Sunday, January 31, 2021

Crucified, Died, Buried (Sermon 4 on the Apostles' Creed)

Here we come to the real crux of the matter, if you'll pardon the pun. In the last three weeks, as we've looked at the opening words of the Apostles' Creed, we confessed that we “believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary...” But then what happened? The Creed doesn't say anything about the majority of Jesus' life on earth. That wasn't a customary part of the Church's Rule of Faith. It didn't make the highlight reel. But that isn't to say it's unimportant. Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago. A visit from foreign stargazers frightened the paranoid old king Herod into giving an order to exterminate the babies in that town. Forewarned in a dream, Joseph took Mary, the baby Jesus, and the gold, frankincense, and myrrh they'd been given, and sought refuge in Egypt for a few months until Herod had died. Making their way back to the land, it wasn't at first clear which version of Herod's will had left which of his sons in charge where; but finding the answer, Joseph resettled the family back to Nazareth in Galilee. There they raised Jesus, there he was apprenticed to his father Joseph as a carpenter, until Joseph eventually died.

In his early thirties, Jesus traveled to where his relative John was re-enacting the entry into the Promised Land by dipping people into the Jordan River for cleansing and a new start. Jesus went through the ritual to identify himself with Israel, and then went immediately into the desert to fast and pray, which he capped off by facing down Satan the Tempter and coming away clean. Recharged, Jesus returned to Galilee, where for the next three years or so, he carried out an itinerant teaching career. Establishing himself as a teacher, he began to attract hearers and followers. As he did, he handpicked twelve men to be his personal students, who'd go everywhere he went, live with him, stick by his side, and be his proteges. Why twelve? To start Israel afresh, you'd need to reboot the twelve tribes. These students would be patriarchs of a New Israel, with Jesus as the God who called them and was giving them a fresh New Law. From the start, Jesus proclaimed the necessity of repentance, since the kingdom of God was being restored to the earth. As he went, his pithy stories, extended speeches, and cryptic sayings unpacked the nature of that kingdom, while he demonstrated its approach by curing diseases with his touch, casting out demons with his word, and commanded the powers of nature to obedience as no mundane teacher could. And so he was recognized by many as the long-awaited Messiah, and was hated by many others as a threat to their own agendas for Israel and for humanity. Increasingly, approaching three years into his announcements, he begin hinting to his students that the true mission of the Messiah, as Israel's king and humanity's head, was to step forward into the whirlwind of tribulation at the world's end and draw it down onto himself, drinking down the chalice of divine wrath against all human hate, and weathering the catastrophe himself by being hated, scorned, outcast, judged, abused, degraded, and destroyed.

And so we come to the next article of the Apostles' Creed. Not only do we confess our belief in this Jesus, that he is who he says he is, but that those final warnings were right: he “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” who at that time was the Roman prefect or procurator of Judea, the Roman province south of Galilee – a man notorious for his thuggish massacres and his insensitivity to Jewish scruples. We say that we believe in the Jesus “who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried...” Those who say the Nicene Creed say the same thing: “For our sake, he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” So what are we saying?

Jesus spent March of that year leading his disciples into Judea, where his substantial group of followers mingled with a pilgrim parade streaming through Jericho to Jerusalem to celebrate there the upcoming Feast of Passover, a commemoration of God's ancient salvation of Israel from Egypt. But once Jesus had arrived in the suburbs of Jerusalem, coming in and out of the city as he and they prepared for Passover, a plot was set in motion by an alliance of those who hated him. One Thursday night in the first week of April, Jesus ate supper with his students, who were also his closest friends, when one of them slipped away from the table. Jesus led this core group across a brook, while they sang a hymn, and into an olive grove called Gethsemane where they frequently retreated to pray when they were in the area. There, Jesus wrestled with the immensity of what was to come. Late into the night, the missing disciple returned as a traitor, leading temple guards to apprehend Jesus. He was treated to a sham trial overnight in the high priest's residence, and at dawn, the Jewish ruling council, called the Sanhedrin, had issued its official decision of guilt. Within hours, they hauled Jesus to the praetorium, the official residence of the governor, where in the outside courtyard, representatives of the Sanhedrin denounced Jesus to that governor, Pontius Pilate.

Pilate's instincts were to acquit, seeing nothing in Roman law that would classify the conduct of Jesus as a criminal offense. He attempted to offload the problem onto Herod Antipas, tetrarch in charge of Galilee, who was visiting Jerusalem for the Passover; but Antipas returned the favor. Pilate proposed a non-capital form of punishment, having Jesus flogged or scourged with a harsh whip and allowing his soldiers to make sport of the would-be king of the Jews by mock-crowning him with thorns and mock-robing him in purple while spitting on him and striking him. The process was brutal, leaving Jesus bloody, raw, and quite sore – and this sort of torture was often a prelude to execution, though sometimes they used burning or branding with hot metal instead. Then Pilate presented the beaten Jesus in front of the crowd, offering to release him as a gesture of goodwill; instead, they chanted for the release of a bandit-chief and terrorist named Barabbas who'd been captured with his two accomplices, and called for Rome's cruelest punishment to be enacted on Jesus: crucifixion.

Crucifixion, suspension from a cross to which one was attached by ropes or nails, was a nasty way to die. It had everything you didn't want in a death. It was meant to be as painful as possible. It was meant to be humiliating in the extreme, rendering its victim powerless. And it was meant to be extremely drawn out, sometimes lasting for days. Many thought of it as the worst way to go. One Roman writer called it “a cruel and terrifying penalty.” Romans commonly saved it for slaves, foreigners, bandits, and the most serious offenders like temple thieves, military deserters, and terrorists. It comes as no surprise to know that Roman slaves, when they wanted to cuss each other out, would yell, “Oh, go to the evil cross! Get yourself crucified!”

Seeing the determination of the crowd, Pilate – against all righteousness, and against his own better judgment – caved to their pressure. He formally pronounced Jesus guilty of sedition, issuing a death sentence shortly after noon, and approving the employment of crucifixion. Then he handed Jesus and the two other death-row prisoners over to the soldiers. Subjected to more mockery and abuse from the soldiers before they even got out of the praetorium, Jesus – remaining resolutely speechless against these outrages – was paraded through the streets of Jerusalem, carrying the crossbeam, the horizontal bar to which he'd be nailed, himself. Only, thanks to the severe treatment he'd already received, his body had been weakened to the point he couldn't get it all the way, and so a bystander from Libya was enlisted to carry it for him. Then, outside the city walls, they reached a hill nicknamed 'the Skull' – 'Calvary' in Latin, 'Golgotha' in Aramaic. It was the customary site the Romans had been using for public executions, offering splendid visibility so that large crowds could see the victims of crucifixion – that was, after all, the whole point when making an example of somebody.

Upon arriving, Jesus was stripped of all his clothes and property except for a loincloth. Nailing his hands or wrists to the crossbeam, the soldiers in charge of the execution under a centurion's direction hoisted it and him to the pole, the middle one, which was already standing. Attaching the pieces, they hammered nails through his feet or ankles, while he – curiously, they must have thought – prayed out loud for his Father to forgive them. And soon he was suspended from the cross, and to the top of the pole they nailed a placard announcing that his crime was to be king of the Jews. It certainly made him stand out from the bandits being crucified on either side of him. Not all crucifixions were especially bloody, but the severe scourging and the amount of tissue damage Jesus' body had already sustained ensured that his was going to be.

After being suspended from that cross around noon that Friday in early April, the next few hours continued to confront Jesus with hostility. The priests, scribes, and elders came to gloat over him in words that hearkened back to the temptations he'd faced in the desert. The crowds in general shook their heads dismissively. In this crucifixion that united the judgment of authorities in both Jewish and Gentile worlds, Jesus had effectively been exiled from the human race, treated as subhuman, reduced to an object or a beast. He enjoyed no consolation in his soul, but entered into the experience of absence, abandonment, and loss. Within himself, he tasted all the woes and pains of that final apocalyptic tribulation. Darkness filled the sky. Jesus began to issue his final words, issuing a messianic pardon to the newfound faith of one of the bandits, placing his mother into the care of one of his disciples, asking for and receiving a final sip of sour wine from a sponge held up to his lips, and quoting passages from the Psalms. With the word of God on his lips, the Word made flesh lifted up his weary lungs, shouted his trust in God his Father – and stopped his heart. Where many crucifixions could drag out for days, Jesus had consumed the heady wine of God's wrath in only three hours. His work had been completed. His lungs ceased to draw air, his brain went quiet, all the cells in his body ceased to function. He – the Word of creation, the Divine Son, the rightful Lord of the universe – hung dead from that cross. God had been executed.

As nightfall drew near, which would begin the Jewish sabbath and holy day, Jewish scruples demanded that no crucifixion victim be left exposed, since that would desecrate the land. So instead of leaving the slow agony to do its work, the soldiers broke the legs of the two still-living victims, depriving them of the ability to support themselves and draw breath. Finding Jesus shockingly dead so early, they verified his condition by thrusting a spear through the ribs of his side, puncturing his fluid-filled pericardium and heart, and saw the telltale sign of water and blood. An appeal to Pontius Pilate by Joseph, a dissenting Sanhedrin member, allowed him to not only take down Jesus' body. Wrapping it in a linen shroud with myrrh and aloe, Joseph and his colleague Nicodemus brought the body to Joseph's own recently purchased tomb in a garden near Golgotha, a tomb that had only lately been hewn and never yet used. Jesus had suffered. Jesus had been crucified. Jesus had died. And now Jesus had been buried. His lifeless body, deprived of soul, remained united to the Eternal Word – and so did his soul, which descended into the realm of the dead, the underworld. Corpse, ghost, divinity. Finished.

Did these things really happen? The details, of course, are witnessed to us by four first-century biographies – we know them as the Gospels. The early church in its common witness handed on the tradition “that Christ died in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Paul of Tarsus, writing twenty years after the event, mentioned “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14) and said that “we proclaim Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Peter, one of those original core students who ran away that day, himself wrote about “the sufferings of Christ” which he endured when his body was “on the tree,” that is, the wooden cross, when Jesus was “put to death in the flesh” (1 Peter 1:11; 2:24; 3:18). Around the year 73, so maybe forty years or so after the event, a pagan philosopher from Syria named Mara bar Serapion, taken into exile, wrote to his son and asked, “What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished.” Twenty years later, a Jewish historian and Pharisee named Joseph ben Matthew remembered that “upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him” – Jesus – “to a cross.” And about twenty-three years after that, even the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus recorded that “Christ... suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.” Yes, Jesus really suffered. He really was crucified on the orders of Pontius Pilate, a known public figure in Roman provincial government. Jesus really died. And then he really was buried.

This message was scandalous. To say that a crucified man was your hero? To worship a crucified man as your god? Paul tells us that the message of a crucified Lord was “foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). It was absurd, ludicrous. We have record, in the next few centuries, that a priestess of the Greek god Apollo, who ran an oracle purporting to give the god's own words, slandered Jesus as “a god dead in his delusions, who was destroyed by judges who decided correctly, and in public the worst death, bound with iron, killed him.” And, of course, the message of a crucified Lord was “a stumbling block to Jews,” Paul adds (1 Corinthians 1:23). They saw crucifixion as the type of thing Deuteronomy was talking about, when it says that any criminal executed by being “hanged on a tree” is “cursed by God” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). And so Jewish critics scoffed at the thought of a Messiah who had “died shamefully and dishonorably by a death that's cursed in the Law.”

And yet Paul says that “it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer” (Acts 17:3). And because it was necessary, therefore Jesus “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). We can understand why many, faced with opposition from Jews and Gentiles alike who found this bit distasteful, could have been tempted to soft-peddle the crucifixion – to talk about Jesus in ways that skirted around the manner of his death. That was, to outside ears, the embarrassing bit, the dirty laundry, the part to be kept quiet and admitted only reluctantly. But instead, the mainstream of the church leaned into it, refusing to minimize the cross or its scandal. Why?

Because, they said, Jesus “died for us (1 Thessalonians 5:10). Having entered into our nature, he entered also into our plight, standing where we by our guilt and stain and peril do stand. He had come to restart humanity, to make it a humanity marked not by a defiant rebel spirit but by humble obedience. And how better to do that, how better to perfect a life of humble obedience, than by carrying it to the extreme, submitting to the utmost degradation and loss of status – doing, in obedience, the very thing most contrary to your dignity? And so Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8).

For in stepping forward into the tribulation, Jesus was able to square off against none other than Satan, the heart of darkness. In some way, by dying on the cross, Jesus gained a victory over him and over all who stood with him, exposing them as not only guilty but powerless. The goal was “that through death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death – that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). And so Jesus “disarmed the powers and principalities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them” at the cross (Colossians 2:15). He baited the darkness, he baited the powers and principalities, he baited Satan himself, into unleashing everything they had on him. And he proved that it wasn't enough to compromise him, break him, or cancel him. He cornered them, he unmasked them, he mortally wounded the darkness. How does that help us? By destroying the devil, Jesus' death will “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:15).

Not only does the death of Jesus win a combat over the devil and over the darkness, but it allows Jesus to act as our scapegoat and obtain a pardon. One of the rituals of Israel's faith involved a scapegoat – a goat onto whom the sins of all Israel were transferred. The high priest would lay his hands on the goat's head and “confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins” (Leviticus 16:21). And the goat was then used effectively as a package to return those iniquities, transgressions, and sins to their sender: the goat was dismissed into the wilderness each year on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:10), to “bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area,” carrying the guilt away from the community (Leviticus 16:22). And Jesus acted as that scapegoat for the world, carrying our sins into the wilderness of his tomb, that he might deposit and lock them there, far away from us. As his Father's faithful servant, he accepted the responsibility to “bear [our] iniquities” and transgressions and sins, which were laid upon his head (Isaiah 53:11). And then he “blotted out the handwriting against us in the decrees adverse to us, and he has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). And so “our old self was crucified with him, in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing” (Romans 6:6). Our sins were “buried therefore with him by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4), and so “we have now been justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9), receiving pardon.

And his death also accomplishes ransom and redemption. If some property or person had been lost due to debt, it would be confiscated and would have to be redeemed. If someone were taken prisoner in war, they would need to be ransomed. Both those things were costly. But the death of Jesus amounts to the purchase price for our ransom from captivity and our redemption from the slave-market. Jesus himself said his purpose was “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). By shedding his blood, by draining out his life, Jesus “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). “In him we have redemption through his blood” (Ephesians 1:7). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13) and “gave himself to redeem us from all lawlessness” (Titus 2:14).

But it goes even deeper than that. “Christ loved and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). But what kind of sacrifice? And what does that do? For starters, he was a sacrifice like the lamb was sacrificed at Passover: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). The Passover lamb's original function was that, in being slaughtered, it provided blood that could be used by the Israelites in Egypt for an important purpose. “They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it” (Exodus 12:8). “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13). This prevented the angel of death from entering their homes to do them harm in the final plague (Exodus 12:23). And so to call Christ our Passover lamb is to say that his blood wards off the destroyer, the forces of death that afflict not only the body but also the soul. Jesus died so that his blood might provide the same sort of protection over the house where the New Passover is eaten – and, as we'll learn more in a few weeks, the church is that spiritual house.

What's more, Jesus' death acted as a sin-offering. For we read that Jesus “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:12) – so not only a sin-offering, but the ultimate sin-offering, the last one ever needed or accepted. Sacrifices like this could be thought of as a tribute payment to God: we did wrong, we broke his law, we incurred a debt, and so to make up for it, we're asking him to accept this gift, this present, as sort of the tax penalty on our lives, if you will. And Jesus' death was that, too. Acting on behalf of humanity as a human high priest, he offered this sacrifice for sins – in light of all the law-breaking that we've done and all the debt that we incur, he gives the Father this immense gift as tribute, glorifying God to a greater degree than all the dishonor his creation has shown him. As sacrifice, Jesus' life can be made a tribute payment; as human high priest, Jesus can present this sacrifice on our behalf; and as God, Jesus' life has limitless value. The Father receives in him an infinitely worthwhile tribute from the human race, enough to settle everything.

But this sacrifice also accomplishes purification. That was one of the functions of sacrifice. During the regular routine of sacrifices in the tabernacle and temple, these things functioned like a filter for Israel's sins, catching them. But filters need cleaned, washed, purified, purged. And so these sacrifices would allow for some of the blood to be sprinkled on Israel's houses (Leviticus 14:51) and onto the side of the altar (Leviticus 5:9), and even – once a year – onto the mercy-seat, the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Leviticus 16:11-19). The blood acted like a ritual and spiritual solvent. Or so it was meant to. In practice, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). But Jesus became our new mercy-seat (Romans 3:25) and “put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). And so “the blood of Jesus... cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7), and “the blood of Christ [will] purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). Jesus' blood is the truly effective spiritual solvent that gets stains out of souls and out of the world. His sacrifice unleashes the one treatment that purges us and makes us clean (Psalm 51:7).

And not only that, but some sacrifices had as their purpose the establishment of a covenant. It was after Noah had provided burnt offerings on an altar that God established a covenant with him (Genesis 8:20; 9:9). It was after Abram had slaughtered five animals in sacrifice that God first established a covenant with him (Genesis 15:9-10). And to confirm the covenant between God and Israel, oxen were given as burnt-offerings and peace-offerings, “and Moses took half the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar... and Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, 'Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words'” (Exodus 24:5-8). These were sacrifices to establish a covenant, a kind of structured and committed relationship with God – and it was built on the 'blood of the covenant,' sacrificial blood. And we should hear an echo of Moses' covenant-founding words when Jesus talks to his disciples, less than 24 hours before the crucifixion, about my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26). And so Jesus, by this sacrifice, becomes “the mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:24), and “the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises” (Hebrews 8:6). With this new and everlasting covenant founded on Jesus' sacrificial blood poured out from the cross, he aims “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).

And so Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. In this, he made an exchange: by taking our sin, he traded us his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21); by taking our curse, he traded us his blessing (Galatians 3:13-14); by taking our poverty, he traded us his riches (2 Corinthians 8:9); by taking our death, he traded us his life; by taking our tomb, he traded us his heaven. This confession matters because “Jesus Christ our Lord gave his blood for us by the will of God, and his flesh for our flesh, and his life for our lives” (1 Clement 49.6). May our trust and love and adoration forever be in Jesus the scourged Savior, Jesus the crucified Christ, Jesus the Lord who laid down his life for his friends, Jesus “the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 5:12). “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. … We have been justified by his blood … While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:6-10). Glory to God – the story is not yet done!

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Spirit Power and Virgin Womb (Sermon 3 on the Apostles' Creed)

If you've been with us lately, you know we've been learning our confession, the Apostles' Creed, the faith of the church. We've confessed that we “believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,” and not only that, but we also “believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Jesus is the Divine Son who always existed, eternally, in God's very own heart, in his inner life. He's the Word who was in the beginning, the Word who was with God the Father, the Word who himself always was God the Son, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things were made. He always was the Son of God. He always was the Word of God. The world itself was created through this Word; the world itself was patterned after this Son. Down through human history, all generation and all sonship was modeled on the Son's relationship to God his Father, and in particular, God adopted many into a reflection of the Divine Son's Sonship – hence, Adam was called a son of God, Israel was called a son of God, David and his heirs were called sons of God. And into this nation, God commissioned prophets, to whom the Word appeared, conveying the message of his God and Father.

But in our confession, we say that this unique Son of God, the one who is the Eternal Word, is named 'Jesus.' It should jar us a little bit, because the name 'Jesus' is a human name. It's a Hebrew name, Yehoshua; it's adapted into Aramaic, Yeshua; it's transliterated into Greek, Iesous, and Latin, Iesus, and finally English, Jesus. But on all accounts, it's a human name, in a language like we speak – a name carried, in one form or another, by others. So the question today is, how does a Divine Son come to carry around a human name?

See, as the Apostle John says, “the Word was made flesh” (John 1:14). And this Word had to be made flesh. He needed to smuggle the indestructible life of God into the heart of the human condition, so that God the Son could act representatively on our behalf. He needed to receive the fullness of human nature so that he could rescue the fullness of human nature. He would need to become one of us, though sinless.

Through the prophets long ago, the Word had promised that he'd come into the world. The Word told so many prophets hints and teases about the coming Messiah, whom the Word himself would in fact be. But how was Israel's Messiah to be born? In the days of the old covenant, the mothers of patriarchs and judges and prophets sometimes had to give birth miraculously – for they had been barren women, ashamed in their culture of their childlessness, and God had intervened to open their wombs, to heal their infertility, so that they with their husbands could conceive children who would go on to do great things. But the Messiah needed to stand out above all patriarchs, above all judges, above all prophets. So must his birth. It would have to be a sign, a way of giving people fair warning to watch this child, this Messiah, to see God at work in ways greater than what he did among patriarchs and judges and prophets. His birth would have to involve a miracle outshining the mere healing of infertility. Something more impressive would need to be done.

And so a sign was promised. The Word declared through Isaiah that, as a greater sign by far, “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,” a son whose very identity would be the accomplishment and proof of God's presence with us at last (Isaiah 7:14). This son, then, in order to be conceived, would overcome far greater obstacles than an infertile womb helped by the way of nature. This son would be conceived in a way nature could not help, could not achieve – not merely impeded by infertility, but rendered naturally inconceivable. The Messiah would be conceived without the involvement of any human father at all, as attested by his mother's remaining a virgin. In this way, not only would his birth outshine all patriarchs and judges and prophets, but every human creature whatsoever. And this would allow a perfect symmetry between time and eternity. The same one born in eternity from a Heavenly Father with no mother would be the very same one born in history from an earthly mother with no father. That is how the Word would become flesh and dwell among us.

In the Apostles' Creed, we announce that we “believe in Jesus Christ, [God's] only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” The Nicene Creed is even more specific and detailed, saying: “For us humans and for our salvation, he came down from heaven and, by the Holy Spirit, was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became human.” The Gospels flesh out the story even more than these summaries.

It starts with the great and glorious angel Gabriel, who spends most of his time in God's immediate presence, standing before the Maker of all (Luke 1:19) – the same Angel Gabriel who interpreted the apocalyptic visions of Daniel (Daniel 8-9). This great angel Gabriel was sent down from heaven to a place called Nazareth, a town with a name reflecting the Hebrew word for 'branch,' netzer, as in the long-awaited 'Branch,' or Messiah, who would grow from the family tree of David (e.g., Jeremiah 23:5). Nazareth had been settled in the region known as Galilee, which was the very place where the Word had prophesied through Isaiah that a great light would appear when the awaited Child would come: “There will be no gloom for her who was in anguish... In the latter time, he has made glorious... Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light... for to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:1-2, 6).

There, in Galilee, in Nazareth, the angel Gabriel touched down from heaven to earth. And there he encountered the woman God had foreknown and chosen since the foundation of the world: a young Jewish maiden by the name of Mary, who was still a virgin although she was lawfully betrothed to King David's lawful heir Joseph (Luke 1:26-27). Now, this was in the days when the Davidides no longer held political power. God's people had centuries before come under the power of the Babylonians in exile; then restored from exile under the rule of Persia; then subjected to Alexander the Great and his Greeks; then temporarily throwing off the Greek yoke and ruling themselves under the Hasmonean Dynasty which was descended from the priests instead of the kings; then being seized under the control of the Roman Republic, which had since become the Roman Empire. Mary lived in the days when Julius Caesar's nephew and adopted son, who called himself Augustus, ruled; and Augustus allowed Mary's land to be held for him by a client-king named Herod, an Edomite who married one of the Hasmonean princesses. Herod, by this time, was coming to be increasingly depressed and paranoid. It cast a pall of gloom over the land. But then Gabriel arrived. And Mary didn't flinch (Luke 1:29-30).

And when Gabriel met Mary, he told her to rejoice, told her she's drenched in God's grace already, told her that the Lord is with her (Luke 1:28), like he was with Gideon (Judges 6:12) and David (2 Samuel 7:3). In the Bible, telling somebody, “The LORD is with you” was a good indicator that they were being chosen to undertake a very risky mission for God. Told that her mission is to bear a child, Mary doesn't doubt (the way some did), but she does have questions about the details (Luke 1:34). And she's told she's going to pick up all sorts of threads from the Old Testament. Eve was told she'd have a Seed who'd crush the serpent's head (Genesis 3:15). Great mothers in Israel had their wombs miraculously opened, like the matriarchs Sarah (Genesis 17:15-21; 18:9-15; 21:1-7), Rebekah (Genesis 25:21), Leah (Genesis 29:31-35), and Rachel (Genesis 30:21-24), and the mother of Samson (Judges 13) and Hannah the mother of Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1—2:10). Mary was to be the “virgin daughter of Zion” who scorns the mighty kings of the nations (Isaiah 37:22). “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD (Zechariah 2:10). The LORD would indeed dwell in Mary's midst! She was chosen to be the material means of the LORD entering humanity. The son to be conceived miraculously in Mary was already the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:31-32). To this explanation, the Virgin Mary responds with complete and perfect submission to God's will (Luke 1:38), reversing the disobedience of the first Eve.

And in the moment Mary says, “Let it be to me according to your word,” that's when it happens. Gabriel had told her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). We'll learn more about the Holy Spirit later, but it's worth remembering that in the beginning, this Spirit of God 'hovered' or 'brooded' over the formless waters of the virgin earth so as to bring forth the dawning life of the first creation (Genesis 1:2); and now, the same Spirit hovers and broods over Mary's virgin womb to bring forth the dawning life of a whole new creation: the irruption of God into human existence. Somehow, within Mary's body, the fullness of God seizes upon a single ovum. Somehow, the Spirit multiplies the molecules in Mary's body to construct a full set of distinct human DNA. Somehow, the Spirit also grants a complete human soul. And somehow, simultaneously, that human nature – body and soul – is, from its very beginning, united as a single person with the eternal Word of God: the Divine Son through whom and for whom the universe was made. The Eternal One is conceived in human history! All of this is a mystery that leaves us in stunned silence.

In that first glimmer of life, in the instant before Gabriel flies off unseen, the incarnation of God has taken place. Our friend St. Irenaeus, explaining the church's rule of faith, says that, “because of his surpassing love toward his creation,” the Son of God “condescended to be born of the Virgin, he himself uniting man through himself to God” (Against Heresies 3.4.2). The church would later want to get more detailed about what happened, and would say that the Son of God was begotten twice: first, in eternity past, he was begotten from God the Father without any need for a mother, as the Divine Son of God; and then, at this instant in human history, he was again begotten from the Virgin Mary with no need for a father, as the perfect Son of Man. He is therefore “truly God” and “truly man, of a rational soul and body.” He's consubstantial with the Father when it comes to being divine, but also consubstantial with us when it comes to being human. He's one person in two natures, which aren't blended together, mixed up, or turned into each other. Instead, full divinity and full humanity are kept intact, preserved in a personal union, so that there's one person, Jesus the Christ, who is both fully God and fully man. That's what happened in that remarkable instant in Mary's womb when the Word became flesh.

And from that moment on, as Luke tells Mary's story, he draws implicit parallels between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant. Months pass, and Bethlehem is at last the scene where the great secret of God's personal invasion in human flesh, human blood, human bone, human skin, and human soul is announced to the world. Having been conceived by the Holy Spirit's action, the Son of God is born from the Virgin Mary, receiving the purity of humanity from her, fresher than Eden's breeze. All that was made true of her was always to glorify him!

There are lots of reasons why it matters. Jesus dignifies the created world, because his incarnation brings God into it. Being made of matter isn't bad. Walking around in a body isn't bad. Your body is not bad in itself, and even when it isn't working well, you shouldn't be too eager to get rid of it. You were meant to have a body; it's just that its condition was supposed to be better. But bodies are good, and matter is good, and the physical world is good – and Jesus is proof, because in him, God chooses to claim and keep a body, a material body, a human body. Creation is still beautiful, and so are you.

And yet the birth of Jesus is also a proclamation of how serious the human situation really is. The fact that God was born into the likeness of our sinful flesh is an announcement that we're beyond our own ability to fix. Too often, we assume that people are basically good, just misled or confused – as if all we needed were an improved environment and improved education, and then we'd rise to our proper moral greatness. Better environment can be good. Better education can be good. But if that's all we needed, then the Law of Moses would have been enough, and the witness of all the prophets would have been enough, and then the whole world could have been just fine without Jesus – without God having to step into our shoes and get his hands dirty. But there he is, in our shoes. There he is, hands dirty with the world. He did it because the entire human race was, morally and spiritually, thrashing in a ditch with a broken back, unable to rise up. Sure, briefly we'd roll over and glimpse the open sky, but the next spasm of our frayed moral nerves would have us face-down in the mud all over again. All our striving, all our own power, has moved us inches at best – and elevated us not at all. We need someone to climb down to us, throw us over his shoulder, and carry us where we're just too damaged to walk ourselves. No mere human, born of two human parents, stained with the filth of Adam and infected with the crippling condition of sin, could lift the rest of us. It would take an Omnipotent Man, wearing our skin, touching us with hands like our own. The birth of Jesus, commencing the drastic treatment, shows us what strong help we need.

In so doing, Jesus is a new beginning to the human race. He's the Last Adam, the start of a new creation. When the first Adam was made, he was the father of all humanity, the prime example of humanity, and representative leader of all who'd follow him. (No wonder: his name just means 'Human.') Jesus, in coming to be the Last Adam, is the founder and prime example and representative leader of a whole new humanity, a fresh start to the human race. Old organizing boundaries break down in him (Galatians 3:28). Jesus starts humanity anew under his leadership and in his shape, to “create in himself one new man in place of the two” (Ephesians 2:15). He had to overwrite what had gotten corrupted, like someone sitting for a new portrait after the first is wrecked. It's just like Charles Wesley helps us sing in the old hymn: “Adam's likeness now efface, stamp thine image in its place; Second Adam from above, reinstate us in thy love.”

In starting humanity over, Jesus heals what it means to be human. Ancient Christians had a saying about how “that which is not assumed is not healed” – meaning, if you say there's anything about being human that Jesus didn't take up, then you're saying he didn't heal that part. But he took it all – human identity, human body, human mind, human heart, human soul – and brings it into healing contact with God himself. Jesus is a Savior for the whole human from all our kinds of corruption.

What's more, Jesus' birth to Mary is God's way of honoring his age-old commitments to Israel. The Word didn't become flesh through Assyrian parents or Babylonian parents, not through Greek or Roman parents. It wasn't in the heart of Africa or the banks of the Ganges or on Plymouth Rock. It was in Galilee, to a Hebrew woman. It validates Israel's legacy – all the covenants, all the pledges. “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). That should help the rest of us pluck ourselves out of our national pride to see something bigger: help from outside.

And his miraculous conception and birth preserve the complementarity of his life without stain. He has two births: a heavenly with no mother (only God the Father), an earthly with no father (only Mary the mother). It not only makes clear who Jesus is, it ensures he can be a clean slate: to write his life over our sullied conscience is to write sinless humanity, unstained humanity, over all the stains of our sin, and to offer us hope of rising above the passions that beset us in life.

Jesus' birth dignifies women, because God himself chose to reside inside a woman's body, to be embedded in a woman's uterine lining, to be tethered to a woman by an umbilical cord, to derive all his physical substance from a woman, to exchange blood with a woman, leave his own residual cells in a woman, be nursed on a woman's milk and carried in her arms – and so he declared 'woman' to be great and majestic. Those of our neighbors who assume that Christianity is anti-woman have not thought this through. It isn't for no reason that early pagan neighbors mocked the first Christians for appealing too much to women! It's because the gospel has always dignified women greatly – just as the man Christ Jesus dignifies men, too.

In the same way, his life in the womb dignifies all the unborn. The Divine Son didn't just enter the human scene at the moment of birth. He became a zygote. There was once a one-celled human who was fully God. All the unborn are made in the image of this Lord who was a zygote, an embryo, a fetus. Their human dignity and inviolability from abortive violence is secured publicly from all time, which is why the spread of abortion is so intolerable to believers, and should be witnessed against in the name of justice for the dignity of all.

What's more, by being born of a human woman, God the Son could live a truly human life. He had real hunger, real thirst, real aches and pains, real sweat and real tears, and all the rest. Therefore, we can have a Great High Priest who sinlessly understands all the challenges we face (Hebrews 4:15), and who sets a perfect example for us to follow in leading a human life well. To follow Jesus is to succeed as a human, because he became the perfect human himself, succeeding at humanity in a fully human way.

And finally, Jesus was conceived and born this way to be a flawless bridge between God and creation, between God and humanity. He's on both sides of the great divide of Creator and creation now. As God, he can represent God to us, but do it with a familiar face we can see, familiar hands we can hold, familiar heartbeat we can feel. As a man like us, he can represent us to God – he can be the one human with power to stand tall in the very heart of heaven, the one being in the universe who can act perfectly for the universe – and for each of us, as our eligible representative. This sets the stage for every saving thing he will do, as we'll learn more next week. For now, enough to celebrate Jesus, born of God the Father before all ages, born now also – out of love for you and me – from the Virgin Mary; Jesus, God incarnate and man divine; Jesus, the healing of everything we are! Glory to God in the highest! Praise be to the God who became one of us! Amen and amen.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Jesus Christ: God's Son, Our Lord (Sermon 2 on the Apostles' Creed)

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” That's what we began to confess the last time we were here, as we began to unpack the core commitments of our faith as summed up in the Apostles' Creed. Last week, we explored who God is, and why we can believe he exists; we explored what it means that he's Almighty; we talked about how he created everything else that exists. Or as Irenaeus, granddisciple of the Apostle John, put it: “One God Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, who fashioned the human race, brought about the flood, called Abraham, brought the people out of the land of Egypt, spoke with Moses, gave the law, sent the prophets, and prepared fire for the devil and his angels” (Against Heresies 3.3.3). And we began to consider what it means to say that God is 'Father' – but in light of what we're about to learn, it takes on a radical depth of eternal meaning.

The Apostles' Creed goes on to say that we believe “in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Another ancient creed, the Nicene Creed, goes into even greater depth, confessing that we believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things were made.” That's a bigger mouthful, but it just unpacks in greater detail what we mean by the simpler words of the Apostles' Creed.

When we picture God in eternity 'before' creation, God was solitary as regarded all things outside himself, but he wasn't lonely. He wasn't lonely because he had company inside himself. Eternally, God meditated on a Word, the single eternal thought of his own Mind. Eternally, God generated a Son who flowed forth from him as an extension of his very own divine nature. We say that “God is Love” (1 John 4:8) – not just that God is loving, but that God is Love. And true love is never alone. God's very inner life is Love, God's inner life is relationship. Necessarily, because God is Love, God loves God – and the God whom God loves is the Word, the God whom the Father loves is the Son. This Son is unique, different from any other relationship that God could even have. This Son is begotten, not created: he is consubstantial with the Father, meaning of God's own essence. The Son comes from God and is God, comes from the Divine Light and is himself Divine Light. The Son is eternally being born, fathered, generated by God. This was so before time and space began to be. There was no creation going on, but there was eternal generation of the Son, eternal meditation of the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

And then God creates the world, creates the universe, creates everything that isn't God. But when he does that, he does it by means of his Word, by means of his Son. This Word is the 'Let-there-be' of creation (Genesis 1). “By the Word of the LORD, the heavens were made” (Psalm 33:6). “The universe was created by the Word of God” (Hebrews 11:3). Through “his Son,” God “created the world” (Hebrews 1:2). “All things were created through him and for him, and he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17). And literally, in him all things were created” (Colossians 1:16). So Irenaeus calls the Son “the pattern of the things he adorned” (Against Heresies 4.20.1). In some way, the Divine Word or Divine Son became the template, the model, the archetype of the entire universe that God created through him. And that's why we have parents and children in the creation: all generation in the universe is a created reflection, a partial imitation, of the way that this Divine Son relates to his Divine Father eternally within the inner life of the one and only God. And all things in creation in some way are made in the likeness of the Son and Word of God the Father – especially us, whom they made in their image and after their likeness (Genesis 1:26).

Throughout the days of prior covenants, the Lord God guided the human race, speaking to us in many different kinds of ways according to the covenants he made. And as he did so, he frequently foreshadowed the revelation of the Divine Son. To Adam was given the title 'son of God' (Luke 3:38), in imitation of the true Divine Son. But this imitation, our forefather who received the commandment, became wayward under the influence of a dark infestation called Sin. Rebelling in pride, theft, and deceit, he with his wife was cast out of the garden of delight into a dusty world, and wandered off to squander the inheritance of creation: the first prodigal son. In time, God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, making and establishing his covenant with each, claiming this one human family as his own family. Through the sons of Jacob, there arose the tribes which God forged into a redeemed nation, Israel, by rescuing them from Egyptian slavery. For God had warned the Egyptians: “Israel is my firstborn son … Let my son go, that he may serve me” (Exodus 4:22-23). To this national son, God gave his Law and many other blessings, and as one of their members would later write, “To them belongs... the adoption” (Romans 9:4). But repeatedly, this national son broke their family law, leading to the exile from which God pledged to “bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth” (Isaiah 43:6). And long before that exile, God chose a young man named David to be their king, and said about David, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:14). Later, God said of David's heir Solomon, “He shall be my son, and I will be his father, and I will establish his royal throne in Israel forever” (1 Chronicles 22:10) – so this special adoptive sonship would be inherited by every king of the line of David. In naming all of these as sons, God pointed to ways that their roles imitated and shadowed the eternal Divine Son.

This Divine Son, as the Word, God's own Speech, had often given the ancient prophets hints that he himself, God's original and true Son, would one day walk among them as the Messiah, the perfect Son of Israel, and as the Last Adam, the perfect Son of Humanity. So Amos saw that God would raise back up the fallen “booth of David” (Amos 9:11). Hosea saw that some day, after a season of brokenness, the children of Israel would again return to “David their king” (Hosea 3:5). Isaiah spoke of a coming king who would rule with perfect justice (Isaiah 11:1-10), a servant who would bear the purpose of all the people (Isaiah 42-53). Micah was eager for an eternal ruler to “stand and shepherd his flock” and “be their peace” (Micah 5:2-5). Jeremiah hoped for a “righteous branch” from David's line who would “reign as king and deal wisely,” and in whose days “Judah will be saved” (Jeremiah 23:5-6). Ezekiel begged for “one shepherd” from David's line to feed the people and unite them (Ezekiel 34:22-23; 37:24-25). Daniel was awestruck by an “anointed prince” who was to come (Daniel 9:26) and the vision of an exalted human figure exalted to heavenly glory and worldwide rule (Daniel 7:13-14). Zechariah waited for a royal priest through whom God would “remove the iniquity of this land in a single day” (Zechariah 3:9), a humble king who'd rule forever (Zechariah 9:10). And Malachi awaited the sudden arrival of none less than God himself in his temple (Malachi 3:1-3).

In time, all these hints and hopes were rightly tied together under titles like 'Messiah': the Son of God who would live out that relationship perfectly, the Anointed King who wouldn't let his people down, the Savior who would turn history around. For as God tells the Messiah in Psalm 2, “You are my Son! … Ask of me, and I'll make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalm 2:7-8). Building on that, Jews began to say more openly that the Messiah would be, in some special way, the Son of God. One, writing a century or two before Bethlehem, imagines God speaking of himself and his Son (1 Enoch 105:2). Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls express hope for the time when God will “father the Messiah” (1QSa 2.12) and picture God appointing the Messiah as his “firstborn Son” and crowning him with the glory of the clouds of heaven (4Q369 2.6-8). Other Jewish writings of the first century picture God raising up the Messiah to punish the Romans and hand Israel the victory, and so God describes the Messiah as “my Son” (4 Ezra 12:33-34; 13:37,52).

And as we believe and we confess, the eternal Son of God did come to be the Messiah who, as a Davidic heir, would bear the royal title 'Son of God,' thus tying up the loose ends and bringing the plan full circle. But he did not come for quite the reasons some had come to expect. As we'll hear more next week, he came to unite to himself a perfect human nature in our world, for our sake, to rejuvenate humanity itself and to relieve us from the estrangement of sin into which we'd so willfully fallen. And when he came into the world, he bore the name of Jesus, meaning “Yahweh is Salvation.” It was the sixth-most-popular boy's name in his area, popular like 'Bill' or 'Bob' today. But in him uniquely, it carried its full significance. He carried that name as a promise that he'd rescue his people – first Israel, then all who call on him – from the clutches of sin, that dark infestation.

The Bible tells us many things about this Jesus. What we say in our Creed is built on that original testimony. Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:16). Martha said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:27). The Gospel of Mark aims to tell “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). The Gospel of John was written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). The apostles went around spreading a message about faith “in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21). All the elements of our confession are ripped from the lips of those who knew him.

So we likewise confess that the Divine Son came into the world as Jesus. He bears the title of 'Christ' – the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word 'Messiah,' 'Anointed One.' He's been chosen and singled out, perfumed with his Father's own Spirit to make him rightly attractive to all in need, and to display him as worthy to act as prophet, priest, and king. Under the old covenant, just as the tabernacle and altar and holy things were anointed to set them apart (Leviticus 8:10; Numbers 7:1), so too would priests be anointed for their holy service (Exodus 29:29; Leviticus 6:22; 8:12). Under the old covenant, prophets could also be anointed (1 Kings 19:16; see also Psalm 105:15). And under the old covenant, kings had to be anointed. Saul was anointed (1 Samuel 10:1; 15:17). David was anointed multiple times (1 Samuel 16:13; 2 Samuel 2:4; 5:3; see also Psalm 89:20). His son Solomon was anointed after him (1 Kings 1:39). Later descendants like Joash (2 Kings 11:12), Jehoahaz (2 Kings 23:20), and the rest had to be anointed to serve as king.

And we can't overstate just how much hope the people placed in their king as “the Messiah of the LORD.” In the Babylonian siege, Jeremiah overheard people lamenting that their king, whom Babylon captured, was the one under whose shadow they hoped to live, and indeed that this anointed king was the very life-breath that filled their lungs (Lamentations 4:20). And so to call Jesus the 'Christ' is to say exactly that – that he's the King under whose bright shadow we hope to live, that he's as vital as the breath that fills our lungs and gives us life, that he's been chosen and picked out by God as the fulfillment of all the old promises made true. The psalmist had declared of him, “God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions” (Hebrews 1:9; cf. Psalm 45:7). Jesus himself announced that God “has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18; cf. Isaiah 61:1). Peter declared that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” (Acts 10:38). To call him 'Jesus Christ' is to say that all these things are true.

Likewise, following the biblical witness, we confess that Jesus really does bear the relation of Son to God his Father. This same historical person is the eternal Divine Son who was before all things. This same historical person is the template of creation, the agent of the world's existence, the overflow of God himself, and the royal leader who stands between God his Father and we his people. His intimacy with God his Father comes through in his rich prayer life (John 17:1). His filial relationship with God is the defining feature of his teaching: he was always going on about “my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21; 12:50; 18:14; etc.). And we read how this Jesus is “faithful over God's house as a Son” (Hebrews 3:6). For “Jesus, the Son of God,” is not only anointed king but also anointed as “a great high priest” (Hebrews 4:14), and “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:18).

And finally, just as we've confessed that Jesus is the Christ and is God's unique Son, so we confess that he is our Lord. He is, first of all, LORD – the God we meet in the Old Testament. When “the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7), Jesus is that LORD. When “the LORD saved Israel... from the hand of the Egyptians” at the sea (Exodus 14:30), Jesus is that LORD. When David says that “the LORD is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1), Jesus is that LORD. That's why the books we know as the Old Testament are a Jesus story. That's why we know we're meant to worship Jesus, to love him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. But to confess Jesus as the Lord is also to admit that he has supreme authority. He is Lord over every power, heavenly and earthly. He is Lord over the angels, and they are required to obey him. He is Lord over the stars, and they are required to obey him. He is Lord over the nations, and they are required to obey him. He is Lord over the presidents and the lawmakers and the judges, and they are required to obey him. Caesar could only dream of being Lord like Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Lord over all the corporations and the countries, the media and the militaries, the foundations and the families. His word is law. His heart is love. And when we say in the Creed that he is “our Lord,” we're making a promise – a conscious promise to submit to him, to belong to him, to serve and obey and worship him. Others may build their lives around Lord Money or Lord Pleasure or Lord Politics or Lord Skin-Color or Lord Hobby or Lord Self, but we are given leave to worship none of these things. We are strictly reserved for Jesus, the Lord who is jealous for us (cf. Zechariah 1:14). To say the words of the Creed means that we believe these things are true and right.

Once again, we might ask, “Okay, that's what we say we believe, but practically speaking, what does it matter?” Well, I'll tell you just a few ways. First, this confession practically matters because if it's true, then Jesus is the key to understanding all creation. As the Word of God and Son of God, he was creation's original template, we said, and he still even now “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). That means Jesus makes a difference no matter what you're doing. He makes a difference for chemistry, for economics, for agriculture, for mechanics, for philosophy, for political science, for comparative religion, and more. All those things are studying created phenomena that God originally patterned according to his Word, his Son. In some way, they are reflections of Christ. And so to understand anything and everything, we're best served to start by sitting at the feet of Jesus, gazing in adoration at him as we studying anything at all about the world.

Second, Jesus is worthy of our worship. As God's Son, he is consubstantial with his Father – he shares in God's own essence, he's everything God is. And so even the angels of God, who behold the Father's heavenly glory, also gladly worship God's Son, Jesus (Hebrews 1:6). What that means is that 'good moral teacher' doesn't cut it, 'prophet' doesn't cut it, 'revolutionary' doesn't cut it – none of these trendy appellations rises to the level of Jesus' true dignity and worth. We love our atheist neighbors, but just like they're wrong on God, so they miss the mark on Jesus, missing the whole point and purpose of his life and work. We love our Jewish neighbors who follow the traditions of the rabbis, “beloved for the sake of their forefathers” (Romans 11:28), but they also miss the mark on Jesus: they reject Jesus as Israel's Messiah, refuse to see all God's promises made good in him (2 Corinthians 1:20), encounter him as a “stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23), and so, in Paul's words, “Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking” (Romans 11:7). We love our Muslim neighbors, heirs of Ishmael whom God blessed (Genesis 17:20), but they also miss the mark on Jesus: they call him 'Messiah' without knowing its meaning (Qur'an 4:171), they're dead-set against calling him God's Son and even curse this confession as a lie (Qur'an 9:30), and so their own core confession falls short of the truth of the Lord. We love our neighbors embedded in belief systems like Jehovah's Witnesses, who name Jesus Lord and Son of God but without seeing he shares the Father's essence, and so they too miss the mark on Jesus. We love neighbors of many doctrines, but some of those neighbors fail to honor Jesus by giving him right worship, and “whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23). And that is very practical indeed.

Third, Jesus is worthy of our imitation, because he's the template for the world as it's meant to be, and worthy of our obedience, because he's the Lord, our Lord whom we gladly claim. He told us, after all, that if we love him, we'll keep his commandments (John 14:15). And Peter reminds us that “Christ... left you an example, so that you might follow in his steps...” (1 Peter 2:24). Sadly, professing Christians don't always follow in his steps or keep his commandments. Sometimes, we get things badly wrong, and I can think of three messed-up versions of Christianity where we do that. One of them is Callous Christianity. That's what's put on display whenever we get so wrapped up in truths about Jesus that we lose sight of the person of Jesus, his actual character as kind and gentle, refusing to break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick (Matthew 12:20; cf. Isaiah 42:3). Or we get so rigid about our vision of right living that we disdain the weak, stumbling, and fallen – or even disdain people of the wrong race, people of the wrong sex, people of the wrong generation, people of the wrong income level, people of the wrong politics, people of the wrong beliefs. Callous Christianity, though, is an abhorrent thing, a pharisaic thing, a self-righteous and hypocritical and cruel thing that treats the Lord as our pedestal for dishing out condemnation. It's a thing that looks so little like the real Jesus. And we dare not go that way.

Another is Licentious Christianity. That's what's put on display whenever we think we can have Jesus without actually believing the things he's recorded to have said. It's what's pur on display when we write speeches for him in our heads, pretending he didn't say much that shapes our lives except for a nebulous call for good vibes, man. It also gets put on display when we imagine that cheap grace gives us cover to do what's right in our own eyes, and so – like so many prominent figures these days – we excuse the indulgence of our desires. But this Licentious Christianity is an untrue thing, a poisoned thing. It kicks against the goads. It suppresses the truth in unrighteousness. It treats the Lord as our very own Play-doh to remake at whim. It steals the kingdom of God from us. And we dare not go that way.

The last of these to mention now is Riotous Christianity. Sadly, we've seen our share lately. This was displayed a month ago in our nation's capital city, when false prophets rallied alongside hucksters and shock jocks, mingling the holy name of Jesus with calls for martial law, sales pitches for merchandise, and threats of violent uprising. So we should hardly have been surprised the other week at its fruit, when, not so far from the flags emblazoned with crosses and the signs declaring “In God We Trust” and “Jesus Saves,” a mob dragged, beat, bludgeoned, even killed police officers in the name of reverence for a politician. This wasn't merely an evil thing; it was a blasphemy and a betrayal of Christ. And so too do we betray him when we fail to name it for what it is. But these events were only the ugliest tip of Riotous Christianity, a deep and growing trend that drowns truth in cynicism and conspiracy, that itches to fight and scoff and mock, that debases holy words to glorify the profane, that strips off Christ's seamless robe so as to dress him up in a stars-and-stripes tracksuit. It treats the Lord as our very own pet and mascot, to dance the raging tune of our agendas and our causes. And once again: we dare not go that way.

Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, is Lord – and we claim to honor him as our Lord. That means we cannot and dare not remake him. It means we must refuse the temptation of Riotous Christianity, Licentious Christianity, and Callous Christianity. We must follow in the footsteps of the real Jesus, the Lord, not of our counterfeits.

Fourth, Jesus provides the template for our own adoption into God's family, in that Jesus' Sonship to God his Father is our gateway into sharing that relationship by grace. It's written that God “predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:5). Paul draws a clear and definite link between Jesus' title “God's Son” and the possibility that we, too, can receive “adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Only since Jesus has God for his Father can he share with us the right to call out to God as our Father in heaven. And Jesus is very eager to do that! “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). And he can do that by grafting us into his relationship with God as his Father.

Fifth, this confession matters practically because it's crucial to our own spiritual health. John tells us that. He asks, “Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:5). Victory over the world, real success in life's struggles, is contingent on trusting Jesus exactly as God's Son. “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15). To the extent we really believe in “Jesus Christ, God's only Son, our Lord,” we can abide in God, rest in God, and have the presence of God in our lives, transcending and overcoming the pressures of the world! And to openly confess “that Jesus is Lord” is a key element of being saved, rescued, from our sinful situation (Romans 10:9): “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12). It doesn't get more practical than that! So in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Lord, do we place our trust.

Lastly, this confession matters practically because even beyond the wisdom he teaches, the example he sets, or the salvation he offers, Jesus, in and of himself, is just too amazing to miss out on. He is “the bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16), “the radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3). He's fairer than meadows and than woodlands, than sunshine and than moonlight, more bright and more beautiful than angel choirs or nations in their splendor. To meet him, really and truly, is to realize “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [our] Lord” (Philippians 3:8). Nothing can compare with Jesus. Nothing would be worth trading Jesus away – not all the riches of the universe, not all insight and might and deathless delight – none of these amount to any good apart from Jesus. “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9). “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25)! Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

One God and Maker of All (Sermon 1 on the Apostles' Creed)

What a week it's been! We need a firm foundation for our minds and hearts to rest on, focus on, when so much else is giving way. And we have, of course, the Bible... but what does it say? We have our faith... but what's in it? What do we actually say when we're asked what we believe? To answer that, the very early church began coming up with binding summaries of what it's all about. And these confessions of faith are called creeds. Whenever someone wanted to be baptized into Christ, part of the ritual of baptism would involve affirming the baptismal creed: either by reciting it from memory, or by answering yes to its parts in question form. A creed had to be a memorable and pithy way to put together the beliefs that should govern a Christian's mind. And so one ancient Christian said: “This summary of our faith is a great thing, since between the heart and the tongue, the whole mystery of human salvation is up for consideration and is being accomplished.”1 But a creed wasn't just something that you would learn for baptism and could then forget. Creeds were for both worship and for day-to-day life. Another ancient Christian said: “When you've received [the Creed], write it on your hearts. Recite it daily to yourselves. Before you go to sleep, before you go forth, fortify yourselves with your Creed.”2

And one simple example of these early creeds has become known as the Apostles' Creed. The basic content of this creed is very, very, very old. In fact, it gets its name from a legend that it was actually written by the Twelve Apostles themselves after Pentecost – the legend being that on the night before they spread out into all their different mission fields, they wanted to make sure they had a unifying core to their message in every nation, so they got together and each said one line under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit.3 And the truth is that the Apostle's Creed is a good summary of what used to be called the Rule of Faith, an organized pattern of Christian teaching that goes back deep into the roots of the church. And so our own denomination calls the Apostles' Creed “a uniform benchmark for general instruction in the basics of our faith,” and it also supports the practice of this creed being “read or recited in unison at worship services to affirm the believer in the united faith of the Church.”4 This will enter our worship together on Easter Sunday! But first, we should get to know what it is we're going to be saying we believe – and why we say we believe it!

So where do we start out? The first line of the Apostles' Creed goes like this: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” That's very simple. In the second century, Irenaeus – a disciple of a man named Polycarp, who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John – began describing the Rule of Faith as meaning that we have “faith in one God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth and the seas and all things that are in them.”5 And later, building on this rule, the councils of the church expanded the phrase to say, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.”6 See the similarities? The same basic components are constant throughout.

In the time of the early church, many of their neighbors couldn't even honestly say this with them. The typical pagan did not at all believe in one God; he or she believed in many. Far enough back, I know my own ancestors were Germanic tribesmen who believed in Wotan and Donar and more. Other people doubted that the highest God could be responsible for heaven and earth, because they thought physical things were too icky for him to dirty his hands with. And certainly, even among the enlightened few who believed that there was one God who created all things, few would have dared to confess him as their Father, the way we routinely do.

Today, we have plenty of neighbors who also can't join us in confessing belief in God the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth. Some of our neighbors are secular humanists, or evolutionary naturalists, or other stripes of materialists, atheists, or agnostics. From 2009 to 2019, the percentage of Americans describing themselves as atheists doubled, now making up one in every twenty-five American adults; and that's not taking into account the other one in twenty American adults who now say they don't know.7 About three out of every twenty teenagers today say they don't believe that there's a God.8 All in all, adults and teens together, about one in every ten Americans doesn't believe in any sort of God,9 while about one in four are religiously unaffiliated.10 This rising population of atheists are also coming more and more into vocal public view in recent decades.

For our part, we disagree with them. We believe in God – the God confessed in our creed. “The Lord our God is one God” (Deuteronomy 6:4). And we ourselves believe with quite solid warrant, because we believe with the faith of the whole church. And the church has good reasons for what she confesses and commits. Paul was right to declare that God's “invisible attributes – namely, his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made,” leaving us “without excuse” if we fail to believe (Romans 1:20). Paul the Apostle was himself following in the footsteps of an earlier writer who declared that unbelievers were “not to be excused, for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?” (Wisdom 13:8-9).

Existence and the whole universe testify to him. We know that many facts are contingent, things that are one way but could've been otherwise; and we know that every contingent fact needs an explanation. (The birth of Ishmael was a contingent fact; it needs an explanation; and it has one, in the conjugal union of Abram and Hagar.) We know, then, that the big contingent fact that includes all contingent facts itself needs an explanation, a sufficient reason for why these things are so. This calls for a sufficient reason for the sum of all things, which can only be a necessary being, not a contingent one. So too, we know that the universe – the sum of all matter, energy, time, and space – began to exist, that there was once when it was not. And we know that all things that begin to exist need a cause beyond themselves, and that no causal history can be infinite or go in loops. This calls for a cause of the universe itself, a First Cause before all things. Secular and naturalistic approaches, which by definition are confined to the natural world, quest in vain to find a cause or sufficient reason that must be beyond the contingent and natural world. But we are not so limited! We confess the universe's Cause and Sufficient Reason as God, the Necessary Being whose will and power produce all contingent reality, including ourselves. Our Creed is better than every secular creed at accounting for the world.11

Likewise, structure and order in the universe testify to him. We know that most ways the world could be would make it impossible for us to live in. Even the tiniest adjustments to the basic parameters of the universe – be it the initial order and energy density of the universe, or the constants governing the strength of the fundamental forces, or the mass ratio of protons to neutrons, or the resonance level of carbon, or countless other basic facts beyond the control of any power in the universe – and you'll have a universe without atoms, or with only a few elements, or with no stars or planets. The tiniest changes to the universe, and you've got a universe where we can't be. Only a very distinctive kind of universe offers the possibility of our existence. The universe seems to be tailor-made to allow the presence of life that can stare back at it; and a tailor-made habitable home calls us to recognize and thank its Designer and Builder. Secular and naturalistic attempts to grapple with such a fine-tuned and tailor-made universe fit for life either feebly cut the thinking short or shrug and hope for a lucky roll of infinite dice. Those attempts pale next to the reasonableness of ascribing this tailor-made universe to the intent and will of God. And that's not even mentioning the intricacies of every living thing, filled with structure and order, crying out for a divine guiding hand on its development. Our Creed is better than every secular creed at accounting for the meticulously designed details of this fine-tuned universe.12

What's more, our conscious minds testify to him. Many of our mental states have specific flavors, a way they feel – think of pain. Some of our mental states are about things, directed toward objects. Some of our mental states are irreducibly first-person or only offer private access. These mental states in our minds don't have a size or a place in the physical universe, yet our mental states and mental events are connected in specific ways to physical reality. These connections allow us to be conscious, letting us perceive and reflect on the world, and they are exceptionally mysterious on any secular or naturalistic attempt to account for it. This mental life cries out for an explanation that's difficult or impossible to supply unless you accept that there's a God. Our Creed is better than every secular creed at accounting for the mental world of human consciousness.13

So too, the beauty of the world testifies to him. As we feed our imagination, we find that some things really are just beautiful, and some are more beautiful than others. Trees on rolling hills – beautiful. Burnt and deforested land – ugly. Even things we might recoil from as threats to our lives, like tigers, can dazzle us with our beauty – it isn't just a survival mechanism. Things in the world really do have aesthetic qualities, and they aren't merely projections from our own minds. It isn't solely in the eye of us beholders. In fact, many noted scientists have been driven in their work precisely by the pursuit of beauty, elegance, and other aesthetic virtues. This aesthetic scale suggests that at its summit is Something or Someone perfectly beautiful: a Divine Beauty at whom we're meant to gaze and in whom we're meant to delight, with all other beauty being reflection and imitation that highlights its Source. And the existence of beauty in the contingent universe – the colors of a sunset, the dots of the stars, the grandeur of the mountains overlooking the sea – calls for its recognition as art. And art, especially of this caliber, is the work of a Divine Artist, the very Source of beauty, justifying the old saying that “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wisdom 13:5). Our Creed is better than every secular creed at accounting for the beautiful.14

And morality testifies to him, too. We know some actions are objectively good (like charity) and other actions are objectively evil (like child abuse) – a distinction which suggests some Standard against which value can be measured. We know that moral obligations, the 'thou shalts' and 'thou shalt nots' we know we're under, feel like they carry an authority beyond the subjectivity of conscience. And authority is inherently interpersonal: it suggests that there is Someone who's been giving commands which bind the universe. We know also that our minds are somehow capable of achieving true moral knowledge in the world, of actually knowing right from wrong, which suggests that are minds are intended by Someone to achieve a goal beyond nature. We know that for people and societies to be morally transformed into perfection, into holiness, would require the intervention of a Holiness beyond creaturely ability to muster. But all secular and naturalistic attempts to account for these truths are partial at best, and often only failures: they yield moral anti-realism, moral skepticism, even moral despair. The best explanation of all these moral phenomena always require a God who is Goodness, a God who is Love. Our Creed is better than every secular creed at accounting for the moral universe.15

Not only that, but our experience testifies to God. Built into us, as a basic part of our mental furnishings and features, is a sense of the divine, an innate awareness of God as a properly basic truth, even though this sense frequently malfunctions due to sin and its corrosive effect on the powers of our mind. Yet as we go through life, especially the life of faith which we live, we're likely to have experiences that are best understood as arranged by God. We give away a desired object in his name, and we come home to find that one or two replacements have turned up. Coincidence... or God-incidence? We cry out for direction, and a message nudges our way. Coincidence... or God-incidence? Before our waiting eyes, the wheel of history seems steered by a gentle but purposeful hand, orchestrating the march of human affairs on the order of centuries or millennia. All things scream providence, so we realize we've caught a glimpse of the Divine Provider. Or in the depths of prayer and the midst of worship, sections of our brain light up, not at an artificial stimulus cooked up in a lab, but at the presence of the One we've sought. In the hidden depths of the human soul, we suddenly sense Another besides ourselves strolling through the garden of our inner life, breaking in like a sunbeam and a breeze from outside, coming to tend the candles ablaze in his sanctuary. Our faculties then are neither malfunctioning nor misled: we've had an encounter; and from that experience, we realize that God not only exists but has drawn near. And then our hearts are caught by the hands of this man named Jesus – a person about whom we'll hear more next week, but who is so immensely beautiful and good and true that we can be totally justified in believing that there's a God purely on his say-so alone; and for many who've confessed this Creed of ours before us, that's exactly where they found their warrant to do so. Our Creed is better than every secular creed at accounting for these experiences and this testimony.16

And lastly, only God can guarantee the victory our whole being craves. If atheism were true, then a life filled with tragedy and woe will ultimately go uncompensated. A person could spend his or her time on earth being treated horrifically and unjustly, and then be snuffed out of existence, and the world cannot be set right, nor can that victim's tormentors be guaranteed to face the bar of justice. The stain on the universe left by real evil could then never be washed away. Existence has been, and always will be, defiled. Evil can never, in the end, be defeated – if there is no God. Only if there is a God is there any hope of removing the moral stain of horrific tragedy and rank injustice from the universe. Nothing less than God could guarantee the rectification of life. And for exactly that reason, some philosophers have rightly suggested that even atheists have a moral duty, a responsibility, to wish that God exists, out of compassion for all who suffer. Our Creed, like no secular creed ever could be, is the answer to all those wishes and the promise to all those hopes.17

All of this is why we cannot go with the atheists, the agnostics, the secular humanists, the naturalists, or any of the others who live – in theory or in practice – as if there is no God. It is, in fact, why our scriptures identify that kind of God-obscuring life as leading to foolishness: defective thinking, defective feeling, defective living, both rationally and ethically (Psalm 14:1). Spurning the path toward foolishness, we set our lives apart from all atheistic, agnostic, secularist, and naturalistic approaches to the world by confessing boldly that there is a God. For as we read, “whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists” (Hebrews 11:6)! This God is eternal, transcendent, perfect. So what more do we confess about God?

The next words out of our mouth in this Creed are to say that God is 'Father.' And we'll come back to that, both today and next week. But first notice this: to say that God is 'Father' means, at the very least, that he is personal – not an abstraction or a vague force or a field of energy. Many alternative or eastern spiritualities would have it that way – but not us with our Creed. To say that God is 'Father' is to imply that he thinks, he wills, he acts, he relates. He acts with deliberation and intention. And then, to say that God is 'the Father Almighty' is to say that when he acts, he acts successfully. God is all-present. God is all-knowing. God is all-powerful. God is perfect in and by every conceivable measurement. He can do anything and everything that's consistent with his perfection of being and character: “Our God is in the heavens: he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). God is “the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8).

And then we confess that this “God the Father Almighty” is also Creator. God is not made, was never made, could never have been made; but everything that isn't God has been made, has been created, is his creation, and he its Creator. God has made everything that isn't God, and made it out of nothing.18 This raises the clearest and most impregnable distinction between God and everything else: there is God, Creator, and everything else, creation. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). God lit the dawn of the day before which were no yesterdays; and all things, here or anywhere else, whether we can see them or not, we know one thing: he made them. “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth: he does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (Isaiah 40:28). He is “the God who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it” (Isaiah 42:5). “For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm” (Psalm 33:9). So we confess with the Apostle that “there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6). “By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or powers or principalities” (Colossians 1:16).

In the creation, God has made many things we can see. He made trees and rocks, rivers and mountains, oceans and continents. He made deer and doves and dinosaurs, sparrows and squirrels and sharks, pigs and piranha and parakeets, crabgrass and cats and caribou, mangoes and monkeys and mushrooms, bats and bacteria and beluga whales. He made planets and moons, comets and stars, black holes and asteroids, pulsars and quasars. God has also made plenty of things we can't ordinarily see. Some are just very small, like electrons; some are very close and very big, like the Milky Way; some are very far away, like the furthest galaxies. Others are supramundane, like the invisible heavenly creations. Christian tradition actually acknowledges nine orders of invisible heavenly creations – the seraphim, the cherubim, the thrones, the dominations, the virtues, the powers, the principalities, the archangels, and the angels.19  God made all of these, ranking them in their place and commissioning them for their purpose, as he did all the rest of his creations, visible and invisible, terrestrial and celestial.  Marvelous and praiseworthy are all his works!

Rewinding the Creed thus far, now that we've confessed that God is Creator, we appreciate more and more what it meant to call him 'Almighty.' It means that, unlike those who've thought of him as a deadbeat dad to the world, or a watchmaker who winds up the machine and leaves it unattended, God keeps creation on a short leash. He's engaged and active. God cannot be confined by this creation, or kept at bay by this creation. He is infinitely bigger than its boundaries. And he is the most perfectly capable governor and provider of the world and all that's in it, arranging all the rhythms we see in nature, remaining in ultimate control of each situation. And therefore, one early Christian, a man who knew Peter and Paul, invites us:

Let us look steadfastly toward the Father and Creator of the whole world, and hold fast to his magnificent and surpassing gifts of peace and kindness to us. … Let us realize how peacefully he acts toward his whole creation. The heavens move at his direction and are subject to him in tranquility. Day and night complete the course he assigns them without hindering each other. Sun and moon and the choir of stars revolve in harmony according to his command in the orbits assigned to them, without swerving in the slightest. The earth, flowering at his bidding in due season, brings forth abundant food for humans and animals and all the living beings on its surface, without reluctance and without altering any of his arrangements. … The very smallest of the animals come together in harmony and peace. The great Creator and Lord of the universe commanded all these things to be at peace and in harmony.20

See, is that not precisely what we need right now?  God's administration of the world he's created is all-embracing, maintaining a baseline level of order in spite of the creation's persistent insurrection against his reign. And most remarkable, as we return to that earlier title of 'Father,' we see it in a fresh way. This Creator, this Almighty God whose brushstrokes are galaxies and who raises up mountains and casts down valleys – he takes an active interest in us, not merely providentially, but relationally, in a family-style way. He hasn't been content to simply produce us as art or as tools or as furnishings, nor is he content to just rule over us from a distance as subjects. This God whom we confess, this God in whom we say we believe, has taken the initiative to establish family relationships with us. This is, in fact, the story told in our scriptures. God claims Adam for a son and Eve for a daughter; later, as the world goes awry, he gets involved in the life of Abraham, multiplies him to a nation called Israel, then saves them: “Out of Egypt,” God says, “I have called my son,” Israel (Hosea 11:1). “I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18). And so we answer back together, in the words of this Creed: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth!”

That's what we believe. So what difference does it make? Well, for one, it justifies a positive outlook toward the world around us. Wherever we look, we're seeing God's world, the Father's world. It may be a mess, it may be in shambles, it may be the scene of strife and madness, but the world itself is good, whatever we touch is good. “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4). In a culture that treats many things as disposable (as ours does, including people), we need to renew our positive vision of what God has made. As created, it's all good, and to be cherished and valued.

Even so, these truths also call us to mentally transcend the world around us, even as we affirm it. Our minds and hearts must not be left at the level of the art, but must venture to the Artist; not fixated on the creation, but peering through it to the Creator, whose majesty is more magnificent by far than the sum total of all he's made: “Turn from these... things to a living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15). “Set your minds on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2). As appreciative as we are for his creation, the Creator by himself is infinitely more desirable than any and all created things – and our minds and hearts, our thoughts and desires, should turn again and again to him.  In times like ours, the news of the hour presses upon us, demanding our attention, begging us to fixate on the latest scandal or tragedy.  These are created things rising up and lashing out.  But the Creator is far worthier of our fixation, our attention, our everlasting contemplation.

Third, to confess this Creed should lead to gratitude becoming our default attitude. If it's true that heaven and earth and all their contents, visible and invisible, are the creations of a God who is our Almighty Father, then everything that crosses our path or comes into our care is fundamentally a gift. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). “He did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).  We receive them indeed with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4)!

Fourth, these truths invite us then to live compassionately – to imitate God the Father's paternal care under his very own paternal supervision. “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors [his Maker]” (Proverbs 14:31). “Put on then... compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).  For in providence, the Almighty has compassion towards his creatures, all creatures; and he offers this example for our imitation.

And last of all, this swings wide the door to reliance. “God my Maker... gives songs in the night..., teaches us more than the beasts of the earth, and makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens” (Job 35:10-11). When we say 'I believe,' it means, of course, that we believe that there is a God. But it means more than that. It's an act of faith, a disposition of trust and reliance: it means we put stock in him, place our faith in him, hang our trust on him, precisely the way he's here described: we trust him as Almighty, we trust him as Creator, we trust him as Father. That's the relational response we're saying we'll make. So as the Apostle wrote, let us “entrust [our] souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19) in a world so ill at ease for nowbut still and ever our Father's world! Amen.


1 Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 56.4, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 109:219

2 Augustine of Hippo, On the Creed 1, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 27:289

3 Rufinus of Aquileia, Commentary on the Apostles Creed 2, in Ancient Christian Writers 20:29-30; see also a later anonymous sermon on the creed, section 2, Latin text in Liuwe H. Westra, The Apostles' Creed: Origin, History, and Some Early Commentaries (Brepols, 2002), 522-523.

4 The EC Link: A Reference Manual for Understanding the Evangelical Congregational Church (n.p., n.d.), 37

5 Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies 1.10.1, in Ancient Christian Writers 55:49.

6 The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, an expansion by the Council of Constantinople (in the year 381) of an earlier creed promulgated by the Council of Nicaea (in the year 325).

7 Pew Research Center, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” report released 17 October 2019, page 4. <>.

8 Pew Research Center, “U.S. Teens Take After Their Parents Religiously...,” report released 10 September 2020, page 41. <>.

9 Pew Research Center, “When Americans Say They Believe in God, What Do They Mean?”, report released 25 April 2018, page 4. <>.

10 Pew Research Center, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” report released 17 October 2019, page 3. <>.

11 For more, see William Lane Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument (Macmillan Press, 1979); Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2004 [1979]), 133-152; Garrett J. DeWeese and Joshua Rasmussen, “Hume and the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” in James F. Sennett and Douglas Groothuis, In Defense of Natural Theology: A Post-Humean Assessment (InterVarsity Press, 2005), 123-149; Mark D. Nowacki, The Kalam Cosmological Argument for God (Prometheus Books, 2007); Alexander R. Pruss, “The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument,” in W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009), 24-100; William Lane Craig and James D. Sinclair, “The Kalam Cosmological Argument,” in W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009), 101-201; Alexander R. Pruss, Infinity, Causation, and Paradox (Oxford University Press, 2018); Jacobus Erasmus, The Kalam Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment (Springer, 2018); and Robert C. Koons, “The Grim Reaper Kalam Argument: From Temporal and Causal Finitism to God,” in Paul Copan with William Lane Craig, eds., The Kalam Cosmological Argument: Philosophical Arguments for the Finitude of the Past (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), 273-284.

12 For more, see Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2004 [1979]), 153-191; Rodney D. Holder, God, the Multiverse, and Everything: Modern Cosmology and the Argument from Design (Ashgate, 2004); Robin Collins, “The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe,” in W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009), 202-281; C. Stephen Evans, “The Naive Teleological Argument: An Argument from Design for Ordinary People,” in Jerry Walls and Trent Dougherty, eds., Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for God: The Plantinga Project (Oxford University Press, 2018), 108-122.

13 For more, see Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2004 [1979]), 192-212; and J. P. Moreland, Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument (Routledge, 2008).

14 For more, see Charles Taliaferro and Jil Evans, The Image in Mind: Theism, Naturalism, and the Imagination (Continuum, 2011); Philip Tallon, “The Mozart Argument and the Argument from Play and Enjoyment: The Theistic Argument from Beauty and Play,” in Jerry Walls and Trent Dougherty, eds., Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for God: The Plantinga Project (Oxford University Press, 2018), 321-340.

15 For more, see Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2004 [1979]), 212-218; Mark D. Linville, “The Moral Argument,” in W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009), 391-448; David Baggett and Jerry Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (Oxford University Press, 2016).

16 For more, see William P. Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Cambridge University Press, 1991); Jerome I. Gellman, Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief (Cambridge University Press, 1997); R. Douglas Geivett, “The Evidential Value of Religious Experience,” in Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser, eds., The Rationality of Theism (Routledge, 2003), 175-203; Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2004 [1979]), 219-235, 293-327; Kai-Man Kwan, “The Argument from Religious Experience,” in W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009), 498-552.

17 Richard E. Creel, Divine Impassibility: An Essay in Philosophical Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 147-149; and David Baggett and Jerry Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (Oxford University Press, 2016), 302.

18 For more, see Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, Creation out of Nothing: A Biblical, Philosophical, and Scientific Exploration (Baker Academic, 2004).

19 On the orders of angels, see Ambrose of Milan, Defense of the Prophet David 5 §20, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 140:115; Ps.-Dionysius, On the Celestial Hierarchy 6.2, in Pseudo-Dionysius: the Complete Works (Paulist Press, 1987), 160-161; Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 7.5.4, in Stephen A. Barney, et al., trans., The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 160; and John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith 2.3, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 37:208.

20 Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 19.2—20.11, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 1:26-27.