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Old Hope for the New Year

by Mike McKinniss

I’ve got babies on the brain. My wife and I are expecting the arrival of our first—any day now!—and the occasion has propelled my mind, quite naturally, to new beginnings. During the Advent season, it was a new and wonderful experience to be anticipating the birth of our own daughter while we read the stories of our savior’s arrival. Now, I don’t expect our little girl to be the world’s redeemer, but we’re excited, nonetheless.

In the process, I landed for a time on a passage occasionally associated with Christmas, though it doesn’t highlight the nativity. It’s John’s prologue:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn 1:1-5, NIV).

In the beginning. Made. Life. Light. Darkness.

We’ve heard these words before. They’re words borrowed from the very first pages of the Bible. (Go ahead and read Genesis 1:1–2:3 to get the full context.) It’s a funny thing for John to begin his story about Jesus by first reminding us of creation. What’s he trying to do?

What John and his original audience would have known—and we might not—is that the Christ-child entered a world predominated by darkness. Jesus was born to Jewish parents in the heart of Palestine, maybe a year or two on either side of what we would now call year one. At the time, Jesus’ countrymen were weary. For 700 years (700!), this once noble people had been toiling under foreign oppression. Their latest overlords, the Romans, were among the most brutal, at one time (not long after Jesus’ resurrection) publicly executing so many Jews on crosses, they ran out of wood. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries were enslaved by crippling debt. Where could they look for relief?

It was as Isaiah had predicted several generations earlier: “See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples” (Isa. 60:2a, NIV).

Read the rest of this entry »

Be a Peacemaker, Be like God

by Mike McKinniss

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Peace” by Jonathan Brown under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Mt 5:9, ESV).

Peacemaking, whether we’re trying to make things right with someone else or whether we’re stepping into another’s conflict as a third party, almost always requires some kind of personal sacrifice. To make peace where we’ve been offended means forgiving the one who has offended us. It means swallowing the “right” to retribution or to recompense. To make peace means we take the hurt and we trust God to make something good and beautiful from it.

This is the model Christ provided us. Did he not make peace with his accusers? Did he not make peace with those who cast him upon the cross? He did. How so? Jesus willingly took the abuse. He silently accepted their false accusations and condemnation. Inso doing, his sacrifice brought peace.

How could Jesus do such a thing? He could swallow the offense because he had full faith that his Father in heaven would deal justly with him and with those who crucified him. Justly? Yes, just to bring good from such deep evil. Jesus believed that if he willingly abandoned his rights and sacrificed all, God would abolish the wrongs that lead us to crucify the one righteous person on the earth.

What we had intended for evil, God turned for good—good to the one crucified by resurrecting him from the grave and good to the murdering mob by pouring out the blessing of forgiveness.

Peacemaking requires personal sacrifice and trust in a good God.

“… For they shall be called sons of God.” What is a son of God? A son of God is one who reflects the true heart of God. It is one who represents God accurately. In Old Testament times among Near Eastern cultures, a son of God is a king on the earth, empowered with the spirit of God to do his will.

Stretching back from the New Testament, the nation of Israel was meant to be a son of God (Ex. 4:22), and so was their king (2 Sam. 7:14). Israel was meant to be a people through whom God hoped to show himself to the world. Going further back, all of humanity were meant to be sons of God, as originally modeled in the hope for Adam—the first man, created in God’s image, that is, his son. (Compare for a moment the language in Gen. 1:26-28 and Gen. 5:1-3.)

And of course, the true son of God is Jesus himself. He perfectly reflected the heart, nature and will of God in all he said and did (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). He took to its fullest the Creator’s hope for a creation at peace. And he assumed the depths of sacrificial love required to bring the world into true peace. It required of him his life.

Now, the promise is that we too might represent God’s heart for peace. How? Through sacrifice. Through the rejection of our rights. Through a full trust that God will see to our needs when we forego them on his behalf.

If we take on ourselves this life—the life of Christ—we will be called sons of God, not because the Creator waves a magic wand and makes it so. Rather, to modify an old saying, we’ll walk like a son of God and we’ll quack like a son of God. And we’ll simply be known for what we are.

What To Do in the Face of Tragedy

by Mike McKinniss

 

Forgive me, but I’ve been thinking about tragedy lately.

In the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 10, a torrential rainstorm dumped several inches of precipitation onto Santa Barbara, CA, in a matter of minutes. Normally, such a violent shower would have done little more than force the shedding of some old palm fronds from their trunks. But this storm came immediately on the heels of California’s largest recorded wildfire, which burned a vast area nearby, including the hills just above the tiny town of Montecito. Denuded of the vegetation upslope, the massive amount of rain in so short a time triggered powerful mudslides, which bulldozed through portions of the village.

Dozens of homes and places of business were destroyed in a moment. At writing, 21 people are counted among the dead and two remain missing in the aftermath.

The torrent of rain and the flash flood is only the beginning of the anguish for people in this seaside community, for a similar torrent of fearful and desperate questions follow. These will likely linger for a long time—probably long after the clean up and reconstruction is completed.

Where was God when this violent storm struck this peaceful community? Where is God now that the event has wreaked its havoc? How could God have allowed such destruction? Could God have not stopped such a tragedy? And what do we do now?

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Christmas Is Not under Control

by Mike McKinniss

If the world always ran in accordance with my wishes (sigh!), there would eternally remain two to three unblemished days on the calendar every week. Naturally, the work day would be busy with productive toil, but at least a pair of evenings would ideally remain sparkling and unsoiled by plans. I’m forever hoarding a bit of space for myself, you see.

It wasn’t long ago—just before Thanksgiving, if I remember correctly—I took a peek at my December calendar, and I rather reflexively expectorated a mild but genuine curse. The whole flippin’ month is jammed full of events. Somehow without my notice, I lost control of my time this holiday season. I don’t like feeling out of control. Read the rest of this entry »

More of Him AND More of Me?

by Mike McKinniss

When in my early twenties, I did as all good Christian young adults do and sacrificed a few summers working at a Christian summer camp. Each year as a staff we would put our heads together and cook up a theme verse we thought might be appropriate as a banner over our ten-week stint.

One year we were rather excited to have landed on John 3:30, wherein John the Baptist reflects on Jesus’ arrival on the Judean scene: “He must become greater; I must become less” (NIV).

We were giving each other high fives over it. “Yeah! This is what it’s all about! More of Jesus; less of us!” We thought we’d really landed on a juicy bit of theology, and we were eager to slap it on the sweatshirts we were soon to commission—because what’s a summer camp experience with apparel to commemorate it?

I’ve since come to think we were mistaken.

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Our Fractal Gospel

by Mike McKinniss

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fractal fun” by hairchaser under license CC BY-SA 2.0

Is there such a thing as a “simple gospel”?

I know from whence the desire comes, the beckoning for a simple gospel by which we may abide faithfully without the encumbrance of convoluted strictures. No one wishes befuddlement in such consequential and eternal matters. We wish, rather, for certainty or, at least, confidence. After all, souls are at stake.

But our longing is as the one who desires to retire alone and in peace to a log cabin in the vast open country, though he is tied to a covenanted spouse, bears responsibility for the offspring of that union and the charge of his employment. Perhaps the solitary life is simpler, but it does no justice to the complex reality of our station. Read the rest of this entry »

First Things First; or, Why I Drink Coffee in the Morning

by Mike McKinniss

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Anytime” by Shereen M used under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The day doesn’t begin without coffee. Maybe it does for other people. I’ve heard rumors about such a race of men, though I imagine they must live in a land far from here—Mars, perhaps.

Morning coffee is no mere conveyance for caffeine, mind you. Sure, the miracle drug graciously plays its role, but it’s more than that. It’s the warm mug in your cupped palms, assuring you the world is a safe place. It’s the steam whispering up like a siren song, beckoning you, not toward rocky shoals, but toward a calm haven. It’s the aroma of your childhood home. It’s the deep rich color calling you toward the depth of character you desire. It’s the subtle intermingling of sweetness and bitterness—a complexity with which you identify.

For these reasons, and a thousand others, the day does not begin without coffee. Read the rest of this entry »

God Isn’t into Nostalgia

by Mike McKinniss

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“Nostalgia Gums” by Effie Yang under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I am, sadly, beginning to encroach upon the age in which nostalgia becomes a real and powerful state of being. That is to say, my hindsight, far from being 20/20, is actually getting worse. I no longer see the rough edges of my youth, only soft and blissfully blurry lines. What’s worse, I don’t think I’d want the corrective lenses necessary to spot the warts of yesteryear.

And like my father before me, and his father before him, I’m prone to decrying the present in favor of the past. If only today could be more like yesterday, I lament. Where did we go wrong? Oh, God! Bring back yesterday!

But in my nostalgic folly, I’ve forgotten two important things.

One: Every age has its problems and n0thing has ever been perfect.

Two: God is not interested in turning back the clock. He moves ever forward.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Lord is a restorer. He redeems the lost. It is a great theme of the biblical story—perhaps the theme—that something pristine has been lost on this earth and the Creator has been relentlessly working to restore it.

But when God restores, he does not simply return things to the way they once were, but he resurrects to greater glory than had ever before been.

Consider, for example, the resurrected Jesus. Prior to his death, we are given no indication that his bodily existence was anything unlike our own. He ate and slept and rejoiced and wept. He was sinless, of course, and the Holy Spirit settled on him at his baptism. But he was completely human, like you and me. Prior to his death, Jesus’ body was very much like our own.

But upon his resurrection, Jesus was restored by God. He was dead, his life lost, yet God the Father acted on his behalf to give him back what had been lost on the cross. But God does not simply give back what is lost.  Jesus’ body is given back to him better than ever.

The gospels, in their tellings of the story, give odd hints at the difference between Jesus’ life pre-crucifixion and his resurrected body. Jesus is unrecognizable to people who had known him for years (Luke 24:13-35; John 20:11-18). He somehow appears physically behind locked doors (John 20:19). Somehow, in bizarre ways, the resurrected Jesus is not like the first edition.

Paul reflects on this resurrection reality more fully in several places. One such place—in fact his greatest treatise on the resurrection—is in 1 Corinthians 15. There he writes of the resurrection body the Lord restored to Jesus and will also one day give to all the faithful,

So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body (1 Cor 15:42-44).

Do you long for something lost? Do you pine for a time things seemed perfect? Here’s some good news: The Lord is a restorer. What’s more, he’s not satisfied with simply turning back the clock. He’s interested in a resurrection beyond anything we’d ever thought to ask or even imagine.

The Path to Victory

by Mike McKinniss

When Mark gives the record of Jesus’ last supper, he provides us a curious detail at the conclusion to the disciples’ time in that upper room. He writes, “After singing psalms, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mk 14:26).

Those familiar with the story know, of course, that it’s at the Mount of Olives that Jesus is soon betrayed by Judas and arrested, ushered to his midnight trial and the next day executed on the cross. Harrowing events face Jesus in this final night, and Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples do a bit of singing before the plot races toward its conclusion.

What in the world could they have sung?

Traditionally, there are a short set of Psalms that the Jews sing or recite as part of their Passover observances. Psalms 113-118 are known as the Hillel Psalms and largely reflect on God’s covenant faithfulness toward his people, both in the past and in their hopes for the future. They reassure the faithful people of God that, just as the Lord had rescued his people from the hands of the Egyptians at the time of Moses, so too would he again one day save them and decisively.

It is altogether likely that Jesus and his disciples were singing these Psalms before departing the dining room for the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane.

And it is quite an expression of Jesus’ faith, knowing what he was in for over the next several hours.

Psalm 118, the last Jesus likely sang, opens with a traditional refrain of God’s faithfulness: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his faithful love endures forever” (Ps 118:1). It is a recitation of God’s unfailing commitment to his people. Surely, the Lord will be good to Israel in the end.

As the Psalm proceeds, the dramatic irony for Jesus ratchets up. “The Lord is for me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me” (v. 6)? What could man do to Jesus? We are about to find out. He can betray him. He can put him on trial. He can level false accusations. He can beat him, humiliate him and force him to carry his own instrument of death and hang him on it. But, declares Jesus, “the Lord is for me.”

Now Jesus moves toward a declaration of God’s impending victory over the wicked nations. “All the nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I destroyed them. They surrounded me, yes, they surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I destroyed them” (vv. 10-11). For a Jew in the first century, it is altogether likely his mind would have turned to the Roman legions that occupied Jerusalem. For Jesus, it likely was not lost on him that these Roman authorities would be the very ones executing him.

And most Jews likely would have nodded along or even exclaimed at this point: “I destroyed them!” Surely Jesus knew he would be leveling a certain kind of destruction on the enemy of God’s people, but it would not appear the way so many hoped or expected, neither in the means nor the target. No, Jesus’ path to victory was not lined with soldiers, chariots, swords and shields. Rather, his path marched through the cross and into the grave. And, further, the Romans were not his enemy, but another force far more vile.

And yet, somehow, Jesus is then able to utter this poignant line: “I will not die, but I will live and proclaim what the Lord has done” (v. 17). What confidence the Christ must have had in his God! How can he express such faith? How can he be so certain, knowing what he is about to face?

Yet Jesus is sure that he will walk faithfully through this impending horror, to be welcomed by the Lord on the other side. “Open the gates of righteousness for me; I will enter through them and give thanks to the Lord” (v. 19).

And did Jesus know he was speaking of himself a few lines later? “Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar” (v. 27b). He had to, and yet he gives his full-throated suport just the same.

How can he do this? How can Jesus hold his head so high in the face of the dire path he’s about to take? He does so by reciting again Israel’s refrain of confidence in their God: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his faithful love endures forever” (v. 29). And then he walks out along the path toward Gethsemane and Golgotha, the path to the cross and his own death, the path to victory.

Everything Old Is New Again

by Mike McKinniss

My mother, as they say, is a saint. And I have witnessed her righteous indignation, expelled in the spirit of Elijah on Mount Carmel, at the insidiously subversive notion that Advent hymns might be too overwrought, lyrically; too dense, theologically; and too passé, musically. The initial accusation might have wrinkled her brow; the second may have elicited a silent shake of her head; the final, however, was outright blasphemous slander.

My mother’s musical blood is purebred, and Christmas songs, above all other genres, make it sing. Others may have rushed to the mall on Black Friday; my mother rushed to her LP’s, cassettes and CD’s to unleash her voluminous Christmas collection. Thus have I been raised with an appropriate reverence for carols, which I gleefully imbibe all December.

Among our favorite carols, often sung at the conclusion of the Christmas Eve services of my childhood, is the rousing “Joy to the World”. It is a favorite of many because of its celebratory tone, yet it also highlights the tensions of Advent.

“Joy to the world,” we sing, and in so doing, we echo the angel appearing to the bewildered shepherds in Luke 2:

But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: today a Savior who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David” (Lk 2:10-11, HCSB).

But these days, with ISIS wreaking havoc in the Middle East, with the bombings in Paris, and with mass shootings popping up across America with far too much frequency, you’d be forgiven wondering whether the birth of the Savior of the world had really happened two thousand years ago.

In fact, it hardly takes headline grabbing atrocities to stretch our faith. We may each be a cancer diagnosis, car accident or downsizing away from wondering whether Jesus had truly brought “peace on earth to people [God] favors” (Luke 2:14b). The tension can be all too real.

But the tension is not new.

The Christmas season, naturally, is the right time to review the nativity stories from Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. Seldom, however, do we arrive at Matthew 1 by way of Malachi 4. That is, we too often begin reading these celebrated Christmas passages without their historical context.

When the angels burst into the shepherds’ lives in Luke 2, the Jews of Palestine had already been living under the Roman thumb for 60 years. Before that, with the exception of a few notable years, Jews in the Near East had been cruelly governed by the Seleucids for 140 years.  Before that, the Ptolemies had come from Egypt and harshly ruled the Jews for 120 years. Just seven years or so before that, Alexander the Great had swept through the Middle East, making everything Greek. One hundred years prior, Malachi had prophesied in a Jerusalem under Persian jurisdiction. And though the Persians were generally beneficent toward other cultures, they certainly were not Israelite descendants of David, whose throne God had promised to uphold eternally (2 Sam. 7). And before the Persians, who controlled the land for 200 years, came a half century of Jewish captivity in Babylon, which itself had been preceded by 150 years of captivity under the Assyrians.

All told, by the time Jesus was born, God’s people had been waiting over 700 years for the Lord to restore the fortunes of His people, to bring “peace on earth”.

Everything that’s old, as the saying goes, is new again.

Advent is, as it ought to be, a celebration. Yet it is further, as it ought to be, bittersweet. Like a Van Gogh painted upon a postage stamp, Advent is a frustratingly stunning portrait of how the world ought to be. Indeed, it is a premonition of God’s aim for the creation—tantalizing in the glimpses we get of that hope; frustrating in the long wait for Christ’s return, when the angels’ song for peace on earth at last will be made fully real.

This Christmas, then, I will again be singing “Joy to the World” with full throat. I will do so as a declaration of history, for those with eyes to see, and as a prophetic act: Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!

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