From Ancient Days

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
     who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
     one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
     from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
     when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
     to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
     in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
     to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace. – Micah 5:2-5a

How will these things be? How will it all be different in the latter days?

There will be a baby.

You, O Bethlehem, haven’t been Royal David’s City for three centuries, ever since your most famous son captured the stronghold of Zion and called it by his own name. And that means that this child, this Ruler who comes from you, will be David’s Son indeed – but he’ll be no Crown Prince of Judah. He will be born among the tattered remnants of his father’s kingdom, in a town that has lapsed once again into insignificance since the old days.

size1Nevertheless: he will be born with a kingly calling, born to be the Ruler David was on his better days, the morning-light-after-the-rain sort (2 Sam 23:3-4). He will bring the good old days back with him, and better: his coming forth is from of old, from ancient days (Mic 5:2), which is to say, before Abraham was, he is (John 8:58). His “coming forth” is the sallying forth of the Serpent-Crusher, the riding out of the Seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to possess the gate of his enemies. Every seemingly forgotten promise is now due to be remembered, a day of reckoning for the God who appears to have so recklessly overcommitted Himself.

This is the real why of all the death, destruction, and horror; not that Yahweh flew off the handle after one too many improprieties from His people, but that He knew all along that the woes of His people’s overthrow were not to be the pangs of death but the pangs of childbirth, so as to bring this child into the world (Mic 5:3). When he has arrived, then the time of scattering will be past, the time of gathering begun. But the scattering must take place, if he is to come at all. The royal Son cannot be born royal; his Father will use the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.

What we get in return for all of the misery is a Good Shepherd. The very presence of God, and His being pleased to name us as His own (5:4), are the pasture we are starving for, and this one will take us there. We will “dwell secure” – literally, just “dwell” or “stay” – never removed from this presence and grace, because this Ruler will be great to the ends of the earth. Who would dare to try to take us away? Where would they take us to be out of reach of his power to deliver and protect?

He will be, quite simply, peace – not only because his greatness will protect them from harm, but because he will take away the cause for God’s coming in wrath against His people, and will therefore have no more need for Assyria or Babylon to be the rod of His anger (Isa 10:5). As long as he lives, it will be in truth not merely David but the Lord of Hosts Himself who reigns in, over, and for His Israel (4:7).

The baby born in Bethlehem, nearly 700 years after this word was spoken, was the sign (Luke 2:12) that it was all true, that payment was due on all God had promised. He was all that the prophet spoke and more: a just ruler and descendant of David according to the flesh, whose coming forth was from days far more ancient than David or Moses or Abraham or even Adam; the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for the sheep; himself our peace, the tearer-down of the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, man and God.

When this baby was born, one could then safely say, there’s only one way this can turn out now. The kingdom must come; the Lord must reign and send His word out to every corner of the earth; there will be peace, because Peace is here.

That means real, heavyweight joy for us who believe that this is all true. It means defiant joy, sometimes angry joy, that refuses to abide anything that would darken the appearance of the light; the news is too good to be spoiled by foes without or fears within – these must be overthrown. It means thankful joy, joy that eats and drinks and is merry, joy that bathes in twinkly light reflected off red bulbs hung on spruce twigs. It means astonished joy, joy as of those who dream, for whom the Lord has done great things, because He has.

Take courage, friends, and merry Christmas.

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In the Latter Days

It shall come to pass in the latter days
     that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
     and it shall be lifted up above the hills;
     and peoples shall flow to it… – Micah 4:1

Well: the Lord comes to dismantle the corrupt edifice of His people’s kingdom, to purge pollution from His land. And then?

And then: when He is there, and when His outrage has been expended against His people’s offenses, He will bring about what ought to have been happening all along.

The blessing will evince an odd symmetry with the judgment. Where His coming will make the “high place of Judah” – Jerusalem, host to her people’s idolatrous cult (1:5) – melt and flow down the mountain’s slopes (1:4) into oblivion, now that mountain will be higher than ever she was, with God’s word flowing down out of it and Gentiles flowing uphill in response (4:1-2).

hb_1970-283-1There is going to be a Judge in Jerusalem, one who will bring in the heathen not as instruments of destruction, not as invaders, but as disciples (4:3). The Good Life will be instituted (4:4), everybody having enough, everybody provided the means of rest and enjoyment. Judgment is horrendous news for those liable to it (viz.: you and me and everyone we know), but if judgment falls and there is a future on the other side of it, then the presence of a just judge, the true Judge, means peace.

The whole Bible is shot through with the insistence that there will be latter days: in the latter days, the woman’s seed will bruise the serpent’s head; in the latter days, all the nations will be blessed in Abraham’s seed; in the latter days, there will be a prophet like Moses; in the latter days, God will raise up a son to sit on David’s throne; in the latter days, the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. There will be a way through death, a way through destruction, and out to the other side.

For Israel and Judah in the immediate future, this is the way of defeat and survival as a shamed and broken remnant of a once-proud kingdom, enduring imprisonment, exile, and slavery in hope of a future homecoming.

That hope will never really be fulfilled, though, until this passage is not one of survival but of death itself endured. When there is no more fiery wrath to flow down the mountains, then the word of peace can do so, and the peoples of the earth can approach the One who sits atop His holy mountain.

It seems impossible and demands faith: all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever (4:5). We will do this, not because there is any hope that we will turn ourselves into a people fit for His kingdom, but because He has promised a future. We walk in His name because that is surely the only path to that holy mountain, the only passage into the latter days.

This Is No Place to Rest

The second installment in a series of reflections on Micah for Advent. Here’s part one.


“Do not preach”—thus they preach—
     “one should not preach of such things;
disgrace will not overtake us.”
     Should this be said, O house of Jacob?
Has the Lord grown impatient?
     Are these his deeds?
Do not my words do good
     to him who walks uprightly? – Micah 2:6-7

Micah (Jollain)Before we call the Lord’s coming good news, we had better take some time to audit ourselves. Micah’s harshest words are reserved for the presumptuous, for preachers of and believers in cheap grace (Bonhoeffer’s memorable term). “No, no,” drips the favored rejoinder from languid lips, “don’t be so dramatic.”

We are, after all (so our thinking tends to go), the people of God. Nobody’s perfect, and the God who was so lavish in His promises to our forebears would never be unreasonable in His expectations. Surely He’ll understand that the ongoing project of real estate reallocation in Judah has been a necessary condition for the present burst of prosperity, which we have it on expert authority will keep the economy growing (and finance the highly necessary Assyrian appeasement policy), despite whatever the malcontents want to claim (2:1-2; 8-9).

But no true prophet can be reasonable about these things. Take away what Yahweh has given to others, and He will disinherit you (2:5). Treat what God has promised and given as something common, a commodity meant to serve your appetites, and you pollute it to such a degree that He will call the faithful to leave it for their own salvation: Arise and go, for this is no place to rest, because of uncleanness that destroys with a grievous destruction (2:10). In the end, exile will be an exodus (2:12-13).

It is not enough for Our Guy to be in office, either. With godly and faithful Hezekiah on the throne, confidence in cheap grace still ran high: “Is not the Lord in the midst of us?
No disaster shall come upon us” (3:11). This at a time when those who sat on the right side of a rigged game were fattening themselves on the destruction of the flock entrusted to them (3:1-3). If your hope is in cheap grace, this is the inevitable progression: you will give yourself carte blanche to pursue your own ends; you will stifle the voice of conscience and truth that says that this carte isn’t blanche but bloodstained; you will seek out and subsidize the voices that affirm the rightness of your ways; and when the day of reckoning comes, you will call out to a silent God (3:7).

But it is not too late before then: meaning, it is now, today, if you hear His voice, not too late. The prophet still speaks in the words he wrote down; the Prophet of prophets still speaks by the Spirit he put in Micah 2,700 years ago (3:8). Do not my words do good to him who walks uprightly? saith the Lord (2:7): it is good for you to hear that you are a crook and a cannibal in His eyes, if only you will believe it. You may yet be part of the remnant from whom He takes everything they thought they had, so as to give them a city with foundations in a kingdom that cannot be shaken, a city founded on the blood of His firstborn, founded on costly grace, incalculably costly grace.

Because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field, the prophet promised (3:12); but for those with ears to hear, even and especially those at fault, they would yet be plowed into fertile soil to receive the seed of the Sower.

The Lord is Coming Out of His Place

Hear, you peoples, all of you;
     pay attention, O earth, and all that is in it,
and let the Lord GOD be a witness against you,
     the Lord from his holy temple.
For behold, the LORD is coming out of his place,
     and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth. – Micah 1:2-3

The Lord is on His way: this is the governing idea of Advent, the governing reality driving the way the Church and her members are supposed to live in the world.

This short declaration is, we insist, good news. He comes to make His blessings flow; He is born to set His people free; light and life to all He brings. Come, we pray, and ransom captive Israel; o come, we call to one another, let us adore Him. His coming, we claim, fulfills our deepest need as a fallen race; it is the invasion that turns the tide of the war on sin and death for good. We long for His coming, thrill to hear the voice of the Psalmist: Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity (Ps 98:8-9).

prophets But a lot seems to depend on what He finds when He comes. Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous, because when He comes, the mountains melt like wax in His presence (Ps 97:12, 5); but the prophet Micah here promises melting mountains as well (Mic 1:4) – and why? For the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the sons of Israel (1:5).

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Whether he does or not, it’s going to hurt. The architecture of our world is going to be broken down, our cities will be plowed under, and our civic religion will be dismantled. The Lord showing up means the end of normalcy, stability, the way the world works. Micah the prophet knows his Lord’s coming is the fulfillment of his people’s hope, and yet he mourns, stripped, shaven, and naked (1:8-16), for that people, inextricably implicated as they are in the wrongs Yahweh is coming to set right.

I have not come to bring peace, Jesus said, but a sword.

For Advent to resonate with us as it ought to, we need to be convinced, with Micah, that there is no hope of blessing or peace in the world and the flesh. We need to know ourselves as people who have had to die to receive what God promises, who have become bitterly conscious that there are only two ways to turn: to our Maker or to our own perdition. And we need to let His word convince us that nothing about the lifestyle we’re accustomed to, nothing about the course of human events, is off-limits to the calamitous regeneration He comes to bring.

Micah promises that Samaria, that wicked city, will become “a place for planting vineyards” (1:6), when its foundations have been laid bare and its stones thrown down.

Nothing is wasted; when God comes, He will burn the thorns and thistles that infest the ground so that the seed of His word might find good soil among the ashes of the world that was.

Though I slay you, saith the Lord, yet hope in me.

What Has He Said?

Serving as a missionary in Germany gives one an odd sort of relationship to the Reformation and its commemoration. Like the Second World War, it’s a set of historical events of which visible traces can be found throughout the country and which tends to make people in my own circles –  that is, American conservative Reformed Christians – interested in my field. It’s regrettably tempting, in other words, to view the Reformation as a selling point, a convenient way to make my ministry more visible and appealing.

But for all the fun of having been able to pop down to Wittenberg for a day trip while we lived in Berlin, seeing Luther statues dotting the landscape, and the rest of it, I think our first term back in Germany has left me more convinced than I was before that the concerns that drove the Reformation lie at the heart of what the Church absolutely must be doing today, wherever we find ourselves – and at the heart of what I hope our own work will look like for years to come.

I probably have a slightly skewed perspective on how big a deal the 500th anniversary is, based on my social media network, but I’m seeing takes on the Reformation from contemptuous dismissals to breathless rhapsodies. Some focus on the doctrinal formulations around which the Protestants-to-be rallied and their continuing relevance; some agonize over Luther’s venomous anti-Jewish writings and wonder whether they mean the theological movement he started is fatally compromised from the outset. Others are better qualified to sort through all of this; a lot of what’s out there is well worth reading, and all I’d hope to add to the conversation is a more personal reflection.

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My own education and experience with the Church, both Stateside and in Germany, and my own feeble efforts at evangelism, have made me more and more passionate about the theme I think is probably as close to the heart of what the Reformation sought to achieve – and actually did, to whatever degree we see it as successful – as anything else: the potency of God’s word.

 

That sounds sort of abstract, maybe. It shouldn’t. It has to do with very simple, fundamental questions: Is God there? If so, has He spoken? If so, what has He said? Luther and those who followed his lead had looked into the Scriptures their Church had always acknowledged as God’s word, and there they had found – or been found by – the living God, the one who (to quote Francis Schaeffer) is there and is not silent. What He said to them in those pages changed them; they knew themselves to have had an encounter with the God their Church claimed to serve but Whose presence it had always obscured in a variety of ways. They were gripped by the conviction that the greatest need of the hour was for the word by which God had made Himself known to be proclaimed, preached, printed, and in all ways placed in the hearts and mouths of the people.

Everything else that came out of the Reformation, I think, flowed from this conviction that no one, not even the Church Christ founded and empowered, has the right either to gainsay God’s word or to refuse its correction – but the flip side of this denial is the passionate insistence that this word is living and life-giving, active and empowering, able to kill and make alive, sent into the world to carry out God’s purpose to be glorified in Jesus Christ forever and ever.

My family and I have been through hard times this year, facing the sudden end of a season of life in which we had been flourishing, and walking through heartrending disappointment and uncertainty. When we were struggling through the worst of the turmoil, I remember the questions that came up in my prayers over and over again: Lord, what do we do? What do you say about this? What we generally mean by questions like these (or at least, what I usually mean) is something like tell me the thing I can do that will make it all better, or, failing that, tell me that I’m in the right! But the voice that speaks in Scripture says: Here is what you can do to honor and obey Me and this is why you can trust Me, why you have a hope that is better than the best possible outcome of this miserable situation, and why these things are true even if you aren’t in the right after all.

I needed to hear these things, and I need to share them with others.

A friend of mine became a Christian in part because he heard Christ’s “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” with fresh ears and realized that this could only be the true and living God speaking. My bit part in his journey to faith was in co-leading a Bible study he participated in several months prior to that moment; none of the others I shared the gospel with in the same way have had the same encounter so far, to my knowledge. Nothing in the life of the Christian is as neat, tidy, or automatic as we might like. But I hope I waver less and less in the certainty that God intends His word to accomplish just what it did in that young man’s heart, and in mine – and that when He is pleased to do great things, the Scriptures written, spoken, learned, understood, and believed are the way He means to do them.

I am an heir of this conviction, one that began to be awakened in the European Church some five centuries ago today, and for that I thank God.

-Ben

Sown, Raised

“The first man Adam became a living soul”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Cor 15:45)

My job more or less boils down to figuring out how to make the Christian message, the gospel, make sense to someone who hasn’t grown up hearing it and who may well be hearing it from me in his or her (and my) second language.

That’s a good spiritual discipline. You need to think hard about what you need to know in order for Christmas and Good Friday and Easter to make any kind of sense to the hearer. You need to think hard about what you know that makes these stories make sense to you, or whether they do make sense to you, you who would claim that believing the stories are true is just about the most important thing anyone can do in their life.

I really would claim that. In a box of hand-me-down books my four-year-old son was given recently is a copy of The Story of Jesus (a Little Golden Book by Jane Werner Watson). It’s nice enough for 22 of its 23 pages, with plenty to quibble about but nothing grotesquely wrong – and then, after a survey of Jesus’ teaching, comes this gem of a final page:

After Jesus’ death, his followers took his teachings all around the world. And the stories he told are still known and loved and retold today, in every land on Earth.

a058b2b415b2ba5dfe0f7c780c111346Granted that Little Golden Books probably wouldn’t go for a two-page spread of a blood-drenched crucifixion scene, the way Watson manages to gut the message and meaning of Jesus is nauseating. How did Jesus die anyway? To all appearances, he passed awa
y peacefully, surrounded by friends and family, having written a couple of bestsellers on How to Be Nice and Not Worry So Much, which his followers thought were just so swell that they just had to hand out copies to all their friends.

Easter only makes sense if we realize that our problem isn’t really that we don’t know how to live. Jesus didn’t come to tell us how to live. We know how to live.

Our problem is that we don’t live that way.

And so the Bible keeps saying, all the way through, that something fundamental about who we are needs to change. God makes promises to make us into people who will live as we know how: The Lord your God will circumcise your heart. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. You must be born again.

Jesus died for our sins. That is gospel. But if Jesus dies for our sins and stays dead, then we are still who we are, still with our old hearts, still the sort of people who will sully a clean slate the second it’s handed to us.

The first man Adam became a living soul, it says; he was of the earth, a dust-man. There was nothing wrong with that. He was enlivened by the breath of life breathed from God into his nostrils, enlivened by the greatest intimacy God had engaged in with any creature of His. It was a beautiful way of being. But then he disobeyed God, and it was spoiled, and instead of being planted and blossoming into the glory for which he was destined, he died and stayed dead.

If Jesus died and stayed dead, then this is still how it works, and the old way of being, which started out beautiful but was spoiled, is still the only way of being. But he didn’t. He was raised in glory, becoming a life-giving spirit, a man of heaven. He is not a frail thing of dust drawing breath from God; he is an immortal victor whose human life is so fully united to that of the living God that the almost unbearable intimacy of the moment Adam was awakened into life seems almost cold and distant by comparison.

And that union means that, being alive, Jesus Christ can give life. He can give the kind of life that permeates his entire being, that sustains him, that means that he will never again be subject to death. It means he is there to give to all who ask, to be found by all who seek, to open to all who knock.

It means that what God intends to do with people in order to save them from death and judgment has happened to someone, and that He so identifies us with that Someone that we simply are no longer the dust-people we once were, broken and dying, and that He breathes the life Jesus now experiences into us so that we – slowly, incompletely, even haltingly, but inexorably – blossom into the image of the heavenly Man.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

For Mercy on the Souls of Men

Sev’n times he spake, sev’n words of love;
And all three hours his silence cried
For mercy on the souls of men:
Jesus, our Lord, is crucified! (Frederick Faber)


Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? that is, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.

Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!

Woman, behold, your son! … Behold, your mother!

I thirst.

It is finished.


A friend, a freshly minted Christian, was telling me recently how he had come to the point of believing. It was a long story and a very good one, but one of a rapid series of turning points came when he watched The Passion of the Christ in hopes of experiencing what he’d been reading in the Bible a little more vividly.

He told me that when he got to the crucifixion scene, even though he knew from previous reading what Jesus was going to say, he broke down in tears at Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

“No human said that,” he told me.

Xaveribergkapelle - Lamm GottesSetting aside the Christological imprecision, it’s a beautifully simple observation that has stuck with me for weeks. At the heart of the gospel is this Jesus, Son of God, Son of Man, submitting to the wrath of God against man and the wrath of man against God, trusting his Father and forgiving his tormentors to the bitter end.

That’s not, as you might say, natural. It’s not normal. It’s not how we function, not how we deal with our suffering and perceived failure and the opposition and betrayal of our peers. It’s not how any god we would fashion in our own image would operate. It just isn’t human religion.

And so this impossible scene brings the flowering of an impossible religion. If we say, as my friend does, this is the God I want to believe in, then the basic way we attach ourselves to Him is to demand that He be for us the Father who answers that prayer of His Son from the cross. There is nothing else we may demand of God, but we must require this of Him.

As with all things, there’s a catch. If we require of the Father that He forgive us for the Son’s sake, then He will require of us that that prayer be on our lips as well, that we relinquish every claim to fairness and call upon the Lord to have mercy on the undeserving. And He will answer that prayer of ours, often enough, by letting the recipients of His mercy first do things to us that He will then forgive, for they know not what they do.

Life will be unfair, in a word. Increasingly unfair, even. If we walk this path, then more and more we will love and care for people who will receive that love with resentment, envy, even hatred. I suspect that the evil returned for the good we do will tend to increase in proportion to the sincerity and purity of our love. And we may never see, before we die, the effect of that love on those who received it so ungratefully. Christ didn’t.

And in that way, we’ll come to know this Jesus from inside his own story.