Nicodemus, the New Birth, and this week’s truncated pericope

“Truncated pericope” is a term I use whenever I come upon an assigned lesson from the lectionary that does not convey the full meaning of the text because important elements of its context are missing. The most notorious truncated pericope comes during the First Sunday of Advent. Whether it’s Year A, B, or C, the Gospel lesson for that Sunday picks up in the middle of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21), specifically the portion in which Jesus speaks of apocalyptic “signs” such as the sun being darkened and the moon not giving light, stars falling from heaven, the powers of the heavens being shaken heralding, one would assume, the return of Christ, “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30). Such a reading certainly fits the theme of the First Sunday of Advent, and the overarching theme of the season, namely, preparation for Christ’s Second Coming.

The problem that becomes clear, when reading not only the entirety of the Olivet Discourse but also the wider context of the whole biblical narrative, is that the image of “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” is not one of Christ descending from heaven to earth to establish his kingdom, but ascending from earth to heaven to receive his kingdom (cf. Daniel 7:13-14).

This is not to say that the three versions of the Olivet Discourse do not contain plenty of Second Coming material. It is only to say that the pericope in truncated form forces an incorrect interpretation of a major biblical image in order to fit it into the theme of the day.

The Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, the Second Sunday of Lent, Year A, is also a truncated pericope, although it may not appear to be at first glance. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the reading is John 3:1-17. The new ACNA lectionary cuts it off at verse 16 and the bulletin inserts from the provincial office, interestingly, end it at verse 15.

Those minor tweaks are not the problem, however. Obviously, the editors of whatever lectionary you are using want to focus this Sunday on the very familiar theme of the New Birth. That is well and good, but John 3 is not merely a discourse on how to be “born again.” It is an account of a conversation between Jesus and “a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1).

Understanding the wider context surrounding that conversation is important in developing a deeper understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the New Birth.

Nicodemus is often viewed sympathetically. Out of all the Pharisees, he is the one who bravely breaks ranks and seeks an audience with Jesus to learn more about him and his teachings. As John’s story unfolds, Nicodemus does, indeed, show signs of a growing awareness of who Jesus is but, as he is introduced in chapter 3, he is the very embodiment of all that is wrong among the Jewish religious elites.

To begin with, the opening of chapter 3 cannot be understood without first reading the last three verses of chapter 2.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25)

John has not constructed a favorable context for the introduction of Nicodemus.

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:1-2)

The context is even less favorable when Nicodemus is contrasted with John the Baptist, introduced in chapter 1.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8)

The contrast here is stark. John the Baptist was “a man sent from God,” a divinely inspired prophet with the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus was “a man of the Pharisees,” a member of the old guard who held his position merely by virtue of his birth according to the flesh. John the Baptist “came as a witness, to bear witness about the light.” His work was done out in the open, for all to see. Nicodemus “came to Jesus by night.” He snook away from his colleagues and met with Jesus under cloak of darkness.

John is intentionally playing one “man” off of the other. John the Baptist was the herald of the new order, a “man” anointed with the Spirit of God, bearing witness in broad daylight. Nicodemus was the embodiment of the old order, a mere “man” about whom Jesus needed no one to bear witness, seeing the “signs” but failing to comprehend their meaning (cf. John 1:5).

Nicodemus was bound up in generations of human tradition which made it impossible for him to grasp the truth embodied in the man with whom he was conversing under cloak of darkness. As a Pharisee, he understood the essence of Judaism was being a child of Abraham, a descendant of Israel’s great ancestor according to the flesh. But it was precisely this cherished tradition that put Nicodemus, “the teacher of Israel,” outside of the kingdom of God. It was not enough to be born of Abraham. You had to be “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13), that is, you had to be “born again” or, literally, “born from above.” Citizenship in the kingdom of God was not someone’s right according to one’s heritage. Jesus gave “the right to become children of God” only “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name” (John 1:12).

Nicodemus could not comprehend the things of the Spirit because his mind was dulled by the things of the flesh. He knew of no other birth than that which involved entering his mother’s womb, a feat which he could not imagine accomplishing “a second time.” The birth about which Jesus speaks is a birth “from above,” entering into the realm of God and being transformed by the power of his Spirit to be a part of a glorious new creation. Perhaps Nicodemus failed to understand precisely because he was so in love with the old creation. After all, he had done pretty well for himself under the present regime. He was wealthy, respected, and influential. Why should he have the faintest desire to be “born again?”

Yet, Jesus’ words, “You must be born again,” were spoken directly to Nicodemus. This well-to-do “man of the Pharisees” and “teacher of Israel,” this elite “ruler of the Jews” was staring God’s long-awaited Messiah in the face. But he was unable to see because the darkness of cherished tradition blinded him to the truth.

Structure, spirit, and truth

“The structure is the message,” J.I. Packer said in an address to the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in 1991. Nowhere is this more true of Scripture than in the fourth Gospel. The Beloved Disciple weaves his story together through simple yet profound structural relationships.

When Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus at night, fails to understand Jesus’ statement, “You must be born again,” Jesus responds, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10b). This reaction is almost incredulous on the part of Jesus. How could the man who is supposed to be Israel’s teacher—an expert in the law and the prophets—be so utterly in the dark, that is, blind, to what those sacred writings say? If Nicodemus does not understand so simple a concept as being born again, how can he possibly teach the people the deeper mysteries of God’s redemptive plan?

Contrast Jesus’ reaction to Nicodemus with the Pharisees’ reaction to the testimony of the man born blind: “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” (John 9:34). The Word of God is a sharp, two-edged sword, and nowhere is it sharper than when this episode is considered within the wider context that stretches back to the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. But there is yet more to that wider context. The main thrust of the former blind man’s “teaching” to the Pharisees is, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” Here, the story connects back to another conversation, that between Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4:1-42). In that conversation, Jesus says, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).

True and false worship emerge here in as sharp a contrast as true and false teaching. The one naturally flows from the other. False and insincere worship—having the form of godliness but denying its power—leads to false and misleading teaching. The Pharisees demand of the man born blind, “Give glory to God,” is utterly ludicrous and hypocritical. They believe the only way to glorify (worship) God in this case is to deny that Jesus has the power of God to heal. The idea that God could become incarnate in Jesus and do a miraculous healing as a sign of the in-breaking of his kingdom did not fit in with the structures they had erected around their “worship” and, thus, was utterly foreign to their interpretation of the Scriptures.

But the man born blind does give glory to God by affirming Jesus’ power to heal. The Pharisees hear this, however, not as a testimony to the transforming power of God but as evidence of the man’s in-born sinfulness. They expel him from the synagogue, that is, from the place of worship. Jesus then seeks him out and asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

The man responds, “And who is he sir, that I may believe in him?”

Jesus tells him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.”

Then, John ties together all the loose ends. “He said, ‘Lord I believe,’ and he worshiped him.”

As Nicodemus was unqualified to be Israel’s teacher because he lacked the basic knowledge of one who was truly “born again,” so the man born blind was eminently qualified to teach the Pharisees (Nicodemus himself being “a man of the Pharisees”) because he had been touched by the transforming power of God. As Jesus told the woman at the well that worship was not a matter of physical location but of spiritual orientation, so the man born blind, having been expelled from the place of worship, is able to worship without inhibition when he confesses his faith in Jesus.

Thus, Jesus’ declaration makes complete and perfect sense: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”

“The strange composite voice of many million singing souls”

The latest round of withdrawals of candidates for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States leaves us in somewhat uncharted historical waters. The youngest man remaining in the Democratic field is the 77-year-old Joe Biden. His two principal challengers, Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg, are both 78. Suddenly, incumbent Republican Donald Trump looks quite youthful at 73.

The race for the White House was not always a game played only by senior citizens. Considering the current crop of candidates, one might even pine for the days of yore when younger men vigorously sought the nation’s highest office. William Jennings Bryan, the perennially unsuccessful presidential aspirant of that bygone era, was the Democratic nominee three times between 1896 and 1908–all before he reached the age of 50.

The image of Bryan that endures nearly a century after his death is that of a bombastic, self-righteous, and intellectually shallow “fundamentalist” crusading against such “progressive” ideas as evolution and scientific inquiry. This Bryan of popular folklore was largely the creation of journalist H.L. Mencken, who covered the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial in which Bryan led the prosecution against a Tennessee biology teacher charged with (and ultimately convicted of) violating a state statute against the teaching of evolution in the classroom. The 1960 film based on the trial, Inherit the Wind, portrayed Bryan (through a character named Matthew Harrison Brady) almost precisely as he had been described in Mencken’s less than objective reporting.

The real William Jennings Bryan, however, could not be so easily pigeonholed as a backward-thinking rube. More than any other political figure of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, he paved the way for the shift in the Democratic party away from laissez-faire capitalism to economic populism and the big government liberalism ultimately enshrined in FDR’s New Deal. In other words, the man so vilified by present-day liberals for his unswerving commitment to religious “fundamentalism” was himself a liberal, and a passionate one at that.

That is not to say, of course, that Bryan’s religious faith was a mere sidelight. On the contrary, it was the fuel that ignited his passion for the causes he championed. In the epilogue of his 2006 biography, A Godly Hero, Michael Kazin summarizes Bryan’s legacy.

The rhetoric of shared responsibility sounds rather hollow today, except when it is tethered to a war of self-defense against terrorists. Yet a century ago, those who spoke about collective sin and collective redemption occupied the mainstream. They took their place in a long narrative of reform that included the abolitionists, early temperance agitators (who battled poverty as much as saloons), the Knights of Labor, and the Populist insurgency — all led by men and women whose faith motivated their activism. From William Lloyd Garrison to Sojourner Truth to Frances Willard and Edward Bellamy, nineteenth-century progressives never advanced without a moral awakening entangled with notions about what the Lord would have them do.

To inspire another such upheaval was Bryan’s fondest desire. His record was impressive, particularly for someone who held no office during most of his career. Starting with the campaign of 1896, the Democrats ceased being the more conservative of the two major parties — with the fateful exception of their support for Jim Crow. Bryan was the leading proponent of three constitutional amendments — for the income tax, the popular election of senators, and prohibition. He also did much to place on the national agenda a variety of other significant reforms: insured bank deposits, government-owned railroads, publicly financed campaigns, and a reliable method for preventing war. None of these became law during his lifetime — he had better luck with statewide curbs on the teaching of Darwinism. But it was certainly not for lack of promotion or resolve. “With the exception of the men have occupied the White House,” wrote William Gibbs McAdoo in 1931, “Bryan . . . had more to do with the shaping of the public policies of the last forty years than any other American citizen.”

It is probably fortunate that he was never elected president. As Bryan demonstrated while secretary of state, he relished confrontations over principle and abhorred compromise. If he had captured the White House, that trait would have made it difficult for him to rally an enduring majority in what would have been a nation rent by angry divisions of class, region, and party.

But neither was he a classic demagogue, burning to seize power and vengeful toward anyone who opposed him. Unlike Tom Watson, Huey Long, George Wallace, and others of their ilk, Bryan never appealed to the violent or authoritarian impulses of his fellow citizens. He was satisfied to feed a grassroots hunger for changes in the American social order, which he believed would have profound moral implications. Bryan’s oratory infused the idea of a welfare state with passionate intensity. If the Golden Rule was too simple a prescription, it was certainly superior to impersonal bureaucracy or strong-man rule.

Whatever he achieved depended on the power and durability of his voice and the romantic tenor of his words. Every other progressive giant — TR, Woodrow Wilson, Robert La Follette, Jane Addams, Booker T. Washington, and the radical Eugene Debs — was a gifted orator. But each had to worry about operating an institution — whether a local one such as Hull House or Tuskegee Institute, a state, or the entire federal government. But Bryan could devote decades to honing the art of preaching both for God and for the welfare of the common white American.

That rhetoric and the new style of politics it helped to create may be his most enduring legacy. “Um, um, um. Look at all those folks — you’d think William Jennings Bryan was speakin’,'” jokes a character in To Kill a Mockingbird as her Alabama town fills up for a dramatic trial. After the stirring contest of 1896, most presidential candidates learned to engage in an aggressively affable, go-to-the-people campaign to demonstrate that theirs was a cause of and for the common people. For over half a century, every subsequent Democratic nominee, with the exception of the hapless Alton Parker and John W. Davis, played the happy populist warrior — cracking jokes, beaming for the cameras, flaying the corporate rich before audiences of the insecure. Even after its party’s candidates stopped bashing “economic royalists,” Democrats tried their best to appear friendly, optimistic, and visionary. John Scopes, of all people, regretted that Bryan hadn’t survived into the age of television, when “he could have projected his personality to millions” and had a good chance of being elected president. For Americans with a sense of history, Bryan remains a paragon of eloquence for “a lazy-tonged people.” And unlike contemporary candidates for high office, he wrote every word that he spoke, except when he was quoting someone else.

The triumph of the ever-accessible, always loquacious political style helps reassure ordinary citizens as well as to mobilize partisan crowds. As the federal government grew in size and complexity, Americans hankered for leaders who could make the enterprise of governing seem more personal and comprehensible. The electorate struck an implicit bargain with the political class: “If we can no longer understand or control much of what you do, at least give us men and women at the top who can comfort us and, on occasion, provide a thrill.” This was as true for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as it was for Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.

Yet Bryan was a great Christian liberal, and to neglect the content of his prophecies sells both his career and American political history short. Vachel Lindsay wrote in 1915:

When Bryan speaks, the sky is ours,
The wheat, the forests, and the flowers,
And who is here to say us nay?
Fled are the ancient tyrant powers.
When Bryan speaks, then, I rejoice.
His is the strange composite voice
Of many million singing souls
Who make world-brotherhood their choice.

Critics from Mencken onward failed to appreciate what drew millions of Americans to Bryan and that our own era of nonstop satire and twenty-four-hour commerce manifestly lacks: the yearning for a society run by and for ordinary  people who lead virtuous lives. As everyone who heard him could attest, Bryan made significant public issues sound urgent, dramatic, and clear, and he encouraged citizens to challenge the motives and interests of the most powerful people in the land. That is a quality absent among our recent leaders, for all their promises to leave no man, woman, or child behind. Bryan’s sincerity, warmth, and passion for a better world won the hearts of people who cared for no other public figure in his day. We should take their reasons seriously before we decide to mistrust them.

Biblical truth for “Progressive Christians”

For reasons unknown to me, I have wound up on the mailing list of an outfit known as Wood Lake Publishing. From what I can gather from their frequent contributions to my inbox, this is a company specializing in providing teaching resources for “Progressive Christians.” I suppose I could spare myself a few gigabytes of data by unsubscribing to the list, as I do with all other junk dealers who offer products I would never purchase. However, I have elected to remain on this particular vendor’s list, and even archive some of its mailings, because the entertainment value more than makes up for the loss of data space. An outside observer, reading the detailed descriptions of the contents of the numerous titles “for Progressive Christians” could be forgiven for thinking the whole operation is some kind of Babylon Bee parody.

Consider this rather detailed blurb for Wood Lake’s latest offering, Easter for Progressive Christians, which is apparently getting rave reviews from readers who have no idea what it means to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

When it comes right down to it, the Bible doesn’t really tell us much about resurrection. This is hardly surprising, because the gospel writers are trying to make sense of a story that, well, doesn’t really make sense – at least not to a rational mind. This has led people to a variety of positions that roughly fall somewhere between two extremes:

Of course Jesus never rose from the dead; people don’t do that. Anyone who says so is crazy,

or

Jesus rose physically from the dead and appeared to lots of people, and you must believe this or you are going to hell.

While most people lie somewhere between these two positions, they may not be sure just where exactly – nor are they always sure that they are “allowed” to be where they think they are. To put that another way, many people who understand themselves to be Christian struggle to accept the idea that Jesus physically rose from the dead, but are afraid to say so.

The “two extremes” here are caricatures set up as straw men for the express purpose of marketing the book as a reasonable “middle way” between them. It is a tactic so old and tired that it warrants no effort at refutation. It is a better use of time simply to consider the obvious absurdity of the first sentence. How can one read even a small portion of the Bible and claim it “doesn’t really tell us much about resurrection?” Even if you were to leave out the Gospel accounts, you would still have the witness of the Apostles throughout the book of Acts; frequent references in the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and John; and John’s apocalyptic vision on Patmos; not to mention the numerous prophecies of the Old Testament that can only be understood in light of the resurrection.

So, how can one read the Bible and claim it “doesn’t tell us much about resurrection?” The answer is as obvious as the absurdity of the claim. Anyone who says “the Bible doesn’t tell us much about resurrection” has not read the Bible, at least not as the Word of God. That sad fact is made clear in the remaining portion of the blurb:

This guide does not set out to “prove” or “disprove” that Jesus physically rose on Easter Sunday. Instead, it invites participants to engage with the biblical stories of Christ’s resurrection to try to understand what the gospel writers meant to tell us, what they wanted us to take from these stories. After all, they did not set out to prove a point of history; they wrote them down because these stories had transformed their own lives, and the lives of many others at the time. Hopefully, reading and exploring these stories can enhance our lives too. Ultimately, how we experience Christ today is what matters – not what might have happened 2,000 years ago.

Part and parcel to so-called “progressive” Christianity is the reduction of any semblance of objective biblical authority to subjective human experience. To “Progressive Christians,” the Gospel writers were only recording “stories” that “had transformed their own lives, and the lives of many others at the time.” Never mind if “these stories” were true or accurate or even plausible. They made people feel good (about themselves, apparently) and they inspired them to tell others so they could also feel good (about themselves).

None of this, of course, even remotely resembles the authentic Christian faith and its belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. The Gospel writers were not merely relating their own individual experiences. They were proclaiming the Good News that God had sent his Son to suffer, die, and rise again in order to bring forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life to all who put their faith in him.

Here is what you might call some Biblical Truth for Progressive Christians: Ultimately, what did happen 2,000 years ago matters as much today as it did then. What we believe about Christ today can only be the same as what was believed about him by those who were eyewitnesses to his life, death, and resurrection.

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)

Lent is about recovering the joy that we lost

“The source of false religion,” writes the late Orthodox priest Alexander Schmeman, “is the inability to rejoice, or, rather, the refusal of joy, whereas joy is absolutely essential because it is without any doubt the fruit of God’s presence. One cannot know that God exists and not rejoice. Only in relation to joy are the fear of God and humility correct, genuine, fruitful. Outside of joy, they become demonic, the deepest distortion of any religious experience. A religion of fear. Religion of pseudo-humility. Religion of guilt. They are all temptations, traps—very strong indeed, not only in the world, but inside the Church. Somehow ‘religious’ people often look on joy with suspicion.”

Fr. Schmeman continues, “The first, the main source of everything is ‘my soul rejoices in the Lord…’ The fear of sin does not save from sin. Joy in the Lord saves. A feeling of guilt or moralism does not liberate from the world and its temptations. Joy is the foundation of freedom, where we are called to stand. Where, how, when has this tonality of Christianity become distorted, dull—or rather, where, how, why have Christians become deaf to joy? How, when and why, instead of freeing suffering people, did the Church come to sadistically intimidate and frighten them?”

This may sound like an odd admonition as we approach the first Sunday in Lent, the beginning of that penitential season when we tone down some of the more joyful aspects of worship and focus more on those wrong attitudes and bad habits of which we need to repent and from which we need to turn away.

But it really shouldn’t sound so odd. For what is the purpose of all these Lenten disciplines, if not the restoration of true religion, which has, at its very center, the joy of the Lord?

There is a certain predictability about the first Sunday in Lent. We come to the Gospel reading and always know where we’re going to be.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the  devil. (Matthew 4:1)

Jesus . . . in the wilderness . . . being tempted by the devil. Whether it’s Matthew, as is the case this year; or Mark, whose account is a little bit short; or Luke—if you are a good student of the church calendar, we know the story we are going to hear when we enter the Lord’s house tomorrow morning.

The First Sunday in Lent can also make us a little presumptuous. We may assume that the preacher will simply take those three temptations, make each one into a point, close with a cute little story and encourage everyone to gird up their loins and make the most of this Lenten season.

Lent, however, is not about girding up your loins and making the most of it. That is the joyless false religion Fr. Schmeman was writing about.

Lent is about recovering the joy that we lost.

Jesus faces the test in the wilderness because Adam failed the test in the garden.

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:15-17)

A simple test. A simple command. One minor restriction in the midst of a haven of sheer freedom.

Adam is commanded to refrain from one seemingly innocuous action. “Don’t eat from that one tree.”

In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted to engage in certain actions.

“Turn these stones to bread.”

“Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple.”

“Bow down and worship me, and you’ll rule the world.”

They all sound varied and different, but they’re really all the same.

“Eat from that tree, and you’ll be like God.”

The lie with which Satan deceived Adam and Eve is the same lie he tried to pass off on Jesus.

“It’s all about you!”

You can be the master of the universe.

You can control your own destiny.

You can determine what is good and what is evil.

“Did God actually say . . . ?”

You don’t have to take his word for it.

You can decide for yourself what God actually said, or even if he actually said anything at all.

You can decide what God actually meant when he said what he didn’t actually say.

The source of false religion is the inability to rejoice, or, rather, the refusal of joy. . .

There is joy in knowing that God did say, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

There is joy in knowing that God did say, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

There is joy in knowing that God did say, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

When Adam and Eve ate from the tree, they refused the joy and embraced the lie.

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned . . . (Romans 5:12)

A very ugly picture: a wilderness instead of a garden.

But it is in that wilderness that the joy of the garden is restored.

Jesus would not embrace the lie. Jesus would reach for the joy that was set before, even though he knew it meant embracing the cross.

Therefore, as on e trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:18-19)

In the garden, surrounded by freedom, Adam lost. In the wilderness, on the cross, rejected as a slave, Jesus won!

Thanks be to  God!

Setting the story right again (Adapted from an old sermon on Matthew 4:1-13)

Jesus, fresh from the cleansing waters of baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” was led up by that same Holy Spirit into the wilderness. Now, the Old Testament is replete with stories of trial and testing in the wilderness—from Moses to the Israelites to Elijah. So, it is not at all surprising that Jesus would be sent to so desolate a place. But it’s not simply because the wilderness happens to be a good place to be tested. The wilderness is a recurrent theme in Scripture because it is the place where humanity, because of Adam’s sin, has been left to wander since being cast out of the garden. Adam and Eve wanted to see with their own eyes and know good and evil on their terms. But after eating from the forbidden tree, their eyes were opened and they beheld not the beauty of a garden, but the ugliness of a barren wilderness. They saw not a creation redeemed by their own efforts to better themselves, but a creation utterly devastated by their naked act of rebellion. Jesus is led into the wilderness because the wilderness is where the fallen race he came to save now finds itself.

In the generations following Adam, the crafty serpent never changes his playbook. Every time humanity stumbles over its own fallenness, it is because of the same old lie, the same old exploitation of the human desire for self-preservation, self-gratification, and self-exaltation. Jesus in the wilderness faces the same temptation as Adam and Eve. It’s repeated three times, but it’s really all one temptation.

Turn stones to bread and feed yourself.

Jump off the pinnacle of the temple and call attention to yourself.

Bow down and worship me and you will have all the kingdoms of the world for yourself.

Self-preservation.

Self-gratification.

Self-exaltation.

“Eat from the tree, and you will be like God.”

It’s the same old lie; the same old empty promise. Satan yanks God’s own word out of context, perverts its meaning, and seeks to confuse us and exploit our fears. But why do we keep falling for it?

We keep falling for Satan’s lie because, like Adam and Eve, we forget the context of the story. Adam and Eve fell because they lost their perspective on who they were and for what reason God created them: not to gain glory for themselves, but to give glory to God; to enjoy perfect fellowship with the One who created them in his image and likeness.

The serpent’s words are enticing because, with our perspective clouded by a misguided desire for something other than the way God has provided, the lie sounds like the simplest explanation.

“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’ Did he really make life so difficult by imposing such a rigid standard?”

“Well, actually, no. He didn’t forbid us to eat from any tree, only the one in the center of the garden. But since you did remind me of how stern God is with his rules and regulations, I’m not even going to touch that tree, lest I die.”

You see, now, how the serpent’s lie has complicated things. The context has been lost. The perspective has been distorted. God has become the taskmaster who imposes impossible burdens. Freedom has become slavery. But Adam and Eve will not be slaves anymore. They will seize the power themselves. They will decide what is good and what is evil, on their terms. They will decide what is best for themselves. They will eat from the tree and become like God, and they will control their own destiny.

And there you have it: the root of the problem which has been our downfall ever since.

Self-preservation.

Self-gratification.

Self-exaltation.

The gospel according to me, myself, and I.

It is this misplaced, out of context, “me first” orientation, the root cause of our dehumanizing self-centeredness, that Jesus confronts and challenges—not in the pristine beauty of the garden, but in the arid ugliness of the wilderness: the serpent’s home turf. But where Adam and Eve failed miserably, Jesus triumphs victoriously because he will not allow the tempter to take his focus off the big picture.

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”

“Sorry, Satan. That’s not the whole story. Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

“Hey, Satan. Why don’t you let God’s Word be its own best interpreter? Don’t just throw out a couple of proof-texts and expect me to take the bait. Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

“You see all these kingdoms? All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

“Be gone, Satan! You may have fooled some into thinking you control the world. But I know the whole story. I know its beginning, and I know its end because I wrote it, and you’re nothing but a footnote. For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

From the manger to the Jordan River to the wilderness to Galilee to Jerusalem to Calvary to the empty tomb to the ascension to the right hand of the Father: in Jesus, the story is put back in context. Through Jesus, we begin to understand the story from a proper perspective. And with Jesus, alive in us in the power of his resurrection and the working of his Holy Spirit, our self-centeredness is being replaced by Christ-centeredness; our desire for self-exaltation is being replaced by a passion for Christ-exaltation; and our appetite for self-gratification is being supplanted by a hunger for righteousness and holiness as we offer ourselves in thanksgiving as a living sacrifice to a loving God, who through his Son Jesus Christ has set us free indeed from the law of sin and death and given us the promise of eternal life as the free gift of his grace.

Lenten disciplines as a means of grace

The most commonly observed discipline associated with the Lenten season–that of “giving up something”–is but a pale residue of the actual disciplines of fasting and self-denial which are the true emphases of the season. These disciplines are means of grace whereby we, in the words of Hebrews, “lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely” in order that we may “run with perserverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Rather than simply “giving up something” which we will all too eagerly take up again at the end of these forty days, Lent ought to be a time of serious self-examination, a time to look deep within ourselves to see what hinders our walk with Christ and resolve to give up that sinful habit, that wrongful attitude, that errant practice not for forty days, but from this time forward and forever. St. John Chrysostom reminds us of the true purpose of the Lenten fast.

What advantage is it if we have kept the fast, and not improved our conduct? If someone tells you, I have fasted the whole of Lent, let your answer be, I had an enemy and am now reconciled; I had a habit of reviling, and have left it off; I had a custom of swearing, and this evil propensity is checked. It is no use for a merchant to cross the seas, unless the merchant returns home laden with goods, nor is there any use in our fasting, if with the act itself, all further good good ceases. If our fasting has consisted merely in abstaining from meals, when Lent is ended our fast will have passed away. But if our fast consists in abstaining from sin, when the fast has come to an end the benefit will still remain and will lay up for us treasures in the heavens.

Easter is the joy that is set before us. But first we must crucify “the sin which clings so closely” and hinders our growing up into Christ. Lent is the season for confronting all the roadblocks that Satan puts in the way. The joy of the resurrection will be all the more glorious when celebrated with a heart in perfect harmony with the will our heavenly Father.

The Lord my Creator took me as dust from the earth,
and formed me into a living being,
breathing into me the breath of life.
God honored me,
setting me as ruler upon earth over all things visible,
and made me companion of the angels.
But Satan the deceiver,
using the serpent as instrument,
enticed me by food–
parted me from the glory of God,
and gave me over to the earth and to the lowest depths of the earth.
But in compassion, O Savior, call me back again!

Byzantine Vespers

Ash Wednesday’s ashless collect

It is interesting to note that the collect Thomas Cranmer composed for Ash Wednesday presumes the absence of the practice most often associated with the observance, namely, the imposition of ashes. The English Reformers believed too many superstitious beliefs had grown up around the practice and saw it as too closely connected with attrition, auricular confession, contrition, priestly absolution, and penance — doctrines they believed to be errant.

Consequently, Archbishop Cranmer composed a new collect which emphasized repentance and forgiveness, rather than fasting and penance.

Almighty and everlasting God, which hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that be penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ.

Additionally, in the Gospel reading assigned in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, Jesus explicitly denounces the hypocritical outward expressions of righteousness which the Reformers believed such rituals had become.

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:16-21 ESV)

It was not until the nineteenth century that the imposition of ashes was reintroduced in the churches of the Anglican Communion. It began gaining popularity in many Protestant churches in the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Christian hope and the resurrection

Scripture is its own best interpreter, the saying goes. An “obscure” passage may seem less obscure when interpreted in light of a more straightforward passage. Consider Paul’s words of encouragement to the believers in Corinth, “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:13-14).

Paul is here restating what he has previously said (if the scholars are correct in their historical chronology of his letters) in that favorite passage of dispensationalists, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”

The dispensationalist interpretation of the latter passage, that this is a reference to the so-called “rapture” of the church, is a classic exercise in missing the point. The Christian hope is not about flying away, but about being raised up.

Both 2 Corinthians 4:13-14 and 1 Thessalonians 4:14 have a similar structure. Paul ties the Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead to the resurrection of Jesus. God raised Jesus from the dead and he will, therefore, also raise those who put their faith in Jesus. There is both a continuity and a discontinuity between Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of believers.

On the one hand, Jesus’ resurrection happened at a particular moment in history. Jesus is the prototype of the redeemed humanity, the new creation, which still awaits its full and final consummation.

On the other hand, when that final consummation happens, when the dead in Christ are raised to new life, it will be the realization of that which God already accomplished when he raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus and the general resurrection of the dead will be one and the same. As the resurrection of Jesus was the ground of all Christian hope in this world, so it will be the life-giving reality which ushers in the next world.

Chestertons’ timeless observation about an aging “young” generation

Ninety years ago, G.K. Chesterton remarked about a generation past its prime.

A generation is now growing old, which never had anything to say for itself except that it was young. It was the first progressive generation – the first generation that believed in progress and nothing else…. [They believed] simply that the new thing is always better than the old thing; that the young man is always right and the old wrong. And now that they are old men themselves, they have naturally nothing whatever to say or do. Their only business in life was to be the rising generation knocking at the door. Now that they have got into the house, and have been accorded the seat of honour by the hearth, they have completely forgotten why they wanted to come in. The aged younger generation never knew why it knocked at the door; and the truth is that it only knocked at the door because it was shut. It had nothing to say; it had no message; it had no convictions to impart to anybody…. The old generation of rebels was purely negative in its rebellion, and cannot give the new generation of rebels anything positive against which it should not rebel. It is not that the old man cannot convince young people that he is right; it is that he cannot even convince them that he is convinced. And he is not convinced; for he never had any conviction except that he was young, and that is not a conviction that strengthens with years.

Five years ago, The Anchoress saw this quote as befitting, also, the now aging “Boomer” generation.

It would seem this is a timeless quote because, at nearly every moment in history, there has been that “generation . . . now growing old which never had anything to say for itself except that it was young.”

I recalled this quote yesterday when I pulled from my bookshelf a fading volume entitled, An Emergent Manifesto. Published in 2008, it purported to enshrine the best of that “young generation” of the “Emergent Church” movement that was all the rage at the time. I remember reading the large collection of essays therein contained and thinking, even then, that this would be a movement with a very brief shelf life.

Today, a mere twelve years later, the straggling remnants of the “Emergent Church” cling to the social justice craze of “wokeness” that will, like all of its temporal predecessors, soon pass from the scene. No movement in recent history has aged more rapidly, and less graciously, than the “Emergent Church.”

Chesterton’s observation was true for that aging “young” generation of his day. It is, likewise, true for the aging “Boomer” generation of today. Its timelessness will be apparent once again when it eventually proves true for the generation that tried but (thankfully) failed to take the church down the “Emergent” road.