God’s ways of revealing Himself, making Himself known, working His purpose out in history, making His will known to us, choosing which nations He will use for His purposes, answering our prayers, working in all things for good in the lives of those who are seeking to fit into His plan for their lives…all the ways God wills and works to achieve and fulfill His goal for humankind and for the whole of His creation converge and collaborate to confirm that His ways are way beyond our ways (Isaiah 55:8). Furthermore, God’s ways of working His purposes out are always mysterious and usually surprising to us.
God’s prophet Isaiah, speaking as “thus saith the Lord,” not only tells us that God’s ways are beyond our ways, but His thoughts are “higher than our thoughts” (vs. 8-9). We can never fully comprehend either the thoughts or ways of God, although one of the widely accepted dogmas of our time is the superiority of human reason. This is the very same cherished dogma the Apostle Paul encountered and refuted in the first century in his philosophical and theological debates in the Greek-speaking world, especially in Athens, one of the three major intellectual centers of the ancient world (the other two were Alexandria and Tarsus). The Athenians exalted human wisdom and took great pride in their intellectual pursuits. In his Corinthian correspondence, Paul contrasts the wisdom of this world with the wisdom of Christ, and the foolishness of the Gospel with the folly of man: “The Jews demand signs (i.e. wonders, mighty acts of God, such as the Exodus), and the Greeks look for wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22). Paul told the Greeks, “It is written (Isaiah 29:14) ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intellectuals I will frustrate,'” He asked the Corinthians, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe…God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world, the despised things, things that are not (i.e not worthy of recognition, not worthy of praise, not worthy of honor) to nullify the things that are'” (1 Corinthians 1:19-21, 27-28).
During the past Christmas season, we celebrated how God glorified the commonplace in the birth of Jesus, the Christ (i.e. the Messiah, the unique and solitary Son of God) in His incarnation. He chose the common and lowly way for His Word to be made flesh, taking human form, by coming into this world as a baby born to peasant parents in a stable, and then cradled in a manger, making the central doctrine of the incarnation all the more surprising and incredible. The truth is God has always made Himself known in ways that were unexpected, mysterious, and surprising. Although there has been only one “incarnation,” God had revealed Himself in other strange ways before the first coming of Christ (i.e. God had “appeared,” and the word for His appearances is “theophanies,” but none of His appearances were incarnations). God appeared to Moses in the form of a bush that was burning, but not consumed. God appeared to the Hebrew people during the Exodus, guiding them by a special cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God appeared to his prophet, Elijah, during a contest by fire with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel, appearing to all those present in the form of a fire that fell from heaven consuming his offering, confirming that his God was the one true God, the only God who answers prayers. God appeared to another of His prophets, a prophet of the exile, in the form of a mighty wind that blew across a valley of dry bones, the breath of God breathing new life into them (the Hebrew word for “wind” is also the word for “breath,” ruach). In the afterglow of Christmas, I have found myself wondering why so many of us are so surprised that God works in such wondrous, mysterious, and unexpected ways.
Going back to the beginning of the biblical story, to the Genesis account of creation, I have been thinking about how surprised the angels and all the heavenly host must have been at the dawn of creation when God decided to speak the worlds into being; especially when He decided to create human beings in His own image. The famous African American poet, James Weldon Johnson, in a poetic description of that moment wrote: “God stepped out on space, looked all around, and said, “I’m lonely, I’ll make me a world.” As far as the eye of God could see darkness covered everything, blacker than a million midnights…God said, “Let there be light,” and the darkness rolled up on one side and the light stood shining on the other. God said, “That’s good, but I’m lonely still; I’ll make me a man.”” God created us for companionship, for fellowship with Him, so we could know Him, love Him, worship Him, serve Him, and enjoy Him forever. He created us, male and female, as relational beings. He also created us as free moral agents, with the ability to choose between good and evil. Most of you reading this blog know the rest of the story, how both man and woman disobeyed God, and the image of God in which they had been created was damaged. Not destroyed but distorted. The perfect fellowship with God they had enjoyed was broken, which explains why this world has been broken ever since and tells us why the world needed a Savior to reconcile sinners to a holy God and restore humankind to their lost spiritual inheritance.
So, in the “fullness of time” God sent His one and only Son into the world to be the Reconciler, the Redeemer, the Restorer and the Perfect Everything for an imperfect world. But as we were reminded during the Advent Season, His own people did not receive Him, but to all who did receive Him, who believed in Him, He “…gave the power to become children of God” (John 1:12-13). Once again, God’s ways are beyond our ways, for we have only our human reason, human wisdom, human thoughts, and human words with which to interpret and describe God’s ways and God’s thoughts. During my lifetime I have seen and heard so many people who, with their little minds, have been guilty of what has been called “Dumbing-down God” (i.e. humanizing God, making God in our own likeness). J.B. Phillips wrote an excellent little book entitled, Your God Is Too Small. On the other hand, there have always been those who maintain that since God is transcendent, so great and so far beyond us, it is impossible for us to grasp the glory of God. Furthermore, our theological terms often leave people confused, for it is a vocabulary most are unfamiliar with. One example: do you realize that one of the benchmark doctrines of orthodox Christianity is that God is “simple” – not in the sense of being easy to understand, for another fundamental teaching of basic Christianity is that God is “incomprehensible.” So, if you think you can comprehend God, then you are deluded and thinking more highly of yourself than you ought to think. However, remembering the Christmas story, the “Christ Event,” we always recall that it was the simple shepherds who heard the angelic anthem, a hymn of unprecedented joy, “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The so-called “great” of the world knew nothing of His coming. His birth was not publicly announced. There was no welcoming committee to roll out the red carpet for the Holy Family. It was all so strange, so simple, so contrary to the way this world thinks and acts. The birth of Christ was not announced to the strong and mighty, but to the poor and powerless. Not to the “somebodies” but to the “nobodies.”
No one could have expected the Messiah, whose life and influence would turn the stream of human history into new channels, to visit this planet not dramatically but humbly, not with the sound of trumpets but without fanfare, coming not to be served but to serve, not to overpower but to empower, not to suppress or impress but to simply address the people with words that were familiar, images that were taken from their everyday life, telling stories, speaking in parables. He did not teach as the Scribes and Pharisees did, who were constantly and continuously quoting the Law. He spoke as One who had come “to fulfill the Law and the prophets.” The Word made flesh, the Living Word, the Walking Word, who spoke as One who knew about God from the inside, One who reflected the image of God in his life, in his attitudes and actions, One who was the visible manifestation of the invisible God, One who announced “the kingdom of God is among you.”
It was G.K. Chesterton, one of my favorite authors, whose home was in the same community in England, Beaconsfield, where I served as an Interim Pastor of a Reformed Church of England congregation, who wrote in The Everlasting Man regarding the incarnation: “I have not minimized the importance of that miracle as some of our milder theologians are inclined to do; rather, I have chosen to dwell on that incredible interruption as the blow that broke the backbone of history.” That is precisely what this first advent did! As Ralph Sockman, a prominent Methodist minister, said years ago: “The hinge of history was on the Bethlehem stable.” Who would have believed that such an ordinary down-to-earth, event as the birth of a baby in such an obscure village, in the simplicity of a stable, would change the world forever? Of course, those of other faiths deny it, and some even regard such a suggestion (i.e. that God took human form) as the ultimate blasphemy. To quote Chesterton once again: “I can sympathize with those of other religions, especially Judaism and Islam, for whom the thought of an incarnation seems a blasphemy that might shake the world. But it did not shake the world, it steadied the world.” It did, you know!
Even as a youth, before his years as a teenager, Jesus confounded the religious leaders of his day with his remarkable wisdom and his inexplicable knowledge of the scriptures. How could they account for his intellectual superiority? His parents were not highly educated. He had not attended any of the rabbinical schools of that day, He was educated in the little synagogue school of Nazareth, and it was a common saying among the Jews, “Nothing good ever came out of Nazareth.” Northern Galilee was known as a breeding place for Jewish zealots, inflamed nationalists, troublemakers, and the Pharisees thought Jesus might be one of them. There were so many questions about him, and no one seemed to have the answer. There was a question about his power. He had power over disease, for he healed the sick. It was reported that he even had power over death, that he had raised a widow’s son from death, and later raised Lazarus, a friend who had died. How could anyone account for such power? It was even reported that he had power over nature, that he had stilled a storm, commanding the waves to be still. What was the source of his power? He also claimed he had the authority to forgive sins, and only God can forgive sins! Furthermore, what about his moral purity? According to his followers, he was without sin. He never repented, although he called others to repentance. He had asked his critics “Who among you convicts me of sin?” It was all so surprising for a man who had been a simple carpenter. It was all so mysterious, including his choice of friends, the fact that he was a “friend of sinners.” He even touched lepers, who were “untouchables.” He cleansed lepers and had table fellowship with outcasts and despised people of bad reputation, such as Mary Magdalene and tax collectors like Levi and Zacchaeus. How shocked and surprised the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees were to see Jesus in the company of such people.
His love knew no boundaries. His ways were beyond their ways. His compassion was beyond compare. His mercy was beyond all measure. He responded lovingly to the feeblest cry for help. Although he had only a short time to prepare his disciples for their mission, he was always interruptible. He did not seek the crowds – the crowds sought him, for his words and his deeds set him apart from other teachers and prophets. Soldiers who were sent on one occasion to arrest him later returned without him, giving the most amazing and surprising reason ever offered for non-arrest: “No man ever spoke like this man.” He was obviously a teacher sent from God (only a few realized that he WAS God who had come to teach). Even his enemies knew that he was more than a carpenter, more than a mere man, for his words were greater than their own words, and his deeds could not be explained apart from God. In fact, his words and his deeds were one. When Jesus said something, he did something! He was and forever IS the incomparable Christ.
We are now living in the “in-between” times (i.e. the times between Christ’s first Advent and His second coming). Suffice it to say, His second and final advent will also come as a surprise, for He will come when He is least expected and He will not come as He did the first time! He will come in all his glory, and “all the angels with him” (see Matthew 25, the “Parable of the Great Judgment” vs. 31-46). He will come as the Lord strong and mighty, as the One who has been seated on the throne in heaven and the object of heaven’s worship. He will come the last and final time to sit on “the throne of judgment.” All the world will know who he is when he returns to judge the nations. That which is our hope of consummation as believers will be a time of condemnation. The righteous will reign with Christ forever, but the unrighteous will be forever separated from God, from all that is good, from all that is holy, from all that is beautiful – that is the real meaning of hell. No wonder the Bible calls that terrible time “the second death.”
Preachers should never enjoy proclaiming this flip-side of the “Good News,” the bad news of the Gospel. This truth should always be proclaimed with a broken heart! The reality of a final judgment and its consequences is also beyond our comprehension, but as believers, we long for that day to come, when God’s plan for humankind, and for the whole of creation, is fulfilled. When God’s great “rescue operation” that began after the Garden of Eden, after the “fall,” will reach its consummation. The same Jesus who was “despised and rejected of men,” the One who was the “man of sorrows acquainted with grief,” who was mocked and ridiculed on the cross, will then be seen in all his glory as the Lord of heaven and earth, the mighty Savior, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” At that time, we are told that “every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” for then everyone will see Him for who He is, the risen and reigning Christ who sits upon the throne in heaven (Matthew 25:31). On that day “…all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right hand, and the goats on his left” (vs. 32-33). For the righteous, the children of light, that will be a day of rejoicing. Unfortunately, it will be a day of weeping and wailing for those who have “loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil.”
Once again, as in previous blogs this new year I remind you of the words of the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans (chapter 8) that “the whole creation waits with eager longing” for this final event in salvation history: “For the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and death, and will obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (vs. 21). And in the Revelation to the Apostle John, we are given a glimpse of heaven at worship, a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” as well as a “new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (to Earth, Revelation 21:1-2). All this is higher than our thoughts. It is beyond all human imagination. As the old spiritual says, “My Lord, what a morning!” What a morning indeed! “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know when he appears we shall we like him” (1 John 3:2). Wow! HALLELUJAH!