Oaks of Righteousness: a New Year’s Meditation

massive oakResolutions for the New Year are made by many, but quickly broken and abandoned by most. The idea behind resolution-making is that we can see flaws in our lives, and believe that we can make decisions to change and become better people. We decide to lose weight, exercise more, watch less T.V., read our Bibles daily, pay more attention to personal finances, quit smoking, and many other things. All of these are good things, a recognition that we have room for improvement. But why don’t they stick?

The idea of “resolution” is associated with several other words. We “resolve” to do something, meaning we decide to do it and commit ourselves to doing it. We can be “resolute” in a course of action, a determination not to be dissuaded from its completion. All of these ideas (resolution/resolve/be resolute) are based on the strength of the human will and personal determination. And this is were we often fail. We do not have wills of steel.

Isaiah 61 is the passage of Scripture that Jesus chose to read in his hometown synagogue (Luke 4). Luke’s account has him reading just the first verse and a line from verse two, but it is likely that he read a longer passage, for that would have been the custom. This is a prophetic passage, looking forward to a return from exile and a restoration of the land. It would be “the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is the promise that Jesus claimed in that little synagogue in Nazareth so long ago, and his bold claim led to controversy that nearly resulted in his lynching.

In Isaiah 61:3, there are three vivid contrasts to describe the change of situation that marks the coming of the Lord’s year of favor:

 a crown of beauty instead of ashes [on the head]
oil of joy instead of [tears of] mourning
garment of praise instead of the spirit of mourning [sackcloth]

Isaiah describes the result this way:

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.

Oaks of Righteousness! What a wonderful description! The sturdy, ancient tree that withstands drought, flood, snow, freezing, and gale-force winds. Each year it produces its leaves and acorns, and it grows a little. Eventually it is a mighty, massive tree.

Maybe this is the key to New Year’s “Resolutions.” The must be like the oaks of righteousness planted by the Lord. So as you make your life-changing and life-improving decisions for this next year, do them with the help of the Lord. Let him plant you like an oak tree, a bulwark of righteousness in a barren land. Lean not on your own understanding. Trust not in your own strength. Trust in the Lord.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

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Christmas Meditation: Singing Hallelujah

Hallelujah Chorus 1“Hallelujah” is a Bible praise word meaning, “Praise the LORD.” It has become one of the most recognizable worship words in Christian songs, sometimes in the form “Alleluia.” In the “Song Select” website of currently registered Christian songs, there are almost 1,000 entries of songs whose titles include “Alleluia” and over 1,000 for “Hallelujah.”

The word hallelujah achieved great recognition with George Fredrick Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. Born in Germany, Handel spent most of his career in London. He collaborated with Charles Jennens, a well-known wordsmith of the time, to produce the text of Messiah. Jennens took most of the words for the oratorio directly from the King James Version of the Bible. The most celebrated section of Messiah was the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Jennens used three verses from the book of Revelation as the basis for this masterpiece (19:6, 11:15, 19:16). Although Messiah first premiered in Dublin in 1741, its most famous version was first performed at a gala concert in London in 1754. Tradition has it that King George II was in the audience for this performance and was so moved that he rose to his feet. The audience followed, since no British subject would sit in the presence of a king who was standing, and so the custom began that the audience stands during the singing of this chorus.

In the 1980s, gravelly-voiced Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen released an album with his song, “Hallelujah.” The song was little noticed at the time, partly because of Cohen’s ponderous pace of presentation. Cohen’s “Hallelujah” became popular when it was covered by Bob Dylan, Bon Jovi, Willie Nelson, Bono of U2, Sheryl Crow, and many others. It received widespread attention when included in the first Shrek movie in 2001. Last year, a cover version by Alexandra Burke became the #1 “Christmas Single” in the United Kingdom, a remarkable feat for a 25-year old song.

The meaning of the song is questioned, since it is a mysterious mix of images both religious and romantic. Analysis is fiercely debated like other rock classics with religious overtones such as “American Pie” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Despite its secular origins, the song has a spiritual vibe, largely because of the repetition of “Hallelujah” (over 20 times). It has even been adapted by Christian worship leaders and used as a praise song in churches. Cohen’s version ends each verse with the word “Hallelujah.” Most impressive are the final two lines of the last verse:

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

This much Cohen got right. Revelation 19 pictures a multitude in heaven singing, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power to our God … Hallelujah! For the Lord God Almighty reigns.”

Christmastime turns many hearts toward religious concerns, hearts that have been occupied with other things for most of the year. It is a time of both emptiness and longing for some. Many are searching for spiritual meaning and fulfillment in their lives. Hallelujah ChorusHere is the key: look at Jesus, realize that he is your Savior, and sing “Hallelujah.” May there be nothing on your tongue but Hallelujah. May your faith draw you to the chorus of believers who will sing the eternal “Hallelujah Chorus.”

And He shall reign forever and ever,
King of kings! and Lord of lords!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Hallelujah!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Advent Meditation #4: The Virgin Mary and Love

Nativity Matthias Grunewald 1515Christian Christmas songs and carols come in many musical varieties and explore the diverse aspects of the Christmas story. We can think quickly of pondering the prophecies about the Messiah, (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”), the announcement to the Shepherds (“Hark the Herald Angels Sing”), or the visit of the Wise Men (“We Three Kings of Orient Are”). Our traditional carols range from the regal pomp of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” the drama of “O Holy Night,” to the meditative quiet of “Silent Night.” In some of the songs we rejoice (“Joy to the World”) and in others we sort through the theological mystery that Christmas represents (“I Wonder as I Wander”).

Among my favorites since a was a young boy have been the lullabies. These have always been accessible to children, the love songs of a mother for her newborn child. Perhaps the first carol I remember learning was “Away in a Manger,” whose words are attributed to Martin Luther. There are two tunes used for this carol. One of them starts very high and works its way down the scale. I like this one, but my favorite uses the tune “Cradle Song” written by William Kirkpatrick in 1895.

The fourth Sunday of Advent may be seen as the most intimate, a celebration of the mother of Jesus and her love for her son. The circumstances of birth were difficult. Mary and Joseph had been married in what their little village surely saw as cloudy circumstances. When the time for birth came, the young couple found themselves far from home, in the village of Bethlehem. They were without the normal support network and they seem to have been without funds, for the sparse details given in the Gospel of Luke describe very humble circumstances. This is traditionally interpreted to have been among the animals in a stable, for Luke describes the first bed for Jesus as a “manger,” meaning a food trough for animals. The baby was wrapped in “swaddling clothes,” as the famous KJV translation renders it. These were not special Christmas blankets. They were rag-like pieces of fabric, scrounged from what was available for the humble parents.

No matter how rich or poor the mother of a newborn, there is a normal, natural bond of love between mother and child, an instantaneous connection that transcends the noise of stable animals or the cacophony of a hospital. There was doubtlessly a village midwife attending Mary. Imagine that glorious instant, when the newly-birth babe was wiped clean a bit, wrapped, and handed to his mother. His first cradle was not the manger, but his mother’s arms. She looked down in love and the little baby saw his beautiful mother for the first time. Love at first sight! And then she sang her first lullaby:

Lullay, mine Liking, my dear Son, mine Sweeting,
Lullay, my dear heart, mine own dear darling.

Joseph, like all fathers, watched in wonder as this emotional transaction was sealed, forever to be a little outside the circle of mother and child. This is the essence of Christmas in many ways: deep, deep love. It was the love of God that brought his Son to be our Savior. It was the love of a mother that protected him and nurtured him as a baby. And it was the love of Jesus himself that caused him to willingly die for us, so that we might be saved.

Our hearts’ joy reclineth, in lowly manger blessed.
And like a bright star shineth, upon his mother’s breast.
Oh that we were there! Oh that we were there!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

 

Advent Meditation #3: The Shepherds and Joy

Three Lit-Advent-Candles-on-The third Sunday of Advent has special traditions attached to it. It has its own name, traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday,” a version of the Latin term for “rejoice.” It also has its own candle color, usually pink. The other three advent candles are traditionally purple, the royal color, but Gaudete Sunday’s candle may be rosy pink to celebrate joy.

When the messenger angel appeared to the shepherds outside the village of Bethlehem, the first words spoken were:

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.

Good news! Great joy! All the people! That includes us!

And what was this good news? The sheep herders were told that a baby had just been born in their village, and that this was Christ the Lord. I would imagine it took awhile for this message to register with them.

Baby? Well, that’s cool. My wife will like that, she loves babies. I must tell her when my shift ends, but she probably already knows through the village grapevine. There’s going to be a proud poppa there, maybe passing out cigars. Christ? That rings a bell in the depths of my brain. In synagogue, I’ve heard Scripture read about a coming one, an anointed one sent from God to deliver Israel. Well, it’s the right place, because King David was born in Bethlehem a thousand years ago. The Lord? Not quite sure what to make of that. We usually reserve that language for God, or maybe for a king. Can’t imagine God being a baby. And we haven’t had a king in Israel for a long time, not a real king. There’s that creep in Jerusalem who calls himself “king,” that old reprobate named Herod. He throws his weight around like a king, but I will never willingly bow the knee to that old fool. He isn’t even a real Jew, no more my king than the Roman Emperor, Augustus. But wait! Maybe this baby is the coming king those prophets promised. Could it be? This is incredible, too much for me. But angels! Lots of angels! Bright shining angels! Celebrating, worshiping angels! Hey guys, let’s go to Bethlehem and see for ourselves. Don’t worry about the sheep right now. If God wants us to go see this new baby, he will watch over the lambs. Come on, let’s go! I have a great feeling about this, like a fountain of joy welling up from my soul. I’m getting excited. Let’s go right now.

Come to Bethlehem and see
Christ Whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.

Pope John Paul II once wrote, “God made us for joy.” As we come to this, the Sunday of Joy, may our hearts be filled with joy that only comes from God. May our lives be impacted again by that great line from Isaac Watt’s hymn, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.” He has come, and the world is changed forever. May we rejoice!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Theological Mistakes: Evidence and Faith

miracleI was raised and educated in a tradition that valued a reasonable, logical approach to religion. We were taught that heart-felt, emotional expressions of faith were dangerous, and should be curbed, but that there were no limits to the application of reason to understanding the Bible or theological principles. The subtle implication was that just as God would never lie, God would never make logical mistakes.

Part of this had to do with my tradition’s understanding of the nature of faith. For us, restorationists in the Stone-Campbell tradition, faith was always based on evidence. A faith decision was a logical conclusion made after the evaluation of evidential facts. We could not see God, but observing the magnificence of creation caused us to conclude there must be a Creator. To do otherwise was to be left “without excuse” for our unfaith, as Paul might say.

The key text in all of this was Hebrews 11:1, the opening statement of the greatest faith chapter in the Bible. In the King James Version , this verse said:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Taken at face value, this seems to confirm the idea that faith is based on evidence. The author of Hebrews is surely one of the most methodical thinkers among the New Testament authors, so we should not be surprised that he is a master logician, too.

The problem is that the Greek word here, elegchos, does not mean “evidence.” It is an rare biblical word, occurring only here in the New Testament. Notice how NIV2011 translates this verse:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

The New Revised Standard Version rendered it this way:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

This Greek word has a place in the world of legal language, what we might refer to as forensic terminology. But it does not refer to the sifting of evidence to make a legal brief for trial. It is the end of the process, the full presentation and conclusion. You can see this in Habakkuk 2:1, where the prophet makes a complaint to the Lord concerning the suffering of the righteous and the prospering of the wicked. When his case is fully made (and in Habakkuk’s opinion he has an airtight, irrefutable case), he ascends his watchtower to await God’s response. He believes his complaint is justified (the Greek OT uses the word elegchos here). Faith is when I am convinced that my belief in God is true, no matter what the evidence to the contrary that might be marshaled by opponents. Yet when God answers Habakkuk, he does not offer him additional evidence. He says, “Shut your mouth and write this down: righteous folks live lives of trusting me, not questioning me!” (Krause paraphrase)

For every Josh McDowell (Evidence that Demands a Verdict) there is a Bertrand Russell, the famous British atheist. An often repeated story claims that when Russell was asked what he would say to God if he found himself before the Lord at the time of judgment, Russell answered: “I should reproach him for not giving us enough evidence.” Not enough evidence, God! If faith is entirely logical and evidentiary, who decides what is a necessary pile of evidence in order to demand belief?

I don’t want to divorce my faith entirely from reason, but I refuse to let logic be God. When the Bible tells me that God loves me, even when I act as his enemy, I cannot construct a logical argument to explain that. And when, at Christmastime, I think that a little baby, born in an insignificant backwater village to peasant parents over two thousand years ago was the Savior of the World, there is no logical explanation. Yet I believe. I believe.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Advent Meditation #2: The Angels and Peace

WHCC 2 CandlesThe second Sunday of Advent may be celebrated by lighting the Angel Candle, also known at the Candle of Peace. The Bible speaks of angels nearly 300 times, yet we don’t have an in-depth discussion of the origin or nature of angels anyplace in Scripture. We have two solid ways of understanding these beings, however. First, the words translated “angel” in both the Old Testament and the New Testament mean “messenger.” The Hebrew word is found in the name of the last prophet of the OT, Malachi, a name that could mean “my messenger” or even “my angel.” In the NT, the Greek word is angelos, which is merely transliterated into our English Bibles and means “messenger.” Second, the book of Hebrews describes angels as “ministering spirits,” or “spiritual servants.” Putting these together allows us to conclude that angels are God’s specially created servants whom he uses to send special messages to men and women. Special, special indeed!

Angels play key roles in the Christmas story. In Matthew, Joseph receives several angel visitations that instruct him to marry Mary, to name her child “Jesus,” to flee Israel, and to return after the death of old King Herod. In Luke, the angel Gabriel appears to both the father of John the Baptist and to Mary with startling news of upcoming miraculous births.

A beloved part of the Christmas story is the appearance of angels to a group of shepherds outside Bethlehem. These bedraggled and somewhat disreputable men were “sleeping rough,” staying with their valuable flocks through the night. Why they were chosen to hear the good news of the birth of the Messiah we can only guess, but chosen they are, and the announcement is not scaled down to fit their low social standing. An individual angel messenger gives them the grand news,

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

To top this off, the shepherds experience one of the most wonderful things ever seen by human beings. For a few seconds, heaven is opened and they witness a very large group of angels. Luke describes this as the “full armies of heaven,” perhaps every angel in existence. They are not arrayed in battle gear, though. They function as a speaking choir, saying or singing a grand song of praise and good news:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

This is the famous canticle often known by its Latin title, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” Imagine this scene for a moment: every angel in heaven singing a praise to God and at the same time bringing a message to men and women. The message? God’s peace is now come to earth, peace in the form of a baby, bundled up and laying in the manger of a nearby stable. How were these shepherds to put these two together, a spectacular announcement with a rude and humble birth?

This is both the mystery and the promise of Christmas. The glory of God in heaven had come to earth as peace with the birth of Jesus. On this, the second Sunday of Advent, we recognize this peace, for Paul taught us that Christ is our peace (Ephesians 2:14).  We light the second candle of Advent as a symbol of Peace. He is truly the prophesied Prince of Peace. May we cherish the promise of the Christ Child, Peace on Earth between God and us, his sons and daughters.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Giant Theology: the Tender Heart

Heart of stoneIn his recovered diaries, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, pondered the coming atrocities that would be committed in the Nazi occupation of Poland. Central to this would be the extermination of the Jewish population, an action that Hitler and Goebbels both considered to be a key element to their plans for the conquest of Europe. There are hints in the diaries that Goebbels, who was raised a Christian and attended Catholic schools, had second thoughts about this planned genocide. But this brilliant yet pathetic man (who had earned a doctorate at age 23) used his great intellect to steel himself against any feelings of compassion. He wrote, “Be hard my heart, be hard.”

The Bible often deals with the hard heart of people who are resistant to God’s overtures of grace and mercy. In the New Testament, the word “heart” (kardia) is never used for the human organ of blood pumping. It is the seat of human emotions and intellect. A hard-hearted person, therefore, is one who is not open to change in his mental life, but remains immovably fixed in a thought pattern or belief system. Most importantly, the biblical hard heart is one that refuses to repent, often because of pride, but always because of stubbornness. Ezekiel, who certainly dealt with many hard hearts in his ministry, also saw the promises of God in this area when he prophesied:

I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 11:19b)

The New Living Translation takes this even one step further to say:

I will take away their hearts of stone and give them tender hearts instead.

God can change hard hearts! Goebbels did not have to live with a hard heart, and neither do we.

Dr. Christiaan Barnard was the first person to perform a heart transplant. After one of the early transplants, Dr. Barnard was visiting his patient in the hospital. He asked if there was anything that he could do for the man, and was surprised by the request that followed. The man wanted to see his old heart. Dr. Barnard called down to the lab, where the heart that had been removed was preserved in a jar of formaldehyde. The jar was brought up to the room, and Dr. Barnard placed it on a table so the recovering patient to see. The man stared at the heart and said nothing for a long time. Dr. Barnard realized that a remarkable event was taking place. For the first time in history, a human being was looking at his own heart! As he was pondering this, the patient broke his silence. He had seen that the heart in the jar was flabby and enlarged. It was obvious that this heart would not have lasted much longer. The man simply said, “I’m glad I don’t have that old heart any more.”

We don’t have to have that old heart any more, either. God changes hearts. As we approach Christmastime, may we give God our hearts and let him transform them. That, my friends, is Giant Theology. As Peter Cornelius wrote:

Thou child of man, lo, to Bethlehem
The Kings are traveling, travel with them! 
The star of mercy, the star of grace,
Shall lead thy heart to its resting place. 
Gold, incense, myrrh thou canst not bring;
Offer thy heart to the infant King.
Offer thy heart!

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College