Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Hope of the World

My Christian community, North Dublin Christian Community has been working our way through Luke's gospel and the Acts of the Apostles for the past several months.  Alas, we've come to the end, but if you've ever read the book of Acts, you know that the end is just the beginning.  And so it is with the entire narrative of the Bible.  When you get to the end you realize that everything's just beginning - all things are made new!  Sometimes a single verse of scripture can pack quite a punch.  Sometimes even a portion of one verse can say as much as a whole novel.  So it is with Acts 28:20.  Before the writer of Acts leaves us hanging with Paul's unresolved story, he tells us how the prisoner Paul explained to his fellow Jews in Rome that far from standing in opposition to Israel's story, he has been an ambassador and advocate for the story's climax and resolution.  He does this succinctly stating, " is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain."  What Paul is saying is that the long and winding story of Israel has been brought to a head and it is this proclamation that has led him to stand trial in Rome.  But to understand the full force of what he's saying, one would need to know what Paul meant by "the hope of Israel."  What was the hope of Israel?  Is it in any way related to the hope of the world?

To put it into one word, Israel's hope was for resolution - resolution of the grand narrative of the universe stretching back before recorded history and twisting and turning its way through to its climax and beyond; the moment where everything makes sense and God is all in all.  The story began with the creation of the heavens and the earth and it will come to completion in new creation: new heavens and new earth.  Along the way came humanity, God's crown of his creation.  But since God desired a genuine relationship with humanity whom he made in his image, he granted us free-will.  We embraced our free-will to the point where we rebelled against his loving and benevolent rule in our lives, trading him for various forms of idolatry.  Our free-will, exercised poorly, led us into slavery.  Our sin separated us from our loving Father, but he wouldn't let us go without a fight.  He set in motion a rescue operation to free us from our slavery to sin and deliver the creation from its bondage to decay.

From the beginning, our God's been an incarnational God, choosing to work in and through his fallen creatures with all the limitations that entails, rather than simply sorting us out without our participation.  So God called a man and a woman; Abraham and Sarah, through whom all of humanity would one day be blessed.  From their offspring emerged the nation of Israel - God's chosen people.  He called and blessed these people, not simply for their sake, but for the sake of the entire world.  Unfortunately, they were often just as unfaithful to God as their pagan neighbors around them.  Instead of being a light to the world, they often cast a shadow over the message that God wished to proclaim through them.  After a 400 year sojourn in Egypt, this God of Israel, YWHW, put a beat-down on the false gods of Egypt and delivered his people out of slavery.  He gave them torah (instruction for life) through Moses and eventually led them to the land of Canaan.  But things didn't go smoothly from there.  They were without solid leadership for years before finally settling on a king.  But even a united kingdom didn't last long.    It soon divided and both remnants eventually went into exile with some of their tribes never to return.  It seemed all hope for them and for the world was lost.

But despite their brokenness, God continued to use them and work through them.  He sent them prophets with messages of hope - hope that one day they would return to their land, return to their God, and that a good and faithful king would lead them to a time of prosperity never seen before.  Pure worship of the one true God would emanate from the summit of Zion and its sound would echo around the world.  The nations would see the glory of the God of Israel and stream to him, becoming a part of his people.  The entirety of the created order would be renovated and a new age would dawn.  The lion and the lamb would lie down together in peace and swords would be turned into plowshares.  Every tear would be wiped away and mourning, pain, and suffering would be no more.  Humanity, enslaved to sin, would be set free and even death itself would be defeated through the dramatic reversal of resurrection.

But as the first century of the common era dawned, the hope of Israel seemed to be nothing more than a pipe-dream.  What was left of God's historic people, Israel, was now represented by a mere remnant known as the Jews scattered from Persia to Spain.  A few actually lived in their historic land, but they, like the rest of the Mediterranean world, were subject to the rule of Rome.  They were divided and disorganized.  They needed a king.  Their temple had been rebuilt and worship was regular, but most of the priests were corrupt and had compromised with their Roman overlords.  Far from being a light to the nations, Jewish religion was often practiced in opposition to the people around them.  Their hopes and dreams were dashed and their future and the world's future looked bleak.

Then, out of the blue, in a way no one could have predicted or expected, a deliverer was born in the little town of Bethlehem.  From these basic beginnings this little Jewish boy was brought up in Nazareth, a backwater town in Galilee, the backwater region of Palestine, the backwater province of the Roman Empire.  Though unspectacular by worldly standards, this man lived his life in complete submission to his Father.  He was immersed in the scriptures of old and as he embraced the story of God and his people, it was revealed to him through God's Holy Spirit that his vocation in life was to recapitulate Israel's story.  He was to be everything that Israel had been called to be, but failed to be.  In fact, in his life, he not only became all that Israel was called to be, he became all that humanity was created to be.  He was true Israel and true humanity; faithful and obedient all the way to death, even death on a Roman cross.  Even more remarkably, this man Jesus of Nazareth was the full embodiment, the complete enfleshment of the God of the universe.  God had come back to his people, to his creation, in a way that no one could have dreamed up.  In his sacrificial death on the cross, the Son of God dealt a decisive death-blow to sin.  Not only was sin dealt with in his crucifixion, but death itself was destroyed in his resurrection.  On the third day after his execution, Jesus' body was raised from the dead and the new creation that God had promised so long ago had begun.

But the new creation hasn't yet been brought to completion.  We're already living in the new age and yet the age to come is still to come.  But the victory has already been won; Israel's and the world's hope is secure.  The risen Jesus is exalted and reigning as King, not only of Israel, but of the entire world.  He has sent his Spirit to dwell in all who will put their trust in him and one day he will return to judge the world and bring fulfillment and restoration to God's good creation.  The story will reach its resolution.  The wrongs of this world will be made right, the dead in Christ will be raised to eternal bodily life, and all things will be made new.  Revelation 21:3-5 says it this way, "'See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.'  And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new."'

In the meantime the story continues.  The apostle Paul's story isn't fully summed up for us in Acts 28 because his is simply a small part of the story of God and his people.  And this story isn't finished yet.  The God of the universe invites us into the narrative - he invites us to play our part in Acts 29.  Which part will you play?  Will your story find resolution? - Shay         

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Faith Seeking Understanding

Every Monday evening I join several friends for a chat in one of our local Dublin pubs.  Like the Inklings of Tolkien and Lewis fame (although none of us are remotely famous or as intellectually elite as those Oxford guys), we gather to discuss what we would describe as the biggest issue of life - God.  We sometimes wrestle with questions like "Why do we even believe in a God?", or something similar, but most of the time, we focus our conversations on the ramifications of our beliefs.  In the words of Anselm of Canterbury, we do theology - faith seeking understanding.

Last week we discussed the primeval narratives of Genesis.  This week we'll be talking about cosmology, evolution, and creation from a Christian perspective.  Can one believe in the Big Bang and evolutionary process while maintaining an orthodox Christian faith?  On the flip side, can one who holds to a faith in the resurrected Jesus explore and embrace many of the mainstream scientific theories and descriptions of the origin of the universe? 

I am not a scientist.  I hold a degree in humanities (with an emphasis in history) and another in theology, but I have an amateur's interest in the scientific endeavor.  In other words, I'm not opposed to what science can tell us about the functions and origins of the material world around us, but I wouldn't be an expert in that field.  I do know however, that science is limited in what it can explain.  By definition, the scientific method limits itself to what can be observed in nature and what is repeatable.  History, by contrast deals with events that are essentially unrepeatable - they happen one time and's history!  Historiography is an art, not a science, though it certainly sheds much light on our understanding of how things got to be the way they are.  Theology and philosophy engage with both history and science, but much of their primary focus deals with metaphysics - things that are not materially observable the way an organism might be studied under the lens of a microscope.  All of these disciplines are important in coming to a fuller understanding of reality.  In fact, music, poetry, other forms of literature, both factual and fictional all aid us in our quest for meaning and purpose.  Not any one of these disciplines would be sufficient on its own, but together they create a beautiful mosaic.

 Life is complicated and life is messy.  Life is simple and life is beautiful.  The world around us is amazing and the world around us is dangerous.  The world around us is scary and the world around us is awe-inspiring.  As I type this blog, the sun rises over the Irish Sea and Howth Summit as its rays cascade down the  undulating coastline of North Dublin.  At the same time, I just happen to notice that at this point of the earth's rotation the light of the sun has now become visible at 53.3478 N and 6.2597 W.  Both of these statements are true and tell us something about reality, but in different ways.

I would encourage persons of faith to have a strong enough faith to be willing to explore all that is available to learn about God, life, and reality from the various arts and sciences.  Likewise, I would encourage the skeptic to at least hold open the possibility that there may be more to this world and this life than is explainable simply through the discipline of science.  As we begin a new year - a new beginning, one might consider exploring the book of beginnings, Genesis.  But rather than looking at this account as if it were a modern science or history text book, I would suggest that you might approach these narratives with an open mind that is willing to explore all that poetry, story, and most importantly theology would have to say about God, humanity, and the way the world works.  For a primer, have a look at this clip featuring John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath, NT Wright and other scholars, theologians, and scientists.  Happy explorations! - Shay

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A New Year, A New Beginning

2014 has come and gone and we're over a week into 2015.  Whether or not you buy into the whole New Year's resolution thing , a new year, just like a new day and even a new breath offers us all a chance at a new beginning.  It's not really a resolution, but I hope and pray that I'll become a better husband and a better father in 2015.  That's been an ongoing wish of mine since Juli and I wed 12 & 1/2 years ago and since Ashlyn took her first gasp of air a little over 5 years ago.

The past 4 and 1/2 years have been an amazing experience for our family.  This little island nation of Ireland has become a 2nd home to us (a near first home to Ashlyn).  They say that once you live overseas for several years, you lose your sense of belonging.  I don't doubt that.  But, I've come to realize that there is something to be said for living in the land of your birth.  We always knew that our stay in Ireland would come to an end and so it is that 2015 will be the last calendar year of our Irish invasion.  In fact, we're only 6 months away from returning home.  We don't know where we'll live and we don't know exactly what we'll be doing, but we will continue to give of ourselves in the service of Christ, his people, and those around us.

So whatever your plans or your resolutions are for 2015, the Smith family wishes you all the best (as they say here in Ireland) and don't forget that every breath you take is an opportunity for a new beginning. - Shay