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“Just a Symbol”?

In Time on January 28, 2016 at 4:20 pm

Is today (January 28, 2016) closer to

A) January 27, 2016

or

B) January 28, 1986?

The obvious answer is A), because we almost always think of time as sequential, but for the friends and family of the five astronauts and two payload specialists that died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on this date in 1986, the answer would likely be B).   LambI watched the launch of the Challenger with my grade eight and nine students.  We watched for a few hours after as we tried to understand how this could have happened.  This was a meaningful event.  Chronologically, yesterday is closer to today, but if meaning is our standard, at least for some people, today is closer to this date 30 years ago than was yesterday.

The non-sequential nature of time is something we usually ignore, but it can add significant depth and experience to our lives if we are more aware of it.  I’ll attempt to illustrate this using the elements of Tim Keller’s sermon called “The Story of the Lamb.”

The story of the Lamb is actually the story of three lambs.

The story of the second lamb cam be found in the book of Exodus.  The Israelites are slaves in Egypt and as prologue to releasing his people, God has sent nine plagues upon the land of Egypt.  The tenth plague will be the death of the first born.  In  Exodus 12:23 we an amazing twist in time:

When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.

The Destroyer.  This destroyer does not bring regular destruction, but End-Times destruction–Revelation 9:11:

And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.

Lamb1This Destroyer, then, who visits death upon all the first born of Egypt is the bringer of End-of Time Judgement, long before the end of time.  Time is bent when the Destroyer of the future kills all the first born in ancient Egypt who were unprotected by the blood of the second lamb.

Importantly, the tenth plague is not just the death of the first born Egyptians, but the first born of any who live in Egypt–this includes the Hebrews.  The Hebrews are not exempt from Eternal Destruction–they are not saved by their own merit, nor by God’s ignoring of their sin.  They are saved by the blood of the lamb.  The Passover is the central act of Jewish worship – and it commemorates salvation by “the bloody death of a helpless victim”–the second lamb.

The first lamb is found in Genesis 22.  God says to Abraham,

Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you. (22:2)

In this culture, the first born already belonged to God; he has a claim on the first born as representative of the family(Exodus 22, Numbers 3 and 8)–the firstborn’s life is forfeit.

You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day. (Exodus 22:29-30)

The first born, as the representative of the family, bore the guilt of the entire family.  Abraham, Keller says, believed that God was just calling in the debt.  Although the father would have been distressed by the loss of his son, sacrificing Isaac was also an act of giving God his due.  Just before Abraham can carry out the sacrifice, angel of the Lord calls out “Stop.”  Then this:

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  (Genesis 22:13)

God himself provided the alternate sacrifice.  The ram functions as a substitute for the first born who is himself a representative of Abraham’s family.

Lamb2Back to the second lamb. In the Exodus story, the Hebrews understood that God  was, again, making a claims the on the debt of the first born, and that he, again, provided an alternate.  When they heard God’s instructions for the first Passover, they would likely make the connection to the first lamb–the ram caught in the thicket which took the place of Isaac on the alter.  The story of the second lamb doesn’t mean what it means without the story of the first lamb.  Again, time is bent back upon itself.

The deliverance from Egypt wasn’t the solution to all their problems–they still lived in a spiritual bondage, and consequently were subject to Final Judgement. To solve this problem, they need another lamb–Lamb 3, Jesus.  John the Baptist called him “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Lamb4The night Jesus was arrested, he ate the Passover meal with his disciples.  This night, the lamb wasn’t on the table, but at the table.  The first two lambs were just animals.  The ram that took Isaac’s place on the alter did not actually save the boy.  Nor did the Passover lambs save the Hebrews by their death.  The first two lambs only pointed to the third.  The third lamb was the God’s Son, but this time no one yelled, “Stop.” Like the first two lambs, his death was in the stead of those who deserved it.  Unlike the first two lambs, Jesus is the ultimate lamb that provides the ultimate salvation.

The central act of Christian worship, Communion, commemorates “the bloody death of an innocent victim.”  The bread and the wine in which Christians partake an obedient response to Jesus command to “do this in remembrance of me.”  In it we remember Jesus, the Lamb of God, giving his life for us, once and for all, on the cross.

Christians have different views as to what happens at communion, from the supernatural event of transubstantiation to it being a completely human act or “just a symbol.”  If we think of time only as sequence, the Passover and the Last Supper happened many, many centuries ago. If they are relevant at all, they are relevant only as a symbol. If you understand that time has loops, it becomes far more than a mere symbol.

Lamb5When we partake of the bread and wine, we are not simply remembering an event that took place 2000 years ago.  We are standing at the convergence of several events, profound events each involving a substitutionary death.

Jesus died once for all, but as time bends, we stand before him as he says the words “this is my body, for you.”  Communion is not merely a memorial because Jesus is active as he offers us the bread and wine–his body, not many times, but once.  But with the bending of time, he’s offering it now.  One death and resurrection, but a continual offering of Grace.

As you partake of the Communion meal this weekend,  think about the nearness in time, higher time, of the ram that took Isaac’s place on the alter, the Passover lambs that died in order to protect the Hebrews from an early encounter with The Destroyer of The End-Times.  Think especially about the Lamb of God–the ultimate lamb–who died to save us from the ultimate consequences of our sin and who is right now seated on the throne of heaven.  Think about standing at the convergence of all the Communion meals being celebrated across space and time as Jesus offers us the salvation he paid for with his life.

If you manage to catch just a glimpse of any of this, you will not be able to think of The Lord’s Supper as “just a symbol.”

Why I am not a Conservatyve

In Books, Movies and Television, Why I am not a "Liberal" or "Conservative" on January 10, 2016 at 12:46 am

BibleI am not a Conservatyve because of three books.

Before I get to the books, let me just say that there are a lot of intelligent liberals and conservatives who hold their views because of careful thought and research.  I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about cheap imitations. My wife refers to inferior derivations of good things as being “spelled with a ‘y’.” So cheap over-processed cheese, she’d call “cheese spelled with a ‘y’,” as in “cheyse.”

I don’t really like to use the terms “liberal” and “conservative” because they have become caricatures–Lyberil and Conservatyve.  When I wrote a post about Why I am not a Liberal, people quite correctly took me to task for mischaracterizing what a liberal is, at least there version of it.  The reason that people push back against these labels is exactly the reason I am writing this post–there really is no such thing as a Lyberal or a Conservatyve.  The Lyberal exists only in the mind of the conservative, and vice-versa, but scratch beneath the surface and you will find all sorts of gradations.  Having said this, I do have my doubts–when I hear what some people write in the comments section of blogs and Facebook posts, I wonder if the caricatures might actually be becoming descriptive.

I don’t know where the truth lies between the extremes on the continuum, but I am confident that for most issues it lies somewhere in between and my instinct tells me it’s usually toward the centre.  How do we discover where truth lies?  Dialogue is one of the best ways.  Sadly in a world of Lyberals and Conservatyves, there can be no dialogue, only diatribe.  So this post is an attempt to drag one or two issues toward the centre.

I am not a Conservatyve because of three books.

The first book is the Bible.  I believe that the Bible is the world of God.  When I read the Bible, Old and New Testaments, I see a pretty clear and consistent message that He wants all people, but especially his chosen ones, to think more about how they can bless other people rather than to grab for money and power so as to gratify their own needs.  There are regular injunctions to take care of the poor and, for those in power, to make sure there is justice for the poor.  It is also apparent from the Holy Scriptures that God is an environmentalist and that He wishes, in some respects, Americans were more like the French.  The Conservatyve seems to be against these things.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck changed my life.  It’s about people who are poor.  They are poor to begin with, but things get a lot worse when the big banks and big business turn them off the land, leaving them with no means to feed themselves or their families.  Beginning with the used-car salesmen who sell them junk vehicles, their journey from Oklahoma to California is filled with people abusing them, ignoring their desperation or taking advantage of their plight.  It’s been a long time since I read it so I might have the details wrong, but in one rare act of kindness the family on whose journey the narrative is focused received a bit of beef fat.  The mother mixed the rendered fat with flour and made some dumplings.  In the context of their desperate condition, this meagre meal was a feast.  Ever since, I have never looked at discarded fat, bone and gristle the same way.  Importantly, these people were not in this condition because they were lazy, they were in this condition because of vast forces like government policies, climate, geography, economics, and (not insignificantly) human greed and corruption.

I have just finished reading A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.  If I hadn’t read The Grapes of Wrath, this novel would have saved me from Conservatysm.  The setting of A Fine Balance is India, and it too explores the life of the poor which is not really all that different than that of the Joad family in Steinbeck’s novel.  It’s frustrating at times to experience vicariously what it is like to live between hope and despair–with despair usually in the ascendant.  Here again, the Conservatyve myth that the poor are poor because they are lazy is shown as the lie that it is.

People are usually poor, for the same reason people are rich–not because they did or didn’t work hard, not because they made good decisions or not, not because they had initiative or not.  People are rich or poor because of government policies, climate, geography, economics, and human greed.  The only difference between the rich and the poor is into which circumstance one was born.

I found myself responding to these novels in two ways–compassion and gratitude.  Conservatyves aren’t very compassionate and that’s because they aren’t very grateful.

These two novels are great works of literature.  One of the functions of literature is to broaden and deepen our understanding–I am a Canadian in 2016–I don’t know what it’s like to be poor; I didn’t live in the 1930s, or in India.  I get enough of a glimpse of what it might be like through these novels–and they changed me.  They move me toward an understanding of others and their lives and, consequently, bring me closer to dialogue.

I don’t think Conservatyves read–or they don’t read the right things.

Please read these books.

 

 

Christians are Anti-Progress

In Time on December 31, 2015 at 5:44 am

ProgressBChristians are often resistant to progress, sometimes when they shouldn’t be.  I am resistant to the label because I don’t think, in many respects, Christianity calls us to be inherently anti-progress.  But in one sense, I am OK with this label.

The Good was traditionally understood to fall into the transcendent category.  We are much more materialistic these days and, consequently, are suspicious of, or flatly reject, the category.  We haven’t lost the idea of good, but it has moved from a higher ideal to the material realm.  It now lives at the end of every line of progress, which we see everywhere, even where it doesn’t exist.  The good is now “just what happens next.”  Pastor and blogger Toby Sumpter (“Committed as Christmas”) argues that living in this “evolutionary universe” erodes commitment.

The Biblical worldview emphasizes commitment–God is so committed to humanity that he would die for us.  People exhorted to be committed to God, parents, spouses, children, governments, neighbours, church and creation.  A commitment to commitments is out of step with the dominant culture.  Sumpter says that this “is why marriage . . .  is not merely an old fashion custom, it is positively anti-progress.”

It is not inappropriate to find pleasure in change.  We were created to desire change.  I love the changes between the seasons and, although I love steak and mashed potatoes, I don’t want to eat them two days in a row.  But we were also made to crave permanence.  The things that human beings love most are a balance between change and permanence:

Baseball always has four bases that are positioned 90 feet apart and there are always three outs per inning.  These permanent qualities are complemented with change, for no two games are alike.  In this blend of constancy and variety is the appeal of baseball.

The same is true of our fascination in watching a lava lamps, a campfire, or waves crashing onto the beach.  Our fascination is rooted in the balance between newness and change.

The problem arises, when we lose the balance between permanence and change.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis attributes our obsession with new experiences to demonic activity.

Now just as we [the tempters] pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty.  This demand is entirely our workmanship. . . .  Only by our incessant efforts is the demand for the infinite, or unrhythmical, change kept up.

The task of the demons is made much easier by the evolutionary worldview that dominates popular thought in our culture.  Change is a good, but it is not The Good.  So in a sense, it is appropriate for Christians to be labelled inherently anti-progress.