Friday, December 23, 2005

Just a Baby 

The Old Testament prophets spoke frequently of the coming of the Messiah. Here's one such promise, from Isaiah 61:
1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God...

Like many of the passages that speak of the coming of the Messiah, this one associates God's vengeance with the coming of the Messiah. The one who is sent by God will bring vengeance on God's enemies.

God makes these kinds of promises very often in the Old Testament, promising that He will save His people from their enemies, and keep them safe when the Messiah comes. He promises that He will vindicate His good name and destroy God's enemies, who are also the enemies of the people of God. And it was for this reason that Christ came into the world, according to Mary's song of thankfulness to God recorded in Luke 1:46-55.

Now at the time that Jesus was born, the Roman Empire held sway over the Mediterranean world. The Roman Empire was probably the most powerful empire that had existed up to that point. And considering the technology that they had to work with, you might make a case that they were the most powerful empire that has ever existed. They were proud and cruel. They had destroyed many nations, and put many other nations under tribute. They were the uncontested masters of the Mediterranean world for over four centuries.

And besides the Romans, there were many other groups that hated God and His people. There were the Syrian kings who ruled Palestine in the name of the Romans, of whom Herod is the best known. There were also the Jewish religious rulers of the day, the Pharisees and the Saduccees, who would so often come into conflict with Jesus during His ministry.

The nations of the world were under the sway of Satan, and many of Israel's own people were under Satan's sway as well.

But God is God, and of course He will vindicate His good name. He has the power to flood the earth, send fire from heaven, strike men dead of disease or send His mighty angels to earth. One angel was sent against the Assyrian king Sennacherib, and in one night killed 185,000 of his men (2 Kings 19). He could send whole battalions of angels with shoulder-fired rocket launchers against His enemies if He so chose. But what did He do?

He sent a baby.

You are perhaps familiar with the expression, “I'll beat you with one hand tied behind my back.” Competitive people sometimes seek to prove their superiority by winning even while handicapped in some way. When God seeks to demonstrate His awesome power, He decided to destroy the nations of the world with only a baby.

There's nothing more helpless than a baby. The infants of the animal world are very often able to fend for themselves from the moment of birth. But a human baby will die in just a few hours without constant attention. It takes years before a baby is able to do the simplest things for itself.

And this particular baby was born to a poor couple away from home, in the territory of a king who so desperately wanted to hold onto his own power that he ordered all the babies from that region killed.

At Christmas time, we often focus on the nostalgia of childhood, the cute images of baby Jesus, the trappings of a sentimental religiosity. But God did not send Christ into the world to give us an appealing target for our nostalgia. He sent Christ into the world to save His people and destroy His enemies. And to demonstrate God's awesome power, He did all of this with the weakest of things, an infant.

Even when Christ grew, with all of His incredible power, He never used it for His own benefit. He never used it to strike down His enemies, as I very often want Him to do when I read the gospels. When conspired against by numerous powerful enemies, when betrayed and abandoned by His friends, He did nothing to defend Himself, but went as a lamb to the slaughter, looking to all the world as the weakest and most despised of men. And it was in this moment, of His greatest apparent weakness, that He struck the shattering death blow against the powers of all the world and Satan together.

People so often boast against God, if not in words then by our actions. We so often believe we can escape judgment, that we can defy God's laws and create our own kingdoms on earth free of His rule. When God moved to demonstrate the utter foolishness of trusting anyone or anything other than Him, He showed His immense power by laying in the dust all of the glories of earth. And He did it with the weakest of all things. No chariots, no horses, no armies. No lightning bolts, or fire and brimstone. No huge marketing campaigns, grand taxpayer-funded schemes, or well-funded lobbyists.

Just a baby.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Christian Liberty 

Discussions about Christian liberty all too often seem to focus merely on what it's not. I sometimes feel that the only thing some folks understand about liberty is not using it as an occasion to the flesh. “Liberty doesn't mean you should do whatever you want.” OK. I agree. But what does it mean?

Unfortunately, Christian liberty often seems to be presented as merely a matter of ethics, what we are and are not allowed to do, and as a secondary issue to the core of the faith. But Scripture says different. Our liberty is the core of the gospel. It is the gospel.

Galatians 5:1- “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”

What is the bondage that he is contrasting our liberty with? The previous passage speaks of the analogy of Hagar and Sarah, teaching that Hagar (Sarah's slave, given to Abraham as a concubine to try to achieve the promised offspring a different way since Sarah was too old to have children) is representative of the bondage to the law. This analogy is made explicitly. Hagar represents a covenant, made on Mount Sinai. That covenant was the Ten Commandments, and the whole system of law and religion that arose out of that. That covenant gives birth to bondage according to Paul.

Why is this so? Did God make a mistake? Did He give us something bad? Of course not. May it never be, as Paul says in another place. The fault, of course, lies in us. We are sinful, carnal, unable to keep that covenant. But Paul attributes our bondage to more than simply the obligation before God to be righteous, which we could never keep. He attributes it to circumcision, which is the emblem of the religion of Moses.

The Mosaic system was a system built around guilt. Every sin, every defilement, every shortcoming had to be faced, called to attention and dealt with. In every aspect of life they were reminded of their wickedness and their uncleanness, and had to constantly pay attention to every detail of their lives to avoid coming into contact with defiling things. All of the ceremonial aspects of the law simply called attention to the fact that they lay under a great weight of sin, a weight which was constantly accumulating. The only possibility for dealing with this sin was in throwing oneself on the mercy of God.

Those Old Testament saints who had faith in God's word knew this. They knew that the sacrificial system was not a way of clearing away their sin debt with God. The sacrificial system could not reconcile them with Jehovah. Their sins had not been ceremonial sins; how could they be reconciled to God with ceremonial observances? And so David says, after his terrible lapse, Psalm 51:16-17
“For you do not desire sacrifice, else would I give it: You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart -- These, O God, You will not despise.”

The sacrificial system, rather, kept in front of them their guilt. It highlighted to them the impossibility of ever achieving freedom. It brought them into bondage.

Abraham, unable to father a child through Sarah, attempted to father a child through Sarah's slave, Hagar. The result of this union was Ishmael. Ishmael was not the child of the promise, and in fact mocked Isaac when he was born and was an oppressor and enemy to Israel all their days. Sarah said, when Isaac was born, that the child of bondage shall not be heir with the child of the free, and Abraham, recognizing the wisdom of this statement, sent Ishmael and Hagar out of his house.

It was after the birth of Ishmael, when God told Abraham that the child would come by Sarah, and by promise, not by the works of the flesh, that God gave the rite of circumcision. Circumcision, according to Romans 4, was a sign of Abraham's faith in God's promises, but it was not given when he first showed that faith, but rather when he attempted to accomplish God's promise by his own efforts. It was therefore a reminder to Abraham that he could not make God's promise happen by his own effort. It was a reminder of guilt. And so, Peter says in Acts 15 that circumcision, and the whole regime which it symbolized, was a burden which neither he nor his fathers could bear, and Paul says in Galatians 5:2 that if we are circumcised, then Christ does not profit us. Not that the physical act itself has significance, but that if we look to circumcision and the observance of the law as the means by which we will achieve the promise of God, then we fail to understand circumcision, we fail to understand our need for a redeemer, and that redeemer who has come will not benefit us at all.

The child of the promise, the child of the freewoman, was Isaac. Isaac came by the power of God alone, miraculously rejuvenating Sarah's body who was far past the time of childbearing. We become free when we recognize that it is God's power which accomplishes God's promise.

But every creature of God has an intended purpose. Our purpose was to glorify God by reflecting His image. Being free means being at liberty to be what we are intended to be. We don't make a fish free by throwing him up on land. The fish is free when it's in the stream, where it's supposed to be. When Christ freed us, he freed us from the curse of the law, and from the bondage of sin. No longer does Sinai loom over us constantly reminding us of our worthlessness and defilement. But does that mean we can now revel in our worthlessness and defilement without worry? If we understand our liberty, we understand that it means that having been freed from that condemnation, the way is now open to us through Christ by the power of the Spirit to become what we are supposed to be.

Romans 5:14ff makes it clear that men were in bondage long before the law of Moses was ever given. This is because the Law of Moses was simply the amplification and restatement of the law of God which is written on the hearts of men. To be free from that law requires being free from sin itself.

Jesus says that he who sins is the slave of sin. Being free in Christ must ultimately mean being free from sin. But if we go back to the law as the means of achieving that freedom, we again come into bondage. The law teaches us about the moral nature of God, and when freed from the curse of condemnation, the law plays an important part in the life of the believer, showing us that intended state. But it will never provide us with the power to achieve that state. It is the gospel of Christ, ministered to us by the Spirit of God, which provides that power.

So if we were to use our liberty as an excuse for vice, it is not that we are taking liberty too far. We are failing to understand liberty. We are failing to understand what it is that we have been freed from. We are not called to be free just a little bit. We are called (John 8:36) to be free indeed. That is, not freed just partially, not freed just in some respects, not freed just in appearance. Free indeed, in reality, completely. Free to be what we are intended to be.

And to do this, according to Paul in Galatians, it is necessary to cast out the bondwoman and her son. What is the bondwoman? The covenant on Sinai. What is her son? Bondage engendered by that covenant. Guilt. A covenant is a means of disbursing some benefit or blessing. The blessing promised by the covenant was perfection and fellowship with God. The means of achieving that was law-keeping (Exodus 19:5; Deut 4-6). We must accept the New Covenant, which is in the blood of Christ (Matthew 26:26; Luke 22:20). The end is exactly the same- fellowship with God and perfection. But the means could not be more different. It is accomplished by God's promise of grace and forgiveness, not by our righteousness.

The New Testament worship reflects this. We have a worship focusing on grace, not on guilt. We have a worship constantly holding before us the forgiveness of sins, and the new glorious path of freedom which now stretches before us, the path which leads to heaven and perfection, and fellowship with Christ.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Different kinds of sneezes 

Katie was helping Andrea put away the groceries tonight. She was carrying in a box of crackers, which I was explaining were fancy crackers. She said some were for her and some were for me. Then she sneezed. She's not great about covering her mouth under the best of circumstances, but with her hands full, the cracker box bore the full brunt of the sneeze.

I said, Oh, now they're sneezed on.

She said, It's OK, it's just a little sneeze water.

I said, Oh, good, that's a relief.

She sneezed again. (Her old man's a double sneezer too.) But apparently she sensed a difference this time.

That was a booger sneeze, she said.

Remember people, she's only three and a half. Don't condemn her. If you have to condemn someone, condemn me. But a kid needs encouragement at that age.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Christmas day services 

I see a note on Fox News regarding the closure of services on Christmas in many churches.

I hold Calvin's position, which I would also say is the Bible's position (elucidated in Col. 2:16-17 and Romans 14:5-6, and other places), that no day is religiously different than any other. We cancel services occasionally in a small church like mine for various reasons, including the services this last Sunday because power was out due to a storm. I don't really see why, if most of your congregation is going to be gone from church for family reasons, it would be of itself sinful to cancel services. Unwise perhaps, but not sinful. We would never say that an individual family is sinning by being gone one Sunday because of travel. So if the church collectively makes that same decision when a large majority of the church is traveling, why is that different?

It seems to me to say otherwise is to run the risk of falling into a ceremonial view of the Lord's day. I believe the appointment of Sunday, one day in seven, for worship is an ordinance of the church for the purposes of good order. I believe that the individual believer has a duty to support the church, to be present for the stated meetings of the church, and not to neglect public worship. The individual believer is also to submit to the ordinances of the church. But to make a day like Christmas into a "holy day", or to make the first day of the week a "holy day" and then judge others for observing that day differently, I believe is to fall afoul of Paul's instruction to us in Colossians 2:16-17:

16 Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day--
17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.

UPDATE: I want to make it clear what I'm not saying. Some of those canceling their services are quoted saying things like "you don't have to be at church to worship" which, while true in one sense, serves to denigrate the importance of the public worship service. That is not my position at all. The Sunday services are of great importance and should be regarded as such by every believer.

My point is that canceling services on Christmas for valid reasons should be regarded as religiously no different as canceling services on any other day for equally valid reasons.

Why Jim Berg? 

Amazon thinks, apparently on the strength of my wish list and books that I have purchased from them, that I should by Jim Berg's book, _Changed Into His Image_. I actually already have it, but haven't read it yet. Has anyone else? What do you think about it? Is Amazon right?

Update: Never mind. Now I remember that I bought Jim Berg's other book, _Created for His Glory_, but haven't read it yet. That's why they're recommending his other book.

But I'd still be interested in anyone's opinion, if you've read it.

Buy me something! 

Here's the list.

If you're wondering whether or not this applies to you, it probably doesn't. If you're not sure, but would like it to apply to you, it does.

Just so everyone knows, some of these books are there because I am very interested in what they have to say, and some are there because I need to find out just exactly why they're so bad. I'm not going to tell you which is which.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

New Sermons 

This week's sermon post is from Acts 21, entitled "The Guidance of the Holy Spirit". It shows how Paul was guided by the Spirit, how it is possible to be wrong in our interpretation of the Holy Spirit's guidance, and how to be accurate in our assessment of what we think the Holy Spirit is telling us. As always, the link is on the sidebar, or click here.

Naked Partisanship, Or, Why I Really Shouldn't Listen To BBC News Ever Again 

I heard an absolutely terrible story on BBC yesterday, on their show "The World".

Here's the audio, though I have not found a transcript. It was an obvious attack on the Bush administration, giving all but the last twelve seconds or so of the story to "9-11 Commission" and their harangue of the Bush administration. The 9-11 Commission, which has been disbanded as a government entity but which continued on in a private capacity, thinks that the government has completely failed to protect us from terrorist attacks, giving them D's and F's in a variety of different aspects of the analysis.

But- and I know this might be a little too "reality-based" for some- there haven't been any attacks.

Apparently we've just been lucky. Apparently Al-Qaeda (invigorated, we're told, by the war in Iraq) just doesn't want to attack us here anymore, preferring to attack our servicemen and women, but not our civilians. Apparently they do want to kill Spanish civilians, and Indonesian civilians, and Iraqi civilians, and British civilians, but not American civilians, for some reason. I am sure it simply isn't possible that the reason we haven't had a terrorist attack on our home territory since 2001 has nothing at all to do with the government's efforts.

They quoted Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism analyst from The Center for Strategic and International Studies saying that "the White House believes its own rhetoric" that if we fight the terrorists abroad we won't have to fight them here. First, I would question whether that is, in fact, their rhetoric, precisely. But it certainly has been the idea that taking the fight to them would decrease their ability to attack us here. And more importantly, would they prefer that the Bush administration was lying when they laid out their strategy? Would they prefer the White House's policies to be just rhetoric, that had no actual bearing on their real positions and policies?

This so-called analyst even talked about the clear evidence that Al-Qaeda would like to attack us again, without any talk at all about why they have so obviously failed to do so.

The only quote given to the other side, in a story almost four minutes long, was from Dan Bartlett, White House spokesman, pointing out that there hadn't been an attack in four years. But even that paraphrase was devoid of any analysis and was not allowed to stand on its own strength. They also quoted him saying that we can't rest on our laurels.

It seems clear to me that we aren't.

Interestingly, I originally was writing this piece thinking it was an NPR piece. I went and listened to the NPR story from "All Things Considered". While still basically accepting uncritically this commission's statements (remember, it's bipartisan), it was a good deal more fair than the Beeb's pathetic excuse for journalism.

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