Category Archives: Prophecy

Letter 57: O Come O Come Emmanuel

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, which marks the beginning of the Church’s celebration of Christmas. Of course, outside of church, the Christmas season started over a month ago, before Halloween. So this seems to me to be a good time to ponder how one might celebrate the coming of the Christ Child.
If you feel a certain disconnect between the usual festivities and a sense of religious observance or devotion, you’re not alone. This is a very old problem. Every year since 1965, Charlie Brown has bemoaned the empty feeling the flurry of festivities brings on. In 1953, singer Red Foley was urging listeners to “Keep Christ in Christmas.” My Puritan ancestors believed that the Christmas festivities were nothing more than popish superstitions, and dispensed with the holiday completely.
The problem stems, I think from Christmas’s origins. I do not mean the actual Incarnation and Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem. Today, it’s not very clear what the earliest Christians thought about commemorating this event. Christmas as we know it today starts with the Emperor Constantine. Attributing his successful pretensions to the throne of Rome to God’s favor, Constantine became a Christian, and decided that everyone else should to, by naming Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.
This obviously caused some significant dislocation for many people, who may not have given much thought to paganism, but dutifully went through with the established patterns of religious observance. If nothing else some of the old celebrations were fun, often involving feasting and drink and sex.
One of the largest celebrations was the Saturnalia, six days of eating, drinking and partying, in celebration of freedom. It was timed around the winter solstice, which would be the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and thanks to the comparatively colder temperatures, a time when fresh food too longer to spoil. Since there was little agricultural work to be done this time of year, it was a good time for a real celebration. By government order all schools and businesses were shut during the six days of the festival.
This was heady stuff, much loved by people of all stations. And now they would be asked to give this up.
It was thought best to “Christianize” Saturnalia, by drawing out some of its more universal aspects, and now tying them to Christ. Nearly all peoples had a celebration at the winter’s solstice, celebrating the return of light to the world. Jesus declared Himself “The Light of the World,” and so it became a straightforward matter to name this time the celebration of His coming to earth. The gift-giving now echoed the Magi, and the sense of equality and fun was now grounded in our identity and freedom in Christ.
And so the party continued, but now with a tension.
We like giving gifts, mostly because we like getting gifts. As a child, I timed my desires around the twin poles of Christmas and my birthday. Thankfully, they were sufficiently spaced out to make this possible. I loved the food of Christmas, too, the candy and cookies, the departure from the usual fare.
But when I think about what it is we are supposed to be celebrating, I find a disconnect, particularly when I read many of the familiar Bible passages. Indeed, if I were to summarize what the Bible has to say about Advent and Christmas, it would be this: “The King is coming, Get ready!”
“For just as the days of Noah were, so the coming of the Son of Man will be. For as in the days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered into the ark. And they did not know anything until the deluge came and swept them all away. So also the coming of the Son of Man will be. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore be on the alert, because you do not know what day your Lord is coming!” Matthew 24:37-42 (LEB)
So I think it is helpful to separate what we might term “secular” Christmas celebrations from “religious” or devotional observances. Gift-giving, decorations, cookies, and parties are all fine, but they do nothing to prepare us for the coming of the King. It is also helpful to realize that not everyone is going to agree with that secular-religious distinction. We have gotten far too bothered about how other people celebrate, or do not celebrate, Christmas. If we are serious about following Jesus, we would do better, by far, to ask how he wants us to prepare for His coming.
So, over the next few weeks, I want to spend some time thinking about this. How do we get ready?

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Filed under Advent, christmas, Holdiays, prayer, Prophecy, treatment of others, Worship

Letter 53: Snow

White, white everywhere

On the ground and in the air

White fingers greedily tapping on my windowpanes

Devouring, covering, shielding

Silent as the grave

Nestling all in its own little world

The wind howls, but it is soon lost

In a swirl of white

Penetrating into the remotest cracks

Striving in this deadest time of year to say,

“See, I make all things new.”

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Letter 52: Christmas Is Scary

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
    he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
    foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
    they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
    and in their glory you shall boast.
Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
    instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
    they shall have everlasting joy.

Isaiah 61:1-7 (ESV)

This was amongst the readings this year in our Advent devotional.  I’ve read it many times before, as part of our Christmas preparations.  This year, a phrase from verse two burst from the page.  In all my years of hearing or reading this passage, I had never seen it before: to proclaim the day of vengeance of our God.

This is not an aspect of the Christmas story I’m used to hearing.  It is hard, after all, picturing the traditional image of the Infant in the manger with the vengeance of God.  But it is there.  In fact, as we continued with our readings, I kept finding that undercurrent of danger popping up.  Do we know what we are proclaiming?

The one response that seems to have gripped everyone that first Christmas is fear.  No one comes away unscathed.

The Old Testament prophets looked upon the coming of a Messiah with hope, but also an acute awareness that God’s people had all to often blown it.  Messiah is an answer to prayer, as well as a rebuke.

Zechariah is struck dumb, which created no small problem for him as a priest.  (Luke 1:18-22)  Priests after all, were to represent the people before God, which required speaking words.  He could no longer serve, until he affirmed the instructions God had given him.  Mary, too, is troubled.  The world did not take kindly to unwed mothers, and she would have to endure the rigors of her pregnancy largely alone.  Her body is literally taken over by God, swelling day by day.  (Luke 1:29)

Joseph alone seems to have borne the news with something like equanimity, but of course the risks were pretty obvious.  He’s told to marry a woman suspiciously pregnant, and assume parentage over a child of dodgy origins, sacrificing his dreams and business for promise, one he will never see fulfilled.

The angels are terrifying.  Our romantic Victorian imagery doesn’t do them justice.  Why are they so scary?  What are we trying to hide with our iconography?

The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) riffs on these theme, and reveals why Christmas is so scary.  God regards the poor and humble, and remembers his covenant with Israel. He scatters, He tears down, and lifts up, echoing Isaiah 40:4.  What is this describing but an earthquake?  The hungry are filled, but the well-to-do are sent away empty.  What if we are deemed rich?

That is the scary thing.  We do not know, and the coming Messiah promises to expose all things (Luke 2:35).  Paul speaks of God as a fire that will burn through our lives and deeds, stripping away the chaff with which we surround ourselves, laying bare our essence.

Traditionally, Advent was time for the Church to look ahead to the Second Coming, having just celebrated the Feast of Christ the King, even as it was looking back toward Christ’s First Coming.  I think they caught that sense of danger in his Coming, that God is out to judge both his friends and our enemies, even as He brings peace, hope and healing.  May we recover something of that this holiday season.

Lo, he comes with clouds descending,
once for favored sinners slain;
thousand, thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at naught and sold him,
pierced and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.

The dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears;
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture,
gaze we on those glorious scars!

Yea, Amen! Let all adore thee,
high on thy eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
claim the kingdom for thine own.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Everlasting God, come down!

  • Charles Wesley

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Letter 39: A Fourth of July Oration

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“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippians 3:20 (NRSV)

On August 24, 410 A.D., an army of Visigoths under Alaric I, sacked Rome.  Few events have portended so much.  Rome’s citizens were left with only their lives with the Visigoths were through.  Rome had sat inviolate for over a thousand years.  Her armies had brought stability, order and security throughout the Mediterranean world.  Now all that was gone.  Writing from Bethlehem, the translator St. Jerome declared “The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.”  In his wake, Alaric left a new world of fear and uncertainty.

Many questioned the Empire’s switch to Christianity.  Could the old gods be angry?  Still others saw the collapsing world around them, and looked for someone, anyone really, who could offer them the old security.  From across the Mediterranean came a firm voice that offered a final coda from the ancient world to stand as a bulwark against the rising tide of barbarism.  Addressing the crisis of his time, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, gave the world his magnum opus, De Civitate Dei, The City of God.

Now the great crisis of the Fifth Century will seem far removed from our own day, and a subject entirely inappropriate for a commemoration of Independence Day.  Yet, its lessons stand as an important reminder to us of our obligations as citizens, and concerning the nature and role of government.  On this day we celebrate our freedom.  Let us remember what a frail things freedom is, that we would use it well.

As Augustine saw it, the world was a dangerous place.  As Christians, Augustine reminded his readers that they were first and foremost, the people of God, and ultimately the citizens of His City.  He was quite aware, however, that we had yet to possess this city.  For now, he wrote, we live in the City of Man, which is at war with the City of God.  As such, we are by nature aliens and strangers in this world.  Our hope lies elsewhere.

Jeremiah 29 records a letter the prophet sent to the Jews taken into exile by the Babylonians.  Israel had linked its religious identity with their political identity.  To be a revived people of God, they must then become a revived nation.  But here they were in exile, in a strange land, with strange customs, subject to other authority.

Jeremiah disabuses them of these hopes.  They will remain in exile for seventy years.  Instead of pining for a lost nation, and hoping for what cannot be, he urges them to settle in to their new surroundings, lay down roots, raise families, and flourish where they are.  Jeremiah goes further, urging the exiles to pray for the welfare of the cities where they now reside, and intercede with the Lord on its behalf. (Jer. 29:7)

He makes the point that their identity as God’s people is not dependent on whether there is a Jewish nation.  They can be God’s people where they are, if they embrace the tension this creates.  He urges us to engage our neighbors, from a position of exile.  Here furthermore grounds these efforts in the hope and knowledge that God remains in control, and that He has a plan that is unfolding. (v. 10-11)

The tension should inform our lives as citizens.  Too often, we head to one extreme of another.  We can withdraw, deciding that the world is too evil, and await the coming Kingdom.  Or we can wrap the Cross with an American flag, and confuse our home with our salvation.

God does use purely secular authorities.  Isaiah 45 sings of the Persian emperor Cyrus as God’s instrument.  Similarly, God explains how he used the Babylonians to carry out His work.  Indeed, it is Caesar’s need for more taxes that brings the pregnant virgin to Bethlehem to fulfil prophecy.  As the Psalmist says, even man’s wrath praises Him.  (Ps. 76:10)

So how are we to live our lives here?  We live here, but the ground of our being lies elsewhere.

At least we should follow Jeremiah’s instructions, to build a life here, to not hold back, but we should also hold up a mirror, shining God’s light on this darkened world.  We should be prophetic voices, reminding the world of God’s justice, and seeking to bring our world as close to that vision as we can, even while realizing that we shall always fall short.

But we do not despair, in this, the country of our exile. For all the celebrations and gnashing of teeth, we too often lose sight of this tremendous truth, that we are citizens of heaven, and from thence comes our salvation.

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Letter 30: Preaching Angry

I am preaching tomorrow from John 11. I’m not supposed to say anything about it, les people decide to stay home because Pastor’s not preaching. But I’d be reticent to say much of anything even if it had no bearing on attendance. I’m preaching angry Sunday.

It’s not typical for me, and certainly anything but typical for our church. But the words need to be said, and it scares me. They’ve been pounding about in my head and my heart ever since I first read them two weeks ago. I’ve thought twice about delivering them, and then thought about them some more. But they will not go away.

I’m scared that the people will not understand, or worse, that they will go sailing past the congregation, who will smile nicely, nod their heads, tell me how powerful the Word was this Sunday, and continue as if I hadn’t said a word.

On only two other occasions have I felt something in me struggling to come out, that I had to get out, lie I had to speak before the force shook me off my feet. It was painful. Just getting the word out was terrifying. But I had to. I think this is what some of the Old Testament prophets must have experienced, only I’m not prophet. Far from it.

This time, though, I am confronting a congregation I wish to call to task. Many times over the past months, people have told me that they want to see signs and wonders, that we should be seeking these things. Something in me recoils at hearing this. We misplace our emphasis from the giver to the gifts.

But this is not easy to say, especially given some of things I am told we will be doing during the service. So I am nervous.

O Lord, speak through my words to Your People. Speak clearly, speak directly. May they hear what you have pressed so firmly upon me. May I not get in the way. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight o Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.HW1872P1024B130

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Letter 22: How Would Jesus Drive

Chesterton once observed that, “The only Christian doctrine for which there is empirical evidence is that of original sin.” One needed only to pick up the newspaper and read. Of course, these days, very few people actually read a physical newspaper, but you can readily substitute television or news-feeds. Or, you can simply go for a drive during rush hour.

Over the years I have heard a number of discussions on Christianity, all attempting to answer the question, “What would Jesus drive?” That is not my concern. My question is much more practical and relevant: “How would Jesus drive?”

Driving to work last week, I was reminded of a passage from Ezekiel:

The Lord God says to you, My flock: I am going to judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and male goats. Isn’t it enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of the pasture with your feet? Or isn’t it enough that you drink the clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Yet My flock has to feed on what your feet have trampled, and drink what your feet have muddied. Ezekiel 34:17-19 (HCSB)

Do you see rush hour traffic in this description?

I could offer an answer to the question I posed, but I think it better to leave you to answer it.

“Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey.” Ezekiel 34:20-22a (ESV)china-traffic_2356349b

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Letter 11: The Gift of of Being a Church Janitor – A Defense of Cessationism

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I am interrupting my reflections on worship to spend a few moments responding to the sermon I heard this past Sunday. It was on the Person of the Holy Spirit. In general, it was an excellent summary of the Third Person of the Trinity, focused mostly on what the Holy Spirit does in the life of the Believer. Our preacher, like many in our congregation came from a Cessationist background, which he bluntly described as teaching the “Father, Son, and Holy Bible.” While this is probably a fair reflection of many churches in this country, I believe it does a disservice to those churches, as it is a reflection more of the poverty of their theological education, than their actual teachings and tradition. So, while not holding to every tenet of Cessationism, I thought it worthwhile to put forward a defense of Cessationism’s teachings on the Holy Spirit.

Cessationism was adopted by the Church fairly early on in response to a series of heresies that lay great emphasis on the immediate workings of God though the Holy Spirit on the believer, in such a fashion as to trump or contradict the teachings of the Church. This has actually been a continual issue within the Church, down to the present day. How does one respond to the person who claims to have heard directly from God?

Cessationism took as its starting point the decision to establish the canon of Scripture. This, too, was in response to several heresies. The Church took the position that the greater revelations of God were contained within the bounds of the canon. There was no need for further revelation, as we could now turn to Scripture. The Church took to heart Jesus’s warning at the end of Revelation that nothing should be added or removed from the written Word of God.

While those who emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit argue that the Church from this point denied the various gifts and the associated signs and wonders, this flies in the face of history. Certainly any history of the medieval church is full of tales of miraculous healings. Moreover, there were numerous men and women who rose up to speak with a prophetic voice. Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Savarnarola, John Wesley, Martin Luther King, Jr., amongst others, come to mind as examples of the continuation of prophecy in the Church, as they spoke God’s word to the Church and the times.

In the main, the Church has seen the Spirit’s presence and work as a much more subtle effort. The Spirit works through Scripture, for example, bringing it to mind, and applying it to our lives as we read or hear it proclaimed. The Spirit serves as God’s approval and empowerment of our work to advance His Kingdom. The Spirit is a tangible reminder to us of our salvation. The Spirit’s presence enlivens our souls, quickens our hearts, and by God’s grace empowers to become the people God has called us to be. As often as not, it does this work over time.

What a Cessationist would not do is focus on the gifts. Once you’ve dug through the underlying theology, it clear that Cessationists believe that the Spirit is very much active in the world today, and is a necessary player in all Christian endeavors. The difference, in part, is in emphasis. The gifts are adjuncts to the Church’s mission. Luke describes the gifts as the power needed to carry out our role as heralds and witnesses. (Luke 24:47-49; Acts 1: 4, 6-8) Without actually carrying out the work of the church, the gifts have no value.

A related concern is that as presented, Spirit-Seeking churches tend to dwell on only a few gifts, namely prophecy, healing, and tongues. They may admit to others, but say very little about them, which can lead to a lopsided church, which struggles to minister fully. While Cessationists may give short shrift to prophets, they do recognize a much broader range of gifts and ministries. We are encouraged to pray for the gift of tongues or prophecy, but does anyone pray to receive the gift of serving as a Nursery worker or church janitor? The Church needs all of them.

Our focus, then should be on the mission, trusting that God will bless our efforts with his power. Too often we stop short of this. We are called to be the people of God, making disciples of all people, and teaching them everything taught by Christ, much as we ourselves are to be transformed by them. That is the true measure of our faith. Many will speak that day of the miracles they wrought and the prophecies delivered, and the tongues spoken, to whom Christ will deliver the final verdict: “I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity [disregarding my commands].” (Matt. 7:22-23).

May that not be the verdict on us.

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