25 October 2010

When You're Strange

“Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to be with him: I beg you, my friends, not to be so easily confused in your thinking or upset by the claim that the Day of the Lord has come. . . . So then, our friends, stand firm and hold on to those truths which we taught you, both in our preaching and in our letter.” (2 Thess. 2:1–2a, 15)
The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple
by Titus in AD 70.
People are strange. Jim Morrison was just singing the obvious. High on my list of strange these days, besides those who use the Bible to push tee totaling, are those caught up in a particular sort of millennial madness. The cream that has risen to the top of that crop are those who print T-shirts to bring attention to their cause.

The one T-shirt I’ve seen lacking the most creativity is also the one that helpfully marks its wearer out as having succumbed to an egregious error. It reads: “Jesus came back in 70 AD” in big, white type on a black shirt. The apostle Paul would have a few choice words for that fellow, no doubt, and, love it or hate it, Eugene Peterson’s Message paraphrases him well enough: “Now, friends, read these next words carefully. Slow down and don't go jumping to conclusions regarding the day when our Master, Jesus Christ, will come back and we assemble to welcome him. Don't let anyone shake you up or get you excited over some breathless report or rumored letter from me that the day of the Master's arrival has come and gone. Don't fall for any line like that” (2 Thess. 2:1–3).

“Slow down and don’t go jumping to conclusions. . . . Don’t fall for any line like that.” And yet so many still do. I’m not suggesting here that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 wasn’t a major event in the history of Israel after their return from exile. But it was only an initial fulfillment of the “day of the Lord” that foreshadowed that final day of the Lord, when Jesus returns—literally, not “spiritually”—like the emperor he is, triumphantly marching through town after having defeated his enemies once and for all.

God has promised to judge the world’s systems that set themselves up over against his sovereignty, whether it be at the end of history as we know it, or even occasionally during that history. The catastrophe that took place in AD 70 qualifies as one of these days of the Lord. But it is not the final return to which Jesus and the prophets pointed.

For starters, such apocalyptic events like the revelation of the man of lawlessness and the great apostasy have yet to take place (to be sure, men of lawlessness and apostasy within the church have come and gone). Paul warns the Thessalonians, and us, not to be misled regarding the royal return of Christ, that the “day of the Lord” has already come. We must be on guard against such deception, and one of the surest ways to protect ourselves is also one of most mundane (so we think): attending to the Word and sacraments and prayer in the communion of saints. These are what God has decided will empower his people to “stand firm and hold to the traditions” taught to us by Christ and the apostles (v. 15).

In the end, it’s about God and what he has promised to do: he remains sovereign over all, and he has chosen a people, “the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). Here is our assurance, not least in the midst of strange people caught up millennial and heretical madness: God’s election guarantees the elect’s salvation. It depends on him alone. He will overthrow all men of lawlessness, all antichrists, all false teachers, and he will keep his church steadfast in the beliefs and practices passed down through the apostles from the divine Master himself.

22 October 2010

Waiting for Godot?

“For you yourselves know very well that the Day of the Lord will come as a thief comes at night. . . . But you, friends, are not in the darkness, and the Day should not take you by surprise like a thief.” (1 Thess. 5:2, 4)

Vladimir and Estragon
The church in Thessalonica had a good reputation. The gospel had an immediate effect on the lives of those who came to life in Christ in that city: their hospitality to Paul and his companions, to the message they brought, their turning to God from idols, and their waiting for God’s Son, who they now know to be their deliverer from the coming fury (1 Thess. 1:6, 9–10).

Remarkably, people were talking about this new church without even being asked—their fame echoed throughout the land. But the exciting news wasn’t just about them; it was about the way in which this church had come to be. The gospel, not the people who believed it or preached it, was the hero (may that be true of us in the midst of evangelicalism’s celebrity syndrome!). And it was that gospel that wrenched those dead idols from the hands of the Thessalonian Christians, causing them to wait for God and his coming wrath
with confidence.

It may seem commonplace to us, but eschewing idols was simply unheard of in the first century. “It would be like asking people in a modern city to give up using motor cars, computers and telephones,” notes one commentator.

Embracing the living God meant embracing his resurrected Son and his way of doing things. It meant living with one of the most unique characteristics of Christianity—hope. This hope, as is often said, was no weak desire for something that may or may not happen. Rather, it was a confident anticipation of the royal coming (
parousia) of the Messiah from the throne room of God. This coming marks both condemnation and reconciliation. On the one hand, God, through his Christ, will condemn all that distorts and defaces his creation; on the other hand, through this condemnation, his people will be delivered and he will restore all things. Such is the stuff that Christian hope is made of (to paraphrase Bogey, not Shakespeare).

But it’s not a passive waiting, like we do in a doctor’s waiting room or at home when waiting for a loved one to arrive. It’s an active life of holiness and witness to God’s righteousness. It’s a confident anticipation that God will show mercy to his people, returning them from exile to the Promised Land—a new heaven and earth. So, we are not in darkness and the Day of the Lord shouldn’t take us by surprise like a thief (1 Thess. 5:4). May we strive this day to recognize that a future day is coming when God will deal with every form of evil, and may we take comfort in our only defense—the work and righteousness of our Lord Jesus Christ.

19 October 2010

Syncretism, the great American temptation

I'm over at Ref21 this week (again), "Reading with M'Cheyne" (see earlier posts here and here), and have decided to repost the blog entries a day later over here, since there are probably some of you who don't (or won't!) venture over to Ref21. Here's my first entry from yesterday:
“There are some Jews whom you put in charge of the province of Babylon—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—who are disobeying Your Majesty's orders. They do not worship your god or bow down to the statue you set up.” (Dan. 3:12)
If there’s a simple gospel call to the nations that hasn’t changed in two millennia, it’s this: put away your idols and worship the true God revealed in Israel’s Messiah, Jesus. This refrain came constantly from the lips of the Apostle to the Gentiles, who enjoined people everywhere to hear the announcement of the good news, which will “turn you away from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven, earth, sea, and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15).

Not much has changed since then. Syncretism is the great American Temptation (along with french fries, of course) among Christians as much as in the surrounding culture. But “how can God's temple come to terms with pagan idols?” asks Saint Paul. “For we are the temple of the living God!” (2 Cor. 6:16a).

It's important to note at this point that we confessionalists aren’t, historically at least, fundamentalists (I use the word in its post-Scopes Trial sense): the dangers of syncretism don’t undo the radical freedom that is ours in Christ. Christians have always been, rightly, a synchronistic bunch (that whole “being in the world” bit) while nonetheless being warned to guard against the syncretistic temptations that come along with that synchronistic life (“but not of the world”). We are in essence called to live deliberate lives in this time between the times, but we are not to do it, even if it were possible, with a separatist posture. While we need to be cautious to avoid unchristian syncretistic practices, we also need to uphold the freedom to practice wise dominion in this earth as we await our Lord’s return. This goes for eating meat offered to idols (which is nothing, if you know the one and only God created the food and you are not eating it as a symbolic gesture of worship of the idols, so the apostle in 1 Cor. 8) or practicing yoga. We can boldly, yet humbly and with gratitude toward the triune God, eat that halal gyro and then attempt to work it off with a tuladandasana or utkatasana pose.

At any rate, mixing Christianity with idolatry happens even among us confessional types. Where are those points of syncretism in our own lives? What beliefs and practices do we take for granted this very day that give accord between Christ and Belial (1 Cor. 6:15)? Pray with me and ask that the true God would root out the idolatry within our own hearts, from which will spring beliefs and practices that delight our Father in heaven.

07 October 2010

Deliberate unhealthiness poses dangers to genuine Christian faith

{a parody for your (dis)pleasure, regarding a subject I have no business writing about}

Should Christians Practice Lethargy and a Poor Diet?

Some questions we ask today would simply baffle our ancestors. When Christians ask whether believers should live sedentary lifestyles, while eating poorly, they are asking a question that betrays the strangeness of our current cultural moment—a time in which being deliberately apathetic about such matters seems almost mainstream in America

It was not always so (see Michael Powers and Jay Schulkin's The Evolution of Obesity for a good discussion on the morphing of humanity's activity into inactivity and its results). No one tells the millions-of-years-old story better than Powers and Schulkin, whose recent book is a masterpiece of evolutionary history as it relates to our expanding waistlines.

Childhood obesity, diabetes, and related illnesses are becoming major health problems in America, who are the second-flabbiest people in the world (the South Sea Islanders are larger). Parents' reluctance to monitor their children's eating habits; the marketing tactics of fast-food companies, which influence us to overeat; the preponderance of fad diets; the phasing out of physical education programs in schools; and the sale of fast foods at schools to save money on dining facilities all factor in to this mess. And, no surprise, lower-income families have higher rates of unhealthy weight regardless of race, ethnicity, and gender

To a remarkable degree, the growing acceptance of poor diets and sedentary lifestyles, especially among evangelical Christians, points to the retreat of wholistic thinking among believers, and indeed, a retreat of biblical Christianity in the culture. Deliberate apathy with respect to health begins and ends with an understanding of the body that is, to say the very least, at odds with the Christian understanding of a human being as a whole person—body and spirit—made in the image of God. Christians are not called to think with their stomachs or see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know one's hedonistic threshhold. Believers are called to act like their bodies are parts of Christ's body—not to treat it like it doesn't matter, to join it with all kinds of fat-inducing processed foods, to let it sit sedentary throughout the day.

Clearly, today's dilemma cannot be extricated from its evolutionary roots (see Powers and Schulkin above), but, still, most Christians seem unaware that lack of exercise and a poor diet cannot be separated into physical and spiritual dimensions. The physical is the spiritual in such a lifestyle, and its practice is meant to do little else than assuage the systemic narcissism and ravenous consumption in the name of Amorica, America's indigenious pagan deity (whose most common manifestation is the Self).

When Christians live lives like this, they must either deny the reality of what such a lifestyle represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of such a way of life. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral. The bare fact is that sedentary ways and a poor diet are vices by which its adherents are trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving one primary goal—the fulfillment of their own pleasure (I do realize that the same could be said for those who are overly health conscious). Christians are called to consider themselves as very members incorporate in the mystical body of God's Son. We are not called to escape whatever it is we're trying to escape by overeating and remaining sedentary but to follow Christ in the way of treating our bodies as temples of the Most High.

There is nothing wrong with eating fast foods occasionally and not exercising everyday, and, besides, such isolated actions in themselves are not the main issue. But when these actions become the defintion of one's lifestyle, consider this—if you have to take medications to alleviate or avoid problems associated with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high chloresterol, coronary artery disease, stroke, among other conditions, it is no longer merely something for which excuses can be made.

The embrace of deliberate obesity is a symptom of the systemic narcissism embodied by Amorica, and, to our shame, this exaltation of the sedentary lifestyle reaches into the church. Christians who practice this way of life are embracing, or at minimum flirting with, a physical and spiritual practice that threatens to enslave their own lives to Amorica. What? Don't you know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, that you are slaves of the one whom you obey? Should any Christian willingly risk that?

"So then, don’t let sin rule your body, so that you do what it wants. Don’t offer parts of your body to sin, to be used as weapons to do wrong. Instead present yourselves to God as people who have been brought back to life from the dead, and offer all the parts of your body to God to be used as weapons to do right. Sin will have no power over you, because you aren’t under Law but under grace" (Rom. 6:12–14).

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