Friday, September 21, 2012

There and Back Again: The Hobbit Semisesquicentennial

It was seventy five years ago on September 1 in 1937 when J.R.R. Tolkien first published those indelible words, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." And in honor of this most festive occasion, I thought of Tolkien's own words regarding his seminal work. In a letter from June 7, 1955, he wrote:

All I remember about the start of The Hobbit is sitting correcting School Certificate papers in the everlasting weariness of that annual task forced on impecunious academics with children. On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I did not and do not know why. I did nothing about it, for a long time, and for some years I got no further than the production of Thror's map. But it became The Hobbit in the early 1930's, and was eventually published not because of my own children's enthusiasm (though they liked it well enough), but because I lent it to the then Rev. Mother of Cherwell Edge when she had flu, and it was seen by a former student who was at the time in the office of Allen and Unwin. It was I believe tried out on Rayner Unwin; but for whom when grown up I think I should never have got the Trilogy published (Tolkien Letters, Humphrey Carpenter, p. 215).

For a man who thought that the Lord of the Rings trilogy would never have happened, and that he had spent all his good characters and motifs on The Hobbit, it is remarkable to read where it all began, with Bilbo in Bag End. And more remarkable still to read where it all ended with the Eagles marking that joyous rescue that can only be described in Tolkien's own literary currency as eucatastrophe. Considering The Hobbit was originally written as a separate story, never originally intended to be adjoined to his tales of The Silmarillion, etc., it is a joy to find Bilbo the Burglar steal his way into the legendary halls of Tolkien's epic myth and bring us there and back again with him.

There are many reasons why I love and have read (and still reread) The Hobbit. This blog is, in part, dedicated to that great intersection of Tolkien's work and the Gospel which he so clearly proclaimed in his works. (One's reading of good books is never over. In fact, it's hardly a good book if it's only read once). But even the fundamentals of the story are appealing: the land, languages, peoples, narrative, the movement of the trees (all of them) and the whisper of the wind through their ancient branches and yes, on this day, the beloved hobbits. But two words best capture the Hobbit's enduring legacy: verisimilitude and eucatastrophe.

Throughout Tolkien's letters, essays and writings, these two words appear to form the plinth  of his literary framework. He was always concerned with the stories having that inner consistence of reality, the believability that no matter what fantastic adventures were being undertaken, they were possible in this world. Indeed, not just possible, but expected, welcomed, and essential to the very heart of the story, without which it would cease to be true fairy story (at least as Tolkien defined it).

These two words keep beckoning me (and I'm convinced others too) to read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, and why I'll read them to my daughter Zoe and son Jonah in the future. In it's voluminous air of Primary Art there is another joy in reading Tolkien's work, that of the eucatastrophe. This is the joyous turn, the blessed and good catastrophe that is crucial in all fairy tales. It is like a miracle, Tolkien says, something so plain and matter of fact. For this is the way miracles are (at least from the divine perspective). And in good fairy stories we get a glimpse of those blessed intrusions.

This eucatastrophe..."produces a peculiar effect because it has a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly been snapped back...the Resurrection was the greatest eucatastrophe possible in the greatest Fairy Story - and it produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears...Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the storyteller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story."  (Tolkien's Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter, p. 100-101).

Christ's resurrection is the great story because the Author has jumped off the velum and parchment and taken on living human flesh and bone to redeem us. Indeed, a great story and a great ending for it never really ends. And it is made all the more beautiful because it happens to be greatest true story of all.

So, look for the Eagle's wings, only the next time time you see them, they'll be adorning the back of a Lamb.

Happy Semisesquicentennial Hobbit Day.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Lord's Prayer in Quenya

I can hear it now, "The Lord's Prayer in what?" Quenya. The Klingons have their own version; why not the elfs? That's right. Quenya is simply elvish for "language" and this was the tongue of the elfs of the second age and had been all but forgotten by the third age which primarily used Sindarin. If J.R.R. Tolkien couldn't think of an English word to adequately communicate his thoughts, he made one up, hence, Eucatastrophe. His passion and years of study in philology was sown into every word and chapter of his work. So when it came to the world that he sub-created (his word for it, not mine) he invented languages to fit the people in the lands born out of his imagination. This was necessary in his mind in order to give the story that "inner consistence" of reality, the marks of Primary Art. The elfs had many forms of their native language in addition to Quenya as did the other populations of Middle-Earth, i.e. the Dwarfs and so on.

In Tolkien's lands, languages and people we behold man's work of sub-creation, making in the image in which we are made. This vocation in action. Vocation in the art of storytelling and myth-making (in the best sense of that word). Our ears ring and our eyes behold the work of sub-creation anytime we hear good music and behold the painted canvas, whether its from the artists nimble hands or the Creator's. These gifts of sub-creation also point us to the Creator, to Primary Art and to the one great true story of all stories, the Creator made flesh in Christ. The gifts of joy, happiness, beauty - these are glimpses of that heavenly joy - what Lewis called holiness - that Christ himself came to guarantee. No wonder the words of literature - even those languages that are crafted from man's imagination - can serve as a witness to everlasting truth through beauty and the glory of the Everlasting Man who gave us these words. Lord, teach us to pray, in whatever tongue we speak. And open our lips, that our mouths might declare your praise, from the halls of Middle-Earth to our earthly homes, and one day soon the home of righteousness in the new heavens and the new earth.

This edition of the Lord's Prayer in elvish Quenya, courtesy of a good friend (and fellow Tolkien fan) on Facebook, Peggy Pederson.

Átaremma i ëa han ëa,
na aire esselya,
aranielya na tuluva,
na care indómelya
cemende tambe Erumande.
Ámen anta síra ilaurëa massamma,
ar ámen apsene úcaremmar
sív’ emme apsenet tien i úcarer emmen.
Álame tulya úsahtienna
mal áme etelehta ulcullo.

Everyone Loves a Conspiracy: Jesus' Wife and Gnostic Gospels

I'm afraid the title of this post is a bit misleading. But then again, so are the titles of nearly all the media reports about the recent "Jesus-Wife-Manuscript". So, if you came here to revel in the hysteria, you've come to the wrong place. There aren't any secret manuscripts containing secret messages from unknown authors to unknown audiences from unknown sources and unknown dates. You won't find the conspiracy you're looking for here, just some clear thinking when it comes to understanding these Gnostic gospels and their hollow bomb shells. Spoiler alert; this one's a dud too. Karen King says as much in her article, if we bothered to read it. She doesn't find a conspiracy here - or any evidence of Jesus having a wife either. (Check out Prof. Jeff Gibbs' response below; it's excellent).
But "Everyone loves a conspiracy," wrote Dan Brown. It sure worked for him and that silly little book, The Davinci Code. Conspiracy sells: sensational books with fiction presented as fact and sub par movies (Remember JFK by Oliver Stone?). Conspiracy makes for sugar-high fiction and a good old' fashioned media frenzy. But usually the amount of truth in the conspiracy turns out to be no bigger than a 1.5 by 3 inch fragment, which also happens to be at the center of the latest redux of the "Jesus had a wife" conspiracy. This fragment, revealed Tuesday by Harvard professor Karen King, contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to "my wife," whom he identifies as Mary. King says the fragment of Coptic script is a copy of a gospel, probably written in Greek in the second century. However, the copy itself most likely dates from the 4th century. While the scholars at Harvard have admitted that the research is both inconclusive and incomplete, they have done little to stem the tide of sensational reporting surrounding the alleged fragment that has sparked so much interest.

You can read the full news story here. A regurgitation of the story here would be about as fruitful as the regurgitation of poor scholarship surrounding the texts of these alleged gospels. In fact, this appears to be yet another fragment of a Gnostic gospel. And this brings us to several of the actual important facts in this "discovery."

First of all, this issue has been dealt with before when Dan Brown's Davinci Code caused all that raucous years ago. He made similar sensational claims with little care for historical evidence, New Testament scholarship and church history. Hank Hannegraf and Paul Maier wrote an excellent little booklet addressing this titled The Davinci Code: Fact or Fiction? But really, this is peripheral. After all, as Alister McGrath reminds us in Mere Apologetics, not even his fellow atheist colleagues find this stuff credible. Somewhere, someone is getting a good laugh. It's time we all join in when this stuff comes along.

Secondly, there is a timely, concise and well-written treatment of this put out by Prof. Jeff Gibbs at Concordia Seminary, St Louis. His research helps clear up what Karen King is actually claiming and where the yellow journalists have shown their true stripes once again. Here are a few choice quotes and the link to read the full article:
Here are the claims that Dr. King makes for her own paper, and I quote her precisely. She begins by stating clearly, “[This papyrus fragment] does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus married.” And why not? This is so, “. . . given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century.” This is clear, and significant. Did Jesus of Nazareth have a wife? This papyrus find does not speak to that issue. And why not? The fragment is of too late a date for that purpose, even if (please note the deliberate “if” used by King) the 4th century fragment is a copy of a writing that originated between AD 150 and 200.
So, then, what might be the possible significance of this find? Again, note what Dr. King actually says: “Nevertheless, if the second century date of composition is correct . . . .” She argues in her essay that a second century origin is likely, but she realizes that it is not a matter on which she can be certain. But given the “if,” what then? King writes, “ . . . the fragment does provide direct evidence . . .”? Evidence of what? “ . . . that claims about Jesus’s marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship. Just as Clement of Alexandria (d. ca 215 C.E.) described some Christians who insisted Jesus was not married, this fragment suggests that other Christians of that period were claiming that he was married.”
Thirdly, this raises the larger questions that we should be asking about these Gnostic gospels: What do they actually say? When were they written? Who wrote them? Why were they written? And most of all, are they historically reliable, veracious accounts of the events they claim to report? For more detail on the authorship, dating and content of these Gnostic gospels - the chief examples often being The Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Mary - I suggest reading a stellar article by my good friend, Mark Pierson, in the May/June 2010 issue of Modern Reformation. His article Gospels, Gospels Everywhere? addresses this very issue with clarity and responsible scholarship. It's a must read for anyone discussing or studying this issue, And it appears that we are going to have to face this more and more, since, conspiracy sells.

Here are the chief problems with the Gnostic gospels. First of all, They are not written by anyone who had access to the apostolic circle. This is important because the apostles were selected specifically because they were eyewitnesses to life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This was one of their primary qualifications, that they had been with Jesus from the beginning (Acts 1). And the Gospel writers were comprised of both direct eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) and close associates of eyewitnesses (Luke and Mark). The writers of the Gnostic gospels neither had access to the apostolic circle nor were they eyewitnesses. These books weren't kept out of the canon to cover up some spurious plot concocted by Jesus' followers. Quite the opposite, Gnostic texts never made it in the big leagues because they were widely known to be a farce by the very followers who had learned from Jesus and his disciples.

This leads us to the second problem, namely, dating the books. These alleged additional gospels were not written until the 2nd, 3rd and 4th century, and in some cases even as late as the 6th century A.D. In any historical scholarship the best and most accurate sources are the earliest ones because the time when they were written was closer to the time of the actual events they record. Writing gospels about Jesus' life and times 2-5 centuries later is neither adequate nor accurate.
Consider the following illustration. Imagine that a new book was released, a biography of Abraham Lincoln's life and death, claimed to be written by Mary Todd herself no less. And in this new book we learn that Lincoln in fact fought on behalf of the South, started the Civil War in order to destroy the Union, and died - not in Ford's Theater - but by slipping on a banana peel in the bathtub (special thanks to my friend, Mark, for teaching me this too). How reliable would we consider that text? Not one bit, not even a business card's worth of accuracy. As the kids in my youth group would say, LOL or ROFL. It's the scholarly equivalent of Godspell or Jesus Christ Super Star - entertaining and flashy and that's about it. They make the Onion look like the Wallstreet Journal. And lastly, the stories reported in these Gnostic texts are wildly contradictory and just plain bizarre when compared to the events harmoniously recorded in the four gospels.
At best these books are wild stories and fun to read but of little value when it comes to notable New Testament scholarship. At their worst they are heretical books that are contradictory to the very claims that Jesus made himself in the New Testament dealing with essential teachings like sin and salvation.

The greatest irony here is that many New Testament scholars and skeptics claim that these Gnostic books are reliable, trustworthy sources of history while at the same time claim that the four gospels of the New Testament - written within living memory of the events of Jesus' life, death and resurrection by eyewitness and close associates - are spurious fairy tales, folklore and myths that evolved over time and should not be trusted. That's what my history teacher in high school would've called bassackwards.

And that, my friends, is why we continue to be steadfast in defense always being ready to give a reasonable account for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15). Yes, conspiracy sells. But the truth saves. And you don't need a conspiracy theory to know that Christianity is true, just the facts ma'am.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Apologetics 101, Part 1: Evaluating Truth Claims

What is truth? Which truth? Whose truth? Yours? Mine? This spiritual figure or that? His holy book or hers? Which religious claim to truth is the real one? Will the real religion please stand up?! While it is entirely possible that all the world’s religions are wrong, they can’t all be right; that would be most illogical. it But how do we go about evaluating which one out of the thousands of the world religions, if any, is true?
And with that, we’re right back to the question of the day: What is truth? Long before Jack Nicholson or Pontius Pilate uttered anything about truth, Satan toyed with this very same question in the Garden of Eden. “Did God really say?” In other words, “Is God’s Word true?”
What is truth? That was Pilate’s question to Jesus during his interrogation.  And people have been coming up with failed answer after failed answer. Many claim the question – what is truth? – can be answered by common sense, intuition, authority, sincerity or even religious experience. As we will discover, these sources of truth are entirely inadequate responses to the question.
Here a little bit of logic goes a long way. It also happens to be useful common ground in talking with non-Christians. Which is why, when we are trying to answer the question, “what is truth?” we must avoid begging the question, that is assuming the conclusion you are trying to prove before you there. For example: “Miracles do not exist because there is uniform experience against miracles; I have never seen a miracle; therefore miracles do not exist.” Or, “We know god exists because the book says so and god wrote the book so we know god exists.” Begging the question and circular reasoning are kissing cousins of illogical proportions.

Thus, when we are defending the Christian faith, we must plot our course carefully through well-reasoned arguments, avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis of begging the question and circular reasoning.
Truth is fundamental to every human endeavor. Science, Law, History, Medicine, not to mention the entire education system of Western Civilization and the like rests on the foundation that truth and knowledge are both attainable and knowable. Both intellectual (is it true?) and existential meaning (what do I need?) in life is built upon truth. Not to mention morality, ethics and human rights.

So, when it comes to the quest for truth, let’s test some of the examples mentioned above and see how they fail to give us an adequate source of truth in defending the Christian faith. Though hardly exhaustive, here are several common ways people claim to have the truth on their side of the argument.

·         Common Sense and Intuition.  Common sense is anything but common. More importantly, people of mutually incompatible religious positions all claim to have common sense on their side. This cannot be so. If common sense were an accurate source of truth, we all would have the same common beliefs. So it is with Intuition. If our intuition was a reliable source of truth for making religious claims, we all would believe the same thing. Intuition can be wrong just as common sense is uncommon. How do you know the voice of your common sense is really the voice of God or the voice of the devil? Indeed, many people claim to receive special messages from God – messages which frequently have to do with your wallet.
·         Appealing to Authority (or multiple sources of authority).  Many claim to have authority on their side: Muslims have the Qur’an, Mormons have the Book of Mormon, Christians have the Old and New Testament, and Jews reject the New but retain, at least in some manner, the Old Testament. Making a claim to authority is not the same as establishing the truth of the authority any more than my opinions and claims to know everything about the weather qualify me to be a meteorologist. We must ask whether or not the source of authority itself is trustworthy. Just because an authority claims to be from God hardly means it is. Plenty of people on the boardwalk in Venice Beach claim the same thing but are not trustworthy. Or consider that Mormon doctrine teaches that the Garden of Eden was located somewhere near Jackson County, Missouri. And that God spoke to Joseph Smith by means of special golden plates which have never been found and have no archaeological evidence whatsoever suggesting any of the places or names in the Book of Mormon actually existed outside of Joseph Smith’s brain.

Having multiple sources of authority only further complicates the problem. Every religious position has a source of authority, whether that source is a book, a person, or some kind of inner burning of the bosom. Again, we know that they all could be false, but not all of these claims to authority can be true. The question is, how do we determine which ones are false? And how do we determine which, if any, are true? In order to answer that we must test and examine the source of authority from the outside, with a criteria that is separate from the source of authority you are studying. This will yield an objective answer. The method must precede the conclusion. Apologetics 101, part 2 will address the historical / evidential method of defending the Christian faith.

·         Sincerity.  Many have thought that the sincerity of faith determines whether or not something is true. Sincerity can be lethal. Stalin was quite sincere about his systematic extermination of political opponents. And Jim Jones convinced his followers that the Kool-aid they were drinking was sincerely good for them. Both examples demonstrate that you can be sincere about many things, and more importantly, sincerely wrong. Even sincerity of faith is a tenuous position to hold. Many religious teachers have said, “If you just believe enough, or pray hard enough, or are sincere in your faith, you’d know these things to be true.” How do you measure sincerity? A faith-o-meter? Measure it by works? The result is usually faith in faith which is pure nonsense. Neither is faith magic. What is critically important is the object of faith. I may sincerely believe that my pet rabbit, Milo, will lay a golden egg on Easter morning worth millions – but my faith would be foolishly misplaced. And similarly, I may sincerely doubt that Disney Land is in Anaheim, California and located, rather, in Minot, North Dakota. In either case, neither my faith nor my doubts change the underlying facts. And facts are stubborn things.

·         Religious Experience.  Testimonies and personal experiences abound. However, there are just as many religious experiences as there are religions. Again, they can’t all be right because they make mutually contradictory claims to truth. There’s another logical problem here. We can’t equate “what is” with “what ought to be.” This is also known as the sociological fallacy. Here’s an example: If we say, “65% of college students engage in x behavior,” we have said nothing of whether or not x behavior is true, much less right or wrong. Simply claiming truth on the basis of a religious experience does not in fact make it true. This is falls into the “buy it and try it” trap. “Give Jesus, or Buddhist meditation, Christian Science or the Kool-aid a try, you’ll like it. It works for me!” Religious positions require total commitment on the part the person. The question, as always, must be: is it true? And this requires investigation. Something Christianity is entirely open to since it has nothing to hide; you’ll find no spaghetti monsters, magic pills or goofy drinks here. St. Paul lays it all out on the table, read 1 Corinthians 15.
So, if all of these methods are inadequate, what then, is the best way to go about investigating a religious truth claim? And where does Christianity fit into all of this? This series, Apologetics 101, is designed to follow up on this question as we explore the basic points of the empirical/historical method, used by lawyers, historians and apologists to defend the Christian faith. It is this approach that gives us the best arguments when defending the Christian faith.

Thankfully, when it comes to the Christian faith – what we believe, teach, confess and defend – we don’t have to rely upon the level of our genuine sincerity, the power and emotion of our religious experience, our common sense, or even circular reasoning. We have historical, trustworthy, eyewitness testimony about the life and work of Jesus who took on human flesh to suffer and die for the sins of the world. He claimed to be the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6) and backed that up by dying and rising from the dead. With that in mind, the question is not really: what is truth? Rather, who is truth? And if you get the answer to that question right, all the others fall into place.




Tuesday, September 18, 2012

E-nklings Cloud of Witnesses: Body, Soul and C.S. Lewis

No doubt you've seen this fashionable quote floating around the interwebs along with the memes, e-cards and other general gobbledy-gook.

“No, you don’t have a soul.  You are a soul.  You have a body.”

Allegedly this was written by C.S. Lewis, or so the quotsters on Facebook want you to believe. I've read a great deal of C.S. Lewis's works and have yet to come across this. And while he often broke his own rule of going beyond what he called mere Christianity, he was not one to deny body and soul, a common Gnostic heresy perpetuated in this quotation. Now, thanks to my friend, Pastor Timothy Winterstein at his blog Balaam's Ass (gotta love that) and another article I found on while doing some google research this myth has been put to rest. The latter even mentions that this may have been attributed to something that George MacDonald, one of Lewis's influences, had once said. Both mention this quote in its original locations by a fellow named Walter M. Miller.

I encourage anyone who has heard or read this quote to check out Pr. Winterstein's helpful insights into the error behind this quotation here.

This is why our junior high and high school English teachers spent so much time reminding us to cite and properly quote our sources.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost: "The Sacrificial Servant"

+ 16th Sunday after Pentecost – Sept. 16th, 2012 +
Series B, Proper 19: Is. 50:4-10; James 3:1-12; Mark 9:14-29

 In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Who could dare to speak these words?
            Could Israel? No, the people were deaf and blind to YHWH’s Word. Rebellious and quarrelsome. Idolatry was their chief problem. False gods. False idols. False worship. That’s why YHWH sent the prophet Isaiah: to preach repentance and restore the broken. To preach rescue for the weary exiles. And you thought the OT was just ancient history. Isaiah speaks to us too.
            It would be rather presumptuous of us to think we could speak these words any more than Israel could. We echo Isaiah’s confession: “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.” We are undone before the Lord’s holiness. We speak before we listen. We close our ears to God’s Word and open our mouths in hatred. We’re no different from the Israelites. Our sinful hearts are a productive idol factory without recession.
            We’re like the rebellious children of Israel, wandering around in the wilderness and exiled by our own sin. We too need a Word that sustains the weary.

            Isaiah may have been the mouth, but YHWH was the voice. These are the Words of YHWH.  And they are the words of his Servant. The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord has opened my ear and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward.

            Who is this Servant? Isaiah says this Servant is faithful. He suffers and will suffer more as Isaiah foretold. He is a Substitute. A stand in, like the sacrifices of the OT – his blood will be shed instead of yours. His life instead of yours. He suffers for the sins of others. This Sacrificial Servant listens. Obeys. Receives instruction. The perfect disciple. And the perfect teacher: speaking a Word that will sustain the weary. He will raise up the fallen House of Jacob. He is a Light to the nations. He speaks the Word of the Lord, a true prophet. He intercedes on their behalf, a true priest. He reigns in steadfast love and mercy, an everlasting King.

             Sound familiar? It should. This Servant is unlike any other servant in the Old or New Testament. Moses wasn’t up for the task of leading Israel out of slavery. Gideon complained that he was least in his father’s house. Jonah tried to run away and would’ve rather died than listen to the Lord. Peter denied. Thomas doubted.
            Only one Servant can claim perfect obedience to YHWH. Only one Servant needs no forgiveness. Only one Servant stands before the Father without guilt. And that Servant is
Jesus, the Suffering, Sacrificial Servant. Jesus is the perfect Israel, perfect for you. He is faithful for you who are faithless. He is obedient for you who disobey. He is your substitute. Your Sacrificial Servant.

            He sets his face like a flint to the cross where He willingly forgives sins by presenting himself as the guilt offering. He makes intercession for Israel and for you.
            And Servant Jesus is tougher than nails. Tougher than death. Tougher than anything hell and Satan could throw his way. I gave my back to those who strike, my cheek to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. Isaiah saw Holy Week from a distance.
            The scourging. Mocking. Spitting. Beating. Slapping. Sweating and Bleeding. The kiss of betrayal. The faithless friends running for cover. The House of Israel cheering for his destruction. The Father’s abandonment.
            Look. The sky is dark. Two criminals hang, one on his right, one on his left. All slowly dying. There he is in the middle, your Servant, taking a deep breath. Breathing his last. Speaking one final word: It is finished. The veil is rent. The blood is poured. The curse is removed. The sacrifice is complete. Death is defeated. And paradise is restored. The Servant speaks, not a cry of defeat, but of victory. For us it is the Father’s welcome, the Shepherd’s embrace and a Friend’s infinite love (Lessing, Isaiah 40-55).

            All of this so that your Sacrificial Servant can speak a word of comfort to sustain us who are weary. There’s a reason your ears are on the outside of your head and not inside. Even your physical makeup is designed so that you listen to the Servant’s voice and not your own. Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

             Jesus’ yoke of life is light because he bore the heavy yoke of death for you. Life is hard, good thing salvation is easy. Free. Won for you by Christ. He took the hard, narrow path to save you from the broad one that leads to destruction. His Word is rest because he rested in the tomb for you to rest in his promises. And then Easter. Resurrection. Vindication for Jesus and God’s promises and victory for you. He is your suffering, sacrificial Servant who is able to sustain our weariness with his Word and Water, with his Word and body and blood.

            And this is the Sacrificial Servant who speaks comfort into your ears also turns them to listen to your friends, and community crying for mercy. He opens our lips to speak the Good News to weary sinners. He moves our feet to run to the neighbor in time of trouble, with a word that will sustain and give eternal life. Sacrificial Servant Jesus forms us in his image. You too are sacrificial servants, cut from the crucified flesh of your master.
            Your Christian life is one of sacrifice. Parents sacrifice time, energy, all kinds of earthly possessions and income, even their own bodies to provide life for their children. Spouses sacrifice their needs and interests for the life of their husband or wife.       The home, the workplace, the neighborhood. These are all places where we are sacrificial servants. In the very places, stations where Christ has put you. The word is vocation. Calling.

            And there’s none greater than your calling to faith in Christ. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross is there too in your Baptism. You were buried in Christ’s death and raised in his resurrection. Your Christian life drips with Christ’s sacrifice. You’re all wet – but in a good way. Called, gathered, enlightened by the Holy Spirit. You’re free from sin and death. Free to serve. Free to give yourself up for the neighbor. Free to be a Sacrificial Servant.
            Your life in this congregation is also one of sacrificial service.  Sacrificing time to listen to our neighborhood and community in Gospel Seeds or helping with soup suppers or writing cards and calling shut-ins. Sacrificing your time in service with whatever talents and abilities God has given you. Serving on a board or a committee; attending Voter’s meetings - yes, enjoying a potluck is a God-given vocation. Whatever intellectual or physical gifts God has given you, there’s a place for your service here at Redeemer.  Sacrificing our treasure. It was never really ours to begin with anyway. We give Thee but Thine own whatever the gift may be, all that we have is Thine alone, a trust O Lord, from Thee.           

            That’s the life of Christ’s body the Church: sacrifice. St. Peter calls us a priesthood of believers because we are living sacrifices. And we live because Christ has sacrificed his life for us; We’re free to sacrifice our lives for others.
            Of course, this means something entirely offensive to your old sinful nature: getting over yourselves. Dying to yourselves. Die to our sin. But do not grow weary. Do not despair. Do not fear. Your life is in Christ. His sacrifice gives you everything you need.
            For your service isn’t really even your own; it’s the work of the Sacrificial Servant through you for others. He gives you ears to hear. Tongues to speak. Beautiful feet to spread the Good News. Lives of sacrificial service baptized, absolved, fed and nourished, by Jesus, Your Sacrificial Servant.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thoughts on Apologetics and Storytelling

There is such a thing as a human story; and there is such a thing as the divine story which is also a human story; but there is no such a thing as a Hegelian story or a Monist story or a relativist story or  determinist story; for every story, yes even a penny dreadful or a cheap novelette, has something in it that belongs to our universe and not theirs. Every short story does truly begin with creation and end with a last judgment. And this is the reason why the myths and the philosophers were at war until Christ came.

That is why the Athenian democracy killed Socrates out of respect for the gods; and why every strolling sophist gave himself the airs of a Socrates whenever he would talk in a superior fashion of the gods; and why the heretic Pharaoh wrecked his huge idols and temples for an abstraction and why the priests could return in triumph and trample his dynasty under foot; and why Buddhism had to divide itself from Brahmanism, and why in every age and country outside Christendom there has been a feud forever between the philosopher and the priest. It is easy enough to say that the philosopher is generally the more rational; it is easier still to forget that the priest is always the more popular. For the priest told the people stories; and the philosopher did not understand the philosophy of stories. It came into the world with the story of Christ. And this is why it had to be a revelation or vision given from above. Anyone who will think of the theory of stories or pictures will easily see the point. The true story of the world must be told by somebody to somebody else. By the very nature of a story it cannot be left to occur to anybody. (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p.160)

Chesterton's last line concerning storytelling reminds me of a something Prof. Harold Senkbeil once told us (and repeatedly for good reason) during class at seminary, "The Gospel assumed is the Gospel denied.'  But here we are, already getting ahead of ourselves. Before you can tell the story - and the Gospel is the greatest story of all - we must know what that story is. For that is the greatest danger with assumption, that the story goes unsaid, unread and untold.

Human beings by nature (and I dare say, by design as well) are storytellers. We love stories. We tell them to our children. Our children tell us stories - sometimes of the most fantastical, imaginative sort that we wish we could have their narrative powers as we once did in our youth. But even adults tell stories, sometimes they are short conversations on the phone or a recounting of the days events at dinner. Still other times stories may be told rapidly and under 140 characters through text messages and tweets, not a very complex (or perhaps enlightening) story, but a story nonetheless. We simply can't help ourselves. "Mom, you'll never guess what happened at school today!"  "Daddy, hurry and come over here now, I've got to tell you something; no it can't wait."  "Honey, I've got some good news for you..."  "Daddy, again. Read it again!"

It's almost as if we're wired to tell stories. In fact, I think we are. God made man in his own image and that image includes, a rational mind, a relationship (albeit a mysterious triune one) and a constant communication. We see all these in place before and after the fall in mankind. Although after the fall the mind, man's relationship (both with God and fellow man) and their communication are totally and completely corrupt; yet man still uses these gifts. And more importantly, God uses them too, namely, he restores them in a the new man and restores them in His Son. Perfect God. Perfect Man. Perfect story teller.

The point is this, that even in this fallen world, storytelling is bound into the very pages of man's history, from the moment the Scripture opens, there is storytelling. The question becomes, well, what sort of story is this? That we shall answer soon enough.  That man is a storyteller can only mean that God himself is a storyteller. This is why he uses human language to communicate - Hebrew and Greek - to be specific, prophets, apostles, disciples and evangelists. Evidently, creation was one story that God did not want to keep to himself, but rather to share and hand down.

And perhaps we overlook that fact when we read John 1 at Christmas. We must never go the way of the Gnostics and forget the flesh. Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Essence; but by unity of Person. And neither must we forget the Word that was made flesh. We are not lovers of the flesh for mere epicurean chaos.  It's no coincidence that the Word made flesh taught in large part through stories, parables and otherwise, and contained in them was all the wisdom of the philosophers, all the beauty of the mythological, and yet all the truthfulness of history. The Word made flesh never left words behind. And surely not for his sake, but for ours. He spoke to the crowds. He spoke in the synagogues. He spoke over the water. He spoke forgiveness. He spoke from the cross. He spoke in the resurrection. He spoke blessing. And none of those are past tense. He still speaks. That is the Greatest story, it continues in the resurrection, an eternal epilogue where each chapter is better than the last. Perhaps heaven is a bit like that, a book that you can't put down, the pace quickens, the story gets better and the book never ends.

We need words. We need story. Just as man needs words and story to communicate earthly things, so too, we need words and story to communicate the things of heaven that have come to earth. This is why apologetics - both the tough-minded and tender-hearted - and storytelling have found such great companionship together. Both sides of the brain are addressed in Christian apologetics. Jesus does this all the time where evidence, logic and reason are painted onto the storybook page we call, the parables. St. Paul did it in Athens, combining Stoic rhetoric, narrative and driving to the Gospel entirely on the pages of heathen philosophers. And this is what is needed today. We need to continue to communicate the greatest true story through storytelling. We need more literary apologists of the Great Eucatastrophe. Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis, Sayers, Williams, Barfield and others have paved the way. It's time for us to learn from the J.K. Rowlings of the world and pick up the pen. We can learn so much from Harry and others. Comfort in the midst of deathly grief. Joy and hope beyond the grave. That was Harry's hope because it was first the Christians' hope. And now the readers', if they have ears to hear.

I've called this right-brained apologetics before. And the term seems appropriate. But Chesterton recognizes that both sides of the mind are applied when it comes to defending the faith because Jesus speaks not to part of our brain but to the whole thing, indeed the whole person for he himself is the great everlasting man who combined in himself both the beauty and imagination of story with the wisdom and perspicacity of philosophy. Literature serves apologetics not as a means to an end. Rather it is both means and an end in itself. Literature communicates. And literature, within the leaves of its prose, points to a story greater than itself. Here in storytelling, man continues the work of tending to God's creation; here we are sub-creators always writing in the image in which we are made. Here, in the Gospel, both the breadth of storytelling and the depth of wisdom find their conclusion and epilogue.

[Christianity] is one among many stories, only it happens to be a true story. It is one among many philosophies, only it happens to be the truth. (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 161)

 For the Son of Man has leaped off the pages of eternity and into the scroll of history. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And his Word still dwells with us on the written page, on the retina's wide gaze and upon our lips as the storytellers continue to tell somebody else. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Biblical Apologetics, Part 3

On more than one occasion, Luke records that the Gospel proclaimed by the apostles “turned the world upside down.” In Acts 17 it was Athens’s turn to be capsized. Jerusalem had come to Athens and sent one of her finest ambassadors, Paul. He brought a Word of peace as foolish as the cross but as living as the Giver of the message. In Athens the wisdom of the world collided with true Wisdom; the intellectual center of the pagan world met in dialog with the Center (and creator and sustainer and Savior) of all things, Christ. Jesus’ death and resurrection bookends Acts 17, First in Thessalonica, then among the Bereans, later in the synagogues and finally in the Areopagus. Christ Crucified was the center of Paul’s message to both Jew and Greek alike. In Acts 17, Paul provides a pattern for the Church’s proclamation of the Christian faith today. Consider the following main points:
·    Paul is in the public square, the synagogues, the marketplace and known pagan facilities (Acts 17:2-3, 10, 17, 22ff) preaching the Gospel and reasoning, giving evidence for Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Although this is only sanctified speculation, I think the evidence cited sounded a lot like 1 Corinthians 15. Christians need to be in the public sphere. The Greek philosophers invited Paul into the Areopagus to speak. Without compromising the truth of the Gospel there are many occasions we can engage in today in a similar manner. College campuses across the U.S. provide free speech areas as a modern marketplace of ideas. And there are numerous other places where Christians are free to declare and defend the Gospel: swap meets, state fairs, neighborhoods, etc. The Christian message with all its historical veracity and reliability, and the performative power of the Word (Isaiah 55), is thoroughly equipped to challenge the ideas of current religious and atheistic worldviews by providing truth for those who inquire with an open mind and. The Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims understand this. They put forth massive amounts of money and manpower, especially near colleges, for this very reason, to be in the public square and to infiltrate people’s hearts and minds with their message. We should be as willing to work for the truth as they do for a lie.
·    Paul moves like a lawyer, moving his case from God’s natural revelation to divine revelation in Christ. With the Jews he argues from the Scriptures, but with the philosophers he cites nature and reason. Paul’s entire argument rests on empirical reasoning. He begins with common ground facts that both Christians and pagans know: natural revelation. This is Romans 1 in action. We see nature. We recognize there is a creator god. We don’t know anything about him except that he is god and we are not. End of story. But that’s precisely where Paul begins. “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown this I proclaim to you…”
·    Paul is observant. He uses his surroundings to communicate the Gospel. And he moves from the evidence of nature to the evidence for Christ’s work in creation and finally his death and resurrection for all creation. In other words, how is the unknown god made known? In the person of Jesus Christ. How do you know he is God and will do as he promises? His death and resurrection are the guarantee.
·    Paul also displays a deep knowledge of the Stoic philosophers’ own works. He quotes from Epimenides of Crete and Aratus’ poem Phainomena. His careful observation of the surrounding religious architecture mirrors his calculated understanding of the foundational literature in Greek philosophical thought. Paul knew what was on the Athens Times Best Seller List. And he read them well enough to quote them in conversation. Paul also dismisses any silly notion that Christians are somehow anti-intellectual, as if Christians are called to check their brains at the door. Quite the opposite. Paul goes cerebellum to cerebellum with the best minds of his day and provides a compelling theological and logical argument. The fact that some mocked the message and walked away only proves that faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and not a product of the intellect. Our intellect and reason is an instrument and a gift used in service of the Gospel. Thankfully we can leave the work of conversion to the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Christians ought not to shy away from reading other religious works or atheists’ books. What better way to know your audience, how they think, what makes their brains tick, what presuppositions they have, what is their epistemology and so on? If we know the way people think and why they think the way they do, we will be better equipped to communicate with them and apply the Gospel to their specific need.
·    Paul also turns their philosophical worldview on its head. Many of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers were influenced by Platonic thought. This meant that the non-material and abstract forms had ultimate meaning and foundation, not the material world. The true Forms of reality were located (above and beyond) in a place in the heavens while the outward and changing sensible world was located here on earth in what was often called the Intelligible Realm. Therefore, what we perceive as reality is in fact a copy of its true Form. Plato often used the example of a table. There are many tables in the world all of which receive their true Form, or tableness, from the essence of the ideal table. Paul also works from the unknown to the known, but opposite of the way a Platonist would. Paul works from the abstract to the concrete, from God’s natural revelation to God’s flesh and blood revelation in the resurrection of Christ. In Christ the shadow takes true form and it is the form of a man born, born of a virgin, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, buried and dead. A man who rose from the grave. Instead of man reasoning from the shadows of earth to the true forms of heaven. The ideal, everlasting man came from heaven to earth, not abstractly but clothed in skin and bone. The Creator became a creature. God became man. And the assurance of Paul’s entire argument is made on the basis of this God-Man dying and rising from the dead.
·    Paul drove right to the crux of the Christian faith: Christ Crucified. He avoided any number of apologetic rabbit trails and deliberately, methodically and skillfully moved the conversation to Christ’s death and resurrection, the source of all Wisdom and Truth. Here in the cross of Christ all our ignorance is put to rest and true knowledge is found. For we preach Christ Crucified: foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews but for us who are being saved it is both the power of God and the wisdom of God.
In Athens, Paul reveals that both philosophy and myth have met their fulfillment in Christ. Here is the truth they searched so desperately for. Here is the story that sounded too good to be true, but in fact, is real.
It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited his world in person. It declares that really and even recently, or right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into the world this original invisible being; about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths; the Man Who Made the World…It is the realization both of mythology and philosophy. It is a story and in that sense one of a hundred stories; only it is a true story. It is a philosophy and in that sense like a hundred philosophies; only it is a philosophy that is like life. (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 173 & 159).

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Redeemer's Higher Things Video

Every year at Redeemer, following our trip to Higher Things, I put together a little video documenting some of the week of daring to be Lutheran. The youth loves seeing the video and remembering the services, teaching and the fun they experienced. The congregation gains a deeper appreciation of our youth as they learn and live as Lutherans. And I always enjoy putting together the video. I hope to post the videos from out past trips to Utah and Las Vegas at some point on our church's YouTube channel. Here it is in link format on YouTube and embedded below. Granted this is a bit later than I usually operate. But I take comfort in Gandalf's words, "A wizard is never late; he arrives precisely when he means to." So, without further adieu...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Sermon for 14th Sunday after Pentecost: "Divine Heart Transplant"

+ 14th Sunday after Pentecost +
Series B, Proper 17: Deut. 4:1-2, 6-9; Eph. 6:10-20; Mark 7:14-23

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

            Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach and is pooped out?  What comes out of a person defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man come, come all kinds of evil…
            That’s what my grandma would’ve called barnyard talk. But Jesus says it to make a point. The same point illustrated by a conversation between two pastors from the Hammer of God, a delightful series of short stories about Lutheran life in Sweden. Take a listen:
            “So you are a believer, I’m glad to hear that. What do you believe in?”
Fridfelt stared dumbfounded at his superior. Was he jesting with him?
            “But, sir, I am simply saying I am a believer.”
            “Yes, I hear that, my boy. But what is it that you believe in?
            “But don’t you know, sir, what it means to be a believer?”
            “That is a word which can stand for many things that differ greatly, my boy. I only ask what it is that you believe in.”
            “In Jesus, of course”… “I mean – that I have given him my heart.”
            “Do you consider that something to give him? “
            “But sir, if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved.”
            “You are right, my boy. And it is just as true that, if you think you are saved because you give Jesus your heart, you will not be saved…One does not choose a Redeemer for one-self…nor give one’s heart to him. The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift, indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched can, sticks his walking cane through it, and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with him. That is how it is” (Bo Giertz, The Hammer of God, p. 122-123).

            And that’s what Jesus is trying to teach the Pharisees, his disciples and us. Jesus simply repeats what the prophets before him knew to be true:
            Jeremiah says “the heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).  Ezekiel says we have a heart of stone.  And Jesus pulls no punches either. Out of the heart of man comes all wickedness.

            According to Jesus, you have a fatal heart condition. Clogged by a self-righteous, curved-inward, love of yourself. Notice how Jesus bookends this list of sin with the 1st commandment. Self-righteousness, pride, foolishness. And then, the Great Physician takes the scalpel of His Law his hand and begins to cut us to the heart –we’re all thieves and knaves; murderers, adulterers, coveters, liars, slanderers and fools in our heart.
            Not a one of us is left unscathed by the Law.
            Jesus is right. You’re not sinful and unclean from the outside in. It’s the other way around; you’re unclean and sinful from the inside out.  And even though his word kills us, we need to hear it. The atheists are right, the church is full of hypocrites; but there’s always room for more. The church is the place for sinners: proper diagnosis given: dead in sin; and the only treatment available is received: Christ Crucified for you.
            Here the Great Physician operates: first with the razor’s edge of the Law and next with the healing of the Gospel. First by putting you to death, then by raising you to life. No other procedure will do: no bypass surgeries, pacemakers or jumper cables. No defibrillator in the world is going to save you from your old sinful heart condition.
            The Pharisees failure to understand the true heart of the matter is their failure to understand who Jesus is and what he’s come to do. They fail to see that in the Scriptures, Holiness in is received, not achieved. Cleansing and righteousness before God are given, not earned.
            And in failing to understand the wicked nature of their sinful hearts of stone, they fail to see the saving heart of Yahweh in human flesh standing right before them, the very one who promises to give them a new heart, cleansed of sin.

             This was the genius of the Reformation. Perhaps even its greatest contribution. That before justification (saved by grace alone in Christ alone) could be recovered and taught rightly; the doctrine of original sin must be taught clearly. Not that there’s a spark left to ignite. Some good left to kick start into something better. Some flesh wound you can stitch up. Some blemish you can simply wash away. Sin is not a behavioral problem. Not that you’re not a sinner because you sin. But that you sin because you are a sinner. Dead in trespasses apart from Christ. If we fail to understand Genesis 3 we fail to understand Christ Crucified and risen for us.
            This is why the Church is neither a gymnasium for the spiritually fit nor is it a rehab center for our sinful addictions, nor is it a hospital where the spiritually healthy tend to the sick to make them better. It's a hospice where the dying tend to the dying. No one gets out alive. Dead men don’t pull themselves off the operating table. There’s only one Great Physician for that kind of operation. That’s why the Church is for sinners and Jesus dwells only among sinners.

            For the answer, the cure, lies not in our hearts, but in the heart of God, in the undeserved mercy of Jesus. Only God can touch the heart, only God can shape the will of rebel man, only God can take the unwilling and make him willing.
            You need a radical operation: a divine heart transplant. A new heart. Hearts of flesh instead of stone. Hearts that beat to the rhythms of God’s Word and Spirit. Hearts that are alive with faith toward God and love toward neighbor. That’s what God wants for each of you; that’s what God gives to each of you. "I will give you a new heart," says the Lord. "I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."And your new heart comes to you one way: through death and resurrection. Dying and rising in Jesus.

            The 10 commandments aren’t your spiritual 24 Hour Fitness, meant to pump you up. They’re your executioner and your death certificate. A sniper shot to the head. The Law double-taps our old sinful nature. Dead in sin. But alive in Christ. And when you see Christ on the cross you see all the 10 commandments perfectly fulfilled for you. All the Law you couldn’t do, wouldn’t do, refused to do. It is done. Finished. For you.  Christ’s death is your life. Christ’s cross is your glory. Christ’s defeat is your victory. Out of the heart of God comes something much different. All of the Law and the codes from the OT that the Pharisees were dead set on keeping, Jesus keeps for them. For you. The Great Physician lays down his life to rescue yours. He’s dead set on saving you.
            Jesus’ entire ministry was one of taking all the uncleanness and defilement of the world upon himself: touching and healing lepers and demoniacs, touching and raising the dead, eating and drinking with sinners, healing on the Sabbath – and finally cursed on a tree. He becomes the curse to free you from it. Christ defiles himself and you are declared holy. Christ becomes unclean and you are blameless. Christ becomes sin and you are the righteousness of God. He binds himself to your death and raises you to new life.
            And this merciful heart of Jesus is heart of His Church.
            The same heart of Christ pierced on the cross still courses in crimson streams from the cross to the font for you.  Baptism is your divine heart surgery. You are given a new heart and a new nature. The washing that the Pharisees offered began in self-righteousness and ended in defilement; but Jesus Baptizes you and washes away your defilement leaving you righteous and clean. “He creates a clean heart and renews a right Spirit within you.”
            And that same blood of Jesus poured into the font also fills the chalice for you. No, it’s not what goes into us that makes us unclean. But it is what goes into us that makes us clean. The Pharisees were so worried about what went into their mouth defiling them; but here in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus’ body and blood goes in to your mouths and gives you Jesus’ holiness.
            Baptismal water poured over you. Absolution spoken into your ears. The body and blood of Jesus placed onto your lips. Here who you who were unclean from the inside out are made clean from the outside in. This is what makes you clean.

             In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.