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04 January 2019

Epiphany: When Jesus was revealed to the world.

The holiday which grew into Christmas.

Epiphany (in some churches it’s called Theophany) falls on 6 January. Well, unless your church still follows the Julian calendar, in which case it’s gonna wind up on 19 January. It comes right after the last day of Christmas. In fact Christmas is celebrated on 25 December because of Epiphany.

See, Epiphany celebrates how Jesus was revealed to the world. True, the Christmas stories figure that was with the angels and sheep-herders, and maybe with the magi. But technically he was revealed at the beginning of his ministry, at his baptism, where John the baptist identified him as God’s son.

John 1.29-34 KWL
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming to him.
He said, “Look: God’s ram, taking up the world’s sin! 30 This is the one I spoke of!
‘The one coming after me has got in front of me’—because he’s first over me. Jn 1.15
31 And I hadn’t seen him! But I came baptizing in water so he’d be revealed to Israel.”
32 John testified, saying this: “I’ve seen the Spirit,
descending like a pigeon from the sky, and staying on him.
33 And I hadn’t seen him, but he who sent me to baptize in water
yes, him—told me, “On whomever you see the Spirit come down and stay on,
that’s who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’
34 And I’ve seen. I testify: This is God’s son.”

The third-century Christians began to celebrate Jesus’s baptism in January. Why January? Historians’ best guess is the early churches divided up the gospels into a year’s worth of readings, and if you start with Mark, you get to the baptism story in the second week of the year. So it wasn’t ’cause anybody knew the date of the baptism; it’s just the date they read the baptism story.

Since Jesus was also sorta revealed as God incarnate at his annunciation, Epiphany celebrations began to include his birth stories. Till the early Christians realized Jesus’s birth needed its own celebration. Thus the 12 days before Epiphany evolved into the separate celebration of Christmas.

Yep, that’s how it happened. I know; pagans like to claim we Christians took over all the pagan winter solstice festivals, and shoehorned Jesus’s birthday into that. Didn’t work like that. Any Christian can tell you: We don’t swipe pagan holidays. We swipe Jewish ones.

We still don’t know when Jesus was born, or baptized… and it doesn’t matter, right? We just need a day or two to celebrate. Or 12. And for the longest time Epiphany also lasted several days. Usually eight.

Epiphany also marks the end of Christmastime. Bummer.

03 January 2019

Feedback, and orthodoxy tests.

Questions? Comments? Email. But remember, my feedback policy means I can post it. Especially if it’s a question plenty of others might have.

Some of you know TXAB has an email link. Whenever I redesign the site, the link gets moved around, but it doesn’t feel like placement has anything to do with how much mail I get. Besides, when people don’t know the email address, they tend to stick non-sequitur comments at the bottom of articles, and get ahold of me that way. Hey, whatever works. Just remember I do have a feedback policy around here.

Most of the TXAB emails are theology questions. People wanna know about God, and I’m all for that. People wanna know how God thinks about this or that subject, or what Jesus teaches, or how Christianity tends to lean. I point ’em to the scriptures, offer my studied opinion, and remind ’em I’m not infallible—but Jesus is.

People likewise wanna know about other people. Whether a Christian ministry, or famous preacher, or widespread teaching (or even little-known teaching) is orthodox and biblical, or not. ’Cause either they, or their friends and family, are dabbling in those teachings, and they wanna be sure nobody’s going astray. I don’t blame them. We’re trying to follow Jesus, and while many Christian teachings are useful (or at least harmless), many are self-serving, or can definitely be bent towards evil, and we don’t need any more falsehoods spreading through Christendom, and monkey-wrenching our relationships with God.

And every so often I get a question from someone who’s testing me.

There are a lot of dark Christians who have appointed themselves heresy hunters. Sometimes for understandable reasons: They got caught up in some cult, got out of it, and wanna make sure nobody else gets into it. Or they have an apologetics ministry, and naturally wanna make sure we’re defending orthodox Christianity from people who hold more heretic views. But too many heresy hunters are of the view they’re saved, not by God’s grace, but by believing all the right things—a form of works righteousness I call “faith righteousness.”

If you’re saved by your faith—by what you believe—it means holding false beliefs might get you unsaved. Certainly the devil would be interested in anything that might get Christians unsaved! So faith-righteous folks like to go on the offensive, shake the trees for anyone who might make ’em stumble out of heaven, and go heresy hunting. Yep, that’s why certain Fundamentalists you know are so paranoid and argumentative: They don’t trust God to save them. Only their vigilance.

Naturally they wanna make sure I won’t lead ’em astray. So they pitch me some questions, to which they already know “the right answer,” just to see whether I’ll give them the correct response. And if I don’t, they’ll furiously try to correct me… and if I don’t concede, condemn me as heretic and warn all their friends about me. Or they’ll skip correcting and go straight to condemning; it all depends on how they interpret Jesus’s procedure in Matthew 18—if they consider me a “brother” they’ll bother to correct me, and if they don’t they won’t.

Invariably I'm gonna disappoint these people. Because I might get their first question right, but you know I’m gonna fail one of their future tests.

See, when you’re into faith righteousness, there’s no such thing as an optional Christian belief. Freedom in Christ doesn’t exist. Freedom of conscience is never entrusted to the average Christian, because they’re entirely sure people will compromise righteousness for the sake of convenience. (To be fair, they’re largely not wrong!) They insist there are no shades of gray in Christianity; there’s black and white, right and wrong, godly and satanic, orthodox and heretic.

What about when Paul wrote one Christian can believe one way, another Christian another, and we shouldn’t condemn one another over it? Ro 14 Oh, they skip that part of the bible. Because they don’t trust people to apply that level of commonsense without abusing it, or creating loopholes which means the rules don’t apply to them. The kind of freedom of conscience Paul writes about, makes it impossible for legalistic Christians to condemn one another over every little thing… and they can’t abide that idea. So they find excuses why it doesn’t apply to this situation… or any.

Anyway. If I suspect I’m getting an orthodoxy test, I’ll admit it: I try to fail the first time. Even if my answer is likely the very one they’re looking for, I’ll try to throw in some comment which’ll flunk one of their future questions.

No, not because I’m trying to pick a fight. It’s because I wanna get this charade over with. I’m here to help, not to play “Spot the Heretic.”

02 January 2019

The Daniel fast.

Every January, the people in my church go on a diet. Most years for three weeks; this year we’re formally doing it for one, but some folks may choose to go longer. We cut back on the carbohydrates, sugar, meat, and oils; lots of fruits and vegetables. Considering all the binging we did between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it makes sense to practice a little more moderation, doesn’t it?

What on earth does this practice have to do with prayer? Well y’see, the people don’t call it a diet. They call it a “Daniel fast.”

It’s an Evangelical practice which has taken off in the past 20 years. It’s loosely based on a few lines from Daniel 10. At the beginning of the year, Daniel went three weeks—that’d be 21 days—depriving himself.

Daniel 10.2-3 KWL
2 In those days I, Daniel, went into mourning three weeks. 3 I ate none of the bread I coveted.
Meat and wine didn’t enter my mouth. I didn’t oil my hair for all of three weeks.

So that’s how the Daniel fast works. At the beginning of the year, we likewise go three weeks depriving ourselves. He went without bread, meat, wine, and oil; so do we. True, by ‏ס֣וֹךְ ‏לֹא־‏סָ֑כְתִּי {sokh lo-sakhtí}, “I oiled myself no oil,” Daniel was referring to how the ancients cleaned their hair. (Perfumed oil conditions it, and keeps bugs away.) But look at your average Daniel fast diet, and you’ll notice Evangelicals are taking no chances. Nothing fried, no oils, no butter, nothing tasty.

Though the lists aren’t consistent across Christendom. The list below permits quality oils. Including grapeseed… even though Daniel went without wine during his three weeks. Not entirely sure how they came up with their list.

This list permits oils… but no solid fats. ’Cause Daniel denied himself Crisco, y’know. The Daniel Fast

In fact you look at these menus, and you’ve gotta wonder how any of it was extrapolated from Daniel’s experience. I mean, it generally sounds like Daniel was denying himself nice food. And yet there are such things as cookbooks for how to make “Daniel fast” desserts. No I’m not kidding. Cookbooks which say, right on the cover, they’re full of delicious recipes—so even though Daniel kept away from enjoyable food, who says you have to do without?

This is a fast, right?

01 January 2019

Religious. Not “spiritual.”

Happy new year. At the beginning of the year I figure it’s not a bad idea to remind readers the point of The Christ Almighty Blog. (Or TXAB for short.) Remind myself too; I’ve seen many a blog where it began as one thing and evolved into another. God forbid, TXAB could warp into yet another blog where I’m bitterly ranting about Christian misbehavior. Plenty enough of those as it is.

TXAB is about following Jesus the Nazarene and his teachings. Since he’s our God-anointed king—or Messiah or Christ—we Christ-followers get called Christians. Though every once in a while some snobbish Christian insists, “No, not Christian; I want to be called a Christ-follower,” and once again we risk turning TXAB into a rant about Christian misbehavior.

To be fair, the Christ-follower has a point. Christian quite often means a Christ-fan. Someone who really likes Jesus, claims to love him (or at least love Jesus as they imagine him), yet doesn’t follow him any. Such people conform to popular Christian culture, and thereby become Christianist. They presume they know him, and don’t really. As we can see whenever they have an authentic God-encounter: Either they immediately recognize their error and repent… or recoil in horror and offense, and expose how they were never really interested in God to begin with. Those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit are one obvious example, but there are plenty of others.

So when we purpose to quit following the crowd and start following Jesus whithersoever he may lead, it’s called being religious. Problem is, irreligious people (particularly in the Evangelical movement) have turned “religious” and “religion” into dirty words. The way they describe it, religion only refers to works righteousness: You think you earn heaven by doing the rituals, being good, and amassing so much good karma God has to let you in. But God doesn’t work that way at all: Nobody earns heaven. We get in because God’s gracious. No other reason.

To be fair, most religions do figure you earn heaven (or a good afterlife, a good reincarnation, or oneness with the universe) because you earned it through good deeds. And a fair amount of this pagan point of view has leaked into Christianity. So we do have to be vigilant lest any Christian get the wrong idea, and think good deeds are how you get heaven—or worse, think bad deeds can undo your salvation. (You can undo your salvation, but it’s done by deliberately quitting Jesus. Not by sinning.)

Problem is, humans are creatures of extremes. It’s not enough to say, “Hey, that’s wrong; don’t do that.” Some people gotta go so far in the opposite direction, they’re doing the opposite. So while some of us Christians are gonna correctly say, “We’re saved by grace, not works; Ep 2.8-9 stop trying to earn karma for heaven,” others are gonna wrongly say, “We’re saved by grace, not works; stop doing good works.”

Um… we’re supposed to do good works. Ep 2.10 Had you read the bible? We’re told time and again to be good. That God hates sin. Even if he forgives all (and he does!), don’t do what irritates your Father. Stop sinning!

If we claim we belong to Jesus, if we claim to follow Jesus, what’s the proof of these claims? Well duh: We act like Jesus! 1Jn 2.6 We behave ourselves. We try to be good people. We do as he taught. What kind of rotten employees don’t do as their boss says? Employees who oughta be fired, maybe even sued, certainly kicked out of the building, that’s who. And that’s what Jesus describes in more than one parable.

I’m not saying such ingrates can’t repent and be forgiven. Again, everyone can. But if people think we’re entitled to God’s kingdom regardless of how everything in our lives indicate we’re utterly opposed to this kingdom… is this kingdom truly where we’re headed? Jesus surely makes it sound doubtful.

So yeah, religion doesn’t save. That’s not its purpose whatsoever. But it’s not nothing! What it is, is good fruit. It reveals who takes Jesus seriously, and who doesn’t. It makes clear who’s truly saved. And irreligion makes clear… who’s really not.

If you wanna be religious, TXAB hopefully points you the right direction. And if you don’t… well that’s too bad. Hopefully you have enough of a relationship with God that the Holy Spirit eventually convinces you otherwise. Because if you’re satisfied with only being “spiritual,” y’might still get into God’s kingdom… but as the lowest person in it, with nothing to show for your “Christianity,” such as it was.

31 December 2018

Why you’re not gonna read the bible in a year.

Well you’re not. Let’s be upfront about that. It’s because you’re doing it wrong.

January’s coming, and with it come a lot of new resolutions, many of which you’re probably gonna break; I already discussed why.

Among them will likely be a resolution to read the bible. The whole bible; not just your favorite bits. So you’ll grab one of the popular reading plans and get started. And won’t finish. You’ll peter out around March. Maybe sooner.

No I’m not just saying this out of pessimism. Nor lack of confidence in your ability to be self-disciplined. I’ve known plenty of Christians with plenty of self-control, yet for the life of ’em they can’t manage to get through the bible. It really frustrates them.

I know why, of course: They’re doing it wrong.

How do you read a book? Well, we first gotta assume you read for enjoyment. Many don’t. Therefore they’re already not gonna enjoy reading bible, ’cause they don’t enjoy reading anything. Their reading-comprehension skills aren’t gonna be all that great either. Reading-retention skills are also gonna be lousy.

Reading the bible has been known to be a wonderful way of getting people into the practice of reading for enjoyment. Zealous new believers will pick up a bible, find they can’t put it down, whip right through it… and soon after, seek something else to read. Reading the bible turned them into readers! But if the first thing you introduce these newbies to is a bible-reading plan, it’ll suck all the fun out of reading, and good luck getting them to realize reading can be fun.

Because the way bible-reading plans are structured, they are poison to reading comprehension. To reading retention. To natural pacing. To context. To enjoyment! They turn what should be informative and inspiring, into a chore. And people hate chores, and are happy to find excuses to get out of ’em. “Whoops, missed two readings. Oh well; guess I’ll start over again next January.” Then they don’t.

Bible-reading plans begin by making two massive mistakes:

  • They last a year.
  • They chop up the bible into 365 segments. (Or 366 in leap years, or 313 if they let you take Saturdays off.)

These are design features of the yearlong reading plan. And they are the very things which make the plans terrible.