Since I post on Mondays and Thursdays, I’ll always be posting on Thanksgiving Day in the US.
I wrote a post about thankfulness on July 27, 2017, and last year I decided to post it every Thanksgiving.
New Year’s Eve. Last day of the old year; looking forward to the new.
There is something in us that makes us reflective at this season. We think through the past year and often make resolutions for the new.
This year, things will be better. Life will be better. We will be better.
Humans being complicated, this general optimism—or at least desire for improvement—is countered by cynics (they would call themselves realists) who confidently predict that it won’t last. Some of them seem irritated that anybody’s even trying. The most obvious example of that, I suppose, is at the gym, where the regulars are frustrated that for the first week or two of every January they can’t get to their usual machines because of the crowds—and their irritation is increased by the fact that the interlopers don’t even know how to use said machines.
I feel their pain—though I’ll admit that I haven’t done much at the gym this last semester, mostly due to schedule constraints of my first-semester teaching schedule. If I were going to start an exercise program, I think I’d start in December—or any time other than January. But as it happens, my gym is closed for 2 weeks precisely at the end of December, so that’s out.
Anyway, while recognizing the inconvenience that the optimists are to the cynics, at least at the gym, I’d like to suggest that they lighten up a little. If history is any guide, a lot of people will set out on a course of self-improvement this week, and the great majority of them will apostatize before the month is out. But does that mean that they shouldn’t even try? Or that they shouldn’t at least aspire?
Isn’t aspiration, the desire to get better, the desire to succeed, an essential part of being a healthy human? Isn’t it part of the image of God in us?
And if it is, shouldn’t we start down that path, and encourage others to do the same? Is that hopelessly naïve, or is it just healthy?
God certainly knew that we would fail when he created us, and he went ahead and did it anyway. He knew that Abraham’s descendants would be unfaithful lovers in the extreme, but he chose and blessed them anyway. He knew that Moses would strike the rock in rage, and that the same Israel who stood at Mt. Sinai and cried—with one voice—“All that the Lord has spoken, we will do!” (Ex 19.8), would refuse to take the land when God gave it to them. He knew that David would sin with Bathsheba. Jesus knew that Peter would deny him—and that Judas would betray him. And God chose them all anyway.
The Judas story is particularly intriguing. The Scripture doesn’t tell us Judas’s motive for the betrayal—though earlier it describes his motive at Bethany as greed (Jn 12.6). Some have speculated that like some of the other Jews, he wanted Jesus to overthrow the Romans and establish a political Messiahship. Maybe he did. If so, Jesus’ treatment of him is interesting.
It appears that Jesus set up a “buddy system” among the Twelve; we know that he sent them out in pairs on at least one preaching tour (Mk 6.7), and the accompanying list of the apostles appears to list them in pairs—Peter and Andrew, James and John, and so forth (Mt 10.2). If this is a “buddy list” of long-term “roommate” relationships, with whom does Jesus pair Judas?
Simon the Zealot (Mt 10.4).
And what’s the significance of that?
The designation Zealot is a reference to an activist group of the day who opposed the hated Roman occupiers with what we would call today “asymmetrical warfare.”
Simon was a guerrilla fighter. He was a terrorist.
But a changed one. He followed Jesus, and unlike Judas, he stayed true to that commitment to the very death.
So maybe—maybe—Jesus paired Judas the malcontent with Simon the (converted!) Zealot to let him see up close what a redeemed terrorist and Roman-hater looked like.
Maybe he was giving Judas a chance.
In any case, the God who knows all doesn’t go all cynical on us just because he knows we’ll stumble or even fail spectacularly.
We shouldn’t think like that either.
So make your plans, and your resolutions, for the new year. Set off down that path, with determination.
And if you proceed unevenly—you will, you know—get up and keep going.
For what it’s worth, I’m rooting for you.
So both of the Christmas names—Jesus and Immanuel—highlight the fact of the Incarnation, that God became one of us. As I put it last time, the eternal God the Son added to his (divine) nature, or set of characteristics, and second, human nature, a different set of characteristics.
That’s a unique event. No other person, not even the Father or the Spirit, has ever had two natures.
We have trouble with unique things, because we like to learn by comparing the new thing to something we already know. And when there’s nothing to compare the new thing to, we end up scratching our heads and asking questions that we have insufficient data to answer.
How does a divine person add a human nature? How does any person add any second nature?
The early church spent 400 years trying to figure that one out, and pretty much every theory they came up with along the way was a heresy. Finally, in AD 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, they managed to formulate a statement of what happened—a statement that has stood the test of the centuries since—but they gave up forever the possibility of actually explaining it.
Really—how does a person with two natures live out his life? How does he think? How can he be both mortal and immortal? How can he be both omnipresent and corporeal? How can he be omniscient and yet say, matter-of-factly, “I don’t know when I’m coming back” (Mk 13.32)?
I’d like to make up a story that I’m pretty sure never happened, just to make the point.
An angel shows up in the executive wing of heaven and approaches the receptionist.
“I’d like to see the Son, please,” he says.
The receptionist replies, “I’m sorry, but you can’t.”
Now, that answer has never before been given to that request, so the angel is puzzled.
“I can’t?! What kind of an answer is that?! Why can’t I?”
“Because he’s not here. He’s out of the office.”
The angel is nonplussed, whatever that means.
“What do you mean, he’s ‘not here’?! He’s omnipresent. How can he not be here? That doesn’t even make any sense!”
“Well, it’s a little difficult to explain, but I assure you that he’s not here.”
The angel, perplexed, gives in.
“OK, I’ll play your little game. He’s ‘not here.’ Well, then, ‘where’ is he? I’ll go ‘there’ and see him.”
The receptionist takes a deep breath.
“Well, I can tell you where he is, and you can go there, but even if you do, you won’t be able to see him.”
Another deep breath.
“Because he can’t talk.”
“He can’t talk?! Are you kidding me?! How can he not talk?!”
The receptionist clears her throat.
“Because he’s a fetus. He’s not going to be able to talk for a couple of years yet.”
As I say, I’m pretty sure this never happened, first, because our imagined angel seems a little impatient for somebody who’s not a sinner, and more importantly, I don’t think any angels were surprised by the incarnation. Oh—and I doubt that the executive wing of heaven has a receptionist, although I can’t be completely sure of that.
But let’s take some time to think about this.
Paul tells us that among other things, the Son is the agent of providence—by him, all things are held together (Col 1.17). As far as I know, there’s no 25th Amendment in the Constitution of Heaven, whereby a member of the Godhead passes off his duties to another member in anticipation of his temporary incapacitation. So is the Son running the universe from Mary’s womb? as a fetus? as an embryo?
Is it true that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”? Does he learn to walk the first time he tries, or does he “fall down and go boom”? Does Mary ever have to correct his grammar? Does he always get A’s in school? Does Joseph ever have to tell him, “Now, Joshua, if you keep holding the hammer that way, you’re going to hit your thumb!”?
My friend, you think you know this person, but there is more to him than you can ever know. He is unfathomable, unimaginable, indecipherable.
And he did this for you. When you were his enemy and determined to stay that way.
Immanuel. God with us.
Last time we noted what the name Jesus means—and that enabled us to understand what the angel is saying to Joseph in Matthew 1—this baby is Yahweh himself, the one who saves his people from their sins.
God has become one of us.
Now Matthew’s commentary on the angel’s words follows unavoidably:
22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, 23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
Matthew is writing to Jews, presenting Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. One of the most obvious ways he does this is by citing prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and showing specifically how Jesus fulfills those prophecies. Note how often he says, “All this was done, that it might be fulfilled,” or something similar—
The first prophecy he chooses to cite reveals the second name of Christmas.
Emmanuel. God with us.
I suspect that neither Isaiah nor his hearers understood the prophecy. They probably thought, God is with us, as he has been with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and with David and Solomon, and with our people throughout our history.
Yes, it includes that idea, but the prophecy embraces a much more intimate “with” than that.
He is going to join us, to become one of us. He’s going to be not just present, but identified with us.
In theological terms, the person of the Son, eternally existent with a divine nature, is going to add to his person a second nature, a human one. He’s going to get tired, and get hurt, and die.
And he’s going to keep that human nature forever.
It amazes me that when God created the world, he knew that giving humans the ability to have a healthy relationship involved giving them the ability to choose—and that meant the ability to choose wrong. And that meant the possibility—nay, the certainty—of sin. And God knew that he would never allow his image to be permanently disfigured in such a way—that he would respond to our rebellion justly, with a sentence of death, and mercifully, with the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. He would do whatever was necessary to be just and to justify—to rescue—his image. And he knew that justice would require an infinite sacrifice, which we would be unable to pay, and which he would be unable to pay either, because the penalty is death, and he cannot die.
So from the very beginning he knew that by creating humans, beings in his image, on whom he could bestow the joy of his friendship, he was committing himself to become one of them.
What a commitment that was!
What a God he is!
Next time, a meditation on what happens when God becomes man.
PNo, I don’t mean the names of the day. I mean the names that arise out of what we celebrate at Christmas—the names of the Incarnate One.
What we call the Christmas Story introduces us to two names that are new, and meaningfully so. The first one is now so familiar to us that we’ve completely forgotten its meaning—if we ever knew it all. We meet it in Matthew’s account of the birth of the Son of God, in chapter 1—
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. 20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. 21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
The first name that comes out of the Christmas Story is “Jesus.” We all know it well today; it’s the personal name of the Son, which he took on when he became human. But most of us completely miss the whole significance of the way it was introduced in Scripture.
To start with, the name has come to us through several languages, and as anyone named Juan or Jean or Johann or Ivan knows, names change when they cross languages. Jesus is the English form of the Greek Iesous, which in turn translates the Hebrew Yeshua, or its longer form Yehoshua, or, as we would say it, Joshua. Yes, Jesus’ name was just Joshua—which explains a bit of translational confusion in the KJV of Hebrews 4.8, where they give the impression that the author is speaking of Jesus giving rest, when he’s actually speaking of the OT Joshua taking Israel into the Promised Land. (See also Ac 7.45.)
Where was I?
Have you ever wondered why the angel said to Joseph, “You must call his name Joshua, for he will save his people from their sins”? Have you ever noticed that subordinate conjunction in there, the one that identifies a causal link between the name and Jesus’ saving work?
To us English-speaking readers, that doesn’t make sense—or, more likely, we just sail on past it without even noticing that it doesn’t make sense, because the words are so familiar to us.
But that causal link is in there for a reason. It’s making an important point, one, I could argue, that is the most important point ever made by anyone.
Joseph would have gotten the point—it would have been as plain as day to him, and he would have understood its significance immediately. I suspect that’s why he unquestioningly obeyed the angel’s instructions. He adopted the child, risking—and probably ruining—his reputation in the process. If your fiancée is pregnant, and you marry her and adopt the child, everybody’s going to nod his head and smirk and wink knowingly. Uh-huh. We all know what that means, now, don’t we? And 30 years later they were still smirking when they tried to undercut Jesus’ authority by sneering, “We were not born of fornication!” (Jn 8.41).
Why did Joseph obey, unhesitatingly, when he knew what the cost of that obedience would be to his own reputation, and perhaps to his livelihood as a contractor?
Because he understood the meaning of the angel’s words. He understood the “for,” the causal link.
Because he knew what the name meant.
“Joshua,” you see, means “Yahweh saves.”
The angel said, “You must name him ‘Yahweh saves,’ ”—so far, so good—“because he will save his people from their sins!”
Do you see it?
“He”—the infant—no, the fetus—“he” is Yahweh!
The everlasting God, who makes covenants with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob—and keeps them—who sits high on the throne in Isaiah’s vision, whose train fills the temple, but who reveals himself to Israel by his first name—this God is now a fetus in the womb of a Jewish teenager.
This is much, much bigger than Joseph, or Mary, or shepherds, or wise men, or all of us put together. Nothing like this has ever happened before, or likely will ever happen again.
God has become one of us.
Next time, the second Christmas name.
Today is Martin Luther King Day. Or, as the government officially calls it, the “Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.” On this day the nation officially focuses on a lesson learned from its past; as the current president put it, to “encourage all Americans to observe this day with acts of civic work and community service in honor of Dr. King’s extraordinary life — and it was extraordinary indeed — and his great legacy.”
We all know that this day, and its good intentions, arose out of controversy—first, the very painful controversy surrounding the Civil Rights movement, and then more controversy regarding the personal character of Dr. King himself.
Political conservatives, in my opinion, pretty badly missed the boat in dismissing the Civil Rights movement as simply “communist agitation,” first, because it sprang from a serious social problem in our culture and was not simply a minor issue stirred up by enemies of the nation to foment instability. Of course the extreme left sought to use the movement for its own very different ends, but that minor fact hardly renders racial segregation and discrimination minor problems. Both political and religious conservatism are founded solidly on the principle of divine creation of all humans and the rights and respect that come with that status. Conservatism speaks often of equal justice under law. We conservatives missed the boat—badly—on this one. We took the wrong side.
And then there’s the second controversy. When Congress discussed making Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday, there was considerable opposition. Some of it, doubtless, came from those who just don’t like black people. Further opposition came from those on the political right who didn’t like anybody aligned with the political left. But some opposed the holiday on the ground that Dr. King was a flawed character, one whose birthday we shouldn’t honor with a federal holiday.
Charges were leveled against his memory. The most significant was that he had been unfaithful to his wife. Some charged, based on his acceptance of support from left-wing organizations, that he was a communist. Others noted that while he preached non-violence, violent protests seemed to follow him wherever he went. The character argument received new life several years after President Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, when Dr. King was found to have plagiarized his doctoral dissertation in systematic theology at Boston University in 1955.
Can we celebrate a holiday as an impetus to social good, based on the noble sentiments expressed in the “I Have a Dream” speech, when the man who gave it was imperfect? Well, obviously we can; that’s what we’re doing. More precisely, then, can we do so in a way that’s morally and intellectually consistent?
I think we can. Here’s why.
First, everyone is flawed. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s birthday should be a national holiday, but it does mean that all of our heroes—all of them—have feet of clay. Washington, Lincoln, the Pilgrims, our veterans, even St. Valentine!—these are people who sinned and who disappointed themselves and others along the way. But they did not surrender to their sinful natures; they rose, as image-bearers of God, to stand for ideas that were bigger than themselves, ideas that are worth celebrating and promoting.
The real question, then, is whether Dr. King did the same, in spite of his status, alongside all of us, as a sinner.
That’s a question we have to wrestle with in each of our proposed heroes. In the case of Dr. King, I don’t know whether he was unfaithful to his wife; I don’t know whether he secretly sought to promote violence even as he urged the opposite; I don’t know whether he was an ideological communist—though I’m pretty sure, based on statements and his actions, that he wasn’t. I’m not going to believe those things about him without better evidence than I have, and I’m especially not going to believe those accusations when they come only from his avowed enemies.
Now, the plagiarism matter was adjudicated by a panel at his alma mater, and they ruled that he was guilty. In my line of work, that’s a career ender, but there are all kinds of mitigating considerations along the way—intent and extent being the most significant—and I’m not in a position to know the details of those matters either.
So what do we have? We have an imperfect man who embraced and promoted high ideals—necessary and good ideals—at significant personal risk, who inspired a great many people to pursue those ideals themselves, whose legacy is directly associated with those ideals, and whose memory is sacred to a lot of people, all of whom are in the image of God, and many of whom are my dear friends and colleagues, of whose character I have no doubt.
Can I celebrate this day and the ideals with which it is associated?
You bet I can.
Photo Credit: Yoichi R. Okamoto
Every Christmas there’s a rash of articles about Christmas myths: Jesus wasn’t born in winter; there weren’t 3 wise men, and they didn’t show up at the stable; the angels didn’t sing.
It’s proper to insist on the accurate retelling of the biblical story, and it’s really important not to say God said things when he didn’t (Rev 22.18), but sometimes I get the idea that the Christmas Mythbusters are just getting their jollies from popping the children’s balloons at the party.
For starters, there may have been 3 wise men; we don’t know how many there were. And Jesus may have been born at any time of year, even in December; we just can’t think of a reason shepherds would have been watching their flocks by night other than lambing season in the spring. And sure, the text says that the angels “said,” but are you really going to insist that angels don’t sing because of that? “Glory to God in the highest” as monotone? Seriously?
Get the biblical story right; but get it right for good reasons.
May I offer a counterexample?
Back to those wise men. They came from the East, according to the oft-mocked song, “bearing gifts … following yonder star … westward leading, still proceeding.”
I beg to differ, and for what I hope is a good reason, an edifying one.
Whatever their names were, they came “from the East” (Mat 2.1), which we take to be Mesopotamia, and thus perhaps were Parthians. They “saw his star when it rose” (Mat 2.2) and consequently traveled to Jerusalem. There is no evidence that they “follow[ed] yonder star” to Jerusalem; in fact, it seems most certain they did not—
So back home in the East they saw some sort of celestial phenomenon, and they went to Jerusalem to see the newly born king.
We’re going to have to speculate a little bit. But there are reasonable speculations, based on evidence. Crime-scene investigators do that sort of thing all the time. Let’s try to do one of those.
These men were court astrologers from Mesopotamia. They would have been knowledgeable regarding the history of their region, and especially of the history of their craft of predicting the future. They would have known about their prophetic ancestors. And they had a couple of ancestors whose prophecies would likely have informed them when they saw the star.
The first was Balaam. He was from “Pethor” (Num 22.5), which is commonly believed to be Pitru, near Carchemish in northern Mesopotamia. He was a well-known prophet; records of his extrabiblical prophecies have been discovered at Deir Alla, a town in modern Jordan. The wise men could well have been familiar with his work.
And his work includes the following statement: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth” (Num 24.17). He finishes this prophecy with these words: “Alas, who shall live when God does this? But ships shall come from Kittim and shall afflict Asshur and Eber; and he too shall come to utter destruction” (Num 24.23-24).
Hmmm. A star. Out of Jacob. Who will destroy kingdoms, perhaps including “Asshur.” I think the Mesopotamian astrologers might have been interested in that.
The other prophet is Daniel. He would certainly have been well known, as a high government official in Babylon who was so effective that Babylon’s Persian conquerors kept him on in their government too. He prophesied of an “anointed one” who would be “cut off” (Dan 9.26) along about, oh, 30 years from now, in the wise men’s day. They’d be interested in that too.
They see the celestial phenomenon. It disappears. They remember the star prophecy of the king from Jacob. They check the timing of Daniel’s prediction. Yep. They saddle up and head for Jerusalem, report to the palace, and ask where the prince is.
The king’s reaction puzzles them. He doesn’t know what they’re talking about. The prince is apparently not his son. Bethlehem, he tells them. Go there, and find the child.
How are they going to do that? Of course there will be children there; but which one is the Anointed? How will they know?
Shaking their heads, they head for the caravan outside in the courtyard. As they exit the building, a strange but familiar light envelops them. They jump for joy.
God’s Word is reliable.
And he clarifies it for those who want to know.
I’m taking a break from blogging for the holidays. See you after the New Year.
Since it’s Thanksgiving Day in the US, I thought I’d repeat a thankful post from this past July 27.
Early in our marriage, when we were in the process of making friends with other young couples, my wife and I would occasionally notice that as we socialized in our home or in someone else’s, some people always seemed to be upset about something. They’d tell us the story of how they were wronged in some way, how some injustice was done. The next time we were together, they had their tails in a knot about something else. Always upset, always holding on to wrongs, real or imagined.
Once, we made the conscious decision to minimize our socializing with one such couple. These days the internet memes say, “You just don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.” And it’s true.
It puzzles me how some people can be so ungrateful. People don’t treat them right; they don’t get paid enough; their mother-in-law is a pain in the neck; their boss is an idiot. And on it goes.
A colleague of mine remarked to me several years ago, “You know, life’s going to happen, no matter what you do. Some of it will be unpleasant. You can be bitter about it, or you can be happy in spite of it. The choice is up to you. I decided,” she said, “to be happy.” And boy, was she.
As result of her example, I began to think about all the ways I’ve been blessed. And one day it occurred to me that everything I need—literally everything—is free. That’s the way God has arranged the universe.
Don’t believe me? Think about it.
What do you need more than anything else in the world? If you lack it for 30 seconds, it will be literally all you think about until you get some.
You’re swimming at the bottom of an ocean of it—an ocean that God has kindly diluted so you won’t burst into flame at the slightest spark. God’s even given you a scoop on the front of your head so you’ll get your share of the stuff. Some of you he gave a larger scoop to, and you have the gall to be upset with him about that. Shame on you.
What’s the second most necessary thing? Water. They say you can last 3 days without it—some maybe as much as 8 to 10 days under certain conditions. But not long.
Most of the globe is covered with it. And that water mass feeds a delivery system that brings it right to your feet, purified, for free. (Unless you live in the Atacama, which hardly anybody does.) And again, many of us complain when it rains. Especially at the beach.
Granted, I pay a water bill, but I’m not really paying for the water; I’m paying for someone to clean it up and bring it to my house. I choose to do that, but I have a big ol’ plastic barrel that I could use to get my water for free.
What’s next? Food. Grows right out of the ground, from plants that are already there. Free. Again, I pay for my food, but only because I don’t feel like growing my own. So I pay somebody else to grow and harvest and deliver it; and sometimes I go out to a restaurant and pay somebody else to cook it and bring it to my table. But the food? The food’s free.
And then there’s light, and heat, and all the other physical necessities. All free.
God has been remarkably good to us.
But you’re thinking (I hope), those aren’t our greatest needs. They’re just temporal. We have greater needs: forgiveness, relationship, grace, mercy, peace. Love.
What do you know? They’re all free, too.
Everything you need is free.
I don’t mean to minimize anyone’s suffering. The world is broken, and we and everyone we know here are broken as well, by sin. Suffering is real. Abuse is real. Pain is real. Death is real.
But we have much to be grateful for, and these jewels shine all the brighter against the black background of pain.
Today’s homework: read Psalm 145.
“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously [freely!] give us all things?” (Rom 8.32).