Posts tagged ‘Jesus’

Digitizing Life After Death

Digital Brain

Credit: Martin420

There seems to be something hardwired into humans that wants to cheat death.  Writing for NBC News, Kevin Van Aelst, in his article “Disrupting death: Technologists explore ways to digitize life,” chronicles a new bevy of scientific experiments designed to con the grim reaper.

In one experiment, researchers work at mapping brain connections in an attempt to digitize the mind so that, even after a body dies, a “human being can live in on virtual form.”  In another experiment:

Artificial intelligence specialists are developing digital avatars that replicate users’ personalities and can continue to communicate with loved ones after their owners have passed away … The program, Augmented Eternity, will then be able to communicate memories of your life and answer questions on certain topics, such as your political views, depending on what information is stored in your data.

Even before these technologies have been thoroughly tested and refined, their limits are glaring.  Having someone live on as a digitized mind makes bioethicist John Harris wonder, because “we are so much flesh and blood creatures,” what it would be like to “continue to exist in a disembodied state.”  Another woman, who created an avatar of a friend she lost, describes the avatar as a “sort of digital tomb to come to and mourn” and freely admits that her friend is no longer alive – at least in any sort of meaningful way.  In other words, for all of science and technology’s attempts to cheat death, its reality and finality still loom large.

Christ does what science and technology cannot.  All of our experiments, from digitizing minds to fashioning avatars, only succeed in mimicking life after death.  Christ actually gives life after death.  As He says to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in Me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25).  The Christian hope is much more than a digital grave that a person can pay a visit to in order to hear a phantom voice.  It is a real life that we are promised.

The scientific and technological advances that address life and death are both problematic in that they blur distinctions between the two and promising in that they give us insight into the two.  But whatever their problems and promises may be, this much is clear:  they will always only be partial.  Only Christ can give real life – a life that is “to the full” (John 10:10).

July 30, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Tragic Spate of Suicides

One week.  Two tragic deaths.

First, it was iconic fashion designer Kate Spade, who was found dead in her apartment Tuesday night after she had hung herself.  Then last Friday, it was celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain who, while working on an upcoming episode of his CNN show “Parts Unknown,” also hung himself at the hotel where he was staying in Kaysersberg, France.

We are facing nothing short of a suicide epidemic in our country.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that suicide rates are up almost 30 percent nationwide since 1999.  During this time period, only one state saw a decrease in suicides: Nevada.  And Nevada’s rate decreased by only 1 percent.  In North Dakota, the suicide rate jumped more than 57 percent during this time period.  In 2016, nearly 45,000 people took their own lives across the United States, making suicide more than twice as common as homicide and the tenth leading cause of death overall.

We have a problem.

Mental illness certainly plays a role in many of these terrible deaths.  But more than half of the suicides in 27 states involved people who had no known mental health concerns.

Of course, no explanation, no matter how clinical or comprehensive it may be, can ever even begin to blunt the pain of a life lost on those left behind.  Mental health diagnoses of diseases like clinical depression often only leave people wondering why physicians weren’t able to help.  Suicide notes often raise more question than they answer.  It seems no explanation can really answer the furious and frustrated one-word interrogation of “why?”.  This is because this is an interrogation birthed by pain and bathed in pain. You see, there is a creeping realization that comes with death – a realization that a person who was once with us has now gone away from us and we will no longer be able to see them, talk to them, or hold them.  As many a grieving person has muttered after the suicide of a loved one: they were taken from us too soon.

The horror of suicide needs some sort of hope.  But hope is hard to find in something as final and gruesome as death.  This is why we need the gospel, for the gospel reminds us that there is a death that undoes death.  While suicide takes people we love from us, the gospel declares that Jesus, out of love, gave His life for us.  As the apostle Paul puts it in Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Suicides may feel final, but the cross of Christ reminds us that they do not have to be.  The cross’s effects held on for three days before the cross was double-crossed by an empty tomb.  The effects of a dark moment of despair that leads to a tragic end by one’s own hand may hold on for a little longer, but their days too are numbered.  A resurrection is on its way.

And so, to anyone who is suffering, perhaps in silence, let me say simply this:  you do not have to escape despair through your own death, because despair has already been defeated by Jesus’ death.

He’s your reason to live.

If you’re struggling with thoughts of suicide, you are loved and there is help.  Talk to a counselor or a pastor at your church.  If you need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.  Do it now.  The life God has given you is far too valuable to lose.

June 11, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Sharia Law and Biblical Grace

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  This is the apostle Paul’s sobering summary of the human condition.  And he’s right.  Not only is there is not a person alive who lives up to God’s standards of righteousness, there is also not a person alive who lives up to the standards of righteousness he sets for himself, as any person who has ever attempted – and failed at – a New Year’s resolution can tell you.  Sin is universal.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, in the Indonesian province of Aceh, two Christians were publicly whipped, according to the dictates of Sharia law, “for playing a game at a children’s entertainment complex in a way authorities say amounted to gambling.”  Aceh’s population is 98 percent Muslim, and people can face floggings for acts including “drinking alcohol, adultery, gay sex, gambling or having romantic relationships before marriage.”  Indeed, the province’s courts are imposing hundreds of whippings a year for acts like these.  Last January, a Christian was sentenced to 36 lashes for selling alcohol.

I do not believe that drinking or selling alcohol, in and of itself, is sinful, though I do believe that drunkenness is.  Likewise, I don’t believe that a good-natured raffle for a few laughs is inherently wicked, though I am also well aware and wary of the dangerous greed that gambling can stoke and how the gambling industry, especially in the form of state lotteries, cynically preys on the economically disadvantaged.  I do believe in a traditional sexual ethic. So, I would say, as do the courts in Aceh, that any sexual activity outside of the confines of marriage strays from what is appropriate.  In short, though I would qualify certain things, I find myself in broad agreement with Aceh’s moral concerns.  But I also find myself fundamentally at odds with Aceh’s response to these concerns.

The radicalized form of Islamic law that Aceh’s theocratically-minded courts seem to be bent on propagating addresses sin through judgment.  Each sin, in these courts’ minds, deserves a flogging.  Christianity, however, addresses sin in a whole different way.  Christianity acknowledges the reality and ubiquity of human sinfulness – “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) – but addresses such sinfulness not with judgment, but by grace: “All are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

In John 8, Jesus is famously confronted by some religious leaders who bring to Him a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery.  In a breathtaking display of theocratic virtue signaling, they crow: “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do You say” (John 8:5)? In their recounting of Mosaic law, the religious leaders conveniently overlook the fact that it was both the adulteress and the adulterer who were to be punished by death, as, in this case, they bring to Jesus only the adulteress. They also needlessly restrict the method of execution to that of stoning, even though Moses makes no such specification.  Nevertheless, they are broadly correct that adultery was, according to Mosaic law, punishable by death.  Jesus, however, instead of debating the finer points of where the adulterer is and what method of execution should be used, simply responds:

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:7, 9-11)

Here, Jesus brilliantly puts His finger on the problem with responding to sin with judgment instead of with grace.  If one responds to sin with only judgment, there will finally be no one left to mete out any judgment, because no one is without sin.  Everyone will have been stoned.  Only grace can address sin in a way that leaves anyone standing.

Christianity certainly understands and accepts the role governing authorities play to discourage wickedness by means of penalties.  But Christianity also knows that people need more than a penalty in the face of sin.  They need a Savior who does not condemn them, but forgives them.  And this is what a theocracy like Aceh’s, which plays the roles of both political and religious authorities, cannot provide.

Interestingly, the Bible does accept lashings as appropriate remuneration for sin.  But the lashes do not fall on us. They fall on God’s Son:

He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

The courts of Aceh, it turns out, are lashing out far too late for it to do any good.  The lashing that was really needed already happened 2,000 years ago.

It’s time to put the whips down.

March 5, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Herod, John the Baptist, and Sharing Our Faith

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St. John the Baptist before Herod, by Mattia Pretti (1665)

In Mark 6, we are treated to a fascinating flashback.  The chapter opens with Jesus teaching and then quickly turns to Him sending out His twelve disciples to preach, drive out demons, and anoint the sick.  The chapter then shifts again, this time to a ruler named Herod Antipas.  Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great, the ruler who tried to kill Jesus when He was just a toddler because he considered the lad a threat to his throne.  Herod Antipas, however, was not so hostile toward Jesus as he was curious about Him, especially when he heard a rumor that Jesus was “John the Baptist…raised from the dead” (Mark 6:14).  Cue Mark’s flashback.

In his flashback, Mark recounts how John the Baptist died.  It turns out that Herod Antipas had thrown John in prison because he had preached against Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law, Herodias.  But it was not just Herod who was upset with John.  It was also his new wife, Herodias.  In fact, Mark says that she “nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him” (Mark 6:19).  And one day, she saw her opportunity.  When Herod was throwing a party, Herodias’s daughter came and danced for Herod and his inebriated guests.  Herod was so pleased by her performance that he offered this girl anything she wanted, including up to half his kingdom.  Prompted by her mother, the girl asked Herod for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.  Interestingly enough, Herod, instead of being delighted that he would finally be able to get rid of this man who had preached against his marriage, was devastated.  Mark 6:26 explains that “the king was greatly distressed.”  The Greek word used for “distressed” is perilupos, a word that Jesus Himself uses the night before He goes to the cross when He says to His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34).  The Greek word used for “sorrow” is again perilupos.  Clearly, Herod was deeply grieved, even to the point of death, by this girl’s request.  But why?

As it turns out, Herod had what might be called a “love-hate relationship” with John.  Mark describes their relationship like this: “Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him” (Mark 6:20).  The same man who threw John in prison also protected him, because he knew there was something different about him.  He knew he had a righteousness and holiness that went beyond anything he had ever encountered before.  Moreover, he liked to listen to John, even though he had a hard time understanding what he was talking about and, obviously, did not always heed what he said.  Herod, even as he was offended by John, was also attracted to John.

Herod’s relationship with John can serve as a model for what the world’s relationship with us, as Christians, can look like.  When people watch you, do they see a righteousness and a holiness beyond anything they have ever encountered before because, instead of your righteousness and holiness being merely meritocratic, it is Christocentric?  And when you speak about your faith to others, even if they are puzzled by what you have to say, do you leave them wanting to hear more?

Just as Herodias hated John, there will be some who hate us simply because we are Christians.  But there will also be others who are intrigued by us.  May we never forget to engage these people, model Christ for these people, and speak the gospel to these people.  For what they are puzzled by today may just be the very thing they believe in tomorrow.

August 7, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Trump, Lavrov, Comey, and Flynn

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What a week it’s been at the White House.  Last week brought what felt like a one-two punch of political crises.  First, The Washington Post reported this past Monday that President Trump, in an Oval Office meeting, shared highly classified information concerning terrorist activity with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.  Because the information the president shared was first shared with us by one of our allies, the potential exists, according to some experts, to compromise our intelligence sharing relationships with these allies.  Then, the very next day, The New York Times published a story claiming that President Trump had asked the now former FBI director, James Comey, to end his investigation into the president’s fired national security advisor, Michael Flynn.  As soon as the story broke, many began to raise questions about whether or not the president potentially obstructed justice.  The president has since denied The New York Times’ report.

As politicians and pundits debate the consequences, the legality, and the constitutionality of the president’s alleged actions and their implications for our country, and as our political discourse continues down a path that seems to be increasingly marked by fear, distrust, and anger, here are a few reminders for us, as Christians, to help us navigate these heady times.

Pray for the president and for all our leaders.

Whether you love him, hate him, or are on the fence about him, President Trump needs our prayers.  Scripture commands us to pray for him along with all those who serve in our nation’s government: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).  This means Republicans should be praying for Democrats and Democrats should be praying for Republicans.  Political leadership is not only geopolitically treacherous because of the power it wields, it is spiritually perilous because of the prideful temptations it brings.  Politicians need our prayers.

Love the truth more than you love your positions.

In February, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds.”  In it, she cites a Stanford study in which researchers rounded up two groups of students:  one group that believed capital punishment deterred crime and another group that believed capital punishment did not deter crime.  Both groups of students were then given two studies, one of which presented data that showed capital punishment did deter crime and the other of which presented data that showed capital punishment had no effect on crime.  Interestingly, both of these studies were completely fabricated so the researchers could present, objectively speaking, equally compelling cases.  So what happened?  The students who were pro-capital punishment applauded the study that bolstered their position while dismissing the study that called it into question.  Likewise, the students who were anti-capital punishment applauded the study that agreed with their position while dismissing the other study.  These two groups were so entrenched in their positions that they dismissed, out of hand, any information that called their positions into question, even if that information was presented as factual.  In other words, they loved their positions more than they loved the truth.

Politics seems to be custom-made for the kind of thinking that is more interested in holding positions than in seeking truth.  I have seen several social media posts where people boast openly that they no longer watch this or that news channel.  Instead, they receive their news only from outlets that are sympathetic to their positions.  As Christians, we should humbly recognize that there is truth in all sorts of sources – even in sources that disagree with and call into question our political positions.

The nature of truth is that some of it will always make us uncomfortable.  Sin, at its root, is based on lies, which means that some lies will inevitably appeal to us more than some truth, for all of us are sinners.  Indeed, if some truth never makes us uncomfortable, then we are probably missing the truth!

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska offered a great bit of moral clarity on the subject of truth in political discourse when he said recently on a morning news show:

Both of these parties, going back a couple of decades now, regularly act like your main duty is to – if here’s the truth, and you think the other side’s going to say this – you think you’re supposed to say this to try to counterbalance it.  I think that’s a bunch of hooey … You’re supposed to say what you think is true and try to persuade people to come alongside with you.  You’re not trying to counterbalance one falsehood with another.

This is exactly right.  You don’t fight one political tall tale with a tall tale of your own.  Truth trumps political posturing.  In the words of the prophet Jeremiah, we are to “deal honestly and seek the truth” (Jeremiah 5:1).  We are not to blindly and sycophantically defend the positions of our favorite politicians.

Trust in the Lord; not in an earthly leader.

In politics, crises will always abound.  Politicians, after all, are fallen human beings who are prone to making the same mistakes we are and can, at times, even intentionally and malevolently sin.  This is why we cannot trust in them for deliverance from our plights and blights.  Only the Lord can deliver us from these things.

Perhaps the thing that disturbs me the most about our current political environment is not what our politicians do, but what so many of us believe our politicians can do.  So many of us seem tempted to fashion our politicians not as public servants, but as civil saviors. Sometimes, we can be tempted to believe our politicians can usher in a humanly wrought utopia (think of some of the hopes that rested on the chant, “Yes, we can!”) while at other times, we can be tempted to believe our politicians can repristinate a bygone America full of wistful nostalgia (think of some of the discourse that surrounded the slogan, “Make America great again!”).  As Christians, our hope lies not in utopia or in nostalgia, but in Parousia – the day when Christ will return and sin and death will be conquered by Him once and for all.  That is our hope.  He is our hope.  So let’s devote ourselves to proclaiming Christ, Him crucified, Him resurrected, and Him coming again.

May 22, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Death Is Dying

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Even as we celebrated Easter yesterday, it was difficult not to be burdened by the death we see around us every day.  This past Sunday, 44 worshipers lost their lives at St. George Church in Tanta and St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, both in Egypt, when ISIS suicide bombers detonated themselves in the middle of these churches’ Palm Sunday worship services.  Closer to home, in San Bernardino, a man signed himself into an elementary school at the front desk and then proceeded to walk into the classroom where his estranged wife was teaching and fatally shoot her while also wounding two students, one of whom later died from the injuries he sustained.  After his shooting spree, he took his own life.  Then, of course, earlier this month, there were the sarin gas attacks by the Assad regime against his own people in northwestern Syria.  Death is all around us.

And this is why I am so glad we get to celebrate Easter.

The story of Easter is a story of many things.  It is a story of joy, as the people close to Jesus realize the man who they thought was dead has risen.  It is a story of fear, as the women who come to the tomb that first Easter morning encounter angelic beings who startle and scare them with their fantastic message.  But it is also a story of subversion.  It is a story of subverting all those who prefer death to life.

N.T. Wright explains the subversive nature of Easter well:

Who…was it who didn’t want the dead to be raised?  Not simply the intellectually timid or the rationalists.  It was, and is, those in power, the social and intellectual tyrants and bullies; the Caesars who would be threatened by a Lord of the world who had defeated the tyrant’s last weapon, death itself; the Herods who would be horrified at the postmortem validation of the true King of the Jews.[1]

In a world where terrorist attacks, school shootings, and chemical bombings instill fear into all who see and hear about them, the resurrection of Jesus reminds us that, in the words of the prophet, “no weapon forged against [us] will prevail” (Isaiah 54:17), even if these weapons kill us, for “the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us” (2 Corinthians 4:14).  A tyrant may kill us.  But God will raise us.  This is Easter’s promise.  And this is why it is so good to celebrate Easter at a time like this.  For Easter reminds us that even if this world full of death, we need not fear.  Christ has risen.  And because He has risen, we will rise.

Take that, death.

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[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York:  HarperOne, 2008), 75.

April 17, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Mike Pence and Dining with Your Spouse

58th Presidential Inauguration

It can be fascinating to watch which stories bubble to the top of our cultural conversation.  In a news cycle where the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act, a battle royal over a Supreme Court nominee, questions about the surveillance of political actors, terrible chemical attacks against Syrian civilians by a feral Assad regime, and ominous sabre rattling from the North Koreans have dominated the headlines, a heated debate has arisen over a profile piece in The Washington Post on Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, which cited an interview with The Hill from 2002, where the vice president, following the lead of the vaunted evangelist and pastor Billy Graham, explained that he would never eat alone with a woman who was not his wife or one of his close relatives.  Writing in a separate article for The Washington Post, Laura Turner warned:

It will be difficult for women to flourish in the White House if the vice president will not meet with them.  Women cannot flourish in the church if their pastors consistently treat them as sexual objects to be avoided. The Billy Graham Rule locates the fault of male infidelity in the bodies of women, but “flee from temptation” does not mean “flee from women.”

I agree with Ms. Turner that it is important not to confuse fleeing from temptation with fleeing from women.  Sin is what is to be feared.  Not women.  Nevertheless, because of my vocation as a husband and because of my position as a pastor, I have chosen a practice that echoes that of the vice president.  I will not dine alone with a woman who is not my wife or close family member.  I will also not meet alone with women after hours at the congregation where I serve.

Why do I maintain such a practice?

It is not primarily because I am terrified that if I were ever to be alone with a woman, I would not be able to restrain myself from sexual immorality, though I am not nearly so naïve as to believe that I could never fall prey to a compromising situation.  I know far too well from Scripture that my heart is woefully depraved and deceitful and I have seen far too many marriages and ministries wrecked by sexual immorality to believe that I am somehow so spiritually privileged to be above certain kinds of sin.  I also know that merely jettisoning private dining appointments will not expunge me of my sinful nature.  No pious-looking constraint, no matter how carefully contrived, can regenerate a sinful heart.  Only Jesus can do that.  Sin avoidance is not the primary reason I have the practice I do.

I have the practice I do primarily because I respect women, most especially my wife.  I know that if another woman were to invite me to dinner, one on one, that would make my wife – as well as me – uncomfortable.  I also know the people with whom I work well enough to know that if I were to invite a female staff member at our church to dinner one on one, that would more than likely make her feel extraordinarily uncomfortable.  I do occasionally meet privately with women in my office when personal pastoral care needs call for such meetings.  But even then, there are other staff members right outside my office door working through the daily flurry of church activities.  And I have never had any trouble meeting with everyone I need to meet with on campus with others around rather than off campus in one on one settings.

I also I maintain the practice I do because I do want to do my best to remain “above reproach,” as Scripture asks men in my vocation to be.  An unfounded accusation of immoral behavior with another person would not only compromise the credibility of my ministry, it would compromise that other person’s credibility as well.  As much as I desire to protect the integrity of my ministry, I also have a deep desire to protect the reputations of those I know and care about.  Protecting others’ reputations is simply part and parcel of being not only a colleague and a pastor, but a friend.

Ms. Turner appeals to Jesus in support of the stance she takes in her Washington Post piece:

Jesus consistently elevated the dignity of women and met with them regularly, including His meeting with a Samaritan woman in the middle of the day. Scholars suggest that the woman would have gone to the well in the noon heat to avoid interacting with her fellow townspeople, who would have gone at a cooler time of day. Samaritans and Jews were not particularly fond of each other. Yet this Jewish man met this Samaritan woman in broad daylight, asked her for water from the well, and in turn offered her eternal life. The woman, widely thought to be an adulteress, had been married five times and had no husband when she met Jesus. Yet He didn’t flinch from meeting with her. He didn’t suggest that His reputation was more important than her eternal soul. As a result, she lives on as one of the heroes of the faith, a woman who evangelized to her entire city.

All of this is completely true.  But evangelizing someone in broad daylight when Your disciples do not seem to be far away is a far cry from having dinner alone, away and apart from any accountability.  The latter can be a coup de grâce to one’s integrity.  The former is just a coup of grace for a weary soul.

There may indeed be times, as the case of Jesus and the Samaritan woman illustrates, when it is necessary to spend time with someone of the opposite gender privately, especially for the sake of the gospel.  But there are also many more times when it is good not to, especially if a task at work can be accomplished just as well with others around.

May we have the wisdom to discern which times are which.

April 10, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Was Jesus a Liberal or a Conservative?

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People love to claim Jesus.  This is especially true in the realm of politics.  At the beginning of the year, the Pew Research Center published a report about the faith commitments of those serving in Congress.  As it turns out, Congress is a very religious place:

The U.S. Congress is about as Christian today as it was in the early 1960s…Among members of the new, 115th Congress, 91% describe themselves as Christians. This is nearly the same percentage as in the 87th Congress (1961 to 1962, the earliest years for which comparable data are available), when 95% of members were Christian.

Among the 293 Republicans elected to serve in the new, 115th Congress, all but two identify as Christians…Democrats in Congress also are overwhelmingly Christian (80%).

In a society where people who claim Christianity are on the decline, the fact that so many members of Congress would continue to identify as “Christian” is worthy of our attention.  But claiming Christ is not always synonymous with following Christ.  Indeed, both of our nation’s two major political parties have had moments where their actions did not comport particularly well with Christ’s commands.

Regardless of what politicians and parties may say about Jesus or how they may represent Jesus, in His own day, Jesus demonstrated a persistent refusal to be co-opted by any political power.

In Matthew 22, the Sadducees come to Jesus with a question about a woman who had been married seven times to seven brothers.  Their question has to do with whose wife she will be at the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day: “At the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her” (Matthew 22:28)?  Sadly, their question is dripping with insincerity because the Sadducees did not even believe in the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day (cf. Acts 23:8).  They were too enlightened to believe in something so outlandish.  Another theological distinction of the Sadducees is that they accepted only the first five Old Testament books of Moses as canonical rather than the 39 books that other Jewish religious groups accepted.  Though I have no historical proof of this, I am pretty sure the Sadducees had these five books printed in red and called themselves “Red-Letter Jews,” claiming that the rest of the Old Testament canon did not really matter – only what Moses had written.  In today’s terms, the Sadducees would be aligned with theological liberals.

As Matthew 22 continues, on the heels of the Sadducees come the Pharisees.  If the Sadducees were the theological liberals of their day, the Pharisees would have been the theological conservatives.  They also have a question for Jesus: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law” (Matthew 22:36)?  This was a hotly debated theological question in the first century with no uniform answer.  More progressive teachers like Rabbi Hillel summarized the law like this: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary” (b. Shabbat 31a).  Other more conservative rabbis asserted that, because all Scripture is given by God, to try to distinguish between greater and lesser commandments in the Bible is foolish.  When the Pharisees present their question to Jesus about the law, they want to know whether He will answer liberally or conservatively.

Whether it is the Sadducees or Pharisees who approach Him, Jesus refuses to play according to their liberal and conservative assumptions.  Contra the liberal Sadducees, Jesus affirms the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:29-32).  And contra the conservative Pharisees, Jesus says there is indeed a greatest commandment, but it is much weightier than the one postulated by Rabbi Hillel.  One should not just avoid doing injury to someone else, one should actively love that other person in the same way he loves God Himself (Matthew 22:37-40).

Ultimately, the problem with both the Sadducees and Pharisees was this:  both groups were self-assured.  They were smug in their superiority and blinded by their own self-styled orthodoxies.   And because they were so sure of themselves, they never could quite be sure of Jesus.

Of course, there is a third group of people with whom Jesus interacts.  The Pharisees derisively refer to this group of people as “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 9:11).  This group, however, out of all the groups of people with whom Jesus comes into contact, seems to get Him the best – not because the people in this group are so spiritually astute, but because they need an assurance they cannot find in themselves.  So they find it in Jesus.

Regardless of your political persuasion, Jesus asks us: “Are you so sure of yourself that you cannot find security in Me?  Are you so smug in your superiority that you cannot see the shamefulness of your own sin?”  In the Gospels, Jesus lays bare all those who trust in themselves, whether conservative or liberal.  He will not be co-opted.  But He can be trusted.  Where does your faith lie?  In you, or in Him?

January 16, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

A Tale of Three Kings

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Growing up, one of my favorite yuletide carols was “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”  The lilting melody and encomium to the “star of wonder” and its “perfect light” captured my imagination.  So you can imagine my disappointment when I learned that, at least from a historical perspective, this beloved song is probably all wrong.  The men who came to visit Jesus from far away were not kings, they were astrologers.  They also were probably not from the Orient, but instead from Babylon.  And although we assume that there were three of them because of the number of gifts they brought, we do not know this for sure.  There could have been more or fewer.

Even if the the song is wrong about the astrologers who come to visit Jesus, the Christmas story nevertheless does involve three kings.   The first is a king who sits on a throne in Rome.  His name is Caesar Augustus.  He received the name Augustus as an honorary title from the Roman senate thanks to, according to his own account, his “virtue, mercy, justice, and piety.”[1]  What a king Augustus must have been.

At the first waterfall of the Nile River, there is an inscription lauding Augustus that reads:

The emperor, ruler of oceans and continents, the divine father among men, who bears the same name as his heavenly father – Liberator, the marvelous star of the Greek world, shining with the brilliance of the great heavenly Savior.[2]

As it turns out, Caesar Augustus was hailed not only as a king, but as a divinity.  And it is this king who lifts his finger to issue a decree for a census that sends the whole world, including a couple of peasants from Nazareth, scrambling:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. (Luke 2:1, 3-5)

The second king of the Christmas story is local ruler named Herod the Great.  He too received a prestigious title from the Roman senate: “the king of the Jews.”  Though his title was more baronial than Caesar’s supernatural titles, he was also proud of his position and fiercely sought to protect it regardless of the cost.  He became exceedingly paranoid that those around him were jockeying for his throne so, one by one, he had them executed.  First it was his brother-in-law, Aristobulus III, who Herod ordered drown.  Then it was another brother-in-law, Kostobar.  He even executed two of his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, accusing them of high treason.  Herod’s murderous rampages became so infamous that Caesar Augustus is said to have once remarked, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”

Considering Herod’s insecurities, it is no surprise that when a group of astrologers from a faraway land come to Herod and ask him, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2), Herod impulsively and impetuously gives “orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi” (Matthew 2:16).

This leads us to the third king in the Christmas story – the newborn king about which the Magi ask.  When Jesus was born, He certainly didn’t look like a king.  And yet, He inaugurated a kingdom that endures to this day, as a walk inside one of what are literally millions of churches will indicate.

Whether or not you believe Him to be an eternal king, Jesus is someone with whom everyone must grapple.   Caesar Augustus grapples with Jesus by means of indifference.  He didn’t know anything of Jesus and didn’t care to.  He was, after all, a much more important figure than some impoverished infant sleeping in straw in Bethlehem.  But what Caesar couldn’t have imagined is that it wouldn’t be his kingship that would eventually be celebrated with a worldwide holiday, it would be Jesus’ birth.  It would not be Jesus who would become Caesars’ footnote in history, it would be Caesar who became Jesus’ footnote.  We would nary talk about Caesar Augustus this time of year – or any time of year – were it not for Jesus.  Caesar’s indifference falls in the face of Jesus’ kingdom.

Herod the Great grapples with Jesus in a different manner – by that of hostility.  He hates Jesus and seeks to have Him killed.  But not only does he fail, he fails miserably.  Joseph takes his family and escapes to Egypt before Herod’s executioners can get to the child.  Herod fails to end Jesus’ life as a child even as Pontius Pilate ultimately fails to finish Him off as an adult, as the story of Easter so gloriously reveals.  Herod’s hostility, then, falls in the face of Jesus’ kingdom.

Though two millennia have passed, the reactions to Jesus’ kingship have not changed.  Many people treat the celebration of Christmas – at least the part that involves Jesus’ birth – with a mild indifference, a distant secondary feature of a holiday that primarily consists of the niceties of parties, decorations, and, of course, plenty of presents.  Others treat the story of the nativity with outright hostility – incensed that a holiday that has such blatantly Christian overtones would still be embraced and thought of as Christian by what should be an enlightened secular West.  But Christmas marches on.  And the fact that it does says something about Jesus’ kingdom.  It does not and will not fail or fall because of our responses to it.  Either it will endure for us and be a solace of salvation, or it will endure in spite of us and become an edict of execration.  Which way will it endure for you?  That’s the question of Christmas.

I hope you have an answer.

_______________________________

[1] Caesar Augustus, The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, Thomas Bushnell, trans., par. 34.

[2] Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars (Eugene:  Wipf and Stock, 1952), 99.

December 19, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Comfort in Stormy Times: Reflections on Hurricane Matthew

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The people of Florida are picking up the pieces.  Along with the people of Georgia.  And the people of the Carolinas.  And the people of Cuba.  And the people of Haiti.  As Hurricane Matthew churned its way through the Caribbean and up the east coast, it left a path of destruction in its wake.  In Florida, mandatory evacuations were issued before the storm.  Grocery store shelves were stripped bare.  Gas stations were pumped dry.

It could have been worse.  They eye of Hurricane Matthew skirted much of the eastern seaboard, sparing these regions from what could have been even greater damage.  But even if things were not as bad as they could have been, this storm was still a whopper.  For a brief time, Hurricane Matthew reached Category 5 status, making it the first storm to reach a hurricane’s most powerful potential since Hurricane Felix in 2007.

Whenever a natural disaster of this magnitude strikes, it presents a unique set of struggles and questions.  When we suffer a man-made disaster in a shooting or in an accident or even in a terrorist attack, we can point to the source of the calamity and explain that the person who created the catastrophe is unstable or incompetent or even evil.  When a hurricane strikes however, there is no one from whom we can demand a mea culpa, save nature and nature’s God.  And such a mea culpa is tough to come by.

So how are we to process this disaster?  Here are a few things to keep in mind.

We cannot control everything.

In an election year such as this one, it is easy to live under the illusion that we wield a great amount of power and authority.  We do, after all, have a say – even if it is a small one – in who the leader of the free world should be.  But for every bit of control we think we have, there are so many things that simply fall outside our hands.  Hurricanes are one of these things.  We can forecast them, but we cannot steer them.  They strike where they may.  They strike with the energy that water temperatures give to them.  The smallness of our power when compared to the scope of something like the weather should lead us to marvel at the bigness of God’s creation.  There is still so much we cannot tame.

We can help others.

Though we do not have power over all things, this does not mean that we can help in some things – like in hurricane relief.   My congregation, Concordia Lutheran in San Antonio, has set up a relief fund to help those in Haiti.  We are exploring opportunities to help those in other areas as well.  You can donate by clicking here.  Part of our calling as Christians is to be a neighbor to those in need.  Being neighborly need not be constrained by proximity, nationality, economy, or any other earthly barrier.  To help others is to love Christ!  Rolling up our sleeves by opening up our pocketbooks is a great way to get involved.

There is someone who is in control.

In a world that seems shaky, it is important that we remind ourselves that just because we are not in control does not mean that everything is out of control.  Christian theologians will often describe God as omnipotent, a word that means “all power.”  In other words, God has all control.  When a storm like Matthew strikes, it serves us well to consider the many instances in Scripture that remind us that God, quite literally, guides the weather.  In the case of His disciples, Jesus saves them from a storm on the Sea of Galilee by calming it with just a word.  In the case of Jonah, God saves him with a storm that forces some sailors he is with to toss him overboard so God can send a giant fish to take the prophet where he needs to be.  In the words of the Psalmist, God can also save people through storms as they seek refuge in Him:  “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea” (Psalm 46:1-2).  God, then, does not use storms in the same way in every instance.  Sometimes, He saves us from storms as weather patterns change.  Other times, he saves us with storms as these trials turn us toward Him.  Still other times, He gives us strength to make it through storms, even if they hit us straight on.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that no matter what storms – whether they be literal or figurative – this world may bring, we have assurance in them because of Christ.  When Christ was on the cross, the Gospel writers tell us that “darkness came over all the land” (Matthew 27:45).  In other words, it stormed.  But what looked like a storm of death became a storm that gave way to life three days later.   Jesus overcame the storm of the cross so that we would never be lost to the storms caused by sin.  For even if a storm takes lives, as did Hurricane Matthew, we can be assured that those who die in Christ go to a place where there is “a sea of glass, clear as crystal” (Revelation 4:6).  In other words, in heaven, the weather is a flat calm.  There, every storm has been conquered by Christ.

With the extent of the damage from Hurricane Matthew just now becoming clear, there is still a lot – economically, emotionally, and theologically – to sort through.  But this much is clear:  God does not abandon us in storms like these.  He is there.  And He cares.

October 10, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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