Not everything is a miracle

On a pair of blogs, both written by faithful Christians, I have recently seen the following quote from Albert Einstein: “Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” At first glance it appears that Dr. Einstein was affirming the existence of miracles, but I am afraid that was not the case. That quote does not mean what some Christians think it means.

Consider the source: Einstein was a scientist who studied the principles of the universe—physics—and discovered new aspects of physics that had not been seen before. Religiously, Einstein wavered between Deism and atheism. Sometimes he spoke of the universe as God’s creation and described science as learning God’s rules for creation. But in other cases he stated that he used God’s name as a shorthand label for the order and structure in the universe without considering God to be a personal or accessible Being in the Christian sense of the term.

“Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” Einstein probably believed that nothing is a miracle. Everything happens according to natural law, and the more we study the universe and learn its laws, the fewer things will surprise us. If everything is a miracle, then the word “miracle” has lost its meaning. Deists and atheists disagree about whether there is a god, but they agree that no god interferes with the universe and causes events that are against the natural laws of the universe.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He established the natural laws that scientists like Einstein study to learn, but he did not bind himself by those laws. God’s creation is full of marvels and wonders. We should be astounded every day by the glorious things God has made. But to call created things miracles robs the word “miracle” of its meaning. We must reserve that word for the special actions of God that show him acting within his creation.

We are wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). Every human baby born is a marvel and a wonder. But when ninety-year-old Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle. When Mary, a virgin, conceives and gives birth to Jesus, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle.

God sends rain to water the earth, making it grow and flourish. Some of that rain lands in vineyards, where the grape vines soak up the water through their roots along with nutrients from the soil. The vines produce leaves which gather energy from the sun and change carbon dioxide into oxygen to give energy to the vines. That is a wonder. The vines then develop bunches of grapes, which swell and ripen in the sun and the rain. That is a wonder. The grapes can be picked and eaten, or they can be cooked into jelly, or they can be crushed and fermented to produce wine. That is a wonder. But when Jesus calls for six pots to be filled with water and then instantly transforms it into wine, that is a miracle. God is at work in his creation, doing suddenly what his creation requires time to accomplish.

When grain is sown and sprouts, that is a wonder. When it grows in a field until it produces a crop, many times the number of grains that were planted, that is a wonder. But when Jesus takes five loaves of bread and feeds a crowd of thousands, with basketfuls of leftovers remaining after they had eaten their fill, that is a miracle. Once again, we see the Creator at work, going beyond the laws of his creation.

Some people claim that primitive and unscientific people wrote about miracles. They go on to say that we would see the same things today and understand them scientifically; we would not call them miracles. That is far from true. The writers of the Bible described the miracles they saw because they knew those events were special. They knew that ninety-year-old women do not conceive and give birth. Nor do virgins. Water does not instantly transform into wine, nor does a loaf of bread multiply in one day to feed a thousand people. Dead people do not return to life. These miracles were signature events, indications that the Lord of the universe was present, doing good things to help the people he loves.

Miracles show us that Jesus is the Son of God, though whom and for whom all things were created. They show his compassion, his desire to help his people. They show him at work fixing the things that sin and evil have broken in his creation. They foretell what he will do on the Day of the Lord, when all the dead are raised, when every eye will see him, and when the entire planet will be transformed. That new creation will be the ultimate miracle, after which no further miracles will ever be needed. J.

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Le Morte de Beau

Bo

The Salvageable family lost a faithful companion this week.

Bo joined us eleven years ago when one of my coworkers needed to find a new home for her cat because of her daughter’s allergies. The cat was about five years old at the time. They had obtained him from an animal shelter which had already named him Bo; my family wasn’t excited about the name, but the cat was already used to it. To give him a little more dignity, we often spelled it Beau.

When he joined the family, he wasn’t interested in curling up on a lap. He preferred to be pet while standing on or near a lap. As he grew older, he became more of a lap cat. I found that he liked to be cuddled, held upside down like a human baby while I stroked his head and face. It seemed to me that he was reliving kittenhood, remembering being washed by his mother, so sometimes while cuddling him I would say to him, in my best James Earl Jones voice, “Bo, I am your mother.”

Bo also enjoyed supervising food preparation in the kitchen. He had a favorite stool from which he could supervise the chopping of vegetables and other states in putting together a meal. He loved the smell of cooking meat. He also associated the sound of the can opener with juice drained from canned tuna, which he was allowed to drink from a bowl. Even if he was napping, the noise of the can opener would rouse him and call him to the kitchen. The cook would usually let Bo smell the lid of the can if its contents were not tuna, just to let him know he was not missing anything good.

Bo sometimes would get excited and energetic and would tear around the house. He especially loved high places—the tops of bookshelves, the piano, the china cabinet, and the grandfather clock. He would even curl up and sleep in some of those places.

He liked being part of a large family. Some of his favorite moments involved sitting in the living room while several people carried on a conversation. When only one or two people were in the house, he would sometimes wander from room to room, crying plaintively. He came to like the sound of his own voice; he identified the areas in the house with the best echoes and lectured loudly in those places.

October 2012 brought the Mayan apocalypse to the Salvageable family. Cars were breaking down right and left, the computer crashed, followed shortly by the printer, a favorite co-worker left for a different job, and Bo added to the turmoil early in November. When my daughters were leaving early in the morning for a dance competition, Bo managed to slip outside. I didn’t miss him until suppertime, when I tore apart the house looking for him and also searched outside. When the rest of the family returned that night, the search was repeated, but with no success. We went to bed tearfully. The next morning he was found under the backyard deck of a neighbor’s house. He seemed no worse for the experience, and we were glad and relieved to have him back.

Bo had chronic respiratory problems, probably allergies. We sometimes wondered if he was allergic to himself. While he was capable of a genuine purr, more often he showed his contentment through heavy breathing. In November 2017 Bo had a sudden loss of balance which likely was due to a stroke. He was unable to walk for a couple of days, then gradually regained his equilibrium, but he was never the same after that. He would often tilt his head when looking at people, which I suspect was compensation for double vision. The last eighteen months have been, for the family, a bonus time with Bo, because we realize that we could have lost him when he had that stroke.

This spring his health began to deteriorate. His breathing troubles increased, and he began to lose weight. The veterinarian gave him antibiotics and steroid shots, and we spent money on high-calorie cat foods, as well as supplementing his diet with meat from our table. He still ate, but his body apparently lost the ability to nourish itself from food. Day by day his strength diminished. We did our best to make him comfortable. Like an old soldier, Bo faded away, until he breathed his last Thursday morning.

The Bible is unclear about whether we will be reunited with our pets. There will be animals in the new creation: “The wolf will lie down with the lamb, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.” The only mention of the soul of animals is found in Ecclesiastes, where Solomon says, “Who knows?” Previous generations of Christian teachers insisted that animals had no souls, and therefore had no afterlife. More recent teachers have said, “You will be happy in heaven; so if you need your pets to be happy, they will be there.” I am inclined to believe that animals who have had a close relationship with believers have gained enough soul from that relationship to be reunited in the new creation. We will find out when we get there. Maybe not, but possibly, Bo is waiting for that reunion as he used to wait for his people to come home. J.

cat at door

Advent thoughts: December 14

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1—read Isaiah 11:1-10).

Jesse was the father of David, who became king of Israel. David was promised that one of his descendants would rule an eternal kingdom. But Isaiah foresaw a time that Jerusalem would be conquered and the king, the descendant of David would be made a captive in Babylon. Seventy years later the king’s grandson Zerubbabel would return to Jerusalem, not a king but a subject of the Persian Empire. For centuries the Promised Land would belong to other governments. The royal family would be a stump, the remnant of a tree that had been chopped down and removed.

Sometimes a new shoot comes from the living roots of a stump. Left to grow, that shoot can become another tree. Isaiah promised this for David’s family: when the time was right, a branch would grow from David’s family, and that branch would be the fulfillment of the promise God made to David, the promise that his descendant would rule an eternal kingdom.

Jesus is that branch. He was born in Bethlehem so he could inherit the kingdom of David. He grew up in Nazareth and was called a Nazarene—a name that sounds like the Hebrew word for “branch.” The Holy Spirit led Jesus—the sevenfold Spirit described by Isaiah. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Lord, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. All these qualities Jesus possesses, and he is the King who judges with righteousness as Isaiah also described.

Isaiah proceeds to picture the Kingdom of peace ruled by Jesus. Once predator and prey, now animals become friends and dwell together. Nothing in all creation is harmful; everything is at peace with everything else. This perfect peace, this Shalom, is the gift of Jesus. The new creation that begins on the Day of the Lord will be marked by that Shalom. From that time on, there will be no danger. Nothing will be poisonous; we will have no allergies. Fleas and ticks and mosquitoes will not annoy us, and we will finally learn God’s intention in creating these creatures in the first place. The balance of bacteria in us and on us and around us will be perfect; no germs or viruses will sicken us, but even the tiniest living creatures will act for our benefit.

This new creation will have no sin and no death. All people will live together in harmony with God and with one another. Many of our current occupations will not be needed. We will not need doctors, nurses, pharmacists, or therapists. We will not need police officers, lawyers, judges, or prison guards. We will not need pastors, because everyone will have direct and continuous access to the Lord.

Yet there still will be occupations and callings. Some will tend the plants and others the animals; others will work in art or in technology of various kinds. People will prepare food for others to eat. People will honor God and serve each other in a variety of ways. Probably the things you most enjoy doing now, those things that absorb your attention so much that you lose track of the time, these are the things you will do in the new creation for the glory of God and for the benefit of your fellow saints.

All this is guaranteed to us by the root and branch of Jesse, by Jesus the King who rules eternally. He was once mocked as King of the Jews, given a crown twisted out of thorns, a reed for his scepter, and a purple robe that was just a scrap of spare fabric. But this mocked and abused King is the Prince of Peace, the one who brings his people into a new creation to live with him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

PS: When I got home, I found that a circuit breaker had tripped, interrupting power to the modem, computer, and a few other outlets. I turned it back on, but it tripped again, with a popping noise in the dining room. It appears that rain water has gotten into the wall of the house and is interfering with the electricity. We are leaving that circuit off for the time being and will have it examined next week. Meanwhile, I have an extension cord crossing the room to bring power to the computer and modem.

What is yet to come?–part five

When God first began to create the world, he knew all the problems that would happen in creation. He knew all the sins that would be committed. He knew all the rejection he would face. He knew all the suffering and tribulation that sin would cause in the world. He knew already how he would suffer to redeem sinners and to rescue the world from sin and death. God knew all these things, and clearly he felt that they were worth the cost. You are worth the cost to God. He was willing that sin and death might exist in order that we also might exist.

Paul wrote, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). Jesus might have said the very same words, even while hanging on the cross. The few years we face tribulation are nothing when compared to the eternal glory of the new creation. No matter how much we struggle today, it pales in comparison to what God has in store for us: the eternal celebration that we call heaven.

When Jesus and his saints land on the earth on the Day of the Lord, the planet will have been changed. All sin and evil will have been stripped away, and everything will be new. We will see the world as Adam and Eve saw it before they were tempted and fell into sin. Everything God made was very good, and those very good things will be ours forever in the new creation.

Will there be animals? “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. A nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:6-9). I cannot say whether the dogs and cats we have loved in this world will be restored, but in the new creation all animals will be tame; none of them will be dangerous to us. There will be no poisons, and we will not have allergies. No longer will our lives be in danger from storms and earthquakes. Best of all, people will not be dangerous to each other. We will all get along and will live in perfect peace and harmony. We will have fellowship with God, with all the people around us, and with all of nature.

Our bodies will be changed. We will be healed of all that happened to us in this lifetime. Our eyes and ears will work perfectly; our legs and knees will carry us without pain. We will be in no danger of sickness. Our minds will be healed too; there will be no anxiety, no depression, no sorrow of any kind. Even someone born with a defect will be healed at the resurrection. We will still be diverse, as we are today, but none of us will have any kind of problem with our health or with our bodies.

“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6). No wonder Jesus compares heaven to a wedding reception. There will be no starvation, no hunger, and no overeating. We will know how to take care of these bodies and will have no temptation to abuse these bodies.

Without death, there will be no deadlines. There will be work to do, as Adam and Eve had work to do in the Garden, but the work will be enjoyable. Of course, many careers will not be needed in a perfect world. There will be no police officers, no attorneys, and no judges. Doctors and nurses will not be needed. Nor will pastors; all of us will have direct access to God. There will be jobs, but they will be enjoyable. I expect that the tasks you enjoy doing today, the occupations that cause you to lose track of time, are the things you will do in heaven. Whatever you do, it will be done for the glory of God and for the benefit of your fellow saints.

But if someone wants to take a vacation, to enjoy creation for a while, nothing will stop that person. He or she could walk to the mountains, build a cabin in the woods, and live among nature for twenty or thirty years, and then return; and it would be like taking a Saturday afternoon to rest today.

Will there be technology in heaven? Technology is not sinful. No doubt there will be room in heaven for fast cars and motorbikes and other things some people enjoy. Those who do not enjoy those things will not have to do them or be anywhere near them. I will probably ride a horse in the new creation, but if a car makes you happy, I am sure you will have a car.

The devil wants us to think that heaven will be boring. Taking a few scraps of imagery from the book of Revelation, the sinful world has created a cartoon picture of heaven with haloed people wearing white robes, sitting on clouds, and playing harps. Now if playing a harp sounds good to you, no doubt you will have the opportunity. But the new creation will be like this present creation, except that sin and all the consequences of sin will be stripped away. What you like about the world as it is now will probably be there for you in the new creation.

Best of all, we will live each day fully in the presence of God. We will know his love and have no doubts about him. We will always know what is right for us to do, and we will always want to do what is right. Should we have questions, God will have answers. We will know Jesus as well as we know our best friends today, and nothing will come between us and his love.

This is our eternal home, guaranteed to us through the work of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. To him be thanks and praise forever! J.

What is yet to come?–part four

The teaching of judgment and eternal condemnation for sinners troubles many believers. It also disgusts many unbelievers. They are appalled that the God in whom they refuse to believe would subject people like them to eternal torment away from his presence. They disregard the fact that one of the chief joys of heaven is living in the full presence of God. If they reject God today, why would they want to be with him forever? God is being kind to them by honoring their choice, saying that if they want no relationship with him, they will not have to spend eternity with him.

The real tragedy of judgment is not that unbelievers will be rejected. The real tragedy is that people who think they are believers will also be rejected. Anyone who thinks he or she is good enough for heaven is wrong. Anyone who invites God to judge him or her by his or her own life is making a terrible mistake. Only those clothed in the righteousness of Christ can enter the new creation. To those who show their own lives to the Judge, he will respond, “Go away; I never knew you.”

Jesus does not want to say those words to anyone. He went to great lengths to avoid the need to say those words. In the parable of Judgment Day, Jesus welcomes believers to “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). He sends unbelievers to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). God does not desire the death of the wicked. The fire is not for humans, it is for fallen angels. God wants all to hear his promises, repent of their sins, receive his forgiveness, and become citizens of the kingdom of God, prepared for eternal life in his new creation.

Looking at that parable, another important point stands out. Those welcomed into their inheritance, a place in the new creation, are surprised to hear themselves credited with good works. They were not keeping score. They knew that God’s approval depended on the righteousness of Christ and his sacrifice, not by the things they did. Being forgiven through Christ, they were also in the process of being transformed into Christ’s image. As a result, they did perform acts of love and service. In the end, though, those good deeds shine not by their own value, but because the stain of sin had been washed away by the work of Christ, so nothing but good could be seen by the Judge when he looked at their lives.

Those sent away in Judgment were also surprised. They were keeping score. They thought they had done enough good deeds to earn God’s approval. Because they did not trust in Christ for redemption, none of their sins had been removed. As a tiny prick from a pin or needle pops an entire balloon, so even the smallest sin separated them from the God who made them, who loves them, and who wanted them to enjoy eternity with him in his new creation.

Fire and brimstone preachers have, perhaps, made a mistake by focusing on the tortures of eternal condemnation. Jesus does speak of the unending fire, but he has other images also for that condemnation. He speaks of the “outer darkness.” Heaven, he says, will be like a wedding reception, a party with food and drink and music and dancing and family and friends and joy. Heaven will be rejoicing in the presence of God. Those locked outside of the new creation will be like people in the parking lot outside the reception hall. They have nothing to do. They have no reason to celebrate. They are left outside because they disqualified themselves from a place in the celebration. Rather than picturing the flames of hell, we might think of the endless boredom of hell, like an afternoon alone at home with nothing to do and no reason to try to do anything.

Because Jesus did not want to send people away on the Day of the Lord—because he wanted to welcome all people into his new creation—Jesus did the work of redemption to save people from their sins. He became human, as human as we are, being born into the world. He placed himself under the Law and obeyed all the commandments he wants us to obey. He said no to every temptation. He lived a life of pure and perfect righteousness. Then, to give each of us credit for his righteousness, he sacrificed that life. He suffered the penalty of sin so no punishment would be left for us to endure.

The prophets said that on the Day of the Lord the sun would turn to darkness. As Jesus was on the cross, there was darkness; for three hours the sun failed to shine. The prophets said that on the Day of the Lord the earth would shake. When Jesus gave his life, there was an earthquake, and the curtain in the Temple—representing the separation between God and sinners—was torn top to bottom. The prophets said that on the Day of the Lord the moon would turn to blood. If (as many scholars believe) Jesus was crucified on April 3, A.D. 33, the full moon was eclipsed by the shadow of the earth, making it a “blood moon” before sunrise in Jerusalem. (That date is one of three that fits the description in the Bible: Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and the beginning of the Passover celebration fell on the night of a Sabbath day.)

Jesus has already gone through the Day of the Lord to rescue sinners. God’s Judgment fell on him so we could be spared Judgment. On the Day of the Lord our sins will not be displayed, for God has already removed our sins from as “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). An inheritance belongs to us, because Jesus died to provide the inheritance he earned by his righteousness.

What then will life be like after the Day of the Lord, when we live in his new creation? That remains to be described in one further post. J.

What is yet to come?–part two

Many books of the Bible mention and describe the Day of the Lord. This is Judgment Day, or the end of the world as we know it. The most succinct description of that Day comes from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4:14-17).

Only God knows when this Day will be. Christians will not be surprised by the Day, because we have already been told that it is coming. To the rest of the world it will come “like a thief in the night,” unexpected and without warning. No countdown exists to tell us how soon the Day will be; God says only that it will be soon. All we can say is that it is seven days closer than it was a week ago.

No one alive on that Day will fail to notice what is happening. Jesus will appear in the sky, and everyone will see him. How God will accomplish this on a round world is beyond me, but the Bible says it will happen, so I believe it. Everyone will hear the noise that Paul describes as three sounds: a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, and the sound of the trumpet of God. All the dead will be raised and all people who ever lived will stand before the Lord for Judgment—for the announcement of his verdict. They will be sorted quickly, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32). The parable that contains that phrase mentions sheep to the right and goats to the left, but Paul describes the separation as happening in a different direction: believers “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” This ascension of the Church has become known as the Rapture. Although Christians disagree about the timing of the Rapture relative to Christ’s Judgment, Paul certainly makes it sound as if it happens on the same Day.

After commenting on the fact that mockers pretend to wonder why the Day of the Lord has not yet happened, Peter describes another aspect of that Day: “The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (II Peter 3:10). In other words, the fire of God’s judgment will remake creation, restoring it to what it was before sin and evil and death entered. Christians will meet the Lord in the air; they will land with the Lord upon the surface of the new earth, where we will live with him and with all his saints forever.

As for those who have died, their bodies will be raised and restored. Any injury caused by sickness or accident or age will be removed; even birth defects will be canceled. Our eyes and ears will function perfectly. Our knees and backs will no longer ache. All allergies will disappear. Even malfunctions of the mind and of the emotions will be erased. All the consequences of sin will be removed, and we will live with the Lord forever.

All these teachings from the New Testament are found in the Old Testament as well. On the Day of the Lord the sun will refuse to shine, the moon will turn to blood, and stars will fall from the sky. The earth will shake, and sinners will seek to hide from the eyes of the Lord, but there will be no place for them to hide. God’s faithful people will be vindicated, and their enemies will be removed. The saints will dwell in a new world in which God will be their God and they will be his people. The Son of David will rule an eternal kingdom in peace and righteousness and glory.

I want to emphasize two points: first, the resurrection is a physical reality, not a symbol. We will not be bodiless spirits in heaven; we will be physical as we are now. Yet we will be focused on the life of the spirit. We will eat and drink and enjoy the bodies God fashioned. In a future post, I will try further to describe what life will be like for God’s people in the new creation, after the Day of the Lord.

Second, the change will be abrupt. One minute we will be going about our lives, along with everyone else in the world. The next we will be meeting the Lord in the air. All the events of the Day of the Lord described in the Bible will happen at the same time. We will move seamlessly from this old sin-polluted world into the new creation.

Someone may ask, but what of the Great Tribulation, and what of the thousand-year reign of Christ? I will discuss such things in my next post. J.

Thy Kingdom come

Jesus says, “When you pray, say ‘…Thy Kingdom come….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also. How does God’s kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.”

Salvageable adds: Scholars speak sometimes of the three kingdoms of God, although they do not intend to say that these are distinct kingdoms. No, they overlap, and a person can be part of more than one of God’s kingdoms. They are called the kingdom of power, the kingdom of grace, and the kingdom of glory. The kingdom of power is creation, over which Jesus rules right now. The kingdom of grace is the Church, including saints in Paradise with Jesus and believers still living on the earth. The kingdom of glory is the coming new creation, in which all things will be perfected, all evil will be removed, and all the saints will live with Jesus forever. They will be royalty because of their family relationship to the King.

We do not need to pray that the kingdom of power will come. Creation already is here. We pray about that kingdom, though, when we pray for daily bread.

We pray for the kingdom of grace—for the Church. We pray for pastors and other church leaders, that God would keep them faithful and would work through their ministries. We pray for missionaries spreading the good news about Jesus. We pray for people we love, especially those who seem not to believe in Jesus right now. We pray that the kingdom of grace would come to more people so they can be redeemed and can enter the kingdom of grace and await eternal life in the kingdom of glory. The Lord’s Prayer is a missionary prayer.

At the same time, we are praying for ourselves. We pray that we would continue to mature in the faith—as a famous song from Godspell says, to see God more clearly, follow him more nearly, and love him more dearly. On the one hand, there are not different levels of faith. The faith of every Christian is identical, because it is faith in the same Savior, the same Lord, and the same promises. The Christian life is easier, though, for believers who have stopped measuring themselves, who have put their full trust in the Lord, and who are being transformed into the image of Christ, loving God and neighbors according to the example of Christ and by his strength.

Even as we pray for the kingdom of grace, we also pray for the coming of the kingdom of glory: “Maranatha—come, Lord Jesus!” We look forward to the Day when we see Jesus coming in the clouds, bringing with him all the saints of Paradise, raising all the dead, and inaugurating the new creation. We pray for that Day when all sorrows and sufferings will cease, when sin and evil will no longer exist, and when death will no longer be an end to life. That Day is already guaranteed through the redemption of Christ. By his life and death and resurrection, he has conquered sin, death, and evil. By his life, death, and resurrection, he shares his victory with us. Therefore, we do not fear the Day of the Lord. We look forward to it with hope and excitement, and we pray for its coming. Yet it has been delayed for the sake of the work of the kingdom of grace. There are yet more people—at least one more person—who will come to faith and enter the kingdom of grace before it all becomes the kingdom of glory.  J.

Theology of glory/Theology of the cross

One of the many contrasts in Christian thought is the difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Generally these are presented as either-or, as two poles between which one must choose. In the last few days, I have started to regard them as a spectrum along which many different positions can be found.

The most extreme version of the theology of glory I can imagine is promising a Christian full glory in this lifetime—great worldly wealth, perfect physical and mental health, unending joy and peace, and victory over all enemies, whether earthly or spiritual. Some preachers and writers approach this extreme as they describe Christianity and its benefits. The most extreme version of the theology of the cross I can imagine is a dour, frowning Christianity, one which forbids all worldly pleasures. Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic holy orders have included some groups which encourage that sort of asceticism, but Protestant Puritan movements also have a reputation of moving toward that extreme.

The proper place on this spectrum is not at the middle. Christian living focuses more on the cross of Christ than on the glory. The theology of the cross does not deny the reality of glory—God’s glory and the glory of the new creation—but it discourages focusing upon that glory today. When a Christian is so obsessed with glory that he or she has forgotten the cross, that Christian is vulnerable to the attacks of evil.

This particular train of thought began with a post by InsanityBytes (which you can read here) and a lengthy conversation in the comments to that post, a conversation in which I participated. IB asked whether a Christian should hate wickedness. She concluded that hate should not be part of a Christian’s life. The Bible says that God hates wickedness, but IB suggested that a perfectly holy God can properly hate evil. She suggests that permitting ourselves to imitate God’s hatred for evil is akin to permitting a four-year-old child to operate a car.

IB and I have exchanged thoughts for a while, and I know that she is no heretic, no threat to genuine Christianity. She is not oblivious to pain and suffering—on her blog she has spoken of difficult and painful experiences in her past life, and she describes her present dwelling place as the seventh circle of hell. Perhaps that is why IB appears to tilt in the direction of the theology of glory. Perhaps for her it is comfort in the face of evil or contrast to the evil she has seen. Make no mistake—IB has a clear and vivid understanding of the power of Christ’s cross. She recognizes it as the only source of redemption for sinners and reconciliation with God, the only hope for fellowship with God in this lifetime and in the new creation. On the other hand, IB speaks far more than I do of the glory in Christian life today. In our conversation, she said, “we are called to be over comers, to be seated with Him in victory. Even now death has no sting.”

While I agree that we are called to be overcomers—we are even described as “more than conquerors”—I suggest that the Christian in this world must regard life as being lived on a battlefield. Our enemies are beaten, but at the same time they are alive and well, always on the prowl, prepared to attack. Jesus did not promise unending glory in this lifetime—he spoke of persecution, blessings for those who mourn, having enemies whom we should love instead of hating them. He spoke of denying ourselves, taking up a cross, and following him.

Before his crucifixion, Jesus had to deal with a group of disciples who preferred the theology of glory. When three of them saw Jesus glow with light one night while he visited with Moses and Elijah, Peter wanted to capture the experience by setting up booths for the three heroes. Later, not to be outdone, James and John asked Jesus to promise that they would sit at his right and at his left when he came into his kingdom. Jesus told that that those positions were not his to assign, and that they would be given to other people.

But all this theology becomes tangled as soon as we realize that, for Jesus, the cross is the glory. He tried to explain this to his disciples, but they didn’t understand what he said. After Pentecost they understood, and they rejoiced to be considered worthy to suffer for the sake of the kingdom. When Jesus said, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23), he was speaking of his death on the cross, not of glowing with light or of sitting on a throne to rule the nations.

When Jesus came into his glory, when he claimed his kingdom, who was seated at his right and at his left? Two thieves—one who mocked Jesus, and another who recognized Jesus and confessed faith in him. “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he asked, and Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth—today you will be with me in Paradise.” Pontius Pilate determined who would be to the right and the left of Jesus when he claimed his kingdom, but Jesus did not want James and John to be in those places. He went to the cross to spare them from receiving what sinners deserve.

This observation does not answer the question about whether or not Christians should hate wickedness. It still seems to me that acknowledging wickedness without hating it—without regarding it as a danger and an enemy—risks apathy and a failure to love our neighbors. For when Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, he was not including the devil, the world, and our sinful natures within that command. When Jesus entered the battle to fight for us, he did not take on the Romans or other human enemies. He fought the devil, the sinful world, our sinful natures, and death itself. He won that victory, and he shares it with his people. We are “more than conquerors” because we have a victory we did not fight to win and do not deserve to own.

Why does God hate wickedness? Does he hate it only because wickedness is rebellion against him? No, God hates wickedness because it damages the good creation he made. He especially hates wickedness because it damages the people he loves. Not only does it bring physical suffering to people, but wickedness also becomes a barrier between God and the people he loves. He hates wickedness because it separates sinners from the God who loves them, threatening them with eternal death and suffering.

In the end, though, the question of hating wickedness pales in comparison to the question of where a Christian stands on the spectrum between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Should all singing be praise songs, or should Christians also sing hymns that describe our sinful condition, our inability to save ourselves, and the enormous price Christ paid to defeat our enemies? Should all preaching be promises of glory, or should preachers also threaten judgment upon sinners who do not repent, remind their hearers that all people are sinful and need a Savior, and then describe the cross as the instrument of salvation? To me, the answer is obvious. The cross remains front and center, not only as a symbol of victory, but also as a reminder of the high cost of sin and wickedness.

In the end, I hate wickedness, not because of what it has done to me, or even because of what it has done to the world, but because of what it did to Jesus. He had no sin, but he became sin for us and was treated accordingly. My Lord died at the hands of sinful men—not merely the Jews who rejected him, and not merely the Romans who mocked him and tortured him, but all the sinners from Adam down to me. I hate what we have done to Jesus, and I rejoice that his love has overcome that wickedness and reconciled us again to God. J.

Waiting for the shadow of the moon

I’ve never made a bucket list. I am much more inclined to live in the moment, to take one day at a time. However, if I had composed a bucket list, right at the top would be viewing a solar eclipse like the one happening next Monday.

I’ve been fascinated by astronomy since I was a boy. I watched the Apollo space program on television and wanted to be an astronaut. I learned about the planets in our solar system (back when Pluto was still a planet) and read about comets and meteors, stars and galaxies, quasars and supernovas, and all the other fascinating things to be found in the heavens. Part of the appeal of Star Trek and Star Wars is the dream of interplanetary travel, although the reality is likely to be far closer to 2001: Space Odyssey. I have seen a comet, experienced several partial solar eclipses, and watched lunar eclipses from beginning to end. I’ve gotten out of bed at 4 a.m. to watch meteors. The coming eclipse will round out years of watching the sky and marveling at God’s creation.

No doubt many Christian writers and speakers are trying to find spiritual metaphors in the eclipse of the sun. A few are even making apocalyptic predictions based on this perfectly ordinary event. Aside from the classic contrast of light and darkness, I don’t see that the eclipse has much to tell us about redemption or new life in Christ. On the other hand, such an eclipse does speak of the wonder of God’s creation. Our Earth is the only known planet whose moon appears to be the same size as does the sun from the surface of the planet. An eclipse with a much bigger moon or with a much smaller moon could never be the marvel that this eclipse will be. The entire arrangement is beautifully planned.

Needless to say, I have long since been sure to be on vacation for this event. I will have to drive several hours, but I am blessed with family living right in the path of the totality. My room there is already reserved. The only problem is the question of the best location for viewing the eclipse. Some of the family is content to relax in the back yard; after all, the sun and the moon will be overhead—what else would anyone want? My father and I already understand one factor that the other members of the family are missing—the arrival of the moon’s shadow will be dramatic as it soundlessly roars across the landscape at a speed faster than sound.

Every shadow has two components—the entire shadow, and the core of the shadow. Generally we see shadows projected across a surface that is near the object causing the shadow. Therefore, we do not observe the two components. When a more distant object casts a shadow, the blurred edges of the shadow are outside the core, but they are still part of the shadow. The moon is about 239,000 miles from the earth. A dramatic difference exists between its entire shadow and the core of the shadow. A partial eclipse happens outside the core, in the rest of the shadow. At ninety percent or more, the partial eclipse can still be spectacular. But as the core of that shadow arrives, everything changes. My father and I want to be sitting where we can see that shadow tear across the landscape toward us. Yet we do not want to oversell the experience (or give away too many secrets), so we are looking for a compromise that will give us some chance to see the shadow approaching without straying far from the property.

Thinking about shadows, and light and darkness, leads me to another random observation. We see with our eyes. In the back of our eyes are two sets of receptors, called rods and cones. With rods we sense light and darkness; with cones we perceive colors. The cones require more light to work than do the rods. Therefore, in dim light we see things in black and white and in shades of gray. In brighter light, we are able to make out more colors. As the Moody Blues remarked (“Nights in White Satin”), in the nighttime and early morning, “red is black; and yellow, white.” Or, as I tease my children, one sees many yellow cars on the road during the day, but hardly any yellow cars are noticed at night. Do people who own yellow cars only drive during the daytime?

Here is my spiritual take on light and darkness. We see and comprehend many things about creation now, but as the Bible says, we see in a glass dimly. In the new creation, we will see and know things more fully. Other bloggers that I follow have been speculating about heaven in the last few days. I think that the contrast between the lives we live now and the lives we will live then resembles the contrast between what we can see early in the morning before sunrise and what we can see when the sun is high in the sky. Much more will be revealed to us in that new creation than we are capable of perceiving today. What puzzles us now will make sense then, and the harmony of creation will resonate in our lives in ways we cannot even picture or describe today. J.

Are you ready?

This time of year, the usual greeting of “How are you?” tends to be replaced with the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” For some reason, this year that question is striking me as a rather odd thing to ask.

“Are you ready for Christmas?” It sounds as if people are preparing for a storm. In Florida people prepare for hurricanes by boarding up windows, carrying moveable things indoors, and tying down whatever cannot be brought indoors. Further north, people prepare for a winter storm by checking on their snow shovels and sidewalk salt, perhaps running out to the hardware store to buy a new shovel or another bag of salt. Then they stop by the grocery store to buy milk, eggs, and bread. When the grocery store is running short of milk, eggs, and bread, you know that the weather forecasters have predicted that it is going to snow.

I don’t know why forecasts of winter weather make people hungry for French toast. I have my own favorite meal to prepare for winter weather, but it is a lunch, not a breakfast. It starts with a pound of cubed meat–my first choice is summer sausage, but I can use hot dogs, ground beef, chicken, pork, or ham. (Fish doesn’t work as well.) I chop and sauté some onion and green pepper, add a can of diced tomatoes, the meat, oregano, salt, and pepper. Meanwhile I prepare a box of macaroni and cheese. When everything is prepared, I stir the macaroni and cheese into the skillet of meat and vegetables and bring it to the table. I have been known to walk a mile to the grocery store in four inches of snow to buy ingredients for this meal if some were lacking in the kitchen.

But, “Are you ready for Christmas?” No doubt this question means different things to different people. To one person, it might mean, “Have you bought and wrapped Christmas gifts for everyone on your list?” To another, it might mean, “Have you made fifteen kinds of Christmas cookies, along with peanut brittle and fudge?” To a third, it might mean, “Have you finished decorating your home and your office for Christmas?” To a store owner, it might mean, “Have you stocked your shelves with everything your customers will want to buy?” To a preacher, it might mean, “Have you prepared your sermons for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day?”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” I’m tempted to answer, “With appropriate counseling and the right medications, I think I will survive.” The other day, I heard someone answer, “Is anybody ever ready for Christmas?” I think the next time someone asks me if I am ready, I will reply, “Is Christmas ready for me?”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” I have not finished my shopping for gifts, and I have not started wrapping gifts. I am still in the process of adding decorations to the house, one decoration each day until the 24th of December. But, yes, I am ready for Christmas. I am looking forward to celebrating the Incarnation of the Son of God. I am looking forward to sharing good news about how the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. I am primed to remind Christians that the real meaning of Christmas is not found in the gifts or the sweets or the decorations, but in the birth of Jesus who came to fulfill the meaning of that name: “The Lord saves.”

“Are you ready for Christmas?” If my job was to prepare myself for Christmas, I would have to say, “No. I’m not ready.” But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who are under the Law.” God has made his people ready for Christmas, and ready for an eternal celebration in a new world, one in which every day will be a holy day. J.