Gnostic America

January 8, 2020
by Peter Burfeind

Wednesday of Christmas2/Epiphany: On Divine Warnings in Dreams

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Then, being divinely warned in a dream … an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream … behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream.

The other day I had a dream I had driven off a highway into a body of water and had to release my young, submerged kids from their seatbelts. That dream changed my behavior …exactly not one bit whatsoever. Save some feelings of horror, waking up was a nice release, as I prepared to drive my children to school the way I might any other time.

I’ve had lots of dreams. You’ve had lots of dreams. How much do dreams effect our behavior? Not much. The dreams in Matthew 2 result in migration and changed caravan routes. What is the difference? The difference is, our dreams are stories our brains construct from the detritus of memories (true, why it constructs what it constructs is interesting), but the dreams of the wise men and Joseph are from God.

With the rise of Gnosticism in America, about 50% of Americans are believing God speaks to them, not in the context of the Bible or the proclamation of God’s Word in the Divine Service, but personally. Let’s unpack what this means with reference to one of the premier modern Gnostics, Carl Jung.

The Jungian take on the mind is that it arises from a collective unconscious. Put in the terms of YouTube sensation Jordan Peterson, the human species has acquired certain psychological apparatuses over the sixty million years of our evolution that help us survive. If as monkeys in trees our enemies were birds of prey, big cats, and snakes – such that sight of such beings would have triggered survival mechanisms in our monkey brain – we carry that instinct in our “psychic DNA.”

But as we leave the trees and start walking erect out in the plains, those images, having been neutered by new circumstances, get re-framed as symbols of other, perhaps more sublime dangers. The bird, cat, and snake evolve psychically into the dragon, and the dragon becomes a symbol of certain dangers to the human soul. It emerges in our dreams and myths. Because it’s common to all humanity, it becomes a universal literary theme, true in Chinese literature as it is in Aztec. It also becomes a universal symbol in our dreams. It along with an infinite number of other symbols makes up our “collective unconscious.”

A human individual pre-consciousness will live by instinct through these symbols. But growth and maturation requires breaking free from the sway of these symbols, while yet reintegrating what is helpful and worthy about them into our world view. We go from being truly afraid of dragons – because we’re irrationally afraid of them – to recognizing what they can tell us about other fears.

The symbols, in a sense, can “speak to us.” In a sense, our dreams can be messages from a world that’s bigger than us – millions of years of collective evolution going back to the smallest reptiles and beyond. Jung at first saw God in this. “God” is us projecting our collective unconscious onto what he called the “patent screen of eternity.” But toward the end of his life he took a leap into the mystic beyond, and believed there might be an actual God at work, one he understood in Gnostic terms, that is, one transcending anything so tribal as a Hebrew God of Scripture or the Christian Jesus.

Jordan Peterson lurks in this same place, seeing in our psyches a universe of symbols and myths that, if only we could interpret them properly, we could gain what amounts to divine insight – and maybe there’s something “out there” or not, but if there is, it’s way beyond anything that could be formalized in a religion. It only speaks to us psychologically, or symbolically, through myth.

The dangerous thing about Peterson is he applies this understanding to Scripture itself. The story of Cain and Abel, for instance, is not about an actual event, when first a martyr was killed for divine worship, but about our collective unconscious speaking to us about brotherly relations. Moses was a prophet not because he received messages from God, but because he more ably tapped into the collective unconscious and more properly discerned its subtle ways. And perhaps the hallucinogenic effects of what we call “manna,” but was probably psilocybin, helped unearth those deep veins of psychic gold.

Or whatever.

In our Gnostic times – Jung was a sixties hero – we will see dreams and signs and messages from the divine all over the place, seeing in any and every minor symbol deep truths to guide our lives. Were Joseph and the Magi – Zoroastrians whose teachings were among the feeder streams of formal ancient Gnosticism – simply in a state of heightened consciousness, and so dreamed things giving them clear guidance concerning the issues of their day, particularly relating to Herod.

No. They received messages from angels of the Lord. But how do we distinguish between what could just be our mind playing tricks with us and something truly from the Lord?

Here’s the thing. You’ll know. Or better put, you’d know. When God confronts you, He doesn’t leave you in doubt. “I feel like God is telling me X, Y, and Z” is not something a Christian would say, because beginning a sentence with “I feel like” doesn’t inspire confidence or certainty, pretty much at all, and God doesn’t leave things so undefined.

Remember Elijah going down to Mount Horeb, hoping to be a second Moses? Surely with all the apostasy in Israel, he and God could start over at a mountain, and God could show His back to him as he did Moses, and maybe give him a new Law. God caused a wind, an earthquake, and a fire to appear to Elijah, but He Himself was not in it. All Elijah heard was “the sound of silence,” or “absolute silence,” or as we normally hear the phrase, “a still small voice.”

Of course, we Americans love to interpret this the opposite way its intended. Elijah heard nothing, for God was not going to play by Elijah’s rules and replay the Moses story with him. We hear that and conclude, “See! God speaks in that still small voice, in the subtle moving of our spirits, in our dreams, or in those quiet moments when we open our hearts to God.”

No. The whole point of that account is that Elijah heard nothing from God. What he did hear from God was actually quite mundane: “Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria…. etc. etc.” In other words, do your job.

God does not leave people in doubt when He wants to speak to them. For this reason we can be sure that the Holy Scriptures are just that, God’s Word. They are not the product of heightened consciousness or psychologically mature individuals. They are the product of men who had no doubt God was speaking to them, as in, “Lo, there’s a tall shining person standing before me who makes me want to bury myself lest I die.”

God does not speak to you in dreams. He doesn’t speak to me in dreams. He speaks to 50% of Americans in dreams because their minds are playing tricks with them, because they need their minds to play tricks with them.

He spoke to Joseph and the wise men in dreams, and they had no doubt He was doing so. Such certain happenings are the basis of our Scriptures, all of which are rooted in similar certain happenings.

January 8, 2020
by Peter Burfeind

Tuesday of Christmas2/Epiphany: His Star in the East

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“For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

How do we view this star the wise men saw? Was it a special miracle or was it a unique conspiracy of natural circumstances. Each way of viewing the star has much to speak for it.

The “star as miracle” way is a bit of a countercultural way of viewing the star, countercultural because our culture is scientific, and the default instinct of most modern people – including Christians – is to seek scientific or naturalistic explanations for biblical happenings. Many are the times I’ve listened as someone recounts something they saw on the History Channel which explains how the Nile turned red, or how the plague of flies happened, or what might have caused the walls of Jericho to fall. “They say the Red Sea split because there was a drought.” But then, when Israel crossed, the drought ended, just as Egypt entered into the sea? What else are “they” claiming?

Why can’t we just say a miracle happened? Last I checked we do believe in God, don’t we? God can suspend the laws of nature if He wants, if I understand the word “Almighty” properly.

Modern people struggle with miracles. It’s sort of a Gnostic thing, a forced cognitive dissonance between the world of the Bible and the world of reason.

On one hand, there’s the world we live in, where, quite frankly, we never really see miracles. “But isn’t the sun rising a miracle.” Yeah, yeah, but that’s obviously not what we’re talking about. Nor are we talking about the goofy signs we make to be from God in order to give meaning to aspects of our lives. Nor are we talking about the “miracles” claimed by those who, well, we’d expect to be touting miracles, because they have a psychological need to posit them. In the Bible sense of a miracle – a public sign obvious to all involved – we simply don’t have miracles in the modern age.

On the other hand, there’s the world of the Bible, where miracles seem to happen regularly. Why is that world so different than the world we live in?

The easy answer is from Jesus, Who simply says one miracle is necessary, the resurrection. We are in the age of faith, and faith is in some mysterious way the completion of man. Faith in the testimony of the resurrection is all we need, and if faith needs some proof beyond the apostolic testimony of the resurrection, we’re out of the realm of faith.

Another answer is an interesting statistical one. If you take all the miracles in the Bible and spread them out over the duration of biblical history, they occur at a relatively rare pace, like one every forty years or so. Also, most of those miracles were witnessed by few people. So, spread the amount of people over time who witnessed the miracle, and you get something like a handful of people witnessing a miracle every forty years or so.

There are big miracles seen by many – the entire exodus event, the feeding of the 5,000, the resurrection, Pentecost – and there’s a reason these events are signature events in Scripture, precisely because they were so epically rare. But the vast majority of miracles in the Bible were private affairs.

Private miracles of incredible wonderment probably occur today, and if they do, they probably occur at about the same pace as private miracles occurred in the Bible. One miracle every forty years, somewhere in the world, would both (a) continue the biblical pace of miracles and (b) be an acceptable exception to Jesus’ “no sign but one” principle I’m willing to live with, given we see such exceptions already in the book of Acts.

Here’s another possible answer to the lack of miracles, building off Jesus’ “no sign but one” principle. Did the resurrection of Jesus and advent of the Church Age introduce a truly revolutionary change in the manner of being itself. All the world – not just the biblical world – was once mythical or miraculous. What of the Greek gods and myths? What of the myths of other pagan religions? What of the Egyptians magicians?

Was the pre-Church world simply more full of odd manifestations of spiritual phenomenon? Perhaps the Church Age has put demons in their prison house, the abyss, locked until the end of time, as some Scriptures suggest. If that is the case, perhaps there simply was more supernatural stuff happening before Christ, and Jesus’ advent was a triumph of a peaceful order on the natural world.

The wise men could very well have seen a miracle, a standout phenomenon. And maybe it was only manifest to them, or maybe demons were presenting counterfeit miracles so regularly that a single star acting weird would only be noticed by a handful of men who, well…why did the wise men in the east correctly interpret the star? Likely they were living off of biblical traditions going back to the prophet Daniel, who spent some time in Babylon and likely taught disciples the prophecies of Isaiah. He was, after all, “chief of the magicians, astrologers, Chaldeans, and soothsayers.”

Such prophecies would include, “Arise, shine; For your light has come!…The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising. …The wealth of the Gentiles shall come to you. The multitude of camels shall cover your land, The dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; All those from Sheba shall come; They shall bring gold and incense.”

So, when the magi saw the light shining in the east, they were just following the script.

More interesting, for me, than the “miracle” interpretation is the “unique conspiracy of natural occurrences” interpretation. That is, freak events were happening in the skies all at once, things with Jupiter, constellations, and the sun. Among the sun, moon, stars, and moving stars (planets) each doing their ordered things in their own way, you’ll get who-knows how many combinations of lights in the sky, like Jupiter hovering for a few days in the constellation of Leo as earth overpasses its orbit.

Normally such things would mean nothing. But if meaning is ascribed to the various lights – like, Jupiter is the king of stars, or Leo is the kingly constellation, or whatever – then meaning can be ascribed to heavenly happenings. Astrology is based on this principle, and before we Christians dismiss this out of hand, consider astrology (as well as magic and alchemy) were more accepted by Christians in the Middle Ages than today. The birth of Luther itself was signaled by astronomical occurrences in 1484, believed the priest and astrologer (!!) Johann Lichtenberger (1440-1503).

We talk of the “miracle of modern science” or speak of miracles when a doctor does a routine surgery to cure someone. We claim God is using the doctors to perform miracles. How is this different than previous Christians using the sciences of the day and seeing God using it for His purposes?

Beyond that, the Bible itself refers to the names of constellations several times, like Job saying, “He made the Bear, Orion, and the Pleiades, And the chambers of the south.” God made the constellations!

Here’s what I find most interesting about the “unique conspiracy of natural occurrences” interpretation. It goes back to the creation itself, to the fourth day. That day, we hear the Lord say, “Let [the] lights in the firmament of the heavens …be for signs…”

What signs? Why did God make so many stars it baffles the mind? Well, one reason is to underscore how many children Abraham would have. Imagine that. At the snap of a finger, God created the immenseness of the trillions of galaxies – all of which He named by the way! – as a visual aid for a point He was going to make a few thousand years later to Abraham. Wouldn’t the sand have sufficed? Nope, let’s create a universe too.

But God also set up the heavenly bodies in such a way that (a) several of the stars would be seen as a “kingly” constellation by later cultures, (b) earth would view that constellation in a certain way at a specific time when (c) Jupiter would hover in place for a few days, just as He sent His Son, because God wound up Jupiter just right so that it collided with Leo in the heavens after culture had evolved in such a way so as to result in wise men who would properly interpret the events in a manner catechized by the prophet Daniel.

I find that way more interesting than a miracle. It means God arranged the heavenly bodies themselves like a clock to sound a cosmic alarm just at the moment His Son was born. It means the rise of paganism by satanic operations was in the end orchestrated by God for His purposes. It means the exile of Israel in Babylon was partly to make a point about the gentiles being included in His divine plan. It means one of the reasons He choose David was because He was born in Bethlehem, which would play a role in how the heavenly bodies were situated relative to earthly locations.

What would we expect from a God who names the stars?

It’s on the basis of such wisdom too high to fathom that Job’s brooding needed to come to an end. We are microbes traversing brush strokes on the Mona Lisa, trying to make meaning of our little moment in place and time. We have no idea of that grand painting being worked by our Lord. It is enough for us to know that He is a God of love, that all that wisdom is mustered toward the One over Whom the star hovered, the one named Jesus, who saves people from their sins.

January 7, 2020
by Peter Burfeind

January 6: The Epiphany of Our Lord

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Matthew 2: 1-12

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ”
Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.” When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

One of the singular, but powerful heresies of our day is that God’s prophecies for Israel as a specific nation located on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea remain unfulfilled, but in recent years they are now beginning to be fulfilled. Israel has reemerged as a nation, and soon the temple shall be rebuilt, and the sacrifices will resume.

Against this understanding of the Old Testament prophecies regarding Israel is the long-standing view of Christianity that the Church, not the modern state of Israel, is the continuation and fulfillment of the prophecies. The Church is the grafting in of gentiles on the olive tree (cf. Romans 11), and Christ’s work gives meaning to promises given to Israel. As such, Israel as a nation can certainly be seen as God’s working in history – worked in His capacity as the raiser and destroyer of nations – but not as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.

Abraham is indeed the “father of many” not by blood, but by faith. The “rebuilt temple” is not some brick and mortar structure centered in Jerusalem, but Christ’s body, rebuilt in three days. The sacrifice to end all sacrifices is Jesus’ death on the cross. He is the high priest to end all priests. All the promises and prophecies about kings, conquest, Armageddon, and battle are to be spiritually understood. So on and so forth.

“All Israel will be saved,” says St. Paul. Well of course that’s true, because “Israel” is metaphorically God’s people, that is, those who are being saved, including both remnant and gentile.

In any event, Matthew’s Gospel contributes as much, if not more, than any of the other New Testament books toward this outlook. Matthew is typically seen as the “Hebrew Gospel.” It begins with a genealogy going back to Abraham. He quotes the Old Testament prophets more than any other evangelist. He famously works with the “Jesus as New Moses” theme. And yet, his Gospel contributes powerfully to the view that the Church will take over the story of God’s people from ethnic Israel.

It begins with the wise men. They fulfilled one of the prophecies from Isaiah (Isaiah 60) that “The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising. …The wealth of the Gentiles shall come to you.”

Isaiah 60 reads as a prediction of Israel’s triumph over enemies, in the sense of this passage: “[T]hose who afflicted you Shall come bowing to you, And all those who despised you shall fall prostrate at the soles of your feet; And they shall call you The City of the LORD.” But when we see how this is fulfilled, we recognize the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies are not what they may seem, or, how modern Christian Zionists interpret it.

For instance, in the above passage, it would appear that Isaiah 60’s theme is that Israel’s enemies will be humbled before them. With glorious vengeance, those who hated Israel will be forced to fall at Israel’s feet, like those kings of old whose necks were forced under the feet of victorious Israelite kings, as Israel reaped the plunder of its conquest.

Instead, the actual fulfillment is that different kinds of kings (wise men) will come, not forced but unforced, the “falling prostrate” will not be in the sense of being humiliated, but in the sense of humble worship, and the wealth bestowed would be quite voluntary. The victory is real – How many gentile nations to this day have sizeable populations who claim Christ the Jewish king as their primary king? Do nations today even dare assert a king anymore, and yet a Jewish king reigns unchallenged in the hearts of billions? – but the manner of victory is not as we’d suspect.

It involves a baby, a humble family, a flight to Egypt, and lots of innocent murder. It involves gifts which arguably were used (a) to help pay for said flight to Egypt and (b) to bury said baby 33 years later. It’s not as we’d expect.

But that sets the tone for the rest of Matthew, and for the rise of Christianity. Quickly in the Gospel, we see John the Baptist warning the Jews, “[D]o not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”

We see such children when we see the laudably great faith of the centurion and a Canaanite woman. Of the former, Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The Lord began His restoration of the fallen world order with Abraham, but already with Jesus we realize the line of Abraham is not a blood line, but something else. Jesus was not Joseph’s blood son, and yet He claimed Joseph’s line. How so? Through adoption, because Joseph named him. This is the new way God makes children, not through reproduction and bloodlines, but through naming.

So it shouldn’t surprise us when Matthew’s Gospel concludes with these words, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”

The Psalm long ago promised, “All nations whom You have made Shall come and worship before You, O Lord, And shall glorify Your name.”

This began with the wise man, and is continued with the baptized who continue to offer worship. What worship? Worship like, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall be forever. Amen.” That is the worship of gentiles, the “plunder” a Jewish king gains from subjects across the globe.

January 7, 2020
by Peter Burfeind

The Second Sunday after Christmas: The Branch from the Stump of Jesse

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Since there are only twelve days of Christmas, to have two Sundays after Christmas is an occasional happening. When it does come up, usually January 6 will come shortly afterwards, setting up a strange situation. The January 6 (Epiphany) Gospel reading is Matthew 2: 1-12, whereas the Gospel for the second Sunday after Christmas is Matthew 2: 13-23. The oddity is that the latter part of Matthew 2, the flight to Egypt, precedes the early, wise man part of Matthew 2.

Oh well. There are plenty of themes in both readings to captivate our attention this week, given Epiphany falls in the week as well. But we begin with the Christmas reading.

Arguably the final sentence of the chapter sums it all up: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
Jesus is called a Nazarene because His family settled in Nazareth. The etymology of Nazareth is from the Hebrew, netser, which means “branch.” For those who know the prophecy, a series of thoughts should be populating your understanding.

The prophecy is from Isaiah, “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, And a Branch [netser] shall grow out of his roots.” “The Branch” is a title for the Messiah. In fact there is no prophecy in the Old Testament that says, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” In fact there’s not much of anything close to that. We’ll deal with this conundrum in an upcoming devotion. For now, we work with the “branch from the stump of Jesse” theme.

The root of Jesse was in Bethlehem. It’s where Jesse was from, where Samuel anointed David king. The kings of Judah arose from Bethlehem. The dynastic family tree grew from the Bethlehem soil. The image is clear.

What led to the tree becoming a stump? Many things. Judah hadn’t had a king for centuries. The dynasty ended. King Herod represented all the power of pagan kings overthrowing the Judean kings and causing that dynastic tree to be a stump. In particular, Herod’s act of massacring the innocents was the axe at the base of the dynastic tree, and for all practical purposes, the tree came tumbling down…again.

Yet God had promised there would be an anointed one, a Christ, to sit on David’s throne forever. Either God’s Word and promise were false or there would arise a Messiah to fulfill that promise. Jesus did precisely that. He was to be the final and forever cap on the family tree.

But He was down in Egypt. Egypt is where the Lord calls His sons. Egypt is like the nursery for God’s young plants, as it is written, “You have brought a vine out of Egypt; You have cast out the nations, and planted it.” Herod represented “the nations.”

Although the metaphor is a bit mixed – a transplanted vine and a Branch growing out of a stump – it’s botanically tied together at least. We all get the image. Jesus is the Branch who would rise from the hewn dynastic tree of Bethlehem; He’d be the vine brought out of Egypt and planted in Nazareth, the place of the Branch, and for that reason, yes, Jesus is called a Nazarene. He’s the Branch.

It’s a beautiful image, but lurking beneath the surface of this image are some horrid things to contemplate: swinging axes, murdered toddlers, traveling over deserts…paganism’s triumph over God’s people. To say nothing of the “out of Egypt” concept: four hundred years of slavery, Joseph sold into slavery and false accused of rape, Pharaoh’s massacre of male children…paganism’s triumph over God’s people.

Bondage, false accusations, murder of babies…paganism’s triumph over God’s people. Sound familiar?

And yet, behold the little sprig arising from the hewn, ashen stump, that little sprig of life that has power to turn chaos and void into powerful life. That’s the work of the one called “Nazarene,” “the Branch,” Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

December 12, 2019
by Peter Burfeind

Saturday of Advent 1: Christ’s Coming in the Name of the Lord

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‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ Hosanna in the highest!”

These words are the bulk of the Sanctus, the canticle sung just prior to the Words of Institution of Holy Communion. Here is the text of the Sanctus in full:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Last devotion we contemplated how the introductory verses from Psalm 22 can serve as an excellent primary on the Sanctus and its role in the liturgy. Here are those words:

My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?
Why are You so far from helping Me,
And from the words of My groaning?
O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear;
And in the night season, and am not silent.
But You are holy,
Enthroned in the praises of Israel.

“But You are holy” is a confession much like that of the Seraphim, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” There’s only one holy in the “but You are holy” because the mystery of the Holy Trinity hadn’t been revealed yet. Only the seraphim knew of this mystery.

“Enthroned in the praises of Israel” parallels nicely the action of Israel “carrying” Jesus into Jerusalem on their praises, “Hosanna in the highest; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” The symbolism of the donkey and colt works with this theme as well. The donkey and colt were that on which Jesus sat – a throne – and as we’ve seen from the Old Testament law, the colt was redeemed by the sacrifice of a lamb. The donkey and colt represent us, who in our praises bear the Lamb of God who redeems us.

And that death of the Lamb draws us back to the opening verses of Psalm 22, the cry of the Messiah to the God who abandoned Him and doesn’t hear. The Messiah endured this so that He indeed may be present among us, enthroned in our praises. That’s the whole tone of Psalm 22, “I the Messiah am abandoned, but you O Lord are faithful to Israel.” Yes, He’s faithful to Israel precisely because of the Suffering Servant. “All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”

This Psalm 22/Sanctus connection is a nice foundation on which to inspect the “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” There’s a “downward flow” to the Sanctus. It begins in heaven, “but you are holy,” yes, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” as testified by the Seraphim. You can’t get much higher than Seraphim other than God Himself. The expanded three “holies” of the seraphim, as we said, suggests they had a fuller testimony of the three-fold nature of our Lord than they did in the Old Testament.

“Holy, Holy, Holy” is high up in heaven indeed! Even when this first comes up, in Isaiah 6, we hear, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts, the earth is full of thy glory.” We’re not even permitted to know if His glory is in heaven! We have no entry there! How can we share a testimony with the seraphim of a glory in heaven we have no right to share?

But in the Sanctus something has changed. What changed is Jesus. God has taken on human flesh. The one enthroned in heaven is now enthroned on earth, on donkeys and in Israel’s confessions and praise. Now it’s not just seraphim in the highest heaven singing eternally about heavenly truths Isaiah can only bear testimony to. Now it’s children and God’s Church singing what only angels used to be permitted to sing. Let’s look at the several examples of this from the Sanctus.

First there’s the change we see in that, where in Isaiah 6 we learn “the earth is full of your glory,” in the Sanctus we sing, “heaven and earth is full of your glory.” Now we are permitted to share that testimony, that God’s glory fills not just earth, but heaven! Why? Because we’ve been granted permission of access into heaven through Christ. We can confess that God’s glory is in heaven because we realize it by faith.

The second thing we see in the Sanctus is the phrase “hosanna in the highest.” “Highest” is not in the original verse from Psalm 118, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” That was added by the people on Palm Sunday.

In fact, what we learn about what is “highest,” and God’s place there, and what was a natural attitude of Old Testament people, is best articulated from Eliphaz The Temanite in the book of Job: “Is not God in the height of heaven? And see the highest stars, how lofty they are! And you say, ‘What does God know? Can He judge through the deep darkness? Thick clouds cover Him, so that He cannot see, And He walks above the circle of heaven.’ ”

God is so high, He’s transcendent beyond any care for humanity. This is an Islamic understanding of God, as well the foundational theology for a more Gnostic understanding of God.

Yet, on account of Christ’s incarnation the children can cry out, “Hosanna in the highest.” Or, “Please save us in the highest.” Or, in other words, “In the highest realm, may our Savior do His work for us.” Jesus, who has ascended to the highest, puts us in God’s sight, making us an objective of His salvation, His care.

But at the same time our thoughts are ascending to the “highest” and to the place of the “Holy, Holy, Holy” one, we can’t ever forget where our focus is. The one enthroned in our praises is “Lowly and riding on a donkey.” Heaven is on earth!

And this leads to the final thing we see in the Sanctus showing us how in Jesus heaven and earth come together. It’s the phrase, “blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” What’s the name of the Lord? It’s the baptismal name, the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s the name testified to with the three-fold holy. Jesus comes in that name. Jesus comes in the name testified to by angels. That which is a mystery unknown in the Old Testament but by the seraphim becomes revealed in the incarnate Christ on the donkey, confessed by children.

The Sanctus obviously sets us up for the great event to come, Holy Communion. God from the highest heaven above comes to us – blessed is He – to save us, and He does so humbly, in the person of Jesus Christ, in bread and wine, in the Church. At communion, heaven and earth come together. Few better canticles set up that truth than the Sanctus.

December 12, 2019
by Peter Burfeind

Friday of Advent 1: Victory amidst the Shadow of the Cross

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Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“But You are holy, Enthroned in the praises of Israel.” These words beautifully fit the image we get from the above passage. The multitudes are before and after Jesus, as if carrying Him along with their praises – He’s truly “enthroned” in their praises, especially given what they’re saying, confessing Him to be the Son of David, the messianic King.

“But you are holy, Enthroned in the praises of Israel.” What a line to summarize the Sanctus, which is the canticle of praise sung just prior to the Lord’s mystical coming to us today, in Holy Communion. “But you are holy.” We might as well say, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” “Enthroned in the praises of Israel.” Based on the Palm Sunday event in which we see Jesus carried along in a “throne” of praises exclaimed by those before and following Him, we might assume what exact praises enthroned Him: “Hosanna; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Together we get the Sanctus. Singing the Sanctus just before communion truly embraces us in that eternal moment.

Here’s what’s really cool. That verse, “You are enthroned in the praises of Israel” is a great “worship” verse, giving a beautiful visual as we sing our praises. But consider the two verses preceding this famous verse:

“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, And from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; And in the night season, and am not silent.”

Yup, it’s that verse. The opening verses of that powerful crucifixion Psalm, Psalm 22. The “You are enthroned” verse is the third verse of that famous chapter. What a commentary on the basis for us being able to carry our Lord along in our praises, in which He comes to us in flesh and blood to save us in our sins. He became abandoned from God so we can have that. That’s what’s going on with the “but” that begins the “you are enthroned” verse. This gist is, “I [Jesus] am abandoned by my God, but God is enthroned and near to His people, even in their praises.”

Of course, the same Lord who is the abandoned One is also the One enthroned in the praises of Israel. This adds some dimension to the “enthroned one.” He who is enthroned is abandoned. That is, as we meditated on a few days back, just as the donkey – whose colt was redeemed by the death of a lamb – bears the Lamb of God, so do we bear the crucified One. We take up the cross. We bear our Lord, the abandoned one, in the throne of our praises. Are we thinking such things as we offer our praises – we’re proclaiming our dying to this world in Him!

Did Israel know who they were enthroning in their praises as they cried out “hosanna”? Did they know what went into their “hosanna”? “Please save us” could only happen through the shedding of blood, of their Son of David.

This is something our hymns recognize, particularly the Palm Sunday hymn “Ride on Ride on in Majesty”:

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die:
O Christ, your triumphs now begin
o’er captive death and conquered sin.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
The winged squadrons of the sky
look down with sad and wond’ring eyes
to see th’approaching sacrifice.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
Your last and fiercest strife is nigh;
the Father on his sapphire throne
expects his own anointed Son.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
bow your meek head to mortal pain,
then take, O God, your pow’r and reign.

Yes, ride on in majesty. But what does this majesty mean. “In lowly pomp ride on to die.” The angels look down in sadness at “th’approaching sacrifice.” Christ’s “last and fierest strive is nigh.” “Bow your meek head to mortal pain.”

Christ’s triumph occurs in the midst of His humblest moment. Never underestimate the extent to which this is true for your own life as well. This is always how our Lord operates in the Scriptures, working victory in the midst of defeat. Why? So we always know it is He Who is the source of our life and existence and salvation.

December 11, 2019
by Peter Burfeind

Thursday of Advent 1: The Power of Symbols

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So the disciples went and did as Jesus commanded them. They brought the donkey and the colt, laid their clothes on them, and set Him on them. And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  

It’s difficult to place oneself in the mindset of a different culture whose paradigms of thinking are so different than our own. Imagine thinking in terms of symbology rather than in the logical way we think. Imagine thinking in symbols. Movies often use symbols to make a point. Think of the many times in a movie where someone who’s unjustly being killed or tortured will assume a cruciform pose – I’m thinking of the movie Braveheart.

We do communicate in symbolic ways more often than we might think. Think of a wife dramatically taking her wedding ring off after an argument.

Where do the symbols come from? They come from our common culture, from our literature and mythology, and lately from our media. Of course, most prominent among that literature has been, and should be, the Bible. The Bible is incredibly rich in symbology, even at simply a secular level! Think of the symbolical power of a host passing bread to his guests, or even pouring a glass of wine. Symbols are shorthand for meanings that can take volumes to explain.

Palm Sunday is loaded with symbology. We’ve seen the two big Old Testament texts founding the Palm Sunday event. The text from Genesis is especially laden with symbology. Here it is again: “Binding his donkey to the vine, And his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, He washed his garments in wine, And his clothes in the blood of grapes.”

Almost every word is symbolical. In fact, how else could the words be used? What does a donkey being bound to a vine, and a man washing his garments in wine, have to do with a king?

So, in the text we have several symbols: (1) the donkey, (2) the vine, (3) the colt, (4) garments, (5) wine, (6) clothes, (7) blood. Funny how five of these symbols make it in the Palm Sunday Gospel, and two of them come together in the dramatic event of that week!

The multitudes knew what they were doing. They knew the sources of their symbology, from the Old Testament. The event was laden with symbology, and they wanted to take part. There’s the donkey and colt! That triggered them. That reminded them of the original prophecy from Genesis, so they brought out the vines and branches and clothing and garments, as if it say, “You’re the One! You’re the King who will save us! Do your thing with vines and wine and blood.

Some complain about the symbology going on in the liturgy. The liturgy is replete with powerful symbology. Some believe these symbols overwhelm the message. But there is rarely a message without symbols going along with it. Certainly our media “narrative-makers” understand this. What’s the symbolism of using, say, an American flag in a scene? It’s part of the message.

The liturgy operates the same way. Why green during certain seasons, or red, violet, or white? Why does a minister wear ancient garments still today? What’s going on with the clerical collar? Did you know the cincture around the minster’s waist represents the cords used to scourge Christ? Due to a modern mind numb to the language of symbology, such items simply don’t communicate. They should. They should be taught. They certainly moved the characters in the Bible. Why? Because they are part of the method of communication in the Scripture.

December 11, 2019
by Peter Burfeind

Wednesday of Advent 1: The Donkey and Colt

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All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, Lowly, and sitting on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.’ “

The operating prophecy on Palm Sunday was the one quoted, from Zechariah. It’s simple enough to understand. Jesus sitting on a donkey and a colt, the foal of a donkey, was a sign of the King coming. We’ve already seen one sign, Jesus beginning the day on the Mount of Olives, where the messiah was to stand on the day of the Lord.

Our Lord is about signs which signal His coming. “This will be a sign to you,” said the angel to the shepherds. The babe wrapped in swaddling cloths. All His comings have signs, in fact. The sign of His first coming was His birth in Bethlehem of a virgin. The sign of His coming in Jerusalem “on the last days” was, as stated above, His descent from the Mount of Olives on a donkey and foal. The sign of His present coming on the Lord’s Day is the bread and wine. The sign of His Second Coming will be trumpets, the sky rolling back, and His coming from the east.

He gives us signs so that we are left in no doubt. Signs, to build off what we meditated on yesterday, are observed and testified to. Signs cannot be subjectively projected – this in fact can be testing God, or misinterpreting strange coincidences. “When I spoke to her she said exactly what I said to her at the same time – it’s a sign we’re destined to be together!” said the man who got divorced three years later. Real signs, divine signs, are rooted in His Word.

So, the donkey and colt are a sign.

The second reason for the donkey given in Zechariah is the “lowliness.” Jesus is a lowly messiah, a lowly, humble king. The prophecy in full spells out the nature of our humble king a bit more: Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Why does Matthew cut out the “just and having salvation” bit?  Likely the “just and having salvation” bit is baked into the entire messianic picture. Everyone was shouting “Hosanna” after all, which is a prayer that the Son of David do as He was ordained to do, which is save.

Now we get more into some weeds.

The prophecy of a donkey and colt goes back to Genesis 49, to Jacob’s blessing of Judah amidst his blessing of all his sons. Judah’s blessing was a special one. It’s the first prophecy that Judah would produce the kings of Israel – “The scepter shall not depart from Judah.” It’s where the mysterious “Shiloh” character enters the biblical drama.

Then it says this, “Binding his donkey to the vine, And his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, He washed his garments in wine, And his clothes in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, And his teeth whiter than milk.”

The reference to garments and clothes may explain why the people cast their garments and clothes before Jesus on Palm Sunday. They were giving them to Him so that He might wash them in wine, the blood of grapes. And what does that mean? Well, certainly our righteous garments are washed white in the blood of the Lamb.

As Revelation says, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Now we get to a final verse, from Exodus: “But the firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb. And if you will not redeem him, then you shall break his neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem.”

All animals that opened the womb belonged to the Lord. That usually meant their death, unless it was a donkey. A donkey could be redeemed by a lamb – the lamb would die in its place. This turns the donkey and its colt into a type of us. We’ve been redeemed by the Lamb. That gives us a clue as to the greater interpretation of Jesus’ use of the donkey.

The donkey is us, redeemed by the Lord, and we bear Christ, and are “bound” to the vine, the choice vine, the True Vine, which is Christ. Christ indeed is a burden, even if the burden is light. The prophets in the Old Testament often took up a “burden from the Lord,” which was the Word of God. One thinks of the depiction of St. Christopher, whose name means “Christ bearer,” often seen bearing on His shoulders the Christ.

We too take up our cross, our cross with Christ hanging on it. Why? Because He is the Lamb of God who has redeemed us, who has given us life. Jesus humbled Himself to bear us, so we bear Him. If we confess Him before men, He will confess us before His heavenly Father.

The donkey and its colt bore the Lamb of God, the redeeming Lamb, the one who gave it life. It lives, yet has the burden to bear, a glorious burden. It’s much the same with us.

December 11, 2019
by Peter Burfeind

Tuesday of Advent 1: Why Did Jesus Send Two Disciples to Get the Donkey and Colt?

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…then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Loose them and bring them to Me. And if anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and immediately he will send them.”

Why did Jesus send two disciples? There’s the obvious reason, to get the two animals. But there’s another possible reason related to the testimony of two or three witnesses. The two disciples had a potential speaking mission. Where there are speaking missions, there is witnessing; where there is witnessing, you need at least two.

So much of the Christian faith is rooted in this seemingly innocuous legal doctrine that testimony needs to have the support of two or three witnesses. Jesus Himself said that the Father and the Son are guarantees of the witness of the Gospel. “I am One who bears witness of Myself, and the Father who sent Me bears witness of Me.”

The disciples were often sent out two by two, and arguably the reason for the Twelve was to have three witnesses per the four directions. Truth is a communal possession. Truth is not self-generated. Truth is objectively testified to, not subjectively projected. This even goes back to the Triune nature of God Himself.

This not only assures the validity of what is testified to, but it also keeps the truth tamper free.  Think about it, particularly when something strange happens, or something strange is said, a subjective handling of that message by one person will put all sorts of “spin” on it, as the subject projects meaning onto the inexplicable.  Two or three people have to go through a lot of steps to conspire together and come up with a cohesive spin on the truth.  Of course it happens, but it’s far more difficult to make happen.

The Gospel is a strange event with lots of strange sayings. The Gnostic way would be to place interpretation of its truths under the management of charismatic or enlightened subjects who have attained some sort of insight into truth they can project onto how they understand that truth. The Christian way is to testify, to confess, to recount what was done or said, no matter how odd or strange, and unlike the Gnostic message which arises from Self, this is a message attested to from the outside.  And to guarantee accuracy, two or three is best.

Jesus wanted a donkey and colt. That’s sort of a strange request out of the blue. Had Jesus told the two disciples simply to secure the animals, and do whatever it takes, who knows what sort of shenanigans they may have gotten into, bargaining or arguing with the animals’ owner that they have a right to the animals.

Instead, Jesus gave them the exact words to say. They were merely testifying to the word Jesus gave them. By doing this, Jesus took the subjective out of it. The disciples were merely middle men, messengers. They wouldn’t be the basis and power behind the word, but the word itself, with Jesus’ weight behind it, would do the work. That is the proper way the Gospel message and elements of the liturgy are supposed to work.

“Do this” says Jesus regarding the liturgical elements of Holy Communion. Do what? What He had just done, which is take bread and speak “This is my body” over it. The word will do the rest. When people add their own spin, they take over management of the event, and Jesus loses control. When Jesus’ words are simply passed on (as St. Paul did in I Corinthians 11), who knows what will happen; people might start believing in the real presence (as often happens in Protestant churches where the words are simply conveyed without subjective interpretation)! Jesus retains control and the sheep are able to hear properly what their Shepherd is saying.

In the case of this Palm Sunday passage, the word did the work. How? We can’t know for sure. Did the owner of the donkey and colt buy these animals with the intent purpose of preparing them for their messianic fulfillment, in lieu of the Zechariah prophecy quoted by Matthew? Did the owner previously know Jesus? Or maybe the word had a miraculous effect on whoever asked about it. Who knows. We don’t even know the two disciples who delivered Jesus’ message.

But what we do know is that the disciples were bearing witness of a word of Jesus. As such, at least two were needed. Why? Because the truths of the Gospel are objective, rooted in an “outside of us” Lord, whose “outside of us” existence is a reality because He is located in flesh and blood.

An archetypal or cosmic or psychological understanding of Christ upends that dynamic. Christ is no longer flesh and blood. Christ is no longer “outside of us,” but a subjective projection. Truth is not about testifying to something objective, but about projecting something subjective. And no longer are two needed…just one enlightened person.

Jesus sent two disciples. Which two? It didn’t matter. Truth doesn’t care about personalities. But it does require two or three for validation. And what was that truth? That the Lord has need of a donkey and a colt. As we’ll see next devotion, this itself signaled a pretty huge fulfillment of an Old Testament promise.

December 5, 2019
by Peter Burfeind

Monday of Advent 1: The Mount of Olives

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Now when they drew near Jerusalem, and came to Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives…

We brought up yesterday that the Mount of Olives was a place of messianic expectation. By Jesus beginning His grand entry at the Mount of Olives, He was making a statement (as He was by selecting a donkey, which we’ll investigate next devotion). He was fulfilling the prophecy from Zechariah 14.

Here are selections from the prophecy, with brief commentary:

Behold, the day of the LORD is coming, And your spoil will be divided in your midst. For I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem; The city shall be taken, The houses rifled, And the women ravished. Half of the city shall go into captivity, But the remnant of the people shall not be cut off from the city.

The day of the Lord is not a specific, single day. It’s what St. Paul was referring to when he wrote, “Behold, now is the day of salvation.” What is the day of the Lord? It’s Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, every Sunday following, every communion, every day of repentance on the part of believers, the return of Christ. It’s the one day of Christ’s salvation administered in time through the ministry of the Gospel.

So, the “nations” battling against Jerusalem has multiple fulfillments, including Roman in 70 AD but still including the antithetical secular nations of today. In every age the Lord will have His remnant. The idea of a “remnant” is a reoccurring prophetic theme. They shall not be cut off from the city, from the Church.

This sets up Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem, and we can see how. The great spiritual battle about to occur centers on earthly personages like Jesus, of course, unfaithful Jews like Caiaphas, and a representative of the “nations” in Pontius Pilate. The sheep will scatter (a prophecy from Zechariah 13 fulfilled when the disciples – and all Israel, so to speak – scattered at Jesus’ arrest), but Jesus will gather His remnant.

Then the LORD will go forth And fight against those nations, As He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, Which faces Jerusalem on the east. And the Mount of Olives shall be split in two, From east to west, Making a very large valley; Half of the mountain shall move toward the north And half of it toward the south.

Jesus had come to the Mount of Olives before, but He sat down there. Perhaps it was with some apprehensive expectation that the disciples saw Jesus ascend the Mount of Olives, only to sit down, but still they were moved to ask Him about the end times. His sitting there put them in that sort of mind. This is the set up for Jesus’ great teaching on the last days. It’s like a coach going over a game plan on the field of play the day before the big game.

But on Palm Sunday, we have what appears tdo be the big event. Jesus is fighting against the nations, and it begins on the Mount of Olives. Consider, already at His trial Jesus told Pilate, “Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?” And following His death and resurrection, Christ has most certainly overpowered several mighty nations, from Rome to modern communism, and ultimately western secularism. But it was not earthly weapons, rather the Gospel which has done so.

The splitting of the mountain is interesting, alluding perhaps to the splitting of the rocks leading to the resurrection of saints, or to the tearing of the curtain in the temple, or even to the splitting of Christ’s side, from which the waters flowed.

And in that day it shall be – That living waters shall flow from Jerusalem, Half of them toward the eastern sea And half of them toward the western sea; In both summer and winter it shall occur. And the LORD shall be King over all the earth. In that day it shall be “The LORD is one,” And His name one.

The living water flowing from Jerusalem, from the temple, was fulfilled with Christ’s giving of His Holy Spirit in the waters flowing from His side. On Pentecost, from Jerusalem, the Spirit given out at His death came down and was administered by the apostles through baptism, and the calling of the Lord’s name. For, as Peter preached, Jesus is “King over all the earth,” or in his words, “Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear.”

Those words culminated in the waters of baptism, a baptism in the “one” name of the Lord, the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is a loaded prophecy that ties in much from the Gospel, and explains why Jesus began the most holy week ever on the Mount of Olives. That’s where the battle began.