The mockingbird

The mockingbird is the state bird of five states—Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas—and is the former state bird of South Carolina. When I lived in Florida, I heard a story about how the mockingbird was chosen as state bird. They said that a collection of birds native to the state was gathered so citizens could judge which bird had the most beautiful song. Proponents of the nightingale were convinced at first that their bird would win, but after a week the mockingbird had become so adept at imitating the nightingale, adding its tune to its own song, that the mockingbird was declared winner of the contest.

I remember one mockingbird that lived in the same neighborhood where I lived that year. It had somehow acquired a knowledge of the (human) classics, as it included famous (human) music in its song. I remember that it sang the ten-note motif of Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony. I cannot remember the other tune it sang, but it was very familiar—perhaps the first seven notes of Beethoven’s Fur Elise.

But for all its talent, the mockingbird is still a bird-brained creature. It has no real judgment, in spite of appearances. Late last night or early this morning (I didn’t check the clock.), I heard a mockingbird going through its routine. Suddenly, in the middle of its string of beautiful calls, it included three squawks of the blue jay. Blue jays do not shout in the dark of night, nor would a blue jay fit its rancid call into a space of the mockingbird song. No, this local mockingbird had chosen to include the blue jay among its imitations, which shows how little appreciation of beauty the bird has.

I once read the following anecdote in Readers’ Digest: a state highway worker drove to a rest stop along the highway to perform needed maintenance. He parked his truck, turned off the engine, put the keys in his pocket, and left the vehicle. Suddenly he heard the sound of the truck’s back-up warning. Panicked, he turned to stop the truck; then he saw the mockingbird, perched on a tree branch above the truck, imitating the back-up alarm.

Maybe birds are not as stupid as we think they are. J.

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Fire at Notre Dame

During the holiest week on the Christian calendar, one of the most famous and beautiful churches in the world was badly damaged by an accidental fire. Over the years, many church buildings and houses of worship have been damaged and destroyed by fire: sometimes accidental fire, sometimes fire caused by lightning, sometimes arson, and sometimes acts of war. But yesterday’s fire at Notre Dame of Paris will be remembered more than most church fires because of the history of the building, because of its status as a landmark in Paris, and because of its beauty. Citizens of Paris and of France mourn the loss, as do many people around the world. Roman Catholics and other Christians mourn the loss, but so do many people who are not Christians. Already large amounts of money are being promised to rebuild what was lost and to restore what was damaged.

A few people might say that the money would be better spent meeting the needs of the poor or spreading the news of the gospel to all nations. That feeling has always existed within the Church. When a woman anointed Jesus with perfume, his disciples grumbled about the waste, but Jesus responded, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 13:8-9). Jesus accepts the artwork created to honor him as he accepts all sincere worship from his people. The glory of God and the gift of salvation through Christ is proclaimed by cathedrals with statues and stained glass windows as well as by humble preachers in humble surroundings.

But what of the commandment to make no graven images? What of the sin of the golden calf? Idols are works of religious art, but they have a purpose: they are meant to capture the divine and to make the divine serve human purposes. God does not oppose all religious artwork: the same God who banned graven images and despised the golden calf also told Moses how to make the ark of the covenant, including the mercy seat with its two cherubim. The sin is not in the work of art; the sin is in the intent of the people, whether they wish to honor God, or whether they wish to honor themselves and establish control over God.

God designed a tabernacle to travel with the Israelites in the wilderness so his dwelling would be in their midst. King Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem based on the pattern of the tabernacle so God would dwell in the midst of his people, even though the entire universe cannot contain the Lord. Imagine the heartache and despair of God’s people when Solomon’s temple was destroyed at the end of a long siege by the Babylonians in 586 BC. But God worked in history so his people could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. The second temple was destroyed by Roman forces in 70 AD. Jesus prophesied that the temple would be leveled, with no two stones atop one another, and this was fulfilled when Roman soldiers pried apart the stones of the ruined temple to gather the gold that had melted and flowed between the stones.

Forty years before the destruction of the second temple, Jesus entered that temple and drove out the moneychangers and the merchants of sacrificial animals. When temple authorities asked Jesus who gave him the right to do these things, he responded, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again” (John 2:19). “But the temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:21). For the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14), just as he made his dwelling in the tabernacle and in the temple. The human body of Jesus is the ultimate temple, the dwelling of the Lord, the one point of access that people have to the true God.

What happened to that body, that temple? It was arrested, accused, convicted, and sentenced to death. It was slapped, beaten, spit upon, and handed over to the Romans. It was scourged, mocked, tortured, and killed. It was nailed to a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem and left to die in the darkness of Good Friday. Yet, as Jesus promised, on the third day it was raised, restored, healed, and made alive, never to die again.

The fire at Notre Dame reminds Christians of the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday. I hope and I expect that Christians will gather in or near the ruined cathedral this Good Friday and will hear again the scriptures that describe the destruction of the true Temple, the body of Christ the Lord. I hope and I expect that the same Christians will return to the cathedral Easter morning and will hear and celebrate the scriptures that describe the resurrection of the true Temple. Wherever Christians gather this Friday and this Sunday, they will speak, not of a beautiful building damaged by fire, but of a beautiful Savior crucified and risen. May the fire at Notre Dame be a witness to the world of the Passion of our Lord and of his victory over all evil. J.

The two natures of Christ

When Christian leaders met in the Council of Nicaea, they prayed and studied the Bible and discussed its message to determine whether the Son of God is equal to the Father or is less than the Father; whether he is eternal like the Father or created by the Father. Their study and discussions convinced them that Jesus is, as they declared, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” This was no new teaching; it was a summary of what the Bible says about God. Christians continue to believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, not three gods; that each is a distinct Person loving the others and speaking to the others, and doing things for the others; that each is almighty, all-knowing, present everywhere, eternal, unchanging, and holy. Yet there is one God, not three gods; one Lord, not three lords; one almighty Being, not three almighty beings; and so on.

When other questions arose about the Christian faith, new councils formed to learn the truth the way the truth about the Triune God was learned at Nicaea. They gathered, they prayed, they studied Scripture, they discussed, and they reached an understanding. Most of the questions they sought to answer were about Jesus. Knowing that he is God and also that he is human, Christians struggled to comprehend and to communicate how the two natures (divine and human) work together in one Christ. Many false ideas were suggested about the two natures of Christ. Some suggested that his body is human but that his mind and soul are divine. Others suggested that the two natures dwell in one Christ without interacting, like two boards glued together. Still others suggested that the two natures combine into something unique, like two liquids blended together to create a drink or a dressing. Some thought that the human nature was something acquired by the Son of God at his incarnation which he can remove at will, leaving it aside when he does not need it, and resuming it when required. Some suggested that the divine nature of Christ so overwhelms his human nature that his human nature must always be controlled by the divine nature; they said that Jesus has one divine will and no human will. By studying the Bible and discussing its message, Christians were able to conclude that all these beliefs are untrue.

Jesus Christ remains one hundred percent God and one hundred percent human, but he also remains one Christ, not two christs. Therefore, anything true about the one nature is true about the entire Christ: the divine nature of Christ experiences humanity, and the human nature of Christ experiences divinity. The test word used at some of these Councils was Theotokos: “Mother of God.” They asked, can Mary the mother of Jesus be called the mother of God, or is she only mother to the human nature? From their study of the Bible, Christians concluded that Mary is rightly called the mother of God, because she gave birth to Christ Jesus, who is fully God as well as fully human.

So if Jesus was hungry, God understands hunger. If Jesus was thirsty, God understands thirst. If Jesus was anxious about what he was about to face, God understands anxiety. And yes, through the human nature of Christ, God experienced suffering and death. Likewise, the human Jesus of Nazareth knows all things, has all power, runs the universe, and has authority to judge all people, because he is the Son of God.

If Jesus was not fully human, his obedience to the Law would be meaningless. God cannot be tempted to sin. God is unchanging, pure, and holy. But the human nature and human will of Jesus were tempted to sin. He resisted temptation, obeyed his Father’s will, and so earned for all sinners the rewards that belong only to those who faithfully obey the entire will of God. If Jesus were not fully human, his death would have been merely a ruse, a trick, meaning nothing. But the human nature of Jesus experienced death; his human soul and human body were separated—the body buried in a garden, the soul committed into the hands of the Father. Any Christian who dies experiences the same separation of body and soul, with the body left on earth and the soul taken to Paradise to await the resurrection.

There are two kinds of death: physical death and spiritual death. Adam was told that the day he ate the forbidden fruit he would die, but Adam lived physically more than nine hundred years after that sin. Adam and Eve died spiritually that day. Their sin created a barrier between them and God, a barrier they could not remove. Jesus died physically, but did he experience spiritual death? Did the barrier caused by all the sins he was bearing on the cross come between him and his Father?

The divine nature of the Son of God cannot be separated from the Father. They are eternal and unchanging, in perpetual fellowship with one another—they are one God. The human nature of Christ can and did face spiritual death. For this reason, Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some people say that he was praying Psalm 22, and in a sense he was. But Psalm 22 is a vivid prophecy of what happened to Jesus on the cross. His agony at the separation was so deep that it echoed a thousand years into the past to be quoted by David in the Psalm.

As I wrote in my last post, different aspects of the crucifixion reach different people in their needs and in their faith. Some time periods in Church history have gravitated more to one aspect or another of the Passion of our Lord. But none of them is to be rejected. All of them are Biblical, whether their imagery is military or financial or legal. And Christ did indeed bear the burden of our sin and the spiritual death which sin causes, as Paul wrote, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him to be sin who knew no sin [Jesus] so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). This is an essential part of our salvation, that God loved the world so much that he gave his Son—he even turned his face away from his Son for a time—so that whoever believes in him will not perish but has eternal life (John 3:16). J.

Why the cross?

A year ago I posted the following message about the significance of the cross. Because of an ongoing conversation (which you can find here), it seemed worth repeating. Christians sometimes differ from one another over the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. Those who reach for glory without the cross are mistaken. In this world we need the cross in our lives; only through the cross can we be carried to glory.

What did Jesus accomplish on the cross, beyond his own suffering, bleeding, and dying? The Bible provides several analogies of what Jesus accomplished, explaining it from several points of view. When Christians limit themselves to one analogy and treat it as literally true, they miss the fullness of the gospel message. Moreover, mockers are able to take the analogies literally and extend them beyond the Bible’s intended meaning, twisting the beauty of God’s Word in their mockery.

The most common analogy of the cross is financial. By his suffering and death, Jesus paid the price for sins, rescuing sinners from their debts. The beauty of this analogy is that we understand debt and payment. We understand how our sins place us in debt to God, a debt we cannot pay. Jesus paying in our place is a beautiful image of his love for us. But to whom did he pay the debt? Did he buy us from the devil, or pay his Father for our sins, or purchase redemption from a power higher even than God? Each of these explanations has problems when the analogy is treated literally and left as the only explanation of the cross.

A second common analogy of the cross is military. On the cross Jesus fought a battle against all the forces of evil. These forces include the devil, the sinful world, sins committed by people, and death itself—the ultimate result of sin. Becoming a victim of these enemies, Jesus also defeated them. His resurrection on Easter morning is a declaration of victory, and the Church continues to share that news of victory with sinners who have been enslaved by their sins and by the power of evil. We were prisoners of war in the Great War between God and evil, but the victory of Jesus rescues us from prison and puts us on the winning team.

Yet another analogy of the cross is healing. Through his time on earth, Jesus healed many people, often with just a word or a touch. He never seemed to be harmed by any of his miracles of healing. But in those physical healings, Jesus was simply treating the symptoms of evil. To fully heal the damage caused by sin and evil, Jesus had to bear that damage in his own body. What he endured on the cross gives him the power to heal every consequence of sin and evil: leprosy, blindness, paralysis, and even death. His own suffering and death provides the remedy that reverses all the damage caused in this world by sin and evil.

Still another analogy of the cross is rescuing what was lost. This is why Jesus is called a Savior and Christians describe themselves as saved. C.S. Lewis adapted this metaphor by describing Jesus as a diver who descends to the bottom of a muddy pond to unearth a treasure. The diver becomes thoroughly dirty digging in the bottom of the pond, but when he ascends to the surface he carries his treasure with him. So Jesus humbled himself, obedient to death, even death on the cross, to claim us as his treasure. Though we were buried in sin and evil, Jesus takes us out of the mud through his own suffering and death. In his resurrection, Jesus lifts us also to new life in a perfect new creation.

A similar analogy of the cross is fixing what was broken—which can also be described as reconciling or uniting. Like a shepherd going into the wilderness to find a lost sheep, Jesus comes into this sin-stained world looking for his lost people. He rescues us from the mouth of the wolves. Even in the dark valley of the shadow of death, he finds us and brings us home. We were separated from God by our own rebellion, but Jesus has restored us to the family of God through his expedition into suffering and death.

One more analogy of the cross is adoption. In modern society, the process of adoption is difficult and expensive. In our relationship with God, the process of adoption is even more difficult and expensive. We are not God’s children because he made us. Even if that was once true, it is true no longer. By breaking his commandments, we have forfeited our place in God’s family. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, personally pays to adopt us into his family. He gives himself as the cost of our adoption so we can be children of God and can pray to the Father of the eternal Son as our Father. Baptism is the personal ceremony by which this adoption is made certain, just as in baptism each Christian dies with Christ, is buried with Christ, and rises again with Christ.

Finally, an analogy of the cross is cheating justice. We broke the rules. We rebelled against God. We declared our independence from God and said that we wanted to be separate from him. Justice would have God say yes to our rebellion. Justice would have God abandon us to our sinful choices. But God’s love is greater than his justice. He allows the world to be unfair. He allows evil people to prosper, and he allows good people to suffer. By letting evil be unfair, God makes it possible for good to be unfair. Now Jesus can suffer in our place so we can be rewarded in his place. Now his Father can abandon him instead of us so he can claim us for his kingdom.

Each of these analogies is true. All of them are supported by the writings of the apostles and prophets. All of them are enacted in the history of God’s people. When we cling to one analogy and neglect the others, we weaken the message of God’s grace and allow mockers room for their opposition. When we see all these analogies as pictures of the cross from different points of view, we begin to comprehend (albeit dimly) the true glory that Jesus revealed by his sacrifice on the cross. J.

With apologies to Lerner & Loewe…

If ever I would leave you
It wouldn’t be in Walmart.
Seeing you in Walmart
I never would go.
Your cart filled with clothing,
Groceries, hardware, and shoes,
They all cost more money
Than I care to lose!

 

But if I’d ever leave you,
It couldn’t be in Target.
How I’d leave in Target
I never will know.
I’ve seen how you sparkle
When sales nip the air.
I know you in Target
And it’s quite a scare.

 

And could I leave you
Spending merrily while at Sears?
With a credit bill
That will not be paid for years?

 

If ever I would leave you,
How could it be in Penney’s?
Knowing how the pennies add up to a lot?
Oh, no! not in Penney’s
Target, Walmart, or Sears!
No, never could I leave you, my dear!

Forgiveness

Why is the concept of forgiveness so difficult for Christians to grasp? On the cross Jesus paid in full for sin. The debt is covered. Christians are called to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us. God’s forgiveness is unlimited, so forgiveness from Christians is unlimited. We do not stop at seven times, or at seventy-seven times, or at seventy-times-seven times. We forgive to the seventy-eleventh time, a number that does not exist, so we can never stop forgiving.

Confusion comes when we use the word “forgive” to cover two distinct actions. One is to forgive silently, “from the heart.” This the Christian is always required to do. There is no revenge from the Christian, no “getting even,” no holding grudges. The other is to absolve, to announce forgiveness. This the Christian does for repentant sinners, but not for unrepentant sinners. Christians do not withhold God’s forgiveness, but they withhold absolution from any sinner who does not want to be forgiven.

To approach an unrepentant sinner with the news, “I still forgive you,” or, “God still forgives you,” is a mistake. It might seem loving and Christian to speak those words; but in those circumstances, those words could be viewed as microaggression. The unrepentant sinner does not want forgiveness, not from the Christian and not from God. The unrepentant sinner loves his or her sin more than he or she loves his or her Savior. Offering unwanted forgiveness cheapens God’s grace; it makes a mockery of the love of God and of the cross of Christ.

When Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not cast your pearls before swine,” he was speaking about the announcement of forgiveness. Before we can tell a sinner that his or her debt is paid, we must first inform that sinner of his or her debt. Only when sinners understand the cost of their sin can they also understand the glory of Christ to pay that cost in full. Handing out forgiveness like candy does not glorify the Lord.

But if absolving an unrepentant sinner is bad, casting doubt on the forgiveness of a repentant sinner is far worse. As soon as sinners realize the wickedness of what they have done, they should also be assured that their debt is paid in full. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient payment to cover any debt; it is more than enough to compensate for all the sins of history. Staying angry, seeking revenge, holding a grudge, or making the sinner pay for the sin is not an option for the Christian. When we cast doubt on the ability of any sin or any sinner to be forgiven, we cast doubt on God’s gift of forgiveness to us as well. God’s forgiveness does not simply flow into the life of a Christian; it flows through that life and into the lives of others.

Jesus said to Peter, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven, and whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven.” The night after his resurrection, Jesus breathed on all the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; it you withhold forgiveness, it is withheld.” Not just Peter, not just the apostles, not just pastors, but every Christian holds those keys and has that power. Being remade in the image of Christ, we always want to forgive. But as Jesus did not speak words of forgiveness to the stubborn scribes and Pharisees, so we do not absolve unrepentant sinners.

Christians forgive. Forgiveness is found in the Church. The government has no obligation to forgive criminals, not even if they repent of their sins. Indeed, the government must punish criminals for the good of all citizens. The government must restrict chronic abusers and protect vulnerable citizens, even if the abuser has repented and has received Christ’s forgiveness. The ability of the President and governors to pardon criminals should never be mistaken for forgiveness. A pardon ends punishment and sets a criminal free, but forgiveness removes guilt and changes a sinner into a saint. Paradoxically, in this world the Christian remains both sinner and saint, but in God’s eyes the sin has already been removed; the life of a Christian is already pure and blameless and holy in the sight of God.

Forgiveness should be easy to understand and to discuss. Because of the sinner-saint paradox, our eyes and minds are dimmed, and sometimes even forgiveness seems confusing. Each of us can take that confusion to the cross, where we see the price of our sins paid in full, and we know that Christ’s forgiveness belongs to us—and to whoever has sinned against us. J.