Saturday, January 09, 2016

What was the Bethlehem star?

Tomorrow, we're celebrating Epiphany at Living Water Lutheran Church.

Of course, Epiphany Day, the twelfth day of Christmas, actually falls on January 6. But since it didn't fall on a Sunday, I wanted to focus tomorrow on the events of the first Epiphany, when magi (also sometimes called wise men or even kings) from "the east" (literally, in the Greek in which the Gospel of Matthew tells us about the events, the anatolai, which can also mean rising, certainly a word not used casually by Matthew) followed a star and brought gifts to the newborn King Jesus.

But what exactly was the star?

Lots of theories have been advanced. In a new book, informed by paying close attention to astronomy, New Testament scholar Colin R. Nichol suggests that the star that guided the magi to Jesus was actually a comet.

In an interview with Christianity Today, Nichol asserts:
The star appeared suddenly and was visible for over a year, something that makes sense only if it were a supernova or a great comet. That the star surprised the Magi with its impressive “rising” points strongly to it being a comet: Of all the celestial bodies, only comets behave in this manner.

Then you take into account the star’s movement, in the space of a couple of months, from the eastern morning sky to the southern evening sky, where they see it when they’re traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. That kind of movement is only possible for an object in the inner solar system, meaning that the star had to be a comet. 
At the end of the Magi’s journey, the star stands over the place of Jesus’ birth, pinpointing a particular location. As New Testament scholar Craig Keener has pointed out, that’s something only a comet can do. Josephus mentions a comet that “stood over” Jerusalem in the run-up to the Judean War. Another Roman historian, Cassius Dio, mentions that another comet did something similar over Rome in 12 B.C. This is all very powerful evidence, and there is much more in the book.
When asked if his theory didn't suggest that we should talk about "the Bethlehem comet" instead of "the Bethlehem star," Nichol replies:
No. In the ancient world, many astronomical entities—meteors, for instance—could be regarded as “stars.” In fact, we still describe meteors as “shooting stars.” Comets were commonly called “stars.” This was true in the Greco-Roman world, in the writings of philosophers like Pliny and Seneca. It was also true in Babylon.  
In Numbers 24:17, there’s a prophecy by Balaam about a “scepter” and a “star” (“. . . a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel”). Ancient rabbis could refer to comets as “scepter stars.” The “star” in Numbers is almost certainly a comet.
It's an interesting and plausible theory that Nichol presents. It might even be true.

But the key take-away from Matthew's account of the first Epiphany is that the God of Israel found a way to get the attention of Gentiles, non-Jews, to announce the birth of the Messiah. When the magi found Jesus, they worshiped. They believed. The star then, was one of the most dramatic tools God has ever used to make disciples.

Gottlieb, Althouse, and Blogging

Over on Facebook, Annie Gottlieb recently became sentimental about the old days of blogging...all the way back in 2004:

Today I found myself nostalgic for the early days of blogging as if it was some leisurely, pastoral 19th-century...
Posted by Annie Gottlieb on Thursday, January 7, 2016

I was in the thick of blogging back then as well and remember it as a heady time when we thought that ordinary people--though Gottlieb is no ordinary person, she's a published author--could get our thoughts out into public view and engage in public dialog about issues that we thought were important or just engage in silliness that "the blogosphere" might find interesting.

And, as Gottlieb points out, in the days before Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and even the now nearly-forgotten MySpace, there were thousands of people writing blogs, commenting on blogs, and interacting with blogs in an interesting way. A recovering alcoholic told me that a piece I'd written had caused him to go to worship at a church for the first time in his life. An expert on German culture told me how insightfully I'd written on German ambivalence about a national ad campaign that encouraged patriotic pride. A political journalist complimented a piece I'd written on the 2008 presidential campaign. The New York Times linked to a piece I wrote on the gnostic gospel of James. In the process, I virtually "met" a lot of interesting people. Gottlieb, for one. But others as well. As I say, heady stuff.

As Gottlieb posted on Facebook, that was all short-lived. Social media came along and many of us in the blogosphere drifted to it. But few of the posts that appear on social media today--including cat videos--are as interesting as the thoughtful, interesting, passionate, or funny blogging being done in those days by people like Mark D. Roberts, Richard L. Cohen, Danny Miller, Charlie LeHardy, Alex M. Jordan, Tamar Jacobson, John Schroeder, and others.

Several bloggers have weathered the changes wrought by social media and the usurpation of the blogosphere by name brands. One who stands out to me, though I don't always agree with what she says, is Ann Althouse, law professor at the University of Wisconsin, who, by the way, met her husband through her blog, a guy who, when their face-to-face "courting" began, lived about five miles from where we were living in Clermont County, Ohio. In a comment on Gottlieb's Facebook post, I wrote:
...Ann Althouse seemed to "get" blogging from the beginning. She's...a quick study with a wonderful wit. She writes well. And she's thick-skinned. I still read her blog occasionally and clearly, she has a loyal readership.
When I say that Althouse "got" blogging (and did so in ways that others, including me, didn't), I mean that she seemed to see it as a kind of performance art, the perfect venue for her rapid and often unique observations of reality, the news, and politics. (Though her politics don't easily fall into red or blue categories.) She understood that the blogger could entertain and provoke, but with humor. The blog became an outlet for the kinds of observations two friends might make to each other about the latest headline, a piece of art, a place in a park or a coffee shop, or, and this is something that horrifies Althouse, a man wearing short pants.Althouse's blog is still enormously popular, her many daily posts eliciting lots of comments and dialog. Often, Althouse's posts are cultural or semiotic observations.

Gottlieb responded to my observation:'re right, Ann figured it out and is one of the survivors. (I met most if not all of my blogfriends in her comments section—you included, I think!)
Yes, me included. And interesting people like Gottlieb are part of why I still blog. I still hope to keep finding them and to interact and dialog with them in respectful, and more long-form, ways about the most important ideas and values in our lives.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Junior is in the Hall

Here. Check out the videos embedded in the article.

Ken Griffey, Jr. was the best player of his generation, owner of the sweetest swing at the plate I've ever seen, tremendous records despite injuries that plagued him particularly while he played for his hometown Cincinnati Reds, and one of the best ever to patrol center field.

Often maligned by Reds fans who questioned his commitment (the way they would later similarly question Joey Votto), Griffey Jr. let his performance on the field speak for itself.

I saw an interview with him yesterday on MLB Network in which he talked about how he practiced in a batting cage at his home each night after games, from 11:30 to 3:00 in the morning. Yes, he had great natural ability. Yes, he grew up around the members of the Big Red Machine. But Griffey worked hard at being a great player. And he was.

Monday, January 04, 2016

A basic primer on the differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims


New Year Apprehensions? A Strategy and Four Strengths for 2016

[This was shared with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church during both worship services yesterday morning, the Second Sunday of Christmas.]

Ephesians 1:3-14

It’s a new year. Feeling apprehensive about anything as you consider what awaits you in 2016?

If so, that’s normal. And I say that as a recovering worry wart.

But in today’s second lesson, Ephesians 1:3-14, we’re given two things that can help us face our apprehensions.

The first is a strategy for dealing with life.

The second is a set of four reasons for why we don’t need to be apprehensive or worried or frightened.

Our lesson from Ephesians comes near the start of this New Testament letter. Scholars have argued for years over the letter's authorship, but many scholars believe that the book was written in the mid-first century AD by the apostle Paul while he was imprisoned.

If that’s so, the book of Ephesians is remarkable. Seemingly in need of encouragement himself, Paul writes to encourage others!

And how does he do that?

First of all, right here in our lesson, he worships, praises, and prays to God
. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ,” verse 3 begins. For Paul, worship displaces worry!

God commands us to worship Him, of course. He does this when He tells us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” first, through Moses in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and then, when Jesus gives the great commandment in Matthew.

God doesn’t give this commandment because He’s needy

And He doesn’t command us to love or worship Him because He’s an egomaniac

God commands our worship because w
e need to worship God.

We need to acknowledge that our lives come from Him and that only He, through Jesus, can make us whole, give us His presence and His guidance, and give us life beyond the grave.

When we worship, we acknowledge the truth of what Jesus has told us: “Apart from Me, you can do nothing” [John 15:5].

And as we worship and love God, we can say with Paul when he writes elsewhere: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” [Philippians 4:13].”

Without worship of God, we may exist. But when we worship God, we
live! God commands us to worship Him because He loves us and wants us to do more than exist.

So, from his confinement, Paul experiences a brush of eternity with God, just as we can experience every time we pray, read God’s Word, worship with our sisters and brothers in Christ, or every time we hear the words, “Given and shed for you.” That strengthens us for living!

I’m not encouraging a utilitarian view of worship here, by the way. We don't worship in order to get goosebumps or to feel good. Nor is worship some kind of magical psychotherapy.

We worship because we long for God or, at least, we
want to long for God.

In the worship of God, our priorities get shifted. Our pride is challenged and we experience the joy of repentance. Our need for grace is fulfilled. Our relationship with God and our sisters and brothers in Christ is strengthened. God restores us to our right minds and right hearts. The panic diminishes. God gives us the strength to face our apprehensions.

Paul then says, starting in verse 4: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.”

Paul isn’t saying here that God predestined who would come to faith in Christ and those who wouldn’t
. Just as was true of God’s ancient chosen people, Israel, Christians may be members of a Christ's church, they are part of God's saved people by faith. Genesis tells us that Abraham, the father of ancient Israel, believed in God’s promises and God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness. Abraham had been chosen, but he was only saved by grace through faith. The same is true for we who have come to know God through Jesus.

Ephesians 2:8 tells believers that: “...
it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Through Christ, God has chosen us as His people and that’s one reason we should never be apprehensive.

Our lesson goes on: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”

Since the fall of Adam and Eve, God has had a plan for bringing heaven and earth together again in a fellowship undistorted by sin, death, or darkness. This is God’s good pleasure. To put it another way, God’s good pleasure, the thing God wants more than anything else is you.

God wants you, not as a subject or a piece on a game board He can manipulate.

God wants you.

He wants me.

He wants the whole fallen, imperfect human race.

He wants us so that He can set us free to be who we were made to be, who we have been redeemed to be through Jesus Christ. So that we can be our true selves, our God-made selves for all eternity.
We should be strengthened in the face of our apprehensions by knowing that God wants us as His children! The world may spurn us or view us as rejects, but God never will!

Verse 11: “In him [that is, in Christ] we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.”

God once told the people of Israel through the prophet Jeremiah: “...I know the plans I have for you...plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” [Jeremiah 29:11]

God could be addressing those words to you and me as the Church this morning!

Jesus tells us that there
will be difficulties--even grief and death--in this life. But He will never abandon us. “...surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” Jesus promises. [Matthew 28:20] And eternity with God is part of His plan for us. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:11-12: “Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.”

Jesus’ gives us strength to face our apprehensions through the promise of His constant presence and of eternity with God

But in the rush of events, it can be hard to remember to worship or praise God. (I know; I sometimes forget God and try to get through life in my own power!) When life comes at us, we can lose the strength God wants to give us by forgetting God’s faithfulness, instead turning to our modern world’s golden calves, things like money, sex, status, entertainment, the daily horoscope, sigils, the applause of the crowd.

Even when we forget God though, He never forgets us
. Anyone who remembers to come to Him in the name of Jesus Christ, worshiping and praising Him for His faithfulness in standing with us and redeeming us, can be given strength to face what gives us apprehension or fear. We’ve already talked about the strategy for dealing with these things, worship. And we’ve talked about three ways in which God can strengthen us to face our apprehensions.

But God gives us more. Verse 13: “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.”

To strengthen us, God gives believers in Jesus the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit, Paul is telling us, is God’s down-payment on our eternity, guaranteeing us that all God promises us in Christ is true!

Recently, I was apprehensive.

There was a situation in my extended family. I had volunteered to be the one who confronted a family member. I had no idea what to say, but I knew something needed to be said. I prayed for several days.

Finally, one evening, I prayed: “God, I have no idea what to say, how to even bring things up. This will catch this other person by surprise and they’re likely to be very angry. Help me to know how to approach things. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

The phone rang. It was the person I was contemplating contacting. “Just thought I'd give you a call,” the person told me.

More silent praying: “God, send Your Spirit.”

After some pleasantries, I found myself speaking. I don’t know exactly what I said. The other person
did get mad. But then I explained my motives and how much I loved this person. We talked for about forty minutes. At the end of the conversation, we had reached an understanding. A situation had been dealt with.

I hasten to add that not all my prayers are so quickly answered. There have been some requests I've brought before God daily for years before, in ways I never could have anticipated, answered them.

Jesus exhorts us to persevere in prayer, I believe, so that when He delays answering our pleas positively, we will have no doubt that the answer, when it arrives, is from Him. And, so that when the answer is no, we will have formed the habit of turning to the God Who knows what our suffering is like and has redeemed us from the worst that this life can bring us.

In any case, those who turn to God through prayer in Jesus' name have the power to live!

And that is always the Holy Spirit’s doing.

We can be encouraged face our apprehensions because who believe and are baptized have the power of God’s Holy Spirit working in our lives

As 2016 begins, are you apprehensive? Turn your apprehension into worship and then be strengthened by knowing that you have been chosen to be part of God’s people, that God wants you as His child, that You can stand on the plans and promises of the crucified and risen Jesus, and that, to guide you in your walk with God, you have the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Happy new year!