Monday, 30 May 2016

Elijah and Religious Truth

At this point in in 1st Kings, King Ahab and his wife, Queen Jezebel, have been on a mission to introduce worship of foreign gods into the culture of Israel. And not only introduce it, but make it dominant and even suppress the worship of Israel’s God. This is an incredibly dark time for Israel. Elijah announced that God was going to cause a drought because of Ahab’s disobedience. Baal was believed to be the god of rain. The drought was to declare that the God of Elijah had power over the rains, not Baal. So the drought has been ongoing for 3 years. Things have become desperate. Now Elijah has arrived on King Ahab’s doorstep and has asked him to call a meeting. He tells him to call the people of Israel to Mt. Carmel and to come with the prophets of Baal.

They meet and Elijah declares the reason for the meeting. The people of Israel haven’t consciously rejected God, but they have also been worshipping Baal. They have been thinking they can have it both ways. Elijah tells them they have to pick.

It’s amazing how there really isn’t anything new under the sun. The people of Israel, under the leadership of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, are developing a pluralistic society. People can pick the bits they like from the religion of Israel and the bits they like from the worship of Baal and have the best of both worlds. You could talk to many people in our society, even in our churches and find that many people hold this attitude about spirituality. There are many who just pick a little from here and pick a little from there, just to cover their bases and to cater to their own taste- to find a spirituality that “fits” them. Many don’t want to commit, and prefer to sit on the fence so they don’t have to defend a decision one way or the other. It is a very modern western way of thinking. There are many paths to the top of the mountain. We should just accept all religions as equally valid.

Here comes Elijah, and he’s saying something very counter-cultural, for his own time and for ours. Elijah says they (and we) have to pick. That seems very intolerant- even arrogant. They weren’t against the God of Israel, they just also wanted to include worship of Baal. They want to play on both sides, but you can’t do that with integrity with the God of Israel. We read Jesus say in Revelation 3:16, “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth”. They won’t commit. Like many German Christians during WW2 who held the illusion that they could be both Christian and still hold to the values of Nazism. They weren’t overtly denying God after all, they were just including this other thing as well. … All of us are inclined towards some kind of idol. And as Christians we often want to hold it alongside God. It could be social standing- having the right house, or boat, or vacation. It might be some image of success. It might be some political agenda. It can even be family. Our world is full of idols that compete with God. And we feel okay with them because we aren’t necessarily denying God, we just want to hold onto these other things as well. And we tell ourselves it’s okay because everyone else does it. We don’t want to be extreme. We don’t want people to think we are strange.

Elijah is a lone voice. Elijah is the only prophet of Yahweh, and there are 450 prophets of Baal. They have the support of the king and queen, and the people seem to have bought into the government program to introduce Baal worship. Elijah is a lone voice speaking against the political powers and against the social norms. Elijah, was very counter-cultural.

There is a modern notion that says all religions are really the same. They all have the same destination and they all do the same thing. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, “the religions are all different paths up the same mountain”. … Or they say, “the religions are really all blind people trying to describe an elephant. One feels it’s leg and says an elephant is like a tree. Another feels the trunk and says an elephant is like a snake. Another feels the ear and says an elephant is like a fan. Another feels the tail and says an elephant is lie a rope. All of them are right in a way, but none of them sees the whole elephant.” Many in our society think it’s arrogant for religions to say they have the truth and these images of the mountain and the elephant are examples of how these people see religion, if they are open to religion at all.

The problem with those images is that they are hypocritical.[1] They are used to point out that religions don’t have any real ultimate truth, but the images themselves claim to have some kind of ultimate truth. One religion is walking it’s path up the mountain and can only see its own path, but the person who is telling the story about the multiple paths up the mountain is in the all-seeing position of seeing all the paths and their destination, when no one else can. Why can that person claim ultimate truth, but none of the other religions can? Isn’t that just as arrogant? Besides that, what do you get when you get to the top of the mountain? God? Is it the Triune God of Christianity? Or do they arrive at the tope to find thousands of Hindu Gods. or maybe there is no God, as many Buddhists believe, and instead find release from the suffering of existence in nirvana (which isn’t heaven, By the way). So the person telling the story about the paths up the mountain also has the audacity to claim to know what is at the top- that it is one thing- when all the religions claim to have something very different as their goal.

Or take the story about the blind people and the elephant. All the religions are said to be blind. The only person who claims to have full sight and can see the whole elephant is the person telling the story. They are the ones with ultimate truth who can laugh at the foolish blind people groping around to describe the elephant. The person telling the story is claiming to know a truth they claim no one else has. Isn’t that arrogant though. It is even worse because it is under the guise of being tolerant and open minded, when really it denies the other religions the ability to see the big picture, but claims that knowledge themselves.

So really it is an illusion that you don’t have to make a decision- that you can sit on the fence. Elijah makes this plain. He says they have to choose. But how do you decide? Elijah proposes a contest between the two gods. They will prepare two sacrifices on two altars. Elijah says, “you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the LORD; the god who answers by fire is indeed God “ (18:24).

Elijah tells the prophets of Baal to go first. So they get the altar and the sacrifice ready but they don’t light the fire. Instead they call on Baal to set the fire to the sacrifice. They are on top of a large hill, and they are probably calling for lightning. They call on Baal’s name morning until noon, dancing around the altar. But there was no answer.

Elijah comes out at noon to mock them, "Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened." In the Hebrew, the “wandered away” might be translated as implying he has stepped away to use the bathroom. Elijah, is really laying into them. But, the prophets of Baal tried even harder, crying out and cutting themselves until they were covered in blood. Working hard to do the right dance, say the right words, manipulate their god into doing what they want. But, still, there was no response.

Isaiah imagines a kind of contest as well in Isaiah 41:21-29. Speaking of idols he says, “Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified. Behold, you are nothing, and your work is less than nothing; an abomination is he who chooses you. … Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their metal images are empty wind” (23-24, 29).

In Deuteronomy we read God saying, “‘Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge, who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offering? Let them rise up and help you; let them be your protection! ‘See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me” (Deut 32:37-39).

The idols we worship ultimately will let us down. For some alcohol is an idol that promises to numb the pain of life, but it ultimately enslaves us and creates its own pain. For others, pornography is an idol that promises a sense of intimacy or escape, but it ultimately enslaves and doesn’t follow through on what it promises. Some worship the idol of youthful beauty that promises you don’t have to age, but it is ultimately a lie and will let you down after you have sacrificed thousands of dollars. Or maybe the idol of financial success has promised you that people will look up to you and you will feel like you have spent your life well and that you can have all the toys you want, but then you become ill, or you have sacrificed relationships serving the idol of success, or maybe it has caused you to take irrational risks in sacrificing for that idol. Like the prophets of Baal, you do the dance and you shed your blood, but it doesn’t follow through on the promise. Human beings are made for worship. We will worship something, whether we know it or not. Like Bob Dylan sang, “You're gonna have to serve somebody,/ It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/ But you're gonna have to serve somebody.”

After the prophets of Baal are done then it is Elijah’s turn. Elijah repairs the altar of the God of Israel that had been damaged. He repairs the altar with 12 stones- pointing to the 12 tribes of Israel. He digs a trench around the altar and he asks them to soak the altar and the sacrifice with 12 jars of water. This will make it harder to fire to light and there will be no doubt left in their mind about how the fire was lit. As Elijah prays, he calls on the God of the biblical patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. This is the God who has been with them as a people. The God who has given promises to these Patriarchs. This is the God who led their people out of Egypt and endured their grumbling and disobedience in the wilderness.

God answers with fire. And the fire burns so hot it consumes everything, even the stones. The contest has been won. The people fall down on their faces and admit that the God of Israel is the true God. And after this the three year drought ends. The contest lets the people know that it is not the Baal of the rain storm that brings the rain, but the God of Israel.

We aren’t to put God to the test like this. When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness he responds that we are not to put the Lord to the test (Matt 4:7; Deut 6:16). Elijah was operating under the direction of God. This wasn’t Elijah manipulating God to prove himself in the way Elijah wanted. However, God does give us reason to believe. One way we can do this kind of contest in a modern way is to hold up the various worldviews. Hold up the atheistic materialist worldview (that says what you see is all you get), against the Buddhist worldview, against the Christian worldview, etc. Which one makes the most sense of life? Which one is most livable? Which one has the most potential to create beautiful lives? Which one seems most grounded in truth? Which one seems to be grounded in history? For example, we might look at the resurrection of Jesus as being a kind of historical possibility we can test. The resurrection confirmed that Jesus was who he said he was. Jesus was a real historical person.

It is counter-cultural to claim to have any kind of spiritual truth. But, it is really the only intellectually feasible way forward. We have to make a decision about how we are going to live. If we decide for one way we are denying another way. As Jesus said we cannot serve both God and money (Matt 6:24). This is a principle we see over and over in scripture. As we discern an idol in our lives we should carefully put it to the test. And when we see that it can’t stand up to God and can’t fulfill what it promises we should have it destroyed so that we can follow the living God whole heartedly.

[1] Timothy Keller is good to read on this topic. see “reason for God” and “counterfeit Gods” . Also, Leslie Newbegin deals with the image of the elephant and religious pluralism. 

Monday, 23 May 2016

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday is a difficult Sunday for preachers. We are given the task of taking a complex idea, like the Trinity, and communicating it simply and clearly. The idea of the Trinity is this- God is one in nature, but three in persons. … If you ask what God is, we say “God”. There is only one such being in that category. If you ask what we are,… we say human. God is in His own category. … If you ask who God is, we say “Father, Son, Spirit”. … As we speak we have to be careful not to mix the persons of the Trinity together. However, we also need to be careful that as we describe the Persons of the Trinity that we don’t divide their nature- which is God- one and unified. That’s the basic idea. Three persons. One God. It is not necessarily an easy concept to hold in your head.

As we try to make it easier to understand we quite often get into trouble. We try to make it easier by imagining that God changed into three forms. So he was The Father, then he became the Son when Jesus was born, and once Jesus ascended he became the Holy Spirit. But we get in all kinds of trouble when we do that. For example, who was Jesus praying to if he really was the Father? This is what makes It’s also difficult to find a picture to help explain it. Sometimes people will talk about an egg- shell, yolk, and white, but still one egg. However the separation is too distinct. We might talk about light going through a prism and being separated into the colours of the rainbow. Or, a musical chord made of three notes. Or, Neapolitan ice-cream.

The difficulty is that we are describing the God of the universe. Imagine an ant trying to understand who you are and what you do. The understanding between the ant and the human being is actually closer than that between us and God. Sometimes we don’t take the time to realize how much God is beyond us. Imagine how unbelievably amazing a being we are talking about. This being is beyond time. He doesn’t just live forever, he is outside of time. He created time. He is beyond the physical universe. He doesn’t have a physical nature. This being created the universe. When we start looking at how massive the universe is, we get a little glimmer of the power of the being we are talking about. This being is beyond our understanding. This being is beyond our words. Anything we say about God is like a crudely drawn picture.

When my sons draw a picture of our family I come out somewhat recognizable, but I don’t think I could use it for my passport photo. Our words about God are like that. Anything we say about God is a crudely drawn image, and has very little ability to really describe God. Calling God “Him” is even problematic because he is so different and beyond other “hims”. We call God “Father”, or “love” and all of this is just not good enough. We can never get our language beautiful enough, or accurate enough, or profound enough to really describe what we are talking about. Even using the word “God” is problematic, because it can bring to mind the Roman or Greek gods, but we are talking about a being that is beyond all that.

When Moses was introducing the people to the God that rescued them from slavery, one of the commands they were given as they learned to become God’s people, was that they were not to make an image of God to be used in worship. Any image would not be good enough, no matter what image was used. … Idolatry is confusing God with what is not God. Any image or description of God risks idolatry, or confusing God with what is not God. This is sometimes called Apophatic Theology, which is a theology that says we are really on safer ground when we say what God is not, rather than saying what God is. In India there is a tradition where they will say in Sanskrit “Neti Neti” which means “not this, not this”. God is not this. God is not this. It is easier to say what God is not then to say positively who or what God is. God is so beyond us we have a very difficult time really gaining a clear understanding of who God is. We might look at the world and wonder where it all came from, but what can we really say about the source of everything we know… except to say that it must be other than it? It must be other than a tree, a mountain, a star, me. It seems logical and necessary to point to the source… beyond creation, and beyond our own thoughts to that something or someone else out there way beyond is all- beyond time and space even. All we seem able to do is point, but even that is a problem because we aren’t really sure what we are pointing at.

But then what hope do we have in knowing this being, let alone having a relationship with “Him”? Anything we try to do really is pretty pointless. Our technology cannot help us here because all we can do is look at what this being has perhaps made.

We can reach out all we want, but it is a fruitless effort ….unless….. God reaches back. … We cannot know God except through His self-revelation. God has to reveal himself to us if we are to know him at all. Revelation is God showing us what we couldn’t possibly know any other way. Revelation is God expressing Himself through the person of Jesus Christ. Revelation is transcendence becoming immanent. A priest I know once said it this way. It’s like being near a lake on a really sunny day and the sun is too bright to look at, but the reflection is slightly less bright so it is possible to look at the sun through the reflection on the lake. Jesus Christ is the reflection of God- the image of God. He allows us to see God in a more clear way. The God of the universe, who we can’t say much of anything about, showed us Himself in Christ. Jesus is the pinnacle experience of humanity with God. God has reached out to humanity in many ways over the thousands of years, but Christ is the clearest expression of God’s reaching out.

People have written their experiences with this revealing God and have gathered these experiences together in the Bible along with the experiences of others throughout thousands of years. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t continue to speak to people. The Holy Spirit is present with us and communicates to us, but the Bible allows us to measure our experiences against the experience of the community that has been having encounters with God for thousands of years. So through those pages we see God reaching out to us across history and we can start to know this God when we read through the pages… especially when we have Jesus in mind as we read.

If the only way we can know God is if he reaches out to us, and if the Bible is a record (in some way) of God reaching out to us as a community, and Jesus is the most clear image of God reaching out to us that we have, then the Bible (read through the lens of Christ) is the best chance we have of knowing about God. One of the things we learn about God as we read through peoples’ experiences with God, especially experiences with Jesus, is that there is a threeness and a oneness about God.

Jesus tells us to go out and make disciples, baptizing them in a threefold way- in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). Paul blesses the churches in a threefold way, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13:14). In Genesis 18 three mysterious visitors come to Abraham. It says the Lord appeared to him and then it says there were three men. In Colossians 2:8 we read that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form”. In John 14:9 Jesus says that anyone who has seen him has seen the father. In John 15:26 Jesus says “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me”. There are plenty more passages we could look at, but I think you get the point. The way we hold all this together is the Church’s teaching about the Trinity.

As the saints and theologians poured over the Bible they arrived at what we now know as the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s not that they didn’t have it before, it’s just that it became more polished. It’s really just direction to help us speak rightly about God. It is advice to show us where the boundary markers are in our language and thought about God. The doctrine doesn’t remove the mystery of God. The teaching on the Trinity describes the mystery.

Our experiences with Jesus are like a tightly packed rosebud and the more time we take over the centuries to reflect on the church’s experiences with God the more we learn to speak about God. Sometimes we get it wrong, sure, but I think we sometimes get it right too. And that is the Holy Spirit working to bring us into truth. After Jesus ascended he didn’t leave us on our own to figure all this out. He said that the Holy Spirit would be left with us to help guide us into all truth (John 16:13).

This is how we can feel confident talking this way about a God that is so beyond our wildest imaginings. It is bold for sure. We are speaking about something that is beyond our thought and language. But, we boldly trust that God has reached out to us and that the Holy Spirit has helped us to see this, especially through our reading the Bible. And especially as we get to know Jesus who is the clearest image of God reaching out to us. We have to trust in his reaching towards us or we are hopeless to know anything about Him. The good news in all this is that God has made himself knowable. And that dusty Bible sitting on most people’s book shelves is the primary way to know Him (along with Prayer, of course), but the Bible is where we learn who we are praying to. It is not an easy book. Of course it is not an easy book to read. We are learning about the transcendent God. It is not easy, but I do believe it is worth the effort.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Pentecost- the work of the Spirit- overcoming division

The preacher John Stott said, “As a body without breath is a corpse, so the church without the Spirit is dead”. The Spirit is the life of the church. The goal of the Christian life is to love and serve God and through this we enter a shared life with God. God becomes an everyday reality for us and there is a mysterious peace and joy that exists and grows as our life becomes unified with Christ. The Spirit’s desire is to develop this process in each of us and to have this process spread to as many people as possible.

The Spirit seems to be very concerned with joining people. St. Augustine described the Holy Spirit as the love that exists between God the Father and God the Son. From all eternity God the Holy Spirit exists as the unity and love between two persons, and that is what He continues to do. We could say the Spirit exists as the love between you and God. When you are minding your own business and your heart starts to burn within you and you have an overwhelming desire to pray, that is the Holy Spirit present in you joining you in love to God. This warmth might build in you when you sing a hymn, or it might happen while you are already praying, or when you look at the sunset, and a profound gratitude builds up in you and tears fill your eyes. That is the Holy Spirit joining you to God.

After his Ascension, Jesus is present to us through the Holy Spirit, and he is at work making us the body of Christ. So just as we are joined to God by the Holy Spirit, so we are also drawn into a mysterious unity with one another by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit exists as the love between us. You may have had the overwhelming desire to call someone and then find out that they really needed someone to talk to. Or just being together on Sunday you feel a connection that goes beyond mere sociology. It goes beyond friendship. You feel a connection that runs deeper.

The Holy Spirit is a master of overcoming barriers with love. You might feel a pressure inside yourself to forgive someone who has wronged you, or to say “sorry” when you have wronged someone else. The Holy Spirit wants to destroy divisions and draw us into unity. If we look at the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 we see that most of them are about our relationship with another person- “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”.

We often think of the Holy Spirit in terms of miraculous powers. We might think of healing miracles, or we might think of some of the other amazing stories our Charismatic friends tell us. The Holy Spirit will use these miraculous means if it means drawing people closer to God and closer to each other. Usually what is needed is not a miracle. Rather, what is often needed is the grace to be patient, and kind, when we would really rather not be. If that is what will help us grow in love then that is what the Holy Spirit will empower us to do.

This also means the Holy Spirit is active outside these church walls. The Holy Spirit is active in our neighborhoods and where we work. The Holy Spirit wants to draw everyone into deeper relationship with God and with other people. So wherever barriers are being broken between people, and people are being brought closer together in love, you will find the Holy Spirit there. When you find division and bitterness you will likely see the absence of the Holy Spirit, or a resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit.

When we look at the famous reading from the Book of Acts we see the Holy Spirit bridging those gaps. We read that after Jesus was crucified and then resurrected on Easter day he also ascended into Heaven. After that God poured out his Spirit on the Disciples of Jesus. The Bible speaks about this event using images of fire and wind, which make us think about God blowing life into the first human being in Genesis, and the fire of God descending on Mt. Sinai when Moses received the Law in Exodus. The Disciples had the life of the Spirit blown into them, and the law of love was burned into their hearts. They were reborn and they became the Body of Christ- The power of Christ would become active in and through them. Any barrier that was left between them and Christ was knocked down by the Holy Spirit. They were hiding behind closed doors, full of fear, and then they are filled with the boldness of Christ who was now working in them.

At Pentecost the disciples of Jesus all received the same Spirit. Any division between the disciples was being knocked down by the Holy Spirit. They were made one by sharing in the one Spirit- they were unified in a new way.

The Holy Spirit then began work knocking down the barrier that stood between them and those who did not know Jesus. When the Spirit filled them they started miraculously speaking in other languages they didn’t know. They weren't just random languages; they were the languages of those who were within earshot who were visiting from all over the known world. They were people who weren't present to hear about Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. They came from all over- from Rome, and Northern Africa, and from near the Caspian Sea, and Turkey. Suddenly, the language barrier was gone. The tower of Babel was reversed and language was miraculously not a barrier. Through the disciples they hear about Jesus.

They hear it from Galileans even- uncivilized country bumpkins, not academics who might actually know the languages. It didn’t come from the Temple. It came from nobodies. The barrier between the somebodies and the nobodies was smashed.

The Spirit loves to bring people together. You can fight it. The Spirit won't override your free will, but the Spirit's desire is to create a community full of peace, love, healing, and understanding. The Spirit wants to create a community where people learn to be like Jesus.

And so the disciples are brought into greater unity by sharing this one Spirit. Those who are listening to them miraculously speaking different languages are unified in understanding what is being said. The act of the Spirit working through the disciples transcends nationalities and languages. It didn't matter what people they belonged to, or what language they spoke. .... They heard and were drawn into the community. The confusion of nationalities and languages symbolized by the Tower of Babel story is reversed.

And then Peter speaks to the crowd that has gathered to describe what they are witnessing and he points to a prophecy of Joel where God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy[eye], your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy.” (Joel 2:28-32). It's not just nationality and language that is removed as a barrier to community, but the age barrier is removed- Both old and young are unified in the Spirit. The gender barrier is removed- both women and men are unified in the Spirit. I will pour out my Spirit on all people, God says. The Spirit transcends the barriers that divide us as human beings.

This is work the Spirit is still interested in. In your life the Spirit wants to destroy any barrier that stands between you and God. The Spirit wants to destroy the barrier that stands between you and your fellow Christian- whether that be a Christian in your church, or other denominations. We are brothers and sisters because we share in the one Spirit. The Spirit also wants to remove the barrier that stands between us and those who do not know Christ. The Spirit wants to draw them and make them fellow brothers and sisters to us, and the Spirit wants to use us to do that. The Spirit wants to use us to help remove the barrier that stands between people and God. That same Spirit that was in Peter and the disciples on Pentecost is in you. We are called to be a community that tears down barriers that divide people.

At Pentecost the world became less divided, it went from being a world divided by nationalities, languages, wealth, age, and gender, to a world divided only by a person's will to be included or excluded in the family of God. And God’s will is for us to be one, healed, and at peace. That is the desire and work of the Spirit- To work in the world, even through us, to bring wholeness where there is division. AMEN

Monday, 9 May 2016

Why did Jesus leave? Ascension

For a long time I had many mixed feelings about Jesus’ Ascension. I never quite understood why Jesus left. It was as if he was “beamed up” to the Starship Enterprise boldly going somewhere else and leaving us all down here to deal with our problems on our own. I wondered if the Apostles felt the same way.

It was pretty obvious that they still needed Jesus’ help. In our reading from the Acts, the disciples ask Jesus a question- "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" John Calvin commented on the Apostles’ question and stated that there are almost as many errors in that question as there are words. Keep in mind that Jesus has been teaching them for forty days after the resurrection, and that is on top of the three years they spent together. They were still stuck in that old way of thinking about the messiah as a warrior king that was going to save the nation of Israel from the bad Pagans. Jesus would lead his army to kick out the Romans, take over the government, and create an ideal peaceful kingdom for the Jewish people. … They still didn’t get it. This was going to grow slow, and it was for the entire world, not just Israel.

It makes me wonder how Jesus could leave after they asked a question like that. It would be like leaving a teenager in charge of the house when you go on a trip. You put emergency numbers on the fridge, you fill the pantry with food, and just before you walk out the door to catch a plane your teenager asks you “You don’t mind if I have a party while you’re gone do you?” I’m sure most of us would cancel the trip convinced they aren’t ready for the responsibility.

But, Jesus goes. The disciples come and ask him this question, but they should know better. The question shows their ignorance. I want to yell out to Jesus at that point and tell him not to leave them at such an important time. They need more help. They need more training.

Sometimes I feel the same way when I look at our world. He’s left, but we need help. We have forest fires raging out of control leaving almost 100,000 people homeless. We are killing off animal species on this planet at an alarming rate. In our desire for the cheapest stuff we support sweat shops that are essentially run by modern-day slaves. We continue to eat too much and waste food and resources, while many people in our world are starving. At times I can feel pretty overwhelmed with the mess the world seems to be in.

Sadly, sometimes the church is a mess too. Don’t get me wrong, the church is doing some beautiful things, but there is a lot of mess in the church too. We’re confused over moral matters. We argue over all kinds of things- music, sexuality, worship style- and that’s just worship. Throw in dinners, garage sales, renovations, and various ministries and it can be opportunity for all kinds of mess that we want to hide under a bushel so the world doesn’t see it. There are politics and power games, and you name it…. Dorothy Day once said, “As to the Church, where else shall we go, except to the Bride of Christ, one flesh with Christ? Though she is a harlot at times, she is our Mother.” … Sometimes we are not the light to the world Jesus called us to be. 

It’s easy to come down on governments and factory owners and institutions like the church, but then we look into our own lives and we aren’t always all that much better. Very few of us really live up to our own standards of what it means to live a really good life, unless our standards are very very low. … Surely we are just as ignorant as the disciples who asked the question that exposed their ignorance. … But he left. He left us in this mess. Surely he must know that we need him with us- so why would he leave?

I eventually found out that I had misunderstood the Ascension. It wasn’t about Jesus getting beamed up into a spaceship to boldly go where no messiah has gone before. It was not about abandoning us at all. … It was about getting closer to us.

By Ascending, Jesus was enveloped in the cloud of the Glory of God. When Jesus ascended, in modern language we might say that he went into another dimension- The dimension of heaven. He entered as a full human being into the dimension of heaven. There he realized his full glory. … But, this ascending isn’t about leaving us. The dimension of heaven isn’t on some far distant planet, it is a dimension that overlaps with our own.

The Ascension is an enthronement. It is when Jesus entered his full Lordship. It is also when he took on his full Transcendence. Transcendence is a word that is used to talk about how “other” God is. God is the creator of the universe and so is beyond the physical universe. God is beyond any of our imaginings about Him. He is beyond our words about him, because He is unlike anything else. … If you want to understand Transcendence, contemplate the seeming infinitude of space- The billions of Galaxies- and then think about the being that began it all. Or think about a being that can create time, or laws of physics (like gravity). … The image of God as the man in the clouds with a long white beard is ridiculous when compared to a being like that.

God’s transcendence can sometimes (mistakenly) make us feel as if He is not close to us. We can feel like he is so powerful and different from us that we have no way of bridging that difference. This is a mistake because His transcendence is necessary for his immanence. Immanence means that God is close to us. God is intimately near us. As St. Augustine said, “God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves”. God is so close to us he hears the beating of our heart- the blood flowing through our veins- He hears every secret whispered thought in our minds.

It seems paradoxical, but God’s transcendence is necessary for His immanence. If Jesus were to stay with us as his resurrected self without ascending he could only be in one place at a time. If he has a human body and lives in this earthly reality, then he can only be in one place at a time. That means that if he was in a locked room with his apostles, he could not at the same time be with us here. In ascending into the dimension of heaven (where he is not limited by space or time), Jesus gains the ability to be with us always and everywhere to the very end of the age. He gains the ability to work simultaneously through Mother Theresa in Calcutta, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany. He has the ability to be simultaneously present in our Eucharistic meal, and also at the numerous other meals of Holy Communion throughout this province and throughout the world. And in a thousands upon thousands of other ways he is working to transform us and our world. That immanent presence and power of Jesus with us after his Ascension is what we call the Holy Spirit.

Think of it a bit like this. I speak and my voice is limited by my volume, other competing sounds, the acoustics of the building, etc. However, if I use my cell phone, it can change my voice into an invisible reality that can then be heard and received all over the world (depending on the number I call). But for that to happen my voice has to be transformed into radio waves that we can neither hear nor see without having another cell phone to receive the signal. My voice has to ascend into a different way of being before my wife can then receive my call and hear her telling her that I love her. … Jesus had to ascend in order to be able to be with us. … Though, it is a different way of being with us. This was the gift of the Holy Spirit they were to wait for in Jerusalem.

The way Jesus is with us now is through the Holy Spirit. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost is how Jesus intimately indwelled his followers. The Holy Spirit’s presence with the disciples is Jesus’ presence with the disciples. … Before Jesus taught them from the outside, but now (through the Holy Spirit) Jesus can teach them from the inside.

With the Holy Spirit they receive power. This power will enable them to live and teach what Jesus taught. They will act and speak in Jerusalem, but they won’t be limited by the geography or politics of the nation of Israel. Eventually this teaching will spread to the ends of the earth by the Holy Spirit working through his disciples- generation after generation. This is a mission we have inherited. The Holy Spirit working through Christians has brought us this message, and is now empowering us to deliver it into the world, just as the Holy Spirit has done for 2000 years.

The Book of Acts is sometimes called the “Acts of the Apostles”, but that can be a little misleading. Others have offered to call it the “Acts of the Holy Spirit”, this can be equally misleading. The preacher John Stott suggests the lengthy title “The Continuing Words and Deeds of Jesus by his Spirit through his Apostles”. It is a bit wordy, but it is accurate. I think it would be helpful for us to think of ourselves this way as the church. The church is continuously speaking the words and deeds of Jesus empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus entered as a human being into Heaven, but he has not left us. His presence is different, but he has not left us. The Ascension is about him getting closer to us, not further away. Because of his ascension He hears every quiver of pain in our heart. And he stands as a fellow human being holding our pain and sorrow before God’s open heart. He also pours out on us his healing and power through His Holy Spirit to do his work here.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Living with our roots in the future

My mother in law used to read the end of a mystery novel to figure out if the book was worth reading. … Well, in our reading from Revelation, we get to the end of the story. Revelation is a complicated book. It is so full of symbolism and allusions you really need to have the rest of the Bible in your mind to grasp all of them. For example, our passage today is drawn heavily from Ezekiel 40—48. Throughout the book we see the numbers 12 and 7 and multiplications of 12 and 7. 7 symbolizes perfection and 12 symbolizes a kind of completeness. If the 12 tribes of Israel are present, then they are all there. If the 12 Apostles are present, then they are all there. No one is missing. The number 1000 symbolizes greatness and abundance, so we find 1000 used to multiply with other numbers to show the symbolic greatness. For example, Revelation speaks about people numbering 144,000. That is 12 times 12, which is 144, which is then multiplied by 1000. It is a number meaning everyone is there who is supposed to be there and it is a great number of people. There are jewels and precious materials, which are symbolic of the beauty and splendor of God. It is one of those books that is incredibly powerful and beautiful, but which has also led many into very strange places. So it’s important to remember that Revelation is full of symbolism. We should be careful about reading it literally, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t telling us truth. Some truths are so beyond our comprehension that they have to be conveyed in poetry or symbols.

In our reading, we are at the end of the book of Revelation. It is not speaking about life after death, it is speaking about life after “life after death” (as NT Wright says). This is the end goal. This is the new heaven and the new earth. It is the ultimate healing of creation. In this part of Revelation we see the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth. The popular idea about heaven and earth is that we leave earth and go to heaven, but we see here that the ultimate end of all things is a renewing of creation. We don’t necessarily dwell in heaven for all eternity. We might for a time live in some kind of after death state, but that is not our ultimate end. Our ultimate eternal home is the renewed earth. The Bible talks about resurrection as being our ultimate future, not a disembodied life. The New Jerusalem comes out of heaven to earth. Revelation says Earth will be our ultimate home.

Even through John is speaking very symbolically, I still think he is speaking truth. As Christians we are invited to see this as our future. The early Christians read this and saw this as their future- A future that could never be taken away from them. In the midst of persecution and difficulty it gave them courage to live today. And it has the same power for us. Bishop NT Wright has said, “the genuine Christian hope, rooted in Jesus’ resurrection, is the hope for God’s renewal of all things, for his overcoming of corruption, decay, and death, for his filling of the whole cosmos with his love and grace, his power and glory.” In Revelation John is showing us a vision of that ultimate end.

If this is true, then how does this effect how you live today? If is it true that God’s ultimate end is the renewal of the earth, and that the earth will be our eternal home as the heavenly city descends from heaven to earth, then how does that effect your thinking about species extinction? How does that effect your thoughts about living in balance with the earth?

In Romans 8 Paul says that the creation is groaning in expectation for the children of God to be revealed (8:19,22). The creation is not yearning for its own destruction, but for its renewal and release from the curse. When God renews a human being He does not destroy that human being and then replace them with a new human being. God is renewing you… and he is renewing creation in a similar way. So the way we treat this earthly creation matters because it will be our eternal home. We will have to learn to live with it. We will have to learn to live with it as Adam and Eve were originally intended to- as caretakers, managers, and gardeners.

So if the earth is going to be our eternal home, and it’s not going to be a different planet, but a renewed planet, then what does it mean to live now as if we will have an eternal relationship with the earth and the creatures we share it with? (And, yes, when that eternal kingdom is mentioned, it does mention animals. e.g. “the wolf will lie down with the lamb”- Is 11:6, see also Is 65:25). How can we live now as we will live then, which will be in harmony with creation?

Interestingly, in the New Jerusalem there is no temple. A temple is a place of Divine presence. It says where God is. But, it might also imply where God isn’t. So where is God in this new city if there is no temple? … God is present with His people the way he was present with Adam and Eve in the garden. God is present with his people by indwelling them. The Holy Spirit dwells in the church, the body of Christ (Mt 18:20, 28:20, Jn 4:21, 1 Cor 15:28; 1 Pet 2:4-10).

We also read that there is no night in the city. We shouldn’t think about some city in the arctic where in the summer the sun doesn’t actually set. This is symbolic. The darkness is symbolic. The darkness is when we get surprised, it is when we are afraid. Enemies and dangerous creatures jump out at us from the dark. The light of God fills the city and guides the steps of the inhabitants. God’s light penetrates and dispels all the dark sin that tries to hide in the corners of our lives.

Next we read that the nations will be there (21:24-26). It seems like something of our nationality will remain. The gates to the city will never be shut, which means there is no danger to shut them against. In ancient times you would shut the gates at night to keep your enemy from sneaking in and attacking during the night. In the New Jerusalem human beings have learned to live in peace.

If that is our future, then how does that effect how you live now? If we will be living eternally with other people, what will have to change in our character to make that possible? … If the nations are going to be there and we are going to living peacefully together, then there will be no place for racism. … If we have a tendency to get in fights and then try to avoid those people, do we think that is really a way we can live in the New Jerusalem? Is that in God’s vision? An eternal avoidance, where you stay on your side and I’ll stay on my side and we’ll hope we never meet? No, it is important now that we develop the character to be forgiving and reconciling people because we will need the character to live with each other for all eternity. That is why we have to learn to root out pride and self-centeredness. This is why we need to root out sin and replace it with virtue. The Holy Spirit will it help us with this transformation as we gaze on Christ and the work he has done for us and the example he gave us. But the Holy Spirit will not force us into transformation- Not if we don’t want it, and don’t put energy towards it, and don’t make it a goal of our lives. In verse 27 it says, “But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.” … So if we know we will live eternally with other people, how do we have to live now to prepare for that?

We also read that God will be incredibly present to His people. His presence will be undeniable. We will see by God’s light. God’s light will fill our whole lives. Life giving water will flow from the throne of God (22:1). God will provide the tree of life for food and for healing (22:2). God’s servants will worship Him (22:3) and they will be marked by His name and see God’s face (22:4; Ex 28:36-39).

If that is your future how does that effect how you live now? How do you prepare for that eternity? If God is going to be constantly present to you, how will your life have to change? I heard someone say once that the saints are those who can endure the gaze of God. If we are going to have a very close eternal relationship with God, what will have to change? Does that change how we worship now, or pray now, if we think about it as preparation for eternal intimate relationship with God? … Presumably we are going to have fulfilling work to do in the eternal reality, but there will be no separation from that work and the presence of God. As we work we will be bathed in God’s presence. How do we prepare for that? Surely, thinking about God only on Sunday and forgetting about him the rest of the week won’t prepare us for such a reality. What does it mean to live now preparing for God’s eternal presence in our life? God will be constantly and deeply with us- eternally bathing us in His light. If that is going to be joyful, how do we prepare for that?

The Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas once said that the Christian community “has its roots in the future and its branches in the present”. We are like a tree with our roots planted in the future, and our branches are in the present. We are to live now knowing that that future is secure, and preparing to live in that situation eternally.

The alternative is chilling. If we are destructive to the creation (spitting on the Artist who created it); If we want nothing to do with other people, or we are constantly in some kind of battle with people; If we are constantly trying to avoid God- then what kind of future reality are we preparing for? That sounds like a frightening reality. And one I hope we never get to experience.

As Christians we have our roots in the future. Our Identity is marked by the future promised to us by Christ. Our roots are in the resurrection. Our roots are in Jesus’ victory over sin, evil, and death on the cross. Our roots are planted in the promise of life that will never end. If we really truly believe this, then how will we live now? How will we need to be changed to prepare for living in that reality? May we be so transformed that we learn to live in harmony with our fellow creatures on earth. May we be so transformed that we learn to treat each other as people of the eternal and peaceful kingdom. And may we be so transformed that we learn to feel joy as we endure the eternal loving gaze of God. AMEN

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