The First and Last Word

John begins his gospel with the well-known words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind” (John 1:1-4). Matthew begins his account in a more earthy way, “The birth of Jesus Christ occurred in this way. When his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came to live together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.19 Her husband Joseph was a just man and did not wish to expose her to the ordeal of public disgrace; therefore, he resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19).

In the first quote, the emphasis is upon the eternal word of God, that wisdom of God which was brought forth before the beginning of creation (Proverbs 8:22-23). In the second, the emphasis is on the incarnation, the coming of Immanuel, God with us. The Greek mindset, to which John was writing, and which is so common in the modern era, will always prefer the first description. At Christmas, however, we celebrate the earthy, Hebraic, physical description given by Matthew and Luke.

The God who created all things and which is in all things while being utterly different from them, was present in Jesus of Nazareth in a special way, a way we can only describe in physical terms. He was born as a human being and lived among us as a human being. He grew up as we grow up. He was tempted as we are tempted. He was victimized as we are victimized. He was betrayed as we are betrayed. He died as we die. There is but one difference: He experienced all this without sinning, that is without defacing his essential humanity.

In our power-mad society, where the search for wealth and power consumes many people, the earthy story is one we most need desperately to hear, believe and act upon. A society atomized by personal striving to the point of dissolution, seeking material things to the point of bankruptcy, in which the most basic things, like faith, hope, and love are ignored, needs to stop at least once each year and ponder a truer, healthier story. Our society needs to ponder the story that begins, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his One and Only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). [1]

It is Christmas Day and the first day of the last week of 2022. This week’s post reminds us that Jesus Christ is the first and last Word of God, he was with God in wisdom at the creation and incarnated in love for our salvation at the beginning of the end-times in which we live and have lived for more than twenty centuries. When they will end, we cannot know. What we do know is they will end with the victory cry of wisdom and love, first revealed in the cry of a helpless baby in a manger. Merry Christmas.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] In Greek, it is monogenes, which is best translated, “only begotten.” This translation emphasizes the uniqueness of Christ as bearing the “genetics of God” that is the God of Light and Love is uniquely present in the life, deat,  and resurrection of Christ.

Light in the Darkness

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:1-2). There is a paradox in the life of faith. We believe that through faith in Christ we can have a relationship with God, who dwells in light inaccessible, and whose wisdom transcends any human wisdom. In the words of the Nicene Creed, we believe that Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.” This Sunday, we will celebrate the Great Light that can illuminate and renew our world.

On occasion we human beings all feel as if we are walking in a great darkness separated from the True Light of God’s Presence. Our human plans are unfulfilled and seemingly blocked. Our well-meaning prayers are unanswered. Our most important relationships are troubled. Our employment is uncertain. Our character flaws seem impossible to overcome. In such situations, we can easily feel overwhelmed. Our sin and selfishness seems unescapable and devastating to our hopes and dreams.

When we “walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” physically or symbolically, the assurance that there is a God of Mercy and Love who cares for us makes an incredible difference. The blessings of God may be delayed. The salvation of God may be impossible to humanly predict. The darkness may seem impenetrable. But, the Creating and Renewing God who can do anything is still there.

How can we human beings know this? There is more than one reason, but the reason we celebrate at Christmas is this: Because God sent his one and only Son into the world, we can know that the Divine Presence is never far from us in steadfast and self-giving love, even if we cannot sense its reality at the moment.

In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr puts it this way:

In Christian faith, Christ mediates the confrontation of the self with God; for it is in Christ that the vague sense of the divine, which human life never loses, is crystalized into a revelation of divine mercy and judgement. In that revelation, fear of judgement and hope of mercy are so intermingled that despair induces repentance and repentance hope. [1]

All human beings are strange conglomerations of darkness and light, of good and evil, of love and indifference, of justice and injustice, of diligence and laziness, and the like. We are all imperfect creatures, made in the image of God but in whom that image has been defaced to some degree. Nevertheless, God loves us and desires for us to be restored to the original image placed within every one of us.

At Christmas, we celebrate the mystery that the love of God was so great that he bridged the gap between time and eternity, between heaven and earth, between the spiritual and the physical, between love and law, and became one of us, so that we might be restored and become like him. Therefore, this Saturday night, we can all join in singing:

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in the dark street shineth
The Everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight. [2]

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 109

[2] Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” music by Peter Christian Lutkin. (Chicago, IL: C. F. Summy Co., 1867).

When the Spirit Comes

Before Jesus was born, we are told that the Angel Gabriel paid two visits, one to Zechariah (the father of John the Baptist) and one to Mary the mother of Jesus. In both cases, the angel announced that they would be vehicle of God’s action in the world. In speaking to Mary Gabriel says:

Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:30-35).

We can over-spiritualize what is happening here and miss an important point about discipleship: Gabriel does not say, “Relax,  Mary: God by the Holy Spirit is going to do this no matter what you do, so stand aside and watch.” Gabriel says, “You will conceive and give birth to a son….” In explanation he says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” We sometimes miss the importance of the “you.”

The Holy Spirit does indeed work in our world. It works through “you” and me, everyone who is open to the power of God and willing to step out in faith. For a long time, I wanted to go into full-time ministry, but I did not do anything but pray that God would allow me to do that thing. Nothing happened. It was only when I applied to seminaries and took steps to move in the direction God was leading that the power of the Holy Spirit became evident in the situation.

At one point in The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr says,

The Holy Spirit is the spirit of God dwelling within human beings But this indwelling Spirit never means the destruction of human self-hood. There is therefore a degree of compatibility and continuity between human self-hood and the Holy Spirit. [1]

In other words, when God acts by the power of the Holy Spirit, God acts in and through a human being whose personality, strengths, capacities and weaknesses are known and accepted by God. What is done will be both the act of the person and of God, just as the birth of Jesus was the act of God in and through Mary.

This Christmas season, as we reflect and ponder what God has done in the past, we might ask perhaps the most important question of life: O God, what can I do so that you send your Spirit upon me, so that your kingdom may be more perfectly present in our world?”

We become the people God wishes for us to be as we allow God to act in our sin and weakness that the power of God be seen “in us.” Then, we can say with the Apostle Paul: “God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 99.

When Heaven Opens

There are times when people wish that God would act in power and might to overcome the forces of evil and decay. We cry out in the words of the Prophet Isaiah:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! as when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! for when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him (Isaiah 64: 1-4).

This is a natural human reaction to hard, difficult, decadent and evil times. The question is, “Is this a Christian reaction?” “Are we waiting for a power or for the Christ who died on the cross for our sins and for the sins of the world?” “What do we expect to happen when the Heavens open up?”

All the words of the prophets must be read, interpreted, and acted upon from the basis of God’s revelation in Christ, the “Final Word” God has spoken into history. As the writer of Hebrews put it: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1-2). If we want to know what God wants to do or more importantly what we ought to do, we look at Jesus, whom we believe to be the final word of God and his very radiance in human form (Hebrews 1:3).

A good deal of the time, we can rely upon our human wisdom, upon the customs of our culture and our communities. But, in extraordinary times and to live an extraordinary life in ordinary times we need a wisdom that comes from God in Christ, that word which the world often thinks is foolishness but which is, in fact, the very wisdom of God (I Corinthians 1:18). This is a wisdom that transcends and transforms our human wisdoms and is infused with the love of God. It is a wisdom that allows Christians to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them (Matthew 5:44). This is that love that enabled Jesus to go to the cross praying a prayer of forgiveness for those who persecuted him (Luke 23:34).

I do not know about you, but none of this comes naturally to me. This Christmas season, let us pray not only for greater human wisdom or for the defeat of the dark forces that are destroying our culture, but also for the wisdom that comes from above and for the love that transcends human understanding to come upon us, our families, and communities. [1] This “final Word of God” spoken to us in Christ corrects all of our self-centered selfishness and self-seeking as it brings us into that love that is God.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 67.