Monday, December 13, 2004

Christmas Meditation 

Odd as it sounds today I've been reading the first few chapters of Ezekiel. I know it doesn't sound particularly Christmasy, but what started out as setting my mental stage for praising God by reading a vision of his glory appearing to Ezekiel has turned into an interesting Christmas reflection. So I thought I'd share it with you.

What Ezekiel saw (I find I can hardly even get a glimpse of what it looked like with my most vivid imaginings, but anyway...) was accompanied by some of the basic elements of an appearance of God, or theophany, throughout Scripture: a whirlwind, fire, and thunderous noise.

Remember what the Israelites experienced at Mt. Sinai?

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning with a thick cloud over the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder...and the LORD said to [Moses] "Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the LORD and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the LORD must consecrate themselves or the LORD will break out against them."

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die."
Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning."

The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. Exodus 19: 16, ff

Now contrast that with how Christ appeared at his birth:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby...An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger....

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. Luke 2: 8, ff

As I had these two images in my mind--a burning, quaking, trumpeting darkness on a mountain and a tiny, defenseless, baby--I was reminded of when God appeared to Elijah,

The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by."

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" 1 Kings 19:11-13

To me this shows that although wind and earthquake and fire, demonstrations of God's greatness and power, accompany his presence and are normal ways for him to "appear" to humans, they don't preclude him from appearing in an unexpected and very personal way. I don't know what Elijah expected when God told him he was going to "pass by" him, but I doubt it was a whisper and a repeat of the question Elijah had already answered.

I've always loved the phrase in the Christmas carol, "veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity" and these passages deepen my understanding of how God veiled his deity when "the Word became flesh." Now when I sing "Silent Night..." I can marvel that the night was filled with normal noises and angelic singing, and as such, silent compared to his coming recorded in Isaiah, "with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with windstorm and tempest and flames of a devouring fire." (Is. 29: 6)

If you are delighting in the wonder of this, praising God for his heart that sets aside His visible manifestations of glory in pursuit of a personal relationship with you, then please stop here and come back to read the rest some other time. And if you weren't doing that before, maybe stop anyway, sing, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and then come back and read the rest.

But part of me wants to understand why sometimes God comes in thick darkness up on a mountain ready to have anyone killed who touches it, only accessible by properly consecrated priests, and one time he comes born like any other baby and greeted by unsanctified shepherds at angelic enticement.

There are lots of possible answers. The most "obvious" one --that the Old Testament God is harsh and punishing and the New Testament God is love--I reject right off because it is the same God and because punishment and love are not mutually exclusive. Although I do believe that there is a developing nature to how God has communicated with mankind. Along this line of thought, God had to teach us about himself, and part of that is that he is GOD--bigger, more powerful, more holy, more just, more anything than you can even begin to imagine; "I am the potter, you are the clay," GOD. So sometimes He shows up in a way that we humans can get a small glimpse of his majesty, power, and holiness, but actually just a little bit because no one can see God and live. (Ex. 33:20) All of which makes Elijah's personal conversation with a whisper, and a baby in a manger mind-boggling.

God himself gives an explanation for the show on Mt. Sinai. In Exodus 19:9 he says to Moses that the thick cloud is so that the people will respect Moses forever. Moses gives the people two reasons: "Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.'' (Ex. 20:20) I'm using the NASB here. The NIV says the testing is to bring fear of God so they won't sin, but I think that the testing and the bringing fear of God are separate, though related, purposes. I think the general idea of what it means for God to test people has been distorted by our school experiences when we work to rapidly become proficient in something we have little knowledge of in order to perform well in tests from teachers who at times seem intent on highlighting our lack of proficiency. But the purpose of a test is to show up what is there. Think about a pregnancy test. The results only show up what is already true whether you take the test or not. So God's awesome coming shows up the attitude that people have towards him and serves as a reminder of who he is and why he deserves to be obeyed.

So we're back to earth(quake), wind and fire, understandable from God, but small, dependent child, beyond comprehension.

I think one of the reasons why people who don't appreciate or accept the incredible grace of God wrapped in a baby are nevertheless drawn to celebrate Christmas is that something in them believes that God has become "tender and mild" and that they don't have to worry about the judgment of a God who comes with earthshaking thunder and blazing lightning anymore. But that is what comes from only reading one chapter of a book with about 1,240 chapters.

Just What I Needed 

We were at a foster home where we had been hanging out, playing soccer, and talking with the kids. I was talking with one of the older guys when he brought up the war in Iraq, how it’s all about oil, how bad and greedy Americans are, etcetera, etcetera. My usual approach in the face of an inflammatory topic of conversation is to try to change the subject, gracefully if possible, but with him I actually confronted a few of his statements because I figured he was just parroting what he had heard from adults and teachers and on tv.

This incident stuck with me and has bothered me for lots of reasons. Being an American living overseas during this moment in global politics isn’t fun and its always painful for me to hear my country maligned. But I’m also bothered by how emotionally I react inside to criticism or to people who disagree with me; I don’t like how that incident got under my skin and months later still puts a bad taste in my mouth. And I’m not comfortable with the implications of my “conflict-avoidant” modus operandi. I’m not wanting to talk politics all the time, however I know that by steering clear of some topics, or even some people, I’m letting my fear, of my discomfort and my anger, shut the door on something God might want to do in me and or in them.

That’s why a sermon “Receptive Grace” by Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, was just what I needed to hear. It provides simple but very insightful answers to the question “How should I relate to people with whom I deeply differ, even people whose views or actions might be truly offensive to me?”

We all know that intolerance isn’t the answer, but Dr. Keller showed me that simple “tolerance” as it is touted today -which doesn’t evaluate the other person negatively but neither does it enter into relationship with them- is a shallow counterfeit of what God modeled, and calls us to: having the strength of character and conscience to enter into relationship with them even though we still believe they are wrong.

I liked it so much that I listened to it again and took notes, then I turned those notes into a summary outline that you can download and read {click here). I don’t know if it will translate without hearing the sermon but I hope so. (You can purchase the sermon at Redeemer’s web site, just put “receptive grace” in the search field for individual sermons on the “buy sermons” page.)

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