the mystery of Christ’s conception and birth

I was struck this morning by the thought of how Christ was in the womb, soon to be born. The idea that God through a miracle, was fully human, to soon pass through his mother’s womb into the world as a newborn.

That is amazing in itself, a mystery of the faith to be sure. And evident of God’s triunity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We might say the Father oversaw it all, the Spirit was active in it, and the Son was the human embryo, nine months after conception to be born.

It is amazing, but somehow tied to God’s amazing work in our own lives.

Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:

He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.

 

Bible stories which call us to radical faith

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground. I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them. And I will gain glory through Pharaoh and all his army, through his chariots and his horsemen. The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.”

Exodus 14:10-18

We had a big Bible story book when we were growing up, along with Kenneth Taylor’s classic picture book walking children through the Bible. Of course those make great impressions on you as a child; my mother was faithful in reading them to us kids. What you take for granted as a child becomes a different matter when you grow up and become an adult, especially in today’s world. God is great and God is good, and we can depend on him and his word is replaced with the idea that it’s up to us, or at least that we have to do our part.

Contrast that with the message in the above Exodus event: to simply stand still and see the salvation of God. We struggle with that. Backing up a bit: not all the Bible is written to us, for example the book of 1 Corinthians. But everything from start to finish is written for us. So these stories telling of actual historical events are not just some kind of rare occurrence of the miraculous. They are that, but much more. They are present to encourage us in our own faith, into the same radical commitment that believes that come what may, God will save. That in a very true sense, we’re simply to stand still and see the salvation of God.

We have to get away from the notion and indeed the practice that we must take matters in our own hands. Instead we need to replace that with the commitment to leave everything in God’s hands and simply live by faith. Which means while it’s not like either that we’re automatons- although sometimes it will seem like God is carrying us, or that we never do a thing, after all the Israelites had to listen, believe, and move at God’s command through Moses, our dependence is not on ourselves at all, but on God. Neither do we depend on other lesser things than God.

We believe in the radical biblical way. Not just in a reciting of the creed, but through and through so that our faith carries through into all of life. That it’s first about finding God’s will and way and by faith living in that. Together as much as possible, while we endeavor to live there ourselves in and through Jesus.

feel the emotion

John 10 (and note John 9 preceding it) is an interesting example of a point made in one of John R. W. Stott’s excellent books, Christ the Controversialist. Jesus was up against it time and time again, against his Jewish opponents. Yet you can see throughout that Jesus is still humbly trying to make his appeal to them. But his words were loaded for them. Jesus noted his works which he attributed to the Father, pointing to the claim that he was in the Father and the Father in him.

John 8 is not children’s bedtime reading so to speak. Jesus is not the meek and mild fictional Jesus which is understood in society at large, and it seems even in many of our churches. Jesus doesn’t mince words, and the words said would never be put in Jesus’s mouth in popular portrayals of him. Like “you are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father, you want to do.”

But back to John 10. In our habit of marking down doctrine or precious promise passages, neither of which we should dismiss, we can easily miss context. What can help us is reading Scripture in real life, and realizing what we’re reading is couched in real life. Jesus’s opponents were emotional, but so was Jesus himself. Jesus’s following words were surely mixed with pathos in the form of grief in lament, along with perhaps something of a defensiveness, even as we was trying to defend the truth that he was from God.

I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me,is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.

John 10:25-30

 John’s entire gospel was written to underscore the truth of who Jesus is.

But watch for the real life emotion in passages. What can help us is the emotion we live with. And we need the Spirit and what the church has given us, as well. As we continue on in Scripture and in this life in and through Jesus.

signs and wonders (and even prophesying) not enough

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.

Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie, and all the ways that wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

2 Thessalonians 2

Paranormal activity is well documented, and the biblical narrative certainly takes it seriously. Of course there are God’s miracles, literally signs and wonders, which point to God himself, and God’s word, to the gospel. They are unusual in scripture, but found in pockets, it seems. And the church according to 1 Corinthians 12 can have that element within the body in the form of giftings from God on some of God’s people (perhaps individuals here and there) through which extraordinary things happen. Certainly miracles accompanied Jesus in his ministry, especially in the healings, and exorcism of demons.

The point of this post is simply to say that miracles in themselves prove nothing as to their source. We can define miracle, by the way, as that which is out of the ordinary, perhaps seemingly breaking the laws of nature, therefore called supernatural. According to scripture, God holds everything together, so that God can do what he pleases at any time with what exists. But there’s also an usurper, a pretender, who does have a measure of power, the angelic kind, though in this sense perverted, which can bring about miracles, as in the scripture above, “signs and wonders that serve the lie.”

And in Deuteronomy 13, there’s a warning not to be taken in by prophesyings and miracles which on the surface seem to be authentic, and perhaps in some ways are, but actually pull people away from God and the truth, and essentially substantiate and support what they want to hear.

There is the danger of attributing to Satan what is actually the work of the Holy Spirit. But we are told to test all things, including prophesyings, with the benchmark that we’re to hold on to what is good, but reject whatever is not (1 Thessalonians 5). We need a discernment coming from both the Spirit and the word. Deception can occur not only in the world, but in the church. The safety we have from that is found in the gospel: the power of God through the weakness of the cross, the wisdom of God through the foolishness of the message of a crucified Lord (1 Corinthians 1).

We need discernment, and all the more when people are vulnerable for understandable reasons to deception. We all need the bread of God’s word, and the living Bread who came down out of heaven, and now gives life to the world. Jesus is the one we turn to in the midst of our confusion and darkness. Even while along with the church we continue to turn the pages of scripture, and ask God for the discernment we need, in and through Jesus.

 

 

miracles and healings: signs of the presence and promise of the kingdom of God in Jesus

John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

Matthew 14:12-14

The gospels are replete with Jesus’ miracles and healings, at least most of which even liberal scholars acknowledge as likely historical. Included in the gospel narratives are risings from the dead, by implication of Jesus’ words even done by his disciples in his name. We remember Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. Of course Lazarus died again, later. The passage cited above is in the context of more miracles (click the link to see Matthew 14). And as we go on post-Pentecost, we find that miracles in Jesus by the Spirit continue in gifts given to the church.

What are we to make of these miracles? Certainly Jesus did them in significant part out of compassion, just as the text quoted above says. But parallel to that and just as significant: Jesus did them as the sign of God’s kingdom come in him, and that he was indeed the Messiah to come. And they were done not only as a sign of the presence of God’s kingdom come in him, but of the promise of God’s kingdom to come and fill the earth when he returns. At the heart of that promise is Jesus and in Jesus is always death and resurrection. So that the new world to come, this old world already touched by its presence in Jesus, is a world in which all things are made new as in new creation and resurrection in Jesus. Not in terms and values of the old world and age, which is why Jesus often told others not to tell about the miracles he had done. They wanted to make him the King on their terms.

And so we can look to God in and through Jesus to continue to do the miraculous today, and we should pray for such to happen, and even do such, in faith. Some are especially gifted with such a gift as we read in 1 Corinthians 12. But we do so as those living in the old order and age which is passing away, and we with it. But in Jesus destined to become brand new in the new order in King Jesus for us and for the world.

 

what miracle does God want you to do in and through Jesus this year?

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

John 2:1-11

Father Michael Cupp after reading this, and prior to that 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, challenged us with something of a question like this: What miracle would the Lord have you perform this year for the good of others to his glory?  Of course in the list in 1 Corinthians 12, there are those in the church who are gifted with “miraculous powers” along with a list of other possible gifts distributed to each person in Christ’s body as the Spirit determines.

Really anything, we can say is a miracle. Miracles are more precisely called signs, or mighty works. They mean anything out of the ordinary. Jesus walking on the water is one such example found in the New Testament, in that case Peter even being able to join him in doing so, as long as Peter kept his eyes focused on Jesus and therefore his faith intact.

Father Michael gave us C. S. Lewis’ analogy of water being turned into wine all the time in the process of water in the earth with seed, the plant growing into a vine which produces grapes, and in a process, wine, all of this a gift from God. So that in answer to prayer, or to faith, God can do anything at a particular moment in time, sometimes over a span of time, bypassing the normal, what we often call natural means. We shouldn’t belittle any moving of God for that matter, in the speaking and serving gifts listed in the New Testament as given to members of Christ’s body, the church, probably not an exhaustive list, but covering basics needed and evident in the church at large.

For me, one “miracle” is to seek to live beyond the troubles of this life daily, so that I can be a blessing to others, and live in what otherwise would not be, left to myself. And  we can say here, just the attempt is good enough. We may not seem to break through into the miracle the Lord might have for us, but we endeavor to be present and ready, not flagging in our faith, at least not in the effort, come what may. Of course in the end, all is a gift from God, our faith, our living beyond where we naturally would. And then, of course, we’re to do all to the building up of others in the church, and also outside of the church, through the gospel.

A good challenge for me, for all of us in Jesus. What miracle would the Lord have each of us perform this year for the good of others to his glory?

the offense of Advent love

Father Michael Cupp in Sunday’s sermon mentioned at some length the offense which accompanied Jesus’ birth. Mary was pregnant, but her and Joseph had not yet come together as husband and wife. Joseph was a righteous man, and while not wanting to expose Mary to the penalty of adultery (possibly and we know from the Pentateuch, surely stoning, though I’m not sure how much stoning actually occurred then, or some centuries prior to that time), he was thinking of divorcing her quietly, a divorce needed even for engagement, which itself was as binding as marriage. Mary had to know that this word from the angel Gabriel to her about bearing  a son when she had never “known” a man, that is, she being a virgin, would cause trouble, and it did. In fact, as Father Michael pointed out, this claim causes trouble to this very day, some saying that we all know how babies come into the world, and it had to be a man (maybe a Roman soldier, whatever).

But Mary accepted God’s word to her given from the messenger, the angel, doing so as the Lord’s servant. God intervened to vindicate her in her immediate situation, though we know that this did not affect the naysayers and gossips even in her own community. And was later used by Jesus’ enemies.

God becoming flesh, fully human, and doing so by the power of the Holy Spirit upon a virgin, to bring about a virginal conception and birth is itself a scandal and stumbling block to the world. Even some who accept the Incarnation want to deny the necessity of the virgin birth. Maybe it wasn’t necessary, but we know what the text of scripture clearly says, and so that is what the church teaches, and that is what we believe. Yes, the Lord of heaven and earth did become fully human, born in the normal human way, albeit from the womb of a virgin.

It seems like the way of God’s love in Jesus challenges the world at every turn. Miracles are accepted in some quarters, but at least not usually with the exclusive claims that come with the good news in Jesus. But in most places it seems, such claims are at best doubted, and often downright denied. Even I by nature am slow to accept the possibility of a miracle in life, though I believe I’ve experienced a bit of that as in something happening which would not have done so apart from direct divine intervention.

But the idea of miracle, and precisely here, the virgin birth points beyond itself as a sign to something greater. Yes, God did so love the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life (see John 3:14-16). Yes, God became King in this world through the humble birth in difficult, lowly circumstances, which continued in different ways beyond those early days. And this speaks not only to the offense of God’s love in Jesus during our Lord’s time on earth, but also to the continuing offense which will accompany us, as we as witnesses share that love to the world. It is not that we’re to dwell on that, but simply to know that in God’s wisdom this is the case, and we must learn to live with it well. That people might come to see the Love that came, laying in that stable and manger, so many years ago.

Jordan Seng on supernatural ministry for today? yes, but…*

One final thing that supernatural ministry may require of you is what you might call the faith to discover—or to rediscover, as the case may be.

I’m often asked this sort of question: if supernatural ministries are so useful and have been as prevalent as many claim, then why don’t all churches and traditions use them today? It’s a good question that actually reflects a profound historical reality. The truth is, while supernatural ministries have been both common and enormously fruitful in church history, they’ve never been what you would call steady. Over the centuries we see great renewals of supernatural ministry followed by long droughts of disuse. It’s up and down, here then there, a consistent inconsistency. You can focus on regional revivals and conclude that supernatural ministries have been constant, but you could just as well focus on down times and conclude that supernatural ministries ended with the first apostles. Really, it’s the variation that needs explaining. Why do supernatural ministries surge so often only to dwindle so frequently?

Since supernatural ministries have never been entirely absent, it’s hard to argue that God decided to stop empowering them, so the cause for variation must lie with us. My theory is this: groups of believers frequently figure out how to do supernatural ministry, but they have a hard time figuring out how to live with the ministry. Revivals come with great exhilaration and fruitfulness; downturns come when people tire of the level of weirdness, vulnerability and sacrifice that supernatural ministry demands.

One result of this variation is that very few believers have had the benefit of what you could really call a tradition in supernatural ministries, so each new generation has to do the work of rediscovering the ministries for themselves.

It’s always been this way. For example, the use of supernatural ministry by first-century believers is well-chronicled in Scripture and elsewhere, but by the late second century the church father Irenaeus in his Against Heresies actually had to reassure his readers that supernatural works were still practiced fruitfully in his jurisdiction. “For some do certainly and truly drive out devils,” he wrote. “Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years.”

In the next century the seminal theologian Origen wrote from Alexandria of “traces of that Holy Spirit” among Christians who “expel evil spirits and perform many cures, and foresee certain events,” but it was only “traces.” A century later, in the same city, Bishop Athanasius extensively documented the miracles of his Egyptian contemporary, Anthony of the Desert, but his whole project was based on the notion that only exceptional monks were doing such ministry.

The great Augustine of Hippo totally dismissed the possibility of supernatural ministries initially, but then he encountered them during a fifth-century revival in his native North Africa. In the last section of The City of God he offers gushing accounts of healings, concluding “even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ.” He reportedly collected accounts of recent miracles for pastors to read aloud in the churches he supervised in order to rekindle the ministries.

We have rather detailed accounts of the use of supernatural ministries by Patrick, Columba and other monk evangelists of the western European outreach. In a wonderfully personal letter to Augustine of Canterbury in A.D. 601, Gregory, bishop of Rome, acknowledged the use of miracles to attract English natives to Christ, and even offered advice for handling the pressures of being a supernatural minister. But by the later middle centuries, as central church leaders focused on governance rather than outreach, supernatural ministries seem to have survived only on the fringes.

Early Reformation leaders strenuously dismissed miracle stories as a ploy by Catholics to legitimate their dominance, but it didn’t take long for Protestant pioneers to rediscover the usefulness of supernatural tools. Scottish Reformers John Knox, Alexander Peden and George Wishart had highly regarded prophetic ministries in their day. (Wishart even predicted his own murder.) John Welch, a leading Reformer at the turn of the seventeenth century, was recognized as a man of “prophetic utterance” and was credited with raising a man from the dead. Seventeenth-century biographers of reform clergyman Robert Bruce systematically collected eyewitness accounts of the many healings, deliverances and other supernatural manifestations linked with his evangelistic meetings.

And yet less than a century later, the great British revivalist John Wesley was shocked to find “that signs and wonders are even now wrought by his holy child Jesus.” His revered journals are spiced  with accounts of deliverances and healings , and also of the opposition he experienced from “formal, orthodox men [who] began even then to ridicule whatever gifts they had not themselves and to decry them all as either madness or imposture.” Wesley’s New England contemporary, Jonathan Edwards, often called the dean of American theology, wrote some of his most ardent essays to fend off Christian critics who didn’t trust the supernatural manifestations that characterized his revival ministry. Even her wife was called to defend what was called her “joyful view of divine things.”

Francis Asbury, the first American Methodist bishop, was so passionate about supernatural ministry that he used to command his preaching protégés to “Feel for power, feel for power!” Two Methodists and a Presbyterian touched off the Cane Ridge Revival on the American frontier in the early 1800s—a movement that  popularized the phrase “slain in the Spirit.” But today few Methodists or Presbyterians are aware of this movement, and neither of those denominations is known for practicing supernatural ministry.

Supernatural ministries played a big role in the establishment of the early church, the birth of monasticism, the expansion of the faith to Western Europe, the spread of the Reformation, the great revivals of the Atlantic and American frontier evangelism. And yet in each instance, practitioners had to discover it anew for themselves.

So, what does this pattern of atrophy and rediscovery mean for you?

Well, it mean that while you may or may not have had some supernatural experiences with the Lord, you probably haven’t benefited from a lot of examples of living with supernatural ministries. If you’re at a church that practices supernatural ministry, the church is probably relatively new to it. And even if you church does have a strong supernatural tradition, chances are the congregation has experienced some dramatic waxing and waning in the effectiveness of its supernatural ministries. In all, if you’re interested in supernatural ministries, it’s likely that you’re in a place of rediscovery or renewal, and that requires a certain sort of faith.

There’s a style of Christian discipleship that is conservative, in the literal sense of the word: its emphasis is on preservation, affirming what’s proven and familiar. There’s another sort of discipleship that presumes new things and experiences—not liberal, in the sense of giving license to violate the old or established, but progressive, in the sense of Jesus’ teaching on “new wineskins” for “new wine.” To embrace all the works of the kingdom, we have to be willing to expand our containers of knowledge and experience. To pursue supernatural ministry, we need the faith for this progressive sort of discipleship. We have to be willing to try things, to reach for things we’ve only heard of, to explore and discover, to act without being totally sure how to act. Supernatural ministry entails adventure.

Jordan Seng, Miracle Work: A Down-to-Earth Guide to Supernatural Ministries, 25-29.

*Could have been entitled, “renewal of a supernatural people,” in keeping with the titles of the chapter and section quoted, but that raises questions which are not answered well by what is quoted here, though in my view are indeed answered well in the book as a whole.

imagination (prophesying, dreams, visions)

To one who likes to read scripture and books that emphasize scripture in terms of exegesis, theology and the life that is to flow out of that, I am not one given much to imagination as being a part of the life of faith, or a vehicle God may use in our lives by the Spirit. However if one wants to be biblical with reference to some details, I think one needs to be open to this.

Prophecy and related to that, dreams and visions all require at some point at least for many, some openness to imagination. A fundamental question might be: Does God speak only through the words of scripture, or does he speak in other ways as well? One gifted, godly church leader and academic I once heard say that God speaks only through the words of scripture. And I have no doubt at all that God spoke to them regularly that way. But that begs the question: What about the stories we read in scripture itself? Those things can’t happen today?

Symbols and interpretations, as well as ways the Lord may be encouraging and preparing to use us–we need to be open to all of that. Read the stories in scripture of the prophets and of the early church. We need to keep our eyes open to the details. And then be open to the idea that God can work in those same kinds of ways today. It is to the great loss of the church when we are not open to such things, for example, prophesying. The heart of the unbeliever or inquirer being made known, so that they exclaim: Surely God is among you! To see faith in someone. To lay hands on the sick and see people healed. To cast out demons.

The addition of these kinds of things in the power and love of the Spirit in and through Jesus does not make a full gospel. The gospel is much bigger than that. Nor are these kinds of things the end all. People need much more, in fact if it is only about such things, I’m afraid we’ve missed the point. They can be powerful pointers, and more than that, nothing less than a manifestation of the new life of the kingdom of God in Jesus here and now. But the whole counsel of God in terms not only of details, but of the big picture of God’s kingdom breaking in in and through Jesus and that the ascended Jesus seated at the place of ultimate power at the right hand of the Father is King over the earth now in fulfillment of God’s promise to Israel for the world–this is getting more at the fullness of the gospel.

Back to imagination. What I’m thinking I need to cultivate, and am experiencing a little of is simply the use of imagination in God revealing something of his will to me, not simply for me, but for others. Reading scripture, praying and being open is a simple place to start. All of us together in this in Jesus for the world.

“Come, Holy Spirit.”

All who receive Christ by faith receive also the Holy Spirit. I doubt the Pentecostal theology of the baptism of the Spirit after conversion, after the initial reception of the Spirit. At the same time I fear that many of us in Jesus, much of the church is not open enough to the immediate presence and power of the Spirit in and out through our lives into the lives of others. In terms of witness as well as the works God has for us to do.

The prayer or invocation, “Come, Holy Spirit,” is a request and plea to God to come in power, majesty and authority. To in love, use us for God’s glory, to make Jesus known, yes, even to enable us to do mighty works, signs and wonders. We all need to be more open to God’s moving by the Spirit, to let the Spirit have his way in our lives.

And so, along with the Jesus Creed, the Lord’s prayer, and the Jesus prayer (modified most of the time with just a basic plea for mercy), I have been praying this prayer as well. Wanting to be open and ready to receive more of the Spirit’s love and power, as together we in Jesus share God’s love to the world.