Stone of Help

Almost a full calendar year later and we’re all still here.

Given that I feared at the beginning of the year that the current President would have triggered World War Three by now, this feels like more of an achievement than it sounds like.

At the start of January, I confessed that what I wanted from 2017 was “to survive it”. Not much of a goal, but with political craziness apparently advancing on all fronts it seemed like the best I could hope for. Between the near-miss of the potential dissolution of the United Kingdom in the Scottish independence referendum and the direct hits of the Brexit vote and the US Presidential election, it seemed this time last year as though the world was on a scary downward spiral into chaos. Survival seemed not an assured thing but something to be wished.

Politically I still feel a lot like an unwilling participant in some sort of crazy version of a Japanese game show with a name something like How Sucky Is Your Future?, but though the end is indeed near, as the Scripture says, it isn’t quite yet, and in the meantime we have a job to do.

Ultimately my future doesn’t suck at all, and the politicians thankfully can’t do a thing about it, because I’m fairly convinced that this administration are looking for a way to mess it up.

As a legally-resident non-US citizen I watch politics the way a sailor watches the weather, and for the same reason: he can’t do anything about it. I don’t have the vote as a non-citizen, but the political situation blows upon me regardless as a tempest, and I have to weather the storm for my family as best I can.

What I’m looking for from 2018 is to find a way to thrive despite the circumstances. Placing my confidence more fully in the God who can save rather than in the political princes and policies that cannot, I want to look forward with joy to the final future in which evil is done away with and the Lamb is enthroned in the world. Depending on His power and strength, I want to raise up my family in spite of what the world and society would do to push them down. God is my strength and my song and my salvation; He is my source of provision and my ultimate Resource for when, like in these days, my own simply can’t manage.

I want to experience the “life, and that abundantly” that Jesus said He had come that we might have. Too much of the last year has felt like the devil coming to try and steal, kill and destroy. Enough. Emmanuel has come: God With Us. Life, and that abundantly, because in Christ all that God is is with us.

A New Year is right around the corner, full of who knows what. It’s tremendously easy in these days to focus on the potential trouble we see being fomented around us by our adversary, but as I said this time last year, the idea is that we take our attention off of the waves and put it back on the Saviour in the middle of them. God is bigger than the troubles. Salvation doesn’t come from a party platform or a change in the laws, but from trusting in the One who died to put an end to the old Law with its written code opposed to us.

It feels like a good time to shout “Hosanna”. Though today that means that we’re really thankful and pleased with how things have turned out, the word really means “Save Us!”. It’s Hebrew for SOS, and it seems appropriate on both levels right now. Help us, save us, because we’re in it up to our necks and we can’t see a way out, but thank You that You are the God of the Way Out! In You there is salvation, no matter what it looks like, and we celebrate that and shout Hosanna.

As 2017 draws to a close I feel a little like the Israelites in the First Book of Samuel. Having just survived their first battle against the terrible iron-wielding Philistines, but foreseeing how many still more difficult battles there were undoubtedly ahead of them, the nation of Israel under Samuel erected a memorial stone called Eben-Ezer, or “Stone of Help”, saying “thus far hath the LORD helped us”.

I feel like this is my situation. Or as the old hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing put it: “Here I raise my Ebenezer/Hither by Thy help I’m come/And I hope, by Thy good pleasure/Safely to arrive at home”.

Biblical Hope isn’t the sort of wishy-washy “wouldn’t it be nice” feeling that sets the goal of “to survive it”. It’s confident expectation, knowing that God is bigger than the problems we might face. There are dangers on the road, but by Thy good pleasure, if the LORD is pleased with us (and we know that He loves us and wants good for us), we will arrive safely at home.

So here in this post I raise my own Eben-Ezer.  Thus far hath the LORD helped us.

More, Lord!

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Adventus: Late In Time Behold Him Come

Hark the Herald Angels Sing is probably my favourite Christmas carol. Not only is it sung to the same tune on both sides of the Atlantic (unlike Away In A Manger, Angels From The Realms Of Glory or It Came Upon A Midnight Clear), but the words are superb, full of meaning and truth.

This lyric, in the second verse, however, is on the face of it a little strange. How can God, the Lord over time itself, be late?

As part of a family that often struggles with punctuality, it’s somehow comforting that even the Lord of the Universe is being described as late, but that is, of course, not the precise meaning of “late” that’s being used here.

“Late” doesn’t solely mean “running behind schedule”. That’s absurd when applied to God, but it raises an important point about Biblical time. The Koine Greek language in which the New Testament was written has two words for “time”, and they have subtly different meanings. Chronos is the word from which we derive modern words like “chronology” and “chronometer” and “chronic”. It’s used for the regular progression of minutes, hours, days, weeks and years. Chronos time is the world of schedules and clocks and calendars. And though God works in chronos time, the most important events on Heaven’s calendar are scheduled with kairos time.

Kairos is the other Greek word for time, and it’s used for specific important moments and seasons that may or may not come regularly in chronos time. “The time of the Pharaohs” is kairos – a specific period, but you can’t exactly say that it began on March 22nd, 4004BC and lasted exactly 2867 years 92 days and 6 hours. “When I was young” is kairos time, and so is “When I grow up”. My kids think bedtime is kairos time, and keep trying to push it later and later.

The Bible uses the word kairos in verses like “At just the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for us”. In essence, it’s used for “redemptive time”, if you like: the hidden schedule of God’s master redemptive plan that began in a garden and ends in a city. Kairos is why the Bible sometimes skips over hundreds or thousands of years of history or sometimes fails to mention contemporary rulers whom archaeologist and historians number among the movers and shakers of the world. They aren’t significant to kairos time.

It’s kairos time that encapsulates the Messianic prophecies that state that “in the last days” God would send Messiah. Kairos-wise, we’ve been in the last days since Bethlehem in about 4BC, and it’s this to which the lyric refers. All the waiting and expectancy is over. All the prophetic time through Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, “Gideon, Jephthaih, Barak and the prophets” is finally coming to a head. The time of promise is here.

Celebrating the inauguration of the Last Days and the coming of the central figure of the entire Bible and of history itself right at the end of the calendar year seems especially apt. Late in the year (chronos) we celebrate the Advent of the One Whom God promised to send late in time itself (kairos).

It’s very nearly Christmas day now. All presents bought, all cupboards stocked, the house decorated and the lights twinkling. Last-minute details like final house-cleaning, gift-wrapping, thawing the turkey and placing presents under the tree are either completed or underway. Tonight the children hang up their stockings, tomorrow their excited anticipation is fulfilled.

Tonight, once more, we await expectantly. Tomorrow, we will unwrap the Gift.

Adventus: Entering In

I already mentioned that this year my Advent focus is on the Divine name Emmanuel: God With Us. God entering our world of chaos and mess, in order to bring it back into His proper order.

Last year my focus was on the quietness and unexpected nature of the birth; how while the whole Roman world was focused on the lives of the rich and great – Caesar Augustus, Herod the Great, Governor Quirinius – the Messiah promised for generations was born to a pair of poor teenagers in a tiny backwater town in a conquered province.

In this post we shall connect the two.

Emmanuel is God entering in, coming on our level and being born into human mess. And it doesn’t get much more potentially messy than the set of circumstances that Mary and Joseph were looking at.

First of all there’s the national political situation. Judea – the land of God’s own people – is a conquered Roman province, with an Edomite (=Idumaean) puppet king installed on David’s throne. With the Divine covenant with the House of David occupying such a prominent place in Judean ideas of legitimacy of kingship, the idea of a non-descendent of David occupying the throne is bad and wrong, let alone a foreigner like Herod the Great. And for the True God’s own people to be subject to pagan Romans, something ain’t right with the world.

YHWH will not be equated with the pagan Roman gods in the way that Celtic deities like Sulis were merged with their Roman counterparts like Minerva. If you worship the One God, part of the deal is that you don’t then turn around and burn incense to Jupiter, no matter how much secular peace that would buy you from the Romans of whose empire you are now a part. You can either be a good Jew or a good Roman.

And as usual, the poor people are caught in the middle, subject to being shunted around at the whim of godless rulers to facilitate their being gouged and screwed over to make rich tax-gatherers richer.

Then there’s the personal situation of Mary and Joseph.

Pledged to be married, Mary shows up pregnant, and Joseph knows it wasn’t his doing. As far as small-town scandals go, this is about as juicy as they come, and no doubt the rumours are flying. They’re still flying around, in fact, when Jesus is grown and in ministry; look at the derisive question of his home town: “Who’s his father?”

It’s never specifically said in the Bible, but reading between the lines a little in the matter of Jesus being born in a stable and there being no room at the inn, it seems likely that Mary and Joseph were being shunned by at least part of their family. Bethlehem was both Joseph and Mary’s ancestral town, and people in that day didn’t move around much. Undoubtedly they had relatives there, and the normal thing would be for them to stay with family, and for the family to put them up no matter how crowded it got. When I was working in Central Asia I had some experience with this same sort of mindset, and for family there’s always room for one more. Yet Mary and Joseph had to try the inn, where merchants and people who didn’t have family stayed. And it was full.

More, Mary and Joseph are young (they’re only pledged to be married in an age where you started popping out kids as soon as you started having sex) and poor (the sacrifice they make for a firstborn is the smallest and meanest version available, for those too poor to afford even a lamb) in a world that places all its adulation at the feet of the aged and the wealthy. The way we arrange our tax code, Joseph almost certainly wouldn’t be earning enough to pay tax today, yet back then his lack of economic muscle just made him a ready victim of the system.

Chaos and mess. A dark world doing what darkness does.

And into this low point comes not just a Messiah King but a God, born into squalor and privation in the equivalent of a bus shelter to a couple of homeless teenagers in a conquered province.

Who were then forced to flee for their lives when He was aged 2 and live as refugees in another country, their flight made possible by the gifts of the Magi just as it was made necessary by Herod the Great’s ambition and paranoia.

He really is God With Us. He’s been there, in the dark and pain of what passes for normal life in this fallen world. Entering in without visible glory or majesty or any of the trappings of success or material blessing. A baby boy growing up to be a man, apparently born on the wrong side of the tracks to a poverty-stricken family living in the town which is a byword for backward worthlessness. Growing up to die by a miscarriage of Roman justice without leaving a single offspring or visible result behind him.

It isn’t possible for the immortal God to be a failure, but this is what it looks like. The current President would no doubt dismiss him as a loser; most of his own town certainly did.

But this is what we need. A god who wins all the time cannot address our failures. A god of puffed-up pride cannot speak to our secret shame, except to condemn it.

There’s a poem I read, called “He showed them His hands and side”. One of the verses is appropriate here:

The other gods were strong, but Thou wast weak
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak
And not a god has wounds but Thou alone.

Emmanuel is God come down into our mess, walking my road and feeling my pain, as another song puts it. But not just God come down to experience our sufferings; God come down to do something about it. Just as when people were building the tower of Babel and the Bible says God “came down” to divide us one from another and check the untrammeled spread of diseased, sinful ideas between us, now in Jesus He comes down to make an end of sin once and for all. And now that He has done it and sits at the right hand of the Father, He will come down once more to make a final end, bringing with Him the New Jerusalem. “Now the dwelling-place of God is with men…”

God With Us.

Adventus: O Come Emmanuel

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is possibly the only well-known carol that’s specifically for Advent rather than Christmas itself, and its lyrics are particularly significant for my personal Advent season focus of this year.  It is, after all, “O Come Emmanuel“, chronicling in song the hope of God With Us in at least a tithe of all that means.

I thought we might look at the text of it a little bit:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,
Our spirist by Thine Advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease;
And be Thyself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

That’s seven verses, so there’s quite a lot we could unpack here, and I’m not going to do much more than take a cursory overflight of the highlights, but let’s see what we can find, ok?

The whole thing is a prayer:  O come, God With Us.  The carol is translated out of Latin and is a modified version of the 8th-Century O Antiphons.   It’s written sort-of from the perspective of God’s Covenant people Israel, and has an interestingly Messianic-Jewish flavour for an antique Christian hymn.  Of course, Israel are symbolically standing in for all the Covenant people of God under both the Old Covenant and the New, and one could see it as a bit of an example of the Replacement Theology that was common in the mid-1800s when it was translated into  English, but I’m going to let that stand without comment.  One could equally choose to interpret the flow of the lyrics as exemplifying the theology of ingrafting.

The first verse focuses on what was then the most obvious feature of the state of the Jewish nation: exile.  Until 1945 they didn’t have a homeland.  And this is a good metaphor for our own spiritual state, especially as unregenerate.  We’re in exile, away from our heavenly home, cast out from Eden and the direct experience of the presence of God.  Signs of Him coming among us in all of His grace and majesty are lamentably few: here and there in the world, now and then in time.  A far cry from when we will finally be Home and the whole earth will be full of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  We want, we need, to come Home, to be with God.  O come, God With Us.

The second verse focuses it down onto what is perhaps the root of all problems.  “O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free/Thine own from Satan’s tyranny”.  The Scriptures and our own experience make it abundantly clear that our problem isn’t simply that we’re exiled from the presence of a holy God, it’s that we’re dominated.  Unregenerate, we’re under the thumb of a tyrant worse than Hammurabi or Pol Pot: the Devil, father and inspirer of despots.  Even two thousand years after the Advent, dictatorships abound and true freedom often seems hard to come by.  Our fallen human nature having shrugged off the easy and light yoke of the Lord, we’re easy marks for the tyranny of the other spiritual power.

Verse three invites the Dayspring, the Source of light and joy, to “come and cheer/Our spirits by Thine Advent here”.  Because life in exile and under the tyranny of the World, the Flesh and the Devil is a pretty miserable existence.  This is also a reminder that the life of the Kingdom brought by the Baby Whose coming we celebrate isn’t some long joyless slog of battle and pain, as we try in our own strength to live lives worthy of the high call of God to which we have been called.  Christ is also the Dayspring, the One Who comes to cheer our spirits.  The one Who “light and life to all He brings”.  His light disperses the gloom and puts even death’s shadow to flight.  As is written:  “In Him was life, and that life was the light of men”.

Verse four addresses the Key of David, the One who opens and no-one can shut, Who shuts and no-one can open.  This is more or less variations on what has gone before, but the language of “make safe the way that leads on high” seems significant.  As someone that works in the dangerous field of heavy construction, I have to know about and be concerned for safety.  It’s a dangerous world out there; even doing things right isn’t safe by most measures.  But Jesus “makes safe” the way that leads on high.  This is not to say we will have a trouble-free path through the world.  The Bible is clear that this is a false hope.  But death cannot snatch us out of His grasp.  Even if this world in all its wickedness may kill us, we’re safe in His arms.

The fifth verse gets us into interesting territory.  We don’t like to think of Christ as Lawgiver and Judge, but He is that too, as well as Baby in the manger and Saviour on the cross.  His gound-level-up refocusing of the Torah’s requirements in the Sermon on the Mount amount to a new and higher law, that of love.  “Cloud and majesty and awe” may have been absent from that occasion, but for all that, the twin commandments that “sum up the Law and the Prophets” – love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself – are more complete and universal than the myriad individual requirements of the Old Covenant.

Not that we’re made righteous by obeying a Law – neither the Old Covenant’s law nor the New Covenant’s twin commandment – but we obey the commandment because we have been made righteous.

The penultimate verse focuses in on one of my favourite subjects: wisdom and knowledge.  It’s appropriate that it comes late in the sequence, after subjects like freedom from Satan’s tyrannyand an end to exile, because those are more fundamental problems for the human condition.  Other religions have ignorance as the base of the human problem: we don’t know what’s right.  If that were the case, a law, given by a prophet of some sort, would indeed be sufficient and we’d all more or less be Muslims.  But both the Bible and experience teach us that that’s not the case.  Knowing what is right, we do not do it, or at least, not very often, and we need a Saviour before we need Wisdom from on high.  But we do also need Wisdom.  It has been defined as “knowledge plus love”, which is as good a definition as most; the ability to discern the best thing to do.  “Order all things far and nigh”, the verse pleads; let Wisdom direct our steps and arrange our lives.  Instead of the chaos of our conflicting desires and counterproductive impulses, let there be a Divine order, a flow, a pattern.  Not a regimentation, necessarily, but a higher structure that allows freedom, in the way that democracy hinges on the rule of law and cannot exist without it.  “To us the path of knowledge show”, as a Guide, but more than that, “cause us in her ways to go.”  The gender here is interesting, because in Proverbs the divine personification of Wisdom is female.  God’s feminine side, as it were.

And so we come to the last verse.  “O come, Desire of nations, bind/In one the hearts of all mankind”.  And now we’re deliberately stepping beyond the Jewish nation to the Gentile world; “nations” and “Gentiles” are the same word in Hebrew.  In our current divided days this verse seems highly significant.  “Bid Thou our sad divisions cease/And be Thyself our King of Peace”.  A true peace of divisions subsumed in brotherly love, not an enforced Pax Romana or a papered-over peace based on ignoring the real differences between us.  All I can say to this is “Come, Desire of nations”.

Like any good classic hymn, there’s a huge amount of theological import here, and I find myself this year praying it in earnest.  Come, Lord Jesus!  Complete the work You have started in us!  Bring us on to completion in Yourself, bring about the final consummation of the great work of the salvation of the world!

Maranatha!

Adventus: Down Into Darkness

Something I do every year in the Advent season is to dial in my focus onto a particular aspect of the Christmas story.

Some years it’s been Mary and the incredible act of faith it took to react to Gabriel’s announcement with a simple “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according th what you have said”. The year after my eldest was born I found myself focusing on Joseph and what it must have taken to be a father to the Son of God. Some years it’s been the shepherds, some years the Magi. Last year it was the inherent contradiction and upside-downness of it all: while the world was focused on the rich and great, Tiberius Caesar, Governor Quirinius, Herod in his palace, the real story is two dirt-poor displaced persons and a baby being laid in an animal feeding trough to get him off the floor. And it’s this, not any humanly-great historical figure, who’s going to change the world.

This year it’s the Incarnation itself.

It’s not the first year I’ve focused on the Incarnation, but I wasn’t blogging the last time that was the case, so I get to talk about it all fresh.

This year, too, at least initially, my focus in a little diiferent to last time.

Last time I focused on the Incarnation it was the idea of Emmanuel, God With Us, the Lord of the Universe become a man like me.

This year it’s the idea of Jesus the Light coming down out of His heaven of light to take up residence in this dark world among all of our chaos and pain. The idea of descent, of coming down from the perfection which was His right into our darkness and mess.

The Incarnation isn’t completely unique to Christianity. Other religions, particularly Hinduism, have their gods taking on flesh and living among men. But what sets Jesus apart is the purpose of His taking on flesh. He’s not cavorting among lesser beings for His own amusement or because He wants something from us; it’s part and parcel of the Divine rescue plan.

If you’re trapped in a burning building with toxic air, having a set of instructions broadcast in to tell you where the fire exit is is all very well, but it’s less helpful than sending in fire fighters. When the air itself turns toxic with lack of oxygen and presence of all manner of chemicals, reason gets bent sideways and you can’t always rely on your thought processes. Neither can humans, unaided, get free from the sin that afflicts us and corrupts our minds so that we can save ourselves. And that’s what makes the Incarnation special: God is coming Himself to rescue us from the spiritual conflagration that we started.

“Down Into Darkness”

As an initial expression of this idea of God coming down into our mess, I built this LEGO model, in which I’ve tried to communicate the concept of the Light coming down into our darkness.

Not all that brilliant as a piece of art, perhaps, but I hope it gets its point across.

The Incarnation means God coming down into our darkness, living among all of the corruption and arrogance and cruelty and greed and indifference of which humans prove themselves capable every time it’s day. Perfect justice coming to live in an inherently unjust world. Grace being born among the graceless. Purity and light shining in the night of impurity.

More, it’s the beginning of the transformation of the world. Now that the Light has come, we don’t have to walk in darkness any more. We can do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. We don’t have to keep on acting like corruption is inevitable or that arrogant self-centred cruelty is just the way it is.

As Jesus Himself said: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden; neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father, Who is in heaven.”

Trusting in Jesus isn’t just finding the fire escape; it’s also a call to action. We’re called to be lights, shining His Light, doing good in a corrupt and sinful world. Good works alone won’t save us, but as Jesus Christ dwells in our hearts through faith, we are called to incarnate His Incarnation, to be His vessels of grace. If we aren’t doing good, are we really incarnating the One who is Good?

At the end of a year which has seemed especially full of chaos and darkness and human mess, the idea of spending some time reflecting on the “true Light that gives life to everyone” coming into our dark mess of a world is a potent one.

Light, stepping down into darkness.

Maranatha.