Friday, December 29, 2017

The Living Word

“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 Lions head” (C.S. Lewis Magicians Nephew p.126).

Lewis was thinking a bit like Plato, the Greek philosopher, who 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 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 we 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 Gods existence that we want, but whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of Gods 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 breastfed, swaddled, cuddled and cared for, the infinite made infinitesimally small,G. K. Chesterton said. That is indeed the miracle were really after and the miracle that we got: The Logos become Immanuel: God with us.

John speaks of the Logos in a very 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—the Word of Life (the eternal living 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. The Greek word suggests something more than a touch. It has the thought of familiarity and affection—perhaps a hug. The one who made up the universe out of his headand spoke it into existence was pleased as man with men to dwell.Why did He do it? 

It was love—pure and simple. 

David Roper

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Simeon's Farewell

Let the infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken word,
Grant Israel's consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
T.S. Eliot, "A Song for Simeon"

Simeon was a venerable saint who had long waited "the comforting of Israel" (cf., Isaiah 40:1). The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Messiah.

"By chance," some would say, Simeon arrived at the temple coincident with Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus. Seeing the child, Simeon took him from his mother, cradled him in his arms, and began to sing:

Now Lord, as you have promised, you may dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people; A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

Thus Simeon passes off the scene, his small part in the drama well played, "with peace and consolation dismissed," Milton said.
Much of what Simeon sang about Jesus came from the Prophet Isaiah, who promised that, "all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God" (Isaiah 52:10). This infant would bring glory to Israel and salvation to the entire earth.

This was surely a moment of great joy for Mary. All mothers know that their children are special, but for Mary, this was a public ratification of what she already knew: that her son's kingdom, "would have no end." (Luke 1:33).[1]

But Simeon then states a hard fact: though the child was appointed for ”rise of many," many would fall—they would trip over him and curse him in their frustration. He would be slandered, rejected and killed, and Mary herself would suffer excruciating pain.

Simeon's words reinforce the bitter-sweet quality of the nativity: the story delights us, but we know that the birth of the child will lead to suffering, as do, in fact, all births.

Perhaps that's why we old folks are strangely moved when we look at snapshots of happy parents cradling a newborn baby, for we know that their child will surely suffer and that a sword will pierce their hearts as well. I've been around too long and have seen too much to believe otherwise.

How often have I listened to the stories of old friends and thought back to our youthful naiveté. Little did we know what sufferings we would endure.

I think of a childhood friend whose wife was murdered in a savage invasion of his home, while he was left confined to a wheel chair. Two other friends have challenged children; others have lost their children or seen them damaged in tragic ways. One friend's wife was injured in an accident from which she never fully recovered; others have suffered multiple losses through disease, death, or divorce. In fact, I can think of no friend who has not suffered in a significant way. I think of George Herbert's poignant words, "I cried when I was born and every day shows why."

"In this world you will have trouble," Jesus said, but, he said, "Be of good cheer!" I must say—as I think of my friends— despite their challenges they are of good cheer. They sorrow—Christianity is not Stoicism; there's no virtue in the stiff upper lip—but they do not sorrow as those who have no hope for they have learned that we all share in Jesus' sufferings, for if nothing else, the Incarnation tells us that at the center of our life is One who has been broken, who, from the cradle to the cross, has been one with us in our pain and loss. This is our consolation.

Does God promise that we will not feel pain? Not in this life. Does he feel our pain? The Incarnation is the final, irrefutable proof that he does. We can cast our care upon him knowing that our suffering matters to him, and sometimes that's all we need to know.

There is great relief in laying our burden down, even briefly, in the presence of someone who understands and cares. Author Margaret Guenther tells of a Scottish pediatrician who comforted her hurt and frightened child, not with medicine, but with a great, enveloping bear hug and the words, "Och, poor wee bairn!" "The wee bairn stopped crying at once," Mrs. Guenther said, "for she realized that another understood her pain and did not seek to minimize it." Thus Jesus consoles our broken hearts.

I, like Simeon, have grown old, and I have lived to see the Lord’s Messiah. And I too have seen that he is indeed our consolation.

David Roper

[1] The phrase, "no end" can be interpreted both temporally and spatially. The Moravian translation of this text is "without frontiers."

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The God Who Would Be Man

Thou hast not made, or taught me, Lord, to care 
For times and seasons—but this one glad day 
Is the blue sapphire clasping all the lights 
That flash in the girdle of the year so fair—
When thou wast born a man, because alway 
Thou wast and art a man, through all the flights 
Of thought, and time, and thousandfold creation's play. 

—George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul, December 25 

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

But how did he do it” How did God become a man? 

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. Mary was a normal woman in every way and Jesus’ gestation and birth was normal in every way that matters. 

But 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 experience led to the expectation that Messiah would be virginal born: “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 mystery and miracle.

Every conception, of course, is a miracle. No woman ever conceived a child, no mare a foal, no deer a fawn apart from God. But once, for a very special purpose, God dispensed with long line of descendants. With his naked hand he touched Mary’s womb 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. It became part of the minimal faith of new converts. Today it stands at the heart of the Christian creeds.

You ask, “Is it necessary to believe in the virgin birth?” My answer is, “Necessary to what?” I cannot say that those who deny the virgin birth forfeit their right to be called Christians: “the Lord knows those who are his.” But I believe this belief is necessary to be called a biblical, apostolic Christian.

“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 with us’” (Matthew 1:23). 

This is the point of the story and an answer to the old question: Does God care? Does disease, pain, affliction, handicap, aging and death overwhelm him as much as it does us?
One answer is the Incarnation, for there God entered fully into our suffering. Pain and anguish were his lot from the crib to the cross. He was a “man of sorrows, acquainted with (our) grief.” He was a child of sorrow and of woe. “In all our afflictions he was afflicted.”

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 is, and has always been, Immanuel: “God with us”; the God who would be man. 

David Roper

December 2017

Monday, December 18, 2017

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Though you are little among the thousands of Judah,
Yet out of you shall come forth to Me
The One to be Ruler in Israel,
Whose goings forth are from of old,
From everlasting.  —Micah 5:2-5a
The birth of Jesus was no after-thought. Micah predicted that it would happen 700 years before it occurred. 
Jesus “began” in Bethlehem, but that was not his beginning. These are hard words to understand, until we know the whole story: Jesus was Emanuel—“God with us.” 
Micah said that Jesus’ birth would be announced at Migdol Eder (“The Watch–Tower of the Flock”)—identified as the Shepherd’s Field near Bethlehem, where shepherds were watching their flocks. It was there and to them that the angels announced “good news.”
It’s significant that the angels bypassed Jerusalem where the clergy held court. They also passed up Herod’s palace nearby—Herodium, his villa near Bethlehem—and appeared instead to shepherds in the fields who were, as Luke says, tending their flocks. It was no big deal; it was their job.
Shepherds got the word first; Micah saw it coming, 700 years before. 
No one back then would have thought that shepherds would be interested in spiritual things. They weren’t religious men; they were more like Owyhee County Buckeroos than the sanitized sheep men we associate with the story these days. 
The angel’s words were simple and clear: “Today in the city of David a Savior has been born for you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.” 
“A Savior has been born for you.” That was the good news! “You’ll know him when you find a baby in a feed trough.” That was the sign.
And so the shepherds went off to search for the baby. They didn’t bother to look at Herod’s palace on the hill; there were no feed troughs there. They skirted the resorts, the spas and the lodges of the rich and famous and went looking for a stockyard or a feedlot or a cattle pen, or for one of the caves into which shepherds drove their flocks at night. 
They found the child near their field—they had no idea how near he was—in a damp and filthy cave, where Joseph and Mary, having been turned away from the inn, found shelter from the cold. 
And as the shepherds stood in wonder near the make–shift crib they must have asked the question that men and women, boys and girls have been asking ever since, “What child is this?”
Who is this child? This is Christ the Lord, God, up close and personal. 
The Old Testament hints of the fact that one day God would visit the earth. C.S. Lewis quaintly describes those hints as the leaves of the Old Testament “rustling with hope.” 
The story starts with a trickle, the way the Salmon River begins, originating near Stanley as a tiny rivulet that you can jump across with no effort, it soon grows into a sizable stream as the Stanley Basin tributaries—the Fourth of July Creek, Redfish Creek and others—flow into it. The Salmon flows on, joined by the Yankee Fork and East Fork of the Salmon, then the Pahsimeroi, North and South Forks of the Salmon make their contribution until by the time the Salmon reaches the Snake River its a magnificent and powerful river. 
So the gathering stream of revelation in the Bible grows wider and deeper as we trace it’s course through history until it finds it’s final form, not in a gigantic figure, but in the tiny form of a little child, whom the angels said was “Christ the Lord.” 
We may unknowingly overlook the vast significance of that name. Christ we know—the Greek form of the Hebrew word for “Anointed One,” or ”Messiah.” But the title conceals another gigantic truth: “Lord” is the word used by the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament—for God himself. The angel was very bold: this child is not only the long awaited Messiah, the Consolation of Israel. This little one was nothing less than God.
T’was much that man 
was made like God before,
But that God should be made like man 
much more.     
—John Donne
What Child is this? He is the Eternal One. The Alpha and Omega, the one who stands at the beginning and end of human history. “The beginning of the past and the end of the future,” Ray Stedman said.
He created all things. He holds everything together, the force that keeps the universe from another Big Bang. He stands at the end of time to receive the universe back, because, Paul said, it was made for him. 
The Creator became a creature of time; the limitless God contracted to a span. The one whose hands created the universe put himself in our hands, entrusted himself to the human race, made himself incredibly weak and vulnerable—to bring us salvation. 
Salvation! That’s the word that got the shepherd’s attention—and should get ours: “Today, in the city of David, a savior has been born to you.”  We all know without being told that we need a savior. The question has always been, Where shall we find him?"
The shepherds found him nearby—an easy thing it was to find him. I hope you’ve found him too. If not, I hope you’re still seeking him. Wise men and women do, you know.
If you’re seeking a savior, I can tell you where to find him. He's not in our culture, devoid as it is of any indication that he was born. 
Not to worry, however: he’s still very near: “You’ll find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
David Roper

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Taste and See

Breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, 
and resign yourself to the influences of each. 

—Henry David Thoreau

"Taste and see that the LORD is good! Happy are those who take refuge in him" (Psalm 34:8).

One winter morning when Carolyn and I were at Shepherd's Rest, our place of respite in the mountains, I was sitting in my rocking chair by our patio door, lost in thought—when I felt eyes upon me. I looked down and saw a young fox in the snow on our doorstep, staring up at me. She was as still as a stone. 

Some days before, I had seen her trotting at the edge of the woods, looking anxiously over her shoulder. I went to the kitchen, got an egg from the refrigerator and rolled it toward the place I had last seen her. After a moment or two she darted out of the trees, picked up the egg and rushed back into hiding.

Each morning I placed another egg on the edge of the woods, and each time she ventured out just long enough to pick it up. Then she ran back into the trees. Now she had come on her own to our door, convinced, I suppose, that we were "good."

Carolyn, commenting on the incident, said it reminded her of David’s invitation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Do you want to know that God is good? Just taste him and you'll see.

But how do you "taste" God? He is pure spirit. He cannot be seen, felt, smelled, heard, or tasted, can he?

Ah, but he can. He can be “tasted” by taking in his Word. Take up the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament, and read the stories of Jesus one by one. Ponder them. “There are glories for the eye there, and pleasures for the ear,/ The senses reel with all they feel/And see and taste and hear" (Ella Wheeler Wilcox).

Jesus answers the question, “What would God be like if he visited earth,” for Jesus is the invisible God made visible for all of us to see. "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18 NRSV). 

How can we deny his goodness when we see him taking on human flesh, living the only good life worthy of the name, hanging on a tree, "bearing the blame," the sinless one, made sin for you and me. There, in the gospel you can"taste" the goodness of the Lord. 

Perhaps you’ve been conditioned by nature, experience, fad or failure to dread or distrust him. Don’t be afraid. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, 
   Guilty of dread and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning 
   If I lacked anything.
“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here! 
   Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I the unkind, the ungrateful? Ah, my dear, 
    I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, 
   “Who made the eyes but I”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame 
   Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?” 
   “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat,” 
  So I did sit and eat. —George Herbert

David Roper

On Eagle’s Wings Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the e...