Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The World's Most Far-Fetched Conspiracy Theory?

Do you believe that a hidden individual or clique is secretly running the world, or at least plotting to take control? If so, who do you think it is? With global politics as hard to understand as they seem right now, there’s never any shortage of conspiracy theories to explain what is really going on and who is really in charge.  

  • One perennial favourite is the U.F.O. conspiracy – the idea that the world’s governments are secretly taking orders from alien beings.
  • One of the most popular and bizarre theories, with literally hundreds of dedicated websites, is that the world is controlled by the British royal family who are, it is sometimes alleged, intelligent lizards in disguise.
  • And the theory that’s currently undergoing a global renaissance – courtesy of the blockbuster novel and movie “Angels and Demons” – is that the world is controlled by a shadowy cabal of financiers and scientists known as the Illuminati.
However, compared to the real truth, these crazy theories are surprisingly mundane. The shocking fact is that the world does have a hidden ruler, one whom most people know nothing about. He has extraordinary powers. The world isn’t the way he wants it (yet), but he’s gradually unveiling his plans for world domination, and he demands the total allegiance of everyone on the planet. Science fiction? No, the Bible.

The Hidden Ruler's name is Jesus, and his kingly rule is unveiled in the Christmas story as set out in Matthew’s Gospel.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.
We must understand who these men were, if we’re to make sense of the passage. The Bible doesn’t refer to them as kings whatever the old carol may say, and they are believed by many archaeologists to have been astrologer-priests from Persia. In the culture of the time that would have made them top royal advisors on national and international affairs. If you want modern parallels, think of the top diplomats of recent histroy like Henry Kissinger or Condoleezza Rice.
These tough-minded, unsentimental, highly informed political mandarins clearly knew that something extraordinary was about to happen in Palestine, something that would turn the world upside down. And so they came to King Herod's palace in Jerusalem asking,

Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.
I want to pause for a moment to reflect on how remarkable this is. Mostly, of course, it’s remarkable that what drove these tough, practical men was not just curiosity or the need for intelligence on a possible security threat, but the urge to pay him homage – in a sense to worship him. But I’ll come back to that point, because the other remarkable thing I want to point out is that for centuries leading up to these events the world had been waiting with bated breath for just this moment. The Jewish prophets had foretold Jesus coming hundreds of years beforehand, right down to the place of his birth. By the time Jesus was born, Jewish society was feverish with messianic expectations, and the promised Messiah even figured in the reckoning of those mysterious visitors from the east.

In fact, the only informed person of the day who seems to have been living in ignorance of these expectations was the Saddam Hussein of first century Palestine, King Herod. And how did he respond?

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
 We really do have to stop again here to ask the question, Who on earth is this Jesus? What was so special about the Messiah that a party of top ranking foreign officials was prepared to travel half way across the civilised world just to see him as a baby? And who was this baby that King Herod, who despite his status as a puppet ruler was still one of the most ruthless and feared tyrants in history, should fear him? What did they expect Jesus to do, these wise men and this one foolish man?

The Bible itself gives us a clue, and shows us how the two factions respond to the bombshell. When Herod sends his minions to find out where the baby is to be born, they come up with an Old Testament prophecy that tells us something dramatic about Jesus:

They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
These final words, “a ruler who will shepherd my people” summarise the meaning of messiahship with unmatched power and economy of words. While the living Jesus actually far outstripped any pre-Christian understanding of what the Messiah would do, these few words are all we need to answer every one of the questions I asked a moment ago: Who is this baby? What will he do? Why do the wise men pay him homage? Why are Herod and all his cronies so frightened?

Firstly, this prophecy points to the fact that Jesus will rule as king; and not any ordinary king but God’s special king: the King whose birth in Bethlehem was promised hundreds of years beforehand. And that means that Jesus is in charge. His will will be done, whatever the world thinks. He is the standard against which all other authorities are to be judged and sentenced. And so his birth in Bethlehem sounds a dire warning to those who exercise power in selfish, oppressive ways. It was the writing on the wall for Herod, but it also spells out the fate of oppressive rulers today – whether dictators, drug barons, or simply ordinary people who oppress others through selfish choices in their everyday life. And not just people but families, organisations and national governments. The very idea of kingdom has been redrawn in the light of Jesus’ life and work.

No wonder foolish men like Herod still try to hunt Jesus down and eliminate him. We can see it in China today, where the authorities are bitterly persecuting infant churches. They cannot win, because God is moving in those tiny bodies of young Christians the same way he was moving in the baby Jesus. Even as an infant, Jesus rules as king. No rival throne can stand up to him. Herod knows that, and quakes. The wise men know better – they kneel at Jesus’ feet and offer him the best they have to give.

Secondly, these words - from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people – tell us something about the kind of ruler Jesus will be. He does not rule like a human king, lording it over people, using them to satisfy his capricious whims, e.g. sending them to the front line to die in his service (as even David, the most godly king in history once did). Jesus rules as king in the way a shepherd rules the flock – firmly but gently, defending them against predators, searching out the missing, making sure there is always food, water and a healing touch. And as Jesus himself explained, the perfect shepherd will lay down his life so that his precious flock may live. This passage thus points to the main reason Jesus was born – not just to teach and embody kingdom values, but to die an undeserved criminal’s death. And in so doing so he would take the punishment deserved by every other person who has every lived, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. That is Jesus’ idea of ruling as king.

We take up the story again as the wise men arrive at the place where the infant Messiah is staying:

When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

No wonder wise men and women, like those visitors from the east, still make the journey to kneel at Jesus feet, pay him homage, and lay the best they have to offer as gifts at his feet. I wish I had the space to unpack the symbolism of each of those three gifts – the gold, the myrrh, the frankincense – but it’s better if I concentrate on explaining how the fact of Jesus ruling as king affects each one of us:

Firstly, it’s fashionable today to dismiss the supernatural element of the Bible. Well, I am a great lover and respecter of science, but here is an anomaly to remind anyone who thinks science has all the answers that the world is still a pretty mysterious place. There is no serious question that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And as to the prophecy concerning Bethlehem, there is no doubt that it was written several hundred years earlier. Now, that inconvenient truth may seem either miraculous or just plain unbelievable to someone brought up in today’s secular culture. To a believer, however, this point is not particularly striking – it’s just one more tiny strand in the enormous body of evidence that there is a real God acting in human history and moving it towards an unimaginable climax. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the birth of Jesus is the pivotal moment in human history – the start of the long final chapter which will end with Jesus ruling visibly and irresistibly over the whole universe as king. And I find it really reassuring in these confusing and troubled times to know that there is a God who plans ahead, a God who tells his people what is going on, and who says to the hardened unbelievers, See, I am here, and there is plenty of evidence around if you are just willing to look at it with an open mind.

Secondly, there’s a timely message for anyone reading this who has not yet made a firm decision to follow Jesus. Because this story shows the two possible ways of responding to the fact of his kingship. I say two ways, because the supposed third way of simply ignoring him just doesn’t work:

  1. You can be like Herod: you can attack Jesus, attack the church, attack faith in general. You can do all in your power to maintain the illusion of being in control just as Herod did. You can even pass laws like the UK’s impending Equality Act which effectively make it illegal to follow your religious conscience.
  2. You can be like the Wise Men. You can make the journey to Jesus, kneel at his feet, and submit to his rule as shepherd and king.
Christmas is a classic time for people to reassess their own feelings about Jesus. Even after 35 years, I’ll never forget the unbelievable euphoria of the first Christmas at which Christ himself was real to me. And it doesn’t take much of a prophetic gift to know that there are people reading this for whom this Christmas could have that same heart-filling excitement in store.

If you feel Christ is calling you to let him take centre-stage this Christmas, there’s a very easy first step you can take. Below is a prayer that could be prayed by anyone who wants to accept Christ as king for the very first time. If you pray these words, however quietly, God will hear you. And Jesus promised time and time again that if you accept him as king, he will become a loving friend with the power to transform your life.

The wise men from the east went on their way overwhelmed with joy. It’s my prayer that everyone who reads these words will have a real encounter with King Jesus this Christmas, whether for the first time or the thousandth, that will bring joy throughout the season and for all the years ahead……….

Heavenly Father, thank you for sending Jesus. I’m sorry I’ve spent so long without recognising him as my rightful king. I no longer want to be like King Herod, ignorant of Jesus’ kingship or resenting his challenge to my own rule. I want to be wise like those Wise Men from the East. I ask you to give me the humility to kneel before him. And all the good gifts you have given me I lay at his feet. Lastly, Father, I know now that Jesus died so that I can be forgiven of all my sins. Wash me clean now in the power of his shed blood, and fill me with the spirit of Jesus so that under his royal authority I can live as a new person…..

If you prayed that prayer, however simple a step it may seem, it really is a turning point in your life. But please don’t leave it at that. Track down a trustworthy Christian to help you find the next step forward in faith. And please let me know so that I can give thanks and pray for you.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hope for Decaying Bodies

If God is so loving and so powerful, why does he allow suffering? It's the oldest and biggest question in what is called the "philosophy of religion". Indeed, it's such an obvious question that even my youngest students (12 year-olds) could always be trusted to think of it spontaneously when we start exploring life's "ultimate questions".

It is a question that just cannot be evaded by anyone, believer or unbeliever, whose life has been touched by bereavement, illness, violence or a broken relationship. I remember it bouncing around in my head when my first marriage broke down, and again when one of the closest friends I have ever had, a devout Christian, died from illness in his thirties a few months after getting married: If God is as loving and as powerful as I believe, why does he allow things like this to happen? As the philosopher David Hume put it, is it that he is incapable of stopping it, or is it that he just doesn’t care?

Of course neither of Hume's despairing explanations is valid; the Bible offers a third alternative. But the strange thing about the Bible’s handling of this crucial question about life is that it doesn’t do the obvious. Unlike philosophers down the ages it doesn’t try to offer a logical justification of suffering – at least not one that would convince a militant atheist that there is a loving, all-powerful God. What the Bible offers instead is a series of vivid snapshots, culled from very different cultures over a time-span of nearly 2,000 years, of people and communities whose lives were transformed through discovering at first hand the infinite love and the infinite power of God in the most unexpected places – and most unexpectedly of all, in the midst of suffering.

The supreme example, of course – the ultimate expression of love, and the fulfilment of every picture of suffering in the Bible – is the image of God himself suffering and dying on the cross in the person of Jesus Christ. The fact that God’s anointed Messiah, God himself in human form, should have to suffer and die, is the conclusive answer to every human question about the necessity of suffering in this life – if even God himself suffers, then what right has any human to protest the unfairness of it? But the true wonder of what God did in the past, through the cross of Christ, is that it procured for those of us who believe a future from which all suffering will be erased.

This is where Romans chapter 8 comes in. To my mind it is one of the most hopeful passages in the whole Bible when set against the suffering that is an inevitable part of this life, because it contrasts the horror of pain, persecution, decay and death with the glory that those who are in Christ are certain to inherit. And verses 23-25 offer special reassurance and hope to people who, like me, are only too well aware that their bodies are decaying.

We are not making light of other more extreme forms of evil like infant mortality by noting that the ageing process can seem a particularly cruel affliction. I’ve had quite an easy life, and already I’ve already experienced the impact of high blood pressure, diabetes, gout and back pain on my own ability to achieve what I would like with the rest of my life, and the process is all one way. I eventually came to be healed of the loss of my friend, but my decaying body will not be healed this side of heaven. As most readers will know, the Bible teaches that the inevitable consequence of human sin is death, but as Romans 8:21 reminds us, that sentence of death manifests itself throughout our adult lives as a bondage to decay. It’s rarely a case of living our life and then dying. We start to decay almost before we’re fully aware that we’re alive.

But the Bible also offers us hope. To begin to open up what Paul says to us with his marvellous economy of words, let me draw a light-hearted parallel with what many of us will have experienced at work. One of the most pressured times in teaching and many other professions is in the run-up to the holidays. In teaching the last week before the long summer holiday is worst of all: as the great day approaches student behaviour deteriorates, academic progress slows down and the pressure to get all kinds of outstanding jobs finished before the six-week break can become unbearable. However, if there is one time in the whole year that you can take it all in your stride, grit your teeth and get through it, it is that last week of the summer term. And why? Obviously, because of what you have to look forward to: you know that if you have focused on getting everything done, and steadfastly put up with all the chaos and abuse of those final days, then, when that final bell goes at the end of the final period, you will make your getaway. You can live that whole painful and tumultuous week in the light of the guaranteed peace that is to come.

Of course this is a rather light-hearted comparison, and I am not being glib about the terrible suffering and loss some people have to endure in their later lives. But if the pain we may have to get through in our final years as our bodies decay is more gruelling than a homespun illustration can possibly suggest, so too is the future we as Christians have to look forward to infinitely more wonderful. To see this underlying message in the verses we are looking at to day, we have to cast our eyes back to the beginning of the paragraph at verse 18 "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to revealed to us."

Do you see what the writer is doing? He is not trying to give a point-by-point explanation of precisely why God allows suffering. Nor is he joining the eastern mystics in pretending that suffering is in some sense unreal. He is admitting that the present is full of suffering. But he is also saying that these sufferings (however terrible they may be) are dwarfed alongside the glory that we have to look forward to when we have got through this last difficult period in our lives.

Indeed, the contrast between the bad present and the glorious future is so radical that Paul can compare the whole of the present order of existence to a mother’s labour pains: We know that that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now (verse 22). I was with my wife throughout my son's birth, and while I couldn’t share the pains I could see just how excruciating they were. And yet this was her 4th child, so she knew what she was letting herself in for, and still she was willing to submit to that suffering and get through the painful hours of labour for the sake of future joy, for the sake of the child we hoped for. And of course a successful birth is never guaranteed, but the message of Scripture is that in Christ our victory is assured. We can live with decay and all the sufferings of this age in certain hope of future joy and peace.

Now, a question that may be going through some people’s heads as they listen is, Is that enough of a comfort? Should Christians expect to share the sufferings of the present life with non-believers? There are some who have difficulty accepting that present suffering is as much on the agenda for Christians as for non-Christians; you may have encountered it if you have watched the miracle-centred religious programming on satellite TV. But if you want to see how crisply Paul the Apostle demolishes this spurious teaching, look at verse 23. He’s just said in v22 that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now, and as he goes on to say in v23: not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

There is some debate as to exactly how these words should be interpreted, but what is beyond debate is that Paul did not see Christian faith as an escape route from the pain of living as part of a fallen creation. Healings may come – I have personally seen wonderful cases of release from suffering that I have believed to be the Spirit’s miraculous work – but his top priority is to give a different kind of empowerment: the hope that would enable a suffering or decaying person to make the most of life until they taste the sweetness of that guaranteed victory.

If anyone is afraid that I could be reading too much into a few words here, read on to verses 24,25: "For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."

I wonder how you use the words hope and patience. Let’s try hope. “I hope I win the jackpot.” “ I hope it’s sunny for the weekend” (a forlorn hope if the forecast says it’s going to pour with rain). We so often use the word hope in this vague, wish-y kind of way. But when Paul talks about hope, he’s not indulging in mere wishful thinking that against all expectation things might turn out OK. On the contrary, he is talking about a positive, well-informed and life-changing assurance that even a situation that seems hopeless will turn out to be for the best.

And by the same token, when Paul refers at the end of the verse to patience, he is not talking about the kind of switched-off half-life you experience when you’re stuck at London Bridge station, idly killing time among the alcoholics and discarded fast-food wrappings as you wait for the late-night train home. Rather, it’s a spirited determination that, however long this present life may go on, whatever challenges it may entail, we will in Jesus’ words have it abundantly, using it to the utmost in his service.

In short, Paul is holding two competing impulses in the balance: eagerness for heaven and determination to make the best of this life. On the one hand, the hope that Paul talks about is the eager anticipation of a glorious future that is certain – the kind of impatience for glory that will make the temporary pains of life easier to bear; the kind of inner voice that says, “just this one last push and I’m home free”. On the other hand, the patience he talks about at the end of v25 is the kind of determined acceptance of life’s troubles that will keep us living life in abundance and doing our best for Christ however long it lasts.

Paul himself put this balance between fullness of present life and impatience for future glory in a nutshell in Philippians chapter 1: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain . . . my desire is to depart and be with Christ, but (for me) to remain in the flesh is more use to you.” A more recent Christian writer put it less eloquently but more pithily: We should live as if Christ were coming back tomorrow, and work as if he were not coming back for a thousand years.

So to summarise:
  1. Suffering is real, and should be expected by Christians.
  2. Part of the suffering, especially for people of my generation, is the slow decay that goes with age.
  3. Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that we can look forward to as Christians.
  4. This future glory is not some vague wishful thinking, but a thrilling certainty that should affect the way we  perceive our whole lives and all our sufferings – this is what I believe Paul means by hope.
  5. The proper response to that hope is not just to switch off and wait for heaven, but to make the most of every minute that remains to us to glorify Christ, such that when heaven comes it is nothing less than the fulfilment of what we have done with our lives – that is what I believe Paul means by patience.