Friday, December 30, 2011

Nuptial Apocalypse

Curing you
of the legend of me
are my sins
against God and them
and you.

But vows with blood, benedictions, and life
together are recreating me,
as the myth becomes
our history:
a flickering image of God
healing waters from softened stone

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Us vs. the Shepherds

In Luke 2, we have presented to us the story of Jesus' birth, followed immediately by the revelation of Christ's birth (via a multitude of angels) to some shepherds nearby.  The shepherds, having heard the report from the angel and having visited the Holy Family, proceed to tell others and to praise God for what they had seen and heard. (Luke 1:17)

We might say that anyone would've responded like these shepherds, given what they saw, but the reality is that few people are such faithful and exuberant witnesses to God's work.  John Calvin gives us some great insights on this:  "The shepherds knew with certainty that this was a work of God.  Their zeal in "glorying and praising God"(Luke 1:20) is an implied reproof of our indolence, or rather of our ingratitude.  If the cradle of Christ had such an effect upon them, as to make them rise from the stable and the manger to heaven, how much more powerful ought the death and resurrection of Christ [be for us] in raising us to God?" The shepherds response shows us how dull we are, and their example calls us to a more appropriate reaction to God's work than we usually have.

We too have the opportunity to worship Christ for his birth and the mystery of the Incarnation.  But unlike the shepherds, we also have the rest of the story: Christ's life, his death, resurrection and ascension.  We have been told also of his glorious return, and we have seen Christ's works in his Church for nearly 2,000 years. Looking at these shepherds, we must ask our selves:
  • How is our response to these great works?  
  • Do we make known what has been said as the shepherds did? (Luke 1:17) Whom have you told? 
  • Do we glorify God and praise Him for such great works as the shepherds did? (Luke 1:20) Is that a goal for you this coming Christmas?
Indeed, many of us think we are educated, well-taught, and filled with the Holy Spirit.  And many of us may actually be these things and more.  But we are nearly all of us put to shame by these shepherds who responded so appropriately to God's works: telling all who would listen and worshipping God.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It's not about me

It's always good to get in touch with reality, but it is not always fun.  This was my experience with the morning Psalm on Wednesday during this last week of Advent.  As I read Psalm 72, I had nothing to "connect with" as I do when I read other psalms.  There was no crying out to God in anguish, no thanking Him for good things He's done for me.  There was no asking God for help with enemies or for deliverance from times of darkness.  In fact, I came to a startling (and yet refreshing) realization as I read this Psalm: "This isn't about me at all!" This was exactly the message I needed to hear as Christmas is drawing near.

Psalm 72 is in a category of song called a kingship psalm, and as you may have guessed, this is a kind of song that is about the king.  It was a rather common type of song in the Ancient Near East outside of Israel, and there are many kingship psalms in the Bible as well.  The point of a kingship psalm seems to be nothing but praising the virtues of the king.  And indeed, this is exactly what Psalm 72 does, and it is what we are doing whenever we read or sing this psalm today: we are not thinking or talking about ourselves, but we are thinking and talking about our King, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David.

In the Ancient Near East, if you had a good king, life was usually pretty good for all the people as well. And in songs about the king, the people are expressing in song their appreciation for the goodness of the King, but in addition to this, these kingship psalms also expressed the hopes and expectations of what the King should be.  Sometimes a king fulfilled these hopes and other times... not so much.

In Psalm 72, we see what was expected of and hoped for King Solomon.   The king should "defend the cause of the poor... give deliverance to the children of the needy." (v. 4, also vv. 12-14).  He should defeat all the enemies of God's people, so that these enemies would end up serving God and his King. (v. 9-11).  The king of God's people should rule with integrity and according to God's law (vv. 1-2), and provide abundance of good things for his people (v. 16).  He would not be corrupt or self-serving with his power.  It was hoped that his kingdom, according to God's promises (see 2 Samuel 7) would extend over all the earth and for all time (vv. 8, 17).  For who wouldn't want such a good government to rule the world forever?  So then, these expectations were placed on Solomon by the Law of Moses (see also Deuteronomy 17) and likely by King David himself.

Well, anyone who knows the story (read 1 Kings sometime) knows that Solomon did not live up to these expectations.  The Kingdom of God was indeed expanded during his time and did have a time of prosperity unlike any before, but Solomon's reign and kingdom ended in shambles.

And that is why Jesus, another son of David, came.  He came to have the throne of his father David (Luke 1:32).  He came to bring the kingdom that Solomon (and David and Moses and Adam) could not.  He came to bring peace and goodness, to take away pain and all evil (in you and in me).  Indeed, this is what Jesus did the first time He came to us through his death on the cross and resurrection.  It is what He is still doing through his Church and the work of the Holy Spirit.  And it is what He will ultimately do when He returns, not in humility as He did on that Christmas morning so long ago, but in glory and power greater than any king or government that has ever been, unlike anything we've ever seen.

Christians are citizens of this Kingdom right now, and this King and this Kingdom are our hope and delight.  Because we are in Jesus' Kingdom we can pray, say, or sing a song like Psalm 72.  Not only can we ask God through this psalm to make our heart love the King and the Kingdom more, but we can also, with the words themselves, offer up a song that our King deserves (even when we aren't 'feeling' it).  We can use Psalm 72 to praise another son of David who came and established (and is establishing) a Kingdom like the one we sing about in this psalm.  In doing these things, we remind ourselves that the Kingdom isn't about our problems, our sins, our needs and that through looking at God's Kingdom rather than our selves, the eyes of our heart can lifted up to what is most real, a thing beyond ourselves that defines us and gives our lives and salvation meaning beyond ourselves.  It is this transforming vision that God seeks to give us in Psalm 72, and it is exactly what I need during this cluttered season right before Christmas.  It's not about me, and thank God.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Readiness and Watchfulness

The readings for this Thursday in the third week of Advent included Jesus' parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13.  This parable reminds us that it is a terrible thing to be unprepared for God's arrival.  As Jesus tells this story, we cannot help but feel the horror of the five virgins who are shut out from God because they don't have oil for their lamp.  Feeling their loss, we should be asking ourselves: "What must I do in order to make sure my oil flask is full? How I can make sure that I am ready for Christ's return?"

As we see in the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30), the passage immediately after the Parable of the Ten Virgins, readiness includes obedience to the Lord Jesus' and his teachings.  But before we move to this obedience, we must not forget the thing that precedes these works.  We cannot forget that the first part of readiness must be watchfulness and a true, relational knowledge of the One who is coming.  In light of this, we must consider two things:

1. Am I watching for Christ's return?  Do I long for it?  In this parable, all ten of the young women seem to long for the appearing of the Bridegroom, but only some (five to be exact) desire it in such a way that it is noticeable.

Imagine what these ten virgins were doing before this parable begins.  If you would've encountered any of the five foolish virgins during the weeks before the wedding, their lives would've looked the same as any other girl's in the village.  They were doing their chores, eating and living with their families. If you weren't able to talk to them, you may have never known they were preparing for a party on the wedding night.  However, if you would've watched the five wise virgins during the weeks preceding the wedding, you would've noticed them working harder, saving money here and there, so they could buy enough oil to be ready (no matter how late the Groom was).  Even without talking to them, you would've seen their longing for that night by the way they lived.

Many of us claim to love Jesus and many talk about his return, but only those whose lives are oriented around their longing for Christ truly long for his return.  It is their longing for Christ that produces their obedience, that makes their lives look different.  They have plans on seeing Jesus, and they've rearranged everything for those plans.  Without the longing there is no difference, and their longing is proved by this watchfulness.  Do you long for Christ's return? Is it provable by the way you live and your life plans?

2. Do I know Him?  The root for this proper longing for Christ is a true and deep knowledge of Him.  One reason why we don't long for Christ's return is often because we don't really know Him.  This can be true even for people who have been Christians for years and years.

It is difficult to be ready (or to even want to be ready) for the arrival of someone we don't really know.  It is  like picking up someone from the airport.  When we are looking for that person in a crowd, we always have in mind what they look like.  You scan the crowd for them, comparing all the other people you see to the image of them in your mind's eye.  "Oh, there he is!  No, he's too short."  or "Oh, there he is!  No, he's the wrong colored hair." If we don't know someone very well, or if haven't seen them in many years, it can be difficult to recognize them.  In the same way, as we are prepared and are watchful for Christ, we keep ever in our hearts the image of the One for whom we are looking.  But it is crucial that we know Him and that we are remembering him rightly.

This is where the second reading from Thursday comes to our aid.  In it, St. John offers us a vision of the One for whom we are watching.  It is a picture, among many in the Scriptures, for us to contemplate, read again and again, to visualize and to memorize.  Here is the One we're watching for: "the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered... [the] Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth..." (Rev 5:5-6).

If this description of Jesus seems odd to you or me, it is only because we don't really know the Scriptures.  This passage is filled to the brim with meaning from the Old Testament, and this description, along with every other description of Jesus in the New Testament, cannot be understood without a thorough knowledge of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures and as experienced in the relational context of the Church.  To try to know Christ through any other means is to not really know Him at all.

For Christians, it should be a given that we cannot know Christ apart from the Scriptures and life in the Church.  And yet, many of us still harbor in our minds and hearts pictures of Christ that are not formed by these things and are, therefore, not true. Even when we try not to, we often remake Jesus into something more to our liking.

Sometimes we do this because we are ignorant of the Scriptures and of who Jesus really is.  Sometimes we try to remake Jesus because we don't understand who Jesus is, so we dumb down the complexity of who He is (by rejecting the mystery of his divine and human natures) or we reject some of his teaching. Sometimes we belittle Jesus by treating Him as less than the absolute monarch of all things because we just don't want anyone in control over our lives.  Unless we look again and again at the true picture of Him in Scripture, we will not know the real Jesus.

So, I think that in this last week of preparation in Advent, we have to ask:

- Do I know Him?  Do I really know Him?  Have I gained by picture of who Jesus is from the Scriptures and through knowing Him within the life of the Church?  Or have I gained a picture of Jesus shaped by the latest Christian fad teaching or the whims of my own heart?  Do I know the Scriptures and how each part of them relates to Christ?  Have I lived with Jesus day in and day out, or have I tried to keep Him and his Body (the Church) at a distance?

- Do I long for His return?  Or am I afraid of it? Am I indifferent about it?  It is impossible to have a life of preparation without this longing.  And it is impossible to have this longing without knowing Him.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Gospel Too Big for My Heart

This week in the Daily Office we have been taken on quite a journey... through visions of Christ walking among his churches (Rev. 1:12-16), to songs of confidence in the goodness of God to his people (Psalm 30).  We have heard of his mercy on our sins (Psalm 32) and also of God's great judgment against our sin (Matt 23:1-12; Amos 8; Psalm 38).  We have read of the requirement of our endurance as Christians (Rev 1:7, 10, 17, 26), of the unfathomable and mysterious depths of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, and of how he fulfills all the things we read (Matt 21:41ff).  And then, at the conclusion of these readings, each day we return to the Apostle's Creed (BCP, p. 94) to proclaim and hear the good news of the work and reality of the Triune God who ties all these varied passages together.

What has hit me this week is that the works and goodness of God are more than I can take in.  The gospel is simply too big for my heart to contain, and I cannot hold all the good news of God in Christ Jesus in my thoughts, emotions, and words all at once.  I seem to bounce from one aspect of the gospel to another.  I am so small, and my heart too weak, to hold onto a gospel is so big, so vast, rich and deep.

It is like trying to view the vast panorama of Yosemite from Glacier Point all at once:  you just can't take it all in.  One moment you're looking at Half Dome, and another El Capitan, then the valley floor and then the vast wilderness beyond. You can step back and look at the whole thing, but not without sacrificing a more concentrated view on these other works of beauty.   Though we can keep the other parts in mind as we look, we can only respond in awe to the portion we are seeing at the moment... and even then, we are not grasping the fullness of its beauty.

A similar thing happens when we read the good news of  God manifest in the Scripture, especially when we read through so much of it as we have this week.  One moment we are focusing on God's grace in Christ's teaching, another in his atoning sacrifice, another in the preparation through God's prophets, and yet another in his holy call to his people (and we could go on and on).   Though we can try to keep the whole in mind, we can only respond to the one part set before us, and that one part is so beautiful, so grand, our being cannot contain the reality of it, nor the praise God deserves for it.

This, I have come to believe, is all part of the plan and is why reading through the whole of the Scriptures is so important.  As we walk through the Bible, God sovereignly works through his Word to bring us to the part of his character and his work we need at that moment.  Though we can never completely take it in, we can respond appropriate to what we can see.  (And this is what so many of the psalmists do!)  For our part, we must keep returning again and again to what He has said and what He has done as revealed in the Scriptures.

May we grow in our ability to know it and take it in "so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith-- that we, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that we may be filled with all the fullness of God."  (Eph 3:14-19 pronoun changes mine).

Advent 2011, Week 2  

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Charles Simeon on Preaching

A quick nugget here from Charles Simeon (via John Stott's lecture on Simeon) on preaching.  His simple three-part description of the goal of preaching should cause all preachers to reevaluate the motivations and results of their own preaching.  

Simeon said that preaching should: 

1. Humble the sinner
2. Exalt the Savior
3. Promote holiness 

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Seek Me and Live

During this first week of Advent, we hear words from God through the prophet Amos.  The Lord says, "Seek me and live... Seek the LORD and live... Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts will be with you..." (Amos 5:4,6,14) When you read these words did they surprise you?

That the LORD calls his people to repentance is no surprise.   Since the chapter two of Amos, we have heard of nothing but the sin of God's people:  "they have rejected the law of God... they have sold the needy for a pair nice sandals... a father and a son go into the same girl...  [they] commanded the prophets, saying 'You shall not prophesy'... they do not know how to do right." (Amos 2:6,7,12; 3:10)  So, it is not a surprise to hear God's call to repentance, for them to seek good and not evil.  And as we reflect this Advent on our own sin, it should be no surprise to us that we also have need to repent.  Indeed, many of the sins that God condemns in Israel and Judah (and in the surrounding nations, see Amos 1:2-2:3) are present in our own country and in our own lives.

The big surprise of Amos 5 is that God is not only calling his people to repentance, but also to Himself.  He says, "Seek Me and live... Seek The LORD and live..."

When we are wronged by someone, especially when it is a big grievance (as in abuse or slander or unfaithfulness), anyone can easily admit the need for the offending party to repent, to turn away from the thing they are doing or have done.  But how many of us would readily call those who hurt us to come near?  How many of us would hold out open arms to those who have abused us, hated us, slandered us, belittled us, or ignored us?  That is what God is doing here.  He is calling the people who hate Him to come to Him.

In Advent, we put ourselves in Israel's position, and rightfully so.  We too have wronged our God.  We too have been unfaithful.  We also need to repent.  And we need to feel deeply the surprise of God's invitation.   We too need to be shocked that despite all our sin, He is still calling us to Himself! Indeed through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ that we anticipate during Advent, we are reminded that today the invitation of God for wayward sinners to come to Him is greater now than ever before!  Not only does God invite us near, but He Himself has come to us in Christ, and even more, He has taken our guilt on Himself!  He has displayed his love yet again, his mercy as unfathomable! Remember what St. Paul said? "For rarely would anyone die for a righteous person--- though maybe for a good person someone might dare to die-- But God shows his love to us in this, while we were still sinners Christ died for us... through him we have received reconciliation." (Rom 5:7-8, 11) God calls us to Him, and He has made a sure way to Him through faith in Jesus Christ. (Rom 5:1)

The question that hit me this week was this:  Will I go to Him?  Amidst all the craziness of this time of year... will I go to Him?  Will I seek Him and not a method; seek Him and not just repentance.  Seek a Person and not just amendment of life. Yes, I need to repent, but in addition to that, I need life, and life can only be found in Him.  As the Psalm for Friday of this week reminded us:  "You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore." (Ps 16:17) He is better than any other thing in your life right now.  Seek Him and live.  Seek the LORD this week and have life that is truly life.

Advent 2011, Week 1