Friday, January 07, 2022

The Day Christ Was Born

I know it's a little late for this particular topic in the West, but today is the day Christmas is celebrated among the Eastern churches who still use the Julian calendar, so I don't feel too badly about it. This also means that my fellow procrastinators who like to delay taking down their Christmas lights get a reprieve! 😅

For most of my life, I've been taught that Jesus was likely born in the Spring, because Judean shepherds didn't take their sheep out to pasture in winter. The old explanation of why we celebrate Christmas on December 25 was that the Romans associated the time with the pagan festivals of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, and so the Church transformed (or co-opted) the dates to celebrate Christ instead.

This never really bothered me, because if Christ really is God and can bring transformation to someone like me, then He can certainly redeem any, and all, days of the year. What is important to me is the Incarnation, the belief that God the Son, the Divine Logos ("Word") took on flesh as man and dwelt among us, lowering Himself, so that we - as Christ's brothers and sisters - may be raised into the household of God. That's what Christmas is all about, no matter which day of the year it is celebrated.

But, as I've studied this topic more and more over the years, out of historical curiosity as much as anything else, the more convinced I've become that Jesus *was* actually born on or around Dec. 25 and that the available biblical and historical clues support this conclusion (and I'm indebted for this information to more sources than I can list here).

Here's what we can discover from a careful look at Scripture:

1) The angel Gabriel announced to the priest Zechariah the conception of his son, John, when Zechariah was offering incense in the Temple during the alloted time for the priestly division of his clan: Abijah (Luk. 1:5, 8-11). Elizabeth his wife became pregnant immediately after.

1 Chr. 24:5-18 says the descendants of Abijah would serve in the 8th rotation of the year, during Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, ~Sep. 22-30).

2) The angel Gabriel announced the conception of Jesus 6 months later to Mary (Luk. 1:26), around March 25.

3) Jesus was likely born ~9 months later, around December 25 (cf. John Chrysostom's "On the Day of the Birth of Our Savior Jesus Christ").

So what does it mean for the shepherds who received the angels' message that a Savior had been born to them in the City of David (Luk. 2:8-20)? Was this an anachronistic mistake on the part of the author of the Gospel? I don't think so. As it turns out, according to the Mishnah (Shekalim 7:4), sheep to be offered at the Passover could be found as early as 30 days prior to the festival in the fields as far as Migdal Eder (near Bethlehem, cf. Gen. 35:19-21) from Jerusalem in any direction. Since this would be mid-February, it shows sheep could be found in the area in winter, as Judean winters are often very mild; and shepherds still pasture their sheep in the middle of winter near Bethlehem today.

Even the old argument that Christians stole the date from the pagan celebration of Sol Invictus doesn't hold water on careful historical inspection. The Roman cult of Sol Invictus was instituted on Dec. 25, 274 by the Emperor Aurelian, and its last celebration was in 387.

But Hippolytus of Rome, writing in his Commentary on Daniel, first associates the Annunciation of Jesus' conception to Mary with March 25. Since Hippolytus died around 235 AD, even if he wrote this commentary in the last year of his life, the first written text associating Jesus' birth with December 25 comes a full 40 years before the first celebration of Sol Invictus.

And while it's true that the Roman winter festival Saturnalia was celebrated around this time, that festival was celebrated on Dec. 17.

Rather than Christianity appropriating the holiday from Roman pagans, it appears the pagans may have tried to stem the rampant growth of Christianity by creating their own festival of Sol Invictus in order to directly compete with Jesus' birth.

The more I study this, the more convinced I become that Jesus was most likely born Dec. 25, between 6 and 4 BC. So, for those of our brothers and sisters still using the Julian calendar in the East, Merry Christmas!
#Christmas #Incarnation #JulianCalendar

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Religion or Relationship?

 I've seen many memes and posts say that the Christian faith isn't about religion, but relationship. I must vehemently disagree. Jesus never spoke against religion. In fact, he fulfilled His religious obligations. Instead, He spoke against empty, legalistic "religion" - itself a vain corruption of the religion God desires.

But to understand the difference, I think it helps to define what religion is. Religion is the organized, corporate, creative response of the community to God's grace. It embraces the love of Christ by reflecting it into the lives of others, especially those in need; and it remembers and proclaims God's story of salvation and our part within it.

Healthy religion is ordained by the Father, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and illuminated by Christ's grace. I pray that all humanity embraces God's invitation to *both* religion *and* relationship with Him.

As the Apostle James once said, "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world," (Jas. 1:27).

#Religion #Faith #Christianity #Jesus #Relationship

Saturday, April 03, 2021

"The Great In-Between Time" A Holy Saturday Reflection

This is the great in-between time. The time of silence after the Earth shook and the Curtain in the Temple was torn in two. The time when all Creation – subject to death – groaned at the death of the Divine Son who took that ignoble, shameful punishment on the cross onto Himself so that we might be freed from death forever.

But in that moment, when darkness covered the face of the Earth and the shadow of darkness fell over men’s hearts, it must have seemed like this was the end of all the beautiful hope Jesus had shared with His disciples, with the broken, with the outcast, with the ones the world said were worthless.

For those who followed him, who hoped against hope that God would send a great Liberator to free them from the oppressive rule of the Romans, it must have seemed like the world had ended. Echoing Jesus’ own last words on the cross, how many disciples, how many of the women and men who followed them, cried out in their heart of hearts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

They longed for the way He blessed the bread before He broke it in their presence, for the way He shared meals with Pharisees and tax collectors alike, for the way He embraced sinners and challenged would-be saints to to take an honest look at their own hearts, for the way He welcomed children to hear His teaching, for the way He called all to forgive and be forgiven.

But now He lay in a cold tomb, with a stone rolled over the door, the seal of Caesar impressed upon it, the deepest darkness within; and his disciples are in hiding, ashamed that they had fled when they should have stood bravely by their Rabbi, their Messiah, their Lord.

This in-between time, what we call Holy Saturday, reminds us that we all are subject to frailty, illness, decay, and death because of our sins. Our world has been darkened by sin. The innocent suffer, the needy go hungry, the sojourner is deprived of justice – all because of the choices we all have made. We all have allowed our hearts to be darkened like cold tombs, and deep down, we all know that our hearts could be warmed and healed if only we could roll that heavy stone away from the door to let the light of God in. But that stone is too heavy for any one of us to lift.

But death does not have the final say. Hatred will not be the loudest voice forever. Addiction and abuse will not always enslave the ones we love. Christ died so that death itself might be overcome, the fires of hatred quenched by love, the chains of addiction broken, the wounds of abuse forever healed.

Look! A new day dawns! Why look for the living among the dead? It is done! He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty He will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit all His promises. He will be their God and they will be His children. See, He makes all things new!

#HolyWeek #HolySaturday #Nazarene

The Fear of the Lord

 Someone recently asked me, "Are we supposed to fear God because we fear being punished?"

Always game to wrestle with a good question - especially one many of us have probably asked at one point or another - I thought it might be beneficial to post my response here:

"When 'fear of the Lord' is spoken of positively in Scripture, it denotes awe or wonder at the incredible strength, depth, and mystery of God. It may be exhilarating or calming, but it isn't fear of punishment.

Our relationship to God should be characterized as one of awe/wonder *and* love. Fear of punishment is antithetical to love and is a sign of spiritual immaturity. Many people first turn to Christ because they are afraid of punishment for sin (I know I did). But if we fear God because we fear being punished, then we are only at the beginning of our spiritual journey.

Entire sanctification/perfect communion with God/theosis  is characterized by being entirely illuminated by God's holy love, so that our relationships with Him, with each other, and with all of Creation are fueled entirely by His grace, and reflect nothing but His love.

As the Beloved Apostle wrote in 1 Jn. 4:16b-19, 'God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because He first loved us.'"

#Love #Grace #Faith #Sanctification #Spirituality #Mystery #Theosis #Nazarene

Sunday, December 06, 2020

The Real Santa Claus

Over one thousand seven hundred years ago, a frail old man stepped out of the Roman dungeons of Asia Minor and squinted in the brightness of the natural sunlight of which he had been deprived for the past eight years. Despite the torture he had endured, his bones broken, set, healed, and broken again and again over the years, he had never wavered in his faith; even though the authorities repeatedly promised him that he would be released if only he would recognize the divinity of the Emperor and sacrifice incense to his name.

Many had given up hope of ever seeing or hearing from him again, but as the Emperor Diocletian's terrible reign came to an end, the old man slowly made his way out into the free, open air on that early May morning in the year 305. The news traveled fast and a cry went up in his home town… Nicholas is alive!

This frail man, beloved by his people but aged beyond his years by the brutal treatment he suffered, soon returned to pastor his church in Myra, modern day Turkey where his gentleness and kindness with children was only matched by his humble generosity. He had been born to a rich merchant family of Greek Christians many years before, and as a young man, heeded Christ’s call to go sell everything he had, give the proceeds to the poor and follow Him.

And as the bishop of Myra he cared deeply for those in the city who struggled to make ends meet. In one famous episode, a destitute Father had three daughters who were approaching the age at which most Roman girls got married, but he was unable to scrape together enough to provide a dowry for them. In an age when women had few prospects for employment and a father had the power of life or death over his children, it seemed their only future would be to resort to prostitution or be sold into slavery to settle their father’s debt. In a culture which cared little about the worth of women in society, Nicholas was deeply moved to help these women who were precious in God’s sight.

So, to spare the father the embarrassment of receiving charity and to avoid praise himself, Nicholas went under cover of darkness and threw a bag of gold in the window opening of their house to provide a dowry for the eldest daughter to get married. After she married, and when it came time for the second daughter to be married, he did it again. And when the third daughter came of age, he threw another bag of gold in the window. This time being caught by the father of the three daughters, he swore the man to secrecy regarding what he had done (which obviously didn’t work because his fame soon spread, even in his own lifetime).

On another occasion three innocent men had been condemned to death on the orders of the crooked governor Eustathius. Standing between the executioner’s sword and the men about to die, he publicly challenged the jurors who had taken bribes to find the men guilty and the governor himself. The governor seethed with rage and wanted Nicholas’ head, but the crowds stood up for their beloved bishop and Eustathius was afraid to touch him.

Towards the end of a life marked by a simple desire to reflect Christ’s holy love in the lives around him, Nicholas was summoned for one last service. A priest named Arius had begun teaching that Jesus wasn’t who he claimed, that he was neither fully God nor fully human but something in between, a created being like us. The new Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 and invited all the bishops of the world to gather and hash it out. Many, like Nicholas, had suffered under the terrible persecutions of Emperor Diocletian for their faith and no power on Earth was going to dissuade them from staying true to the ancient faith as they had received it.

A staunch defender of the doctrine of the Trinity, a rumor has persisted through the centuries that Nicholas lost his temper and punched Arius in the face at the Council and spent a night cooling off in jail for it. This may or may not be true, but what we do know is that this tough-as-nails bishop was willing to die for what he believed to be true. He pastored his flock with love and care, he defended the innocent, and had compassion on the most destitute. And most of all it’s his humble generosity and kindness which has inspired millions to be a little kinder, a little more gracious to one another for 17 centuries.

He’s remembered each Christmas as Santa Claus, a commercialized, jolly old elf with an unhealthy addiction to milk and cookies. But as a man devoted to Christ, he would want us to remember what this season is all about: that God loved this world and everyone in it so much that He took on flesh, walked among us, taught us to love as He loves, died for us, and conquered death through His bodily resurrection so that we may be freed from sin and death ourselves.

So as we celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day on Dec. 06 at the beginning of this Christmas season, take a little bit of time to honor the real St. Nick by sharing a little bit of the same gracious, humble, generous love that he tried to embody and remember Who it was that was ultimately the source of his enduring strength and grace.

#StNick #SantaClaus #StNicholas #StNicholasDay #Christmas

"St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents From Death," by Ilya Repin (1888)

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Approaches to Reading the Bible: Divine Reading

Example Text: John 3:1-21

Why This Practice?
The spiritual discipline of “divine reading” is a centuries’ old practice with roots in the early Church(1) that is meant to be a slow, careful way of reading scripture designed to help you not just skim or even just remember the text, but to absorb it. Its purpose is to elevate your understanding of the written Word from “head knowledge” to “heart knowledge,” by focusing your attention on your relationship with God during your daily devotions. This is a discipline. And just as an athlete who wants to train for a marathon needs to be intentional about what they eat at every meal and how they train every day, as a disciple of Jesus you must be intentional about your daily diet of scripture and your regular training regimen of prayer, fasting, acts of service, corporate worship, fellowship with fellow believers, and participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Don’t rush this practice. This exercise should take 15-20 minutes per chunk of text. Begin by praying that the Holy Spirit would guide and enlighten you as you read scripture. 

1. Read“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.” - 2 Tim. 3:16-17 (NLT)
Read the passage slowly. Get a sense of what it is saying. Read it a second time, again slowly. Pick out any words that strike you as significant, or that are relevant and important – either to what the author is trying to say, or to your current situation.

2. Reflect (Meditate) - “But [the righteous] delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do.” - Psalm 1:2 (NLT)
Read the passage a third time, slowly. Savor it, like a bite of delicious food. Pause and reflect on those phrases that stood out to you.
    • Why is this phrase important to what the author is trying to say?
    • Why does it speak to you?
    • Is there some place in your life where you feel God’s Word has been absent?
    • Is there a circumstance you’re going through that calls for God’s guidance?
    • Is there a part of you/your thoughts/your actions that you have closed off to God’s instruction?
    • Is this passage calling you to repent of something you are doing or that you are neglecting to do?
    • How should your thoughts, actions, and behaviors change in response to what God is telling you?

3) Respond (Pray)“Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” - 1 Thess. 5:17-18 (NLT)
Read the passage a fourth time. Consider what God is trying to say to you, and respond to Him. Pray. If this passage is leading you to repent of something, confess that thing to God and declare your intention to change. If this passage is encouraging you in some way, thank God for that encouragement. If this passage is challenging you to do something, pray for strength to meet that challenge. If this passage brings to mind the needs of others, pray for them, declare your intention to share God’s love with them in some way, and pray for opportunities to do so.

4) Remain (Contemplate)“...As Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out...” 1 Kings 19:11-13 (NLT)
Now, just rest in the presence of God. If you need to, set an alarm for 5 minutes or more. This might be uncomfortable at first, and it should be. Technology, busy schedules, and the constant pressure to surround ourselves with friends means that we often forget the value of solitude and we miss God speaking to us through silence, because we drown Him out in all the noise.
Finally, journal what God has taught you through this experience and thank Him. Write down a plan for consistently applying what God has shown you.

(1) Adapted from the practice developed by Benedict of Nursia, itself rooted in the practices of the early Church Fathers Origen, Augustine, Ambrose, Hilary of Portiers, and the Desert Fathers; and guided by the instruction the Apostle Paul laid out in Romans 10:8-10 (NRSV), “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.”

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Discipline of Fasting

Below is the manuscript for the sermon I delivered on Feb. 23, 2020 ahead of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten Season at Cortez (CO) Church of the Nazarene.

Text: Ezra 8:21-23 (NRSV):
21 Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions. 22 For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and cavalry to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king that the hand of our God is gracious to all who seek him, but his power and his wrath are against all who forsake him. 23 So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.

A Family On the Move
For our family, there is rarely any experience more stressful than preparing for a trip back to Iowa to visit our parents. The kids are always excited about the prospect of staying in motels, of visiting with Grandma and Grandpa, of going out to eat at restaurants, and of taking a break from school. But for Marcia and me, a trip is a major logistical operation. There are bags to be packed, snacks to be bought, vehicles to be vacuumed and checked, and then there’s all the negotiation that goes with trying to figure out how to split our time between two families who live in the same town, so that one family doesn’t feel like we’ve spent more time with the other family than with them.

Then, once we’re on the road, we have to figure out where people want to eat and there’s always someone who suddenly has never liked the place we just picked, even though they begged for us to go there last week. And of course we have to make sure the dog doesn’t run off when everyone gets out for a bathroom or food break, and each time we stop, every single child wants me to buy them some little trinket or piece of candy. In fact, I’ve gotten so good at saying, “Put it back!” It all comes out as one word now, “Pudditback! Pudditback!” And that’s if everything goes perfectly!

On top of all that, there’s the added risk of a blown tire, or engine trouble, or those big Midwestern storms, or all the motels being full because of some conference, or roving bands of Nebraskan marauders. OK, maybe that last one isn’t as big of a risk, but the point is that there is always plenty of uncertainty involved in just going to visit Grandma and Grandpa, and usually by the end of the trip, we’re more exhausted than when we began. We end up needing a vacation from the vacation!

The Slow Fulfillment of God's Promises
Things weren’t any easier – or safer – for people on the move in the ancient world, and Ezra the scribe, the writer of our passage this morning, knew that. But Ezra was a man “on a mission from God”  like Jake & Elwood Blues in "The Blues Brothers." Ezra 7:6 tells us he was a priest and “skilled in the law of Moses that the Lord the God of Israel had given; and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was upon him.”(1)

Because of his devotion to God and to teaching the Law of Moses, he poured over the scrolls of the Torah and the Prophets night and day, and over and over he read in them how even though Israel and Judah had been judged to be unfaithful, and so had been sent into exile, with the city of Jerusalem and its glorious Temple destroyed by the Babylonians; God had not forgotten His people, and He promised to restore the repentant to the land, and the Temple with it.

Nearly 30 years after the Temple’s destruction, this promise had begun to be fulfilled, when the Persian King Cyrus, who had conquered the Babylonians, issued a decree that the Jews could return to the city and the Temple could be rebuilt.(2) Ezra 4 relates how soon waves of returning families entered the land, but the plan to rebuild the Temple and the city was frustrated by those already there; people who had been transplanted by the Assyrians even before the Babylonians came to power in an effort to maintain control over their conquered territories.(3) They were worried about losing their lands and their favored position within the Empire, and so wrote to their governors and to Cyrus’ successors saying that in the past Jerusalem had been a hotbed of sedition and revolution, and that it didn’t deserve to be rebuilt.

Despite these struggles, for the next 40 years, small groups of people continued to trickle into the land from Babylonia, and Ezra. 5:2-17 describes how they, being inspired by their leaders and the words of the prophets, began building again. This worried the governor of the province. He thought this nonsense about rebuilding the Temple had been ended once and for all! But God was still at work in his people. They still had a mission. And as they continued, he wrote to the Persian King Darius to ask whether they had the authority to do so.

Darius’ ministers discovered an old scroll in his libraries containing the decree of Cyrus, and so Darius added his own – not only was the Temple to be built, but all expenses would be paid from the Royal Treasury!(4) Those who tried to thwart God’s work would now have to pay taxes to see it accomplished! And if they refused, the decree ordered that the supporting beam would be ripped from their house and they would be impaled on it. Those Persian kings didn’t mess around!

Ezra 6:14-15 then relates how the Temple was completed during the reign of Darius and the people celebrated the Passover for the first time in the new Temple, “for the Lord had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the King of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.”

Another 50 years passed and Ezra the scribe and priest, was living in Babylonia, studying the history of God’s work among his people; when he received his mission from God through King Artaxerxes. It was finally time for priests an Levites to return to the Temple, so that sacrifices could be offered once again, and this time Ezra would go with them – to teach the people about who their God was, what He desired, and what His character was like. But the road was dangerous.

I joked about Nebraskan marauders earlier, but in the ancient world, bands of raiders attacking caravans was no joke! There was no Highway Patrol, no State Police, no Sheriff’s Deputies to maintain law and order. And Ezra’s caravan was carrying a ton of wealth. All the furnishings of the Temple, which had been captured by Nebuchadnezzar over 100 years before, would have to be carted and carried over 1,600 miles. And such a large group, with their wives and little ones with them, would be moving slowly, kicking up huge clouds of dust by day with dozens of glowing fires by night. They would be easy pickings for bands looking to slaughter the men, capture the women and children for slaves, and carry off one of the largest treasures in the Ancient Near East.

Fasting to Prepare for the Journey
So, Ezra knew he needed protection. But as our passage this morning makes clear (5), he also knew, that if he were really going to teach the people about God’s saving work over the centuries, if he was really going to convince them that God loved them and cared for them, he would have to trust God and not in the armies of the Persian King. He certainly could have asked for an armed escort, and I’m sure the King would have given it! But then his people and the Persians themselves would have claimed it was the grace of the Persian King and not the providence of the Living God which protected them.

Verses 21 and 23 tell us in Ezra’s own words, “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might deny ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our possessions… So we fasted and petitioned our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty.”

Ezra wasn’t fasting because he doubted that God would care for him – especially as it was clear from the writings of the prophets and from his peoples’ own history that God had providentially moved to bring them back safely to their own land. And it wasn’t to “convince” God to help protect his caravan either; as if God were some mercenary who required people to deny food to their bellies before He would protect them.

Instead, Ezra called the people to a communal fast because their own hearts needed to prepare for the journey back to the land of their ancestors. They had lived in a foreign land for so long, under foreign influence, and though they may have read about the way God desired to be worshiped in His Tempe, none had ever seen it first hand. Imagine that, none of them had ever offered a Temple sacrifice, or set up the complex schedules and duty rosters required for its maintenance, and now they were being expected to lead it! It was this need to prepare, this need to ready their hearts to participate in God’s mission that I want to focus on this morning.

The Purpose of Lent
In a few short days, the Christian season of Lent begins. It is a 40 day season of preparation, of mourning, of repentance before we celebrate Easter. Its roots are in the individual, biblical fasts of Moses and Jesus, but also the communal fasts we find in places like our passage this morning. And it begins with Ash Wednesday, a day of prayer where traditionally ashes are placed on the forehead as an act of repentance and a declaration of our hope in the saving grace of Christ. The practice itself goes back to OT times as well, where we read about prophets like Jeremiah and kings like David sitting in sackcloth and ashes as they mourn.

For many of you, this practice might seem really odd. At the very least, you might be wondering why we are engaging in a practice that seems so antiquated. For some, the practice might seem too ritualistic, too “religious,” and didn’t Jesus do away with empty religion? And finally, for others, you might be questioning the value of a communal fast – where the whole church comes together to fast and pray; after all, didn’t Jesus command us to pray and fast in secret? These are all important concerns that I want us to address this morning as we prepare for this season, but first I should note that each of these assumptions are based on a misunderstanding of what God actually expects of us when we fast and pray, and why we do it in the first place.

As I mentioned before, when Ezra fasted, it wasn’t because he was trying to bargain with God or earn his favor, it was to prepare the hearts of his people for the journey ahead. But this isn’t the only reason for fasting that we find in scripture.

Often we find passages where it was combined with the wearing of uncomfortable and plain sackcloth and sitting in ashes, as a sign of deep personal heartbreak. Today, we aren’t nearly given to such public displays of emotion. Often when people grieve, they are expected to get over it in a few weeks as people try to force normalcy on those whose wounds and sense of loss are still fresh. But people are by nature expressive people. Often, when we bottle up our emotions, they end up bursting out in other, unhealthy ways anyway. For ancient peoples, fasting while wearing sackcloth and sitting in ashes for a set time was seen as a healthy way of expressing grief.

We see an example of this in Neh. 1:1-4, where Nehemiah himself writes,
“...While I was in Susa the capital, one of my brothers, Hanani, came with certain men from Judah; and I asked them about the Jews that survived, those who had escaped the captivity, and about Jerusalem. They replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire. When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. I said, ‘O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned.’”
Just like with Ezra, Nehemiah’s fast is rooted in trust in “the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love” with his people; and just like Ezra, he is motivated by a deep desire to see God’s will done. But this time, his fasting is brought on by a deep sense of heartbreak at the plight of his people, and a recognition that the Jews in Babylonia have sinned by neglecting their hard pressed brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. Notice that even though he hasn’t specifically done anything wrong or consciously rebelled against God, he still realizes that he is still part of a neglectful people and nation, and so he repents for the part he has played in their sin.

In the same way, on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, we also confess the sins of our people, of the nation of which we are a part. We may not have personally stolen or murdered or committed adultery. But we live in a nation enthralled by pornography and lust, where millions of women are forced into sexual slavery, where people freeze to death in the cold, where children die of hunger, where the unborn are aborted by the millions. We have plenty to mourn for and to repent over.

Reasons to Fast: Repentance
And this brings us to the second major reason for fasting found in scripture. It moves our hearts toward repentance, so that we may be saved. In Jonah 3, we read how God sent the prophet to the people of Ninevah to warn them of their impending destruction. He didn’t promise them He would relent if they repented, but in vv. 5-10 we read, “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’ When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

The King issued the decree that all the people would fast and mourn together, and it moved their hearts to repentance. And because of that repentance, God Himself was moved to graciously relent and spare them the destruction they had deserved.

Again, it wasn’t some supernatural bargain. Justice cannot be bargained. It was grace. Grace ushered in through repentance and a change of heart. This is why we read in Joel 2:12-13,
“Yet even now, says the Lord,
    return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
     rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
    and relents from punishing.”

God’s grace isn’t earned through fasting, weeping, or mourning. And if we do these things without true repentance of the heart they mean nothing. Our “hearts must be rent” and cracked open, so that God’s grace can be poured in and transformation can begin.

Reasons to Fast: Interceding for Others
Now, you might be saying to yourself, “But I don’t have anything to repent for, or to mourn over. I am forgiven by Christ’s grace the moment I believe and confess my sin. Why should I fast?” And you would be absolutely right! You are forgiven the moment you repent and confess your sin to Him, believing that His grace alone is sufficient to save you. But life isn’t all about us. Faith isn’t all abut our individual salvation either. We are still called to love, to care for, and to intercede for others. And we find fasting utilized for this last purpose in scripture as well. In Ps. 35:11-14, we read,
“Malicious witnesses rise up;
    they ask me about things I do not know.
They repay me evil for good;
    my soul is forlorn.
But as for me, when they were sick,
    I wore sackcloth;
    I afflicted myself with fasting.
I prayed with head bowed on my bosom,
as though I grieved for a friend or a brother;
I went about as one who laments for a mother,
    bowed down and in mourning.”
Here, the Psalmist is making his case before God that he has lived righteously, even though he has been mocked and abused by his friends. He has interceded for his enemies when they were sick, even though they only wished evil for him. The psalmist was able to do this, and we are able to do this, because when we push aside our own hunger to feed ourselves, we can more readily see the needs of others. The gesture might not be reciprocated, but that’s not the point. The point isn’t about what we get in return. The point is that when we deny ourselves, we follow Christ’s example and are better able to empathize with the needs of others as He has called us to do.

Reasons to Fast: It Humbles Our Hearts
And this brings us to the last major reason for fasting found in scripture: it is a means of humbling ourselves before God and others. In Ps. 69:9-12, the songwriter proclaims,
“It is zeal for your house that has consumed me;
    the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.
When I humbled my soul with fasting,
    they insulted me for doing so.
When I made sackcloth my clothing,
    I became a byword to them.
I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate,
    and the drunkards make songs about me.”
This passage is also quoted when Jesus makes a whip and drives the money changers out of the Temple, but notice the last part of the verse: “When I made sackcloth my clothing, I became a byword to them. I am the subject of gossip for those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me.”

Fasting in true humility before God and others is as counter-cultural today as it was when that Psalm was written. In fact, in an increasingly secular culture, fasting can seem downright crazy. But let’s be honest, the Gospel is nuts. The idea that God could love us so much He would take on flesh and die for us is nuts. But it’s true. And not only is fasting a counter-cultural testimony to that fact, it is also a witness to the transforming work that God is doing in the life of the one who fasts and prays. The problem is that it can backfire when fasting is disingenuously used as a means of communicating false humility or self-righteousness.

This is why Jesus says in Mat. 6:16-18,
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus isn’t just telling his disciples not to make a scene or to keep their faith private. After all, what is driving the money-changers out of the Temple if not making scene? What is eating with tax collectors and sinners if not making a scene? What is dying on a cross, if not making a scene? And if fasting and prayer were only private affairs, then the early Christians would have no ground for meeting together to “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” as in Acts. 2:42. And the writer of Hebrews wouldn’t have instructed his audience in Heb. 10:25 not to, “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some.” And if corporate fasting as a whole church was just an Old Testament practice, we wouldn’t read in Acts 13:2-3 and 14:23 about how fasting and prayer was part of the regular practice of the Church at Antioch.

Jesus’ point is that we must examine our intent when we fast. Intent is everything. If we are not fasting for the right reasons, it can actually be dangerous to our faith! But, instead of abandoning the practice of fasting and praying together as a church, we should utilize the occasion of a regular season of fasting like Lent as an opportunity to examine our intent and the depths of our hearts, to see where we need to be humbled, where we need to repent, where we need to mourn, and where we need to intercede on the behalf of others.

An Invitation to Fast Together
This is why we will be celebrating Ash Wednesday this week, and why I invite you to fast together with me during the season of Lent. It isn’t an obligation. It isn’t a bargain. It isn’t a means of earning God’s favor. It is so that we can carve out space and time in our busy lives to reflect on God’s mercy and on our own need for a Savior, our own need for repentance, our own need for mourning. And it is also a recognition that there are many out there who don’t yet realize that they need Christ in their lives. They are wandering, hurting, and lost. And so we pray and fast, and receive the ashes for them too, in the hope that they will receive and be transformed by the loving grace of Jesus Christ. Thank you.

(1) Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quoted is from the NRSV.
(2) Ezra 1:2-4.
(3) Ezra 4:4-5.
(4) Ezra 6:8.
(5) Ezra 8:21-23.

Delivered Feb. 23, 2020 at Cortez (CO) Church of the Nazarene.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Significance of the Incarnation

A Christmas Eve Reflection.

The Technological Drive for Perfection
Ever since I was a little boy, I have always been fascinated by the steady march forward of technology. I used to love going to the school library and picking up a copy of Popular Mechanics to see what new gadget, or computer, or AI system was being developed. I would play with electronics kits and build my own radios. Even when I was in the Army, flying drones, it was like being a kid again. I mean, not only did I get to play with robots, but they were flying robots! How cool is that?! And in my short lifetime, technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, unimaginable to previous generations.

From facial recognition technology to global climate modeling, and from GPS to automated manufacturing; machines are able to do incredibly complicated work with an efficiency and within tolerances unmatched by any human being. In fact I learned this week that our most accurate atomic clock, the strontium optical lattice clock, is so accurate that it is able to measure subtle dilations of time itself as the clock is placed closer or farther away from the mass at the center of the Earth. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, when you put your hand over your head, because it’s further away from the center of the Earth, it actually travels through time a tiny bit faster than your feet! It’s such an impossibly tiny change, that we don’t perceive it at all. But this clock does! It can literally measure how time itself stretches and crunches when acted upon by gravity.

That’s nuts, right? In another age, if I had said such things, people would assume I was crazy. Heck, you might be wondering about my sanity right now! But that’s how far science and technology have advanced. We are able to measure and create with such precision, and yet almost all scientists agree that our knowledge of the Cosmos and our ability to shape our surroundings through technology has only barely scratched the surface.

The Purpose For Which We Were Created
And yet, with all these technological marvels and scientific advancements, we are still a species consumed by war, slaves to our own appetites, ever on the brink of being destroyed by our own hatred and lust. There is a sharp contrast between the perfection humanity strives for through creativity and ingenuity, and the imperfection we see in our nature. We develop technology in the hope that it will make our lives better, yet we find that it often brings as many problems as it solves. As perfect as we seem to be able to make machines, they cannot fix what’s really broken in the world. They can’t fix us. In fact, nothing we do can. And we’ve tried just about everything. We’ve tried putting our trust in governments, in political parties, in philosophies, in technology, in relationships, in wealth, and in pleasure. And they have all failed to get to the root of the problem because the root of the problem is at the very core of our being.

When we read the opening passages in Genesis, we find that this wasn’t always so. As God said in Gen. 1:27, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”1 And in v. 31, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

God created us with perfection in mind, His own perfection, the perfection of the Son. This is most beautifully stated in the great statement on the Incarnation from our reading in John 1 tonight,
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Everything that is good, everything that is beautiful, and everything that is loving in the world was created through the Son. Christ Himself is the creative Word of God, and whenever we try to recreate perfection, whether it is through art, or poetry, or music, or philosophy, or religious expression; we do it because deep in our hearts we are being called upon by the Holy Spirit to fulfill that great purpose for which we were created: which is to reflect Christ’s perfect love in our hearts and in every area of our lives.

Christ’s Anticipating and Perfecting Grace
But when sin entered the world, it corrupted us. It corrupted our bodies – bringing death into our lives; it corrupted our hearts – the deepest seat of our longing and desire; and it even corrupted our reason – our very ability to perceive the character and nature of God through His Creation. We were no longer able to perceive Him or the virtues He created for us to possess through reason alone, and every attempt on our part to grasp who He truly is, to grasp perfection itself, falls short.

This is why the Word became flesh and lived among us, so that by His illuminating light which pierces every darkness, we might see His glory, believe in Him and be filled with His grace which brings us the truth we have failed to grasp on our own. This is why the Incarnation, the moment when the Word became flesh, is so important to the Christian faith. It is through the Incarnation of Christ that our wills and our reason are restored, so that we may perceive the goodness of God, and being moved by the Holy Spirit, answer His call to repent and be saved.

As Titus 2:11-13 tells us, “11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, 12 training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

When we repent, receiving His grace by faith and turning away from our selfish desires and all the things which distort the Image of God in us, He begins that great work of healing us and restoring that reflection in us. He restores the ability and the call to perfectly reflect His love.

As the Apostle John later wrote in his first letter, 1 John 4:16-19, “16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.”

And the best, most perfect example of God’s love was most fully revealed to us over 2,000 years ago; when a virgin mother laid her infant son in a feeding trough on a cold winter’s night in a tiny village, nestled in the center of a backwater province of the Roman Empire. It’s this moment that we celebrate tonight through our songs and worship; and it is His death on the cross and His bodily resurrection to free us from sin and death that we proclaim as we partake in the Lord’s Supper together.

(1) All quoted scripture is from the NRSV, unless otherwise noted.

First Delivered on Dec. 24, 2019 - Cortez Church of the Nazarene, Cortez, CO.
#Incarnation #ChristmasEve #Grace #Love