The Spirits of Christmas

We can’t get to Christmas without traveling through Luke chapter one. And we can’t read Luke chapter one without noticing how active the Holy Spirit is. While preparing for Christmas we find that John the Baptizer, Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah are all interacting with the Spirit. In fact, Luke wants us to know they are filled with the Spirit. Of all the gospel writers, Luke is perhaps most interested in the Spirit. By the time we get to the book of Acts, it almost seems that the Spirit becomes his primary character in the narrative.

In contrast to Luke, Mark’s Gospel places some emphasis on darker spirits. Reading Mark, one is often in the company of evil spirits. It is interesting that the gospels suggest supernatural forces, both holy and evil, desire to inhabit humans. Perhaps a reading of the gospel should prompt the question, “Who will inhabit humans?” “Will it be evil forces or will it be the spirit of God?”

Evil spirits desire to inhabit humans. But it appears they have some problems with what they really want. In Mark five a man living among the tombs had an evil spirit and was constantly gashing himself with stones. In Mark nine it is an evil spirit that sometimes slams the host, a young boy, to the ground.  At other times it throws him into fire and the water to destroy him. It seems that evil spirits living in the host also have some desire to destroy the host. This may be the dilemma of evil spirits. They lack wisdom. They cannot become a unity and work with their host. They are fractured and foolish. They are far different from the spirit of God.

In contrast, the Holy Spirit also desires to dwell in humans. But here we find a different story. The spirit of God desires life. The spirit of God strengthens and nurtures. This becomes more obvious to us in Acts chapter two and afterward. Yet, here, chapters earlier, we find the Spirit entering humans. Luke chapter one tells of life entering a barren situation. Life enters where it is thought to be impossible. Before we get to Christmas. Before Mary gives birth and wraps Jesus in swaddling clothes. Before we learned that shepherds were watching flocks by night. Before we hear the angels sing Gloria in excelsis. Before we get to Luke chapter two and the birth of the newborn king, we find four people who are filled with the Holy Spirit.

This is no small thing. The story of Christmas is the story that history is changing. This is a story about God on the move. An announcement that a new kingdom is taking shape. There is a light in the darkness. God is bringing life into an arena where there was death. Christmas is coming. Hang onto your hat.


Thinking About Church

I have been rereading The Fellowship of the Ring and can’t help but be drawn to the odds against the company sent out to destroy the ring and defeat the evil Sauron. The task must be done and yet it appears the wrong team has been chosen to do it. Tolkien gives an interesting adventure. As necessary as this adventure may be, success does not seem likely when we look at a company that consists of a dwarf, an elf, a wizard, two humans and four hobbits. The task is great, the company appears small.

I read Tolkien and think about the church. Sometimes you look across the congregation and wonder, considering the task at hand, if we will be able to meet the challenge. We are surrounded by evil. Our strengths seem small. Yet the task remains and we gather, little more than a dwarf, an elf, a wizard, two humans and four hobbits, and we step into this adventure. A company set out to change the world.

Greater than Danger

I have been reading Psalm 23 and cannot help but notice the confidence that the gifts of God are greater than the dangers of life.  We enter this psalm with the name of the Lord.  The phrase following the initial naming of the Lord sets the tone for the remainder of the psalm “I shall not want.”  The Lord is the satisfaction of all needs.  Nothing else is necessary.  The psalm suggests that this is not only a spiritual satisfaction.  With the later reference to cup and table comes the implication that the Lord is the satisfaction for all needs.

The psalm then proceeds to talk about God.  “He” makes, leads, restores, and guides.  Then in the center of the psalm we find a more direct address with the strong pronoun “Thou.”  Perhaps this part of the psalm is more immediate or is stated with more emotion.  The psalmist speaks directly to this “Thou” while walking through a deep dark valley and while in the presence of enemies.  The psalmist does not fear impending danger because of the presence of this “Thou.”

Another interesting observation in the psalm is the pronoun ”I.”  This is no self-centered “I”, but one full of gratitude and thanksgiving.  One that acknowledges that the presence and actions of this “Thou” are enough.  This “I” is trusting that life, no matter how dangerous, no matter how evil, is in the hands of this “Thou.”

The psalm knows about threatening situations.  The psalm knows that evil is real.  That danger exists.  But it also knows that the Lord is greater than the threat.  The presence of the Lord is enough.  No matter the situation.  It does not mean that there are no deep dark valleys.  It does not mean that there is no evil.  It does not mean that there are no enemies.  It does mean that He might prepare a table for you right in the presence of your enemies.  The presence of the Lord is enough even in (perhaps specifically in) situations where danger is the greatest.

As in the beginning, the psalm ends with the name of the Lord.  This may be noteworthy and suggest that life is lived in the presence of the One with this name.  The One who walks the deep dark valley with me also leads me beside quiet waters. The Lord is with us.  The psalm knows that danger is real, but it also knows that the Lord is greater than danger.

An Invitation to a Story About Us

Creation appears safe.  Things are in order.  Threats appear minimal.  The early chapters of Genesis are a good place to spend time on a Sunday morning.  This seems like the kind of place you could shake hands with a grizzly bear if you wanted to.  The sights of creation are brilliant, “look at that.”  The sounds of creation cause you to be still, “did you hear that.”  Something new steps into the scene and arouses your curiosity, “what is that?”

But then, the story continues with the introduction of a new character. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field… And he said to the woman, ‘Indeed, has God said, You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?’”  Suddenly we realize that God talks to Adam and Eve but God’s voice is not the only one that people hear. There is another voice contrary to the voice of God. God has an opponent, an enemy. This world is at war.

The entrance of evil brings us to an intersection. We know that intersection.  We pass that intersection every day.  A place where decision-making is put to the test.  Will we listen to the voice of God or will another voice persuade us?  We never move far from this intersection.  Every day is a contest where we must discern between voices and make a decision about which one to listen to.

Desire can drive you crazy.  It can become an obsession.  Genesis does not tell us how badly Eve wanted the fruit from that tree.  But we do know that “the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise.”  And where was it?  In the middle of the garden.  Not in the corner where we can avoid it.  Not along the fringe where we can act as if we are not really thinking about it.  In the middle of the garden.  Right where we spend most of our time.  Constantly in front of our face.

We know what happens next.  Although they were told not to, Adam and Eve eat the beautiful fruit of the tree they are not supposed to touch.  This is a tragic story.  In spite of our screams, “don’t do it!”  Every time we read Genesis 3, they eat the fruit.

This is one of those places in scripture where you wish you had not turned the page.  On the verge of a great adventure with unknown mystery and romance.  We are on the edge of our seat wondering what will happen next.   Things were going along just fine and then something happens that makes you ask why.  We are people who would rather just live in the positive.  Avoid the negative.  Retell the story to make it sound better for the children.

Every day we are reminded that there is something that we do not have, but we want it.  We have everything we need.  But we want something more.  Something else.  We blame Adam and Eve for ruining things for all of us.  We could have been running through Eden without worry.  Without needing anything. Everything was right there.  But, we can’t stand back and blame Adam or Eve.  We know that Genesis has invited us into a story about us.  We know that we can’t resist a good marketing effort.  That is why commercials work so well. We are always going for things that are desirable and a delight to the eyes.  We see things we do not need every day and convince ourselves that we should have them.  In fact, we convince ourselves that we deserve them.  That we have earned them.  We know that we would not have done things any different, because we go for new things that we don’t need all the time.

Genesis has invited us into a story about us.

Singing in the Face of Evil

Christian worship is an interesting thing isn’t it?  That we would get together every week to sing our songs, pray our prayers, give our gifts, and open up an old book to read words that were written long ago and considered irrelevant by many.  Yet, we keep getting together and we keep opening the book.

And then on some days we open the book and we read about evil.  We have pictures that come to mind when we think of evil.  I can’t help but think of one from Dr. Seuss.  Evil is big and green.  He’s a mean one, as cuddly as a cactus, has all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile.  He comes to take stuff just to make others unhappy.

Yet when Seuss’s people lose their stuff, they are not unhappy.  Instead – they sing.  “Fahoo fores, dahoo dores.”  We may not understand the words, but we understand what is going on.  Makes me think I should read Seuss differently.

Revelation addresses evil.  But perhaps even more it addresses worship.  In the midst of all the evil we find in chapter 6-7, we find ourselves in a context of worship.  Worshippers are active before, during and after.  It is saturated with song and the constant opening and reopening of the book.  These chapters are surrounded by prayers.  Here we are in worship.

We may not naturally see evil as a context for worship.  But Revelation does.  Here we find worship taking place.  This starts back in chapter four and does not stop when evil arrives in chapter six.  In chapter four, we found four living creatures singing “Holy, Holy, Holy…”  And then twenty-four elders fall down and sing “worthy…”

In chapter five, the creatures and elders join together to sing a new song.  And then are joined by thousands and thousands of angels.  And they all sing “worthy…”  They are then joined by all of creation.  The living creatures say “amen.”  The elders fall down and worship.  Chapter six sees repetitive opening and reopening of the book.  The four living creatures participate in an apocalyptic responsive reading.

In chapter seven, a great multitude is called forth “which no one could count.”  And they sing with all the angels, the twenty-four elders, the four living creatures.  They sing “Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever, Amen.”  And this all takes place in the presence of the One sitting on the throne and the Lamb.

Revelation presents a growing choir.  In fact, Revelation keeps responding to adversity, tribulation and evil by adding to the choir.  With the four horsemen of the apocalypse enter conquest, war, famine and pestilence.  The following chapter brings tribulation.  And the growing choir sings.  Four living creatures, twenty-four elders, the voice of many angels, and all of creation.  Chapter seven adds a great multitude, which no one could count.  And they sing!

Revelation talks about the prayers of the saints.  Both before our passage (5.8) and following (8.3) the prayers of the saints are related to “incense.”  Before the evil of our passage is introduced and afterward – prayer.  I can’t help but think of how unusual this response to evil is.  The saints sing.  The saints pray.  Offer incense.  You may have prayed for someone this morning.  Someone may have prayed for you.  Revelation says prayers are like incense.  Mark Buchanan calls praying people perfume makers.

This is an interesting picture of prayer.  This “incense.”  But we are not looking for prayer that sends sweet fragrance to the supernatural.  We want prayer to eliminate evil.  Instead, Revelation places us in the midst of evil and portrays prayer as “incense.”

In Your God is Too Safe, Mark Buchanan tells a story that he learned from William Willimon.  The story is about a gentleman who was sent as a delegate from the World Council of Churches to check the status of the church in Russia during an atheist regime.

The man was not impressed.  “The church” he said, “is just a bunch of little old ladies praying.”  Buchanan calls them “just a bunch of perfume makers.”  Willimon told the story in the nineties.  After atheistic Russia was no more.  This is an important story.  Not because we wanted to win the cold war.  Not because we are opposed to atheists.  But because we need to be reminded of what happens when a bunch of little old ladies pray.  “Fahoo fores, dahoo dores.”

We need Revelation.  We need reminded that though evil is present, it has no real power.  Evil – beware.  Beware of the prayers of saints.  Beware of revolutionary perfume makers  disguised as old ladies.  Beware of elders falling down, living creatures who sing, and the multitude that joins in singing “salvation belongs to our God.”

Evil beware.  Ride out on your power horses spreading death and famine.  This is not fighting on your terms.  This is not methodology that you might use.  This is not the expected response to evil.  This is the response from another reality.  One that recognizes who is in charge.  One that knows who wins.  The response from Revelation insists that worship is the only way to see reality.  In the face of evil, we continue to open the book, to give, to pray, and we sing.

The Reality of Evil

I was recently assigned Revelation 6-7 and the theme “evil.”  Eugene Peterson has written a helpful chapter titled “The Last Word on Evil.”  It is a good title but it is not the one we would prefer.  That would be “The End of Evil.”  We want evil gone.  We want an exterminator for evil.  We would like to see it annihilated.  Can we call SEAL team six to destroy evil?

There are things we would like to say about evil.  We would like to talk about the end of evil.  Instead, Revelation acknowledges the reality of evil.  Moving through chapter 6, we find four horses with riders who carry a bow, a crown, a sword, a pair of scales, and the authority to kill.  We find slain souls “those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained.”  History is coming apart.  The world appears doomed.

Here the sun turns black, the moon becomes blood, the sky splits, and mountains and islands are moved.  Even nature is out of whack.  Here there is catastrophe so great that powerful men are hiding in fear and calling for mountains and rocks to fall upon them.  This is bad news.  We might say this is evil.  In fact, things are so bad that Revelation asks the question “who is able to stand?”

Revelation reveals reality.  That is a good way to read the Revelation.  It reveals what is really going on.  Without the blinders of culture, society, trends.  Without the distraction of news, sales, and gadgets.  Revelation tells what is really going on.  Tells what eyes tend to miss because we are caught up in another reality, a false reality.

Evil exists.  We know it.  This is reality.  The thing about evil is that sometimes it is where we do not expect it.  It is a mistake to think that we have evil figured.  Sometimes evil is obvious, other times not so much.  Revelation also recognizes evil.  Revelation does not minimize evil, but it does put it in its place.  In the Revelation, evil is surrounded by other realities.  In the Revelation, before we get to chapter six and all of its evil, we meet the risen Lord, are introduced to the church (where we find the risen Lord), and find ourselves in worship.

Revelation admits the reality of evil but sees a different world.  One where evil is put into a context.  Evil is put in its place.  Evil is given no long term credibility.  Evil does not rule the world.

We Have an Adversary

I stand in the lobby of the elementary school talking with other parents as we wait for our children to be marched to their classrooms.  As they file down the hallway and unknown to us, planes were leaving airports with terrorists on board.  One parent comments on how great the weather has been.  I agree.

I sit in a restaurant and sip iced tea while reading the Gospel of Mark.  There Peter remarks that Jesus is the Christ.  A server relays news to me that an airplane has hit one of the World Trade Towers.  Later, that another plane hits the other.  Later, another hits the Pentagon.  Even later, I learn that another plane has hit near Somerset, PA.  I think to myself that Mark is good reading while sipping iced tea inside a triangle of tragedy.  Another server claims to be scared.  Yet another asks that I say a prayer for her.

In my car I listen as radio reporters try to explain what has occurred.  They do their best to describe such an unexpected tragedy.  As I drive around surrounded by terrorists attacks, I think to myself that life is risky.

I sit through a meeting and hear a variety of responses to what has happened.  Someone worries about those hurt and their family members.  Someone wants to enact revenge.  Someone fears that we will be hit next.  Another wants to blame the president.  I walk away from that meeting out under a cloudless sky and listen to crickets sing as I make my way to the car.

I sit on a couch and hold Madeline.  She is six days old.  Here I get my first look at television footage of what has occurred.  I witness chaos as buildings are hit and later collapse.  Surrounded by this chaos, Madeline sleeps peacefully in my arms.  Her mother and grandmother beam.  On the way out, I scratch the head of a Golden Retriever.

A friend and I watch these attacks over and over again on CNN.  We listen as the president responds with language of war.  We discuss this tragedy and how it may affect us.  We discuss the joys and concerns of parenting.  We talk about people we like and those we do not.  I think of how hard it is to “love your enemies” on a day like today.

I return to the elementary school to pick up my daughter.  I see some of the same faces that were there earlier.  Some have tears in their eyes.  The weather is still perfect; no one seems to notice.  Later, I speak to a friend on the phone who talks of a day spent listening to reports of tragedy and chaos.  He noted the contrast he felt leaving his office and looking over the calm Susquehanna reflecting a clear blue sky.

It may not always be as visible as it was on this day, but we are surrounded by catastrophe every day.  Although things often appear to be calm, tragedy is all around us.  I drink iced tea, crickets chirp, and Madeline sleeps while terrorists are killing thousands.  We send our children to school, sit through meetings, and discuss the weather while surrounded by sin.  We visit friends, listen to the news, and pet Golden Retrievers while evil abounds.  We pray for others and read Gospel knowing that we are at war with Satan.

We are well aware that the unexpected can happen. We are reminded that buildings do not stand forever.  That suffering and death are real.  We dare not minimize the feelings evoked by these events.  Yet, we must not forget that each day we face an even greater adversary.  I am reminded of other words from Peter about the Christ.  Specifically, that we cast our cares upon Him.  Because he cares for us (I Peter 5.7).  Life is risky, not because of terrorists, but because the devil is on the prowl.  Satan seeks to devour us (5.8).  That is why I Peter warns us to “be on the alert.”  To resist the devil (5.9).  But then he brings our attention back to Christ and proclaims “To Him be dominion forever and ever.  Amen.”