Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas Heresy

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1:1-4)
All of us have wondered if what the Church has labeled as heresies might just be nit-picky obsession about little details.  For example, the dividing line between heresy and orthodoxy in one controversy is the addition of a single Greek letter.  You are okay if you confess that Jesus was homoousios with God the Father, but you are literally damned if you believe that he was only homoiousios.  One Greek letter – iota.

But of course, that one letter changes the meaning of the word entirely.  Either you believe that the Son and the Father are of the same divine essence or you think they have only “similar natures.”  So what appears to be just an iota of a difference is in truth the difference between two entirely different confessions of God and therefore two radically different conceptions of the world, life, and the future.

But it’s not just little details in doctrinal disputes.  Christians claim that ostensibly “little events” make all the difference in the world.  It’s kind of like the little parts without which a machine could not operate.  Or like putting together a Christmas gift for your children.  Let's say you don’t read, or you ignore the instructions, dismissing early on a small part here or the orientation of something little there.  You get to the end and the bicycle doesn’t work or the final pieces don’t line up. And all because you got something seemingly small wrong near the beginning of the process.  It is not difficult to envision the same kinds of problems when engineers and carpenters build buildings.  What might appear to be a small mistake near the foundation could end up ruining the entire project.

Even though toys and buildings are often forgiving with many mistakes, there are some omissions and errors that are systemic and spoil everything.  So it is with life, and God’s world, and the Kingdom God—Christian civilization.  There are certain practices and beliefs that we all forgive in one another and make adjustments—different views on church government, or about the mode of baptism, etc.  But there are others—what might appear to outsiders to be minuscule puzzle pieces—that are the corners and straight edge sides without which there would be no completed image.  And they are game changers, culture crushers, eternally significant.

Damnable heresies.

What I’m saying here this Christmas is that a great deal depends on what actually happened in that young girl’s womb.  A great deal.  As we sing every year, in this little town of Bethlehem “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  Consequently, most heresies manifest themselves in their mangling of the Christmas story.

But why should the world care about what happened in the womb of a teenage girl named Mary in a village in Palestine about 2000 years ago?  Why?  Because of what we confess actually happened: God himself personally and permanently joined himself to our human nature in that little woman’s womb.  Or not.

I am convinced that every year it is supremely beneficial for Christians to be brought again to the manger and forced to look—Behold, this is your God!  No other.  What Jesus is, God is.  What Jesus does, God does.  Here is the meaning of the word “God.”

All of the birth narratives rub our noses in this essential fact: this baby is your God.  Worship him.  This infant is nothing less that “God with us”—Emmanuel.  “God among us.”  Worship him.
Matt. 1:23, “"Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel," which is translated, "God with us."

Matt. 2:11, And when the wise men from the East had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Luke 1:35, “And the angel answered and said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.”

Luke 1:76 (Zechariah’s Song about his Son, John the Baptizer): “"And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the LORD [Yahweh] to prepare the way for him, (Luke 1:76).

Luke 2:11,  (to the shepherds) "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11).

John 1:1, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14).  There you have it.  We behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  God is most fully God when he is taking on human flesh in order to serve us.

1 John 1:1-2, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life-- the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us.”
If you and I insist on learning the meaning of the word “god” from somewhere other than Jesus himself, then our god will be a false one.  This has always been the temptation for the church.  To make over God according to how we think he ought to be.   This is the essence of heresy.

This is the error of every major heresy in the early church.  Most of the heretics meant well.  They were all so very concerned to guard a pure conception of God and his nature.  They thought they knew what God was like already, and so they just knew that this baby could not be fully God.  This is well illustrated with the Arch Heretic—Arius, who denied the full divinity of the Son, of Jesus.

The reason why Arius would not say that Jesus was fully God was that he was so jealous to guard and protect the pure spirituality of God, as he understood it.  Jesus just had to be something less than fully God—well, because, LOOK!  He’s born an infant!  He’s in full contact with flesh and material existence.  He suffers and dies on a cross.  God cannot, God must not be envisioned as submitting to these indignities.  God is higher and holier and loftier and therefore above all of this.  God is not able to be affected by the material world.

The Church, by God’s grace, did not give into these Greek conceptions of God as surgically removed from his creation, as allergic to material world.  For all of the possible pitfalls, the church confessed what the Scriptures said:
Jesus was God.  Jesus was man.

The Son is eternal.  The Son was born of a woman.

Mary was the Mother of God, not just a man.
To call Mary the Mother of God or Theotokos (“God bearer”) was not originally intended to honor Mary, but glorify Jesus.  God the Son came into the world, united to human nature in utero and passed through the birth canal like every other human.  This was how God came to be among us!  We cannot explain this.  It makes us wince and causes us great intellectual angst, but it is what the Scriptures teach.  Here we stand.  We have no other God.  And it has massive implications.  For example, our understanding of godliness is directly related to our conception of God.

Let me address a mistake that continues to be perpetuated and it sounds so right because it is popularly repeated over and over again in apologetics and evangelism books, tracts, and sermons.  The mistake is to think that the miracles that Jesus did proves that he was divine.  That the clearest, most compelling outcropping of the divinity of Jesus was when he did miraculous works of power.  No.  Read the Bible carefully.  In the Scriptures it is human prophets who do these kinds of things.

Moses was not God.  He was a mighty prophet.  And Moses discovered, too, that the magicians of Egypt could imitate these acts. Jesus himself knew and the author of Acts relates that other people were able to perform exorcisms and what not.  Similar miracles were done by Elijah and Elisha, but they were not God.   Haven’t you every thought it odd that the NT epistles of Paul and Peter and John make no mention of the miracles of Jesus as a proof of his divinity. That whenever they speak of Jesus as God they connect it with his incarnation and self-sacrificial death?  As Peter says, “Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him.”

Rather, Jesus' divine nature and character are unveiled in his humble service to us in his birth, life, suffering, and death.   The point is that what makes, what proves, if you will, that Jesus is God, is not his works of power and might, but his humble self-sacrifice.  His self-effacing love and service for humanity.  This is who God is.

The Good News is not that God made some external determination to forgive man, exercised his powerful divine will, snapped a disinterested divine finger, and sprinkled some medicinal salvation powder on the human race.  What he did was penetrate the very depths of our mortal human existence and life, to restore the distorted and corrupt condition of man’s actual human existence.  God genuinely united himself to human, creaturely existence.

God himself bore our infirmities and sins and the whole inheritance of judgment that lay against us—God himself, not merely in some extrinsic, detached way—but he personally bore all this in Jesus Christ our Savior.  This is where we find God for us.  Nowhere else.

The Angels knew where to direct the shepherds.  The Apostle’s know where to guide the world to find life—to the heard, seen, touched, handled Word of Life!  To Jesus.

Listen to the Angel: the Angel says, “You shall find him. . .”  Where?  The angel did not say, “You should find him in heaven!”  The angel did not say you shall find him “within you.” The angel did not say, “You shall find him after much fasting and prayer so that you can transcend the distance between God and man.”  The angel did not say, “You shall find him if you do great works of mercy and love.”  The angel did not say, “You shall find him when you philosophically abstract from him all created attributes.”  The angel said, “Unto you a Savior is born, he is Messiah Yahweh.  You shall find him in Bethlehem, lying in a manger.”

Listen to the beloved Apostle John. “We proclaim to you the Word of Life”  What word of life?  John does not say you will discover it within you.  He does not give a list of the attributes of divinity and ask you to hold all of these together in order to get your mind around God.  He does not say, “You must understand now that God is quite spiritual and cannot have any contact with physical matter.”  He does not attempt to take us down "the path of negation" so that we can rise above earthly, material things in order to make mental, purely internal contact with divinity.

No.  He links what seems impossible to bring together: “That which was from the beginning” and “what we have seen, heard, and our hands have handled.”  This is the Word of Life. This is the one “who was with the Father” (v. 2c) and has now appeared.

This little baby is your Creator and Savior.  This is the glad tidings to be shouted on the mountain top, according to the prophet Isaiah: “O Zion, You who bring good tidings, Get up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, You who bring good tidings, Lift up your voice with strength, Lift it up, be not afraid; Say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” (Isa 40:9).

This limp infant in the arms of a teenage mother is the Lord of the universe.  This is why what happened in the womb of little Mary 2000 years ago is no insignificant event.  The heretics all carefully insulate God from this young girl’s womb.  The resulting heresies therefore give us a different God and consequently a different hope for the future.

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