Trying to Run on the Wrong Juice

“God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.

That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended – civilizations are built up – excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin. In fact, the machine conks. It seems to start up all right and runs a few yards, and then it breaks down. They are trying to run it on the wrong juice. That is what Satan has done to us humans.”

~ C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity

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The Deep Magic of Death

Today we commemorate the darkness. We remember the Death. We recall the darkest day in world history – the day that sinful men crucified the Son of God not because of any wrongdoing on His part, or some simple misunderstanding, but because mankind reviled the Light and Life of the world.

The crucifixion of our Lord presents the ultimate paradox: it was simultaneously the greatest crime that man could commit, but in that crime was the greatest sacrifice any man could give. Dr. Brian Mattson, of Dead Reckoning TV, pointed out in this week’s episode that Christianity is the only religion that actually takes on the problems of this world and deals with the curse of death. Christianity is the only religion where God enters into the death and darkness and overcomes it and restores His Creation.

This is what CS Lewis refers to as deep magic. There is a “different incantation” … a “magic deeper still.” I can never think of Good Friday without remembering Lewis’ parallel section in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe:

When once Aslan had been tied (and tied so that he was really a mass of cords) on the flat stone, a hush fell on the crowd.  Four Hags, holding four torches, stood at the corners of the Table.  The Witch bared her arms as she had bared them the previous night when it had been Edmund instead of Aslan.  Then she began to whet her knife.  It looked to the children, when the gleam of the torchlight fell on it, as if the knife were made of stone, not of steel, and it was of a strange and evil shape.

At last she drew near.  She stood by Aslan’s head.  Her face was working and twitching with passion, but his looked up at the sky, still quiet, neither angry nor afraid, but a little sad.  Then just before she gave the blow, she stooped down and said in a quivering voice,

“And now, who has won?  Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor?  Now I will kill you instead of him as our pact was and so the Deep Magic will be appeased.  But when you are dead what will prevent me from killing him as well?  And who will take him out of my hand then?  Understand that you have given me Narnia forever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his.  In that knowledge, despair and die.”

The children did not see the actual moment of the killing.  They couldn’t bear to look and had covered their eyes.

The chorus that the children of men have echoed throughout history is evident in this story as well as in the Crucifixion of Christ. It is the chorus of those who have decided good and evil for themselves and have denied the power and authority of God. It is the verse first sung by Adam and Eve in the Garden, the verse continued by those who built the Tower of Babel, by Pharaoh in Egypt, by the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai under Aaron’s direction. The verses continue, but the theme never changes. Sinful, unregenerate men set themselves up as gods and judges of what is right and what is wrong.

It is in these moments that God sacrifices Himself out of love and mercy. He points to Christ in the Garden. He points to Christ in the person of Abraham, the Father of many nations. He points to Christ in the person of Moses, the one who leads His people out of the wilderness. He points and points to Christ throughout the Old Testament, and then He actually sends His Son – the Christ – the Messiah.

And what does His Son do? He enters the world in a stable – among the stench of cattle and sheep. His family flees to Egypt out of fear for their lives. His ministry is characterized by a life of poverty and humility, without a place to lay His head. His road is difficult and His path to victory unassuming, but His words are powerful. He preaches and teaches us to love our neighbor. He heals the blind and sick. He forgives the unrighteous. And how do we respond?

Dr. Peter Leithart says it well:

Worse, when God the Creator, source of all good and all life, to whom we owe eternal gratitude for our very being, appears in human flesh, we beat Him back with clubs and crosses, until the body of God is a mangled mess. Putting Jesus to death isthe human project. That is what we do. We are far, far worse than we let ourselves imagine.

Left to ourselves, mockery would have the last word. God has a different project, and He won’t let us get away with ours. Matthew’s ironic passion narrative reveals that as well, as all the mockery is turned back on the mockers. Roman soldiers mock Jesus as “King of the Jews,” but as He dies, they confess, without irony, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54). Soldiers offer Jesus gall and gamble for His clothing at the foot of the cross, but in so doing they are fulfilling prophecies about David’s Son, who is indeed “king of the Jews” (Psalm 22:18; 69:21). Scribes of the law throw words from Psalm 69 at Jesus (Matthew 27:43), entirely unaware that their words position with David’s enemies. At every point, the mockery is turned inside out to become truth.

But God doesn’t simply bypass the human project of mockery and destruction. The gospel does not announce a new divine fiat, “Let there be peace. Let there be justice.”  Rather, God enters our story of rage and ruin, offers His cheek to us, and then humbly turns the other cheek, all to invert our project and transfigure it into His. God is not mocked precisely because God has been mocked. Left to ourselves, our contemptuous No to Jesus would be our last word. But for God, Jesus’ cross is the revelation that He is God for us. In, with, and under our No, the Father of Jesus transforms our rejection into His resounding, triumphant Yes.

Yes, today is a day of darkness. Today we fast and pray for those who still suffer under the darkness of death – whether they be friends who have lost loved ones, friends who are suffering from a life-destroying illness, children whose lives were prematurely ended by the slaughter of abortion, or missionaries in the truly darkest part of the world, where the light of the Gospel does not shine brightly. Today we remember that day when there was darkness over the land, when the veil of the temple was torn in two and the earth quaked and rocks were split. Today we remember that Death of deaths, but even in that darkness, we are given a glimpse of light.

“And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”

– Matthew 27:52

Indeed, this is magic. This is magic that is unlike that which King Saul sought after at Endor. This is magic that doesn’t raise illusions of prophets and their spirits, but that raises the dead to actual life. This is magic that uses the ultimate Death to conquer death itself. This is magic that doesn’t end on Good Friday, but looks forward to a day just beyond the horizon – to the rising of the Son. This is Deep Magic, wherein we are able to mourn and pray and fast, but we do so with the true hope of the Gospel.

This is the Magic of the King.

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Why I’m Thankful For the Catholic Church

As a Reformed Presbyterian, I take issue with several tenets of the Roman Catholic Church, but probably the most admirable thing about her is her unwavering, unashamed, and unified faith that stands opposite pagan society.  If there is a bulwark to be found standing for the sanctity of life without exceptions, or homosexuality, or marital infidelity, it is the Roman Catholic Church.  Protestants have the unique ability to insecurely poke and prod at these sins, without taking a fundamental and concrete stance against them.  We like to boast how we are kinder than God, and maybe Jesus loves you despite your sexual perversions.  Or maybe abortion is just wrong if it’s committed after 20 weeks.  Or maybe Jesus will wring His hands enough that you’ll return to the Church and be a better person.

Peggy Noonan wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal this week (found in tomorrow’s paper) about the reaction of Catholics to the Pope’s resignation.  While I’m obviously opposed to the position of the Pope, I have always been very thankful for his outspoken Christian leadership, and pray that God would grant the Catholic Church another leader who will continue to oppose the tricks and twists of the devil.  But all this aside, I was encouraged to see the faith of the Catholics who Noonan quoted in her piece, indicative of a Church which is alive and well, grounded in the faith that God sits in the heavens and is in control.  Despite the Catholic Church’s flaws, such faith is to be commended.

Here are a few of these encouraging words:

  • “…ultimately, I am willing to be optimistic. I tend to take the long view on these things, because I know God’s hand is always at work in everything, and that all things work for our good—in His time, though, not in ours, which is the thing that gets us unnerved.”
  • Some have been “unsettled” by the resignation because they think of the pope as a rock of stability, “but Benedict’s point is that he couldn’t be that anymore. Christ is the head of the Church, not him. If his physical and mental circumstances were not adequate then he should get out of the way.”
  • Almost everyone I spoke to mentioned that they’d taken comfort from the words of Benedict, in a general audience in the Vatican on Ash Wednesday: “What sustains and illuminates me is the certainty that the Church belongs to Christ, whose care and guidance will never be lacking.”
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Why I Won’t Be Giving Up Anything For Lent

Today is Fat Tuesday, or Shrove Tuesday, according to the Church Calendar.  I don’t intend to go into a long ordeal over why Christians should pay attention to the Church Calendar, but just want to point out that the Church is the most important “body” that we are a part of.  If we aren’t paying attention to the calendar of “our people,” why should we be paying attention to our national holidays and seasons?  Think about it.  As one fellow put it:

“All of us need to sanctify our calendars and make clear that nothing in the winter and springtime of the year—not Valentine’s Day, not spring break, not March Madness, not even the hockey playoffs—is as important to our identity as Jesus’ death and resurrection.”

The point of this post is to ask: why Lent?  What’s the point, and should we be observing it in the “traditional” way?  There are, of course, many respected scholars and theologians who have hashed this out to great lengths, so I don’t claim to have any new knowledge or understanding on the subject – these are just the  humble observations of an ordinary layman.

To begin, besides the fact that I think it’s unBiblical, inconsistent, and just plain wrong to announce to the world (read: Facebook) what you plan to give up for Lent, I also believe that it is inconsistent to make Lent a time of “partial-fasting.”

The first thing we need to understand is the purpose of Lent – what is the season about?  It has traditionally been seen as a time of preparation for Easter – to prepare and meditate upon the death and resurrection of Christ.  After all, if we have a more full and complete understanding of Christ’s work on the cross for us, the more joyous and fulfilling our celebration will be!

This is all well and good, and I agree that Christians should use the season of Lent to prepare for Easter season, gaining a better understanding of Jesus’ ministry and eventual suffering.  What I don’t get is how my self-denial of anything caffeinated is going to help.

Pastor Steve Wilkins explains this more clearly:

“I know that traditionally, Christians have “given up” something for Lent and usually that “something” has been something they particularly enjoy. This may be seen as a form of “fasting” I guess, but if it is, it’s a very pale shadow of what “fast” (doing without food of any kind) really means. I understand the rationale for the practice, but given its very limited focus, it seems to me to miss the point of fasting in general and is easily metamorphosed into something like a “Pharisaical” act (i.e. “God surely must be pleased with me since He sees me foregoing my usual afternoon grande chocolate-caramel-cinnamon mocha latte with extra foam, which I’m absolutely dying to have right now!”).

This is — probably unintentionally, but it is all the same — a distortion of the whole purpose of fasting. We fast to remind ourselves of the seriousness of our sins. Our sins are a high-handed insult to the gracious, loving God who made us. They are so grievous that we deserve no good thing from God — indeed, we deserve to starve to death. Fasting should have the same effect upon our attitude toward sin that spanking is designed to produce in our children — i.e. it should impress upon us that sin is bad, painful, worthy of death, and that I ought to hate it and stay away from it. I’m not sure that giving up Godiva chocolate for forty days always has the same effect.”

He goes on to say,

“Remember that the Christian calendar is designed to follow the life and work of Jesus. So Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation, Epiphany is the celebration of the revelation of the Savior to the world (the visit of the Magi, the baptism, the miracle at Cana, etc., up to the transfiguration on the mount). And Lent focuses upon the time after the transfiguration to Jesus’ death on the cross.

After the transfiguration, we are told that Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem — focusing upon the work that he had been sent to do, dying on the cross for our sins. Lent is the season that commemorates our Savior’s path to Calvary.

For us, Lent should be a time for special focus on the price the Savior paid for our salvation and a time for reviewing our own lives. Jesus calls us to a life of willing self-denial and sacrifice (“if anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.”).”

Now am I saying, or is Pastor Wilkins saying, that we shouldn’t learn to deny ourselves and encourage self-discipline?  Of course not!  But our works do not make us holy on their own.  If we are going to remember and reflect on the work of Jesus, shouldn’t we pay attention to what He said and did?  Christians often think about the season of Lent as imitating what Jesus did in the wilderness for 40 days after His baptism.  But we’re totally missing the point if we think that His 40-days of fasting was to draw closer to the Father.  Jesus had to suffer through the wilderness in order to restore obedience to the Father as the Second Adam.  In the garden Adam failed to resist the devil.  In the wilderness, without food for 40 days, Jesus – the Greater Adam – resisted temptation and defeated Satan.  We have no need to “re-live” Jesus’ days in the wilderness.  Our covenant head has already suffered for us, bringing us closer to the Father, and we are living a life POST-incarnation and POST-resurrection.  Just because we remember and reflect upon the life of Jesus doesn’t mean that we need to “re-live” His life.  It indicates an unfaithful distrust that His work is effectual.  After all – we do not re-sacrifice Him every week in the Lord’s Supper; we remember and celebrate His sacrifice because of what He has done.

So yes – let us as Christians use the season of Lent to think about what we have been given.  It is a great and undeserved gift.  Our first head – Adam – failed us and gave us death.  Our second and final head – Jesus – won the victory and gave us life.  Eternal life.

The other, side point that needs to be made is that Jesus didn’t only sacrifice certain foods and luxuries while in the wilderness.  He gave everything up.  There was no “partial-fasting.”  For that reason alone, I refuse in principle to believe that denying myself of bread, meat, coffee, or Facebook will be inherently good for my spiritual life.  That is not to say that I shouldn’t discipline myself and make certain that I am not beholden or a slave to my desires, but doing so to live a life of moderation doesn’t necessarily help me further examine and reflect on the work of our Savior.  We are sinners, yes.  Our sins cost the Son of God His life, yes.  Should we meditate on this?  Yes.  But we should meditate on it every day, every week, every year.

Pastor Wilkins concludes thusly:

“Lent is to be a special time of corporate self-examination — where we remember what our sins deserve and what they cost our Savior. It is a time when we focus upon the hatefulness and wickedness of sin and pray that the Lord increase our own hatred of all unrighteousness. And it is a time when we “improve our baptism” — praying afresh for strength to walk with joy and gladness in the ways of righteousness.

To say that such a season is unnecessary is akin to saying Winter is unnecessary. It’s like protesting the fact that some days are cloudy rather than clear or demanding a continual Springtime. Why do we have to have this time of year when the days are often dreary and dark and cold and wet? Everlasting Summer would be better, or, what about a continual harvest? Ah, now we’re talking!

Yeah, we’re talking all right, but we’re talking foolishness. Winter is a necessary preparation for Spring — and Spring is vital if we are to have something growing during the Summer and Summer is essential if we’re to have something to harvest in the Fall. All the seasons play their part. And so it is in the Christian calendar. Lent is a “winter-time” of preparation for the “spring-time” of the resurrection. Just as death leads to life, so the cross leads to glory. Lent helps us learn this lesson. It deepens our joy and love for the Savior who has given us eternal life by His willingness to die in our place.

So here’s the goal of Lent: to grow in love for the Savior and in thankfulness for His sacrificial death in our place, paying for our sins (which, remember, He did with great JOY — Heb. 12:2). Lent, properly observed, leads us to increased joy in the Lord.

And that ain’t a bad thing at all.”

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