what is God like?

Philip said to him, “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.”

John 14:8-9

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…

Hebrews 1:1-3a

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

1 Corinthians 2:2

When we think of God, what comes to mind? Do we think of a God of judgment, ready to catch us in our latest misstep or sin? Do we think of God as an angry wrath-full God, with whom sinners should be on more than edge, even shuddering? Or maybe we think of God as something like a complacent Teddy Bear who doesn’t care and with whom everything is fine. Or maybe God is just something we haven’t given that much thought to. Perhaps we chalk it down to mystery, and just don’t know.

We find out that Jesus is not only the promised Messiah, but that he fulfills time and time again prophecies which are attributed to God as if he were God or God was in him. And we find out that indeed it’s all of the above.

Jesus spoke about the Father again and again, particularly so in John’s gospel account. So for Thomas to inquire about just who this Father really is in a way is not surprising. I can picture myself doing the same, and in my imagination see myself in Thomas at least to some extent. But Jesus seems surprised and makes it clear that when Thomas and the others, and all of us see him, they see the Father.

We might well say that Jesus is God’s final word. He is after all “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14).

That doesn’t mean we don’t take into account all of what Scripture says about God. But it also means that we interpret all of that in light of Christ, who comes both to fulfill it, and as its fulfillment. And how he did that was more than a surprise, not anticipated at all. They expected God to send the Deliverer to a faithful Israel who would overthrow the Romans, the pagans, the godless, and set up a kingdom which would rule with an iron rod over all the nations, all of this according to the Pharisees, and one of their own, Saul of Tarsus (later to become Paul) with resurrection power.* So it should be no surprise at all when Christ comes and does completely different than that, that people wondered. Yes, there was no way to ignore him and what followed, but it just didn’t add up with their understanding, their interpretation of Scripture.

And then at the end, Jesus is hung on a Roman cross, thus under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). So there was no doubt that something was amiss here.

Oddly enough though, I believe that’s where we understand at least the heart of God and I believe who God is by looking at the cross and Jesus hanging there. God shows God’s self by becoming one of us in the Incarnation, faithfully lives and teaches and acts to help us, and then suffers the worst death of that time, the death of the cross. Suffering physically in an excruciating way, emotionally and spiritually over the feeling of being rejected by humans and abandoned by God. And all out of love. And all who put their faith in him are forgiven and receive new life, because in Christ’s death and resurrection, we are taken into a new existence by the Spirit, into the new creation beginning even here and now in and among us in Christ. A life for us now which paradoxically in resurrection power means taking the way of the cross, becoming more and more like Jesus in his death, and therefore more like God was and is and forever will be (Philippians 3:10; Hebrews 13:8).

And the last book of the Bible, Revelation, is the climax of all of this. Jesus is called the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, thus “lion” once in that book, and how? By being a lamb (28 or 29 times) right up to the end, on the throne with God. Coming with his robe dipped in his own blood with his faithful, the victory through his own death and the sword coming out of his mouth, in other words the word of his mouth, what he says. That’s how he unexpectedly fulfills God’s promises (Revelation 19:11-16).**

How do we understand God? Who is God? I believe we see it in a man hanging on a Roman cross some 2,000 years ago. And all else must be interpreted and seen in that light. Otherwise just like the Jews of old, we’ll indeed miss it, as I believe many are today.

In and through Jesus.

*See Tim Gombis’s most helpful book, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry.     

**See Michael J. Gorman’s most helpful book, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation.

who Jesus is determines who we are (in Jesus)

They follow the Lamb wherever he goes.

Revelation 14

If I just tune into some of the evangelical world today, I would think for sure that Jesus is a roaring lion, out to devour his prey. But in Revelation, over and over again, he’s called the Lamb, around 30 times. Once he’s called a lion, “the lion of the tribe of Judah.”

Read the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and read Acts and the letters. You’ll find that Jesus indeed comes across as a lamb, meek and even lowly in his gentleness and humility.

An important desire for us as Christians is the longing to really know Jesus. The term Christian may have originally coined in derision, but we’re named after the one we name and follow. It’s a good prayer to pray, to ask the Lord to make himself known to us. And to remember too, that anyone who sees Jesus, sees the Father. To know Jesus is to know God.

I think we need a total rethinking of who we are as Christians. And that must begin with who Christ is. Only as we begin to understand who Jesus is can we begin to understand who we’re meant to be, to become like, indeed, even who we actually are in him. Contradictory to what we’ve picked up from our culture, and sometimes, sadly enough too often in Christianity itself.

 

thinking in the new way (the Jesus way)

It is so easy for us to conflate what we read in the Old Testament about the nation of Israel and battles and whatnot with the United States. What we fall into is the precipice of nationalism from which there’s no escape. I’m finding these podcasts from Stephen Backhouse helpful in grounding us in the way of Jesus and exposing what is not.

We need to get back to basics, the basics of Jesus, what he calls us to as his disciples and church. That’s a far cry from what we’re accustomed to, what we’re caught up in. It involves what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. The fruit of the Spirit marks it.

One can be Spirit-filled, yet sadly mistaken on key points, as history has shown over and over again, and as Scripture, I think indicates. We need a new vision, the vision Jesus gives us. But it’s hard to break the old strongholds, and idols don’t easily let go since there are spiritual and systemic powers behind them.

This is not the idea that we’ll all the sudden get it right while most everyone else gets it wrong. This is an endeavor to question bedrock assumptions which we live by, often taken for granted to be true.

This gets us beyond national, and even international allegiance, to the one allegiance that we Christians are to hold to now and forever: the Lamb Jesus, and the kingdom of God present and to come in him. It’s not like we no longer have concerns about those matters, but that those concerns come from a different world altogether. Yes, meant for this world, but not of it.

But go to the podcasts if you want to learn more. And a hint: keep listening through the episodes to make the most sense of it.

Jesus’s peacemakers

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.

Matthew 5:9

I remember a church in our area which had a sign that said, “Wage Peace.” The church was of the Protestant liberal persuasion which tends to take strong public stands on what is called a progressive, liberal agenda. Then you have on the other hand churches which not only hold to just war theory, but who quite often back American efforts in war. On hindsight, I think we can clearly say that at best there are major problems in military action, and that indeed, war ought to be a last resort.

But was this what Jesus was talking about? While I don’t think Jesus would approve of much of the world’s military action, if indeed there could be any such approval at all, since all is laid bare behind the full scrutiny of the one with eyes like fire, and besides, what affiliation does the kingdom of God have with any nation state? No, Jesus was not referring to that. What he said was surely in a true sense a rebuke to much of that. Wouldn’t it be beneficial and good if the church once again required soldiers returning from war to engage in some kind of time of repentance, even penance, not to earn forgiveness, but to actually be saved from what war effort requires? I say this hesitantly and sadly, while at the same time admiring the service of those who serve honorably and self-sacrificially for their country. And I have no doubt that many do so with character, not wishing to inflict injury on others, but carrying out orders in the confidence that they are on principled grounds. And in a world where evil is often armed, isn’t there a need for police action? I say, clearly yes, as long as it’s restrained, and with the effort to minimize the loss of human life.

But again, back to Jesus and his words here. A peacemaker is someone who makes peace between those who are not peaceful, who often are enemies. Surely peacemaking is in terms of Jesus’s mission which is fulfilled in his death and resurrection. And both before that, and afterward, we find that Christians are to live in the way of Jesus, which means the way of the cross. To understand what Jesus’s words here mean in full, we of course need to go over the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, particularly Acts and the letters. We’re going to find that this peacemaking is always in terms set by Jesus. It is never on the world’s terms, like “might makes right.” And the kind of peace that Roman force enforced. Instead it comes in terms of changed lives, changed societies, indeed, changed priorities. Those alienated from each other, perhaps through past conflict or injustice are made one in Christ. Of course this comes through conversion. Think of Paul’s conversion in which a radical enemy of the faithful, becomes a friend in God.

But let’s not bypass the reality of what often comes between. Those who do the hard work of peacemaking, must themselves, obviously, be peacemakers. You can’t raise Cain, and bring the peace that Christ brings. It must be in the meekness, gentleness, and humility of the Lamb. And it will involve self-sacrifice, even the abnegation of self altogether. But the reward that brings will be well worth the effort. In life, as well as words said, particularly the word of the gospel.

To be a peacemaker then is not to score points and win. We especially need to hear that in this day and age when winning is considered everything, nothing else mattering. No, we take the way of Jesus, and determine from the outset that one of our fundamental goals is peacemaking. A hard task for sure. But more than possible through the Prince of Peace, Jesus, and his sacrificial death for the world, as we walk on the same path, with that same good news, the gospel of peace. Peace with God and with each other. Good news meant even for our enemies. Through the Cross. This is part of what should characterize us, our lives and action. In and through Jesus.

the Revelation: judgment and salvation

Revelation, the last book in the Bible, is a book which seems to have been more or less a quandary to many Christian theologians over the centuries, and a book which misinterpreted lends itself to quack theology. A book filled with symbolic, meaning, an apocalyptic, end of the world vision to be sure. It is not an easy book to interpret, though must be done so with a sensitivity to genre.

In it, God’s judgment against an evil world system and salvation in replacing that system with God’s kingdom come in King Jesus is front and center. And in the struggles in which we live, especially so in our following of Jesus, and this is so very true in so many parts of today’s world, and relatively completely unknown where I live, we are to see everything we are going through in terms of this Revelation.

Eugene Peterson has said that this is a book for worship (see his helpful rendition/paraphrase in The Message). The Lamb seated on the Throne with God and the seven spirits representing the seven-fold Holy Spirit are front and center in the book. And judgment like the rest of the Bible is primarily in terms of getting rid of the evil in this world. Such is always necessary for the salvation which follows, which in this book is about the bringing in of true shalom, peace and prosperity, true human flourishing when God’s kingdom takes over earth in the descent of the New Jerusalem. So that evil is vanquished and replaced with what is truly good in the new creation from God in which God’s Trinitarian love will have full sway in a world renewed to fulfill God’s original intent in creation.

Revelation will remain a challenge to wrestle through. While it is part of God’s written word to us, just what that word means, why it was given I don’t think we should begin to think we can pin down entirely. God’s written word, of course fulfilled in the Word, Jesus, has its purpose, and will achieve its goal. But part of that is surely to help us toward a healthy dependence on God and interdependence with each other in and through Jesus. Knowing where our ultimate hope lies. The end determining the means in which we live, in and through the Lamb, Jesus.

the wonderful carols of Christmas

What is more special about Christmas than the wonderful carols we sing? I don’t want to list them, which would be rather long. I wouldn’t want to leave any of them out. Of course what is most special about Christmas is its meaning: the celebration of the birth of God’s son, Jesus, our Savior, Christ the Lord. And yes, the Messiah, the one who comes and fulfills God’s promises to Israel for the world. I am guessing that the thought that comes to mind, or prevails, when I think of Christmas is both some of the beautiful Christmas imagery surrounding and pertaining to Christ’s birth, and without a doubt, those wonderful carols. And probably imagining beautiful singing of them, preferably in church. Different kinds of beauty in singing, but one preference is the blend of all the ordinary voices lifting up their hearts to God in song. And the heart of God coming down to them through the songs.

Yesterday in chapel Bill Crowder shared with us the thought that our celebration of Christ’s birth in song should be practice in anticipation of the great celebration of the Lamb to come (Revelation 4-5).  I was struck by his thought that the Lamb is the name or title most often given to Jesus in the Revelation (28 times). Yes, that will be a celebration and a half, in awe and reverence in song proclaiming the wonder and beauty of him who sits on the throne and of the Lamb. The idea that singing the Christmas carols can be a practice now in anticipation of that, I think is a wonderful thought. I was reminded too of Handel’s Messiah, which wonderfully transports us into much of this majestic terrain in its contours and beauty.

And so let’s not forget the carols. They are something of the centerpiece of our tradition of Advent, as we remember and celebrate the wonderful coming of that little baby Jesus, so many years ago.

what if persecution comes?

In the United States and in a number of other countries, we are indeed blessed in enjoying religious liberty, freedom to worship or not to worship, as well as to witness of our faith in Christ. We realize that in other societies this is starkly not the case. Other faiths, and it seems especially Christians are persecuted simply for holding to their faith. We do well to pray for them, as well as speak out on their behalf.

A thought that a professor/pastor/scholar shared on Facebook has been making me think and wonder a bit: “How could the church fail so badly to mount a resistance to the Nazi state?” Of course that question deserves much study and conversation. And we won’t necessarily agree concerning all the factors involved. But this has made me think of a related question: What if persecution comes to the United States, or where we live? It is known that when persecution has come to any area, the number of Christians, or followers of Jesus who remain has been significantly pared down in number. Many, in fact a majority leave the church during that time. Forced to become whatever, willing to renounce their faith or simply become anonymous in regard to it.

I wish I had a special insight on what the difference is between those who continue as followers of Jesus in the face of persecution as opposed to those who do not. There is actually much that could be said here from scripture. We are told that it has been given to us on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him. And it seems that the way of the cross in suffering is God’s way of resurrection in the sense of bringing more into the fold. It is well known in China that after the missionaries were expelled and the church began to be decimated through the persecution imposed by the Maoist regime and the “cultural revolution,” in time the church grew by leaps and bounds. Was it easy? No, of course not. No one would choose suffering and death. But Tertullian’s words: “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” helps us understand that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross which we are not only to proclaim, but to live out. Our lives are to be marked as those who follow the Lamb.

If we are not ready to continue on as followers of Jesus in the face of persecution, then surely we are not living well now, in the freedoms we have. Of course we don’t look for persecution, and if any comes, hopefully it is only because of our witness in Jesus both for him and for righteousness, and not because of something offensive about us. If we think we would stand, then we best take heed lest we fall. True now, as it would be then. Our dependence is completely on God through Christ by the Spirit in the one body, the church. If those days come, all of this would likely become more precious to us. But we need to pray that this would become the case now. That we might be Jesus’ followers through and through, together in him for the world.

Richard B. Hays on evil overcome by righteous suffering*

Just as Jesus suffered for his word of testimony, so those who follow him must testify and suffer. The repeated call to the community is to endure and to bear witness faithfully….

Those who follow him in persecution and death are not filling a randomly determined quota of martyrs; rather, they are enacting the will of God, who has chosen to overcome evil precisely in and through righteous suffering, not in spite of it. That is why those who bear the name of the Lamb on their foreheads must also share his fate.

Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, 176, 179.

*From the chapter: “Revelation: Resisting the Beast,” under the subheading: “The Vocation of the Saints,’ with particular attention given to Revelation 14:4; 12:10,11; 13:9-10.

Zechariah’s song

The priest Zechariah and his wife Anna, bore a son in their old age according to God’s promise to them, none other than John the Baptizer, usually known as John the Baptist. Zechariah had doubted the angel’s word to him in the temple at the altar concerning this, and as a result had become mute. Until he confirmed that as the angel had said, his name was to be John. And then he was enabled to speak, and he burst out into this song:

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.

Zechariah’s song, called the Benedictus is in liturgy I believe often throughout the year. It is a magnificent song, striking a balance between God’s promise to Israel of deliverance from their enemies on the one hand, and Israel living out their calling through repentance and faith, on the other. Zechariah’s words concerning his son are prophetic indeed. Their son, John is to fulfill the words of Isaiah the prophet, preparing the way for the Lord through his ministry of the baptism of repentance.

Advent is often not looked on as a time of repentance; that is usually confined to Lent. But repentance ought to be a part of it, because we are anticipating the Lord’s coming both in terms of remembering his first coming, and anticipating his second coming, or reappearing. This baby to be born would grow up to be the servant of the Lord, God’s chosen one, indeed, God’s Son. And his cousin John would be the one to prepare the way before him, by calling the people of Israel to repent of their sins, and look to the one to come whose sandals John said, he was unworthy to carry (in other words, John said he was unworthy to be his servant). John would baptize with water, but this one to come would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (fire means judgment). This one was before John, though John was a bit older, and would indeed, as John pointed out to his disciples when he saw Jesus, be the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.

And so we do well to come before God this season in joy, yes. But also with repentance, wanting to let God expose our sin by his light, so that we may no longer walk in darkness, but more and more fully walk in the light of the world: Jesus. A walk together with others in Jesus for the world.

heaven-bent

Often the term hell-bent is used to express determination to get something done. With the idea that nothing will get in the way. Steely resolve.

The Jesus way is one of being heaven-bent. Following the way of Jesus in loving and praying for our enemies, turning the other cheek after being struck, going the second mile after being asked to go one mile. Being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect is set in that context.

This is not something we come up with by simply reading scripture. We must read the gospels and be led by the Spirit.

What is our demeanor? Are we growing to become more and more like our Master, the one we profess to follow? Do we love to the end? Is our love active and proactive? Are we thinking about the good we can do, and doing it?

What marks us, marks our lives? I hope it’s the mark of the Lamb of God, that we too are sheep in that way, the way of the cross. Even though all hell rages against us. Knowing that in the end heaven wins. And it begins to win even here and now through us – in and through Jesus.