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There’s a theme so intimately tied to Christmas that most of us can’t think of Christmas without it. And yet it was only recently invented. It’s from Charles Dickens’ book, A Christmas Carol, written in the mid 1800’s. A recent film calls Dickens “The Man Who Invented Christmas”! And with regard to how he changed the way we see Christmas, it’s true.

Prior to his book, Christmas wasn’t respected all that much. The Puritans, which included the American Pilgrims, actually opposed its celebration. The Massachusetts Bay Colony banned it in 1659. For these religiously minded Christians, a Christian holiday, Christmas!, was actually regarded as a spiritual distraction.

But Dickens book changed all that. The theme he established in his book was that of a selfish miser alienated from friends and family who is transformed into a generous person by the spirit of Christmas. And that theme has gone on being repeated in nearly every Christmas story since. George Bailey turns into a Scrooge and needs the angel Clarence at Christmas to show him why he should continue being generous. Dr. Seuss’ black-hearted Grinch is also a Scrooge transformed when he witnesses the Christmas spirit in the the citizens of Whoville. And it’s that same Spirit of Christmas which comes in Buddy the Elf, a man who, having been raised by Santa’s elves, brings Christmas love and cheer to his miserly and black-hearted father who could have just as easily been named, yeah you guessed it, Ebeniser Scrooge.

But there’s an older theme to Christmas which all too many miss today. It’s present in the Nativity scene and gospel accounts which we read every Christmas time. There’s Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. There’s the Shepherds and the Wisemen. But what’s the theme? Have you ever stopped to think about it? Who are these people and what do they represent? There’s more to this scene then a reminder to us that it happened. The Biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth are, in fact, all about how outsiders became insiders and insiders outsiders in the arrival of Jesus.

Like most introductions, these opening gospel scenes define/encapsulate the gospels themselves. Take the story of Zachariah for instance (Luke 1). It’s not just a historical record of the birth announcement of John the Baptist. It’s set in contrast to the announcement made to Mary. The two are compared in the way their stories parallel one another. What happens to Zachariah happens in the same way and order to Mary. But it’s a comparison which also sets up a contrast. Zachariah is an elderly priest, working in Jerusalem and the temple. He’s probably rich and highly educated. Oh and he’s a man. He’s what every good Jew aspires to be. Mary, on the other hand, is from the nowhere town of Nazareth, way outside the halls of power and prestige. She’s a teenage girl, poor and uneducated. But the same happy announcement (good news / gospel) is given to both. And yet their reactions are very different. Zachariah asks “how can I know these things for certain”, a question full of cynicism and doubt. Mary asks “how will this happen because I am a virgi?” By contrast, her question isn’t doubtful. It’s is an expectant request for information. Zachariah’s doubt causes Gabriel to shut Zachariah’s mouth. Mary’s faith causes her mouth to be opened and to sing. If you follow the parallel structure of these two stories it’s something like this

a-b-c
a-b-c-d

Mary sings at D which suggests that Zachariah should have had a D but instead his mouth is shut. The insider has become the outsider and the outsider the insider in the coming of the gospel / good news. Zachariah and Mary each represent a people group. Zachariah represents men, the rich, the educated, the “mature.” And also the Jews. Mary, by contrast, represents women, children, the poor, the uneducated, oppressed, and following the story of Luke/Acts, she also represents Gentiles. So the Nativity begins with a story about someone who should have believed but didn’t and the story of someone who shouldn’t have believed but did.

The promise and hope established in Luke’s nativity, however, does extend to the rich and powerful and the Jews as well that they too will ultimately come to saving faith, even if they missed out on it the first time around. Zachariah, in the end, obeys the angels words and in that moment his mouth his opened like Mary before him. Insider and outsider both become insiders together.

Now that theme is also played out in Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew, it’s outsiders, pagan astrologer/magicians from the east who come seeking Jesus after they see his sign. We call them Wisemen but they come as Outsiders. Herod, the king of the Jews, however is an insider but doesn’t seek the Christ child like them. It’s only when they fail to do the work for him that he turns and has the infants in Bethlehem killed. This act exposes Herod, the insider, as the true outsider. We see this theme also in Matthew in the women of Jesus’ genealogy, all of which were fornicating gentiles but which lead to the birth of Christ.

Back in Luke’s gospel, Mary and Joseph are forced to leave their own hometown to another place where they receive no welcome. Jesus is born in a barn and placed in a manger. Here we see Mary and Joseph become further outsiders. But most importantly, we should see that it’s God who has made himself an outsider to identify with them.

And we shouldn’t fail to see this in the shepherds as well. Shepherds were a lonely bunch, they worked alone and were therefore given the job because they were often mentally ill and couldn’t get along with others. There was always something not quite right with shepherds. But it’s to these outsiders that the message of hope comes. And they journey to Bethlehem to become insiders at Jesus’ birth.

Long before Charles Dickens rewrote the theme of Christmas, it already had one, there in the Nativity, where those who were formerly outcasts became one with God.

The Curse in Ironic

September 28, 2019  Leave a comment

If the Curse has a soundtrack it’s Ironic by Alanis Morissette.

The song describes the break between our optimistic expectations and often the unfortunate way life turns out to be. That’s the curse of Genesis 3. The child a mother longs for now also brings her pain. The ground worked in hope of a harvest and a better life is continually found choked full of weeds.

“Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?”

The early chapters of Genesis are of course mythological. Snakes don’t talk and no tree ever produced a fruit called “the knowledge of good and evil.” Its metaphor. But the metaphor is why it’s true.

What we build will be destroyed before us. What we love will also cause us pain.

“life has a funny way of sneaking up on you When you think everything’s okay and everything’s going right.”

This tattoo I have on my arm reminds me of that. The one who sows is not guaranteed to reap. But the one who refuses to sow will never reap a thing.

Life is found in giving not in holding on

I’ve had this idea about the nature of meaning and this “Spooky” experiment in quantum physics. So if you care to see my crazy here goes.

Meaning is something that exists in the mind as our simultaneous understanding of the relationship of parts and whole. In interpretation, this is known as the hermeneutic circle. The whole defines the meaning of the parts even as the meaning of the parts define the meaning of the whole. But this interdependence leads to a serious problem. We don’t live in a simultaneous universe in which all things are now singularly known. We exist in a universe where time/knowledge is divided up, as it unfolds bit by bit, the past known the present becoming known and the future not yet being known. And without the knowledge of the future whole, the meaning of the bit doesn’t exist concretely. It exists to us as a cloud of potential meanings which only collapses in our minds to a singular meaning when we arrive at the whole.

This seems to me similar to the double slit experiment in quantum physics. In the experiment (see the video), we know that observer/observation collapses the potentiality which exists in reality. The tiniest pieces which make up reality act as an undefinable wave until we watch it. When its watched it changes the outcome of what has previously been seen. It’s as if it knows it’s being watched. Crazy! And this is a repeatable scientific experiment which is testing the world outside ourselves. But somehow the mind is objectively causing this objective reality to define what it is.

Is there just an analogous relationship between the collapse of potential meanings in our moving through time and the collapse of the quantum realms wave function when it’s observed or is more significant than that? Our observation of time is certainly collapsing the potentials of meanings and events In our minds. Perhaps the future exists right now as a wave, needing our observation to collapse it into something meaningful. That thought might be interesting if applied to our debates about free will and determinism. It could be that the future exists right now but somehow needs us to see it to make it what it will be. Bottom line, it would appear there is no “objective” reality apart from our subjectivity. That our subjectivity is working with the “objective” world to define what it is. Or perhaps I’m just crazy.

That very well could be

Why should you think Revelation is as much about the past as it is about the future? Because Revelation isn’t always about the future. Smack dab in the middle of the book we have a symbolic depiction of Jesus’ birth and resurrection. Revelation 12

“1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. 4 Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.”

No one disputes that this is about Jesus’ birth and resurrection. And for John, the author of Revelation, this was a past event. And yet John doesn’t skip a beat in describing something past right in the middle of his book. So if it happens here, shouldn’t we ask if it happens elsewhere? I think it’s pretty clear that it does. In Revelation 4-5, John describes a vision of the throne of God and a scroll that God holds in his hand. A search is made of heaven and earth for someone worthy to open the scroll. Chapter 5:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4 I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” 6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.

At first no one was found worthy to open the scroll and John weeps for the state of humanity. But then something changes. Jesus, the lion and lamb, is found worthy because of his triumph. And he takes the scroll in his hand. For John, when does this scene happen? It’s clearly in the past. It’s no longer the case that no one is worthy to take the scroll. Jesus has triumphed. So when does/did Jesus take scroll and begin to break its seals? The answer is as soon as he triumphed. He began breaking the seals in the first century and has continued to breaking them to this day.

6 times, John describes the same time period which is from Jesus to the end of time. And yet each time he uses different metaphors to do it. And each time, he begins and ends his description in worship

The most quoted passage in the Bible by the Bible is Exodus 34:6-7. It’s about God’s character. The God that revealed himself to Moses said that He is, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

At its most basic, God simply says that He’s merciful and just. But there’s more to it in the original Hebrew. There’s no noun connected with the “third and the fourth”. “Generation” is simply assumed for the translation. And without that noun “the third and fourth” is compared and contrasted to the “thousands” mentioned earlier in the verse. God’s scales aren’t balanced. He isn’t simply merciful and just. And He isn’t more just than he is merciful. His mercy has practically broken the scales.

I’m thinking about this because a good friend asked me about heaven and hell yesterday. His brother’s recently died without putting his faith in Jesus. And my friend wanted to know if there’s still hope. While I don’t believe there’s a second chance, the Bible’s pretty clear about that, I do believe that my friend can and should hope for his brother. The God that has revealed himself in the Bible is good and weighted towards mercy. And the one that has personally revealed Himself to us has been extremely merciful. And I think we should believe that whatever God does he will prove himself good and merciful in the end. And that’s where I put all my hope.