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[Mat 1:19-21 ESV] 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

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An elderly father is excited to see his young-adult son come for a surprise visit. As soon as the son bursts through the door the father can tell that he is very excited about something. The son has a smile that stretches from ear to ear, there is a lightness in his step, and a sparkle in his eye. Finally, the father asks his son why he seems so excited.

“Well, dad,” the son begins, barely able to hold back his jubilation, “I’m in love.”

The father gives an awkward, puzzled smile, “What?”

“I’m in love!” The son repeats with greater emphasis, then hastens to add, “And I’m getting married!”

“That’s,” the father stammers, rising to congratulate his son, “that’s wonderful, son! Such happy news! But…”

“There’s going to be a wedding,” the son continues, “and everyone will be there, and we’ll exchange vows and be together forever!”

“Yes, but…”

“And there’ll be flowers and cake and dancing and eating and drinking like you’ve never seen!”

“Son!” The father shouts, stopping the boy dead in his tracks.

“Yes, dad?”

“Who’s the bride?” The father asks with a note of exasperation.

“Who’s the bride?” The son replies with a look of bewilderment.

“Yes,” laughs the father, “this lady you are in love with. Who is she?”

The son looks his father in the eye and smiles. “I don’t know.” He replies. “Whoever says yes, I suppose.”

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Christmas is fast approaching and with it, many people wait with fierce anticipation for one thing.

The John Lewis advert.

I remember in 2014 it was the famous penguin ad. The one where the little boy is so fixated on his little toy penguin and in the end gets another one (the message being that one John-Lewis brand penguin is not enough, you guys. Toy penguins get lonely…). Over the advert is played a droning version (who does these sad cover versions all of a sudden for adverts?) of John Lennon’s ‘Real Love’.

 

See, it’s Real Love because it is focused on a particular object. The little boy did absolutely everything with his beloved toy penguin (at upwards of £99 on eBay these days rightly he should). There wasn’t room for the toy giraffe, nor the etch-a-sketch, but all of his focus and affection was given to this one little penguin. If it was no different than the time and attention he gave to anything else, could we still call it love? Or ‘Real Love’, according to Lennon? No, love by definition is exclusive. It is limited to the beloved. One might have a general feeling of goodwill to all people, but it ought to be a different feeling altogether from that which one has for their spouse.

 

At Advent, we see the realisation of a plan which began centuries before (and further back) in the mind of God. There were hints of it given to us through the Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah when he said:

[Isa 54:8 ESV] 8 In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD, your Redeemer.
[Jer 31:3 ESV] 3 the LORD appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.

The love letter was sent. It was clear. God had fixed his love upon his people. Not only this, but he had done it from eternity past. His is an everlasting love for the people he has been given. Jesus is speaking to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane when he says:

[Jhn 17:23-24 ESV] 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

And so these are the same people Jesus came into this world to save. As our text in Matthew 1:21 says, his very name is a herald of his mission: to save his people from their sins.

To save.

His people.

From their sins.

 

Jesus, with his people in mind, came to earth in order to actualise salvation for every one of his people. It was a mission that was completed on the cross when he bowed his head and cried “It is finished!” The Greek term is derived from the term ‘tetalestai’ meaning ‘paid’ or ‘paid in full’. In his death on the cross, Christ’s mission was echoed throughout all eternity past, present and future as a resounding victory! His people, whom he set his love upon from before the foundation of the world, were saved from their sins. Jesus paid it all! All to him I owe! Sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow!

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However, there are whispers in some corners (shouts in others) that this redemption is not fair. Surely, they say, surely Christ died for absolutely everybody? Surely Christ set his love on absolutely everybody? Surely absolutely everybody is chosen by Christ for salvation? God can’t choose a particular people for himself, that’s unfair!

If we were to believe that ‘his people’ found in Matthew 1:21 refers to absolutely everyone in the world who ever existed or ever will exist, that makes God seem a lot more warm and fuzzy. I’ll agree. Had I been ignorant of the Bible’s stance on the atonement, I’d be much more comfortable believing that also. However, whilst it may make for a more palatable God, it throws up a few difficult challenges to get our heads around.

Primary among them, if God chose absolutely everybody – why isn’t absolutely everybody saved?

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Matthew 1:21 is clear. Jesus’ mission was not simply to make salvation possible, but to actively save his people from their sins. If we are to believe that there are (a vast majority of) people whom God has set his everlasting love upon from before the foundation of the world, for whom Christ died in order to save them from their sins who have still died and will still die in their sins and spend eternity in hell, then we are faced with a paradox. God loves them from eternity, determines to save them, but doesn’t, and they go to hell instead. The same God who says they will be saved from their sin in Matthew 1 sends them to hell as “accursed” in Matthew 25.

In essence, it is the belief that Jesus’ mission was a spectacular failure. Not only this but that he covers this up by sending those same beloved people to hell.

[Mat 25:41 ESV] 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

But, the objector will say, God has given us free will! He would not violate our free will to save us!

Again this is a reasonable belief – that God would not violate anyone’s free will – except when you read the Bible and discover that violating people’s free will is a common occurrence for God. Two examples:

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Abraham and his wife Sarah are travelling through the kingdom of Abimilech, and Abraham suddenly notices that his wife is very attractive. This is a bad thing to Abraham, as he reasons that the people are going to take one look at his wife, kill him and take her. His plan makes no sense, to tell everyone that she’s his sister, but Sarah plays along with it right up to the point that she’s assimilated into the king’s harem.

Immediately a pestilence strikes the land, and God appears to Abimilech:

[Gen 20:3 ESV] 3 But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.”

Abimilech is completely non-plussed, and God gives him credit for this, saying:

[Gen 20:3, 6 ESV] 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.

I don’t know if you caught that phrase, but God just told someone he did not let him sin. Abimilech – wanting to sin, God – not wanting him to sin. Result: God doesn’t let him sin.

Let’s go again:

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Sennacherib is leading an Assyrian army against Israel and is steamrolling the land. Assyria is one of the world superpowers of the time, and it seems like nothing can stop them from sweeping through the land and destroying the nation of Israel in their wake. That is until God intervenes, working against Sennacherib’s will as it says:

[Isa 37:36 ESV] 36 And the angel of the LORD went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.

Again, to look at the scoreboard for a moment: Sennacherib – wants to destroy Jerusalem, God – doesn’t want Jerusalem destroyed. Result: the Syrians are supernaturally slaughtered in their sleep by an angel of the Lord.

We believe in a God who loves, a God who acts, a God who intervenes on behalf of his people in order to save them in both Old Testament and New, and the will of no man is able to stand in his way. This can only be understood rightly if God has a particular people in mind – for those are the ones he intends to love. It is not loving to simply throw a rope to someone drowning, then go ahead and push them under when they fail to climb out. It is not loving for God to simply make salvation possible and then cast people into hell for not saving themselves.

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We believe in a God who loves us. A good father who rescues his children, his people. A successful Saviour who has saved us from our sins.

Yours in Christ, Ryan.

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I was in Queens University studying for my English Literature degree in 2002 when I was crudely introduced to Friederich Nietzsche. I was sitting in the Student’s Union coffee shop talking to a group of fellow students who had come to an informal debate/discussion group a few friends had set up. I distinctly remember one person (though for the life of me I can’t remember his name) at one point of the discussion smugly informed me that “God is dead, and we have killed him.” To my shame I perhaps did not react with the grace I should have, nor with the wit to say something like this:

 

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After researching this, I found the source to be Nietzsche’s ‘The Parable of the Madman‘. It’s always super annoying when you spot the hole in someone’s argument only after the argument takes place, and when I read through Nietzsche’s essay it became apparent what my friend’s mistake was. Nietzsche did not write “God is dead” with anywhere near the smug attitude my friend had adopted. The whole quote is as follows:

 

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

 

What my friend failed to understand was that Nietzsche was not writing a victory speech, but a lament. Without God, paraphrasing, where is our standard? Who is in charge? How do we define morality, truth or reality? Make no mistake, Nietzsche was no theist, but even he saw the ramifications of there being no God. In the phrase “God is dead”, what Nietzsche is referring to is the death of the world system that saw The Church as the pinnacle of moral and presuppositional truth. The madman’s lament is that the death of this authority leaves a vacuum, a chaos from which man must fabricate new rituals, new ‘games’ in order to maintain some semblance of human society.

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The following year Nietzsche posited an answer to his own question in ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra‘, and the concept of the ubermensch was born. Where Christianity saw social and moral authority coming from an otherworldly source (God), Nietzsche’s ubermensch was a ‘this-worldly’ source of authority. A ‘superman’, one capable of restoring order to a damaged and chaotic void.

 

Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died,
and therewith also those blasphemers. To blaspheme the earth is now
the dreadfulest sin, and to rate the heart of the unknowable higher
than the meaning of the earth!
  Once the soul looked contemptuously on the body, and then that
contempt was the supreme thing:- the soul wished the body meagre,
ghastly, and famished. Thus it thought to escape from the body and the earth.
  Oh, that soul was itself meagre, ghastly, and famished; and
cruelty was the delight of that soul!
  But ye, also, my brethren, tell me: What doth your body say about
your soul? Is your soul not poverty and pollution and wretched
self-complacency?
  Verily, a polluted stream is man. One must be a sea, to receive a
polluted stream without becoming impure.
  Lo, I teach you the Superman: he is that sea; in him can your
great contempt be submerged.

 

This idea of the ubermensch has a vast sphere of influence. Adolf Hitler was widely known to have read Nietzsche avidly, and his goal of creating the master race is straight from the pages of Zarathustra. DC Comics’ creation of Superman, which went through many initial changes, is clearly influenced as well.

 

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And this is where it gets really interesting. Superheroes play into this idea of an ubermensch: a vastly-talented, almost supernatural being (but still this-worldly) who rises up to be the Saviour of mankind. Usually, the hero overcomes his or her struggles by looking within themselves for the hidden power that they can unleash to vanquish the forces of evil and liberate humanity. Is this not something we have seen more and more in modern entertainment? Starting with the Iron Man films, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America I and II, Thor and Thor: The Dark World (with Ragnarok on the way), The Spiderman movies (future and terrible past ones), Ant Man, Ant Man and Wasp Girl, Avengers Assemble, Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, X-Men, X-Men II, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men: Days of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse, Wolverine: Origins, The Wolverine, Superman Returns, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Rises, Batman vs Superman, Wonder Woman, the upcoming Justice League movie and the going-to-be-huge Infinity War. Not to mention the TV shows (present and future) like Arrow and Daredevil and The Flash and Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and Legion and The Punisher – (gasps for breath) – our society is fascinated by superheroes! These (often ordinary) people who are able to rise up out of humanity and inspire, rescue and lead us. We, in the western world, are crying out for a saviour.

 

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Fun fact: I am Batman

 

I don’t normally cite Slate.com as an authority, but when they and I end up agreeing with one another, that’s when I take notice. In July of this year, they published an article entitled “Is 2016 the worst year in history?” Where the writer doesn’t reach that conclusion, it still touches a nerve with people who feel like, this year especially, the world has gone to the dogs. War in the Middle East causing one of the biggest refugee crises in living memory, the surge of support for far-right nationalism across Europe, the string of celebrity deaths and the vote for Britain to leave the European Union.

7f27743ce057f08eac0c1a7dc0145aa7One of the most fascinating of these bemoaned events from my point of view was the election of possibly the most disliked presidential candidate in history, Donald Trump. The newspapers and speech writers right up until the very night of the election were preparing to publish the news of Clinton’s landslide victory, and many reacted with shock and horror when the vote said otherwise. Trump had won, fairly and legally. Sour grapes were flung, toys were thrown out of the pram and liberal and celebrity alike threw themselves to the floor kicking and screaming, “Not my President! Not my President!” In all of it, people were baffled by how a man like this could be elected as the next head of the most powerful nation on Earth. This is mirrored in places like France, Italy and Austria who are standing on the verge of far-right nationalism and wondering how they got to this point. The answer?

Change.

Donald Trump represented change. Rather than Clinton, who largely wanted to keep things as they were, Trump fed off a growing discontent among a large number of voters who saw government’s inability to effect meaningful change and saw him as someone who could actually do something. Regardless of how that would happen (through Trump’s own pigheadedness no doubt), they bought the line that Trump would ‘Make America Great Again’. The working class man and woman, devoid of vacuous elitism, saw Donald Trump as one of them. A hard working American who had risen above them and they could look to as a beacon of hope for a better future.

An ubermensch.

A superhero.

A saviour.

 

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What this all gives us evidence of is a deep-seated discontent in the heart of man. We are the madman screaming for someone to tell us which way is up and which way is down. We are begging for someone to come and comfort, atone and save us. There is something broken in our world and we desperately want someone to fix it. Victoria Coren Mitchell, in her column in the Guardian, explains that things like Aleppo happen every year in all sorts of places throughout history – this is not something which is limited to this year alone.

 

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It is over and against this that we stand in the middle of Advent. As Christians, we are reminded of a world that sat in darkness once before, and awaited the arrival of a Saviour. They too thought that he would bring this-worldly justice and peace, vanquishing Israel’s captors and reinstating the Throne of David (‘make Israel great again!’). And yet, their redemption, their salvation, their freedom came in a much more profound way than any of them could have imagined. It came from God himself. It came in the form of God himself. He who forged the worlds with the power of his words, He who will tear the sky open and declare the end of all things, it was Him who would come. He did it, He came into this world, and He did it as a speechless, helpless baby.

 

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone. – Isaiah 9:2

 

The world that sat in darkness awaited the arrival of the light. The Saviour. Only it wasn’t the one they expected. In the same way, today, the world groans for a Saviour to come and set things right. To come and deliver us from our discontent and our suffering. We have had centuries of trying to fill that void with Princes, Kings, governments and rulers, actors and characters, politicians and poets, and to this very day we are left empty, staring into the howling void of a world strewn with false and broken idols. Yet approximately 2000 years ago God gave his answer, and he has proved a ballast and strong tower to everyone who has put their trust in him since. He has brought us peace, peace with God, and rescue from sin. Where people want the external world fixed, Jesus Christ has fixed the internal heart for those who believe.

 

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This Advent, we remember when the world sat in darkness and saw a great light dawn, one which has not been extinguished by Nietzsche nor Nero. Today, the world sits in darkness, and we await the arrival of our great Saviour, before whom Trump and a million other rulers will bow, who will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or sorrow, no more mourning fathers on the news, nor pained families awaiting the message that their loved ones have perished in the sea, for death will be swallowed up in victory. Christ will conquer.

missions11This Advent, I choose to look back on a difficult year of suffering with hope. I do not place my hope in any Nietzschean superhero, but in the sovereign God of the universe who is reigning still.

 

Yours in Christ, Ryan.