Monday, November 29, 2010

The Virgin Birth 

“Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit; Born of the Virgin Mary”

Jesus’ birth was not a normal birth.  It was something very special, in fact, utterly unique.  This only happened this one time.  The child who was conceived in Mary was conceived by a miracle, by the power of God. 
Does this matter?  Many Christians today don’t believe that it’s very important whether Jesus was in fact virgin-born or not.  What matters, they tell us, is that we believe what Jesus taught us about loving one another.  It is of course very important that we believe what Jesus taught us, but the essence of Christianity isn’t first and foremost the teachings of Jesus; it is the life and work of Jesus.  The teachings of Jesus show us the meaning of His life and work.  The most important thing for Christians to know is not “what would Jesus do?”  It’s “what did Jesus do?”
What He did is this: He came to earth to die for our sins, to pay the price for our failure to be what we were created to be, servants of God.  Further, He came to be the perfect substitute, to be the obedient servant that we failed to be.  His righteousness therefore becomes our righteousness.  It is imputed to us, counted to us.  When we have faith in Jesus, God regards us as being as righteous as Jesus Himself.
This is only possible if Jesus was not just another regular person.  He had to be special.  Why would Jesus succeed in living the perfect life if He was just another man like the billions who had gone before or have come since?  He succeeded because He wasn’t just another man; He was the Son of God, God Himself, who took on human nature in order to come to earth to redeem humankind from our sins.  Only as God Himself would He have the power and strength to overcome the sinful nature of fallen man and do what nobody else could do: live the perfect human life, be the perfect servant of God, and be able to carry the whole burden of God’s wrath against sin, which He did on the cross.
Jesus’ birth shows us something very important.  There is, as everyone knows, a big problem with the human race.  All of the wars and evil that we experience, all of the misery and despair that we endure, all of the disease and disasters that befall us point to this problem.  People have tried endlessly to come up with theories and implement schemes that will solve our problems.  Many believe that if only we elect the right politician, pass the right laws, discover the right scientific breakthrough or find some other solution, we can finally solve our problems.  Others believe there is no solution, that humanity is simply doomed to be what it is.  But Jesus’ birth shows us that being human is not the problem.  God created humans, and He created them good.  The problem is sin; we rebelled against God and suffer for that rebellion.  Jesus showed that a real, true human could, by the power of God, overcome that sin and be what God had intended for humans to be.  Jesus is the Son of God, born of a virgin.  His true Father is God, not Joseph, and by the power of God He overcame sin.  As a result, that power is available to all of us through faith in Jesus.
That’s why Christmas matters.  That’s why the story of the shepherds, the angels, the wise men, the star and all the rest of it is significant.  Christ’s birth is the means by which God will “save His people from their sins.”
Sometimes we’re reminded during the holiday season to “keep Christ in Christmas.”  But it is just as important to keep Christmas in Christianity.  When we think of ourselves as Christians, we cannot forget how important it is that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary.”  If He was not, if He was just another man, then we are not saved from our sins.  Christianity without the virgin birth is just another set of platitudes and well-wishes at best, and at worst is a manipulative deception.
And as far as “keeping Christ in Christmas,” all we have to do is keep Christ in our hearts all year, and He cannot be anything but the center of Christmas for us as well.  Christmas is not some cultural artifact, some abstract element of our heritage.  It is and must always be a central part of our faith as Christians.  We cannot expect people who do not share our faith all year round to share it during that one season of the year.  Christ will only be in Christmas when Christ is the center of our lives the rest of the year as well.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Not Ba'al, but Ishi 

In Hosea 2:16, we read:

 16 "And it shall be, in that day," Says the LORD, "That you will call Me 'My Husband,' And no longer call Me 'My Master,' 17 For I will take from her mouth the names of the Baals, And they shall be remembered by their name no more.

In the first three chapters of Hosea, God has used the figure of an unfaithful marriage extensively to describe his relationship with Israel.  Israel has consorted with foreign gods, and is therefore guilty of adultery against her true husband, Jehovah.  Judgment is promised for this.  But restoration is also promised.  God says that He will put Israel in the wilderness, with a double purpose- to punish her for her unfaithfulness, but also to cut her off from her temptations in order to allure her back to Him.  It is in this context that verses 16 and 17, quoted above, appear.

The startling thing that we see in this passage is that the foreign gods that Israel worshiped were not even the real problem.  The real problem was that Israel's relationship with Jehovah was wrong from the beginning, in a way that guaranteed idolatry.  The word "master" in Hebrew is "Ba'al", which is what they called the foreign gods as well.  A "ba'al" was a master, a superior from which one could gain certain benefits if one propitiated or pleased him in the right way.  It is evident from our text, and evident from Israel's history, that this is the way they viewed their relationship with Jehovah.  But if they worship Jehovah in this way, then it is essentially self-centered; they worship God for what they can get out of Him.  If they do that, then idolatry is inevitable.  They will seek to maximize their benefit and control by worshiping other gods as well.  Israel is like the girl that keeps several suitors on the hook at once, keeping them competing with one another, because she gets the most gifts and luxuries that way.

Instead of this, God is calling Israel to a different kind of relationship.  He says, "You will call me 'my husband'" instead.  This is the term ishi in Hebrew, also meaning "man".  My man, my husband- this is the relationship Israel is called to have with God.  It is a personal, intimate, and loving relationship.  It is a relationship of delight, desire and selflessness.

God told Abraham, "I am your exceeding great reward."  God's people pursue Him rightly for the beauty and glory of what He is, not because of what He can give us.  If we're in it for the benefits, then we will always stray.  We will seek to maximize those benefits, in the foolishness of our minds, by dipping one toe in this pond and another in that.  Of course the result of this is, as we all know, that we end up with nothing.  The girl keeping all the different suitors interested in her, and never committing to any of them, will eventually lose them all.  They will figure out that she is just using them.  Such a selfish, self-serving approach is disastrous in our personal lives, and it is disastrous for our religious lives as well.  As long as God is ba'al to us, our relationship is wrong.  Because we're still trying to be in the driver's seat, trying to be in control, deciding what to give God in return for which benefits, always holding myself back from total commitment.  Syncretism and faithlessness is a given when this is the approach I take to God.

God will not be "ba'al" to us, a sugar daddy that gives us what we want, and we just have to jump through a few hoops, subscribe to the right creeds, go to the right church, in order to keep Him propitiated.  He will be "ishi", husband to us, and bless us with Himself first and foremost.  Many wonderful things come to us in that relationship.  But we need to learn to desire God for who He is, not for what He can give us.

Revelation 21 and 22 list many wonderful things in heaven.  Streets of gold, no sickness or hunger, no conflict and the like.  But the first thing that's mentioned, the first wonderful thing in heaven, is this:

Revelation 21: 2 Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
 3 And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, "Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God.

The best thing about heaven is that God is there.  All the rest of it is just icing on the cake, or to look at it another way, just a description of what it is like to be in the presence of God.  As John Piper said most memorably in _God is the Gospel_, would you want to be in heaven if God were not there?

Of course not, because without God, it wouldn't be heaven.  Put away the ba'als from your mind.  There's no such thing.  God will never be made to serve us, no matter how many religious observances we perform or how many good works we do.  But if we are His, He will allure us back to Him, teaching us to love Him, delight in Him and desire Him above all else.  He is the true reward.  Without Him, nothing else matters.

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