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.

The Third Day of Christmas: The World That Was

27 December 2020

We have come so far from the world Jesus was born into that we forget how that world was a place of stifling stability. In the classical world, the major markers of your life were all predictable the day you were born: your trade, friends, spouse, residence, all of it. The twin powers of blood and soil dictated everything. Today we call that fascism; they called it common sense.

Jesus was born into that fascist world. The blood ties of His clan and the soil of His birthplace dictated a certain kind of life: He should practice His (presumed) father’s trade, marry a girl of equivalent station in the village, listen to the rabbis, pay His taxes to the Romans. Being born out of wedlock, He was also expected to submit to lifelong shame: they were still throwing that in His face in His 30s (John 8:41).

But a human partaking in the divine nature is not bound by blood and soil. Simply by incarnating and living the life His Father set before Him, Jesus broke that world forever. Everywhere His followers have gone, pursuing our common Father’s business, we have done unexpected things: care for orphans and widows, heal the sick, lift the last, the lost, and the least. We have called tyrants to repentance, founded hospitals, funded scientists, freed slaves. The progress has been slow—the Kingdom of God is like leaven—and because slow, easily forgotten.

Let us remember, that we might be grateful.

The Second Day of Christmas: The Offense of Particularity

26 December 2020

The ancient Jews were preoccupied with social station and purity before God, the Greeks with finding unchanging certainty beyond the messy and decaying physical realm. God offended both groups in the incarnation, the Jews by becoming this particular man—born out of wedlock to a nobody—and the Greeks by incarnating at all. In different ways, the incarnation was blasphemy to both groups.

The incarnation is just as blasphemous today. We vaunt our identity categories above everything—male, female, gay, straight, black, white, asian, 1%ers or 1%, you name it. We don’t believe anyone can represent us or grasp our lived experience unless they tick all the same boxes. We flatter ourselves that we can claim, create, or discover for ourselves an identity that is more important that the human identity we were given as a gift from our loving Creator.

But God became a particular human, born in a specific place and time, having a particular ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic station. In that one particular person, Jesus shared in all that is essentially human, in order that all humans might be able to share in the divine nature. That which we already have in common with Jesus—our essential humanity—we also have in common with each other. The more we come to share in the divine nature, the closer we will draw to one another.

Let us be grateful that this is the case; the alternatives are not attractive.

The First Day of Christmas: This is our God!

25 December 2020

Have you ever wondered how the shepherds found Jesus? The angels had only given them a single clue: a swaddled newborn in a feed trough. Bethlehem was full of strangers that night, travellers from elsewhere. But labor is not a quiet process, and everybody would have known about the teenaged mom that gave birth in a barn. If the shepherds hadn’t already heard about it through small-town gossip, a few minutes of asking around would lead them to the right place.

What did they expect to find? Surely not a scene of great majesty, given the clue they were chasing. And what they did find was simple enough: a new teenaged mother, exhausted from labor, her not-quite-husband (bit of a scandal there, no doubt the talk of the town), and a baby, wrapped up and deposited in a feed trough.

Had we asked the shepherds a day earlier what the birth of their Messiah would be like, I doubt any of them would have predicted this. How vulgar. How…blasphemous, even. It is the first of many offenses yet to come. But the shepherds couldn’t shut up about what they’d seen and heard. They told everybody, and departed rejoicing and praising God.

And so should we.

Your Reputation in Heaven

22 December 2020

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to address Faith Community Church in Littleton. Here’s the sermon:

Fire on the Mountain

7 July 2020

I delivered this talk at Faith Community Church in Littleton, CO, some weeks ago as a discussion starter. The full discussion centered around the question, “Where is God’s Presence?”

I know this sounds like a lame question. This is theology 101, right? God is omnipresent — He’s everywhere. So great; that’s settled.

What I hope you’ll find this morning is that our Scripture passage (Acts 2:1-24) forces us to rethink. Omnipresence is true, but it’s also true that God is particularly present in a special way at specific times and places.

This is true starting all the way back in the Garden. If we closely read the description of Eden and the accounts of the fall of Lucifer, we find that the Garden was planted in the lowlands of a region called Eden. It had to be in the lowlands, because there was a river that watered it — and the river had to flow down from higher ground. Somewhere else in Eden was a place of volcanic beauty, where Lucifer, the anointed covering cherub in the very presence of God, covered in gemstones, walked back and forth in the midst of the fiery stones. Obviously that’s not the same place where Adam and Eve were going about naked among the fruit trees.

But in the cool of the day, God would leave the glory of the fiery stones and come walk in the garden with the man and woman He created.

When we sinned, God dispatched a cherub with a flaming sword to guard the gate to the garden. Divine fire blocked our way back to God.

From that day forward, we often meet God in fire.

Moses meets God in the burning bush. Before they cross the Red Sea, God stands between Israel and the Egyptian army in a huge pillar of cloud and fire.

And the Angel of God, who went before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud went from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel. Thus it was a cloud and darkness to the one, and it gave light by night to the other, so that the one did not come near the other all that night. (Ex. 14:19-20)

Later, Moses and the whole nation meet God on Mount Sinai. God descends to the mountaintop in fire and storm.

And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice. (Ex. 19:17-19)

When the tabernacle is built, divine fire comes out of the sanctuary and kindles the offering on the altar. Later, God executes wayward priests who offer strange fire on His altar.

And Aaron lifted up his hand toward the people, and blessed them, and came down from offering of the sin offering, and the burnt offering, and peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tabernacle of the congregation, and came out, and blessed the people: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto all the people. And there came a fire out from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces. (Lev. 9:22-24)

God leads Israel as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When they’re camped, the pillar of cloud and fire is always above the Tabernacle, and divine fire burns on the altar, a portable mountain of God.

When Solomon dedicates the temple, God once again brings down fire from heaven and kindles the altar.

When Solomon had finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the LORD filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the LORD, because the glory of the LORD had filled the LORD’S house. When all the children of Israel saw how the fire came down, and the glory of the LORD on the temple, they bowed their faces to the ground on the pavement, and worshiped and praised the LORD, saying: “For He is good, For His mercy endures forever.”Then the king and all the people offered sacrifices before the LORD. (2 Chr. 7:1-4)

When Elijah faces the prophets of Baal, he calls down divine fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice.

And it came to pass, at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near and said, “LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. “Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that You are the LORD God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!” And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let one of them escape!” (1 Ki. 18:36-40)

Days later, when Elijah flees into the desert, he meets God once again on Mount Sinai. All the things that happened with Moses happen again: storm, fire, and earthquake…but God is not in them. Then God comes to him in a still, small voice.

Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Ki. 19:11-12)

After the resurrection, Jesus told His disciples to go disciple the nations, but to wait in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit came on Pentecost, he came as God had come on Sinai: a mighty rushing wind and fire. But this time, the fire is not in just one place: one mountain, one altar, one pillar of fire. There are tongues of fire on every believer’s head.

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

And just like with Elijah on the mountain, the real power’s not in the fire. The real power’s in the voice that comes after the fire: everyone hears the wonderful works of God in their own language, and 3,000 people are added to the church that day.

Now there’s a temptation that hits us, as soon as we start to talk about how every believer has this. We stop thinking it’s special. We mentally put it with omnipresence. Everybody has it. It’s no big deal. No.

Do you understand the picture God is painting here? Every believer is the burning bush, Mount Sinai, the pillar of fire, the Tabernacle, the Temple, all rolled into one. This is not just omniscience; God is specifically present in you in a way that He is not present with everybody. When you walk into a room full of unbelievers, the fire of God just walked in — and remember, after the fire comes a voice. What will you say? It matters!

Going to Extremes

21 April 2020

I had occasion to speak on Deuteronomy 14:22-26 and Matthew 21:12-17 at Faith Community Church in Littleton, CO on March 22nd. Owing to plague-driven necessity, the sermon was pre-recorded. You can find the video link here. If you prefer audio, see below.

You might also want to read Speaking with an Edge.