Epiphany: Academics Take the Long Road

6 January 2021

The shepherds came to see Jesus the same night He was born; Simeon and Ana recognized Him when He was eight days old. It took the Magi two years to get there, and the priests? Well…many came to know Him eventually (Acts 6:7), but many more never got there at all.

The academics always take longer. They have questions, objections, arguments. The Magi had to search their books and star charts. The priests had their theological difficulties with Jesus, and besides, by what authority was He doing these things? He wasn’t even an ordained rabbi. He was a construction worker, for crying out loud! But the things Jesus did became the credential: “The works I do in My Father’s name bear witness of Me.” And again: “Go and tell John what you see: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them.” 

Tough to argue with that. That’s the life the incarnate Jesus invites us into. The divine nature, as it is, can flow through humans, just as we are, and we know this, because it’s already happened. You may not have the best explanations about Jesus and maybe people can argue rings around you. That’s okay. Just live your life as Jesus did—guided by the Father and empowered by the Holy Spirit—and let that be your credential.

Who can argue with life?

The Twelfth Day of Christmas: Legacy

5 January 2021

“These are My mother and brothers,” Jesus said. As rich as that can be, we were also made to pair off and reproduce. But the world is broken. Some never find that person; some who do turn out to be infertile. For those of us in one of those categories, our lives can become tragically empty as we get older. In the new family that Jesus is building, that never need be the case.

In Jesus’ family, He acknowledges the wound, and promises to transcend it: “Sing, you barren…for more are the children of the desolate than of the married woman” and again, “Nor let the eunuch say, ‘Here I am, a dry tree,’…to them I will give in My house and within My walls a place and a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.” 

Let us not forget, Jesus Himself died childless at 33. We don’t imagine that He has no family; why do we think that we don’t? If He can stand and say, “Here am I, and the children God has given me” — a phrase from Isaiah that the author of Hebrews puts (metaphorically) in His mouth at the height of a dizzying display of synthetic Old Testament Messianic theology — then what’s stopping us from claiming the same family? 

What’s His is ours; that was the whole point.

The Eleventh Day of Christmas: Mother and Brothers

4 January 2021

While Jesus was sitting in a house teaching one day, they told Him His mother and brothers were waiting outside to see Him. He gestured around the room and said “These are My mother and brothers. Whoever does the will of God is My mother and brother and sister.” How can He do that?

Modern people know better than anybody that you can’t just declare a new family willy-nilly. We’ve tried over and over with fandoms and music and various brand loyalties. Just because we both like Mustangs or My Chemical Romance or Glocks doesn’t mean we have to see each other at Thanksgiving. Declaring a new family takes serious spiritual horsepower. It takes a superior blood tie to supplant the blood of the clan—and in Jesus, we have that. But do we use it?

It’s a bit like we’ve been given a mansion—title, keys, the whole bit—but we’re reluctant to go inside and see what the rooms look like. Being united to Jesus, we are united to each other. But we can only reap the benefits of that union if we’re willing to explore it. I’ve been exploring seriously for the past 16 years, and y’all…it’s amazing. These are the people who rebuke me when I’m wrong, support me when I’m weak, heal me when I’m broken. They’ve seen me at my neurotic worst and helped me be my best. It’s real.

We just gotta go do it.

The Tenth Day of Christmas: Multicolored Wisdom

3 January 2021

God’s insane risk tolerance allows Him to use particular people—sinful ones at that—to represent Him. It seems the craziest thing in the world. Men and women, adults and children, every tribe and socioeconomic station, all gathered together in one group—how can that possibly work? What do they have in common that’s stronger than what divides them?

It’s not what, it’s who. The Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul’s meditation on unity, lays it out: in the Church, people from all races and walks of life are united to Christ, and therefore to each other. Before the very principalities and powers that kept us divided in the old world, the Church displays the “multicolored wisdom of God.” The fact that we can unite without being perfect makes it an even greater miracle.

If we are going to become fit for the Kingdom to come, if we are going to try to cram as much heaven into the present as possible, then we have to work together. In Jesus, we can. We come to one Table together, hear one another, discern God’s voice together without regard for station. Seem like a pipe dream? I see it happen every week. Perfectly? Of course not. But truly—and if it’s real, then the kingdom of God has come upon you; heaven is touching earth.

Come and see.

The Ninth Day of Christmas: A Humble God

2 January 2021

If the particularity and ordinariness of Jesus is offensive, the ordinariness of His people is even worse. It’s one thing for God to work through Jesus, the man without sin. But what are we to make of Christians? Vanity, greed, lust, envy…you can find all the seven deadlies hard at work in the church nearest you. I promise.

The humility of God knows no bounds. It would have been enough for infinite God to squeeze through a birth canal and manifest in the perfect man Jesus, but He doesn’t stop there. He would rather be imperfectly present to your neighbor through your flesh and blood than be perfectly absent in the sky somewhere, safely removed from any danger that you might tarnish His reputation.

Raises the stakes, doesn’t it? You, as a human, are the image of God. You can’t opt out. Your character and conduct either reflect God’s as a good image, or they lie about Him. What’s it gonna be? The good news is, if you’re even margially willing, He won’t leave you as you are; He will pay any cost to make you fit for the job. He doesn’t care where you started; St. Paul was a terrorist and murderer, and look what God did with him.

Gives me hope.

The Eighth Day of Christmas: Fit to Rule

1 January 2021

The anonymous author of the book of Hebrews meditates extensively on who Jesus was and what He did. Because all God’s children partake of flesh and blood, so did Jesus our brother. Because we die, so did Jesus. He was tempted in every way like us, but without sin.

After a wind-up like that, you expect to hear a blistering challenge: “No excuses! Quit whining! Work harder, you lazy bums!” Instead, it says He sympathizes. “Let us come boldly…so that we might find mercy and obtain grace to help when we need it.” Precisely because Jesus knows how hard it is, He never wants us to be afraid to come to Him. Jesus wants us to ask for help.

Help with what? What are we striving for? ““What is man?…You have put all things under his feet.” The old world was under the care of angels, but God “has not put the world to come in subjection to angels.” As we move toward the future, this man Jesus, our elder brother, has ascended to rule the world to come—and He is bringing us with Him. This life is where we forge character fit to rule the world.

We need all the help we can get.

The Seventh Day of Christmas: From One Blood

31 December 2020

When Paul was invited to address the philosophers of Athens, he knew he was talking to a culture that divided the world into just two categories: Greeks and barbarians. Against that, Paul proclaimed that God “made from one blood every nation of men under heaven.” Every nation’s circumstances were orchestrated by God “so that they might grope after Him and find Him,” Paul said, and then added, “though He is not far from each one of us.” No special advantage for being Greek.

That was offensive enough, but Paul wasn’t done. God calls everyone to repent, he said, because He “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world…by the man whom He has chosen.” He is talking, of course, of Jesus—not a Greek, not even a scholar, but a Galilean construction worker!

It is one thing to judge the world from on high. God could do that, but in Jesus, He did something very different. He subjected Himself to the limitations of flesh, was tired, hungry, and cold, was tempted as we are, unjustly slandered and judicially murdered—and faced it all without sin. He is not only a model for us all, He is the end to our precious pretensions. Before the true divine man, we are no better than anyone else, and we have no special excuses for our failures. We are simply human.

So was He, and that is the point.

The Sixth Day of Christmas: Time Travel

30 December 2020

We are always tempted to yearn for earlier times. But we are born at one point on the timeline and die at another, and for our entire lives in between, we ride our bodies inexorably forward, never back. We are all time travellers, and we only move in one direction. As the clock turns, older things don’t necessarily go away, but they lose their power to compel. You can still play with Matchbox cars or dolls or whatever, and it’s fun for a few minutes…but remember when you could spend all day at it, and still be mad that Mom was making you stop to eat supper?

We graduate from toys to driving, from driving for its own sake to all the places driving can take us, to the people we can share those places with—first friends and love interests, then a spouse, then our children. It’s not that we lose the simple pleasure of skittering a Matchbox car across the kitchen floor or taking a drive in the country, but we discover there’s more beyond it…and more…and more again. Every direction we look, there are further glories to uncover.

We have moments when we want to go back, or to freeze time and never change anything…but we can’t. We can build on the past, but we have to keep our eyes on the road — the future is where we’re going. Along the way, we have the opportunity to anticipate as much heaven as we can cram into the present. But how do you get spiritual heaven into this physical mess? Have faith; it can be done.

Don’t forget: now, even God has a body.

The Fifth Day of Christmas: Growing Up (whether we want to or not)

29 December 2020

In his meditation on human freedom, the Epistle to the Galatians, Saint Paul outlines how in humanity’s childhood, we were kept under guard by “the basic elements of the world”—the stability of blood and soil, the natural powers and angelic principalities, even the Torah itself. “But when the fullness of the time had come,” Paul says, “God sent forth His Son…that we might receive the adoption as sons.” Something about the Incarnation means that we’ve come of age; we’re no longer under tutors.

We receive this freedom quite apart from whether we deserve it—Paul makes it rather clear we don’t—and with no guarantee that we will exercise it responsibly. Humanity newly in Christ is a bit like a teenager taking the family car for a solo drive for the first time. Hard lessons are virtually guaranteed. And this is in fact exactly what we see: nice as it is to have all those new possibilities, freedom is terrifying, the potential for disaster all too real.  

We are as alienated and neurotic as we’ve ever been. Cut off from the old sources of certainty, we try to forge a new identity from hobbies, fandoms, sartorial choices. But it takes more than (say) Jeep ownership, the Broncos, and a model airplane club to sustain a human soul. And we know it—that’s why we have to keep adding stuff, or totally reinvent ourselves every few years. But like that teenager out for the first solo drive, we can’t just quit; we’re already on the highway.

We gotta learn how to drive.

The Fourth Day of Christmas: Principalities and Powers

28 December 2020

There was more to the stifling stability of the ancient world than just social constructs; humanity was “a little lower than the angels.” The world into which Jesus was born was subject to angelic powers that governed via human intermediaries. A couple millennia after Jesus destroyed the system, the details are hard to reconstruct, but we know the broad outlines.

In the antediluvian world, we had close contact with angels, learned from them, sometimes had children with them. After the flood, there was more distance, but the basic arrangement continued. Even God’s law was mediated to men by angels (Acts 7:53). Under the powers, the court magicians worked real magic and the “divine” kings exercised a supernatural insight and charisma that historian John Pilkey once described as a kind of “Gentile Pentecost.” It was a world of fixed tribal identities under tutelary deities, a world of thousand-year empires and very little change. You couldn’t make the demons leave.

Before Jesus, exorcism amounted to restraining the possessed person and then doing things the demon wouldn’t like until it finally chose to leave. It could take days. Jesus did nothing like that; He commanded demons to leave, and they went. This was new: a man had authority over angels. The old order shattered: everywhere the gospel went, the patron gods lost their authority and the “divine” kings fell. With a man ascended to God’s right hand, the era of real human rule began…and we share in it.

This is both good news and bad news.