The Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Dillard once asked, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.”
I cannot think of anyone but Annie Dillard who could have written those lines, but I can think of many people whom she might have been describing. I have been one of them myself on more occasions than I care to admit.
People of faith routinely underestimate the seriousness of what they do. We say things like, “A person’s immortal soul hangs in the balance,” yet we cast the Creator in the role of heaven’s bellboy, whose purpose is to escort people to their eternal inheritance. We “blithely invoke” a power we have not begun to understand.
Dillard’s “children playing on the floor,” turn the incarnation of Christ into an occasion for schmaltzy movies and white elephant gifts. Few people apprehend the fact that Christmas marks the divine invasion of planet earth and the beginning of a campaign to wrest control from hostile powers.
In the hands of us “cheerful, brainless tourists,” Easter is an opportunity to dress our daughters in pastel-colored dresses and send our kids to hunt for colored eggs. St. Paul, however, saw it as nothing less than the overthrow of death – nothing less, and certainly a great deal more.
People who come to Jesus are not joining a religious club or a theological society. They’re joining the Resistance. They are ordinary men and women who know that things are not the way they are supposed to be in the world and, more importantly, in themselves. They are willing to change, and yet their commitment is not so much to change as it is to their King. They have sworn allegiance to his kingdom.
These men and women are Christ’s operatives in the world. Their role is not to set up a kingdom; Christ will do that. Their job is simple: always keep communication lines with headquarters open and, when a communication is received, follow orders. The Resistance gathers regularly to send communications to headquarters, to receive instructions, and to be encouraged. When they leave their gatherings, they do not leave the Resistance.
They go into their schools, into their workplaces, into public settings and private homes and work for the Resistance; that is, they obey their leader. They make car parts and study history and teach elementary school and drive trucks and wait tables. They do what everyone else does but, unlike everyone else, they are always awaiting instructions from their leader.
The people of the Resistance have confessed their leader Jesus to be the Lord, the rightful king, and have given him their unconditional allegiance. They have entered an agreement with him, an agreement of greatest consequence. In the Bible and in other ancient documents, such agreements are known as covenants. There are numerous covenants in the Bible, but the one that is most important to the Resistance is known simply as “The New Covenant.”
A standard component of such agreements was the covenant meal. After entering into a covenant, the parties would share a meal – the reception dinner that follows a covenant of marriage ceremony is one example. The church participates in the New Covenant meal whenever it takes Holy Communion, also known as The Lord’s Supper, and the Eucharist.
Do those who participate in this ritual understand what they are doing? Are they aware that they are affirming their covenant with the true king? Do they acknowledge those who eat the meal with them as brothers and sisters in the Company of the Committed?
Or are they just mixing up another batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning? But even that would be better than playing with “a form of godliness but denying its power.” Sacred things are powerful things, but they are not, as Annie Dillard wants us to understand, playthings.
The church of Jesus Christ was intended to be a society of forgiveness, modelling God’s forgiven in its relationships with others. This is a chief way the gospel is conveyed. Yet, we are not very good at forgiving. One reason is that we don’t understand what forgiveness is.
In this lesson, Kevin and Shayne look at the nature of forgiveness and explore how we can know if we are following Jesus in this most important way.
Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplatethe Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
We are thinking our way through Lockwood’s vision statement, which is: Committed: to Christ, to Christlikeness, to each other, and to the world. Last week we looked at the commitment to Christ, which is the fountainhead from which the other three commitments flow.
When a person commits to Christ, the commitment to Christlikeness follows naturally. It is the primary way the commitment to Christ is expressed. Many people, if asked, will say that they have committed themselves to Christ, but far fewer will say that they have committed themselves to becoming like Christ. Yet, this is what committing to Christ looks like.
I trust that many of you have made some kind of commitment to Christ. You have prayed a prayer, accepted Jesus into your heart, been baptized. Many of you can tell me when you did so, but if I asked you whether you had committed yourself to Christlikeness, you wouldn’t be so sure. You might say, “Well sure, I guess so.” I hope by the end of this message, you will have made an intentional decision, a firm commitment to become Christlike. You’ll have no lasting satisfaction apart from becoming Christlike.
If you come to me wanting to know how to be at peace, or to forgive, or experience joy, or overcome anxiety and temptation – the things people come to pastors for – I will tell you: “Become Christlike.” And after you’ve jotted that down and said, “OK. What else?” I will say, “There is nothing else. Your fulfillment in the Christian life – in the human life – depends on you becoming Christlike.
That’s not what people want to hear. They want a technique. They want a formula – something they can turn to when things aren’t going well and ignore when they are. But that is not how it works. Your hope for fulfillment in life and for tranquility in death depends on you becoming Christlike.
When I was finishing out my time at college – studying the Bible, preparing to be a full-time Christian worker – it became clear to me that I was missing something. I knew that I had believed on the Lord Jesus and that God had forgiven me. Somethingreally had happened when I prayed to receive Christ. I had taken Jesus as my savior … but I had not taken Jesus as my life. My commitment to him only extended to getting into heaven, not to getting heaven into me.
I was unhappy, as half-committed Christians always are. I had made a commitment – uninformed and incomplete – to Christ, but not to Christlikeness. I wanted to get into heaven, but I had not even thought about getting heaven into me. That was for saints and not for ordinary people – and I was as ordinary as they come.
But my reading of Scripture (especially the Letter to the Romans), and my exposure to some real-deal Christians was opening my mind to possibilities I had not considered. I was coming to realize that a commitment to Christ might be about more than getting into heaven. In committing to Jesus, I was committing to a life and not just a destination. The light was dawning on me – I was seeing it everywhere in Scripture – that saving me and changing me were two sides of one coin.
Long ago I made a commitment to become Christlike. I am determined to be Christlike. I take steps to be Christlike. I know that my happiness depends on it.
So does yours. Half-committed people are unhappy people. They blame their problems on others, on circumstances, on their genetics—but finding the cause of your problems will not lift you above them, only root you in them. I am not implying that your problems will go away if you commit to Christlikeness. Who knows? They may increase. But you, whether in the midst of problems or pleasures, will be increasingly satisfied. You will come to be glad that you are you and will know it is because you are his. And you will have “have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:12).
Now, perhaps the idea of committing to Christlikeness has never seriously occurred to you. You’ve just assumed that becoming Christlike happens without any effort on your part. That has not been my experience nor is it the teaching of Scripture, which is full of exhortations to “do your best,” to “strive,” to “make every effort,” to “be all the more eager,” and so on. The Bible uses the language of commitment.
I am asking you today to make a definite decision to cooperate with God’s Spirit by taking the steps he shows you to becoming Christlike. Your satisfaction with yourself and, frankly, with God himself, depends on it. The richness of your relationships with others flows from it.
Taking steps to become like Christ? What steps? We will talk a little about the steps this morning, but it is important to understand that the biggest problem Christians face is not ignorance of the steps but a failure to get on the path. To those who decide and intend to become Christlike, God will reveal the steps. Today, I want to encourage us to step onto the path to Christlikeness.
Our text is 2 Corinthians 3:12-18. This passage contains a running allusion to an Old Testament story that Paul’s readers knew. In that story, which can be found in Exodus 34, Moses had returned to the Israelite camp after meeting with God on Mount Sinai, and his face was shining – light seemed to emanate from it. The people – including his own brother – were at first afraid of him.
After that, Moses adopted the practice of wearing a veil over his face. He would take it off when he entered the presence of the Lord or when he addressed the people, but otherwise he wore it. Paul tells us that the radiance of his face would fade between his meetings with God, and that he didn’t want the people to see that.
Paul plays off of the idea of the veil to say that Jewish people have a veil over their minds and hearts that keeps them from seeing the truth about Christ in their own Scriptures (verse 13). “A veil,” verse 15, “covers their hearts” when the Bible is read.
The word translated “veil” is the noun form of a verb that means, “to conceal.” When Moses put on the veil, he did it to conceal his face from others. But there are two sides to a veil: it not only conceals a person’s face; it also obstructs a person’s vision.
Paul says that when a person turns to the Lord – he is thinking of Moses going into the presence of the Lord in the tent of meeting– the veil is lifted, as was Moses’s veil whenever he entered God’s presence. There is a richness of imagery here we don’t want to miss.
Things happen to us as we go to God that do not happen at any other time. When we go to God, things open up to us – we see and understand them – that remain closed to us otherwise. The psalmist writes of God, “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Ps. 36:9). What C. S. Lewis said about Christianity is true of God himself: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else.” When we are with God, things light up that we would otherwise not see at all.
But there is something else here. Each time Moses went to God, the veil was removed. Likewise, when “anyone turns to the Lord” (v. 16), the veil is removed. This not only means that they can see what they could not see before, but also that they can be seen as they could not be seen before. Remember the veil is something that conceals. It hides us and we hide behind it.
It is only in the presence of God that we can truly be – or become, for we are in a continual state of becoming – ourselves. Remember what happened right after our father Adam sinned? He and Mother Eve hid. And their descendants have been hiding ever since. We hide behind our veils – our masks – of professionalism, intellectualism, apathy, nonchalance, hostility, friendliness, hardness, hipness, whatever. But we only become ourselves when we take the mask – the veil – off.
God, David said, desires truth in the inner parts (Psalm 51:6). That is not because he is afraid that he cannot trust us. He knows us through and through – and he is not afraid of a thing. He desires truth in the inner parts because truth is the medium through which he creates the masterpiece of Christlikeness. As long as we are hiding, we are not changing. We cannot become ourselves behind the veil.
We’re talking for these weeks about commitment, our commitment to Christ, to Christlikeness, to each other, and to the world. But it is important to understand that our commitment is secondary. Our commitment is a reaction to God’s action, a response to his stimulus. Our commitment to Christlikeness means something only possible because of God’s commitment to conform those he foreknew to the image of his Son. God is committed to transforming many people into Christlikeness.
When we hide behind a carefully woven veil, God will not change us, for truth is the medium in which he works. What he will do is arrange our circumstances – his workshop – so that we have no choice but to become truthful. Remember: he is committed to transforming you into Christlikeness.
When the veil is taken away (v. 16) change begins to happen. When, like Moses, we enter the presence of the Lord (which for us means the presence of the Spirit), we experience freedom (v. 17). This is where real freedom exists.
Some people misuse this statement of Paul’s by suggesting that the freedom is freedom to do whatever they want. “In the Spirit,” they say, “I am free from the Law,” by which they really mean they are free from morality itself. In the name of God’s Spirit, they justify behaviors that dishonor God. But Christian freedom never means freedom from Christlikeness.
It is those who are being transformed into Christlikeness – those who are becoming themselves – who experience this freedom. Many a slave has had this freedom and has been freer than his master. This is not a freedom to sin but a freedom from sin. God wants us to be free. Paul says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).
What is this freedom like? This is a very imperfect illustration, but it might point us in the right direction. There are times when people from different walks of life – scientists, musicians, athletes, preachers, dancers, and others – experience moments of extraordinary freedom. Some call it “being in the zone.” One psychiatrist calls it experiencing “flow.” When a scientist is in the flow, she sees the reality – can feel it, taste it – even before the experiments are complete. The NBA player knows the ball is going in when he cannot even see the basket. The dancer achieves a grace that is stunningly beautiful. The musician can do things on his instrument than even he did not know were possible.
One consistent trait of this freedom is that people experiencing it forget about themselves. They stop (sometimes for the first time in their lives) worrying what others think about them. They are “free.” Something like that, only excelling it as the sun excels the pendant light in the dining room, awaits the person who becomes Christlike. When Christ returns, the drag force of sin and pride will be forever gone, but it will diminish even beforethat as we become like Christ. But this only happens in his presence: “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
But how does it happen? What means does God use to conform people to the image of his Son? Look at verse 18: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory (instead of “reflect,” the NIV 2011 says, “contemplate,” but more literal still is the NASB’s, “looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord”) are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” It is as we look at him that we are changed.
Of course, that is how it works! Remember what we saw last week in 1 John 3? (And if you didn’t catch that message, that is the place to start. You can find it at www.lockwoodchurch.org/media. ) John wrote, “…when Christ appears, we shall be like him…” But why shall we be like him when he appears? “…because we shall see him as he is.” Seeing him is what changes us. That will happen in a decisive and definitive way when Christ appears. But even now we are “being transformed into his likeness” gradually – it is “with ever-increasing glory – as we look at the glory of the Lord.
The mechanism of our transformation is seeing Christ. When faith becomes sight and we see him “face to face,” we will be changed forever, and that change will be nothing less than glorification. But God intends that change to begin even now.
The psalmist wrote, “Those who look to him are radiant” (Psalm 34:5). Moses, because he saw the glory of the Lord, was transfigured and his face shone. He was fearless because he “saw him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:27). The mechanism of transformation is seeing Christ, which we may do even now, “though as in a mirror,” through the eyes of faith.
No wonder Stephen, who looked up and saw the glory of God and (or as it could be translated, even) Jesus, had a faced that shone like an angel’s. Remember too what Jesus said: “…everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40). The Psalmist rejoiced, “I will see your face; when I awake” (after death?), “I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness” (Psalm 17:15).
Are you looking at (or as the author of Hebrews put it, “looking unto”) Jesus? I know there are so many other things to focus on: your appearance, your feelings, your money, your failures, your to-do list, and your to-buy list. But looking at those things will not transform you into Christlikeness. You won’t look at them and “be satisfied.”
Get into the habit of looking to Jesus. One practice that helps – it has been central in my life – is a daily time for reading, thinking about, and praying over Scripture, for one sure place to see Jesus is in the Bible. For years, I have included a reading from the Gospels daily so that I would always be seeing and thinking about Jesus.
But while it is good and hugely helpful to search the Scriptures in order to see Christ, there is something more, something beautiful. Under the right circumstances, he will show himself tous. Jesus promised his disciples: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (John 14:21). And when he does, we are changed.
If you want to see Jesus, do what he says, and he’ll show himself to you! This is why obedience to Jesus is the fundamental means to spiritual transformation; there is no substitute for it. When we obey Jesus’s commands, he shows himself to us, and we are changed.
 C.S. Lewis, “They Asked For A Paper,” in Is Theology Poetry? (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1962), 164-165
In the 1960s, Hula Hoops and TV dinners were in. In the 1970s it was pet rocks and fondue pots. In the 1980s, there were padded shoulders and Hacky Sacks. You couldn’t go out without seeing fanny packs in the 1990s. Some of them were big enough to fit a “Tickle Me Elmo” doll.
Little had changed by the 2000s. We were fascinated by the guys rolling by on their Segways and were taking pictures of them with the disposable cameras we picked up at 7-Eleven. Of course, all that has changed now that we are in 2023. We can congratulate ourselves on having outgrown our fads—as we all drive our pickups and SUVs, check how we slept on our Fitbits, and listen to favorite podcasts on our AirPods.
Someone might counter that AirPods and Fitbits are useful. So were TV dinners and disposable cameras, yet no one wants them anymore. Let’s face it: we have been conditioned to desire things that others want us to desire for their own purposes.
Behind every fad lies the intentional cultivation of desire. It is disconcerting to think that at least some of our very real desires have been implanted in us by others. It almost boggles the mind to think that in 1975 an advertising executive was able to instill a genuine desire for pet rocks in the hearts of millions of people. What were we thinking? We weren’t thinking; we were desiring.
The science of advertising has come a long way since then. Today’s advertisers have access to information about how the human brain works that Gary Dahl, the ad exec who introduced the pet rock, knew nothing about. For example, Jane Raymond, a professor of consumer psychology at the University of Whales, says that research on the brain’s lateralization suggests that faces pictured on the left side of a page capture attention better than faces on the right side.
The intentional inculcation of desire – it is called seduction in some circumstances – is frequently intended by one individual (or group) to influence another individual (or group) for some kind of personal advantage. The various types of natural desire were long ago classified in three categories: desires of the flesh, desires of the eyes, and pride of life.
St. John identified these categories in the latter part of the first century. He considered them to be comprehensive of all natural desires and describes them as “all that is in the world.” These desires are what move the world.
But according to John, the world and its desires are passing away, rather like the desire for Tickle Me Elmo dolls. In 1996, people fought over them in store aisles. There was a stampede in a Walmart in New Brunswick that caused injuries. Desperate people spent many thousands of dollars for a single doll. But the frenzied desire for Elmo dolls has passed away.
It is hard to imagine a world where the desire of the flesh for physical pleasure, the desire of the eyes to possess what is seen, and the pride of life, the desire to be recognized as better than others, no longer control people. Yet they too are passing away and will one day be forgotten.
Does that mean that human beings will in the future world be without desire, as some Buddhists hope? And if that should be the case, will those desireless creatures still be human?
I think not. To desire is part of our humanity. Far from spelling the annihilation of desire, the future world promises its fulfillment. So, the Psalmist writes of God: “In your presence is the fullness of joy and at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
Christian spiritual formation recognizes that desire can helpfully direct our lives or harmfully “corrode” – St. Peter’s word – our souls. Thus, desires that dishonor God and harm people must be kept at a distance. There are even times when one should flee from them. New and helpful desires must be nurtured.
When people delight in God, those new and helpful desires grow in them. They should be cultivated, for they are ones that God can safely fulfill, and humans can thoroughly enjoy.
This article first appeared in the October 19, 2018 issue on Christianity Today website. I found it while doing some research for a sermon on Colossians 1:15-20 and thought I would share it with you again. Hope you enjoy.
If God wants us to believe in him, why doesn’t he come out of hiding?
When I read that songwriter Michael Gungor told his wife Lisa, “I don’t believe in God anymore,” I experienced a familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was the same one I’d had a couple of years before when Nick, a twenty-something leader in our church, called in a panic. He was having doubts and wanted to talk. I spent hours with him, listening as he poured out his questions and fears. Over the months that followed, I prayed God would reveal himself to Nick, but his doubts hardened into unbelief. He began telling people he was an atheist.
Nick and Gungor seem to be following a well-beaten path to atheism: cognitive dissonance over the church’s stand on sexual orientation and gender; outrage over pain and injustice; doubts regarding the authority of Scripture; and an embarrassing feeling that science has rendered belief in the Bible’s claims ridiculous. If there are reasonable explanations for these conflicts, why doesn’t God just show us? Why doesn’t he come out of hiding? Why doesn’t he come out of hiding and reveal himself to my child, to my friend? Or, if he has, to where can I point them? The various doubts that tripped my friend before he fell into atheism were all situated on the bedrock of the hiddenness of God. His thinking went like this: Christians say that God requires people to believe in him or they will be eternally condemned; God, if he is good, would assist people in forming that belief by revealing himself; God does not reveal himself; therefore, God is either not good, or he does not exist.
Michael Gungor and my friend Nick are hardly alone on this path to atheism. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, Protestantism is no longer a majority religion in the US, and 18 percent of adults raised in a religious tradition now consider themselves either atheists, agnostics, or unaffiliated—a shift driven largely by Millennials. As far as these young adults are concerned, the burden of proof is on God. If he exists, he’s going to have to prove it.
The hiddenness of God, which was once a problem for philosophers and theologians, is now a reason for Millennials and their older counterparts to reject the gospel. Christian parents and leaders can help them work through this, but they must be able to offer reasonable answers to two questions. First, why would a God who insists that we believe in him not give us more evidence—why would he hide? And second, where would he hide? One would think that the God described in the Bible would be hard to miss.
So Where Does God Hide?
Take the second question first: Where does God hide? That he does hide is clear. Jesus repeatedly referred to God as “the one in secret.” Poets and prophets agonized over this, and Isaiah exclaimed, “Truly you are a God who hides himself.” But where on earth (or elsewhere) is there a place roomy enough for God operate and yet secret enough for him to remain hidden?
Such hiding places abound. God built them into the universe when he designed it. Creation is like a palace, built by an ancient king, filled with secret rooms and moving walls. The King can stay in the palace and yet remain out of sight.
In Quantum Uncertainty
Quantum uncertainty is one of those secret rooms built into creation, and the scientists who have tried to learn all the secrets of the King’s palace have been confounded by it. David Snoke, a University of Pittsburgh physicist, says that “given our present theories of quantum mechanics, some things are absolutely unpredictable to us …. hidden behind a veil we can’t look behind.”
Snoke is thinking about a theory called observer effect. On a quantum level, the very act of measuring a system changes the system. We cannot push Snoke’s veil aside, no matter how quick or careful we are, without changing what is going on.
Even apart from observer effect, uncertainty is inherent in all quantum objects, which is to say, in all physical reality. Yuji Hasegawa, a physicist at Technische Universität Wien (TU Wien) in Austria, reminds us that “the uncertainty does not always come from the disturbing influence of the measurement, but from the quantum nature of the particle itself.” Advances in technology may someday minimize observer effect but cannot remove indeterminacy on the quantum level.
Similar hiding places exist in the macro-world. Even systems that are fully deterministic— weather systems, for example—remain unpredictable because we can never have a complete knowledge of initial conditions. Snoke points out that this kind of unpredictability holds for quantum systems as well.
In the Unknowability of the State of Matter Due to Scope
We cannot see into the smallest places dues to quantum uncertainty and observer effect, but neither can we see into the largest places. Even apart from quantum uncertainty, the universe is simply too large for us to understand. Both the initial state of any system in the universe and its current state are beyond our grasp.
According to Randy Isaac, former executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation and VP of Science and Technology at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, the universe is so large and there are so many variables, we can only know it on a statistical basis. Isaac points out that one mole (a standard measurement equal to the number of chemical units found in 12 grams of Carbon-12) of a substance – that is, 6 x 1023 – “is so inconceivably vast that there is no hope of knowing the attributes of each molecule in even a minute but macroscopic amount of substance.”
If there is no hope in knowing the attributes of each molecule in a minute amount of substance, what can be said about every molecule in the known universe, which is currently estimated to be about 46 billion light years across? There are hiding places everywhere.
Perhaps time is the most mysterious hiding place of all. St. Augustine mused: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” Time is a mystery that is as close as our beating hearts. We live in it (at least we think we do) but we cannot say what it is. Time – our subjective experience of it, at any rate – potentially provides massive cover for God.
Paul Davies, Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University and Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, says that before Einstein, “space and time were simply regarded as ‘there’ – an immutable eternal arena in which the great drama of nature is acted out. Einstein showed that spacetime is in fact part of the cast. Like matter, it is dynamical – it can change and move and obeys laws of motion.”
Davies goes on to say that “intervals of time can be stretched by motion or gravitation.” This is the orthodox view of time held by physicists. It tells us something about what time can do but nothing about what time is. For that we must turn to the philosophers, who have struggled to understand the nature of time since pre-Socratic days.
Bertrand Russell argued that time does not flow, it simply is. The flow of time, or our movement through it, is an illusion. His colleague at Cambridge, J.M.E. McTaggart disagreed. It is not the flow of time or our movement through it that is an illusion, it is time itself. It does not exist. The contemporary philosopher, William Lane Craig believes Russell and McTaggart are both wrong. Craig believes there is a time that transcends time, a God-time by which all other time is measured.
The Australian philosopher J.J.C. Smart argues that such a view of time leads unavoidably to an infinite regress. If we measure our time by a transcendent time, then we need yet another measuring rod against which to measure that time, and another by which to measure that time, ad infinitum. Rejecting this, Smart believes that the universal human sense that time is passing is an illusion “arising out of metaphysical confusion.”
Time, and our place in it, is a deep mystery. Philosophers cannot see into it and we can’t see through it. This makes time the perfect hiding place for God, providing him with limitless room to act while remaining perpetually out of sight.
The legendary British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle believed that God secretly acts at the indeterminate quantum level to direct the world to the future state he desires. In other words, God uses the hiding places of both time and quantum uncertainty to interact with the world.
But Why Would God Want to Hide?
But why would God want to hide? Is he just waiting to jump from his hiding place in quantum uncertainty and shout, “Surprise!”? Does he want to astonish us by the revelation that he has been here all along, working in our lives and our world, turning evil to good, and making all things serve his incomprehensible purpose?
Perhaps. God, as the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon once pointed out, loves throwing parties: “Creation is not ultimately about religion, or spirituality, or morality, or reconciliation, or any other solemn subject; it’s about God having a good time and just itching to share it.”
Yet there is more to this than God’s love of a good party. Earlier, we saw how it is impossible for humans to see what’s really going on in the world, particularly the quantum world, because of observer effect. Perhaps something like observer effect might explain why God keeps his presence a secret from us so much of the time. He cannot enter our reality without changing it. Once he pulls aside the curtain and steps into our space, we will inescapably be changed, overwhelmed, and deprived of autonomy.
C. S. Lewis addressed this dynamic in Mere Christianity: “God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realise what it will be like when He does. When that happens, it is the end of the world. When the author walks on to the stage the play is over. … For this time it will God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not.”
The God of the Gaps
Quantum uncertainty, the vastness of creation, and the inscrutable nature of time present unbridgeable gaps in human knowledge. They are not gaps for which God supplies a ready explanation, but gaps in which God remains an endless mystery.
Trying to find God in the gaps is problematic. If he is hiding there, we will never find him. If he is not hiding there, science will eventually close the gap, God will cease to be a credible explanation, and the faith of struggling believers will be needlessly shaken.
If humans are going to find God, it will not be where he has chosen to hide but where he has chosen to reveal himself. It is not in quantum uncertainty or statistical analysis that God is discovered. We will not find him in a gap but on a cross. It is here in the most unexpected of places that we discern, as Stanley Hauerwas has put it, “the grain on the universe.”
(First appeared in the October 19, 2018 issue on Christianity Today website.)
You cannot read the Gospels without getting the impression that forgiveness is a big deal. Jesus wants his people to be the most forgiving on earth – “not 7 times, but 70 times 7”! How do we do that? What gets in the way?
This is the first of two classes in which we learn what forgiveness is, why it is important, and how we can do it better.
This message was especially encouraging to people. If it encourages you, please let me know by leaving a comment. – Shayne
The vision statement at Lockwood Church describes the reality we hope to see in this way: Committed: to Christ, to Christlikeness, to each other, and to the world. The life pictured in these terms is a cataract of love and grace that flows from the fountainhead of a transformational commitment to Jesus Christ.
The English word committed has two senses. It describes the subjective state of “being all in,” of feeling dedicated and devoted. This is a relatively new meaning, which first appeared in English usage in 1948. The older meaning, which goes back to medieval times, is of a thing or person being entrusted, or of a task being delegated, to the care of another.
We will only be committed in the contemporary sense of the word (will only be all in, dedicated, and devoted) if we are committed in the earlier sense of the word (our lives are entrusted to Jesus Christ, their care delegated to him). It is futile to work up a feeling of commitment when the act of commitment has never been performed. People who try will eventually fall away from Christ, find that they lack faith in him, and end up being agnostic or atheist.
If you are listening to this, whether here or on the radio or online, and you no longer claim to have faith in God, look to see if this was true in your own experience. You once had a feeling of commitment but never actually and intelligently committed your life, time, reputation, and future to Christ. You were with Christ – in the sense that you were attending church, maybe doing Bible study, or even teaching and preaching – but you hadn’t entrusted your life to him. You were like a woman who lives with a man but has never entered the covenant of marriage with him.
That is not who we want to be at LCC. Our goal is not a feeling, though we are grateful for the feelings that spring from our commitment to God. But making a certain kind of feeling our goal is a mistake. Feelings of dedication and devotion will come … and go (as such feeling come and go in marriage), but our reality is that we have committed ourselves to God for his purpose and are under his care.
Again, this is like marriage (which is probably why God used marriage as an illustration of our relationship to Christ). I am married whether I feel like it or not. I entered the covenant of marriage with Karen Wilson on June 30th, 1979. Whether I am filled with affection or anger toward her, whether she respects me or thinks that I am a jerk, I am still married to her. I may get dementia and not recognize her, not remember that I am married to her, but that will not change the fact that we are married. I am committed to her not just with a feeling but with a covenant. I am hers and she is mine, and that is that. And that is good.
Or take the army as an illustration (which the Bible also does). Let’s say I am an 18-year-old who, two days ago, took the oath of enlistment. But now I have had a sudden realization: I don’t like the army. I don’t feel like a soldier. In fact, I identify as a civilian, not a G.I. That may be but, when I took the oath, I committed myself to the army for two years of active duty and six years in the reserves. Whether I feel like a soldier or not, whether I have a strong sense of devotion and dedication or not, I am army.
Before we dig into Colossians 1:15-20, let me ask you to reflect: Are you committed to Christ – that is, have you entrusted yourself to him like a recruit who takes the oath and entrusts himself to the army? Have you given yourself to Christ like a bride who gives herself to her husband through covenant vows for better or worse, for richer or poor, in sickness and in health, through life and to death? Being a Christian is not about feeling a certain way; it is not about holding certain viewpoints; it is not even about praying a sinner’s prayer (though all those things can go with it). It is about confessing Jesus Christ Lord in a commitment of yourself to him. Apart from that commitment, you are not a Christian; you’re a girlfriend, but not a wife; you’re a high school senior in the recruiter’s office, but not a soldier.
I’ll let you in on what I am trying to do in this message: I am trying to persuade you to commit yourself to Christ. If you haven’t already done so, I am going to tell you why you should. (I’m the army recruiter handing you a pen; I’m the matchmaker telling you about Mr. Right.) If you have already committed to Christ, I am going to show you why you should stand by, reaffirm and rejoice in that commitment.
Why should you commit your life to Christ? Why pin your hopes on someone who lived 2,000 years ago? Why invest your time and money? Why change your lifestyle? If I were limited to a one-word answer, that answer would be: Jesus. He is the only reason you need. I know that preachers often tell people they should commit their lives to Jesus, so they don’t go to hell. Yeah, that too. But the worst part of hell is missing out on Jesus. Jesus is the treasure. He is the pearl of great price.
That preeminence of Jesus shines through our text, which is a magnificent hymn of praise. From verse 15 through verse 20, there are no less than 12 pronouns that refer to Jesus (and an additional implied pronoun). Paul and the early church had met Jesus and they couldn’t give over it! There is no one remotely like him. To know him is to love him.
And to see him … to see him is to be transformed, transfigured, and made new. St. John understood and wrote, “We shall be like him” – which corresponds to St. Paul’s, “We shall be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling on an eye” – “for we shall see him” (1 John 3:2) What may be my favorite verse from any hymn goes like this: “He looks, and ten thousands of angels rejoice, and myriads wait for His word; He speaks, and eternity, filled with His voice, re-echoes the praise of the Lord.”
If we only see him through the glass of this life darkly, the eyes of our hearts but faintly illumined, if we merely behold the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, even so, we are changed. My life has been transformed in this way. But when we see him (Paul’s words) “face to face,” when we see him (John’s words) “as he is,” we will undergo a metamorphosis that will transmute, transform, and transfigure us into something we cannot now imagine. And when, in the words of the Revelation, “every eye will see him,” the world itself will be reborn.
What magic is at work that will transform us and make the world new? Only Jesus.
I want us to see Jesus today, even if through a mirror darkly, even if through the beclouded eyes of our spirits. But that will require the mediation of his Spirit on whom we must depend.
Let’s read our text, this stirring hymn to Christ (Colossians 1:15-20): He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.
Why should you commit to Christ? The Apostle Paul gives us 7 reasons: (1) Because of who he is; (2) because of what he has created; (3) because of where that creation is headed; (4) because of what he is doing now; (5) because he is the head of the church; (6) because he is the first to overcome death; and (7) because he has proved that he has our interests at heart. We could spend hours on this, and – glory to God! – we will spend eternity on it, but today we have about fifteen minutes. So, let’s get to it.
First, you should commit to Christ Jesus because of who he is. He is the invisible God’s image, all creation’s firstborn. I will focus on Christ as image, but I need to say this about the firstborn. The Jehovah’s Witnesses (God love them!) use this text to support their doctrine that Jesus is the first created being, but they do interpretive injustice to the word “firstborn.” It is used refer to the first of numerous children, but it is also used as a title for the first in importance. So, Solomon, who was neither his dad’s nor his mom’s first child, was given the title Firstborn – the one with the status and authority. It is in this sense that it is used of Jesus. His status is “First and Foremost,” and all authority belongs to him.
Besides that, the text emphasizes that all things were created in Christ. He is not the first of all created things but their Creator. The Watchtower Version obscures that fact by inserting the word “other” into these verses five times even though it isn’t there in the Greek even once. So, it says things like, “by means of him all other things were created,” and “he is before all other things,” and “all other things have been created by him.” That is not translation; that is propaganda.
You should commit to Jesus because he has the primacy – he is First – and because he is the invisible God’s image. We need to understand what that means. When God created humans, he made them in his own image. That, as far as we know, distinguishes humans from angels and animals and every other creature.
We were created in God’s image … and who is God’s image? Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God. We were made to be like him. But the image of God in humans was marred by the rebellion when humanity rejected God and, in so doing, defaced his image.
But God did not give up on the plan. God never gives up. Instead, through Christ his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and the impartation of his Spirit – God is renewing his image in humans and thereby restoring the beauty and blessedness of creation. So, Paul will later tell the Colossians that they “have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9-10).
You were modeled on Christ, who is both the image of God, and the prototype on which you were based. You were designed to be like him. That’s why you should commit yourself to him.
Why commit to Christ? Because you were not only made to be like him, but you were made in him – and not just you, but everything in Creation. Our text says that all things were made in (or by) him, and that all things were made through him (v. 16). Everything owes its existence to Christ. “Without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:2). Matter exists because of Christ. Dark matter exits because of Christ. All creatures that are not comprised of matter – there are myriads – exist because of him. All creatures that are comprised of matter – like humans, trees, bears, whales, rocks, and watermelons – exist because of him. You exist because of him. He made everything and he know how it all works – including you and me.
Let’s say you have a very complex piece of technology that isn’t working right. To whom would you rather take it– the person who made and programmed it, or just another user? The one who made it, right? When you commit to Christ, you are putting yourself in the hands of the one who knows how you work best because he made you.
Why commit to Christ? It is not just because he was the source of all creation but because he is creation’s goal (v. 16). Not only did all things come into being in him, but all things came into being for him. The Greek preposition implies motion: all things are moving toward him. He is both the beginning of our journey and its end, our source and our goal. You and I were not made for ourselves but for him and we, like Augustine, can pray: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Why commit to Christ? It is not just because he created everything in the past or even because everything is moving toward him in the future, but because he keeps everything going in the present. Look at verse 17: “In him all things hold together.” All things: you, me, the planet, the cosmos, the universe. Everything.
A little over a month ago, researchers and staff at the ignition facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory accomplished a remarkable feat. They started a nuclear reaction that produced more energy than it took to ignite it – for the first time ever. The world scientific community is on pins and needles, as it should be. This accomplishment portends remarkable changes for our world.
This has been sixty years in the making. The team at Livermore was able to sustain that nuclear reaction for a few billionths of a second. Billionths. Jesus has been sustaining all the energy of creation since it came into existence (and he isn’t even tired). “In him all things hold together.” He is, even now, as the author of Hebrews put it, “sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3).
Apart from him, all things would come apart, and it wouldn’t take even a few billionths of a second. You, your very existence, is dependent upon him. He holds you together when life, and death, and the four forces of nature threaten to pull you apart.
Why should you commit yourself to Christ? Because he is (v. 18) the head of the church. People commit to the church only to find its leaders and members let them down. But the head of the church will never let anyone down.
Why should you commit yourself to Christ? Because he knows how to live right through death. He is (v. 18) “the firstborn from among the dead.” He not only knows how to beat death, but he gives his Spirit to those who are his so they can beat it too. The trajectory of human history changed forever on the morning Christ Jesus came out of the grave. He is the pioneer of our faith, forging a way through death for himself and for all who follow him.
So far, I’ve given you six reasons to commit your very self to Christ: (1) Because of who he is; (2) because of what he has created; (3) because of where – or rather, to whom – that creation is headed; (4) because what he is doing now; (5) because he is the head of the church, acting through the church on earth; and (6) because he knows the way through death and will lead his own people out.
Six great reasons to commit yourself to him, six proofs of Christ Jesus’s incredible power, incomprehensible intelligence, and masterful control. But as impressive as those things are, they leave something out: they don’t demonstrate that he is for me. They don’t convince me to trust him. Knowing that he is smart and strong and capable is not enough to move me to take the oath, to bind myself to him in covenant. I’ve known people who are smart, strong, and capable … and mean, unreliable, and selfish all at the same time! How can I entrust myself – my life, my future, my reputation – to Christ with any assurance that he will care for me?
That brings us to the seventh reason you should commit yourself to Christ, which comes from verse 20. We will not find Christ in eternity’s workshop making galaxies and stars and angels and dominions (though he has done all this). We will not find him on heaven’s throne, ruling over those galaxies and stars and angels and us (or at least not yet). Nor will we find him in the great mysteries of physics where he binds the four forces of nature together (though he is there). We will find him where he has chosen to reveal himself: on a cross, dying to reconcile us to God; dying to restore us to the glorious image; dying to make all things, in heaven and on earth, what God is his joyous love made them to be, including you and me.
This is why you should commit your life, your time, your future – your very self – to Christ: Because “He loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2).
What is the Christian view of wealth? I don’t ask about the “religious view” of wealth because I am not qualified to present the views of other religions. Perhaps I should not even speak of the “Christian view of wealth,” since there is a wide range of opinion across Christian groups. The folks in the prosperity gospel camp, for example, do not see eye to eye with the brothers in a Franciscan monastery.
Perhaps the question to ask is, “How did Jesus and his apostles view wealth?” The New Testament contains a storehouse of relevant data on the subject. According to Howard Dayton, sixteen of Jesus’s thirty-eight parables have something to do with money and possessions. Dayton notes that here are about 500 biblical verses on prayer and another 500 on faith, but over 2,000 on money and possessions.
The view of Jesus and Paul on wealth is nuanced, which makes sense given the large place occupied by wealth in the Bible and in people’s lives. For example, Jesus, unlike advocates of the prosperity gospel, never suggests that wealth is proof of God’s blessing. But then neither does he idealize poverty or recommend it as a path to godliness.
It is true that Jesus once told a wealthy young ruler to sell all he had, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow him. But the wealthy young ruler was the only person to receive such instruction from Jesus. He did not require other wealthy followers – think of Joseph of Arimethea or Nicodemus – to do the same.
Something similar is apparent in St. Paul’s approach to wealth. He is alert to the danger that wealth poses. Having money might lead people – falsely – to think of themselves as better than their neighbors. It might also cause them – disastrously – to transfer their future hopes from God to their wealth.
But, like Jesus, his apostle neither congratulates nor condemns people for having money. He takes a very different – and practical – approach to wealth. He commands the wealthy “to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” For Paul, neither the absence of wealth nor its abundance is what matters. What matters is what people do with the money they have.
As such, money is a test, an x-ray of sorts for the soul. Expose people to money, and a picture of what they are like on the inside begins to emerge. Because he understood how this works, Jesus could say: “The one who is faithful with very little is faithful with much, and the one who is unrighteous with very little is unrighteous with much.” Like an x-ray, money reveals what is on the inside.
But that doesn’t mean that money is safe. It is, as Austin Farrer once noted, one “of God’s good (but withal dangerous) gifts to us.” X-rays are wonderful diagnostic tools, but repeated, unprotected exposure to them can lead to serious problems. Repeated, unprotected exposure to wealth can do the same. Hence St. Paul’s instruction to do good, be rich in good deeds, be generous, and willing to share. These are protective measures for those who must deal regularly with money.
The views of money held by prosperity gospelers and by vow-of-poverty-taking friars have one thing in common. Even though one considers money a threat and the other considers it a triumph, they both consider it important. Whichever camp you’re in, money is a big deal.
Jesus, however, did not consider money to be a big deal. He referred to it as “a very little thing” or “the least of things.” This strikes almost everyone, from the impoverished friar to the $10,000-suit-wearing televangelist, as a kind of heresy. Most people, whether they love money or despise it, think it is important. Jesus did not.
This unusual approach to money is only possible for someone who views life in a fundamentally different way than most of us. Jesus was that person. He neither loved money nor was he anxious about it. It did not impress him, yet he knew what it was good for and how to use it well. His student, “when fully trained,” will be like him.
Sports enthusiasts are always arguing about who is the G.O.A.T. (the greatest of all time) in their favorite sport. There was a time when a few key players in the Kingdom of God were debating the Kingdom’s G.O.A.T. Jesus’s answer is helpful to anyone who is his disciple. (By the way, it was not: “You’re a bunch of idiots to be talking about this!”)
Join Kevin Looper and me and the Following Jesus Today class as we think through what it means to be great in the kingdom of God.
As I write, I am sitting in my study, facing my desk. In the middle of the desk is a monitor stand, built from shelving we had in our old house. I used the stand for my old CRT and LCD monitors, but it is not high enough for my laptop with its remote keyboard. So, I have three reams of paper on top of the monitor stand, and on top of them rests my computer.
There are 28 books lying on my desk. They rise and fall like foothills beneath the mountain of my monitor stand, with its reams of copy paper. On the corner of the desk, a tray for correspondence has overflowed in an avalanche of envelopes and notepads, and cascades down to the desktop.
This is how my study always looks between cleanings. In home décor parlance, I believe the look is known as “Early Disheveled.” Contrary to rumor, no children or pets have ever been lost in my study—but that’s not to say that there haven’t been some close calls.
I put off cleaning my study for a reason. I do not know what to do with all the stuff. Things that might be important go in the tray while I wait for more information, or formulate a response, or weigh a decision. They sometimes stay there for a long time.
My wife tells me that I ought to file such things, but I know myself. The file cabinet is a burial ground and file folders are graves. Once a paper goes in there, it will, apart from a miracle, never see daylight again.
I am going to clean my study someday soon. Despite appearances, I like things to be well-ordered. I will begin by moving the mountain of books back to their appropriate shelves in my study, office, and basement. Next, I will sort through the papers, keeping the relevant ones and disposing of the rest. Then, after a quick dusting, all will once again be right with the world.
But I foresee a problem. Experience has taught me that I go a little mad once I start cleaning. I know what to do with the books, most of which are already catalogued and have their particular places. But the papers are another matter.
As I begin to sort through the papers, I find many that are no longer relevant: deadlines are past, invitations are dated, decisions have already been made. But there are still some that I do not know what to do with. That is a problem. I want an empty paper tray.
That’s when I get a little crazy. After a few minutes, I begin tossing things, left and right. When I start a project, I want to finish it, and those papers are an obstacle to the completion of my goal.
In my quarterly frenzy to declutter (my wife would say it is more like a semi-annual frenzy), I have tossed things I wish I had kept. My determination to finish the task makes me act impulsively. I find myself throwing everything away.
What set me thinking about my rash disposal of things was a line in the biblical Book of Hebrews. The author admonishes his readers: “Do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.”
In our day, when so many people are “deconstructing” their faith, this warning to the Hebrews seems very contemporary. If faith can be deconstructed, it should be, and the clutter – the pietistic flotsam and jetsam carried on the tide of faith – thrown out. But the rash way in which some people are going about it almost guarantees that beliefs that warrant keeping will be discarded.
Many people, upset with the ecclesial debris that has accrued around their faith, have impulsively thrown faith itself away. When their confidence in Christ goes, their relationship to his church goes with it. Hence, Joel Belz, founder and CEO of World Magazine, is warning Christian leaders to get ready for an avalanche of church closings.
Those who throw away their confidence in Christ will find that they have discarded something precious. I hope it is not too late for them to recover it.