Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The God Who Would Be Man

“It seems, then,” said Tirian, smiling to himself, “that the stable seen from within and the stable seen from without are two very different places.” “Yes,” said the Lord Digory. “it’s inside is bigger than it's outside.” Yes, said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside that was bigger than our whole world.”
—C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle

“The Incarnation is the central miracle asserted by Christians,” C. S. Lewis insisted. “They say that God became a man.”

One of first questions raised by the early church is how did it happen? How did the immortal, eternal Word become flesh? Matthew and Luke explain Jesus’ entry into the world as a virgin birth, or more correctly, a virgin conception, for it was Jesus’ conception and not his birth that was unique.[1] Mary was a normal woman in every way and Jesus’ gestation and birth was normal in every way that matters. But his conception was unique for he had no human father. As the old text puts it, Mary “had known no man.”

Mary herself was concerned with this question, for nothing in her schooling necessarily led her to the expectation that Messiah would be virginal born:[2] “How can this be?” she asked the angel, who then explained, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:34, 35). This is a miracle and a mystery.

Every conception, of course, is a miracle. No woman ever conceived a child, no mare a foal, no doe a fawn apart from God. But once, for a very special purpose, God dispensed with natural process and a long line of descendents. With his naked hand he touched Mary and made a wee bairn who was…well, himself.

Here’s where clinical explanations falter. All we can say is what the first writers said: the child was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). This was inexplicable then as now, and yet was acceptable, a staunch belief enshrined in the earliest creeds.[3] It became part of the minimal faith of new converts. Today it stands at the heart of our faith.

“But does it matter?” you ask. Of course it does. “All this took place,” Matthew informs us, “to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means (Matthew translates), ‘God (is) with us’” (Matthew 1:23).

God is with us. That’s what the virgin birth meant and still means. This is an answer to the old question: Does God care? Does disease, pain, infirmity, handicap and death overwhelm him as much as it does us? Does God weep? Does it matter to him that babies are hooked on drugs and infected by AIDs in utero? Dostoyevsky’s cynic, Ivan, asks of human suffering, “What do the children have to do with it?” Does it matter to God that children suffer?

The answer is the Incarnation, for in this act God entered fully into our suffering. Pain was his lot in the slow ascent from a struggling, kicking embryo to an utterly dependent baby, through gangling, awkward adolescent to become a man—a “man of sorrows.” Through all, he was “acquainted with grief.” “In all our afflictions he was afflicted.” Yes, he understands. He cares like no other.

Dorothy Sayers says it far better than I: “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever the game he is playing with His creation, He has kept his own rules and played fair.  He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself.  He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death.  When He was a man, He played the man.  He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”

Jesus’ conception, though one of a kind, is timelessly typical of what is eternally true of God. He “never undoes anything but evil, never does good to undo it again. The union between God and (human) nature in the person of Christ admits no divorce. He will not go out of nature again…”[4] He is, and has always been, Immanuel: “God with us; the God who became just like you and me.

DHR


[1] The virgin birth should not be confused with the “Immaculate Conception," the Roman Catholic tradition that Mary was free from original sin, or the “Immaculate Reception,” a Franco Harris catch in a play-off game against Oakland in 1972.
[2]Isaiah's prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) does not necessarily raise this expectation. The word Isaiah uses, usually translated virgin ('alma), is ambiguous and may simply mean "young maiden." The near fulfillment of the prophecy probably was a child born to the prophet's wife who was not a virgin. (She had already borne children.) Matthew, however, translates and interprets Isaiah's prophecy with the Greek word, pathenos that is not ambiguous and unequivocally means "virgin" (Matthew 1:14).
[3] The earliest creed, the so-called Apostles' Creed states in part: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary..."
[4] C. S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 123

Monday, November 28, 2011

Logos

“The lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song... Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see the connection between the music and the things that were happening. When a line of dark firs sprang up on a ridge about a hundred yards away she felt that they were connected with a series of deep, prolonged notes which the Lion had sung a second before. And when he burst into a rapid series of lighter notes she was not surprised to see primroses suddenly appearing in every direction. Thus, with an unspeakable thrill, she felt quite certain that all the things were coming (as she said) “out of the Lion’s head.” When you listened to his song you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them” (C.S. Lewis Magicians Nephew p.126).

C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

Plato, the Greek philosopher, reasoned there must be an “idea” (or “form”) behind every object in the material world, one that preceded its existence. And if that idea exists, there must be a mind that conceived it and spoke it into being. These three transcendent realities—a divine mind, an idea, an utterance—Plato combined into one absolute and named it the “Logos” (the Word).

Plato was very near the truth, so near, in fact, that early Christians sometimes referred to him as “one of our own.” But though he caught a glimpse of “the true Light that gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9), he did not fully comprehend it. Something more was needed, something tremendous, something yet to come, something the wisdom of man could not conceive: “The Word (Logos) became flesh and dwelled among us …” (John 1:14). The divine Logos and a mortal man together bore one name: Jesus. This is what Christians call The Incarnation, the final, irrefutable proof that God really, really cares.

American Theologian Frederick Buechner had this to say: “We all want to be certain, we all want proof, but the kind of proof that we tend to want — scientifically or philosophically demonstrable proof that would silence all doubts once and for all — would not, in the long run, I think, answer the fearful depths of our need at all. For what we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind to keep the whole show going, but that there is a God right there in the thick of our day-to-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars, but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move down here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world.  It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want, but whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God’s presence.  That is the miracle we are really after, and that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get” (Secrets in the Dark, p.16).

All through the Old Testament we read that God has been doing his best to get next to us, humbling himself, condescending to make himself known, but nothing can match what happened that night in that cave. It was there that the Logos became the little Lord Jesus, a helpless infant with unfocused eyes and uncontrollable limbs, needing to be breast–fed, swaddled, cuddled and cared for, “the infinite made infinitesimally small,” G. K. Chesterton mused. “Immensity contracted to a span.” That is indeed the miracle we’re really after and the miracle that we got: The Logos become Immanuel: God with us.

John speaks of the Logos in a most personal way: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled—(this was) the Word (the eternal Logos)!” (1 John 1:1).

John was astounded by the thought that he had heard and seen Plato’s Logos, and held him in his hands.[1] The one who made up the universe “out of his head” and spoke it (or sang it) into existence was “pleased as man with men to dwell.” Why did He do it?

It was love—pure and simple.

DHR
11/28/11



[1] The Greek word translated “handled” suggests something more than a tentative touch. It has the thought of familiarity and affection—perhaps a hug. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Love Finds a Way

“Love never dies.’ (1 Corinthians 12:8 The Message)

Years ago I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker Magazine that depicted a sour, disgruntled, elderly gentleman standing in rumpled pajamas and robe at his apartment door. He had just secured the door for the night with four locks, two deadbolts and a chain latch. Later he noticed a small white envelope stuck beneath the door. On the envelope was a large sticker in the shape of a heart. It was a valentine. Love had found a way.

We ought to have a reason for the hope that’s in us, Paul says, but reason alone can never change another person’s heart. Only love can.

(Do you recall Dostoevsky’s parable of The Grand Inquisitor and Ivan Karamazov’s arguments against the love of God? His brother Alyosha did not debate the issue. He simply leaned over and kissed Ivan—a “line of reasoning” that burned its way into Ivan’s heart.)

Folks don’t believe much in God’s love these days. We have to show it to them—incarnate it, as God did in Jesus. In that way we can—so to speak—help him bring salvation into the world.

Authentic love, however, is not the matter of a moment, a month or a year. It is eternal: “Love never dies!” It is the gift that we keep on giving.

DHR
11/22/11

Friday, November 18, 2011

Poor Preachers


Judge not the preacher for he is thy judge
If you mislike him, thou conceiv’st him not
God calleth preaching folly. Do not grudge
To pick out treasures from an earthen pot.
            The worst speak something good: if all want sense,
God takes a text and preacheth patience. 


—George Herbert

Years ago I heard about a young minister who asked a local auto mechanic to give him a special rate to fix his car. “I’m a poor preacher,” the young man explained.

“Yes, I know,” the mechanic replied. “I heard you preach last Sunday.”

Perhaps you have a “poor preacher.” So he isn’t polished and articulate, the most artful guy around. Don’t judge him harshly. If you do, it may be because you don’t understand God’s purposes. Despite the text your pastor may have chosen, God has his own text in mind.

Look for the nugget in the rubble. "The worst speak something good” now and then. Listen to the message carefully—try not to let your mind drift away—and ask God to give you one thought that will transform your thoughts and your heart. Jot it down, take it home and think about it throughout the day.

If nothing else, you may learn patience, that hardest of all virtues to acquire.

DHR

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Logos

“The lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song... Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see the connection between the music and the things that were happening. When a line of dark firs sprang up on a ridge about a hundred yards away she felt that they were connected with a series of deep, prolonged notes which the Lion had sung a second before. And when he burst into a rapid series of lighter notes she was not surprised to see primroses suddenly appearing in every direction. Thus, with an unspeakable thrill, she felt quite certain that all the things were coming (as she said) “out of the Lion’s head.” When you listened to his song you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them” (C.S. Lewis Magicians Nephew p.126).

C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

I love this time of the year: the first skiff of snow on the mountains, Canadian geese circling, gathering strength for their journey south, the extravagant patchwork of multihued leaves overhead and strewn across the forest floor. I echo the poet, “Whence comes this beauty?”

Plato, the Greek philosopher, concluded that there must be an “idea” behind every beautiful thing. Before there could be a beautiful object, there must be the thought of the object that preceded its being. And if that thought exists, there must be a mind that conceived it and then spoke it into existence. These three transcendent realities—a divine mind, an idea, an utterance—Plato combined into one and named it “Logos” (the Word).

Plato was very near the truth, so near, in fact, that early Christians referred to him as “one of our own.” But though he caught a glimpse of “the light that enlightens every man,” he did not fully comprehend it. Something more was needed, something tremendous, something yet to come, something the wisdom of man could not conceive: “The Word (Logos) became flesh and dwelled among us …” (John 1:14). The divine Logos and a mortal man came to bear one name: Jesus—“immensity contracted to a span.” This is what Christians call the Incarnation, the final, irrefutable proof that God really, really cares.

John speaks of the Logos in a most personal way: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled—(this was) the Word (Logos)!” (1 John 1:1).

John was stunned by the thought that he actually saw Plato’s Logos, and held him in his hands.[1] The one who made up the universe “out of his head” and spoke it (or sang it!) into existence was “pleased as man with men to dwell.” Why did He do it?

It was love—pure and simple.

DHR

[1] The Greek word translated “handled” suggests something more than a tentative touch. It has the thought of familiarity and affection—perhaps a hug. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rage

Sing, muse, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus—that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies carrion food for dogs and birds—

—Homer, The Iliad

Homer hangs the key to The Iliad on the front door. The first word in the Greek text is, “Rage!” The rest of the poem traces the tragic results of Achilles’ fury—the terrible loss of human life, the “countless agonies” that befell the Achaeans (Greeks)—all because Achilles would not give up his murderous rage.

James writes, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be… slow to become angry, for man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19,20).

There is a place for anger: Injustice directed at others ought to outrage us, but rage and revenge to redress the wrongs that you and I receive will never achieve the righteous purposes of God. We must commit ourselves to the only one who judges justly, and let him defend us from wrong.

Paul writes, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12.19).[1] This is not weakness; it is strength under control—a steadfast refusal to defend oneself and “give place to wrath,” i.e., step aside so God can work. This is meekness, the mark of a true child of God (Matthew 5:5).

Keep me from wrath, let it seem ever so right:
My wrath will never work thy righteousness.
Up, up the hill, to the whiter than snow-shine,
Help me to climb, and dwell in pardon’s light.
I must be pure as thou, or ever less
Than thy design of me--therefore incline
My heart to take men’s wrongs as thou tak’st mine.

              —George MacDonald


[1] Jude speaks of the inevitable judgment of evil, but issues this caveat: “Even Michael the archangel, in contending with the devil…dared not bring against him a reviling accusation, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 8).

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