Inhuman Empires and a Very Humane Ruler

small__6898815494There is a lot of bad news throughout the world with people seeking power through violence. Daniel had some bad news for God’s people in exile about successive beastly and violent empires:

In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream:  2 I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea,  3 and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another.  4 The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it.  5 Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!”  6 After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it.  7 After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns.  8 I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly. (Daniel 7:1-8 NRSV)

Most Biblical scholars see these four beast as representing the four empires that were in control from the time of Daniel. The lion is Babylon, the bear is Persia, the leopard is the Greek conquest of Alexander the Great, the terrifying fourth beast is Rome. So far this is all bad news for God’s people. But in Daniel’s vision there is good news:

9 As I watched,
thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne,
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence.
A thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
11 I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. 12 As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.
13 As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:9-14 NRSV emphasis mine)

The good news is the judgement of evil, and the appointment of a new ruler. The contrast of this new ruler to the old regimes could not be clearer, for where the beasts come up from the sea, the appointed ruler comes from heaven. Also, where the empires are described as beasts, and so inhuman, he is described as being “like a son of man,” so quite humane. With Daniel’s prophecy in mind let us move forward in time and see how things work out. Let us go to Jesus’ calling of Nathanael:

49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:49-51 NRSV emphasis mine)

Here we are at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and already Nathanael is speaking about the identity of Jesus: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Perhaps most were thinking that Jesus should rather be identified as “carpenter, the son of Mary, and perhaps Joseph.” So Nathanael’s confession of Jesus’ identity is very lofty indeed. But Jesus points the disciples toward an even sharper confession of identity: “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” The angels of God ascending and descending is a reminder of Jacob’s ladder and as such causes us to think of Jesus as the person where we meet God. Previous to Jesus that distinction was given to a place, the Temple. But we should also take note that Jesus refers to himself as “Son of Man.” Some will say that this an expression simply means “human being,” and so ,though Jesus uses it to refer to himself very often, perhaps he means nothing special by it. But notice how Jesus uses it once he is arrested:

Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” 61 But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”
62 Jesus said, “I am; and
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven. ’”
63 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 64 You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:60-64 NRSV emphasis mine)

At his conviction Jesus confirms what he has been meaning by “Son of Man” all along. He is the ruler God appoints in Daniel 7. He is the one who will end tyranny and oppression. He is the one who will bring justice. He is the good news.

So what do we learn from this?

First, we must think about the identity of Jesus. Many people in our society see Jesus as being a great moral teacher and nothing more. Some suggest that Jesus never pushed himself as being more than a moral teacher, that his divinity is a fabrication of his followers. But had Jesus been a great moral teacher and nothing more would he have been crucified? Notice the tipping point that caused the High Priest to declare that Jesus must die; It was Jesus calling himself the “Son of Man” who would be “coming with the clouds of heaven.” It was his blatant reference to himself as the coming ruler Daniel 7 points to. Do you go far enough in your understanding of who Jesus is? Have you really considered the Biblical teaching that Jesus is “Son of Man,” “Son of God,” and “God the Son?” Have you considered the evidence that the Biblical teaching is rooted in the teaching of Jesus himself and is not a later fabrication? Have you considered how He fulfills the prophecies and promises of the Old Testament?

Second, Jesus is the solution to the problem of inhuman empires today. How many empires and nations across our world could we describe as “beastly?” If rulers everywhere were to follow the example and teaching of Jesus in the way of the cross, the way of love, this would be a vastly different world, a more humane one.

Third, people and nations may ignore Jesus and his teachings now, but they will not be able to in the future. Atrocities are happening around the world and we wonder “where is justice?” The book of Revelation also reflects the fulfillment of Daniel 7:

7 Look! He is coming with the clouds;
every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him;
and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. (Revelation 1:7 NRSV)

Justice is on the way. So also is a ton of love.

The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20 NRSV)

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When Anger Flares

small__4446092308You find yourself in a moment of anger. You are not a happy camper, and worse yet, the person that offended you is either oblivious to your hurt, or doesn’t care. And to make matters seem much worse, ringing through your head comes an expression you heard in Sunday School: “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” You hope it is not in the Bible, for then you may feel obligated to do something about your anger. But it is:

26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27 NRSV)

To make matters worse still, you are a Canadian, it is winter, and the sun goes down very early indeed. What do you do?

Before you do anything, pray.

Then, ask this question: “Are my expectations of the person who offended me reasonable?”

It was at a pastor’s retreat that I first heard the concept that anger often comes from unmet expectations. We can see this in Jonah who expected that God should have judged the enemy of Israel, the Ninevites, with no chance for repentance. God did not meet that expectation which was great news for the Ninevites, but a great disappointment for Jonah. God responds to Jonah’s anger by asking “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4 NRSV). In other words, “are your expectations of how I should act appropriate and reasonable?” God goes on to use a rapidly growing, then declining, bush to teach an angry again Jonah a lesson about appropriate expectations:

9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals (Jonah 4:9-11 NRSV emphasis mine)

Jonah needed to adjust his expectations of what God would do and how God would act. Now back to your anger toward someone who has offended you. Before you do anything with it, you can ask that same question God had of Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry?” Are your expectations of the person who has offended you reasonable and appropriate? If the answer is ‘no, I have been expecting too much,’ then go back, adjust your expectations and your anger will subside even though the sun may yet have a long way to go.

But suppose you have prayed and reviewed your expectations, and you have discerned that, yes indeed your expectations are reasonable, and yes, the reason for your anger lies at the feet of the offender. They have messed up, and you have the right, some might push it here and say obligation, to be angry. Now what?

You now have two options before the sun goes down. 

The first option is to go and talk with the offender about how you feel offended.

This is in keeping with a Biblical principal given to us by Jesus:

15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. (Matthew NRSV)

We do not have room here to go into Jesus’ instruction on the involvement of church family in verses 16 to 17. That is for another day. But for now, here is some wisdom that may help you in your chat with the offender:

1. Read and commit to living out the rest of the passage:

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. . .  Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (from Eph 4:25-5:2 NRSV)

Then read and commit to living out the rest of Ephesians. In fact you may as well read and commit to living out the rest of the Bible. By the time you are done this, you may forget why you are angry! All joking aside, when you go to someone you are angry with, go as someone who who is Jesus-following, Spirit-filled, and Bible-informed. My Mum’s daily advice growing up rings through well: “Remember Whose you are and Whom you serve.”

2. Make it easier for your offender to get into putty mode than potty mode. That is, you want to communicate in a way that makes it easier for your offender to consider their offence and how they might have done better, and do better, rather than putting them on the defensive and getting them all angry too. This can be done by beginning with ‘I’ statements, like “can we talk about how I felt when something happened?” rather than ‘you’ statements such as “you did this to me.” Not only will beginning with ‘I’ be less likely to put the offender on the defensive, but it also starts with something the offender cannot deny; your experience. It is also good to avoid words like ‘always’ and ‘never.’ It is better to keep the discussion to the one offence that aroused your anger rather than make the offender feel like they have always been losers and never been good enough. That is how your offender may receive “you always” and “you never” statements.

The second option is to let it go.

This is not the best option if the offence is serious, or if the repeating of the offence will make it serious, or if this offence will be serious when repeated in the lives of others. But it sometimes can be the best option. We can be so easily offended and so quick to take offence. Perhaps we might benefit from growing a thicker skin? You might object and say “this is impossible, I could never let an offence go!” It might seem that way but like everything else, this gets easier with practice. We should note here that because God is holy, He can never let offence go unpunished. Instead He offers to pay the penalty for us, through Jesus Christ at the cross. When we are angry we do well to remember that amazing grace! Our offender may need grace. We might need it too.

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“Extremism”: Not the Right Word.

medium_6001114866More and more we are hearing about the dangers of extremism and religious people. We are hearing sentiments like “all religions are good, but it is wrong to take any religion to an extreme.” The use of the term “extremist” and even “fanatic” is unfortunate. Why? Because it sets people up for thinking that faith, any faith, can only be good in small doses, that a wee bit of religion is ok, but less might be better.
Being a Christian I will leave speaking about the other religions to others, but I wish to point out that Christianity works best when taken to an extreme.

Consider first some people who would fit the description of being Christian extremists. For example, someone who has taken Christian evangelism to the extreme: Billy Graham. Or someone who has taken practical expressions of Christian love for others to the extreme: Mother Teresa. Or someone who has taken Christian thinking to the extreme: C.S. Lewis. Or someone who has taken a Christian vision of, and hope for, the future to an extreme: Martin Luther King Jr. Many great women and men of history have been what you should call Christian extremists. Many of the great women and men in my life have been Christian extremists.

And consider the most extremist Christian there is, who happens to have affected history more than any other person: Jesus Christ himself. He calls us to follow him in the way of the cross. If we are doing that, love will be taken to an extreme. Forgiveness, grace, generosity, and compassion will all be taken to an extreme. You cannot be a Christian, a Christ follower, and do this in moderation. You are either following Jesus in the way of the cross or you are not. The fruit of the Spirit is described as being “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 NRSV). These are not qualities we want only in moderation.

Now you may be thinking, what about the Christians we might know who are super-religious but not at all loving, religiously church-going but hypocritical? Such are often not extreme followers of Jesus, but rather just extremely wrong in what a Christian is and what a Christian does. To know what Christianity is, you need to go to Christ. To be a Christian you need to stick with Christ in the way of the cross. To accept or reject Christianity, you need to focus in on Jesus and his teaching. In fact when we Christians put others off by our hypocrisy, it is because we have failed to follow Jesus to an extreme. Repentance to an extreme is in order.

One last thought: When you understand the depths of God’s love in Christ, the first thing to be taken to an extreme is gratitude. Moderation just feels so wrong. “Extremist” is an unfortunate label.

Submitted to our local paper as my turn for the “Articles of Faith” column. This was submitted before the terrible happenings of this past week.

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