there) with child, and will  (future tense) bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall be living on curds and honey by the time he learns to reject the bad and choose the good. For before the child learns to reject the bad and choose the good, the land of those two kings whom you dread will be deserted."
The pregnant woman and baby is a sign that "Immanuel", God is with us. This is the message of Isaiah to the king. It is the message to us. This is a fundamental message of the OT, God is the One Who is with His people for salvation. God is faithful to His covenant, even when His people sin.
It continues with God's threat to of judgment on the enemies of Israel.

Isaiah 7:14 does not sound at all like a prediction about a future Messiah hundreds of years later. If anything, it is a Messiah (annointed King) who will be born in a matter of months (which would make the unborn baby the crown prince). This birth is a sign of God's abiding presence with Judah (His saving presence).

There is much debate about who the young woman is. She may be Isaiah's wife (as with the other son's symbolic name), the wife of the king (as above), or some young woman standing in the court (whom Isaiah saw and used as an illustration). Her identity is uncertain to us, but no doubt Isaiah and Ahaz were very clear. The promise is also simple and direct. Before the child reaches the age of decision making, i.e., when the child can choose between good and bad, at the time when he eats curds and honey (food after weaning?) God's judgment will  have fallen upon Ephraim (also called Israel or Samaria) and Syria (Damascus) who conspire against Judah.

The prophecy is about the future, but it is the immediate future, set in the life time of a fetus become a young child. And the time frame is not uncertain at all. Read all of Isaiah 7 and you will see there is nothing which leads one to assume it is disconnected with Ahaz and his problems. This is reinforced even more by the next chapter. In Isaiah 8 the prophet and his wife  have another son, this one called Maher-shalal-hash-baz, and "before the child knows how to call father or mother by name" Damascus and Samaria will be ruined (by Assyria). This is exactly what happened, so the 'prediction' came true, however it was fulfilled in the time period Isaiah gave, namely within a couple of years.

So.... what on earth did Matthew mean? Why did he quote Isaiah in reference to the birth of Jesus? In a sense I explained it earlier in my discussion of the word pleroo. Jesus FILLS UP the deepest meaning of the OT, so Jesus fills up each text. Jesus is the archetype, the model, the image. He is the true which all others imitate but only partially. If the birth of the baby in Ahaz's court is a sign of God's salvation, then Mary and Jesus and His birth is the perfect, complete fullness of the sign. The first birth, in Isaiah's time, is a type of the Final Birth of Messiah. This is what Matthew means. Jesus's birth is The sign of God among us. Jesus is the salvation of God and the wrath of God. In Jesus the judgment is final and complete. Choose, King Ahaz (now you and me). Choose and live... or choose and die. The judgment is final.

When we grasp the truth we are obedient to God. We serve God; He does not serve us. Too often we make the text say what we want it to say. Like Ahaz, we dress it up in pious language ("I do not want to tempt God") but if God is True (and He is) then we can never fear truth. We must hear the prophets' voice. Only then can we fully understand what it means as applied to Jesus.

I invite you to read Isaiah 6-8 and ponder what you read. Then, see the story anew in Jesus. See the old story as taken up in the life and death of Jesus. Understand that the whole OT is found, perfectly summed up and Fulfilled in Jesus. Understand why the OT is Scripture, sacred revelation of God to us. Understand and give glory! Understand the Old Testament so you can understand Jesus and the New Testament.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Prophecy 6: Virgin & Child 2

You need to read the previous post to make sense of this one.

Matthew 1:23
And the Virgin shall be with child and give birth to a son.

The Greek literally says "the virign shall have a belly" which is an expression for pregnant. The key word is parthenos, which is virgin. This literally means someone who has not had sexual experiences. In a broader sense, it means a young woman of marriagable age, a maiden. Obviously, in those days, promiscuity and pre-marital sex were not acceptable. To be an unmarried, young woman would automatically mean that one was a virgin.

Matthew says that this has been spoken through the prophet. It takes little research to uncover his proposed source: Isaiah 7:14. Isaiah is written in Hebrew. He uses the Hebrew word, almah, which literally means young woman. Now, as I said above, in this culture the expectation was a young woman would be virginal. However, it is not primarilly a designation of one's sexual status. The term is used seven times in the OT and is translated into English both as maiden and as virgin.

What is interesting to me is this verse is not a Messianic prophecy and the idea of a pregnant young woman, which is the original context, does not imply anything miraculous at all. It seems to be the case that Matthew is working backward. He starts with the historical event (Mary's virginal pregnancy) and works back to an OT verse which triggers a connection for him (the Isaiah quote; though it may be he knew it in Greek because the Greek translation was widely in use). This is significant for apologetic reasons. Here are a couple.

1. If there was a clear expectation that the Messiah was to be born of a Virign, then the proponents of Jesus as Messiah would have had to make such a claim. From a neutral view point, the claim would have less weight because it might have been a "forgery" or "made up" as a proof. However, if no such expectation existed, there would seem to be little reason to make it up and therefore, it is more likely to be true. The Gospel writer would have no motivation to make this up if it did not happen, but would  have plenty of motivation to make sense of it if it happened. I believe the latter is the case.

2. In the NT, there are only two places where the virginity of Mary is spoken about, the two "Christmas" stories found in Luke and Matthew. Only Matthew makes mention of fulfilling SS (which we have seen is typical of Matthew, not the others). If there had been a widely accepted belief that the Messiah was to be born of a virgin, one certainly would think that Paul and other NT letters would make reference to it. As it is, there is none. [Although there is the odd, "son of Mary" reference in Mark 6:3. One would expect Son of Joseph. The reference to Mary alone may indicate something unusual was afoot. And in John the Jews tell Jesus that they are not the children of fornication, once again, perhaps, a veiled insult at Jesus and His rumored illegitimate birth.] Something happened to lead detractors of Jesus to claim  his parentage was at question. This seems to point to the fact that his conception and birth was not normal. The birth sequence never enters the public disputes about Jesus. No detractors claim, "The Messiah must be born of a virgin, so how were you conceived?"

This raises the question, did Isaiah have the virgin Mary in mind in his prophecy. I think the answer to that is unquestionably "no." I base that on a simple reading of Isaiah chapter 7.
I am not going to copy it all here, I suggest you get a Bible out and read it (work alert!!!!)

King Ahaz is all upset. His kingdom is being threatened by an invading army. Isaiah and one of his sons (Shear-jashub= "a remnant will return") go to meet him. Note, the son's name is a prophetic declaration. In chapter 8 another son with a meaningful name [Name him Maher-Shalal-hash-baz, for before the child knows how to call his father of mother by name the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried off."] Take note of the time reference, it is also present in Chapter 7 where we talk about Emmanuel. The fact is symbolic names of children are all over this section of Isaiah. Pay heed and attention to that.

The troubled king is aware of the threats made against him and his kingdom. But, Isaiah says, do not worry for God has declared it shall not happen. Then Isaiah offers the king a sign, which the king refuses. God offers, man declines; this is disobedience and disrespect. What Isaiah then offers the king is a promise. We will look at that tomorrow and see its connection to Jesus.