Pushing the “Easy” Button

3 03 2017

1st Sunday in Lent – Matthew 4:1-11

Let’s be honest, you and I live in a time and place that unleashes all of its resources for the sole purpose of persuading us to give in to our temptations.  But, it’s actually worse, we are told that the most healthy lifestyle choice we can make is to identify with our deepest temptations and to embrace them as the truest picture of who we really are.  We are told that the most unhealthy choice is to deny our temptations and wants.  In fact, if we publicly voice our opposition to these lifestyle choices, the social media powers will descend upon us like the very fury of hell (and here, I’m speaking literally).  Businesses have been destroyed, good paying positions taken away, friendships undone, reputations left in ashes from this demonic fury.

Ivan Kramskoy's 1872 Christ in the Wilderness

So, it ought to be a fearful thing that the one we call Lord and Savior is seen here so obviously standing against the temptations thrown at him.  And not only resisting, but coming out very much the winner.  But it is all too easy to go with the flow and think:  Wouldn’t we all be a lot better off simply giving in to some of our temptations, or at most, maybe very, VERY quietly resisting them in the privacy of our prayer closets?  Anything more public may make us look like intolerant holy religious people who are always mean and judgmental!

 

But I suspect that most of you want to beat back your temptations, at least most days, and wouldn’t mind having some help and assistance.  So, let’s look at how Jesus handled it.

 

Now first, Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus has been tempted in every way that you and I have ever been tempted (but did not give in!!).  So, what we see in the Gospel in Satan’s three temptations, only shows us some of what Jesus had to resist– although, perhaps these three were the most difficult ones he had to overcome. We also know from the Gospels (Matthew 16:23) that Jesus was also tempted by Satan to avoid the Way of the Cross– and he used Peter’s mouth to do the tempting.  So, I think we can safely assume that the ‘ole Serpent rarely let up on his attacks on Jesus, especially during his ministry years leading up to his crucifixion.  I’m sure you have all felt there are many times when you’ve yelled to heaven, “Can I just have a break for a while from all these constant, never-ending temptations!!”  I’ve done that, multiple times.

 

Second, look at what Satan is wanting Jesus to do– hit the EASY button!!  “Hey, Jesus, you are the Son of God, the 2nd person of the Trinity– so use your ‘God’ power and make yourself some bread from rocks, or make yourself look like a super-hero by jumping down from the high-point of the temple and landing safely on the street with thousands of onlookers–they’ll call you Messiah and make you king!  OR… skip the whole cross-thing by bowing before me (I mean, really, it doesn’t really mean anything does it?!  It’s surely just an empty gesture) and I’ll give you what you really want– to be the loving King of the world that everyone will adore.”

Ary Scheffer's The Temptation of Christ

Ary Scheffer’s The Temptation of Christ

Jesus knew he was taking the very, very hard road to save the world, and the Great Liar was trying to get him to cheat and take the easy road to accomplish his mission.  NOTE:  Jesus uses Holy Scripture, God’s Word to crush every temptation.  And guess what?  You have access to that same mighty weapon.  But do you take daily advantage of it?  Do you really know it well enough to use it effectively?  A weapon’s no good to you if you don’t know it well and practice with it constantly.

 

Third, Jesus accomplishes the Great Reversal.  Do you recall another time that the Deceiver, Satan, made a famous temptation and succeeded?  Yup, in the Garden, with our original parents, Adam & Eve.  He convinced them to distrust God, to take matters into their own hands, to become like God.  He got them to believe that God was holding out on them by forbidding them to eat from just one tree in the Garden.  Satan sowed seeds of doubt, and they fell for it and the rest of world history records the sad, tragic consequences of their decision.  One of the details we often miss is the in-action of the man, Adam.  Genesis 3:6 makes clear that Adam was “with her”, Eve, and yet he said and did nothing to defend his wife from the lies and deceits of the Serpent.  He could have told the Serpent to “shut up”, or even crushed the serpent to keep it from 071714_0240_TheTablethe2.jpgtalking any more. But he failed, utterly.  Note that Jesus undoes this most horrible of failures, by standing up to and defeating Satan’s lies and temptations.  Now, if Jesus has undone Adam’s failures, he has surely undone all of yours as well.  Paul calls Jesus the second Adam– giving us the ultimate and perfect “do-over.”

 

If you choose to buck the system, and break the pre-programmed code of our current cultural Matrix, and resist temptation, sin and selfishness and fight the Big Fat Liar of hell, you must needs know the dirty little secret that the Enemy of your soul does NOT want you to know:  The same Jesus who handed Satan his lunch in the desert two-thousand years ago is in you, with you, surrounding you.  You are never, ever alone when facing temptations of all kinds.  The mighty Warrior-King who has put-down and crushed every single temptation you have faced, are facing or will face is in you–your heart, mind, soul and body.  And he’s itching for a big win!

 

Will you say yes to Jesus so you can experience that victory?  That’s the only question you need to answer.

 

Items to remember– because there will be a test, every day of your life!!

 

  1. Jesus knows exactly what you are feeling and thinking when you are being tempted– he’s been there.  He is not shocked and surprised that certain things are a huge temptation to you.  He does not think less of you.  But he does offer hope!
  2. Satan plays dirty and will use your friends, (even Christian ones!051714_2225_ThingsAreNo1.jpg!) and family to tempt and discourage you.  Remember, he used Peter’s big mouth against Jesus.  You must always be on guard.
  3. Don’t hit the easy button and take the easy way out!  Man-up, Woman-up, and get your nose into Scripture often.  A true warrior sleeps with his sword, or bow & arrows, or fire-arm because he could be attacked at any time, day or night.  Do you see the Bible as that crucial in your life?
  4. Jesus has already undone your past failures.  Don’t live there for it is a life of defeat and misery.  Live only in the present, and recognize that the victorious Jesus is with you, right inside you.  Say yes to him, and no to evil and sin.   You can and you must– so many are depending on you!  Never stop fighting and never give up, because Jesus never gives up on you!
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Undoing Adam’s Failure

13 03 2011

Prayer.  Fasting.  Almsgiving.  These are the classic disciplines of the Lenten season.  But when we pray, we should always pray with Scripture.  In Evangelical circles, it is often stressed that a healthy relationship with God requires daily Bible reading and study.  I don’t disagree, but beyond reading and study, a disciple of Jesus should also know how to pray the Scriptures.  The Psalms are the obvious example of Scripture that we can pray, but even with Biblical narratives (like Genesis or the Historical Books) and discourse (like the Prophets or the Epistles) one can also learn to pray.  The key is to remember that the Scriptures are God’s words to His people, AND that  prayer is not only talking to the Lord but also listening to Him.  By allowing Him to speak to us through the Scriptures, we can enter into dialogue with our Heavenly Father through the Holy Spirit.  These holy conversations will steadily transform us as we practice them frequently and steadily improve at listening.  So, this Lent, practice praying the Scriptures!

Now for my Lenten confession:  It’s frightening to count up the paltry amount of time I actually spend with Scripture.  As part of my Lenten discipline then, I hope to increase my time reading, studying and praying the Bible.  And during this Lent I will endeavor to record some of my engagement with God’s word by posting my thoughts here.

The lectionary readings for this first Sunday in Lent (from the Revised Common Lectionary) are these:

  • Old Testament Lesson:
    • Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
  • Psalm
    • Psalm 32
  • New Testament Lesson:
    • Romans 5:12-19
  • Gospel Lesson:
    • Matthew 4:1-11

These Scriptures remind us that the message and focus of Lent is really NOT how horrible we sinners all are (as true as that may be).  To focus on ourselves is a hopeless and despair-filled endeavor.  The focus of Lent is renewal, new life; and the One who has brought about this blessed new reality for us hopeless rebels. It seems I constantly fall back into sinful ruts– thought patterns, as well as patterns of behavior.  I know all too well that I cannot break myself out of these hellish cycles and deep, dark ruts with human resources alone.  Only the Second Adam can offer me real, lasting help.

“If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”  (Romans 5:17)

Look at Adam back in Genesis 3.  He stood by and allowed his wife to be manipulated by a scrawny little snake.  Don’t believe for a moment that Adam had skipped off to the nearest bush for a bathroom break  when the serpent slithered up to Eve and spoke his lies.  Genesis 3:6 indicates that he was with Eve.  And even if it can be argued that he was not there for the serpent’s spiel, he could have stopped his wife when she offered him the fruit.  But I have little doubt that Adam was fully aware of what the serpent had told his wife (because I believe he was right there to hear it).  But at precisely that moment when he should have stepped up as the man God created him to be he goes silent and passive.  He should have lovingly corrected his wife.  Even better, he should have told the serpent to shut up and leave– and if the serpent refused, Adam should have beat it’s little brains in with the nearest stick!

We all know he didn’t do any of those things and we get to enjoy the continuing consequences of his actions– especially as we mimic Adam again and again in our own lives.  But here’s the good news proclaimed especially at the beginning of Lent:  Jesus does what Adam should have done, and therefore so can we!

I love that scene from the Passion of the Christ where Jesus stomps on the head of snake as Satan whispers his temptations in the garden (imagine that, we’re back in a garden just like Genesis 3!).  Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Genesis 3:15 and undoes what Adam allowed to happen.

This can be viewed most clearly in the Gospel lesson from Matthew 4, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  By the power of God’s Spirit and Word, the Second Adam rebuffs the devil’s temptations and half-truths and leaves the desert victorious and ready to begin his earthly ministry.

But the old Liar is still at work.  Most of us read that and assume we could never resist like Jesus did– being the eternal Son of God and all comes with some advantages, right?!  We all feel too much like the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve– we fail and fail and fail again.  But this is a lie.  If we have been baptized into Christ then we possess the power of his death and resurrection, if we choose to make use of it.  If we claim that we trust Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and our ticket to heaven, then it is also possible to trust that Christ is in us and we need not succumb to the devil’s tricks and fleshly temptations.  It truly is within our reach to follow Jesus rather than Adam and Eve.  To believe otherwise is to have already bought the serpent’s lies– which means the battle is over before it’s begun.  I’ll safely guess that our Enemy prefers this to engaging in one-on-one combat with each of us.  You’d think he was intimidated by those in whom Christ resides!

If you’ve recently allowed the Evil One to knock you down, Lent gives you the opportunity to get back up and enter the fight once again with renewed confidence and optimism.  For we are now sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of the Second Adam– the One who danced on the head of the serpent.  Glory to Christ forever.  Amen.





Christ the Wrath Bearer?

27 02 2011

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14-15, ESV)

No doubt we have all heard the following in sayings or songs: “Christ died for me.” “Jesus paid the penalty for my sins.” “He took my place on the cross.” The question is, what do they actually mean? Did Jesus really take a divine hit that I deserved? It is my purpose here to make the case that this is NOT what happened on the cross. In other words, it does not seem correct to say that the Atonement achieved by Christ’s death was about Him receiving, on our behalf, God’s righteous wrath.

Now, of course, the idea that the Messiah is getting a punishment from God that we deserve seems to be an obviously Scriptural notion. For example note: Isaiah 53:4-5, “Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.” OR Romans 5:9 “…having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.” (Note what Paul is saying before and after this, however.) OR Ephesians 2:3 where Paul refers to us as “children of wrath.” (It is important to read on to the next two verses where Paul states: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ”).

The bulk of the New Testament verses on God’s wrath seem to be referring to God’s wrath at the end of time or the Great Judgment and are not connected with the Atonement (to see this, have your Bible program pull up all the verses with “wrath” in them from the New Testament).

So, read me very carefully, I am NOT attempting to deny the existence of God’s righteous wrath or that He deploys it now and again. But I am pleading that we who are the inheritors of a Western, Medieval interpretation of Scripture seek to place the emphasis of the Atonement on a syllable other than Divine punishment. This emphasis has been so overwhelming that it wasn’t until I was in seminary and was reading Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith that I encountered for the first time how Jesus had defeated Satan, Sin, and Death by his death and resurrection. I am thankful that I learned this seminal truth of the Gospel before I began preaching every week, but it is sad commentary on the preaching and teaching I had been sitting under for the previous twenty-four years! I’m sure such I ideas were mentioned– but that was precisely the problem, they were never more than mentioned. All the while the Evangelical mantra: “Jesus took our place on the cross and died for our sins so we could go to heaven” was relentlessly propounded.

That Evangelical message may have played well for a certain stretch in our history– a stretch where many grew up with some level of understanding of human sin and Divine judgment, etc. But take note: that message now falls on ears who find them utterly irrelevant. The good news is that we don’t need to change or water-down the Gospel in order to connect with and persuade the post-modernists in our midst. We just need to reclaim a more ancient emphasis. One that tells the story of Satan’s domination over the human race through the power of death (a domination that we have freely chosen, by the way). A story that includes a daring rescue borne of an undying Divine love. A story whose ending is certain, but in which our place in it depends on our choices– shall I choose the darkness or the Light, death or Life, captivity or Liberty?

Once again, in order to bring light to this discussion, I’d like to present the instruction of Athanasius concerning the Atonement, from paragraph 20 of his On the Incarnation:

We have dealt as far as circumstance and our own understanding permit with the reason for His bodily manifestation. We have seen that to change the corruptible to incorruption was proper to none other than the Savior Himself, Who in the beginning made all things out of nothing; that only the Image of the Father could re-create the likeness of the Image in men, that none save our Lord Jesus Christ could give to mortals immortality, and that only the Word Who orders all things and is alone the Father’s true and sole-begotten Son could teach men about Him and abolish the worship of idols.

But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrected. . . .

The Body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid. Wherefore, the Word, as I said, being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as His own in place of all, and suffering for the sake of all through His union with it, “might bring to naught him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver them who all their lifetime were enslaved by the fear of death.” (Heb. 2:14ff)



Again, nowhere does Athanasius bring into the discussion the need to deal with the righteous wrath of God. Yes, Jesus took our place on the cross. BUT he did it to pay the death-debt incurred in Eden, and NOT to deflect or absorb the fiery flames of God’s righteous anger. To some, this may seem like a nuance with which we should not occupy our time. But I would strongly argue that this distinction is crucial if we are going to walk steadily in the Father’s holy love– something we will struggle to do if we have misconceptions of Him. And certainly the Enemy of our souls seeks largely to convince us of wrong pictures and narratives of the Father.

Do you hear the difference between Athanasius’ narrative (which I believe to be the Biblical one), and the narrative borne out of Medieval Europe? In the first one, we have a loving and holy Father-Creator who allowed Adam and Eve to freely embrace or reject Him; and when they chose wrongly He allowed them to suffer the natural consequences– the biggest one being death. He did not, however, abandon them utterly to this curse. The story of the Old Testament is the painful tale of God’s unrelenting love and grace offered again and again to those whom He had created (which was, again and again, rejected!). Yes, God did have entire populations of men, women and children put to death. But I would argue that these rare acts of wrathful judgment are equally acts of mercy and grace, for the Lord cut short the years of horrendous evil that these populations where perpetrating upon one another and those around them. In those cities, God lovingly brought to an end murder, rape, child abuse, torture, child sacrifice, and worse! Our Creator-God could have allowed us to continue on indefinitely under the curse of death– we certainly deserved it. Instead, in the fullness of time, He sent His eternal Son to take on our human flesh in order that He could fulfill and put to an end the punishment of death.

In the second narrative (the false one), we seem to have a heavenly Father who is continually building up a righteous wrath that will one day be unleashed upon humanity– unless He sends His one and only Son and then lets loose upon Him instead. Here, Jesus had to save us from His Father, our Creator, instead of from Satan and death. Here, we have a God whose wrath must be appeased. (This is never the case even in the Old Testament, where we routinely see Yahweh relenting, or “repenting” as the King James has it, from his intentions to send forth His judgment– as with Nineveh, for example). Here is a God whom I will always fear in an unhealthy way, and whom I will strive to please out of that fear rather than out of love and adoration. Here is a heavenly Father that I will likely come to loath. As a consequence the joy, peace, and abundant life that Jesus promises will always be far from me– all because I believed a lie.

Personally, I have, in fact, believed a similar lie. I struggle continually to be free of the false narrative which describes God my Father as a harsh task-master, to whom I had best be grateful for even the smallest crumb from the meager store of blessings that He only sparingly dispenses. He must be harsh, for my good, you understand. Otherwise I may become soft and spoiled and incapable of growing up to maturity. This is NOT the Father Jesus depicts in the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is NOT the Father of Jesus who eagerly awaits to pardon, restore, and reward those children who turn in His direction.

It is no longer a theological curiosity for me– this business of the Atonement and what Jesus was doing on the cross. I MUST reject, as false, the idea and narrative of a wrath-full, heavenly Father who will have his vengeance doled out– either upon His eternal Son or us! This is a lie of Satan’s liking. God did not send Jesus to save us from Himself! He sent Jesus to save us from the dark clutches of the Enemy of our souls who owned us because of our sin and rebellion. May the light of Christ, who willingly gave himself up to death to set us free from death, shine brightly upon our false pictures of the Father so that we can all know the freedom and joy of loving the One, true God and Father of all.





De Incarnatione Verbi Dei

2 01 2011

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  (John 1:1-3)

The time between New Year’s Day and Epiphany (Jan. 6th) is when most are feeling the “let down” of the post-Holiday season.  It’s a time when everyone is looking forward to getting back to a normal schedule.  I, too, feel the “let down” of this time, but I also enjoy the relative quit these few days afford me.  I am referring mostly to the quiet in the culture.  Since the day after Halloween our culture has been focused on the Holidays, especially Christmas.  Christmas music is played wall-to-wall from Thanksgiving Day on.  Now, in these early days of the new year everyone is eagerly leaving all of that behind until next year.  This leaves people like me a little room to contemplate and worship the Incarnate One we supposedly celebrate (or at least remember) in the “Holiday Season.”

And make no mistake, Christmas IS about the Incarnation– the Eternal Son, the Eternal Word of the Father taking on human flesh and human nature in the most daring rescue mission ever undertaken in heaven or earth.  Please don’t let the cute little baby in the hay fool you!  Even many well meaning Christians who proclaim that “Jesus in the Reason for the Season” allow themselves to get so caught up in the cultural celebration of the holiday season (which, of course, is not all bad for one’s soul) that they fail to see and to proclaim the Incarnation (despite singing carols about Immanuel, “God with us”).  Therefore, it is my honor and pleasure to present a bit of the most penetrating and worship-filled words ever written about the Incarnation.  They were written by a holy and courageous man early in the Fourth century.  His name is Athanasius, and I invite you to do some research on him and find your spirit greatly encouraged by what you find.  In the words that follow we are allowed a glimpse, beyond the nativity scene, into the great and astounding story of humanity’s rescue from Satan, sin, death, and… non-existence (which is depicted most powerfully in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce).

Caution:  In what follows, read slowly, meditate often.

St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Paragraph 1

“The renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning.  There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.”

[from the end of Par. 7]  “For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.”

Paragraph 8

“For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world.  In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are.  But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.  He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption.  He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law [the penalty of death given at the Fall] to be repealed before it was fulfilled.  He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing.  He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death.  All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own.  Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way.  No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father– a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man.  He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt.  Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father.  This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection.  Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.”  [Emphasis mine]

A few scattered thoughts:

  • Not all contemporary Christians miss these crucial elements of the Incarnation written about by Athanasius.  Singer and Songwriter, Andrew Peterson, produced an album several years ago by the title of:  Behold the Lamb of God:  The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ.  The album is a great tool for worship and contemplation during Advent.  Also, Peterson and his crew have taken the songs of this album on tour every Advent for the last seven years or so.  I highly recommend attending one of these sessions if you get a chance– it is a great anti-dote to the hype of the commercialized Christmas that surrounds us and attempts to drown out true worship with its noise and pull.  At any rate, compare Peterson’s words with Athanasius’ teaching:

“Gather ’round ye children come, and hear the old, old story;

Of the power of death undone, by an infant born of glory

Son of God, Son of Man

Gather round remember now, how creation held its breath,

How it let out a sigh, and filled up the sky with the angels

Son of God , Son of Man

So sing out with joy for the brave little boy

Who was God, but he made himself nothing

Well he gave up his pride and he came here to die, like a man

Therefore God exalted him, to the place of highest praises,

And He gave him the name above every name

That at the very name of Jesus…

Son of God, Son of Man

We would sing out with joy for the brave little boy

Who was God, but he made himself nothing

And he gave up his pride and he came here to die, like a man

So in heaven and earth and below,

Every knee would bow in worship

Every tongue would proclaim Jesus he reigns with the angels”

  • One thing that really struck me is what Athanasius does NOT say in this section of his treatise.  He does not talk about how Jesus was punished, on our behalf, by God.  He does not describe how God’s just wrath had to be unleashed and how Christ took it so we wouldn’t have to.  Yes, Athanasius does say that Christ offered himself up to the Father, and how the penalty of death promised in the Garden of Eden had to be carried out if the Father was to remain true to His word.  In the speech of theologians, Athanasius offers no support for “penal substitutionary atonement” that is often discussed today.

John Piper, whose books I have read and for whom I have sincere respect and agreement with on many things (despite the fact that he is a staunch five-point Calvinist, while I am a bull-headed Wesleyan-Arminian) saddened me greatly in his book, The Passion of Jesus Christ (2004, by Crossway Books).  In this short book he provides “Fifty Reasons Why He Came to Die.”  I opened the book anticipating Piper’s usual incisive and convicting prose only to be dismayed by what he chose to devote the very first “reason” to:  that Jesus came to die in order “to absorb the wrath of God.”  Of all the things to begin the book with!!!  Why not how Jesus has undone the power of death by his death?!  Why not how the dominion of Satan and sin has been toppled?! Why not how Christ restores God’s own image in us by his death and resurrection?!  Why not how Christ has opened the way to God’s eternal Kingdom for all sinners who believe?!  Why not how Jesus of Nazareth restores to us what it really means to be human– to be as God meant us to be in the beginning?!  Instead, Piper takes a page to explain the word “propitiation.”  A significant biblical word, no doubt, but not a good place to start.  I think this book was especially targeted for unbelievers and immature Christians who became more interested in Jesus after seeing Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  If I’m right, I wish Piper would have began the book with at least a glimpse of the depth and grandeur of what Christ has restored by His death and resurrection.  Instead, the reader begins by having his focus turned towards a wrath-filled God who makes His eternal Son “absorb” the whole punishment intended for a deserving humanity.  The reader may have been more captivated by the tale of a people who had come under the thumb of Satan, Sin and Death, by their own fault, but who were rescued by the very Sovereign they had committed treason against– made possible by the eternal Son who freely offered his body unto death in order to pay our ransom and set us free.

What Athanasius has to say about how the Father and the Son relate to one another makes much more sense to me than the image of a righteously angry God unleashing His full wrath on His innocent, holy and eternal Son.  Rather, we can see here the Eternal Word, who, out of sheer love for the Father and for us (whom He had help create), “gave himself up to death, even death on cross.”  And by his unspeakably self-less and brave act we are rescued and the Father’s original plans and integrity are upheld, to the glory of the whole Trinity.





No Escape!

9 06 2010

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.  He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.

Deuteronomy 10:17-18

Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds–his name is the LORD– and rejoice before him.  A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.  God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing.

Psalm 68:4-6

The scene is repeated in a myriad of movies and novels:  The villain rubs his hands together greedily as he looks upon his hopeless prisoner.  With dark eyes gleaming he cackles and laughs in the maniacal way that super-villains always do, “Heh, heh, yes, I have you now, and this time there is no escape!”

“No Escape!”  This is the oft repeated mantra of the real villain of villains—who, by the way, rarely comes to us as obviously as the silly bad guy in the movies.  The Enemy of our souls desires one thing:  to convince us that we are trapped and alone without any hope for rescue so that we will give up trusting in our heavenly Father and live a defeated life.  A life that advances the agenda of the kingdom of darkness more than it does God’s Kingdom.

We all have certain areas that Satan uses against us in order to convince us that we are trapped and alone.  Perhaps it is a major moral failure or colossal error in judgment, the consequences of which never seem to end.  Maybe it’s a sense of deep dissatisfaction with the career path you have chosen (or even the spouse you have chosen!).  The things our Enemy will use are plethora.  But the most common are the deep heart wounds we receive at the hands of our own family members, especially our parents.

These wounds are not limited to blatant verbal and physical abuse.  They may also come from a single unfortunate incident or from the unintentionally harsh words of a work-weary father, “Son, why are you always screwing this up—you’re hopeless!”.   And because all humans are broken and wounded creatures, truly no one escapes being hurt by those they love and trust the most.

Those wounds leave a lasting mark, and speak to our hearts lies that we come to believe and live out of.  And then we turn around and wound others out of our own woundedness.  Nice huh?!  And Satan enjoys every minute of our relational misery—a misery and frustration from which it truly seems there is no escape.

It too often feels that way for me.  I turn thirty-seven today, and I am fatherless.  My father never hurt me with his words or actions—because he never had a chance to.  He died before I was born and I never knew him.   Yet the wound he has left is large and gaping.  It is the wound of absence.  When a child longing to play ball, he was not there.  When a teen in need of a father’s firm guidance, he was not there.  Now an adult and a father myself I cannot seek his counsel or witness the joy in his eyes at the sight of his grandchildren.  It is a horrid wound, and I certainly feel like I will be trapped here for all time.  It is not true, I know—but convincing my heart of that seems impossible.

In many ways I should be thankful.  I do not have a father who hit me, or neglected me, or passed on to me his bad habits and addictions.  On the other hand, if he were still alive we might be reconciled and be able to seek the Kingdom together.  But he is not here and never has been and I feel utterly on my own without help or guidance.

That is the lie I struggle with daily—“you are on your own Rich and you’re gonna have to figure it out by yourself AND you better get it right the first time!”  And yes, more often than I even care to know about it, I believe and live out of that lie.  And yes, it is with disastrous results for me, my wife and children.

So when the Evil One gleefully rubs his hands together at the sight of my captivity, I have come to realize there are two powerful weapons at my disposal:  First, I do have a Father!  One who specializes in being a father to the fatherless.  Second, I have been rescued by my Father’s Son (yes, that makes Him my brother!) who shows me exactly what my Father is like and shows me how to live under His great love and strength.

The villain of villains becomes a little less gleeful, for as I escape his trap once again, he knows his doom has been sealed by the one who rescues me.

That’s my favorite part of the movie, by the way, when the bad guy gets taken out by the hero.  That’s the plot of all the tales we tell ourselves.  It’s also the plot of the Story of Stories found in Scripture.  It is written on our hearts and it is true.  Never doubt it.  There is escape!  There is hope!  Our Redeemer lives and He’s on His way even now. . .





Fasting: Exposing the Great Lie

29 03 2010

There’s still time!  If you have failed in your attempts at fasting during this Lent, or if you have not even attempted to fast, there’s still time.  We are now entering Holy Week.  The Easter Vigil approaches where we are invited to participate in the Fast of fasts in preparation for the Feast of feasts.  I pray that you, and I, will accept the invitation to fast during this Holy Week.  By doing so, we enter into the Victory of victories, achieved by the Second Adam.   It’s true!  Fasting is about victory, joy, strength, and life!

In support of this claim I offer the following quote from Alexander Schmemann (Great Lent, chapter 5, “Lent in Our Life”).  It is a long quote, but worth the effort!

Today people [Christian and non-Christian] fast for all kinds of reasons. . . .  It is important, therefore, to discern the uniquely Christian content of fasting.  It is first of all revealed to us in the interdependence between two events which we find in the Bible:  one at the beginning of the Old Testament and the other at the beginning of the New Testament.  The first event is the “breaking of the fast” by Adam in Paradise.  He ate of the forbidden fruit.  This is how man’s original sin is revealed to us.  Christ, the New Adam—and this is the second event—begins by fasting.  Adam was tempted and he succumbed to temptation.  The results of Adam’s failure are expulsion from Paradise and death.  The fruits of Christ’s victory are the destruction of death and our return to Paradise. . . .  [I]n this perspective fasting is revealed to us as something decisive and ultimate in its importance.  It is not a mere “obligation,” a custom; it is connected with the very mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation.

…sin is not only the transgression of a rule leading to punishment; it is always a mutilation of life given to us by God.  It is for this reason that the story of the original sin is presented to us as an act of eating.  For food is means of life; it is that which keeps us alive.  But here lies the whole question: what does it mean to be alive and what does “life” mean?  For us today this term has a primarily biological meaning:  life is precisely that which entirely depends on food, and more generally, on the physical world.  But for the Holy Scripture and for Christian Tradition, this life “by bread alone” is identified with death because it is mortal life, because death is a principle always at work in it.  God, we are told, “created no death.”  He is the Giver of Life.  How then did life become mortal?  Why is death and death alone the only absolute condition of that which exists?  The Church answers:  because man rejected life as it was offered and given to him by God and preferred a life depending not on God alone, but on “bread alone.”  Not only did he disobey God for which he was punished; he changed the very relationship between himself and the world.  To be sure, the world was given to him by God as “food”—as means of life; yet life was meant to be communion with God; it had not only its end but its full content in Him.  “In Him was Life and the Life was the light of man.”  The world and food were thus created as means of communion with God, and only if accepted for God’s sake were to give life.  In itself food has no life and cannot give life.   Only God has Life and is Life.  In food itself God—and not calories—was the principle of life.  Thus to eat, to be alive, to know God and be in communion with Him were one and the same thing.  The unfathomable tragedy of Adam is that he ate for its own sake.  More than that, he ate “apart” from God in order to be independent of Him.  And if he did it, it is because he believed that food had life in itself and that he, by partaking of that food, could be like God, i.e., have life in himself.  To put it very simply:  he believed in food, whereas the only object of belief, of faith, of dependence is God and God alone.  World, food, became his gods, the sources and principles of his life.  He became their slave.  Adam—in Hebrew—means “man.”  It is my name, our common name.  Man is still Adam, still the slave of “food.”  He may claim that he believes in God, but God is not his life, his food, the all-embracing content of his existence.  He may claim that he receives his life from God but he doesn’t live in God and for God.  His science, his experience, his self-consciousness are all built on that same principle:  “by bread alone.”  We eat in order to be alive but we are not alive in God.  This is the sin of all sins.  This is the verdict of death pronounced on our life.

Christ is the New Adam.  He comes to repair the damage inflicted on life by Adam, to restore man to true life, and thus He also begins with fasting.  “When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He became hungry” (Matt. 4:2).  Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else—when we urgently and essentially need food—showing thus that we have no life in ourselves.  It is that limit beyond which I either die from starvation or, having satisfied by body, have again the impression of being alive.  It is, in other words, the time when we face the ultimate question:  on what does my life depend?  And since the question is not an academic one but is felt with my entire body, it is also the time of temptation.  Satan came to Adam in Paradise; he came to Christ is the desert.  He came to two hungry men and said:  eat, for your hunger is the proof that you depend entirely on food, that you life is in food.  And Adam believed and ate; but Christ rejected that temptation and said:  man shall not live by bread alone but by God.  He refused to accept that cosmic lie which Satan imposed on the world, making that lie a self-evident truth not even debated any more, the foundation of our entire world view, of science, medicine, and perhaps even religion.  By doing this, Christ restored that relationship between food, life, and God which Adam broke, and which we still break every day.

What then is fasting for us Christians?  It is our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total dependence on food, matter, and the world.  By no means is our liberation a full one.  Living still in the fallen world, in the world of the Old Adam, being part of it, we still depend on food.  But just as our death—through which we still must pass—has become by virtue of Christ’s Death a passage into life, the food we eat and the life it sustains can be life in God and for God.  Part of our food has already become “food of immortality”—the Body and Blood of Christ Himself.  But even the daily bread we receive from God can be in this life and in this world that which strengthens us, our communion with God, rather than that which separates us from God.  Yet it is only fating that can perform that transformation, giving us the existential proof that our dependence on food and matter is not total, not absolute, that united to prayer, grace, and adoration, it can itself be spiritual.

Ary Scheffer's The Temptation of Christ

All this means that deeply understood, fasting is the only means by which man recovers his true spiritual nature.  It is not a theoretical but truly a practical challenge to the great Liar who managed to convince us that we depend on bread alone and built all human knowledge, science, and existence on that lie.  Fasting is the denunciation of that lie and also the proof that it is a lie.  It is highly significant that it was while fasting that Christ met Satan and that He said later that Satan cannot be overcome “but by fasting and prayer.”  Fasting is the real fight against the Devil because it is the challenge to that one all-embracing law which makes him the “Prince of this world.”  Yet if one is hungry and then discovers that he can truly be independent of that hunger, not be destroyed by it but just on the contrary, can transform it into a source of spiritual power and victory, then nothing remains of that great lie in which we have been living since Adam.