Theology, like philosophy, has a tendency towards dry abstraction. It feeds our desire for answers and yet leaves us empty. We long for a picture, a vision of what cannot otherwise be seen.

And that’s why, it seems to me, God hadn’t given us a book of abstractions. He’s given us a concrete story.

There’s this scene from Lord of the Rings that I keep returning to as I think about Revelation: Frodo and Sam on mount Doom. Frodo can no longer bring himself to destroy the ring. And so Sam points him to their future return to the peace in the Shire. But Frodo can’t even remember that. He can’t see it. The weight of the ring he alone can carry has become too much. But Sam isn’t done with his friend. He concludes, “I may not be able to carry the ring for you Mr. Frodo but I can carry you” and he lifts Frodo over his shoulders and carries him up the mountain.

Lord of the Rings is a fantasy story. It has never existed in what we would refer to as reality. And yet here in this imagine Tolkien captured something so true and real you and I can’t help but allow it to bring us to tears. In the scene, we recognize what our friends have done for us. There are pains in life, like the weight of Frodo’s ring, which we alone can carry. Our pain is our pain. But our friends often carry us when our pain would stop us from continuing on.

This is the reality at work in the book of Revelation – not a this-world-reality but a metaphorical reality. A fantastic picture of the life we as Christians are experiencing right now bordered as it is by both its beginning and end. Revelation is not literal but that doesn’t make it not real. It’s the same true reality that we experience in the music and lyrics of a song.

Where is Jesus Now?

May 6, 2020 — 1 Comment

So where’s Jesus and what’s he doing? At the end of Luke and beginning of Acts he’s taken up into the sky and a cloud hides him from the disciples sight. But is that what Luke truly is telling us? That Jesus is in the sky? Somewhere in outer space? That heaven is a place somewhere on the other side of the galaxy? I don’t think so.

Luke by telling us about the cloud is alluding back to Daniel 7 and the coming of the Son of Man. The Son of Man is taken on the clouds of heaven to appear before God’s throne and is there given a kingdom that will have no end. When did Jesus arrive? When did that happen? Luke in Acts doesn’t describe that moment in heaven but on earth. In the following chapter, the disciples hear the sound of a mighty rushing wind and see tongues of fire separate out to rest on each of their heads and they all begin to speak in tongues. That’s the moment, according to Luke, when Jesus was enthroned.

We always talk about Christ’s death and resurrection but forget the importance of his ascension. Both Hebrews and Revelation also describe it.

In Revelation, it’s spelled out in chapters four and five. John sees a vision of the throne of God and a scroll sealed with seven seals held in his hand. But no one anywhere (in heaven or on the earth or under the earth) is found worthy to open the seals and to read what’s inside. John weeps at the devastating news – NO ONE is worthy. But then an angel tells him to weep no more for the lamb has triumphed and is worthy. And in walks a lamb as though it had been slain to take the scroll and break its seals. And all bow down and worship him.

But what’s the meaning of the scroll. It’s the will and plan of God. Just like a will is read after someone dies. It’s takes a mediator to enact the wishes of the departed. That’s the role that Jesus now possesses. He’s the mediator of the plan and will of God. It’s the new covenant.

The book of Hebrews talks about this New Covenant mentioned by Jeremiah. Jeremiah had foretold of a new covenant in the time of the Babylonian captivity.

The days are coming, declares the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant
with the people of Israel
and with the people of Judah.
9 It will not be like the covenant
I made with their ancestors
when I took them by the hand
to lead them out of Egypt,
because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
and I turned away from them,
declares the Lord.
10 This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
11 No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

What the writer of Hebrews describes is how Jesus in his death and victory over all sin has established this new covenant by his own blood. And that he has entered the heavenly tent (seen by Moses in the mountain) to purify it once and FOR ALL. This new covenant is not a law written on stone but a law written on the heart. And it’s new heart and new spirit which Christ in his ascension has brought about.

Those tongues of fire that we see in the book of acts, resting on each persons head, was originally one flame of fire resting over the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant where the stone tablets were kept. But now in Christ’s ascension, that fire has moved with the writing of the law on our hearts.

So where did Jesus go in his ascension? He’s in two places simultaneously. He’s enthroned over all creation and within those who burn for him.

If Man is purely natural than all that he does is natural. No more or less natural than a volcano or a tree. Any imposition of an “ought” boils down to a religious/spiritual argument. And yet even the materialist assumes we are gods.

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


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