Sunday, April 27, 2014

Demons and Fallen Angels

 Demons and Fallen Angels
2 Peter 2:4
1 Peter 5:8
James 2:19
            Recently I finished reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  I say “finished reading” because I had started it some time ago, then put it aside.  Was I not in the mood?  Did something else gain my attention?  Was it too difficult to decipher?  I can’t remember now.  All I know is that, for whatever reason, I chose not to finish it until a few weeks ago.
            For those not familiar with John Milton, he was an eighteenth-century English poet.  One of his poems, “Sonnet on His Blindness,” ends with the well-known words, “He also serves who only stands and waits.”  Although blind, Milton did far more than stand and wait.  His contributions to literature in general and religious literature in particular are both extensive and meaningful.
            Paradise Lost is an epic poem consisting of twelve fairly lengthy books, or chapters.  It begins with the expulsion of Satan and his followers from heaven, and ends with Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden.  Although Milton begins with Satan’s troops falling into the abyss of hell, he later describes the preceding battle with God’s forces at some length.  As you might expect, God wins the battle easily, and Satan’s defeat is swift, complete, and permanent.
            What I find interesting is the cause of Satan’s rebellion.  Milton attributes it to Jesus Christ.  When God declared that the Son was the Lord of all creation, before whom every knee should bow (remember Philippians 2:9-11?), Satan, the chief of all the angels, became jealous.  He was unwilling to take second place to the Son, and chose to rebel and fight a war that, at heart, he almost certainly knew he couldn’t win.  Milton has Satan say, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.  With his two quotes on serving, Milton draws an obvious distinction between himself and the devil.
            The defeat resulted in Satan and the angels who stood with him being cast down from heaven—a distance so great that (according to tradition) they fell for a thousand years before arriving in “the pit.”  So far is hell removed from heaven that all that time was necessary to traverse between them.  Supposedly, according to Milton, none of the fallen angels—not even Satan himself—would be able to escape.  We know that turned out to be incorrect. 
It should be noted that “Satan” was the new name given to the rebellion’s leader.  His original name was Lucifer.  That no longer fit his new persona—and his new shape.  Milton describes the physical changes in the fallen angels.  Instead of the brightness we associate with angels (The Bible often describes them as “men in white clothing”), Satan’s cohorts are dark, foul-looking creatures, with hideous shapes and horrid faces.  Another change happens, Milton says, after Satan inhabits the serpent (an innocent creature until then) in order to tempt humankind to sin.  The fallen ones—demons by this time—take the shape of serpents, deprived of arms and legs, and forced to crawl.
There isn’t much scriptural basis for this poem.  Much of the book is Milton bringing his creative imagination to bear on stories that were passed down through generations.  Some of these stories have been recorded in the books of the Apocrypha or in extra-biblical sources.  The verse in 2 Peter gives us some information.  The verse from 1 Peter tells us that Satan has not given up the battle.  Despite his centuries of losses, he still holds to the hope that he can take a significant portion of humanity with him.  To that end, he roams the earth “like a roaring lion, seeking whom he can devour.”  We know the arch-devil takes other shapes as it suits his purpose.
Make no mistake, the fallen angels/demons know the strength of their foe.  That’s why, according to James, they tremble.  They know the battle is hopelessly one-sided, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.

Don’t be one of the casualties.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

He Descended Into Hell

“He Descended Into Hell”
Acts 2:22-33
            Some churches recite a creed—a statement of belief—each week in worship.  There are many creedal statements, but the two most common are the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed.  Both were produced by the early Church in gatherings of leaders who debated, and argued, and agonized, and prayed, trying to find a way to say what Christians believed about God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  The Nicene Creed is a more complete statement of faith, while the Apostles’ Creed is shorter and more succinct.  Perhaps that is why it is preferred by many churches.
            The Apostles’ Creed is only eight lines long.  Five of those lines are devoted to the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Perhaps the most interesting line in this paragraph is: “He descended into hell.” 
This statement is, to say the least, controversial.  In some worship books it is followed by an asterisk.  At the end of the Creed there is a corresponding asterisk followed by the words, “Some Churches omit this.”  I have worshiped with congregations that did indeed omit these words.  I have also been in worship services where, although the congregation repeated this statement, individual worshipers kept silent.   It seems the body of Christ cannot agree on what happened to its Head between the crucifixion and the resurrection.  The Nicene Creed avoids the controversy by saying, “He suffered and was buried,…”
There is very little Scripture available to help solve this disagreement.  There are relatively few references to hell in the Bible.  The most pertinent one is today’s reading. 
It is Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit has fallen on Jesus’ followers, and they have burst from their hiding place to confront the world with the gospel.  Peter delivers his first sermon—indeed, the first sermon of the new Christian religion.  In verses 25-28 he quotes Psalm 16:8-11.  In the middle of both the Psalm passage and Peter’s quote is the sentence, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.”  The only difference between the two sources is capital letters.  The New Testament has them; the Hebrew Scriptures do not.  The Jewish Study Bible does not use the phrase, “holy one,” either capitalized or not.  Instead, the psalmist refers to himself as God’s “faithful one.”  We could continue to consult translation after translation and source after source, but the end result would probably be no less confusing.
What we should remember is that Peter changes the meaning of the quote.  In Psalm 16, the psalmist is referring to himself.  Peter appropriates it—as so many New Testament writers appropriate Hebrew Scripture passages—to refer to Jesus Christ.  Is this a fair change?  Should we accept Peter’s re-interpretation as being, if not an accurate quote, at least a possible usage?
I think it’s for each of us to decide, just as it is up to each of us to decide if Christ actually spent time in hell.  For one very knowledgeable person of my acquaintance, Christ’s presence in hell is essential to her belief concerning the gospel.  If Jesus Christ was not in hell then, for her, the sacrifice is incomplete.
Where do I stand on this controversy?  To be honest, I’m not sure.  While my friend’s statement is too strong for me, I can’t entirely dismiss the idea that Jesus Christ went to hell to pay for my sins, then burst forth, thereby defeating Satan and hell once and for all.  We who accept Jesus Christ as our Savior have victory not only over death, but over hell itself.

And that’s a victory to celebrate.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Unfair Labor Practices

Unfair Labor Practices
Matthew 20:1-16
            This is one of those stories that cause us to shake our heads in disbelief.  How could Jesus tell a story like this?  What could he be thinking?  Doesn’t he understand that those who work the longest and hardest should earn the most money?  This story is totally out of line with the American Way.  In this country we believe hard work pays off.  The news media love stories about this man or that woman who has started at the bottom and worked his/her way to the top.  The most recent hero is Kwasi Enin, a 17-year-old senior from Long Island, NY who has accomplished what no one else in history has been able to do.  He has been accepted to all eight Ivy League colleges. 
            Enin does not come from an elite background. His parents are nurses, immigrants from Ghana. While possessed of above-average intelligence, he is not the smartest kid in the world.  His achievement is due to a combination of his inherited ability and—here it comes—hard work.  His family values education and pushed him to do well in school.  He obviously pushed himself also.  Here is a real-life story of someone who has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps.  We love reading stuff like this.
            Then along comes Jesus and messes everything up.  He tells a story about a man looking for help in his vineyard.  Early in the morning he goes to where day laborers wait for someone to offer them work, and hires those who are there, promising them a fair day’s wage.  He returns about 9:00 AM and hires another group.  He does the same around noon.  Finally, he returns late in the afternoon and hires those who are still standing around.  We like this part of the story.  We understand this process.  It fits with what we know about laborers and owners.  It’s what happens next that throws us.
            The work day is over.  It’s getting dark.  At quitting time the owner lines up the workers to pay them.  Those hired last are first in line.  When they get what was promised the first men, those, who have labored all day in the hot sun and borne the brunt of the work, expect to get paid much more.  After all, didn’t they put in a full day?  If these late arrivals get paid well, shouldn’t the long-termers get compensated even more generously?
            But that’s not how this master operates.  Everyone gets the same reward.  Naturally, the early-morning hires complain, and by our standards they have a case.  By this time many of us would be taking a strike vote.  One thing for sure: they’ll never work for this guy again.
            Jesus has the master say, “It’s my money.  I can do what I want with it.  If I want to reward these men well, it’s my right.  Why are you complaining?  You received what you were promised.”
            And so it goes in the kingdom of God.  Every person in God’s realm receives the same reward.  There are no separate levels of heaven for those who have achieved longevity of service during their lives on earth.  There is no hierarchy in the afterlife.  We’re all equal, from the ones who signed on early to those who just managed to slide in at the end.  This is democracy at its best, and it riles a lot of people.  A pastor friend once told me that the sermons that had gotten him in the most trouble with his congregations over the years were the ones about grace.  It seems we want grace for ourselves and those we like (and those who are like us), but we don’t want to extend grace to “those other kinds of people.”

            Philip Yancey says, “In the realm of grace, the word ‘deserved’ does not apply.”  There is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace.  Like the day laborers in Jesus’ story, we get what we get because of God’s generous goodness, and not because of our hard work.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Why Were We Created?

Why Were We Created?
Genesis 1
            “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  And the plants.  And the animals.  And birds.  And fish.  And finally, God created human beings.  And God saw everything that God had made, and God pronounced it good.
            We know all this.  We know the first chapter of Genesis well enough to quote it—perhaps not verbatim, but we know the sequence.  We know the order of creation, what happened each day, and that, at the end of each day, God said, “That’s good.”
            Still, we have a tendency to pass over this chapter pretty quickly.  Bible literalists see it as scientific fact, accept it, and move on.  Those who believe God may have taken more than six twenty-four hour days to create the universe minimize the biblical account in favor of their own interpretation.  Some of us can’t wait to get to the second chapter and the story of humankind’s fall from innocence and grace.  For whatever reason, many find that more to their liking than the creation story.
             The instructor for the class I’m taking at seminary showed us a video that contained a clip of Bishop Desmond Tutu preaching.  For those of you who do not recognize the name, Bishop Tutu was the Anglican bishop of South Africa, and an outspoken critic of the inequalities caused by apartheid.  He is now retired, but still speaks out in support of what he believes is right.
            In this clip, Bishop Tutu said, “God didn’t create us because God needed us, but because God wanted us” (emphasis mine).  What a revelation!  Here, perhaps, is the reason behind creation.  We know God doesn’t need us.  God is the most self-contained entity there is or could possibly be.  God needs nothing:  not angels, not worlds, not flowers or trees, not animals—not even us.  God did not create all these because God needed them.  God created them because God wanted them—and especially, God wanted us.
            Why does God want us?  I have no idea.  I cannot read the mind of God, and I have no intention of trying.  I do know I agree with Bishop Tutu.  For whatever reason, God wanted to have us around.  We don’t satisfy God’s need, but God’s desire.
            Because God created us, God loves us—all of us.  We might even go so far as to say God cherishes us.  Like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, God is willing to let us go our own way, even if that way turns out to be self-destructive.  Like that same father, God waits for us to turn around, to change our way of living.  God waits to welcome us back into the family fold.
            Because God created us, God preserves us.  God sustains us from day to day.  This world and everything in it was created for us, to provide us with a home, with food—with everything we need not just to survive, but to thrive. 
God also expects us to care for all creation.  Many science fiction stories are based on humankind using up earth’s resources, and moving out into space, taking over other planets, either by conquering them or “terraforming” them.  Masters of the genre like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark have created marvelous tales about this movement.  But don’t get your hopes up.  At preesent it’s no sure bet that if we destroy our world we’ll be able to move elsewhere.

            Because God created us, God wants to communicate with us.  Even more importantly, God wants us to communicate in return.  We have been given the wonderful opportunity to talk with God.  Let’s keep in touch with the One who wanted us enough to create and sustain us.