Friday, January 31, 2014

The Womb of God

The wrath of God. The phrase shouts at us.
You might as well write it in capital letters. The WRATH OF GOD.

Probably God’s single most alienating feature. Nobody wants to hear all that about fire and brimstone, damnation and hell. Do you? Sure, sinners deserve punishment, but don’t you find it hard to respect a God who loses his temper at the drop of a hat? Who sets the standard so high no one can reach it, and then condemns us for failing to please him?

Or are you one of those who know God is good and loving, yet have a hard time wrapping your mind around the absolute wildness of divine retribution?

No, God’s wrath is not an easy subject and while we may avoid it for a lifetime, something inside tells us we will face it in the end. Oh, what will we do then?

I can’t help but think we’re missing something.

Scripture indeed portrays God’s wrath as fire. Fire rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah. Fire consumed Aaron’s sons who mishandled sacred objects. Fire destroyed the grumblers on the outskirts of Israel’s camp in the wilderness. Jesus presented a horrifying picture of hell: the fire of Gehenna, Jerusalem’s garbage dump, roaring day and night for years on end. The Bible’s ultimate image of the wrath of God is the eternal burning of the Lake of Fire.

Actually, it isn’t just wrath. Scripture shows God himself as a holy fire. He accompanied newborn Israel out of Egypt as a pillar of fire. Fire descended on Mount Carmel and burned up Elijah’s sacrifice. Three young Hebrews met God in a fiery furnace in Babylon. The Holy Spirit rested as a tongue of fire on each believer at Pentecost.

From this we may conclude one thing: when Bible characters saw the wrath of God in action, they were simply experiencing his unrestrained being. As Paul put it, God dwells in unapproachable light. Moses spent forty days on the “mountain that couldn’t be touched and that was burning with fire” but not even he could look upon God’s face and live.

Fire is the ideal picture of the holiness of God, the white-hot purity of absolute rightness of being. Eternal, infinite, sovereign. Omniscient, almighty, transcendent. Faithful, wise, loving, and just. Righteous Father, Begotten Word, Spirit of Holiness. God is perfect—complete and unflawed. And the core instinct of his being is to preserve his own perfection, to magnify his excellence, to manifest his beauty.

Now, in this perfection we live and move and have our being. Think about it. Everything that has been made—from the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos to the infinitesimal energy strings holding space-time together—everything exists within the greater reality that is God. Like an unborn child in its mother’s womb, the universe abides in the depths of its Creator.

But the creation is far from perfect. Disease and decay taint what he has made. God warned his people many times, “Be holy for I am holy,” because the relentless resolve of holiness is to seek out and destroy the unholy. That’s the essence of wrath: holiness on the loose, conforming all things to itself. God’s response to ungodliness and corruption is as sure as hitting the ground follows stepping off a ledge.

So how is it that we are not consumed?
Because in his great love, God restrains holiness. Every day. Morning after morning we awaken in the womb of God, in the place where deep love and mercy, compassion and tender affection, shield us and nurture us while we grow in godliness. The endless rhythm of the dawn beautifully showcases this truth. God covenanted in the long-ago days of Noah that while the earth remains, day and night would not cease. Mercy will never fail.

Mercy is that movement in the heart of God that would protect what he has made, even from himself. Like Moses on Mount Sinai, the hand of God protects his chosen. For now, sweet but mighty mercy guards us, like a cleft in the rock, from a holy storm.

Another day is coming, though, a dreadful day when God’s mercy will no longer hold back the burning fire of holiness. When God appeared on Mount Sinai, the earth shook. Fire and thunder filled the air. His people fled in terror, and rightly so. Once more, Hebrews tells us, he will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.

Think about what that means. Not just the ungodly will meet God face to face but all creation. Oceans and mountains, stars and trees. Saints and sinners, the saved as well as the damned. The fire of his presence is coming when every person, place and thing will be laid bare before his holy being. As Scripture puts it, we will see the great I Am as he really is.

Yet the day when holiness goes hunting is a day of hope. Oh, thank God, he made a way for holiness to recognize itself in us! How? By becoming one of us. He grew up as a creature just as we do. He learned obedience and he suffered death. There on the altar of Calvary, he offered his righteousness to atone for our sin.

Imagine the next scene. Having departed the flesh, the spirit of Jesus stood in the midst of the Holy Fire and looked his Father in the face. He stands there still, an everlasting plea for his brethren creatures. Bearing the blast furnace of God’s fierce anger. Turning it aside from all who hide their lives in him. So great was his glory in that moment that life returned to his crucified and buried body.

Then God did what he’d aimed at all along. He poured out his creature-tinged Spirit, a little smidge of the Holy, to inhabit all who come to him by faith. Holiness looks the same in us as it does in him. God’s excellence is at the center of his affections and ours. The Holy Spirit, the dynamic love between the Father and Son, is at work within us, wooing us, centering our hearts on the splendor of his Majesty as we learn to abide in Christ. Thus he increases our godliness. Thus he makes us holy.

This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Ugly Oyster and the Pearl of Great Price

Life is an oyster.
It’s supposed to be a pearl, some primeval instinct tells us, but we know better. So we pretend. We put on an outward show of glamor and confidence, success and purpose. Still, when we’re all alone in the middle of the deep dark night, we’re down with the oyster. Cold, wet, hidden in a hard, impenetrable shell. Anything strong enough to open us and know us will kill us. And we know that too.
Just look at an oyster.
Have you ever seen a less attractive creature? You’d hardly even guess it is a creature. More like a rock, and an ugly one at that.
Open it up, but I warn you. A raw oyster looks like a giant booger. A giant dirty booger. The sight of it makes you wrinkle your nose and turn your face away. 
What sacred irony is this, then, that imbedded in a slimy mess and encased in a flinty monster of the deep lies beauty beyond imagining? 
We get the symbolism of a pearl, of course. Something beautiful can be found in something ugly, but it’s little comfort. Why would anyone even pick up an oyster in the first place?
In our more philosophical moments, we appreciate that pearls form in adversity.
The ugly little oyster may be one of gazillions in the vast universe beneath the sea, but he’s ultimately alone, disconnected. Mindless of how he’s perceived, he carries on with his insignificant life, daily extracting nutrients from the very water whose current brutalizes him and whose pressure constrains him. Badly beaten by forces of nature, his shell becomes hard and ugly. It matters not at all that its inner surface is lustrous, made of the same material as pearls.
Life on the inside is a battle too. He protects himself as well as he can by coating irritants and parasites in nacre, mother-of-pearl, turning them into precious gems. Thus affliction is the seed of grace.
Now, grace… that turns the whole story on its head.
What if the whole point of the oyster is to make a pearl?
What if the eternal soul being formed in us is the pearl of great price for which the merchant sold all he had? Jesus told us as much. The Son of God gave up his entire celestial estate to purchase us for himself.
But I think there’s a deeper mystery here. I think Jesus himself is God’s pearl of great price.
Think about it. Isaiah 53 tells this full well. He “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” In plain English, his outside was ugly. He was pressured, misunderstood by his generation, “despised and rejected by men… as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Life on the inside wasn’t easy for him either. He was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” And although he bore “our griefs and carried our sorrows” without complaint, “yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”
He was oppressed. He was afflicted. He was judged and condemned and taken away for the sin of his people. He was “pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities.”
The “chastisement that brought us peace” may have been laid upon him, and his wounds may be our healing. Yet in the end “it was the will of the Lord to crush him.” It was his own Father who put him to grief.
Why? When he was so holy. So good. So pure. Why this exchange when we’re so unholy, so unworthy, so fouled by malice and evil?
I’ll tell you why. Because that’s how pearls are made. And everysingle… gate into the New Jerusalem is a single pearl (Rev 21.21).
That’s right. There’s no other way into the presence of God than through this one great life. A life forged in the belly of affliction only to be lifted high on the heights of Calvary. A life laid in the stone-cold tomb only to be raised to life in an Easter garden. A life made lower than the angels only to ascend to the eternal throne. Jesus has become a royal diadem in the hand of his God, whose crowning jewel is the Priceless Pearl.
From a worldly point of view, Jesus’s contemporaries may have regarded him as an ugly little oyster but we should do so no longer. Surely they never guessed the truth, or they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
Makes you wonder what kind of pearl your little oyster-life is forming, no?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Pierced Hands and Dirty Feet

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.  John 13.1
“Oh, please, let me change her,” said my mother-in-law. My three-month-old daughter had just announced to the room that her digestive tract worked well.
“You want to?” I asked, incredulous.
She picked up the infant with a smile. “I just want to hold her.”
Grandma knew the secret, you see, that time is too short for love to have its fill. Too soon my baby would be grown and out of the house, no longer available for the cuddling love a maternal heart pours out.
Like Grandma, Jesus is famous for doing the dirty chore, and the Bible tells us he did it because of love.
Go back with me to the night he was betrayed. Supreme forces of good and evil were at work that fated night, well beyond what human eyes could see. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power. He knew that he had come from God and was returning to God. And he knew the road back home was not going to be easy.
Maybe that’s why he was so eager to share this Passover with his friends. On the one hand, he’d be back with the Father he loved above everything. On the other, it meant leaving his disciples behind. They didn’t realize it yet, but this was to be their last supper together.
Before the group could lounge around the table, though, they had a problem. The Darling of Heaven had dirty feet, and so did the men he hung around with. Custom dictated that the lowest servant in the house wash the guests’ feet. Instead, the host—God himself—wrapped a towel around his waist, knelt down, and took care of the problem. Every foot. Man by man. One after another. Until all were clean.
In this, Jesus “set them an example” that they should do as he had done. A fine example of serving others, humbling ourselves, forgiving offenses, yes, all that and more. The Bible contains no clearer, more poignant picture of grace.
More than the Divine bending low to serve, however, we see a very tender—very human—side of Jesus. Think about it. Jesus played the role of the least of God’s servants. Why? So he could touch his disciples one last time. “Having loved his own… the time had come to leave this world… he began to wash their feet.” Don’t get sidetracked by Peter's bombast. Don’t make a lesson out of Jesus's gentle reproof. If you do, you might just miss the heartbeat of God.
God loves his people with an everlasting love yet until Jesus, the Creator-creature barrier separated him from them. Not to be denied his heart’s desire to show love to the children of Adam, God had spent thousands of years crafting a nation to whom he might draw near. In all that time, he never once showed his face to a single human being.
Then the Incarnation. In Jesus, God lived among his people as one of them. No small thing for the Creator to become a creature, a man who walked and talked and ate and wept and laughed with all the other creatures. He looked on their faces and they looked on his. How he must have enjoyed his time on earth!
Jesus spent the last three years of his life soaking up intimacy with these 12 imperfect men, including one who would doubt him, one who would deny him, one who would betray him. Thirty-three years must have seemed far too short when on this night, his last night, he embraced the fact that time was up. God had drawn near, as near as could be, but as is the way in this fallen world, all good things come to an end. This is what it means to be human.
If you knew you had less than 24 hours to live, how would you spend them? Jesus leaped at the chance to touch his friends, to place his hands on their skin, to hold them in a way they would never forget. Grime did not keep him from relishing the feel of their flesh. Ever after, dirty feet would remind them of the life they had shared with the master who called them friends.
Our nearest and dearest sometimes dirty up our relationships. So what? Our time here is so very short. Don’t let the muck keep you from savoring the ones you love. Be like Jesus. Palms that capture memories today may well be pierced for transgressions tomorrow. Such is the nature and privilege of love. Trust that the Father has your back and while there’s still time, go after your beloved in a way no one will forget.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Ten Percent is Ten Percent

“Is 10 percent of eleven, $1.10?” asked my son on the way to church one Sunday.
“Yes,” I replied.
He rustled through his cash, counting the $10 he had received for allowance and the $1 he got for a lost tooth.
Later during the service I watched him take out his wallet, place the single in the offering plate, and reach in his pocket for a dime. By the time he retrieved it, however, the plate had passed by.
“Wait!” he called.
Getting out of his seat, he scrambled across people to the end of the row, and chased the usher down the aisle to add his coin to the collection.
This was not your typical ten-year-old, giving only a single dime from his entire allowance. No, the boy knew well that God asks for a tenth, and he was determined to give it. Not begrudgingly or under compulsion, but with a cheerful grace that challenges me (2 Co 2.9).
What intrigues me is not that my son tithes but how keen he is to do so. Some people—kids and adults—won’t part with a spare penny. Why is he different? Where did he learn the secret behind Jesus’ words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Ac 20.35)?
The answer lies partly in his point of view. At age ten, he has no idea how finances work but he never goes without. He has no bank account, no job, no steady income. Yet he never worries about healthy meals or clean laundry. Every day he is safe. Every cut gets bandaged. He has friends and family. To him, this is how the world is meant to be. And so he gives without hesitation and without fear.
He also seems to have taken to heart the father’s words to the prodigal’s older brother, “All that I have is yours.” (Lk 15.31) He has freely received all that he has, and he knows it. He doesn’t earn money by doing chores or by being good. It just comes to him at the appointed time: birthdays, Christmas, monthly allowance, etc. He cannot articulate that God works through others to care for him. He just knows that home is a safe place where he is loved in practical ways—his needs are met, and he is accepted and embraced.
Is this how we view belonging to the family of God? Do we trust our heavenly Father to provide for all our needs—material and personal? Do we appreciate that we are loved and cared for just because we are his? And does such knowing make us climb out of our seats to give what is asked of us?
Maybe that’s why Jesus said we should come to him as little children (Mt 18.31). My son has taught me that in our Father’s house we will always be free to live with generosity and joy.
  I love that boy.