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All Hallows Eve

 

By Tom Thomas

What if on ‘All Hallows Eve’ you were revisited by spirits of the ghoulish dead?  Or in the witching hour of midnight, the murderous Jezebel entered your house? Or the fierce barbarian Genghis Khan, communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Jack the Ripper, or hockey-masked Jason – even one of your difficult, dead relatives – paid you a visit?  So people in the distant past believed happened on October 31st.

On October 31st, the Celts, the ancient Britons, observed the Samhain festival.  The Samhain festival marked the return of the herds from summer pasture and bringing the field harvest home.  The final night of October marked the last night of summer and the eve of the New Year ushering in darkness and dismal, winter days.  The departing summer light cast a sinister shadow on the festival.  The ancients believed departed spirits of the dead – occult ghosts, witches, and hobgoblins – haunted their earthly homes.

How could people protect themselves from these unwanted intruders?  They lit bonfires and masqueraded as fiends to disguise themselves from these returning supernatural prowlers.

The Christian church tried to redeem this pagan interest in the departed dead by redirecting people to remember the Christian saints and martyrs past.

So, October 31st has become known by its Christian name, ‘All Hallows Eve’ or ‘All Saints Eve’.  Still, ‘Halloween’ has become a tangled mix of all the influences above and other folklore.

How should Christian believers view it?  For sure, we take the satanic netherworld with utter seriousness.  The devil is an active agent on the prowl seeking to destroy.  Jesus has come to deliver us from this underworld of Satan.  The Son of God was revealed ‘to destroy the works of the devil’.

On the one hand, we stay away from the occult of scary ghosts, witches, demons, macabre horror and terror.  On the other hand, many grew up not attaching long forgotten ancient preternatural meanings to Halloween. They have seen it as an autumn night children dress up in their favorite character’s dress and ask for treats.  With the paganization of society in recent decades, emphasis on the occult and macabre seems to have returned. Let our informed consciences guide us.

Of course, the great Protestant event of October 31st , of which we are celebrating the five hundredth anniversary, was Martin Luther’s posting of his ninety five theses (more on that in another post). Also, with a wider understanding of the biblical term ‘saints’ than Roman Catholics, we Protestants can use the season to remember the witness of men and women gone on to glory who with victorious, saving faith and love have left us a lighted path.

What Happened to James

By Tom Thomas 

What happened to James?  James was our Lord’s brother.  Sometime after Jesus’ death, James was known for being on his knees praying.  Before Jesus’ death James was known for his unbelief.  Before I get to James, let me ask you this:  what happened to David Wood?  What happened to Saul, the Pharisee hunter of Christians?  What do any of these questions have to do with the resurrection?

David Wood’s dog was hit by a bus and died. His mother was terribly upset. David was not. It was just a dog.   A few years later his friend died.  He felt no sorrow.  He saw how others were feeling and sensed maybe he should feel sorrow.  David was separated from his feelings.  He couldn’t empathize with others.  He was diagnosed a sociopath.  On top of this, David was an atheist.  Right and wrong didn’t matter to him.  One day David’s life came into focus.  He brutally attacked his father and beat him with a hammer until he thought him dead (he wasn’t).  He was imprisoned for ten years.  David is now a missionary, reconciled with his father, and has an earned Ph. D. from Fordham University.  What happened to him?

Before I answer this question and the one about James, let me ask you this:  what happened to Saul, the Pharisee hunter of Christians?  Let me refresh you regarding Saul.  Saul was a contemporary of Jesus’ apostles.  He was a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin.  From the age five Saul was strictly educated in the Old Testament law.  At age of thirteen, he studied Scripture under the Jewish scholar Gamaliel. Gamaliel was the Alan Derschowitz Harvard law professor of the day.  He prepared Saul to teach the law. Saul became so zealous for the law he surpassed his Pharisee peers.  He would even kill for the Law.

In fact, Saul took a leading role in hounding the church.  He went to Christians’ houses.  He hauled them – even women – to prison.  Saul said, ‘I was violently persecuting the church of God’…I ‘was trying to destroy it’ (Gal 1: 13).  He took cool pleasure in the stoning of preacher Stephen.  He held the coats for others to throw stones. (Acts 8:1)

Then, suddenly, something happened.  People said, ‘He who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy?’(Gal 1:23)Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem…?” believers asked (Act 9:21) He now goes by the name of Paul.  He testifies in the synagogues Jesus ‘is the Son of God’.  He argues Jesus is the Messiah. (Acts 9:22) What gives?  How could one so passionately against Jesus turn so  for him?  This brings me to James.

What happened to James?  In 2002 an archaeological discovery was made.  A first century ossuary box was uncovered.  An ossuary box contains the bones of a deceased person.  This box had this inscription on it, ‘James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.’  Whether or not it is authentic is still being studied.  No matter, Jesus had four brothers, one whose name was James.  Not a lot is known about James. James was the physical son of Joseph and Mary.    He, his brothers, and mother Mary traveled with Jesus early in his ministry.  But Jesus did not win him over.  There was conflict between Jesus, James and his brothers.  They did not believe him.  They thought anybody can claim to be a Messiah in the country where few see him.  ‘If you do Messiah works, show the world’.  Prove yourself.  Do your miracles in D.C., not in Tight Squeeze!  Jesus went to his grave with his brother James a skeptic.

But what happened to James?  The next thing you hear James is on his knees praying.  He is with his mother Mary and Jesus’ disciples in the upper room.  Ancient testimony says James was frequently found on his knees begging forgiveness for people.  His knees were hard like a camel’s.  James is now called ‘James the Righteous’.  He is the leader of the Jerusalem church.  On account of Jesus, James was stoned in 62 AD.  What happened to James? Once a skeptic …now a martyr.

Here’s the answer:  Take Paul first:  he saw the risen Jesus Christ.  At midday when traveling to Damascus a light shone on him.  The light was brighter than the sun and encircled him.  He heard the Voice speak to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’(Acts 26: 14)  Paul asked, ‘Who are you Lord?’  ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’ (Acts 9: 5) Paul testified, Jesus ‘appeared also to me.’  ‘Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?’ Paul asked (1 Cor 9:1).  Seeing the resurrected Lord Jesus instantaneously turned Saul around.  The resurrected Jesus turned Saul into Paul.

What happened to David Wood?  In prison he ran into Randy, a Christian. Randy articulated his reasons for believing in Jesus.  It made David’s unbelief seem silly. David wanted to refute Randy’s faith. So David began reading the Bible. Jesus’ resurrection bothered him.  Why would the disciples risk death to testify to the resurrection if they didn’t believe it? He also read in the Bible Jesus is the resurrection and the life; the Son of God can set you free.  David knew he had many psychological, spiritual, and moral disorders.  He couldn’t help himself. Who could? Only Jesus, the One God raised, could.

What happened to James, the Lord’s skeptical brother?  The apostle Paul gives the answer:  ‘Christ was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he …appeared to James…’ (1 Cor 15: 7)  Our risen Lord Jesus appeared to James!  The risen Lord Jesus revealed himself to his brother.  Jesus Christ showed himself visibly, bodily to James and to Paul.  Nothing else would reverse a James.  Nothing else would reverse a Saul:  not hallucinations; not delusions; not mental dreams; not a myth; not conversion disorder or any combination thereof.   Jesus appeared bodily, visibly.  Our risen Lord turned James the skeptic into James the Just!!  The bodily risen Jesus transformed Saul into Paul.  The meditation on Jesus’ resurrection in concert with the risen Jesus radically changed a sociopath into a missionary.  For nothing else would they have endured and kept true:  through insults, ridicule, rejection, mockery, beatings, suffering, and martyrdom: Paul beheaded and James stoned.

You too can know the risen Lord Jesus.  He says, ‘Look at me. I stand at the door. I knock. If you hear me call and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you.’ Let Him in.*

*Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona’s book,  The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus has been an instrumental resource in the above.                                              

 

Image: “Ossuary of James the Brother of Jesus” CC License. 

Tuesdays with Tom: “They Didn’t See Him”

By Tom Thomas 

Suppose I returned to Spring Hill cemetery several days after burying my father?  I reach his plot. I noticed the grave was disturbed; the marker overturned, and the clay dirt scattered around the sides.  Inspecting closer, I saw the casket opened.  The body was missing.  What would I conclude?  What would you conclude?

Suppose you were among those who went to pay your respects to Jesus?  Upon reaching the tomb, you saw the gravestone rolled back; the tomb disturbed, and the buried body missing.  Do you, like the disciples, have grave difficulty with the empty tomb?  Have you thought about Jesus’ bodily appearances?  Is your heart slow to believe?  You can identify with the disciples.  You can surpass their difficulty.  Let me consider the resurrection narrative.

It was the first day of the week, Sunday, at early dawn.  A group of women walked in twilight to Jesus’ tomb.  Go back three days to Friday.  Some of these accompanied the priest, Joseph of Arimathea, to bury Jesus’ body.  To leave a person without a burial shows gross disrespect.  I officiated in Long Beach, CA at the funeral of a man who had no one to bury him.  Joseph of Arimathea would see Jesus buried.  Joseph was a wealthy member of the Jewish Council.  He was also a secret disciple of Jesus.

The Roman governor Pilate gave Joseph Jesus’ body.  So Joseph removed Jesus’ body from the cross.  He would inter Jesus in his own never-before-used tomb carved out of rock. Would you let Jesus use your tomb?  It would be a good deal.  Jesus only used it three days but its value rose thereafter.

Joseph and another priest, Nicodemus, wrapped the body.  They use an expensive, linen shroud with spices of myrrh and precious aloes.  They hurried to complete the work before sundown and the beginning of the Sabbath. A handful of men rolled the huge, flat stone over the tomb’s entrance.  This kept thieves and animals out.  Later, Pilate ordered the tomb sealed and cordoned off.  He placed a guard of soldiers at the grave.  The tomb was now a site under state control.

At early dawn, Mary Magdalen; Joanna, the wife of King Herod’s manager; Mary the mother of James the apostle, and other women walked to the tomb.  They wanted to finish embalming Jesus’ corpse.  The women had not been thinking too clearly. How would they get into the tomb?  They couldn’t move the massive stone.  Going a little further, they looked up and saw the stone already rolled back.  Maybe Joseph of Arimathea had already arrived.  They ventured in the tomb’s darkness but saw no body – not even Jesus’ corpse.  They stood there perplexed, at a loss for answers.

Had the gardener moved him?  Had the authorities removed him?  Suddenly, from out of nowhere, two strangers appeared beside them.  The strangers’ clothing gleamed brilliantly – like the whiteness of lightening.  The dazzling intensity spoke for itself.  The frightened women could only bow their faces to the ground.

The angels searchingly asked the women, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  That is, ‘Why are you seeking the living one among the dead ones?”  The question was a gentle rebuff to the women’s accepted philosophy of reality.  Is it a rebuff to yours?

Imbedded in the angel’s question is the mark of history – not fiction.  The women went to the tomb thinking as I would to my dad’s grave.  One out of every one dies…and never returns.  Absolute fact.  The women went to the tomb knowing Jesus died.  They thought as you think – He’s gone forever – never to return.

Ever wondered where we get this philosophy?  From common, human experience.    Could there ever be a specific case, sometime, somewhere, that is different from what is generally thought to be the case?  An anomaly, an exception to the rule?  Suppose a scientist did an exhaustive investigation.  The scientist observed 30 kinds of flies, ten kinds of beetles, four kinds of wasps, and six kinds of grasshoppers.  The scientist generalized, ‘All insects have three pairs of legs’.  The next day a caterpillar sauntered by.  It has all the properties of an insect. Except it doesn’t have three pair of legs – it’s all legs! An exception to the rule.  Now the scientist goes back and revises his conception.

Many modern intellectuals – among them many theologians – say there is no example of a literal resurrection happening in common human experience. So a bodily resurrection can’t be.  Isn’t Jesus’ resurrection such an exception to common human experience?  But it can’t be, they say, that He rose from the dead.  There are no examples of such things in common experience!  This is circular reasoning.  It assumes as valid what one is trying to prove.  It won’t allow what doesn’t fit with what you have already determined to be the case.

It’s like our insect scientist saying he/she has already determined what insects are.  A caterpillar can’t be one.  It doesn’t fit his/her preconceived notion of what an insect is.

The angels gently reproach the women.  The women are surprised to hear Jesus is alive.  How about you?  Does God reproach you for looking for the Living among the dead?  Many still consign Jesus to the dead.  He’s a great religious figure; an inspired prophet; a great example; and one in whom divine consciousness lived.  Nonetheless, He’s gone the way of all other great religious teachers and philosophers.

A missionary was speaking in Northern India.  A Muslim came up to him afterwards and said, “You must admit, we have one thing that you do not – and it is better than anything you have.”  The missionary was interested to hear more. Muslim said, “When we go to our Mecca, we find at least a coffin.  But when you Christians go to Jerusalem, you find nothing but an empty grave.”  The missionary replied, “That’s just the difference.  Mohammed is in his coffin.  Jesus Christ is risen!”

Pam and I were on vacation in the California Gold Rush country.  We visited Sutter Creek’s cemetery.  We read the epitaphs on the tombstones.  One grave had a pillar – like the Washington Monument rising out of a block of granite.  At the top of the pillar was a clinched fist with the index finger pointing upward to the sky.  The deceased was saying to me, “Don’t look here, look up.”  Don’t look for Christ in the grave.  ‘He is not here.’

The women flee out of the tomb. They tremble in fear and astonishment.  They run to tell the giants of the faith, the eleven apostles, the news.  If anybody would believe, these guys would.  They watched Jesus do miracles for three years.

The woman relayed to the disciples their experience at the tomb – every last detail.  A woman’s testimony in a Jewish court was questionable.  Here is a group of women, having come from a resurrection, hysterical, trembling, pale from fear, unable to contain themselves as to all they had seen and heard.  They reported the news.  The disciples took it like the Editor of the New York Times:  ‘Uhh, huh – Sure!’  The men summed up the women’s words: “an idle tale.”  “Idle tale” is a medical term used for wild delirium.  They’re on drugs!  Rubbish!  Fantasy!

So some have thought ever since.  Paul preached Jesus’ resurrection.   “Some of them sneered”. (Acts 17:32)  Martin Luther spoke of the resurrection.  Luther noted the reaction, “To this day there are many who laugh all the more at this article, consider it a fable ….” An ‘idle tale’ thought Jesus’ disciples: a resurrected Jesus did not fit their framework of reality.  Jesus could break out of a rock tomb.  He couldn’t break out of the disciples’ rock hearts and rock minds!

Later that same day, two were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  Emmaus was a village about seven miles west of Jerusalem.  The two were absorbed in conversation about the women’s report of the empty tomb and angels.  While they were discussing this, a man overtook them.  He fell into their stride.  He said to them, “What is that you are talking about?”  They stopped still in the road.  They were full of the tragedy of Friday.  Cleopas answered, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days.  The stranger asked, “What things?”

Cleopas said, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a mighty prophet in words and actions.  How he was condemned and crucified.  We were hoping that he was the one to redeem Israel.”  They went on.  “Yes, this is the third day, and some women of our company amazed us.  Earlier they went to the tomb and didn’t find his body.  They came back saying they had seen a vision of angels who said Jesus was alive.  Peter and John went to see for themselves.  They found the tomb just as the women said.  But they didn’t see him.”  I can almost hear Cleopas voice trailing off when he said, “They didn’t see him.”  There’s the catch – whether 30 AD or 2017 – ‘they didn’t see him.’ Neither empty tomb nor women’s report convinced them.

“O foolish men!” the stranger upbraided them with strong emotion.  You are ‘slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Wasn’t it necessary that Christ should suffer and enter into his glory?” the stranger asked.  Didn’t they have the words of the prophets from the Old Testament?  And didn’t they have the words of Jesus prophesying he would rise again?  Now they heard first hand testimony of the women …and angels…yet they didn’t believe.  You’ve got all that.  Do you believe?  The stranger called them “unintelligent and dull of belief” – that is, slow in believing.  The stranger then explained how the Old Testament applied to the Messiah.  They liked what they heard. They begged the stranger to stay and eat.  He took the bread, broke it, and gave thanks.  They suddenly recognized him!  He was Jesus whom they knew.  Then “he became invisible from them.”
They recalled to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us when he explained the scriptures?’ Believers through history have testified to burning hearts.  I have felt a burning chest the night I gave myself to God.

Preacher John Wesley put it in classic words.  He was in a fellowship/study group.  There he felt Jesus Christ.  Wesley said, “I felt my heart strangely warmed … I felt I did trust Christ.”  You don’t have to see Him to feel Him.  Your eyes may be closed, but you feel the warmth of the sun.

What it took to get the disciples to believe! I can hear people say, ‘If it was hard for them, how much harder for us?  At least they got to see him’.  This is Cleopas’ attitude which Jesus reprimanded: ‘But they didn’t see him’ Cleopas said.  ‘O people slow to believe!’  You now have the testimony of the Old Testament; the testimony of Jesus; the testimony of the women and the disciples, the evidence and testimony of Paul; and the experience of hundreds of years of burning hearts!

In some ways, we have more than the disciples had that first Easter morn.  The risen Jesus has been established by sight, by voice, by touch, by reasoning argument, by historical evidence from genuine and moral men and women, and by centuries of ‘warm hearts’.

Why are some of you still troubled by Him?  Why do some question?  Why do you dispute Him in your hearts?’  Jesus says, ‘Stop doubting and believe’. (John 20:27)

 

Simon of Cyrene Takes the Cross (Luke 23:26)  

 

But I was only looking on!

No lover of this miserable Nazarine,

Who pushed his truth too far

And tempted power to kill.

The cross he bears

Is self-inflicted shame and pain.

I have no part in this

Except conscripted brawn!

–Heavier than it looks;

A burden more than wood.

Amazing

That he bore the thing this far,

And carries still

A weight He cannot share.

                                                  –Elton D. Higgs

                                                  (Apr. 8, 2012)

The Slaughtered Lamb

by Tom Thomas 

Only one person was worthy to rule Britain – the person who could pull the sword from the stone.  In the novel, ‘The Sword in the Stone’, the king’s son had died.  The king had no heir.  Rival dukes and lords fought over who was fit to reign.  Magician Merlin created an orderly way to identify the King’s worthy successor.  He inserted a magic sword in an anvil that he put on top of a stone.  An inscription on the stone said, ‘Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone is rightwise king born of England’.  Only the one fit to rule could pull the sword out.

Nobles came from far and wide to pull the sword out.  Everyone tried.  No one could.  Soon it was forgotten.  But Merlin in the meantime saw potential in a teachable weakling name Arthur.   He tutored him.   Finally, Merlin brought Arthur and his royal step-brother Sir Kay to the stone.  Sir Kay pulled as hard as he could on the sword.  It didn’t budge.  Arthur tried.  The sword came loose.  Arthur was the one worthy to assume the throne of Britain.

In the apostle John’s revelation, he is shown into heaven.  A question looms over the courts of heaven:  ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’  No one in heaven or earth could open the seals.  This morning I want you to look with John into heaven.  With your mind’s eye see the One seated on the throne.  Rejoice, the question was answered by the Lamb slaughtered.  Rejoice, those washed by the blood of the Lamb have been purchased.  You?  You have a bright future!

The first three chapters of John’s revelation relay our Lord’s words to seven churches in Turkey.  They are words of encouragement, rebuke, repentance, warning, and promise.  Basically, Jesus says ‘Wake up! Shape up! Get a move on it’.  We learn the reason for “Waking up! Shaping up! Getting a move on it”.  The rest of the book, chapters 4- 22, reveals the apocalypse: Armageddon is coming.

In the time period Jesus speaks to these seven churches Christians are living in danger.  The Roman emperors are unleashing their cruel whims upon Christians. Emperor Nero set Rome on fire in 64AD.  Three quarters of the city burned.  Nero blamed the Christians.  He accused Christians of ‘hating the human race’.   He executed Peter and Paul.  He put Christians to death in horrific ways. In 81 AD Emperor Domitian followed with a reign of terror.

The Son of Man speaks to John the words for the seven churches in this fearful context.   He shows John heaven.  ‘After his I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open!’  A voice like a trumpet commands him, ‘Come here’.  The next thing John knows is he’s peering into the court of heaven.  There is a throne and the One seated on the throne.  What a contrast with being on earth!  The one seated on the throne had the appearance of precious stones – jasper, a transparent crystal-like stone; and carnelian, an opaque, blood red stone, like fire smoldering.  An emerald rainbow encircled the throne like a halo.  The forest and meadow greens cooled the crimson.  The rainbow reminds one of the rainbow Noah saw: the sign of God’s pledge and promise.  Lightning and peals of thunder came from the throne!

Around the throne are 24 elders dressed in white robes and golden crowns.  Also, four, strange living creatures – a combination of animal and man – sing to the One on the throne, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty who was and is and is to come.’ Three ‘holies’ – one for each, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Three holies to stress God’s perfect Otherness.  The living creatures sing day and night without ceasing.  I listen to a radio station from Wake Forest, NC that broadcasts non-stop music 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, including holidays.  God is being praised without ceasing.  All the elders and living creatures fall before His throne, casting their crowns before him.  ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God…’ That’s the greeting the Roman Emperor Domitian demanded.  ‘You are worthy, ‘Lord and God’.  Christian believers prostrated themselves only to the Lord God, the Almighty.

The One on the throne is alone worthy!   He alone has dominion over all.  By Him, all things – visible and invisible – were created.  By His will all things exist.  All things – even you – are rightfully His.

If you were a Christian back on earth in the seven churches, you knew the evil oppression of the Roman emperor.  You, reader, are on the planet today – North Korea is launching threatening missiles; terrorists are running vehicles into pedestrians; Syrian leader Assad is spraying his own people with Sarin gas; Christians are labeled people who ‘hate’.  The earth is coming apart at the seams.  One wonders who rules?

‘God is in his heaven’…He is being worshipped, praised, and adored without pause: this, the sweet spot of the universe; this, the universes’ safe haven; the port in the storm; the supernal shelter, the universe’s safe space.  Here is the impregnable, impenetrable citadel, the high command and headquarters of everything.  It has no rivals, no competitors, no counterparts, no equivalents, or no contenders.  Enemies, yes…but no equals.  The core of the universe and beyond is at peace, unperturbed and under control.   Fear not.

Colton Burpo was a four year old when his appendix burst.  The doctors missed diagnosing it.  He walked around another five days with infection taking over his body.  By the time he got properly diagnosed and into surgery, his survival was iffy.  He pulled through.  Then he began telling his father about heaven and Jesus. His dad Todd knew Colton couldn’t know what he was talking about – unless he’d been there.  Father Todd tested his little son Colton.  Todd said, ‘You said you were with ‘Pop’ – his grandpa – what did you do when it got dark’ in heaven?  Colton blurted out, ‘It never gets dark in heaven…It’s always bright.’

There is no cause for worry here.  Until the apostle John saw what the One on the throne was holding.  In His right hand, was a scroll with writing, front and back.  It was sealed with seven seals.  A friend of ours served on a British submarine in World War Two.  The sub left the harbor with sealed orders.  No one – including the commander – could open the seals until they were well at sea.

Then, a mighty angel asked with loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’  No one, in heaven or on earth or under the earth, was able to open the scroll.  The only thing perturbing in heaven was John’s bitter weeping.  Things future that John was supposed to learn could not be told.  No one could open the scroll.  Humankind could not learn the purpose of why we are here; we could not know the goal for which we live.

For many secular historians, the future is a sealed scroll.  What characterizes modern history is it doesn’t know the goal of history.  It’s a mystery.  What’s the purpose toward which we live?  Who knows?  What’s the goal of history?  What’s our future?  If there is no goal, then no one knows who they should be, or what they should be doing to reach a goal that’s not there.

Then, one of the elders said to John, ‘Do not weep.  See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals’.  There is one who can open the seven seals!  The Lion of Judah!  Jacob prophesied from the beginning ‘the ‘scepter will not depart from Judah’ – a lion’s whelp (Gen 49:9).  A figure of a lion designated the conquering Messiah.  The Hebrew Scriptures promised a divinely inspired, messianic lion – King would come.  The Jews knew a coming Lion Messiah would destroy evil.  He would deliver God’s people from their number one and number two enemies –from spiritual powers and, eventually, political powers.  He would establish a new order of peace, righteousness, and joy (Isa 11: 9-11).

No Jew was prepared for what John saw next.  The Lion is a Lamb. John saw a Lamb standing there.  Sheep were the primary animals used by Israel for sacrifice.  At Passover, each family took a lamb.  In the evening they killed it by slitting its throat.  They sprinkled the lamb’s blood on their front door posts and lintel.  They ate the lamb’s roasted flesh.  The Lord’s angel passed through Egypt that night.  Every firstborn in the land that was not in a house with blood on the doorposts was killed.

Also, a sheep is what the prophet Isaiah compared the Suffering Servant of God.  Like a sheep, the Suffering Servant was defenseless –no weapons or defenses – no sharp teeth, no claws, no rippling muscles.  He would be mistreated and oppressed by harsh treatment.  It was treatment he didn’t deserve.  Yes, treatment others deserved.  By this very mistreatment He would redeem His people.   By this suffering He would bear their transgressions in his own person.

The Jews never knew what to do with this Suffering Servant of Isaiah fifty three.  In fact, no Jew reads Isaiah fifty three.  There is no evidence the Jews ever applied the Suffering Servant of God to the Messiah.  The Lamb standing before the throne discloses something Jesus’ ministry revealed – the Messiah is – the Lion and the Lamb.  He is first the slaughtered Lamb who dies.  He is later the conquering lion – King who returns.

The apostle John sees a Lamb standing in front of the throne.  The Lamb standing there looked like it had been ‘slaughtered’; that is, it’s neck had been slit.  Now John sees the elders in their white robes and the living creatures fall before the Lamb- just as they had fallen before the One on the throne – and sing,

‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.’

There is someone who can open the seals!  The Lamb standing there is worthy!  He is worthy to open the seals!  Why?  Because He was slaughtered:  ‘Christ died for us’! John the Baptist identified him, ‘Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’  Jesus told his disciples, ‘Was it not necessary Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory’ (Lk 24: 26)

He is worthy to open the seals because by His blood He purchased us.   If he had not, you and I would have no history … no future – only sin, death and judgment.  In 1993 an interfaith conference of liberal, feminists’ theologians met in Minneapolis.  Professor Delores S. Williams of Union Seminary of New York was asked about the meaning of Jesus’ death.  She said we don’t need any meaning of Jesus’ death.  ‘I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff’ she said.

No?  The Cross is the engine of Christianity!  The Lamb is salvation and redemption!  Without the Cross, your only future is death, judgment and despair.  By Jesus’ death, through His blood, he has purchased saints out of sin, death and despair.  I deserve judgement.  You deserve judgement.  He took your judgment.   He took my judgment.  He purchased us out of sin, judgment, and death.  You have a future!  There is a goal toward which you live!

My cousin had an old rocker sitting in her basement.  It had been my great grandparents.  She never used it.  It had 1960’s fabric.  The foam seat was hard.  But it was solid mahogany wood.  It was still as strong now as it was in 1910.  She did not want it.  So she put it in the auction with my aunt’s things after my aunt died.  My wife and I bought it.  We paid what was necessary to buy it from being lost.

Jesus paid what was necessary to purchase you from sin, death, and judgment.  He is worthy to open the seals.  History can go forward toward its redemptive end.  The Lamb’s blood can redeem as many as possible from judgement and death.  When history arrives at its end, we will live with God and He with us.  The Lamb’s death is the only reason for the hope.  Do you know you have been purchased from sin, death, and judgment?  Is your faith in the Lamb’s blood?

Image: Angus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán. CC license. 

Twilight Musings: “Why Does New Year’s Day Come After Christmas?”

By Elton Higgs 

There is no inherent reason that the celebration of New Year’s Day should be only a week after the observance of Christmas, but Westerners have accommodated quite comfortably to the opportunity to have an extended holiday.  Historically speaking, the juxtaposition of Christmas and New Year’s Day seems not to have been designed, but rather came about as a concatenation of institutional decisions.  The earliest Roman calendars set March 1 as the beginning of the year, and our names for September, October, November, and December came from the Latin numbers for seven through ten.  In 153 BC the Romans designated January 1 as the beginning of the new year because it marked the installation of the Roman Consuls to their year-long terms.  The name of January was particularly appropriate to this purpose, since it was named for the god Janus, who was pictured with two faces looking in opposite directions, forward and backward.  Jan. 1 as the beginning of the calendar year was continued by Julius Caesar in his reconstructed calendar in the first century BC and was adjusted by Pope Gregory in the late 16th century into the form we use today; but the church did not give Jan. 1 any religious significance, except that it was dedicated to the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus.  Protestant countries, especially England, didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until the eighteenth century, so they were even less concerned with any religious connection between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

However, I have been thinking this year of how there is a spiritual and philosophical dimension to this juxtaposition of the Feast of the Nativity and New Year’s, in that it lends itself to a consideration of the interaction of light and time.  God’s first act of creation was with the words, “Let there be light,” and His second act was to separate darkness from the light to create Day and Night—that is, out of light came time, even before the physical markers of time, the sun and moon.  Since all of God’s creation was seen to be good, there was no association of darkness with evil until sin entered the world.  In its unsullied form, darkness provides a time of rest for mankind and a meaningful rhythm between work and renewing sleep.  As a result of sin, God’s orderly balancing of light and darkness was thrown into disarray.  Thus, when Jesus, the Light of the world appeared on the scene, He was sent to pierce the darkness and to overcome it (John 1:4-5)—one might even say, to redeem it.  The birth of Jesus came at the proper time according to God’s plan and mankind’s need (Mark 1:14-15; Gal. 4:4-5).  Through the Incarnation, God re-enacted His original initial act of creation, the insertion of light into chaos.

So in this new beginning, the sowing of the seed of regeneration, we have also an incipient redemption of time, a covenant to translate us into a timeless New Heaven and New Earth, in which there is such perfect rest that there is no night, and no need of sun and moon, for the Light of the Father and the Lamb are perpetually banishing sin-blemished night (Rev. 21:22-25).  Thus, the new beginning represented in Christmas can lead us naturally into a celebration of our New Birth as children of God through the grace of the sacrificed Lamb of God.

Our human celebration of the New Year has something of the ambivalence of the God Janus for whom January is named.  When we look both back and forward in time, we experience a mixture of regret and hope, while recognizing our limited ability to do any better in the future than we have in the past.  But that double view has been redeemed and unified by the Perfect Link between past and future, our Lord Jesus.  It is that thought I have expressed in the following poem.

 

For the New Year

Would to God

That one of the faces of Janus

Were altruistic; but both,

So far as I can see,

Reflect the inability of mortal me

To espouse the good for its own sake.

I hardly make the turn toward love

Before I find my comfort

Has not been left behind.

There seems but relative difference

Between the good I choose

And the evil I refuse.

Thanks be to God that He makes

Neither too much of the backward aspect

Nor too little of the hopeful prospect.

He set the model when He looked

Two directions at once,

But with a single eye.

                              –Elton D. Higgs

Image: Nativity with a Torch by the Le Nain brothers, c. 1635-40, Public Domain 

Twilight Musings: “The Ambiguous Branch”

By Elton Higgs 

Two Messianic passages in Isaiah speak of the Savior as a shoot from an apparently dead source, but they are starkly different in tone.  In Isaiah 11 we have a mighty King:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. . . .  [W]ith righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

(Is. 11: 1, 4)

Here the emphasis is on the Messiah as triumphal ruler, exercising divine power to bring justice and peace on the earth.  In contrast, the other passage, Isaiah 53, presents a despised and rejected Messiah who is put to death unjustly:  He

grew up . . . like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53: 2-3)

His role here is seen, not as ruler, but as one “wounded for our transgressions” (v. 5) and “oppressed” (v. 7).

I find it both startling and instructive that that there should be such contrasting uses of the same image of the Messiah as an unexpected offshoot or sprout.  Both applications of the image are, of course, true, but they depict different stages of the Messiah’s impact on the world, and they need to be seen in the proper sequence.  The presentation in Isaiah 11 focuses on the Davidic lineage of Jesus and on the ultimate rule of Christ on the New Earth when he reigns as David’s heir, exercising power over the “Peaceable Kingdom” depicted in Isaiah 11 and 65:17-25.  However, this manifestation of the Messiah was not to come merely as a renewal of the flawed political Kingdom of Israel, nor was it to be a direct outcome of the First Advent of the Christ, but as a component of His Second Coming.  Before the full fruition of Jesus as the Son of David must come the fulfillment of His mission as the Son of God, accomplished through His death as the perfect sacrificial Lamb of God.  Only in that way could the temporal throne of David be transmuted into the Eternal Kingdom.

Moreover, that is also the pattern for us as God’s children.  If we are to be glorified with Him, we must first participate in His suffering (see Rom. 8:17).  Reflecting that truth, and in the spirit of the Advent season, I present the following poem.

 

The Budding Stump

(Isaiah 11:1-3 and 53:1-3)

The Stump of David,

Cracked and grey with age,

Neglected, cast aside,

Now sprouts again, as God had said.

Not couched in beauty, or in power,

Comes this obscure and unexpected Branch;

Nor with glory sought by swords,

Drenching Israel’s enemies in blood–

Though bloodshed nascent lies within.

O Lord of stumps,

Whose sapience informs

What men have cast aside,

And makes to grow again

What You Yourself have pruned away:

Take now the hopes of glory

Grown and nourished by our pride;

Reform them by Your promised Shoot,

That we may find the power

That lies in roots, and not in mighty trees.

Elton D. Higgs (Dec. 26, 1982)

 

 

Image: “Winter Bloom” by MelissaTG. CC License. 

Twilight Musings “Co-Guardians for the God-child”

By Elton Higgs

I like the 2007 movie “The Nativity Story,” because it presents the story of Mary and Joseph and the events leading up to the birth of Jesus with a gritty realism that easily (and usually) gets lost in the romanticized crèches and Christmas pageants that depict the Christmas narrative.  Both of the couple God chose to raise His Son had to face excruciatingly difficult circumstances and attendant decisions when Mary was “found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”  In the two poems below, I have attempted to portray the consternation felt by each of them when an angel brought the message that they had been chosen to be parents to the Holy One of Israel, Emmanuel, the Messiah.

               The Husbandry of God

                       (Luke 1:26-35)   

How can I contain this word from the Lord?

His light has pierced my being

And sown in single seed

Both glory and shame.

Content was I

To wed in lowliness

And live in obscurity,

With purity my only dower.

Now, ravished with power,

I flout the conventions of man

To incubate God.

In lowliness how shall I bear it?

In modesty how shall I tell it?

What now shall I become?

But the fruit of God’s planting

Is His to harvest.

No gleaner I, like Ruth,

But the field itself,

In whom my Lord lies hid.

–Elton D. Higgs

    1980

                                  

Joseph In Waiting

     (Matt. 1:18-26)

Familiar wood now nears its goal,

Purpose carved from formless block.

My wife sits waiting by,

Custodian of promised Son,

Full with Spirit-crafted child.  

.

How strange has been

This celibate intimacy

Since angel-visions

Translated besmirched betrothal

Into Holy co-habitation.

Others praise an act of mercy,

Taking shameful form into my house;

I know that in her Spirit-quickened womb

Lies more than chaste maid

Could ever have been.

Match made on earth

Transmuted now to Heaven’s pairing,

We dwell together with nascent God

And await the Day of Deliverance.

Elton D. Higgs

Dec. 12, 2015

Image: “Rembrandt van Rijn 195” by Workshop of Rembrandt – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrandt_van_Rijn_195.jpg#/media/File:Rembrandt_van_Rijn_195.jpg

 

An Easter Reflection

By David Baggett 

My wife’s an English professor, and she’s helped me realize I’m late to a game, or a party—or an awkward social occasion; whatever! I’m late—that of seeing the power of stories, the way they shape us, how we define ourselves by and see ourselves in relation to them. It makes sense, but as a philosopher I’ve heretofore tended to be more interested, when it comes to something like “worldview,” to think in terms of what’s true and what’s false, what we have good reason to believe and what we don’t. It’s why my philosophy stuff, as much as I love it, sometimes seems so thin and dry in comparison with the richness and thickness of her literature.

 Today is Easter, for example, and the evidential case for the resurrection is important to me. I am confident there’s a nondiscursive way of knowing, via personal experience, the truth of the resurrection, and it may be the most important knowing of all—but though that may be good for those who have it, it doesn’t much help those who don’t. Fortunately the historical case for the resurrection is amazing; my colleague Gary Habermas is one of the world’s leading experts on the topic. For those interested in wondering whether the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is actually true, whether there’s evidence for it historically, I’d encourage them to read Gary’s books.

 That sort of thing is a fun intellectual exercise, and it appeals to me as a philosopher. But suppose we establish the truth of the resurrection, or at least the credentials necessary to believe in it rationally. It’s hardly the end of the story, but just the beginning. Even devils presumably believe in the historicity of the resurrection. That it’s true is extremely important, but its truth doesn’t mean we’re conducting our lives according to that truth. This is where seeing worldview as more than a set of propositions one believes to be true can come in so handy, and seeing the power of stories can help.

 We are all of us inveterate storytellers. We love a good yarn—to hear them, to tell them. And the most important stories are the ones we most closely associate with our identity. On a garden-variety note, but one that rings with significance for me, I think of a few years ago, when my mom was still alive. A brother, my mom, a sister, and I met in Kentucky—and for a few hours one afternoon we reclined in a room together and endlessly rehearsed stories that make up our family lore. They were stories we’d told and retold a thousand times, each recounting as delightful as the one before, tickling us all to no end. We didn’t need to exaggerate or stretch the details; the canon’s already fairly established; too much deviation isn’t even allowed. The same stories, yet still rife with significance. I remember that afternoon, while regaling my family members with stories, and being regaled by them, I felt what I can only describe as unbridled joy. I was with people who’d known me my whole life, and we were relishing the stories that, to a significant degree, defined our shared lives together and knit us together as family. I was home.

 The best literature shouldn’t be enjoyed just once. C. S. Lewis once wrote that the sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers “I’ve read it already” to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. Some stories are good for ingestion; others are worthy to be relished, savored, digested. The greatest Story most of all.

 Each Easter, I go to church, and hear the Easter story one more time. The details are the same. Nothing changes. But as my pastor said this morning, we change. Each time we hear it we’re different. We bring a new set of needs to it, but the story itself remains the same. I couldn’t help but think of Holden Caulfield’s visits to the Museum of Natural History—where the exhibits are always the same, which he found deeply comforting, but those visiting the museum, he recognized, are always different, either in big ways or small. The Easter story provides an even more significant point of constancy, an even more fundamental Archimedean point on which to stand. The narrative of self-giving love reaches its climax each Easter and offers itself to each of us, and though the story is the same, how it speaks to us is always slightly different. For it meets us where we are, at our point of need, reminding us of what doesn’t change, and offers to transform us. It offers us the chance to become part of that universal Story, to define ourselves anew in relation to it.

 That the Story is true is obviously crucial, but recognizing its truth isn’t enough. The Story challenges us to become part of it, to define ourselves by It and Him, to grab hold of what’s constant and permanent, eternal and ultimate, while bracing ourselves for needed and inevitable change in the midst of growing and of life’s vicissitudes and contingencies.

 The Story tells me who I am and what I’m called to be. It reminds me of what love looks like and that death isn’t the end. It challenges me not just to believe that it happened, but that the fact that it happened makes all the difference. It was the key plot point on which the whole narrative turned, marking love’s victory and the death of death. It reminds me that as a Christian I don’t merely believe static truths, but dynamic life-transforming ones—that I’m part of a Story that’s still in the process of unfolding. And we’ve been afforded a glorious peek to see how it ends.

Image: Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Twilight Musings “Victor, not Victim”

By Elton Higgs

A linguistic quirk in the history of the English language has resulted in the term “Good Friday” being applied to the day on which Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified. Other languages, though, have more intuitively appropriate designations for this liturgical day, such as “Sad” or “Dark” or “Mournful” Friday. This variation of nomenclatures can serve as a catalyst for some comments on the fact that the events of Crucifixion Friday in scripture can be seen as both sad and good. Today, of course, we have the advantage of knowing what came on the Sunday after Dark Friday, when Jesus burst out of the tomb. On Friday, He appeared to be the victim, but on Sunday, He was clearly the Victor. On Friday, the darkness eclipsed the light; on Sunday, the Light overcame the darkness.

In our life experiences, the shadow of Friday is sometimes all we see and feel, but we still walk in the Light of that Resurrection Sunday, with an additional firm hope of eternal glory to come. We mourn the events of Dark Friday when Jesus was the victim of evil men, but we are buoyed by the realization that Jesus’ death was the necessary door that He had to go through to become the Victor over sin and death. He did not so much overcome His victimization as transform it by showing that victory was embedded in the very act of willing sacrifice. So His death can be seen as a sort of mine planted in the cross that the Devil stepped on unawares, bringing about his own doom and the explosive Life of the Resurrection.

This point of view is very effectively conveyed in the Old English poem, “The Dream of the Cross” (or “Dream of the Rood,” to use the Old English word for cross). In this poem, Jesus is represented as a hero coming to do battle with and overcome his foes. In the narrator’s dream, the cross of Christ speaks:

Then I saw the King of all mankind
In brave mood hasting to mount upon me.
. . . .
Then the young Warrior, God the All-Wielder,
Put off His raiment, Steadfast and strong;
With lordly mood in the sight of many
He mounted the Cross to redeem mankind.
When the Hero clasped me I trembled in terror,
But I dared not bow me nor bend to earth;
I must needs stand fast. Upraised as the Rood
I held the High King, the Lord of heaven.
(trans. Charles W. Kennedy, 1960)

This is a lovely picture of Christus Victor as He “mounts” the cross, fully capable at any time of exercising His heavenly power to defeat His enemies. But scripture makes it clear that He had a more profound purpose than the exercise of worldly power. His design was to implement the “deeper magic” of God’s world (to use C. S. Lewis’s terminology in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), and through the redemptive power of the Lamb of God to bring about an eternal victory, not just a temporal one. Jesus did indeed come as a conquering hero, but in the heavenly way of things, He had to endure defeat as an avenue to victory. Let us be willing to follow Him through that door of suffering and sadness to reap the victory in Jesus that lies on the other side.

 

Image: “Crucifixion” by Rooztography. CC License.