The following is a reimagining of Isaiah 44:28 and following.
Who says of Nicholas Cage, ‘He is My shepherd?’
And he shall perform my pleasure,
Saying to the Church, ‘You shall endure in hope.’
And to dispensational conspiracy theorists, ‘Your foundation shall be laid bare.’
Thus says the Lord to His anointed,
To Nicholas Cage, who I have given immense raw talent and a right hand that volunteers for every single film that comes along – fabulous and terrible alike.
To confuse the numerology and charts of engineers, that none of my disciples had followed for 50 generations, yea, even all of 1800 years.
I have empowered him to lay bare the pride of America, of those that have forgotten their brothers and sisters in the south, in Africa, in Asia, and in Rome – that virtually none of them have ever taken this “rapture” seriously, and still do not today.
First I sent to them my boy Kirk Cameron, and he was silly, but not nearly silly enough, for my children are hard of hearing.
But now, their armor shall be loosed and many will no longer be able to keep a straight face.
They shall return to my Word, and find their hope in me does not demand them to divine the future.
They will discover my love for them does not require arcane differential calculus spanning the Aramaic Daniel to the end of the writings of my Beloved John.
I will gird you, though you have not known Me,
By your brashness oh Nicholas, will my shepherds – kept quiet in the shadows this past century – be emboldened to speak up and let those in the New World know that the Way of my Son need not require such baggage.
Behold, I the Lord make all things new!
When Paul is standing before King Agrippa near the end of Acts, he recounts his conversion on the road to Damascus. This time though, he quotes Jesus’s words to him at greater length than we are told of back in chapter 9. The addition is somewhat surprising:
And He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feed for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and other the things which will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.”
-Acts 26:15-18 (Emphasis mine)
Wait a minute. Where is all the penal substitutionary atonement language? Only a couple years earlier in A.D. 56, Paul had finished writing the definitive handbook of soteriology – the epistle to the Romans. So why no talk of sacrifice or guilt or even redemption? Apparently those aren’t the word’s Christ used (in a short space of time) to describe the gospel. Instead, the Lord tells Paul he will be a witness, giving them a message that will turn them from:
- Darkness –> Light
- Power of Satan –> God
- Sin –> Forgiveness and Inheritance
Heck, the devil even makes a showing here, but not a lot of other things you might expect. Now I think the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is all well and good and in harmony with the whole of scripture, but is it really what we need to spend all our time going on and on about at every opportunity? By Jesus’s own summary here, the gospel sounds a lot more like Christus Victor. When my guilt is before me, I need a savior who erases it all. But at other times, I need a savior who kicks the prince of darkness in the teeth. Rejoice, for He is both!
In John 12, we find a curious incident where, just like at Jesus’s baptism, a thunderous voice speaks audibly and loudly from heaven. Why? It comes as answer to Jesus’s own question. A question that turns out to be rhetorical, as he explains afterwards.
“Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven, saying, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.”
Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to Him.”
Jesus answered and said, “This voice did not come because of Me, but for your sake.
“Father, glorify you name!”
“Son, I already have, and I’ll do it again.”
“Yeah, I know. But these folks around here don’t know, so thanks for saying something they could hear.”
The voice is not answering for the sake of the asker, but for the sake of others – the listeners in, the eavesdroppers, us. Divine revelation is of no use sealed up. What good is it to simply know there exists a locked briefcase filled with secrets? That the briefcase contains love letters is of far more interest.
So we find the same thing when Jesus speaks to John at the beginning of Revelation.
I [John] was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice, as of a trumpet, saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,” and, “What you see, write in a book and send it to the seven churches which are in Asia.
John is seeing a vision. Nobody else can see it. So what does Jesus tell him to do from the get go? Write everything down. He is commanded to take notes, digest it, make copies, and mail it to a bunch of people. Why? For their sake, so they can share in the vision too.
Why did Jesus go through just John to deliver this particular (and very important) message? There are of course other ways he could have gone about it. He could have come to each of the local church leaders in turn, delivering them all the same message. He has plenty of time after all, being eternal. He could have also taken this to it’s logical end and had the holy spirit deliver the vision to every Christian on earth.
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your young men shall see visions,
Your old men shall dream dreams.
– Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17
OK great, so why not THIS dream then? I will take a stab at answering that. I think it was probably for consistency’s sake – so conflicting and muddled accounts were not produced. It was also for authority’s sake. Divine revelation involving locals would naturally come to the locals. Prophecy involving the fate of the whole earth and human race should come not to every local, but to a figure of authority capable of being taken seriously by all – the last living apostle.
And so we have John’s Revelation, well-preserved for us today, contemporary visions of heaven notwithstanding. It’s written down for our sake.
I think so much more is for our sake too. Flowers are beautiful and diverse primarily to relay information of his creative genius. The scripture is preserved for our sake – not because HE needs paper and ink, but because we do. We love things we can hold in our hands. He even gives us parents and lovers, that we might know something (however obscured) of his ways, and even enter into some temporary and tainted knockoff of his Trinitarian communion. He makes this possible too, for our sake.
About A.D. 360, Athanasius wrote an account of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert – one of the most influential monks of early Christianity. Though Anthony grew up in a “Christian home” as we would say today, it was an event that took place when he was a young man really woke him up:
He was left alone, after his parent’s death, with one quite young sister. He was about eighteen or even twenty years old, and he was responsible both for the home and his sister. Six months had not passed since the death of his parents when, going to the Lord’s house as usual and gathering his thoughts, he considered while he walked how the apostles, forsaking everything, followed the Savior, and how in Acts some sold what they possessed and took the proceeds and placed them at the feet of the apostles for distribution among those in need, and what great hope is stored up for such people in heaven.
He went into the church pondering these things, and just then it happened that the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” It was as if by God’s design he held the saints in his recollection, and as if the passage were read on his account. Immediately Antony went out from the Lord’s house and gave to the townspeople the possessions he had from his forebears (three hundred fertile and very beautiful arourae [~200 acres]), so that they would not disturb him or his sister in the least. And selling all the rest that was portable, when he collected sufficient money, he donated it to the poor, keeping a few things for his sister.
-Athanasius, The Life of Antony, Translated by Robert C. Gregg
I think contemporary evangelicals would be shocked to find an account like this in such a “Catholic” source – from the fourth century no less. Antony just happened to walk into church when a certain bible passage was being read, and the words jumped off the page, “as if by God’s design… the passage were read on his account.” This sounds exactly like how evangelicals (myself included) are taught to read scripture – always ready for the moment when the words become immediately and intensely personal by the power of the holy spirit working directly in the individual.
Of course, we are not talking about Anthony’s conversion here, but still, this is not at all the kind of language one would find today in the writings of very catholic (small ‘c’ but likely Roman or Orthodox) minded or covenental (again, small ‘c’ but likely Reformed) minded theologians and pastors. The 2oth century of modern Evangelicism greatly OVER emphasized the individual by all wise accounts. A corrective to this is welcome and healthy. And yet let us not forget that here we find the seeds of this immediate individualization of scripture – plain as day – in the writings of one of the early church fathers. That the Word of God cuts one (and sometimes JUST one – you) to the heart is not something we should ever downplay.
This is the indication given for the psalm – number 67 in this case. “On stringed instruments”. The Lord gave us voices, and those are the most natural instruments of all. The Lord gave us arms and hands and that is why every nation and every tongue has always had drums of some sort, even if they just beat two rocks together, it was man’s glory to do so. But stringed instruments take time and care to build. They take special wood and resonators. Even a primitive one is more complicated that a piece of furniture. The strings themselves are now made of steel or nylon, but then it would have been the guts of animals – killed and carefully extracted, cut to length and precariously tuned. If there is anything the ancient stringed musician would have done differently than those of today, it is that he would have played carefully so as not to put his instrument drastically out of tune every two minutes. We can wail on our cryogenic poly-coated nickel wires. He could not. How would one achieve volume then? The same way an orchestra does – with many players. Witness the Ethiopian Christians marching here during Timkat (epiphany).
A stringed instrument is a cultivated thing, an artifact requiring a lot of time to make and much skill to play well. If anyone has a high view of scripture and it’s inspired writing and preservation, he should marvel that this indication has been well-kept. You are supposed to sing this praise song to God WHILE playing a harp or lute. Seriously. That wasn’t added later by someone trying to spice things up. It was there at it’s conception and the first time it was sung in the temple of Mt. Zion while David still reigned as king.
When the Lion of Judah returns to earth, will he find a people who have been taught to despise guitars? I think he will find more than a few. Their love of the voice will likely more than make up for things I suppose, but what a shame. “Oh, but those darn stringed instruments have been used and abused for more twisted and terrible ends than you could imagine as of late! Did you watch the last music video awards show?” True, true. Now quit making excuses and get back to work. Find a way to redeem them! Is the Spirit of Life not up for the job? Figure it out! All you who are keen to reform worship, I give you a challenging but worthwhile task: find a place for the stringed instruments. Locking them out and keeping just the keyboard is punting. The Lord is worthy of praise with these things as well.
Why do I sometimes write things about Jesus that make me sound like I might be a universalist? (One who, in evangelical lingo, thinks everyone on earth is going to be “saved” without doing anything at all, not even asking for it.)
Yesterday, I wrote a post about the wonder and outrage of Jesus not condemning the women obviously caught in adultery in John 8. It would have been nice if, in the text, this forgiveness were coupled with a contrite heart before and reformed living afterward, but we are given none of those tidy things – only the unilateral excuse the creator.
This sort of reading of the gospels always makes more than a few folks squirm. Am I denying the existence (or at least MEANINGFUL existence) of sin? Am saying there is no hell? At least I must be very nearly implying that it’s OK for us to ignore the law that grace may abound. (Romans 6). And because of the theological danger of this position or at least this emphasis, I must be genuinely foolish to speak this way. Now, my writing is not very public – only a few people read this blog. My preaching is not particularly public either – it is infrequent and at a relatively small church. But whenever I talk like I did in the previous post, I get some push-back. Someone is always a bit upset.
So why DO I speak like this? Even yesterday, only an hour after I wrote that reflection, I read this excellent comment by Alastair Roberts in an unrelated thread:
The Christ who weeps over Jerusalem is also the Christ who brings dreadful destruction upon Jerusalem in AD70. The Christ who stands silent before his accusers is also the Christ who stops every mouth as the judge of the world. The Christ who performs a symbolic test of jealousy upon the woman caught in adultery and does not condemn her is also the Christ who performs the most dreadful judgment upon the adulterous Babylon. The Christ who hangs powerless on the cross is also the powerful Christ of the resurrection and ascension who rules with a rod of iron until all enemies are put under his feet and who treads out their blood in the winepress of God’s wrath. We need to hold these two parts of the picture together.
So when I write something like I did yesterday, it seems that I’m not holding the two parts of the picture together. Whenever I or anyone else quotes Robert Capon, it seems the same thing is going on. The same could be true for writings of Brennan Manning, Tullian Tchividjian, Richard Rohr, and some other suspicious characters. We should know better (and we DO know better!) than to talk so “one-sided” about the nature of the holy God.
Well, here is my answer to this query:
The reason for talking this way, for OVER-stating the grace of Christ, is because you have already heard the flip side a hundred times more frequently, both in explicit teaching and cultural cues. Having grown up in church, I estimate I have easily heard in excess of 2000 sermons in my life – the bulk of them closely and carefully tied to specific passages of scripture. And I reckon that fewer than 5% of them have successfully articulated the boundless love of Christ. The rest, 95%+, though often shooting to strike some kind of balance, have been heavily lopsided in the other direction.
Jesus loves you BUT “true repentance”. Jesus loves you BUT “victorious Christianity”. Jesus loves you BUT “know a tree by it’s fruit”. Jesus loves you BUT “parenting well is REALLY important”. Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for you to get your act together, etc. We have plenty, PLENTY of this sort of thing, even in Christian communities who, on paper, have a wonderfully complete and holistic confession filled with a high-proof elixir of grace. It doesn’t seem to matter. They are all awash in this kind of crushing news. It creeps in everywhere.
And so, speaking like this, with the grace “turned up to eleven”, is a remedy for a very real and destructive problem. Properly informed Christians get all upset when they read something from (for example) Robert Capon that sounds “universalist” and dangerous, but they forget that he is not there to write a systematic theology. The language is calculated. It’s provocative on purpose, not by accident. It’s not just for anyone, but for people in a certain context – one soaked in too much conditional love. And even though it sometimes causes confusion, I think that at the end of the day, it works. It effectively serves as a corrective. So look for more of it here on occasion and don’t be so quick to freak out when you see it elsewhere. For some, it may be brand spankin’ new GOOD news that wakes them up.
Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.
So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”
She said, “No one, Lord.”
And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
– John 8:1-11
OK, so look what happens at the end. That the woman is a sinner – that she has screwed up badly is completely obvious to everyone. Jesus knows this too. He knows her sin. And though the words aren’t recorded here exactly, he forgives her. He says, effectively, “It’s all good. Go on your way. By the way, don’t sin anymore.”
Notice what doesn’t happen in the story. Well, maybe it happened in some fashion, but it’s not important enough for Saint John the Divine to mention it. What doesn’t happen? She doesn’t ask for forgiveness.
She doesn’t throw herself at Jesus’s feet and beg for forgiveness. She doesn’t say she’s sorry. She’s on the ground because the crowd is ready to execute her, but that’s all. For all we know, she might have snuck away and been meeting up with her wayward lover only later that very day. Is she all fixed up now? Was she a righteous person when she came to Jesus? No, definitely not. Was she a righteous person when she left? Not really. Maybe she went on to make some better decisions, but who cares? She’s the same person. Her life is a mess. It’s been a mess, it was a mess, and it was still kind of a mess. And what does Jesus, the creator of all things say to her? “I don’t condemn you”. Was she righteous? No, HE was righteous. End of story.
1500 years earlier, God made a covenant with Abraham. But when it came time for Abraham to walk through the blood of all the sacrificed animals, God caused him to fall into a sleep (Genesis 15). He remains faithful whether we do or not (and we don’t). But his love for us is not dependent on anything in our domain. It does not have qualifications. It is unilateral. He asks for our input, but then he just loves us regardless of what our input is.
By any measurement, the woman caught in adultery was condemned, but the God of the universe did, by his own singular will, not condemn her. And by this act, she was set free. Today, the modern secular world attempts to deliver an evangelion. It tries to be the good news for people trapped in darkness. It tries to say to the woman caught in adultery, “Hey, what you were doing is not wrong. You are free to express yourself however you feel you need to. Your body is yours to do absolutely anything with. It’s beautiful. Your choices, every last one of them, are fabulous. Just listen to your heart and know you are total awesome sauce!” It knows that what the world needs is a gospel, and so it gives them one – a gospel of antinomianism – no rules, “imagine no religion”, etc. “This is what will set you free” it boldly proclaims.
But it doesn’t work. Our heart is attuned to the subatomic rhythms of the universe even when we explain them away with our minds. There is light and there is darkness. There is beauty and there is real ugliness. There is right and there is wrong. And we are wallowing in the wrong, each in our own way. Painting the darkness with a layer of white paint and celebrating looks wonderful, for a grand total of five whole minutes. But our heart knows otherwise.
Our Lord and Savior on the other hand, doesn’t bother with the can of paint. He calls a spade a spade. He NAMES thing as they truly are. He knows that we are broken, busted, fallen, depraved, and wicked. But then he says: “I don’t condemn you. I put you to sleep when it’s your turn to walk through the blood. I walk through it for you. You don’t vocalize your desire for forgiveness in a nice clean-cut way? Well, I’m going to forgive you anyway. Here you go. I don’t condemn you. I love you. Go and sin no more. See you ’round!”
So what else is there to say about all this? Rejoice! You have a savior.
(Disclosure: Reading Brennan Manning’s treatment of John 8 is what caused me to write this reflection.)
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
We are often told that we need to “become like little children” to enter the kingdom of heaven. The phrase most often used to describe this change is “faith like a child”. The faith we possess now is the reasoned, complex, and doubt-tainted faith of a scarred and skeptical adult. Our maturity has backfired on us and made our love or belief complex and fragile. If only we could be like little trusting children and put away our big books of theology and express a very simple trust, then we would be following Jesus in the way he really desires.
That is how this passage is often explained anyway. To overstate the case – we think too much for our own good. We need to be more stupid and and simple and love God like someone who’s reasoning capacities are immature. In this sense, to become like a little child, when “done right” is something that happens in your head. Through an “emptying” of your higher abstractions, you become like the young child in the Gospel account who just intuitively loved his Lord and sat on his lap.
I recently discovered, in the writings of Brennan Manning, a different take on this scripture. He points out that the primary characteristic of children, when it comes to adult work, is that they are incompetent. They aren’t stupid, but they are clumsy, forgetful, and small. It’s not that there is something wrong (or superior) with their heads. In addition, they may also have very good intentions, but they just can’t do the job. They can’t move that 100-pound bale of hay. They can’t cut the careful dovetail joint in that wood. They can’t prepare six dishes in the kitchen and start them all at different times so they finish simultaneously. They can write a short letter, but not a 50-page court legal brief. They can handle a small dog but not a team of horses. They are (currently) incompetent. Give them hard adult work to do and they just can’t do it.
We are like these very children, though we may not realize it. Our father God gives us adult work to do – loving our husbands and wives, tending a huge planetary garden, and ruling nations. And we can’t do it. We are clumsy, forgetful, and small (though our tools are increasingly sharp). We miss the mark. We fall short. We sin, not just in our obvious misdeeds, but in failing to do the good that we have not even begun to consider due to our youth and incompetence.
So when we come to Jesus “like little children”, we come as a people that can’t get the job done. We have no works we can boast in. We can’t do the work. We see that work needs to be done, but we can’t do it – even those of us who appear the highest achieving.
But His love for us has absolutely nothing to do with our effort or accomplishment. It is unilateral and independent of our poor track record and ongoing failure. He will lead us, passing through death, to one day grow up.
The chief lie in the universe is this – that no one loves you.
The enemy reenforces this lie in two ways.
1. In doubt and cynicism as to the existence of love. If it doesn’t really exist, then it’s not yours. What you perceive to be love is really something else: sex, desire, reciprocation, chance, lunacy, etc.
2. To assume/acknowledge/grant that love may exist, but that it is most certainly not yours. The enemy does this through accusing – the trademark task of Satan. In accusing us, he shows (with true proof even) that we are not lovable, not worthy of love, and therefore not loved.
Our creator demolishes the lie in two ways.
1. In making the existence of love shockingly obvious and even when our heads are down, by acting “like a splinter in your mind” that won’t go away. No amount of rationalism can paint over it. No amount of despair erase it’s possibility. Anyone who contemplates it without sufficient distraction will conclude that this love exists. It’s presence is rational, empirically palpable, and spiritually intuitive.
2. In wiping away the accusations by declaring love unilaterally. By explicitly and declaratively loving the unlovable, the attribute of unworthiness becomes irrelevant and accusations of guilt meaningless.
Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain,
And washed my hands in innocence.
For all day long I have been plagued,
And chastened every morning.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
Behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children.
When I thought how to understand this,
It was too painful for me
In Psalm 73, the writer voices his complaint of envy about the rich to God. He goes on to say that IF he would have said these things out loud to his friends and family, he would have been betraying God’s children. It would have been treason. It would have been the sort of terrible thing a real enemy would have done to hurt is loved ones, only it would have been coming from himself, not some outsider.
Moaning and groaning like this is betrayal – it’s sin. It’s probably not sin to voice these concerns to someone strong in the faith – a pastor or mentor or father or mother. For someone strong and over you to some degree, words like this will likely not drag them down into the void. Maybe it’s OK to vent sometimes, but just voicing them haphazardly among your friends? Your words have power. You can drag them down into the pit. They were probably thinking the same thing just earlier that day, but trying to push past it. Now you’ve drug them back. Griping about these things to your wife or husband? Sure they love you and they’ll listen, but they are going to have to put a lot of psychological energy into recognizing this kind of despair and selectively tuning it out. So be careful talking like this. Parents who lean on their kids to hear their woes definitely need to knock it off. They can’t handle that load.
Be careful to discern between this (keeping your mouth shut for the health of others), with stuffing your emotions and pretending like everything is fine when it’s not. The other isn’t healthy either and can be terrible consequences if done long-term. Wisdom is needed.
I’m preaching to myself here, having drug down my wife, children, and friends with what in retrospect were little more than pity parties and bitch fests. At the same time, sometimes, you really NEED someone who will listen to you, even if it’s just to take out the trash. The very fact that someone cares enough to just shut up for 10 minutes can be a good first step to pulling you back up. It seems that it could help if they had a bit of distance from you. Your spouse or best friend might not be the best person as they are more likely to take your dark thoughts a little TOO seriously. Some discernment is required on all sides to prevent this.
The psalmist supplied some key commentary to keep his faith in God front and center. We can do the same. We could also take a break and worship God, even if it seems like we have to grit our teeth at first. It helps to replace the anguish with something else and He is worthy, regardless of how we feel.