The Wisdom of the Owl

About a month ago I was meditating on a passage of Scripture that God brought me to a couple nights in a row.  It is from the Book of Acts, and in chapter 2 the apostle Peter quotes from the Old Testament prophet Joel: “I will display wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below: blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.  The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood” (Acts 2: 19-20).  That was an interesting passage for me to simply open Scripture to given that we had recently had a solar eclipse (“the sun will be turned to darkness”) and that the fires out west were creating on those nights a red moon (“the moon to blood”).  It seemed rather providential.  Not only could I see a blood-red moon, but as I had my window cracked open I could hear the cries of an owl once again.

As I noted in a previous post, owls were harbingers in many ancient societies of death and destruction, but today in our modern Western society owls are synonymous with wisdom.  Although the two concepts seem far apart, I find that in Scripture the two come together in the person of Jesus Christ.  Paul draws directly from the prophet Isaiah in his letter to the Corinthian church when he writes, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts” (1 Cor. 1:19).  Paul goes on to explain that

For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached.  For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.  Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor. 1:21-25).

Jesus, as the embodiment of God in human flesh, is the fullness of God’s wisdom.  The Greeks and Romans, or the Gentiles as all non-Jews were called, sought to find God through the use of reason.  And to be sure, certain Greek philosophers had vague notions of an “unmoved Mover”.  Their understanding of God as Logos, as Word and Wisdom, was a concept that the writer of the Gospel of John borrows in his bold proclamation, when referring to Jesus Christ, that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).   And in an encounter with Jews who demanded of Jesus that he show them a sign so that they might know He is the Messiah, he responds with “This generation is an evil generation.  It demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.  For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Ninevah, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation” (Luke 11:29).  This explains the Jews’ request for signs and the Greeks seeking after wisdom, but what is the sign of Jonah, and what about the “foolishness of the message preached”, that which reveals “God’s foolishness” to be “wiser than human wisdom”?

The sign of Jonah no doubt refers to the fact that the reluctant Old Testament prophet spent three days in the belly of a whale before preaching the message of God to the Ninevite people, who subsequently repented.  Jonah foreshadows what Christ would do as the “Son of Man”.  Specifically, Christ would die on a cross and “descend into hell” as the Creeds state.  But, like Jonah who was brought out of the primordial deep of the waters, on the third day, he, Jesus, rose again from the dead.  But I don’t get this just from the Creeds of the Church.  Rather, in Scripture we return to the book of Acts where King David, author of many of the Psalms, wrote “concerning the resurrection of the Messiah: He was not left in Hades, and His flesh did not experience decay” (Acts 2:31).

This, then, is the foolishness of God: that God would take on and assume His very own creation, be born, live a human life, die on a cross, and rise again.  If it’s difficult to understand how foolish this sounded back then, keep in mind that it wasn’t just the Jews who had purity rituals.  Their ancient Near Eastern neighbors similarly believed in rituals before approaching their gods.  Both Jews and Gentiles couldn’t fathom a God who associated with the impure, who took on flesh.  This wasn’t wisdom for those who believe in an “unmoved Mover”, whose eternal immutability caused Him to sit apart from creation in His eternal perfection.  Further, who would have thought that God would willingly take on flesh in order to die and pay the ultimate Sacrifice?  Surely, the Jews would not as they were expecting a Messiah to come and overthrow Roman rule.  That’s why they wanted a sign.  They wanted assurance of Jesus’s earthly rule, his right to kingship.

I’ve also mentioned in my last post that there were ancient cultures that believed in gods that would become incarnated and die sacrificial deaths.  And I believe that Christ is the fulfillment of those myths.  Those myths were ones that took place far in some mythological past.  But most historians acknowledge the person of Jesus Christ and his uniqueness, even if some doubt His death and resurrection.  And rise he must, for why, in the events of the Book of Acts, would the church be growing, why would the apostles be prophesying and speaking in tongues if they knew Christ hadn’t risen?  The apostle Luke, writer of Acts, captures Peter’s words: “God has resurrected this Jesus.  We are all witnesses of this.  Therefore, since He has been exalted to the right hand of God and has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, He has poured out what you both see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).

This takes us full circle.  For the passage about sun and moon, fires, blood, and cloud of smoke is really about what is taking place that day: the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days.  Far from being a gloomy text about the apocalypse, Peter interprets Joel in light of Christ and what was happening in the early Christian community.  “And it will be in the last days, says God, that I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity…before the great and remarkable day of the Lord comes; then whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:17, 20-21).

Aside from a solar eclipse and blood-red moons caused by fires, we live in some rather uncertain times.  North Korea is causing tensions in the Pacific.  The Middle East and Southwest Asia is still engulfed in conflict.  Mexico has suffered from earthquakes.  Venezuela is in shambles.  The Gulf Coast and the Caribbean have had the worst hurricane season in years, with Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico being slammed.  Las Vegas is still reeling from a mass shooting.  Sometimes the world situation can feel apocalyptic, with the freedom of democratic and capitalist societies, and the fruits of all our cultural labors, being threatened by despots and anarchists.

But according to the Book of Acts, God is at work in the world and continuing to pour out His Spirit. Just as Jesus is the fulfillment of the sign of Jonah, so also Jesus is the fulfillment of all those societies that looked to owls as symbols of death and wisdom.  The One who bore the death of all those who call on his name is also a harbor of wisdom, the wisdom and blessing and outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  So, as those who receive wisdom from above, let us call on the name of our true Lord and strive to boldly engage this lost and uncertain world for Jesus Christ.

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Feathered Serpent

Look, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.  Therefore be  as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves. ~Matthew 10:16

One of the topics in theology that is of ongoing interest to me is the way in which aspects of the Christian faith can be found in other cultures and religions.  The early church theologian Justin Martyr, so named because he was martyred because of his faith, referred to these echoes of truth in other societies as “seeds of the Word”.  While I take the Scriptures and the Word of God, Jesus Christ, to be the only complete revelation of God’s self to us, I also acknowledge that there are aspects of truth in other belief systems.  There are many such examples of Christian beliefs overlapping in other societies.  Take, for instance, the example of ancient Latin America’s belief in a god who shares more than just a little similarity to Jesus Christ.

William Dyrness, in his recent book Insider Jesus, notes that the “precolonial Náhuatl culture” which is “centered in what is now Mexico…describes the original belief in the god Quetzalcóatl, which in the Náhuatl language means ‘feathered serpent.'” 1  In quoting Elsa Tamez, a Costa Rican theologian, the book goes on to elaborate that

The core of this story relates how the God Quetzalcóatl struggles against the lord of death and his reign so that a new humanity might rise into existence; the struggle is taken to such an extent that Quetzalcóatl injures Self in order to give humanity life. 2

This sounds curiously like the biblical message of Jesus who, as God, not only gave up his position in heaven to come to earth so that he might live alongside his creation and to reveal Himself as God-in-flesh, but he also gave up his life onthe cross so that humanity might be baptized in his death and begin to live a new way of life.  While I could easily make this post about the celebration of Easter, I actually wish to connect it to Advent, when we reflect on the time leading up to Israel’s waiting for a Messiah and which culminates in the celebration of Christmas, believing that God’s promise to Israel was fulfilled in Jesus Christ when God incarnated himself in the virgin Mary.

quetzalcoatl

Quetzalcoatl

As I did some casual research on the “feathered serpent” god of Mesoamerica, I came to find that incarnation is central to both Jesus and Quetzalcóatl.  In at least a few different versions of the myths of Quetzalcóatl, he is portrayed as being born of the virgin Chimalman. 3  And if that doesn’t sound familiar, Dryness elaborates on the mythological meaning of the term “feathered serpent” when he states that “‘Feather’ is a symbol for the heavenly realm, and ‘serpent’ is a symbol of the earthly realm, so this ‘feathered serpent’ represents an interesting representation of an incarnational form – ascending and descending.” 4  

So what does all this talk about scales and feathers have to do with Advent and Christmas beyond the obvious similarities between Christ and Quetzalcóatl, interesting though they are?  As I was reflecting on the implications of the similar elements, I was reminded of another biblical passage.  It is quoted in the epigraph of this post and I will repeat it here. First, some context.  Jesus is about to send out the 12 disciples to announce that the kingdom of God has come near.  As he does, he tells them, “As you go, announce this: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, drive out demons. You have received free of charge; give free of charge” (Matthew 10: 7-8).

In essence, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the presence of God has come to walk among his people.  First, he will be revealed to the Israelites, as the disciples are about to do, and then to the Gentiles, or to the rest of the ancient world. Whereas access to God could only come through the priests’ sacrifices to God in the temple, now God and his presence and kingdom power have come to be among the peoples of the world.  This is not just good news, this is great news, but people don’t know it yet. However, people would rather keep living under the old system of sacrifices, rites and rituals then accept this new order where the presence and grace of God is pure gift, “free of charge”.  And they would rather keep others under that system, particularly the Pharisees, the religious elite, and the Roman officials.  Their whole way of life and being “propped up”, so to speak, is dependent on the old religious and political systems as found in the then-current “elements of the world”. 5

This is the context, then, when Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 10:16, “Look, I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves.  Therefore be as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves.”  They will face rejection and persecution.  They will be actively and passively opposed.  They will be mocked and scorned. And yet, I believe it to be the case that it is in the example of Jesus himself, who “descended from heaven” to live on earth that the disciples could find the strength and power to be as gentle as doves and as wise as serpents.  It is in the very incarnation and life of Christ, the God-man, that we see heaven and earth, feathers and scales, meet.  Jesus is the ultimate Feathered Serpent.  And this is what the kingdom of heaven is about.  In the incarnation of Christ, all of creation is being renewed.  Hence, the power the disciples receive to heal, cleanse, drive out, and raise the dead.

feathered-serpent

Feathered serpent

It’s not just our souls that God redeems and renews, it’s all things, including body and soul, institutions and powers, calling and culture.  To believe in just a spiritual gospel is what is called gnosticism, and which the early church deemed a heresy.  It is the idea that the physical and tangible aspects of God’s creation, which he called good, is of little significance, or worse, evil.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not so arrogant as to call something that God labeled “good” as being “evil”.  Corrupted, yes.  Sinful, maybe.  But not evil.  So, let us step out again this season and announce the kingdom of heaven.  Let us, in our everyday lives bring about the healing of reconciliation, the the cleansing of society, the driving out of evil, and the raising of that which has died, if not literally then at least figuratively.  Let us be feathered serpents for a world that is groaning and longing for redemption.

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William A. Dyrness, Insider Jesus: Theological Reflections on New Christian Movements (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 76.

Elsa Tamez, “Reliving Our Histories: Racial and Culturual Revelations of God,” in New Vision for the Americas: Religious Engagement and Social Transformation, ed. David Batstone (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994), 33-35cited in Dyrness, Insider Jesus, 76.  The idea that God is creating a new humanity is often elaborated on in discussions of ecclesiology, the theology of the church of God.  I won’t pretend that the church doesn’t fail in it’s mission of living out a new humanity.  In fact, I need look no further than the next page of Dyrness’s book to find evidence of the church’s failing than when Spain and the conquistadors arrived.  We all know the story of how the Europeans treated the indigenous Americans, both in North and South America.  However, it is also the case that the relation of church and culture is a complex one, such that what appears to be Christian violence is often a perversion of the gospel by cultural forces in the form of politics and economics.  To read an accessible book about religious violence from cultural and historical perspectives, I suggest Meic Pearse’s The Gods of War.  And to read a somewhat weighty tome on what the new humanity ought to look like, and which the Spirit is always in the process of forming through those who have been baptized in Christ’s death and resurrection, I highly recommend Peter Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements of the World.

“Quetzalcoatl.” Wikipedia.org. Web. Accessed on 10 December 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quetzalcoatl&gt;.  As an aside, the Wikipedia article also mentions the Latter Day Saints belief that Jesus Christ came to visit the ancient American people after his death and resurrection.  I do not adhere to that belief, but rather find it more compelling that myths that seem to foreshadow the events of the New Testament can be perceived as just that: myths.  However, like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, I follow their lead in that these myths resonate with people in other societies because, in Christ, we have the “myth made fact”.  In other words, the pre-Christian myths of gods being incarnated and sacrificed find their fulfillment in the historical events of the gospel.  I don’t have time or space to cover the historical case for Christ as contrasted to the myths of other societies, but the concepts of “seeds of the Word” and “myth made fact” should provide some food for thought.

4 Dyrness, Insider Jesus, 171.

5 I’m summarizing aspects of Peter Leithart’s Delivered from the Elements of the World.  However, I am not exactly citing it as I am not directly relying on it for what i am writing.

The Door

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Spend a few minutes with the above photo.  To see more detail you may want to expand it by clicking on it.  What do you notice?  What are your eyes drawn toward?  Pay attention to the carvings in the wood.  The leafy branches.  The rooster handle.  The glass window.  What might God be trying to say to you through this image?  What does your imagination anticipate you would see if you were to open the door?

Jesus said to his disciples, “I assure you: I am the door [gate] of the sheep…If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.”  Additionally, in his book, Silence and Beauty, Makoto Fujimura shares some insights into beauty from a Japanese philosopher.  “[T]he ideogram of “beauty” is made up of the sacrificial sheep on top of an ideogram for ‘great,’ which I infer means ‘greater sheep.’  It connotes a greater sacrifice…This greater sacrifice may require sacrifice of one’s own life to save the lives of others…This is what is truly beautiful.” 1

How have you experienced a connection between sacrifice and beauty in your own life?  How might accepting the invitation of an open door require a sacrifice on your part?  How might it be a sacrifice on the part of the one extending the invitation?  Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us, his sheep.  Have you or will you accept his open door invitation?  Where in your life might he still be extending invitations to pass the threshold?______________________________________________________________

1 Tomonobu Imamichi, “Poetry and Ideas,” Doyo Bijutsu 2, no. 114 (1994): 42, cited in Makoto Fujimura, Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering  (Downers Grove, IVP Books, 2016), p. 66.