Tuesday, May 25, 2010

J.S. Bach's teaching methods

"Lastly, as long as his scholars were under his musical direction, he did not allow them to study or become acquainted (besides-his own compositions) with any but classical works. The understanding, by which alone what is really good is apprehended, develops itself later than the feeling, not to mention that even this may be misled and spoiled by being frequently engaged on inferior productions of art. The best method of instructing youth, therefore, is to accustom them to what is excellent. The right understanding of it follows in time, and can then still farther confirm their attachment to none but genuine works of art." From The Musical World, describing J.S. Bach's teaching methods. 

Also see my earlier post Educational Aesthetics

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Another Bonhoeffer quote

  
"I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Part III

This article has moved to http://atgsociety.com/2010/10/dietrich-bonhoeffer-and-the-life-of-costly-grace/

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Part II

This article has moved to http://atgsociety.com/2010/10/dietrich-bonhoeffer-and-the-life-of-costly-grace/

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Part I

This article has moved to http://atgsociety.com/2010/10/dietrich-bonhoeffer-and-the-life-of-costly-grace/

Is God the Author of Evil (and other questions about God's sovereignty)



Occasionally people write to ask me theological questions, and I enjoy this because it forces me to have to think or to give evidence for a position I have held but may not have sufficiently thought through. For example, all the following posts were written in response to questions people had asked me:

The Judiasers and Miscegenation


In this post I would like to share some answers I gave someone last year who asked me if God the author of evil? I will also include some subsidiary questions that often arise, hydra fashion, as a result of my answers.
Before jumping into this question, I must give a disclaimer. I am not a philosophical theologian, nor have I read the corpus of literature around this and related questions in the philosophy of religion. I speak purely as a lay person who has reached his conclusions primarily only through personal reflection and Bible study. I say this to acknowledge my own limitations and also to welcome feedback from those more familiar with the theological scholarship surrounding this question.
That said, let us begin. No, God is not the author of evil. There are a five reasons why I think this.
First,to say that God created and authored evil is a reductionistic approach that removes a necessary paradox from Christian theology. Any theological framework that takes seriously God’s goodness, His control over all things and the reality of evil in the world is going to have some degree of tension resulting from the interplay of these ideas. That tension (which is not just intellectual, because many of the Psalmists struggled with this tension in a very intense personal way) is necessary, not least because all the great heresies throughout Christian history have arisen from a person or a group extrapolating the implications of one principle and, in the name of consistency, overriding other foundational doctrines. Put somewhat more technically, heresy arises from a failure to preserve dialectical tension. The early Christological disputes are a perfect example, with different heretics defining the relation between Christ's humanity and His divinity in a way that failed to do justice to both. So we have to preserve a significant aspect of paradox and mystery. Other examples would be the relationship of Christ to the Eucharist or the relationship between the one-ness and the three-ness of the blessed Trinity. Where the Bible remains mysterious, we ought to remain mysterious.
Second, there have been hyper-Calvinists who have taken the position that God is the author of evil, and one of them is Gordon Clark. By reading his comments, one sees the unhealthy direction this position can take someone in. In his book Religion, Reason and Revelation, Clark writes,
"God is the sole ultimate cause of everything...The men and angels predestined to eternal life and those foreordained to everlasting death are particularly and unchangeable designed... Election and reprobation are equally ultimate... There was never the remotest possibility that something different could have happened.... God is neither responsible nor sinful, even though he is the only ultimate cause of everything. He is not sinful because in the first place whatever God does is just and right. It is just and right simply in virtue of the fact that he does it. ... Since God caused Judas to betray Christ, this causal act is righteous and not sinful. By definition God cannot sin. At this point it must be particularly pointed out that God's causing a man to sin is not sin. There is no law, superior to God, which forbids him to decree sinful acts."
While there is some truth mixed into this quote (error usually has truth mixed with it), it does trivialize evil. When Job or the Psalmists are asking God "Why, oh why are you letting the wicked prosper in his way?", the answer, according to Clark, would be simply "Evil exists because God makes people sin because God wants them to sin. End of story." This trivializes the very personal and agonizing prayers that we find in the Bible in general and the Psalms in particular. This is one of the reasons I don't want to go down that road, because it is not the road that the Biblical writers go down. (Off topic, beware of thinkers like Clark who appeal to God's actions rather than His character as the source of justice. Biblically, God's actions as well as the standards of justice and goodness proceed from the same common cause: God's own nature. C.S. Lewis pointed out that if "good" means only "what God wills", then the statement "God is good" means merely "God wills what God wills", which is meaningless, for the devil also wills what he wills.)
Third, to say that God is the author of evil does seem to make a mockery of the anti-thesis that we find throughout the war-Psalms if God is the causal force behind both sides. This would be similar to how the Rothschilds secretly financed both sides of the American civil war.
Fourth, the idea that God is the author of evil actually raises more problems than it answers. It may explain where evil comes from and how evil can co-exist with God’s sovereignty, but the answer it gives creates a host of other problems. Consider, if God is the author of evil, then a corollary of this is that He actively fosters wickedness in people's hearts. From this it follows that in some sense evil is just as much an intrinsic part of God's character as His goodness. But in that case, we are left without a standard for distinguishing between good and evil. Using God's character as the standard for distinguishing good and evil would then be akin to using a tape measure in which inches and centimetres were all mixed up and you didn't know where one started and the other left off. God can only be the standard for distinguishing between good and evil if the former and not the latter is fundamental to His character.
Fifth, if God is the author of evil, and if He fosters wickedness in people's hearts, then God is sinful by the Biblical definitions of sin and evil. In the Proverbs the ones who incite and tempt to evil, like the fool's friends or the prostitute, are just as bad as the simple man himself who falls prey to those temptations. James says that God does not tempt us, but if God is the author of evil then He is doing a lot more than merely tempting us: He is fostering the evil in our hearts and inciting us to sin. If God does this, then the words "God is good" are no longer intelligible because there is a higher reality behind the Biblical categories since God is really the energizing principle behind both the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. (Check out chapter 3 of Lewis's The Problem of Pain on some of the necessary preconditions to goodness behind intelligible. While he doesn't put enough emphasis on the noetic effects of sin, he makes some good points which relate to this question.)
I have given just five arguments, but there are many others that might be added, and R.C. Sproul deals with some of these in his chapter ‘Is Predistination Double?’ in Chosen By God. (A very good book, by the way. I have reviewed it HERE.)
Now this does not mean that evil is outside God’s perfect control. For some mysterious reason, God has seen fit to allow evil and work good out of it, to use it in His sovereign plan. If by “author of sin” a person means no more than this, then I have no problem with it. As Jonathan Edwards writes, “But if, by ‘the author of sin,’ is mean the permitter, or not a hinderer of sin; and, at the same time, a disposer of the state of events, in such a manner, for wise, holy, and most excellent ends and purposes, that sin, if it be permitted or not hindered, will most certainly and infallibly follow: I say, if this be all that is meant, by being the author of sin, I do not deny that God is the author of sin (though I dislike and reject the phrase, as that which by use and custom is apt to carry another sense). And, I do not deny, that God being thus the author of sin, follows from what I have laid down; and, I assert, that it equally follows from the doctrine which is maintained by most of the Arminian divines.”
If God is not the author of evil, where does it come from? I don't know what causes evil. One can make a good argument that God does create evil. For example, if God created everything ex nihilo, then if we trace everything back far enough He would seem to be the cause of everything like clockwork, including evil. Although such an argument has a certain logic about it, the counter-arguments presented above completely override it.  Further, as John Byl points out in The Divine Challenge, "if the falsity of the conclusion [in this case, the conclusion that God creates evil] is more plausible than the truthfulness of the premises, then it is rational to reject the premises...The advantage of this method of refutation is that one need not pinpoint exactly where the initial error occurred." 
 
At this point an atheist could say that this simply proves that the existence of evil is incompatible with a good God, but the problem here is that without God as a standard the very concept of evil is meaningless. If God’s goodness isn’t our starting point then there isn't a problem of evil because there is no ultimate standard in which the categories of good and evil can have any meaning. And that is a crucial point, for many atheists and skeptics throughout the history of Western philosophy have used the problem of evil as grounds for concluding that God is either not all-good or not all-powerful or not all-knowing. Hume's famouse formulation of the difficulty remains the most iconic of such arguments. The difficulty here is that the philosophical problem of evil assumes a neutral framework in which we can meaningfully critique God's actions in the world and conclude things about his character, ability or omniscience as a result. But in reality, once any or all of these attributes are doubted, we no longer have a framework in which we can meaningfully talk about the existence of evil at all, for evil only derives its meaning from the perfect standard provided by God's nature (which, to beat a dead horse, is another reason why it is crucial not to attribute evil to Him). That is the big difference between the problem of evil that the Psalmists struggle with vs. the standard philosophical formulations of the problems: the former rightly assumes that God is good and in control no matter what happens and even if what is happening is difficult to reconcile with God's faithfulness. Here again C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity is most helpful, in particularly the last paragraph of his chapter "The Rival Conceptions of God" (which can be read HERE)
 
Either we have God, with evil as a problem (and it is a problem for Christian philosophy, just as it was a problem for Biblical writers - see Psalm 74 and Job 21), or we have no God and no evil at all (because without God, the concept of good and evil is meaningless). But because evil is obviously a reality in our world, we must reject the second of these options. Also, it should not be overlooked that evil is a problem whatever view of free will we hold, as Doug Wilson shows on page 121-122 of his book Easy Chairs Hard Words.

What then of the standard reformed view that God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass? Can I assume from your answers above that you are not a Calvinist?
When I was first introduced to Calvinism I was told that God’s eternal decrees included everything that happened. If I chose to have raspberry jam on my sandwich rather than strawberry jam, that is because God decreed it to be the case. This isn’t really a problem when talking about jam, but it does create difficulties with regard to evil. That is why, when we started teaching our children the Westminster Shorter Catechism, I took a pencil and crossed out the part about God foreordaining whatsoever comes to pass.
But then I started seeking definitions of what exactly it meant in practice to say that God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass, and there seemed to be so many different, and sometimes contradictory, ways of explaining this, that I realized the phrase can pretty much mean whatever the speaker wants it to mean (and to a limited extent this was intended because there was disagreement among the Westminster Divines themselves on the meaning of this).
For example, some Calvinists have told me that God’s foreordination of evil is different to his foreordination of good, the latter involving active causation with the former involving mere foreknowledge and “allowing things to happen while still somehow being in control and working everything into His plan.” Defined as such, an Arminian should be able to agree (a point not overlooked by Jonathan Edwards in the above quotation), so I’m not sure what the cash value to this doctrine is (thus confirming my view, which I shall shortly articulate, that the heart of Calvinism is located elsewhere, even though this is the one that tends to cause the most problem among critics of Calvinism.).
Others explained God’s eternal decrees and foreordination by saying that God actively scripts everything, although he is not the “author” of those things that are evil. Just how God can be the cause or scripter of all things but not be the author of one thing, when author and scripter are synonymous verbs, is beyond my understanding. Nor do I understand how the same people who say “God is not the author of evil” will reply in the negative if you ask, “Are there some things that aren’t authored by God in advance?” This sounds cynical but you can mask over a great deal of theological incoherence by being able to cleverly shuffle words around.
In the end, the relationship between evil and the eternal decrees, or between evil and God’s foreordination of all things, reminds me of the endless medieval debates over the relationship of Christ to the mass and has very little practical value. Moreover, it distracts from what I believe to be the real important issues at the heart of Calvinism, which are:
(1) Does fallen man have the ability to come to God without first being regenerated by the Holy Spirit?
(2) Is Jesus’ death effectual in securing the salvation of His people?
Again, R.C. Sproul’s handling of these two questions in his book Chosen by God is very good and I would highly recommend it.
If, as the reformed tradition teaches, free will means that God lets us choose according to our desires, then what causes our desires? If you push it back far enough, aren’t we just robots controlled by God? Or does God let us autonomously shape and mould our own desires? And if God does let us mould our desires ourselves, wouldn’t that put our desires outside the will of God and contradict His sovereignty?

The good desires that we have - that is, the desires which please Him - arise from His grace, not ourselves (Acts 16:14; Luke 24:45; John 6:37). That is why David could pray and ask the Lord to create a clean heart within Him. So with that category of desires it is not correct that He lets us shape and mould them ourselves. He steps in with grace and His Holy Spirit causes us to desire what is pleasing to Him. If He let us to shape our desires ourselves then will would always tend towards evil. But whereas God cultivates good desires in our hearts, He does not foster evil in our hearts (see above). Evil desires are just the natural consequence of fallen man being left to shape and mold his desires himself without Divine grace. Putting all this together, it is only half correct that God lets us shape and mold our desires. He does when it comes to evil desires but He doesn't when it comes to good desires. Good desires arise from God’s grace; bad desires arise from ourselves because of lack of grace.
An implication of this is that God saves the saved but the damned damn themselves (hence, I do not believe in what is called double predestination) This is because sin and damnation are the natural state of post-fall man left to himself, whereas to rise above that requires divine grace. The bad desires arise simply from the nature of fallen man left to himself whereas the good desires require an injection of grace from outside.
With this important qualification in place, the scope of the last part of the question ("wouldn't that put our desires outside the will of God?") is now limited to the second category (bad desires) and not the first category (God-pleasing desires), since it is only the bad desires that we shape ourselves. With regard to these desires the answer to the question ("wouldn't that put our desires outside the will of God?") is that it depends what kind of will of God you are talking about. If you are talking about God's prescriptive will (that which God commands us to do) then the answer is yes because the bad desires that we shape/mold ourselves are outside God's will. We only have to read the description of the fool in Proverbs to know that this is the case, for the fool is clearly a person of which God disapproves, someone who is acting outside the will of God. But if you are talking about God's decretive will (that which God decrees will happen, whatever that means), then no, the bad desires that sinful man shapes and molds himself does not fall outside of God's decretive will nor do they contradict his sovereignty because:
(A) God works good out of the evil desires that men shape and mold themselves (See Colossians 1:15-20) and that is why they do not undermine His sovereignty.
(B) God has decreed that people can shape and mold their own desires, so when people do so it does not contradict God's sovereignty because His sovereignty has established that it should be so. The bad desires that we shape and mould ourselves are not outside the decretive will of God but the result of it. By "decree" I simply mean that which God has foreordained should come to pass in the sense that He knows the end from the beginning, has a perfect plan that incorporates into itself everything that happens, is never caught off guard, remains in perfect control down to the tiniest details, and so forth, and should not be confused with the hyper deterministic language that would directly implicate God with the causation of evil.

Something else to keep in mind is that God decides how much rope He's going to give the wicked based on what is necessary for the furthrance of His perfect plan - a plan that weaves all the pain and suffering into it even as music of the Ainur incorporated into it the discordant themes of Melkor in the creation account in Tolkien's Silmarillion. When God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, He was not cultivating evil in him that was not there already - He was simply giving Pharaoh more rope to realize the wickedness that was already latent within him. Someone like Pharaoh or Hitler or Stalin have been given a lot of rope to realize their evil desires, whereas someone just as wicked who lives in an asylum wrapped in a straight jacket has not even been given enough rope to harm himself.
God doesn't do the evil but He is actively in control of it. Consequently even evil men and nations are in God's hands at all times and are instruments in the outworking of His purposes. However, because God is not the one doing the evil He is not culpable and can righteously judge their sin. This has enormous implications for our personal relationship with Jesus. In and through all the circumstances we face, we can trust that God is actively working whatever happens into His will because He purposed it (meaning He intentionally decided to give the wicked more rope) for a reason that is good, even if we don't understand what that reason is. As His child we can therefore rest secure in a Heavenly Father who is at the mercy of nothing (least of all evil) and who has purposed everything according to His perfect will for us. So whatever comes to pass, we need have no fear, only confidence. It is a glorious and liberating truth.
Your discussion of good and bad desires (above) is philosophically unsatisfying since it doesn't push the question far back enough. Nor does it get at the question of where evil desires came from unless we commit some form of circular reasoning (for example, saying "we sin because we have sinful desires and we have sinful desires because we are sinful").

I appreciate the problem. Although there is a certain logic in pushing things back all the way and saying that everything originally came from God since He created ex nihilo, I am unwilling to go there simply because the Bible doesn't. The Bible does not say that God puts evil desires in people's hearts or causes evil. The closest we get to it is the Lord hardening Pharaoh’s heart, but I would recommend R.C. Sproul’s discussion of this in Chosen by God where he explains it in terms of God simply giving Pharaoh more rope.
The position that God does actively originate evil desires is the Supralapsarian Calvinist view, as opposed to the Infralapsarian view. While the Supralapsarian view is more consistent in dealing with certain categories, it does raise theological problems. When the innocent children were forced to pass through the fire to Molech and the Lord said that He was so horrified that (speaking anthropomorphically) such a thing had not even entered into His mind (Jer. 19:5; 32:35; 7:31), it is inconceivable that He had actually authored such sins like Shakespeare deciding what will happen to Hamlet. Such would seem to deny by implication the very real antithesis between God's ways and the devil's ways that we find throughout the Psalms. But having said this, we have to keep in tension the fact that God foreknew, permitted and worked such horrible acts into his perfect plan so that nothing catches Him off guard (and that is the sense in which I personally interpret the words that God "foreordained whatsoever has come to pass").

If God created everything, and if He wrote out the "story" of time from beginning to end, how is it possible that we are responsible?
We must define what we mean by God writing out the story. If we mean that He knows the end from the beginning and has a perfect plan that includes everything that happens, is never caught off guard, remains in perfect control down to the tiniest details, and so forth, then I am comfortable with that language. But if we mean that He authors or dictates everything so that nothing which happens could have been otherwise, that everything unfolds deterministically, then I deny that God wrote out a story in that sense because I deny that God fosters evil in people's hearts. As Francis Schaeffer says HERE, "Reformed theologians have insisted that Adam stood in total freedom making a choice without prior conditioning.." And again in his book The God Who Is There chapter 3, Schaeffer writes, "God, being non-determined, created man as a non-determined person.... Because God created a true universe outside of Himself (not as an extension of His essence), there is a true history which exists. Man as created in God's image is therefore a significant man in a significant history, who could choose to obey the commandment of God and love Him, or revolt against Him. There is no reformed theologian, however strong his reformed theology might be, who would not say that Adam in this way was able fundamentally to change the course of history." (Take Schaeffer’s words as good theology, not good history of reformed thought, for there are many Calvinists who would disagree with him.)
I can appreciate how it is hard to grasp that this can be true and God still be in complete control of the story, but that is where my previous comments about mystery and paradox and preserving dialectical tension have to play in. And keep in mind that the paradox is not just intellectual - on an intense, agonizing personal level the Biblical writers struggled with the fact that the aboslutely sovereign God lets the wicked to flourish for a season (Psalm 74 and Job 21).

Since my desires are going to control what decisions I make, they are going to affect God’s story, which was thought out before time began. If all of that is true, wouldn't God need to complete predetermine all our desires before we were born so that we don’t end up messing up His plan? Otherwise we could then control our own destiny, and be outside of the sovereignty of God, right?

Here again, if by "preordain before we were born" you mean that He knows the end from the beginning and has a perfect plan that includes everything that happens, is never caught off guard, remains in perfect control down to the tiniest details, actively chooses how much rope to give the wicked so that they can further His perfect plan rather than hinder it, and so forth, then my answer would be yes, God would need to preordain our decisions (in that sense) before we are born in order for His story not to get spoiled. But if by "preordain before we were born" you mean it in one of the senses which I have already rejected, then I don't know how I would answer the question because I reject the assumption behind the question.

The simple fact that we can shape and mould our own desires does not in itself undermine God's sovereignty. Saying that God is the cause of our natures, which includes the ability to shape and mould our desires, does not imply that part of God's creation is not under His control. On the contrary, if God's being the first cause of the nature of dogs makes dogs doggy and not un-doggy, then likewise God's being the first cause of human nature (including the ability to shape/ mould our own desires) makes human nature free, not un-free.
Grace establishes nature. However, there is still a sense in which one could take this in a direction that undermines God's sovereignty. For example, I've known Christians who believe that unregenerate man has everything it takes in himself to initiate a desire for Christ without the Holy Spirit first moving. That is only one example of how someone could take this into a direction that denies sovereignty and there are other ways as well. One of those other ways is described excellently by Doug Wilson in his book Easy Chairs Hard Wordson page 121 where he shows how certain ideas of free will undermine God's sovereignty. But I am getting ahead of himself and had not intended to discuss free will.

You have said that there is an inevitable tension between God’s sovereignty and evil and that it must remain a mystery. But some people explained it like this: God isn't the author of evil because he uses intermediate secondary causes. God is the one who does the evil, but he does it through means, and for this reason God is not responsible but He is still in total control of it.

I reject that explanation of God’s control. If the statement that God is not the author of evil means merely that God determines evil through secondary causation, then by the same logic we could also say that God is not the author of salvation, since He uses secondary causation in the work of redemption (Romans 10:14). OK, God is the primary and secondary cause of salvation, but by the argument above He would only get credit for the former and not the latter. From here it is a very small step to some kind of semi-pelagian soteriology.

The words of the Belgic Confession must remain the final answer when trying to penetrate mysteries such as these: "And as to what He does surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire into it further than our capacity will admit of; but with the greatest humility and reverence adore the righteous judgments of God, which are hid from us, contenting ourselves that we are pupils of Christ, to learn only those things which He has revealed to us in His Word, without transgressing those limits."

Some thinkers have suggested that evil is necessary since without evil there could be no appreciation of goodness. See, for example, Appendix 3 in Piper’s Desiring God. What do you think of that idea?

I have always been uneasy with making our appreciation of goodness dependent on evil. For one thing, consider that the Triune God is completely self-sufficient and doesn't need to have evil to demonstrate His personality any more than He needed to create the world to demonstrate His personality, let alone redeem it. God could have left our first parents in a state of bondage, He could have chosen to redeem less or more, He could have chosen not to create at all. The only things God cannot do are those things which contradict His nature. He did not NEED to create evil.

Some people take it even further and suggest that the pain, evil and misery are necessary pre-conditions for the ever-increasing enjoyment of the saints. Because, they reason, how can you appreciate light without knowing darkness. Therefore, as Jonathan Edwards concludes, “evil is necessary, in order to the highest happiness of the creature, and the completeness of that communication of God, for which he made the world...”
Those who adopt this position are forced to believe that God's love, grace, goodness, etc. are only intelligible in a world marred by evil. On a purely practical level this doesn't make sense. I don't need to go down to the Coeur D Alene dump and gaze upon the garbage there in order to appreciate the beauties of Tub's Hill. I don't need to feed on putrefied fruit and rotting bread in order to enjoy a bowl of strawberries and cream the following evening.

In
THIS blog post, Perry Robinson asks the following question: If evil is necessary in order for God's goodness to be manifested, then is creation necessary in order for God to be Lord? What then of before the creation of the world? Is the Son subordinate in essence in order for the Father to be Father and Lord over someone, lest God’s attribute of being Lord go unrealized? You can see how one could keep drawing out the implications. Perry also points out that this understand of evil entails a kind of daulism with the good eternally dependent on evil which, if taken to the logical consequence, would entail that evil needs to have existed in eternity past.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Phillips Family Liturgy for Feast of Ascension



Introduction (Dad)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, for the last forty days we have been celebrating with joyful hearts the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, His bursting from the tomb and His defeat of the power of sin and death. During this time He appeared to his disciples many times and told them about the kingdom of God.
Today we recall His ascension, when He left this earth and returned to His Father, ascending into heaven to take His throne over all dominions and powers. Trusting in His reign over all creation, and submitting to His kingly yet loving rule, let us hear the story of His parting.
First Scripture Reading (Matthew):
Acts 1:9-11
“This is the Word of the Lord.”
Thanks be to God.
Second Scripture Reading (Timothy):
Luke 24:50-53
“This is the Word of the Lord.”
Thanks be to God.
Third Scripture Reading (Miriam):
            Ephesians 4:7-13
“This is the Word of the Lord.”
Thanks be to God.
Fourth Scripture Reading (Esther):
            1 Corinthians 15:20-28
Collect for Ascension Day (Everyone)
Grant, we pray, Almighty God,
That as we believe your only-begotten Son
         our Lord Jesus Christ
to have ascended into the heavens,
so we in heart and mind may also ascend
and with him continually dwell;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen
Message (Dad)

Today is ascension Sunday, that wonderful feast that occurs forty days after Easter and remembers our Lord’s departure into Heaven. (Ascension Day was actually last Thursday, but it is hard to celebrate on a work day.)
When the church year began at Advent, we anticipated the coming of our Lord, the light of the world. When Christmas finally arrived, we celebrated His birth as a baby at Bethlehem. Soon after that, we rejoiced at Epiphany, celebrating the fact that all peoples are being brought into His kingdom. During Lent we remembered the sufferings of our Savior, leading up to the remembrance of His death on Good Friday. When Easter arrived, we rejoiced at Christ’s resurrection. Now, on Ascension Sunday, we celebrate Christ ascending into heaven, even as we look forward to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
But why should we celebrate our Lord’s ascension into heaven? Wouldn’t it have been good if Jesus had remained on earth with us?
As we were reminded in the sermon this morning, only by returning to heaven and sitting at the Father’s right hand is Jesus able to begin His messianic reign (Psalm 110). And He will continue reigning in heaven until He has put all his enemies under His feet (1 Cor. 15: 25)
After all things have been put under His feet, Jesus will return again and conquer the last enemy: death itself (1 Cor. 15: 26). In the meantime, however, and because of the ascension, Jesus is both absent and present.
He is absent because He ascended into Heaven. That is why the only people now who can see Jesus’ physical body are those who have died and gone to wait with Him in heaven.
It is important not to forget that Jesus is a real man, with a real human, physical body, with two legs, two arms, one nose. But while He is like us in these respects, He is different to the degree that He already been given His new body - the resurrection body that has been glorified and is no longer subject to the death principle. When He comes again and finishes defeating death, we too will be given glorified bodies and we will be able to see Him face to face.
In the meantime, Jesus has not entirely abandoned the earth, for even as He was ascending, He promised to send the Holy Spirit to His people, which we celebrate next Sunday at Pentecost. He also gives us Himself every Lord’s Day in the sacraments and the preaching of the Word. He is present also with us in the church – as imperfect as it is - and the various offices that have been given to us as gifts, which the passage from Ephesians 4 reminds us about.
When Jesus comes again, then His full presence – which the sacraments and the church give us mere glimpses - will be manifested on the earth.
Thus the ascension is both happy and sad, both bitter and sweet. Certainly the disciples were sorry to see Jesus leave them, and the angels had to come and encourage them with the hope that He would one day come again. But the feast of ascension is also happy, because only by taking His seat in heaven at the helm of the world is He able to intercede for us and begin the long and gradual process of subjecting all things to him.
It is very appropriate, therefore, that we are have lemon meringue pie. This pie, like the ascension, is both sour and sweet. And even as “a cloud received Jesus out of their sight,” so the fluffy toping on the pie is as close as food can get to looking like a cloud.
One final thing to think about. The project of Jesus subjecting all things under His feet applies to really big things. To applies to England, it applies to America, to China, to Russia as well as to all the small nations that we don’t hear a lot about. It applies to all the lands below the equator to all the lands above the equator. It applies to all these places because one day the worship of God will fill all of these lands as the waters cover the sea. One day even wicked places like North Korea and Iran will ring with people singing Psalms on the Lord’s Day, and they won’t have to do it in secret.
But the work of the Messianic age doesn’t just take place on the big scale. The work which Jesus began after He ascended on high is something that is taking place right here in our home and in our hearts. Part of what it means for Jesus to put all things under His feat is that he moves in our hearts to bring love where there was once unlove, graciousness where there was once pettiness, kindness where there was once bickering and contention. Every time you put the needs of one of your brothers or sisters above yourself, every time you speak graciously to your brothers and sisters when you were tempted to yell, every time you forgo something you wanted to do in order to meet the need of someone else, and every time you obey your parents without back-talking or being grumpy about it – that is proof that the power of Jesus is working to subject all things to Himself.
With these thoughts in mind, let us pray and give God thanks for the food...

Song after Dinner:
            Doxology


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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Bonhoeffer on listening

"The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God's love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies."

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