Halloween, Jesus and Eschatology

Oct 312013

Tonight is Halloween. There is lots flying around the internet at the moment about how to engage, or whether to engage. This post – which will be a bit more theological than most of mine – is my contribution to the debate.

My thoughts hinge around this word: eschatology.


Eschatology is the whole area of theology to do with God’s plans for the culmination of everything. The end times. Judgment Day. Christ’s final victory over everything – this is the stuff of eschatology. There are many divergent views in the study of eschatology, and opinions are often fiercely-held.

The best book I’ve ever read on the topic is . He deals with all the contentious stuff, and he even shares where he sits in the debates. But he is very clear that we cannot be absolutely certain about a lot of it until it happens. The one thing he’s unbendingly certain of is the one thing he was willing to make the title of the book. The Lamb wins. Jesus has the victory. He defeats everything, and He reigns victorious.

But therein lies the theological rub. Because there are two equal but opposite dangers when talking about Christ’s victory, dangers which the church from its very earliest days have fallen into.

The first is to think all this eschatology stuff won’t happen for a long time, and in the meantime we’re in a battle that we could lose. That ignores the victory of Jesus on the cross, that Jesus, ‘having disarmed the [dark] powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them by the cross’ (Colossians 2:15). Jesus victory has been won through his life, death and resurrection. He has already won.

But that leads to the second danger, which is to think that because His victory has already been established (which it has) and is so certain (which it is), it has already come in totality and is complete (it is not). The Bible is very clear that those powers which Jesus defeated at the cross – sin, death, the world, the devil – are still around in our present age. Their downfall is certain, but still in the future.

Folk in the early church fell into both these traps. In response, we see on the pages of the New Testament what a lot refer to as an ‘already, but not yet’ way of thinking about eschatology. Jesus victory is already present, but not yet complete. I believe that’s biblical, and I believe it’s true.

How ‘real’ is Halloween?

So what does this all have to do with Halloween, then? Well, in one way or another, Halloween is about darkness. It is either celebrating or playing around with or tackling dark forces in the world. Forces of death, the demonic, ultimately the Devil himself.

Those are the things over which the victory of Jesus stands. That eschatological, ‘already but not yet’ victory.

And when I look at the way that our theologies affect our view of – and engagement with – Halloween, I see us getting close to those two dangers at various points. (There may of course be valid societal reasons for our views, but for now I’m interested in the theology that motivates us.)

Danger 1: we are unduly scared of Halloween because we are afraid of the powers it represents, and forget that those powers have already been made into a public spectacle. They have been named and shamed.

Danger 2: we are too blasé about Halloween, saying there is ‘nothing to fear’ because nothing dark has any power anymore – it has all been defeated after all, right? The truth is there are dark forces at work in our world, and we can’t pretend there aren’t.

We need to tread a delicate path between the two. We must recognise that the darker side of Halloween exists, it isn’t benign or devoid of impact and force. But we also know it is not the highest power. There is a power far greater that has already put to shame all the ghouls and spooks that Halloween can glorify.

So how to respond?

I’m not going to give answers to questions like ‘How should we deal with trick-or-treaters?’ or ‘Is dressing up as a skeleton wrong?’ That’s not what I’m trying to do. There are probably many right courses of action.

But in our heart, I believe we should have these attitudes:

  • We should recognise we are in a battle, and that light isn’t the only side there is in that battle.
  • We should not be afraid of darkness, because we know it is doomed.
  • We can, in some ways, laugh at and poke fun of the darkness, because we know it is cheap and doomed and desperate. (That’s how Halloween started in the first place…)
  • We should recognise we have a message to speak into the darkness, that Jesus is the King of Light.

The one thing I think we can’t do is just board up our doors and ignore it. If we’re in a battle, let’s engage in that battle. If we needn’t be paralysed by fear, let’s engage boldly. If we know Jesus has the victory, let’s engage hopefully. And if we know we have a message, let’s engage actively.

What might that mean for how we engage with Halloween in practice?

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I’ve changed my mind

Oct 282013

I was asked a question recently as part of a staff retreat day: When was the last time you changed your beliefs? It’s not an easy question, but a good one.

Why I don’t like changing my mind

Changing my mind about what I believe is true has a lot of drawbacks. It means accepting that previously I was wrong. That knocks my pride. Given that I can sometimes (because of what I do and the way I am) be quite vocal about my beliefs, it means admitting to others I was wrong. That really knocks my pride. Also, because our belief systems are a whole organic body of interconnected ideas, it means having to rethink a lot of other things, and learning how to do things differently in light of it all. That’s effort. Also, changing my mind about things I used to think reminds of the very real possibility that things I believe now are also wrong. I was wrong before, I could be again. That’s probably pride again.

So, mostly I don’t like changing my mind because I’m prideful, but also a bit because I’m lazy.

It’s far easier to decide something is right and then just stick with it for life, being able to hold to it tightly with a clenched fist that will never be prised open.

Why I have to change my mind

Here’s the thing, though. That’s not good enough. It may be easier to have beliefs and ideas of truth that are like that, but that doesn’t make it right. And after all, I believe that truth is to be entered into with a limp, not a stride.

I need to change my mind about things because (as much as I might not like to admit it) I can be wrong about things. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and still have all the same convictions I do now, because it means I won’t have discovered all the ways I’m wrong about things now. I’m fallen. I’m broken. I’m wrong.

But I don’t want to stay that way if I can help it.

So, how about it?

Perhaps I can see the benefit in letting go of some beliefs in favour of new ones because I have changed my mind quite a bit recently. Here are some examples:

  • My beliefs about the fundamental goodness and badness of humanity has shifted significantly recently.
  • My understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit has changed quite a bit in the last year.
  • I have a different view of ‘mission’ than I used to.
  • My view of what preaching should look like has drastically changed in recent times (though I don’t always demonstrate that in practice – see above, re. pride and effort).
  • I no longer have a view of language, words and grammar that see them as unchanging. Language evolves, words don’t have fixed meanings. This has been a pretty big thing for me (also, check this out!).

Some of you reading this may have been on the receiving end of rants about some of those pre-change (especially the grammar one…) If so, sorry about that!

So, what about you? When was the last time you changed your mind? And when will be the next time?

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Oct 092013

A few weeks ago I missed an opportunity, I think. I was preaching, and the sermon was on Jesus as our ‘great high priest’ from the book of Hebrews (4:14–5:10 if you must know). As part of it, I said this:

“Jesus is the perfect high priest because he entered into the grittiness and the reality and the pain of our existence. Life can be very hard indeed, but like the high priests of Israel, Jesus knows that. He has sympathy because he knows how it feels. He knows every last bit of it, more than we know”

And then I moved on. I sort of wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d explored some of the many ways Jesus really did identify with our situations, not just as clever illustrations but because people there that Sunday (including me) were doubtlessly in some of those situations themselves. It could have been far more powerful and useful than what I did go on to say. So now I will, with twelve real things Jesus struggled with on earth.

My hope is that some of this will be of comfort to you. I would be astonished if at least some of this isn’t something you have faced or are facing. Know that you are not alone.

1. Jesus had a job

How many of our struggles come because we have to work? Or have to balance working a job and living the rest of our lives? Jesus wasn’t just a roving preacher-man for His whole life – He was a carpenter. He had a real job. He knew that struggle.

2. Jesus was ‘used’ by people

Jesus was exceedingly generous with His time, healing, teaching and friendship. That meant there were folk who took advantage. In Luke 17:11-19, Jesus heals 10 men with leprosy. Only 9 come back to thank him. The rest just wanted His service and then they were done. Of course, Jesus kept being generous anyway. He knew that struggle.

3. Jesus got angry

Jesus wasn’t oblivious to the things around Him that were wrong. Look at John 2:13-17 (turning tables in the Temple) or Matthew 23:13-39 (strong words to the religious elite). He saw injustice – usually perpetrated by the religious powerhouse – and it made him furious. And He couldn’t help but act on that anger. Of course He still loved those He was angry with. He knew that struggle.

4. Jesus was misunderstood by those closest to Him

Our family and those we grow up with know us best, a lot of the time. But sometimes they are blinded to who we’ve become, or they don’t like it. When Jesus went back to His hometown, He was so underestimated that He couldn’t realise His potential there (Mark 6:1-6). And later on (Luke 8:19-21), He recognises that He shares far more in common with non-relatives because His family just don’t get Him. But He still loves and looks after His family (John 19:25-27). He knew that struggle.

5. Jesus suffered bereavement

And He wept (John 11:35). He knew that struggle.

6. Jesus ‘failed’ at evangelism

Not every conversation led to a conversion. The rich young man couldn’t accept what Jesus demanded and left (Mark 10:17-22), and many of his own followers dropped away as things went on (John 6:66). He didn’t have a 100% success rate. He knew that struggle.

7. Jesus had anxiety for the future

Knowing what’s going to happen doesn’t always help. Jesus knew what lay ahead of Him as He prayed in Gethsemane, but He still struggled with it (Luke 22:39-44). He knew it was God’s will, but He didn’t want it to be. He knew it was right, but He didn’t want it to happen. He was scared about what was to come. He knew that struggle.

8. Jesus was tempted with sin

The temptation Jesus faced in the desert was real (Matthew 4:1-11). He was tempted to put Himself first, to show off, and to take glory for Himself. All of this was a real temptation. The writer(s) to the Hebrews makes it clear He was tempted ‘in every way’ (4:15). But Jesus withstood temptation. He knew that struggle.

9. Jesus was abandoned by His friends

Judas betrayed Him (Matthew 26:14-16). The disciples fled (Matthew 26:56). Peter denied knowing Him (Matthew 26:69-75). All His loyal friends and followers, who He had chosen and poured His life into for years – every single one of them – deserted Jesus. He poured Himself into them knowing that, of course, and was willing to forgive them (John 21:15-17). He knew that struggle.

10. Jesus was persecuted

He was beaten physically, mocked, punished for things He had never said, or for things He’d said that were true. And eventually He was forced to carry His own torture device up a hill and was crucified on it. All for being obedient to God’s will and kingdom. He knew that struggle.

11. Jesus experienced ‘political’ manoeuvring

Jesus’ opposition didn’t like Him and they were scared of Him, but they didn’t deal with it openly. They engaged in back room deals, gossip, half-truths and outright lies. They were plotting (Matthew 21:46). And Pilate (John 18:28–19:16) knew there was no real case against Jesus. But instead of saying so, he tried the politically-sensible way out – Barabbas. That didn’t work, but instead of sticking to His convictions that Jesus was innocent, he let Jesus be crucified to keep the people happy. All politically-motivated. He knew that struggle.

12. Jesus felt far from God

While He had mostly enjoyed a very close and intimate relationship with God in His life, as He hung on the cross God was nowhere to be seen or heard or felt. ‘My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?’ This wasn’t imagined. God had turned His face away. When we feel God is distant, God’s Son knows how we feel. He knew that struggle, too.

This list is by no means comprehensive. When I moved on in my sermon, I said this:

Jesus isn’t sitting in heaven looking down and judging us thinking ‘What are they doing? It can’t be that hard!’ He’s there shouting ‘Come on! Keep going! I know it’s hard, but I promise it’s worth it! Keep going! Keep going!’

I really believe that to be true. Jesus knows what we are facing, and He cares. God bless you.

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Oct 052013

Hello again, internet. It’s been a while since my last post, so sorry if that’s disappointed anyone. It has been a rather busy summer, and this is one thing that slipped a little. But I’m back.

What do we mean when we say God speaks today? It’s something I hear quite often. Or I hear people say “God said to me…” and I want to interrupt and ask “How?” or even sometimes “How are you sure it was Him?” It’s been on my mind recently, and here are a few thoughts I thought worth sharing.

God does speak today

I want to start by saying this: I believe strongly that God does speak, and He still speaks. The God I follow is not one who spoke many years ago, and then retreated from the world, never to step into human history again. Jesus ascended to heaven, He’s still there, and He’s Lord of history now in a very real sense not just in a ‘That’s what I say I believe on Sunday, but on a Monday who cares?’ kind of way.

And part of the way He is directing human history, directing His church (He isn’t just ‘the Lord’ but ‘OUR Lord’), is by speaking to His people, His friends.

I also believe that the fullest revelation He has given us is in His Son, Jesus. In Hebrews 1:1-2 we see that while God has spoken in a variety of ways and contexts, His fullest revelation is Jesus Christ, His Son. He is not the final revelation, but the full one, and if God speaks in any other way – through the Bible, through His Spirit, through other people – then that revelation must sit under, be understood through and be weighed against the person of Jesus.

Our job is to listen

So that all said, how do we hear God. Well, we need to listen. I had a friend recently who, when I asked what I should do with my life (results here!), told me to become great at listening to God. And he was absolutely right. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realised something: God is speaking to us in so many ways, and we need to tune ourselves in.

It’s very easy to listen to someone if they’ve shouted our name, grabbed our attention and then look us directly in the eye as they speak. God does that. I believe God can speak to us in an audible voice, and that sometimes He does. He can write in the sky, whisper in our ear or rearrange those little alphabet fridge magnets on so they say something directly to us. He can do this stuff.  He does do this stuff. Those times, hearing isn’t too difficult because it’s so direct.

The problem, I think, is that we can sometimes expect God to do that for us all the time. We are so busy waiting for our big ‘Thus says the Lord’ moment that we miss out on what the Lord says. Sometimes, listening is harder work than that. Abraham is one of the people in the Bible who walked closest with God (he’s called ‘God’s friend’!), and he had a direct voice from God approximately once every 25 years. Was God not speaking the rest of the time? (I actually find that statistic very comforting.)

What listening looks like

God has spoken to us far more than we often realise, and that is because too often we want the voice to be specific to us. What do I mean? We want God to tell us what He wants us to do. Us, here and now in our own situation. We forget, though, that through His word He has already told us. Make disciples, pour ourselves out on behalf of the poor, seek justice, proclaim God’s truth boldly, seek holiness. Isn’t there enough to be going on with there?! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

I mean sure, we have to figure out what that means for us right now. Making disciples in 21st Century Britain is very different from making disciples in 1st Century Israel, but then Jesus didn’t really tell them how to do it. He told them what to do, and then He remained with them by His Spirit while they figured it out and got on with it. We need to figure some of this stuff out too, instead of expecting all of it to be given straight to us.

This post is getting longish now, so I’m going to wrap it up. It may sound like I’m saying God speaks to us only through the Bible, but I’m not. I believe the Bible is God’s primary way of speaking to us, but not His only one. I’ll do a post soon on some of the other weird and wonderful ways we should be listening to God’s voice.

But however God speaks, directly or indirectly, we need to decide to be people who are attentive, who listen – even if it means some hard work.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on different ways God speaks to us, so if you have any please comment!

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