Monday, December 31, 2012

JESUS IS COMING

Though I first heard the Gospel when I was in about the second grade, I never set foot in a Bible preaching church until I was in my late teens.  I was not too surprised to hear the same message from the pulpit there that I had heard years before from a rural school missionary.

But one thing did amaze me about that little church -- one thing I heard that I had not heard before.  It was that Jesus is coming back!  I had known that He had died and risen and gone up to heaven, but somehow I'd missed this important claim.  It sounded strange to my skeptical ears and it seemed even more strange that these folks believed it -- sort of like believing in space aliens.

As I came to a clear faith in Christ and began to grow in knowledge of the Bible, I became a solid believer in what is known as "the Second Coming."  The Bible taught it and Jesus Himself had a lot to say about it.

I read books, studied and learned many terms associated with the Second Coming and learned how to sprinkle them around in pious conversation:  the Rapture, Tribulation, Millennium (though it took me years to learn to spell that word) and Antichrist.  I also learned the various views -- the pre-, post-, a-, mid-, pan-, etc. and how all the views not held by the Scofield Bible notes were wrong.

I also learned to look for the "signs of the times" -- signs which point to the nearness of His coming:  Israel as a nation back in their own land, an "apostate church" (i.e., those who disagree with us), a Communist conspiracy, the Soviet Union, the European Union, along with hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.  There were always new signs.  Every crisis in the Middle East, or for that matter anywhere in the world, was subject to intense scrutiny, scanning of the Bible and all those books for some coordination.

Is this what it's all about?  Were we given the promises of Christ's return just so we could amuse ourselves with the intricacies of the details?  Or perhaps use them to scare people into the Kingdom?  Or is there more to this belief than that?

I'm not trying to belittle or discount the study of Eschatology (the doctrine of last things).  I have studied and taught it for years and hold to some (to me) clear positions, though I'm a lot less dogmatic on the details as I used to be.  And I must confess I've become more and more skeptical of the "signs," especially since I've seen some of them disappear during my lifetime.

But the New Testament not only tells us that Jesus is coming back; it not only gives us many of the details and many of the signs to look for; more importantly it gives us instructions concerning our behavior in light of these truths.  And the first commands are given by Jesus Himself, especially in His "eschatological sermon" on the Mount of Olives, a brief time before His death.

The first thing we need to realize is that we cannot know for certain when Jesus is coming back!  Though the past two millennia are littered with predictions that have failed, whether from kooks or cultists or supposedly reputable scholars, in spite of all our studies and speculation we just can't know!  In fact, Jesus told us so!
  "... you don't know what day your Lord is coming" (Matthew 24:42).
  "... you don't know the day or the hour" (Matthew 25:13).
  "... you don't know when the time is" (Mark 13:33).

And especially note this one:  "But concerning that day and hour, nobody knows -- not the angels of heaven, not even the Son -- but the Father alone!" (Matthew 24:36)

Jesus said that He Himself didn't know!  So what makes us think that we can?

And some of His imperatives in view of His coming:
  "Watch out that no one deceives you!"  (Matthew 24:4)
  "See that you don't get shaken up! (by supposed signs)  (Matthew 24:6)
  "... learn ... know ..." (from the signs)  (Mark 13:28, 29)
  "Stay awake" (because you don't know the time)  (Matthew 24:42; 25:13; Mark 13:33, 35, 37)
  "... straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is getting closer!"  (Luke 21:28)

Throughout the New Testament we find bits and pieces -- hints -- about Jesus' return.  As good systematic theologians we attempt to assemble them all together along with passages from the Old Testament to form a coherent doctrine.  We should do this, but not so that we can appear well taught and erudite.  Every passage is given for a purpose.  But that purpose is to increase own desire for His return and to cause us to adjust our lives accordingly.

"We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him just as He is.  And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself just as He is pure" (1 John 3:2, 3).

"Therefore beloved ones, since you are expecting these things, be earnest to be found by Him in peace, without spot or blemish" (2 Peter 3:14).

"The One who testifies these thing says, 'Yes, I am coming quickly.'  Amen!  Come Lord Jesus!"  (Revelation 22:20)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

THE REAL WAR ON CHRISTMAS


This holiday season was for many, at least seriously altered by a seemingly meaningless act of violence on December 14 -- just a week and a half before Christmas.  And for the families of those 20 innocent children who were slaughtered and of the 6 adults who died protecting them, Christmas was changed forever.

What will the holiday be like for them?  We have no idea.  What about those gifts purchased by loving parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, neighbors?  What will they do with them?  Will there be a celebration around the tree?  How can there be?

The talking heads and pundits, the newspersons and politicians, the psychologists and preachers, attempt to ascertain why this happened and what can be done to prevent the next horror?  And yes we must do something (or things).

There's certainly enough blame to go around -- our American love affair with guns, our culture of violence in our video games and movies, our lack of proper care for the mentally and emotionally unstable.  The preachers talk about how we've (allegedly) shut God out of our schools.

There's one factor we don't talk much about -- that this was an act of pure evil committed not by a monster, but by one of our fellow human beings.

There was another horrible act of evil committed over 2,000 years ago, that was also closely associated with Christmas.  Although we usually leave it out in our sanitized retelling of the Christmas story.  It's told in the second chapter of Matthew, right after the familiar part of the story about the visit of the Magi.

When the Magi came, they first visited Jerusalem and they inquired, "Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?  For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him" (Matthew 2:2).  Herod the king, after consulting with the scholars, sent them to Bethlehem, the prophesied birthplace, with instructions for them to report back to him "... that I too may go and worship him" (2:8).  Herod had no intention of worshipping however.

But the Magi, after worshipping and presenting their gifts, were warned by God and returned "another way," avoiding Herod.  Joseph too was warned and took Mary and the Baby and fled to Egypt.

Herod "the Great" was an evil jealous king.  He had already murdered members of his own family to protect his throne.  This next act was totally in line with his evil character.  In a fit of rage, he "sent and slaughtered all the children in Bethlehem and in that region who were two years of age or under, according to the time he had determined from the Magi" (2:16).

Scholars differ as to how many children might have been killed.  Not a large number.  Perhaps 20?  Could there also have been some adults who died trying to protect those entrusted to them?  Perhaps a half dozen or so? 

Matthew quotes a dirge originally spoken by Jeremiah the Prophet, but repeated by those affected.
"A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and great grief.
Rachel wailing for her children
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more" (2:18). 

The images on our TV screens bring this biblical story into the present day.

John in his apocalypse presents a different view of the horrible events in Bethlehem.  He sees a spiritual conflict going on behind the scenes:
"... and behold a great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns
and on his heads seven diadems.  And his tail swept a third of the
stars of heaven and cast them to the earth and he stood
before the woman who was about to give birth, so that
whenever she bears her child, he might consume it."
(Revelation 12:3, 4) 

As in Matthew's account, the evil one fails and the child escapes, "... the One who is going to rule all the nations" (Revelation 12:5).  And under whose coming reign all evils will cease.

As both Matthew and John let us know, there is great evil not only in the visible, but in the unseen world.  And though we do not understand and we may question why these horrors occur, we must see that ultimately God is in control.

And we need to also see the divine irony.  That Child who escaped the slaughter, was Himself put to death thirty-one years later, by judicial murder.  But this death had a purpose.  As the heavenly hymn says:
"You were slain, and redeemed to God in Your blood
from every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
and You made them to our God a Kingdom of priests
and they will reign upon the earth" (Revelation 5:9, 10).

Friday, December 14, 2012

THE CANDLE

A member of a church I used to pastor told me a story about her childhood.  She was raised in a small town and most of the people in town attended the only church there.  Once every year the church would have a candle-light service.  (I believe it was New Year's Eve.)  At the close of the service all the people would file out and walk toward home, carefully holding their burning candles.  Some folks' candles would of course go out even before they left the building; others' candles would blow out as soon as they stepped outside; others' candles would go out on the way home; and, some would make it all the way home with their candles still lit.  But sooner or later everyone's candles would go out.

It seems that this is often, maybe usually, the way our spiritual life is.  We get our "candles lit" through some exciting, stimulating or uplifting event.  It may be a moving worship service or an old-fashioned "revival meeting"; it may be a weekend retreat; or a seminar; or we may take a Bible class or read an uplifting book.  But sooner or later our candles flicker and go out and we must wait for the next event, relight and start the process over.  Our lives are a series of highs and lows.  But should our lives be that way?  Should we be (forgive me for mixing my metaphors) "spiritual junkies" always waiting for and searching for the next high, hoping it'll be better and longer lasting than the previous?

Or is there some way we can keep the candle burning?

"Your word is a lamp for my feet
and a light for my path."
Psalm 119:105

Friday, December 7, 2012

I AM


 
And Moses said to God, "When I go to the children of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you," and they ask me, 'What is His name?'  What should I say to them?" (Exodus 3:13)

And God said to Moses, "I am who I am!" and He said, "Thus shall you say to them 'I AM has sent me to you!'" (3:14)

And God said further to Moses, "Thus shall you say to the children of Israel, 'Yahweh the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent me to you!'  This is my name forever and this is how I am to be remembered to generation on generation!" (3:15)

When God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush, He gave His name as Yahweh (translated LORD in most English translations).  The word is related to the words "I am" (Ehyeh) in the previous verse, a form of the verb "to be."  The name has been understood in various ways but is generally understood to mean something like "the One Who Is" or "the Eternally Existing One."

Though the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament translation ca. 200 + BC) uses the word "Kurios" (Lord) to translate "Yahweh" in verse 13, it translates "I am who I am" as "Ego Eimi Ho On" or "I am the One Who Is."

Why is this important?  Because the words Jesus uses when He say "I am ..." are those two words, Ego Eimi.  If He spoke them in Greek, the any of His contemporary Jews who were familiar with the Septuagint would immediately understand that He was in some way claiming kinship or even equality with Israel's covenant God, whose Hebrew name Yahweh was never even spoken.  His disciple John, the author of the fourth gospel certainly had that understanding.

In a previous post, IS JESUS REALLY THE ONLY WAY? I attempted to deal with Brian McLaren's faulty and (I believe) deceptive exegesis of John 14:6.  I said, "Even if his “exegesis” of John 14:6 were correct (it’s not) and Jesus was not claiming exclusivity here, McLaren would still have to contend with the vast number of claims Jesus made elsewhere.  There are other “I Am’s” in John’s gospel.  Is McLaren capable of explaining away the apparent exclusivity in all of these?"  I don't know if McLaren ever tried to deal with these or not, but I felt I needed to say a bit about them.

Jesus uses the combined words Ego eimi (I am) in John's gospel 23 times by my count.  He also uses the word eimi by itself or in slightly different combinations another 22 times.  [The verb can be used without the pronoun in Greek.  The meaning is still the same, only without the emphasis.]  A few samples:

"The woman says to Him, 'I know that Messiah is coming (the one called Christ ...)'  Jesus says to her 'I am -- the one speaking to you.'" (John 4:25, 26)

"Jesus said to them, 'I am the Bread of Life.'" (6:38, also verses 41, 48, 51)

"Again then Jesus spoke to them saying, 'I am the Light of the World.'" (8:12)

"Jesus said to them, 'Amen, amen, I'm telling you, before Abraham came to be, I am!'" (8:58)

Jesus says to His hearers and followers, "I am the Door" (10:7, 9), "the Good Shepherd" (10:11, 14), "the Resurrection and the Life" (11:25), "the Way and the Truth and the Life" (14:6), "the True Vine" (15:1).

"Jesus ... says to them (the mob in the garden), 'Whom are you seeking?'  They answered Him, 'Jesus the Nazarene.'  He says to them, 'I am.'  ... When He said to them 'I am' they drew back and fell to the ground." (18:4-6)

When John records that the mere saying of the two words is enough to knock Jesus' assailants over he seems to imply that there was divine power in the words themselves.

Jesus is claiming in these sayings more than that He is the only way to God; He is claiming that He is God.  I don't see how one can deny that He is making that claim.

His use of the phrase "I am" itself takes us back to Exodus 3.  As Yahweh revealed Himself to Moses, so Jesus is revealing Himself as that same "One Who Is."  The above reference to His existence (in the present tense) before Abraham, seems to be a clear claim to Deity.  The references to light, to resurrection, to life all carry us back to the God who revealed Himself to Israel in the Old Covenant.  The claim to being "the Good Shepherd" takes us back to the 23rd Psalm -- "Yahweh is my Shepherd" as well as to the prophets and Psalmists' words of Yahweh that He Himself would shepherd His people (Isaiah 40:11; Micah 7:14; Psalm 28:9, 80:1).

To detail all the Old Testament references in Jesus' "I am" sayings would require a thesis, but I hope I have shown enough of them to demonstrate that Jesus was clearly claiming not only that He is the only way to the Father, but that He Himself is God in the flesh.

In John 10:30, Jesus makes His claims clear using the plural form of the same verb "I and the Father are One."

Monday, December 3, 2012

THE MAN IN BLACK

When Uni and I travel in the car, we often listen to old CDs:  country, blues, rock & roll or whatever.  A week or so ago, as we were driving back from our son's home in NM, where we had spent Thanksgiving, we were listening to one entitled Johnny Cash, 16 Biggest Hits.  We had recently gone through some conflict at church and though we had had a pleasant visit at our son's, we were still licking our wounds from that conflict.  As Johnny was progressing from tale to tale, we said almost in unison (as we often do), "The people at church should be listening to this!"

Johnny Cash told stories in his songs -- stories of real people.  Though he didn't write all of these stories himself, he had a unique empathy that enabled him to enter into the characters of whom he sang.  Some were stories about real people -- persons who actually lived out the drama depicted in the songs; many others were representative of people we all have known; others were fictional, though not "pure" fiction; some were undoubtedly autobiographical.  Each song evinced some emotion in us, sometimes many, even conflicting, emotions.  Laughter and tears often at the same time.

As we listened to him relate his tales in his deep, clear, but raw voice, we couldn't help but feel that we were actually hearing from the person himself -- or herself.  Besides those songs of love and passion we heard:

-- John Henry, the legendary 19th century black "steel drivin' man" swinging his hammer.  We feel the sweat and the pride of a man who could boast in his work, though he ultimately worked himself to death.

-- Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian World War II hero who returned to "a dry thirsty land" and died drunk and forgotten in a ditch.

-- The man who had enough of his relationship and finally walks out with the parting words "Understand Your Man."

-- The man who "shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" and spends his life sitting in Folsom Prison longing for the freedom represented by the train he hears "a-comin'."

-- The boy named Sue who spends his whole life searching for revenge on his father the ______ that "gave him that awful name."

-- The mother who cries out her final words to her son who thinks that at last he's become a man, "Don't take your guns to town son!"

-- The down and out alcoholic wandering the streets on a Sunday morning and longing for something he "left somewhere along the way."

-- And, of course, the long list of people in his song, "Man in Black" --hurting, needy people for whom he dresses in black, especially "those who've never read -- or heard the words that Jesus said ..."
 
I suspect that Johnny Cash knew these people.  He had literally experienced pains and pleasures similar to those who would listen to more than just the music.

If I may say this without sounding blasphemous, I believe Johnny Cash was more like Jesus than many (most?) good respectable well-scrubbed Christians.  Because he had experienced not only the pathos of those he sang about, he had experienced grace.  He struggled with addiction and broken relationships his whole life.  He had at times turned his back on the ones and the One who loved him, and always found that grace waiting when he returned.

The gospel of grace was not given to nice people, moral people, respectable people.  It was given to sinners -- sinners like the ones Johnny Cash sang about.  And until we can see ourselves in people like these, I don't believe we can even begin to understand what grace really is.  As Jesus Himself said, "I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners" (Mark 2:17).

Saturday, December 1, 2012

WHOSE FAULT IS IT?

"And as He passed along He saw a man blind from birth.  And His disciples asked Him saying, 'Who sinned, this one or his parents that he should be born blind?'
            Jesus answered, 'Neither he nor his parents sinned -- but that the works of God may be revealed in him'" (John 9:1-3).

I've often gone to this passage to bring comfort to persons who've been suffering in ways that defied any explanation; I've used it as a text for the funeral of someone who had finally come to the end of a long life of pain and suffering; or the funeral of a child who lived only a few days with a congenital defect; or who died of SIDs.  I have tried to use it to comfort those grieving parents and loved ones who were asking, "Why?"

However, the passage is just the opener to one of the more humorous stories in the Bible (at least from my slightly warped perspective).  John 9 is a story about spiritual blindness.

As I meditated on some recent events in my own experience, as well as some conversations I'd heard, my mind kept coming back to the disciples' question above.  Now I don't know their motives or the reasonings behind the question, but it reminded me of similar questions or comments I'd heard before, asked by well-meaning (?) Christians when faced with the pain or suffering of others.
  • Years ago, when relating as a pastor to my congregation about a young man dying of AIDs.  I was asked, "Is he gay?
  • Comments about panhandlers that I've heard many times, "How'd he get that way?" or He'll probably spend it on booze or drugs."
  • How about this response to my reading passage after passage about our responsibility to the poor.  "The biggest cause of poverty in this country is single parenting," spoken in front of at least a half dozen single or formerly single parents.
The list could go on ad nauseam.  It seems we want to assign a reason for the suffering we witness -- perhaps to excuse our own lack of compassion.  We seem to be simply repeating Cain's question, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

But when Jesus was confronted with people who were suffering, whether physically, emotionally or spiritually, we never read of His asking questions or making comments like this.  He just reached out in compassion.  It didn't seem to be a matter of concern to Him as to how the particular person got into the mess they were in.

He healed physically and emotionally ill persons.  He comforted grieving parents.  He cast our demons.  He forgave sinners of all sorts.

We might suppose that Jesus was just reacting against the harshness of the Old Testament Law and to some extent, He was.  But if we look at what the Old Testament has to say about those in need, we realize that Jesus was expressing the compassion of His Father for those in need -- a compassion already encoded in the Law of Moses.

            "You shall not wrong or oppress an alien ...
            You shall not oppress a widow or an orphan ...
            If you lend money to My people -- the poor among you ...
            exact no interest from them ..." (Exodus 22:20-26 -- read all of it).

See also Exodus 23:4-12 and many other references to the poor, the alien, the widow and the orphan -- and God's reaction to the mistreatment of them.

When confronted with need of any sort, the question is never asked as to how that person or those persons came to be in the mess they were in, whether by Jesus or any Old Testament saint.

But what I have heard over and over again coming from those who claim to be followers of Jesus is a demand that those in need be somehow "worthy" of care.

Jesus came into this world to save sinners.  None of us are or were "worthy" of His grace.  And our responsibility is to demonstrate to other sinners the grace of Christ -- no questions asked.