If I were to write a story about a faerie wood like George Macdonald did, I think I’d have my young Anodos travel to a section of the wood where the forest itself, like a great sylvan phoenix, would seem to catch fire at the end of every year, leaving only bones and ash. And, like the phoenix, it would rise again from its own remains at the beginning of the next year, clothed in green plumage once more. Continue reading ““It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy…””
Enduring Praise for Enduring Love
November 18, 2012
Faith Baptist Church
There are plenty of places in the Old Testament where language is used which suggests the undoing of creation. This de-creation imagery is mostly in reference to God’s judgement on sinful people or nations. Look at Jeremiah 4:23-26, for example:
I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and behold, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.
Some of the prime elements of this de-creation language are the shaking of the earth, the failure of the heavenly bodies to give light, and death (See also Isaiah 13:10, 13; Ezekiel 32:2, 6-8). In many cases, the language is figurative rather than literal– in Jeremiah 4:23-26, Jeremiah describes the defeat of Judah by Babylon in these terms, where we have no biblical record of earthquakes or darkness. The thrust of this de-creation language is to say that the cataclysm of judgement the Lord is bringing is earth-shattering, world-ending. It’s terrifying to read now; I cannot imagine the impact this kind of language would have had on the people to whom it was originally written.
Psalm 18, seen in this way, is pretty amazing. In this Psalm, David cries out to the Lord for help because he is once again in trouble: “In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help” (verse 6). The Lord hears David, and what follows is de-creation language. “Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry” (verse 7). God is described as rending heaven and earth to come to Psalmist’s aid. He bows the heavens, riding on thick darkness; he sends forth hail and fire; he lays the foundations of the earth bare– all to rescue David, “because he delighted in me” (verse 19). I think the force of all this imagery is to communicate the lengths to which God will go to rescue the one he loves. God loved David so much he tore creation down to save him.
While most de-creation language is figurative in terms of the sky being covered in darkness and the earth shaking, there is one place where these phenomena are seen quite literally.
“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour… and the earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:45, 51). To save his people in whom he delights, God rent the heavens and came down. The earth shook at his coming, and the stars withheld their light. When Jesus died, the world came to an end.
And three days later, he walked in a garden, not in the cool of the day, but in the dawn of a new day, a new creation.
Here’s another fourfold. I was reminded of this at church today when we spoke of the Incarnation in Sunday School.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Christ came from heaven; the gospel was born on earth. It has always been announced from the earth, whether by prophets, angels, or God himself when he delivered the promise of the head-crushing Seed of the woman in the garden. The gospel is from heaven, being designed in the mind of God before the world began; but it is inherently earthy, and that means something. The gospel is about bodies. The Jews knew this. They knew what it was like to slit the throats of bulls all day, to wade through the blood and to smell it in the hot sun. They knew they ache of carrying the carcasses to the altar, carrying the offal to carts to be taken outside and burned. Atonement was real; it had its own smell and conjured up its own images. It wasn’t an abstract thing.
This didn’t change in the new covenant. Christianity is not docetic; Christ did not merely appear to die; he died. He had a heart that stopped beating, lungs that burned for want of air, arms and legs that spasmed with nails driven through them into the thick wooden cross. He really died, and was really buried.
And he really rose. His body wasn’t replaced; it was resurrected, transformed, glorified. There are still holes in his hands, but they pain him no longer. He still has lungs, and his heart beats stronger than ever. Our Lord still has a body. This isn’t likely to change anytime soon, either. You will always have a body, save for a brief intermission should you die before the Lord’s return. Christianity is not fleshly, but it is inherently fleshy. Let Gibbon mock all he will about the minutiae of one letter; it matters.
Because bodies are tied up in the gospel, we cannot think of it as something abstract. Jesus may have ascended, but the gospel hasn’t. It is as immanent as it was when Jesus first said, “This is my body, broken for you. Take and eat, all of you.”
Avoid abstractions. “Love” means nothing by itself. Love whom? Love how? The love of money and the love of God are two very different things. Ideas ought to be general enough to fit the entire church without losing sight of specific people, tasks, or virtues. I know of a few churches which are all for “missions” and never send a single missionary to a people group.
The thing about gospel living that makes people not want to get very close to it is that it leaks all over the place. We like to judge the judgmental, mock mockers, mistreat the violent, and get back at the vengeful. Scripture brooks no distinction. “I’ve really been learning how to love my enemy,” we state proudly in Sunday school, secure in our complete lack of any real enemies. But what when the snotty girl from up the block (that pig-tailed arch-nemesis of all that is holy) slaps us in the face for no good reason? Lord, surely the “turn the other cheek” rule does not apply when dealing with playground tyrants.
But not many of us are ten years-old. For us the more relevant picture is the negligent co-worker who takes the last cup of coffee without making a new pot, the over-empowered secretary whose reign of terror in the office is complete, the self-righteous small group member with all the right answers, the arrogant worship leader who turns every service into a showcase, or the wounded spouse who misinterprets every action as an insult or offense. The difficulty lies not so much in loving an enemy who dwells in Plato’s world of the forms as in loving the enemy who happens to share a bathroom with you.
And this is what Christ intended, is it not? Jesus, the Man of heaven, knows more about earth than her natural sons. He knew how good the scribes were at loving neighbors without faces, so he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Rather than telling the crowds what the Kingdom of Heaven is, he told them what it is like- like a prodigal coming home. The Son of heaven came to earth so that the sons of earth could go to heaven, true; but it is a mistake to think that because the Word became flesh we should strip off our flesh for words. Heaven is about being further clothed, not about being naked. We will exchange this earthly tent for a mansion- this progress, not regress.
So the gospel has elbows. What does it all mean? It means there is real grace for real circumstances today. It means that prayer is an exercise in seeing what is there, not what isn’t. Some things are too real to be seen with these weak eyes, too solid to be touched with these fading hands.
It means that there really is a battle occurring for souls, and Jesus really interceding for his own right now, and prayer really does matter.
It means that things like discipline in eating or sleeping, like long hours spent listening to the wounded soul who needs a friend, like genuine happiness in the morning, not being too harsh with disobedient children, refusing to be eaten up with the anxieties of life, are not just actions or attitudes divorced from Sunday church. Rather, Scripture calls them self-control, patience, joy, gentleness, and peace. Gospel living takes place in the Kingdom, not in Never Never Land.
Are there abstractions to be found in Christianity, however? There are, but not nearly as many as the typical Sunday school astral-plane travel might expect. Jesus has passed through the heavens. We have not come to a mountain that can be touched. Faith is the evidence of things unseen. All true. But these things are abstract in the way that a flower is abstract when the bulb is planted. Faith says that spring is coming, and it waits. It doesn’t wait for a metaphysical spring, the idea of spring; it waits for the taste of fresh rain on the tongue, the smell of buds on trees, the feel of the sun on its back, the sound of rippling brooks now unchained, the sight of life once more.
There will be bodies in the new heavens and the new earth. Is it too much to hope for football?
Jesus is building his church, but he won’t be finished until Resurrection Day. As the church-in-progress, what we believe heaven will look like we will incorporate into our existence here. If we believe heaven consists of disembodied (or at least vaguely bodied) saints sitting on clouds endlessly playing harps, then we will be wispy people who value asceticism (even if we don’t practice it) and a have a taste for repetitious and boring music. Paradise is indescribably better than this life; that is not to say that it is indescribably different. Jesus’ ascent to the Father did not involve casting off his body; the church’s ascent is no different in this.
In the beginning was the Word. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory. We have seen it- and it’s got elbows.
I apologize for the recent dearth- I’ve been lazy. Anyway, it’s near the end of National Poetry month, so here’s one of my favorites by Doug Wilson, Rocks In The Drive.
When strings are pulled taut, the cello is tuned,
The wood holds the wine that is seasoned and old.
Dark music poured out and emptied the cask,
And rolled in my goblet, rich, tawny and told
How holiness tastes, how righteousness laughs.
You shall be as God, the great dragon had said,
Philosophers argue their shapes in the fire
And each to his shadow tenaciously clings;
They miss that our great father Abram aspired
To a city of solids, celestial marble.
But our earthly solids are fleeting, like faerie,
Far closer to ether than what we conceive.
Our granite is balsa, our oceans are floating,
Our atoms are rootless, and we, not believing,
We miss that this world speaks a fortiori.
Stop thinking that heaven means standing on clouds.
Why falter when told that our God remains good?
Why think the Almighty exhausted in sadness
His strength on the Alps or the plains of Dakota?
Will He not speak solid and substantive gladness
And bid all His people emerge from the shadows?
The carpets of heaven are thicker than moss.
With paint on the walls that is glossy to stay.
Hard wood for the tables is grown on the hillsides,
And rocks in the drive are all sapphire gray.
The breezes move curtains that are facing the sea.
One of my favorite poems ever, by William Blake, is “The Tyger.” It’s so primal and cool. Also, it was quoted in The Mentalist at some point by Red John. I hope you will enjoy it.
Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? And what dread feet?
What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Just a homework break to write about Forms.
In his commentary on Colossians, Douglas Moo points out that Paul may be referencing Plato’s analogy of the cave in Colossians 2:17 where he (Paul, not Plato) says that “these are shadows of greater things.” Plato’s analogy of the cave was central to understanding his cosmology, where he explained that the objects in the world we interact with are like the shadows created on the wall of a cave by objects being carried before a fire. The real world, the World of the Forms, is the source and inspiration for all things in our world in Plato’s mind.
If Moo is right, then Paul interacts with platonic categories without critique; in other words, he seems largely to just accept and use Plato’s language to communicate his message to his audience. I find that fascinating. Just one more reason to study the Greeks.
By the way, Plato’s most robust discussion of these ideas occurs in The Republic.