Believe in Christmas

Someone can always come up with a reason not to believe. We can always cook up a story that does not need God in it. We’ve been doing that from the start, but one of my favorite illustrations of this is in Matthew 28:

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

Indeed, the story is still circulated today. Some of our best-selling Christian authors even peddle the myth concocted to debunk Easter.

It happens because we want an explanation that does not depend on God. We like to run the world as if none of its truths depend on God being God. And so we set our sharp little minds to crafting godless stories and our greedy little hearts to believing them.

The lies about Easter get some traction in the church.

The lies about Christmas are in some quarters almost dogma.

They are taught to the wise ones in the pews as secret knowledge. The truth is dismissed as fairy tale and Sunday School pabulum. It is okay for the children’s pageant but not for adults. All this stuff about the virgin birth and going to Bethlehem and angels and shepherds and wise men catches in the throat of too many of our pastors who tell these stories with their fingers crossed behind their backs.

I don’t understand that.

If we believe Jesus died and rose on the third day, why is it so hard to believe he was born of a virgin?

Sure, people can dream up stories that explain the orthodox teaching away. There are lots of garden guardians eager to take the gold coins from the elders. But we have the testimony of the Spirit and the cloud of witness.

They say, “Believe.”

We say, “Amen.”

Hearing Jesus in the prophetic key

It sometimes feels to me as if we have spiritual amnesia. We have forgotten what we had once hoped, longed, and prayed for.

I was thinking this as I was reading the first chapter of Mark tonight. In that beautifully tight opening scene of Jesus’ ministry, we are cued in to the great hope of Israel that is fulfilled in Jesus. Mark points us to Isaiah and Malachi. These are the voices that prepare us for the coming of John and Jesus.

These are voices preparing us for the day of the Lord.

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 4:1-3)

The prophets promised a day of God’s justice for all the earth, a day when the wicked would be thrown down and the righteous raised up.

That is the hope that the disciples held in their hearts in Acts 1. Some of them had heard Jesus preaching of the coming kingdom from the first days. Now? Is now the time?

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

The words of Malachi and Isaiah and the other great prophets must have been ringing in their ears as they pressed the Lord with this question. They had such hope that evil would not prosper.

I wonder if we dare to hope as much.

We have no shortage of evil around us. The prophets name names for us:

“So I will come  to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3:5)

Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. (Isaiah 5:8)

Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. They have harps and lyres at their banquets, pipes and timbrels and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD, no respect for the work of his hands.(Isaiah 5:11-12)

Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit and wickedness as with cart ropes, (Isaiah 5:18)

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. (Isaiah 5:20)

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. (Isaiah 5:21)

Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent. (Isaiah 5:22-23)

I could go on and on.

The promise of the day of the Lord’s coming is the promise of the day when all these wicked ones are punished. It is the promise of a day when accounts are settled and the justice of God repays the wicked for their evil ways.

I have to be completely honest here.

I don’t know how many middle class and upper middle class American Christians have that same hope. It does not seem like many do. What we seem to want more than anything is for God to help us through our family problems and to give us a sense of meaning in a world that often seems empty of meaning. We want something that will keep us from going hysterical when the cancer diagnosis comes in or the stock market turns south. We want God to tell us its okay to enjoy sex and drive sports cars.

But I’m not at all convinced that is what Isaiah and Malachi had in mind.

A few days ago, I argued that the church’s purpose is to bear witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth. If we would do that, we must do so in light of the prophets, who also bore witness to Jesus.

If we would speak of Jesus rightly, we have to learn how to speak the same language of those prophets.

In his footsteps

Some thoughts on 1 John 2:1-6.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

I love that “but.” John is saying — and has just written with a stark image of darkness and light — that we should not sin. BUT if we do sin.

In other words, John is a realist. Indeed, he knows himself. He speaks of “our” sins and the advocate that “we” have in Jesus Christ. He writes in the first person, placing himself among the sinners.

I notice, as well, the atonement language here. Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice,” as the NRSV puts it, or the propitiation. What a contested word we have here. I’m not up on the debate enough to comment, but I will rest on the simple point that John sees in Jesus’ death a radical cure for sin, not only ours but the world’s.

It is not just Paul who makes such a big deal about the death of Jesus and the cross and all that goes with it. Any Christian theology that shies away from the significance of the cross is missing something of utmost importance about Jesus Christ.

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

What a series of hammer blows to lazy faith we find here. John does not write it just once and move on. He circles around his point and piles it on. If we claim to know God but do not obey his commands, we are liars. Just a few verses earlier, he said the same thing. If we say we have fellowship with him but walk in darkness, we lie and the truth is not in us.

It is interesting to me how much of these early verses of 1 John are tied up in testimony and action. There is a real concern with how well our actions match our words, and whether our words are shown to be true in our deeds.

That last verse about walking as he walked sounds like an outline of discipleship to me. There is a sermon series there, I would think: Walking like Jesus.

And how is it that we can walk the way he did? Not because we are creatures of light and goodness, no. We can walk as he walked because he is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. If we confess our sins, he will cleanse of of all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:9).

As I reflect on these verses, I find that John is offering us a fairly easy to use litmus test for the disciples of Jesus Christ. We in the United Methodist Church talk a fair amount about wanting to make disciples, but we are not often very good at describing what it means to be a disciple. Here is an answer. Obey his commandments. Walk as Jesus walked.

I need a new pair of sandals.

What we have heard and seen

Some thoughts on 1 John 1:1-4.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched — this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.

What we are about to be told about stretches back into time, to the very beginning of time. It is also something these witnesses have come to know in the most concrete and personal way. They have heard. They have seen with their own eyes. They have touched. Their knowledge of the Word is not an abstract theory or piece of book learning. It stood right there before them, touchable and touched.

The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

What these witnesses report is none other than the eternal life that has been with the Father since the beginning. This is no mere man touched by great wisdom or even a mere mortal blessed by a miraculous gift of the Spirit. He was and is the eternal Word, the eternal life, the eternal soul, who — and this is the miracle — appeared to us. We tell only what we have seen, not what we have heard or hoped.

We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

And yet, fellowship is possible by hearing second hand. The true and faithful proclamation makes it possible that you and I — who did not walk the shores of Galilee with them or touch his wounded hands — can be united in community with those who did see and hear and touch.

How this happens, the writer does not tell us. But here he does, at least, reveal the name. The one mentioned first as Word and second as life is now reported to us as Son and named Jesus the Christ.

We write this to make our joy complete.

In sharing the name, in forging the fellowship, the witness completes his own joy. To share the name is itself joy and fellowship. It is a gift to giver and receiver alike.

I wonder if that is so for you?

Whenever I turn to these verses, I recall all the short-shrift versions of Jesus people tried to sell me for so many years of my life. I remember the accounts of Jesus that made him nothing more than another man, a really good and compassionate and bold man, perhaps, but still just a man.

Whatever else someone says about the Bible when they peddle this version of Jesus, I can never believe that they really trust what it says. And I find it very hard to believe that they have any fellowship with the apostles. Here these words were written in joy, to testify to what was seen and heard and touched. Here these words promise that we who receive them enter fellowship with those who shared hardship and laughter with Jesus. Here these words proclaim that he was from the beginning, eternal life and Word. How do we hear these words and respond with a “yes, but”?

Before we talk of sin and hell. Before we speculate about heaven and resurrection, let us start with this simple witness. The eternal life appeared to us, to our fellowship. We are keepers of that witness. We exist because the sharing of the witness binds us together in a fellowship that reaches across time and distance.

Let us take joy in that. Let us proclaim what we have heard, the Son, Jesus Christ.

 

What is the gospel?

John Wesley answers the question “What is the gospel?” in his sermon “The Way to the Kingdom.”

The gospel, (that is, good tidings, good news for guilty, helpless sinners,) in the largest sense of the word, means, the whole revelation made to men by Jesus Christ; and sometimes the whole account of what our Lord did and suffered while he tabernacled among men. The substance of all is, “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;” or, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end we might not perish, but have everlasting life;” or, “He was bruised for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

We can see a little of the Wesleyan both/and here. He acknowledges that the gospel includes the entire account of Jesus’ incarnation and ministry. Fans of N.T. Wright can cheer this. But he also identifies the “substance,” a word that in philosophy and theology means the essential nature of the thing. That essential heart of the gospel is the saving and atoning work of Jesus.

In the shadow of the cross

How early did Jesus know?

One conventional answer is that he was born to die, and as God incarnate he knew this all along. Even if we wait for explicit biblical references, though, it is clear that Jesus saw the cross looming up a long time before he got there.

And yet he kept walking forward. He kept teaching. He kept healing. He kept praying. He kept on doing what he was here to do.

This is the way life responds to death and fear.

A word to myself today.