“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” – Martin Luther King
From the second book of the Bible, we are given a powerful story.
That God’s people came to the land of Egypt under the protection of Joseph, the long lost son of Jacob, who secured the prosperity of the land against terrible famine, all because he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. But after many years, the Israelites multiplied and the Egyptian Pharaohs grew forgetful of who Joseph was and what he did for the Egyptian people years ago.
So, a tyrant Pharaoh arose, who turned and enslaved the Israelites. He forced them to build its temples and pyramids from bricks, hearkening back to the tower of babel. In Scripture the figure of Babylon, the idolatry of empire itself, has many names: Assyria, Greece, Rome, Egypt.
Empires always put power before people. Empires always but money before humanity. Empires always justify terrible oppression as maintain order.
Pharaoh worried that the Israel were getting too numerous for their Egyptian overloads to contain, and in order to keep Egypt pure and powerful, he ordered the genocide of all the baby boys of Israel.
The narrative tells of one boy, Moses, who survived the genocide by being floated in a reed basket down the river, to be picked up providentially by Pharaohs daughter and raised as her own.
This boy, Moses, grew to be a man, and when he learned of the truth about who he was and what the pharaoh had done, murdered a slave master, and fled into exile.
Moses’ outrage tried to solve oppression with violence, and it did not work. Violence never ends violence.
In exile one day he happened upon a mysterious burning bush. It was ablaze but was not consumed. The mysterious sight spoke to him, identifying himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he had heard the cries of the people in slavery, and was now going to act.
What shall I call you, Moses asks? “I am that I am” the presence answered. The un-nameable, uncontrollable, freedom of being and root of all existence itself, the Great I Am, this being is on the side of the poor and the oppressed.
Moses is commissioned reluctantly to go and tell the new Pharaoh, his half-brother, that God wants him to let his people go. God wants liberty for his people. God want liberation for all people.
Pharaoh, who believes he is god, refuses, and so Ten Plagues rain down to break the tyrant’s resolve. First the sacred Nile turned to blood, then frogs and lice spread, then disease and boils, hail and locusts, then finally darkness covered the land, and then it says that Pharaohs’ resolve was finally broken in the Passover as the angel of death himself descended and visited the death of the firstborn boys back against Egypt.
Pharaoh finally relented and allowed the Israel to go. But as they left, however, he recanted.
He assembled his army to re-enslave the people and slaughter them if need be. The people fled and then found themselves pressed up against the sea, nowhere to run. No weapons to fight, no soldiers or chariots. All hope was lost.
But then as the story goes, God opened up the sea, walls on either side, dry land in the middle, so that the Israelites could escape.
The Egyptian army rallied to pursue, but as they made their way into the divide, God let go the walls of water, washing the army away.
The Israelite slaves were now free, free without every picking up a sword on their part, free to live, more importantly, free to worship and follow their God.
So, Exodus 15 recites the praise of the people for God rescuing them.
I will sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea…
The Lord is my strength and my defense;
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him…
The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name…
Who is like you—
majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
Our readings for this unity service looks at the God we worship (Ex. 15, Psalm 118, and Mark 5). God who is strong, majestic, holy, awesome in glory. It is this very God that is on the side of the weak and the oppressed. It is this very God that opposes the proud and will brings down the powerful. It is this very God who has promised to end the presence of evil in this world.
This is important to say that this story is more about who God is than about the spectacle of walls of water crashing down on unsuspecting Egyptian soldiers. Hollywood loves to fixate on the imagery of chariots and walls of water, whether Moses is played by Carleton Heston or Christian Bale, but Hollywood often forgets the theology.
Martin Luther King said it best:
The meaning of this story is not found in the drowning of Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being. Rather, this story symbolizes the death of evil and of inhuman oppression and of unjust exploitation. (King, Strength to Love, 78)
This is a narrative that we see through Christ as we look at evil in the world, which reminds us of God’s ultimate victory over evil and how we are invited to live that out in part today and awaiting a final day of God’s liberation.
1. There is real, radical, systemic, and cosmic evil in our world today.
One might think this is an obvious point. Just turn on the news and you are bombarded with messages about corrupt politicians, poverty, wars and disasters.
But why do we think anything is or can be evil at all – and not just merely unfortunate?
Again, this seems obvious but just as God has become a suspect belief today, so with him, also the belief that there is actually good and evil.
One atheist Neuroscientist wrote that empirically there is no good or evil technically, just nature that we prefer and nature that we don’t. The world, disasters and death is neither moral or immoral. It just is. As far as human nature, there isn’t evil or good, so much as proper functioning brains and malfunctioning brains.
Coincidentally, he is not to big on the idea that humans have free will either.
Our culture has placed its trust in the power of the empirical, and as a result, with belief in a transcendent God out of the picture, so also, slowly with that good and evil.
The world as it is is all there is. It is not evil or good, it just is.
Why is there meaning as opposed to meaninglessness?
Why is sacrifice more virtuous than comfort and apathy
Why is compassion preferable to domination?
Why is good preferable to evil?
Why is life preferable to death?
We are learning that these cherished hopes we have as humans and more specifically as Christians, they are not natural givens. They are not sitting there obvious to the disinterested observer. They are seen by faith. They are produced within a particular community that looks to God for what is most true and meaningful, most ultimate and good.
It is faith in a God, who made the world good, that we know that there is a primal innocence and beauty residing in all reality, and that as humans have made the decision to rebel and reject God’s life and goodness, evil and sin has deformed our world.
Some might say God obviously does not exist because of all the evil in this world. I think it is the opposite. We can only see that there is something called evil in this world by believing there is something good beyond the world.
If God exists and God is good, we know is not the way it ought to be.
2. When we consider evil in our world, we have to contend with the evil within us.
When we know God’s will is goodness, truth, beauty, life and hope, then we look at the world and see that it has radical, systemic, and cosmic evil.
But when we say there is something wrong with the world out there, the scriptures us push to turn our attention from the evil out there to the evil in here, in our hearts. The in excusable evil we do.
This evil is found in the capacity of human beings that in light of all our education and knowledge, all our collective wisdom and arts and religion, and all our power and technology we will still choose the path of annihilation, knowing full-well its harm.
When we know the vast waste and depravity of violence, we still go to war.
When we know that more is accomplished in unity, we choose division.
When we know the benefits of facing hard realities, we still choose to cling to our delusions.
In this story of Israel and Egypt, if we are really honest, we must realize that we are more often Egypt than Israel.
So often we read the Exodus story saying we are the Israelites in a spiritual bondage. The reality is we are more accurately the Egyptians. We are more often oppressor than oppressed. We are members of one of the wealthiest nations on the planet.
We sometimes smugly accuse our neighbors to the south of injustice, but we Canadians have to realize our own nations sins.
Our corporations have stripped the resources away from people in South America and Africa.
Our banks have suffocated the economies of many Caribbean Islands.
We have used our military to even overthrow democratically elected leaders and even Christians leaders in other countries, all to secure our wealth.
I am no internet conspiracy theorist. These are all facts in plain sight. The question is do we have eyes to see these realities?
Underneath our facade of a nation of peacekeepers and human rights is a disappointing track record of exploitation that we Canadians turn a blind eye to because we don’t want to know where our products come from or what is ensures our economic comforts.
We are more like the Egyptians then the Israelites. Many good Egyptians of conscience probably sat ideally by as Israelites died building temples and pyramids. They probably did the same thing we are going. Throwing up our arms and saying, “Oh, well,” and turn a blind eye because they did not want to sacrifice their comforts..
To be human from the standpoint of faith is to know we have a primal goodness, but also the terrible capacity to forsake that goodness.
We as Christians know that while our faith pushes us to love more and pursuit truth more and justice more, but we also are aware that our hearts can also contort our religion into instruments of apathy and self-righteousness.
We do this when we offer prayers that we don’t intend to act on.
We do this when refuse to reach out to the broken in our communities.
When we cling to our own comforts rather than living sacrificially.
When we shut out the world so that we don’t have to have compassion on it.
We look out at the world and we condemn its evil, we look at our country and we realize we are living in a modern day Egypt. And they we look at our churches and we have to realize we are no better.
3. God’s answer to evil, our evil, is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ
What happens when we see evil in this world and we realize that we also have that same evil within our hearts? What do we do when we realize we are more like Egypt than Israel?
The book of exodus is a narrative that gets retold, recited, and re-enacted throughout the Bible, particularly the New Testament. If we don’t read the Exodus through the New Testament we are left realizing we belong drowned in that sea rather than safe on that shore. We deserve sorrow not these songs.
But Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures. Jesus is our exodus. Jesus shows us true exodus.
This story of Passover is re-enacted and fulfilled in the last supper and the cross.
This is important because for the exodus story to apply for us, we need to place ourselves in the seats of the disciples. And what did the disciples do? They failed just as we failed. They turned from Jesus. And so often we do to. The disciples that ate with Jesus, knew what was good more than anyone else, they sinned. That is the beginning of the church.
Judas betrayed. Peter denied. The others fled in fear. The people of God were complicit in the murder of their messiah. The law of God was manipulated to execute to their own deliverer. To see radical evil in our world and in our hearts, we need not look any further than what happened to Jesus at the cross by those whom he came to save.
The world denied Jesus, but the more troubling part is that we denied Jesus.
And so, the words are ever more powerful that on the night of the Passover, the night the disciples remembered this exodus event, this was the night Jesus was betrayed, Jesus became our the Passover lamb, to liberate us from our own sins.
His body that we broke, was broken for us.
The blood the people of God shed, he embraced as a path to forgive them of the very sins they were sinning against him. A new covenant.
No vast sea was split the day Jesus was nailed on the cross but the veil was torn, a greater cosmic event occurred: God forgave his enemies, us, God atoned for sins, our sins, even as we murdered him. God embraced death so that we could have life. God chose to suffer as one cursed so that all who cry out forsaken would know they are not.
And as the Gospels say, here the Scripture were fulfilled.
To read exodus through the cross is to know that Jesus died for Pharaoh just as much as Moses. Just as Jesus died for Peter who denied him, he died for you and me that fail to follow him.
To read this narrative of Pharaoh being thrown into the sea with his soldiers through Christ is to realize that Jesus fulfilled this by accepting that punishment for evil on himself not visiting it back on those that deserve it.
To read exodus through the cross is to know that God’s way of dealing with evil is not with bringing disaster on the perpetrators but by bringing healing.
To read the exodus Passover through Jesus shows us a God that does not want to kill his enemies, but rather a God who loves his enemies, overcomes them not with force but with forgiveness, such that even the Roman guards by the cross cried out, “Surely this man was the son of God.”
At the cross the great evils of this world that nailed Jesus to a Roman execution pike did not prevent our Savior from being fully obedient to the Father and fully willing to forgive us. That is how evil was defeated.
And three days later, the Father raised Jesus from the died, overturning histories judgment.
The resurrection was the overturning of death itself. The weapon of evil and fear, empire and tyranny was disarmed that day.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.
Jesus overturned our sins that day too. He appeared to those that betrayed him, the disciples, and announced peace to you.
Death, sin, and despair have lost. They destiny is oblivion, and our destiny is liberation.
When we lose hope in ourselves, when we are overwhelmed at the sin in our hearts, we know that we worship a God that would gladly accept the death penalty in order to bring us to him.
When we look at our world, its systems of oppression and corruption, the cogs of death that keep turning, we know we worship the God of life, who raised Jesus from the dead.
Hell reigns, but not forever.
Oppression reigns but its days are numbered.
Death reigns but it realizes now it is the one that is mortal.
Sin is here but it has been defeated.
Christ has had his definitive victory that Easter morning for the tomb was found empty. The grave could not contain him.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.
The question then is how to we live this victory?
4. How do we live out the victory of the resurrection?
We are called to sacrifice. When we know that God has given us salvation and the enduring presence of his love, we take our liberation and use our freedom to take up our cross. No one is liberated until everyone is liberated. And the highest freedom is not material mobility but spiritual strength. That is only possible by follow Christ no matter what.
Martin Luther King knew this. Oscar Romero knew this. Maximilian Kolbe knew this. Jim Elliot knew this. All the martyrs that have given their lives for Christ, the Gospel and his kingdom of truth and justice will tell you this.
There can be no path to resurrection without the cross just as there cannot be any path to freedom without sacrifice. And this sacrifice is freedom.
We must be sorry. This freedom begins in repentance. There is no solution to the terrible evil in this world until we take responsibility for our own roles in further it. We are called to acknowledge that we sin and we need forgiveness. We repent because we need restoring.
The Gospel gives us that counter-intuitive truth that humility is liberation. Liberation from ourselves.
We are called to serve. The only way our world will become a better place is by good people acting differently. For use to move out of our culture’s default setting of selfishness and apathy and ignorance.
As Desmond Tutu said, God has no body but ours. God has no hands and feet but ours. God uses our eyes to look upon the oppressed. He uses our ears to listen to those suffering.
Are we, brothers and sisters from different traditions of Christianity, ready to be Christ’s body again?
Lastly, tonight, we are called to sing. That is what we are doing today at this unity service. When we worship a God of perfect goodness and power and love, we see the world differently. If we don’t continue to meet together, to pray together, to recite Scripture together, we will grow weary along the difficult path disciples must way.We need each other.
When we worship together in the unity of Christ, we show a divided world that there is hope beyond the fragments.
And so, please stand with me and let us renew are hearts by praising our God with this inspiring song, “The Right Hand of God.”
Lord, you have been our dwelling place
throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
or you brought forth the whole world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God…
A thousand years in your sight
are like a day that has just gone by,
or like a watch in the night.
Lord of ages, you are the beginning and the end. Everlasting God, we know our days are in your care. We trust you and praise you this morning our God. For your faithfulness in our past, your constant care in the present, and for all that your promised to do. We trust you and praise you this morning our God. Come and meet us here today. Amen.
So, tomorrow is New Years. At least it is when we celebrate New Years. The point is an arbitrary marker. Chinese New Year is on February 16. Winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) should have been the logical choice, but not everything is logical. Do you know who decided the calendar we use and which day makes the new year?
Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. ordered the modification of the Roman Calendar. Isn’t that cool? He ordered the calendar to change. That’s the kind of power that guy had. “You will all tell time differently if I say so.” Thankfully, he didn’t abuse his power and make everyday his birthday or something like that.
Julius Caesar ordered the insertion of leap years in February. Apparently Greek astronomers had known for over a hundred years before that Earth take s 365.24 days to get around the sun. They figured that out somehow. And so, everyone was worried that every century or so the calendar’s months would correspond to different seasons. So something had to be done, and he did it.
Pope Gregory in the 1500’s modified it further to account for the 0.01 that could not be reconciled with an extra day every four years. Did you know we have leap centuries? Look it up.
So, that is why we as Western people celebrate New Years today…
But New Years, this day we have chosen to make the next bout of 365 days, is supposed to be a time of self-examination, of making resolutions, of the possibility of fresh starts.
You are supposed to stay up to midnight and watch the party and fireworks happening in some more exciting place in the world like Toronto or New York, kiss someone and make a resolution.
In my family the tradition when we were kids was New Years as our annual Monopoly tournament, leading up to the final countdown.
Will anyone make a New Years resolution? Thinking about it?
I bought an exercise bike. Not apart of a New Years resolution per se, but with staying in more in the evenings in the winter for the twins and stuff, I have not gone to dodge-ball. I played dodge-ball religiously the past few years as my way of blowing off steam in the winter. There is something so therapeutic about grown men throwing foam balls at each other. I don’t know why it just is. But, without that winter activity, I figured I would get an exercise bike.
I know a bunch of people that all got gym memberships, and pledges to diet, and quit smoking, whatever last year. I didn’t really stick.
According to one magazine, the ten most commonly broken New Years resolutions are: Lose weight, quit smoking, learn something new, eat healthier, get out of debt, spend more time with family, travel to a new place, be less stressed, volunteer, drink less.
So often we don’t keep our resolutions do we? Who has ever said, “This year I going to X…and this year I mean it!”
I wonder if anyone will make a resolution to stop making resolutions? I think that is the only resolution you can potentially keep!
Some of us think making resolutions are so silly we just don’t bother making them.
For many of us New Years resolutions merely reiterate and repeat the deeper nagging reality that next year is going to be just like this year, second verse same as the first: perhaps a little bit louder, perhaps even a little bit worse.
Insert obligatory worn out rant about US politics here…
New Years for many is just the opposite effect from starting something new: It is a time when people are reminded that nothing new is happening. They are trapped in the same old, same old.
It makes us feel like the Teacher in the cynical wisdom book the Ecclesiastes chapter 1:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?…
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.
Is this what it feels like for you? Day an day out, month after month, year after year? Is your life caught in a rut?
The writer of Ecclesiastes, is reflecting on life under the sun, life without taking God into the equation, and he longs for something new, and thinks nothing new can happen in his life because nothing new happens in history either.
So bigger question still is our world caught in a similar rut? Does my life not change because nothing changes?
Is history cyclical? Is history like a video on repeat? His our world just an endless cycle of live and die, good and evil, work and play, fight and love, repeating and repeating with no change or victor or goal?
That is how the ancient pagans viewed time and history. That is the view of time that the Teacher from Ecclesiastes, when he is reflecting about what happens under the Sun – that is without God – he realizes that without God there is nothing new. It is just one thing after another in endless cycles. Time is circular.
Of course, we modern people are not much better. We are not that different than ancient pagans are we?
Once we have debunked the myth of progress – that history is a steady climb into utopia – we fall back into that same cyclical pattern.
I remember sitting in science class learning about how science operates on cause and effect. Everything that exists now, had a cause, and that cause was caused, and that cause was caused, all operating by material laws.
And I remember one person putting up their hand and saying, “What about miracles?” And the professor just kind of fluffed it off: we live in a world of cause and effect, not miracles.
For many modern people, the laws of science means everything that exists happens by natural laws that don’t change. The universe is like a watch with clogs.
This means that the hand and dials on the watch have a fixed course. The hour hand will never go to a thirteen hour and the hands will never go in anything other than a 360 degree turn – just like history. Their courses are fixed. Nothing new under the sun.
If history is like the rotations of a clock, then again we are caught in rotations of birth and death, war and peace, happiness and sadness, ups and downs and back around again.
For some people, I know they do not pursue some kind of resolution purely out of apathy to the notion anything new is even possible. Nothing new under the sun.
My life won’t change because nothing changes
Nothing changes because miracles don’t happen.
Miracles don’t happen because God doesn’t act or reveal himself.
That is the end result of that line of thinking.
But that is not the testimony of Christian Scripture:
We believe in a God that shows up.
We believe in a God that acts in history, changing its course.
We believe in a God that ransomed Israel from Egypt.
We believe that God that came in human form.
We believe that God in Jesus Christ, did miracles, taught redemption, changing peoples lives.
We believe that God in Jesus Christ died on a cross, was buried and three days later altered history in the greatest possible way: he rose from the grave undoing death itself.
We believe that Jesus Christ ascended to heaven and sent his Holy Spirit to dwell among us.
In short we do confess that something new can happen. History is no endless cycles but something guided by God towards an end he desires.
That means our lives can have something new. That means our lives can have direction and purpose.
Why? We believe with God all things are possible.
Here is what God tells Isaiah to give to people:
Isaiah 43: 16-19:
This is what the Lord says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
He is referencing the exodus, and saying, see that powerful event, forget it! I will do something even different than that. I am a God of surprises. I am a God that cannot be boxed in. God is the I am that I am. God is the God of possibility and he will do something new.
Something is possible because God is a living God.
By the way, scientist are realizing that miracles and the laws of science aren’t necessarily at odds either. Quantum physics – that is a field that you need to go on the internet and google some stuff up about – quantum physics looks at how atoms are events of relational energy all the way down, and this is showing us more and more that our world is open to new events, surprising occasions, and mystery.
Every moment has some degree of inexplicability to it. Every moment leads us to ask, why was there a whole new moment at all? What holds this whole world together? What mystery lies beneath it all?
It is actually a sound scientific statement that every moment is in some way a miracle.
The world was created open and mysterious, not locked in and fixed.
Same thing with your life.
I read a fascinating argument the other day that all the miracles that Jesus did, they all work with willing participants.
Jesus in Mark 5 says to the woman, “Go, your faith has made you well.”
When Peter stops looking at Jesus, he sinks into the water.
Even the Pharisee with a withered hand is asked to stretch it out, which if he did not trust Jesus in some way, he wouldn’t have.
While God is a God of power, he is also a God of freedom and relationship. God could solve all our problems with a snap of the fingers, but he prefers not to coerce. His way is be inspiring, persuading, and inviting us into his redemption.
God is always there, always ready to act, the question is whether we can see it, will trust it, will participate with it, will invite God in….
Jesus never heals someone that does not believe he could be healed in the first place. In fact, Mark 6 goes so far as to say that Jesus could not do any miracle with those that refuse to trust him. Listen to these verses:
Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.
“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph,[a] Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.
Now, this doesn’t mean just because have to want something and you will get it from God.
God is not a vending machine, and I have met a lot of people that beat themselves up think it is their fault God did not act in their lives.
That is surely not the case.
Sometimes we forget that the greatest miracles, the greatest works of God is simply moving our hearts to love or realizing God’s presence and peace in the midst of chaos.
I know someone that struggles with terrible depression. Many times they prayed, God heal me! Each time wondering if they just did not have enough faith, which of course, made their depression worse, thinking they were being punished by God or that God had left them.
But it struck them reading the Gospel’s of Jesus inseparable unconditional love for people hurting and broken. This truth gave them a different kind of miracle, I think, it is the most common and most precious: the gift of a different perspective.
They saw their life through a different perspective.
They were not far away from God, they were close to God.
They were not forsaken by God, they were loved by God.
They were not being punished by God, they were being used by God.
They realized that they could use their story to draw close to others struggling with depression and give them comport in the way only someone who also wrestles with depression can give.
To this day, this person regards their lot in life – depression and all – to be a blessing, a miracle, a gift.
The question is are you ready to view your life that way too?
Are you ready to stop seeing your life as an endless cycle of the same thing and start seeing every moment you have as a miracle, a gift from God, an opportunity to seize?
Are you ready to open your life up to how the Holy Spirit can remake your life for his good purposes? Are you excited about what new thing he can do with you as you trust him?
Do you want to hear my theory about why so many new Years resolutions don’t work? I’ll tell you. It isn’t because they are too ambitious.
It is because they are not ambitious enough. If your new years resolution is only about what you eat, don’t be surprised that you are going to keep eating what you have always been eating.
If you seek to change just your weight, as if your weight is all that matters, don’t be surprise that does not change.
If you seek to get a gym membership, as if your life plus going to the gym is going to be that much better, that probably won’t fulfill you.
Remember what Matt 6:3: Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all things – everything you worry about – will be added unto you.
Let’s make this year the year that you draw close to God in a new way.
Let’s make this year the year of trusting our God that can do all things.
Let’s make this year the year God works something new in your life as your trust in him.
Lord of history. You are alpha and omega, beginning and the end. To you, a thousand years are as a day. Time is in your hands. You are the great I am. You are not bound by our world. You offer us hope of a new day. You offer us hope because you raised your son Jesus Christ from the grave. You offer us hope because we know you are a God that loves, acts, and redeems.
Renew us by your Holy Spirit. Break the barriers of sin and despair. Break the barriers of apathy and arrogance. Allow us to see the dawn of your light.
Renew us by your Holy Spirit, that while we have breath and life we may serve you with courage and hope through the grave of your son, our savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Holy Spirit we invite you into our lives.
Holy Spirit we trust you to remake us new today.
Holy Spirit transform our hearts so that we may walk closer to Jesus Christ.
Holy Spirit come into our lives, our relationships, our communities, our world, so that you may be all in all.
We pray that your kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. We pray for the restoration of all things, the salvation of all people, and may these begin with me now.
We have all heard the Christmas story before.
The Christmas story is the story of a baby born miraculously and mysteriously to a virgin mother.
About a nobody girl named Mary, who saw the announcement that she would be the mother of the messiah to be the greatest privilege of her life, despite its meaning she would be ostracized perhaps the rest of her life, since she was not married
It is the story about a good and merciful man, named joseph, who when he heard that his fiancé was pregnant and he was not the father, he could have subjected her to disgrace and even had her stoned in the culture, but moved with compassion, simple was going to dissolve the marriage quietly.
A man that was reassured by an angel to marry the woman, and that he would be the legal father of the savior of the world.
It is a story set to the back drop of God’s people conquered and oppressed by a massive empire, ruled a tyranny Emperor who claimed himself to be the Son of God.
It about this little unlikely family having to travel miles through storm and sand to the town of Bethlehem to be counted by order of the Emperor Augustus.
It is a story about this family who upon returning to their own hometown found that no one wanted to give them shelter for the night. No family wanted them.
It is a story about the king of heaven being born in the muck and mire of a barn.
It is a story about good news announced by angelic hosts to lowly shepherds, forgotten in the wilderness, tending their sheep.
It is a story about wisemen following stars, fooling a local corrupt ruler and coming to worship the messiah child with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It is a story about an escape in the night as Herod sent out guards to kill the children of Jesus’ age, trying to stop the potential usurper.
And so, this is a story about miracles and the messiah, about faithful servants and faithful spouses, unplanned pregnancies and ancient prophecies; it is about shepherds and tyrants, about journey and escape, about humility and royalty, oppression and hope.
This story is the first Christmas. It is the story. It is the most important story. It is the story of all our salvation. Our salvation began to be accomplished in history on that day, in that stable, in that dirty manger, to that poor Middle-eastern couple, two thousand years ago.
It is the truth that God is now with us: the incarnation. The infinite God dwelling with us mortals.
It is the truth about God’s rule. The messiah Jesus shows how God rules: he chooses the lowly; he chooses the poor; he chooses the unworthy, the forgotten, the unlikely. He prefers them to the powerful, the rich, the proud, and the oppressor.
It is the truth about forgiveness. Jesus wasn’t just the king of the righteous. He didn’t just love the deserving. He also loved sinners. In fact, he died for the people trying to kill him. He died for Emperor just as much as the shepherds. He died for King Herod just as much as the wise men. He died for the criminal and the terrorist just as much as he died for you and me.
The Christmas story is the truth about God’s fundamental character of love and compassion, about God being born in our form, identifying with our plight, binding himself to our fate, all to say that nothing can separate us from his love.
Immanuel: God is with us. He is not against us, he is for us. He gave us his son. He gave us himself.
It is also a difficult story to believe, too isn’t it? We live in a world of skepticism. It seems that usually about this time every year someone publishes an article, proclaiming their modern brilliance at just how unbelievable the Christmas story is.
Angels don’t exist. Miracles don’t happen. Virgins don’t have babies. Stars don’t give travelers directions. Gods don’t reveal themselves. It is simply an unbelievable story.
It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing. Things like this just don’t happen.
But our culture’s skepticism over the things of God – whether it is the possibly of miracles or the fact that God could indeed reveal himself – pays a high price.
Skepticism against the Christmas story is skepticism against hope itself.
We live in an apathetic age.
Wars can’t be stopped. Poverty can’t be solved. Politicians always lie. Life is always unfair. Marriages never work. Churches never help. God isn’t there.
There is no life after death, and ultimate no reason for life before it.
Right and wrong, good and evil, hope and tragedy, these are just creations of the human imagination with no real anchor in reality.
The world is not getting better. In fact, it is getting worse and to be honest, most people would think we are not worth saving.
Forgiveness? Hope? Love? Goodness? It’s preposterous; it’s impractical; it’s too spectacular; it’s too amazing.
It is unbelievable.
Perhaps the Apostles passed along this story not because they were primitive, but because they were just like us.
They lived in a skeptical age. Tyrants stayed powerful; peasants stayed poor; lepers stayed sick; women and slaves stayed property; the dead stayed in the grave; and there is nothing new under the sun.
…Until Jesus showed up. Perhaps the reason the Apostles passed along this Christmas story is precisely because it was unbelievable. Unbelievable yet true.
This is a watershed moment in history, a game-changer, a paradigm-shifter, an epiphany, an event.
God showed up. Hope showed up. Goodness and mercy and forgiveness showed up. Nothing like this had ever happened in their time. Nothing like it before or after. Prophets had foretold this, but who could expect it happening in this way?
Perhaps this story is true in all its remarkable, exceptional, unbelievable, beauty.
We can ask, just like Mary, “How is this possible?” And the angel’s words are just as true today as they were two thousand years ago: With God all things are possible.
With God all things are possible.
If we grant that, this story starts making sense.
Good does triumph over evil. Love does triumph over hate. Forgiveness does triumph over hurt. Peace does triumph over violence. Faith does triumph over idolatry. Hope does triumph over despair.
These truths are not the delusions of us human bi-pedal ape-species with an overgrown neo-cortex.
The deepest longings of the human heart, the groaning of the soul for a world without hunger, sickness, sin, death, and despair – as unrealistic as that sounds – that yearning knows this story is true the same way our thirsty tongues know that water exists.
Its real. Its possible. It is out there. It is here: in Jesus.
The only left to do with this story, when we are done pondering it and puzzling is to trust it.
Can you tonight trust this unbelievable story? Can you trust that with God all things are possible?
Can you trust that your life is not just there without value, but it is a gift, it was planned and made by a God that sees you as his child?
Can you trust that the wrong in your life, the sins we have committed that no excuse can defend has been forgiven by a God that knows you better than you know yourself and sees with eyes of perfect mercy?
Can you trust that God has come into history, has shown us the way, has died for our sins, and conquered the grave?
Can you trust that God can set right all that has gone wrong as we invite him to renew our hearts, our minds, our souls and strength, our relationships, our job and family, our past and future, our communities and our country?
Can you trust that this Christmas story about God’s miraculous power, his unlimited compassion, his surprising solidarity, can be shown to be true this night just as much as it did then? In you, in the person next to you, in this church, in this town.
We give gifts at Christmas time as a sign of God’s generosity, but do we look forward to God’s gifts to us each Christmas?
Do we look for the gift of renewed spirits?
Do we look for the gift of transformed hearts?
Do we look for the gift of forgiveness of past hurts?
Do we look for the gift of reconciled relationships?
Of new freedom from guilt and shame, from hurt and hatred, from addiction and despair, from materialism and apathy.
What gifts are we going to see given from God’s spirit this Christmas.
Perhaps it will be like what happened to Nelson Mandela (just one story I read about this week about how the truth of Christmas changed someone in remarkable ways). In South Africa where Blacks were segregated off from the privileged of White society, Mandela as a young man advocated armed uprising and was imprisoned for life in 1962.
In prison he faced all the things that would, by any worldly standard, destroy hope, love, joy and peace in any man’s soul. He was beaten by the guards. He recount one day being forced to dig a pit that the guards taunted him saying it would be his own grave. As he dug, they peed on him and spat on him. The prison was so dirty he contracted tuberculosis.
Conditions like that fester the heart not just the body, but the miracle of Christmas reached him. Mandela recovered his Christian faith in prison, and was moved with hope towards a better tomorrow, with love and forgiveness towards even his guards that beat him.
In a sermon he gave later in life, he spoke about the hope he gained knowing that the messiah was born an outcast like him. This unbelievable Christmas story, the story that we recite and remember till it we often take it for granted, restored a man’s heart in one of the darkest of places.
Christ’s name is Immanuel: God with us. God was with the shepherd, with Mary, with Joseph, with the oppressed Israeli people, and so, also with Nelson Mendela.
After 26 years in prison, campaigns to have him pardoned succeeded, and Mandela went from prison to the presidential campaign, running to become president and end apartheid, not through violence but through reconciliation.
He won and he even had the guard that beat him from prison, whom he reconnected with and forgave, at his inauguration, a guest of honor.
Its an unbelievable story isn’t it?
How will God work something unbelievable in you tonight?
We could say that our lives aren’t as fantastic as Mendel’s, but then again, if we say that, we would be selling ourselves and our God short.
You see, a story about angels and a virgin giving birth and about a God found in the form of a baby might be unbelievable, but we Christians take that as part and parcel of what our unbelievable God does.
There is a saying that goes if you are in for a pound, you might as well put in a penny.
If we know that God has done the miraculous, can we trust him now with the mundane?
If we know that God has given us life, can we trust him with our finances and family?
If we know that God has atoned for all sin, can we trust him with our fears and failures?
If we know that God has conquered the grave, can we trust him with the worries of tomorrow?
If we know our God is a God that can do all things, that he has already accomplished everything, perhaps can you trust him with something small now. Let’s do something small right now. Something small but still significant.
Let’s have a moment of silence and stillness. We don’t get enough of those in this busy season. Have a moment right now to say to God whatever you need to say or to listen to God and hear whatever he as been trying to tell you, then we will pray together…
Living God, Father of our lord Jesus Christ.
May the worship we have shared this Christmas lead ro acts of service which transform people’s lives
May the carols we have sung this Christmas help others to sing, even in times of sadness.
May the gifts we exchange this Christmas deepen our spirit of giving throughout the year.
May the candles we have lit this Christmas remind us that you intend no one to live in darkness.
May the new people we have met this Christmas remind us that we meet you in our neighbors.
May the gathering together of family and friends this Christmas make us appreciate anew the gift of love.
May these unbelievable stories we have told again this Christmas be good news of great joy to us and all people, proclaimed on our lips and embodied in our lives.
May the ways you have come close to us this Christmas not be forgotten.
May we remember your unbelievable love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness – that you are our life, our light, and our salvation, this season and always, because of Jesus Christ our Lord.
[End prayer modified from Gathering for Worship: Patterns and Prayers for a Community of Disciples by the Baptist Union of Great Britain]
Readings: Joshua 5:13-14; 1 Chronicles 22:7-9; Isaiah 2:1-4; Habakkuk 1:1-11; Matthew 5:9; Matthew 26:52.
In the spirit of these Scriptures, I want to reflect on the poem “In Flanders Fields.”
I admit, I dislike the poem “In Flanders Fields.” I don’t know if I am allowed to as a Canadian – it is after all our war poem – but I do. It is not that I think it is a bad poem. Its rhythm and rhyme is beautiful. It is easy to listen to. But aesthetics of form must bow the knee to higher values of judgment. In this case, the memory not of transient empires – Roman, British, American, or otherwise – but of the Christian people.
We remember our cultural memory with our scriptural memory.
The poem’s beauty is actually apart of the problem. It communicates with a certain saccharine flavor something that should taste bitter. Its form leaves us docile to its content. We prefer it to the bitter realism of Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est (which in my opinion is the war poem we should be reciting).
Have you ever bothered to think about this poem, In Flanders Field? For 27 years, I have heard, recited, and memorized this poem. It is only recently I thought about it.
I think I recited it through the lens of being a Canadian committed to our military being used in peacekeeping operations, which I think everyone else I know does too. But the question is what did the poem mean at the time it was written?
Most reflect on Remembrance Day nostalgic of World War II, the war that dethroned the madman, genocidal, tyrant Hitler. Canada’s involvement in this conflict was at least reasonable. However this poem was written during World War I. The two conflicts were very different.
John McCrae, its author, was a committed military man. His father was a soldier, so he was raised with a certain religious belief that it was a matter of duty to fight for the empire. He had volunteered in the British army in Africa in the Second Boer War. The Boer War was a war fought between the African Dutch settlers and the British for nothing but pride and profit. The British annexed the region from the Dutch Empire, leaving the settlers there armed for rebellion. So they sent in the military.
This war was fought for king and country, for honor and glory, or at least that is what every soldier is told, but the truth was the Second Boer War was about making sure the African gold mines kept their treasure going out of Africa and into British banks. The British Empire was convinced as the US empire is now that what it was doing was God ordained. As a Baptist, I have a big problem with that logic. Only the spiritual unity of God’s global church can claim to be God’s nation. This is a spiritual nation. Moreover, they forgot that God says even to his own people when it come to war, “I am on no one’s side.” Their empire became a religious system ensuring their way of life, their values, more importantly, their wealth and power. As Habakkuk said, “Their might is their god.”
In many ways, I welcome the secularization of Canada, if only because in doing so Christianity will not longer be reduced to some civil religion where our God is invoked as the guarantor of the status quo of this world, masked under the vocabulary of “peace and order.”
McCrae then served in World War I. This war, despite its global scale, was no less petty. Fueled by centuries of nationalism, racism, and childish competition over superiority, Europe was divided into two sets of political alliances. When the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a Serbian black ops group, called the “Black Hand,” the world was reduced to but Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. The death of one man from a distant part of the world, spiraled into a global war that would claim the lives of somewhere between 15 and 65 million (only 9 million of these were combatants, the rest civilians): 65 million dead from one. What else can speak so efficiently to the depravity of the humanity’s collective heart? These are figures that would make Lamech blush.
It was during this conflict – this colossal failure of diplomacy and peacekeeping – that McCrae wrote his poem, “In Flanders Fields.” It was not written after the war, when people finally counted the death toll and resolved to stop doing war this way, but during it. He wrote it after the second battle in Ypre, near Flanders.
He wrote about the battle calling it a nightmare: “For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds. […] And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”
But that part did not make it into the poem. That spoke too harshly of war’s realities. When McCrae’s good friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed, McCrae performed a burial service for him, during which he noticed the poppies growing up around the graves. Later the next day he composed the poem in the back of an ambulance.
Notice what he did and did not write about.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
It seems that in this stanza McCrae communicates that the world is quite tranquil, ignorant of the carnage humans are inflicting on each other, and humans fight ignorant had the beauty of nature around them.
Nevertheless, the poem continues…
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
The dead are described as not quite living. They “lived,” past tense, not are still living. They “loved and were loved,” past tense. Now they lie in Flanders fields. They are not in an afterlife, it sounds, just in some sort of restless nothingness. Their identities are nothing more than their crosses, their graves, the memorials of their war efforts.
Plato once said that only the dead see the end of war, but McCrae does not even give them that. The dead here in thus poem have not moved beyond war’s reality. They are trapped in it. They are not in the peace of Abraham’s bosom. They are in war’s midst still. And this is what their graves are saying.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
I, and most of you probably also, always thought this poem referred to fight evil, but remember this was written about WWI, not WWII. No side in WWI was really the “evil side.” I always thought the foe referred to Hitler or some other truly evil political force. However, the British Empire was responsible for just as much tyranny as another empire, especially in India and Africa. How much of the conveniences we take for granted today – our clothing made in sweatshops, jewelry made of blood diamonds, the gas we drive our cars with taken from middle eastern lands – how much of this is the result of us failing to recognize that we have been the foe of those less fortunate in the developing world?
But the dead, the memory of the dead, beckon for new soldiers just to take up the “quarrel.” McCrae had the decency to call it that. But with whom? A nameless enemy: “The foe.” In war, our identity becomes reduced to the quintessential false dichotomy of war: “us” versus “them.” It is the lie that we are not all humans sharing the same planet, all beloved children of God. It is the lie that we are nothing like them: all our soldiers are valiant and chivalrous, while the enemy is evil incarnate. We deify our dead and demonized theirs. War asks, “Whose side are you on? You are either with us or against us.” God said to Joshua, “I am on no one’s side.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The prophets, questioning man’s infatuation with might, insisted not only on the immorality but also on the futility of war… [For the prophets] the most astonishing thing in the world is the perennial disregard for the impotence of force. What is the ultimate profit of all the arms, alliances, and victories? Destruction, agony, and death.”
It is this lens of violence that causes the “us versus them,” where Scripture pleads with us to see our common humanity in Christ. However, we don’t see it as a lens of violence and hate. We choose to believe its myths. We see it as honoring the dead, fighting for “freedom.” The dead – the pain of loss that happens in war – cry out to us, or so we wish they would. Their death must mean something. It cannot mean nothing. Therefore the war must be good and meaningful and productive. But that is rarely the case. WWI, for instance, was created purely by the arrogance of empires and European nationalism. To remember this war and most wars, “lest we forget,” lest we forget as Christians, is to remember war’s meaninglessness. It is too often senseless industrialized killing in the name of political pride.
While good Christian men and women served in this war, the fact that they did and that this war flatly contradicts principles of just war that Christians have held to for over a millennia and a half (since the formation of this tradition post-Constantine), means those well-intended individuals frankly served not realizing their faith had something to say to their consciences.
But that is not what McCrae’s poem talks about. The poem does not cry out longing for peace. It is not like the poetry of Isaiah that longs for the abolition of warfare. It beckons new soldiers to take of the quarrel with the nameless foe. It heaps guilt on them if they don’t: the dead will no rest until the foe is beaten. It implicitly says, “Will you dishonor the dead by refusing to take up arms?” It has a subtle tingle of vengeance to it.
It is with little wonder why the modern conscientious objector, the Baptist and Anabaptist pacifists, and the witnesses of the early church were all branded as traitors, ungrateful cowards, and enemies of the state all for refusing to take up arms and buy into their empires’ mythologies, the cults and cycles of violence.
That is what war often is: a cycle of violence. Notice that we are not told what the objective is of this quarrel in the poem, only that there is one and it needs to be perpetuated. And so it seeks to pass on the torch of war rather than preserve the innocence of the next generation. It is decidedly the very opposite of what David attempted to do for Solomon in order to build the temple of God. He stopped the cycle of violence.
Veteran war reporter for the New York Times Chris Hedges writes (and I admit a few of the stories and quotations are from his amazing little book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning) about this fundamental deception war creates, “The potency of the myth is that it allows us to make sense of mayhem and violent death. It gives a justification to what is often nothing more than gross human cruelty and stupidity. It allows us to believe we have achieved our place in human society because of a long chain of heroic endeavors, rather than accept the sad reality that we stumble along a dimly lit corridor of disasters.”
As this poem says, it encourages the next generation to hold it high, hold the “torch,” a symbol of the ideals that fuel war, high. Valorize it. I think this would have been more appropriate during WWII, but not, as a Christian, for WWI, and frankly not for the current wars in the middle east.
Now this is why I say this: What the lies of war do not tell its soldiers is what it does to the human mind. Its mythology of valor blinds the truth of its destruction. War creates its own culture that dehumanizes those who see it. Chris Hedges, a person who has seen more war than most soldiers, described the effects war had on himself and the soldiers. The effects were as dehumanizing as narcotics. Soldiers living constantly under the anxiety of possible death, shocked by war’s brutality, emotionally shut down. They fixate on the rush of violence similar to how an addict fixates on the next fix, in a self-destructive spiral. Some soldiers become addicted to their own mortality. Those who live by the sword end up dying by it.
This constant anxiety of death coupled with the training the average soldier undergoes to be desensitized to war causes a person devoid of the capacity of authentic human relationship. This does not happen in every case. There are lots of well-adjusted soldiers, but we should not deceive ourselves to say this is the norm.
I should point out that Canadian soldiers, according to a friend of mine that serves in the army, undergo constant counseling to minimize this effect. American soldiers receive none. And you will notice that the following figures are American ones.
Since soldiers are trained to be desensitized to violence, but often are plugging into very rigid structure of masculinity, which equates true masculinity with rank, power and the ability to carry out war without remorse. This has created a dangerous problem with entrance of women into the fighting forces as rape as become endemic. Over the last five years, a female soldier in the US Army is twenty times more likely to be raped by her own colleges than she is killed by an insurgent.
And like I said, because war always seeks to prop up our successes, our faults are often suppressed. The US department of defense estimates 20 thousand cases of sexual assault per year, but since accusations against fellow soldiers is dissuaded for the purpose of preserving the war effort, only about one thousand of these get formally reported. Of these, less than a tenth come to trial. The reason I bring this up is that too often the valor of war clouds attempt to see to it that it is just.
But the real damage to soldiers shows itself as the soldiers return home. Many come home with broken bodies – amputees – these ones will never be able to work again. Most soldiers come home with profound PTSD or shell shock. Returning after once they have been so heavily addicted to this rush of war, the sense of courage, purpose, and valor it gives, normal life becomes banal and meaningless. Left unchecked, it causes self-destructive behavior that often means the veteran can no longer function as a husband or as a father or as an employee. The wounds of war leave many of these individuals constantly reliving the anxiety of death to the point that they cannot be around people, let alone loved ones. Wars are factories of the fatherless, even if they do not claim the life of the soldier
While I often see the bumper sticker in the US, “support the troops” the truths of the conditions of war veterans is far from, especially in the US, 15% of all homeless in the US are mentally ill war vets. 1.4 million vets are living below the poverty line because of the emotional and physical toll of war and the inadequacy of war vet financial and medical support. The medical establishment just isn’t keeping up. The money is being spent sending more troops, not caring for the ones who have come back.
I had this illustrated to me when I coordinated a soup kitchen down in Toronto. I met several veterans who were living in low-income housing. I found out they were American vets, and I asked, “Why are you not in the US then?” The person I spoke to, a vet that developed schizophrenia – his family had left him, or he them, due to his mental illness that made him prone to snapping – remarked that the homeless in Canada are better supported than the war heroes of America. I felt sick to my stomach knowing that a good man who risked his life for his country – but more than that: his mind, his family, his dignity – was now living like this.
By the way, the 2012 military budget of the US is now 1.4 trillion dollars, only a pittance of that is spent on its vets.
So do not get me wrong here. I am not against soldiers who seek to make the world a better place. While it cannot be argued otherwise that the early Christians were pacifists based on the teachings of Jesus, there are some conflicts that we must enter in defense of innocent lives. World War II is a good example. All who hated war prayed for military intervention to stop the genocides in the Balkans. Rwanda desperately needed the western powers to intervene. But there was no money to be made there, so they didn’t. However, I will spare you a very long political rant and saying that no Christian can regard the current war policies of the United States to be in line with Christian teachings of just war. I am thankful that Canada has cultivated a more principled military tradition, but I am so wary of the seductions of war; as I tell people, the best way to think about a just war is by having your default settings to pacifism.
So, again, I am especially not against veterans who have to live with the toxic effects war has poisoned them with. But this respect for these men has lead me to one deep conviction: If we truly care about our soldiers, if we refuse to see them as soldiers, but rather as our children, friends, parents, human beings, if we refuse to see them as sacrifices that guarantee our way of life (as if our way of life is worth innocent lives!), if we truly support the troops, if we truly want to remember them – lest we forget – we will do everything possible to stop them from going to war. We will do everything possible to prevent war, to remember its dehumanizing cruelty, to engage in just politics and peacemaking, and denounce the seduction of nationalistic pride and the urgency of violence.
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” says Milan Kundera.
As Christians we chose to remember something else other than that torch that the dead in John McCrae’s poem. Or at least, we might say we take up the “torch” in a different way McCrae probably intended it as Canadians and as Christians:
We remember God’s no to war and yes to peacemaking.
We remember that the weakness of the cross is stronger than the might of any army.
We remember the warnings of our prophets, that our might can become our idol, and we remember their vision of hope: a world without war, where weapons our recycled into farming equipment and we “unlearn” the ways of war.
We remember that our enemies are also God’s children, same as us.
We remember the God that died for his enemies.
Lest we forget.
This Monday we got to see a solar eclipse. This is just one way that we can look out at the world and see creation.
The Scriptures have a section in it called the Psalms. These are poems of prayer, praise, lament, thanksgiving, and confession, compiled for God’s people to recite in worship to God. At some point, perhaps next summer, I might preach through a number of Psalms.
The Psalms are poems by the people of God, usually king David, that speak inspired truths about who God is, who we are, and in this case, the beautiful universe we live in. It really takes a poet to describe the beauty of God and the world, doesn’t it?
Psalm 19 is a brilliant Psalm. It is brilliant because of the movement of the poetry. It goes from seeing God in the beauty of the universe, then in the laws of morality, and this moves David to humility and repentance. Beauty moves us to responsibility, which moves us to humility and repentance. This is the way this Psalm wants us to experience something beautiful like a solar eclipse.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
The Heavens Tell the Glory of God.
What is glory? That is a term we often use as Christians. Some people after watching the movie Dunkirk referred to that battle as “glorious.” What does that mean? The Hebrew word for “glory” is kavod, and kavod has a rich meaning. It means about three things:
It means splendor, the way a king’s throne and robes and throne room has splendor. Ever come into an old cathedral and feel moved by its beauty? That is splendor. It is beauty kicked up a notch. It is beauty that moves us.
It also means honor. A king is glorious not merely because of his robes, but because of his significance. Think of a king returning from battle, securing stability and safety for his people by risking his life, fighting with courage. That warrants respect and honor.
When we honor someone we recognize their importance for us. When we give God glory in worship, we honor him. We tell God the importance he has. We do this not because God needs it, but because it is good to tell God we love him, to remind ourselves how important God to us, to remind ourselves of all that he has done for us. God has given us life and redemption, if we forget to honor him, that is a step of vast stupidity on our parts.
So, glory can mean splendor and honor and also abundance. That is not the best term. Magnitude would be better.
Have you been in a situation where you realized that this is a moment that could change your life? I remember the birth of my son, Rowan. Holding my first son in my arms reminded me of the weight of responsibility I had but also the privileged and joy. I felt the magnitude of the situation. Glory is the magnitude of God.
When we look up at a starry sky we are reminded of the glory of God: his splendor in its moving beauty, his honor, knowing his importance – that if the universe is so big, and God is bigger and we are so small, so dependent on God, God is important.
We are finite creatures; he is infinite. We are dependent; he is absolute – seeing the universes size, knowing his magnitude, the creator of all this. It leaves us awestruck. It leaves us without words. It takes our breath away.
The heavens tell the glory of God.
Are You Listening?
The next few lines are odd. Day after day the heavens pour our speech, but there are no words. Oh. No voice is heard, but indeed, there is a voice. What is the poet, David, here trying to get at?
At Laurentian University, there is a large library where I go to get out books. I usually go get books when I have a spare moment. I am always pressed for time. Hunting down books can be really annoying.
In front of the Laurentian library there is a Starbucks, and one time, I was feeling in need of a pick-me-up to keep slugging through stuff, so I got a coffee there (I’ll say something blasphemous, but I like Starbucks’ coffee better than Tim Hortons – but I also really like super strong coffee). I sat and sipped a coffee before I headed back to my office. I looked up and there was a massive painting, three panels, taking up the entire wall above me. I had never noticed that there before. I had been so much in a hurry that all the dozens of times I had walked past it, I never noticed it.
Finally, sitting there, I got to just take in the artwork. It was just a beautiful array of color in the shapes of exotic flowers. In ended up being just a delightful moment in my day, enjoying the beauty of this painting.
But I never would have seen it if I did not stop and look.
It is amazing how we can become blind to things around us. It is even more amazing that we can become blind to God’s glory. We can become deaf to this voice.
Our faith has profound answers, but many now, are too distracted with work and pleasure and all the wrong in the world to even bother asking the questions. That includes us Christians too. We have become deaf to the voice. Too caught up in work, too caught up in routine. We fail to see the beauty.
You look up at a beautiful sky, how can you not feel small and ask, “Is there something more to us?” Or look at the sun and moon and stars and ask, “What made all this? What is the purpose of life? Why is there all this rather than nothing?” If you don’t, I suspect you are rushing and missing their full splendor.
When we wonder, we start listening. We beginning listening to that voice that speaks without words, as this psalm tells us. Something made this. Something bigger than them. This all has a purpose. This all has a meaning. Their beauty reminds us of God. The question is, are you listening?
Are we watching for God’s splendor? Are we listening for the traces of God’s honor? Are we a wake to his magnitude all around us?
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hid from its heat.
A Flat Earth? God Meets Us Where We Are At…
Notice that it describes the heavens as a tent for thus sun. That warrants a bit of explanation.
The other day I had perhaps one of the most bizarre conversations I have ever had in my life.
I met a person on line (which if there is anything good about the internet, it is for meeting bizarre people).
This person was convinced that the earth was flat. I asked, “why?” I did not even think this perceptive existed, so I really was curious how he came to hold this view. He said the Bible teaches the earth is flat. He used this very psalm. He also gave a set of really bad pseudo-scientific references.
Anyways, for sake of this person, not that many people hear are worried about this kind of thing, but the Bible was indeed written for a people that thought the world was flat, yes.
It is important to say, the Bible assumes that language, but does not teach it.
This is because the ancient world assumed the world was flat with the sky as a hard dome over top, much like this picture here. The earth was flat and rested on pillars.
Here is a picture of the universe how Egyptians believed it was. See how they thought the sky was actually the body of a goddess, Nut, held up by the air god, Shu, resting on the earth god, Ged? They believed that the sky was a surface, a person actually.
Notice that the Bible resists deifying these things. But why does it talk this way? The Bible uses a bit of this language because God means us where we are at. Jesus teaches that faith is like a mustard seed, which he says is the smallest seed. Now, actually in point of fact, the iris seed is smaller, but for that time and place, they knew of no smaller seed. Is Jesus interested in correcting their inaccurate understanding of the size of seeds? No. He is interested in teaching redemptive truths in ways the people at the time would understand.
Other passages of the Bible mention the monsters Rahab, Lilith, Leviathan, and Behemoth. It is not because these things are real, but because the ancient people thought they were real.
It is sort of like how my son the other day was scarred that monsters were going to get him. At first I told him, these things don’t exist, but that did not take the fear out of the situation for my son. So, I got him to pray that God is greater than anything that could ever hurt us. That worked. I think that is what is going on here. God is not interested in saying, “those things don’t exist silly!” but something more like, “whatever you could be afraid of, I am greater than that.”
God meets us where we are at.
We don’t think about the world is flat that way and Christians truth is not bound to that kind of cultural assumption. God was just meeting them there where they are at.
That is just the way a non-scientific culture thought about the world.
It was Greek astronomers in the 3rd century BC that discovered the world might actually be a sphere, and Christians had no problem accepting this.
We still talk that way when we say “sunrise and sunset” even though we know that the sun does not actually move, it is the earth that revolves around the sun.
We know that because Copernicus and Galileo discovered that the earth revolves around the sun, not the sun around the earth. The church originally held that the sun revolves around the earth, but very quickly adopted Galileo’s findings because the church realized that this was not harmful to the essence of Christian faith.
So again, Christians have no problem accepting new legitimate scientific findings, since we know that God is always pleased to talk to us where we are at, as we are in a process of discovery.
This psalm uses the ancient language of the culture around it because God was meeting them where they understanding was and teaching them his beauty in the way they knew.
Some have called the Bible sexist, but again, it is important to keep in mind that the Bible met us where we are at. It assumes a patriarchial culture, but that does not mean we teach that today.
Some have called the Bible too violent, but again, while God met people when they were at their mist brutal, God pulled them deeper into non-violence. The Bible assumes great violence, meets us there, but does not teach it today.
Some have called the Bible oppressive. It has slavery in it. Again, while the world of the Bible has slavery, that does not mean, when we listen to its spirit, that we are to teach slavery today.
The Bible meets us where we are at, then seeks to advance us forward into a more redeemed way of life. It speaks to the young gang-member just as much as to the old missionary. It uses the language we understand to move us from where we are to where God wants us to be.
So where are we at today?
Here is a picture from the Hubble space telescope. It is a picture of hundreds of galaxies. Each dot is not a star, but a galaxy, going off into space. Beautiful is it not? The Hubble, a remarkable piece of technology, is showing us aspects of God’s creation that we never knew existed.
We are but a planet with a sun, in a galaxy of about 300 billion stars, and the milky way galaxy is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in our universe.
The ancient people might not have had the instruments like a Hubble space telescope to understand that figure, so God was not interested in telling them something they did not understand.
And make no mistake, the magnitude of that is beyond our comprehension as well. But does the truth of this ancient poem, inspired by God still ring true?
Yes. The grandeur of this speaks to us again. Its splendor speaks: who made this? What brought this into existence? Who has ordered all these stars and galaxies?
Are we watching for God’s splendor? Are we listening for the traces of God’s honor? Are we awake to his magnitude all around us? The heavens tell the glory of God! Are you listening?
If you are, the next step is realizing our responsibility…
From Beauty to Responsibility
7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is pure,
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
When we see parallel statements, I think the poet is trying to make a point. Six times David mentions the law of God six different ways using six different adjectives: law statutes, precepts, commands, reverence, decrees, which are perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure, and firm.
It is like he can’t say enough good things about the law of God. He is almost nagging us about its goodness, trying to get it into our heads, the way a parent keeps nagging their children to wash their hands before dinner.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “Two things fill me with wonder and awe: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”
These two are connected for Kant and for King David. Beauty moves us to responsibility.
As the stars remind us that there must be something bigger than ourselves physically, it suggests, perhaps, all our ways are accountable to someone bigger than us, spiritually.
When we recognize the grandeur of beauty, we are humbled to responsibility.
If the world is wondrous, life is sacred. If it is sacred, it ought to be protected.
If the world is lovely, life is a gift. If it is a gift, it ought to be cherished.
Here is the jump from “is” to “ought.” If life has value, it demands a responsible way of valuing it.
And so, God did not just give us the world, we have us a way. He did not just give us life, he gave us his law.
God did not give us laws to burden us, but to liberate us. When we understand God’s law through Jesus’ example, through his summary of the law as love, obeying Jesus is a way of cherishing life in the fullness God wants for us. All the commandments, understood through Jesus, do this.
Don’t lie…God knows life is better when we are honest with ourselves and each other.
Don’t kill…God knows life is better when we don’t seek to hurt one another.
And so on and so forth.
But the first law is important for our purposes today: The first law God gave us is I am the Lord your God, you will not have any other God except me.
While there were not many, there were fractions of wiccans that used the solar eclipse as an event to engage in ritual worship of the sun last Monday.
They worship the sun because they believed that the eclipse had the power to bring new life in them. It is important to note that while the ancient people looked to the sun and saw something so powerful it obviously should be a deity, the Hebrew people under God’s guidance knew the true purpose of the sun. It shows the splendor of God and it gives us heat. That’s it.
Nature moves us to awe at it, God’s law stops us from worshiping it.
We do not worship creation, because creation did not make itself. But there is other important thing.
If we worship the way things are, we are saying there is no force out there that can make this world better. That which is, is all there is, and the way things are, are the way things will stay.
But God is a living God, able to make this world new, better. That is why we honor him.
Also, the sun cannot give new life. The stars cannot give us a better future. We do not buy into horoscopes or astrology, why? God gives us a choice to embrace a future that these things cannot predict or predetermine.
Only God can forgive sins. Only God can have a personal, renewing, saving relationship with us. Not the sun. That is why we worship him.
11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
From Responsibility to Humilty
We see the movement. Beauty moves us to responsibility, responsibility to humility. This humility is expressed in repentance and prayer.
We just don’t do the beauty of the world justice if we look at it, without thinking there is something bigger than ourselves. We cannot think of something bigger than ourselves without realizing we are accountable to something more than ourselves. And we can’t realize that we accountable to something more than ourselves without realizing we have failed to live up to that standard.
Discount all this: Even if the only standard we have for morality is ourselves, we do not live up to even our own standard, let alone God’s perfect one.
I commit to being selfless, but I am always selfish.
I commit to loving my wife, but I know I don’t do enough everyday there.
I commit to telling the truth, but I am aware that under pressure I don’t give accurate statements.
I could go on. What is it for you? Even by our own standards of integrity we fail.
This is why there must be more than all this. There must be a God that made us. There must be a God that knowns us. There must be a God that loves us and wants to forgive us.
We know the sun cannot do this. There is nothing in the world that can do this. Forgiving ourselves is too easy. We don’t have the right to forgive ourselves when we are not even faithful to our own standard, let alone if we wrong another.
Where do we find forgiveness? Some people might look at the stars and conclude there is a God, but only the Bible, only its witness to Jesus tells us God is forgiving.
David knows he is forgiven even of his unintentional faults because of who God as revealed himself to be.
God has revealed himself as not only a God that exists, but as a God that forgives.
This revelation came to perfect fulfillment in Jesus Christ. He drew near to us taking on our humanity. He lived a perfect life to show us a perfect moral standard. Yet people put him to death, because they could not stand to be reminded that there was a greater standard than their self-righteousness.
He chose to count his execution as a sacrifice, atoning for the sin of all people, a sign that God himself was willing to die the death penalty on our behalf to show that God forgives us of even our worst sins.
All we need to do is to trust this, to ask forgiveness, to let the light in.
Clear me from hidden faults! Says David. Clean me from the inside out. Then I shall be blameless.
Then he says,
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
God is a rock and redeemer. He is strong, unmovable, secure. He is someone you can build your life on. He is our redeemer, our rescuer, our savior.
Knowing this, it is our joy to live our entire lives devoted to him, walking with him, trusting that the God who loves us enough to die for us, has the best life possible in mind for us.
This leads us to pray, longing for every aspect of our lives to be in conformity to his will: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you. Nothing else matters.
Can I let you in on a secret? The solar eclipse in all its beauty is simply dull in comparison to a heart that has awoken to God’s glory.
Can this be your prayer today?
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
I did a difficult funeral this week. According to the news, a man was found dead in his car, and I was approached to do the funeral. It got me thinking about nature of death. Why do humans die? What is the meaning of that? How is that connected to the meaning of life? How can one of the most fundamental realities of what it means to be human show something of the truth of the Christian faith?
That is what we are going to explore today.
Believe it or not, humans at a genetic level are programed to die.
Believe it or not, there are animals that are not programmed to age and die.
There are animals that are functional immortal. Many turtles don’t age. What they look like at teen-aged years, fully grown, is exactly how they stay. No turtle dies of old age. They just don’t age. Why aren’t we overrun with turtles? Turtles die from disease and from predators. That’s it.
Immortal Jelly fish, aptly named, when injured, tell themselves to reverse age. When a tentacle is bitten off, they revert back to undifferentiated polyp, the goop that they were when they were born, and from there re-mature fully healed. Not only do they not age past maturity, they actually reverse age at will. Amazing isn’t it?
Ocean flatworms have near limitless regenerative capacity. It’s the X-Men’s Wolverine of the ocean world. Remember that scene from that weird Disney movie Fantasia where Mickey Mouse uses magic to cause brooms to become alive and do his house chores? They get out of control, so he starts hacking them to pieces with an axe, only to find that each piece becomes another broom. That’s what flatworms can do. Cut up a flatworm into a dozen little pieces, and it does not die. It regenerates quickly into a dozen clones of that flatworm.
All these animals do not process what is called “senescence” (that is your word of the day), which is the genetic capacity to age.
That’s right, humans, as with most organisms on the planet, are genetically programmed to age and die. This does not make a lot of sense from a purely atheist-materialist point of view. People before they discovered senescence thought that our bodies just wear out like my 2002 Honda Civic is slowly wearing out. They rust; they wear down; they break.
But that rests on the faulty assumption that our bodies are machines. But we are fearfully and wonderfully made. We have somewhere around 37 trillion cells in our bodies. Our cells replenish themselves often. Intestine cells every 4 days; skin cells every few weeks; blood cells every few months. Our bodies are remarkably designed to regenerate itself, but oddly, it is not that these processes wear out against their will as we grow old. Our genes tell themselves to stop.
If physical life is all there is and life is just survival – and more than: that survival of the fittest – the idea that our bodies are designed to age means that humans are essentially a failed species. We could have had the genes of the immortal jellyfish, but we don’t. Too bad for us.
On the other end, consider the tiny organism call a “water bear.” They are only about a few millimeters big, but they are functionally un-killable. They are immune to cold. They can stand minus 270 degrees Celsius (which near absolute zero). It can withstand heat well over boiling point. It can survive in the vacuum of space. It can withstand 6 times more pressure than the bottom of the ocean. It can withstand a dose of radiation several hundred times the lethal dose for a human being.
Yet, water bears ever live past 30. Their bodies, which are otherwise impervious, are designed to stop at 30 years old. Unlike turtles that never die from old age, only from predators, water bears only die from old age, nothing else.
All of this is bring us deeper into the mystery of our own mortality. We were meant to be mortal. God wanted it that way.
“We must all die; we are like water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again.” (2 Sam. 14:14)
One of the vital ways we can witness the truth of Jesus Christ in our world is by showing how Christian faith makes sense out of the fundamental realities we face as humans. In other words, by looking to our faith, we learn to be more human. When we look to our mortality, a vital part of our humanity – it is as universal a fact as all of us needed to eat and breath – it is really only best understood be the standpoint of Christian faith.
We live in a world that no longer understands death. Because it no longer understands death, it no longer understands living either. Richard Baxter once said characterized the Christian life as the art of dying well. That is learning our mortality and living that reality out in grace, walking with Christ.
Many of us live unaware of our own mortality. The poet Emily Dickinson wrote about this in her famous poem:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
In moments where death is unexpected, someone close to us, that is when we are reminded that we are finite, mortal people. We don’t like this feeling. We assume we will live on indefinitely, which is of course, not the case.
So, lets do something bizarre this morning, and learn our mortality together.
1. Death as Limit
(a) If humans were created limited, a limited lifespan is good.
The notion that our lives come to an end is not in and of itself a bad thing. As the world was created, day turned to night. Each day ended. That was a good thing. Humans were created. We were created just as limited and finite as creation. Our lives, like the days of the week, were from the start limited.
This is important because there is no biological fact that links mortality to immortality. Plants and animals have been dying well before humans arrived on the scene, these we understand as innocent. God does not punish the leaves of a tree for making them turn and fall in autumn. Life is meant to be limited.
Immortality is found in God alone, this is why the narrative of Genesis chapter two places the Tree of Life alongside of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We don’t have immortality in and of ourselves, we never did. Immortality is our destiny, not our origin. God alone is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16).
In fact, this quest for immortality, any notion of immortality understood apart from God is highly dissuaded in Scripture. The serpent’s temptation was with the allure of immortality apart from God: “Surely you will not die!”
The mythology of the world around Israel is replete with heroes questing to find immortality for themselves by their great prowess whether the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh or the search for the Greek Ambrosia (the fruit that bestows divinity). What is all this but immortality by works, justification by works?
Israel rejected this. Humanity is created by God. We dare not assert ourselves as the Creator. So, the fact that our live have limits calls us deeper into dependence on the one who is unlimited. Our work presupposes God’s provision; our prayer presupposes God’s providence. We are dependent; God is absolute.
In fact, the limited age of humanity is seen as a means God uses to curb sin. As the demi-god-like Nephilim corrupted humanity, God restrains the life of humanity to 120 years (Gen. 6:3).
(b) Living forever in this life is never understood to be an ideal for God’s people.
Yet, we humans are still searching for it, not with religion as we would think of it, but with technology.
Even at the highest of the conception of a “good life” Israel shied away of thinking in terms of immortality. The biblical ideal for this life was a “ripe old age” or “full of day” where one walked with God. Job is granted life to 140 years (Job 42:17- that’s 20 years more than the limit, by the way).
There are efforts to cryogenically freeze individuals. Cryonics Institute charges just $28,000 (that cheaper than some funerals!) at time of death to cryogenically preserve a body, to be revived at some future date when it becomes possible.
Neuroscientist Kenneth Hayworth believes we will be able to transfer the human mind to a computer by 2110. That kind of feels like a movie starring Johnny Depp. I wonder how that will end up?
Technology has become the god and religion of the modern world: we place our trust in it like cave-people placed their trust in statutes of gold.
It is not a good thing. One thinks of the fiction of Jonathan Swift. In his book Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver discovers strange fantastic world that teaches him profound moral truths. One place he stumbles upon has a group of individual that have discovered a fountain of immortality. Tempted to drink of it, he then surveys the group, realizing that many of them are unthinkably miserable, clinging to the quantity of their lifespan at the expense of all quality. At this point, Gulliver pours out his cup of immortal water and departs.
He concludes that a short and good life is better than an infinite one.
(c) The limited nature of our lives remind us that life is a gift.
If life is a gift, there is a gift giver. Reject the giver, and we will become increasingly unable to recognize all life as a gift.
This notion of the goodness of life is growing increasingly in doubt. We face a culture of death. As I said, in forgetting the meaning of death, we have forgotten the meaning of life.
If life is just survival and pleasure or achievement, than means a lot of our lives are not worth that much. We are seeing suicide at levels that should equate them with pandemic.
According to Statistic Canada, “In Canada, suicide accounts for 24 percent of all deaths among 15-24 year olds and 16 percent among 16-44 year olds. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24. Seventy-three percent of hospital admissions for attempted suicide are for people between the ages of 15 and 44.”
We are facing a pandemic of meaninglessness in life. Worse still, our government as not been diligent to combat this. Our church was one of many that sent petitions that protested the assisted suicide bill, pleaded that at any rate, there needs to be a clause for consciousness objectors in the medical establishment. The Trudeau government did not even allow for that.
Now, anyone that faces suicide, especially in cases of terminal illness, needs compassion and support, but I worry assisted suicide makes a judgment call on the “value” of life. In Holland, which has had euthanasia laws for a while now, reports that some doctors now have recommended suicide to people with mental illness because there conditions are “insufferable.”
Where do we draw the line here? I don’t think we can. Should we see people with exceptional needs as having a lower value than those that are fully able-bodied and able-mined. Is that where we see human value? Christians see human life in the image of God, created with inherent dignity, such that to living in fellowship with people with exceptional needs is a joy, not a burden.
I think these laws for assisted suicide are symptomatic of a growing awareness that apart from God, we don’t know how to understand all life as having value, even in time of pain and difficulty. We care for people because all life as value; we allow ourselves to be cared for (a difficult truth for us autonomous modern individuals) because we cherish the opportunity to live another moment alongside God and God’s children in this life.
Because we have forgotten the meaning of our mortality, how we are designed for something, someone, more, we have lost the ability to live.
2. Death as Sin
Life as merely limited is good, but we are fallen humans. We are all born into a world where sin has had its way. So, we cannot think about death apart from its tragic, fallen state. Why is death sad? It is because of sin. “The wages of sin is death” says Romans 6:23.
This is important. God is concerned with our bodily well being, but there are things more important than the mere physical: seeking the kingdom of heaven is more important that food and clothing says Jesus. The opposite of this pursuit is death, true death.
(a) Sin is understood as death worse that physical dead.
This goes right back to the Garden of Eden. Notice that the warning of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is that you will “surely die” but it is not like Adam and Eve died as soon as they ate it. What did they do? They felt the shame of being distant from God.
God comes down and tells them the consequences of their idolatry: men must toil, but inevitably they will return to the dust, women have lost their primal equality with men, and just as the toil of men remind them of their mortality (their inability to be immortal) so also the reproductive cycles of women (it is a truth that we are less aware of since birth has become so much safer now). Their physical mortality is seen in light of their shame and idolatry. You have tried to be your own gods? You will fail. That’s the consequences.
Like I said, there is nothing wrong with being finite, limited creatures, but when we try to surmount our place as creatures, the true death is to live apart from God. Often the Apostle Paul talks about being “dead in our sins” (ex. Eph. 2:1, 5; Col. 2:13). This is important, the Bible considers any moment of physical life lived apart from God to be true death.
In all of this, Adam and Eve lose relationship with God in the Garden, and are exiled. This is an archetypal way of saying we all lose our innocence when we turn from God. We are all born mortal; we are all born into sinful existence, but there is a point that Christ never underwent but we do, a point where we embrace that sin for ourselves, and that is the point when we embrace true death.
This is where physical death and spiritual death are connected. Since we all have fallen and turned from God, the limit of our lives is seen with fear. This fear comes from understanding the limit of our lives through our quest for own immortality (which we will fail at, as our mortality reminds) and through our own disobedience.
The funerals that I have done where the person was not a very good person, have been the most bitter. There is unresolved pain on the part of their loved ones, regret and resentment. Death becomes the terminal reminder of the unfixed brokenness of their relationships.
Understood apart for God, the end point of our lives is anguish. The presence of a loved one’s life is now absent, a vacuum of meaning, propelling all the bizarre emotions of grief. Grief is a weird thing. You can feel happiness over the joyful memories of a loved one’s life, then sadness over them not being around anymore. You can feel gratitude over the gift of their life, then anger and guilt over the “what if’s” of not cherishing them more. The weird thing about grief is that you can feel all these emotions all at once. If you have ever lost a loved one close to you, you know what I am talking about.
(b) It is because of this pain of death that all people, Christian or otherwise, see death as an obstacle.
This is important because from a purely materialist point of view, we humans die and that is it. It is a biological fact, and if science is the only way to see the world, it is a fact that we just need to accept. Why is it preferable to live versus no life if both are biological facts? Why does life have any more value than things that are inanimate? There is no ultimate answer in that scheme. Like Is said, it is only through the lens of faith that the bitterness of death even makes sense.
Christians see death as something that does not belong in this world ultimately. We are mortal, yes, but God wants to bring us into something more than that, after that. It is then that death is seen as an enemy, getting in the way of the fullness of life God wants for us:
The dead do not praise the Lord,
Nor do any that go down into silence.
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
Or your faithfulness in destruction?
Are you wonders known in the darkness
Or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
It is natural for all people, Christian or otherwise, to fear death, but for different reasons. Fear of death has driven humans to do wonderful and terrible things. Wonderful things like build civilizations, organizing ourselves to protect ourselves from disaster, invent medicine, develop structures that ensure common good and well-being, etc.
It has also caused us to do terrible things. We have tried to find immortality apart from God. Men have deified themselves through technology as I just said.
Here is a question: what if scientists do uncover the gene that stops senescence, that stops aging? What if they are able to procure immortality? Does that render what we are thinking about null and void? Does that make God unnecessary?
Sadly, I think some people look to God as their “fire insurance.” They love God not because of who he is, but what they can get out of him. God is the cosmic “get out of jail free card,” the divine equivalent of death insurance. If that is your reason for believing in God, then ya, that would be a crisis.
But consider the prayer of St. Teresa of Avila: “If there were no heaven I would still love you; and if there were no hell, I would still fear you.” In other words, Avila calls us to love God because God is God. We do not love our children for what we “get out of them,” we love because of the goodness of love.
Refusing to love God, for any moment, is death. It is death worse than physical death. The greatest tragedy is not our lives coming to an end (our lives were at some point meant to do that), but the true tragedy is any life spent apart from God. That is death right now.
This is important for us now: Do we know that true life is living every moment with God here and now?
On the flipside, are you ready to get rid of the death in your life, the things that your have been keep from God, the sin in your life, and commit it to God? Are you ready to walk with God in a new way today?
This bring us to my last point..,
3. Death as opportunity
(a) We need God to reveal himself as a God that is with us.
We remind people of this often iat funerals. They might like the idea that God saves us or that there is an afterlife, they probably assume that from their religious upbringing that they have fallen away from. So, I recall them to the need to stand on revelation. We know our loved ones are with God because of how he reveals himself. God reveals himself to be love that is present to us in all the darkness of life and death: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death you are with me!” says Psalm 23. David knew this because he walked with God. David also says in Psalm 139:
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
In Jesus, God is with us in our sin and death. God became flesh, God took on our humanity, even our mortality. He was not born, immortal. That is important as well. Humans were always limited and mortal, even Adam before he fell. How do we know this? Because even the second Adam was mortal. He did this to show us true humanity in the face of mortality. God loves us in all the moments of life.
(b) Jesus has taken on the wages of sin to bring us life.
Jesus gladly bore the curse of the law, the consequences of sin to show that God’s will for us is mercy and grace. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
As physical and spiritual death are connected, Christ gladly bore both at the cross. Whenever we think our lives are worthless, that we have done unforgivable things, that all we deserve is death, God tells us in Jesus Christ “I will gladly die your death to bring you life.” Thus we can say, as paul reminds us,
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
How do we know God loves us? Because he showed us that he would die for us. He loves us more than his very life. How do we know death is not the end? The Father rose Jesus from the grave.
The cross cannot be understood without the resurrection. Death has been defeated in Christ, because the Father raised up the messiah. In Jesus, something amazing has happened on Easter morning. God is present to us, even in our physical deaths, such that death has been disarmed. The cosmic nothingness of death was brought into the being of God and surmounted into the joy of new creation. Resurrection is the vindication of Christ’s life and death.
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
(c) This turns physical death into just another moment to walk with God
Do you know God is with you even in your darkest moments? Knowing this, walking with Jesus, knowing we have eternal life, reshapes our perspective on life such that we greet every moment as opportunism to walk with him.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life” says Jesus (John 14:6). Nothing else beside that is consider true living.
It is so important that Paul would even say, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Funny thing, I know a friend of mine in high school, who we went on to study together to be pastors. He put that as his quote in his high school yearbook. people were worried that he was suicidal.
That is not literally true, but metaphorically. In Christian life, we “die” to our old selves. “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus,” says Romans 6:11. We die to our sins in baptism, to start living resurrection life, eternal life now.
Every moment you are dying, but I a good way, when you choose to embrace new life in Christ. Paul uses this metaphor, because it is hard. Giving up the past is hard. You have to leave it behind. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” says John 12:24.
(d) Death, the fear of death no longer stops us from doing what is right.
Death was the weapon of fear, used by tyrants to keep people in line. Death was the cause of fear, propelling Israel to seek immortality in idolatry.
In Jesus, death became a path to righteousness and true life. Jesus used the instance of death as a way of being faithful to the Father. Jesus used the instance of the oppressive Romans executing him, the instance of the Jews abandoning him, to show a way greater than hate, violence, and despair. As the murdered him, he prayed for their forgiveness, non-violent, self-sacrificial love for his enemies.
This is a similar calling we must take up.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matt. 16:24-26)
The great martyrs of our faith refused to see the fear of death as obstacle to witnessing for Christ. They became opportunities to be faithful no matter what. God gave his life for us, so how can be give anything less than our entire life for him? As the Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier (d. 1528) cried out as authorities burned him alive, “Truth is immortal.” He could have renounced his faith, trying to live on a little longer. Perhaps repent of that later, knowing Christ might forgive him. That would be to miss out, not on physical life, but true life: living completely with Christ, even to the point of the privilege – no other word will do – of bearing our own cross. This is the truth that is immortal. That is, knowing Christ and witnessing his truth, is worth far more than preserving our physical lives at the expense of faithfulness.
This is the truth that we must live. Whether we face physical illness, mental illness, disability, old age, or worse persecution and the threat of martyrdom. Living is for Christ and to die is gain.
Someone asked me whether I like doing weddings more than funerals as a joke. I said, that is not always the case. I funeral for a person who has walked with the Lord their whole life is actually really pretty. There life is so encouraging. It is a celebration of life.
For many people I know, death has already been defeated. They live joyously with the Lord such that whatever life brings them, including the end of life, is just another opportunity to love the Lord. It is here that the truth of the Scripture ring out
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:55)
(e) So, we live in hope for the restoration of all things.
The earliest statement of Christian hope is in Acts 3:21: the disciples await God to return to restore all things. All that has gone wrong in this world, God promises to be put right again and then some. That is the total victory of God over sin that the cross signifies.
God promises to mature this world beyond death, to restore it into the universe he wants it to be. One day, Revelation envisions,
Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev. 21:3-4).
Some doubt whether God will do this, but we know that the God that brought this world into creation, has the capacity to bring it into New Creation. The God that defeated death in the resurrection wants to do something like this with all life. But God does not want to make that happen by just snapping his fingers. He wants to use his children, his way (self-sacrificial love) to bring this world fulling into his kingdom.
So, the question now is how will you live out true life? How will you live out true hope?
May you know the goodness of every moment spent depending on God your Creator
May you know that in Christ, God has defeated sin, death and the devil
May you trust that now, living out the power of the resurrection out now, awaiting the restoration of all things.
Amen, go in peace.
I am a theology addict. I’ll admit it.
Since college, I have tried to read at least one systematic theology per year, and try to do so from as wide a spectrum as possible, while still trying my best to ground myself in my own Baptist tradition.
To date, I have read the following…
Non-Baptist: Emil Brunner, Robert Jenson, Jurgen Moltmann, Wolhart Pannenberg, Vladimir Lossky, David Bentley Hart, Daniel Migliore, Owen Thomas and Ellen Wondra, David Yeago, and Alister McGrath.
Admittedly, I have gotten thought sizable chunks of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Karl Rahner, but I am not about to claim I know everything they say, since I got to finish reading them…one day.
Here are the Ana/Baptist ones I have read:
Walter Ruschenbusch, William Newton Clark, T. W. Connor, Edgar Mullins, Clark Pinnock, Stanley Grenz, James McClendon, C. Norman Kraus, Charles Ryrie, Wayne Grudem, and Dale Moody
I got asked the other day for a list of some of the best systematic theologies. Here is what I came up with:
The Best: The Top 10
Not necessarily in order of best to worst, I should point out. I tried to include a mix of constructive theologies and introductory theologies, because often you need an intro to get your feet wet before being able to appreciate the deeper stuff.
A good systematic theology presents all the major topic of theology: trinity, Christology, creation, atonement, church, sin, salvation, and eschatology. It does so summarizing the biblical and historical material, while proposing conceptual refinements to best state the doctrine today. A good theology is biblical, but not biblicist, historically-informed, but not a slave to traditional categories when they need revising. It does not bog one down in endless questions of method, but moves towards a constructive doctrine that equips the reading for living their faith out in church community. It is faithful to the past of Christian tradition and faithful to the future of our faith. A good theology in our day is ecumenically oriented, but still grounded in one tradition. A good theology does not replace the Bible; it aids in reading the Bible better, organizing it around central themes, namely Christ, the Trinity, and his kingdom and love. Theology can sound very technical and dry, but at the end of the day, a good theology is a rigorous pursuit of truth and a vigorous reckoning of what it means to follow Christ.
1. Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God
Grenz’s Beyond Foundationalism (co-authored with John Franke) and Reclaiming the Center recasted evangelical theology in a sophisticated centrist manner, sensitive to postmodern insights, robustly Trinitiarian, communitarian, and eschatologically oriented. For many Grenz is the pinnacle of evangelical theology.
Grenz died tragically at the prime of his career (d. 2005), while he was writing his Contours of Christian Theology, two volumes in. Both books demonstrated him to be a leading theologian at the global level. His standard theological text, Theology for the Community of God, is an excellent introduction. Historically well-informed, exegetically sound, comprehensive in scope, and yet still constructive for a text meant as an seminary introductory text.
Grenz is probably my recommendation for the first theological text a seminary student should encounter. He covers all the topics well and that is what a seminary student needs. Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology is more comprehensive, but less constructive (it feels like you are reading a giant glossary at times). Daniel Migliore’s Faith Seeking Understanding would be my other choice. For something more succinct, so less comprehensive, but it is excellent and would be my recommendation for a single course in theology (most seminaries do two course introductions, however).
Now, Grenz was still too much of a biblicist as I later found. He does not take into account the diversity of the biblical canon or even some basic historical critical insights. His understandings of, for instance, the doctrine of Adam or eschatology are a bit too simplistic. So, like I said, Grenz is a good place to start, but not stay.
2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics
Barth is daunting but indispensable. I have gotten through about four volumes of the Dogmatics cover-to-cover, with chunks here and there throughout. Barth is often hard to get since his context was so different than American evangelicalism. One has to understand the problems he faced in order to fully appreciate the beautiful innovations he brings to doctrinal problems, whether it is his understanding of the word of God, the perfections of God, election, nature of creation, or Christology. Barth was reclaiming theology based on revelation against the hey day of liberalism in Germany, but that does not mean Barth is a conservative in the sense of the American scene.
Barth is one of those thinkers you can spend your whole life reading and rereading. He is one of those minds that cannot be easily pigeon-holed or summarized. Each section of the Dogmatics brings new insights and directions, constantly surprising you. Because of this, to dismiss Barth because, for instance, you don’t like doctrine x of his, frankly means you not only thrown out the baby with the bathwater, it is more like throwing out the whole house along with it.
Often to read Barth you need a good introduction. Mine was my professor’s own work: Joseph Mangina’s Karl Barth: Theologian of Christian Witness, which has been hailed among the best intro’s. The last Pope called Barth the greatest theologian next to Thomas Aquinas. Dr. Mangina had a sign over his door: “I am deeply suspicious of any theologian that does not like Karl Barth.” I share these views. Those that dismiss Barth might as well dismiss themselves as serious Christian thinkers.
3. C. Norman Kraus, Jesus Christ Our Lord and God Our Savior
Kraus was an Anabaptist missionary turned theologian. His small two-volume theology is as impressive as unexpected. His theology begins as an extended treatment on Christology, salvation and discipleship. And it is good. Only then, in his second volume, does he go on to treat creation, trinity, ecclesiology and eschatology, all in a Christological mode, thus presenting a thoroughly Christ-centered theology. Not only that, Kraus is remarkably balanced and well-read, citing an impressive array of biblical studies, theologians, all with a respectable level of charity and engagement. Having missionary experience, he brings a great deal of cultural awareness to his theology. For instance, his understanding of Christian theology in comparison to world religions is really good.
If you are looking for a theology that is not overly technical, but still deep, this is the one. I think this would be my choice for a theology for my congregation to read because of its Christ-centered approach and emphasis on discipleship.
4. James McClendon, Ethics, Doctrine, Witness, (in his Systematic Theology)
McClendon stands in the background of several important theological movements in American theology: the postmodern turn, post-liberalism, narrative theology, neo-Anabaptism, the Baptist-Catholic movement, etc.
He was one of the first narrative theologians. His understanding of Scripture moved beyond biblical inerrancy and historical critical reading, to understand Scripture as a speech act, speaking its figures into the present in a “this is that, then is now” way.
He was one of the first theologians to “kiss modernity good-bye.” His theology displays disruptions that move away from the modernists scheme that obsessed about the philosophical legitimation of theology. His Systematic Theology begins with ethics, attempting a pedagogical move to return theology to practice in community. After that, he moves on then to doctrine, and then onto issues of philosophical and cultural witness, flipping the modernist approach on its head.
His Doctrine begins with the eschatological kingdom of God in order to understand salvation and creation, then it moves onto the doctrine of the cross and resurrection as the center of God’s identity (in other words, no separate treatment on divine attributes apart from the cross), and only then the doctrine of the Trinity as a grammar to structure the biblical narrative. His argument for a “two-narrative Christology” and narrative Trinity are both particularly profound. His ecclesiology is also a missiology. Doctrine closes only then with a methodological essay on reading Scripture in a Trinitarian and figural manner, as if to say, we learn theology by practicing it, not sitting around thinking about prolegomena.
He read Yoder’s Politics of Jesus and considered it a second conversion, propelling him to formulate a “baptist vision” that brought together Baptists, Anabaptists, Pentecostals, and several other free-church identities into one group. He has rightly been described as offering the new constructive account of Baptist theology for our time, something that has not been re-envisioned since Edgar Mullins’ Axioms of Religion.
Compared to Pannenberg or Grenz, often I felt like McClendon was offering not merely a theology, but literary tools to construct doctrine better. He does not give a comprehensive treatise, which is often what I have come to expect from a systematic theology. So, at times he covers a topic rather pithily, offering brilliant insights on how to understand, for instance, eschatological language or narrative Christology or metaphors for salvation. Often he drops the core concept down, and I was left thinking, “I wish he fleshed that out over 100 more pages.” I think McClendon did this on purpose to invite you to finish what he started. He does not give you a place to settle; he gives you a compass and walking stick and says, “Get going!” Also, McClendon is an eloquent writer. He writes theology artfully like a novelist. It is one of the few theologies that is simply a pleasure to read.
5. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology
Pannenberg is someone I consider the greatest systematic mind of the last century. Pannenberg saw theology as an attempt to state the coherence of Christian thought with all of human reality, especially science and history. The result is a theology loaded with historical insight and apologetic power. Firmly rationalist, his theology is a recovering fundamentalist’s dream. He is not afraid to revise a problematic doctrine: his doctrine of revelation is formidable; his doctrine of creation and understanding of Adam is a thing to behold. Yet, his theology lands often in unexpectedly conservative positions: beautifully Trinitarian, firmly committed to a historical Jesus, and oddly one of the few defenders of penal substitutionary atonement left in mainline theology.
Now, Pannenberg is very, very dry, mind you, but if you want no-non-sense precision, his 3 volume Systematic Theology is the cream of the crop. If you take up Pannenberg, you must read his Basic Questions before tackling the system. Pannenberg is one of those methodological thinkers that will refine you even when you disagree with him.
It should not be lost that three of these theologies I have listed here (Grenz, Jenson, and Erickson) all had Pannenberg as their mentor. This was a giant that raised up other giants.
6. Jurgen Moltmann, (series of books)
Moltmann never wrote a systematic theology like Pannenberg did; he wrote several stand-alone books that develop topics. As a “theologian of hope” like Pannenberg, they share many commonalities, but Pannenberg is the dry, methodical systematician; Moltmann was more political and edgy. Moltmann’s first three books, Theology of Hope, Crucified God, and Church in the Power of the Spirit, were mind shattering for me. Likewise, Trinity and the Kingdom (Trinity), The Coming of God (eschatology), The Way of Jesus Christ (Christology), and The Spirit of Life (Pneumatology), were all highly provocative works. While often I find Moltmann a bit too cavalier at times, his writing is always challenging me to see the theology and the church as a liberating force.
7. Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology
Jenson was Pannenberg’s student, and in many ways, his work is deeply indebted to Pannenberg. However, his slim Systematic Theology is something more like a set of theological meditations in the classic topics of theology, drenched in Patristic reflection. Jenson’s commitment to a catholic notion of theological reflection drives him to reflect using the categories of Patristic theology far more than Pannenberg, yet unafraid to propose revision similar to his mentor, making for a powerful read. Jenson is a beautiful writer. Every section of his writing is an event of thought.
8. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church
A standard Greek Orthodox text, this little volume is a beautiful summary of the mystical theology of this tradition. Full of quotations of Church Fathers, the book is a powerful treatment on the ineffable realities like the Trinity or salvation as deification.
9. Alister McGrath, Christian Theology
McGrath is perhaps the most informative single volume introduction to Christian theology. McGrath is an excellent historical theologian and the book begins with a summary of the major figures and developments from the history of theology. After that, each chapter is jammed packed with information, which is both good and bad. Good in that you get a full picture of views and positions; bad because it is like sipping fine wine through a fire house. So much information in so little space left several chapters, like the chapter on eschatology, deficient.
10. Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding
Migliore is someone that has incorporated the best of Karl Barth and others, and brought it together in an irenic and gracious introduction to the major topics of theology. Migliore is an excellent writer and is able to cite other authors with a proverbial beauty. His inclusion of global voices like feminist, Latin American and Black liberation theologians is done very well, therapeutically pulling the White middle-class male reader (like myself) to listen to the voices of the marginalized. Migliore’s text is a short text, and so, unfortunately, his gentle treatments often mean he deals with topics fairly generically.
11. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology
While I am not a conservative Calvinist, I think Erickson presents the best researched presentation of that tradition. While his treatment, for instance, of biblical inerrancy was, for me, unpersuasive, it is vastly better articulated then, for instance, Grudem’s take on it.
12. G. C. Berkhouwer, Studies in Dogmatics
After an ongoing dislike of reformed theology and a strong Anabaptist move in my thinking, Berkhouwer was the guy that made me appreciate classic reformed theology again. I say classic because Barth is reformed, but since his theology innovates the tradition heavily, I know a lot of reformed theologians that discount him, to their determent, mind you. Berkhouwer’s Studies are dry at times, but they are methodical treatments of theological problems with the best biblical reflection of his day. His volumes on Holy Scripture and the Return of Christ are both superb.
13. Joe Jones, Grammar of Christian Faith
Jones is a Disciples’ of Christ theologian and a brilliant post-liberal thinker. His theology reflects on the “grammar” of doctrine – the basic rules that make a doctrine intelligible. The result is something a bit dry, but really something precise and helpful.
Jones did an excellent job in integrating treatments on the rules that govern Christian thought as well as action, for the two are one and the same. So, his treatments on the nature of living hopefully are treated alongside eschatology or living out love is put alongside the doctrine of the cross.
14. Dale Moody, Word of Truth
Moody taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary before the fundamentalist takeover in the 1990’s. His theology is neo-orthodox, attempting to construct a systematic presentation of doctrine taking into account historical critical insights into Scripture. The result is quite good. His chapters on creation, predestination, salvation, and Christology use excellent exegesis to inform his theology. Unfortunately, since he broke with the Calvinistic orthodoxy of SBTS and pointed out that the Scriptures do speak of free will and the potential of apostasy, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He was unfortunately forced into early retirement. It is a shame since this book is an eloquent presentation of doctrine.
15. William Newton Clarke, Outlines of Christian Theology
William Newton Clarke (d. 1912) was the first progressive North American theologian. He taught throughout the Northern United States and Canada. While his thought (or more accurately his students) sparked the liberal theological movement of the Social Gospel, his own thinking is much more restrained, thoroughly centered on Christ and biblical revelation. His theology is progressive in its revisionist capacity, but the only reason people deemed it “liberal” is that because Clarke was so intelligent in thinking about the Bible, he quickly transcended the problematic conventional theology of his day.
In many ways, his theology is still usable today, making him a forgotten gem of the past. His ability to rethink doctrines like the Trinity, the atonement, inspiration of Scripture, sin and eschatology, were all ahead of their time – all of which were deeply impressive.
Every progressive/moderate Christian needs to read his memoirs, 60 Years with the Bible: A Record of Experience. It will make anyone that has wrestle long nights with the Bible get weirdly misty.
Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology
Growing up a dispensationalist and worrying whether I could be “left behind,” Ryrie was considered the dude. So, I read his Basic Theology eager to explore a deeper biblical foundation for what I held all through high school, reading popularizers like Tim LaHaye and John Hagee. There are very few books that, in reading them, I found myself profoundly dis-persuaded from that position. By reading Ryrie’s treatments on, for instance, Daniel and Revelation, his understanding of the rapture in 1 Thes. 4, or maybe it was the fact that eschatology occupied more in his theology an Christology, Trinity, soteriology and ecclesiology combined – whatever it was – it resulted in me moving away from dispensationalism.
Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology
Wayne Grudem’s massive book was my first seminary theology textbook my freshmen year. Hungry for theological certainty, I devoured this book, reading it…twice. I thought I found the greatest theologian to ever put pen to paper. Turns out that only lasted until I read another theologian.
My second year, I decided to read Erickson, who, while they largely agree on many things, I found vastly better researched and thought through. Grudem’s work is methodologically deeply flawed. He assumes Scripture is one flat compendium of statements to be systematically arranged. At many points I found his exegesis shameful. His refusal to engage with different views or even to think fallibly about his own leaves his reflections horrendously dogmatic, often quite shallow, and worse, combative against alternatives he barely understands, whether that is open theism or egalitarianism or even, dare I say it, historically orthodox Christian theology. The fact that his text is so widely used (and preferred to much better reformed texts like Erickson’s) is surely a sign that conservative evangelicalism is in for trouble.
Gordon Kaufman, Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective
I consider myself a moderate, so I find parts of conservative theology persuasive and parts of liberal theology persuasive, and it is never as easy as picking one side as your one-stop-shop. I read Kaufman as an interest in liberal Anabaptist theology, and I found this book deeply unpersuasive. While his theology is brilliant, it is also generic and generalized. He is committed to thinking through history as the basis of theology, and so, due to historical critical insights, does not think the Bible is revelation. This leads to a feeling like his theology is neither here nor there. It seems to arbitrarily quote the Bible when it serves his purposes and dismiss it when it doesn’t.
His Trinitarian theology was at times quite sloppy. For instance, he listed attributes that corresponded to each person in a way that seems obviously methodologically unsound. He is convinced that the incarnation is historical, but is not convinced that the resurrection was bodily. He is convinced that God saves, but expresses skepticism about an afterlife. Huh? Throughout, while he at many times made brilliant remarks, I found so often his doctrines were highly inconsistent.
He later went on to reformulate his thinking further in the second systematic theology he wrote, In the Face of Mystery, and I am curious to see what that holds. I have been told it is even more extreme, but perhaps it is more methodologically consistent. As for this book, I was not particularly impressed.
Anyway, perhaps this list will steer you on some theological adventures.