Friday, November 27, 2015

'Helpless Babe!'

The famous song ‘Servant King’ by Graham Kendricks begins with this line: ‘From heaven You came helpless babe.’ It is indeed a wonderful song which goes on to describe Jesus who is ‘The Servant King.’ However, the phrase ‘helpless babe’ needs to be explored. How helpless was this babe born to Mary in a little manger in Bethlehem whom we celebrate during the season of Christmas? Or put in other words who was Jesus in his incarnation?
The christological hymn in Philippians 2:6-10 is certainly profound. However, the phrase ‘but made himself nothing’ (Phil 2:7) has given rise to much speculattion. The Greek phrase literally means ‘but he emptied himself’ as CEB puts it. However most English translations avoid the literal meaning. The English Standard Version has it as ‘but made himself nothing’ and KJV has it as ‘But made himself of no reputation.’ The original word comes from the Greek word KENOW which means ‘empty.’
The resason why the translations avoid the literal translation is to avoid a debate called Kenosis Theory. This theory was propounded in the beginning of the 19th century with good intentions. It proposed that Jesus in his incarnation was limited in omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. Then there were many variations of the theory down through the centuries. This theory tried to explain why Jesus in his human form seems to have limited in his knowledge—he doesn’t know the times and days appointed by the father. Seems to have limited power—he did not resist the arrest. He was limited by his language and culture—he lived and died as a Jew.
I have nothing more to add to this debate but would like to use insights from these discussions to understand this ‘helpless babe’ that Graham Kendricks popularized through his song, ‘The Servant King.’
The meaning of the word ‘empty’ is not in the word itself but in what Jesus revealed to us about himself in words and deeds. I want to suggest that ‘emptying’ here gets a new dimension of meaning. Just two aspects of it. In becoming man, he did not leave his divinity nor did he become less divine. But ‘emptying here’ implies two things: first of all he restrained his divine power and secondly, he veiled his glory.
On the very outset would like to make another observation. Jesus prayed in John 17:5, ‘And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.’ This does not mean a glory that was lost but a glory that was veiled.
Instead of suggesting that Jesus was devoid of his divine power I would like to suggest that he was still with the divine power but restrained it and used it discreetly. It is true that Jesus did not resist when he was attacked physically. Once they tried to push him over the cliff and kill him. It is also true that he did struggle with hunger pangs. At Jacob’s well in Samaria we find him thirsting for water.
But the Gospels also present another side of Jesus’ power. He exercised his power over domains where humans have no authority over. This is evident in his exorcisms and nature miracles. Here his power over the domain of Satan and the nature as the creator is evident.
The Jewish and Hellenistic excorcists of his day used means to drive out demons. For example in the Book of Tobit the demon called Asmadaeus was destroyed using a strange mixture fish gall and other herbs which angel Raphael prescribed. But Jesus did not drive out demons by the helpe of any means. They just dreaded his presence, and they were driven out by the power of his word. As creator God he exercised his power over the nature—over the waves and the wind. He was not powerless but in his incarnation he just restrained his power and used it discreetly.
This power he did not gain through training, as he grew up. He did not cultivate these skills, but he was born with it as the Word became flesh. The babe in the manger was not a helpless babe. But he was born with power to help the helpless and hopeless. However, he took the form of a helpless babe.
Secondly in his incarnation Christ did not give up his glory, but he simply veiled his glory.
However, a plain reading of John 17:5 may suggest that he was devoid of his glory in his incarnation. Here he prayed: ‘And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.’
What does this mean? Does this mean that he was devoid of the divine glory while he was on earth? I think the emphasis of the passage is on two different aspects. First of all, the emphasis here is on ‘glorifying’ than on glory. Glorifying simply means acknowledging the glory that is already there than bestowing the glory. Secondly, we must also note that the emphasis is on the place than on the state. It has to do with being in a glorified position in heaven, after his resurrection, ascension and session on God’s right hand. It doesn’t imply that he was without glory on earth.
The evidence that he was with glory on earth but veiled and not devoid of it is narrated than stated. The Gospel accounts provide us with enough evidence to this fact. Just as he restrained his divine power in his incarnation, he veiled his glory within the flesh that he chose to put on in his incarnation.
However, it had at times broke through the thick cover of human flesh that he put on. One such instance is the Transfiguration that we find in Mark 9.2-3.
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.
Every miracle, especially the nature miracles, in particular the one where he walked defying the wind over the waves was display of his glory and power as the creator of the world.
John 2:11
This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him. (John 2:11 ESV).
So, his closest disciple would later reflect on their life together on earth in the following words.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 ESV).
He was born with this glory; it is not gathered over the years. The baby in the manger was not a helpless babe! He was God in all glory but a veiled glory. It was not glory to dazzle feeble human eyes but to be revealed very discreetly.
There were people who were touched by his glory and power throughout his period of incarnation! They are the disciples who witnessed his miracles, those who experienced his power, those who testify that they saw his glory.
He maintained that power and glory even at the height of his physical weakness and shame. The soldiers who came to arrest him in the Garden of Gathsemene are witnesses to this. They saw him when he was at the lowest of his human state. He was holed up in a garden at night, spent the whole night pleading with God to avoid that moment, however failed. He was sleepless and hungry, deserted by his own dear friends. It was at that moment the soldiers came to arrest him. However, when he said ‘I am he’ they experiened the divine power of those words and his presence and ‘drew back and fell to the ground’ (John 18:6).
Another example is the Roman centurion who was in charge of Jesus’ execution. He recognized in the bleeding, weak, dying Jesus the Son of God. The Gospel of Mark records:
And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he 1 breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son 2 of God!” Mark 15:39 ESV.
So we conclude that the baby was cute, weak and adorable. However, he came with to us in a manger restraining his power and veiling his glory. He did not cultivate power and glory through a tapas or training. This our king, born in a manger. Looked helpless. But full of divine power and glory!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

‘God Remembered Noah’

When my wife is away, I get into the kitchen for my culiniary experiments. Having followed the recipe in all its details, I leave it to be cooked on the stove and get back to my desk. Most of the time, I get so engrossed in my work and remember my cooking only when the burning smell wafts to my office from the kitchen. That is when I remember that I had left a vessel on a burning stove.
Genesis 8:1 surprises us with this obervation: ‘But God remembered Noah’ (ESV). This is the first time the word ‘remember’ occurs in the Bible. Does this mean that God had forgotten Noah and all that he has in the ark? What would have happened if God did not remember them—certainly it would have been disastrous. The supply of food would not last for ever for all of them.
This short phrase brings out the turning point in whole story—a turning point from the devastating flood to the new earth and newness of life. In other words it is the fulcrum on which the events turn from annihiliation to reconstruction. Chapter 7 begins with the beginning of the flood. Around the middle of this chapter we see the fury of the waters that drowned everything—waters from inside the earth, above the earth and then torrential rains lashed to lift the ark up and to drown even mountain peaks (Gen 7:11-12). Chapter 7 ends with the report that the flood is still abating.
He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days. (Gen 7:23-23 ESV).
Then comes this short sentence bringing with it relief rousing in us the eagerness to know what is going to happen next: ‘But God remembered Noah’ (Gen 8:1 ESV). I would rather like to translate it as ‘then God remembered Noah’ because God’s act of remembering is part of the series of events that we see in Genesis 7. Fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens that were opened to flood the earth are now closed. The rain that persisted for 150 days also ‘was restrained’ (8:2). God had already made a ‘wind to blow over the earth’ so that the ‘water recede’ (8:1). Then finally, the story goes on to tell us how the tops of the mountains became visible, new shoots came out of the trees, dry land appeared and how they landed safely on the new earth as the ark rested on the mountains of Ararat. All because ‘God remembered Noah.’
When God remembers things take a new turn, not only here but throughout the Bible. The reason for Lot’s escape from the destruction was that ‘God remembered Abraham’ (Gen 19:29). When God remembered barren Rachel she gave birth to a child (Gen 30:22). The reason for the deliverance of the Israelite slaves from Egypt was nothing but ‘God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (Exod 2:24). In the New Testament Zechariah the priest affirms his faith in the God ‘who remembers his holy covenant’ (Luke 1:72).
God’s remembrance is the basis for our prayer both positively and negatively. Positively we pray God to remember us fully assured that God will act. When God remembers with favour things are going to be positive. So, when asking for God’s favour in his life Job prayed: ‘Remember that my life is a breath; my eye will never again see good’ (Job 7:7 ESV). So also the Psalmist prayes, ‘Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old’ (Psa 25:6 ESV). Making God to ‘remember’ is to make God to act.
Negatively, we ask God not to remember what we have done to earn his displeasure. The dreadful reality is that when God remembers sins things are going to turn against us. So the Psalmist prays:
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O Lord! (Psa 25:7 ESV).
Thus when God ‘remembers,’ things take a new turn. People of God had prayed to God to remember their faithfulness as the supplicant of Psalm 20:3 prayed or to remember their helplessness as Job did (Job 7:7). We can also plead for God not to remember our sins so that his favour will remain upon us. Whichever way it goes we cling on to the divine promise that we find in Isaiah 43:25:
I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins. (Isa 43:25 ESV).

Some thoughts on suffering

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