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29 November 2018

Our ancient foe, the devil.

What’s its deal? Why’s it so dead-set against humanity?

Yes, Satan exists.

However, in both popular and Christian culture, Satan has been profoundly misrepresented. Kinda by design. Like Sunzi said, all warfare is based on deception, so the devil gets a leg up on us humans by making us believe all sorts of disinformation.

Like how it used to be the mightiest angel in heaven, and is still kind of a big deal. Like how pretty it is, 2Co 11.14 or how it rules the world. Lk 4.5-6 Like how it’s everywhere, same as God; or how it might not be almighty but it’s pretty darned mighty. And other things which might intimidate Christians against resisting or fighting it—or make us so wary of it, we never refer to it by name. Various Christians will only call it “the enemy,” lest calling it by name might conjure it up, like Voldemort from the Harry Potter novels.

Or on the opposite extreme, we’ll consider Satan laughable: It’s a red creature with horns, goat legs, a tail, and a trident. It sits on your shoulder, opposite an angel on your other shoulder, and goads you into doing what’s fun while the shoulder angel convinces you to do what’s right. It tortures people in the underworld, and sometimes ventures to the surface to tempt rock musicians. It’s an imaginary being, like fairies and gnomes and Smurfs and mermaids. It’s a representation of evil, but it’s not a literal being. It’s silly.

We Christians believe there’s a devil, because Jesus taught us it exists. Lk 8.12 But contrary to the paranoid fantasies of dark Christians, it’s not a mighty being, but a defeated foe. Jesus conquered it, 1Jn 3.8 and someday will destroy it. Rv 20.10 Meanwhile he gave us, his followers, power over it. Lk 10.19 If we submit to God and resist it, it’ll flee. Jm 4.7

Yeah, that’s correct: Flee. It can’t withstand us. The only reason we think it can, is because we don’t submit to God; we submit to it. We capitulate. We fold like a table lamp.

Our situation is like a trained elephant on a leash. Why don’t elephants snap the leash, or take off and drag their handlers wherever they want? Because they’ve been trained to obey humans. Frighten an elephant badly enough and then you’ll see ’em snap leashes, drag people behind them, even maul people. The devil has humans on a very similar leash, hoping we never notice how very easy it is to fight back. Especially with the weapons the Holy Spirit offers us.

Various new Christians wanna know why God doesn’t just put a stop to the devil. He doesn’t have to! We can. When Christians get off our apathetic backsides, or quit being scared for no good reason, we can easily resist. Satan is so quickly defeated, people get surprised: “You mean the fight’s over?” Yep. Satan flees like a cockroach when the lights turn on. Humans (and our fears) are way harder to fight off.

28 November 2018

Hypocrites. They’re everywhere.

The reason pagans assume Christians are phonies is ’cause we are. So let’s stop that.

HYPOCRISY |hə'pɑk.rə.si| noun Pretense: Practice of claiming beliefs or moral standards which one doesn’t truly have.
2. Inconsistency: Practice of claiming beliefs or moral standards, but one’s own behavior demonstrates otherwise.
[Hypocrite |'hɪp.ə.krɪt| noun, hypocritical |hɪp.ə'krɪd.ə.kəl| adjective.]

The Greek word ypókrisis literally means “over [the] face.” In the ancient Greek religion, whenever someone claimed they spoke for the gods, they’d put on a bit of a show. When a man claimed Zeus spoke through him, he’d assume a deep voice, exaggerated gestures, and perform a sorta impersonation of Zeus. (Since we’re talking about fake gods, it was totally an act.)


Comic and tragic masks. Wikimedia

This “prophetic” acting evolved into Greek drama. Certain “gifted” poets, whom the Greeks believed had some divinely-inspired prophetic ability, would have actors memorize their “revelations” and present them to audiences. So you’d know who was playing whom, actors would wear masks; so the folks in the back of the theater knew whether the actors were happy or sad (’cause the actors weren’t always good at their jobs), masks might have exaggerated features. You know those happy and sad masks, associated with drama and the theater? Don’t worry; I included a picture. Anyway, ypókrisis turned into the word for “actor.”

Don’t get the wrong idea: There’s nothing wrong with acting. Well, so long that people know it’s an act. When they don’t, it’s fraud.

So when Jesus borrowed the term to describe certain Pharisees, he meant they were acting. But hiding it; therefore fraud. And Jesus wasn’t happy about the fraud. Pissed him off more than anything.

Matthew 23.1-7 KWL
1 Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his students, 2 saying,
“In Moses’s judgment seat sit the scribes and Pharisees.
3 So you must do, and revere, everything Pharisees might say.
But don’t do according to their works—for Pharisees say, and don’t do.
4 Pharisees tie up heavy, hard-to-carry burdens and place them on people’s shoulders.
And they don’t want to move them with their fingers.
5 Pharisees do all their works for people to see:
They widen their prayer-straps and lengthen their tassels.
6 Pharisees love the first couch at dinner and the first seat in synagogue,
7 and to be greeted in market and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by people.”

Every so often it’s a good idea for us Christians to swap the word “Pharisee” with “Christian” and see whether it still fits. Annoyingly, it still largely does.

27 November 2018

Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Not the chorus; the rote prayer. (And a bit about proper pronunciation of “excelsis.”

Before I discuss the rote prayer itself, lemme rant a bit about how everybody mispronounces excelsis.

When I was a kid, most folks I knew mispronounced it |ɪk'sɛl.sɪs|, ’cause it’s spelled like our English word “excel,” so people assumed of course that’s how you say it. Around high school one of the music pastors decided to correct everyone: “It’s pronounced |ɛks'tʃɛl.sɪs|; the C makes a |tʃ| sound like the word ‘cello,’ not |s| like ‘cellar.’ ” And everyone responded, “Ah of course,” and learned to say it that way.

Both are wrong.

The |tʃ| sound comes from Italian, which worked its way backwards into present-day Latin. (Which you thought was a dead language, didn’tcha? Nope. It’s still the official language of Vatican City, which means people there actually do speak it… when they’re not speaking Italian or English, or the pope’s native Spanish.) As for Roman Empire and early medieval Latin—in other words proper Latin—the C made a |k| sound, like “cardinal.” When an X came before it, that sound turned into an |s|. (Oh, and the vowels in Latin sound like the vowels in Spanish and French.) Hence the proper pronunciation of excelsis is |eɪs'kɛl.sis|.

Gloria in excelsis Deo |'ɡloʊ.ri.ɑ 'in eɪs'kɛl.sis 'deɪ.oʊ|, whether we mean the prayer, or the line we use for various Christmas-song choruses, is Latin for “glory in the highest to God.” It’s what angels said (not sang; read your bible again) when they appeared to the Bethlehem sheep-herders, and comes from the original dóxa en ypsístois Theó. Lk 2.14 But it comes from a more ancient Latin translation, ’cause St. Jerome rendered it gloria in altissimis Deo for the Vulgate.

When we’re speaking of the rote prayer—“the Gloria,” for short—we mean what Orthodox churches call “the Great Doxology.” There are eastern and western versions of it. The eastern version was written first, so let’s go with it first.

PRIEST. “Glory to you who has shown us the light.”
CONGREGATION. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to all people.
We praise you, we bless you, we worship you,
we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory.
Lord, King, heavenly God, Father, almighty;
Lord, the only‑begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit.
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father who take away the sin of the world,
have mercy on us, you who take away the sins of the world.
Receive our prayer, you who sit at the right hand of the Father,
and have mercy on us.
For you only are holy, only you are Lord,
Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.
Each day we bless you,
and we praise your name forever and to the ages of ages.
Lord, grant that we may be kept this day without sin.
Blessed are you, Lord, God of our fathers.
Your name is praised and glorified throughout all ages. Amen.

26 November 2018

Jesus came from heaven? And you gotta eat him?

The level of commitment Jesus expects of his followers: You gotta eat the bread of life.

John 6.41-60

Jesus pointed out he, not the stuff he and his students fed the 5,000, not the manna the LORD fed the Hebrews, is bread from heaven. Living bread. Stuff you eat and live forever. Don’t seek temporal, earthly bread. Seek him.

It’s a metaphor, of course, for a relationship with Jesus. One the Galileans and Judeans, steeped in a culture (and a bible) full of metaphors, shoulda understood. One we should understand too… but of course not all of us do, and I’m gonna get into that a bit today.

But at this point in the story, the Galieans appeared to be tracking with Jesus so far. Their objection—the reason they eghóngyzon/“grumbled” (KJV “murmured”) about Jesus teaching this—wasn’t because they misunderstood what he meant; they totally understood what he meant. Their problem was he was talking about himself. Who, they were agreed, was probably a big deal; probably the End Times prophet. But “comes from heaven”? Waitaminnit.

John 6.41-42 KWL
41 So the Galileans grumbled at Jesus because he said “I’m the bread who comes from heaven,”
42 and said, “Isn’t this Jesus bar Joseph? Don’t we know his father and mother?
So how does he say he’s come from heaven?”

If somebody claims, “I came from heaven,” our knee-jerk reaction is naturally, “No you didn’t.” Doesn’t matter how much you know them, how much you like them, how much anything—the only people in the highest heaven are God, the angelic beings round his throne, and those few people he raptured before the resurrection, like Elijah. (We presume a few people because only three get a mention in the bible. For all we know God might’ve raptured way more. But that’s pure speculation.) Nobody can come from heaven but those beings—and we’re quite sure our claimant isn’t among them. Likewise the Galileans and Jesus: Of course he didn’t come from heaven. He was born. He has parents! They knew his parents.

Yeah, Christians are fully aware Jesus existed before his conception, ’cause he’s God. We get how he came from heaven, yet was born. We tend to take that belief for granted. But that was a wholly foreign idea to the Galileans, who presumed God would never do such a thing. He’s almighty, he’s sovereign, he’s dignified… he’s not a man, like Moses said, Nu 23.19 and they figured he’d never stoop so low as to become one.

So the Galileans had to wrap their brains around that one. But Jesus doubled down.

John 6.43-46 KWL
43 In reply Jesus also told them, “Don’t grumble among yourselves:
44 Nobody can come to me unless the Father, my Sender, draws them,
and I will resurrect them on the Last Day.
45 In the Prophets it’s written, ‘And they’ll all be taught by God’: Is 54.13
All who hear and learn from the Father, come to me.
46 Not that they saw the Father—
except the one from God; this man has seen the Father.”

So not only is Jesus claiming he’s from heaven, but he’s gonna resurrect everybody. Which wasn’t at all what the Pharisees taught about the End Times prophet, nor Messiah, nor anyone. Jesus is making some mighty cosmic claims for himself.

And this, folks, is why they couldn’t believe in Jesus. Not because they mixed up his bread metaphors.

23 November 2018

Worshiping Mammon instead of Jesus.

How religion works in wealthy countries.

Matthew 6.24 • Luke 16.13

In the United States today is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and the second-biggest shopping day of the year. Used to be the biggest, but that’s now Monday. In order to get customers to shop on their day off, stores offer outrageous sale prices, and many shoppers are so greedy and impatient they’ll do horrible things to one another.

I’ve been reading a bit lately about how American merchants have exported the shopping day to other countries, in the hope of kick-starting their Christmas shopping as well. Strikes the United Kingdom’s pundits as odd; why are they suddenly participating in an American phenomenon? And if so, why don’t they get our Thanksgiving too? Although as American merchants have proven, they really don’t care so much about Thanksgiving: They’d have us interrupt our holiday and start shopping Thursday if they can. And they do try.

The myth is it’s called black because merchants do so well, their ledgers are now “in the black” instead of “in the red”—they’re finally turning profits in the fiscal year, instead of losses. This is a lie. The police, who have to break up fights, work crowd control, and deal with trampled or beaten victims, began calling it Black Friday, and the name stuck.

Black Friday is one of our culture’s more obvious examples of Mammonism, the worship of wealth, money, material possessions, and the joy of pursuing all that stuff. Our word Mammon comes from something Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, repeated in Luke.

Matthew 6.24 KWL
“Nobody’s able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”
Luke 16.13 KWL
“No slave is able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”

A few of the more recent translations drop the reference to Mammon and translate this verse, “You cannot serve both God and money” (GNB, NIV, NLT), or “You cannot serve God and wealth” (NASB, NRSV). Thing is, mammonás/“Mammon” isn’t the Greek word for money; that’d be argýrion/“silver.” Nor the word for wealth; that’d be hríma/“thing of value.” It’s an Aramaic word with a Greek ending tacked on, as if it’s an Aramaic name. Hence people extrapolated the idea that Mammon is a person, and since Jesus says you can’t serve this person as well as God, it must therefore be another god.

A false god of course. But some god which competes with the LORD for our devotion. And since the Aramaic mamón is a cognate of the Hebrew matmón/“secret riches,” Mammon must therefore be a god of riches or wealth or money.

In Luke when this statement comes up, Jesus had just told the Undercharging Bookkeeper story: A shifty bookkeeper made friends by undercharging his master’s creditors. Lk 16.1-9 Jesus concludes, “Make friends for yourselves out of the embezzling Mammon.” Lk 16.9 And in the following Luke passage, the Pharisees rejected this teaching of Jesus because they were filiárgyri/“silver-lovers.” Lk 16.14

So is Mammon a money god? Or simply Jesus’s personification of money? Or a mistranslation?