Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Word Made Flesh

The Christmas season (which does not end with Christmas day but continues until the Epiphany on January 6th) is a time to ponder the glory of the incarnation. There are few passages of scripture that can help us contemplate this mystery better than John 1:1-18. This passage serves as a prologue or a kind of overture to John's gospel as he alludes here to many of the major themes on which he will elaborate in the chapters that follow.

Of course, as a gospel, one of the book's major themes is christology; that is, to explain who Jesus is. John wastes no time in doing exactly that. Immediately, he introduces Jesus as "the Word" or "logos" in Greek. This term was used extensively in both Greek and Jewish philosophical discussions about God leading up to the time of John's writing. While scholars debate which, if any, of those philosophical notions John is drawing upon here to describe Christ, it can at least be said that John wishes to make the point that Christ is the one who reveals the one true God just as God's word had been his revelation to Israel in the past. Therefore, by designating Jesus as "the Word", John is proclaiming that Jesus is now the revelation of God.

However, John also wishes to make clear that Jesus does not reveal God in the same way that the Law or the prophets revealed God. Jesus is not simply a messenger sent by God. John proclaimes that Jesus is God himself by saying that he existed from the beginning and was always with God and is himself, God (v.1). John has simultaneously distinguished Jesus from God by designating him as "the Word" rather than simply as God but has also resolutely identified Jesus with God by saying that "the Word was God". Therefore, this first verse in the Gospel of John is a forerunner to the doctrine of the Trinity which the Church would not completely spell out until 321 A.D. at the Council of Nicea.

However, even this nuanced statement about "the Word" does not capture everything John wishes to tell us about Jesus. John says in v.14 that this Word also became flesh and dwelt among us. This is perhaps the most remarkable statement of all. The word translated in this verse as "dwelt" is the same root word that the Greek Old Testament (also known as the Septuagint) uses to describe the tabernacle (or tent) in which God traveled with the Israelites before Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, John is saying that in Jesus God has tabernacled among us. God has made human flesh his dwelling place in the way that the tabernacle and the Temple had previously been. Jesus is the full revelation of the God who has made himself present among us.

John uses other metaphors in this prologue that will extend throughout his Gospel as well; primarily those of light and life. Of course, it is fitting to think of these metaphors along with the incarnation of God in human flesh for wherever God's presence goes there darkness will be driven away, what was previously hidden will be exposed to the light, and life will reign. Despite the presence of God's light in the world, John tells us that not everyone recognized Jesus as the light. In fact, many people, even his own people rejected him.

Scattered throughout this intense theological discussion of light and life and the God who has become flesh are intermittent references to John the baptist. In some ways this is to be expected since the other three gospels also mention John near the beginning of the story. However, these mentions of John in v.6-7 and v.15 seem out of place to me. It seems like this passage would read much more smoothly and coherently if these references to the baptist were simply taken out and placed somewhere after v. 19.

Nevertheless, I have to imagine that John the gospel writer had some reason to include these snippets about John the baptist where he did. If nothing else, perhaps these references are placed within the discussion about the Word just to draw a sharper contrast between them. Maybe John wants to proclaim as distinctly as he can that even though John and Jesus are both prophets from God, they are in no way equal. Although Jesus was truly human, there is some sense in which John and Jesus do not exist on the same plane of existence. Both historically and as a literary device in the Gospel of John, John the baptist serves only as a witness to the light. He is not the light himself.

In this way, John the baptist probably serves as a much needed model for the Church today. We likely need to repeat this mantra to ourselves: "We are not the light. We are witnesses to the light." Too often, churches today exist soley for themselves and don't witness or point to anything other than their own growth. Instead, we should have a prophetic voice like John's which constantly points people to the one who is greater than we are. The Church is not going to solve all the world's problems or enforce God's will in the world. We were never meant to do that. We are only meant to be an icon, an embodied witness to the God who loves us so intensely that he took on our own flesh and dwelt among us.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Garments of Salvation

Trying to enter into this week's sermon text (Isaiah 61:10-62:3) is like going back to visit the rapidly changing city where I grew up after having been gone for a while; everything looks familiar but it's surprisingly difficult to find my way around and make sense of it all. The words of this passage are ones used throughout scripture (salvation, righteousness, praise) but they are used in odd ways. The prophet speaks of being clothed in garments of salvation and a robe of righteousness. What exactly does that mean?

Of course, the language here is relatively poetic in nature and therefore, to some degree, refuses to be pinned down to any precise meaning. Instead, this prophetic poetry invites the listeners to expand their concepts of these important biblical words to include a variety of meanings that may not have been considered previously.

In this passage, Isaiah creatively invites his audience to envision salvation and righteousness as clothes that an engaged couple would wear on their wedding day. This is an interesting metaphor considering what follows because those wedding clothes are a symbol of the new reality that will soon exist for that couple. Similiarly, Isaiah says that he has been clothed with salvation and righteousness "For...the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations." The prophet's message, perhaps even his own calling and presence as God's messenger, is a precursor of the salvation that God is about to accomplish. As a result, the prophet can not keep silent until God has established his righteousness and Israel becomes a symbol of God's royalty.

In the context of this passage, this salvation and righteousness has to do with God's deliverance of Israel from exile. Although 62:1 says that it is "her righteousness" and "her salvation", referring to Jerusalem, the context indicates that this has little to do with anything that Israel possesses. Instead, it has everything to do with God's glory which will be revealed when Israel is delivered from captivity. The nations will see Israel's righteousness and glory (62:2) but ultimately this is all to God's glory. It is not Israel's moral qualities that are on display but rather God's ability to deliver.

We too, simultaneously proclaim God's deliverance in Jesus Christ while awaiting that final deliverance upon his return. What might it mean for the Chuch today to raise it's prophetic voice and put on the "garments of salvation"? How might we adorn ourselves in preparation for and proclamation of our day of deliverance? How might our life togheter become a royal diadem in the hand of our God? To answer those questions sincerely will probably mean that we have to think of salvation and righteousness in broader terms, as the prophet invites us to do in this passage.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What's in a house?

In 2 Samuel 7, King David desires to build a house for God. This desire seems reasonable enough. It even seems good and holy on David's part. After all, the passage says that God has given David rest from all of his enemies and David himself dwells in a luxurious palace. So it only seems right that David would want to honor God in some way and one of the normal things a king could do in the ancient world in order to honor a god was to build that god a temple. We often speak with similar language today, believing that the honor we show to our church buildings, which we sometimes refer to as God's house, is one reflection of how highly we honor God. Even the prophet Nathan seems to agree that this is a good idea. God has been with David in everything else he has done so why wouldn't God approve of a pious action like this one? It seems that David can do no wrong.

But then the passage tells us that on that very same night God told Nathan to say to David "Are you the one who should build Me a house to dwell in?" God reminds David through Nathan that he has dwelt in a tent ever since he miraculously delivered the people from their oppression in Egypt and never once did he ask anyone to build a house for him. Furthermore, God is the one who has built up David. Why does David now think that he can build up God? God seems almost angry with David for having even considered the idea of building a house for God. Why does something that appeared to be such a holy and pious act now appear to be almost offensive to God?

Consider what a house represents: permanence, stability, settling down. Jess and I will become home owners tomorrow morning and when we do our fate as a family will be that much more closely tied to the fate of this community. Owning a home is a very physical and financial demonstration that we intend to be here for a while and that the problems and prosperity of Clinton, IL will be our problems and prosperity. We already had a vested interest in this town but now we will in an even more immediate and intimate way.

David knows of all this when he proclaims that he is going to build a house for God. David knows that if he can build a temple for Yahweh in his capital city then this will in some way bind God's honor with the level of peace and prosperity that exists in Israel. What may appear to be a purely sacrificial act to the glory and honor of God may, in fact, be an attempt to tie God down, to bind God's fate with the fate of David's kingdom, even to legitimate David's reign. And God sees right through it. On the one hand, this passage portrays Yahweh as a radically free God who refuses to be limited by a building.

On the other hand, in this passage God practically gives back with one hand what he has taken with the other. God repudiates David for even a hint of trying to manipulate God by building a temple. But even as God says that he will not be held captive by a temple, he makes David another promise. God tells David that he will build a house for David, meaning not a physical structure but a dynasty of descendants who will rule over David's kingdom forever. God has turned the tables on David and instead of allowing David to build a house for God, God is going to build a house for David. Furthermore, God promises that his loving-kindness will never depart from David's descendants. The irony is that in many ways, this promise to David may be just as or even more binding on God than if David had built a temple for God. All in the same word to Nathan, God refuses to be limited by a building but promises to be eternally bound to a people.

Certainly, this is one of the most beautiful realities of the incarnation, of the Christmas story. It is so much more than an adorable little story about a new born in a manger. It is the reality that the almighty God of everything has chosen to be limited by human flesh, to be forever bound to the fate of his creation by becoming one of us. Our radically free God who is capable and free to do whatever he wants, who refuses even the hint of manipulation by his own anointed king, who will not and can not be limited by any power other than his own free choice, freely chooses to be forever constrained by the birth of this child 2000 years ago. The boundless God has forever bound himself to the fate of his people.

What can we say?

other than a humble

"Thanks be to God!"

Saturday, December 13, 2008

16 Random Things About Me

This post has been prompted by a similar note of the same title which I recieved on facebook from a friend. Usually, I'm not inclined to do things like this because I am not particularly clever at thinking up random things about myself that I think other people will find interesting and I usually don't want to put in the extra effort and time to try to make them interesting. At the current time, I definitely have plenty of other things I should be working on: we are in the process of closing on a house and getting ready to move, it is nearing Christmas time and I am pastor, well the list could go on and on. Ironically, it is probably due to the current chaos of my life that I am taking time to do something like this since it gives me some small measure of respite on a Saturday afternoon. Besides, I haven't written anything of a more personal nature on my blog for several weeks now. So here it goes...

1. I love being a daddy. I say this first of all just to reinforce what I said above about not being all that clever when it comes to being random. After all, this is something that all fathers are supposed to say. Nevertheless, there is a bit of randomness to this statement about myself mostly because it was unexpected for me. I never had any idea how much I would love being a father. Of course, I always thought there would be good things about having kids but I knew there would be not such great things too and overall, I was more or less ambivalent about the idea of kids. I wasn't against it. I just figured it would happen eventually and I was in no rush to get there. But now, I look forward to coming home every evening to find out what new and entertaining thing my daughter will do tonight. I love being her daddy.

2. I hate cliches. This comes to mind mostly because I realize how much of a cliche #1 is. But I really, really hate cliches. (I also hate that I don't know how to put the little accent line over the e in that word, only adding to my frustration with the word itself.) I especially hate it when people offer a cliche as if it is the most profound wisdom that has ever been uttered or as the final word on the matter. I find life to be messy, complex, chaotic, and disorganized and it annoys me when people either pretend that its not or just don't recognize it as such.

3. I love hiking but my wife is better at it than I am and we don't get to go nearly enough. I love being outside, especially in relatively remote and peaceful places. I think it is safe to say that I even regard such experiences as a spiritual discipline of sorts. The great thing about hiking is that it is the one athletic thing that my wife absolutely kicks my butt at. I don't know why. I just can't keep up with her. Although, there was this one time when we were hiking and Jess' shoes were hurting her feet so badly that I had to carry her half way down the mountain. I consider that one of the greatest physical feats of my life. Unfortunately, we don't get nearly enough chances to go on real mountainous hikes.

4. I might be the least musical person you'll ever meet. I can't sing. The only instrument I play is my iPod and I probably have fewer songs on it than most people you know. I tried piano when I was a kid but ulitmately decided that music speaks a language that I can barely understand.

5. I am discovering the shaping power of communities. The importance of community and its ability to shape people to be more like Christ is something that I have affirmed theologically for several years now. It was a major theme of my education at Eastern Nazarene College and Nazarene Theological Seminary. But now I feel its importance. I am experiencing the importance of community because I can feel how my current community is shaping me to be a different person than I have been up to this point in my life. Of course, the other communities I've been a part of have shaped me profoundly. Its not that Clinton First Church of the Nazarne is shaping me any more than my family, my home church, ENC, or NTS did although it is shaping me in very determinative ways. Its simply that now having been a part of these different communities I can see how each one has redirected my life and reshaped me as a person immensely. Of course, some of the influence of these communities has to do with other aspects of my life only tangentially related to those communities themselves. For example, being married influenced my time at ENC and NTS, having a daughter has influenced me since being here in Clinton, and my role in each of those communities has been an important factor as well(student vs. pastor). But apart from these life changing factors, I can see how the communities themselves have had and are having a profound impact on who I am.

6. I really enjoy taking pictures, mostly of nature. Although, I can't really say I'm a photographer, not even an amateur one. In that sense, the digital camera, along with its editing software is a good friend of mine. My wife says I have an obsession with taking pictures of the sky.
7. I like pizza, cheeseburgers, and Chipotle burritos way too much. As a result, I am about 40 pounds heavier than I was when I got married. I used to balance my bad eating habits with ridiculous amounts of exercise but as there are more and more demands on my time I find it difficult to exercise as much as I used to. I guess that means my eating habits will have to change eventually.

8. Only half way there and I'm already having trouble thinking of things. My wife is the one who should really be doing this. She just said "I think I would need more than 16."

9. I would really like to see Israel, Greece, and Rome someday. For now, my travel records include only places between Toronto and Belize, the East Coast and Kansas. However, those records will soon include a trip to the Western Carribean which I am excited about.

10. I am unwittingly like a ninja. Completely by accident, I am constantly entering rooms so quietly that I scare people out of their skin when they suddenly realize I am there. My wife and my church secretary are my most frequent victims. If I ever leave the ministry maybe....

11. Actually, if for some strange reason I ever did leave the ministry I have no idea what other career I would find. I've spent the last 8 years of my life studying theology. I don't have any other skills! Good thing I like what I do and I believe its what God has called me to.

12. I can throw a frisbee further than you would think a frisbee could be thrown.

13. I enjoy reading and learning for learning's sake. I don't feel like everything I learn has to be immediately relevant or pragmatic, especially when it comes to theology. I think the most profoundly true thoughts that I've read or heard are the ones that may initially apear to be esoteric abstractions but actually turn out to have vast implications for the Church and the Christian life. Of course, some of those esoteric abstractions are just worthless distractions and vain words that have to be sifted through to find the real gems. Often, I enjoy the process of sifting as much as the gems themselves because there is learning in both.

14. I once averaged 19 points a game in a pretty competitive January term basketball league in college. The next year I was horrible but I was on a really good team and we won the championship. Both experiences were fun.

15. I hate Wal-mart! For a lot of different reasons too. Unfortunately, I find it to be a necessary part of my existence.

16. Every year, it seems like I feel more and more acutely aware of how badly our world needs for God's kingdom to come.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Church and Social Justice

I won't be preaching this week because we are having the children's Christmas musical in our morning service. However, if I were preaching this week the sermon text would be Isaiah 61. One of the very last papers I wrote while I was in seminary was on this passage along with its quotation in Luke 4. In this paper, I elaborate on how I believe these passages should inform the participation of the Church in causes of social justice in our world. I have decided to post that paper here in place of my usual reflections on the sermon text for the week. You can download the paper at the link below.

An Anointed, Spirit Filled Community of Righteousness

Monday, December 1, 2008

Deliver Us From Exile

The words of Isaiah 40:1-11 are a message of comfort and hope in a time of tragedy and exile. The people of Israel and Judah have been deported from their homeland by the nations of Assyria and Babylon. However, more than merely a military-political act of the nations, the prophets tell us that this exile was a theological matter, brought about by God because of the sins of his people. In Isaiah 40, we find that this time of exile is coming to an end. God seeks to comfort his people and he tells them that their punishment is over; their penalty has been paid.

As a result, a voice calls out saying "Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness". This path is being cleared in the desert that lies between Israel's homeland and their current residence in Babylon. It will be the path of God's coming to their rescue as well as the path of exodus for the people from their captivity. V.5-8 say that "Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed" and that "all flesh is like grass...the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever". In other words, the return of God's people from exile is a testament to God's glory and God's faithfulness. It shows that his promises to his people were not thwarted when Assyria and Babylon took Israel and Judah into exile. Although it appeared that these kingdoms were in control of Israel's fate, these nations actually sprout up and then fade away like grass or flowers that are here one day and gone the next. These nations, the most powerful in the region at that time, were only serving God's word which stands forever. His promises to his people far out live the lifespan of these kingdoms and nations. Therefore, Israel is now to proclaim the good news that God reigns and that he will once again guide and care for his people like a shepherd.

V.3 of this passage (combined with a verse from Malachi) is quoted in the gospel reading for this week (Mark 1:1-8), the second Sunday of Advent. The way that Mark uses this quotation at the beginning of his gospel is extremely significant. This is because Mark clearly intends for John the Baptist to be understood as the one who is preparing the way for the Lord since he goes on to talk about John preaching in the wilderness immediately after the quotation. This, in turn, is significant not so much because of what it says about John the Baptist but because of what it says about Jesus since Jesus is the one for whom John is preparing the way. Therefore, by quoting this verse from Isaiah (along with the one from Malachi), Mark has already called Jesus Lord, a titled reserved for Yahweh, the one true God of Israel, within the first few verses of his gospel. Mark has proclaimed Jesus as "the Lord" of Isaiah 40, the Lord who delivered Israel from exile, without stating it in such explicit terms. Instead, he has invited those in his audience who know the story of Israel to see Jesus in light of that story; even to see Jesus as the one who delivers Israel from its exile under Rome in his own time.

In many ways, God's people continue to live in a kind of exile today. For some Christians around the world, this exile takes on a very real, political form in that they are a small minority in their own nation and they often suffer for their faith as a result. However, even here in America, when the Church is truly being the Church, we find ourselves in a certain kind of exile. That exile certainly does not come in the political form that it does for others since we hold a considerable influence as a large constituency within our democracy. But when we refuse to be defined by the politics of our nation and instead commit ourselves to being defined by our life in Christ, we begin to realize that the values of our nation, our culture, and our political parties are not and will never be Christian values. Compared to our culture, Christ has some very strange things to say about how we should use our money, live out our sexuality, and spend our time. So in this way, even the Church in America finds itself in exile. Like Israel, we are in need of deliverance from a land that is not our true home.

Therefore, we can take the words of Isaiah 40 to heart. Although they were written as words of comfort to a people in exile about 2500 years ago, they speak words of hope to our current exile as well. The same God whose word did not fail then is still faithful to deliver us today as well. So we continue to look forward to his coming kingdom and the deliverance of all of creation from its exile in sin.