Walking With the Nazarene in the Wilderness: The First Temptation of Christ

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Early in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is led out to the desert, where, alone, in the wilderness, there is a terrible collision of spiritual forces. It is a gripping moment in the gospel, for the devil comes face-to-face with God in human form for a moral battle. It is a unique experience for both the contestants. It is the first (and only) occasion in spiritual time where the devil sees his Maker at a disadvantage, weakened, starving, and as vulnerable as a human being can be rendered. Here indeed we see that Christ “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:7).

St. Matthew informs us that the Lord is in the desert for forty days. It is a highly symbolic number because Israel had spent forty years in the wilderness. Behold! Here is the true Israel, St. Matthew is saying, the promised Messiah whose life an entire nation has been unconsciously dramatising for thousands of years.

Nonetheless, during the forty days the Lord is hidden from our sight, as scripture draws a veil over this desert experience. We can therefore only imagine the baking heat and the chilly nights; the search for shade at noon; and the avoidance of snakes and scorpions by day. We can picture the sweat; the shimmering air; the emptiness; the stillness. But in accordance with his own good purpose, God does not see fit to grant us firm information.

All we are told is that he went without food, and by the end of the time he was “starved”, “famished”, a “hungred”. His desert experience, in other words, was marked by gnawing hunger and weakness. He was plunged into the weakness of humanity.

And then, right on schedule, the devil showed up.

The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

We may note that the devil begins his vile work by targeting an obvious vulnerability of the Lord’s humanity. To a desperately hungry man – like Esau coming in from the fields – the prospect of food is nearly irresistible. Survivors of the Soviet gulag often testified that during their imprisonment they thought of nothing but food. They dreamed of it; talked about it with other prisoners; they meditated on it when they were alone, planning the dishes and meals they would prepare when they were free.

We learn here the important lesson that the devil does not fight the spiritual warfare honourably. He never assaults a man where is he most fortified, for what advantage is there in that? Rather he targets our greatest vulnerabilities. Whatever weakness of mind, heart, or body we possess, we can be sure that it will be precisely here that the devil will be most active and his spiritual artillery will focus its barrage.

Thus a man who struggles with avarice will be tempted with money. A woman who struggles with pride will be tempted with self-righteousness and vanity. A man who falls victim to lust will be tempted with sexual impurity. No wonder scripture so often advises us to engage in the self-cleansing work of repentance (Isaiah 1:16; Luke 11:39) and St. Paul urges us to put on the full armour of God that we may stand against the devil. When we “wash our hands and purify our hearts” (James 4:8) we are forced to think about our weaknesses and failures. We are made to see where our battle lines are thin and the enemy broke through and we sinned. We can strengthen those points and guard against the schemes of the devil.

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The First Temptation is a bit of a puzzle. Other than targeting the Lord’s terrible hunger, it does not appear to be an obvious incitement to sin by breaking any of the Ten Commandments.

We may ask, is it a sin to eat? No, of course not. God made us experience hunger so that we would eat. Did the Father command the Lord not to eat during his wilderness experience? Certainly, there is no evidence in scripture that this is so.

Well, then, was the sin inherent in the miracle itself? Would it have been a sin for the Lord to turn stones into bread? Some have argued that since stones by their nature cannot feed people, to use divine power turn them into bread would be a “sinful miracle”. But this is surely a weak conclusion because at the marriage at Cana, the Lord changed water into wine.

Something deeper is afoot than merely eating bread by miracle power. Charles Ellicott in his commentary (1878) put it this way:

The nature of the temptation, so far as we can gauge its mysterious depth, was probably complex.

The clue to understanding the “complex” nature of the First Temptation lies in the Lord’s answer to the devil. As in each reply, Jesus cites from Deuteronomy, which one may note were the very scriptures that were given during Israel’s wilderness years.

In this case, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3:

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The original context for these words are greatly instructive:

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 

He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

This thought is continued later in the same chapter:

He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 

You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.

Clearly there is a forceful overlap between Old Testament Israel’s hunger in the wilderness, and Jesus’ experience of extreme privation and hunger in the desert.

But what do these texts teach us about the nature of the temptation?

The constant temptation for Old Testament Israel – a term that has a broader meaning than “illicit desire” as it is often used today – was always to forsake God or grumble against his prophet when privation or hardship came. Israel grumbled about food; they complained about water to the point where Moses was fearful he would be murdered; and they praised Egypt as a slavery better than the freedom of being the chosen people of the ever-living God.

Here the devil was effectively attempting to duplicate that temptation: “You’re God’s Son? And he’s left you starving in the wilderness to the point of death? You are nearly dead! Feed yourself! End your pointless suffering.

Jesus’ answer acknowledges that a man surely lives on bread – the body must be fed or it dies – but the quote also underscores the truth that man never lives on bread alone. Life is more complex than a materialistic matter of eating and drinking. Indeed, Jesus taught in a later sermon, “Life is more than food and the body is more than clothes” (Luke 12:23). A proper understanding of life sees it as more than just a search for the fuel needed to support it. A proper understanding recognises that all the processes of life continue only at the command and behest of God.

It is God who causes the sun to rise and the rain to come so that crops can grow and man can eat. It is God who strengthens the farmer for his work and allows man to develop agricultural technologies. It is God who draws the seedling from the earth. It is God who makes the ground fertile. It is God who gives us each day our daily bread; sets the span of our days; and sends the manna in the desert. By God’s command and instruction, man lives. And when God wills for man to die, then he surely dies.

As St. James writes:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.

What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.

In Moses solemn prayer in Psalm 90, he also acknowledges this great truth. Man truly lives and dies by the command of God not by his own intelligence or scheming:

You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”

A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.

Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death— they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new,but by evening it is dry and withered.

So, in the First Temptation the Lord proves himself to be the true Israel. Unlike Old Testament Israel, the true Israel succeeds and passes the test. He trusts the Father with his life, without grumbling. He hungers quietly and patiently in the desert, but never doubts that the Father will sustain him.

As the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus is not tempted to use his deity against the deity of the First Person, the Father. He does not distrust the Father. Unlike Old Testament Israel, he does not plot treason against the Father by taking matters into his own hands. Rather he stands secure in the splendid simplicity of faith: he knows he will live because the Father commands and wills that he should live.

St. Matthew thus teaches us something about the nature of true faith and what it means to really trust God even in the midst of temptation and trial. No matter how painful the trial may be for the moment, and no matter how tempting it might be to find an early or easy exit from our sufferings – whether it is the burning of persecution or the burning of unfulfilled sexual desire; whether sufferings great or small – the true sons of the kingdom will aim to follow the footsteps of Jesus and answer the devil in similar terms.

I live and exist because of the daily words spoken by God.

I live because in his divine government he wants me to live.

My circumstances are willed by God for his purposes. And I can have the firm confidence that he will never leave me to suffer needlessly neither does he watches me without compassion. I can have faith that my God is good and he will be with me.

In his time – whether now or in eternity – I will see the reward of my suffering and will be truly satisfied.

Fatherly Comfort in Times of Trouble

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ACKNOWLEDGING THE TROUBLES OF LIFE

Man is born to trouble,” said Eliphaz to Job, “as surely as the sparks fly upward.”

This is not a truth that we always want to acknowledge. When the sun is shining and life is good we hope that it will never end. We always want good times to roll on forever. Any reminder that trouble might come our way is hit out of field by the human psyche with all the force of a top baseball player.

But God’s word tells us about reality. It gives us the true shape of life so that we do not live under a cloud of the world’s lies. The Bible corrects our nearsightedness. Scripture will not permit us to be victims of the devil. Thus, God in his majestic truthfulness testifies that trouble is an inescapable part of life for a Christian. St. Paul goes so far as to say that no true Christian will live a trouble-free life on this earth.

This does not mean that every Christian’s troubles will be the same. Some may face extreme situations like martyrdom and exile from their homes (like the Christians in ISIS occupied territory). Others may simply face the daily weariness of work and family, and the mental struggle of living in an ungodly world.

There is, after all, a deep existential tension of being a Christian in the 21st century. There must be. There should be. Nobody can love the world, writes St. John, and love God at the same time (1 John 2:15). Friendship with the world, says St. James, is enmity with God (James 4:4). Given this, Christians can feel like they belong to a shrinking number of the sane. The irreverence and ungodliness around us can torment the mind and soul just as the things Lot saw in Sodom caused him great distress (2 Peter 2:7).

Sometimes Christians experiences trouble as the by-product of the sinful nature. Even as redeemed people, we can make misjudgements, be rash, and come to wrong-headed conclusions about things. We can make bad decisions. There are a legion of examples.

Pastor Tim Conway once related the story of a friend. This young man married a woman who was a local beauty pageant winner. His godly friends counselled him against the match. They could see her true character but like many eager young people, he saw only the surface. Shortly after the marriage the young man discovered his bride was contentious, ill-tempered, and disloyal. She withheld herself from him sexually, had flirtations with his friends, and eventually ran away with one of his buddies never to return.

Christians can (and do) make errors of judgement. We do not always faithfully observe the teaching of scripture, wisdom and the Church. Even Christians can make choices that plunge them into years – perhaps a lifetime – of trouble. No wonder the scriptures tell us to consult the words of the Lord frequently. Meditate on God’s law day and night, writes the psalmist (Psalm 1:2). Joshua commands the people to not only think on God’s word, but to have it continually on their lips (Joshua 1:8).

It is supreme wisdom to adapt our behaviour to God’s will. To walk circumspectly and thoughtfully. For this will keep us from falling into sin. It will prevent us from piercing ourselves with many needless sorrows.

But sometimes we do not stray from the narrow way of Jesus. At times our hearts are overflowing with praise to the King. Our fellowship with God in prayer can be so rich it is as though we walk in the perfumed gardens of Eden with the Lord. At times Jesus can draw us so near to the extent we can almost wonder if we are about to enter heaven. At such times, God’s holiness falls on the heart, we long for more and more righteousness, and his word is life to us.

And then trouble can come.

This is a paradox indeed! Trouble can come when we believe ourselves to be following most closely on the heels of the Master. This has been the discovery of many godly men and women throughout the ages. They often built the Kingdom of God under the weight of trouble. Amy Carmichael, the Irish missionary who spent fifty-five years in India saving girls from temple prostitution, was bedridden in her latter years. Why did such trouble come to such a powerful missionary for the Lord?

We can wonder about this. Why do difficulties sometimes come when the heart burns for the Lord and for the fulfilment of his righteousness? This is a mystery, but there is comfort from the Lord. For though a man is born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward, God is the Saviour and Father of all who believe.

TROUBLE, NOT SUFFERING

Notice that I avoid the word “suffering”. In the modern world the word “suffering” is an impaired word. For a start it is commonly linked to ill-health. “Poor Mrs Oliphant,” we say, “she suffers from arthritis.

Under such repeated usage dinned into our ears, we come to associate suffering with a continuous state usually afflicting the body. This raises the high bar on what constitutes “suffering”. People can mistakenly conclude that unless you have Big Bad Stuff going on in your life it is not suffering. The word tends to excludes many painful human experiences. “Oh, you are getting harassed at work? That doesn’t sound so bad. The rest of your life is OK. Can you really call it suffering?

The word “suffering” also evokes fear. It conjures up terrifying visions. It excites painful anxiety. “What kind of suffering am I to endure?” we may fret, “What is going to happen to me?

Such anxiety may be difficult to avoid but it is wrong. It is evident that by God’s grace most Christians do not experience the worst of life. Some brave Christians (whose reward in heaven is undoubtedly very great) do indeed undergo a baptism of fire and their lives are admittedly very difficult. But such Christians are always compensated with abundant joy and grace so that like St. Paul they are enabled to sing even while in the stocks of prison.

Nonetheless, this kind of deep hardship is not a general rule. It does not seem to be God’s intention that his Christian people be kicked to the curb. In fact, God richly blesses his children with many joys both temporal and spiritual. His Church – as a rule – does not go about in ceaseless mourning. God has made a time for tears but also a time for laughter, and for most Christians, there is indeed more laughter than tears.

Thus it is neither healthy nor wise to meditate on the difficulties of others. Neither should we get caught up in the stories of the disgruntled who seem angry at God for their pain. It is not for us to judge the invisible spiritual forces or God’s mysterious purposes. Neither is it up to us to work out all the details of someone else’s life. It is not our place to judge the Judge of All the Earth. A speculative mind on the issue of trouble is polluting.

God has set before us lives to ponder in scripture. These people were no strangers to trouble. But the lives he offers to us to consider are ultimately triumphant ones. All of them. That should be the focus. For as Dr. Martyn-Lloyd Jones once preached, “Some Christians seem to think that God wants them for the same reason the devil does: to torment them.” Such thinking always arises from error and it produces a calumny against God. God is a Father to his people. That is a solid, unassailable truth.

Thus the word “trouble” is better. For a start it is more expansive. It covers a lot more ground and includes the full panoply of Christian struggle. From the minor to the major.

FATHERLY COMFORT

The Letter to the Hebrews contains comfort for anyone who experiences trouble.

It comforts in three ways. Firstly, by reassuring readers that Jesus is a faithful and compassionate high priest whose heavenly intercession is truly efficacious. Secondly, the letter gives a long list of people who were able to face many difficulties through their faith in God. Faith is not just an esoteric feeling, the letter tells us, it takes concrete forms. The letter shows us how to have faith. Thirdly, the letter provides us with answers. It teaches us that our troubles should be regarded as God’s fatherly dealing with us.

There is far too much to mention all at once. But reading this letter prayerfully, with special attention to Hebrews 11 and 12, will surely offer substantial joy, comfort and strength. Here are some thoughts.

The chapter opens with the following statement:

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. (Hebrews 11:3)

This truth comes first because it is the foundation of peace in the turbulence of the storm. If we do not believe that God created all things then we do not have the sort of faith that can receive God’s comfort.

It is not sufficient to simply “believe” in God’s creative acts on an intellectual or mental level. We are surrounded by talk of evolution and the Big Bang. The unbelieving world operates on the basis of this grand deceit and pummels the Christian relentlessly. Unbelief is so ubiquitous that it can chip away – slowly at first – at the Christian’s certainty. Evolution and Big Bang cosmology can quite easily leak into the mind of the Christian so that he plays a double-game. One the one hand he can persuade himself that he believes in creation, while in his heart he doubts and secretly thinks these theories have validity.

A conviction of creation must be deeply internalised so that we come to see that Christ stands behind every painted surface in the universe; whether the rise and fall of a leaf, or the roll of thunder, the rays of sunlight. We must know that Jesus governs all creation.

If this is our faith, it transforms into a source of comfort. It is a great encouragement to know that we can pray to the King of Creation, a King who governs not merely a nation, but all existence. This is the King who sculptured the planets and ignited the stars. If he can do that which is very great, can he not help us in our times of trouble? Can he not perform miracles of grace in our lives? Most assuredly, he can.

The writer goes on to provide a long list of saints who accomplished things by faith. Many of these saints – in fact, all of them – endured struggles of many kinds. But by faith in the Living God, they not only endured, but triumphed over them.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8).

Here the writer emphasises faith in God as we plunge into the unknown. Times of trouble can be frightening precisely because often we do not know what is going to happen. The unknown can make our trouble seem unbearable. Will I be ruined? Will I be outcast? Will I be killed? Will I lose my faith?

The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that Abraham also was sent on a journey into the unknown. He left behind all that was familiar and safe. He did not know where he was going. He journeyed in the dark but he had the faith to believe God would look after him. And God led him safely all the years of his wandering.

The writer goes on:

And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

By faith, Abraham and Sarah did the impossible. They produced a child when Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah’s barren womb was unquestionably dead. No child had been conceived within her for 90 years. Her past history with childbearing – that is to say, zero children – could have left her with little hope for the remaining years of her life.

For indeed the years had made their mark on the pair. No doubt both were grey-headed and growing gaunt and feeble. They had been allowed by God to age to the point where they were past all possibility of reproduction. Physiologically it was impossible. Barrenness had been a source of trouble and grief in their lives. And God now promised to relieve them at the point where it seemed they had missed the boat.

Yet, hoping against all hope, and believing against all belief, they had faith in the promises of God. God used the material before him. He caused Abraham to desire his wife; and he caused life to flare into existence inside Sarah. After such a long wait, she experienced the joy of being a mother.

In times of trouble; in times of sadness, loneliness and grief we can wonder whether God will ever come for us. Will joy ever lighten our way again? We may sometimes patiently wait and pray for a long time. But faith is always rewarded in God’s economy. And the longer we wait, the greater the reward tends to be. This should serve as a great inspiration to cling to the promises of God in his word. To take him at his word in faith. To keep praying, to keep doing good, to keep plodding heavenward. It is a Christian cliche, of sorts, but it is nonetheless moving: keep on keeping on.

In the 12th chapter, the writer tells us:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.

Sometimes Christians experience trouble due to God’s corrective discipline in our lives. The writer tells us that this discipline is for our good. It is intended to make us more holy and thus more ready for our meeting with the King at the end of the world.

When God lands blows upon his children in the form of troubles, he does so out of fatherly concern for their soul. Perhaps we are starting to flirt with spiritual danger. Perhaps we are growing cold or arrogant. Perhaps we are hardhearted and need the carapace of self-regard cracked apart. Perhaps we have sinned (or are sinning) and need to be yanked back onto the path of Jesus.

Whatever the case – even if sometimes we may not know the reason for it at all – this corrective discipline, the writer assures us, produces peace and righteousness when it is finally over. Correction and discipline does not feel pleasant for the moment. It is painful and grievous. We do not like it. But the results make it well worthwhile. It leads to the Christian surrendering bad attitudes, habits or desires and learning to love and follow Christ more wholeheartedly. It leads to a life that is more abundant. A life that is brimming with Jesus. A life that is more flourishing like the tree planted by a spring, with its branches that grow over the wall heavy with fruit (Genesis 49:22). It leads to a life that is more joyful, more complete, more rich, more free, and more godly.

It leads to a life that is more full of Jesus; He who is the source of all goodness, joy, laughter, peace, and righteousness. He who is the light of the world.

Easter Sermons: Banal, Saccharine, and Boring

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When St. Paul preached on this hill in Athens nearly 2,000 years ago, his “Easter sermon” turned the city upside down and became one of the most influential in the history of the world. Not much danger of that happening with the trite, cliched efforts of modern pastors, clerics, and theologians.

At Easter it has become customary to hear straining-to-be-meaningful sermons that aim either to emotionally energise a congregation, or otherwise attempt to apply the resurrection of Christ to contemporary political and social issues. Some preachers are unwitting comedians, as they offer hilarious examples of what happens when orthodoxy is derailed and an ersatz Christianity is transposed over the top. The result veers between contemptible and ridiculous.

This year did not disappoint. Dutifully, newspapers reported the sermons of a motley cast of popes, bishops, princes, pastors and priests whose pronouncements from pulpits around the world, when taken together, constitute a powerful emetic.

A small sample is sufficient to give a flavour of Easter in 2018:

Pope Francis used his Easter sermon to talk about refugees, immigrants and Syrians. Last year, he used his Easter Sunday sermon to talk about tragedy, misery, and disaster in the world with very little mention of the themes that the Apostolic writers were wont to associate with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection: themes like sin, repentance, forgiveness, and spiritual regeneration.

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Pope Francis offers to the crowd the glad tidings of Easter, with sermons featuring strong messages about geopolitics, including immigrants, Syrians and refugees.

To be fair to Prince Charles, he is not a preacher by vocation but if he is ever crowned king, he will receive the appellation “Defender of the Faith” and will become the head of the Church of England, which implies the need for a minimal theological awareness.

It is with great relief to all that Prince Charles demonstrated that he would not be out of place among the muddle-headed prelates of the Church of England as he delivered a patented woolly message on Good Friday reminding everyone about the great similarities between Islam and Christianity. So great are these similarities, that it is a matter of extreme befuddlement to the Prince as to why there is no peace between them.

The Prince reminded everyone that Mary is a shared figure in both Islam and Christianity, and having thus established this striking, cosy closeness between the faiths, appealed for everyone in the middle east to lay down their shoulder-held missile launchers, and to live at peace as friends. The Prince’s message is bound to make a big difference to the geopolitical situation, with many thousands of people heeding his words. For what militant in Syria does not hang, bat-like, from every word that proceeds from the His Highness’s mouth? Just like bishops of the Church of England, the Prince has acquired the habit of public hand-wringing, virtue-signalling, vacuous lamentation, and “calls” to masses of humanity to immediately cease their evil ways because their evil ways are simply not very nice.

This year, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gave his sermon in the presence of an art installation made from hundreds of dangling articles of refugees’ clothing, transforming Canterbury Cathedral into something resembling a Mad Hatter’s laundry room. The Archbishop did make a heroic effort to sound like an Anglican clergyman who actually believes things in the New Testament, although his Easter sermon was richly interspersed with references to bombs and terrorism in Egypt, giving the impression that any mention of the resurrection was a somewhat irritating excursion from his real topic of interest, that being geopolitics in the Near East.

In Australia, the Anglican Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy was reported to have given a sermon imploring Anglicans “not to run away from challenges”. Following this sermon of dazzling substance, she was so swept up in the awe of the resurrection that she immediately addressed the major sporting scandal running the rounds in Australia, involving high profile cricket cheats. The Archbishop was most concerned that the cricketers should forgive themselves, which she opined was going to be one of their foremost challenges – the forgiveness of God not even rating a mention.

Perhaps one of the most preposterous articles was written by Robyn Whitaker, a theologian whose interests include “gender, sexuality and ethics”. One online profile states that she has expertise in feminism and gender equality.  Whitaker’s article asked readers to focus on the race of Jesus of Nazareth and to think about his skin colour.

Other clerics and would-be religious leaders decided that it was best to boil the texts of the scripture dry, and get down to the residue of a few basic principles. “Hope” is always a popular one, or sometimes “renewal“. Vague concepts like these are quite plastic. Even a borderline-competent public speaker can use a theme like that as a launching pad for a peppy talk to boost the morale of their listeners. The resultant sermon typically sounds like it could have been lifted from a life coaching manual.

Finally, there are those sermons that bear titles which imply that the meaning of Easter is opaque and dark. It is no longer clear in a world of modernity, colour and excitement. Titles like “Why Easter still matters” or “What should the resurrection mean to you?” arrogantly suggests that the resurrection of Christ is an impenetrable historical story, remote and alien to the listener.

This is just a small sample, mind you, of Easter sermons. The banality is endless, and it comes as a considerable relief to turn from these “clouds without water”, as St. Jude would describe them, to the fountains of living water from the scriptures. For in contrast to modern clerics, the New Testament begins from a very basic supposition.

The New Testament takes for granted that this supposition is clear to anyone.

It is quite simply this: something of tremendous consequence was accomplished when Jesus died on a crucifix outside of Jerusalem. This has shifted the invisible order of things, and this alteration of the spiritual reality in which humankind lives reached its apogee three days later when Christ rose from the dead, the true King of all the Earth.

Not one of the apostolic witnesses asks the question, “Why does the resurrection matter?“. Not one of them attempts to make the resurrection applicable to their hearer’s context. Not one tries to blend the resurrection story into a morality fable about slavery or the machinations of the Roman senate and their greedy imperial taxation schemes. Not one tries to boil it down to a string of saccharine, safe buzzwords – “it’s all about love, folks!”.

No, the inverse. The apostolic assumption is the resurrection, if truly believed by the reader, is significant in a way that will be obvious to anyone. It is quite clearly a testimony that requires no interpreter because the very fact that a man has risen from the dead is sufficient of itself to establish his primacy in the constellation of ideas and opinions. It justifies his claims; it underscores their merit; it overturns all competition; it empowers his gospel. A person who reads of the resurrection, who believes it, and who earnestly, deeply seeks for Christ in the silence and stillness, will find him.

The best kind of sermon in our times, therefore, is one that follows the apostolic example. It is the sort of sermon that invites people to believe and seek for Jesus himself. Not to seek for “hope” that Aunt Sally will get better, not to seek for “renewal” of our finances in 2018, neither to seek to mine the text for forgettable sentiments to spray upon contemporary political issues. But, rather to be made aware of the heaviness of our peril. Of our imminent approach to judgement and ruin. To be broken and contrite in our reflections upon ourselves.

And thus to seek for Jesus himself: the Lord of Life who welcomes properly penitent souls. The One who can transform a person’s inward life and give him a deep sense of the beauty of holiness; the ugliness of sin; a thirst for godliness; a hunger for God; and the unspeakable joy of tangible, deep communion with our Creator, Friend, and Redeemer.

How different Easter would be if clerics took their cues from St. Paul and preached the resurrection as the Apostle did. No mealy-mouthed sugary sweetness here. Rather St. Paul preaches the resurrection as a divine command to the human race; an urgent and non-negotiable summons to repent and believe. And he does so with the unstudied impetuosity of a man who knows of that which he speaks, is unswerving confident, and knows that he is conveying the authorised message of God to the world:

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you…

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

Aspiring to Servanthood: The Transforming Power of Humility (Part I.)

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PRIDE AND HUMILITY

It was a job so terrible only a Christian would do it“.

So it was said of the midwives who served in the East End of London during the early 20th century. Midwives laboured up to their neck in squalor, disease, and mortality. All tragic byproducts of poverty, alcohol, and violence. Who would wish to work with such people under such circumstances?

Only a Christian.

In hellholes around the world, you find “only Christians”. They do jobs no one else will do. They are found in the places too dangerous; doing work too revolting; caring for people too broken for any one else.

It is Christianity alone that creates servants. Not Buddhism with its serene meditative calm. None of the thousand Hindu deities inspire missionary love. Not Islam with its fiery dogmatism. Certainly not animist religions with their efforts to squeeze power from nature. Only Christianity. Because only Christianity has at its centre a living King who became the Servant of all mankind.

Humble servanthood is so much the product of the Holy Spirit that Christ taught it is not possible to be one of his people without also becoming a servant. Aspiring to servanthood is a mandatory marker of true Christianity. Such profound self-lowering attends all authentic conversion:

 “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servantand whoever wants to be first must be your slave just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Being a servant has never been popular. Despite the language of service still hanging limply from the lexicon – “serving on the counter“; “serving my country” – the true subordination of oneself for the sake of another is a dead practice in our culture. We need only look at politicians to see the nakedly self-serving character of their craft, notwithstanding the pretence to “public service“.

Humility has always been the leper among virtues. It is a virtue despised by the thinkers and movers in this world.

The German philosopher Nietzsche, to select one example, claimed that humility was nothing more than the subversion of the strong by the weak. Humility, Nietzsche claimed, was just a fiction created by people with “slave morality”.

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Later, the influential psychologist Abraham Maslow claimed that the highest level of human fulfilment would be a stage he termed “self-transcendence”.

Maslow argued that if a person’s needs were fulfilled, their personality would expand into a star-burst of wonderful self-sufficiency, creativity and competence. They would reach their full potential and crack out of their cocoon as amazing enlightened beings. No wonder Maslow was popular among the Human Potential Movement of the 1960’s.

Outside of Christianity, one must search hard to find any philosophy or scheme that is founded on humility. Rather, the human story seethes with pride. From kings and queens swanning around in diamond encrusted robes while their people went hungry, to popes assuming divine titles and having their fingers kissed by the men and women they claimed to serve. Even in our own time we see ample news coverage of people grasping for power, privilege, wealth, fame, control, and the fulfilment of appetites at the expense of others. Few hands reach for the scrubbing brush of servanthood, and nearly all of those are Christians.

In fact, humility is frequently diagnosed as a disease of the mind or defect of character. Talk to people about taking the lowest place, putting yourself last; letting others go first; and being content to be unnoticed by any but God, and it will not be long before adjectives like “doormat” or “spineless” or “weak” will come at you like stones. Humility is seen as psychological defect needing correction. More self-esteem is the fix! It is considered a flaw that is detrimental to your health. To be humble is to be weak. Ignoble. Contemptible. Unworthy of respect. A human punching bag.

Christ speaks to this cultural delusion with sparkling and uncompromising clarity:

“Truly I tell you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The struggle of the convert is largely the fight to forsake the tentacles of pride that wrap themselves around the soul like a hungry octopus. Human nature is proud. By birthright we are selfish and conceited. Fierce in absurd self-admiration. Constant in self-idolatry. Desirous of elevation and applause.

C. S. Lewis wrote that the essence of pride is comparison. Pride, Lewis observed, always wants to be in some sense better than someone else:

The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility. You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now, we have come to the centre.

According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind. Does this seem to you exaggerated? If so, think it over.

I pointed out a moment ago that the more pride one had, the more one disliked pride in others. In fact, if you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, ‘How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronise me, or show off?’

The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with every one else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree.

Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive—is competitive by its very nature—while the other vices are competitive only, so to speak, by accident. Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not.

They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.

I would add to Lewis’ observations. Pride is also about deceit.

St. Paul says that if any man thinks of himself as something when he is nothing he deceives himself. Pride is self deception. But if a man wants truth then humility will eventuate. The essential characteristic of humility is truth. You desire truth in the inward being (Ps. 51:6).

The more a person sees the truth about themselves the greater their humility will be. This is because humility is not a form of conscious, unwilling abasement. That’s merely the imitation of humility and quite as bad as pride. A person can still feed their pride on fake humility. “Well, I didn’t get the attention I wanted but that’s because I was being humble and more virtuous than those who did“.

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Humility is about reality. When the painted layers of self-glory are sanded away, a man will eventually come to the real surfaces of his true being. And we have it on God’s authority that what a man will find is not nice or worthy or good. We are not self-actualised beings (sorry Maslow). We did not make ourselves (sorry Darwin). We are not powerful and self-sustaining (sorry Nietzsche). Quite the reverse.

No good thing dwells in me, wrote St. Paul. Not one thing.

St. Paul saw the reality of his own being in the blinding rays of Christ’s perfection. And he saw so clearly that he completely disowned himself. I am crucified with Christ, and I no longer live. But Christ lives in me.

Paul saw the reality about Paul. And when he did, he crucified him.

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That is the nature of humility. The nature of truth. This is authentic conversion that breeds a deep yearning to serve out of gratitude and love for Jesus Christ.

Finding a Secure Identity in an Insecure Age

If there is one thing that has definitively occupied scholarly minds in the last decade it has been the issue of personal identity.

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If there is one thing that has definitively occupied scholarly minds in the last decade it has been the issue of personal identity. The question “how do you identify?” is now a major flash point in the culture. This was amply demonstrated by the combative interview held between the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson and Cathy Newman, a British journalist working for Channel 4.

Peterson is a rare species of social academic because he has both interesting and novel things to say and the average listener cannot help feeling edified for having heard them. This is a tremendous contrast to the majority of social academics who either have nothing interesting to say or merely repeat whatever is current and fashionable.

Nonetheless, despite having a gift on her programme, Newman opted not to tap into the rich seam of intelligent material she could have explored, but instead chose to repeatedly badger Peterson on matters of identity politics.

The popularity of this interview undoubtedly owes something to the fact that Newman’s performance was such a candid combination of pomposity and stupidity. The relative strengths of intellectual formation between two people and their respective viewpoints could hardly have been more starkly displayed. In this instance, Newman was incapable of fairly or meaningfully representing Peterson’s views. She attempted to attribute to him the worst possible motives about women and transsexuals and seemed unable to understand anything that he was saying.

The timbre of discussion powerfully captures the vicious and unreasonable mindset that has swept across our institutions of learning and communication until nothing else seems to matter. Like the insatiable red dragon in the Revelation, identity politics has consumed everything in its path. No other intellectual endeavour or philosophical framework seems able to muster enough velocity to escape its gravitation.

Identity politics is the centrepiece of student radicalism. But unlike universities in the past where student obsessions were regarded as extra-curricula activity – the byproducts, perhaps, of enlightened brains united to youthful passion – identity politics has tunnelled its way into the curriculum itself and attached itself firmly to the syllabus. Such courses at major universities are little more than indoctrination.

As people are encouraged to find meaning in belonging to victim groups – each higher or lower on the hierarchy of victimhood – we increasingly witness various identity groups engaging in rhetorical warfare with each other, competing for the spoils of being recognised as the most oppressed. Each group wants to be on top. Each wants to be preferred. Each wants to be acknowledged above any other. And so Jewish students square off against pro-Palestinian students; feminists and transsexuals collide; American patriot organisations and civil liberties groups; feminists and pro-Islamic groups; environmentalists and trade unionists.

The ultimate aim for them all is power.

Our society has become something like an unsettled hen house, with every hen fighting for place, pecking their perceived inferiors and being pecked in turn. All of this is attended by hot envy, outrage, and even violence.

The social wreckage arises from insecure identities; identities grounded in the sinful nature. Yet, cutting through this dynamic comes the opening words of St. Paul to the Philippians like a refreshing cup of water:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

St. Paul, in the inspired text, provides a simple greeting and establishes his identity. He is a servant of Christ Jesus. That’s all he is.

He’s not a white man, black man, or a Jew. He’s not a working-class stiff, a poor man, or a victim eager to obtain special regard. He does not inflate his sense of self-importance by ascribing to himself a immaculate class identity. Neither does he identify himself by race or wealth or education.

Instead, St. Paul finds his identity in simply being a servant of Christ Jesus. St. Paul pours his energies into the Lord’s kingdom, teaches the Lord’s gospel, lives out the Lord’s holy will, and labours for the expansion of the Lord’s glory. He places himself at the disposal of Jesus who now occupies the very centre of his life as Master and Ruler.

St. Paul’s own goals, dreams, aspirations, and achievements have been long forgotten and when he recalls them, they are so irrelevant that he considers them to be “manure”  in comparison to his King. He has a new identity and it is the most glorious and most wonderful identity anyone could ever covet: to be a servant of the Jesus Christ.

Later in this letter he mentions that he is a Benjamite and has been a scrupulously observant Jew. But he has discarded all of these former things. As he explains in this  letter, he counts it all as a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord.

The man who seeks this identity – and finds it – is a man who finds a truly secure identity. He will not marinade in self-pity. He will not think, “I deserve better in life but have been robbed by people with privilege and oppressive power“. He will not become paranoid, and be forever on guard for perceived sleights. He will not be always looking for fresh opportunities to be “offended”. He will not seek for political victory over other people; forcing others to speak and behave differently to slake his thirst for power and validation.

The man who becomes a servant of Christ Jesus and sees such an identity as the most privileged calling a person could ever have is filled with gratitude and brokenness. Such a man is truly content with knowing his Master and will be satisfied – indeed, will rejoice – to be a servant of Jesus. He will find satisfaction in serving to the extent that he has been granted by the Father – whether it is scrubbing toilets or running a transnational corporation. There is humility, generosity, gratitude, and sheer wonder to be had when finding a new identity in submitting to the King of kings.

It is a supreme paradox, but one taught by none other than the Lord himself. Crucifixion of the self – the purposeful and deliberate rejection of the old identities rooted in the sin nature – does not lead to being oppressed and downtrodden, but actually leads to life eternal. To a blossoming and indomitable life. “He who loses his life shall find it,” the Lord taught us, “And he who saves his life shall lose it”.

For mankind was created explicitly to be the servants and the friends of Christ. By him and for him were all things created, wrote St. Paul. In re-assuming this identity, a man can indeed find a peace and stability that passes all understanding. A peace that all the public rallies and all protests held in all the legislatures of the world could never afford. There is liberty in being a servant of Jesus. Far more than one can ever find in the soul-twisting, nature-distorting world of identity politics with its grasping for power and moral glory over others.

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Standing Firm in the Winds of Persecution: Christ Overcomes

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(Text: Mark 14:53-65)

After the agonising night in Gethsemane, Jesus is arrested and eventually brought before the Sanhedrin. There he stands trial before the leaders of Judaism and by extension, the representatives of the Jewish people.

Contrary to Jewish legal precedent, this hastily assembled court meets at an unseemly early hour, and far from giving preference to acquittal, this court is designed to give the thinnest gloss of legality to a predetermined death sentence. St. Mark tells us that the “whole Sanhedrin was looking for evidence to put him to death”. In other words, this was a kangaroo court: prejudiced against the accused, presided over by biased judges, and one that ignored standards of justice in order to secure the desired outcome.

Or, perhaps more accurately still, this was an example of a legal process that has long characterised authoritarian regimes: the show trial.

The Lord had already given the parable of the vineyard and the wicked tenants shortly before so that the thoughtful reader can understand what is happening. Here the rightful King of Israel – the legitimate heir of the vineyard – is being usurped by envious and greedy men who want to hold onto their power, prestige, and the tradition-rusted, corrupted religion that had given them so much control over the people. The hour of darkness has come. St. Mark tells us that these rulers actively seek his blood. They want nothing more than to see him suffer a miserable and painful death.

It is worthwhile to note here how evil works. For there is nothing new under the sun. Then, as now, evil is expressed through institutions. Whether it is the Sanhedrin, or the modern parliament; whether it is the meeting of the High Priests and elders or a meeting of a corporate board, men and women generally do evil through institutions. Certainly, there are always some violent and cruel men at the bottom of the heap. There are the sharp-toothed bottom feeders who use actual force or inflict actual torments on others.

Yet even these violent men or women may, in some cases, be thought upon with mercy. The Lord prayed from the cross for the violent Roman soldiers who nailed him, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. Not for the High Priests and the rest of the Sanhedrin. They knew what they were doing. And not for Pilate.

Although Pilate never drove any nails into Jesus or laid a single stripe on his back, the procurator was nonetheless quite aware that Jesus was innocent of any crime. He understood that the motive to judicially murder Jesus was solely to quench the outraged envy of the Jewish leadership.

Human beings create institutions. Nearly all of them are hierarchical, and all of them have both written and unwritten codes that govern them. Institutions can be very useful when they are overseen by benevolent and honourable men, but they are also susceptible to corruption and to the furtherance of unrighteousness. So often they provide a respectable covering, or a camouflaging skin, for distasteful behaviour: for greed, lying, manipulation, bulling, and propagating immorality.

When men and women gather together in an institution, they tend to work together to achieve corrupt purposes and promote the works of Satan in the world. We see this in corporations who successfully managed to suppress inconvenient information, as tobacco companies have done. Although many employees must have been made aware that they were promoting a dangerous product as documents were received, typed, circulated, filed, few spoke out against their companies in the heyday of the cigarette.

The cover-ups in government departments, the unbridled greed of corporate policies that often leave victims helpless in the face of a barrage of legal firepower, and the suppression of any Christian viewpoint in other circles points to the same corruption St. Mark documents on that cold night in the Judgement Hall. It is no wonder that ungodly activists who wish to remodel society in their own image are so quick to form groups, since propagating evil tends to be most effective when done in packs. Those who would advance God’s kingdom are often lonely men. The righteous are always outnumbered.

Institutions tend to be merciless, but merciless in a peculiar, paper-shuffling way. After all, Stalin, Mao and Hitler – who stand as history’s most vicious tyrants by dint of the sheer scale of misery and death they supervised – never killed anyone with their own hands. Hitler never gassed a single Jew; Stalin did not physically pillage the food from the Ukraine; and Mao never put a single bullet in anyone’s head. But, as St. Mark reminds us, guilt does not attach alone to those who perform deeds of evil, but to those who put the wheels in motion and use their positions to facilitate evil.

How do we stand firm, then, in a morally revolutionary age where institutions across society often seem irredeemably corrupt?

Jesus gives us the answer. Forsaken by his friends and delivered into the hands of his enemies, he stands (at first) silently like a sheep before his shearers. Their baseless accusations, distortions, and lies crash like water over his impassivity. Sometimes holding silence is necessary especially when it is clear that there is no point. One cannot reason with those who are determined to wield lies like a sword and who persist in their purposeful efforts to misunderstand or misrepresent us.

Yet Jesus also shows us the necessity of standing on the truth and declaring it. He did not hold himself aloof from suffering but shared it in full at the hand of unjust men. At the critical moment he did not resile from God’s truth. He stood firm, even knowing that his words would push the Sanhedrin over the edge and seal his crucifixion:

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

“I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

One must stand upon truth at all costs. One must bear witness. In this case, Jesus bears glorious testament in that dark chamber to the reality that God had come; the Son of Man and the Son of God.

St. Mark reminds us that when evil manifests it is often through institutions of power. And small though a single Christian may be, the voice of faith rising from even the weakest believer can sound like a thunderclap in the eternal scheme of things. When we echo the words of Jesus and speak the truths which the world despises, we may suffer the cost at the hands of men and women combining in institutions of power.

But God, who is the ultimate Judge of all the earth, is not slow in keeping his promise. He will arise and do right. And those who followed the example of our Blessed Master will be vindicated and not fail to be rewarded in the life of the world to come.