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Posts Tagged ‘The Devil’

Bleeding on the Altar of Self-sacrifice

Humanity’s relationship with the divine has always been a miserable one.  In the Judeo-Christian system of belief, the fault is laid at the feet of the first couple, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden.  The shattering of an idyllic relationship with humankind’s Creator and surrounding creation was the result of their disobedience and rebellion.  Their offspring, right down to us who are alive today, still refers to that episode as “The Fall.”  A clear indication that something was lost.

Efforts by humanity to regain that privileged position with their Creator and with creation has resulted in a myriad of convoluted religious beliefs systems.  Of course, in the modern era, the idea that one can completely opt out of any and all religious belief systems is now an option.  Thus, atheism has become a religion and religious expression all its own.  However, for the majority of the world, some type of belief in a deity(ies) still exists.  It affects how life is conducted on every level of human existence.

One thing they seem to bear in common is some sort of system for sacrifice to appease their god(s) or spiritual beings (if they are animists).  There appears to be a human universal need to “pay for one’s sins” to gain approval from these divines.  A predominant idea throughout all religious systems is that reality involves more than just what can be seen.  There is a larger reality in the unseen world that affects what is going on in the seen world.

Where the Christian faith diverges from these other world religions is the view that a sacrifice is no longer needed (at least in the Protestant stream).  It begins with God’s revelation to the children of Israel, the Jews.  God, by his revelation through the ancient patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – then later Moses and then reaffirmed through the Prophets, set up a better sacrificial system.  More important, meaning and explanation accompanied the revelation for the sacrificial system that pointed to a time when sacrifices would no longer be needed.

The sacrifices of grains and animals really do not change the heart of humanity.  They only bear witness to the cost of our continued rebellion and disobedience to our Maker.  Thus, in God’s timing, He sent His son, Yeshua = Joshua/Jesus.  According to His divine plan, this God-man who lived a perfect life became a sacrifice for all of humanity and all of human sin.  Ironically, we killed him.

Our Jewish and Gentile fore-bearers unrighteously judged him, unjustly condemned him and then put him to death in a cruel fashion by crucifixion.  Nevertheless, because of the Son’s willing obedience to take all of humanity’s punishment, God raised him from the dead and restored him to his heavenly place of rule and authority.  A few hundred people testified to seeing him after dying and being buried.  We have their testimonies written down for us to digest, accept and believe or disbelieve.

One would think that this would be the end of the story – at least in the Christian realm.  But, no.  The story continues to unfold in human history.  There are many who reject the idea that one person, no matter how perfect, could die for another and that it would be enough to satisfy God’s demand for justice and judgment against human sin.  Still, there are many others who believe the story and accept the sacrifice of God’s son for their own sin.  They continually remind themselves of this by partaking in the Eucharist or Holy Communion.

Nevertheless, even among those who accept the story witnessed to by so many, believe upon it and choose to live their lives by it, there is a creeping attitude or idea that something more must be required.  So, Christians create their own altars for their own sacrifices hoping to add to what Christ already did upon the cross, in the grave and through the resurrection.  Even those who are children of the Protestant Reformation and think of themselves as holding to “evangelical” beliefs struggle with this issue.

This struggle is more particularly acute when Christians go through troubling times and hardships.  A whole “Christian” nation can take on this attitude in turbulent times.  We want to find a reason for our suffering – or bad turn of luck.  We too quickly turn back to a pagan view of God that determines we must have done something – sinned – to anger the deity and now he is poised against us.  So, we search for ways to satisfy the deity’s anger, appease it and regain its approval and blessing – or at least neutrality so as not to oppose us in our plans and desires for a peaceful and happy existence.

Pink Rhododendrun Flowers, Spring 2010

Pink Rhododendrun Flowers, Spring 2010 Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I was reminded of this troubling trend in our Christian history when I came across how many responded to the Black Death Plague – also called the Bubonic Plague – in Europe during the middle ages.  I have just finished reading John Man‘s book, “Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words.  He highlights in one chapter the actions of “the flagellants.”

The popular idea then, much as it is now, is that the God of the Bible promised not only salvation in the next life but also constant support in this one.  However, in the face of the troubling Black Death (Bubonic Plague) epidemic He seemed impotent, if not hostile towards humanity through the disease.  The explanation?  God must be angry and was clearly out to punish all of Europe and the Church – either actively or by neglect and indifference.  So, God must be somehow mollified.  This took many forms, of course, but one of the radical forms were the crazed devotees who marched from city to city through Europe lashing themselves with iron-tipped whips while crying out for God’s mercy.  Fellow devotees would then follow them moaning and dabbing themselves with the blood of the flagellants.

Another radical form was to find blame in someone else and make them pay the price.  While today the Church likes to look outside itself and blame homosexuals, pornography, gambling, liquor, liberal politicians and other spiritual “enemies”, the Church then chose to blame the Jews.  Already labeled as Christ-torturers and child-murders, all across Germany the rumor spread that they were also “well-poisoners.”  Thus, one series of many Jewish persecutions took place all across Europe.

Jews were burned on a wooden scaffold in the churchyard in Strasbourg.  This was replicated in almost all of the cities along the Rhine river.  In Antwerp and Brussels, entire Jewish communities were slain.  In Erfurt, 3,000 perished as sacrifices for the cause of the Black Plague.  In Worms and Frankfurt, instead of facing the same fate, the Jews chose to go out in Masada-like fashion and committed mass suicide.  In Mainz, Germany, 100 were burned outside of St. Quentin’s Church on St. Bartholomew’s day.  All were ultimately sacrifices to attempt to appease “God’s” anger and restore deserved blessing and peace to Europe.

While reading about these sad episodes in human history, I could not help but think that we really have not come that far in the Christian faith.  There is still a propensity to want to “pay back” God for our sin.  When bad things happen, Christian too often look for a cause-and-effect.  We want an explanation; preferably an understandable one.  The fact remains that there often is not one.  God remains God and does not need to explain his actions or non-actions to us.  His goodness comes to those who deserve it and those who do not.  Likewise, bad things visit humanity indiscriminately – to good people and bad people.

Christians often think that their faith in God somehow gives them a “Club Membership” to a trouble-free life.  So, when disease, tragedy, disaster or unexpected death visit us, we think that our “Membership Dues” must not be paid up.  We think we must “sacrifice” something to get back in to the “Club” of God’s favor.  How wrong!

As a spiritual leader in churches, I have witnessed good Christian people go through all kinds of agony trying to find an explanation for why bad things happen to them.  Early on in my spiritual journey, I always thought that I owed them and explanation.  After all, I am the one who went to Bible School and Seminary.  I should have the answers, right?  What a relief to finally come to the conclusion that I do not.  And I do not have to have “the answer(s).”  The fact is that most of the time, there is no answer.

And perhaps that is just the point.  When God remains distant and in the shadows of human tragedy and suffering, it may be that He is there to witness our faith in action when it is needed most.  After all, no one really knows what they truly believe until they are put under the stress of a trial or spiritual test.  It is then that what we truly believe in our hearts – our souls – really comes out and is evident to us and all those around us.  It is then that we discover the real bankruptcy of our “faith” or when we realize how very vibrant and real our faith truly is for us.

At any rate, faith in what God accomplished through the Messiah should be sufficient for us.  There is nothing more that we can add to his sacrificial death or resurrection.  We cannot create another altar and offer our own sacrifices upon it.  There is no other altar, no other sacrifice and no other payment necessary to appease God’s wrath.  He only accepts his son, Jesus the Messiah.  No other.  Only those who come to him through what his son did are received by him.  There is no other way.

So, the next time you feel the tug to “offer a sacrifice” to please God, remember that He has already made one for you.  There is nothing more that you can offer.  There is no trophy, no price, no sacrifice anyone can offer to God where they will be able to say to Him, “Look what I have offered to you!  Are you not pleased with me?  Don’t you owe it to me to bless me and always keep me happy now?”  Such an approach is a bankrupt one.  It fails to recognize the cost of His son’s sacrifice and is an affront to Him.

If you are finding yourself bleeding on the altar of self-sacrifice because you thought you could earn God’s favor, it is time to get off of it and be set free.  No amount of guilt, hand-wringing, praying, fasting, giving, worrying, church attendance or any other spiritual flagellation will earn you any credits in His account book until you learn to accept and live in the forgiveness and grace freely given to you through Christ.  Like so many before me, I too have often “beat myself up” mentally and spiritually thinking that everything that went wrong was my fault and that I must have done something to displease God.  I have learned to recognize that as a subtle spiritual lie of the enemy of my soul, the devil.  He would have me do anything but accept and live freely in what Christ accomplished.

After all, self-sacrifice is just another form of self-worship.  Self-worship is what caused Satan’s downfall in the first place.  By attempting to make our own sacrifices and meet God on our terms, we are only attempting to do what Satan did before His fall from heaven.  Only God dictates the terms for the satisfaction of divine judgment and justice.  Otherwise, He would not be God.  So, He has provided the answer or solution.  He has already established the altar and received the sacrifice.  It is time for us to stop bleeding on the altar of our self-sacrifices and worship at the throne of grace and mercy.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Something that atheists cannot explain adequately is the presence of evil.  Their paradigm lacks an explanation for why good people suffer.  The materialistic determinism that guides most atheists’ belief system is an inadequate philosophical system when it comes to instructing us about the unexplainable, the mysterious or metaphysical. Our supposed evolutionary progress has not produced a more enlightened species; just the same bent toward evil only now loaded down with better technology.

Materialistic determinism in its most basic form says that reality is only what can be explained by our senses and measured according to mathematical and scientific theories.  On top of this, since we are bound by physical laws, our existence is predetermined and there is no use attempting to explain it, reason it or make meaning of it; especially with any sort of spiritual language.  There is no real hope for any kind of salvation per se.  Existence is a meaningless mix of biological material thrown in to a heartless universe established and maintained by a matrix of physical laws.

Unfortunately, the popular theology of many contemporary Christians is also inadequate in explain the presence of evil in the world.  It is often oversimplified or too personalized to be of any meaning to those who are really suffering.  Either everything evil is blamed on Satan and personal demons or it is denied all together and ignored.  Neither approach is healthy, helpful nor biblical.

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 2008

Burnt Cathedral, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, 2008 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The biblical story of human disobedience and rebellion in Genesis gives us the best framework for understanding the presence of evil and its effect upon humanity, creation and all the relationships between the two.  The Bible acknowledges the presence of evil as a product of humanity’s own fallen nature; that is fallen from what God originally intended.  It also acknowledges the genesis of evil in a particular being who has spread his deception, lies and rebellion throughout all of humanity.

However, unlike most world religions, the biblical view of good versus evil does not put God and Satan on equal terms.  God and Satan are not the universal ‘ying’ and ‘yang’ of existence.  In other words, no absolute dualism between God and Satan exists within Scripture.  This is made particularly clear in the story of the Messiah.  When God’s son comes to earth he confronts evil and its effects, each time winning the battle.  The ultimate battle is won when he defeats death and the grave itself by returning to life to rule and reign over his creation once again.  He is now crowned as the victor!

But wait.  Then why does sin and evil still exist in the world?  A helpful illustration of this may be found in one offered by Ken Blue, a contributor The Perspectives Reader:  Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.  I came across his article while taking the Perspectives course a short while ago.  I found it a helpful illustration.

There is a great example in our recent human history that illustrates for us how a war already won could continue to be fought.  During World War II, the allied invasion called “D-Day” saw hundreds of thousands of allied troops landing at Normandy beach.  Their purpose and the goal of that effort was to establish and secure a beachhead on the European mainland.  When this was successfully accomplished, military experts understood that ultimate victory was established for the allies.  Nevertheless, many more bloody battles, some of them very costly, would be fought before the celebration of final victory could be realized: “V-E Day” (Victory in Europe Day).

For the purposes of Ken Blue’s illustration, “D-Day” in God’s war with evil and against the Evil One occurred with the death and resurrection of Christ.  This assured his final victory.  However, there are still battles being waged until “V-E Day” when the celebration of ultimate victory will begin with the return of the conquering Messiah.

Until that time, it is up to his true followers to be engaged in undoing the work of evil and the Evil One.  Many of these battles will be costly.  In some places, blood will be shed.  However, it is the mission of the Church to take the war to the enemy’s soil, establish beachheads and continue the fight until there is ultimate victory – liberation for all the captives.  Our enemy knows that the war is lost.  However, the Evil One with all his devices and deceptions will fight to take as much of God’s creation with him as possible.

So, while there are two Kingdom’s at war, one is already declared the ultimate victor.  The other already knows its time will come to an end.  The mission of every follower of the Conquering King is to be engaged in the battle through pray and sacrifice until the day of celebration.  More than anyone, they should understand why evil is present in the world.  More than anyone, they should be engaged in the mission of doing something about it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Let Us Make God In Our Image

The Bible uniquely positions God before and above all his created order.  This goes against the rest of the world’s religions who make God a part of the created order.  After God speaks his creation into existence, he declares that he will make one more unique being to set among his created order – humankind.  Genesis tells us that God said, “Let us make humankind (‘adam – “beings of/from the earth”) in our image.”

Humanity is then set into the middle of God’s creation to tend to it, watch over it and protect it.  We are not given a time-frame, but sometime after creation this idyllic life God established is marred and destroyed by the work of God’s enemy – the devil or Satan.  The first man and first woman are deceived by this wily, rebellious creature and choose to believe the words of God’s enemy over the word of God.  And, thus, begins humankind’s descent into bondage to sinful rebellion, the resulting separation from life with God and the continual struggle to return to and reclaim what was once theirs by privilege of God’s personal, God-breathed creation.

It this particularly human struggle to return to God that sets us apart from the rest of creation.  No other creatures on earth seem concerned about their Creator.  There is no creature that intentionally searches out, speaks to and communes with their Creator – at least to the level that our 21st century sciences have been able to detect.  To be sure, every creature and all creation speaks for God and reflects his image and glory; even “fallen” humanity.  Yet, it is only humankind out of all of creation that seems to agonize over knowing and understanding their Creator and returning to some fashion of intimate knowing.  It is a primal instinct and desire to return to the Garden of Eden.  It forever marks us as spiritual beings, not just material beings made up of evolving unintelligent matter.

This search and longing often brings humankind to two attempts:  a determinate attempt to return to communion with the Creator by ascending to where we believe God rests and resides or a creative attempt to recapture the communion that was lost with the Creator by imagining what God must really be like and want from his creation.

The Bible is a long history of the futile attempts of both approaches to God.  Humankind can neither ascend to where God is to meet him on his terms.  Nor can humankind correctly and accurately portray God in any image.  Both fail.  The reason is simple.  God is transcendent.  He is other than us and his creation.  While his creation reflects him, it does so like a landscape on a foggy morning.

Interestingly, millennia of human existence seems to have taught us nothing.  We continue to attempt to reach God and meet him on equal terms through our own efforts in knowledge, work ethic, spirituality and human “advancements.”  Such arrogance itself speak against any such work.  After all, if God can be approached by any human effort, then he ceases to be God – or a God big enough to be worshipped, let alone the effort to be known!

What makes God God is that he is completely transcendent.  The Bible continually portrays God in this light: “My ways are not your ways.  My ways are higher than your ways.”  In biblical history, God frequently refuses to explain himself.  When questioned by the righteous-ab0ve-all-men Job for a reason for his suffering, God puts Job in his place by reminding him that he never once sought counsel for Job and was not about to begin to do so now.  Job was smart enough to shut up.  God is transcendent and reveals himself when and how he pleases.  His is not like us.

Any futile search for God on our own terms should alert us to our own folly and foolishness.  However, that does not seem to be the case; even in the 21st century.  With so many millennium of trial and errors behind us, one would think that we would have evolved to a higher understanding of God’s existence.  But, alas, no.  Still, today, if we are not attempting to reach God on our own, then we are attempting to fashion him in our own image.

The renewal and revival of pagan religions in Western society is evidence of this continued human folly.  The neo-pagans and wiccans have cleaned up the old world religions and reduced them to user-friendly creation worship and moral codes.  Without animal or human sacrifices, though some admittedly still do practice these, they preach the morality of paganism and wiccans.  Not a few even like to link their neo-pagan morality to the teachings of Jesus to give them some credence, as if to say, “Look!  We believe and attempt to practice the same things Jesus taught and practiced.”

If spirituality is only about morality, then anything and everything is permissible in our society’s moral relativism.  After all, who is to be the final authority about what is right and what is wrong?  Without a transcendent being outside of humanity to clarify this, we are left to our own individual choices and moral devices.  One culture’s values and practices – headhunting and cannibalism – is no more morally wrong than the next – child-brides and widow burning.  So, it turns out that perhaps the ol’ serpent in the garden was correct!  We can be like God and make up truth and the rules for righteousness.  After all, God, as we imagine him, is just like us.

Hindu Gods in India, February 2007

Hindu Gods in India, February 2007 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The Bible addresses humankind’s propensity to imagine God in our own image.  Isaiah humorously points out the useless of making images of God:  Take one log.  Cut it in half.  Use one half to split into fire wood.  Cook dinner.  While dinner is cooking, take other half of log.  Shape log and decorate it.  When meal is ready to serve, bow down to decorated log and declare, “You are my god!  You are my god!  Thank you for this delicious meal.  Amen.”  (Rev. Ron’s Paraphrase)  Sounds ridiculous?  We have not come too far since Isaiah’s day.

The Creator realized the result humanity’s rebellion would have upon its spirituality.  So, he warned, “Do not make an image of me to worship.”  This was so important, that he included it in his “Top Ten Things to Remember” as he launched the Israelites toward the land he promised them.  Moses called them, “The Ten Commandments.”  And we continue to violate this to our own detriment, forgetting that God is not like us.  He is completely transcendent – apart from this world.  He is beyond what we can imagine or think.

The temptation to make God in our image is not left to just pagans, neo-pagans, wiccans or those who use religious icons.  Christians have fallen into the same temptation; the ones who should know better, supposedly.  Throughout Church history, the followers of God through the Messiah Jesus have slipped into the same sin.

Icons that were meant to draw the worshipper’s attention to heavenly things and “the great cloud of witnesses” in the portraits of the saints, soon worshipped the created things instead of the Creator.  In reaction against such abuses, some attempted to rid the Church altogether of icons (iconoclasts); while others attempted to restore them to their proper place.  All such Church reforms and renewals have attempted to draw worshippers back to God, but it continues to be a problem.

The Bible, meant to be God’s written revelation to his people through various people in various times and various places, became worshipped in “bibliology”.  Reverence for the book took on greater importance than the Author.  Magic qualities were ascribed to not only its words but its paper and bindings as well.  Reverence for God’s Word became twisted into revering and worshipping a book; the content of the book not as important as its condition.

Music, meant to draw the hearts of God’s worshippers toward him, became more about style than content.  The chant, organ, piano, guitar, drum and musical style all vie for affections above that for the Creator.  We think that because we like it, the Creator must like it; that because it moves our hearts, it must move his also.  Of course, this is a fallacy.  He is transcendent above it all.

It is not the sounds he wants but the music of the souls in worshipful adoration.  Whatever harmony, whatever tonal equation, whatever vibrating sound, it is all music to his ears when the content of the heart is in tune.  Otherwise, it is only annoying noise amongst the more beautiful sounds of all his other creation.  He would rather listen to the whale song or songbird music, or other such creative sounds, as listen to the drones of humankind worshipping their music rather than the One who gave them music.

Biblical and historical examples are replete with examples of humankind worshipping the furniture and the house dedicated to the Lord rather than the One who  transcends it all.  In similar fashion, we shape our image of God by our doctrines and theologies, leaving no room for further exploration or understanding of God and his character and nature.  We deem anyone outside our theological group-think as deviant or heretical.  So, we use our systematic theologies to scientifically break down humankind’s understanding of God into phylum, genus and species like some biological specimen.  Still, we are no closer to intimately knowing or understanding God because he transcends such confines, boxes and buildings.

Jesus came as the image of God.  What God wanted to convey through his written word, he revealed fully in his son, Jesus the Messiah.  Jesus brought into closer proximity to humankind the very real nature and character of God.  Suddenly, the transcendent being became eminent in “Immanuel” – “God with us.”  The Transcendent One lived among us for awhile – in a house, in a family, among friends and all in real time and space.

Unfortunately, he did not meet humankind’s idea of what God would look and act like if he came to earth to reveal himself.  So, in our continued ignorance and rebellion we killed him.  However, defying death, he resurrected and continues to call humankind to himself through his followers.  Yes, some did believe.  Some still believe.  Meanwhile, others are still searching for the Creator.  Some are attempting to ascend to where the Most High resides.  Others have decided a more do-it-yourself approach.  “Hey,” they invite us.  “Let’s make God in our image.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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In Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List, at the end of the movie Oskar Schindler is leaving behind the forced-labor camp and all of the Jewish laborers that he helped save from the gas chambers and furnaces of Auschwitz.  The Jewish laborers give Schindler a simple expression of their gratitude.  At that moment, Oskar Schindler realizes an awful truth.  He realizes he could have done more to save more people.

Oskar Schindler recognizes what he did to save those standing before him, but he also agonizes that he did not do more to save more Jewish lives.  While he lived in luxury, innocent people suffered horrific deaths.  All the money squandered on himself could have bought more lives their freedom.  His fancy car in which he is about to leave was worth ten or twelve people.  His gold Nazi lapel pin was worth one or two.  Schindler cries, “I could have done more save more people!”

One of the most important aspects of Christ’s kingdom is the focus on redeeming humankind.  Everyone is redeemable.  God’s call to humanity to come and be a part of his great family and kingdom is why he sent Jesus.  Jesus came to call us to the heavenly Father.  Then he made a way for us through his death and resurrection.

No human being is worthless.  No human life is a castaway or a throwaway.  We are all valuable in God’s eyes.  No one is beyond God’s redeeming love.  As an old hymn so vividly paints it, “He makes the foulest clean.”  While all of us were still foul and far from God, he loved us and showed it by sending his son Jesus to pay the price to redeem us from sin, hell, and the devil.

While the cynics and nay-sayers of society cast about on life’s junk heap skeptically looking for something of redeeming value, God looks at humanity.  There he sees value.  There he sees hope.  There his love goes out and plucks us out of own our junk heap to redeem us for our full value as his creation, which he made in his own image.

Kelly's Slough, Grand Forks County, North Dakota, Fall 2006

Kelly's Slough, Grand Forks County, North Dakota, Fall 2006 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Now those of us who are redeemed and returned to full value through Jesus Christ are given the task of spreading the message of God’s redeeming love.  We are commissioned with the task of searching the highways and byways of life.  There we will find humanity’s forgotten castaways.  Those who feel left alone and worthless can be restored to full worth and value through a loving relationship with the heavenly Father.

This is a mission infinitely more valuable than discarded bottles and aluminum cans.  We are given the task of seeing human lives restored to their original intent and beauty.  Investing in the lives of other people – women, men, and children – is where true meaning and value is found in life.

It would be a calamity to get to life’s end and realize all that we wasted on short-lived selfish pleasure.  Let us not get to the end of our days to only grieve that we could have done more.  What a tragedy to suddenly realize too late that “I could have done more to save more people!”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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