Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Short Couplet-Prayer

Lord, teach me true humility:
More of You, and less of me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Photo of the Week

The people feast on the abundance of Your house, [O God];
    You give them drink from Your river of delights.

For with You is the fountain of life;
    in Your light we see light.

                 - Psalm 36:8-9

Monday, November 28, 2016

Quote of the Week

"Just as all things that come with the seasons have each its own proper season for recurring--the flowers in spring, the ears of corn in summer, the apple in autumn--so winter's fruit is conversation."

- Basil the Great, 4th-century church father

(Painting: "The Frost at Giverny," by Claude Monet, 1885) 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sunday Scripure

Mark 13:9-19

13:9-11 – Here again we see that Jesus’ primary prophecy is towards the actual experience of his disciples. He warns them to be on guard, and then prophesies with startling accuracy about the things that will actually happen to them (arrests, persecutions, etc.), with many such occurrences recorded in the book of Acts. Scripture and tradition together witness to the way that the decades between Christ’s ascension and the destruction of Jerusalem saw the persecution of the church, the disciples proclaiming Christ before governing authorities, and the Gospel being preached to all nations (prefigured at Pentecost, and put into practice when, as tradition tells us, the disciples were all sent out from Jerusalem as missionaries to the nations). However, if we are reading this set of prophecies as secondarily being about the final climax of history, then we must be willing to accept all of it as such, rather than cherrypicking the bits we like. It’s not enough to suggest that we might live in the age that will witness the Day of the Lord; we must also accept the fact that, just like wars and famines and earthquakes characterize the whole period leading up to that day, so too will persecutions. Even in our own day, we Christians who live outside the scope of regular persecution are rather the minority. The only element of all of the “signs” provided by Christ which might perhaps lend itself to a definitive historical fulfillment is the one he gives in v.10: “the Gospel must first be preached to all nations.” This is something that is accomplished in miniature at Pentecost and in the disciples’ missionary journeys, but its final fulfillment is still to come. There are still nations (ethnÄ“) in the world that have yet to hear the message of Jesus Christ. It is possible, however, and perhaps even likely, that this current generation will see the fulfillment of that particular sign. But one thing is clear: the proclamation of Christ to the nations has been a consistent hallmark of the past two thousand years, just as clearly as have wars, earthquakes, famines, and the persecution of the church. Jesus advises his disciples not to worry about what to say when arrested and brought to trial for the sake of the Gospel—the Holy Spirit will give them the words to say. Indeed, it has been the church’s experience through the ages that the most compelling testimonies for Christ spring from the mouths of common believers when standing before their own martyrdoms. Since the context for this promise is so specific, we cannot extend the hope of Spirit-inspired testimony to any and all situations (i.e., you must do your homework, plan well, and prepare before giving a sermon, taking a test, or doing a job interview, and not just expect the Holy Spirit to take over and give you all the answers). But we can, perhaps, extrapolate a general principle from this promise: that when we give our all for Christ, we will find that he is there with us, giving us all we need for every challenge of the present moment. Though following Christ may include persecutions, it will never include abandonment.

13:12-13 – This is one of the most difficult warnings that Christ gives: a prophecy about the way that families will be divided against each other because of the Gospel. This is an unfortunate fact of the Christian experience—it was true in the first century, where converts to Christianity from among Greeks and Romans faced persecution from their family members, who felt betrayed by one of their own turning “atheist” by denying the traditional pagan gods; it was true in the first century in Jewish homes, too, where the early events of Vespasian’s re-conquest of Galilee and Judea forced families to take sides, and sometimes there were those (like Christians) who refused to support the Jewish rebels and then were turned over to those very rebels by family members. And this prophecy of Jesus remains true today: in many families, there is a cost to choosing to follow Christ—if one’s father, mother, sister, brother, or children are not willing to answer the call of Christ, then those relationships might be fractured. But Jesus gives a promise to go along with the warning: “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” Remember, he’s not talking about anyone’s eternal salvation in this context, so the reader would not be advised to try to turn this saying into a salvation-by-works teaching. Rather, Jesus is talking about the perseverance and deliverance of his faithful people from the persecutions that are about to descend upon them within a generation’s time. The following verses make it very clear that Jesus is talking about salvation from the devastation that will fall upon Jerusalem when the “abomination that causes desolation” appears. This is a promise about God’s sure support in the midst of persecution and disaster—whatever else may be happening around us and to us, including the prospect of our own deaths, there is never any safer place to be than in the hands of God.

13:14-19 – When we come to this passage, Christians are often tempted once again to jump immediately to an “end times” interpretation. So it’s worth reminding ourselves yet again that Jesus is specifically addressing the disciples’ question of when the destruction of the Temple will occur, and what the signs of that event will be. Jesus’ main prophecy here, then, is directly fulfilled in what happens in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD. He delivers his prophecy by referring to an older prophecy from the book of Daniel, which tells of a character called “the abomination that causes desolation,” who will surround Jerusalem with hostile foreign armies and defile the sanctuary of the Temple (Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). In Daniel’s context, these prophecies clearly refer to the events of 167 BC, when the pagan Syro-Greek king Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) sacked Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple to the gods of the Greek pantheon, complete with the sacrifice of a pig on the Temple’s altar. (One must remember, though, that it is often the case in biblical prophecy that multiple fulfillments are in view, a near-present fulfillment that is usually the primary referent for the prophecy’s immediate audience, but also the possibility of later fulfillments that ‘telescope’ the events and implications of the primary fulfillment into the distant future; thus Daniel’s prophecies appear to relate directly to Antiochus Epiphanes and the crisis of the Maccabean revolt, and then they may telescope out to give a view of the “end times”). Jesus takes that historical prophecy and declares that it is about to be recapitulated in the events that lead to the fall of the Temple. Recall that he has already told his disciples what events not to regard as immediate signs of the end: wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines. But now he tells them a definite and specific sign—when the abomination that causes desolation appears—that is, when Jerusalem is about to be ringed by hostile pagan armies, and the Temple sanctuary about to be violated—then it’s time to go. This event is specifically fulfilled in the middle of the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, when the Romans surround the city, and Titus himself, the general who will go on to become emperor, enters into the Holy of Holies before the entire Temple is burned down. We know from the historical traditions of the early church that this prophecy of Jesus was indeed interpreted as a direct foretelling of the events of that year, because the church of Jerusalem did exactly as Jesus instructed—they fled. Rather than taking up arms to fight for a patriotic notion of an independent nation-state of Israel (perhaps American evangelicals should here take note), they obeyed the words of Christ, abandoned the sinking ship of the Jewish rebellion, and fled from Jerusalem to the east, to refuge in the region beyond the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. But, as with Daniel’s prophecy, so with Jesus’—there is a definite possibility that Jesus intends this prophecy to be seen as a double-fulfillment: directly pointing to Titus’ violation and destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, but then telescoping out beyond it to give his followers a view of what the final crisis of the end times might also look like. This is a debated point in modern biblical interpretation, but there is certainly a long Christian tradition of reading end-times implications into this text alongside the direct prophecies of the first-century fall of Jerusalem.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

(Painting: "The Thanksgiving of Noah," by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, c.1700)

I'm taking a week-long break from blogging while I have a little Thanksgiving vacation. I'll be posting again by next Sunday, Nov. 27. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sunday Scripture

Mark 13:1-8

13:1-2 – Anyone who has ever been fortunate enough to tour one of the great old cities of Europe (or any other such display of the wonders of civilization) will understand the disciple’s exclamation here: “What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Jesus does not directly downplay this disciple’s admiration—in his response, he does call these buildings “great”—but he wants to redirect the disciple’s focus. Remember, at the end of chapter 12, Jesus has just finished instructing his disciples not to trust in outward, ostentatious presentations of religious piety, but rather to look at the heart. This goes for buildings as well as people. A building may be beautiful to look at, but if it was built for show, for human adulation, rather than for the glory of God, its beauty must be seen, at least in part, as a misspent effort. One of the greatest aspects of Christian architecture has always been the way in which the building itself is intended to direct the attention of onlookers upward, to God, to the perception of spiritual realities rather than just to marvel at the beauty of the stonework and stained glass themselves. The buildings this disciple is looking at are quite probably the buildings of the Temple complex in Jerusalem (the setting of most of the stories in ch. 11-13). This building was incredible and magnificent, but its current form had been constructed under Herod the Great, not so much to bring greater glory to God as to win favor for Herod among the people—in that way, the buildings of the Temple complex were rather like the offerings of the rich people in 12:41. So Jesus takes the opportunity to direct the disciple’s attention away from the beauty of the building itself, and to focus instead on questions of ultimate value. He tells his disciples that the building is destined for destruction. This is a reminder to all of us: when we consider and spend time enjoying the many wonders and delights which our civilization has produced, we must at the same time keep in mind the question of ultimate value, and to spend at least as much time (and hopefully far more!) on those things that will last beyond the mere timeline of our world’s history.

13:3-4 – The setting for this passage is not coincidental. Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple, while he proclaims judgment upon it, exactly where Zechariah prophesied the Lord would stand as he triumphs over the nations who, as agents of his own divine justice, have destroyed Jerusalem (Zech. 14:1-5). Four of the disciples come to ask Jesus privately about when the coming destruction will take place. Why privately? Probably because Jesus has a large following of people from Jerusalem tagging along with him during most of these stories (beginning with the Triumphal Entry in Mk. 11), and these disciples know that Jesus does not care to speak out publicly about things that the larger public might take to be indicators of a warlike Messianic revolution about to be put in motion. Here the disciples appear to understand that such a revolution is not Jesus’ present mission—an understanding that has been slow in coming for them!—and that they may have to be able to interpret the signs of the coming destruction without Jesus being there to point it out for them. The disciples’ slow growth in discernment and understanding throughout the Gospel of Mark should give us hope for our own spiritual journeys, for we too are often just as dense at perceiving and responding to what God is trying to do in our lives—but, praise be to God, if we continue to walk with him, continue to listen to him, even in the midst of our own misunderstandings, we will eventually (but still stumblingly), like these disciples, come to understand more of God’s intention for us and for our labors.

13:5-6 – Jesus responds to the disciples’ request in his own gracious fashion—he gives them the heart of what they are asking for—information about the coming destruction—but in such a way that it redirects their attention, away from the unhealthy desire to know all the details of God’s will in advance, and toward the more important issue of how they can be prepared for what God will do. He begins with a warning to be on one’s guard against anyone who might try to deceive. This is a good place to start when dealing with apocalyptic and eschatological scenarios, because this one topic, out of all the theological positions in biblical theology, has provided ample ground for myopic teachers to steer the whole glorious enterprise of the Gospel down a blind alley. He also adjures us to be on guard against false messiahs, those who claim Christ’s own name and identity. While, thankfully, there have been very few characters in the history of the church who have literally claimed to be Christ himself (and those who have were often easily identified as madmen), there have been many who have claimed Christ’s name and authority as the basis of their own teachings—teachings and practices which purported to be “Christian”—while disavowing the heart of Gospel doctrine and practice. This is all too common in our day, as it has been in every age of the church, so be on guard! But in the immediate context of Jesus’ prophecy, which has one eye on the ultimate end of history and the other on the climactic event of his own century—the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70—it must be noted that there were indeed several false Messianic leaders who raised rebellions against Rome within just a generation or two of these words, and the end result of each such attempt was the repeated desolation of Jerusalem and the Jewish people. 

13:7-8 – The other “signs” Jesus gives the disciples are remarkably commonplace in every period of history: wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines. It was certainly true of his own age, and particularly of the period immediately preceding the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70—Messianic claimants, wars in Palestine and civil wars between claimants for the Imperial throne, rumors of wars coming from the Parthian borderlands, major earthquakes in the Bay of Naples, in Crete, and in Phrygia (as well as minor but repeated quakes in Rome and in Judea), and major famines throughout the Roman world, particularly during the reign of Claudius. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find any period of history so replete with all of these elements as the single generation between Christ and the fall of Jerusalem. Jesus’ primary warnings, then, seem to be about the crisis that some of the disciples will witness in their own day: the literal fulfillment of his prophecy about the destruction of the Temple (v.2) in AD 70. But, as we will see later in the chapter, this historical crisis will also be telescoped out to give us a view of the final crisis of history (a double-fulfillment pattern that is common to biblical prophecy). Thus we must recognize that these signs which Christ foretells are ongoing “birth pains” throughout the whole period of history between Christ and the end, and will only be complete when this world’s labor is done, and the Kingdom comes in all its fullness. There is no indication in this text that any of these signs should be expected to increase in the period leading up to the final climax of history, but rather that they will simply be present. Thus, although there can be a temptation to surrender to the confirmation bias that results from hearing of such things from our global news networks, and to assume that our age is more afflicted by wars, earthquakes, and famines than any other, a careful study of history will clearly show that this is not the case. Too often we read our own anxieties into the biblical text, and convince ourselves that the worst period of history is just around the corner, rather than doing what Jesus advises—being on guard and resting in the sovereignty of God’s justice and providence. And it may be worth considering whether it is not just anxiety, but also pride, that leads us to assume that these texts must be written about our own day: there is perhaps a bit too much thoughtless self-confidence in much of our Christian teaching today in holding to the idea, as if it were self-evident, that our generation stands at the climax of all human history. Rather, we should see quite clearly from Scripture that Jesus is the climax, and that we are merely a small part of the long denouement before the final resolution.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Saturday Synaxis

Thou hast given unto us, O Lord, sanctification in the communion of the all-holy body and precious blood of thy only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ; give unto us also the grace of thy good Spirit, and keep us blameless in the faith; lead us unto perfect adoption and redemption, and to the coming joys of eternity; for thou art our sanctification and light, O God, and thy only-begotten Son, and thy all-holy Spirit, now and ever, and to all eternity. Amen. 
- Sacristy prayer from the Liturgy of St. James