Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Advent 2020: The Light That Illumines Everything

John the Baptist was called by God to “prepare the way of the Lord.” In the Gospel of John this task is expressed differently than in the other Gospels. There it says that he “came to bear witness about the light, the true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” 

The ESV explains that the coming “true light” was that “which gives light to everyone.” I would suggest a better translation: “the true light that illumines everyone was coming into the world.” The notion behind this translation is that light (as Jesus instructs Nicodemus) exposes everything, particularly deeds that are done in the dark. As D. A. Carson explains, the coming of the light, therefore, “forces a distinction.” Those who 'come to the light,' who 'believe in the light,' 'will not walk in darkness.' But the one who does not come to the light 'stumbles, because the light is not in him.'

As is often noted, the opening of John’s Gospel is an intentional echo of the opening chapters of Genesis. In Genesis, God speaks everything into being and then is said to breathe the "breath of life" into his newly formed image bearer, making him “a living creature.” This act involves more than just animating the man, however, for God is soon communicating with him, giving him instructions as to how he is to live and serve. This suggests that the man has been endowed with capacities that separate him from the rest of God’s creatures. This impartation of life, then, includes the kind of “light” alluded to in John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . All things were made through him . . . In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

The problem that the human now has is that the light he follows is not the true light, but various refractions of false light. As a result, he follows light that misleads, confuses, renders his thinking “futile,” to quote Paul. Professing to be wise he becomes a fool, which, in turn, leads to all manners of rebellion.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, that God causes those who dwell in such darkness to be born again so that they can see the Kingdom of God? That is the staggering implication of the oft quoted John 3:16. The nature of God’s love is revealed by the decision to sends his son into hostile territory, territory occupied by the devil and his disciples, to turn rebels into loyal followers.

In this Advent season, a time in which the world lies in darkness, we long for the True Light to make his appearance. We wait with restless patience knowing that he will soon arrive — in just a few days, in fact. Let’s join the Baptist in bearing witness to his coming so that all might believe and “become sons of light.”

Thursday, June 25, 2020

"God Willed"

We are cautioned by James against arrogance when making plans: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil” (James 4:13-16). Some Christians, having taken this teaching to heart, append to their communications, “DV,” an abbreviation for the Latin, Deo volente, “God willing.”

When we say, “God willing,” we are acknowledging that we don’t know what the future holds. That is left for God to know, unless he reveals it to us in some way, such as in biblical predictive prophecy. When we say, “God willing,” we are acknowledging that we have no absolute control over the future. We make our plans but our plans are subsumed, absorbed, in whatever God’s plans are. So we might, for example, say, “God willing, I will meet you for lunch next Thursday.” Yet, God is the one who knows what will take place between now and then. In fact, he is the one who governs all things between now and then.

“God willing.” It’s pretty easy to say and we should mean it. 

That being said, it’s harder to say “God willed.” We are much more comfortable looking forward with expectation than we are looking back with resignation. That is, we map out our plans, or just go about our life living according to habitual expectations, and when something happens that we would never have put on our calendar, its interference shakes us. At such times, we are not given to saying “God willed,” as easily as we say, “God willing.” But in truth, we live in a universe that was not only created by God but continues to be governed by God. So we are right to say, “God willing,” but we must also be ready to say, “God willed,” even when that will includes that which shakes our life.

Though hard to mentally grasp, we are to know that all of God’s creation is enveloped in his will. All that comes to pass, therefore, is never due to chance, fate, or some other impersonal force. Rather, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, God’s ever-present power “rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand” (Question 27). If this is true, then even the sin of an enemy is encompassed within the over-arching will of God. This does not alleviate the sinner of his responsibility, but it does mean that no matter what transpires, God’s will, which is always good, will be done. 

Theologian R.C. Sproul, while teaching on the sovereignty of God, admitted that if he knew there was one molecule that was outside of God’s control, he would be terrified. It would mean that God was not God because there was something operating outside of his influence and power. Now, if God were a despot, then the realization that something was outside of his control would be good news. It would mean that there was hope for revolution, a change of regimes! But as God is a loving, wise, just, and merciful father, the confidence that he is in absolute and total control brings peace.

This is the perspective that Joseph famously obtained. Despite having been much sinned against he knew that what his brothers had meant for evil, God meant for good. He was able to say not only “God willing,” but also “God willed.”

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

We Are Not Alone

As Moses was soon to be separated from Israel, they going into the Promised Land, he to see it from afar, he summoned Joshua to stand before the people. The Lord had chosen Joshua to succeed Moses as head over Israel and it was time to commission him to that task: “Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.’” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8)

This was a word of warning and of promise. The challenge before Joshua was going to be difficult. He would need to be “strong and courageous.” But throughout he could be assured that the Lord would be with him, neither leaving nor forsaking him. Was God good to his word? At the end of his life Joshua testifies to Israel, “I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed.” (Joshua 23:14) They possessed the land and ate “the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that [they] did not plant.” (24:13)

This same God is the God to whom David appealed and about whom he could testify, “this poor man cried, and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.” (Psalm 34:6) There is a striking difference, however, between the circumstances of these two men of God. While Joshua stood with a multitude, David was alone — alone, frightened, and without refuge or provision (see 1 Samuel 21). As James Boice notes, "He had nothing. No wonder David described himself as 'this poor man.’” Yet, in his poverty, to whom does he turn? It is to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses and Joshua, who is also the God of David. In a time of great distress David discovered that Yahweh knew where he was, the circumstances that drove him there, and learned from him how he might be delivered.

Have we less reason than Joshua or David to hope that we can experience the truth that God will never leave us nor forsake us? Our faith in Jesus connects us to this promise keeping God. Recall his final words to the disciples, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) In his poverty, David “sought the Lord” and the Lord answered and delivered him from all his fears. Jesus will do no less for us. We, too, can be strong and courageous knowing he will be with us — always with us — ready to hear our cry.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Learning to Lament

“Lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness.” Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy

Approximately one third of the book of Psalms is laments. Perhaps that’s why it’s often cited as the most loved book of the Bible. The heart cry of the writers feels real, close to the human condition. Despite the connection we have with lament psalms, lamenting is not something we intentionally do. We do not practice lament. 

Lament is the conscious mourning over the brokenness of the world. The loss of a beloved child, a devastating diagnosis, the unwarranted attack by a friend, such heartbreaking situations are made all the more confusing for those who have faith in the God who promises blessing and steadfast love. In moments of deep uncertainty, confusion, and fear, the believer asks, “Why? Must it be so? Can it not be otherwise? God, you have promised to be near, yet you seem so very far away.” But instead of locking these questions within, lament frees them, putting them out in the air before God in honest, heartfelt expressions of woe. Through the process of addressing God, making complaint, and laying out a request, the sufferer is brought to a place of assurance that God has not forgotten. He remains faithful to his steadfast love.

That process describes the usual composition of biblical laments and offers that practicing lament will bring the same outcome. But Psalm 44 demonstrates that it isn’t always so. The writer ends without assurance that God has heard his cry. We don’t know why he lacks certainty, but he does.

I would suggest that one of the reasons might be due to temperament. Perhaps his was a soul that was weighted toward sadness. I cannot say that with confidence about him, but I can say that there are people more disposed to sorrow than others and perhaps he was one of them.

Too many Christians are uncomfortable with such people. They feel the downheartedness of the mourner needs to be corrected, and in an effort to cheer, offer easy answers with selected Bible verses, implying that if the mourner would just believe the Word of God, light would break in on his darkness. It can take time, however, for light to dawn. People need to be given time to grieve, to question, to mourn. Our job is to be ready to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Patience is required, not haste.

In truth, learning to lament will bring us closer to Jesus. He had compassion  a deep gut reaction  when he saw that the “crowds were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). He wept at Lazarus’s tomb and was “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” when he found Lazarus’s sister and those with her weeping (John 11:33-35). He mourned over the inevitable downfall of Jerusalem saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!” (Luke 19:42).

In lament, God gives us space to grieve, mourn, question, and plead. Though his promise of steadfast love can cause confusion when circumstances make us feel he has abandoned us, it is also the basis upon which we lament. 

He has promised and he will be faithful. 

Living Wisely

“We are food for worms lads. Believe it or not everyone in this room is going to stop breathing, turn cold and die . . .” These words, spoken by the character played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, are biblically sound! Our lives are framed by conception and death. No matter how great the advances of medicine have been or will be, death has not, and will not, be overcome by human effort. 

The brevity or our lives, poignantly portrayed by Moses in Psalm 90, can be something over which we lament. The reason for our frailty is due to our own foolishness. Humanity was warned that transgressing the command of God would prove fatal. Disbelieving, unconvinced, deceived into thinking otherwise, we ate and found out that when God speaks, he speaks truth.

But God acted to ransom us from our folly by making a way for us to once again be in fellowship with him. As a result, though our bodies might be dead because of sin, the Spirit brings life because of God-given righteousness (Romans 8:10-11). This offers a hopeful perspective on the ephemerality of our days. We need not lament. Rather, we can rejoice, for constraint prods us to action. Os Guinness asserts, “Brevity of life is like the frame of a picture, or a sports field for a game, or a term for a student. It gives the framework and focus that gives you the intensity and the motivation.” Knowing that we have only so many days we press into God for the needed grace to live them well. This is the nature of the cry that emanates from Moses’ meditation on our mortality, “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12).

The final petitions of Psalm 90 can shape our prayer as we ask God for the desired wisdom. First, we ask him to have pity on us. And he does have pity on us. As another psalm says,“he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalms 103:14). Then we lean into his covenant faithfulness, his “steadfast love,” asking that he get hold of us sooner rather than later that “we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Next, we petition that his “work” and “glorious power” be made evident and comprehensible to us. Lastly, having been awed by who he is and what he has done, we beseech that his “beauty . . . be upon us, and establish the work of our hands.” 

Praying for a humble acceptance of the brevity of our lives will lead to the wisdom needed to live our lives with meaning. We abandon the false standards of what constitutes significance and enter into what God is doing in the world. It is his plan for his creation, and our part in that plan, that will allow us to say at the end of our days, “I am satisfied. I am fulfilled. Life has been extraordinary!”

Life in the Vine

“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11)

Stop and consider that statement. 

A person united to Jesus by faith has the same Spirit dwelling in her that raised Jesus from the dead! And the presence of the Holy Spirit in that person brings resurrection life to his “mortal” body. 

There are two ways that we experience this life: in the “the redemption of our bodies” and our being “conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:23, 29). On the day that we stand before Jesus’ throne of judgment we will put off our mortality and perishability and be possesed of a body like unto Jesus’ glorious body (1 Corinthians 15:51-53; Philippians 3:21). We can have confidence, therefore, that the salvation won for us will be complete with the restoration of our material selves, and knowing this, “we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25).

The verse above also speaks to the life-giving Spirit conforming us “to the image of his Son.” Because we are now those “who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit,” we are, as those who “who live according to the Spirit,” to “set [our] minds on the things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:4,5). It is by the Spirit that we are enabled to “put to death the deeds of the body.” In this way we are being conformed more and more into the likeness of Jesus. Even our trials allow us to participate in his suffering, drawing upon the power of the Holy Spirit to join with Paul in considering “that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:17,18).

I believe Paul’s teaching relates closely to Jesus’ vine and branches metaphor of John 15. He intends fruit to be born from his life flowing into us. We should not, therefore, underestimate the potential for transformation that can take place as we abide in him and his words abide in us. Increasing faith, hope, godliness and holiness will mark our lives as we abide in the Vine. As we set our minds on things of the Spirit, we are renewed and our desires are reshaped so that more and more we desire what God desires. Abiding in Christ, times of suffering are understood as times of pruning (John 15:2) that, “for those who love God,” are being worked “together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28), chief of which is his choosing and appointing us to “go and bear fruit and that [our] fruit should abide” (John 15:16)

Let’s purpose and pray that resurrection life will bear abiding fruit to the glory of God.

Palm Sunday

I went to a theologically liberal seminary. Early on in my time there I was part of a conversation in which I raised the atoning work of Christ. An older fellow, whom I did not know, chimed in with, “Well, that all depends on what you mean by atonement.” I was taken aback. I was unaware that that was a question. From my reading, the Bible seemed pretty clear as to what is meant by atonement. That conversation comes back to me when I consider Palm Sunday. 

Entering Jerusalem, Jesus is approaching the culmination of his earthly ministry. From the moment he was conceived in the womb of the virgin, this week has been the goal. He was given the name Jesus and his name defined his mission, and his mission’s denouement is upon him. With ‘eyes wide open’ he moves toward the holy city, self-aware of who he is and what he has been sent to do. It is love incarnate. To make it anything less by recasting Jesus passion as something other than a wrath-bearing, substitutionary sacrifice, is to drain it of all significance. Palm Sunday is no longer a deliberate act of grace by God in the flesh, but a misguided display of self-importance by a woefully deceived cipher of a man. The fellow at the seminary who suggested that atonement could be redefined fulfilled the hopes of plotting Jews: that Jesus would be discovered to be just another loser with visions of grandeur (see Acts 5:33-38).

But as Jesus repeatedly warned, and the gospel accounts clearly record, his passion, undertaken as the promised redeemer, was designed to meet the need of those he came to save. His central role in procuring that salvation is fully attested in the events of Palm Sunday: his symbolic mount connects him to the prophesied king of peace: the accolades of the crowd are received by him as fitting praise; the spiritual blindness of Jerusalem will result in its destruction. Even the evil of those who seek to destroy him plays into the eternal plan of God. 

Our King of peace has come, “righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9) And to “all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

Jesus came to save sinners, and it is sinners that he saves.