UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. [Isaiah 55:8-9 (ESV)]

violetsIt was the first night of a new small group study and, as we gathered our books to leave, one woman said she’d have to read more about the author since he sounded like a Calvinist. Believing that everyone has the God-given ability to choose God’s grace, she didn’t want to participate in the class if the book’s author believed that, in the past, God chose some among mankind for His own and that that Christ died only for those elect.

There is much in church doctrine that is disputed between denominations and the differences are often subtle, complicated, and confusing. Regarding Calvinism, there is five-point Calvinism, Amyraldism which holds to only four of Calvin’s points, Arminianism (the rejection of predestination and an affirmation of free will), and a host of other isms in between. There are differing views of Communion, as well: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, sacramental union, receptionism, and memorialism. Does the bread actually transform into the actual flesh and blood of Christ, is it spiritually the flesh and blood of Jesus, the spiritual presence of Christ, or a remembrance of Christ’s suffering? What about baptism? Is it a requirement for salvation or merely symbolic of the salvation process? All of these questions (and many more) arise out of several hard to reconcile passages in the Bible. Unable to clearly define many of these issues, I know I will never fully understand them.

Some things in Christianity are essential and non-negotiable: the deity of Christ, His substitutionary sacrifice for our sins, the resurrection, salvation by grace though faith, the Holy Trinity, the authority of Scripture, and life everlasting. Agreement on many other issues, however, is not necessary and those issues will remain unresolved this side of heaven. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis opined that many of our great theological and metaphysical questions are probably as nonsensical and unanswerable as asking how many hours are in a mile or whether the color yellow is square or round. He wrote that when he laid his unanswered questions at God’s door, he got no answer. Lewis added that the silence was not a locked door/no one’s home kind of silence but more like that of a compassionate God, shaking his head and thinking, “Peace, child; you don’t understand.”

When the woman from class said, “I can’t believe in a God who would sacrifice His son for only a select group rather than all of mankind,” I said she didn’t have to. She and I may be wrong in our beliefs, but our salvation doesn’t depend on our knowing the right answer. Actually, our salvation doesn’t depend on having the right answer to most of the doctrinal controversies and isms that separate Christ’s Church. More important than understanding various theological or doctrinal issues is having the mind of Christ. Sooner or later, all the rest will make perfect sense.

Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked from under our feet. We shall see that there never really was any problem. [C.S. Lewis, from “A Grief Observed”]

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. [1 Corinthians 13:11-13 (ESV)]

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THE ALPHA

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. [Revelation 22:13 (NLT)]

Grand Canyon of YellowstoneHaving forgotten the Greek alphabet he learned as a fraternity pledge, my husband asked the meaning of the symbols on the lecterns in the church sanctuary. On the left was A for alpha and, on the right, was Ω for omega: the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In Hebrew, those letters would have been aleph and tau. Among Jewish rabbis, using the first and last letters of the alphabet was a common way to express the whole of something, from its beginning to its end. Today’s equivalent expression would be “from A to Z” or “from soup to nuts.” Those Greek letters refer to three verses in Revelation in which Jesus claims to be the Alpha and Omega. They tell us that that, as part of our Triune God, Jesus was there at the beginning and He will be there at the end.

As for alpha: only God could exist before time even existed! Although Genesis starts with, “In the beginning,” God was already there! Since time, space, and matter are co-relative and God created space and matter, we know it was God who also created time. God never had a beginning because He is the beginning! He didn’t emerge from something; everything emerged from Him!

One of the basic laws of science is that neither mass nor energy can be created. Simply put, it can only be converted or broken apart and put together in a new way. Strictly speaking, mankind can’t create; we can only synthesize or transform by taking existing materials to make something new. We can’t create ice or steam but we can convert water into those things by freezing or boiling it. We can take that water (H2O) and combine it with carbon dioxide (CO2) and end up with carbonic acid (H2CO3) but we couldn’t create carbonic acid without the building blocks of hydrogen, carbon and oxygen. God, however, started from scratch; with no time, space or matter before Him, he created mass and energy. Making something from nothing boggles the mind but it’s the only answer that makes any sense—even to scientists!

Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, and delicately balanced to provide exactly the conditions required to support life. In the absence of an absurdly improbable accident, the observations of modern science seem to suggest an underlying, one might say, supernatural plan. … The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I had nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole. [Arno Penzias]

Arno Penzias was the winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics. He and Robert Wilson discovered cosmic microwave background radiation. Their discovery supported the Big Bang theory of the creation of the Universe and showed that the Big Bang was not a chaotic random explosion. A highly fine-tuned explosion, it appears that some being guided it along.

The Apostle Paul said, “By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command.” [Hebrews 11:3] I don’t think we need faith to know that anymore; it appears that science tells us the same thing. The writers of the Bible, however, didn’t know the theory of relativity, didn’t have telescopes telling them the universe is expanding, and had never heard of the Big Bang, thermodynamics, radiation afterglow, or variations in the temperature of the “great galaxy seeds” – they just knew the truth. Our great God is the Alpha!

I alone am God, the First and the Last. It was my hand that laid the foundations of the earth, my right hand that spread out the heavens above. When I call out the stars, they all appear in order. [Isaiah 48:12-13 (NLT)]

All glory to him who alone is God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord. All glory, majesty, power, and authority are his before all time, and in the present, and beyond all time! Amen. [Jude 25 (NLT)]

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DON’T DO IT!

Again and again the Lord had sent his prophets and seers to warn both Israel and Judah: “Turn from all your evil ways. Obey my commands and decrees—the entire law that I commanded your ancestors to obey, and that I gave you through my servants the prophets.” But the Israelites would not listen. They were as stubborn as their ancestors who had refused to believe in the Lord their God. [2 Kings 17:13-14 (NLT)]

wrong wayWe were at the symphony watching Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho while the orchestra played Bernard Herrman’s chilling soundtrack. When Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, stepped into the shower, a man in the audience yelled, ”Don’t do it!” Since most of us saw the movie decades ago, we didn’t want her to take that fatal shower either. In spite of the warning, however, she did. Since Marion was at the Bates Motel because she’d embezzled $40,000 from her boss, perhaps that man should have yelled, “Don’t do it!” much sooner.

That’s sort of what it was like when rereading the books of Kings and Chronicles recently. I knew they would end badly for both Israel and Judah but there was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t want to read their sad history again any more than I wanted to see Marion Crane die in the shower a second time. But, just as I made it through the gruesome movie murder, I made it through the disheartening saga of God’s chosen people.

No one warned Marion about Norman Bates but the people of Judah and Israel got plenty of warnings from God. The prophets Amos and Hosea told the northern kingdom they’d be taken captive by the Assyrians and both kingdoms were warned of their tragic ends by Micah. Joel and Isaiah warned Judah to turn from their idolatry and sins. Habakkuk warned them that the Babylonians would be used as an instrument of judgment and Zephaniah and Jeremiah predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. God’s chosen people couldn’t claim they weren’t warned. In fact, the warnings are found as far back as Deuteronomy when God made clear the cost of disobedience.

Scripture warns us to repent, resist the enemy, be morally alert and obedient, and not to be misled by false teachers. It warns of persecution and the dangers of lust, drifting away, prejudice, hypocrisy, and God’s impending judgment. Romans 6:23 puts it bluntly: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Like the people of Israel and Judah, we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Be careful that you do not refuse to listen to the One who is speaking. For if the people of Israel did not escape when they refused to listen to Moses, the earthly messenger, we will certainly not escape if we reject the One who speaks to us from heaven! [Hebrews 12:25 (NLT)]

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THE STAR – Epiphany

But you, O Bethlehem Eph′rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel. [Micah 5:2a (RSV)]

star ornamentIn his gospel, Matthew writes of wise men from eastern lands who saw a ”star in the East.” This actually was a Greek term used in astrology at the time, en te Anatole, which meant “at the rising.” Now known as a heliacal rising, it describes a planet that rises above the eastern horizon shortly before dawn. Just moments after its appearance, it disappears in the sun’s glare. Better reflecting this astrological meaning, many Bibles translate the wise men seeing the star “as it rose.” While we’re not exactly sure what happened in the sky that drew the Magi to Judea, today’s astronomers have a pretty good idea.

To begin, we have to clarify a few of our misunderstandings about Christmas. While we think of Jesus’s birth as being in December, it probably occurred between March and October. Winters are cold and rainy in Judea; rather than sheep being in the fields in December, the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks. Moreover, the shepherds would have been keeping watch over their flocks at night only during lambing season (March and April). We also often think of Jesus’s birth as being the dividing line between B.C. and A.D. when, in fact, our calendar is about six years off.

Because there is nothing accidental or random about the universe, the movement patterns of the sun, moon, planets and stars can be observed and predicted. From what they’ve observed of these patterns, astronomers can also work backwards. Using a computer program to do just that, Rutgers University astronomer Michael Molnar found that, at twilight on March 20, 6 B.C., the moon eclipsed Jupiter. Then, on April 17, there was a heliacal rising of Jupiter and, at noon, the moon again eclipsed Jupiter. The heliacal rising continued until December 19 and, during that time, both Jupiter and Mars appeared in Aries, a constellation traditionally associated with Judea.

Picturing the magnificent star we often see depicted on Christmas cards, I’d wondered why the Magi were the only ones to take notice this stellar event. As Molnar explains it, these astronomical happenings were not spectacular because of their appearance but because of their rarity and would have had little significance to most people. The wise men, however, were not “most people.” Most likely astrologers from Babylon, they knew the prophecies that a king would be born to the house of David. Believing this king would be born when the moon eclipsed Jupiter, they probably had been searching the sky for years looking for signs like these.

While Molnar even offers a scientific explanation for the star appearing to stop, there also are other plausible explanations for this “star,” such as a close conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter. Whether it was an unexplainable miracle or an amazing natural phenomenon that miraculously coincided with Jesus’s birth, we know that these men saw something that made them believe a king had been born in Judea. Although we celebrate their visit to the Christ child on January 6 (often called Three Kings Day), they weren’t kings, we don’t know how many there were, and they probably arrived in Jerusalem anywhere from several months to two years after Jesus’s birth.

Although the events in the sky got them close to the new king, they had to stop and ask directions to actually find the child; it was only logical that they’d ask King Herod about this new king’s birth. Astrology was prohibited to the Jews and Herod had no astrologers but he did have priests and scribes. Knowing Micah’s prophecy, they directed the wise men to Bethlehem where they found Jesus.

Throughout Scripture we read that God speaks to us and reveals Himself in nature. It was through God’s amazing celestial creation that God revealed the birth of His son to these Gentile wise men. Yet, to find the king, nature wasn’t enough; they needed Scripture. The star told of His existence and got them close but it was the Word that got them there! Let us learn from these wise men. God reveals His power, majesty, and presence in nature but merely knowing that He exists is not enough. It is through Scripture that we actually will find and meet Him; it is though God’s word that we will come to know the King.

The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely, that seek after God. [Psalm 14:2 (RSV)]

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The 8th Day – NAMING HIM

All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” [Matthew 1:22-23 (NLT)]

reddish egret

In the first century, the prescribed time for a Jewish boy to be circumcised and officially receive his name was eight days after birth. Joseph and Mary brought their baby boy to be circumcised on the eighth day of His life; at that time, they named him Jesus. As with his cousin John (whose name meant “the Lord is gracious”), Jesus’s name was not chosen by His parents but was directed by a visiting angel.

Even if the God hadn’t chosen it, Jesus was the prefect name for this boy. In Hebrew, “Jesus” means “to deliver or to rescue” or “the Lord saves” and the angel told Joseph the child would save His people from their sins. The message in Jesus’s name was that God would deliver mankind. But, truth be told, the baby’s name wasn’t really Jesus! There was no letter J in either the Hebrew or Greek alphabets so our Savior’s name actually would have been Yeshua (a shortened form of Yehoshua) which translates from Hebrew to English as “Joshua.” The New Testament, however, was written in Greek and the Greek translation of Yeshua is Iesous which translates into English as “Jesus.”

While true meaning came with Jesus’s name, that’s not true of all names. My husband’s, for example, is Robert, which comes from the German Hrodebert. Although it means “bright fame,” he’s not famous and I’ve never seen his name in bright lights. He has other, more descriptive names, as well. I call him “honey,” our children call him “Dad,” the grands call him “Poppie,” his mother calls him “son,” his best buddies call him “friend,” and his employees called him “boss” (and maybe other things behind his back).

Just as my husband can be called many names, Jesus had other designations. Both Joseph and Mary were told that the baby would be called “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us,” but “Immanuel” wasn’t His only other name. Mary also was told that her child would be called both “the Son of the Most High” and the “Son of God.” Jesus referred to himself as “the bread of life, the good shepherd, the light of the world, the resurrection and the life, the true vine” and “the alpha and omega.” At Jesus’s baptism, John the Baptist called Him “the Lamb of God” and God called Him “my dearly loved son.” I imagine the Pharisees had several much less pleasant names for Him. Perhaps my favorite titles given to Jesus are from the book of Isaiah. They are the names we recently heard sung so joyfully from Handel’s Messiah: “Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” Jesus is, indeed, all of that and much more!

There are two hundred and fifty-six names given in the Bible for the Lord Jesus Christ, and I suppose this was because He was infinitely beyond all that any one name could express. [Billy Sunday]

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity. The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will make this happen! [Isaiah 9:6-7 (NLT)]

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DIFFERENT LISTS

Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Mary gave birth to Jesus, who is called the Messiah. [Matthew 1:16 (NLT)]

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public ministry. Jesus was known as the son of Joseph. Joseph was the son of Heli. [Luke 3:23 (NLT)]

nativity

Writing about the genealogy of Jesus, as I did yesterday, posed a bit of a conundrum. While both Luke and Matthew establish that Jesus is of the house of David, meaning He fulfills the Messianic prophecies, their lists don’t match. It’s not just that Matthew begins with Abraham, goes forward, mentions women, and skips a few generations while Luke starts with Jesus and goes all the way back to Adam. Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus’s ancestry to David’s son Solomon but Luke’s traces it to David’s son Nathan. They are, however, in agreement in acknowledging the virgin birth; neither genealogy states that Joseph was Jesus’s blood father. Matthew simply calls him Mary’s husband and Luke says that people thought Joseph to be the father of Jesus.

Nevertheless, when genealogy and all those “begats” seem so important in Scripture, what explanation is there for such discrepancies? Most biblical scholars theorize that we are given two different but accurate lines of ancestors. Some say Matthew gives Jesus’s official (paternal) one through his legal father Joseph and Luke gives us His actual (maternal) one through his mother Mary. After all, Joseph was Jesus’s father in name only. While giving a mother’s lineage was unusual, so was a virgin birth! Since there was no Greek word for “son-in-law,” they suggest Joseph was the “son” of Heli through his marriage to Mary who was Heli’s daughter. That both Joseph and Mary could trace their lineage to David is not so unusual; apparently, it was customary (but not required) to marry within your tribe. Since there is no mention of Mary having brothers, she could inherit from her father if she married within her tribe. Some scholars propose this was the case and that Joseph became Heli’s heir by virtue of his marriage to Mary and, therefore, he actually had two genealogies.

On the other hand, I read several articles positing that Luke’s genealogy actually is that of Joseph and Matthew’s is Mary’s! Some scholars believe “the husband of Mary” is a mistranslation of the word aner and should read that a man named Joseph was “the father of Mary.” Giving support to this argument is that, along with mentioning Mary, Matthew also mentions four other women while, in his genealogy, Luke never even mentions her.

Over 2,000 years ago, they didn’t have Ancestry.com or 23andMe kits and we have neither Matthew nor Luke to explain. As a result, even the most knowledgeable biblical scholars merely can speculate about these two lists. As a layperson, I simply ask myself whether small inconsistencies or unanswered questions in the gospels make a difference to me. Whether one or both lists are accurate does not weigh heavily on my belief. Remembering the phrase that “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” I don’t base my faith equally on the exactness of every word in the Bible but rather on the truth of the sum of its words and the importance of their message. I firmly believe that Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies and was from David’s line; whether he did that through Nathan or Solomon really doesn’t matter. What matters is that “the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” [Luke 19:10]

“For the time is coming,” says the Lord, “when I will raise up a righteous descendant from King David’s line. He will be a King who rules with wisdom. He will do what is just and right throughout the land. [Jeremiah 23:5 (NLT)]

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. [Luke 1:31-32 (NLT)]

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