Sunday, November 24, 2013

Who is this guy?

Luke 1: 68-79
68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David 70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham: 74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Luke 23: 32-43
32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” 36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Colossians 1: 9-20
9 For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, 10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

The essential question in these passages concerns the identity of Jesus. Zechariah’s song lets us know that someone is coming; something is about to happen. The cross show several responses to the one who came. Paul tells us clearly who Jesus is and what hinges on knowing him.

Luke’s Gospel
When John was born, Zechariah names him, and at that moment receives his sight back. His song is a prophecy sent from God concerning John, and concerning the one whose way he prepares—Jesus the Messiah.

Zechariah sings: God has come to his people to redeem them, to save them, to rescue them and enable them to serve him through David’s line. The note of “David’s House” lets us know that this refers to the coming Messiah. We hear this song as it applies to us—that God is here to redeem, rescue, and save us, and to empower us for service. John, then, will be a prophet of God to prepare the way for God’s Messiah, the son of David, to come, so that people will know him and his salvation and so that they will see his light.

Zechariah’s song sets us up for the question that recurs in the gospels: “Who is this man?” In Luke 3:15-16 and 21 Luke implies that John introduced Jesus to his followers. In Matthew 3:13 and Mark 1:9 the identification is stated more clearly; it is stated most clearly in John 1:29-34. This introduction begins the question that Jesus repeatedly forced on those who met him: Who is he?

Luke answers the question in chapter 3 with John’s implied statement that Jesus is the Messiah, and with the baptism and genealogy, which show that Jesus is the Son of God. The question recurs then in Jesus’ ministry over and over.
5:20-21—Jesus heals the paralyzed man, and the Pharisees wonder, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy?”
6:11—Jesus heals the man with the shrivelled hand; the Pharisees and teachers of the law begin to plot against him. They had started to answer the question with rejection.
7:6-9—The centurion answers the question with his affirmation that Jesus has been sent by God.
7:16—Jesus raises the widow’s son. The crowds answer the question with the affirmation that Jesus is a mighty prophet.
7:39,49—The Pharisee questions his identity as a prophet, but the other guests are wondering about his ability to forgive sins and may go further that saying he is a prophet.
8:22-25—Even his disciples begin to wonder, “Who is this who commands even the winds and the waves and they obey him?”
Chapter 9 comes to the climax: “18 Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’ 19 They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.’ 20 ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Peter answered, ‘God’s Messiah.’”

The road to Jerusalem (which begins in Luke 9:51) is then the road to the resolution of this question, asked over and over again: Who is this man? Who is he? Finally in Luke 23:33 we meet the two criminals who were crucified. One of them says: Can’t you save us? (Implying that he was a fraud.) The other says: Remember me when you come into your kingdom. (Accepting that he is the king of the Universe.) This is the question for us today as well. Who is this man? Is he the centre of reality, as he claimed, or was he a teacher who said some good things, but who was for the First Century only? 

Colossians 1
Paul tells us what the early church understood all of this to mean, as they reflected back on Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This passage stands along the other great Christological passages of the NT in John 1, Philippians 2, and Hebrews 1.
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Jesus is the one who shows the invisible God to us. Jesus is the one in whom God’s creation takes place—cf John 1: “In the beginning was the Word … By him all things were created.” Jesus is the one who sustains and preserves the whole of creation. If you know Jesus, you know God. If you do not know Jesus, you do not know God!

Verse 17 is wonderful: “In him all things hold together.” Some translations say, “cohere”. One translation that I found renders this phrase as “in him everything makes sense.” God in Christ is the one who makes sense of life for us and brings everything into a coherent whole.

Some people today say that there is no organizing principle to reality, but nobody lives as though there is none. Everyone lives as though life is about something. What’s life about? What’s going in our universe?

Agnosticism/Atheism: Some say that material physical life is all you have. There is no God; there is no religion based on reality. You have what you feel and think, and that’s all you have. I wonder if anyone can truly live their life on this foundation. If I am the centre of the universe, and everything was made for me, I conclude quite quickly that life really is meaningless. I know that I am too small and unimportant to serve as the lynchpin of reality. Some people say that they can’t accept Christian (or any other) faith unless it jives with their own beliefs and preferences. That approach really does make reality revolve around me. Narcissism is a psychologically unhealthy characteristic and a philosophically unsound approach to life.

Some people say that they can’t accept Christianity because of the tragedies they see around them: What we sometimes call the problem of evil and suffering. C.S. Lewis has observed that the problem of suffering is a difficult problem for the Christian to deal with, but that the problem of good is even harder for the atheist or agnostic. If God is not there, and if God is not involved in our world, where does beauty and good come from? At a Steve Bell concert recently we listened to Steve singing, “Why do we hunger for beauty?” An amazing song, and a vital question.

A friend of mine on the Internet posted a moving video from 1988 of a BBC show that told of Sir Nicholas Winton, a man who personally saved 669 Jewish children from death under the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. Where does such courage and goodness come from, if there is no God? If there is no source of beauty, where does beauty come from? If there is no source of goodness, where does good come from?

Other Religions: I teach World Religions. There is much to admire in Buddhism and Islam and Judaism. I find Hinduism more puzzling. There are also major problems with each—in my own estimation there are more problems with each one than there are with Christianity.

As a simple example, I find Islam profoundly moving in many ways, with a devotion to God that is compelling and beautiful. But the simple fact remains that its founder was a warrior, as compared with its close relative, the Baha’i faith, whose founder was a pacifist. In a world racked with war, a warrior founder is problematic. I could go through each religion in some detail, noting its strengths and weaknesses; but my concern is to lift up Jesus—not to lift up Christianity, but to lift up Christ.

Chasing the Question Today
The fact is, of course, that we can’t deal with these issues adequately in this setting. We need a different setting in which advocates of different worldviews present their own position as favourably as possible, with each of us listening sympathetically and critically. We need to avoid the kind of response to each other that Dawkins specializes in—seeking to ridicule the other rather than engage what they say. All of us are tempted to such ridicule, as if we can end the discussion with a brief and witty bomb that blows the other’s position to bits.

I believe that when one does truly begin to seek truth, one finds Jesus in the path waiting for us. I do not make this as a claim that one can prove beyond all doubt, but as the conclusion that many people have found. Alister McGrath began his academic life as an atheist, who in the pursuit of truth found God. We just saw the 50th anniversary of the death of CS Lewis, who is another example of one whose pursuit of truth and beauty led to God.
Lewis, JFK, and Aldous Huxley all died on the same day. Peter Kreeft has written an imaginative construction of the three of them in the waiting room of heaven (Waiting for Heaven)—Lewis the Christian, Kennedy the humanist, and Huxley the mystic. As they wait for the door to what lies beyond to open, they discuss the merits of their views of reality. It is a penetrating analysis of these three options.

Our society has made Christian faith profoundly unpopular. I know a Philosophy professor who kept his Christian faith quiet until after he achieved tenure, recognizing the problems that openly expressed faith creates in today’s academy. You may recall the sociological study of parenting outcomes and sexual orientation done by Mark Regnerus last year. Much of the condemnation of his study came for ideological reasons condemning Christian faith and traditional family roles. I am not saying anything about the merits of the study; the discipline of sociology will repeat and refine his research and over time observe its strengths and weakness. I am observing only the hostility to Christian faith found in much of the academy and of our society.

How do we respond to such hostility? The way forward is not to fight—to fight atheists, or fight other Christians, or fight Muslims, or fight anyone, but to search together for God and for truth. Let me give you an example of someone who found Christ, completely against the run of her beliefs and expectations. The following is excerpted from the November issue of Christianity Today.
Kirsten Powers is a Democratic commentator at Fox News: Just seven years ago …. if there was one thing in which I was completely secure, it was that I would never adhere to any religion—especially to evangelical Christianity, which I held in particular contempt. …. After college I worked as an appointee in the Clinton administration from 1992 to 1998. The White House surrounded me with intellectual people who, if they had any deep faith in God, never expressed it. Later, when I moved to New York, where I worked in Democratic politics, my world became aggressively secular. Everyone I knew was politically left-leaning, and my group of friends was overwhelmingly atheist. …. Life … seemed pretty wonderful, filled with opportunity and good conversation and privilege. ….
To the extent that I encountered Christians …. they were saying something about gay people or feminists. …. So when I began dating a man who was into Jesus, I was not looking for God. …. I remember exactly where I was sitting in my West Village apartment when he said, “Do you believe Jesus is your Savior?” …. Oh no, was my first thought. He’s crazy. When I answered no, he asked, “Do you think you could ever believe it?” He explained that he was at a point in life when he wanted to get married and felt that I could be that person, but he couldn’t marry a non-Christian. I said I didn’t want to mislead him—that I would never believe in Jesus. Then he said the magic words for a liberal: “Do you think you could keep an open mind about it?” Well, of course. “I’m very open-minded!” Even though I wasn’t at all. ….
A few weeks later I went to church with him. …. When we arrived at the Upper East Side service of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I was shocked and repelled by what I saw. …. We were meeting in an auditorium with a band playing what I later learned was “praise music.” I thought, How am I going to tell him I can never come back? But then the pastor preached. I was fascinated. I had never heard a pastor talk about the things he did. Tim Keller’s sermon was intellectually rigorous, weaving in art and history and philosophy. I decided to come back to hear him again. …. Any person who is familiar with Keller’s preaching knows that he usually brings Jesus in at the end of the sermon to tie his points together. For the first few months, I left feeling frustrated: Why did he have to ruin a perfectly good talk with this Jesus nonsense?
Each week, Keller made the case for Christianity. He also made the case against atheism and agnosticism. He expertly exposed the intellectual weaknesses of a purely secular worldview. I came to realize that even if Christianity wasn’t the real thing, neither was atheism. I began to read the Bible. …. After about eight months of going to hear Keller, I concluded that the weight of evidence was on the side of Christianity. But I didn’t feel any connection to God, and frankly, I was fine with that. …. Then one night in 2006, on a trip to Taiwan, I woke up in what felt like a strange cross between a dream and reality. Jesus came to me and said, “Here I am.” It felt so real. I didn’t know what to make of it. I called my boyfriend, but before I had time to tell him about it, he told me he had been praying the night before and felt we were supposed to break up. So we did. Honestly, while I was upset, I was more traumatized by Jesus visiting me. …. When I returned to New York a few days later, I was lost. I suddenly felt God everywhere and it was terrifying. More important, it was unwelcome. It felt like an invasion. I started to fear I was going crazy. I didn’t know what to do, so I spoke with writer Eric Metaxas …. “You need to be in a Bible study,” he said. “And Kathy Keller’s Bible study is the one you need to be in.” I didn’t like the sound of that, but I was desperate. My whole world was imploding. ….
I remember walking into the Bible study. I had a knot in my stomach. In my mind, only weirdoes and zealots went to Bible studies. …. When I left, everything had changed. I’ll never forget standing outside that apartment on the Upper East Side and saying to myself, “It’s true. It’s completely true.” The world looked entirely different, like a veil had been lifted off it. I had not an iota of doubt. I was filled with indescribable joy. The horror of the prospect of being a devout Christian crept back in almost immediately. I spent the next few months doing my best to wrestle away from God. It was pointless. Everywhere I turned, there he was. Slowly there was less fear and more joy. The Hound of Heaven had pursued me and caught me—whether I liked it or not.
That is the great gift of the seasons ahead of us—Advent and Christmas, when we celebrate the coming of Jesus as a baby into our world and anticipate his return at the end of all things. As C.S. Lewis puts it in the closing lines of his remarkable novel, Till We Have Faces, “I ended my first book with the words ‘no answer.’ I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?

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