What “prophet” means

“Prophet!”

All through my time at Asbury Seminary, across the courtyard or from down the hall, I would occasionally hear this word ring out in a rich baritone. It came from the African-accented voice which belonged to a fellow student Monroe who was from Liberia, and he was calling out to me. From the moment at new student orientation that I introduced myself to Monroe, I don’t remember a single time that he called me “Nathan.” Always “Prophet!”

A visual representation of a prophet.

A visual representation of a prophet.

Being called “Prophet,” however, had nothing to do with any clairvoyance on my part. I’m not really known for my ability to tell the future or to read your mind. This is not surprising. What actually may be surprising is that in the biblical tradition, people like Isaiah or Micah aren’t called prophets because of their clairvoyant ability, either.

We often think of prophecy as being about telling about the future, but our English word “prophet” comes from the Greek word “prophetes.” While we don’t have a very good idea of where the Old Testament Hebrew word navi comes from, this New Testament Greek word comes from its two components: “pro,” which means “for,” and “phemi,” which means “to speak.” While we have to be careful to not immediately equate where a word comes from with its meaning, this is good evidence that what the word prophetes means is “one who speaks for (someone else).” And in the Bible, that someone is God.

As it happens, this God is someone who is much more interested in wanting to have a conversation about the present than he does about the future.

The reason Monroe called me Prophet is because my name comes from the guy in the Old Testament who doesn’t come on the scene during the story of David’s adultery to tell the future as much as he comes on the scene to tell a story illustrating how God feels about what has already happened, and, what this means for David’s life in the present–“in the now time,” as Paul describes it–that slice of  time marked by the urgency which comes from God’s activity in the world.

(What this also means is that our prophecy material in the Bible, such as Ezekiel or Habakkuk in Old Testament, or Revelation  in the New Testament, isn’t primarily about telling the future, either. Let’s just let that point soak into our popular conception of biblical prophecy, with its electronic banking or Social Security numbers being the mark of the beast or Gog and Magog having something to do with Russia.)

That God wants to talk about what’s going on now says something to us and about us. It means that what God has to say isn’t about granting us secret foreknowledge. It means, as it meant for David, that what God wants to say to us challenges and disciplines and scolds us, and that it guides and encourages and comforts us. It doesn’t put us “in the know,” as much as it exposes us as people who are known.

Such is what happens when someone speaks for God.

What does God need in someone for him or her to speak for him? Special abilities? Or, a willing heart?

As J.D. Crossan writes, “An obedient prophet is a redundancy. A disobedient prophet is an oxymoron.”

Monroe called me Prophet because of my name, but if he called me “Prophet” because of anything about me, he would have been on the right track to do so because of something he would’ve seen about my character; Rightly or wrongly, it would have been a comment–or a challenge–about my openness, willingness, and humility to obey God.

Whatever category or function Jesus fulfills, he is always the ultimate representation. What this means is that Jesus was not the ultimate fortuneteller, but that he is the ultimate speaker for God.

What “prophet” actually means, then, shows us much about God–as he is situated within human life, in the present time, in this world–and it show us much about our own willingness to both speak for, and listen to, this God who speaks.

What Jesus was doing on Saturday

Jesus died and was buried on a Friday afternoon.

Although the New Testament makes no claim on exactly when he was raised from the dead, the assumption is that he was resurrected early Sunday morning–at least after sunset on Saturday.

What was Jesus doing between sunset Friday and sunset Saturday? Between death and resurrection?

Nothing in particular?

Many Christians, especially in ancient through medieval and even in modern times, assume that what he was doing must have been something particularly Christian in nature. It was even thought by some that he went to preach in Hell. This even made its way into the Apostle’s Creed.

Christians haven’t been particularly aware or even open to the Jewishness of Jesus. Some Christians were even antagonistic to such an idea. But he was Jewish. Christianity as we know it does not exist without its entirely Jewish basis and framework, and so when this Jewish context is ignored, and the story of Israel remains forgotten, a distorted, diminished Christianity remains. Even the name “Christian” is from a Greek word representing a Jewish concept: Messiah. Anointed, rightful, Davidic, king of Israel.

When we “accept Christ,” we accept a king of a certain ethnic group/nation/religion. That ethnic group/nation/religion happens to be that of the Jewish people.

Augustine is definitely the most influential father of the church. I would say that he is probably one of the most influential figures for

Last known photo of Augustine.

Last known photo of Augustine

the Western world, period.

And I disagree with so much of what he says. But, gosh, was he smart. And he had a heart of gold. And he battled for things that the church needs to be battling for.

One is anti-Semitism, evidence of which in our own time have tragically broken out recently. Anti-Semitism is an ironic, even self-contradictory position for a Christian to hold. Those who do are usually driven by necessity to say that Jesus was not Jewish.

Against Faustus, a former fellow Manichae, Augustine asserts that, yes was Jewish, and so observant and devoutly Jewish was he that he did not rise from the dead immediately because it was sunset on Friday by the time he was in the tomb.

It was the onset of the Sabbath, and lifting up his body would be work.

So in the tomb, Jesus waits until the Jewish Shabbat is complete so that he could do the rather considerable work of rising from the dead.

Unless Christ had considered this Sabbath-which in your want of knowledge and of piety you laugh at–one of the prophecies written of Himself, He would not have borne such a testimony to it as He did. For when, as you say in praise of Christ, He suffered voluntarily, and so could choose His own time for suffering and for resurrection, He brought it about that His body rested from all its works on Sabbath in the tomb, and that His resurrection on the third day, which we call the Lord’s day, the day after the Sabbath …

Contra Faustum, 16.29

Remarkably, for Augustine, even at his resurrection–and even with how he deals with his resurrection–Jesus remains Jewish. This is good news. Not because the most pervasive problem for Christians and Judaism in our world today is violent anti-Semitism (I’m glad to say that it is not), rather, it is a Christianity without its Jewish basis and framework that has been pulled up from its roots in the story of the people of Israel. All with a decontextualized Jesus to match. If you’re still looking for some Eastertide reading, I suggest The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine.

I do not think that “interview” between Stephen Colbert and Bart Ehrman means what you think it means.

There’s been a lot of changes going on recently. I’ve already experienced so many changes in 2014  that the past several months have  been like one big reminder that time gets away from us, and the future just keeps rushing on in. Some of these have been major changes, and the impact of the major ones highlights the minor ones. And one of the minor ones that have had something of an impact on me is that David Letterman will be leaving late night TV.

And I’m not even what could be called a faithful viewer of Letterman. I’m not always watching TV of any sort late at night, and when I have he’s actually annoyed me in some pretty major ways. So much so, that a few years ago I went away to Leno for several years when I actually did happen to be in front of a TV after 10:30. But, my official endorsement of Letterman is that he’s extremely funny and a gifted host. And he’s been on TV practically every single week night since I’ve been alive. So I’ll miss seeing him on.

In this new era, Stephen Colbert, the long-time creator and host of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, will be taking his place. And since that was announced just recently, the buzz around him this Eastertide has renewed interest in an interview he did several years ago on his show with Bart Ehrman, an agnostic formerly Christian New Testament scholar at UNC Chapel Hill.

Bart Ehrman on Stephen Colbert's The Colbert ReportIn this episode, Ehrman is on the show not necessarily to discuss his work (because a “discussion” isn’t exactly what you get on The Colbert Report), but basically just to sit as a target for Colbert as he fires off his comedic routine impersonating a super-obnoxious, hyper-conservative talk show host. Ehrman, as the guest (from whom Colbert always hilariously steals the applause from even as he welcomes them), is supposed to act as the target for Colbert’s interruptions and retorts and snarky remarks while his recent book serves as the topic (or, at least what the topic is “supposed to be”). For this interview, the “topic” is the release of Ehrman’s book, Jesus Interrupted–Ehrman’s overview of what he sees as contradictions in the New Testament.

Here’s the point: I keep having to use scare quotes to describe all of this, because it’s not a real interview. This is satire.

The problem is that the video of this interview is being passed around on social media by Christians celebrating it as a big defeat of the non-believing scholar by the Christian talk show host. And it all has probably been spurred, or at least supported, by the Christian Post recently publishing it online under the headline “Bible Critic Says Jesus Isn’t God, Stephen Colbert Leaves Him Speechless – You’ll Be Cheering at the End.”

This is all rather problematic, because of three major reasons:

  • Reason #1: While, yes, (the real) Colbert appears to be a devout Catholic, he’s not the obnoxious hyper-conservative that he portrays on his show. This is why there’s been anticipation building about Colbert’s character as host of The Late Show. He has responded by confirming that he will indeed be doing the show as himself, not as his character on The Colbert Report. There’s a reason why people are wondering what that’s going to look like. They haven’t seen much of it before. So, when Colbert is talking with (at) Ehrman, it is satire. Colbert, in posing challenges to Ehrman, is actually at the same time making fun of his own challenges.

Well, ok, but even if he’s not being 100% genuine, Colbert is still refuting Ehrman’s points, right? And shouldn’t I just stop not-picking and be satisfied that he’s doing so even if many people may not realize that he’s playing a satirical character? Well, unforunately, no, because:

  • Reason #2 –> Colbert’s challenges are awful. But that’s the point. This isn’t a problem if you recognize that this is entertainment, and I wouldn’t even begin to fault Colbert for it because he is impersonating a sort of fictional character that shares his name. It would be just as big a mistake to fault Colbert’s points as it would be to embrace them as legitimate.

And this is why I write about it–Christians misinterpreting Colbert’s interaction with Ehrman as genuine, and then taking that and upholding it as a praiseworthy model for emulation for how Christians (or anyone, for that matter) ought to engage in conversation with people who believe differently than they do stretches and breaks the extent of what I can tolerate.

But again, I can’t fault Colbert. I can only fault (and hopefully help to correct) those who misunderstand what Colbert is doing and think that it is actually worth celebrating, and heaven-forbid, worth imitating.

If we think not listening, constantly interrupting, and taking the “LALALALALA I can’t hear you LALALALALA” approach to conversations with non-Christians is the way to do things, we’ve got a much bigger problem than supposed contradictions in the Bible.

  • And this brings us to reason #3 why this entire flurry of excitement is completely misguided: Contrary to the Christian Post headline, Ehrman never says that Jesus is not God, and he is not left speechless. Though he might actually like it if people stopped believing in Christianity as he did, his goal and his work as an author does not directly and explicitly challenge the truth of Christianity, or the divinity of Jesus.

Now, the “discussion” does immediately center on the truth of Christianity, but–that’s not Ehrman’s doing. Ehrman is there to have a discussion (under a comedic guise, remember) about his book detailing what he sees as contradictions in the Bible, but the discussion turns immediately to the truth of Christianity. These are two different things. The question of contradictions in the Bible is not the same question as the question of the truth of Christianity.

It is Colbert’s character that takes the discussion there. As soon as Ehrman starts to provide some details about what his book is about, Colbert interrupts with his sarcastic question, “Ok, so why is the Bible one big lie?” But that’s not Ehrman’s point, that’s not what Ehrman believes (even as an agnostic former Christian), and that’s not what Ehrman is there to “talk about.”

Every time Ehrman starts to talk about some of his points, Colbert interrupts–as he repeatedly does–I hardly think this is worth celebrating. “What are you talking about, Jesus was the Son of GOD,” Colbert says. “Even Jesus recognized that. You read the Gospel of John, ever?”

Three points:

  • Ehrman doesn’t write about whether Jesus was (or is) the Son of God. And the conversation was not taken by Ehrman to whether Jesus actually was the Son of God. It was taken here by Colbert.
  • Colbert goes straight to John in his sarcastic “challenge” to what Ehrman is saying, which reveals an actual point Ehrman could talk at length about (given the chance), and which he does write about in his book that he’s “there to discuss.” This point is how different John is from the rest of the Gospels, and why.
  • And, of course, Ehrman has read John. If you take Colbert’s character literally here, it gives the impression that Ehrman is out to wreck the Christian’s faith but that he hasn’t actually reckoned with what Jesus said in John. Of course Ehrman has read John. He’s completely capable of reading it in its original Greek, and his scholarly expertise is in the manuscript traditions (the copies and copies and copies made of biblical documents like the Gospel of John) that would actually tell us about about how that original text of John has come down to us. So, Ehrman is aware of the content of John. Just saying “But Jesus said he was!” isn’t a worthy response to Ehrman’s points (had he the chance to make them), primarily because it’s not even dealing with the substance of Ehrman’s work. A worthy response would be, rather, to then deal with the question of whether Jesus actually did make those claims, what they mean, and why it matters either way. But, again, I’m not faulting Colbert! He’s not trying to engage Ehrman in a serious way, and within the context of his satirical show, he’s not even supposed to. But if we still want to think that he is serious, are we going to embrace his point about Matthew, Mark, and Luke being rough drafts that don’t quite get things right until John finally does?

“You know the early Jews better than the early Jews?” Taken seriously, Ehrman can’t comment on early Jews because by doing so he’s saying he knows more about them than they do. This is nonsensical. He’s not trying to understand them better than they did – he’s just trying to understand the early Jews better than people do today! But, nonsensical as it is, it works well for Colbert’s show.

What’s the Son of a Duck? A duck! So the son of God is God, right? In Old Testament Israelite religion, “son of God” does indeed refer to non-divine beings, as Ehrman says. It refers to humans and angels. But, fitting better with the duck analogy, in Greco-Roman religion a son of god was a god, but not God. The son of Zeus was not Zeus, but Hercules.

And then, the elephant analogy that supposedly leaves Ehrman speechless. It might be a good analogy for something somewhere, but not here. It’s not relevant. It doesn’t deal with either contradictions in the Bible, or how the Gospel authors shaped their accounts, or how we read the Gospel accounts, or even the truth of Christianity–which is what Colbert made the conversation about in the first place.

So if we’re going to (wrongly) take Colbert literally, I fail to see what point Ehrman is missing so that the elephant analogy has any meaning or significance at all.

He’s not taking Ehrman to task–he’s playing the hyper-conservative, obnoxious know-it-all that has always been his satirical character on The Colbert Report. Ehrman wasn’t “owned.” He wasn’t quiet because he didn’t have anything to say, he himself was playing along the whole time, knowing full-well that the show was satirical. He didn’t have to fight to get his point heard, because that wasn’t the point. The Colbert Report gives him publicity for his work, and that’s it. The rest is fun and games. “I am divine and you are the branches.” Ehrman is completely relaxed so as to even let loose a bad pun.

And if you actually know anything about Ehrman other than that he’s supposed to be the bad guy, he’s not prone to be left speechless by anyone. Even in a debate he did with N.T. Wright, who is without a doubt the most formidable representative of the more “conservative” side of biblical scholarship, with whom I would side going into the debate and with whom I ended up siding with at its conclusion, Ehrman is anything but left speechless.

Now Ehrman clearly has an axe to grind. As a former Christian who is now agnostic, he is clearly biased against Christianity. I don’t think it’s his goal in life to get people to renounce Christianity, but the tone of his work (or at least the titles given to it by the publishers) doesn’t sit real well with me because it does seem geared to not just teach people about early Christianity but to at least challenge their faith, even if this is not what he is overtly doing. So it’s a little odd for me to offer such a defense of Ehrman, as I have. But then again, his books are well-written and informative and point out things that Christians need to consider. And everyone would see this if they actually read his books. 

I’m not prone to cover hot topics, but it matters that Christians can actually think in an informed, reasonable way, that we study the Bible and its ancient contexts, that we’re able to educate our own people and talk intelligently, respectfully with people who believe differently in a way that’s beneficial for both parties. I think we’re in need of urgent correction if we jump on false opportunities like misinterpreting a satirical “interview,” and hailing it as a victory for our side and a defeat for the other when the only real lesson we can learn from it is what not to do if what we really do want to do is represent Jesus well and listen before we respond.

That’s not what Colbert does, and thankfully that’s not what he’s expected to do while using his fake persona on The Colbert Report. And for what it’s worth, the Bart Ehrman episode is pretty amusing. Colbert is a funny man. I look forward to seeing a fellow believer–in his real persona, no less!–host The Late Show. 

Some people still think The Da Vinci Code was on to something. :(

I like to think of myself as a pretty open-minded person. I’m willing to at least consider any proposition, even if I don’t end up accepting it. I don’t hide from questions, because I do value the truth and believe in an ambitious–albeit humble–pursuit of it. Truth itself fears no questions; nor should I.

So, I’ll admit that I’m quite ready to embrace anyone’s thoughts about Christianity, however antagonistic or confused or favorable in their tone they may be. But thoughts are one thing, and propositions are something else. Propositions demand evaluation, or they aren’t even being heard in the first place.

And there’s one particular proposition about Christianity–one that seems popular especially in my generation–that looks like weTHE DA VINCI CODE just can’t get away from, and that I have little patience for:

This is the proposition that the New Testament Gospels have been exposed as late, Christianized documents that present a falsified Jesus that the church wants you to believe in. And that the other Gospels made famous in The Da Vinci Code over a decade ago now reveal to us at last the real, authentic, cool, captivating Jesus that the church has concealed from us. Now at last, so it goes, we’ve got the real Jesus unladen with all the stuff that connects him to Christians and the church and … “organized religion.”

If this proposition is motivated and perpetuated by the comfort and convenience it affords you in being able to so easily dismiss the Christian claims about Jesus, well, I’m breaking it to you: you’re not actually accomplishing that much. Unfortunately, Christians themselves are far too often to blame for the rise of this misperception, but a lot less of the Christian faith stands or falls based on what conclusions someone may draw about the biblical text than what we so often assume.

But, at the same time, people like me aren’t doing that much to demonstrate the truth of the Christian claims about Jesus by holding fast to our historically-reasoned position that the New Testament Gospels are the best sources for material about his life.

What I mean is this: The craziest–and the most important–things that Christians are going to ask you to believe don’t have anything to do with completely inerrant Scriptures or a literal seven-day creation or even that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John actually are our best sources for the life of Jesus and the non-canonical Gospels aren’t.

Rather, they have to do with things like, believing

    • that your life is not your own.
    • that the creator of all things loves you, and the people you don’t love
    • that God himself knows intimately and cares passionately about the meaning, value, joys, and sorrows of human life.
    • that God indwells, works in, and works through you and the person totally unlike you.
    • that loving your enemy and dying daily and considering the good of other people above your own is your calling.
    • and a whole bunch of other crazy–and important–things.

To acknowledge the historical primacy of the New Testament Gospels is not necessarily to agree

  • that every single bit of them is historical.
  • that they are inspired.
  • that they are the Word of God.
  • that Jesus died for your sins, is God in flesh, and will return one day.

Rather, to acknowledge the historical primacy of the New Testament Gospels is to agree, as a matter of history, that the four New Testament Gospels are the earliest and the most reliable sources for gaining knowledge about the first-century Jewish man known as Jesus who came from Nazareth.

And by the way, I actually think there stands a decent chance of some genuine sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, for example, but no historian has offered an adequate argument in support of holding any non-canonical Gospel as earlier or more historically reliable than the New Testament Gospels.

[A little anecdote, as an aside: When I was doing research for an article I wrote about the non-extant Gospel of the Hebrews, I asked a well-known historical Jesus scholar why he had dated this writing as earlier than the New Testament Gospels. His answer? “To be provocative.” Now that he mentions it, provocativeness may explain, at least in part, our culture’s fascination with the secondary Gospels. People like a good conspiracy theory.]

And so, I have little patience, as I said, for the proposition that the Gospels of Thomas, and Mary, and Philip give us the real Jesus because when the conversation gets to this level, we aren’t actually dealing with what its proponents think we’re dealing with.

You don’t get to escape from the question of who Jesus was that easily.

And I don’t get to trap you into believing what I believe about Jesus that easily only because I think the canonical Gospels are the best ones to read if you want to know about Jesus. Even if that actually is true.

Theology can never be fully systematic.

Or, not having God figured out, not limiting him, and not confining him to certain means of revealing who he is. Or, in a more positive spin, letting God be God.

Once again, I’ve ended up throwing some text from Luke Timothy Johnson onto my blog.

He is one of (on a short list) the most precise and adept biblical interpreters I know of, and he has quite a knack for pointing out to us, the church, what we need to hear–whether it’s in order to understand a biblical text, or to appropriately take into account the Bible’s instruction to us, or how to engage historical matters as Christians, etc.

One of his most important contributions in his work, I believe, is he guides us in how we should position ourselves theologically in regards to certain questions that deal with the above topics. And that doesn’t have necessarily to do with where we end up theologically, but how we get there. What Johnson displays himself and teaches us is a stance of openness and humility in our thinking about God, all with an eye on what is most important–worship and the conditions of our hearts.

What he is telling us in the paragraph I’m about to cite (from a current work of his that I’m moving through, Prophetic Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church Courtesy of Eerdmans Publishing CompanyJesus, Prophetic Church) is something that I would have liked to articulate some time ago, had I decided to try to put it into words. He’s basically done it for me now, and within his particular discussion about the theological vision of an important biblical author named Luke:

If God’s Holy Spirit–and the spirit of the risen and exalted Lord Jesus–continue to be active in the world, then theology within the church can never be fully ‘systematic’ in the sense that all the data is in and needs only to be organized, can never be deductive in the sense that everything can be derived from first principles. Theology, Luke shows us, must be both inductive and nonsystematic, for the living God continues to reveal through the prophets as well as more broadly through human experience. Theology so understood is not a specialized activity of academically-trained persons in the church, but rather an activity in which all the faithful participate as they seek to articulate the shape and the meaning of their faith in the living God. Theology as response to the living God is necessarily revisionist …

Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (68-69)

What Johnson does here is deal with the problem that explains why I have become increasingly dissatisfied with systematic theology. Not to say, however, that systematizing or organizing our thought about God should not be done at any level. On the contrary, it’s unavoidable. But to comb through the Bible, connecting lines where there aren’t even dots, and summarizing between two covers who God is and what he is like gives the impression that God is somehow more or less figured out and that our openness to learning about him–not only making new discoveries but new ways of discovering–is actually rather closed after all. It’s to limit God. And any theology that maps the extent of anything about God is an inadequate theology.

In the same vein, Johnson helps us to see that forming a theology, a view of God, does not require special class, training, experience, or education. To say as much, or at least to practice it as such, is to miss that all of us are able–and are eagerly invited!–to know him and believe in and about him. It is to properly respect God’s creation of the human being.

Returning and enduring with Gravity and 12 Years a Slave

I will be making sure I do watch the Oscars this Sunday, and I will be making sure I do not take my bathroom break during the cinematography and production design awards, as some people do.

For a film geek, I’m pretty late on getting to all the acclaimed movies this year–life has been rather active lately, and I regret that I haven’t been able to carve out more three-hour periods to go to the theater.

However, if two of the Oscar-contenders this season are any indication, this year has been a pretty good one to follow up 2012–which I thought was the best year for the movies in just over a decade. (I never got an opportunity to make that pronouncement, so there we go.)

My two favorite movies this year are a couple of the award-winners and Oscar-contenders. Which is nice, because I like movies I like to win awards.

GRAVITYI saw Gravity on a mini-vacation to Illinois back in October, and I saw 12 Years a Slave just this afternoon.

There are pretty striking similarities between these two films, aside from the fact that I am quite partial to them.

Although, I do have to mention, that one difference between them is how many D’s I saw them in — I actually was very happy to pay for 3D with Gravity, which I can’t say for anything else I’ve seen in that many dimensions. If you still have time to see it in 3D on the big screen, I recommend it.

Now, the similarities which I so treasure about these films:

  • The entire story is focused on and driven by a single protagonist.
  • The protagonist is in a dangerous and threatening environment.
  • The protagonist is struggling against this environment, and trying to escape it.
  • The struggle is to survive.
  • The protagonist makes the choice to not only survive, but to truly live.
  • And this is the whole story.
    • There’s not the typical plot line with some nice space for character development, rising action, climax, falling action, etc. It’s a human, in a specific situation, considering life, and then going for it.
    • The story is just obstacles and challenges that keep barreling at the protagonist, with enough time in the open spaces to reflect on whether it’s worth enduring the struggle.
  • And, on an artistic level, both films do a truly wonderful–and clearly intentional–job of creating the ultra-realistic space within which the struggle for life is made.
    • Gravity is earning its director and crew more praise than any film since Titanic for its technical feats in its creation of the chaos of space and machinery that the astronauts are surrounded by.
    • If you’re from the American South, you’ll recognize the feeling and sounds of the thick, humid, sultry summers of the Louisiana forests and plantations which form the world of 12 Years a Slave. Every touch of this movie seems utterly realistic.

In one, this story is told from afar, looking down at earth. The astronaut in Gravity fights to survive being stranded in 12 Years a Slavespace long enough to find a way back home to earth, to continue the life she left off, which–we discover–was filled with terrible emotional pain. The question before her is whether life is even worth pursuing anymore, and in her situation, to choose life is to return to the earth. Her journey is spatial. Her perspective out there above the atmosphere allows her to consider from a visual stance the entire earth below her, as it represents the entirety of what life there brings. It is a matter of gravity, of being drawn from one place into another, into life again.

In the other, this story is told up close, right in the middle of the dangerous, unpredictable experience of life on earth. The freeman-turned-slave in 12 Years a Slave directly faces the struggles that make life itself a question. His dilemma is whether it is worth going on, and endure life itself. His journey is temporal. His perspective is a matter of sequence, of the past he misses, the  present which is almost too horrible to bear, and the future which hopefully holds for him the kind of life which was taken from him. It is a matter of years, of getting through life itself.

While the specific settings and conflicts of these films focus our attention on some particular details, the scope of their meaning is as big as it gets, and the question they propose is more relevant than any other. Whether it’s in the present time in a space that lies outside the reach of most of us, or in the distant past in a situation that is unthinkable to so many of us, the question of returning to life or just simply enduring it is one we answer daily–whether we recognize it, or not. God grant us the gift of seeing its value, and choosing to pursue it.

The incarnation should strike us as a little bit crazy.

I was driving in the car in the last week or two. I think on the way to work. And I got to thinking, as I often do. And for perhaps the 20th or 30th time that I would hear the song this season, “Mary Did You Know?” came on the radio.

baby jesus in mangerI’m reluctant to admit that this song got me thinking, because I never really liked the song all that much. It seems like it’s trying too hard to be profound and moving, and anything that so overtly is trying to provoke one response in me so often provokes the opposite. But, there I was. I was headed to work and a song got me pondering the incarnation–God in human skin. God made out of dust.

And I really don’t know where it came from. I wasn’t in real deep thought at the time. I didn’t even determine that the divinity of Jesus would be my topic to mull over that morning. In fact, with everything going on at with work and other parts of life at the time, I still hadn’t had much of a chance to really focus my attention on Christmas. However, right there, in the middle of the distractions and the endless monotony of Christmas carols and colors and commercials, I gained a special glimpse into the magnitude of Christmas.

I had a similar feeling to the one that I sometimes get from staring into space and trying to understand the concept of eternity. It’s similar to being dizzy, or weightless. It’s being so lost and nearly oblivious of my own immediate sensations because I have delved so deep into thought. But, really, I don’t think “thought” really captures the experience I had. That word implies some sort of enlightenment or level of understanding. And, if you know me, you know I love and pursue understanding with nearly all my being. I’m quite a fan of knowing more things, and knowing more about things.

Rather than just a thought, it was actually more like some weird place in my consciousness between a feeling and a thought. It seemed more like pure perception, the kind for which we don’t have words to describe.

I was perceiving, somehow for the first time it seemed, the astounding mystery of God becoming human. I have thought long and hard and I have written and spoken about the centrality of the incarnation to the Christian faith. It has stimulated my intellect and my devotion in all of the good and proper ways. But for a fleeting moment, I was actually swallowed up in the … unknowableness … of it. And it was the wonder and awe that I reacted to my perception with that made the incarnation so genuine to me, not my ability to understand it.

And, had I been coming up on a red light at that moment, I would have blown straight through it.

Especially this time of year, we have the habit of taking what we believe about God so lightly, and asserting it just as lightly. Of course, Jesus is God. We all know that, or at least we all know the Christians believe that. It becomes so routine. Drained of its mystery, it becomes so not-at-all-crazy to us that it becomes something which we instead utilize for our own ends, even religious ones. “You’ve got to believe it so that you can …” or,  “You better confess it or you’ll …”

*Sigh.*

This Christmas, let us be so completely wowed by God that when we think we’re overestimating him, we’re actually underestimating him. Let us embrace the mystery of this faith so that it is a humbling and perhaps even dizzying experience to perceive who this God is, instead of leaning on our own understanding.

As Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “I need a God who is bigger and more nimble and mysterious than what I could understand and contrive. … Otherwise it can feel like I am worshipping nothing more than my own ability to understand the divine.”

The incarnation should strike us as a little bit crazy. It should be perceived as so unbelievable, that we’d be fools to whisper it–much less proclaim it–if it were not for the gift of Jesus, GodWithUs, who calls us into a faith lived into a mystery. A mystery which reveals that the human God is more real and true than our understanding could ever grasp.

My Advent sermon for the Memphis Chinese Evangelical Church

I had the great honor and pleasure of sharing with the Memphis Chinese Evangelical Church this past Sunday, December 15. The MCEC meets on the campus of Christ Church and they were so kind to allow me to be a part of their service. This is the message I chose to share on that occasion.

I included forward slashes so I could pause for my translator. I actually learned that I had to include many more pauses along the way! But my translator did a wonderful job. 

Sharing in the Memphis Chinese Evangelical Church

A great distance lies between heaven and earth, as frequently envisioned in the Bible. / They are as distinct as the ground and the sky, / and there is an endless expanse between them. / This division between heaven and earth represents the vivid distinction between God and his creation. / In fact, the one word in the Bible that best describes this creator God is the word “holy.” / It’s sometimes thought that the word “holy” means “morally good,” but the biblical terms actually mean something like “other.”

God is completely different from anything else in the world. / Everything that is not of God and is not holy is denoted by the word, “common.” / The law which God gives to his people Israel in the Old Testament, with its standards of pure and impure, is based upon this distinction between God as holy and everything else as common. / In one word, the Bible asserts the sheer differentness of God.

He is so different, so holy, that it was a grave sin for his people to try to make an image of him. / Any picture limits this God, / and even though the Bible uses the image of the sky to represent where God is, / it is ultimately only an image. The heavens don’t actually capture where God is, / but the sky has worked for us as a picture of what makes God so different, so transcendent, so awe-inspiring. / It’s not that God is merely distant / as if he chooses to remain far away. / It is not as if we are here in Memphis but God is in his mansion in Beverly Hills.

No, God is up there, above us in some sense, although he is present everywhere. / If God lived in a big house in California we could drive a long way to meet him, / but God is not somewhere where we can make our way to him. / Since building the tower of Babel, we have striven to make our way to God / but the only thing that can really happen is that this God, holy and different and other as he is, would make his way to us.

The season of Advent, the celebration of Christmas, is about this distance between heaven and earth. / During these weeks Christians focus our hearts and our attention on the good news that heaven and earth are not so distant, after all. For God, while not sacrificing his holiness, wishes to come and be with us.

At Christmas we celebrate and allow our hearts to be shaped by the truth that we have a God who comes. / If this story was of a holy God who remained separate from his creation, the Bible would be very short. / We would at best be deists, those who believe in a God who created the world but has left the world to its own devices. / We would be a storyless people. / However, we live in the story of a holy God, a Father who is in heaven, but a loving Father whose reign comes on earth as it is in heaven. / And that is why we live and move and have our being in the coming presence of God and within an epic story of encounter with this God.

And it all begins with Genesis. / In Genesis 28, we meet Jacob on the run. / Jacob has tricked his father Isaac into him giving him a blessing. / It is the blessing that would have belonged to Jacob’s brother Esau, as the older brother in this culture. / Esau was planning to kill him in return. / And so to escape his brother’s revenge, Jacob is sent from his home to a place called Paddan-aram. / There with an additional blessing from his father Isaac he will go marry one of his cousins

It doesn’t sound like a ripe setting for an encounter with God, does it? / Will this story have anything at all to do with heaven and earth and the coming of God? / Thankfully, this God comes in places, to people, and at times that we wouldn’t expect. / In vv. 10-19 of Genesis 28 we meet Jacob on his travels:

Genesis 28:10-19

Jacob left Beer-sheba and set out for Haran. / He reached a certain place and spent the night there. / When the sun had set, he took one of the stones at that place and put it near his head. / Then he lay down there. /  He dreamed and saw a raised staircase, its foundation on earth and its top touching the sky, / and God’s messengers were ascending and descending on it. / Suddenly the Lord was standing on it and saying, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. / I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. / Your descendants will become like the dust of the earth; / you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. / Every family of earth will be blessed because of you and your descendants. / I am with you now, / I will protect you everywhere you go, / and I will bring you back to this land. / I will not leave you until I have done everything that I have promised you.”

When Jacob woke from his sleep, he thought to himself, “The Lord is definitely in this place, but I didn’t know it.” / He was terrified and thought, “This sacred place is awesome. / It’s none other than God’s house and the entrance to heaven.” / After Jacob got up early in the morning, / he took the stone that he had put near his head, / set it up as a sacred pillar, / and poured oil on the top of it. / He named that sacred place Bethel, though Luz was the city’s original name. (Common English Bible)

Jacob has a visual encounter with the holy God. / It is a statement made in pictures that yes, the distance between this God and this world is as the ground to the unreachable heavens. / But there is a stairway. / The Hebrew word translated “raised staircase” in the translation I have used has traditionally been translated into English as “ladder,” hence the familiar term in the English-speaking world, “Jacob’s ladder.” / But the word is used only this time in the entire Bible and most likely refers not to a ladder but to a more solid staircase structure, such as the ancient ziggurat, if you’re familiar with those.

God doesn’t show Jacob a vertical line that simply maps out the distance like something in a geometry textbook. / God doesn’t even show Jacob a slope that maybe he could climb up given the right equipment. / God shows Jacob a stairway. / A means of access from heaven to earth and from earth to heaven. / And God’s messengers, his workers, are going up, and they are coming down.

Despite appearances, the amazing and beautiful truth that perhaps can only be communicated in the dream world, / is that heaven and earth are connected after all. / It is not a matter of us gazing up to heaven, wondering how we could ever make our way up there. / Heaven comes to earth.

And it comes at this point in the story. / Amidst treachery, deceit, fear, murderous intentions. / And with this person, Jacob. / Why Jacob? / I must say, I just don’t like Jacob that much. / I have a series of Bible movies made for the TV channel TNT. / It includes films about such noble figures as Abraham, Moses, David, Joseph. / And it stars such illustrious actors as Richard Harris and Ben Kingsley. / And then there’s one about Jacob. / Played by Matthew Modine. / Not my favorite one. / In fact, I don’t think I ever finished watching it and if I did, I was probably reading a book at the same time.

Now, Jacob has his moments, as we’ll see. / He acknowledges some of the wrong he has done over the years and recognizes the grace of God in his life. / Maybe that should be enough. / But for me, there’s not much that redeems him from being Jacob the trickster, Jacob the bargainer with God. / Aside from the tricks and lying there doesn’t seem to be much that is memorable about Jacob. / After all, he’s where he is in the story in this part of Genesis because he has taken the blessing that belonged to his brother by playing a nasty trick on his father. / And he will later gain much of his wealth by tricking his uncle Laban. / It makes it all the more strange, then, some of the stories that involve Jacob. / Such as the one we’ve just read. / An amazing God is bursting onto the scene and doing these wonderful things and on our end, representing us, is just Jacob.

Maybe the problem is that I’m too much like him. / I want to see myself as Abraham or Moses or David because I think there are so many great things about myself, / but really all that I am is someone who is just as faulty as Jacob / or even as faulty as Abraham, Moses or David show themselves to be. / I would trick my way into a blessing, and run away out of fear / only to occasionally look back and have to acknowledge that it’s a wonder that God has been so gracious.

But, while I’m being honest, I’m not too bothered when Jacob walks away limping after wrestling with God, as he does in chapter 32. That story is a rather strange one, but it gets even stranger when Jacob is given the new name, / Israel. / The weight of this name on this man seems like it should just squish him. / The name of the people of God throughout the entire biblical history first referred to this man. / God’s people chosen to be blessed so that through them God would bless the entire world—they go by the name “Israel.” / And the name goes back to a guy who got his blessing and part in the story by lying and trickery.

And it gets more interesting. / Jacob is repeatedly recalled throughout the Bible as specially favored by God: / The Mighty One of Jacob (Gen 49:24; Ps 132:2; Isa 49:26; 60:16), / the Holy One of Jacob (Isa 29:23), / and the King of Jacob (Isa 41:21). / What this tells me, then, is that God doesn’t favor us in the way we think he should favor us. / He favors us in such a way that his favor works through us. / And every single time in the Bible someone is met with God’s favor, they are put to work. / It is not a matter of, ‘God favors you, so sit back and relax and he will take care of all of your problems.’ / It is, ‘You’ve got a job to do.’ / As positive our impression is of Mary, it is not that God favored Mary so Mary is good as she is / but rather, God favored Mary so she has to endure the social consequences of pregnancy outside of wedlock. / She has to bear a son only to have him die a cruel, unjust death. /

And Jesus, is there anyone so favored by God? / And yet his 30 years walking this earth were nothing if they weren’t spent serving, and not being served.

So why Jacob? / Because he is part of the story by which God reveals himself in all of his saving and restorative power to his wayward world. / Because, whether he got it by deserving it or stealing it, claiming it or stumbling across it, / Jacob carries the blessing of God by which God is going to set the world the way that God created it to be.

So maybe the point here is not, Do you know who Jacob is? / Or even do you know who Israel is? / But rather, Do you know who God is? / Do you know who the one who creates Jacobs and Israels and Simons and Peters and gives them new names actually is?

This is the God who has been at work since Jacob’s grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac in putting the world right. / This is the God who promises to bless the entire world starting with Abraham and his descendants, / renewing and saving the earth by beginning with a promised land within the whole world, / this world which is promised by God to be a place where heaven finally comes on earth/ where justice and righteousness cover the world as water covers the sea.

This very promise is reiterated to Jacob by his father Isaac shortly before his vision of a bridged heaven and earth in Genesis 28:3-4. / Isaac says to Jacob:

God Almighty will bless you, / make you fertile, / and give you many descendants so that you will become a large group of peoples. / He will give you and your descendants Abraham’s blessing / so that you will own the land in which you are now immigrants, / the land God gave to Abraham.

This blessing will go with Jacob to his son Joseph, / into Egypt with the people Israel, / through exile and slavery into redemption and freedom / and into homecoming with Moses into the Promised Land. / This Promised Land is a foretaste of God’s ultimate plan and our ultimate hope that the Promised Land is the whole world, / and that the recipients of the promise are not just Israel, / but all the nations of the earth.

And here at the vision of the staircase leading to and from heaven, that promise is reiterated from God himself. / And he reveals to Jacob the great truth, our hope that we celebrate this month, / that heaven really does have to do with earth

As with so many images and ideas in the Old Testament, the staircase between heaven and earth is a prophecy to be fulfilled. / There is a bridge between heaven and earth, / but they will one day be fully bridged.

And it happens through God coming to be with his people. / There are a number of major clues in Genesis 1-2 that the earth is created as a giant temple, / something distinct from God but something in which the fullness of God would be pleased to dwell. / This God makes a people for himself, / dwells among them in a tabernacle, / is then housed in a temple in his people’s city of Jerusalem, / and would, as the Gospel according to John would put it, / finally become flesh and dwell among us.

In John 1:51, Jesus tells Nathanael while calling him to follow him as a disciple, / “You will see heaven opened and the messengers of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”/ Son of Man is one of the major ways Jesus identifies himself. / In this remarkable statement Jesus identifies himself with the vision of Jacob’s staircase. / He is the embodiment of heaven coming to earth. / He is the means by which earth has access to heaven. / He represents humanity to God, and he also represents God to humanity. / And in fulfillment of God’s own promise, Abraham’s descendant Jesus becomes the one through whom the entire world is blessed.

That heaven comes to earth means God slipping into human skin. / That heaven comes to earth means Jesus born in lowliness. / That heaven comes to earth means Jesus sacrificing himself body and blood on a Roman cross and sharing himself in bread and wine. / That heaven comes to earth means Jesus embracing the children, the leper, / healing the blind and the crippled, / raising the dead, / telling parables and stories, / announcing that the poor will be rich, / that the lowly will be exalted, / that the blind will see, / that dead people will become alive, / that justice will win,  / and love will have the last word.

That heaven comes to earth is not something that is celebrated and recognized only at Christmas. / It is actually the story of the entire Bible and the story we find ourselves in. / The incarnation of God is at the very center of our Christian faith. / Not just that God became human only to save human beings from sin, / but that becoming human is the way in which God dwells in his creation he always intended to dwell in. / And at the return of Jesus all will be complete, / as the book of Revelation reads, “The home of God is among mortals. / He will dwell with them; / they will be his peoples, / and God himself will be with them” (21:3).

Having Jesus, we find ourselves in the same place as Jacob. / Perhaps some of my dissatisfaction with Jacob can be resolved if I take note of how he responds to the presence of God. / As the story tells us, he rises early in the morning. / This is a biblical way of expressing the taking of action without delay. / Jacob does not hesitate. / He sets up a sacred pillar and renames that place Bethel, / which means house of God. / A place where God dwells, / as was the temple,/ as is Jesus,/ and as the entire earth will be one day. / And having taken action to the presence of God, Jacob moves on to where God would lead him to next.

That heaven comes to earth then is not something we merely look back on. / We don’t simply remember that God has come to us. / Jesus has not only come; he comes. / The presence and coming of God is our hope that comforts us, / and it is our anticipation that leads us to action.

One theologian has written, “God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, / not so that we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, / but so that we can be part of his plan to remake the world.”

This Christmas, I pose the question: / What do we do the next day? / Early in the morning, as soon as we awake, / after God has granted us our vision that he is not only with us but it is coming to us? / And that he works through us to save the world?

This season we remember that Jesus is called Emmanuel, / ‘God with us.’ / He who promised, ‘I am with you always / Tells us also,/ ‘Surely, I am coming soon.’

Amen.

The best Jesus book I’ve read.

Here’s a snippet from what is the best all-around book on Jesus that I’ve read.

This is relevant in all kinds of ways.

Jesus of Nazareth by Gerhard Lofhink

Faith in Jesus Christ was from the beginning more than mere interiority. Where the issue is the Gospel of Jesus it is always about the world and transforms the world. The widespread notion that within the church Christians learn faith in order to apply it in the world is a perversion, to the very root, of what Jesus actually wanted. Faith is from its first second about forming and transforming the world, and the church is the placewhere the material of the world is grasped and redeemed by faith.

From Gerhard Lohfink’s Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was, pp. 237-8. Very nicely translated from Lohfink’s original German by Linda M. Mahoney.

Lohfink has such a keen sense of history as well as literature, he understands what the Gospels are doing, he is faithful to the realities of 1st-century Judaism, and he has clearly soaked himself in the personality and significance of Jesus, to whom he is as just as clearly lovingly devoted.

The Single Truth I Live For

This time of the year is especially meaningful for me because it was on Ash Wednesday in 2004 that I was invited to join a large youth group to see The Passion of the Christ, the controversial film about Jesus’s arrest, trial, flogging, and crucifixion. I wrote about this in fuller detail last year, so I’ll just say here that as a result I had a profound, perhaps even miraculous experience of Jesus and a subsequent acceptance of his claim on my life.

This is how I would like to focus the question about my experience on this Good Friday, the day that we deal with the death of Jesus:

I was surprised, even confounded, that not everyone, and in fact, no one else I know personally, has had the same experience I had in watching the movie. 

I thought everybody would have the same experience I did! All they had to do was see it, and they would finally get that something is wrong with the world and something was so totally right about Jesus! But that’s not what happened.

So what me? Could my experience be explained by the horrific violence? Maybe it sparked great sympathy on my behalf for the main character. While I remember being repulsed at the violence like anyone would, what stuck with me was not the beating and the lacerations and the nails. The Cross

What I remember about that experience is that somehow I met the Jesus whose character and personality is revealed in the New Testament, having not grown up to that point reading the Bible or going to church all that much at all. And it wasn’t that I was moved that such a person was offered as a sacrifice for my sins — I don’t think my theological or biblical understanding was nearly that advanced at the time. It was rather that somehow I understand that this was the ideal human. This is what humanity was meant to be and should be–but this perfect human faced rejection by his own fellow humanity and death at the hands of those he came to serve.

It was disappointing to me that others didn’t get this as easily as I did. But on the other hand, if I was only shocked by the violence, or moved by the realism, more people I know should’ve had the same experience. I think that what this shows is that I didn’t just have a theatrical experience. In the way God would have it, he used a film to reveal to someone, who actually was an aspiring filmmaker at the time, what needed to be revealed.

Yes, somehow in watching film projected on a screen, and watching Jim Caviezel put on the costume and read the lines, and in despite of some of the legitimate criticisms of the movie’s artistic choices and marketing gimmicks, I met the Jesus of the New Testament, the one whose equality with God didn’t keep him from taking on this world only to face Roman execution, but who humbled himself to receive the rejection of people who just simply didn’t understand what they were doing.

___

It’s pretty notable that for the several days after the movie when I lost sleep and appetite and couldn’t get my mind off of anything but Jesus’s death, I don’t remember feeling like my biggest problem was the need for forgiveness of my sins. As sick as I was over my own brokenness, I don’t remember thinking what really needed to happen was that my sins be taken care of so I could go to heaven.

Now forgiveness is crucial, and that would come. But I don’t remember being consumed by the question of where I was going to go when I died, although that’s how so many preachers articulate what it means to become a Christian. Heaven and hell and forgiveness — that would’ve been all about me, me, me. The real problem was that I couldn’t help thinking that there was something I was supposed to do in genuine response to Jesus because of who he was and what he had done, not simply how I could benefit from it.

And so, though the resurrection of Jesus forms the happy ending of the movie, I was sad and confused from Wednesday night to Sunday morning. I didn’t feel that resurrection, yet. It was as if the movie had ended for me with a dark, cold tomb with a body on the inside.

Sunday came, and I went to the church that had taken the bus loads of people to see the movie. I don’t remember what the sermon was about. But I remember the invitation at the end, which was that I could give my life to Jesus. And I knew that was exactly what I needed to do.

Not knowing anything about how that invitation was something they did every Sunday, not knowing anything at all about how some people supposedly hesitate to go forward for those invitations, I got up and marched straight to the pastor because he said I could give my life to God.

It is at that point in time that my life divides in two. It all goes back to the moment that I decided to give my life to the one who claimed it and could do something with it. It goes back to the point that that I understood the happy ending of the movie when Jesus rises again, and I was able to live in it. And the past nine years have been nothing short of unbelievable. Both in regards to how difficult they have been, and in regards to how glorious they have been.

___

Here’s what I’m thinking on this Good Friday as someone who has been on this journey for a little while now, in light of how it all began for me. How many people have not grasped the real substance of Christianity because they thought it was about saying a prayer for salvation to go to heaven when they die? Though I wouldn’t realize it for years after I became a Christian, the main point of it all is who Jesus is, not what I get for asking him to forgive my sins.

The very nature of the gospel, or good news, is not a plan of salvation, after all. The good news is not that all of life, much less all of church and all of Christianity, is about me and my salvation. The good news is that the perfect human Jesus though crucified is raised as Lord. And that’s Lord over all, including not only what happens to me after I die, but also, and I would say more importantly and urgently, the life that I live now.

As I have gone through growing pains and shrinking pains and been stretched and torn in so many parts of my theological belief system, it is the character of Jesus who I met first in the theater and who I meet in the New Testament and who I meet in others that remains the same. And in meeting the character of Jesus, and not just a sacrifice on a cross, I realized that though I am reeling over my sin, I’m not supposed to end there. Too many Christians end there. They start and stop with a Jesus that dies for their sin, so what does it matter who he was, much less who he is?

It’s not about me; it’s about what God would do through me, for us, and for this world. And so we don’t need only a man hanging on a cross, or even one who rises out of the tomb. We need a living, reigning, present Lord. This is the truth that I strive to make more real in my life every day.