Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Message: Our God Hides


Exodus 19: 21-24

 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them.” And Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’” And the Lord said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break out against them.”
 Exodus 33: 17-23

And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

Matthew 2: 7-11
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

The Heidelburg Disputation, Theses 20

He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross. The manifest and visible things of God are placed in opposition to the invisible, namely, his human nature, weakness, foolishness.  

In a positive sense, God hides himself for our benefit.  If we were to see him in his full glory "who dwells in unapproachable light", we would suffer the fate that God warned Moses and the Israelites of before Mt. Sinai.  God is holiness personified, and so no unclean thing can exist in his Presence without being burnt up as chaff. Hence God prescribed certain limits around the Tabernacle (where God met with Moses) in the Israelites' camp.  Outside of the Aaronic priesthood, no one was allowed to "come near to the vessels of the sanctuary or to the altar lest they, and you, die." (Numbers 18: 3) As God warned Aaron, "any outsider who comes near shall be put to death." (Numbers 18:7)
So between God and the Israelites, there was a veil that remained in place emblefied by the Most Holy Place where only the High Priest could go and stand before the mercy seat to offer sacrifices for the sins of Israel.  

In the Incarnation of Jesus Christ,  the veil between God and man was torn apart.  Hiding his deity in human flesh, Jesus made himself approachable for the sake of many unclean sinners in Israel who came to him to receive healing, mercy and forgiveness.  Not even  Gentiles were barred.  At his birth, the Magi from the east came before him to offer gifts and to worship him, signifying a shift in the nature of the priesthood that pointed ahead to the creation of Christ's church at Pentecost.  To the weak Christ made himself weak, that "he might gain the weak" (1 Corinthians 9:22), emptying himself of his glory, and being "found in human form" (Phillippians 2:8), where he could dwell with men and make the mystery of the gospel "hidden for ages and generations", and God the Father known to us (Colossians 1:26): 

John 1: 18
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.

John 14: 7- 11

 "If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

Two thousand years removed from encountering Jesus in human form, we still meet with him today physically in bread and wine each Sunday.  Coming down from heaven, as with the Incarnation, "the bread of God" still dwells in the presence of sinners today and gives life to us, touching unclean lips with his body and blood that alone is the way of our salvation.  

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.



Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ambrose On The Incarnation


from Ambrose's "Exposition of the Christian Faith", Book III, Chapters VIII and IX,
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 2, Volume 10 (ed. Phillip Schaff):

 This beginning did Isaiah see, and therefore he says: “A Child is born, a Son is given to us,” as also did the Magi, and therefore worshipped they, when they saw the little One in the stable, and said: “A Child is born,” and, when they saw the star, declared, “A Son is given to us.” On the one hand, a gift from earth—on the other, a gift from heaven—and both are One Person, perfect in respect of each, without any changeableness in the Godhead, as without any taking away from the fulness of the Manhood. One Person did the Magi adore, to one and the same they offered their gifts, to show that He Who was seen in the stall was the very Lord of heaven.
Mark how the two verbs differ in their import: “A Child is born, a Son is given.” Though born of the Father, yet is He not born, but given to us, forasmuch as the Son is not for our sakes, but we for the Son’s. For indeed He was not born to us, being born before us, and the maker of all things created: nor is He now brought to life for the first time, Who was always, and was in the beginning; on the other hand, that which before-time was not is born to us. Again we find it thus recorded, how that the angel, when he spoke to the shepherds, said that He had been born: “Who is this day born to us a Saviour, Who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.” To us, then, was born that which was not before—that is, a child of the Virgin, a body from Mary—for this was made after man had been created, whereas [the Godhead] was before us...

 Even as the Child, then, is born not unto all, but unto the faithful: so the Son is given to the faithful and not to the unbelieving. He is given to us, not to the Photinians; for they affirm that the Son of God was not given unto us, but was born and first began to exist amongst us. To us is He given, not to the Sabellians, who will not hear of a Son being given, maintaining that Father and Son are one and the same. Unto us is He given, not unto the Arians, in whose judgment the Son was not given for salvation, but sent over subject and inferior, to whom, moreover, He is no “Counsellor,” inasmuch as they hold that He knows nought of the future, no Son, since they believe not in His eternity, though of the Word of God it is written: “That which was in the beginning;” and again: “In the beginning was the Word.” To return to the passage we set before us to discuss. “In the beginning,” saith the Scripture, “before He made the earth, before He made the deeps, before He brought forth the springs of water, before all the hills He begat Me...

 Perchance you will ask how I came to cite, as referring to the Incarnation of Christ, the place, “The Lord created Me,” seeing that the creation of the universe took place before the Incarnation of Christ? But consider that the use of holy Scripture is to speak of things to come as though already past, and to make intimation of the union of two natures, Godhead and Manhood, in Christ, lest any should deny either His Godhead or His Manhood.  In Isaiah, for example, you may read: “A Child is born unto us, and a Son is given unto us;” so here also [in the Proverbs] the prophet sets forth first the creation of the flesh, and joined thereto the declaration of the Godhead, that you might know that Christ is not two, but One, being both begotten of the Father before the worlds, and in the last times created of the Virgin. And thus the meaning is: I, Who am begotten before the worlds, am He Who was created of mortal woman, created for a set purpose.
Again, immediately before the declaration, “The Lord created Me,” He says, “I will tell of the things which are from eternity,” and before saying, “He begat,” He premised, “In the beginning, before He made the earth, before all hills.” In its extent, the preposition “before” reaches back into the past without end or limit, and so “Before Abraham was, I am,” clearly need not mean “after Adam,” just as “before the Morning Star”need not mean “after the angels.” But when He said “before,” He intended, not that He was included in any one’s existence, but that all things are included in His, for thus it is the custom of Holy Writ to show the eternity of God. Finally, in another passage you may read: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made, Thou art from everlasting to everlasting.” Before all created things, then, is the Son begotten; within all and for the good of all is He made; begotten of the Father, above the Law, brought forth of Mary, under the Law

Saturday, December 7, 2013

What We've Learned Lately About Evangelical Ecclesiology

Matthew 23: 1-4

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 

Mark 10: 42-45

 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Acts 19: 23-29

 About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”
When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul's companions in travel.

In the last few weeks we have witnessed another scandal upsetting the apple cart in mainstream evangelicalism.  Without commenting on that directly, I thought I would highlight what this latest incident reveals about the kind of ecclesiology in vogue among modern evangelicals and their celebrity pastors:

1.  It is virulently anti-democratic.  When the power structure of a church is in the hands of a few, and the congregation's role is limited to adopting the pastor's jargon and vision and following blindly, dictators are easily bred.  This is more likely in churches where the congregation's call to act as Berean-like watchmen is diminished or outright challenged by bully pulpits with a "do as you're told" attitude, which discourages and silences any healthy criticism meant for the good of the body.  In these environments the role of the celebrity pastor is indistinguishable from the rulers and authorities in the secular world who lord authority over the people, and therefore cease to fulfill Jesus' command: "whoever would be first among you must be slave of all".  

2.  Silence.  Whereas Paul and Jesus taught the church to practice discipline on the basis of two or three witnesses, today there is a pervading air of silence when a celebrity pastor falls from grace or is questioned about his impropriety.    Where congregations are effectively silenced or threatened with censure, you would expect the wider church to speak up for their sake.  But aside from independent bloggers, radio apologists, and pastors at odds with the evangelical subculture, evangelical parachurch organisations that seem to function as an accountability group for pastors instead become enablers for further transgressions.  When the money and prestige that a celebrity pastor brings might be at stake, its easier for parachurch groups to remain silent and even to call for boycotts on anyone who would dare to criticise.  Rather than protecting the congregations of wayward pastors, these groups are ultimately self-serving, looking out for their "old boys network" (built on the cult of personality) when it comes under attack.  The behaviour of Christian leaders in this respect is no different from the Ephesians who rioted when the apostle Paul threatened their livelihood based on the manufacture of shrines of the goddess Artemis.  When an idol is challenged, even one in the shape of a celebrity pastor, Christians can and do respond with anger at the thought of their idol being toppled and brought into disrepute, especially if worldly gain is on the line.

3.  Lack of accountability.  With congregations at the mercy of the celebrity pastor leadership model, what accountability is there?  With the rise of the unbiblical practice of vision casting, pastors tie elders and the congregation into a covenantal arrangement where all agree to follow the pastor's supposed 'vision from God', or otherwise "get thrown under the bus".  Unfortunately in this arrangement elders become little more than 'yes men' who exist much like everyone else to bow down at the pulpit.  Since most churches in this seeker-sensitive/purpose-driven mould follow the Baptist model of autonomy, it leaves Christians without a wider hierarchy for them to appeal to in cases of false doctrine and pastoral malpractice.  Silenced within by controlling pastors and unquestioning elders, and silence without with no Bishops or synodical authority to call to for help, Christians often feel forced out to the detriment of their faith and spiritual well-being.

4.  Higher standards.  In both letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul stresses the ethical standards required of pastors and elders to Timothy.  One of these standards is that "an overseer must be above reproach".  Is this true of celebrity pastors today?  The recent cases of Mark Driscoll's alleged plagiarism, Stephen Furtick's financial spending, and Ed Young's "sexcapades" on the roof of his church building prove that the higher standards Scripture commands of pastors doesn't somehow apply to them.  Again because they are protected by powerful forces within and without that rely on their book sales, conference appearances, charisma, etc.  And also due to the pastor's own spiritual pridefulness and blindness to their own sin and need for repentance.  This spiritual blindness can lead to hypocritical messages issued from the pulpit when they speak out on issues in which its revealed that they haven't followed their own advice.  Similarly Jesus warned the crowds of the Pharisees' hypocrisy: "they preach, but do not practice".  When pastors fall into hypocrisy because of lower ethical standards set for them, church ministry suffers and the spread of the Gospel is undermined, as the outside world looks on with cynical eyes.

What is our response to these errors, betrayals, and outright idolatry within the body of Christ?  It would be easy as Lutherans to shrug off much of what we witness as evangelical hi-jinx, however Paul does warn us to not imagine ourselves beyond temptation.  We should watch ourselves putting any pastor on a pedestal, and likewise we should keep a watchful eye for Lutheran pastors building a foundation on their personality and who think themselves beyond reproach and correction.  For such leaders, the Scriptures carry this warning for those betraying the cause of Christ:

1 Corinthians 3: 10-15
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Second Advent: Jesus isn't just for Christmas

 Isaiah 55: 6 “Seek the Lord while he may be found;
    call upon him while he is near"

Matthew 22: 11-14

 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Matthew 25: 1-13

 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

The Christian festival of Christmas is the one time of year when Jesus is paid lip service in our culture.  We hear future pop stars sing of him in "The X-Factor" final, countless Christmas albums are released, and many schools invite parents to come and watch their children dress up as Mary, Joseph, wise men, shepherds and angels in their Nativity plays.  And in parish churches doors are open to unbelievers for various carol services and midnight mass, so that they may too hear the good news of the coming King, born in weakness two thousand years ago for the salvation of the world.  While all these things are good, in so far, as they exalt the name of the true Jesus, God of God, Light of Light, and the gospel of salvation by grace through faith,  the Scripture carries several warnings to unbelieving visitors.  That this Jesus, born in a manger, will return in glory to judge both the living and the dead, and his dominion will have no end.

Those found in unbelief at the return of the King of the universe will be cast 
into the lake of fire prepared for Satan and his angels, while his elect will be 
glorified as all the promises of our eternal salvation will finally by consummated 
by the great Shepherd of the sheep.  So as we offer the good news of Jesus' 
first advent this Christmas, led us leave our unbelieving audience in no doubt 
that Jesus is coming again, and preach to them the necessity of faith and 
repentance unto salvation.  

To non-Christians I would warn, "there is no flirting with Jesus.  
You can't make him a small part in your Christmas festivities and then 
ignore him the rest of the year".  The incarnation of Jesus Christ demands the 
same response given by the shepherds and angels; and God-willing we believe 
the Spirit will grant faith and repentance to all who hear God's Word and receive 
it with gladness.  But for those who turn down the invitation year after year, 
who persist in flagrant unbelief despite how many times they've sung "Silent 
Night", there is only a "fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire" that 
will consume the unrepentant (Hebrews 10:27).

So the message for our unbelieving culture is clear: "seek the Lord while he may be found" this Christmas",  Do not spurn the implanted Word of God that has the power to save your souls (James 1:21), and thus be found without the imputed righteousness of Christ that comes by faith at the time of his second parousia (coming).  And hence forth be cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  For now the door is open.  The message of the free forgiveness of sins for Jesus' sake is available to everyone for God desires "all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth"  (1 Timothy 2:4).  So this Christmas if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts against God's promise to save as the Israelites did and died in the wilderness.  Be under no illusion that the "narrow door" to God's kingdom will one day swing shut when Jesus comes in glory with his holy angels.  For on that "day of the Lord" the wise and foolish virgins will hear one of two statements from Jesus, words of eternal welcome or eternal separation: "I never knew you" or "Come, you who are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you" (Matthew 25: 34). This Christmas, will you be wise and cloth yourself with Christ, or will you continue in foolishness unto utter devastation, found without the oil of faith that alone (apart from works) can save you.  Whatever your response, the reality of history's ultimate destination remains:  Jesus is coming.

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!  

Check out the first part of this joint Advent blog event at:

One Sheep Ponders - The First Advent: The First Shepherd