Advent, Christmas, Epiphany

Advent, Christmas, Epiphany

From time to time I hear Christians, particularly pastors, lament the neglect of the Advent season. As a religious celebration Christmas comes best after the season of Advent in which we study and meditate on expectation. Then comes Christmas. Because of the commercialization of Christmas as a secular holiday (I believe one can commemorate the spiritual Christmas in the midst of a secular celebration if you want), the time of Advent is not spent in waiting and expectation, so much as in a rush. Ebenezer Scrooge had a point about Christmas being a time to buy things we can’t afford!

But many of those who spend time on Advent don’t pay similar attention to Epiphany, which caps the twelve days of Christmas. It generally doesn’t come on a Sunday, and how can you possibly get people into church on a weekday?

But all three of these days or seasons (Christmas is also a season), reflect important moments in spiritual life. Besides a historical reflection on the events that stand behind the Christian faith, we can have a reflection on the present of our lives, in which we wait with expectation for God to act, see God intervening, and/or come to the realization that God has acted, though God may have chosen to do so in a way that was not recognized at the time.

I taught the Sunday School lesson this morning, and the key scripture was Matthew 2:1-12, which would be better placed on Epiphany than on Christmas Eve. Yet it helps make an important point placed here. Very few people recognized what was going on. I suggested that my class check the rest of the gospels. Nowhere does Jesus encounter someone who remembered something about his birth. “Wow, those shepherds told me about you, and here you are!” is a line that simply doesn’t come up.

Different people recognized Jesus in different ways and under different circumstances. It’s important to remember that. Why? Because we need to understand where different people are in their experiences.

I’ve watched a few Christmas movies this season. I enjoy the light entertainment with a definite good finish, even if I can predict it practically from the opening credits. Small towns generally win over cities. People who do “country” things generally win over those who are urban. The driven and ambitious are generally cast as villains. But there’s a sweetness to all of it.

One interesting thing is that while the movies tell us about people who have been hurt during the holiday season, they generally tell the story of the moment in which someone overcomes or transcends that hurt and finds the joy of the wonderful holiday season.

It would be nice if that was how the world works. It doesn’t. There will be people who will transcend emotional hurt and find healing this Christmas season. There are others who will experience new wounds. Yet others will suffer through the season, often silently, simply hoping it will be over. They won’t want to admit that they’d love to say, “Bah! Humbug!” because then they’d get labeled with the ultimate badge of dishonor: Scrooge. Before the ghosts.

As a community, we need to be prepared to bring comfort to those who aren’t “in season.” It’s easy to imagine that someone will get into the proper spirit of expectation of advent, receive their gifts, and THE GIFT, on Christmas day, and rejoice with the Wise Men (astrologers, no doubt), on Epiphany. But many will not.

We need to find the the time and the season of those in need of help and support. We need to recognize that Advent is not necessarily a time of confident and certain expectancy, but may be a time of wondering and struggle.

One of the things the Israelite religion, and particularly the prophetic school, brought to Judaism and through it to Christianity is the idea that living is not an endless cycle. We’re going somewhere. There’s a point to the arrangement church fathers made of scripture, with Genesis 1 at the beginning and Revelation 21-22 at the end. We don’t live in an endless cycle. We’re going somewhere, and that somewhere is good.

But in the meantime we celebrate cycles, with New Year’s Day coming up as we celebrate the arrival of a new year, and in many cases make resolutions that say that this next 365 (or 366) days will be better than the last. We celebrate advent every year, realizing that not everything is realized yet. We commemorate Easter, not because the event must be repeated, but because we need the reminder of new life.

We’re always tempted to get mired one way or the other. On the one hand we can fall into hopelessness and maintain that the cycles of life are all that there are. On the other, we can get the idea that, having reached our Epiphany, we’ve made it permanently, and everyone else should join us. In the future, if we pay attention to these days it’s just a commemoration of how wonderful our lives have gotten. So we lie and we judge. We lie as we pretend that life really is that good. We judge because others haven’t attained what we pretend to have attained.

Romans 7 is an interesting illustration. Paul seems to wallow in difficulty, finally saying, “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me?” We have the answer (or so we think) in Romans 8 as we learn that “there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,” and we proclaim, “Thanks be to God! Through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Which leads to a debate in biblical interpretation. Does Romans 7 speak of the life of one who has not accepted the grace of Christ or does it describe the life of the Christian? Do we really get to that better life here in this world, or is the Romans 8 proclamation the result of our glorification? (And, you may ask, what does this have to do with Christmas?)

I bring up Romans 7 because it is so incredibly real. Wesleyans use the terms “prevenient grace,” meaning that grace which God offers to everyone and which is there before you even ask, and “sanctifying grace,” mean the grace that keeps moving one along toward holiness (or on toward perfection, as John Wesley might say). Romans 7, I think, speaks to us of the cycles of our lives. We do not always move forward. We also fall backward. We do what we think is not good, and sometimes (all too many times) we do what we think we ought not to do. I think the idea that we suddenly cease to experience Romans 7 is a lie we tell. It’s a lie we expect our leaders to tell. We all experience these cycles.

That’s some bad news. The struggle continues. You’ll still be praying for God to act. You’ll still be living through times of expectation. God may still intervene, only to go unrecognized for some time afterward, when we suddenly receiver our epiphany.

It’s also some good news. What it says is that grace is ever active. God’s sanctifying grace is persistent and active, and when we fall back into that cycle, God’s grace reaches out, grabs us, and pushes us forward so that we can still be moving onward, despite the difficulty. The bad news is that there will be more “Oh wretched man that I am” moments; the good news is that Grace will respond to each with those moments of “no condemnation” which will result in our proclamation of thanks to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

If we shed the lies and are real, we’ll be prepared to help others whatever their season. We do this not as people who have no problems, but as overcomers of problems who know, because we’ve experience it, that times of advent waiting are followed by God’s intervention, and that often God has already intervened, and like the folks in Herod’s court and in Jerusalem, we simply haven’t recognized the event yet. We’re waiting for epiphany.

If you’re joyous this Christmas, I rejoice with you. What I pray is that you use your joy to help strengthen the weak, to encourage those who are less joyful, and to be real in all your times of trouble.

The gift that Jesus brought was himself, yes, but himself as the messenger and vehicle of God’s grace. Be gracious to yourself and others in this season of joy … and grace.

Authorship of Hebrews Summary

Authorship of Hebrews Summary

Michael J. Kok summarizes the internal evidence on the authorship of Hebrews (HT: Dave Black Online).

As Dave Black notes, his argument is really not one of internal but of external evidence. Dr. Kok cites Dave’s book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul, which I publish. I do note the 2017 publication date, which suggests use of the new hardcover edition, which I link below. The more usual paperback is just $5.99 while the Kindle edition is just $2.99 for those who would like to check Dave’s arguments.

My own view on this is “author unknown.” After reading Dave’s work, I no longer say “anybody but Paul,” but I still find the differences in approach and style from Paul difficult to accept, and I find the absence of Paul’s salutation at the beginning odd, at a minimum. But I put greater emphasis on internal evidence, so this may be simply a difference in approach.


A Note on General Revelation

A Note on General Revelation

No, that the horribly misused book, but the theological concept of general revelation.

It is quite common to express concern about the quality of knowledge of God that one can get from general revelation. It lacks specificity, it’s easy to misunderstand, or it has become corrupted.

I’m not writing this note to challenge the idea that extrapolating from the creation to the God of creation can be difficult. On the other hand, I was just reading Psalm 33 in preparation for next week’s Sunday School lesson, and I note that in vs. 6-9, we have a rather direct line drawn from creation to creator. By his word the heavens were created. He established, and that’s how it was. He commanded and it stood.

My thought is this: I have found in written scripture that often we reject the meaning of a passage because we don’t like it. I’ve told classes that you can get a clue to how little people like what a passage says by how much ink has been used explaining it. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t obscure passages or those where the obvious is actually wrong. It can be a clue, however.

I suspect that it may be where nature does not tell us warm and comfortable things about God that we tend to think it’s unclear. Perhaps we need to find a way to distinguish “unclear” from “very clear, but annoying.”

Ezekiel 36: Telling the Story

Ezekiel 36: Telling the Story

This was one of my texts from yesterday, though we worked from Titus 3:3-11, where I think vs. 3-8 parallels chapter 36 quite nicely.

But my interest today is not in a specific verse, but rather in the way in which Israel’s story is told. Christians often have ambivalent, if not downright negative, feelings about the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures. You’ll hear people say, “I’m more of a New Testament person.” In a certain sense, we should all be New Testament (Covenant) people. We are God’s people under terms of the new covenant. That’s why we call that portion of Scripture the “New Testament.”

Nonetheless, Israel’s story is critical. One reason it is so useful is the way in which Israel told their story. Other nations record their triumphs and their successes, crediting the appropriate historical characters. Sure, one will have comments on how the gods favored this person or that, but the overall story is one of human triumph.

Israel, on the other hand, records key failures. We focus on things like slavery in Egypt, and the human leader who brings out Israel is a reluctant leader, taking actions as God initiates. One of the key high points, the establishment of the Davidic monarchy, is told with amazing details about the failings of the human players. Then we have the exile, from which Israel emerges due to the intervention of a foreign monarch. Ezekiel 36 underlines this by not claiming that Israel had, themselves, reformed, but rather that YHWH would cleanse them, give them a new heart, restore them, and be their God. He wouldn’t even do this for their sake, but for the sake of their reputations, ending (Ezekiel 37:28) with the nations knowing that he is God because he makes Israel holy.

Christianity joins this tradition as it is born out of the depths of despair and not the heights of triumph. We need to remember this as we strive for position and power. We serve one who did not. We honor (I hope!) a tradition that does not give its greatest honor to the powerful. We are sinners in the hands of a God who is making us holy. That is the story of salvation.

 

OT v. NT: God Does It

OT v. NT: God Does It

One of the differences some claim between the Old and the New Testaments is that in the Old Testament it’s about works, while in the New it’s about God’s grace. I’ve found vanishingly few Old Testament scholars who hold this difference, but in the pews it’s fairly common. One response, of course, is to read a good collection of the commands to action in the New Testament. On the other hand, one can read the Old, as I was doing this morning in preparation for teaching Sunday School.

I’m studying Ezekiel 36 & 37, looking particularly at the actions of the Spirit there. There is a theme in chapter 36, and it’s important. While God talks about Israel’s failings, and the reason they were scattered, when it comes time for redemption, there is no discussion of the punishment having taught them their lesson so that from now on they will be good on their own power. Rather, the emphasis is that God is causing them to be gathered for God’s reasons and purposes.

“I YHWH have spoken, and I will do it” (v. 36). “My Spirit I will put within you, I will make it happen that you will walk in my statutes, keep my judgments, and do them” (v. 27). Both those translations are a mite over literal, but I could get even more literal to connect the Hebrew vocabulary in v. 27 “I will do that … you will do.” The reform is presented here as a decision and an act of God, not of human beings.

Human action is certainly called for, both here and elsewhere, including all through the New Testament. But the decision and cause is put back to God’s Spirit.

People Don’t Get Probability

People Don’t Get Probability

Whether it’s about elections or hurricane predictions, neither the media nor the public understand probability. I suspect this is because we are evolutionarily programmed to look for certainty. Certainty leads to decisive action. It is sometimes said in military circles that a bad decision is often better than no decision. But it’s easy to be decisively wrong.

For example, if you looked at the actual data about Hurricane Irma, and looked at the predicted range of possibilities (you know, either the cone or those circles around the predicted center), the prediction process went quite well. As reported in the media and as “understood” by many in the public, not so much.

Thus I read with great pleasure Nate Silver’s article today at FiveThirtyEight.com (one of my favorite sites), The Media Has A Probability Problem. There were those who criticized Silver for his data analysis in the 2016 election where he was giving a greater probability of a Trump victory than anyone else. Not predicting a Trump victory, but giving it a higher probability. There were those who were rating Clinton’s chances in the high 90s. Following the election there are those who see Silver as wrong, along with the rest. But that’s a probability. A 30% chance is hardly a prediction that something won’t happen. If you understand probability, that is.

Most don’t. Or they understand it in their heads, but don’t feel it. Here’s a summary from Nate Silver:

Probably the most important problem with 2016 coverage was confirmation bias — coupled with what you might call good old-fashioned liberal media bias. Journalists just didn’t believe that someone like Trump could become president, running a populist and at times also nationalist, racist and misogynistic campaign in a country that had twice elected Obama and whose demographics supposedly favored Democrats. So they cherry-picked their way through the data to support their belief, ignoring evidence — such as Clinton’s poor standing in the Midwest — that didn’t fit the narrative.

Now don’t take this as supporting President Trump’s cherry-picking of polls and numbers. That’s just another, less nuanced form of confirmation bias, or more likely simple carelessness with and disregard for facts.

Further, if we are going to blame the media for problems, we need to watch where we go instead. Many blame the media for very real problems of bias, stupidity, and deception, only to turn to even less reliable sources which they believe implicitly. One advantage I’ve found with reasonably good media reports is this: If you read beyond the headline, and check the references, you can almost always find what you need to double check and correct the news story. For example, most news organizations provide links to the actual poll data and analysis.

So if you want good information, follow the chain back to the source. Don’t just find something more agreeable and believe that. There are perfectly good ways to analyze data and avoid errors. None of us is perfect, but we can and should be better. Much better.

Greater Good than Before

Greater Good than Before

I will multiply on you people and animals, and they will increase and bear fruit. People will live on you as in the former times and I will do greater good to you than I did before. Then you will know that I am YHWH. (Ezekiel 36:11)

Ezekiel here address the message to the mountains of Israel, which paints a nice word picture. This is part of my preparation to teach the Sunday School lesson this coming Sunday.

I want to call attention to the phrase I have translated “do greater good to you than I did before.” I think that Israel is here learning the lesson that often to get greater good what we have now has to go away. We fear something new because we lose the old. But an earthquake, a fire, or even a hurricane can get us started on something new because we have to.

I don’t mean that the destruction itself is good. What I’m suggesting is that sometimes we, like nature itself, become renewed after the things we cling to have been destroyed.

Following the Path of Jesus

Following the Path of Jesus

On January 1 God called two texts to my attention as themes for the year. They are Philippians 1:27-30 and Ephesians 5:1-2. I haven’t said a great deal about this, though the theme of those texts has shown up in a number of posts. Then yesterday I saw Dave Black’s latest translation of Philippians 1:27-30, which I like a great deal, and I wanted to mention it. Reading a text in a modern, clear, might I say dynamic, rendering brings it home. Here’s the translation:

Now the only thing that really matters is that you make it your habit to live as good citizens of heaven in a manner required by the Good News about Christ, so that, whether or not I’m able to go and see you in person or remain absent, I will be hearing that all of you, like soldiers on a battlefield, are standing shoulder to shoulder and working as one team to help people put their trust in the Good News. Don’t allow your enemies to terrify you in any way. Your boldness in the midst of opposition will be a clear sign to them that they will be destroyed and that you will be saved, because it’s God who gives you salvation. For God has granted you the privilege on behalf of Christ of not only believing in Him but also suffering for Him. Now it’s your turn to take part with me in the life-or-death battle I’m fighting — the same battle you saw me fighting in Philippi and, as you hear, the one I’m fighting now. (emphasis mine)

This emphasized line led me to a quote from Bruce Epperly’s book Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide:

Even now in our time, we can take confidence in Paul’s assertion that God is with us and that, in life and death, and celebration and persecution, Christ sustains us. We are resurrection people. But, our lives are also cruciform or cross-shaped. The Risen Jesus is known initially by his wounds, and we too may experience suffering and loss as a result of our relationship with Christ. Still, at the end of the day, integrity, fidelity, and the promise of resurrection life far outweigh any trials of this lifetime. – p. 19

Bruce also quotes the song “I have decided to follow Jesus.” It’s a good song, but it’s one that should be very hard to sing. No, not musically, but due to meaning.

(I must note here in passing that I love to use materials that come from very different theological streams. It is especially important, I think, when people from opposite sides of the spectrum agree fully on the meaning of a text, even more so when that text says something people would often rather not hear.)

On the night when Jesus was betrayed, there were twelve people (at least) who had decided to follow Jesus. One betrayed him. One denied him publicly. The rest “advanced in the opposite direction.” We can take hope from the fact that so many found their way back!

Ephesians 5:2 similarly gives us a hard call “walk in love.” Now we like that, because we often call very unloving things “love.” But the verse goes on “just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us. We have a very clear pattern for what love actually means. I’m a love proclaimer. I believe in the power of love. The reason love so often seems wishy-washy, that it so often fails, is that what we call love is often partial. It is not commitment, but rather a sort of generic liking. That’s why the key to following Jesus is not the experience of miraculous physical acts, or wealth, or healing for everyone in sight, or healing of all our emotional ills. The key to following Jesus is the willingness to take up the “privilege” of suffering for him.

This, I must confess, is not the true story of my life. Nonetheless, just as I can travel northward by using the pole star as a guide even though I’ll never reach it, so I will keep facing this way, and trust in the grace of the One who gave himself first.

(Allow me to call attention to two previous posts: God Perfected through Suffering and Thankful for the Gift of Suffering for Jesus?)