Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Reflection

My friend Chris Backert, who is co-pastor of a church at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, and also leads The Ecclesia Network, sent out this reflection last week.  I couldn't have said it better, but I am posting it because I have been saying it in sermons and articles, and it's good to see people I respect who are thinking along the same lines.  (And to show you that I'm not out here in left field just making this stuff up. Lol.)

An Advent Reflection
In 9 BC the following inscription was written on a stone in the area of Priene …

The providence, which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere.  The birthday of the GOD AUGUSTUS – was the beginning of the good news of glad tidings that have come to men through him.

Just a few years later, a group of shepherds received this message on one particular illuminating night …

Do not be afraid, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.  For today in the city of David, there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign for you.  You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.  And suddenly, there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,  “glory to God in the highest and on earth peace with men of good will”. 

It’s impossible for me to read these two statements, and walk away without a clear sense that from it’s beginning, the announcement of the good news of the coming of God in Christ, came as a direct challenge to the perceived gods of the world.  Caesar was in charge – it was his world – and though the wrong seemed oft so strong – he was the ruler yet.  And in Caesar they had hope.  Yet, the good news of Jesus proclaimed tidings of joy for all people in a way that Caesar’s never could.  Today, we still proclaim Christ’s tiding in this Advent Season … the world thinks of Caesar very little.

But Caesar is not gone. 

As I think about Advent I wonder “what is the challenge of Christ’s news today?”  There are still plenty of things (and also perhaps people) that promise salvation.  We place our hopes at their feet.  Some of then speak to us through the walkways of the local up-scale Mall Center … others call out to us from a podium in front of a White House.  The work that we do (especially the work of ministry) has a sneaky way of disguising its Caesar-like identity.  I know it has captured me more than once. 

But, Jesus is still here too – and still challenging Caesar.

Our Advent faith is an Easter faith.  It is grounded in the reality of a moment where the powers of sin, death, and evil all ganged up together and still met their match.  Jesus stands over and above all Caesar’s … it is to Him we look … it is in Him we hope. 

All Hail King Jesus!!!

- Chris Backert, Advent 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

All We Need for Christmas

There’s a story in Genesis that tells how humans tried to go where God was.  It’s in the 11th chapter.  The beginning of Genesis, as a matter of fact, tells how we all got into this mess.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve saw that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was attractive fruit.  And they saw that they could be like God, knowing good and evil.  So they ate, and they knew, and, wanting to be like God, were cast out of the garden, away from his presence.  And then Cain decided to take upon himself the decision which belonged only to God: deciding who deserved to live and who deserved to die.  With the flood God tried to start all over again with a whole new set of people, but what we learned was that the problem wasn’t with the individual people themselves, as if this set was bad but a new set would be better.   

We learned that the heart of humans was a mess.  We all fall.  Wipe out this set, another set just like them will take their place.

Then, in the 11th chapter, the humans had an interesting idea: the problem, they saw, was that we are here, on earth, and God is there, up in Heaven, and if we could just get up to Heaven where God lived, then everything would be all right.  So they started building a city, and at the center of the city they builta tower that would reach up into the heavens.  A Stairway to Heaven, as it were.  If we build it, we can come and climb and go to where God is, and everything will be all right.

We can leave this mess on earth behind us and we can go up to Heaven where everything is great, and nothing is impossible, and there will be no more tears and no more sorrows.
So God had to do something.  And sometimes a punishment is not a punishment as much as it is a correction, and a correction points you in the right direction, so watch what happens.  God confuses their language so that they can’t understand each other—that’s the punishment—with the result being that instead of reaching heaven they were scattered over the face of the earth. 

And then we have the rest of the Old Testament, where humans encounter God over and over and over.  The Lord speaks to Abram.  To Jacob, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos.  All these people have encounters with God.  And none of them take place in heaven.  All of them take place on earth, usually as they were going about their business, sometimes in the midst of great stress, but rarely in a special place.  Sure, Moses spoke with God on Mt. Sinai, but that was before Mt. Sinai was Mt. Sinai.  Before that, Mt. Sinai was just a mountain in the desert.  And besides, Moses’ first encounter with God was while he was watching his father-in-law’s sheep in the wilderness.
In the wilderness, God came to Moses.

Work with me here, but maybe at the tower, God was saying, “You can’t come to me; but I will come to you.”  Maybe he scattered them over the face of the earth because that is where you will find God—all over the face of the earth, in the midst of the mess.
Where the hurt is.  Where the disappointment is.  Where dreams have been broken, and hope extinguished, there you will find God.  The most God-forsaken places have not been forsaken by God.  That’s exactly where you will find God.

Where the mess is, there you will find God.

It’s not the way we would have done it, but that’s the point, isn’t it?  We’ve tried every which way out of this mess, and it just seems to make it worse.  There comes a time when you just have to stop trying to fix the mess, admit that it’s bigger than you, and let go.
And in that moment, when you let go, you give God space to walk in.  And when God walks in, things start to happen.  Now, what God does may surprise you.  It must have seemed strange that God would be born in a manger.  But that’s part of the wonderful mystery of God.

A God who told us to call him “I AM” because, he said, “I am what I am, I will be what I will be.”  In other words, “I’m not merely what you want me to be.  I am what I am, which is exactly what you need.”

And who is God, and what do we need?  He is Immanuel.  “God is With Us.”  That is exactly what we need, and I hope it is all we really, really want.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wright's Right: Really Knowing the Real Jesus

"It's not enough to say you feel something, even the presence of Jesus, very strongly. Lots of people feel all sorts of things very strongly. In order to know that you're not just making it up, not fooling yourself--and if you don't think that's a danger, your skeptical friends ought to tell you--you must be able to say that this Jesus, who we know in prayer, this Jesus we meet when we are ministering to the poorest of the poor, this Jesus we recognize in the breaking of the bread, this Jesus is the same Jesus who lived and taught and loved and died and rose again in the first century. We must believe and confess that he did indeed inaugurate God's kingdom, die to bring it about and rise again to launch the consequent new creation. We must know who Jesus himself actually was and is."

N.T. Wright, "Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?" in  Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright, eds. Nicholas Perrin; Richard B. Hays, (p. 119) Kindle Edition.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Cleaning Up a Royal Mess

God never wanted there to be a king in Israel.  Never.  He was kind of forced into it, but it wasn’t his idea, didn’t think it was necessary, didn’t think it was a good idea, in fact was sure that it was a pretty bad idea and that it was going to end pretty badly.  But the people thought they needed a king, they were tired of getting whipped by the Philistines, even though it was their own fault, so they whined and whined about getting a king until they just basically wore God down.
    Parents, you know what that sounds like, don’t you?  “We want a king, why can’t we have a king, everybody else has a king, we promise if you’ll give us a king we’ll play with him every day and give him a bath every week, brush him and poop-scoop after him and pleeeeassse!”  Samuel, God’s spokesman, kept saying to them, “You don’t need a king; you’ve got God.”  And they said, “We want God and a king.  We want a king to fight our battles and God to make our lives easier.” 
    So God told Samuel, “What are you going to do?  You try to tell them, but they just won’t listen.  But make sure they know what they are getting themselves into, so when it all blows up in their faces, we won’t have to say, ‘I told you so.’”  So Samuel went to the people and said, “Look, do you really understand what having a king means?  He’s going to take your sons from your fields and your farms, and he’s going to make them serve him, and fight for him.  When there’s a battle, they’ll run in front of his chariots; they’ll be on the front lines, he’ll be in back where it’s safer.  Those of your sons he doesn’t make soldiers he’ll make plow his fields and reap his harvest, and others will become sword-makers and chariot-builders, and he’s not going to let this war-machine sit around, so he’s going to use it and go to war and your sons will be killed.  And he’ll take your daughters to be his perfumers and his cooks and his bakers.  Then he’ll take the best of your fields and your vineyards and he’ll nationalize them and give them to his attendants as patronage.  And then, with whatever fields and vineyards you have left over, whatever harvest you are able to get without your sons to help you—he’ll take 10% right off the top.  As his kingdom grows he will need more servants and animals, so he will take your servants and animals—your cows, your donkeys will become his cows and donkeys, all in the name of patriotism.  He’ll take 10% of your sheep, and when there’s nothing left to take, he’ll take you and make you his slaves.  And when you cry out for relief from this pharaoh you yourselves have chosen against God’s advice, God will not listen to your cries.  Is this what you want?”
    And the people said, “A king will win us battles.  We want a king.”  Samuel went back to God, and God said, “Look, don’t feel bad.  They aren’t rejecting you as a prophet; they’re rejecting me as their ruler.”  So God let them have a king.  Samuel anointed Saul king.  And Saul was a failure.  They all were.  The monarchy in Israel didn’t work out too well.  The best of the bunch, David, was an adulterer and murderer.   Most of the rest were worse.
    It was a royal mess.  God warned them what would happen if he let them have a king, but they wanted a king anyway.  They rejected God because they wanted a king who would wage war, and they got everything they asked for, and more.  And it was into this world and this mess that Jesus was born.  He was born to be a king because God didn’t want a king in the first place.  He was supposed to rule over Israel.  So he sent his son rule for him.
    Jesus was born a king.  That’s what Matthew and Luke were both saying in their birth narratives.  We say that the Jews wanted an earthly king, but that Jesus came to set up a spiritual kingdom, a heavenly kingdom, when in fact Jesus came to set up a heavenly kingdom on earth with God as king, and all peoples—Jews, Romans, Greeks, etc.—as his subjects.  Read Acts, see if this isn’t what’s being done.  His kingdom would be characterized by true peace, not the absence of war but the presence of reconciliation.  It would be brought about, not by conquering other nations, but by recognizing that we are all children of God.  There would be no illegal aliens because there would be no borders and no distinctions among peoples—neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, all one in King Jesus.  And if we reject this, either by dismissing it as pie-in-the-sky, never-going-to-happen, this-is-the-real-world kind of thinking, or by over-spiritualizing it so that it’s just about me and my personal forgiveness and relationship with God, then God will say of us what he said to Samuel of the Israelites: they haven’t rejected you, they have rejected me.
    Christian worship is an act of allegiance to the kingdom of God.  Every Sunday morning we pledge allegiance to King Jesus, and to the kingdom of God, for which he stands, one people, one Lord, one baptism, one faith, indivisible, with grace and mercy for all.
    All Hail King Jesus.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wright's Right: Between the Cradle and the Cross Matters Too

This is the problem. The church has often colluded with shallow, one-dimensional readings of the canon and shallow, one-dimensional readings of who Jesus really was. For many traditional Christians it would be quite enough if Jesus of Nazareth had been born of a virgin and died on a cross (and perhaps risen again). But this leaves us with the baffling question, Why then did he go about doing all those things in between? Why did the canonical Evangelists take the trouble to collect and record them? Merely to provide the back story for the cross-based theology of salvation? Merely to show what the incarnate Son of God looked like and got up to? Simply to demonstrate, by his powerful deeds, that he was the second person of the Trinity? Was he, at that point, simply a great ethical teacher (and if so, how does that relate to his saving death?)? Or was he living a sinless life in order that his sacrifice, when eventually offered, would be valid? All these have been proposed within "the tradition" as ways of filling the blanks left by the great traditional omission of what the Gospels are actually talking about, namely, the inauguration of God's kingdom.

N.T. Wright, "Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?" in  Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright, eds. Nicholas Perrin; Richard B. Hays, (p. 131) Kindle Edition.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

RG3 to D.C.

Robert Griffin III became the first Baylor player ever to win the Heisman Trophy as the NCAA's top player.

It's amazing how he and head coach Art Briles have resurrected the Baylor football program.

In case you haven't seen him play, here is a video:

RG3 will probably enter the draft and be one of the top quarterbacks chosen.

The Redskins need a quarterback.  Badly.  

The Redskins are bad, so they will have one of the top picks in the draft.

I'm just sayin'.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Wright's Right: Salvation Without Followship

For some traditional Christians, Paul is everything (at least, a particular reading of Paul is everything), and the kingdom of God (on earth as in heaven!) is nothing, or next to nothing. The dangerous possibility that Jesus might want us to do things and thereby justify ourselves by our works has led generations of cross-centered Protestants to be very wary of the Gospels with their detailed kingdom agenda and kingdom ethic. Think of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25: Is "eternal life" and its horrid alternative really to be decided by what people do? Thus, in many churches the canonical Gospels, or rather their dismembered fragments, are relentlessly translated into narratives which are "really" about Jesus' salvific death. This of course is not a complete travesty, since the Evangelists do indeed recount many of the incidents in Jesus' public career in such a way as to point forward to Calvary. But the strong tendency in this cross-centered reading of the Gospels is to ignore, for instance, Jesus' bracing Jubilee agenda in Luke 4, or the striking commands about hospitality to strangers in Luke 14, or the cup of cold water in Mark 10, or (again) the "inasmuch" of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.

N.T. Wright, "Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?" in  Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright, eds. Nicholas Perrin; Richard B. Hays.(p. 140). Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Aspects of Incarnation

There was approximately 33 years between the first Christmas and the first Easter.  Of necessity the annual Christian calendar compresses that distance to about three months.  Tragically, in our understanding of the incarnation we compress it  even further—to about nothing.  There is a tendency with many Christians to put Christmas and Easter almost back-to-back theologically.
The one aspect of the incarnation that we are most familiar with, and the one we most readily accept, is that Jesus became one of us so that he could do what we couldn’t  do—live a perfect, sinless life, and then die on the cross for our sins as a perfect, sinless sacrifice.  This understanding is best embodied in the statement, “Jesus came to die for our sins.”  And that’s a perfectly accurate statement—unless it’s the only statement about the incarnation that we make.  Then it becomes something of a distortion, and part of that distortion is how it puts his birth—”Jesus came”—up next to his crucifixion—“to die for our sins.”  He did come to die for our sins, but he came to do a lot more, and the reasons are all intertwined.  Separating one from the other distorts them.
At Christmas we become more aware of another aspect of the incarnation.  Matthew 1:23 (quoting Isaiah 7:14) says, "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."  For many, this is a nice sentiment that has little bearing on Christ’s work of salvation.  It means that when we have difficult times, God is with us.  But the 23rd Psalm expresses that already (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.”), as does the concept of God’s omnipresence—God is always everywhere, so of course he is with us.  If that’s all that Emmanuel means, then the incarnation isn’t expressing anything unique.  It may be good news, but it’s also old news.  For a people living under foreign occupation, however, a people who experienced exile and not only the silence of God for over 400 years but his absence as well, “God with us” means so much more.  It means that Yahweh is returning to Zion, ready to forgive the nation of its sins, deliver people from slavery and oppression, and establish his everlasting kingdom.  That is certainly Good News, it’s anything but old news, and more than anything, it is a message of salvation.  Jesus’s birth was itself the announcement that the kingdom of God was coming; after his baptism that became the core of his teaching, and his kingdom and the kingdoms of this world clashed in Jerusalem.  At the cross the kingdoms of this world declared victory over Jesus and his kingdom; Easter morning showed who really won.
There is another aspect of the incarnation that we tend to acknowledge in theory but then ignore in practice.  At least we are in good company, for at least one of the 12 didn’t get it either.  In John 14 Jesus tells the 12 disciples, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."  Philip responds, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."  Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?”
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  There were a lot of different opinions running around Judea at the time of Jesus concerning what God was like, much like today.  For some he was angry, for some authoritative, for some distant and uncaring, for others he was war-like, or jealous, or vindictive, or even weak, or some combination of all of these.  Some thought they knew for certain what God was like, while many still wondered.  “Show us the Father,” was Philip’s way of saying, “We are confused.  What is God like?”
We understand what Philip is saying, don’t we?  We read the Old Testament, the same writings Philip and the others read, and we see different  images.  We see him angry and violent, and we see him merciful and forgiving.  We see him loving and caring, and we see him cold and distant.  We see him punishing some sin with capital punishment, and we see him letting a murderer—David—live, albeit with severe consequences.  And people today are really good at pointing to different Old Testament passages to support their causes and prejudices,  each one saying, “See?  This is what God is like.”  It is in fact confusing.
God became human to show us what the Father is really like, and that saves us from having to live in fear of an angry or distant God—or a false god.  We don’t learn what God is like by looking at isolated passages from the Old Testament, or through philosophical reasoning or speculation,  or through pop theology and superstition.  We learn what God is like by watching and listening to Jesus. 
To know the Father we look to Jesus first, last—and only.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


My alma mater, Baylor University, has had a lot of rough years in football ever since the old Southwest Conference disbanded and Baylor joined the Big 12.  But things have been looking up.  The basketball programs have had a lot of recent success: the woman's team won the national title in 2005, went to the Final Four last year, and is currently the #1 team in the nation with arguably the best player in the country, Britney Griner.  The men's team has been nationally ranked for the last three years and is currently ranked #6 in the country.  Pretty heady territory for a private Baptist university.  But the football team has not enjoyed the same success.

Until RG3 showed up 4 years ago.  Robert Griffin III started at quarterback as a freshman, you could tell he was a unique talent.  A football player who also is a track star, he makes a lot of plays with his running, but unlike a lot of quarterbacks with great running ability i.e. Tim Tebow, RG3 can stand in the pocket and deliver passes with accuracy.  After a knee injury early in his second year led to a medical redshirt, he came back last year and led the Bears to a bowl.  This year, he has led the team to 9 wins, including signature victories over 10-2 TCU, currently ranked 16th in the nation, Oklahoma, and Texas.

And now RG3 is favored to win the Heisman Trophy, given to the best collegiate football player.  No Baylor player has ever won the Heisman; few have even been finalists, and none finished higher than 4th in the voting.

Here's a video of RG3 as he's announced as a finalist:

Sic'em Bears!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Wright's Right: Worship and Allegiance

Kingdom work is rooted in worship. Or, to put it the other way around, worshipping the God we see at work in Jesus is the most politically charged act we can ever perform. Christian worship declares that Jesus is Lord and that therefore, by strong implication, nobody else is. What’s more, it doesn’t just declare it as something to be believed, like the fact that the sun is hot or the sea wet. It commits the worshipper to allegiance, to following this Jesus, to being shaped and directed by him. Worshipping the God we see in Jesus orients our whole being, our imagination, our will, our hopes, and our fears away from the world where Mars, Mammon, and Aphrodite (violence, money, and sex) make absolute demands and punish anyone who resists. It orients us instead to a world in which love is stronger than death, the poor are promised the kingdom, and chastity (whether married or single) reflects the holiness and faithfulness of God himself. Acclaiming Jesus as Lord plants a flag that supersedes the flags of the nations, however “free” or “democratic” they may be. It challenges both the tyrants who think they are, in effect, divine and the “secular democracies” that have effectively become, if not divine, at least ecclesial, that is, communities that are trying to do and be what the church was supposed to do and be, but without recourse to the one who sustains the church’s life. Worship creates—or should create, if it is allowed to be truly itself—a community that marches to a different beat, that keeps in step with a different Lord.

Wright, N. T. (2011-10-25). Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (p. 217). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.