Friday, December 29, 2006
The Constructive Curmudgeon on "Fifteen Refusals for 2007"
Sunday, December 24, 2006
Christmas and the Search for Significance
You've got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. With sweat. --Fame
In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.--Andy Warhol
Everyone can be super! And when everyone's super... no one will be. --The Incredibles
You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. --On the Waterfront
I read recently that over half of bloggers say they blog for themselves, not for an audience. I have a really hard time believing that. You don't need online web space to have a journal; all you need is a blank book and a pen. Or if you'd rather type, a Word file will do. I think that even if we don't care about having a large readership, most of us posting into cyberspace are trying, at some level, to etch our own "Kilroy was here" into the ether. We hope that there is at least one kindred soul out there somewhere who "gets us." We want to "be somebody." Our whole culture is saturated with an irrational fascination with celebrity. Why else would anyone care about the verbal slugfest going on between Rosie O'Donnell and Donald Trump?
Some years ago, a friend recommended the book The Search for Significance to me. It discusses the ubiquitous need we have to be recognized in the eyes of others, and the solution to the dilemma in recognizing God's investing us with worth by creating us in His image and by giving His Son to redeem us. I liked it in many ways, although frankly that insight, by itself, doesn't seem to remove the appetite to "be special" in the eyes of other people.
And it is in this context that I reflect on the birth of our Savior. We tend to discuss the "humble" birth of Jesus in a sort of sweet and sentimental way. We use quaint and obsolete words like "manger" to avoid saying that Jesus was laid in an animals' feeding trough. We talk about Mary and Joseph being "poor," and conceive of that as being modest working class, without dealing with the reality of the struggle for survival that poverty entails. More to the point, we forget about the total obscurity that someone like Jesus would have lived in. The details of "One Solitary Life" are very true: Jesus never wrote a book, never led an army, never traveled more than 300 miles from where he was born. He was, at most, a working-class laborer, the (apparent) son of a working-class laborer, and an itinerant preacher, among an oppressed, conquered people at the outskirts of the Roman Empire. By the standards of the intellectuals of the day, the Jews would have been considered an uncouth, barbaric people. Jesus had a brief popular ministry among them, which ended up getting him into a conflict with some of their religious authorities over some obscure points of their religious dogma. So they trumped up some charges and handed him over to the Governor, who had him executed in order to avoid a riot. He died the death of a criminal, in a humiliating fashion, the Romans' favorite object lesson on What Happens to Those Who Dare Oppose the Empire.
And other than some odd stories his followers began telling a few days after the execution, that was it. God could have sent his Son to the political capital, Rome, or the intellectual centers of Athens or Alexandria. Jesus could have been somebody. He could have been world-famous. Satan offered him just that at one point. But he lived his whole life in virtual obscurity, and if his followers hadn't written about him, no one would know that he had ever existed. It wasn't necessary for him to be known, or liked, or admired, or any of the other things that most of us crave. He came to die for us, and he also set an example for us. "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus," Paul writes to the Philippians (2:5),and goes on to outline Jesus' humility to the point of death and his subsequent exaltation by the Father.
So as we celebrate Jesus' birth and recall the events surrounding the Incarnation, let's recall Jesus' willingness to be one of us--even to the point of being a nobody. Let's take note of all the "nobodies" that cross our paths, and remember that "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matt. 25:40).
Friday, December 22, 2006
Baptism in the Didache
So far as I know, the earliest extra-biblical reference to baptism is in the Didache ("The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles," Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol 7 section 6), generally dated around AD 120. The whole passage reads as follows:
And concerning baptism, thus baptize ye: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if thou have not living water, baptize into other water; and if thou canst not in cold, in warm. But if thou have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whatever others can; but thou shalt order the baptized to fast one or two days before.Not that the Didache is authoritative, but it does give us some light on baptismal practices in the early post-Biblical era. What can we learn from it?
- Baptism was conducted using the formula Jesus gave in the Great Commission, not (as some churches hold, based on statements in the book of Acts) merely in the name of Jesus;
- Baptism was normally done by immersion; pouring is suggested as an alternate method if water (evidently meaning a sufficient quantity of water) is unavailable;
- Running water and cold water were to be preferred over still and warm water, perhaps for health reasons;
- There was some flexibility in the administration: it was considered better to be baptized in less-than-optimal conditions than to delay baptism;
- Baptism was evidently understood to be for believers, since the one being baptized is instructed to fast for one or two days prior.
Adrian and David Square Off on Baptism--In Adrian's Mind
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Faith Validates Baptism: A Note on Wayne Grudem's Change of Mind
Although my convictions are also strongly in favor of believer's baptism, in seminary I did have to grapple with the issue of solid Christian brothers whom I knew to be serving the Lord with all their hearts who had been baptized as infants and were satisfied that their baptism was legitimate. Since I recognized from Colossians 2:11-12 the important parallel between circumcision and baptism--essentially, baptism functions like circumcision in the Old Testament: it is the entrance and sign of being among the covenant people--I therefore couldn't regard it as a simple doctrinal difference. If infant baptism has no legitimacy whatever, then an infant-baptized Christian is an unbaptized Christian, which is sort of analogous to an uncircumcised Jew!
Baptism was essentially the New Testament altar call.The position I eventually came to is this: faith is what validates baptism. This may seem a little obvious, but there are large implications once it is fleshed out a little. Faith validates baptism regardless of whether that faith comes prior to or subsequent to baptism. I'm still convinced that the biblical model is that one enters into baptism as a profession of the faith that one has already entered into--i.e., baptism was essentially the New Testament altar call. So it's really appropriate only to believers. But I also believe that if a person were baptized before coming into faith (e.g., as an infant), and that person subsequently did come into faith in Christ, that person's faith in Christ would validate the baptism that he or she had already undergone. Such a person would, in fact, be a baptized believer. I would have no objection if a person who had been baptized as an infant and later came to faith chose to be rebaptised--once again, as a profession of faith and as a sign of having come into the covenant community--but if that person chose to accept his or her infant baptism as now legitimate, having been validated by their faith, I would have no objection to that either.
So as a pastor, I would only baptize those who had come to faith. As a father, I have only allowed my children to be baptized when I felt that they were able to make a credible profession of faith. This, as I said before, is because it is faith that validates baptism; there is no reason to baptize someone who has not come into faith in Christ. The great danger of infant baptism is that it gives a false sense of security; people believe that their status with God is acceptable because they have been baptized as infants. (It also has the tendency to "lock" a person into a particular denomination before they have the ability to choose.) Nonetheless, as a believer, I will look on a person who trusts in Christ for salvation and has been baptized as an infant as a fellow baptized believer, because I believe that that person's faith in Christ has validated the baptism they had as a child.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
The Nativity According to Luke
Luke starts with a parallel story: the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. John is Jesus' forerunner from his very conception, and each element in John's story is recapitulated and heightened in Jesus' story. John's birth is foretold by an angel to Zechariah, and the angel tells him of the importance of the child's life and ministry. Six months later, Jesus' birth is foretold by the angel Gabriel to Mary, a virgin in the rather low-class town of Nazareth. The angel tells her that she will have a child who will "be called the Son of the Most High" and will be given "the throne of his father David," and his "kingdom will never end" (1:32-33). We have here a stark contrast between what is now and what is prophesied to be in the future.
Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who acknowledges the greater importance of Mary's child. Mary, for her part, gives voice to what we now call the Magnificat: essentially, a psalm of praise to God and a recognition of the great things God will do through her son, in large measure conceived as overturning social and economic inequalities. She voices the longing in the hearts of a downtrodden people, looked down upon by their countrymen in Judea and treated as captives by the Romans.
Luke narrates the birth of John the Baptist, and then turns to the circumstances of Jesus' birth. While Matthew relates the conflict with Herod after the child's birth, Luke relates the unwitting involvement of the Roman Emperor himself in the circumstances of the birth. A census is taken, in which all are required to return to their home towns to register; Joseph, being descended from King David, returns to David's home town of Bethlehem, and Mary comes with him. It is here in Luke that we find that Jesus was born, apparently, in a stable, because a feeding trough was improvised as a crib. Although from a royal line, Joseph and Mary are reduced to giving birth in the lowest possible circumstances.
In Luke, Jesus' birth is witnessed, not by foreign dignitaries, but by shepherds, who are socially outcast and ritually unclean by virtue of their work, and yet reminiscent of David. The birth is announced to them by angels, the shepherds come to Bethlehem, and there is no doubt that they in fact were there on the night of Jesus' birth, because they saw him in the feeding trough. Unlike the visit from the Magi, these witnesses draw no attention from the earthly authorities, although the shepherds do spread the word of what they have seen and heard.
Joseph and Mary fulfill the Law of Moses by having Jesus dedicated at the Temple and by offering the sacrifice appropriate to the poor. His destiny as savior of his people is attested to by Simeon and Anna--not the priests or temple officials, but elderly righteous people who were there at that time. Luke doesn't relate the flight to Egypt, simply collapsing the narrative down into "they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth" (2:39).
So by contrast to Matthew's narrative of Jesus' birth breaking into and threatening the earthly powers, Luke relates the humble, even humiliating circumstances of Jesus' birth. An underclass of people, waiting at the brink of hopelessness for a savior. The news of his birth, far from having to remain a secret, is spread indiscriminately--because the class of people who know are irrelevant to the powers that be. But there is hope: echoes of David the shepherd-king, raised from obscurity to power, a man after God's own heart.
Monday, December 11, 2006
Friday, December 08, 2006
The Nativity According to Matthew
In looking at the events of the Nativity in Matthew and Luke, it is startling how little overlap there is, and yet how the stories have so many parallel elements. Both stress the virgin birth. Each one portrays a visitation by an angel announcing the event, but not to the same person. Each one involves visitors to the child, but not the same ones. Each one relates some governmental interference, but not the same level of government. Each one mentions both Nazareth and Bethlehem, but in Matthew the movement is from Bethlehem to Nazareth, and in Luke it is from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We can add up all the details of both stories to get a picture of What Really Happened, but by doing so, we miss the thrust of each individual story.
Matthew's gospel was probably the first one written that presents the story of Jesus' birth. It is startling, when read on its own, how much of our traditional Christmas story does not appear in this narrative. Matthew's focus is on the birth of a King. He begins by presenting the royal lineage of Jesus, tracing His descent through David back to Abraham. We see nothing of the Annunciation to Mary; she is simply "found to be with child by the Holy Spirit" (1:18). Matthew's narrative is largely Joseph's story; it is about how he reacts to Mary's pregnancy, how he is led to marry her, preserve her virginity until Jesus' birth, and protect his family from Herod. Although Joseph was doubtless devastated by the appearance of infidelity on Mary's part, he was still concerned not to disgrace her: his plan to quietly divorce her would have been an act of mercy, not judgment.
But here, God intervenes. An angel comes to Joseph in a dream, and tells him not to "be afraid" to complete the betrothal process and take Mary home as his wife. This would have been a hard command for him to obey, because it would amount to a tacit admission of infidelity: in the eyes of the community, Joseph would be acknowledging that Mary's child was his, and he would share in her disgrace. Nonetheless, he does take her home, in obedience to what the angel has said, trusting that the child is conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that his name is to be Joshua (Hebrew, Yeshua; Greek, Iesous, anglicized as Jesus) because he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew presents the birth of Jesus as the prophesied entrance of the Son of David into history, threatening the powers of this world, gaining the attention of foreign dignitaries, and attested to by the very heavens themselves.This is a child of destiny, an important child, which Matthew underscores by pointing out that the birth of this King is a fulfillment of prophecy, another of Matthew's important themes. Joseph obeys the angel's command to the letter, preserves Mary's virginity until after the birth, and gives the child the name that the angel had decreed.
Matthew places Jesus' birth in "Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod" (2:1). One would not know from Matthew's account that Joseph and Mary had come from some uncouth town in the hills up north; that would not fit with the portrayal that Matthew is giving. Just as in Luke, there are visitors to the child, but what visitors! Magi - exotic wise men "from the east" (probably Media-Persia), who first come to Jerusalem, because where else would one expect to find the heir to the Jewish throne than in the capital city? And they came because the heavens themselves have borne witness to his birth--he has his own star! And these distinguished visitors have come to worship (they themselves probably only mean to pay proper homage and respect to) him.
And so Herod enters into the picture. He is "disturbed," and when Herod is disturbed, the whole city is disturbed (2:3). He was a paranoid tyrant, a puppet of Caesar who had appealed to Rome for the title of "King" and killed anyone whom he imagined threatened his continued rule, including several members of his own family. He finds out from the priests and teachers of the law that Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (more fulfillment of prophecy) and learns from the Magi when the star had appeared, then sends them on their way, asking them to report to him when they found the child. Although just born, Jesus is already a threat to the established powers of the world.
The star leads the Magi to "the child with his mother Mary" (2:11), and they worship him and give strange and wonderful gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh. Various symbolic meanings have been attached to these gifts; at the very least, they are costly gifts befitting a royah heir. God sovereignly intervenes again through dreams--to the Magi, letting them know not to return to Herod; and to Joseph, warning him to flee to Egypt, which he does, taking Mary and Jesus by night (and fulfilling more prophecy). Herod has all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger killed (yet again fulfilling prophecy).
Once again, an angel appears to Joseph in Egypt, this time telling him to return to "the land of Israel" because Herod has died (2:20). Israel is not usually denoted by that name at this time: it has been carved up into the Roman districts of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee; but Jesus, the King, is returning to his rightful land, and so it is called by its rightful name. In Matthew, it is because Joseph learns that Herod's son is on the throne in Judea that he withdraws to a small town in the relative obscurity of Galilee, the north country of Israel. The place that he chooses (we are not told that he came from there in the first place) once again fulfills prophecy: "He will be called a Nazarene" (2:23).
Matthew presents the birth of Jesus as the prophesied entrance of the Son of David into history, threatening the powers of this world, gaining the attention of foreign dignitaries, and attested to by the very heavens themselves. No sweet, sentimental, humble birth here! This Christmas, let's celebrate the inbreaking of the heavenly powers into the vain rulers of this world.
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
So When Did the Wise Men Get There, Anyway?
We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts, we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star.
I was told, growing up, that this carol was completely wrong in all its details. We all-too-often make assumptions based on what the Bible does say, and come to conclusions that may be plausible but are not necessarily warranted by the text.There were not (at least, not necessarily) three of them, they were not kings, and they were not, in the modern sense, Oriental (that is, Asian). We get three from the number of gifts that were given; they are called "Magi" in scripture, which to the best of our knowledge were a class of "wise men" from Media-Persia (i.e., northwestern Iran). And although nativity scenes, Christmas pageants, and the movie The Nativity Story place them at the stable on the night of Jesus' birth, they most probably were not there.
I say "most probably," although many would dogmatically proclaim that they definitely weren't there, and that they arrived two full years later. It is that dogmatism that is the subject of my post. Old certainties that prove to be incorrect are often supplanted by new certainties that are also most likely incorrect. We all-too-often make assumptions based on what the Bible does say, and come to conclusions that may be plausible but are not necessarily warranted by the text. One such is the statement that "It took 120 years for Noah to build the Ark." This is nowhere stated in the Genesis account. What is stated is as follows:
This is literally all the information we have. So if one assumes that the "120 years" in 6:3 refers to the time period between the judgment and the flood (it has also been thought to refer to a maximum life span, aside from extraordinary exceptions, of people born after the flood), and if one assumes that God immediately came to Noah and gave him the instructions, and if one assumes that Noah immediately began working on the ark as soon as he received the instructions, then yes, it took 120 years to build the ark. But that's a lot of assumptions. The most that is really warranted to say is, "It may have taken as much as 120 years for Noah to build the ark." We really don't know anything more than that.
So it is with the Magi's visit to Bethlehem. Here is what we are told in Scripture:
It is generally argued, based on the age of the children killed by Herod being linked to when the Magi saw the star, and also based on the fact that Jesus is described as a "child" (i.e., not a baby) and that they appear to be in a "house" by this point, that Jesus was two years old when the Magi arrived.
Once age again, this is based on a series of assumptions. The major one is assuming that the star appeared to the Magi at the same time that Jesus was born; we don't know that. God may well have placed the star ahead of time. The argument also assumes that Herod didn't add in a "cushion" of time when deciding the age of the children to be killed; that the "house" was Joseph's and Mary's house (rather than, for example, the inn, with the stable nearby); and that the word "child" is intended to be distinct from "baby." In fact, Matthew wants to stress the royalty of Jesus, so he minimizes the humble circumstances of Jesus' birth--he would naturally describe Jesus as a "child" rather than as a "baby," and refer to the "house" rather than to the "manger" (i.e., feeding trough) that Luke mentions.
Am I trying to argue that the Magi were at the scene of Jesus' birth after all? No. If we're getting stymied in trying to figure out something, we're probably heading off on a rabbit trail, and missing the main point of what the author wanted us to see.I think it's likely that Joseph and Mary settled in Bethlehem after Jesus' birth, to get away from the stigma of illegitimacy that they would have had in Nazareth. I think that the Magi arrived some time later, although not necessarily two years later. But the key words here are, "I think." I don't know. And whether they want to admit it or not, neither does anyone else.
A little humility is a very good thing when we're about the business of interpreting Scripture. We need to recognize that Scripture doesn't tell us everything we might be curious about, and so there are things that we simply can't know for sure. One thing we can be reasonably sure of, though, is that if the Bible doesn't give us full information on something, it probably isn't crucial for us to know it. If we're getting stymied in trying to figure out something, we're probably heading off on a rabbit trail, and missing the main point of what the author wanted us to see. It might be a good idea, this Christmas season, to forget about what we know of the whole Christmas story, and to read the individual Christmas stories once again, and see the different angles that the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew and Luke to tell us about. Come to think of it, it might not be a bad thing to blog on....
Friday, December 01, 2006
The Growing Split between Evangelicals and Republicans
Some quotes from the article:
The sense among the evangelical grassroots is that the Republican Party has used them, but only paid lip service to their goals, aspirations and values. [... Former White House aide David Kuo] alleged that the nonreligious White House staff scoffed at the evangelicals, referring to them as "crazies" and treating them like a captive political group; on this last point akin to how Democrats treat African-American voters.A friend of mine and I were recently talking about politics, and he made the statement that, because of Democratic hostility toward biblically-based positions on such issues as abortion and homosexuality, Christians essentially had nowhere else to go but the Republican party. It seems to me that this is only true if one narrows the field of issues on which there is a discernable "Christian" point of view to those particular issues--and that's what we have wrongly done. If one broadens the field to include such issues as poverty and social justice, then one may have to choose between two candidates, neither of whom supports all the issues one may hope he would, based on which one supports more of one's issues, and also based on which of these issues that particular office will have an impact on.
At the core of this new political outlook [recently advocated by Evangelical leaders] is a growing sense that the libertarian battle is lost, but the Christian mission of helping the poor remains. Evangelicals argue that by shunning aggressively secular government involvement in issues relating to poverty and other things, libertarian approaches were preferable, but they now add that failing in the libertarian mission is not an excuse to stop helping the poor or working toward other Christian missions such as environmental stewardship.
If nothing else, reexamining the reasons why we support the candidates and parties that we do is a healthy thing. I, for one, have for a long time expected American Christians to be squeezed out of the political process, between an increasingly libertarian Republican party and an increasingly socialistic Democratic party. I don't relish this development, but I don't think that being taken for granted in the back pocket of one party is a viable alternative.
The Pope Prays Toward Mecca
I am willing to grant that the Pope wasn't praying to Allah, and that he did not consider himself to be participating in a Muslim rite. Nonetheless, I find this move completely astonishing.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians regarding participation in the worship of other religions:
Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord's jealousy? Are we stronger than he?It is one thing to exhibit kindness, generosity, and mercy toward people from other religions. It is quite another to validate them by participating in their worship.
--1 Cor. 10:18-22.
(HT: Smart Christian)