Friday, December 23, 2011

Why Christmas?

Yesterday I had every intention of posting my final blog post before the Christmas season but all the running around that I had to do left me short of time. I have just read three seemingly unrelated blog posts that I wanted to share. I also think that they do have a connection in that they lead one into another.

The first one is a posting by Kevin DeYoung on Hell and Satan.  He sets out to answer some of life's toughest questions. Why is there so much suffering in the world?

He answers this through the book of Revelation:

 [T]he devil hates the gospel and hates all those who love and obey the gospel.  The passage above is the literal and symbolic center of the book of Revelation. For eleven chapters the Spirit shows us tempted churches, suffering churches, judgments on the earth, conflict in the world, and the call for God’s people to overcome.  In chapter 12 the curtain gets pulled back so we can see what is going on behind the scenes.  Why all this struggle and suffering? What is behind this war of the worlds? The answer is that the devil is hell bent on destroying the church.

I don't know that suffering ultimately makes sense outside of a very real devil. Yes we are a fallen and sinful people but we must also account for Satan in order to get a complete picture of all that comes into play. 

So what can we do about it? If our adversary is very real then how can we deal with what we face?  Simply put by my good friend from seminary, we can't. Brad Kautz examines the difference between looking with ourselves and looking to God for our answers:

 In Advent we await a person, sent by God to serve not as “an” intermediary between the natural and supernatural, but as “the” intermediary. Jesus came as God’s only begotten, or “fathered by,” son, of whom Paul testifies in these words, “concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” We don’t need to find some sort of “inner presence” and believe that we have a mediator because God has already provided us with the only mediator, a mediator who is also perfect in every way.

We find our hope and help in Christ Jesus alone.

Finally Trevin Wax shares the importance of not trying to rely on celebrity pastors. We cannot go it alone and merely listen to a disembodied voice. Christianity requires relationships; relationships with each other but most importantly we need to have a very real and close relationship with God the Father:

I remember reading Collin Hansen’s book on the “young, restless, and reformed” a few years ago and being disturbed by one woman’s description of John Piper as a “father” of sorts, even though they’d never met. Fathers image God. The fact that a young lady could express the concept of spiritual fatherhood in relation to Piper shows what her view of God the Father is. Far off. Transcendent. Powerful. Distant. If fatherhood can take place without ever meeting, then we must have missed something about the immanence of God that expresses itself in God’s condescension to us in Christ.

These three posts spell out our problem, our savior and our need for community. All three together speak to why we have Christmas.

Hope everyone has a very merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Herod's troubling public promise

The story of how John the Baptist was killed is a strange story and was a part of my Bible reading today. John the Baptist did not shy away from controversy or confrontation. He has one of my favorite lines in the Bible: "You brood of vipers." It is such a colorful way to describe how he felt about the Pharisees and Sadducees coming out for baptism. He knew that they were doing it merely for the show and not because they were truly being repentant. So he called them a brood of vipers. I find it creative and intelligent. 

But that wasn't the only place that John confronted someone. He also told King Herod exactly what he was thinking as well. King Herod had married his brothers ex-wife, Herodias and John the Baptist was very vocal about it being wrong:

It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.

So Herod had him arrested and thrown in jail. While John might not have been afraid to tell Herod what he thought, you always take a risk when speaking boldly about the the king and his wife.

Herod both feared the people–they thought John was a prophet–and he actually had some fear of John himself. Herod thought that John was a righteous man and would actually take time to listen to John. Herodias, on the other hand, wanted John dead. Would it surprise you that this caused some friction between Herod and Herodias?

Turns out that Herod made a bad move. He was throwing his own birthday party and had invited noblemen, military commanders and important men in Galilee. As part of the party entertainment Herod's 12 or 14 year old stepdaughter Salome danced.

This wasn't some dance recital piece that she had been working on for the school talent show:

For when Herodias's daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests.

Herod was pleased so much and in such a way that he vowed to give Salome what ever she wanted up to half of his kingdom. It was a boastful promise and probably a figure of speech. Salome ran out to ask her mother what to ask for and Herodias said:

The head of John the Baptist.

This part of the story reads as if Herodias had put her daughter up to dancing for all the men at the party. I doubt that Herod and Herodias were winning any parents of the year awards. 

Herod was greatly troubled when Salome came back and asked for John's head on a platter:

And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her.

Herod ended up giving Salome John's head on a platter and Salome gave it to her mom.

As depraved as Herod was, we can learn something from him. There is a lot of power in a promise made in public. These promises can work both for us and against us. We need to be careful what we promise to people. (Just ask George Bush Sr. about how making a very public promise can work against you.) We shouldn't make promises that are going to be difficult for us to keep. But they can also work for us. The power of a public promise–even if that promise is only made to one or two other people–is the very basis of how accountability works. As Christians when we are struggling with something often times it is much easier to over come those struggles with the help of someone else.

To that end I am making a public promise. The time between Christmas Eve and New Years Day is reserved for my family. This means that I am not going to be doing things that take me away from spending time with family. My wife is off that week and so this means that I will be taking that time off from blogging. So if any of you catch me breaking this promise please hold me accountable.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Lesson to learn from Sam Hurd

For those that do not follow professional football–specifically the Chicago Bears–may not know the name Sam Hurd. The Bears season started off so promising. They were 7-3 and looked like a lock for the playoffs. Then came the injuries to QB Jay Cutler and RB Matt Forte. Backup QB Caleb Hanie has been bad. Tim Tebow Tebowed the Bears. Now WR Johnny Knox suffered a devastating back injury. Four losses in a row and the wheels have fallen off.

But one of the wackiest things to have happened in the last four weeks was the arrest of Bears WR Sam Hurd. Last week Sam Hurd tried to set up buying 5 to 10 kilograms of cocaine and 1000 pounds of marijuana a week from a federal agent. That is a lot of drugs. It means that Hurd was a pretty big player in the drug world. 

The sports commentary world was filled with accusations that the Bears management didn't do enough of a background check before signing Hurd and questions about how much Hurd's teammates knew. Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo said the following:

"We have a very sound and tested methodology that we go about researching all players in college to veteran free agents," Angelo said. "We spend an inordinate amount of time on character, making sure we know the player as well as we can.

"But no system is foolproof. For me to say we should have known something that we didn't know, I can't say that in this case. There's no foundation for anybody to say that. There are no facts, there are no flags that anybody could present tangibly to say we should have known otherwise.

"I want to make that perfectly clear to the public, to our fans. … We did everything you could possibly do given the information (we had)."

And I believe him. The Bears can only find out so much info. Yes there were some questions about Hurd's character just prior to the Bears signing him. But the Bears are a football team and not the FBI or DEA. And this story also shows us just how little we can know about others.

Sports columnist Vance McClure wrote an article in the Chicago Tribune outlining this very thing. He relates the story of Muhsin Muhammad's relationships with teammates Ray Carruth–convicted of conspiracy to commit murder–and Nate Newton–convicted of drug possession. The story about how Muhammad had no idea that Carruth was involved in planning the murder of his pregnant girlfriend it astounding. Muhammad and Carruth spent a couple of hours together playing video games the very night that Carruth's girlfriend was murdered. Muhammad was even a character witness for Carruth. Muhammad thought he knew his good friend was not capable of doing such a thing.

Bears teammates say the same thing about Hurd. They thought that he was just a good guy and a hard working football player.

I am sure that as Hurd's teammates look back, they might see some things that in retrospect were suspicious.  But I think that the important lesson to learn is that the bad guys rarely walk around looking like bad guys. Paul tells us that the same is true when it comes to Satan in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15:

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.

This doesn't mean that we should be skeptical of everyone. Being cynical is not a great way to live. Rather it means that integrity is not a once in a while thing. Integrity is something that is long-term. This means that if we want to be people of integrity that we cannot let our guard down.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Top 5 Christmas Movies

I remember going and seeing A Christmas Story in the theater with my grandfather and brother. It was a great movie and it has been rare that Christmas has gone by without me watching it again. But what I remember most about the very first time I saw it was my brother got sick in the car on the way home from my grandfather's house. We were half way home.

I haven't watched any of my favorite Christmas movies yet this year which means that I really need to get on the ball.

So I thought that I would share with you my all-time favorites that I will need to watch before the end of the year.

First is the previously mentioned A Christmas Story. What kid from the 80s doesn't want a Red-Rider BB Gun?

Next is the classic It's a Wonderful Life. When I was young this one would drive me nuts. It was always on. It was on just about every channel at the same time. Why couldn't they just show a cartoon special? But now I love it. Yes it is cheesy but that's the point. I think that it is a great story about not underestimating your importance.

My third favorite is A Charlie Brown Christmas. The movie does a good job of speaking against the commercialism of Christmas. It was written in 1965 and seems even more relevant today. It would be interesting to hear what Charles Schultz would think of all the Christmas creep we see now.

The fourth movie would be How the Grinch Stole Christmas! I do not like the remake, I do not like it, Sam-I-am. Nope. It has to be the old cartoon. It is a plain and simple message. Don't be a Christmas hater.

Finally I will watch Elf. Yes it doesn't have the staying power of the others. I agree that it won't end up being a classic. But it is funny and fun to watch. Besides it is the best thing to watch while eating something from the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The loss of Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens passed away last night. He was one of the "new" atheists that went on the offensive when it came to his conviction that Christianity was not only wrong but harmful to the world. Yet because of my studies over the past 5 years I have not followed Christian Apologetics very closely. Which means that I was only aware of Hitchens' atheist apologetics work through a few Christian responses to him. I did hear anecdotally that while he could be very harsh towards his opponents during a debate, he was also very sharp and very thoughtful.

I was just reminded that he was dying of cancer a couple of days ago in a thoughtful article by Justin Taylor. And I was greatly saddened by the news of his passing that greeted me this morning.

Doug Wilson, one of Hitchens debate partners, wrote an excellent article in response to Hitchens' death. It is both thoughtful and respectful piece that should be a model for all Christians whenever we are dealing with the death of someone that was so obviously an enemy of Christianity. We as Christians should never rejoice in the death of anyone, especially someone that we suspect has died apart from Christ. (Wilson details Hitchens concerns of false rumors of a deathbed conversion being spread.) 

The Bible makes it clear that dying without the forgiveness for our sins that only Jesus can provide is not a pleasant experience. I don't wish that on anyone. I would greatly prefer that even the worst people in the world would turn away from the evil that they do and towards God. It doesn't matter what they have done. I would rather that they repent and find forgiveness. 

I also do not find any great joy or pleasure that such a great opponent to Christianity is gone. There is no singing "Ding, dong the witch is dead."

What may sound a bit counter intuitive at first, I think that smart and worthy challenges to Christianity are a good thing. In the past I have enjoyed listening to how Christianity stacks up in the arena of ideas. As Christians we are supposed to have good reasons for what we believe and not a subjective or blind faith. To that end, I dislike bad arguments for Christianity just as much as I dislike bad arguments against it. If we as Christians really believe that Christianity is the truth then we should never be afraid of any challenges to it. If Christianity is the truth it will be borne out to be the true. This doesn't mean that we will not hear challenges that will initially cause us to pause. Some of these challenges will take some very careful thinking to get through. There will also be those challenges that may cause us to modify certain ancillary beliefs. But ultimately the core of Christianity will hold fast.

It just saddens me that Christopher Hitchens will no longer be a part of that discussion.

Photo from Vanity Fair.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Patrick Kane's Wild Ride

The only thing that I miss about not having cable is watching sports. So I missed the Blackhawks game last night but imagine my surprise this morning when this highlight was just waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Test Post

For some reason the Blockquoting in my posts are lost in translation. When I type the post and add a quote from someone:

How else would I know that this is a quote unless it was offset?

It is supposed to be moved in from the margin and in italics. But for some reason it has not been working lately. I have been embedding photos in my blog and so I am wondering if that is the culprit. So I am trying this very simple post to see if the formatting will work right.

You might find this post a bit dull and want to read some of my other posts. On the otherhand you may find this more engaging than most of my posts. If that is the case then just keep rereading this one. 

Is God a Tebow fan?

Talk about Tim Tebow and his faith are quite often taking over every  football conversation. There is the question of whether or not God is playing any part in what have been unbelievable comeback victories for the Denver Broncos. As a Chicago Bears fan I was a first-hand witness to one of these improbable games.

Owen Strachan has a great article on whether or not God has had a hand in these games. The main point he makes is that God does but not in the way that we may initially think. Strachan states:

God oversees and ordains all that comes to pass. This includes, as surprising as it may initially seem, football games. The outcome of every football game ever been played was planned by the all-wise, all-seeing mind of God. But this is not saying what some might think. God has also planned every haircut you've ever had, and every shopping trip you've ever taken. He is lord of football, and he is lord of produce. Nothing happens outside of his sovereign direction.

We err, though, if we equate his general superintendence of this world---the falling of sparrows, the numbering of hairs---with the special working of his kingdom. This is what Costas seems to be protesting, and in a much fuller sense than he understands. God has a special interest in promoting his gospel and building his church (John 3:16; Rom. 10; Eph. 1). This is not to say that he is uninterested in the ordinary things of the world, but rather to note that the mission of salvation begun after Adam's fall holds preeminence for God and, by extension, for his followers.

We must also say that for Tebow, the way he plays football is necessarily a matter of God's glory. In the same way that God gains glory through the work of a faithful accountant, a sacrificial, sleep-deprived mother, and a repentant cellist, God gains glory through righteous athletes who work hard in his name and seek to be a light in dark places. God directs the life and exploits of Tim Tebow, football hero. But he also directs Owen Strachan, Boyce College professor, or my friend Colin LeCroy, a Dallas lawyer, or my friend Emily Duffus, an Atlanta schoolteacher. Tebow may reach more people in his work, but we are all working for the glory of God, who directs and blesses our work so as to magnify his name.

God is not a Tebow or Bronco fan in the same way that you or I may be a sports fan. Rather God does play a part in every sports team victory not because he is a fan of any particular team but rather because he has a greater plan in action. We may not understand why God allows certain things to happen. But it doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility that God has had a hand in Tebow's improbable run simply to get more people talking about God and faith issues.

Further Listening:
Former wide receiver Chris Carter on the Mike and Mike show. He makes the point at the 42:33 mark that you cannot separate Tim Tebow from his faith. Listen here

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Are there mistakes in your Bible translation? Part 2

Today I would like to continue dealing with Dr. Hoffman's article Five Mistakes In Your Bible Translation. You can read the first part of this series here.

As I stated yesterday Dr. Hoffman points out what he calls five mistakes in Bible translations. The three of the "mistakes" are merely part of the translation process due to the fact that translation work is not merely replacing word for word. Part of the issue is that both Greek and Hebrew grammar structure is very different than English. A Bible that strictly followed a word-for-word pattern would be–at best–very difficult to read. Dr. Hoffman also gave two examples where the wrong words were used in the translation. 

Yesterday I covered Dr. Hoffman's assertion that Isaiah 7:14 mistakenly uses the word virgin instead of young woman. This passage is very popular in the Advent season because it was quoted by Matthew in regards to the birth of Jesus. The other example of this that Dr. Hoffman talks about is his assertion that the Tenth Commandment is not saying that we should not "covet." He says:

The tenth Commandment, commonly but wrongly translated as "thou shalt not covet," illustrates how internal structure or etymology can be misleading. Like the English "host" and "hostile" that share a root but don't mean the same thing, the words for "desirable" and "take" in Hebrew come from the same root. It's the second word, "take," that appears in the Ten Commandments. But translators, not recognizing that related words can mean different things in this way, misunderstood the Hebrew and wrongly translated the text as "thou shalt not covet" for what should have been "thou shalt not take."

Dr. Hoffman doesn't go into great detail in this article but rather has a linked video (I read the transcript via Read It Later) that goes into greater depth. In that video Dr. Hoffman says:

The Hebrew verb in the 10th commandment (or, for some, the 9th and 10th commandments) is chamad. As usual, we learn what the word means by looking at how it is used elsewhere.

The clearest case against "covet" is Exodus 34:24, which has to do with the three pilgrimage holidays, for which the Israelites would leave their homes and ascend to Jerusalem. Exodus 34:24 promises that no one will chamad the Israelites land when they leave for Jerusalem to appear before God.

It's absurd to think that the Israelites were worried about leaving their land for a while because other people would then desire it. After all, other people could desire the land whether or not the Israelites were around.

So it's pretty clear that chamad doesn't mean "covet" or "desire" there.

Dr. Hoffman is exactly correct. We do learn what a particular word means by looking at how it is used elsewhere. He goes on to detail five different places where the Hebrew word Chamad (think BaCH, very hard CH from the bottom of your throat) is used. In those places he states that they support what he understands to be the meaning of the word. His understanding is that the word means "to take" and not "to covet or desire." But he ignores the thirteen other places (not counting the two places where it is used in the context of the Ten Commandments) that the word Chamad occurs. Why might he do this?

My guess is that to replace covet or desire in those passages with take would make even less sense than it does in two of his examples. These passages run counter to the point he is trying to make.

But even the passages that he cites do not actually make his point. 

In both Deuteronomy 7:25 and Joshua 7:21 Dr. Hoffman wants to replace the word "covet" with "take." But he never gives his full English translation of those versed. Based upon what he is saying in the video here are how the passages would read:

Deuteronomy 7:25 – The carved images of their gods you shall burn with fire. You shall not take the silver of the gold that is on them or take it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared by it, for it is an abomination to the Lord your God.

Joshua 7:21 – When I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels, then I took them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.

That just does not make sense. Dr. Hoffman states:

Just from this context, the verb could mean covet, but other than our preconceptions of what the text should mean, we see nothing to suggest that translation.

But that is exactly what we see when we look at how the word is used elsewhere.

Genesis 2:9 tells us that every tree in the garden was pleasing (Chamad) to look at and good for food.

Genesis 3:6 tells us that Eve saw that the tree produced fruit that was desirable (Chamad) for making people wise.

Job 20:20 says that an evil man with not let anything he desires (Chamad) escape from him.

Psalms 19:10 tells us that the Law of God is more desirable (Chamad) than gold or the sweetest honey.

I could go on but the point is that we do need to look at how a word is used in other places in order to get a sense of what it means. And all of these passages would not make any sense using some form of the word "take." That doesn't mean that the same word cannot mean different things at times. (That is one hot dog. That is one cool cat.) However, it seems to me to be pretty clear that Dr. Hoffman is mistaken in claiming that the Tenth Commandment is an error in translation.

I would suggest is that our understanding of what it means to covet or desire as used through out the Bible might be deficient. The usage of the word seems to convey more than merely wanting something; more than merely wanting something a lot. It seems to mean that we want something so much that we start to scheme how to get it...even if we never actually take it. And that is still a sin.

Further reading:
Here are all the places that Chamad is used in the Bible.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Are there mistakes in your Bible translation? Part 1

Over the weekend I came across the sensationally titled article Five Mistakes in Your Bible Translation on the Huffington Post website. It grabbed my attention and I decided that it was something that I must look into. So I read the article. I even read a number of the linked articles. And I have come to the conclusion that Dr. Joel Hoffman is really straining at gnats in order to make a name for himself.

The problem is that a headline like Five Mistakes in Your Bible Translation is, like most headlines, designed to grab your attention with a shocking statement. It is also not very often that the average person is going to read something about how translation work is done. So it seems to me that this particular headline was meant more to shake people's faith convictions than to convey the idea that every translation also includes some interpretation. This means that translation work is not merely a one for one word exchange. Rather it involves some judgments being made as to what a particular word or phrase means. Sometimes it is easy and other times it can be quite involved. This video is just a brief look at how it is not an easy process.

There are a few things that I would like to point out as it pertains to this particular article by Dr. Hoffman. The first thing that I must admit is that I know almost nothing about Dr. Hoffman. I have read his credentials but I am not familiar with his work or where he might fall into the overall picture when it comes to the Christian faith. The second thing is that I am in no way a Hebrew or Greek scholar. I studied each of the languages for a year in seminary and have a familiarity with the languages.

Dr. Hoffman gives five examples of these problems. There are two problems that he deals with most. The other three are merely examples of the trouble of translation work. In fact if you watch the video of the ESV translation team I linked above you will see examples of scholars doing exactly what Dr. Hoffman is saying that they don't do well enough. The problem isn't with Bible translation work rather the problem is that our language is slowly and subtlety changing. (Think about how the phrase "That is one cool cat" might be mistranslated.)

The two "mistakes" that he deals with most are also where I think he goes most astray. Let me deal with the second one first.

Dr Hoffman says:

Starting about 2,300 years ago, the Hebrew Bible was translated into a Greek version now known as the Septuagint. One shortcoming of that translation is its inattention to near synonyms. For instance, the Hebrew words for "love," "mercy" and "compassion" are frequently mixed up, because they mean nearly the same thing. Likewise, because most young women in antiquity were virgins and most virgins were young women, the Septuagint wasn't careful to distinguish the words for "virgin" and "young woman" in translation.

This is how the Hebrew in Isaiah 7:14 -- which describes a young woman giving birth to a boy who will be named Emmanuel -- ended up in Greek as a virgin giving birth. Though these facts about Greek and Hebrew are generally undisputed among scholars, the translation error remains, both because people are usually unwilling to give up familiar translations, and also perhaps because the Gospel of Matthew describes the virgin birth of Jesus by quoting the mistaken Greek translation of Isaiah 7:14.

Actually Matthew doesn't declare Mary a virgin based upon Isaiah 7:14. Matthew states that Mary was found to be with child before she had sex with Joseph and that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. What Matthew says is that Mary was a virgin and that it happened so that the prophecy given by Isaiah would be fulfilled. In fact, even if Isaiah did not mean to be explicit about the young girl being a virgin, it doesn't do anything to change what Matthew said. Both Matthew and Luke's telling of the events is what is important to our theology regarding the virgin birth of Christ. 

Matthew 1:18 says: 

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed (engaged) to Joseph, before they came together* she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.

And Luke 1:26-34 says: 

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin**?"

How would changing Isaiah 7:14 change the meanings of these two passages? 

In short it wouldn't change a thing. 

On top of that the word used in Isaiah does not explicitly preclude the meaning of virgin. In fact we see this word explicitly referring to a virgin in Genesis 24:43 in referring to Rebekah before she married Isaac. This "error" as Dr. Hoffman put it is completely over blown and seems intended to create a stir around Dr. Hoffman's work. It also seems as if it is intended to create doubt around the validity of Scripture. While this does not answer all challenges regarding Scripture, this particular charge should not create any consternation for Christians. 

Tomorrow I will tackle Dr. Hoffman's charge that the 10th Commandment should not read "Thou shalt not covet."

Further Reading:
John Frame has a good article on the Virgin Birth of Jesus

* "Came together" means "had sex." Might this change how you hear the lyrics to the Beatles song Come Together?

** The original actually say "How will this be, since I do not know a man" which also means "had sex."
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Christmas music or Holiday music?

Last week I shared thoughts about Christmas and the importance of looking forward all the way to the Resurrection. In that post I also shared how I love Christmas music. I have a lot of Christmas music. My wife has placed a moratorium on any further purchases of Christmas music. I like all kinds of Christmas music spanning from the hard driving rock of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra all the way to the very familiar sounds of A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Jeremy Dowsett, pastor of Blacksoil in Lansing, MI, recently shared some thoughts on Christmas music. He doesn't like the schlocky, nostalgic stuff that has become the regular fodder on mainstream radio. Rather he sees a deep importance to Christmas music:

But there’s a reason that it’s so bad when Christmas music is bad. And that’s because of the sad irony or the inherent discontinuity of art form and object. See Christmas music is about the Incarnation, the fact that God, the Perfectly Beautiful and Glorious One, united himself to the stuff of earth. The Most High and the blood and the mud became one on the first Christmas. And so Christmas is about the elevation of the created realm, the sacralizing of the profane, the taking up of earthly “stuff” into the life of God.

So any human creation attempting to give glory to the God who imbued his Creation with his glory should be…well, glorious, right? Schlocky Christmas music isn’t just bad, it’s untrue–at least if we accept Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that the medium is the message.

But when Christmas music is good, it’s soooo good. The lyrics of the classic Christmas hymns and carols are some of the best theologizing and spiritual thinking that the church has to offer. The themes of Jesus’ kingship and his reign over the earth, the response of the whole creation to his Lordship, the kenosis (look it up), the Lukan emphasis on liberation and the defeat of our enemies.

While I do like the nostalgic and schlocky at times, I have to agree. The Christmas music that I keep coming back to is the stuff that is both musically beautiful as well as theologically deep. Christmas is the one of the few times of year that Christ is interjected seamlessly into our culture. We as Christians should be unapologetically Christian at this time of the year. Our choice of music can either be glorifying of Christmas and all of its true meaning or it can be glorifying of all that the world has turned the holiday season into.

Some of my favorite Christmas music:
Casting Crowns' Peace On Earth

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Was Peter wrong to get out of the boat?

There is a book sitting on my bookshelf entitled If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat. It is a book that is centered around the story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water as found in Matthew 14:22-33. My understanding of the story, shaped by years of learning, has always been the same. Last night I heard a different angle to the story that substantially changes the lesson to be learned.

What I have known to be the teaching of this story is that Peter took a great leap of faith to get out of the boat in order to join Jesus in doing the miraculous. Peter took those initial steps of faith and was able to walk on the water as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus. Peter then started to doubt the power of Jesus when he focused on the waves. Jesus then rebuked Peter for not having enough faith to continue to walk on the water. 

The moral of the story is that if we have faith in Christ we can "walk on water." In other words faith can overcome all obstacles and doubt brings disaster. This message fits in well in our current American culture of individualism and exceptionalism. Yet I think that there are people all over the world and throughout history that would take exception to this understanding of faith. It makes faith out to be the magic potion found in the "Name it and Claim it" perversion of Christianity.

Now calm down. Don't start beating me over the head with your "Through faith all things are possible" club. Remember that faith isn't the battery that runs the Energizer Holy Spirit that plays the drum for us. John states: "And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us." And James states: "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions." All the faith in the world does not overcome something that falls outside of God's will–even if it is something that we think is good and should be within God's will.

My point here is not to engage in a discussion on the nature of faith. Rather I would like to take a fresh look at what happened in the story of Peter walking on water. What was it that Peter did not have faith in?

My pastor spent two weeks last month in Israel on a tour led by Marlin and Sally Vis. As they were on a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Marlin started to teach on this passage. We watched the video of his teaching last night at small group and everything that I am going to share next is from his teaching.

The mountain on which the tour group was standing could very well have been the mountain upon which Jesus was praying just prior to walking on the water. The Disciples were in a boat on the Sea of Galilee heading towards the other side. They were really struggling because of the high winds and strong waves. Jesus comes down from the mountain and starts to walk on the water coming towards them. At first the disciples think that it is a ghost but Jesus said: "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid." Peter then said: "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."

Peter, according to Marlin, is not content like the rest of the Disciples trusting the with the word of Jesus. He is actually testing Jesus and saying in effect: "If it is you, show me a sign." When Jesus rebukes Peter it is not because Peter sank into the water but rather it is because Peter needed to get out of the boat. Peter doubted the word of Jesus and needed further proof.

Marlin concludes by saying that the only one rebuked here is Peter. The other Disciples were not rebuked for not having enough faith to get out of the boat. This changes the meaning of the story from us needing to do miraculous and spectacular things in order to please God. Instead it means that God is pleased with us when we are trusting him and we are doing the ordinary things that we are supposed to do. Marlin argues that this is the more culturally correct way of understanding Matthew 14:22-33.

While Marlin's teaching may fly in the face of our traditional understanding it does sounds like a reasonable interpretation. It will be interesting to see if his interpretation has any traction. I would have loved to bring this up to a couple of different professors in seminary to get their input.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Does Matthew 25:31-46 teach us anything about salvation?

Does the parable of the Sheep and the Goats found in Matthew 25:31-46 teach that our salvation is based upon the good works that we do? It is one of those scripture passages that on its face value seems to be promoting either a works based salvation or a social justice gospel. In his article on this passage Kevin DeYoung notes that Dr. James Davidson Hunter claims that the passage is about how we treat strangers. Pastor DeYoung then sets out to refute Dr. Hunter's claim.

DeYoung's contention is that  the meaning of this passage hinges on verse 40 when Christ says, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." The term "brother" is a familial term and Christ is actually referring to how we treat fellow Christians. He concludes by saying:

Jesus says if we are too embarrassed, too lazy, or too cowardly to support our fellow Christians who depend on our assistance and are suffering for the sake of the gospel, we will go to hell.

Is it actually saying that?

I don't know Kevin DeYoung personally. All I know about him is what I have read on his blog and what I have heard anecdotally from others that do know him. (As a disclosure I attended to the same seminary that he went to and know people that were his classmates.)* Based on what I have read from DeYoung I am going to go out on a limb and say that this is not his nuanced view of salvation. 

And that leaves us with the question of whether or not Matthew 25:31-46 is saying that we will go to hell based upon how we treat others?

Yes and no.

On the one hand the passage is not saying our salvation is based upon anything that we can do. It doesn't matter how many good things that we do, we cannot earn our way into heaven. Paul makes it clear in Romans 4:4 that works–the things that we do–earn wages and are not considered a gift. It is not a gift when your boss gives you your paycheck at the end of the week. Throughout the book of Romans Paul makes the case that salvation is by faith and not by works. Paul states: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Clearly the Matthew passage is not teaching that we will go to heaven because we treated others well. Of course that isn't exactly the question that I posed above and it isn't exactly what Kevin DeYoung stated.

On the other hand the passage is saying that we will go to hell because of how we treat each other.

As I stated above, Paul makes it clear in Romans that the paycheck we earn when we sin is death. When we treat people poorly that is a sin and each sin that we commit earns us that paycheck. The problem is that we cannot ever "unearn" death. Once you are dead, you are dead. We cannot make ourselves undead by doing a bunch of good things. We are only made alive again by the free gift from God that comes when we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ to save us from our sins. 

But putting our faith and trust in Jesus does not mean merely making some sort of statement to that fact. Rather it is more than that. It means that we will start to treat others as Christ has demanded we treat others. It means that we will start becoming more and more sensitive to the sin in our lives and wanting to change our behavior. The sheep in the parable are not saved because they treat others well. They treat others well because they are saved. This parable is a warning against the difference between claiming to be a Christian and actually acting in a way that is consistent with that claim.

This parable is not a prescription of how to be saved. It is descriptive of how the saved will act.

*My mistake. I assumed the people that I knew went to seminary with him but they were fellow undergrad students with him. Well you know what they say about when you assume...

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Chicago Sports Conundrum

It is an interesting time in Chicago Sports right now. 

The Blackhawks have one of the best players in hockey in center Jonathan Toews (pronounced tay-ves and not toes) playing absolutely out of his mind. He has 12 goals and 11 assists in the last 13 games. The Bears were off to a great start but are now spiraling down without quarterback Jay Cutler. There are stories of over-the-hill quarterbacks Brett Favre and Donovan McNabb both being interested in lending a hand. Then there are the stories of the Cubs pursuing Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. As well as the story that Ron Santo finally, finally made the Hall of Fame.

But the story that has really grabbed my attention is that the Bulls might be able to acquire Dwight Howard via trade.*

In terms of full disclosure, I must admit that just Sunday I was telling people that I was indifferent about the return of the NBA. I have become a Derrick Rose fan but I have not really followed the Bulls as much as I had during the "Golden Years." But the thought of Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard on the same team is really exciting. It might be enough to overcome the Big Three in Miami.

But what really grabbed my attention about Howard to the Bulls story is what I heard on sports talk radio. Now for those unfamiliar with sports radio in Chicago is that it is often filled with meatball callers. And they come out of the woodwork whenever trade talk comes up. Far too often the calls go something like this:

Caller: "Uh yeah, I think 'dat the Bullss should trade Moe, Larry and Curly to da Magic for Dwight Howard."
Host: "Those are the three worst players in Bulls history. Why would the Magic want to trade a superstar for them?"
Caller: "Uh well, 'cuz dose tree are underrated. Dey work hard and bring lots of intangabuls and chemistry."

Or like this:

Caller: "I just have to say that I don't think that the Bulls should include Joakim Noah in the trade because he pretty good young player and works hard."
Host: "Yes but you are going to have to trade some very good players in order to get a superstar like Howard."
Caller: "But having a guy that is a hard worker like Noah is important."

It was a call similar to the second example that got me thinking. Joakim Noah has been a good player for the Bulls. He does work hard and can be a real irritant for the other team. But he is no Dwight Howard. There seems to be this mentality that Chicagoans value hard workers over talented players. It comes from the mentality of "playing Bear football." And that means that we play rough defense, run the ball and are pretty much a terrible football team. 

Don't get me wrong. Hard workers should be lauded. We should all be hard workers but there comes a point when we need to value true talent over gritty, try hard player. Jeremy Roenick was a good hockey player that was known for his grit. Wayne Gretzky was a very talented player who was not known for his grit. Following the Blackhawks I really loved Jeremy Roenick but I would have traded him any day of the week for Gretzky.

So if I were the Bulls GM right now I would offer Joakim Noah and what ever other players not named Derrick Rose the Magic wanted to get Dwight Howard.

*Yes I know that I didn't include any news about the White Sox. No matter what they do it doesn't really capture my attention.

Monday, December 05, 2011

A Bouncing Baby and Sour Milk

I have two unrelated short stories this morning.

A Bouncing Baby

With all due respect to everyone else, my one year old niece is the sweetest and cutest little girl ever. My wife and I had the joy to babysit her all day on Saturday. We heard that she had a meltdown and rough night Friday night but we were blessed with sweet Violet all day on Saturday. Violet danced and sang (well her 1 year old version of singing anyway) to both her favorite kids CD as well as to Christmas music. She ran around in her walker thing. And she took rides in her train–which her Grandpa made out of wooden boxes and caster type wheels. And when it was nap time she went to sleep right away. (The only trouble we had was a user error where I forgot to give her a pacifier.)

It was a long but enjoyable day. The few things that I realized is just how much work a 1 year old can be. It is something that I was cognitively aware of but is now something that I have experienced. We have babysat her when she was younger where she needed constant supervision. But it's different now. She is vastly more mobile which means she can go from being in a benign situation to a dangerous situation in the blink of an eye. It reminds me of being an adult. We can do the same thing except we can get into even more dangerous situations even quicker. 

Sour Milk

This morning I was attempting to use up the last of the milk in my cereal. It was getting to the bottom of the container and it has been in the fridge for a bit so I went through my "end of the milk" ritual. First I looked at the date. It said sell by December 2, 2011. It is only the 5th so I figured that we might still be good. So on to the second step. I opened the container and did the eyeball test. I swished it around and it looked ok. Then came the third step. I sniffed the milk...and it smelled ok. So I poured it on my cereal.

I shoveled the first spoonful into my mouth and "Houston we have a problem." It is amazing the things that can go through your head in a split second. I was eating an off brand rice crispy cereal and so I was initially trying to decide if it was just a poor rendition of cereal, the lingering affect of taking a sip of coffee immediately before a spoonful of cereal or if the milk was in fact starting to sour. I was simultaneously debating what to do with the now mouthful spoonful of cereal. 

If it was merely the bad effects of a pre-cereal coffee sip and I spit the cereal back into the bowl then I would have a sullied bowl of perfectly good cereal. If it was bad cereal then I could choke it down and dump the rest of the bowl. However if it was bad milk I didn't want that bad boy making a round trip through the food canal.

I quickly decided that the milk was bad and took immediate action. Sometimes the difficulty of dealing with a difficult situation is what makes the situation so difficult...if you know what I mean.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Costas on NFL Celebrations

This is too priceless to not share. Bob Costas, one of my all-time favorite sportscasters, takes NFL players (and their coaches) to task over the silly and selfish celebrations. "Act like you been there before," has always been a good piece of advice that I wish more players would take to heart. 

My all-time favorite player is Walter Payton. When he retired, Payton lead the NFL in all-time rushing yards as well as all time rushing touchdowns. His touchdown celebration usually involved spiking the ball or throwing it into the crowd. He was the best and he didn't showboat. He acted like he had been there before and like he expected to be there again. 

I would love to add to Costas' commentary but he said it better than I could have said it.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Christmas, the Cross and the Empty Tomb

I am a Christmas nut. I absolutely love Christmas time. I love the lights, the sounds and the bustle. I actually enjoy going to the mall and just walking around. One of my most favorite things is the music. Right now my iPod contains 691 Christmas songs. I have: 

  • 12 versions of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen or God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen or God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (It seems to me that the comma placement can drastically change the meaning of the song.) 
  • 13 versions of What Child is This?
  • 16 versions of Joy To The World
  • 1 version of Dominic The Italian Christmas Donkey (I mean really; anything more than that is just superfluous.)
But the song that takes the cake is the whopping 23 versions of Silent Night. Which may be arguably the classic Christmas song. Interestingly it was originally written to be played on a guitar in 6/8 time which is a more upbeat time. It is a swing or dance pattern that is used in popular music (think Shout To The North by Delirious or House Of The Rising Sun by The Animals). So Silent Night might be the true precursor to modern guitar rock. But I digress.

The reason that I love Christmas is that it is when God came down to earth. It is what we call the Incarnation; God took the form of humanity. There has been much debate over the years as to the details of what all the Incarnation entails. But the most important thing to know about the Incarnation is that it means that God cares intimately about us as human beings. He wants to draw close to us and not to merely sit on high. 

We are all separated from God by all of the things that we do wrong. We all commit sin. We all do things that are morally wrong. And there is nothing that we can do to make up for those wrongs. We can never achieve perfection again. I have shared the illustration of the poison in the water glass before:

I find it helpful to imagine a glass of water and a vial of extremely strong poison. The poison is so powerful that a single drop in the water is enough to cause death. The water is considered corrupt as soon as that drop is added. Now that glass of water misses the bulls-eye of being pure water. In the same way, as soon as we commit a single sin we are no longer considered pure.

The only way for that water to be pure again is to go through a purifying process. That is where Jesus comes in. Jesus coming to earth in the form of a human being was just the first step in providing the perfect purifying process. What is important for a Christmas nut like me to remember is that the Incarnation does not mean anything by itself. Jesus' death on the cross was also necessary. Paul is quite clear in Romans 6:23 that our sinfulness bring death. Fortunately for us Jesus stepped in and paid that penalty for us. That is what he accomplished on the cross.

But there is more.

Jesus coming to earth in the form of a human and dying on the cross for our sins are incomplete without his resurrection as well. Jesus not only paid the penalty for our sin but he also provides life for us as well. Paul ends Romans 6:23 by saying that we are given eternal life through our faith in Jesus Christ.

Christmas may called the most wonderful time of the year. But as Christians we cannot separate Christmas from Good Friday and Easter. It is incomplete without them. So take the time to enjoy all of the wonders of Christmas but remember that the ultimate gift came in full on Easter morning.