Category Archives: Theology

A Freedom That Does Not Ring Hollow

It’s been a long time coming. Back around 1969 or 1970, I read in a Popular Science Magazine that everyone would own a flying car by the year 2,000. When the millennium turned and everyone was looking out for Y2K, I was still on the lookout for flying cars. Popular Science did me wrong by getting my hopes up like that.

However, I may get a flying car yet. This month, Klein Vision released footage of a test drive/flight of its version of the flying car. Other design firms are busy with their own prototypes in Europe, Japan, and the United States. All I can say is it’s about time.

Why was I so enamored with flying cars? For the same reason, I think, that I dreamed – this went on once or twice a month for years – that I could jump into the air and sail at a leisurely pace wherever I chose. Flight, whether in a futuristic car or in a dream, represented freedom, the absence of restraint, the power of unimpeded motion.

Freedom is one of humanity’s big ideas. It goes back at least to the political freedoms of ancient Athens, though Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle each criticized the forms such freedoms sometimes took. The great Athenian orator and statesman Pericles once said, “The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life … in Athens, we live exactly as we please…”

No people since the Greeks have been more committed to freedom than Americans. James Madison called the spirit of the American people “a spirit which nourishes freedom and is in return nourished by it.” Samuel Adams called the right to freedom “the gift of God Almighty.” Thomas Jefferson cautioned that freedom can only be retained at the price of “eternal vigilance.” Ben Franklin reminded Americans that “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

Abraham Lincoln referred to freedom as “the last, best hope of the earth.” Dwight Eisenhower said that “America is best described by one word: freedom.” But what is freedom? Are people “born free” or are they, as the old spiritual intoned, on their “way to the freedom land”? What is freedom?
As a political ideal, freedom is embodied in specific rights. Continue reading

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Christ Died for Our Sins

(This is the fifth sermon in the series, “Finally … Some Good News.”) (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that … Continue reading

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What Will You Be Doing on Election Night?

I think I’ll watch a movie on election eve, probably “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and has a stellar cast, including the great James Stewart.

In the movie, an unlikely replacement is chosen for a recently deceased U.S. Senator. He finds himself surrounded by corruption, taken advantage of by a worldly-wise press, and pictured as a dumb ox to the nation.

Senator Smith runs afoul of some corrupt senior members, who determine to ruin him, vacate his seat, and replace him with a more compliant member. Plans are made and steps are taken to humiliate the young senator, break him, and drive him out. In spite of the temptation and corruption, Smith manages to remain true. It is, in many ways, a story for our time.

“Mr. Smith” is my plan for election night. I won’t be watching the results into the wee hours of the night. I will pay no attention to the exit polls. By election night, I will have already done what I can do to influence the election – pray and vote – and what I cannot do, control the outcome, I will leave to God.

Perhaps this seems too laissez-faire. This is, after all, the most important election in our lifetimes – or at least that is what people keep saying. Even if they are right, fretting about the outcome will not change it. Worry will accomplish nothing, as Jesus explicitly taught. I will pray and vote, but I will trust God with the outcome.

The Bible pictures God as big enough to handle circumstances, even ones that are as volatile as ours. The psalmist says that God brings down one person and exalts another. The prophet adds that “he sets up kings and deposes them.” I think the same could be said of presidents. This election will not and cannot undermine God’s supreme authority.

Still, what if America gets it wrong? What if we, confused by fake news and misled by spin masters, choose the wrong person?
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Finally, Some Good News … God Reigns!

We are in a series on the gospel titled Finally, Some Good News. Such series frequently begin in the New Testament, as if Jesus and the Evangelists had invented the word “gospel.” They didn’t. They discovered it in the Old Testament, and what they found there shaped their proclamation.

When Jesus burst onto the scene with the good news – the gospel – that the kingdom of God was at hand, his fellow-Jews knew what he was talking about. They had learned about it in synagogue when Isaiah was read, particularly chapter 52. When they heard Jesus urging them to believe the gospel (the good news), it was Isaiah’s gospel that was in mind.

Isaiah 52 begins with God shouting, “Awake, awake!” An observant reader will know that God is echoing words addressed to him a few verses earlier, when someone told him to wake up: “Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength, O arm of the LORD” (Isaiah 51:9). (In the vernacular: “Wake up, God! Roll up your sleeves and get to work.”) But in chapter 52, God answers: “I’m not asleep. You’re the ones who need to wake up. I’ve got good news for you.”

That good news came at a time when a mountain of bad news had piled up around the Jewish people. They had just come through a long and ruinous war. Death was everywhere. The land had been pulverized; the capitol city devastated. Israel’s temple – the sanctuary of their God – had been razed, which indicated to ancient people that the god of that temple had been defeated. The population had been systematically and forcibly deported to a foreign country.

Now fast-forward hundreds of years to Jesus’s announcement of the arrival of Isaiah’s good news (Mark 1:14-15). The Jewish people were once again standing in the shadow of a mountain of bad news. The government had been deposed, the army disbanded, and foreign soldiers patrolled the streets. Taxes were impoverishing people. The foreigners were even meddling in their worship, appointing, and removing high priests at will, corrupting their most sacred institution.

Today, we stand in the shadow of our own mountain of bad news. A pandemic is killing us. Politics is polarizing us. Churches around the country are closed and many will never reopen. Domestic violence is surging. Opioid addiction is devastating. Unemployment is high, the stock market is volatile, and the potential for election violence is looming.
But on this mountain of bad news, a voice is announcing good news – the same news Isaiah and Jesus proclaimed. I think it’s time we had some good news.
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Artificial Intelligence, Humanity, and the Future

In September, the British news website “The Guardian” published a story written entirely by an AI – an artificial intelligence that “learned” how to write from scanning the Internet. The piece received a lot of press because in it the AI stated it had no plans to destroy humanity. It did, however, admit that it could be programmed in a way that might prove destructive.

The AI is not beyond making mistakes. I noted its erroneous claim that the word “robot” derives from Greek. An AI that is mistaken about where a word comes from might also be mistaken about where humanity is headed. Or it might be lying. Not a pleasant thought.

Artificial Intelligence is based on the idea that computer programs can “learn” and “grow.” No less an authority than Stephen Hawking has warned that AI, unbounded by the slow pace of biological development, might quickly supersede its human developers.

Other scientists are more optimistic, believing that AI may provide solutions to many of humanity’s age-old problems, including disease and famine. Of course, the destruction of biological life would be one solution to disease and famine.

Hawking worried that a “growing” and “learning” computer program might eventually destroy the world. I doubt it ever occurred to Hawking that his fears regarding AI could once have been expressed toward BI – biological intelligence; that is, humans – at their creation.

Did non-human life forms, like those the Bible refers to as “angels,” foresee the dangerous possibilities presented by the human capacity to “grow” and “learn”? Might not the angel Gabriel, like the scientist Hawking, have warned of impending doom? Continue reading

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Fake News

In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries people chose the term “post-truth” as their “word of the year.” Questions about truth and even doubts about there being such a thing pervade society. A number of things have brought us to this place, not least of which is the ubiquitous presence in our lives of social and news media.

Our days are saturated with information, whether about people we know on Facebook or about the president of the United States on the evening news. Some of this news (and in certain settings, much of it) is either fake or what I call “enhanced” news. Fake news reports something that is not true and has not happened as though it is true and has happened. Enhanced news presents something that has happened but does so in a way that is intended to move the reader or listener in a certain direction.

When I am in the car, I frequently listen to classical music, which is presented on a platform that includes hourly news updates. The corporation behind that news prides itself on its fair and accurate reporting. But for a couple of years now, I have noticed the extensive use of emotionally ladened words that at best reflect the new staffs’ biases and at worst expose a calculated attempt to shape listener’s views and influence their actions. That is enhanced news.

Can we trust what we hear? Did you know that many of the online sites you visit employ tools to covertly influence your thinking? Some are relatively straightforward (paying people to submit likes or to become followers), while others are more sophisticated, like stuffing online polls, forcing site owners to take down stories, crashing entire sites, and more.

A study from Carnegie Mellon found that something like 45% of tweets on the coronavirus originated from bots – automated computer programs – instead of people. Evidence points to China’s and Russia’s involvement. Furthermore, 80% of the most retweeted posts on Twitter came from bots. The “likes” that boost a post and give it visibility often come from bots created by people who are trying to game the system.

In this environment, who can we trust? I say, “In this environment,” but fake and enhanced news is not news; there is nothing new about it. Fake news has been a thing throughout our lives. What’s more, it was a thing in our great grandparents’ lives and a thing in the lives of the apostles and prophets. Fake news has been around forever. It’s just the form it takes that is new.

The difference between real news and fake (or enhanced) news is that someone tells real news because something has happened. Someone tells fake news because they want something to happen. Keep that difference in mind for a few minutes.
We are starting a series today on the gospel: what it is and what it means. In the weeks to come we will look at the context of the gospel, the content of the gospel, and the consequences of the gospel. What do we do with the gospel? What does it do with us?
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…finally, some Good News

We’re beginning a new series that examines what the biblical writers and the early church meant when it spoke of the gospel. We will look first to the Old Testament, to Genesis, where the gospel is “preached in advance,” according … Continue reading

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Bride of Christ (Revelation 17-22)

So, this is the Tale of Two Cities, which is also the tale of two women, which is also the one story of the earth’s history. The two cities could not be any less alike. Babylon is (18:2) “a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit” while New Jerusalem is (21:3) “the dwelling place of God [and] men.” Babylon is self-indulgent. New Jerusalem is sacrificially compassionate. Babylon’s sins are piled up to heaven (18:5) but New Jerusalem is clothed in righteous deeds (19:8). Babylon draws its energy from hell while New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven.

So we have two women who are two cities that express one age-old reality. That reality existed before there were cities, when there was only a garden, when there was Eden. It has expressed itself in city after city: magnificent Pi-Ramesses, Egypt; brutal Ninevah, Assyria; beautiful Babylon; intellectual Athens; powerhouse Rome; Enlightenment Paris; Nazi Berlin; Marxist Moscow; and Maoist Beijing. They all have rejected God’s rule and oppressed his people. Age in and age out, in one city after another, this spirit has emerged. Please God that “pursuit-of-happiness America” (as Eugene Peterson once put it) doesn’t follow suit.

Babylon is what takes God’s people away from him. It is seductive, luring people away from God to luxuries and distractions. It is also bloodthirsty, slaughtering the people of God, whenever they get in the way. When this letter was written, that spirit had broken out in Rome. Today, it is has emerged in China. Where will it rage tomorrow? It is ongoing but it is not endless. There will be a last battle.

The war will come to a head someday – perhaps in our day – and when it does, it will not go well with Babylon, or whatever its global expression is at the time.
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Why Is the Book Revelation so Hard to Understand? (Guest post by Kevin Looper)

This past week, I (Shayne) completed a series on The Church in Images – the biblical images used to represent the Church. We concluded with the image of the Church as Bride from The Book of Revelation (a sermon I … Continue reading

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The Church: The Bride of Christ (pt. 1)

Before we start developing the image, though, there is a little straightening up to do. There are songs, poems, and hymns, as well as liturgies, that speak as if individuals are the Bride of Christ. That kind of talk began somewhere around the 14th century among Christian mystics. Union with Christ was romanticized. Individuals, both women and men, pictured themselves as brides of Christ.

In the Catholic church, a ritual emerged in which women who had taken orders – nuns – were ritually married to Christ. The catechism says, “Virgins who … are consecrated to God by the diocesan bishop according to the approved liturgical rite are betrothed mystically to Christ…”

There is much here I do not understand and do not intend to criticize. There is something beautiful in the picture of a person being mystically betrothed to Christ but it is not a biblical picture. It was not developed in the Bible but in the medieval Church. The biblical picture is not of an individual, not even a nun, being the bride of Christ. Rather, it is the Church that is Christ’s betrothed and will become, on some glorious future day, his bride.

With that, let’s turn to the Bible. Doctrines don’t come out of nowhere. St. Paul and St. John did not conjure up the image of the Bride of Christ out of thin air. They were men who knew the Old Testament, memorized large parts of it, and thought about its message a lot. As they thought about those biblical passages, the Holy Spirit gave them the image of the Church as a bride—the Messiah’s bride, the bride of Christ.
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