Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Auld lang syne

by John D Ramsey

When we lived in Minnesota, fireworks were illegal which heightened my joy when Daniel and I launched mortars at midnight New Year's Eve. At that time, I still wore a wristwatch, and earlier in the evening, I would synchronize it with the US Naval Observatory master clock. As the time neared midnight, I would watch the second hand, and Daniel would light the fuse on my mark. After a couple years, Minnesota relaxed its laws against fireworks, and so our midnight volleys ended.

Tonight as the clock reaches midnight, I will be sitting inside. The little girls will be asleep in bed. Lisa may be reading, watching television, or sleeping. I will be awake, but I do not have any fantastic plans. I have already commemorated 2008. In the darkness of the basement family room, tonight I cried for Mom.

January 1 is a capricious choice for New Year’s Day. The winter solstice occurred December 21. The new moon occurred December 27. Whatever astronomical alignment indicates midnight December 31, it is subtle by comparison. Yet western civilization commemorates the earth’s arrival at this arbitrary point in space calling it January 1. Lisa tells me that tonight astronomers will add a leap second to the calendar. Regardless of how arbitrary the choice, our commemoration of the moment must be precise. Moreover, regardless of the arbitrariness of the date, it releases an extant emotional response within the sentimental — to each his own Auld Lang Syne.

Someone long ago determined that today was the year’s end, and so tonight, I sit in the darkness and cry for my loss. I also think of the great potential the next year holds.

It is good to remember, and it is good to hope for the future. In ancient Israel, the month of the exodus from Egypt commemorated the New Year. God told Moses, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.” Exodus 12:2 (NIV) The highlight of the month occurred at the full moon — the sacrifice of the Passover lamb. The first Passover divided Israel’s history between the bondage of Egypt and the hope of the Promised Land.

Likewise, at the advent of a new year, we set aside what was, and renew hope for what will be. Year 2008 was a blessed year in many ways, and 2008 brought great sadness with Mom’s passing. Year 2009 promises new opportunities and will confront us also with its own challenges.

Tonight, however, I am thinking about the New Year’s Eve as a deeper metaphor.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

More magi

by John D Ramsey

Last week I wrote about the Magi who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the child Jesus. I was somewhat surprised by the number of web searches asking for “the meaning of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” I admit that I have been dismissive of this question largely because the word correlations in the New Testament are very few. The lack of information invites unfounded speculation, which can be unprofitable. I have heard sermons in the past delving into presumed symbolism of the three gifts of the Magi, but I have always been less intrigued by their gifts than I have God’s revelation of himself to men who were once far away from faith.

Nevertheless, Matthew mentions the three substances by name, and the poetry of Scripture invites us to discover the correlation within the Author’s mind. Therefore, I began searching for an answer. The New Testament mentions frankincense twice and myrrh three times. Aside from the account of the Magi in Matthew 2, the New Testament mentions frankincense among the commodities that the woman Mystery Babylon traded in Revelation 18. At the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Roman death squad offered Jesus wine mixed with myrrh as a sedative, and Jesus refused it. When Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus buried Jesus, they wrapped his body with myrrh and aloes. While we may correlate the gift of myrrh and the myrrh used at burial of Jesus, no similar correlation exists for the frankincense. Moreover, the gift of the Magi included gold, which also does not correlate to the crucifixion and burial.

Looking at the Old Testament, frankincense appears several times. English translations make it difficult to find every instance of the word frankincense; however, Strong’s Concordance shows 21 occurrences of the word. The special anointing oil used in the Tabernacle and Temple contained myrrh and the incense used in the Tabernacle and Temple contained frankincense. The Tabernacle and Temple also contained much gold. Likewise, the Christ child embodied in human form all that the Tabernacle and Temple represented. “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” Colossians 2:8 (NIV) It would not be too much a stretch to say that the gifts of the Magi attribute to Jesus the qualities of the Tabernacle and Temple. Nevertheless, the anointing oil and the incense of the Tabernacle contained more ingredients than only frankincense and myrrh. If the Magi’s gifts allude to the aromatic compounds used within the Tabernacle, they do so subtly. Nevertheless, this correlation, explores a powerful truth. In the past, God had at times occupied the Tabernacle and the Temple, but at the nativity, God became a man. Emanuel, meaning “God with us,” became the earthly tabernacle of the Almighty.

Frankincense was used extensively in the Old Testament sacrificial system. A freewill offering included flour, olive oil, and frankincense – a pleasing aroma to God. A sin offering, on the other hand, could not include frankincense. God considered an unworthy offering of frankincense to be blasphemous (Jeremiah 6:20). Myrrh, while used with the anointing oil, was not a component of the sacrifice. Nevertheless, Christ came to earth to become a sin offering. It seems unlikely that the frankincense would point to Jesus sacrificial death in the same way that the myrrh might. Perhaps the frankincense alludes to fellowship we have in Christ while the myrrh portends his sacrificial death.

Isaiah prophesies of the Messiah’s reign and speaks of many nations of the earth bringing gifts to Jerusalem; he writes,

Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and [frankincense]
and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.

Isaiah 60:5-6 (NIV)

Perhaps Sheba in this context refers to the same Sheba in Genesis 10 (from the east), rather than the Sheba in 1 Kings (presumed to be from the south). Yet the recipient of the Magi’s gift was the Christ child, and the recipient of the wealth of the nations in Isaiah is the nation of Israel. Moreover, the gifts in Isaiah come to Jerusalem and the Magi met Jesus in Bethlehem. It does seem like a stretch to cast the gifts of the Magi as a fulfillment of Isaiah 60.

In my previous reflections on the Magi, I asserted that they were most likely revealers of dreams from a tribe of the Medes. I based my conclusion of the word, magus, used in the New Testament, the Septuagint (specifically the Book of Daniel), and the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. In Matthew 2, God speaks to men’s dreams four times. He warns the Magi to avoid returning to Herod. He tells Joseph to escape with Mary the child to Egypt. He tells Joseph in a dream to return to Israel after Herod’s death, and he tells him to settle in Galilee.

Another dreamer named Joseph went down to Egypt. In Genesis 37, the sons of Israel sell their brother into slavery. Ishmaelite and Midianite traders carried Joseph into Egypt. What cargo did the Ishmaelites carry with them? According to the New American Standard Bible, they carried, “aromatic gum, balm, and myrrh.” Frankincense is an aromatic gum or resin. Perhaps the same fragrances accompanied Joseph, the son of Jacob, on his journey into Egypt as accompanied Joseph, Mary, and Jesus on theirs.

Perhaps the irony, did not escape Joseph the husband to Mary. The earlier Joseph had been sent into Egypt because his dreams offended his brothers. Eventually, Jacob and all his sons joined Joseph in Egypt. The nation of Israel lived in Egypt until Moses led them in their Exodus.

Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaped into Egypt to avoid death in their home country. They journeyed to Egypt because of the warning that God gave Joseph in his dreams. They stayed there until God led them out again. Both men’s journeys to Egypt pivot upon Hosea 11:1, which reads, “When Israel was a youth I loved him, And out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew 2:15 emphasizes this correlation, saying, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.’”

Certainly, the Magi’s gift of gold, frankincense, and myrrh would have helped sustain Joseph, Mary, and the child, Jesus, while they were in Egypt. While there is fodder for meditation on the meaning of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, perhaps the revelation of the meaning of the Magi’s gifts lies within the action of the Biblical account rather than within abstract and even far-fetched correlations with other Scripture. Both Josephs entered Egypt with aromatic compounds, both Josephs were guided by God in their dreams, and eventually both Israel, the nation, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God were called out of Egypt. Perhaps Matthew gives us the details of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to evoke the memory of the original caravan that carried the hope of Israel into Egypt. If so, the evidence of the prophet Hosea supports the correlation.

Perhaps, Matthew leaves open the meaning of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh because their meaning is complex. Perhaps together the three gifts invoke the memory of the Tabernacle worship and apply it to Emanuel. Perhaps the frankincense reminds of our fellowship with God being a pleasing aroma. Perhaps the myrrh reminds us that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again. Perhaps the gifts of gold and frankincense look forward to the day when Christ reigns over all the earth, and the nations bring their gifts to Jerusalem.

Perhaps even more simply, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh remind us that when we come to Christ we do not withhold our treasures from him, but rather we fall to the ground and worship him then give to him everything that we hold precious.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas reflections

by John D Ramsey
Wii finally did it. After 27 years of marriage and four children ages 24, 23, 11, and 6, we bought our first video gaming console. Why, because the Wii is active and social in nature – not to mention just a bit silly, which suits our family, too.

We celebrated Christmas on the 20th this year because that is when the big kids could come to Kansas City. Now they are home in Texas and Minnesota, and today (Christmas) is a project day in our house. We had grand plans for a turkey dinner today, but truthfully, we have indulged in Lisa’s fantastic cooking for too many days in a row. Not only that: we went to Pizza Bella Monday night for a sampling of their wood-fired pizzas (five pizzas for the seven of us was just about right). My critique: awesome! If you live near Kansas City or ever visit Kansas City, Pizza Bella is on the short list of restaurants you must try.

Dad came down for our Christmas celebration, too. He brought everyone gifts from Mom’s trinkets and gadgets. Dad did a wonderful job choosing what of Mom’s things to give to each of us. Memories of Mom and the thoughtfulness of Dad combined to make each gift treasured. The little girls cupped in their hands the glass figurines that Dad gave to them. Claire held hers up and said, “Look what Pa gave me.” I am not sure he saw her reaction, but I did.

The Wii was the about the only thing we bought for the little girls. Lisa bought Cara a KitchenAide food processor as well as several other smaller gifts. I bought Daniel a MXL v76t tube microphone. My operating theory is that men would rather have one gift that enhanced their arsenal than many smaller gifts. Lisa thinks that women would rather have many gifts than one of anything. The tube microphone seemed a bit exotic. I thought it might captivate Daniel’s imagination just a bit. He says it sounds different from his other microphones. I would like to assume it sounds better, but learning how to use a microphone is a bit like adapting to a new musical instrument – optimization requires experimentation. Daniel will send me audio samples in a couple days, when he does I will append them to this post.

Daniel bought his mom several bottles of Charles Shaw (Two Buck Chuck). We opened a Cabernet Sauvignon with our lasagna Sunday evening. It was drinkable and probably as good better than a house red at most restaurants. With all the rich food on the menu recently, I have taken to heart Paul’s instruction to Timothy, “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach.” 1 Timothy 5:23 (NASB)

Daniel helped me get the Wii configured on the BenQ projector. Everyone in the room can enjoy watching the Wii on the eight-foot screen. I came downstairs to investigate Internet on the Wii and discovered that Claire had created a Mii that looked just like me.

A screen grab of my Wii-Mii. Daniel is entering frame on the left.
I tried bowling, but found that my Mii was a bit too over-celebratory. The shooting game was fun. While I am still curious about Internet browsing on the Wii, I am too cheap to spend $5 on a web browser. I was disappointed that the Wii could not play DVD’s. I am much to cheap to spend money on a full AV system, so for now we will have to swap cords when we switch from Wii to DVD.

This morning Lisa put new socks and underwear in gift bags, and the girls opened them at breakfast. It makes me wonder whether the girls will remember this Christmas as the year they received a Wii or whether they will remember it as the “underwear Christmas.” I will remember it for many reasons few of which have anything to do with gifts given or received.

  • It is the first Christmas since Mom’s passing.
  • It is the first Christmas our immediate family was not together on Christmas day.
  • It is the first Christmas that we shared our family celebration with someone yet outside the family – Daniel brought his girlfriend, Rhonda.
  • This year’s Christmas party was the largest we have ever hosted – over 30 people came for our Christmas open house.
  • Our hosting the white elephant gift exchange with Lisa’s extended family is becoming a tradition. Gabby and I teamed up and ended up with a giant remote control.

Last night we went to church and sang Christmas carols with friends. Holding candles in the darkened sanctuary, we stood and sang “Silent Night” a cappella. To a cynic it might seem cliché, but the simple beauty of the moment makes a compelling memory. It seems to me that Christmas is about memory. Celebrating the birth of Christ is certainly core to the collective memory, yet Christmas memories are compound.

Some people try to justify Christmas traditions by drawing straight yet implausible lines to Scriptural symbols. For instance, some people claim that their Christmas tree reminds them of the cross of Calvary. I suppose that is fine, but the Christmas tree in our home is a place to hang our best memories. Our sins were nailed to the cross of Jesus Christ to be forever forgiven and forgotten. Yet in our home, we hang ornaments on the Christmas tree to remember what and whom they represent. Mom always objected to idolizing the cross, anyway. Mom felt that people sometimes focused on the cross rather than focusing on the Savior. I suppose I let traditions be traditions without manufacturing a cause.

A Christmas tree in our home is not a sacred symbol. Rather it is a tradition of memory. I told the little girls that the Christmas tree serves as a reminder of everything for which we should be thankful. Many of our ornaments commemorate a personality or an event. Each is a monument to a memory and together they celebrate the story of our lives. Each year deepens the sentimentality toward the old ornaments and welcomes the new ones into this stream of consciousness we celebrate at Christmastime.

Last year Lisa gave me a squirrel because of my continuing battle to save our shake roof from destruction. This year my squirrel ornament hangs next to the reminder of Cara’s leopard print phase (was it a phase?).

When the big kids were little, I made Daniel this carousel tiger on a soldered copper wire armature using newspaper, masking tape, and papier-mâché. I made Cara a carousel giraffe, but it proved much more fragile than the tiger. Each Christmas, I expect to find the lost giraffe among the ornaments, but I think it has been lost along the way.

The older kids each were given a two-dollar bill for Christmas one year. Both bills stayed on the tree for several years, but now one is missing. Hmm.

My first baby’s first Christmas. I took the photo with an Olympus OM-2 with an 85mm f/2 lens and three Broncolor Impact strobe lights. I used a red gel over the hair light. For soft focus effect, I think I sprayed hairspray on a UV-filter. Lisa was not far off frame just in case Cara decided to lean out of the chair.

Lisa gave this ornament to me this year because it reminded her of jewelry I bought for her many years ago at Union Station in St. Louis.
This sampling of ornaments conjures for me deep feelings of love for my family and extreme humility and gratitude for God’s grace and mercy on behalf of my family and me. Celebrating Christmas is in every respect celebrating the grace of God. Where does God’s grace begin or where does it end? God’s grace toward me begins with the breath of life he granted me. His grace has continued through my life and expresses itself in my marriage, children, friends, the home he has provided for us, a fun job which pays the bills and more.

Yet most of all God’s grace appears in the person of Jesus Christ, who two thousand years ago left the glory of heaven to become a man. Emanuel, another name for Jesus, means “God with us.” The Apostle John puts it this way,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not . . .

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-5, 9-14 (KJV)
When Jesus became a mortal man, he became subject to death. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” Yet Jesus had no sin. His sacrificial death paid the price for my sin. “So Christ was offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.” Hebrews 9:28 (KJV)

As Christmas “wraps up” around the house and I prepare to go back to the office tomorrow, I thank God for his grace. I thank him for life and love, but most of all I thank him for sacrificing his human life to grant me salvation unto eternal life.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh

by John D Ramsey

This week my children have impressed me with their generosity to each other and their generosity to those outside our family. Their giving has been kind, sacrificial, and even extravagant.

Lately, I have been thinking of other extravagant gift bearers: the magi who came to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. To understand the account of the magi’s visit we must first understand who the magi were. The English word, magic, derives from the Greek word magus. Yet it would be clumsy to interpret the historical meaning of the word by its modern connotation. The word magi occurs five times in the New Testament: three times in Matthew and twice in Acts. In Acts 8 and Acts 13, Luke writes of a Jewish magus named Simon. Simon was known in Samaria as “the Great Power of God.” Most English translations of the New Testament obfuscate the reference to Simon being a Magi. The NIV and King James refer to Simon as a sorcerer. The NASB refers to Simon as a magician, but translates the same word as magi in Matthew. The King James refers to the magi in Matthew as “wise men.” It is a shame when translators intentionally shade the meaning of words. With only five occurrences of a word in the New Testament, it is unjustifiable to alter the translation based upon context.

Thankfully, the word magi occurs in the context of history. In the Septuagint (LXX), the book of Daniel refers to magi eight times. The translators of the LXX understood that Hebraic and Aramaic references to magi in the book of Daniel referred to a specific class of men. In Genesis and Exodus the Hebrew word chartom, was translated in the LXX as sophistas, or wise men. Yet when the translators of the LXX encountered the same word in Daniel, they translated it magus. The LXX translators knew the distinction between the wise men of Egypt and the magi of Persia.

Herodotus disambiguates the meaning of magi, helping us understand both the Old Testament record via the LXX as well as the New Testament record. According to Herodotus’ The Histories – Book One, the Magi were a tribe of the Medes. Moreover, according to The Histories – Book One and The Histories – Book Seven, the Magi were well known for their ability to interpret dreams. In Book One, Herodotus writes about Cyaxares, saying, “This vision he laid before such of the Magi as had the gift of interpreting dreams, who expounded its meaning to him in full, whereat he was greatly terrified.”

Later in the same book, Herodotus writes, “The Magi are a very peculiar race, different entirely from the Egyptian priests, and indeed from all other men whatsoever.” Herodotus’ short editorial establishes two fantastic facts. First, he validates the distinction between Egyptian and Persian wise men that the Septuagint translators also understood. Secondly, Herodotus erases any distinction between the race of the Magi and the practitioners of mageuwn.

The magi in Daniel differ from the conjurers, diviners, and astrologers from Persia, too. In fact, the word for astrologer in the book of Daniel is the same word translated elsewhere as Chaldean. The vocation of magi coupled with the race of the Magi in the same way that the practice of astrology coupled with the race of the Chaldeans. What do you call someone who practices the vocation of a magus who is not of the Magi race? You call him a magus, or in the case of Luke’s reference to Simon, “a Jewish magus.”

When the prophet Daniel writes of magi along with enchanters, sorcerers, diviners and astrologers, each word is distinct in meaning. A baseball player and a football player are both athletes, but the sports are distinct. A dentist and an optometrist are both doctors but you would only go to one for a root canal. Consequently, when Matthew writes about the magi coming to see Jesus, we should not presume that they were astrologers, sorcerers, or anything else other than interpreters of dreams from a tribe of the Medes.

Likewise, when Luke writes of Simon the magi, we should likewise not presume that he was a sorcerer. Putting the English definition of magic and magician aside, we can see that Simon presented himself to be a Daniel – a revealer of dreams and a prophet of God. However, Luke tells us that Simon, the Jewish magus, was a false prophet.

Nebuchadnezzar refers to the real Daniel as the chief of the magi saying,
O Belteshazzar, chief of the [magi], since I know that a spirit of the holy gods is in you and no mystery baffles you, tell me the visions of my dream which I have seen, along with its interpretation.

Daniel 4:9 (NASB)
When Nebuchadnezzar referred to Daniel as the chief of the magi, he was not referring to Daniel as a practitioner of sorcery; rather, he acknowledged Daniel’s God-given ability to reveal dreams. Obviously, there is a distinction between Daniel’s gift of interpreting dreams and the occult practices of the magi. Yet, Nebuchadnezzar could only describe Daniel from his frame of reference so he called Daniel, “chief of the magi.”

The men who came from the east to worship Jesus were magi. To say that they were astrologers, conjurers, sorcerers, or diviners would be as clumsy as saying that Peyton Manning plays professional baseball for the Indianapolis Colts. Football Player == Athlete == Baseball Player is a logical fallacy. Peyton Manning played baseball in high school, but we cannot infer that by the fact that he plays football for the Colts. A magus might have practiced astrology or sorcery, but we cannot infer that by the title. Vocationally, the magi interpreted dreams. To assume that the magi were primarily astrologers ignores the history of the word.

Nevertheless, many teach that the magi were enlightened astrologers who were anticipating the Christ based upon Balaam’s prophecy:

I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a scepter will rise out of Israel.

Numbers 24:17 (NIV)

The star and scepter in this passage, while messianic symbols, are figurative. Yet the magi witnessed a visible phenomenon. Applying this correlation to the magi and the star of Bethlehem opens the door to an infinite number of arbitrary scriptural correlations. With such rules of interpretation, you could construct anything from Scripture. Presuming that the magi were astrologers because they followed a star is as careless as presuming there were three magi because they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Yet people stumble on this question: How did the Magi know that the star of Bethlehem announced the birth of Christ? Church tradition has decided upon an unscholarly and impractical answer to that question. Presuming that the magi were astrologers who studied Old Testament prophecy, why did they need to ask Herod where the child had been born? The Jewish teachers of the law answered Herod’s inquiry without hesitation, paraphrasing the prophet Micah.

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.

Matthew 2:6 (NIV)

This was news to the magi. When they left Herod and started toward Bethlehem, they again spotted the star. “[It] went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” Matthew 2:9 (NIV) Whatever the star of Bethlehem was, it was not an astrophysical entity. Nor is walking behind a light in the sky an astrological practice. Yet the light went ahead of them on the road and came to a stop over the house where Jesus was.

The star leading the magi is more akin to the pillar of fire and the cloud leading Israel in Sinai – a fully miraculous revelation from God. In modern astronomy, a star has a very precise definition, yet to the ancients a star was a small light in the sky. We would err to try to force a modern definition of a word upon an ancient text. We may never know why God led the magi by a light in the sky anymore than we will know why a host of angels appeared to the shepherds. God works the way he wants to work, and not necessarily the way we expect him to. The magi followed the light to Bethlehem because they believed it would lead them to Christ.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Matthew 2:11-12 (NIV)

So how did the magi know that the star would lead them to the one born king of the Jews? I propose that the answer is obvious – although unstated. The magi knew about the Christ by the same means that they knew to go home by another way. If God led them away from Herod through their dreams, could he not have also revealed himself to them in dreams? These men were magi – they interpreted dreams. It is more probable that God provided necessary information to the magi in their dreams than presuming that the magi deciphered God’s plan by their intellect and superstition. Parsimony leaves little room for astrology in Matthew chapter two.

So, the dreamers came to Bethlehem to worship the child who had captured their hearts and their hopes. When they found the boy, Jesus, they presented him with their treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. To kneel before the king of the Jews these men traveled hundreds of miles.

God revealed the birth of Jesus Christ to Jewish shepherds who were nearby, and he revealed the birth of Jesus Christ to the magi who were far away. The shepherds were close by both physically and figuratively, and the magi were far away both physically and figuratively. Yet in both cases, God put lights in the sky announcing that God had become man. The shepherds saw the glory of the Lord in the sky and heard the voice of the angel saying,

Fear not: for, behold,
I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day
in the city of David
a Saviour,
which is Christ the Lord.

Luke 2:10, 11 (KJV)

Likewise, the magi saw a light in the sky, and God told them that this light would lead them to him who was born king of the Jews. Neither the shepherds nor the magi could have figured it out on their own. Rather God revealed himself to men inviting them to come into the presence of Jesus. Both the shepherds and the magi responded in faith and came to Bethlehem. Both the shepherds and the magi worshiped and glorified God.

The magi in Matthew 2 embody the mystery of God’s salvation. Through the person of Jesus Christ, he has reached out men who were far away. God met them in their darkness – the darkness of the night and the darkness of their dreams – to bring them by faith into the light of Jesus Christ.

As God reveals himself to us in the person of his Son, may we, too, like the magi come to worship him with our lives and with our resources.

Read more about gold, frankincense, and myrrh here.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


by John D Ramsey

Christmas comes early this year in our home. Cara and Daniel will be home on Friday; Dad will be coming down, too. Saturday morning we will celebrate a traditional Christmas. On Saturday evening, Lisa’s extended family will arrive for a soup supper and a white elephant gift exchange. According to family rules, Gabby is too young to play the game, so she will play with me. We shopped for our gift on Saturday night. We are keeping it a secret even from Lisa. We are hoping that it will be a popular item. Ultimately, whoever goes home with it should be pleased.

I have not always enjoyed the Christmas holiday. I remember years when I considered Christmas celebrations something to endure or ignore. I wondered what exactly Christmas celebrated. Were we celebrating Christ, or were we celebrating material prosperity? I thought, how could we reconcile the extravagance of the holiday with the humility of the manger?

I do not ask those questions anymore. This year, I am hyped about Christmas. Lisa and I hosted a Christmas party again this year. We invited more people than last year, and my only regret is that we did not invite even more. I am already looking forward to next year. I hope our annual Christmas party continues to grow in scope and renown.

Obviously my attitudes have changed. In retrospect, I think I can trace my change of heart. First, Santa Claus is noticeably absent from our house. Though Lisa decorates the house extensively, Santa Claus is  (almost) nowhere. Some might justify including Santa Claus in Christmas because the tradition of Christmas has evolved over the years. Others refuse to celebrate Christmas because of the supposed origins of the holiday.

I do not debate the origins of Christmas. As a family, we celebrated the incarnation of Jesus Christ at Sukkoth this year. Acknowledging the nativity in association with the Feast of Booths does not invalidate Christmas as a Christian holiday. Rather, if Sukkoth corresponds to the birth of Christ, then the Christmas season corresponds to the annunciation of Mary. Whether the day commemorates the birth or the announcement of the birth, the day celebrates Jesus Christ. In our family, we can celebrate the season of the incarnation of the Son of God twice each year, in September or October according to the lunar calendar and in December according to Christian tradition.

The celebration of Jesus’ birth leaves no room for Santa Claus. Santa Claus mythology secularizes Christmas. There is not room for two stories of Christmas. God spoke to Isaiah, saying, “I am the LORD: that is my name: and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images.” Isaiah 42:8 (KJV) Why disparage fact with fiction? Lisa and I have never pretended with the kids that Santa is real. I believe that adults who deliberately lie to young children sacrifice their moral authority in the process. “No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.”A child's willingness to believe should not be abused by untruth.

Over the years, I have become first comfortable and now enthusiastic about the extravagance of Christmas. Just as the Old Testament Feast of Booths and the celebration of the tithe resulted in an economic blessing to the nation of Israel, so acknowledging the birth of Jesus Christ is an economic boon the nations that celebrate it. The misdirection of secular mythology cannot exceed the marvel of God becoming a man through the miracle of virgin birth. Those who celebrate Christmas acknowledge that Jesus Christ has changed the world even if he has not yet changed their hearts. The extravagance of Christmas displays the power of Jesus' nativity to captivate the hope of mankind.

Although the manger represents the humility of Christ, salvation through the blood of Christ is the most extravagant gift in history. I cannot justify a stingy celebration God’s amazing extravagance. Friends told Lisa today that our Christmas open house was the most extravagant Christmas party they had ever attended. Lisa did not know quite how to respond to the compliment. I am certain that parties that are more extravagant occur. Yet, if we are celebrating the advent of God’s spectacular grace, we should celebrate it appropriately to the best of our ability.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Trojan wars

by John D Ramsey

Lisa somehow managed to get a Trojan and a slug of malware on her computer this week. The suspected source is a malevolent company masquerading as an inexpensive telecom solution. No, I am not referring to Skype. If you want an inexpensive telecom solution, my advice is to stick with Skype. It isn’t AT&T, but it’s a good choice to back up mobile phones. Lisa has our Skype calls forwarded to her cell. That way people can call a local exchange in Kansas City while we retain our old numbers from Minnesota on our cell phones.

Back to the Trojan: Lisa’s Avast antivirus program updated daily, and every time I ran a full scan on boot, Avast would delete files from the System32 directory as well as from the recovery cabs. Regardless, the behavior remained. I could not navigate to helpful websites such as Avast blocked the popups from the domains I identified, but the viral behavior remained. The symptoms also included unfamiliar registry values in the HKLM\Software\Microsoft\Current Version\Run key. The data included a string such as “Run32dll.exe ‘C:\Windows\System32\filename.dll’,s” where the DLL called had absolutely nothing to do with Windows or any legitimate software vendor.

When I deleted an entry, it immediately regenerated. Navigating to another key and back again revealed that the Trojan was not so easily defeated.

When I looked for the file names referred to in the registry, they did not appear in Windows Explorer even though I had it configured to show hidden and system files. Nevertheless, with the computer disconnected from the Internet, I opened a command prompt, and entered:
C:\Windows\System32> dir *.dll /A H > dll.hell
This created a text file containing all the DLL’s with an attribute of hidden. I opened the dll.hell file in notepad and found the likely suspects by the last date written. From the command prompt, I entered:
C:\Windows\System32> attrib -h -s filename.dll
C:\Windows\System32> del filename.dll
This deleted some files, but on a few files I received “Access is denied” errors indicating that the files were resident in memory. For these files, I typed:
C:\Windows\System32> cacls filesname.dll /D Everyone
When the system prompted, “Are You Sure?” I answered with a quick “Y” keystroke. (Sure, I’m sure.) After denying permission to the DLL, I rebooted the system. Error messages appeared on boot saying that the file name was missing. I was then successfully able to delete the registry values that were causing the Trojan to load.

I repeated this process until no more values appeared in the registry and I could successfully navigate to and download Firefox. Microsoft just lost another loyalist in the browser wars.

It appeared that the Trojan had a keystroke logging component. Lisa took countermeasures to mitigate the damage. Now we wait to see.

Unfortunately, my router does not allow me to block traffic to a particular subnet, otherwise I would block all traffic to and from the Class B I need no information from the Netherlands, anyway. Maybe I'll get a better router for Christmas.

Disclaimer: If this information is helpful, I’m glad. If you don’t know what you are doing, I’m sorry, but don’t do it. If I’ve missed something important, please leave a comment.

Now that Lisa has her computer back, I know she'll be posting about the fun Christmas party we had at our house Saturday night.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Praise giving

by John D Ramsey

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Wednesday was a relatively slow day at the office. Many people started the holiday early to care for children who were home from school. Others worked from home. About noon, everyone in the office received an email telling us to start our four-day holiday weekend at 3:00 PM with thanks for everyone’s hard work. Not every company I have worked for gives two days off for Thanksgiving. Letting everyone leave just a little early was a generous gesture from the CEO.

All day Wednesday, Lisa and the little girls were helping decorate the church for a wedding. I decided to take advantage of the early dismissal from work to rescue the girls from their day of conscripted labor. After collecting the girls, we stopped at Wal-Mart to buy some weatherproofing supplies to use at Dad’s house this weekend. When I finally pulled into my driveway at home, I noticed that someone from the office had tried to call me: twice.

As it turned out, Wednesday was a very exciting day at the office; however, the excitement had not yet spilled out from behind closed conference room doors before 3:00 PM when I left. Now, it seems that a four-day Thanksgiving holiday will have to wait until next year: business happens. For this, I am thankful. Although the economy is stressed, I am blessed to have an employer who must ask employees to sacrifice part of their paid holiday in order to take advantage of an opportunity. I suppose it would be harder for me to forgo part of the holiday if Cara and Daniel were in town. Yet, work is a blessing from God, and it is right to accept his blessings whenever he blesses. I am excited. I am hoping for the best possible outcome from our efforts.

I am not certain how it will all turn out, but I will probably work at least a few hours Thanksgiving Day to prepare for the firestorm of activity that might occur Friday.

For the past couple weeks a church sign that I drive by daily has announced, “Count your blessings” and most recently “Give thanks.” Sunday morning, we surprised Dad at the small country church at which he preaches. We all sang, “Count your blessings; name them one by one . . .” The little girls had never heard that song before. Claire was surprised when later Sunday evening we sang the same song our church’s Thanksgiving potluck. I suppose that it did not occur to her that the song is seasonally appropriate.

Is it possible that I could accurately count my blessings? I could start naming them: Lisa, Cara, Daniel, Claire, and Gabrielle. I could also list my job, my home, and a car that manages to hold together. Naming my blessings I would have to mention the rest of my family and friends; to ignore them would be ungrateful. In hindsight, I would also give thanks for the hard years though they seemed undesirable at the time.

Thinking about the blessings I have received makes me marvel at the grace that God has displayed toward me. I suppose my hardest years frame my current attitudes. I know how blessed I am because of difficult times I have endured. That is not to say that no difficult times lie ahead. Rather, I assert that God’s hand is evident through it all even when I did not enjoy it.

Today I used Bible software on my phone and laptop to search for verses containing the phrase “give thanks,” “giving thanks”, etc. In the NIV, I found approximately sixty verses matching the search criteria. In the NASB, I found over one hundred. A quick comparison shows that the NIV translators often preferred to use the word praise rather than give thanks. Consequently, praising God and giving thanks to God are equivalent even though we might consider praising God to be attributing something to God while thanking him is acknowledging something coming from him. Ultimately, any distinction blurs in the mind.

A closer look at the Old Testament reveals that the word often translated give thanks or praise is also translated glorify and confess. I am not a Hebrew scholar, but it appears that the translators’ word choices are largely dependent upon the context though the word’s fundamental meaning is unchanged. When Solomon prayed to God during the dedication of the Temple, he said,
When the heavens are shut up and there is no rain, because they have sinned against You, and they pray toward this place and confess Your name and turn from their sin when You afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of Your servants and of Your people Israel.

1 Kings 8:32 (NASB)
The word translated confess in this context is translated give thanks or praise in other passages. Now when Israel repented from sin, they would not thank God in the sense that we might imagine, but Solomon said that they were to confess or attribute glory or praise to God’s name.

When we read, “Give thanks to the Lord of lords, For His lovingkindness is everlasting,” Psalm 136:2 (NASB) we might paraphrase saying, “Praise the Lord of lords whose mercy endures forever.” Yet we might also say, “Confess or assert that the Lord of lord’s mercy is eternal.” The underlying meaning of the word remains the same; the translated word, however, derives its English connotation from the context.

While thanksgiving is often an emotional response to God, I think God intended it to be initially an intellectual response to Him. Thanksgiving, therefore, has less to do with what I feel about what God is doing and more to do with acknowledging that God is doing something.

Often times we confuse what it means to give thanks to God, to praise God, or to glorify God. We tend to take a self-centered approach to thanksgiving, that is to say we thank God or praise God for what pleases us. Yet Paul tells us, “In everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NASB) If we only give thanks for that which pleases us, then we place ourselves in a position of judging God. Near the end of the Book of Job, God challenged Job, saying,

“Now gird up your loins like a man;
I will ask you, and you instruct Me.

Will you really annul My judgment?
Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?

“Or do you have an arm like God,
And can you thunder with a voice like His?

“Adorn yourself with eminence and dignity,
And clothe yourself with honor and majesty.

“Pour out the overflowings of your anger,
And look on everyone who is proud, and make him low.

Look on everyone who is proud, and humble him,
And tread down the wicked where they stand.

Hide them in the dust together;
Bind them in the hidden place.

Then I will also confess to you,
That your own right hand can save you.

Job 40:7-14 (NASB)

God warned Job not to expect God to conform to Job's expectations. Though God had previously blessed Job with riches, God now worked in Job's life through Job's suffering. Notice in this context also that if Job could demonstrate attributes that belong only to God, then God would confess that Job was also able to save himself. Here again is the same word translated give thanks elsewhere. Again the root meaning is to attribute something. Job learned to confess God's glory regardless of circumstance. Confessing and thanksgiving are effectively the same.

God has given me many blessings that please me. Yet Paul tells me that in my thanksgiving, I should not discriminate about that which I give thanks. I am to give thanks always or for all things regardless of whether I am pleased. If I realize that thanking God for all things means confessing or asserting that everything comes from Him, then I can praise God or glorify Him even when I do not understand His purposes. Praise-giving is not about what I like, but rather about acknowledging what God does.

This Thanksgiving I praise God for his many blessings to me: I praise him for the blessings that please me, I praise him for the blessings I do not understand, and I praise him even for the blessings I fail to see.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Survival instinct

by John D Ramsey

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According to The Wall Street Journal, the US stock market has lost seven trillion dollars in value since its peak. To put that in perspective, the US public debt is somewhere around six trillion dollars according to the US Treasury. What was first described as a “mortgage crisis” became a “liquidity crisis” and is now a “global economic crisis.”

Nevertheless, it is not all bad news. I paid $1.649 per gallon of gasoline the other day. I filled the tank even though I suspected the price would drop before I needed to fill again. It did drop – three times. I filled again Friday for $1.499 per gallon. I do not remember whom I told, but I predicted that crude oil would drop to $60 per barrel. I based my estimate upon the valuation of the dollar remaining stable. Since the dollar is increasing in value, the cost of oil seems to be decreasing even below my prediction. I am not a genius; I just know that the value of oil has not changed; only the supply relative to demand has decreased in recent years. I do not know how long gasoline will be this inexpensive, but I am relieved when I spend $27 instead of $72 on a tank full.

Since the election, politicians’ panic related to the “global economic crisis” appears to be waning even as the market bounces along the floor. Thursday, the Democrat congressional leadership reneged on a promise to bailout Detroit after the CEO’s of the “big three” automakers flew in corporate jets to Washington to beg for their government handout. Apparently, beggars need to observe appropriate decorum. Groveling is still groveling whether the object of interest is twenty-five cents or twenty-five billion dollars.

Likewise, Paulson, so benevolent to bailout his Wall Street cronies, is now suddenly a tightwad. Cash is suddenly king as economists and politicians realize that we cannot beg, borrow, and bail our way back to boomtown.

Speaking of cash, Steve Ballmer must be dancing another jig celebrating Jerry Yang who gave Microsoft freely what Ballmer was willing to pay billions to buy—namely Yahoo’s demise. Why buy a company when they will dry up all by themselves?

Southwest Airlines is attempting to extend its reach to LaGuardia. Southwest recorded its first quarterly loss ever – ironically because of dropping fuel prices and their fuel hedging strategies. Nevertheless, Southwest Airlines remains a healthy company compared to other airlines. Some companies with cash are quietly thriving even as their heavily leveraged competitors spin towards bankruptcy.

If strong companies are surviving or thriving even in the midst of the current economic turmoil, then whatever the root cause, the landscape appears more natural rather than catastrophic. Nevertheless, the victims of their own excesses are screaming, “Crisis!”

This week, Rick Wagoner, CEO of General Motors, appealed to the nation saying,
Nearly a half-century ago President Kennedy declared that his generation of Americans was living in extraordinary times and facing extraordinary challenges. Our times are no less challenging.

The Wall Street Journal, “Why GM Deserves Support”, November 19, 2008
I am not certain why Wagoner would invoke the name of Kennedy in the pages of The Wall Street Journal. Assuming the Journal’s readership is history-savvy enough to remember Kennedy, they probably know about Truman, and Roosevelt, too. Perhaps they even recall Lincoln.

Were the 60’s more extraordinary than both world wars and the Great Depression? Were the 1960’s more extraordinary than the 1860’s. Even if the challenges our country faces today are equivalent to the challenges of the 1960’s, Wagoner, betrays his own argument when he says today’s challenges are extraordinary. Perhaps today’s challenges are ordinary, but beyond Wagoner’s capacity to manage. Perhaps GM’s challenges are beyond any man’s capacity to manage. Firms confronted with this reality ordinarily seek bankruptcy protection, as GM’s board is considering.

While people scream “helter skelter” and lurch to and fro to the alarms of network news, we should pause to look with an objective eye. The truth transcends any “global economic crisis.”

Thousands of years ago, King Solomon wrote,

The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.

To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.

The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

There is no remembrance of men of old,
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow.

Ecclesiastes 1:5-11 (NIV)

Solomon wrote from his own historical perspective, but we would be wise to take notice of his words. Throughout history, there have been trying times. However, current challenges pale in comparison to the World Wars, the Great Depression, or the Civil War, for instance. These events are relatively recent history.

Moreover, the way of all men remains the same – at the end of our life, we die. Yes, that statement is tautological, but claiming that current challenges are extraordinary is myopic. Billions have lived, and billions have died. Some have lived long lives luxuriously, and some have lived short lives in poverty. Some have died peacefully; others have died violent or excruciating deaths. Some have journeyed from poverty to riches; others have retraced the path from riches to poverty. Whatever our challenges, our circumstances are only extraordinary relative to our own experience.

Still as challenges confront us, we should also pause to evaluate our priorities. While the world panics, we consider, how should we live in these times of difficulty?

Recently, Retired Marine Col. John Ripley passed away. In 1972, Ripley and 600 South Vietnamese soldiers under his command were ordered to “hold and die” in the face of an overwhelming force. Ripley survived despite orders and later said, “When you know you're not going to make it, a wonderful thing happens: You stop being cluttered by the feeling that you're going to save your butt.”

That is the point: “You’re not going to make it.” There is nothing extraordinary or even morose about this fact. Whether the world economy is boom or bust, our lives produce no long-term benefits. The writer of Hebrews states, and no one yet has successfully refuted, “It is appointed for men to die once.” Because we know the certainty of our own mortality, we should set aside our survival instinct and focus upon the breaths we have remaining.

I cannot save my life. Rather, I must spend my life on something. I can squander it, or I can invest it. Either way I cannot keep it. What are my options? Jesus said,
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.

What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.

Matthew 16:24-27 (NIV)
Investing my life is to lose my life for Jesus’ sake. Squandering it is to do anything else. Financial investors use hedging strategies to mitigate risk. Likewise, many Christians use faith as a hedging strategy while they pursue saving their mortal life. Yet faith in Jesus Christ is not a hedging strategy, it is total commitment. We should approach our faith in Christ with abandonment, not as an insurance policy or plan B. We cannot save our lives; consequently, we should choose to lose our lives for the sake of Jesus Christ. The Gospel does not make us better citizens of this world; it makes us sons of God and citizens of a greater country.

Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, believes that the decline of religion in American society has caused, in part, the current global economic crisis. He writes,
Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.

The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines.

The Wall Street Journal, “Mad Max and the Meltdown”, November 20, 2008
Of course, Henninger’s perspective is strictly business and his editorial bemoans the lack of conscience within the culture. While Henninger’s appreciation of Judeo-Christian ethics is magnanimous, Jesus did not command his disciples to live their lives “inside the chalk lines,” nor do followers of Christ exhibit obnoxious political opinions – at least not if they are obeying John 18:36, 1 Peter 2:13-17, Romans 13:1-6, and Titus 3:1-2.

Because we are followers of Jesus Christ, he calls us to be different from the world, and different in ways that Daniel Henninger may not realize. Jesus told his disciples to deny self, take up crosses, and follow him. Taking up a cross has become a euphemism for enduring anything difficult, but that was not Jesus’ intent. While Jesus spoke figuratively, his meaning was not far from the literal. Taking up a cross means to become obedient unto death! The Apostle Paul says,
. . . don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Romans 6:3-4 (NIV)

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20 (NIV)
We have died with Christ, our new life exists in him. This changes our perspective on the world: its glories and its troubles. The Apostle John writes,
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world — the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does — comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.

1 John 2:15-17 (NIV)
The media tells us we live in troubling or even extraordinary times. History and Scripture present a different story. History tells us that every generation faces its own challenges. Whether men struggle for glory or survival, they arrive at the same place – the grave.

Scripture enlightens history explaining that mankind lives under the curse of sin. Because Adam rebelled against God, his descendants are born into hopelessness. The end of man is death because the wages of sin is death. Between birth and death, men experience the same choices as those who came before them. Some men behave according to their innate knowledge of a God who will judge unrighteousness. However, before God’s righteous judgment no man will stand. The cycle of grief begins with birth and ends in judgment. The world will see troubling times; the world will recognize trouble because it has also seen peaceful and prosperous times. Neither is extraordinary; they are just divergent paths to the same end.

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Yet in the midst of human frailty, God offers man one extraordinary opportunity: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Acts 16:31 (NIV)

Accepting Christ means that we die to ourselves, to our sin, and to the world system. Earthly interests pale in comparison to possessing new life in Jesus Christ. The eternal exceeds the temporal.

When we as believers in Jesus Christ see our world in turmoil, for what do we hope? Do we hope for the day when God will alleviate the trouble so that our lives can continue in comfort? Do we love the world so much that we want to fix or have God fix what we think is broken? Do we just want to survive in peace?

Or do we hope for the day of Jesus’ appearing?
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
Have we denied ourselves, taken up our crosses, and followed him? Are we obedient unto death? Or have we squandered our lives?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The last shall be first

by John D Ramsey

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I love my job. I like the people with whom I work; I like helping other people be productive; I like the intellectual challenge my job provides – I swim in a sea of SQL. Most of the time, I like the laughter at work. I do not, however, like the intellectual challenge of trying to work productively when there is excessive laughter. Until the end of the year, I am trying to focus on a project, so today I donned the headphones and chose Bob Dylan to mask the noise surrounding me.

As The Times They Are A-Changin’ droned in my ears, I wondered how many people hear these lyrics and miss the Biblical allusion in the last stanza, “. . . the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a changing’.” I do not pretend to have specific insights into what Bob Dylan intended by this song, nor do I ask. A couple years ago, I listened to Sean Penn’s recording of Bob Dylan’s Chronicle’s: Volume One, and I concluded that Bob Dylan prefers to be misunderstood regardless. Still, Bob Dylan was not the first to say that the first will be last. A relevant question, therefore, might be whether Dylan understood whom he was quoting.

Four times in the Gospels Jesus says that the last will be first and the first will be last. One other time, Jesus deals with just one side of the equation. Mark, in his Gospel, writes,
They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Mark 9:33-35 (NIV)
Jesus’ disciples argued among themselves about who would be greatest in the kingdom. They apparently acted like bickering children who imagine that Mom and Dad cannot overhear their quarrelling. When Jesus confronted them, they were silent. No one wanted to confess. It is not as if they could decide among themselves who would be first and who would be last in the kingdom. The kingdom of God is not a democracy; nor is it a competition. The kingdom of God exists to glorify God above everyone else.

Jesus tells his disciples that he who would be first must be the servant of all. We often read this to be a reminder that we are supposed to serve one another, and this is true. However, one of the beauties of Scripture is that it can be true on multiple levels. When Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all,” he alluded to himself. Although we should strive to emulate Jesus’ humility, we cannot approach it. Paul explains,

[Jesus] being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

Philippians 2:6-7 (NIV)

In our home in the evening, we have begun reading with the little girls the story of Jesus’ nativity. I want them to become familiar enough with Luke 2 that they can read it aloud themselves without stumbling over words and phrases. I want to impress on them that the nativity is not merely a story about a baby’s birth, but rather encapsulated within the infant in the manger is the Creator himself. Jesus humbled himself to become a man. Once he became a human, he never ceased to be human. Jesus is forever both Son of God and Son of Man. Moreover, Jesus’ birth portends his death.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:8 (NIV)

Jesus embraced his death with humility and obedience. Why does Jesus’ nativity necessitate his obedience to death? The writer of Hebrews explains,

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Hebrews 9:27-28 (NIV)
Man is condemned to die, and Jesus, fulfilling all obedience, endured this judgment. However, Jesus did not carry the penalty for his own sin upon the cross; rather, he carried the sins of the whole world. Jesus became the servant of all.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11 (NIV)

Jesus Christ made himself the servant of all men. He voluntarily became the last, or the least, and thereby carried our sins into judgment by his death on the cross. Dying, resurrecting from the dead, and coming again, he brings salvation to those who are waiting for his return.

Though times are a-changin’ in ways that even Bob Dylan probably could not anticipate, the outcome of all things is sure. He who made himself last, he who served all men by carrying their sin upon the cross, will be first. Before him, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess him Lord.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Called, chosen, and faithful

by John D Ramsey

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During Tuesday morning Bible study earlier this week, I said something about the sovereignty of God. A friend asked me, “How do you explain free will?” Apparently, asking me that question is akin to throwing red meat to a hungry dog. I responded energetically, even to the point of surprising myself.

I believe that men experience free will. However, I am not convinced that men possess free will. Rather I believe that our choices are consistent with our nature.

For instance, one day this week I met a friend for lunch. Before arranging the meeting, I scoped out the nearby restaurants. A Korean restaurant sat right around the corner from my friend’s office. I remembered steaming-hot rice bowls from Shilla, a Korean restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota. I would recommend Shilla to anyone. However, I know nothing about this local restaurant. I wish I were adventurous enough to try new restaurants, but my nature is more conservative. I will follow a friend’s recommendation, but I will not gamble on the unknown. Even though I wanted to try the Korean restaurant, I knew that I would instead recommend José Pepper’s.

More information might have persuaded me otherwise, but José Pepper’s was a safe choice. It is not the best Mexican restaurant in Kansas City, but it is familiar. Ultimately, my purpose was to spend a little time with a friend, and as much as I would like to be adventuresome – it is not in my nature.

Did I experience free will? Yes, of course, I did. I chose to recommend José Pepper’s although I was aware of many alternatives. Did I act consistent to my nature? Absolutely. Not only did I recommend José Pepper’s to my friend, after thoroughly reading the menu, I ordered the shredded beef chimichanga. I recall now that I have ordered the shredded beef chimichanga in two previous visits to José Pepper’s. Lisa explains my behavior this way: after studying the menu, I choose the item that I feel gives me “the most beef for the buck.” My decision making process is not rote, rather my nature constrains my free will. I freely choose that which I am predisposed to choose. My predictability does not preclude my experiencing free will.

Man, by his own free will, does not seek God. Paul wrote to the Romans, saying,

As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”

Romans 3:10 (NIV)

Paul goes on to explain to the Romans, that God has said, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Romans 9:15 (NIV) Paul concludes, “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” Romans 9:18 (NIV)

Election is a difficult topic to understand; however, man’s nature has been in rebellion against God since Adam sinned in the garden. Our free will, such as it is, chooses consistently with our nature so that we are unable to seek God. For anyone to be saved, God must act. The Apostle John writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 1 John 4:10 (NIV) Paul says, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8 (NIV)

For me to come to faith in Jesus Christ, God had to overpower my nature. In other words, God changed the complexion of my free will; otherwise, I could never be saved. According to Ephesians 2, the faith by which I am saved, does not originate with me, it is a gift from God.

Upon realizing that man’s salvation depends entirely upon God, some Christians exhibit a fatalistic attitude. They think that because God’s will cannot be altered, evangelism is unnecessary. They suppose that God will do what God will do regardless of what they do or do not do; consequently, they need to do nothing. This argument is a logical death spiral wherein they experience free will while acting according to their disobedient nature.

Is such behavior and attitudes truly disobedient to God? Yes, Paul was not trying to cultivate this attitude when he wrote the book of Romans. In fact, Paul gave up trying to explain the complexity of election and instead cried out,

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.

Romans 11:33-36 (NIV)

Paul essentially says we cannot understand the mind of God; nevertheless, we must respond to him one way or another. In Romans 12, Paul implores us, in light of God’s sovereignty, to offer our lives as a living sacrifice to God. God’s glory should compel us to spiritual fervor rather than lull us into apathy.

Yet, if salvation must originate with God, if he must call before we can answer, then we ask, who receives this call from God? Jesus concludes the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22, saying, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” In the parable, the king sends his servants to invite guests to the wedding of his son. Some people ignore the invitation; others murder the king’s messengers. The king ultimately opens the feast to anyone. Yet, when a guest arrives without appropriate attire, that is, not clothed in righteousness, “the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.” Matthew 22:13, 14 (NIV)

Who then are the many who are called of whom Jesus spoke? When Paul preached to the Athenians at the Areopagus, saying,
Therefore since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.

Acts 17:29, 30 (NIV)
Who are the many who are called? God “commands all people everywhere to repent.” Let there be no doubt, if you are reading this, God is calling you. To Titus, Paul writes, “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” Titus 2:11 (NIV) There is no one from whom God’s call to repentance is withheld.

Many are called! Who then are the chosen?

For man to respond to God’s call, that is, for man to be included among the chosen, God must first overcome man’s nature. How does God overcome man’s nature to reprogram man’s free will so he can respond in faith? Paul writes, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ?” Romans 10:17 (NIV)

God has done many amazing things to alter the direction of my free will!
Knowing that God has accomplished all this for me alters the nature of my free will. Whereas I once was incapable of choosing God, now because of what God has done, I am instead compelled to repent and to trust Jesus Christ for my salvation. When I could not pursue God, God in his mercy pursued me. When I lacked righteousness, he supplied his own righteousness to me as a free gift. I clothe myself with his righteousness, not because it occurs to me to do so, but because his grace compels me.

Salvation comes to me, not because of what I do, but because of what God has done. Because no part of my salvation comes from within me, but rather all flows from God’s grace, I cannot describe it as my choosing God, rather because my salvation originates with God, I confess that he has somehow chosen me. God overpowered my predilection, and saved me. I wonder at the mystery, that I would be among the few whom he has chosen.

In the course of my salvation, do I experience free will? Yes, I do. However, the seed of faith sown in my heart by the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, transforms my nature, liberating me from my rebellion against God. Knowing what Jesus Christ has done for me, I cannot imagine choosing otherwise than repentance before God. Yet salvation is more than a momentary experience. When God transforms our nature, then we should begin to reflect his nature. Paul tells us,
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:5-11 (NIV)
God will eventually overcome the stubborn will of all men. Everyone will eventually acknowledge Jesus Christ, but not all will be saved. Many are called, but few are chosen. At the end of the age, when Jesus Christ returns to earth in glory, the rulers of the world will gather to war against him. John says, “They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings – and with him will be his called, chosen, and faithful followers.” Revelation 17:14 (NIV)

If God calls me and chooses me, then he calls me not only to believe, he chooses me to be faithful. Just as he compelled me against my original nature to trust him, so his grace compels me to remain faithful. I died with Christ to my old nature, so my new life encapsulates Christ: His righteousness becomes my righteousness, his life becomes my life; his humility becomes my humility; his faithfulness becomes my faithfulness. Likewise, his ultimate victory becomes the victory of his called, chosen, and faithful.

Throughout all this, I experience free will; nevertheless, I marvel that God accomplishes it all for his pleasure and for his glory. I cannot begin to understand God's purposes; however, I am eternally grateful that God intervened in my life altering my nature and granting me faith unto repentance and salvation.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Cyrus' anointing

by John D Ramsey

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The election is over and American sentiment ranges between elation and deflation. Neither presidential candidate appealed to me, frankly. Neither man exhibited a right-versus-wrong morality, but rather both men promised a make-it-right perversion of justice.

The recent financial crisis proved that neither major presidential candidate had the mettle of a statesman. When Secretary Paulson asked Congress to preserve the wealth and status of his Wall-Street cronies at the forever-expense of the American taxpayer, both presidential candidates raced to become the first to capitulate. Governmental amelioration of bad choices appears to set some things right; however, without the conviction of true right versus wrong, government only perverts justice. A bailout only spawns additionally moral hazards and perverse incentives. Now everybody wants a bailout, but who will ultimately pay?

Anna Schwartz co-wrote with Milton Friedman, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 and The Great Contraction, 1929-1933. In her nineties, Ms. Schwartz has been an economics expert for a relatively long time. Brian M. Carney interviewed Anna Schwartz for the Wall Street Journal,
. . . "firms that made wrong decisions should fail," she says bluntly. "You shouldn't rescue them. And once that's established as a principle, I think the market recognizes that it makes sense. Everything works much better when wrong decisions are punished and good decisions make you rich."
I agree with Anna Schwartz, but herein resides the difficulty with experts. Someone wishing to refute my position need only bludgeon me with his bigger, badder, expert. While we may never agree, we can part ways feeling either superior or moralistic.

What is lost in our culture, and to what Anna Schwartz alludes, is a fundamental sense of right versus wrong. We have substituted expedience and nuance for truth, and we are a weaker people for it. We have sacrificed our integrity upon the altar of political and social idolatry.

The beauty of principle—the conviction of right versus wrong—is that you do not have to be an expert to understand it.

The other day, Claire came home from 4-H with four dollars that was awarded her for public speaking. She ran into the room excited to show me her envelope, but then she scampered off quickly. I called after her, “Claire! Did you pay taxes on your four dollars?” I asked.

“No,” she replied.

I asked Gabby, “How much tax should Claire pay on her four dollars?”

Gabby answered without even looking up, “Ten thousand dollars.”

Claire yelped, ran upstairs, and hid her money.

This illustration was playful and teasing, yet illuminating. Gabby had no claim to Claire’s money; yet, if she must impose an arbitrary and unjust tax, why stop with the whole amount? Children understand that changing the rules mid-game is unfair. When they do it, they do it not to be fair but to gain advantage. Likewise, modern politicians seek to change the rules upon whim. The electorate ignores right versus wrong, and rather chooses a desired outcome without regard to truth or justice.

Right versus wrong is no longer principle; it is a notion. Unsophisticated right-versus-wrong, has become a target of derision. What is right has been replaced by whatever gratifies me, and whatever gratifies me I can justify by whatever tortured ethical contortions I can conjure. Yet the culture mistakes this sophistication for wisdom. A rejection of right-versus-wrong is not merely a competing ideology. Rejecting right versus wrong is a rejection of God.

The Apostle Paul commented upon the perversion of the culture of the first century, saying,
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.

Romans 1:21-23 (KJV)
We might demur at the thought of our sophisticated society groveling before graven images, yet we do, if only metaphorically. The late Michael Crichton, as published in the Wall Street Journal, remarks,
Nobody believes weather predictions twelve hours ahead. Now we’re asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future? And make financial investments based on that prediction? Has everybody lost their [sic] minds?
Yes, Michael, nearly everyone has lost his mind. Such is an unfortunate, albeit necessary, consequence of rejecting God. Our culture has replaced the knowledge of God with the ruminations of lunatics who in turn make merchandise of the masses.

Just because the world’s so-call scientists or even economists agree among themselves to believe something, it does not follow that it must be true. For instance, sacrificing taxpayers on the altar of the Wall Street technocracy did not alleviate the financial crisis. Investors are still wondering, where is the bottom? And, now, what are the rules?

Eventually, the economy will recover, and the architects of the crime, like witchdoctors, will take credit for staving off a worse disaster. Meanwhile, the powerful investment bankers are grateful for your sacrifice. Likewise, selling global warming might make the world a cool place to live, but only for those who manage to grab a spot near the top of the Ponzi. Global warming doctrine and financial bailouts redistribute wealth and consolidate political power, but they accomplish little real benefit.

When we as believers in Jesus Christ realize that all the sophisticated ideologies fluttering about in the culture are merely godless religions and not truth or science, then we are better equipped to respond to them. By respond, I do not mean that we entrench for 2010 or 2012. I mean that we should obey the truth we have held all along.

For instance, our responsibility to governmental authority has not changed. Nor would it be different had the election turned out otherwise. Peter tells us,
Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

1 Peter 2:13-17 (NIV)
Peter does not tell his flock, to agree with the king, but he does insist that they honor him with integrity worthy of the Lord.

Saul, the first king of Israel, rejected the Lord, and the Lord rejected Saul from being king. Yet, even in the midst of his rebellion, Scripture refers to Saul as “the LORD’s anointed.” It refers to him as such more often than it refers to any other king of Israel as “the LORD’s anointed.” Saul’s wickedness did not nullify God’s choice. Nor did it thwart God’s purpose.

The term, “the LORD’s anointed” was normally reserved for the leaders and kings of Israel. However, Isaiah speaks for the Lord to Cyrus, king of Persia, saying,

This is what the LORD says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armor,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:
I will go before you
and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron.

I will give you the treasures of darkness,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the LORD,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.

For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honor,
though you do not acknowledge me.

I am the LORD, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.

I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
men may know there is none besides me.

I am the LORD, and there is no other.

I form the light and create darkness,
I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the LORD, do all these things.

“You heavens above, rain down righteousness;
let the clouds shower it down.

Let the earth open wide,
let salvation spring up,
let righteousness grow with it;
I, the LORD, have created it.

Isaiah 45:1-8 (NIV)

God raises up world leaders to make his glory known and to accomplish the salvation of his chosen. He uses men whether or not they acknowledge him as God. Isaiah goes on to warn those who despise God’s choices. He says, “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him who is but a potsherd among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’?” Isaiah 45:9 (NIV)

Consequently, we accept the outcome of any election as the expressed will of God. We realize also that God seeks to accomplish something much different from our personal comfort and financial prosperity. God seeks to make himself known and to bring about the salvation of his chosen ones. God’s salvation does not come by the consensus of men. Rather it comes by God’s own power and by his judgment.

Regardless of whether we are invigorated or vexed by the outcome of the recent election, we must align our hearts with the purposes of our Maker. The insanity and injustice of modern culture is not our battle to fight. Even as the electoral fever breaks into the wet chills of political reality, we should not entangle ourselves in a lost battle for the culture.

Rather we should equip ourselves as effective evangelists in the battle for the lost within the culture. Cultural morass is merely a symptom of the disease. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. This is our message regardless of what God is doing among the nations.