Christmas is Coming: Musings on a Manger

Christmas.  A celebration of the birth of Christ.  A Christian worship gathering of men, women and children who believe in Jesus.  The word itself comes from two words:  First, “Christ”, a title or transliteration of the Greek word for “king”, given to a first century Jewish figure who announced the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Second, “mass”, from the Latin missa, a word used to describe a service of worship including the Lord’s Supper.

Musings on a Manger

Musings on a Manger

Manger.  A trough to hold food for animals.  The English word derives from the Latin manducare (to chew), through the French word meaning “to eat”.  “Mass” and “manger” - all sorts of interesting and interwoven thoughts spring to mind.

Musings.  According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, “musings” refer to thoughts or comments of a subject one has been carefully thinking about for a long time.  And so I intend to share in a series of emails - to be reposted on my blog at www.dickrobinson.info, some of my thoughts about the expectations and experiences surrounding the birth of Jesus two thousand years ago, as recorded in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.

As an aside, we live and work in Perú.  Spanish, from the conquest of much of Latin America by Spain) - is the principal language of Perú, although most of the pre-colonial peoples speak one or more of 91 different living languages;  seven of which are institutional, thirty-seven are developing, four are vigorous, thirty-one are in trouble, fourteen are dying (statistics from www.ethnologue.com - a website from SIL International).  “Christmas” in (at least most of) these ethnic languages, as in Spanish, is Navidad, from the Latin verb nasci - “to be born” - through the French nativité.  The English word native - derives from  the Latin nativitas, meaning “birth”).

In the very early days and nights of what is now known as the 1st Century, shepherds were taking care of their sheep near a small town called Bethlehem in Judea.  They saw an angel appear and -as we might expect were we to see an angel (assuming we believe in such beings) - were terrified.  The angel told them, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.  This will be sign to you:  You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).

A bit more about words and meanings.  Jesus is the English name which translates the Hebrew and Aramaic name - found in our Bibles - as Joshua - Moses’ assistant after Israel’s deliverance from Egypt.  Joshua led the people God across the Jordan River into the land God had promised them.  Yeshua/Joshua  means Savior, or Deliverer.  And so, when an angel of the Lord came to Joseph to reassure him that his promised bride was expecting a baby, conceived not in sin but by the Holy Spirit, he should give the baby the name “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21).

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Numbering our Days:  Reflections upon arriving at age 70

I can remember as a child listening to sermons, reading my Bible, or listening to adults teach in Sunday School that we need to remember God’s Word that “The days of our years are threescore years and ten” (Psalm 90:10; KJV). I seldom remember the rest of the verse (still reading from the KJV) “if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” Today, in this last week of August 2018 - after having been born August 3, 1948 - I find myself remembering the verse and reflecting on it.

I no longer read the KJV - it seems so antiquated, so inapplicable to my life in today’s world. I prefer newer translations, the NIV or NASB. Or, better still, a personal translation from a scholarly commentator on a selected text of Scripture. For example, John Goldingay, from his commentary on the Psalms:

Psalm 90

"Plea. Moses, Gods man.

  1. My Lord, you were a shelter; you were ours, generation after generation.

  2. Before mountains were birthed and you brought forth earth and world, From age to age, you were there, God.

  3. You would turn mortals to crushing; you said, “Turn, you people!”

  4. Because a thousand years in your eyes were like a day, Yesterday when it passes, or a watch in the night.

  5. You swept them away in sleep, though in the morning they could be like grass that can renew itself.

  6. In the morning it can flourish and renew itself; by evening it can wither and dry up.

  7. Because we are spent through your anger, through your fury we have been overwhelmed.

  8. You put our wayward acts in front of you, our youthful deeds in the light of your face.

  9. Because all our days have passed under your wrath, we have spent our years as moaning.

  10. The days of our years in themselves are seventy years, or, with strength, eighty years. But their boisterousness has been toil and trouble, because it has passed quickly and we have flown.

  11. Who acknowledges the force of your anger and in accordance with reverence for you, your wrath?

  12.  In counting our days, so make us acknowledge it, in order that we may acquire [13] a wise mind.

  13. Turn, Yahweh, how long?—relent over your servants.

  14. Fill us in the morning with your commitment, so that we may resound and rejoice all our days.

  15. Make us rejoice in accordance with the days you have afflicted us, the years we have seen evil.

  16. May your action be seen by your servants, your majesty for their descendants.

  17. May the delights of my Lord come, our God, for us. Establish the work of our hands for us, yes, the work of our hands—establish it.”

from "Psalms : Volume 3 (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms): Psalms 90-150" by John Goldingay

Psalms_vol.3_Goldingay.jpg

My father died at 48, my mother years later. Both had been missionaries all the days of their lives, living and working in remote African locations. On the single English news TV we receive in the jungle of Peru I increasingly read about well-known people, actors, singers, politicians, friends a decade younger or older than me, dying. How many years are allotted to me? I do not know. Is this Psalm reminding me, reminding us, that God has given us more or less seventy or eighty years? It would seem obvious from this psalm; though Genesis 6:3-8 tells us that when God saw the wickedness of humans he was “grieved”, and limited our life-span to 120 years - the length of Moses’ life (Deuteronomy 34:7). Today, while life-spans differ by regions and countries and access to modern health care, the average mortality world-wide is 71.5 years.

An alternative - and, given the context of this psalm is that the “seventy years, or, with strength, eighty” in Psalm 90:10 is that the author is using the numbers like other “parallel numbers...[in the Bible], “three” and “four” in Amos 1-2, and “six” and “seven” in Job 5:19 and Prov. 16-19” [Goldingay]. The contrast is between the “everlasting to everlasting” of God [v.2], or “a thousand years in your sight are like a day” [v. 4] on the one hand, and our being “swept away in the sleep of death[v. 5]; like the green of “the new grass of the morning [v. 5b-6a] which by nightfall “is dry and withered” [v. 6]. Our days last a fraction of a nanosecond in comparison to the everlasting Creator, without beginning or end.

The point of Psalm 90 is not the length of our days but the depth of wisdom on our heart. God knows our heart, he is grieved by our thoughts and behaviors; our lives are filled with distress, with God’s judgment. Such was the experience of Israel, slaves in Egypt before being liberated under the prophetic leadership of Moses. While he was on the mountain of God receiving the language of the covenant from Yahweh, the people were pleading to return to the idolatry and immorality of their Egyptian slave-masters. They demanding a king like the nations, rejecting Yahweh their liberator and covenant-maker as King. They were seduced again and again by the idols and powers of the nations, only to fall again into slavery. The “seventy” or “eighty” days of their lives were bitter with trouble and affliction. Psalm 90 is, above all, a “suffering psalm”, ending with a prayer for God’s compassion, unfailing love, splendor and favor. Psalm 90 is not about the length of our life, it is about the character of our life, a plea for wisdom.

What's in a name?

Texts:  Exodus 3; 19; 24; 32:30-34:9

Do you remember the story of Moses from Sunday School?  Israel was in Egypt; the people of God had been reduced to slavery to the king of Egypt.  The wives in Israel were giving birth to too many children; if the birth rates continued; there would be more Israelites than Egyptians.  So the slave masters oppressed them with forced, hard labor, building storehouses and cities for the king.  But - as Exodus ch. 1 says:  “the more the Israelites were oppressed the more they multiplied and spread.”  Finally the king commanded the midwives to kill all male babies, but let the girls live.  The Bible says:  “The midwives…feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.”

This was the environment into which Moses was born:  slavery, forced labor, harsh living conditions, newborn babies put to death without mercy.  His mother, however, put him in a water-proofed basket and left his sister to watch and see what would happen.  You know the rest of the story:  Pharoah’s daughter found him, had compassion for a crying baby boy, rescued him, let his mother nurse him, then adopted him into the kings household.

I think that in those few early years Moses’ mother told him all the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons, including Joseph, the dreamer who rose to become the agricultural minister of Egypt, saving country from a global famine, and invited his father’s family to come to Egypt to escape the famine.  I also  think that Moses’ mother had instilled in him a passion for the God of Israel, as well as a passion for justice.  Remember that one day he went to – Exodus 2 uses this phrase twice - to where “his own people” where, saw an Egyptian beating one of “his own people,” and killed the Egyptian.  The next day he saw two Hebrews fighting and confronted him; they told the king, and the king looked for Moses to kill him.  Moses ran, all the way to Midian.

Again we see his passion for justice - or maybe for a pretty woman!  As he was sitting exhausted by a well, seven girls came to draw water for their father’s flock.  Some other shepherds came and chased them away so they could have the water for their own flocks, but Moses intervened, rescues the girls, and watered their sheep.  And married the girl.

That brings us to our story.

Back in Egypt the king died, but the children of God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob “cried out,” God heard their “cry” and their “groaning”, and put a plan in place to rescue them.  He needed a shepherd to shepherd his - God’s - sheep, to search for them, gather them, rescue them, lead them to a place of safety.  Moses was taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep at a mountain called Horeb, a mountain known as ‘the mountain of God’.  The angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in flames of fire from a bush that was on fire but did not burn; Moses went to see this strange sight, and God called out Moses’ name:  “Moses, Moses!”

Mt. Sinai

Mt. Sinai

“Here I am,” Moses replied.  I wonder what he was thinking; I wonder why he wasn’t afraid.  Maybe because his mother had told him all those stories of the covenant God during those early Sunday School years?” God continues:  “Take off your sandals; you are standing on holy ground.”  And God introduces himself as the God his mother had talked about:  “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  God commissioned Moses:  “So now go.  I am sending you to bring my people the Israelites” – the children of Jacob who was renamed “Israel” when God made a covenant with him – “out of Egypt.”  ‘When you have finished this task, come back here, to this mountain, to worship.’

Moses had one more – actually several, but – one important, revelatory question:  “If I go and tell them the God of your fathers has sent me to bring you out of Egypt, and they ask “What is his name?”, what do I tell them?  And God gives us his personal, holy, name.  “I am who I am.”  Tell them “I am” has sent me.  This is God’s name:  YHWH - Yahweh.  I amI am the uncreated one.  I am the Creator.  I am the giving God.  I am the loving God.  I am the personal God; I know your name.  I am the covenant-making God; I knew your father’s name, and his father’s name.  I am the remembering GodI am the rescuing God.  Not: “I was, or I will be.”  I am.  I am the saving God.  I am the merciful God.  I am the compassionate God. I am the gracious God.  I am the loving God.  I am the faithful God.  I am the forgiving God.  I am the one who was, who is, and who is to come.

Moses goes.  He confronts the king; performs mighty deeds of power in the Name of Israel’s God; signs and wonders and miracles before the king of the strongest nation on earth.  He leads God’s people out of slavery, crossing the waters on dry ground.  He leads them to sweet water, finds them food to eat, defeats their enemies, and - finally - brings them to Mt. Sinai/Mt. Horeb, God’s mountain.

Theophanies - powerful manifestations of the presence of God.  Moses in Yahweh’s Presence.  Thunder, lightning, thick clouds, fire and smoke, earthquakes, the sound of trumpets growing louder and louder, thick darkness.  The Lord descending to the top of the mountain and calling Moses:  “Come up…go down.”  Again and again.  God speaks:  “You shall have no other gods before me.”  The glory of God on the top of the mountain, a consuming fire; God’s Presence with us.

Chariots of Fire & Wide-opened Eyes

This morning, in our team devotions in the jungle of Peru, we read one of the Old Testament stories in the narratives of Elijah and Elisha.  It follows the calling and commissioning of Elisha to be a prophet mentored by Elijah (1 Kings 19:19ff.) and Elisha's request to "inherit a double portion of [Elijah's] spirit"(2 KIngs 2:9-14), picking up Elijah's cloak and dividing the waters.

The story takes place in the city of Dothan where Elisha and his servant were staying.  Ben-Hadad, king of Aram ruling from Damascus, was intent on arresting- so the text reads - and probably killing - my interpolation - Elisha, who had again and again warned the king of Israel of the warring Aramean threats.  Ben-Hadad sent a powerful military force to surround Dothan and capture Elisha.  The next morning Elisha's servant feared for his life as he discovered an army with horses and chariots surrounding the city.  "Don't be afraid," Elisha encouraged.  "Those who are with us are more than those who are with them" (6:16).  He prayed to God to open his servant's eyes.  With newly-opened eyes the servant saw "the hills full of horses and chariots of fire" surrounding Elisha, protecting him from the enemy army surrounding the city.

Greg Boyd -  Crucifixion of the Warrior God

Greg Boyd - Crucifixion of the Warrior God

In his majesterial study of the crucifixion, Greg Boyd reminds us that "the NT presents Christ as the revelation through which all previous revelations point….All Scripture…bears witness to Christ crucified." [Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament's Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross, Vol 1. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2017, p. xxxix]  This 'biblical hermeneutic', Boyd reminds us again and again, means that "we are only reading Scripture faithfully when we read it while looking at Christ, which entails that we read it by looking through Christ" (p. 66).

Emmaus.jpg

 

In another study about reading Scripture – [Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2016] – Richard Hays sees "echoes" of the Elisha/Elijah stories in the writings of the gospels, including Elisha, his servant, and the city of Dothan.  He finds a "faint rebound" of "blind eyes opened" in Jesus' encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus [Luke 24:13-35], his meal with them, the baking and passing of bread by Jesus to the disciples.  "Then their eyes were opened and they recognized [Jesus], and he disappeared from their sight" (v. 11).  Hays notes (and asks):  "This motif of having blind eyes opened to perceive an overwhlemingly powerful spiritual reality appears very rarely in the Old Testament.  If this reference to the opening of the disciples' eyes in Luke 24:31 is indeed heard as an echo of the text in 2 Kings, what would such a hearing add to our reading?…The chariots of fire of 2 Kings may dimly foreshadow the tongues of fire at Pentecost and perhaps also hint at the reason why the hearts of the disciples burned when their eyes were opened by the Lord (Luke 24:32): they were, unbeknownst to them, in the presence of a divine flame" (pp. 241-42).

What's more, Hays reminds us, "in response to Elisha's prayer, the Lord first blinds the Aramean soldiers so that they [my emphasis] are taken captive, then opens their eyes…to show them their predicament as prisoners of war.  But rather than having them slain, Elisha surpisingly gives orders that they be welcomed at table: "And he set before them a great feast, and they ate and drank: and he dismissed them and they departed to their lord" [ibid].

There is so much to learn from that little Old Testament Elisha-story.  Our team lives and announces the gospel to indigenous story-tellers in the Peruvian Amazon.  The villagers' lives are awash with spiritual forces, the Powers of this dark world.  Animism.  Spiritism.  Shamanism.  Syncretism.  At times we have this overwhelming sense that we are surrounded by the powers of darkness, the armies of spiritual beings at war with the Creator and Saving Lord revealed in Jesus.  We are living on a battlefield. We sense, rather than see them.  What is visible is the havoc wreaked in marital discord and broken families, sex-and-narco trafficking, alcoholism, environmental degradation.  All manner of evils beyond our ken.  We need to have our eyes opened; to see the armies of God; to remember day-by-day through the bread of Christ's body broken on the cross.  We need to have our eyes burned open by the warrior God who defeated the Power of Sin and and the Power ofDeath on Good Friday, so that we can see the Glory of God in the face of the Risen Christ.  We need to ask the Spirit of God to be breathed on us, into us, to pour Pentecost over us day-by-day.

Theology of the Cross

“As a general rule, the theologia gloriae (theology of glory) will drive out the theologia crucis (theology of the cross) every time in a comfortable society.  We will often find this is true in America, where optimism and positive thinking reign side by side.…Taking up the cross, as Jesus himself called us to do, means a basic reorientation of the self toward the way of Christ.  Long before he knew his own destiny, Dietrich Bonhoeffer memorably wrote:  ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die’.” [Rutledge, Crucifixion, pp. 43-44]

For several years now serving in the deep interior of Peru, I have been immersing myself in reading the Apostle Paul, both in the text of Scripture as well as in commentaries and theological reflections on those texts.  I have been changed.   I began by reading N.T. Wright - Simply Jesus; Simply Christian; Simply Good News.  And more – digging into what I was able to understand of his larger work on the Apostle.   Reading Wright while doing mission among indigenous peoples with oral cultures with little or no book learning or developed Christian theology, led me to Michael Gorman and his reflections on  living a cruciform life, i.e. a life lived patterned by the cross – works published by Eerdmans:  Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of The Cross; Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation and Mission; Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters.   When N.T. Wright published The Day the Revolution Began, I also found Fleming Rutledge’s masterful work, Crucifixion.  I have been rethinking, reworking, recasting my theology throughout.  Not less evangelical – whatever that label may mean any longer, but – I am certain -– more so.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians:  God  made him [Jesus] who knew no sin [Jesus] to be sin [Jesus] for us, so that in him [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV).  The words leap off the page!  We succumbed to the temptation in the Garden to be what we were never created to be!  We failed to take our God-given responsibilities to serve and preserve his good Creation.  We fell under the Power of Sin.  But God did not want us to “eat of the Tree of Life” and live forever under the unrelenting stranglehold of Sin and the “wages” of Death.  Instead, within the Trinity, God – Father, Son and Spirit together – determined that he would take our humanity into himself, become forever one of us without ceasing to be the Son of God – we were, after all, created in the imago Dei.  He,  God himself in the person of his Son, born into this broken, fallen world, confronted the Powers of Sin and Death in an apocalyptic cosmic battle, rendering Sin powerless and defeating Death’s stranglehold.  God gave us his own righteousness, not out of wrath at our disobedience but out of love for us.

More to come…

Holy Week, the Sacrificial Lamb & Global Politics

Vicuña lambs in the southern Peru highlands, on the road to Colca Canyon.

Vicuña lambs in the southern Peru highlands, on the road to Colca Canyon.

What we as Christian worshipers (together with other observers and commentators) call "Holy Week" – beginning with Palm Sunday, ending with Resurrection Sunday – included a wide variety of events involving Jesus, his closest disciples, crowds of first century Jews visiting Jerusalem for the festival of Passover, religious leaders and priests, as well as Roman and Jewish political authorities, as described in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels.

I have been familiar with the stories of Holy Week since my childhood – whether in Sunday School or church services, listening to both sorrowful and joyful musical compositions and songs passionately sung in different tongues by choirs and congregations, hearing the passages read and taught by teachers and preachers, reflecting on the Biblical texts in my own study and devotional life.

This week I have been reading Chapter Six, "The Blood Sacrifice", – preached on paper – by Fleming Rutledge in her deeply insightful exposition of The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).  And on this Palm Sunday I have been taken by her descriptions of the biblical use of the motif or image of the Lamb of God (pp. 255-258).  At the same time during recent weeks and days our television screens have been filled with other images – images of death and devastation in Peru communities, their populations brought about by torrential rains and cascading floods; images of terroism, war, sarin gas bombs and genocidal killing; images of global conflicts and political leaders contending for national and global dominance.

Rutledge brings together four images of a lamb to describe Christ's victory over the Powers of Sin and Death, together determined to rule over us as individuals and societies, Powers determined to deny humanity our role as stewards of God's Creation, our divinely ordained purpose as created in God's image.  The Lamb of God as "The Apocalyptic Lamb", as "the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53", as "The Paschal (Passover) Lamb", and as "the Sin Offering of Leviticus 14".  

I grew up in central Africa in the waning and warring days of the needed but destructive demise of colonialism.  I was a combatant in the U.S. crusade against communism in Vietnam.  I witnessed first-hand and pastorally the grief of genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, the sorrow of power-mongering and war in southern Sudan.  I experienced up-close the oppression of Christians in China.  Now I work with the economically, politically and socially dispossessed indigenous peoples in Peru's Amazon.  I have come to believe what I have tacitly understood – I think – all of my life.  While tyrants must be held accountable for their abuse of power, military might will not save humanity from self-destruction.  While economic advantage may provide momentary relief, it will not heal us.  While political power may defend us against tyranny and injustice, it cannot – Left or Right – deliver us.  The Powers over us are too great.  It is only The Lord God Almighty seated on the Throne, with the sacrificed Lamb of God standing at the center of the Throne, who inaugurates God's New Creation.  While we must work for the coming of God's Kingdom, establish witnessing Kingdom communities, we cannot force its arrival.  Only the Crucified, Resurrected, Exalted and Returning One can bring Peace on Earth.

What Fleming Rutledge has helped me to understand again - as if for the first time - is my (and all of our) place in the crucifixion of Christ.  A crucifixion in which God himself was fully involved.  Only God doing for humanity what we could never do for ourselves – find the life that God breathed into humankind, the Spirit that Jesus breathed onto his disciples in that upper room that Passover week, before his death.  Our life, my life, is wholly a gift of God's grace.

Interlude: the "no-gods" of Isaiah's Prophecy

From time-to-time an aside, from my reading of Isaiah by the Day, by Alec Motyer, © J.A. Motyer, 2011; Day 5 - Isaiah 2:5-11, pp. 33-24.

"their land has become full of silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures, and their land has become full of horses, and there is no end to their chariots, and their land has become full of no-gods, to the work of their hands they bow in worship to what their fingers have made!  And humankind is humiliated, and each individual is demeaned…"

It sounds so contemporary - we seek to be secure in our economies, strong because of our armies, saved by our trust in what Isaiah called "no-gods".  As Motyer notes - Isaiah by the Day is his own translation - " 'elil means 'a nothing'.  The plural 'elilim sounds like the plural for 'God,' elohim, and is used by Isaiah as a dismissive mockery.  cf., v. 18, 20; 10:10-11; 19:1, 3; 31:7."

In these turbulent days we as followers of the risen Lord Jesus Christ would do well to ask ourselves, "What are the 'no-gods' to which we bow down, in which we rely for our safety and security?

Incarnation Absent Crucifixion

Fleming Rutledge notes that "Much of what is taught and celebrated in church life today — creation, incarnation, spirituality — is not always anchored in the preaching of the Christ crucified (I Corinthians 1:23).…this can result in a triumphalist form of congregational life that is disconnected from pain, deprivation, and the dehumanization that Jesus suffered" (p. 61).    She continues:  "A current tendency is to interpret the incarnation to mean embracing the world just as it is, because the Son of God hallowed the world by becoming flesh — incarnatus est.  This, however, can easily be become a sentimental evasion of the tension between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be…" (ibid).

When we as evangelicals stepped beyond understanding missions as simply seeking to save the lost in order to reach all nations (all ethnicities) for Christ — so that Christ would return on the clouds and we would all be caught up to some kind of eternal, heavenly bliss — when began to understand our calling to be servants and stewards of all of God's creation,  an environmental ethic — as well as being a blessing to all nations, all ethnic groups — we began to become a Kingdom people.  But we too easily forgot that Jesus' resurrection and exaltation came only after his humiliation, as Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:5-11).

I frequently find myself reflecting on the Apostle Paul's missionary hardships.  I think often and deeply about Jesus' incarnation and its connection to his crucifixion.  And in reading Crucifixion, I have begun to consider in a more profound way what Fleming Rutledge calls — the title for chapter 2 — "the godlessness of the cross" (pp. 72-105); Jesus' debasement on the Roman cross and his loud cry of dereliction:  "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani?  — which means, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" (Matthew 27:46; as is noted, the only one of the so-called Seven Last Words quoted by two of the gospel writers).  Abandoned.  By his Father?  And yet, with another loud cry, in believing faith, Jesus gave up his spirit (Matthew 27:50), committing himself to his Father by whom he felt painfully abandoned (Luke 23:46).

All of this has me wondering about what it means to be a committed follower of Christ in what seems to be – nothing new here — an increasingly imperiled world:  morally, spiritually, politically, economically, environmentally, militarily.  But that is for another day.

How to Survive the 2016 Presidential Election

Based on Colossians 1:15-20

FIRST: Two things to remember when we read the Bible: (1) The Bible is NOT about us; the Bible is about God. It has a lot to say about us, both good and bad; but it is about God. (2) The Bible was not written to us - not those of us living in 2016, nor to the colonists who came to this place called America 500 years ago. The Bible was written to people living 2,000 to 3,000 and more years ago; speaking different languages, living in different cultures, facing different social, economic and political challenges. In order to apply it today, we need to learn as much as we can about the historical, cultural, social, and literary background of the biblical text we read today.

SECOND: Colossians was written by the Apostle Paul to a church he had not planted, in a city he had not visited, speaking to people most of whom he did not know personally, but about whom he had heard good things (1:9); people coming from (at least) two different cultural and religious backgrounds (Jews and Gentiles) who often looked down their noses at each other, including even when in the church of Jesus Christ; all of whom lived under the imperial, colonial rule of Roman military, political and economic power.

Into this mix Paul gave this young and growing church some personal, communal and (yes) even political advice about how to live faithfully as Christians in this fallen world. Paul wrote as an apostle of Christ, to brothers (and sisters) in Christ. He wrote about God the Father, about Jesus the Son, and about the Spirit. But pre-eminently, Colossians is a letter about the Son of God, the Christ, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The title “Christ” appears in this short book of four chapters 29 times (by my quick count). Colossians is about Christ and Creation; about Christ and the Kingdom; about Christ and the Church; about Christ and the Christian; about Christ and the Powers; about Christ and the Law – six themes you can find in the text, read about and study after you leave here today. It is critically important to remember that “Christ” - christos in the Greek in which the New Testament was written - is not Jesus’ last name! Christos is the word the Greek translators of the Old Testament, written in Hebrew, chose to translate the Hebrew title messiah - meaning “king” - the long-expected deliverer who would rescue God’s people from their enemies, the coming Son of David. Christ meant then, and means now, King! The divinely-promised, long-expected, fervently-prayed for, desperately-hoped for king; king not only of the people of God but of all peoples everywhere.

THIRD: This Christ - the rabbi Jesus, the Son loved by the father - (we are told in v. 15), is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” We must be clear here: Paul is not saying that Christ is the image of God in the same way that humans, created beings - are created in the image of God. Christ was not created; Christ is God the Son. And Paul is not saying, by calling him “the firstborn”, that there was a time when Christ was not, or was not God. Christians are Trinitarian, a word not found in Scripture but coined very early in the Church's history, using human language to try and describe the divine reality, beyond our comprehension. Instead, by using language like "image" and "firstborn" Paul is referencing the creation-events of Genesis 1 and 2. The best reading of verse 16 says that “in him all things were created...[they] were created through him and for him.” Paul then uses parallel language, resurrection language, in v. 18: “he [i.e., Christ] is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead”. Christ is - if you will - both the architect and the builder of both Creation (Genesis 1 and 2), and New Creation (Revelation 21 and 22).

We too often think of salvation as simply – if we can use such a word for such an amazing grace – personal salvation from God’s wrath. Salvation is much grander and much deeper - though not less than – being delivered from death and going to heaven. Salvation extends to all of creation: v. 19 - “God was pleased...to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through [Christ’s] blood.” And v. 23: “the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven...”. This thread runs through all of Scripture, we just have not had eyes to see it or ears to hear it.

FOURTH: Into this theological mix we have the language of the Kingdom of God having arrived in the person of Jesus the King. [Back to v. 13]: “For he [the Father] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.” ‘Dominion’ is a reference to someone [or in the Colossians’ case, something] having sovereignty over a territory, as well as the people who live in that territory. It is another way of describing a king’s power and authority in his kingdom. The Jews had lived under the dominion of Egypt; God rescued them in the Exodus; now [in Paul’s time] they live under the dominion of Rome, as do the Gentiles. Rome was the imperial power of the first century. In fact, much like the Babylonian Empire 500 years before Colossians, destroyed the temple and carried the people into exile; so a few years after Colossians was written Rome would destroy the 2nd Temple and sack the city of Jerusalem.

But! There is another Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Son God loves. All things were, and are, in him, through him, and for him. Christ reigns supreme! (v. 18) Christ reigns over all things: things in heaven and things on earth; things visible and things invisible: thrones, powers - the power of Sin (Sin with a capital 'S'), the power of money, the power of sex, the power of disease, the power of terrorism;

political rulers and authorities - tyrants, dictators, elected officials, governors, heads-of- state, presidents; demons and other fallen, hostile supernatural beings; and the last enemy, defeated but not yet destroyed, DEATH itself. Christ reigns over ALL. Even over ISIS – Christ reigns. And yes, on November 8, 2016, no matter who wins – Christ reigns!

This same Christ, this King of kings, has rescued us from slavery; this Christ has redeemed us from death; and this Christ, the head of the body, the church, has reconciled us to God, and to each other. He did it through the cross. Through the most unimaginable form of human punishment ever devised, a Roman cross, we have been delivered from the dominion of darkness and brought into the light of the living Lord Jesus Christ.

Not long ago some friends visited us at our leadership training center in the jungle in the Amazon Basin of Peru where we work with indigenous peoples. They wanted to visit a local village to see how the people lived; there was one nearby, Santa Ana, but community members are not hardworking farmers and fishermen (and women) like most of their neighbors; instead most in this community neglect their farms, ignore the needs of their children, brew homemade alcoholic beverages, including sugar cane alcohol. The will steal from neighboring villages and farms, and refuse to send their children to the community school.

Santa Ana

In the heat of the morning when we entered the village we found only a young couple. We asked where the rest were, they replied, “At the other end of the village; a child died last night.” We walked down the hot, dusty lane between the thatched huts, finding a group of men, women and children gathered around a small table. A baby, barely two months old, was lying on the table, swaddled in white, a white woven cloth around its cap. LIfeless; candles lit above its head, more candles sputtering next to its feet. The mother sat beside, her head in her hands, weeping inconsolably. The child’s father greeted us incoherently, his brain addled by alcohol. Several adults lay passed out on the ground, others huddled on a low bench nearby, talking in low murmurs. Children gathered around the table looking at the lifeless body of this newest member of the community, filled with the light of life one day, passed into the darkness of death the next. Darkness ruled that day, as it did nearly every day, in Santa Ana.

Later that same day, we visited another indigenous community located on the other side of our center, a village named Tupac Amaru in honor of one of the last of the Inca kings, captured and executed by the Spanish colonial government in Cuzco, Peru in 1572. An evangelical church has begun here, led by RiverWind’s Orality trained students. From a modest beginning of no more than ten members, it has grown quickly to more than fifty members; gathered this afternoon in the modest building - a simple cement floor, metal roof, not walls, doors or windows. Worship opened to any and all passing villagers. They welcomed us with enthusiasm, gathered together to sing worship songs in Spanish and their own Shipibo language. Light and laughter, smiles and Scripture, praise and prayers on the lips of grandparents, fathers and mothers and children. Light come to Tupac Amaru; the contrast with the spiritual darkness and human despair of the morning was inescapable.

FIFTH (and finally): So what does this say to us as we face this coming presidential election? How do we as Jesus’ followers, apply today - we who live in an economic democracy - Paul’s word to the Christians in Colossae 2,000 years ago - who lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire? Colossians 1:3-8 weave the strands of Christian faith together for us as a pattern of life:

  • We live faithfully, by faith in Christ Jesus.

  • We live in and with the love of the Spirit for all the saints.

  • We live in the hope that is kept for us in God’s dwelling place.

  • We live in the truth of the great good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

  • We live by growing in God’s grace and truth.

  • We live as good news people - proclaiming hope and truth as servants of the gospel.

  • We live as a rescued, redeemed and reconciled community.

  • We live the pattern of Christ, the downward path of suffering love.

  • We live with the hope of glory.

  • We live as people in love with Jesus Christ, the King of kings, Lord over all nations. 

"In what areas of your life would you like to see more growth?"

So read the setf-assessment question from a supporting church.  How long should one's answer be in order to be acceptable?  I answered:

  1. "Deepening relationship with the Living God, knowing more the depth of his self-giving goodness, the grace of his love and acceptance, the power of his faithfulness and holiness."  And again…
  2. "Daily understanding and following the sacrifice of Jesus, as well as growth into his likeness in ministry and mission."  And finally…
  3. "Increasing awareness and dependence on the Holy Spirit."

I am reading a recently purchased book, the first volume of a projected series by Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology.  Volume 1: The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).  It is a challenging read, but speaks to where I am in life and thought.  She writes:

"Almighty God has a dwelling place–the temple and the Incarnate Word–and He has a footstool, the ark of the covenant and a manger in Bethlehem, and He manifests HIs glory and name in storms and thunder, in pillars of cloud and fire, and in a voice, burning in one's bones or calling out of ceaseless fire or descending from the high heavenly places to the Beloved, rising up out of the waters.  God's thoughts are not our thoughts, nor His ways our ways, the prophet Isaiah tells us; no one has ever seen God, John assures us, but if we love one another, God lives in us and His love is perfected in us.  It is the King of kings and Lord of lords who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see, 1 Timothy concludes in a rich Christological benediction.  Even the voice of the Lord brings to dust the creatures who hear it.  Almighty God is a consuming fire–from Numbers to Hebrews we read of the Lord's annihilating holiness–so that even this who 'approach the tabernacle of the Lord will die' (Num. 17:13).  When the voice of the Lord spoke out of the thick darkness and smoke and fire on Horeb that day, the Israelites 'spoke rightly': 'So now why should we die.  For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer, we shall die' (Deut. 5:25).  As the voice, so the vision of God is the end of the creature; no one looks on the Lord and lives."

At this stage of my life, at this place in my life's journey, I hunger, I thirst, I yearn to be wholly captured by such a vision of God, my eyes brightened by the fire and smoke of God's presence on the mountain, my ears pierced by the thunder of his voice, tenderly, powerfully calling my name.

Is it too late to save Tahuania, #3

Tahuania is a District in Peru, in the Province of Atalya, in the Ucayali Region.  It is far to the south - something equivalent to a county as part of state in the U.S. - cut in two by the Ucayali River flowing out of the southern high jungle.  There are more than fifty communities in Tahuania; they range in size from a few dozen families to upwards of two thousand residents, with more in the dry season due to the influx of logging company workers flooding the eastern frontier with Brazil, harvesting the ancient, valuable hardwoods to sell and ship to distant markets.  Much of the forest is carbon-rich, carbon maps of the area boast a dark red color; wildlife is prolific.  Four logging companies have concessions here; large trucks haul logs out day-and-night, ready for shipping down to be processed and exported through Pucallpa. 

harvested hardwoods from the Brazil frontier

harvested hardwoods from the Brazil frontier

In the midst of God's invitation to the thirsty (recounted by Isaiah in chapter 55) to seek the LORD, God affirms that his people that those who seek Him will find Him, he grants a full amnesty for their waywardness; we will return from our exile "in joy…led forth in peace [and] the mountains and hills will burst forth into song…all the trees of the field will clap their hands" (v.12).  It is a remarkable promise read in the vast wilderness that is the Amazon jungle of Peru, with it's towering trees stretching into the vast distance.  Can these trees be saved?  Is there hope even for Tahuania?

Almost as far as the eye can see!

Almost as far as the eye can see!

The answer must surely be "Yes!"  As Paul writes in Romans 8:  the whole creation is groaning as if in labor, waiting for the children of God to be revealed.  Creation itself is waiting for us, God's people, to take up the work of our creation mandate, the privilege of serving and preserving creation.  The NIV translates Genesis 2:15 - "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it."  It is our responsibility, before our God.  Salvation includes both redeeming humanity (Jesus' mission) and renewing creation (our work) as part of the good news.

God's word being taught in Tupac…

God's word being taught in Tupac…

Singing for joy!

Singing for joy!

We saw signs of this the afternoon after visiting Santa Ana.  We went to Tupac Amaru, where our Shipibo colleagues have recently begun a church, first ten attending services late last year, now more than fifty gathering together to hear God's word and sing praises, like Isaiah's mountains and hills bursting into song.  Only God can save, but it is ours to tell, ours to speak good news to the nations.  And yes, even to the mountains and rivers and trees of the forest.

Old and young together…a grandfather with his  granddaughter!

Old and young together…a grandfather with his  granddaughter!

Is it too late to save Tahuania? (#2 of 3)

The argument in a recent book by Michael Heiser made me rethink the supernatural worldview of Israel, the communities that produced the Scriptures that we as Western evangelicals acknowledge and revere as God’s Word. Sometimes I think we - well, at least me - underplay or simply play lip service to the world view of ancient Israel and the Bible, and so we often lose our bearings in today’s world.

Please don’t misunderstand where I am going with this. I am not trying to see the devil and the demonic behind every evil deed; we human beings have more than enough culpability for the evils of our modern world. But I am thinking of the felt, real spiritual opposition of the cultures and contexts in which we are serving here in the Amazon, cultures that trace their histories back more than a thousand years to ancient kingdoms that bequeathed their gods and lords to their descendants, among whom we work.

The unjust gods

Heiser’s study is titled The Unseen Realm.[1] He begins with the dramatic courtroom scene in Psalm 82 (NIV):

1 God presides in the great assembly;
    he renders judgment among the “gods”:

2 “How long will you defend the unjust
    and show partiality to the wicked?
3 Defend the weak and the fatherless;
    uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

5 “The ‘gods’ know nothing, they understand nothing.
    They walk about in darkness;
    all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

6 “I said, ‘You are “gods”;
    you are all sons of the Most High.’
7 But you will die like mere mortals;
    you will fall like every other ruler.”

8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
    for all the nations are your inheritance.

Or, as Heiser quotes verse 1 [from the Lexham English Bible]: “God [elohim] stands in the divine assembly; he administers judgment in the midst of the gods [elohim].” As he notes what first astonished him: “The God of the Old Testament was part of an assembly–a pantheon–of other gods” (p. 11). The God of Old Testament Israel, Yahweh, was standing among other (lesser, created) gods, other divine beings, and rendering judgment against them for defending those who live unjustly, for those who are partial to the wicked; he calls them to defend the weak and the orphans, to promote the cause of poor and oppressed persons, to rescue the week and needy, delivering them from the power of the wicked. The sentence: these unjust gods will die like mortals, their rule will vanish.

The gods of the nations

In the so-called Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32, NIV), we read these words:

7 Remember the days of old;
    consider the generations long past.
Ask your father and he will tell you,
    your elders, and they will explain to you.
8 When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
    when he divided all mankind,
he set up boundaries for the peoples
    according to the number of the sons of Israel.
9 For the Lord’s portion is his people,
    Jacob his allotted inheritance.

The “dividing all mankind” occurred in the “days of old,” according to the song writer; the story was passed along from generation to generation. The ‘giving of their inheritance to the nations’ occurred in a time long-passed. ‘Boundaries’ established for different peoples; Jacob, the people of Israel, was the Lord’s inheritance, other nations were were given to other gods to rule, namely the gods referred to in Psalm 82. The end of verse 8 (in the NIV, taken from one ancient textual tradition of the Old Testament, the MT, or Masoretic Text) that refers to the “sons of Israel” is, in another textual version, read as “sons of God” (the LXX, or Septuagint). [2]. How to decide which is the better choice of language: sons of Israel, or sons of God?

How can we decide between these two readings? The answer is to be found in the "dividing of mankind” (v. 8), a clear reference to Genesis 11:1-9, the Tower of Babel, where God "confused the language of whole world" and scattered the people “over the face of the whole earth. And, as Psalm 82 tells us, he assigned them as an inheritance to the council of the gods, different gods to rule over different nations, gods who became evil and unjust rulers.

Immediately afterwards, recounted in Genesis 12, God chooses Abram, promises that he will become the father of a great nation that is in turn to be a blessing to all nations (ethné). That nation came from Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel (Genesis 35:9-10), long after the assignment of the nations to the “sons of God” referenced in Deuteronomy 32. It is no wonder the nations surrounding Israel worshiped and served “other gods”; gods who abandoned their Creator, God Most High.

So what about Tahuania in the 21st Century AD?

Idols at Pachacamac

Last year this all fell into place for me. We were in Lima, on our way to the U.S. for meetings. One sunny afternoon on the Pacific coast we went to visit Pachacamac, an ancient South American worship center, which drew worshipers from all over the west-central region of the continent, spanning at least three different cultures through several hundreds of years, culminating with the Incas of Peru. Pyramids are being unearthed in Pachacamac, in effect ziggurats not unlike those of the ancient Near East, not unlike the Tower of Babel, with steps reaching to the heavens. Worshipers worshiping other gods, the rebellious gods of Psalm 82. In front of many of the ruined dwellings being unearthed stood the remnants of carved poles, the images of the gods to which the worshipers prayed.

These same gods are still worshiped today in the Amazon, in the likeness of spirits and serpents, rivers and trees, animals and river dolphins. We in the West would not think of bowing down to these powers. Instead we bow down to other powers: political, economic, military, even the powers of death such as abortion or suicide. Darkness still holds sway, even when we attempt to cover it with glitter and gold. Death still holds too many captive, like the kings of Egypt we build tombs to escape the ravages of death, but we fail. Only the resurrection of Jesus - announced by men and women like the Apostle Paul, his relatives, the husband and wife team of Andronicus and Junia (“outstanding among the apostles”), Barnabas, Priscilla and Aquila, or so many others of Paul's missionary team - brings the light of Jesus to the world.

We will look next at the light that shines in the darkness of Tahuania.

Notes:

[1] Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015.

[2] Michael S. Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God.” <http://www.thedivinecouncil.com/DT32BibSac.pdf>

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Is it too late to save Tahuania?

I was reminded this week by a friend of the Apostle Paul’s words to the church in Colosse, in a city for which there is no record in Acts of his having visited. His language is strong, powerful and needed, especially in the community where we work and train leaders: Nuevo Italia, upriver on the Ucayali in Peru.

"The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” [Colossians 1:15-18]

Two weeks ago, on a very hot, sunny Peru Amazon morning we visited the little indigenous village of Santa Ana, not far from our RiverWind Leadership Training Center. It was a short walk down a dust-and-sun-baked path, across a narrow bridge into a shabby little village. We had been warned that the people were careless and hostile, few of them worked their fields, almost no one sent their children to school, alcoholism - mostly from fermented sugar cane - dominated their lives. No church had ever been established in the village; no one came to the small church at our center.

When we entered the village, it seemed empty. We walked down the dusty main lane lined by worn and ragged thatched-roof buildings that passed for homes. All were empty. We found some ragged children, asked them where the people were. “At the end of the village,” came the reply. “A baby died last night.” We continued until we came to the house of mourning. A small table under the thatch, a shrouded baby barely a few months old, his head and body covered with a white cloth, the baby’s mother sitting disconsolately with her head bowed and hands clasped tightly, weeping despairingly beside her child’s lifeless body. He would need to be buried soon; the heat and humidity in this dank environment will soon claim her baby’s body, melting away into the unknown darkness of death.

Several men and women were passed out on the steps of the house, or on the ground. Children gathered around the body, half-burned and burning candles at the head and foot of the baby. Some older adults sat on the ground or a low bench a few feet away. The father greeted us unintelligibly, drunk on sugar cane. The very atmosphere reeked of loss, despair, hopelessness, mixed with grief and curiosity. We felt powerless, almost lost in this unfamiliar face of death.

In these communities along the river, in the thick impenetrable jungle, spiritual oppression is our constant antagonist. We need Colossians. We hunger for signs of Messiah Jesus’ supremacy. We long for Truth to be discovered, for Truth - resurrection Hope - to fill the hearts of children, of mothers and fathers and grandparents.

There are too many “things invisible”, but very real; too many “thrones” and “powers” and “rulers” and “authorities” fighting against the light, wreaking havoc in the lives of persons created in the image of God but who have lost their way, or never found the way; no one ever spoke it too them, never told them Paul’s message of good news, Jesus is King; Jesus is Lord; Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father, the Creator; Jesus has been given the Name that is above all names.

Whether it be alcohol, or grinding poverty, or bacteria laden river water, or disease without doctors, or blindness physical and spiritual; whether it is children lacking breakfast, men fishing all night in rivers running with chemical pollutants, mothers intoxicated by sugar cane, girls abused and abandoned by older men come from down-river cities to chain-saw the ancient trees; whether government and oil or logging companies’ economic gain harvesting the forest; whether unknown persons visiting the cemetery to pray to the spirits of the dead, shamans placing curses on one’s enemies for economic gain, villagers fearing the birds, the alligators, the dolphins, the trees, the rivers coming to serpent-life and stealing their few possessions, their children; the the thrones, powers, rulers, and authorities are all too real in this part of God’s creation.

Is it too late for Tahuania? Are the waters too contaminated by mercury from gold mining upriver? Are the logging companies destroying the ancient Amazon forest, its trees cut down and shipped out to distant markets for ill-gotten gain? Is God’s creation too degraded to recover? Are the people too steeped in witchcraft for there to be hope for the next generation?

"Once you [too - meaning me!] were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which [we, Dick and Ruth, and our leadership team, and you - our partners] have become…servant[s]. [Colossians 1:21-23]

This is why we are here. This is why we work in teams that are thoroughly cross-cultural. This is why we teach the Bible through it’s stories chronologically. This is why the indigenous men and women are taking the lessons they have learned and are living daily to other villages deeper in the jungle, finding people who have never heard the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and telling them that there need be no fear in death. This is why we serve and preserve creation, because it belongs to God. This is why we depend on the Holy Spirit to pray the prayers we do not know how to pray to the heart-searching Father [Romans 8].