Advent — Apres le Deluge, Vive le Roi!

Before Thanksgiving dinner, my friend Lynn decided to take a walk. The rain had stopped. For about five minutes, a rainbow was visible ahead of him. Lynn pointed it out to neighbors he met on the road. Since all were walking toward him, the rainbow was hidden behind them. Its beauty was not visible — unless they turned around to look.

I asked permission to share Lynn’s story. It reminds me of a character in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the “man with a muckrake,” who “could look no way but downwards, with a muckrake in his hand. There stood also one over his head, with a celestial crown in his hand, and proffered to give him that crown for his muckrake; but the man did neither look up nor regard, but raked to himself the straws, the small sticks, and the dust of the floor.”

As interpreted by Bunyan, “earthly things, when they are with power upon men's minds, quite carry their hearts away from God.”

In a 1906 speech, President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “muckraker” to refer to journalists who “dig deep for facts” — to uncover scandals. In this 2020 holiday season, we struggle to move past political muckraking and mudslinging. Toxic news cycles drown out any Good News. Filth clings to our souls, and demands our constant attention.

Whether we lower our eyes or turn our backs, we are covered with grime. We miss the crown above us. God’s rainbow of promise is visible from the road — but only if we reverse our direction.

Jesus’ followers are reminded: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1-4)

As Eugene Peterson renders this: “Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up … be alert to what is going on around Christ … where the action is.”

Advent is the season to anticipate God’s promised future. Let’s not forget the “rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircling the throne.” (Revelation 4:3) Lift up your heads. Long live the King!

Plague, Election, and the Finger of God.

Trump isn't Pharaoh. Biden isn't Moses. But the LORD alone is God. Let’s not return to (ab)normal.

In popular culture, finger of God describes an EF5 tornado that wipes building foundations and demolishes buildings. But, in the Bible and Ancient Near Eastern cultures, the finger of God represents divine power to establish God’s kingdom on earth, to overthrow rival gods, and to destroy evil. The Finger of God appears in both Old and New Testaments:

After the LORD sent a plague of gnats (or ticks? or lice?) on Egypt to free Israel from slavery, “The magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God.’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said.” (Exodus 8:19)

After God’s people were set free from bondage, the LORD made a covenant with Israel to serve God as a holy nation. Moses declared, “The LORD gave me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God ... on them were all the words that the LORD had spoken with you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire...” (Deuteronomy 9:10)

At Belshazzar’s feast, Babylon’s officials used goblets stolen from God’s temple to toast their gods. “The fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace ... the king saw the hand as it wrote.” This inspired the expression, “the writing is on the wall.” Daniel interpreted this omen of imminent doom, “God has numbered the days of your kingdom … you have been weighed and found wanting … your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5) Babylon, Egypt, Persia, and indeed all nations, kingdoms, and empires will ultimately fall before the kingdom of God.

Jesus taught his followers to pray, “Your kingdom come.” But some claimed, “He casts out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons.” Jesus replied, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11) Matthew records Jesus’ words as, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (12:28) So, the finger of God is the Holy Spirit’s power, bringing Gods kingdom down on earth.

Are plagues signs of God’s salvation or God’s judgment? And what about viruses? Covid-19, more microscopic than Egyptian gnats, destroys global health and economies. But, if we reduce plagues to be only signs of judgment or salvation, we miss a bigger picture: God is at work to destroy our idols, to expose all our false hopes, and to restore God’s creation to the true and Sovereign LORD.

In his helpful God and the Pandemic, N. T. Wright writes of Jesus’ ministry: “the signs that Jesus was doing ... were not things like earthquakes or famines, plagues, or floods ... meant to frighten people into submission or belief, or to warn them that the world was coming to a shuddering halt. They were signs of new life … new creation ... to bring healing to a world of sickness.”

God’s finger, God’s Spirit, God’s Anointed One bring God’s kingdom. All nations must know that the LORD is God, and there is no other. Rulers can be tyrants, even apocalyptic beasts. Covid-19 exposes all our idols — our false hopes of security in money, careers, military power, or politicians. God’s Finger topples all of our false gods.

What will happen to us after the pandemic? In March, I wrote, Recover. Revise. But no Reset. If our “new normal” is a return to our old ways, we return to (ab)normal. In Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, Dr. Nicholas Christakis notes that the 1918 flu pandemic was followed briefly by periods of self-discipline and increased religiosity. But those gave way to times of increased risk-taking and intemperance. First came the “Roaring Twenty’s” with its Jazz Age hedonism, followed by the Great Crash of 1929.

I pray for a more hopeful vision! As God’s people, we could live like exiles in Babylon. God’s finger, the Holy Spirit, would write God’s words on our hearts (not on stone tablets, new executive orders, judicial rulings, or legislation). Christ’s ambassadors would be motivated by Christ’s Gospel, and not by the world’s politics. As God’s kingdom embassies, local churches would embody new life.

Jesus, God’s Anointed One, came down to earth to restore creation to what God intended it to be. And what is God’s kingdom agenda for this age? Freedom for captives, sight for the blind, food for the hungry, the healing of diseases, lives raised from the dust of death, and a new creation begun with Jesus’ resurrection. This is the church’s life and mission. These are the signs of God’s kingdom.

Poked by God’s finger, let us know this: Trump isn’t Pharaoh. Biden isn’t Moses. But Jesus is Lord, and there is no other. “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.” (Psalm 118:9)