The Fulfillment of the Law

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So today I would like for us to talk about Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish law. It’s a core theological concept in Christianity and one that does not have a standard agreed upon definition. The word fulfillment itself means to complete something – to make it full and finished. Many people have many ideas as to what this means in relation to the Jewish law. The idea of fulfilling the law comes from the sermon on the mount, here is a section from Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Let’s start by pointing out a couple key aspects of what he said there, because it’s super dense and hard to wrap your head around, even for seasoned theologians. One thing to note is that he refers to the law and the prophets together. Some people like to think this passage refers to the 10 commandments but it really is much broader than that – Jesus gives six examples after this taken from Jewish law and the examples he gives come from all 5 books of the Torah.

Another detail to look at is that Jesus says not a single letter of the law will be abolished until heaven and earth disappear and everything is accomplished. That is a wonderfully vague phrase. What needs to be accomplished, he doesn’t actually say. Some people say that he is referring to his death and resurrection, but that doesn’t explain why he says when heaven and earth disappear. It sounds much more likely to me that he is talking about the apocalypse, which fits well into the theme of Matthew’s teaching but doesn’t match what most of the rest of the New Testament says.

Another detail that is important to consider is that Jesus says that anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. Some scholars believe he is referring to the instructions he is about to give, others think he is referring to all 613 Jewish laws. Even though it makes things more complicated I do believe that he is referring to the entire law of Moses and the prophets, as he mentioned at the beginning. So what does all this mean? That’s a really good question. The meaning of this passage is disputed and you are free to try and figure the answers out for yourself, but, I’m going to present you with three different possible interpretations in this brief little blog post.

The first one is probably the most familiar. It is a very common interpretation, especially amongst more traditional or evangelical churches. It goes like this – Because of the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden humanity was lost and so God gave people the law of Moses to help them avoid sin and be good people. This didn’t work out as planned and people became legalistic and lost sight of God in the process. So, God sent his son to die on the cross as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity. When Jesus did that we no longer needed the law because our sins had been forgiven. In this world view Jesus fulfilled the law by completing it’s purpose. He destroyed sin and death and gave us faith and the Holy Spirit in place of the law. Jesus completed the law by accomplishing what it could not, the salvation of the fallen human race, and he did this by becoming a blood sacrifice in the same way lambs were sacrificed to atone for sin the temple. This would mean that the law of Moses, including the 10 commandments, would no longer apply because there is a new covenant sealed in Christ’s blood.

The second interpretation I would like to give you is more of a Jewish one, which remember is what the audience hearing this sermon would be familiar with. One could easily read this passage and think Jesus is instructing his followers to keep the full Jewish law including food restrictions and circumcision. There are 613 Jewish laws which would be included in this with a wide range of content. Everything from not eating shellfish to not wearing clothes made of mixed fiber to rules about ritual washing after being in the presence of a dead body. We obviously don’t follow all of these laws today and neither do most Jews, but at the time of Jesus the option of keeping the law of Moses would not have seemed as radical as it does to us today – most, if not all, of his followers would have grown up keeping the full Jewish law.

In fact not following the law would have been the strange radical idea. This interpretation does not seem to jive with all the things Paul has to say in the New Testament about the subject, but there are, of course, different ways of interpreting what Paul says as well. There is a movement that started in the last century called Messianic Judaism which follows the food and circumcision laws while still believing Jesus is the messiah. They are Jewish Christians and likely have a great deal in common with many of Jesus’s early followers. They may observe the law of Moses but they teach that the law itself does not bring salvation, it is faith in Jesus as the messiah which saves. In this Messianic Jewish way of looking at it, Christ dying on the cross makes the law complete but does not abolish it. We are still meant to follow the law but we also need the saving power of Christ, the law on its own is not enough.

The third interpretation I would like to present to you is a broader one. It takes what Jesus says about the law and applies it to laws in general instead of only to the Jewish religious laws. The Mosaic laws are social and religious codes designed to help individuals and all of society live in peace and justice with one another and to please God and earn his favour. The core intention is fine, we should live justly with one another and we should try to please God. That’s why Jesus says that the whole law can be summed up as “love God and love your neighbour”. Jesus is speaking broadly about respecting tradition while trying to find the meaning behind it. This interpretation doesn’t really concern itself with whether you follow the 613 laws of Torah or not but is about engaging with your own tradition.

Jesus is saying that we should not throw out the baby with the bath water but that we should re-evaluate our tradition and work within it to keep it from going off track. Jesus being the fulfillment of the law could mean that religious practices and traditions are only complete when they remain focused on God and not on themselves. This third interpretation is mine. I believe that Jesus is trying to avoid extremes in how we relate to our tradition. I hear him saying that we should neither blindly follow our religious tradition nor rashly throw the whole thing out. He is clearly calling tradition into question but also makes it very clear that he does not want to abolish it altogether.

The Jewish laws seemed rigorous but they had really grown stagnant. What once had served to bring people closer to God had been slowly eroded by sinful human nature and had instead become a way of proving superiority, controlling people, and patting the egos of those who followed them. Jesus tried to show us how the intention behind these religious practices had been lost. He tried to bring a rigorous internal component back to it, but people only wanted external change they didn’t want to have to look within. They were happy simply not to murder without delving into the depths of their souls to address the anger they carried inside. The laws had been meant to change people for the better but they had regressed into something which merely controlled social interaction.

This pattern was not unique to the Jews, anyone with a critical eye can see it playing out all throughout Christian history as well. It is a human tendency and one that requires constant vigilance and occasional reformation to mitigate. I would like to give you an example of this from secular law and western history. The history of wealth distribution in western society over the last 500 years can show us some of this tendency as well. We operated out of a feudal system for quite some time – an economic system based in the monarchies of the day. It was a complex and intricate system and I won’t do it justice in this extremely brief explanation, but the general gist was this: the king owned the country and all the people in it. Everything which people produced was used by the king as the king saw fit.

There were Lords and other royals who owned the land under the king’s authority and managed the common people and their labour. The common people were allowed to actually own very little and had no say in the shaping of national politics. With the colonization of the new world things began to change and a new system was put into place. Instead of monarchy there was democracy and instead of feudalism there was capitalism. This was an attempt to make laws which would prevent oligarchies from forming. The basic principle of capitalism is that what you produce you own and can do what you like with. Democracy was put in place to protect capitalism from the greedy hands of royals.

It was a revolution by the people for the people. But, as time went by, the greedy and powerful began to influence politics and economics and slowly took the framework which was meant to create a fair and just society and managed to turn it back into an oligarchy. Today capitalism has corrupted democracy and large corporations are accumulating mass wealth at the expense of the common people. The framework has changed but the end result is the same in capitalism as it was in feudalism. A select group of people are very rich at the expense of everyone else. Now, I don’t want to get into too much politics but I hope this illustrates my point. The same thing had happened to the Jewish religious institution of Jesus’ time and its law no longer served its original purpose.

Without internal change things will never be any different. Every political system, from monarchy to democracy, from communism to dictatorship, will fall victim to the sin of corruption and greed until we start transforming the hearts of the people involved. And the same is true of religious systems. Until we start looking at who we are and what is going on inside our hearts and minds no amount of religious law or tradition will ever change anything. The outward expression will change but the condition of the people will not. Laws about murder are all well and good but until we eradicate anger the laws will be changed and manipulated to express that anger.

So what Jesus was talking about in his sermon on the mount still applies today. Jesus wasn’t talking only about his time and place but all of human experience. I believe it is essential that we be firmly rooted in our tradition while still bring critical of it. We need to refresh our laws periodically in order to weed out the inevitable human corruption which seeps into it. And we need to make internal change the primary focus of our religious systems. Otherwise we get where we are today, the church has become the same as the Pharisees just with different doctrines and excuses for what it does. The church has become a legalistic framework for people to pat their own egos and justify oppression. History is there to prove this and we never really heard what Jesus was saying. Outward acts of devotion and strict adherence to the law are meaningless if we do not change within.

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When Love is born

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Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. Dear friends,since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

-1 John 4:7-12

 

Love is a very strange word. It means so many different things. I love my son, I love reggae music, I love my dog, I love God, I love the smell of rain in the spring, I love reading ancient Celtic history, and I love hot pizza with lots of meat and pineapple. But all of these feelings are different, all of these relationships require very different things from me and I receive very different things from each of them in return. I think it is amazing that we have taken such a wide array of emotions, relationships, and responsibilities and summed them up with one overly simplified word which doesn’t really do justice to any of them.

I feel like we would need a whole dictionary just to define this one word. I feel like maybe it is too vague a word to really mean anything at all. Yet it is an essential word, it is a word that stirs up all sorts of reactions when it is used. We can change the course of someone’s life just by saying “I love you” and yet we may not ever really know what we mean when we say it, at least I don’t. I know when I love someone, don’t get me wrong, and I know that it is very different from how I love pizza, and I can honestly say it is the most real thing I have ever felt, despite the fact that it also seems the most surreal.

The love I have for my son has completely shaped my entire life and the way I go about making decisions, the things which I prioritize, and the way that I spend my time. My whole life revolves around this one little dude and there is nothing more real to me than my love for him. But if you asked me to explain it to you or even to describe it I couldn’t even come close. Despite the fact that love is the single most important force in my life it may also be the most elusive and mysterious. What a strange situation that something so powerful and personal and life shaping is also something that we may have little to no ability to comprehend, something that even when I am in the midst of I still don’t understand.

And it is extra strange because it isn’t something that is happening outside of us. I don’t understand the stock market, but it isn’t part of me so I don’t really care. But love is not just inside me, it is me. It is part of who I am in a major way and it completely escapes any understanding. There is this huge piece of me that is pivotal in shaping who I am and I just can’t wrap my head around it. When I look back in life there are times when I was sure about love and in retrospect I can’t really say for sure what happened, I’m not really sure I even know what love is. How can we discern what is love when we don’t even have a proper definition for it?

There are countless references to God’s love in the Bible. God’s love is the basis for a whole bunch of psalms, it is an integral message in the Gospels, it is the foundation for forgiveness, and Jesus cites it as the one true law: to love God above all else and to love your neighbour without hesitation. Many people would say that God is pure love, that his love is what sustains us, his love is ever present, it never fails, it always forgives, and it is selfless – and I agree. But is that what love looks like when we see it in the human heart?

It seems our love is such a very human thing – riddled with all sorts of human emotions and subject to our human follies. Love makes us jealous, it makes us foolish, it makes us act selfishly, it causes quarrels and arguments, it makes us lose sleep at night. It brings out the worst in us, but it also brings out the best. It makes us willing to sacrifice, it makes us forgiving, it helps us find meaning in a confusing world, it gives us purpose, and it gives us hope. With such a mixture of things associated with it, could it possibly be true that what we think of as love in our lives is really the same love that flows from God?

Is our love a divine truth coloured by our own human experience? From our love springs joy and sorrow alike. If I think about my happiest moments they come from either loving another or being loved myself and if I think about my saddest moments they are all from love lost, or broken, or accompanied by dysfunctional relationships. It seems that we are trying to have these divine moments underneath our very human skins. We want to be like God but when we try it gets all muddled up and we do it all wrong. We are constantly striving for it but never really seem to accomplish it, at least not in the way God does.

While God’s love is a complete and perfect peace ours is more like an inexplicable passion. Love is the primary driving force in the human heart. We take the biggest chances for love, we put ourselves out on the line and we make ourselves vulnerable for it. We sacrifice for love, we work our hardest for it, we throw everything out the window just so we can chase after it. Someone once told me that the tingly feeling you get when you fall in love is common sense leaving your body. We abandon reason for the sake of love and that might be the most beautiful thing about it. That might be the very thing that makes it divine. Perhaps we have love so that we can be released from the burden of common sense and come just a little bit closer to God.

Maybe even when it’s mucky and difficult and hurts us deep down inside the act of loving is, in and of its self, the path to God. And maybe there is a deep and divine lesson in the fact that love does hurt. What if this is God’s way of helping us set our priorities straight? What if he is saying that loving is more important than anything else, that it’s only when we are able to take the good with the bad and love despite the risks that we can really be disciples of Jesus? I think St.Francis hit the nail on the head when he said:

 

Oh master grant that I may never seek 

So much to be consoled as to console

To be understood as to understand

To be loved as to love with all my soul

Maybe submission to God is only possible when we have embraced the absurdity that is love. Maybe it is required of us that we put down reason and follow something that is mysterious if we are ever to really follow God. I see a mirror of our commitment to God in our living out love – both set aside the cares of this world for something that is more important, but also something that can’t be properly explained. And that may be what love is all about, letting go of what we know, of what is secure and straight forward and pursuing something that is wholly inexplicable and unpredictable and still managing to have faith that it is the right thing to do.

Because that is what submitting to God is like, we don’t get a nice little package that explains what will happen if we follow God. We just have to move moment to moment and are never actually freed from hardships but instead realize that there is something more important than our own hardship. Love, like God, is something we cannot understand but also that we do not need to understand in order to recognize it as being a blessing for everyone. Even though our love falls short of God’s it is still a force for good in the world and in our own personal lives. Without that inexplicable and often uncontrollable passion we would never leave our own little logical bubbles.

We would never be able to see the world how God intended us to. Love sets us free from ourselves, it makes us willing to sacrifice ourselves for others, it makes us more like God, even when we are doing it all wrong. While I was doing some reading for this sermon I stumbled across a man named Robert Fulghum who writes books about love and he had this wonderful little quote which I would like to share with you:

“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”

It is a wholly absurd thing to say dreams are more powerful than facts, but I am not sure it being absurd makes it any less true. I think that in God imagination is more powerful than knowledge and that love is stronger than death. And we can see this in the birth of Jesus. The Christmas story is about the moment when pure love took human form and the entire story is filled with accounts of how people walked away from the logical world and followed a star into a barn, or left behind their flocks to go see a baby born to a virgin.

If we cannot see a beautiful acceptance of the absurdity of love in the Christmas story then I believe we are missing the point. Love leads us to follow God in illogical ways and that is something that we celebrate every year. Love is beyond reason, it is infinitely more beautiful than the logical world. And the Lord calls us to look up into the sky, just the like those wise men of old, and follow the stars. I think that God teaches us through the experience of love and I think that as we come closer to God we lay aside all the extremities in life and find what we are truly meant to be. We find that our own reckless, silly, messed up, and sometimes even selfish human love is actually the same as God’s and that we’ve just piled a bunch of junk on top of it.

We let go of our intellectual ideas about what love should look like, we stop imagining a Hollywood ending, a Disney love affair, a perfectly choreographed ritual and we embrace the fact that love is something beyond our control, and that it being beyond our control is what makes it like God. I believe that love may be the closest thing we can ever experience to being like Christ and that in it we can overcome death and find eternal life in Heaven just as our father wants us to. So keep on loving, even when it hurts, even when it doesn’t make any sense, even when you have no idea why.

But just let it happen, let love happen, don’t worry about whether or not it is real, or if you are just pretending things are the way you wish they were and let go of your ideas of what love is because no one will ever understand it and no one ever should. It wouldn’t be so magnificent if we could label it and stick it in a little box. It wouldn’t be love if it wasn’t messy and that is a beautiful thing.

Let’s all make sure this Christmas to embrace love in our lives. Let’s do the things our hearts lead us to and let’s remember that in Jesus love has conquered death and that we have only to see it all around us and in our own hearts. Let’s look up into the sky and follow a star until we find God. Let’s listen to the angel calling and leave behind our flocks. Let’s gather round a baby in barn in a small town somewhere and name him King of the Universe. Let’s accept our messy and imperfect love and share it with one another just the way it is. Let’s let the absurdity of love wash us clean and really just follow it until we find the source it comes from.

Lord, we thank you for coming here to this earth so long ago and for showing us how to love one another. There are no words that could ever do justice to the love that you have for us so we offer you our love in return, as mixed up and confused as it may be at times. And Lord, whatever the situation, whatever we may be doing, however it may seem in the moment underneath it all we love you with all our hearts and we are grateful for everything you have given to us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

What is a Traditional Christmas?

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We have a lot of ideas about what constitutes a traditional Christmas, but we often fail to realize that Christmas traditions have changed a lot since the first one in Bethlehem 2018 years ago. The first recorded Christmas celebrations took place in the 4th  century and we don’t know a whole lot about them other than the fact that they existed. Dec 25th  was actually considered the winter solstice by the Roman calendar and many ancient theologians calculated the feast of Jesus’ birth based on a 9 month period after the feast of the annunciation, which was considered to be the day Mary conceived by the holy spirit. So in ancient times Jesus was considered to have been conceived on the spring equinox and born on the winter solstice.

It was common in the contemporary pagan cultures of the time to have celebrations which happened on solstices and equinoxes too. Yule was a long standing and wide spread holiday celebrated by Germanic peoples. It involved burning a large log and decorating the hearth with evergreens like holly. It also involved taking an evergreen tree and decorating it. The large burning fire and the use of evergreens gave hope of the coming light and the green which would return. Much of Yule was integrated into Christmas in later years as the Germanic peoples slowly became Christian. We still call it Yule even, and deck the halls with boughs of holly, we still burn a Yule log and decorate a Yule tree.

Another contemporary solstice tradition in ancient times was the Roman Saturnalia, which celebrated the God Saturn, who ruled during the golden age when food was abundant without labour and there were no social ranks or private possessions. It was a celebration which reversed the social roles of those involved, slaves would sit at the table and be served by their masters. It was also a drunk fest with gambling and dancing, and the exchange of gifts.

While our modern Christmas doesn’t sound like it has a whole lot in common with Saturnalia other than music, booze, and presents, the Christmas which was celebrated in Europe and especially Britain through the middle ages and right up until the reformation, over a thousand years later, was very similar. Peasants would bang on the doors of the wealthy and demand food with threats of violence. The streets were filled with music and drunken revelry. And a homeless person would be given a crown and named “the Lord of misrule”

These celebrations were so rowdy that the protestant reformation, with the exception of Lutherans and Anglicans, rallied against Christmas. In the 17th century the Puritan movement in England was especially against Christmas, pointing out it’s pagan roots and it’s drunken festivities. The Catholics and Anglicans responded by trying to bring a more religious focus to the holiday while the Puritans and Presbyterians abandoned it all together. Christmas was actually illegal in England from 1647-1660 But mass riots from the common folk required that it be allowed once again. The Presbyterians in Scotland banned Christmas in 1640 claiming the church had been “purged of all superstitious observation of days” Christmas wasn’t made a public holiday in Scotland until 1958.

The pilgrims of New England were famous for working on Christmas as a protest of the pagan holiday. In Boston celebrating Christmas was made illegal in 1659 and that lasted until 1681, over 30 years. Even after the ban was lifted Christmas didn’t become popular in Boston until the 19th century. In the new world it depended where the settlers were from what their views were. Germans loved Christmas but the British has a tenuous relationship with it. As more immigrants came to the new world they brought with them some of the older traditions.

There was a major shift in the 19th  century in how Christmas was celebrated. Popular literature like Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and Clement Moore’s A Night Before Christmas began to present Christmas as a quiet time for families with a focus on children. This was actually brand new in the history of Christmas and it caught on like wild fire. The protestant reformation had ushered in the age of reason and a disdain for anything resembling superstition but the romantic era of Western thought emerged in the 1800s as a counterbalance to that and people began to crave sentimental rituals and heart warming stories.

Christmas was caught up in this cultural shift and became a romanticized version of older traditions. Family, warm fires, sweet treats, reconciling of broken relationships, and sentimental music became the new norm and is still felt in the Christmas we have today. It can be seen in our movies, our songs, and our traditions. The ancient practice of gift giving inherited from the Roman Saturnalia became an expression of familial bonds and sentimental feelings.

The importance of gift giving and the widespread acceptance of Christmas in the public eye opened up a commercial market that has become the main focus of Christmas today. We still have the symbols of the Germanic Yule, we have the drinking and gift giving of the Roman Saturnalia, and we have the romantic family values of the 19th century, but what our main focus has become in Christmas today reflects the main focus of our culture in general, consumerism.

The birth of Jesus was arguably never the heart and center of Christmas, it has been mostly an excuse to practice the values and desires of the time and place each generation has found themselves in. It has been a time for peasants to demand food from the rich, it has been a time for rejoicing in the lengthening of daylight in the months to come, it has been a time to scorn and rebel against superstition, it has been a time to celebrate children and eat sweets, it has been a time for blow out sales and last minute shopping, and somewhere in there, lost in the ever changing cultural values is a consistent, if somewhat muddled thread of Christian belief and adoration of the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

So, where do you think Christmas is going next? Where do we want it to go and how can we help it get there?

Mother Mary

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 And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

-Luke 1:46-55

 

Last week we spoke about the angel Gabriel predicting John the Baptist‘s birth. Gabriel had declared that John would be the promised Elijah returning to usher in the day of the messiah’s return. When Gabriel appeared six months later to Mary he said,

“you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end”

These words clearly pointed to what the people of the time were expecting in the coming messiah. Jesus was the second half of Gabriel’s announcement, that prophesy was being fulfilled in that Elijah and the long expected messiah were finally arriving. Gabriel visited Elizabeth first, then Mary. During the Angel’s visit to Mary he told her about Elizabeth and her miraculous pregnancy as well. Mary immediately went to visit her and when she arrived in Elizabeth’s house John leaped for joy in his mother’s womb.

Elizabeth was ecstatic when John recognized Mary and Elizabeth praised her. Mary responded to her in song. This song is often called the magnificant and has been rendered in many ways throughout Christian history. It is the scripture passage quoted at the beginning of this post. Mary’s song echoes another great song in scripture, the song of Hannah. Hannah sang this song when her son Samuel was born. She had been barren and prayed to God for a son, promising to dedicate him to the Lord if he was born.

Then Hannah prayed and said:

“My heart rejoices in the Lord;
    in the Lord my horn is lifted high.
My mouth boasts over my enemies,
    for I delight in your deliverance.

“There is no one holy like the Lord;
    there is no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.

 

Do not keep talking so proudly
    or let your mouth speak such arrogance,
for the Lord is a God who knows,
    and by him deeds are weighed.

“The bows of the warriors are broken,
    but those who stumbled are armed with strength.
Those who were full hire themselves out for food,
    but those who were hungry are hungry no more.
She who was barren has borne seven children,
    but she who has had many sons pines away.

 

“The Lord brings death and makes alive;
    he brings down to the grave and raises up.
The Lord sends poverty and wealth;
    he humbles and he exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
    and has them inherit a throne of honor.

“For the foundations of the earth are the Lord’s;
    on them he has set the world.

He will guard the feet of his faithful servants,
    but the wicked will be silenced in the place of darkness.

“It is not by strength that one prevails;
those who oppose the Lord will be broken.
The Most High will thunder from heaven;
    the Lord will judge the ends of the earth.

“He will give strength to his king
and exalt the horn of his anointed.”

 

Mary’s use of the prophet Hannah’s words tells of the importance of what both she and Elizabeth had experienced. They both conceived by the grace of God when conception shouldn’t have been possible. Elizabeth was too old and Mary was too young. Mary harking back to Hannah was also significant because Hannah dedicated her son to the Lord, and both John and Jesus were to be given to the Lord. Both the song of Hannah and the song of Mary praise God’s greatness and both use language which inverts the ways of this world.

Mary says that God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Hannah says that those who were full hire themselves out for bread but those who were hungry cease to hunger. Mary says God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Hannah says God makes the poor rich so they can inherit a seat of honour as nobles. Both are praising a God who does what Jesus and John also did, give hope to the poor and criticize the rich. Last week we read from the book of Isaiah a prophesy about John the Baptist and the messiah. Isaiah said

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.[b]
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

 

This recurring theme in Isaiah’s prophetic words, in Hannah’s prophetic song, in Mary’s prophetic song, is essential to understanding what the messiah was to do. The messiah was to come and turn the world upside down. The messiah was to come and challenge everything about this world that was contrary to God. As Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The ways which we separate ourselves were to be abolished. The messiah came to erase questions of race, social status, and gender.

This requires a radical shift in consciousness. Human nature is to divide the field, to create categories of in and out, us and them, right and wrong. But it was known in Hannah’s time, it was known in Isaiah’s time, it was known to Mary, it was known to John and it was known to Jesus that the rich would be made poor, the mountains would be made low, and that all people together will inherit a seat of honour in heaven.

If you doubt whether Jesus actually taught this simply turn in your bible to Matthew chapter 5 and read the beatitudes. Jesus says Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. The messiah was hope for the poor, for the oppressed, for the misunderstood, for the forgotten. The messiah came to reassure humanity that there is neither jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male nor female but people were not ready to hear it. People are still not ready to hear it.

But Mary heard it, and so did Hannah. Both these incredibly important and prophetic women knew what God was really about and both understood the importance of praising the Lord in song. Hannah starts her song with the words “my heart exults in the Lord” and Mary starts her song with “my soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour” Both are filled with joy at what God has done, both are ecstatic as they make a joyful noise to the Lord. They are not burdened by the knowledge that the messiah will change everything. They are not upset that the world they know and are comfortable with is changing. They are simply glad that God has blessed them with a child, and that their child will be able to serve God’s kingdom and teach God’s wisdom.

And so should we sing. So should we rejoice in what God is doing within us and through us. When the Lord makes the mountains low and raises the valleys, do not despair, but rejoice. When God turns everything you know upside down, do not be resentful or afraid, but magnify God’s name and let your heart exult in what God is doing. Sing a song of praise to your maker and rejoice in the messiah. It is John who made a highway for our God, who knocks down the mountains and raises up the valleys, but that is just the prep work. It is in the messiah, in Jesus the Christ, that the fulfillment of God’s kingdom is found.

So turn to the messiah after you have repented with John. Let go of the categories which separate you from the people around you. Do not worry about being a this person or a that person. Do not find your identity in the colour of your skin or the language you speak or the gender you were born as. But identify yourself as what you truly are, a child of God, nothing more, nothing less. So sing with your creator, sing songs of praise that one day the world will have let go of categories and embraced the truth. Sing songs of praise that God has created within you the spirit of Christ. Let that spirit out into the world to prophesy the truth that we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Be like Mary, be pure and humble. When the angel came and explained everything to her, she simply replied Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. She accepted God’s word and rejoiced in song. So be like Mary, be willing to accept the miracles which the angels declare to you, be the sort of person that is able to accept Christ within them, be humble enough to say here I am, a servant of the Lord. Mary is a shining example we should all live up to. She had found favour with God and therefore was able to receive Christ within her.

Be like Mary, live a life which allows you to find favour with God. Be the sort of person that is pure enough of heart to receive Christ within. As we journey through Advent remember that Christ is eternal, Christ has always been, is now, and is yet to dwell inside you. We must first repent like John to make ready the highway for our God, but the goal is not to live our lives in the desert it is to live our lives like Mary. Mary who was wholesome and pure. Mary who was devout and faithful. Mary who was a simple girl, not much different from you or I. Mary who sang her heart out before the Lord.

So sing to God. Praise God in all that you do. Live like Mary, like an innocent young girl, from a small town. By the standards of this world Mary was nothing special, she was an unwed teenage peasant having a baby in a barn. But by God’s standard she was the most perfect human in all of creation. So, as we journey through Advent, let us sing like Mary, let us love like Mary. Let us humbly accept the Christ child within us and follow the words of angels as we walk this road of faith with our Lord who guides us from above and who is born within us. Who is a mighty king in heaven and who is a helpless child in a manger. Who loves those the world despises and humbles those the world exults.

So, sisters and brothers, as you go about your day today, I encourage you to remember Mary. I encourage you to live like Mary. Be brave, be humble, be wholesome, and most importantly be willing to receive Christ inside you without any hesitations, even if it seems impossible. Let the words and life of the mother who is a child, the most loved of God who is nothing in this world, the humble recipient of Christ himself speak to you as she has spoken to countless people over the centuries. And, my dear friends, do not forget to sing, do not forget to praise and magnify how wonderful is your God.

 

 

What is Theology?

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My son Quillan and I had a conversation while laying in bed on a lazy Saturday morning. We were talking about what it means to be a theologian. I told him that he is a theologian because he likes to talk about God. I pray you are a theologian too.

Theology, quite literally, means talking about God. The first half of the word, theo-, comes from the word Theos. Theos is a Greek word which simply means God.The second half, -ology has a similar root to the word logos, which means word or words. There are many ways the suffix -ology can be used – Speaking of, having a discourse about, engaging in a scientific study of a topic are all legitimate meanings.  Geology, for instance, means the study of the Earth, or talking about the Earth.

But, we must not forget that the word Logos, for Christians, has a much deeper and more profound meaning than it does for most modern thinkers. Christianity inherited its understanding of the true nature of words from the ancient world it was born in. We carry the teaching that words, and in particular names, are very potent.

This is why we are never to use the Lord’s name in vain. This is why Jacob received the name Israel after wrestling with God trying to learn God’s name. This is why God revealed the sacred name to Moses as tangible proof of divine will. Jesus, or more accurately the Christ, is the fullness of name and word. This is why John’s gospel opens with this famous passage:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

-John 1:1-5

Christians understand that Words have life. This is because one part of the Trinity is the Living Word, or Logos. So, when we engage in theology we must remember this core Christian teaching: that both halves of the word are sacred and that what we speak, or write, into the world has its root in the same power with which God commanded reality into existence. For in the beginning, it was God’s speaking which gave us matter, light, and time. So, if you dare to be a theologian, be mindful of the sanctity of what you do, and do not use your words in vain.

Was John the Baptist Elijah?

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Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

-Matthew 11:7-10

 

Every gospel in the bible starts with John the Baptist, he is obviously important, yet we don’t seem to give him the attention he deserves. John has quite an interesting story to him. His birth is shrouded by much of the same mysterious situation as Jesus’, especially when Luke tells the story. Even a casual reading reveals that he intentionally shaped their nativities into a clear parallel. The angel Gabriel bears news of a son first to Zechariah, and again to Mary. Both conceptions are impossible; Elizabeth is too old, and Mary is too young. Each miracle leads the people involved to sing songs of praise. Zechariah’s drawing from the spirit of the prophets, and Mary’s echoing the song of Hannah.

Every detail in Luke’s account is crafted to assure the reader that these two babies — named John and Jesus by order of the Lord — are profoundly significant. The angel Gabriel came first to Elizabeth and John was born 6 months before Jesus. Even in their births John came to prepare the way for Jesus. But the angel said more than just John’s name. He made a startling reference to Malachi 4, a familiar scripture to the people of those times. The angel said to Zechariah about John that he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

When we first hear that we think that the words “in the spirit of Elijah” sound like a metaphor. As if to say “he will be great like Elijah”. But if you turn back to the passage in Malachi that the angel is referencing you realize that this is a prophesy about the messiah. In Jewish culture from those days right up until the present it is expected and known that Elijah will return to the earth before the messiah comes. In fact, at the Seder feast Jews still to this day pour a cup of wine for Elijah. They believe that one day he will arrive as an unknown visitor and herald the advent of the messiah.

Elijah is an extremely important figure in Jewish tradition and it is believed that he visits and blesses important occasions in Jewish life. Elijah was equally as venerated in the times of Jesus and the Jewish people would have been well versed in this theology. And so, it was made known before John was even born that he would come in the power of Elijah to usher in the new era and ready the way for the messiah. John came before Jesus, Elijah came before the messiah.

But if you think that’s interesting, wait till you hear what Jesus says in Matthew 11. Jesus is addressing John’s disciples who had gathered with him in the desert. Jesus identifies John as a prophet, and indeed more than a prophet but Elijah himself who had been predicted in the book of Isaiah as one who would prepare the way for the Lord. A little while later, after John had been killed by Herod who knew that people were saying he was Elijah, Jesus and a couple of his disciples went up a mountain. While Jesus was up there Moses and Elijah both appeared and a voice from Heaven came down and said those familiar words from Jesus’ baptism “This is my son with whom I well pleased”

John witnessed the testimony of God over Jesus, he was there when God declared Jesus was his son both times. In the river Jordan as John and on the mount of transfiguration as Elijah. We know this because after Moses and Elijah disappear the disciples ask Jesus why people say Elijah must return before the messiah can come. Jesus answers that Elijah must come and indeed he already has for John is Elijah. Jesus points out that the authorities had already killed John and that they were going to kill him also. The fulfillment of prophesy was happening. Elijah returned and the messiah had come but the people were not ready and killed them both.

So what does all this mean? What does it mean that John was Elijah? That’s a big question and in researching this topic I found a wide array of answers from various religious leaders and theologians. Many people want to deny that John was Elijah, it’s a common stance that preachers take. They don’t like the idea of reincarnation showing itself in scripture. They especially don’t like Jesus plainly saying that it happened. One of the main arguments people use when taking this stance is that in the gospel of John, John the Baptist denies being Elijah. The story goes like this:

 

Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.

-John 1:19-23

 

Why would John deny being Elijah when Jesus so clearly says that he is? Why would he deny being Elijah when the angel spoke to his father claiming him to be the fulfillment of the words of Malachi? One thing that I think is worth noting is that in the 3 synoptic gospels, that’s Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John is presented as Elijah. But in the gospel of John he is not. This isn’t the only place where the gospel of John differs from the other three. In fact, that’s why the first three are lumped together and called synoptic, which comes from the same word as synopsis and means a summary or a general overview. The word was adopted for these three gospels because they share a similar view, they tell a similar story.

But either way, the astonishing number of references in the New Testament that point to John the Baptist as Elijah speaks for itself, even if there is one passage that disagrees. Although I still wonder about that one passage, because in it John not only denies being Elijah, he also denies being the messiah, and he denies being a prophet. Well, he is clearly a prophet. By every definition John was a prophet. It almost feels like he is being humble here, or avoiding the criticisms of the religious authorities who are questioning him.

Jesus also tried to keep his true identity secret. He would answer questions with questions. People would ask him who he really was and he would reply “who do they say I am” He regularly told his disciples to tell no one what they had witnessed. In fact, that’s the first thing he told them when they saw Elijah right after “get up don’t be afraid”. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

In Matthew 11, if you remember, Jesus says John is a prophet, and even more than a prophet. He said John was the greatest man born of a woman. Well that’s quite a claim considering that Jesus was born of a woman himself. It sounds like he is saying John is even greater than he is. After John’s disciples had left Jesus turned to the crowd and said “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist”

At another point in the story though, John says that he is not even worthy to tie Jesus’ sandals. It seems like John and Jesus both claim the other is better than them, they play this back and forth game of humility, giving one another the credit. Neither wanted to be known for who they truly were and neither wanted to stand above the other.

In many ways John represents the lineage to the Hebrew Scriptures and the line of the prophets. Jesus also said “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” Jesus is saying that the prophets and the law both worked towards the goal of Elijah’s return which would herald the coming of the messiah. And that John was the fulfillment of that, he was Elijah himself.

While John represents the old line and tradition of the prophets Jesus represents the new way. We are told specifically that John did not drink any alcohol, but we know Jesus was famous for his wine making. John lived an ascetic life in the desert, Jesus lived amongst the people eating with them and being fully engaged in this world. John baptised with water, but Jesus baptised with the Holy Spirit. The old way cleared the path for the new way and the great Elijah himself witnessed to Jesus and his divinity. But Jesus clearly thought very highly of John. The new way did not scorn the old way but honoured it as the greatest there ever was.

I am reminded of a book I am reading right now. I am currently studying a book from 14th century England called the Cloud of Unknowing. It is really an instruction manual written by a contemplative monk addressing an advanced student. In the book it talks about two kinds of humility, imperfect humility and perfect humility. Imperfect humility is where we begin, it is a sense of insignificance in the face of God’s grandeur. It is a sense of spiritual poverty and unworthiness. It is the kind of humility that makes us small.

But there is a second kind of humility which realizes the superabundant love and worthiness of God himself and in that is humbled. The first humility comes from truly understanding oneself. Imperfect humility is seeing through the masks we put up to know our true selves and our true nature. But perfect humility comes from the act of letting all that go. Perfect humility happens when we lose and forget all awareness and experience of our own being so that we don’t think either of our holiness or our wickedness but have knowledge of nothing except God.

The first humility reminds me of John. His preaching focused on repentance. The proclamation that sin was encroaching in and that by realizing our spiritual poverty and unworthiness we cold be made ready for the messiah. Jesus reminds me of the second humility. His preaching focused on God’s love. It was a proclamation of the worthiness of God and loving the broken. John’s teaching was to turn inward and repent. Jesus teaching was to turn outward and to serve. We can see in all of this how repentance makes ready a highway for love. How John’s ministry made the people ready for Jesus’ ministry.

So, sisters and brothers, as you go about your lives, I encourage you to look within yourself. Look inwardly and ask the hard questions, ask yourself how you can go out into the wilderness to meet John and be baptised. Ask yourself how you will let Elijah prepare the way for the messiah within your soul. I am not exaggerating when I say that there is no work which is more important than this. There is nothing more valuable to do than to prepare yourself for Christ’s coming. Because the prophesies tell us that he is coming, it’s a promise. The question isn’t does Christ come, the question is are you ready to receive him?

The task at hand is to make yourself humble enough to receive the messiah, so listen to the words of Elijah and repent. Take the time to get to know yourself so that you can let go of the things which hold you back. Selfishness, pride, ego, anxiety, all these things stand in your way. Let go of them and you will be humble. But do not let yourself think that you can skip John and go straight to Jesus. If you wish to find that perfect humility you must first find the imperfect humility.

The scriptures tell us of history, they tell us of moral instruction, but they also serve as allegories for the spiritual journey to God. Before Christ can be born in our hearts we must follow John into the wilderness. We must come to know how small we really are, how silly the things we occupy our minds with are, how far from God we have turned our attention, and even our love. So repent, sisters and brothers. Be baptised in the river. Do the work. Prepare yourselves to receive Christ in your hearts. Make ready a highway for your God.