Monday, December 31, 2012

Found You! (Gods Among Us)

*Knock,* *Knock,* *Knock,* "Found you!"

Thor is filled with good humor and great scenes. Few of them beat the look of giddy joy, excitement, and enthusiasm on Volstagg's face as he announces that they have found their old friend, Thor.

With warm hearts and strong determination, the Warriors Three along with Lady Sif left their homestead, Asgard, directly against Loki (the ruling king)'s orders. They were willing to search every inch of Earth until they could be reunited with their loyal and trusted friend, the one who has led them into various battles and has always been on their side, Thor the son of a god.

One thing Dr. Gibbs along with a good amount of other theologians and commentators emphasize is the fact that the (three?) "wise men" were not necessarily that wise. The Greek word here magi (μαγοι), would be better-understood as scientists, astronomers, sorcerers, sages, or even magicians. These wise guys were people known to be educated, especially in their respective fields. But, as many others insist, that isn't the point. These guys were nothing more than our friends above.

They were doing what they do (studying whatever they study) until a light bulb went off. The technical term for this is "epiphany." Which is a lot like "eureka" ("I found it!"), but passive ("It has been revealed to me!"). These men were not wise enough to find God on their own accord, but needed Him to be shown to them (by a giant spot-light in the sky).

Still, the journey misses the point. The glorification of these gentlemen is a shot in the dark. Rationalizing their true and original intent misses the mark. The point, the straight arrow, the solid shot to the bulls-eye, is who God had led these wise guys to, someone who is even more than the human title of "ruler" and "shepherd" could hope to explain.

The awe, wonder, and amazement that these men must have found as they fell on their faces, worshiping their Lord who had revealed Himself to them was only preceded by extreme joy.

In fact, Matthew says that when they saw the star standing above the place where the child was they eckareisan karan megalein sphodra (εχαπησαν χαραν μεγαλην σφοδρα) this means something like "they were exceedingly cheerful magnifying greatly." These four words in themselves seem to fail to express their excitement of finally knowing their Lord (let alone make the translation).

And, we have even more reason to rejoice. At this time of year, while we think of the incarnation of God, the witnesses, and the history we also know the Word, the reason, and the purpose for His arrival. "For the joy that was set before him [He] endured the cross," "a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." It was even before His lowly birth that He knew His prophesied death. And, he took on the challenge with courage, humility, and compassion.

With a warm heart and strong determination, He left His proper homestead, to be the Savior of Earth so that He could reunite us with Him. He is our loyal and trusted friend. He is the One who has promised to never leave us nor forsake us in our own battles with sin. He has always been and will always be on our side. He is the Christ, the Son of God.

So, we know, with the joy of the warriors and the sages, that God not only arrived here on Earth to reveal himself to us. But, also with a deeper purpose, to redeem us: To save us from ourselves and make us more like Him so "that we should be called children of God."

It is not with only a sort of guilt or horror that we remember the story, but with the sudden warmth of joy and excitement.

Now, rejoice with the cheerfulness of the wise men and the giddiness of Volstagg!!! Rejoice knowing that He has come with purpose, with salvation, and with hope!!! Rejoice for we know that He is God!!!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Life, Death, and Incarnation (Slice)

"The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is one of the world’s largest maximum-security prisons, an eighteen-thousand acre habitat to people who have committed horrible crimes. It houses roughly five thousand inmates, more than half of which are serving life sentences. Death looms large at Angola; ninety-four percent of inmates who enter are expected to die while incarcerated. The fear of dying alone in prison, coupled with the reality that for many inmates their first encounter with death was committing murder, makes death a weighted subject, often locked up in anger, guilt, and dread.

For a few inmates, however, the Angola Hospice volunteer program has drastically changed this. In 1998, equipped with a variety of staff trustees and inmate volunteers, the LSP hospice opened its doors to its first terminally ill inmate. Today it is recognized as one of the best programs of its kind. Giving inmate volunteers a role in the creation of the hospice and the primary care during the dying process, inmates find themselves in the position to tangibly affect the lives of others for good. Reckoning with death as a fate that awaits all of humanity as they care for dying friends and strangers, prisoners gradually let go of hardened demeanors. One inmate notes, “I’ve seen guys that used to run around Angola, and want to fight and drug up, actually cry and be heartbroken over the patient.”(1) Another describes being present in the lives of the dying and how much this takes from the living. “But it puts a lot in you,” he adds. A third inmate describes how caring for strangers on the brink of death has put an end to his lifelong anger and helped him to confront his guilt with honesty.

It may seem for some an odd story as a means of examining the story of Christmas, but in some ways it is the only story to ever truly introduce the story of Christmas: broken, guilty souls longing for someone to be present. As martyred archbishop Oscar Romero once said, it is only the poor and hungry, those most aware they need someone to come on their behalf, who can celebrate Christmas. For the prisoners at Angola who stare death in the eyes and realize the tender importance of presence, for the child whose mother left and whose father was never there, for the melancholic soul that laments the evils of a fallen world, the Incarnation is the only story that touches every pain, every lost hope, every ounce of our guilt, every joy that ever matters. Where other creeds fail, Christmas, in essence, is about coming poor and weary, guilty and famished to the very scene in history where God reached down and touched the world by stepping into it.

The Incarnation is hard to dismiss out of hand because it so radically comes near our needs. Into the world of lives and deaths, the arrival of Christ as a child turns fears of isolation, weakness, and condemnation on their heads. C.S. Lewis describes the doctrine of the Incarnation as a story that gets under our skin unlike any other creed, religion, or theory. “[The Incarnation] digs beneath the surface, works through the rest of our knowledge by unexpected channels, harmonises best with our deepest apprehensions… and undermines our superficial opinions. It has little to say to the man who is still certain that everything is going to the dogs, or that everything is getting better and better, or that everything is God, or that everything is electricity. Its hour comes when these wholesale creeds have begun to fail us.”(2) Standing over the precipices of the things that matter, nothing matters more than that there is a loving, forgiving, eager God who draws near.

The great hope of the Incarnation is that God comes for us. God is present and Christ is aware, and it changes everything. “[I]f accepted,” writes Lewis, “[the Incarnation] illuminates and orders all other phenomena, explains both our laughter and our logic, our fear of the dead and our knowledge that it is somehow good to die,…[and] covers what multitudes of separate theories will hardly cover for us if this is rejected.”(3) The coming of Christ as an infant in Bethlehem puts flesh on humanity’s worth and puts God in humanity’s weakness. To the captive, there is no other freedom."

--Jill Carattini

(1) Stephen Kiernan, Last Rights (New York: St Martin’s Press, 2006), 274.
(2) C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 282.
(3) Ibid.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Treasures in Darkness (Slice)

"Those of us who make our home in the Northern Hemisphere must welcome the encroaching darkness of the winter months. At the height of winter in Kotzebue, Alaska, for example, daylight is but a mere two hours. Where I live, the light begins to recede around 4:30 PM. When the winter sun is out it simply rides the southern horizon with a distant, hazy glow.

Perhaps it seems strange to some, but I love the shorter-days and the darkening skies of winter. For me, the darkness of winter invokes nostalgia for the days of huddling around the fireplace with hot coffee and curling up with a good book. Indeed, there are some gifts that can only be enjoyed in the darkness of winter and in this season of lessening light.

Of course, darkness and night evoke ominous images as well. Pre-Christian inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere—who did not separate natural phenomenon from their religious and spiritual understanding—saw the departing sunlight as the fleeing away of what they believed was the Sun God. Darkness indicated a loss of hope, absence and cessation of life.(1) Like it did for these ancient peoples, darkness creates fear. We are afraid of what we cannot see in the dark, and what is seen inhabits the mysterious realm of shadows. Darkness has always represented chaos, evil, and death, and therefore is rarely thought of in either romantic or nostalgic terms.

For many individuals—even those who live in sun-filled hemispheres—the darkness of life is a daily nightmare. Despair, chronic loneliness, doubt, and isolation conspire to prevent even the dimmest light. The darkness that comes only as a visitor during the night is for many a perpetual reality. Is there any reason to hope that the light might be found even in these dark places? Are there any gifts that can be received here?

It is not by accident that the season of Advent coincides with the earthly season of fading light and increasing darkness. With its focus on waiting, repentance, and longing, Christians view Advent as a season of somber reflection. Yet, even as the light recedes in winter, the season of Advent bids all to come and find surprising gifts in the shorter days, in the womb of pregnant possibility, and in the anxious anticipation that accompanies waiting in the darkness. Those pre-Christian peoples who watched their sun-god disappear found that there were gifts that could be had even in this dark season. They took the wheels off of their carts, and decorated them with greens and garlands, hanging them on their walls as mementos of beauty and hope. Taking the wheels off of their carts meant the cessation of work and a time to watch and wait. As Gertrud Muller Nelson writes about this ancient ritual, “Slowly, slowly they wooed the sun-god back. And light followed darkness. Morning came earlier. The festivals announced the return of hope after primal darkness.”(2)

While the dark is mysterious and often ominous, it is also a place of unexpected treasures. As one author notes, “[S]pring bulbs and summer seeds come to life in the unlit places underground. Costly jewel stones lie embedded in the dark interiors of ordinary rocks. Oil, gas, and coal reserves lie far beneath the light of the earth’s surface. The dark depths of the ocean teem with life.”(3) Indeed, unique gifts from earth, sky, and sea can only be observed in the dark.

Spiritual gifts often emerge out of the darkness as well. The writer of Genesis paints a picture of the Spirit of God hovering over the primordial chaos and the darkness that covered the surface of the deep. Out of the darkness of chaos came the light of creation. The covenant promises of God to give children and land to Abram were forged “when the sun was going down…and terror and great darkness fell upon him” (Genesis 15:12). Moses received the Law in the “thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21; Deuteronomy 5:22). God’s abiding presence was the gift from the darkness. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, the God of Israel promises: “I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name” (Isaiah 45:3). Indeed, the long-awaited Messiah would be revealed to those “who walk in darkness” and who “live in a dark land” (Isaiah 9:2).

For those who dwell in the dark season of despair or discouragement, for those who are afraid in the dark, and for those who grope in the darkness, the promise of treasures of darkness may spark a light of hope. “The recovery of hope,” writes Muller Nelson, “can only be accomplished when we have had the courage to stop and wait and engage fully the in the winter of our dark longing.”(4)

The hope of Advent is that God is in the darkness with us even though our experience of God may seem as clear as shifting shadow. The hope of Christmas is that God’s coming near to us in the person of Jesus is not hindered by the darkness of this world, or of our own lives. We may fear our dark despair hides us from God, but the treasure of God’s presence awaits us even there—for the darkness... [becomes] light... [with] God. And today, light has come!"

--Margaret Manning

(1) Gertrud Muller Nelson, To Dance With God: Family Ritual and Community Celebration (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press), 63.
(2) Ibid., 63.
(3) Sally Breedlove, Choosing Rest: Cultivating a Sunday Heart in a Monday World(Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 133.
(4) Gertrud Muller Nelson, 63.

Friday, December 21, 2012

God on Earth (Gods Among Us)

"If his [David's] children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my rules,
if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with stripes."

"Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see
and be satisfied."

"He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law."

"I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me."

Yes!!! Finally, the Israelites have waited so long, ever since Genesis 3:15 (the Protogospel), "He [the Savior, one of Eve's offspring] shall bruise your [Satan's] head." It's about time!! They can finally bring on the pain to that grotesquely crooked, sin-fetishy snake that had tricked them into diving head-first into a world of pain, suffering, and death. They have waited ever since before the flood, before Abraham, and before Moses for this warlord Savior to be born!!! Now, it's time.

Well, at least, that's what many of the Jews and particularly the Zealots (who wanted to overthrow the Roman government) thought. And, can you really blame them? The Jews have been ostracized, enslaved, and killed off. Very few of them knew any safe place to call home let alone lived in a government that they could be proud of. And, as promised above, people are going to pay. God's wrath will finally come down on their enemies. With a leader who "will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth," someone who "will not be disgraced," with a face "like a flint," who will not be "put to shame," who beckons his enemies on, wanting a fight, the Jews are finally going to have their Kingdom of Heaven... here, on Earth.

This king whom they pictured was exactly like Thor screaming high into the heavens, ready for an adversary. He is a mighty warrior and die-hard fighter. He can overpower his enemies with just a whim and anyone would be fearless in battle if only they were led by him. In fact, he is a god and he has led many other gods into battle. His might is enough to make his enemies shutter and his strength should cause them to faint. He is "the picture of everything the ideal person ought to aspire to be... confident, daring, resourceful, and powerful. He is well-spoken, clever, and talented." Wait, that last sentence was a quote from BROKEN. And, it wasn't referring to God, and it wasn't referring to a good leader, preacher, teacher, or even a saint. It was referring to Satan (page 230).

There's something wrong here.

Isn't this who the Israelites wanted? Isn't this who they needed? Who else could redeem them? How else could they be able to defeat the world? What type of leader are they supposed to wait for? This can't be Satan. Fisk must be wrong. What else does he have to say? "It's not that heroes are bad ideas. It's that the kind of heroes we most admire are bad ideas." Great, now he's thrown all of our heroes out the window... "The humanity inside us sees in Satan exactly the kind of person each of us wishes we could be when the countless trials of life come barreling down: a winner. Each of us has a desire to change the world, to make it be the way we think it should be. We each want to find deep inside ourselves the will and power to refuse to let life be any other way.... From the first breath... our thoughts are about getting out of the hole and fixing whatever we find that needs to be fixed." And, now he's against fixing things?

Alright, I admit, I haven't been completely honest with you. Just like the calf-worshipers in the desert, the Jews and Zealots had missed a big part of the story. Whether it was by short-term memory loss, selective hearing, or just plain stupidity, these guys had once again forgot most of what God had said. They hadn't been completely honest with themselves. And, they were waiting for someone who doesn't exist.

They had forgotten that the Psalm above, the one punishing those who had forsaken God's law, finished by saying "But, I will not remove from him [those same people] my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant.... His offspring shall endure forever." This whole chapter is about the Lord's steadfast love and insists upon God's eternal promise to take care of His children, Israel. He loves them even though they betray Him. He loves them even though they do not recognize Him. He loves them even though they deserve His eternal wrath and condemnation. And, in this same covenant, God has promised to Israel, through the house and line (the offspring) of David, that a Savior will come. A Savior will be born to make their lives endure forever.

But, the Jews had forgotten. They had focused on the punishment instead of God's steadfast love. They missed the bigger picture. And, it only got worse when the Lord tried to explain things further. The other verses above are from some of the prophecies in Isaiah. They depict the Lord's Chosen Servant, the Savior, the Anointed One, the one the Jews had longed for.

Instead of realizing what these prophecies meant, their hearts were in the wrong place. They were still trying to bring Heaven to Earth. It is true, Isaiah 42 is about a man who "will not grow faint or be discouraged until he has established justice." But, it is also about a man who is God's servant, a man who "Will not cry aloud or [even] lift up his voice." It's about a man who will not even break a "bruised reed" or quench a "burning wick." Today we would say that this man, "wouldn't even hurt a fly." This same Savior will be the one to "establish justice." But, it was't in the way that they had expected. He established a far greater justice than any of us could have imagined. If it had only been in an Earthly way, He would have been Unworthy for His goal.

Isaiah 50 does talk about someone who will not be "disgraced," someone who will have a face like "flint," and the same someone will not be put to "shame." He does dare his "adversary" to draw near. Still, it is not in an Earthly way. The reason why this someone, this servant, this Savior, is so secure in his plan is because "The Lord God helps me." There is no one who would dare stand up against the Lord and live. This is where the servant's strength is found, this is where our Savior's strength is found, and it is secure not only because God is undefeatable but also because the Christ already knew that He has won.

He did not "win" in any Earthly manner. The world saw him as disgraced, soft, and shameful. But, we're still not looking beyond this world. In the reality of eternity, God (Jesus Christ) had been gracefully fulfilling his promise to David. This is how "his offspring shall endure forever." If Christ had only come to be an Earthly king, death would have won. Instead, Christ had remained flint-faced against His adversary (Satan). In the desert, He didn't even think of neglecting His purpose, reason, and calling to Earth in the first place. And, it wasn't in shame that he had endured the cross, but in honor and in joy.

The last thing many of the leaders of Israel had expected was to find the Savior on a cross. They must have missed close to the entirety of Isaiah 53. The Savior had to be wounded for our transgressions. "Many were astonished... his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance...He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief... he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.... He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth....

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him... His soul makes an offering for sin... The will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities."

In the last place anyone would have thought to look, there He is, the mighty warrior, God's servant, up there, (we) nailed (him) to a tree. But, that's how it had to be. He had to die, to beat death, in order that He may keep His covenant and allow us to endure forever by granting us eternal life.

Jesus Christ, true God, true Man, was not what anyone had expected. But, He was who He had to be. He was not a bar-brawling, lord of thunder, and Earthly king. But, a faithful and loving, sacrificial lamb, the Heavenly king. He was not forced to give up God-hood out of rebellion to His Father as Thor was, but He chose to be Man for us. He did not make Himself the person Man wanted Him to be, but the person Man needed Him to be. He didn't come to be the Winner  of the world, but as the Savior of our souls. And, this week, just as we have done for many years and we will continue to do for many more years, we remember how He had come. It was not as a mighty god from the heavens, but as a babe dressed in rags, lying in a manger, because there was no room for him in the inn.

Merry Christmas!!!!!
This has been part of the Gods Among Us Series

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Defending One's Self in the Classroom

I don't think it would be proper to take away the "right to bear arms."

This is especially true when it is obvious that guns would still be underhandedly given to those who would misuse them while those who would responsibly keep them have them taken away.

There has been the idea of having guns available to the teachers at the schools for protection. At first this seems like an extremely dangerous idea. But, after some thought, I think it would be wise. If the guns were kept locked and out of reach of the children and the teachers were both under psychological supervision (required to be in counseling during their service to make sure they remain mentally responsible and emotionally trained enough to rationally wield a gun) and given the needed training in using guns (so they could actually wield a firearm if the worst case should present itself) this plan should work.

Some examples of how armed victims prevent disaster:

*A 1997 high school shooting in Pearl, Miss., was halted by the school's vice principal after he retrieved the Colt .45 he kept in his truck.

*A 1998 middle school shooting ended when a man living next door heard gunfire and apprehended the shooter with his shotgun.

*A 2002 terrorist attack at an Israeli school was quickly stopped by an armed teacher and a school guard.

*A 2002 law school shooting in Grundy, Va., came to an abrupt conclusion when students carrying firearms confronted the shooter.

*A 2007 mall shooting in Salt Lake City, Utah, ended when an armed off-duty police officer intervened.
A 2009 workplace shooting in Houston, Texas, was halted by two coworkers who carried concealed handguns.

*A 2012 church shooting in Aurora, Colo., was stopped by a member of the congregation carrying a gun.

*At the recent mall shooting in Portland, Ore., the gunman took his own life minutes after being confronted by a shopper carrying a concealed weapon.

Into the Dark (Slice)

"There are stories that emerge from the life of Jesus before he was old enough to tell stories of his own. Some are more familiar than others; some are always written out of the school plays and pageants. The prophet Isaiah told of a child who would be born for the people, a son given to the world with authority resting on his shoulders. Hundreds of years later, in Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, this prophecy was being fulfilled. The angel had appeared. A child was born. The magi had come. The ancient story was taking shape in a field in Bethlehem. But when Herod learned from the magi that a king would be born, he gave orders to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under. At this murderous edict, another prophecy, this one spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, was sadly fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping; Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15, Matthew 2:16-18). While the escape of Mary and Joseph to Egypt allowed Jesus to be spared, the cost, as Rachel and all the mothers’ who didn’t escape knew well, was wrenchingly great.

Of the many objections to Christianity, the one that stands out in my mind as troubling is the argument that to be Christian is to withdraw from the world, to follow fairy tales with wishful hearts and myths that insist we stop thinking and believe that all will be right in the end because God says so. In such a vein, Karl Marx depicts Christianity as a kind of drug that anesthetizes people to the suffering in the world and the wretchedness of life. Likewise, in Sigmund Freud’s estimation, belief in God functions as an infantile dream that helps us evade the pain and helplessness we both feel and see around us. I don’t find these critiques and others like them troubling because I find them accurate of the kingdom Jesus described. I find them troubling because there are times I want to live as if Freud and Marx are quite right in their analyses. I am thankful that the Christmas story itself refuses me from doing so.

The story of Christmas is far from an invitation to live blind and unconcerned with the world of suffering around us, intent to tell feel-good stories while withdrawing from the harder scenes of life. In reality, the Incarnation leaves us with a God who, in taking our embodiment quite seriously, presents quite the opposite of escapism. The story of Rachel weeping for her slaughtered children is one story among many that refuses to let us sweep the suffering of the world under the rug of unimportance. The fact that it is included in the gospel that brings us the hope of Christ is not only what makes that hope endurable, but what proves Freud and Marx entirely wrong. For Christ brings the kind of hope that can reach even the most hopeless among us, within the darkest moment. Jesus has not overlooked the suffering of the world anymore than he has invited his followers to do so; it is a part of the very story he tells.

In a poem called “On the Mystery of the Incarnation,” Denise Levertov gives a description of the Christmas story with room for the darkness and a mystery that reminds us that the light will yet shine:

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form.
But to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

The story of the Incarnation presents a God who comes near to the whole story, not merely the parts that fit neatly in pageants. This God speaks and acts in the very places that seem so dark that no human insight or power can do anything. God comes to be with us in our weakness, with us in despair and death and sorrow, with us in betrayal and abandonment. There is no part of the human experience that is left untouched by God’s becoming human. And there is no part of human experience that God cannot redeem and heal and save. There are many Rachels who are still weeping—the poor, the demoralized, the suffering, the mourning. With them, we wait and watch, looking toward the God who comes into the very midst of it."

--Jill Carattini

The Fullness of Time (LW)

By Gene Edward Veith

Have you ever stopped to think that Jesus was a real man, born at a precise time in history, under the reign of rulers we still study in history textbooks? There is something timeless about Christmas. We approach the season with nostalgia and happy memories, re-creating the past with family and church traditions. The nativity scenes, carols and Christmas cards depict the baby Jesus against a universal Background of snow, angels and "heavenly peace." To be sure, our Lord's incarnation applies to every time and place, and we are right to celebrate it as we do from generation to generation.

And yet, we should also remember that God became flesh in a specific moment of human history. "When the fullness of time had come," says St. Paul, "God sent forth His Son" (Gal. 4:4). The "fullness" [πληρωμα]of that time--when the prophesies had been fulfilled and all was ready--unfolded in a context of social turmoil, religious confusion, and moral decay.

The Gospels situate the birth of Christ squarely within world history. "In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered" (Luke 2:1). Rome may have ruled the known world, but the civil war that ended the Republic was still a recent memory.

Pompey the Great conquered Judea after a brutal siege of Jerusalem in 63 B.C., and he became a bitter rival to another brilliant general, Julius Caesar, the conqueror of Gaul. The power struggle between them grew into a civil war fought on a global scale, ending with Pompey's murder and Caesar's victory. When Caesar himself was assassinated by Roman senators trying to defend the Republic from the prospect of a new monarchy, a power struggle ensued. When Marc Anthony fell in love with the glamorous Egyptian queen Cleopatra and abandoned Rome so that he could be with her, Caesar's adopted son, Octavian, took over the city. After defeating the celebrity lovers, he made himself the supreme ruler and took the name Caesar Augustus.

His official title was "Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus" or "Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of God." The reference was to his adopted father Julius, who, after his death, had been declared divine. But Augustus would have seemed to fit the bill for a son of God far more than the Child who would soon be born in Bethlehem. By the time of Christ's birth, Augustus reigned supreme not only over Rome, but over Judea, all of Asia Minor, northern Africa, and much of Europe. His power, wealth, and influence were absolute and stood in stark contrast to the homeless Child laid in a manger.

Rome was a great civilization with a system of laws that continues to shape our legal code and a legacy of literature, education, and technology that we are building on even today. But morally, by the time of Christ's birth, the civilization was already going bankrupt. Prostitution was rampant and was socially acceptable. Homosexuality was widespread throughout the Greco-Roman world. Abortion and infanticide were commonplace. The ruling classes kept the masses entertained with blood sports, with gigantic arenas filled with spectators watching gladiators kill each other or cheering on the torture of criminals by burning, being devoured by wild animals, or being crucified.

Judea, of course, resisted the worst of Greco-Roman immorality, but the remnants of God's people of old were now a beaten down, occupied, and bitterly divided nation. The events that would bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem were put into motion by a census "when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (Luke 2:2). The efforts of Quirinius to number the people in his various districts struck many Judeans, thinking of David's sin in 2 Samuel 24, as a violation of God's law.

This provoked an out-and-out rebellion against the Romans, which was brutally crushed. This was the beginning of the Zealot movement, which would become one of the four religious factions that Jesus had to contend with: The Zealots wanted to overthrow the Romans and establish a theocracy based on the law of Moses. The Essenes wanted to separate from the world in semi-monastic communities until the Messiah would bring in the Last Judgment. The Sadducees wanted peace with the Romans, emphasizing the sacrificial rites of the Temple and teaching that there is no afterlife. The Pharisees and the Sadducees would agree only on opposing Jesus.

Jesus was born, says Matthew, "in the days of Herod the king" (Matt. 2:1). An Edomite who practiced Judaism, Herod was put in power by the Romans. He earned the title of "the Great" because of his ambitious building projects, including a major expansion and remodeling of the Temple in Jerusalem. But historians record that he was a vicious, cruel, and paranoid ruler, putting to death his wife and three of his own sons out of fear that they would take his throne. It was totally in character for Herod to slaughter the babies and two-year-olds of Bethlehem in an effort to stop the prophesied "king of the Jews." As Herod lay dying, when Jesus and His family were in Egypt, the king knew no one would morn him. So he summoned to court a group of distinguished citizens, giving the order that they all be killed upon his death so that the nation would weep upon his passing. Fortunately, his three sons, among whom the Romans divided his kingdom, rescinded that order, though they would turn out much like their father, especially Herod Antipas, who executed John the Baptist and who would play a role in Christ's crucifixion.

So that first Christmas was a time of social upheaval, political conflict, moral decay, recreational sex and violence, religious disunity and general hopelessness. Sound familiar? Christ came into darkness (John 1:5). And He still does. Through His Word and Sacraments, He breaks into our sin-wracked lives. In every age and throughout the course of a person's lifetime, He brings to us the redemption won by His incarnation, death, and resurrection. In that sense, Christmas really is timeless.

This article came from the pages of the Lutheran Witness.
For more Lutheran Witness Veith articles, check out this link.
Or, if you are wanting to read one of his shorter books, I highly suggest Loving God with All Your Mind.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Desert Deception (Gods Among Us)

"Kneel, god of thunder."

"Then Moses made Israel set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter... The people grumbled against Moses, saying, 'What shall we drink?'"

"Kneel before your conqueror."

"They set out... to the wilderness of Sin... on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, 'Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.'"

"Kneel, as is your desert and destiny, before Loki Laufeyson."

"All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin... and camped... but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, 'Give us water to drink.' And Moses said to them, 'Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?' But the people thirsted there for water and the people grumbled against Moses and said, 'Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?'"

"When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, 'Get up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' So Aaron said to them, 'Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.' So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'"

We are desert people.

Look at us. What are we doing? We're sick. There is no cure from what we've become. We're tired. How long can we go on this way? We're thirsty. Our lips are arid and nothing in this world can quench our thirst. We're lost. Sometimes, I think it would be better if we never even tried or we just gave up and died, there is no point. We're hungry. Nothing fills the void in our bellies. We just want to quit. I'd rather quit and die than waste breathe at failed attempts of life and eventually die anyway. We've endured waiting for God long enough. We're done being dependent on Him. So, what do we do? We worship something else. We trust something else. Maybe the Lord wasn't really with us in the first place. That should justify trusting in ourselves or some other thing above Him.

Wait, wait, wait, hold on there. We're missing something. As Admiral Ackbar would say:

"It's a trap!"

We're wandering into the realm of self-deceit and giving in to the temptation of self-worship. But, I thought we did away with God. How could we know any better?  We need to open our eyes. We need to see the whole story. We're only looking at a part of history, the now. What happened before all of this? And, what happened after? These are only parts of the chapters of the book of the whole, what does the rest say?

Only one verse before the Israelites "set out from the Red Sea," Miriam had been singing to them, "Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea." Why was she singing? They had finally been delivered from their exile in Egypt!! This was not of their own doing, but of God's doing. They all knew that they had no hope. There was no escape, no future, and no refuge, without the Lord. They had been slaves as long as they could remember and they all knew the fact that it had been only by the strength of God's right arm that they had escaped. His plagues and miracles had been enough to frighten Pharaoh into letting the God-fearing people go. And, even when Pharaoh had changed his mind and pursued them, it had only been by the power of God that they had escaped.

Alright, alright, alright, God has helped us in the past. So, what? In the words of Eddie Murphy,

"What have you done for me lately?"

Israel was thinking this. Although they had been spared from God's hand and delivered from Egypt, they wanted to know why the Lord had left them. They thought He forgot about them when it was really them who forgot about Him. For this we can just read on to the endings of these chapters. In Chapter 15, the Lord turned the very same bitter water that they had been complaining about into sweet water that they could drink. In Chapter 16, God let bread and quail descend from the sky itself in order to feed His hungry people. And, in Chapter 17, God made water to spring forth from the rock.

God was there, active and alive. He consistently saved His people from the desolation they so obviously deserved.

Still, even after all of these things, in Chapter 32, the group forgot about God altogether. And, as if that wasn't enough, they hadn't only given up on God, they had taken away his previous credentials. Instead of remembering that it was He who brought them out of exile, they claimed "the man [Moses] ...brought us up out of the land of Egypt." It was the man they did not "know" what had become of. They forgot about the Lord altogether. They had become the polar opposite of joining Miriam with His praise. Instead, they didn't even acknowledge that He had existed. They ignored the fact that He was the only one able to deliver them from servitude. And, they made a new, different, fake god out of their own hands and with their own minds. They had thought that they had given themselves the power to know righteousness above God's. When really, they had fallen into the trap of the Devil. It was in this way and with these lies that he had made them his servant. Instead of serving the Lord, they served his adversary. Instead of singing praise, they sacrificed to molded gold. They bowed down to an inanimate object rather than fearing the living Lord.

Imagine Joshua's fright when he had heard all of the commotion down in the camp. He couldn't help but stammer, "There is a noise of war in the camp." But, then he became confused, "It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear." And as soon as he came near the camp he saw the calf and the dancing.

Joshua's first guess was right.

Loki. Loki is a god of mischief and lies. He is the silver-tongued prince of Asgard. In Norse mythology, he is a shape-shifter and engineer to the death of Balder.

Overall, he covets power and does whatever he needs to achieve it. He pulls tricks, he shape-shifts (he was a woman in the Balder devo), he tells lies, and performs whatever rhetoric is required to have his sway.

He would do everything in his power to have the world and Thor bow before him, succumbing to his power. In fact, many times, it seems as if he has had his way. He wins.

The Devil is the same way. He covets power and does whatever he needs to achieve it. He tricks us, he shape-shifts (unbeknownst to the Israelites, he is working behind the calf above), he lies to us, and performs whatever rhetoric he can to have his sway (he has quoted Scripture to attempt to defy Jesus, today he works through out-spoken anti-theists and atheists).

He would do everything in his power to have the world and Christ bow before him, succumbing to his power. In fact, many times, it seems as if he has had his way. He wins.

There, in Chapter 32, it sure looked like he won. The Devil had his way. He took God's children and bride,  making them dance for him. Like puppets on strings, they sacrificed to him. Like a puppy who has been utterly abused enough to forget its own master, Satan took the people away from the father who loved and cared for them and abused them enough to forget their own father.

We are desert people.

We are exactly where the Israelites found themselves in Chapter 32. Before the birth of Christ, we had been in exile. We were slaves not to Egypt, but to the Law. We were given a bar set way too high and almost killed ourselves trying to attempt and atone for it. Then, it happened. Our long-foretold Savior was born. But, that's not all. He took all of our sins. He took the death we deserved. He faced the Devil himself. And, He rose. He atoned for us because we couldn't atone for ourselves. He was the only one able to deliver us just as the Lord was the only one capable of delivering Israel out of Egypt. But, now, here we are. We are desert people. We're sick, we're tired, we're thirsty, we're lost, we're hungry, we just want to quit, we've endured waiting for God. This is Advent, just as the Israelites had yearned for the Promised Land, we yearn for His return and our Promised Land, Heaven.

This is when the Devil strikes, while we're weak. We cannot afford to give into his tricks, disguises, lies, and rhetoric. We cannot afford to give our lives to the beast. We cannot afford to lose the battle for our souls to someone who has, in truth, taken us away from the sole Being who has ALWAYS been there for us.

Instead, we need to hear the voice calling us out of this wilderness saying, "Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight." This voice, the Word, Scripture, begs us only to listen. Not to act on our own accord creating obstacles to stumble over in our own path, but to listen. Once we are silenced, we can hear. We can hear that Christ has won. And, here, is where we are healed. Here, is where we are rested. He is where our thirst is quenched. Here is where we are finally found. Here, we are fed. Here we are given the strength to carry on. Here, we no longer endure waiting, but rejoice in it.

This Advent, He is coming. This time of year we celebrate His birth. And, His return. Unlike our brothers who were lost in the desert, we know that He will remember us. He will have mercy on us. And, He will lead us until we are safely back home with Him.


Most of the inspiration for this idea came from Stephen's Speech in Acts 7.
This has been part of the Gods Among Us Series

Ravi Zacharias on the Tragedy in Newtown

The tragedy that shook Newtown, Connecticut, and indeed the entire nation, defies analysis. What must have gone on in the mind of this young man for him to walk into a school of little children and wreak such devastating carnage numbs the soul. At the same time this was happening, I was under the surgeon’s blade for minor surgery. When I left the recovery room and returned home, among the first pieces of news on my phone was the news of this mass killing. Something within me hoped that I was still not clear-headed, but I knew deep inside that I was reading an unfolding story of horror and tragedy. What does one say? What is even appropriate without violating somebody’s sacred space and their right to scream in protest?

I am a father and a grandfather. I simply cannot fathom the unbearable weight within a parent’s or grandparent’s heart at such a personal loss. It has often been said that the loss of a child is the heaviest loss to bear. I have no doubt that those parents and grandparents must wonder if this is real or simply a terrifying nightmare. My heart and my prayers are for them and, indeed, for the family of the assassin. How his father will navigate through this will be a lifelong journey.

When a mass-killer like this ends by taking his own life, there is an even deeper sense of loss. Everyone wants to know, “Why?” Not that the answer would soften the blow but it would at least give some clue, some release to speak, to hear, to try to work through. But all we are left with is twenty-eight funerals and lifelong grief. To all of those who have suffered such loss, may the Lord carry you in His strength and bear you in your grief. You will be in our thoughts and prayers.

My own attempt at saying something here is feeble but carries a hope that somebody listening will make this world a better place. My heart goes back to Angola Prison in Baton Rouge where I met such people whose savagery took them to that destination. It was interesting to see a Bible in every cell and to hear many talk of how it had become their only means of life and hope. Someone with me said, “If we had more Bibles in our schools maybe we would need less of them here.” To the skeptic and the despiser of belief in God, I know what they will respond. I am quite convinced that the one who argues against this ends up playing God and is ultimately unable to defend any absolutes. Hate is the opposite of love and while one breathes death, the other breathes life. That is what we need to be addressing here. The seeds of hate sooner or later bear fruit in murder and destruction. Killers are not born in a moment. Deep beneath brews thinking and the animus that in a moment is uncorked. We are living in a society that nurtures hate on many sides with the result that lawlessness triumphs.

Even in ideal settings, killing can take place. Murder began in the first family when a brother could not stand the success of his sibling. The entire history of the Middle East–five millennia–is a tale of two brothers. Centuries of killing has not settled the score. Maybe in Adam Lanza’s case we will find a deep psychological reason behind what he did. But that does not diminish the reality that there lurks many a killer whose moment will come and the nation will be brought to tears again. We can almost be certain of that. Yes, we can discuss all the symptomatic issues—security, gun control, early detection signs, and so on. These are all worthy of discussion. But it’s always easier to deal with the symptoms rather than with the cause.

I wish to share what I think we must address or we head down the slope to a precipitous edge of brutality. The fiscal cliff is tame by comparison to the moral devastation ahead if we do not recognize the malady for what it is. Hate is the precursor to murder. Jesus made that very clear. Playing God is the dangerous second step where we feel we are the ultimate judge of all things and that we have the right to level the score.

Here, I would like to address our political leaders and media elite: You may personally have the moral strength to restrict your ideas to mere words but many who listen to you do not. To take the most sacred privilege of democracy and transform it into the language of aggression plays right into the hands of hate-mongers. This is not the language of a civil society or of wise leadership. It is not the ethos of a culture of co-existence. It is not the verbal coinage with which we can spend our way into the future. Our political rhetoric is fraught with division, hate, blame, and verbal murder. Our young are listening. Remember that what you win them with is what you win them to.

As for the entertainment world, what does one even say at a time like this? Calling for gun control and then entertaining the masses with bloodshed is only shifting the locus from law to entertainment. Do our entertainers ever pause to ask what debased values emerge from their stories? The death of decency is audible and visible in what passes as movie entertainment and political speech. This is the same culture that wishes to take away Nativity scenes and Christmas carols from our children. God is evicted from our culture and then He is blamed for our carnages. America is lost on the high seas of time, without chart or compass. The storms that await us will sink this nation beyond recognition if we do not awaken to the rapid repudiation of the values that shaped this nation. The handwriting is on the wall. Freedom is not just destroyed by its retraction. It is destroyed even more painfully by its abuse.

There is one more thing. It is so obvious but is seldom ever addressed. All these recent mass murders have been done by men. Many of them young men, yes, even mere boys. Jonesboro, Columbine, Virginia Tech, now Newtown. Is there something within our culture that doesn’t know how to raise strength with dignity and respect? Is this how boys are meant to be? From bloodletting in hockey games while thousands cheer to savagery in school shootings while thousands weep, we must ask ourselves what has gone wrong with us men? Where are the role models in the home? Is knocking somebody down the only test left for strength? Is there no demonstration now of kindness, gentleness, courtesy, and respect for our fellow human beings? One young man on death row in Angola Prison told me that he started his carnage as a teenager. Now in his thirties with the end of the road in sight, he reached his hand out to me and asked me to pray with him. Life was lost at the altar of power and strength.

The Bible only speaks of one remedy for this: the transformation of the heart by making Christ the center. Those who mock the simplicity of the remedy have made evil more complex and unexplainable. Every heart has the potential for murder. Every heart needs a redeemer. That is the message of Christmas. The world took that child and crucified Him. But by his triumph over death He brings life to our dead souls and begins the transformation within. Unto us a child is born and He shall save us from our sins.

Before the first murder was committed, the Lord said to Cain, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” To gain mastery over sin there is only one way. Just as Victoria Soto put herself in the way so that the children in her class might live, Jesus Christ put himself in the way that we all might live. That is the beginning of the cure for us as individuals and as a nation. All the laws in the world will never change the heart. Only God is big enough for that.

Ravi Zacharias

A Whiskey Vocation

by Lake Lambert  

Among alcoholic beverages, Jack Daniel’s has enviable name recognition and market share, but the product name also reflects the founder’s name -- or at least one of the founders. Less familiar is the name of Jack Daniel’s original partner in the whiskey business, Daniel H. Call, a farmer, a small-time distiller, and a lay preacher in the Lutheran church. According to most historical accounts, he adopted the young Jack Daniel into his family, taught him how to make whiskey, and went on to co-found with Daniel what would become one of the best known distillers of all time.

But in a remarkable move, Call quit the whiskey-making business only seven years after the partnership was formed and sold his entire share to Daniel. The temperance movement within southern Lutheranism after the civil war was remarkably powerful. Available accounts report that Call was under pressure from his wife, his congregation, and his synod to get out of the liquor business. However, a revival at Call’s church may have been immediate motivator. Daniel’s biographer Ben Green tells of a temperance preaching female revivalist who visited the congregation just before Call sold. The results can be seen on liquor store shelves across the country and around the world: Call’s name is absent from that famous black label.

A calling not sinful in itself 

Of course, it was not a new idea in Daniel Call’s time that a particular role or type of work could be unfitting for a Christian. The re-discovery of vocation as a theological idea at the time of the Reformation sparked considerable discussion and debate on the issue. Arguing that God endowed all socially useful offices and roles with vocational meaning, Martin Luther the upset the sharp division between the spiritual and the material realms. No longer was a calling restricted to the “spiritual” offices of bishop, priest, monk, and nun. Several years later, John Calvin adopted Luther’s project on vocation with some alterations but also with continuity. Both saw a vocation as a means of service as well as a means to order and preserve creation.

The broad expansion of vocation outside the ecclesiastical realm raised several questions about how wide the expansion should go. Luther himself was asked specifically whether being a soldier could be a Christian vocation. He answered “yes.” Without prompting, he even encouraged able Christian men to consider service as executioners, if there was community need. Luther also commended the vocational roles of marriage, house servant, judge, farmer, ruler, and citizen. In each of these cases, he saw the roles as forms of community service. Luther explicitly forbid only a few place of vocations. For example, he said that no one should be a robber, usurer, prostitute, nun, monk, priest, cardinal, or pope. His overriding concern was service to neighbor, and that was possible, he wrote, as long as the Christian worked “in a calling that is not sinful in itself”(Luther, 1905, 248-49). Certainly, the production of alcoholic beverages was not included in this category because Luther’s own wife, Katie, was a brewer or beer and a maker of wine at their Wittenberg home. The mores of the time and place would not have suggested prohibition as a Christian position.


Lambert's article continues by describing the struggles that different theologians and denominations have run into while they search for where to "drawing the line" between what should and should not be considered a righteous vocation. It is an interesting read discussing vocational relativism, but the bottom line for me is whether or not the criteria for the vocation is inherently sinful. God calls us in many ways and works through us as many masks to care for the world, many of which we could never even dream or think of. But, although God can use sinful jobs to his good (like working through Joseph's brothers and Rahab) the sin in the job is not what depended on. Many times people are given the gifts they need for fulfilling a righteous vocation, but neglect in doing so. This would lead to the sin of omitance.

Here are some more tidbits of Lambert's essay:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained Christian vocation ..., stating that one experiences God’s call in the encounter with Jesus Christ. In turn, Bonhoeffer says, “vocation is the place at which one responds to the call of Christ and thus lives responsibly” (290-91). At the heart of this interpretation of vocation is the place of response, and this place has no ultimate meaning or eternal significance. Only the encounter with Jesus Christ is ultimately significant, Bonhoeffer says, just as only the general call is ultimately significant. From this perspective, we can look at the life of Daniel Call and conclude that neither his making whiskey nor his decision to stop making whiskey ultimately mattered. As Luther himself noted, work is not redemptive, and there are no particular callings in heaven; their existence is temporary and fleeting. With the writer of Ecclesiastes, we can truly say that the work of humans is nothing but vanity....

The paradox of a Lutheran theology of vocation is that these places of responsibility do really matter, even without ultimate significance. They matter so much that Christians should organize their lives around them; they require commitments that will consume time, energy, and maybe even ones life....

Monday, December 17, 2012

Sandy Hook Kids Raid Heaven

Twas' 11 days before Christmas, around 9:38
when 20 beautiful children stormed through heaven's gate.
Their smiles were contagious, their laughter filled the air.
They could hardly believe all the beauty they saw there.
They were filled with such joy, they didn't know what to say.

They remembered nothing of what had happened earlier that day.
"Where are we?" asked a little girl, as quiet as a mouse.
"This is heaven." declared a small boy. "We're spending Christmas at God's house."
When what to their wondering eyes did appear,
but Jesus, their savior, the children gathered near.
He looked at them and smiled, and they smiled just the same.
Then, He opened His arms and He called them by name.
And, in that moment was joy, that only heaven can bring
those children all flew into the arms of their King
and as they lingered in the warmth of His embrace,
one small girl turned and looked at Jesus' face.
And, as if He could read all the questions she had
He gently whispered to her, "I'll take care of mom and dad."
Then, He looked down on earth, the world far below
He saw all of the hurt, the sorrow, and woe
then He closed His eyes and He outstretched His hand,
"Let My power and presence re-enter this land!"
"May this country be delivered from the hands of fools"
"I'm taking back my nation. I'm taking back my schools!"
Then, He and the children stood up without a sound.
"Come now my children, let me show you around."
Excitement filled the space, some skipped and some ran.
All displaying enthusiasm that only a small child can.
And, I heard Him proclaim as He walked out of sight,
"In the midst of this darkness, I AM STILL THE LIGHT."

Written by Cameo Smith, Mt. Wolf, PA — with Gennie Hunter Handmaker, Natasha Rinaldo, Cory Walker and Jessica Williams.