Friday, December 09, 2005

Time travel to Figlessburg

Years ago I developed a strange obsession. I was determined to understand all I could about astrophysics and the workings of the universe. This led to many hours of late night conversations, notebooks filled with notes and computations, which all seemed to funnel into theories of time travel and lesser scientific and greater science fiction topics. If one could choose an example of most desirable method of time travel, one must consider a few models known, breaking them down to personal and corporate devices.

Personal devices would include those such as H.G. Wells’ “Time Machine”, the first and most recognized. The rider sits in a generator-enhanced (dynamo) electric couch, spins dials, flips switches and away one goes. Another well-known devise is less a devise but an exertion of strength; namely, such as that demonstrated by Superman who can reverse the spin of the earth and subsequently, adjust time. And of course, the great Christmas chronological cowboy Ebenezer Scrooge who gallivants all over Victorian England on the shirt-sleeves and coat-tails of watchful specters.

Corporate devices would include those machines of Frank Herbert’s spice-sniffing, space-folding “Dune” operatives. This may be more of a space travel example, but the story does contain elements of time adjustment as well, mainly the stopping of time as opposed to moving up and down the time continuum. Another device could be a personal/corporate device, as that pictured in “Clock Stoppers”: one person wears the device, but others who make physical contact may be affected as well. Of course, the many Starships Enterprise enjoyed multiple sling-shots around suns, moons, planets, having a good ol’ time going boldly where no man one has gone before.

Can time travel happen? What are its implications? Oh, the fun we could have—but here is the rock-hard fact: we are in a steady state time travel, moving along a consistent stream of time, making the future present-past with each heartbeat.

But what if we had the chance to go back in time, even as an observer? Someone once said “’what if’ a frog had wings—it wouldn’t bump it’s tail on the ground.” Ok, but “what if”? Where would you go? What would you do? Who would you see?

I would love to see Victorian England, namely the east-end of London alongside the sea-faring pirate and author, Jack London as he recorded his observations there. I would love to see and hear the great G.K. Chesterton and William Ewart Gladstone (and William Wilburforce). I would also like to hear the very first performance of Handel’s “Messiah”, any Bach organ piece and especially the premier of “Rhapsody in Blue”. I would want to meet (and ask many questions of) the Victorians/Romantics:

To Shelley—“Why Ozymandias?” and “why all the spiritism—you and Mary need to stop reading ghost stories.”
To Tennyson—“who is the Lady of Shallot?” and “tell me of your interest in Arthur.”
To Poe—“wassamattau? Get saved!”
To Browning—anything about Fra Lippo Lippi.
To the Bronte sisters—hmmmmmm . . . not sure, perhaps just to meet them and dear old dad.
To Carroll—"put the pipe down, man!"
To Wilde—“Stop thinking about yourself!”
and Twain—I supposed I could only just look at him—and try not to laugh--He would fully understand.

What about biblical history? Where would you go, see, do? Who, what, why, where, when?
I would want to check out The Parting of the Red Sea—definitely. Also, Jericho, get a look at Goliath, and follow Elijah around. I want to know what Jesus was like, at 18 or 23 or 32. What was life like before the filling of the Holy Spirit? What was it like going to Jerusalem for Passover as a 6-year old, knowing the day would come you would die there?

Then there is the day Jesus entered Jerusalem. John MacArthur summarizes Mark 11, starting with “the most significant coronation the world has yet seen, but a coronation unlike any other in history. This is a true coronation of a true King: Jesus, affirmed as King and, in a sense, inaugurated into His kingship—but without pomp, splendor, and pageantry. After arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus, the Servant, shows that He has a divine mission. For the second time in His ministry, he makes a public stir by cleansing the temple of its moneychangers and merchants. Then He underscores this judgment of hypocritical religion by cursing a nearby fig tree that has leaves but no fruit. When his disciples wonder about this action, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach them about faith, prayer, and forgiveness. When confronted by the Jewish religious leaders about His behavior, however, Christ puts them on the defensive, insuring a future, final confrontation with them.”[i]

A few features jump out at me: first, this event appears in all four gospels. This is significant from our perspective because only one other incident is recorded in all four gospels (The Feeding of Five Thousand). Second, Jesus rides in on a donkey and people go nuts, crying out “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” The mood is festive, joyful, great exuberance! The timing of Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem seems to coincide with the festivity already occurring. Third, these events are full of emotion: the passage opens with Jesus entering the city perhaps sharing the joy of the people, then closes with Him speaking with His disciples in intimate. In between time, Jesus gets upset over a fruitless tree and fruitless people.

The people were singing out, quoting a verse from Psalm 118 in light of the Passover celebration. I wonder what Jesus was thinking, knowing that the psalm contains other statements such as:

From my distress I called upon the Lord;
The Lord answered me and set me in a large place.
The Lord is for me; I will not fear;
What can man do to me?
The Lord is for me among those who help me;
Therefore I will look with satisfaction on those who hate me


The sound of joyful shouting and salvation is in the tents of the righteous;
The right hand of the Lord does valiantly.
The right hand of the Lord is exalted;
The right hand of the Lord does valiantly.
I will not die, but live,
And tell of the works of the Lord.
The Lord has disciplined me severely,
But He has not given me over to death

What did the actions of the crowd mean to Jesus? Hard to say. A clue may lie in the fact that Jesus made his way to the temple and scoped the place out. That’s what the text says! “Jesus entered Jerusalem and came into the temple; and after looking around at everything, He left for Bethany with the twelve, since it was already late.“ (Mark 11:11) He was obviously taking a reading on something nobody else could see.

Where did Jesus go? Mark says He went about 2 miles down the road to Bethany. Matthew gives another rendering of the same name, Bethphage. The next day, Jesus leaves Bethany (or Bethphage) and got hungry. The local fig tree was fruitless and Jesus says to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” Coming back by the same spot, Mark records how they saw the tree withered from the roots up, and of course, Peter states the obvious, “Rabbi, look, the fig tree which You cursed has withered.” [Good boy, Peter!]

What is going on here? Well, we can begin by noticing the name of place to which Jesus was going and coming from the next day: Bethany/Bethphage. Bethany has been translated as, “house of poverty”[ii], and “house of misery” [iii] (Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived there). Also, “house of dates,” [iv] while Bethphage means, “house of unripe figs”[v]. Jesus goes from the temple to the house of poverty/misery/unripe figs/sans dates. Next day He goes from the house of poverty/misery/unripe figs/sans dates to a tree expected to have fruit (though it was out of season) into a temple that, well, was supposed to be “fruitful”.

Now, a disciple with Jesus that day should have been scratching his head. I can see them standing by the side of the road looking at the withered tree, “Ok, we just came from figless-town . . .” puzzled look on his face, mouth hanging open, pointing down the road then at the tree then down the road then at the tree . . .

When I was a kid we used to have these stomach-punching contests. You know, harden up the old six pack (I traded mine in for a keg—ok, just go with the imagery) while your buddy hits you as hard as he can. Then you trade off. I mean, you hold your hand out to your friend and say while tightening up, “hold it, hold it . . . ok, I’m ready”. Ever been caught off guard (see where I’m going with this)? Ever have your friend slug you when you weren’t ready?

I imagine this is what the Pharisees and others in the temple felt like when Jesus returned the next day (hungry, mind you). I think IF Jesus had announced His coming to the temple and IF the religious leaders did accept Him as King, they would have been rushing around, ““hold it, hold it . . . ok, I’m ready”. Of course, I imagine the fig tree going, “wait! Wait! I’m not ready, “hold it, hold it . . . ok, I’m ready”. Ain’t gonna happen, folks. They messed up worship. They messed up the temple. They existed, but for the wrong reason. Jesus went in, drove out the business-doers and marketers and discontinued souvenir sales. And if that was not enough, He taught them. He TAUGHT them! He began to blow the winds of change and it ruffled feathers!

Is it weird Jesus cursed the tree? Yeah, in some fantasy world, maybe! But in the real world, Jesus made a road-sign for travelers-by, “You are now leaving Fruitlessville, now entering Figlessberg. Proceed at the speed of misery. Your speed will be checked.” Jesus went into town and redesigned the unwelcome center with an Extreme Temple Makeover. Back outside town again, Jesus responded to the disciples’ observation with an extended teaching on prayer and faith—and what true worship looks like. The House of Prayer could not be used as was intended, so the disciples had to understand the place of prayer is not geographical, but part of who the believer is. Commercialism is not Christianity.

Two questions: First, what would Jesus do if he came to your church or my church physically? How would He think about the way we “do” and “are” the church? What aspects of our tradition are offensive to Him? One shudders to think—but I am certain He would address materialism, the way we allow the unregenerate to tell us how to do church, etc.. We sing, "Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus." Really? Isaiah's experience is devastating. Yes, I would like to see Jesus, but He is going to do change something in me and it might get messy.

Second, knowing that Jesus indwells every believer, how does He feel about the fruitfulness He tries to accomplish in our lives. The reality of it is we don’t like things growing out of us: we trim our nails, cut our hair, even use Clearasil when necessary. Now there’s the God of the Universe trying to produce spiritual fruit in us (including self-control!) and it all seems strange because God wants fruit to come out and we don't like this discomfort His changes bring. A life that is Christian in name only is a life that has taken (literally, “taken”) the name of the Lord in vain and I think God has something to say about that.

Spurgeon said, “Would you enjoy religion? Would you have the religion of cheerfulness and not that of gloom? Then “have faith in God.” If you love darkness, and are satisfied to dwell in gloom and misery, then be content with little faith; but if you love the sunshine, and would sing songs of rejoicing, covet earnestly this best gift, “great faith.”[vi]

“The great problem with society is not injustice, inequity, crime, or even immorality—pervasive and destructive as those evils might be. Society’s evil of evils has always been its abandonment of God. And it is as true today as it was in ancient Israel that the people of God must themselves be revived and renewed before they can be His instruments for changing the world around them.”[vii]

All glory, laud and honor to Thee, Redeemer, King,
to whom the lips of children make sweet hosannas ring:
Thou art the King of Israel, Thou David’s royal Son,
who in the Lord’s name comest, the King and blessed One!

The company of angels are praising Thee on high,
and mortal men and all things created make reply:
The people of the Hebrews with palms before Thee went;
our praise and prayer and anthems before Thee we present.

To Thee, before Thy passion, they sang their hymns of praise;
to Thee, now high exalted, our melody we raise:
thou didst accept their praises—accept the praise we bring,
who in all good delightest, Thou good and gracious King!

Bottom Line: We must decide whether we truly love and serve Christ for any other reason other than for who He is. We must examine how we reflect that love in the way we walk out our worship.[viii]

[i]MacArthur, John. Mark : The Humanity of Christ. MacArthur Bible studies, Page 76. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2000.
[ii]Thomas Nelson Publishers. Nelson's Quick Reference Topical Bible Index. Nelson's Quick reference. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.
[iii]Strong, James. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible : Showing Every Word of the Test of the Common English Version of the Canonical Books, and Every Occurence of Each Word in Regular Order. electronic ed., G963. Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship., 1996.
[iv]Easton, M.G. Easton's Bible Dictionary. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996, c1897.
[v] Thomas Nelson’s Quick Reference, Ibid.
[vi]Spurgeon, C. H. Morning and Evening : Daily Readings, March 7 AM. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1995.
[vii]MacArthur, John. Mark : The Humanity of Christ. MacArthur Bible studies, Page 81. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2000.
[viii]Osbeck, Kenneth W. Amazing Grace : 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions. Includes indexes. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1990.

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