Sunday, 26 December 2010

Poetic Imagination v Revelation?

I received a very special and unexpected Christmas present, a copy of "the History of the World in a 100 Objects". It is the text that has accompanied a BBC series in which 100 items from the British Museum have been selected to tell the story of human history. It is beautifully produced with great art plates of some amazing artefacts. I am one of those odd people who read the Prefaces and Introductions to books and this book has both; they explain the philosophy behind the book in some detail.

Some years ago I while working in the City of London I attended a lunch-time lecture at the British Museum on the Philosophy of History. There is an old adage that there is 'no such thing as uninterpreted history'. That means that all history is edited and interpreted, almost always by the victors who put their own spin on events. This lecture declared that we can pass no judgments of any kind on history without reinterpreting it and advocated a kind of history without conscience in which we pass no moral comment but simple 'give the facts'. It is impossible of course for any human being to be really objective in 'giving the facts'. Only the man or woman who knows they are subjective and takes that into account has any chance of 'giving the facts'. Those who have dabbled in the mystery may recognise the 'post modern' approach of my lunch time lecturer.

The preface and introduction of my Christmas present give a different slant. They declare, particularly with pre-text artefacts, that it is essential to use 'poetic imagination' in the interpreting of history. I read of a man chipping away at a flint hand axe whose mental processes of flint-knapping stimulated those parts of the brain that would create language. It created, I read, the kind of language which had the vocabulary of a seven year old child. (notice, not a 6 or 8 year old child) It then takes this 'fact' into the next chapter and uses it as the foundation for the next layer in human evolution in which carved animals and human figures show the evolution of religion. For 'poetic imagination' read 'sheer speculation'.

Are we then at the mercy of the imagination of our poets for our understanding of the world in which we live or is there an alternative? Short of the discovery of time travel the only alternatives can be imagination or revelation. There are aspects of life of which we can discover absolutely nothing by our own investigations, but we need not be ignorant of all these. God has given us, not a poetic speculation, but a unique and reliable revelation in the Scriptures. We know where 'religion' came from; it came because men had rejected 'revelation'.
although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Rom 1:21–25 NKJV
Idolatry then, whether in physical images or in contemporary philosophies, is always the consequence of turning our back on revelation.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Paul and the Nativity: Part Two

Our first look at Paul and the Nativity took us on a round trip from heaven's throne to Calvary's Hill and back again. This second glimpse into the 'why' of the incarnation comes in the midst of an appeal that Paul makes for contributions to his 'poor saints fund'. He reminds the saints in Corinth of the 'unspeakable gift' that God in Christ has already made.
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich. 2 Cor 8:9 NKJV
It a brief sentence that holds wonderful revelation. When Paul speaks of Christ 'becoming poor' he is not thinking of Bethlehem and the manger, although that is included. In his birth the Son of God 'became poor' but that poverty was relative. He was born into a working family where Joseph presumably had his small family business. That was comparative poverty but the Greek language would have a word for that; the man for whom it was necessary to do a day's work so that he had the resources to buy bread to give him the strength to the same thing all over the next day.

But New Testament Greek has another word which means abject poverty, the poverty of the beggar who has no resources whatever. Perhaps we could make the point like this; by his birth in Bethlehem the Son of God was impoverished but at Calvary he was 'beggared'.

"He was rich" goes farther back that we can imagine. In the eternity before time began the godhead coexisted in perfect union and delighted in each others' company. Before a single star was made the one that we now know as the Son of God was 'rich'; not 'rich' in possessions but in relationship. God is the only self-sufficient being in the universe; all else is daily dependent upon him.

If 'rich' then means fellowship and harmony within the godhead what can 'beggared' mean? Surely it can only mean the loss of his 'riches'. Was there such a time when the Son of God was bereft of such 'riches'? Yes, there was and we hear it the the testimony of his dereliction; "My God, My God why have you forsaken me?" This was the culmination of a staggering journey. The Gospels tell the story of the journey's beginnings in incarnation, birth and life but it was at Calvary that the journey reached its furthest extremity. Stuart Townend captures the truth in his contemporary hymn;
How deep the Father's love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory
The cry 'forsaken' was not a misapprehension but the heart-broken testimony of one who was never deceived and only ever spoke the truth.

But if 'rich' means harmony and fellowship with God and 'made poor' means the loss of harmony and fellowship how are we to understand the rest of this brief sentence? In mathematical terms we have 'established a value for 'rich' and another for 'made poor' but Paul is not retelling the record he is answering the unasked question 'why?' What was the purpose of this event that Stuart Townend describes as a 'searing loss'? The answer could not be more plain... it was so that others might become 'rich'.

Now we have already established a value for the word 'rich' so we can declare categorically that the 'searing loss' was 'in order that through his poverty others might become 'rich'; that others might gain access into that 'harmony and fellowship' with God that the Son of God relinquished at Calvary.

I pray for all who read this at this Christmas-time, that the promise of Isaiah's prophecy may be further fulfilled in each one, that...
He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied. Is 53:11 NKJV

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Paul and the Nativity: Part One

There is a line in a Graham Kendrick song which says...
...if you keep him in the manger,
then there is no danger
from the Christmas child.
Herod, of course, did not fear the child in the manger but the man he would become. To yield up the throne is the most difficult thing ever asked of human beings and ultimately, at some point in life, we will be faced with the age-old challenge; do we crown him or crucify him? There are no alternatives to this stark choice.

As we move from the Gospels to the Letters we discover that the writers are not apparently interested in the kind of events that are recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As historians their task was mainly along the lines of 'what has happened'. The early Christians had many faithful witnesses to 'what has happened', questions they now faced were those answered in the Letters; 'why did these things happen? and what are the lasting implications.

Paul seems to have little to say about angel visitors, wise men and shepherds; that is not his brief. He knows those records but his task is to ask 'what does it all mean?' This is Part One of Paul's Nativity teaching.
Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Phil 2:4–11 NKJV
That thrilling passage of Scripture is a mixture of amazing choices and amazing consequences. Paul has gone behind and beyond the story of the Nativity; he telling us 'why is all happened'. It is thrilling to identify the choices that the Son of God made and the consequential things that 'happened to him'.

First something he refused to do; he refused to his equality in the godhead as a prize to be snatched for. Being in the form of God he refused to claim his rights then he 'emptied himself'. There are important historical theological reasons why translators don't usually translate that as 'emptied' but 'emptied himself' and 'made himself of no reputation' are both legitimate translations; with either translation the point is that he performed the actions himself, it did not 'happen' to him but was an action that he took.

The list continues; he himself took on the form of a bond-servant. This was not an inevitable consequence on incarnation, this is part of the reason for the incarnation. This was his choice to come into our world as a bond-servant. It continues, he humbled himself; he was not 'humbled by the incarnation', the incarnation was the consequence of his self-humbling.

Down, down he comes from the highest to the lowest; from godhead to bondservant. He chooses to humble himself and chooses to be obedient to the death, and not just any death but 'the death of the cross'; the kind of execution that bond-servant, non-persons were subjected to under Roman law. In a few masterful strokes Paul maps the journey from heaven's throne, through Bethlehem's stable and Calvary's hill and back to heaven's throne again. It is breathtaking.

His current reign demands a response. Like Herod we may refuse his reign or like the wise men and the shepherds we may bow at his feet. Not the feet of a child in a cattle trough but at the feet of the one whose reign will know no end. We have tracked his choices, now he is tracking yours.