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Friday, November 30, 2012

Prophecy 4 "relevance"

One of the more obnoxious traits of contemporary Western Christians is our assumption that "it is all about me." When I hear us talking about the Bible, it is stunning how frequently we treat the text as a personal note from God written directly to us/me and written for the sole purpose of giving us/me information which answer our/my questions. Now, in fairness, probably throughout history this has occurred (though we certainly take it to the next level). Also, it is true that the Scriptures are meant to be read and heard as "the Word of the Lord" (thanks be to God!) in each new setting and by each contemporary hearer/reader. And I believe God speaks to the listener/reader in and through the Biblical text.

So what then is the best approach to reading the prophets?

I think the first thing to keep in mind is that the prophets were SPEAKERS. We forget that. We read a book and it has words in it. We unconsciously think of "the prophets" as writers. So the name Isaiah or Jeremiah, for us (and it is unconscious) refers to a written text, i.e., a book. But in real life, they were men (and Isaiah was a couple of men, that book stretches over a long period time, much longer than many lifetimes). They were, like us, human beings with a family, a history, a personality and character. They were filled with questions and concerns like us. They desired to know, love and serve God like us.

Thomas Aquinas once said "grace builds on nature," in other words God uses the existing stuff of the world to engage the world. These real men were the natural beings whom God used. So we need to imagine them, in their ancient setting. And we need to understand that the "word of the Lord" came to them (NB, Jesus is the Word incarnate. So pre-existing Jesus: God the Son, is coming to them). The language they use of this experience is interesting. Sometimes they even interchange seeing and hearing (I heard the vision), as if the experience of God transcends normal ways of talking. They see and hear things and try to convey this message to their contemporaries. And the mode of communication was verbal. The prophets spoke these words. It is only later that someone wrote them down. So the actual words were spoken to an audience at a particular time and place. The message, therefore, had a primary referrent. It was God's word to that situation. And it probably was relevant to their time and place. That is key. So to hear the word we must, and this is hard work, find the context. That requires thinking ourselves back to their setting. The word has a context in which its meaning makes sense. The prophets were speaking to those people, the ones in front of them, not to us, thousands of years later (although we hear them, too, we are listening in on their conversations).

After doing this, the next step is the process of analogy and symbol, where we delve into the meaning and apply it to a new context. Sometimes there is wondrous revelation hidden within the meaning of their words. Sometimes in our new context the words take on a new (and improved!?!) meaning. Often times, there is power in encountering the faith of another. Sometimes the terror of judgment as we realize God has demands. Sometimes the peace of comforting words of hope. But be clear, most of what the prophets speak about is the economic practices of an ancient people, the intricacies of Justice's demands in that culture and the shape of true God worship. We do not live in a time with carved idols and pagan religion like theirs. They had kings and slaves and a much different economy. They did not share the same assumptions about the world as we do. It is the "ancient-ness" of the text which leads so few to actually read the Bible. It is foreign and "hard to understand."

I want to look at some of those texts, like the "the virgin will be with child" quote, and looking at the texts try to figure out what they meant to the prophet and his audience, and then later what they mean in the NT context. And what that means to us, today.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Prophecy 3: Is God Good?

Yesterday's post generated a long comment on God's goodness. The example, a small child left to die in a simmering car while God stands by watching and doing nothing, illustrates the concern eloquently. Michael, the writer states clearly that he is a non-believer. However, he is interested in the process of determining what kind of God God is, IF He exists and this is the world He created.

First of all, my topic is prophecy. I want to investigate the role of prophets in ancient Israel through the role of Jesus as The Prophet (and perhaps NT prophets as well). So the context for asking Michael's (difficult) question is the prophets. I would start with Habbakuk. He was active around 600BC (give or take a few years) in the time leading up to the Babylonian invasion. The infidelities of Judah were rampant, but the inscrutable ways of God (and questions about His justice) are also much on Habbakkuk's mind. I share his words:

1:2ff "How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not do not intervene...Why?...Why?"
[The prophet is offended by the injustice and sin and oppression. He asks, passionately, how God can be a bystander and NOT intervene. And God's answer is that He is sending Babylonians to chastise the errant people of Judah. The question, "why don't You do something, O Lord" is answered. I will do something in and through Babylon. It seems fair to argue that the complaint is not addressed. God side steps it. But much of that is based on other assumptions about how God can, should, does work in the world. As I wrote about extensively some short time ago, I am a sacramentalist and I believe God (almost always) works in and through created reality, in most cases human created reality. Why? Because that is how He made the world. He created it with rules and He follows His own rules. Other types of creations are possible, and maybe seem preferable, but we cannot master the sum of all good and evil in all possible worlds, hence, our critique is always based on limited information and fallible assessment skills. Back to Habakkuk...]

1:13 The prophet says to God: "Too pure are your eyes to look upon evil, and the sight of misery you cannot endure. Why, then, do you gaze on the faithless in silence while the wicked man devours one more just than himself?"  So the prophet's complaint continues and he boldly declares that he waits for an answer. This guy had spunk. Listen to what he tells God: 2:1 "I will stand at my guard post, and station myself upon the rampart, And keep watch to see what he (God) will say to me, and what answer he will give my complaint." [I find myself prepared for another Job moment where God appears in a whirlwind and basically says, "who is this idiot who dares question God?" but instead the Lord makes a promise...]

God's answer is straightforward. 2:3 The day is coming (called a vision) and if it seems to delay "wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late." He then adds the words which I personally (as believer and God-lover) think sum up the only answer I can give to Michael or anyone who asks sublime questions about God and human suffering; "the just man by his faith will live." I trust God inspite of the confusing thoughts and troubled emotions and horrors innumberable. I trust the promise, not because I am simple minded or in denial, but because of the datum of Jesus' life, His cross and His resurrection. I believe because even as I have comforted those who lost children (parents, spouses, friends) and even as I have contemplated their pain, I always knew (even if without immediate consolation) that the God of creation took human form and shares in our suffering. He redeems it. He makes it holy. Even if it appears to be meaningless pain and purposeless suffering, God finds a way to take it into Himself (whatever that really means) and transform it (whatever that really means) and will make it new (whatever that really means). I cannot know and understand or grasp it. But I can believe and trust the God who promises. The God who says, "wait" and "live by faith."

2:20 ends with a verse which I read out frequently at MP. "The Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him."

Some last words before my silence begins.
Why does God stand by while babies cook to death in hot cars? It is the nature of creation. He chooses to make a world which has rules. The sun heats. Human bodies only survive in a certain environments. Some folks do not care or make tragic mistakes. Glass allows sunlight to pass through and sealed environments hold heated air effectively. Because of how the world is, the benefits, warmth, become a deadly danger, too hot. The questions about God's culpability always come back to our own. In the end, the prophet reminds us, it is we who are judged by Him. Our entire life is spent "standing by" and "doing nothing" for all manner of babies (and othe humans) in difficult circumstances. We eat until fat rolls over our belt while others starve. We spend our dollars on entertainment while others perish for lack of clean water. We move into houses the size of barns while others wallow in the streets. In the awesome presence of God, for me personally, my own failure to act more justly is a greater concern than accusing God. In the end, I assume, He will tell me that He did act, He provided me with the resources to make a better world. That, in the end, is how "He acts" (with an occassional miraculous intervention to sturdy up our weak faith).

I do not think my answer to Michael's question will satisfy him or others who share his burden. However, I do question if his four options on how to understand God are all there is. And I look to prophets to provide me with insights. Habakkuk has spoken. He reminds us of God's eternity and instructs us to  be silent. In silence we worship. And from that silence he sings a canticle to glorify God (all chapter 3).

Some confronted with the mystery of God assume He is evil, or uncaring, or ineffectual. Some reject the possibility of His existence. I understand the appeal of each of these options. There are other options as well... Silence before the mystery. Praise of our God. And trust, pehaps a faltering trust, but trust none the less. and the comfort of knowing God takes the pain to His heart and redeems it. And the promise: all will be well, and all will be well, and in all maner of things, all will be well. So I wait for the day.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Prophecy 2

So what is a prophet? I think the best answer to that question is found in the book The Prophets by Abraham Heschel. [He is a scholarly man, but his approach is more life-full than most of the scholars of Scripture which I read. He provides a general look at prophecy and also some particular studies of individual prophets. As a Jew his angle is different from mine, but even with that it is one of the most influential books I have read.]

What I took away from the book (I have read it twice, once in seminary long ago and the most recent a few years ago) was an inisght into inspiration. His theory (if I have him right) is that God reveals His heart to the prophets. That the prophet is filled with insight into God's desires and plan. That the prophet then shares this message with God's people. And that the prophet is overwhelmed by God's passion.

What is God passionate about? Justice! Faithfulness! Right worship! Some people are troubled by the last of these. They think God should not be so "egotistical" and want people to worship Him. It doesn't seem humble enough.

This flawed thinking reflects a couple of things, I believe. One, it is the 'heresy of democratization' (a function of modernism). In simplest terms, it makes the error of thinking that because each person in Western society is entitled to vote, to enjoy freedom of thought and self-determination, that means everyone is "equal and the same." Politcal rights are not the only factor to consider. There remains a hierarchy and life makes it clear, that your vote don't mean jack in a large number of circumstances. [one easy test, when was the last time the democratic process changed the weather?] Two, it is clear that people do not understand what the word "God" means if they think He should not be worshipped. The Creator-creature relationship by virtue of its nature requires worship. And people who argue otherwise do not understand the definition of the terms. [and because we live in a nominalist age where people feel free to change the meaning of words I assume this statement does not close the debate...] Lastly, (though there are many more) worship has an impact. If you worship idols you are either worshipping yourself (as projection) or some personal (dis)value which is finite but given infinite value. Worshipping the wrong thing(s) means your life is out of order (called disordered).  Worshipping the wrong thing means you are shaped and formed by the wrong thing (call it the demonic). If "you are what you eat" physically then "you are what you worship" spiritually. It does not take long to figure out what people worship, look at their lives....

So God desires right worship for our own good. If we worship Him and construct our lives in obedience the there will be justice. It is our task to do this. The prophet gives reminders along the way. The prophet's message is usually hope in dark times and threat in good times (when we stray). Both are judgment. Judgment is condemnation and salvation, depending on where you stand. And the prophet shares the heart of God as a message of judgment. A judgment FOR His people and a judgment AGAINST those who worship other gods (in myriad forms). So predictions of the future are usually of an impending act of God to save/punish His people (within this generation) or a generic promise of the great Day of salvation when everything is made new. This latter, ultimate judgment, is more apocalyptic sounding and develops into full blown apocalyptic literature in the centuries before and after Jesus.

The story of Jesus is the story of THE FULLNESS of the apocalyptic promise in the here and now of first century Galillee. It is the FULLNESS of the OT story summed up in the life, death, resurrection, ascension and reign of Jesus. It is the FULLNESS of God's heart revealed to us and for us. Today we live in the evil times. Babies die in hot cars and God does not seem to lift a finger to help (as a commenter noted on a previous blog). Where is God's justice and mercy? Where is providence?

The prophet's answer is not univocal. Different ones answered in different ways. They might say the sins of society are manifest here. That our choices and injustice have created a world where all manner of preventable problems are manifest. Others would remind that God has given it over to us, so we are to blame for our choices and we are responsible for the outcomes. Maybe another would say it is God's act of destruction because of sin, He withdraws a hand of salvation from the land because the people have expelled Him by their decisions. Some might point out that God is connected, intimately, with the suffering poor. The (analogical) "death of God" is expressed in His sharing of His creature's suffering and death (cf. Isaiah 52:13-53:12; a basis for understanding the cross of Christ) and so each tragedy is "felt" more deeply by the Divine Trinity then we can know. Perhaps there are many answers because God is bigger than our minds can comprehend. Whatever the best answer to this particular dilemma, I think the prophetic message is clear. Return to the Lord and live right. Do not let your questions about God deafen you to the message He speaks through His prophets. In the face of tragedy and loss remember God hears the cries of the poor and saves His people. And, as Jesus said, don't think the child which died is being punished as worse than you---but you will all end this way and worse if you do not repent."

Monday, November 26, 2012


One thing that really stands out in reading the OT prophecies is how often the wider context is ignored by those who claim it is a "prediction" about Jesus. Once one buys into the "snippet-clip-it" approach to the Scriptures, the argument for accuracy becomes easier. After all, one is going back, after the fact, and editing the text to fit perfectly.

This does not mean that I do not believe in divine inspiration or that somehow I think the prophets are useless for understanding Jesus. It does not mean that I do not think they ever spoke about future circumstances or revealed God's plans in the days (and years) ahead. It does not mean that I think that Jesus is not the Messiah or that if one searches the OT there is no reference to Him.

What I am saying is, if you snatch a verse out of context and lay it down alongside a story about Jesus it is easy to think that Isaiah (or Jeremiah, or etc.) was told by God about Jesus (who is coming is hundreds of years). I think this is not the best approach. Rather, it is best to see Jesus as filling up the Scriptures of the OT. It is best to see Him as recapitulating the story of Israel. It is best to see that the snippet is part of a bigger story and that the whole story is taken up in the story of Jesus. Jesus fulfills not a particular prediction as much as the totality of God's promise to Israel.

This irritates some. They prefer a deeper magic and amazment in their religion. So be it. But if so, do not read to long or hard. There will be things that do not fit such an approach. And it will close you off. However, ponder if God's hand is more subtle, that makes it no less true. More to come......

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The End of the Year

Today is the Feast of Christ the King in our liturgical practice. It marks the end of the year. Next Sunday we celebrate Advent 1. It begins a new year. Four weeks ahead of the secular schedule. I often write about the isolation of catholic Christians in American society. Pagans, secularists, and "spiritual-but-not-religious" folk have no interest. "Religious-but-not-practicing" is a fast growing segment of the population and they are disengaged from liturgy. Practicing-but-Evangelical consider such practices to be unfaithful. So talk of new year and end of the year is not a widely held belief.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King in our liturgical practice. It is a challenging feast because in America we do not readily embrace monarchy. The only King in Memphis is Elvis (or Jerry Lawler for wrestling fans) and he is dead and not risen. The term king resonates as an image, but is not part of popular imagination. It is fantasy language for different places and different times...

We vote. We decide. If there is a monarchy in our nation it is probably self-rule, self-determination, and self-centered. It is hard to worship a King when we are busy demanding and fighting for our own rights. Kings are not part of that equation.

Jesus' Kingship is of a different source. It is ultimate and unlimited. He is not just a king, but King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Ruler of Rulers and Master of Masters. Yet, as we proclaim such glorious things we continue to live in a world seemingly untouched by His message and unaffected by His governance. The long list of evil and suffering is strong argument indeed that whatever else He may be, Jesus is not in charge.

Our reading from Revelation 1:4ff today did put a spin on that Lordship. Jesus is the faithful witness, the first-born from the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earh. He freed us from our sins by His own blood and made us a royal natoin of priests to serve His God and Father. Such rule is of a different nature.

We are priests, we the ones who embrace such an identity. The sin and brokeness of the world is not a proof that Jesus is ineffective, it is, rather, the very thing from which He saves us. And "the long time in coming" argument is merely a description of the situation already articulated in the Bible. Yes, we wait, but waiting (and worshipping and obeying in hte meantime) is our identity. Someday He comes. Whether such waiting is futile or not remains to be seen. But believers choose to worship the coming King. And we begin the next year with four weeks called Advent. The liturgical celebration of waiting. And that is why I love being a catholic Christian. Our liturgical calendar is true.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Things Break Down

"Look at the size of those buildings!" the apostle said to Jesus. Like tourists the world over, they marveled at the sights they found in Jerusalem. Their world in a smallish village was much lower to the ground and far less ornate. Most of my readers have much less experience with simple construction. Many elaborate buildings fill up our landscape and the typical city has dozens of multi-storied constructions to view. It is hard to appreciate their awe and wonder. It is harder to impress us.

Jesus' response was both a reflection of wisdom and a prophetic declaration.
"Not one stone will be left on another, it will all be torn down."
Like Humpty Dumpty, the glorious Temple will take a great fall, and as of this point, almost 1950 years later, all the kings horses and all the kings men have not been able (or willing) to put it together again. In light of the current unpleasantness in the area, one assumes no construction projects loom on the near horizon.

Things tend to fall down. What is made can be broken. The amazing structures of the ancient world are usually handed down to us as ruins or stories. Having lived in Europe for four years, I visited many such sites. Rome and Greece were especially stunning for their protected rubble and story telling of ancient glories. Imagination is a prerequisite to appreciation. Things fall down, even great and amazing things. In our own time we have seen numerous stadiums meet the wrecking ball, wiped clean from the face of the earth. The twin towers of New York met an untimely death. Local neighborhoods are also regularly reshaped, no signs remain of what once was.

But Jesus' words carry a deeper meaning. The Temple is to be no more, He declares. It failed in its task. There have been no fruits. Israel has rejected Her Messiah. God has handed her over to her choices. The First Century will be determinative. Rebellion against God has borne fruit; rejection of Roman rule coupled with incessant in-fighting and full blown civil wars (there were several fighting factions) have spelled the end of Judah. In 70 AD and the decades that follow there will be unimaginable horror (see Josephus' wrenching eye witness account of horrid suffering, degradation and inglorious death). So the prophetic voice of Jesus is a warning and judgment. Doom. Doom. Repent and turn back...

And every age totters precariously before the same apocalyptic declaration of God's intent. The Father of Mercies says, "I mean to save my people and I intend to rescue those who are mine..." Powerful words and the source of great hope. Even joy. The Lord will reign, even now His hand is at work among us. But the reign to come is not yet. And it comes in judgment. Not all will enjoy the return of the King. Not all have given themselves over to worhsip and serve His throne. Those who hve cry out, "Come Lord! Maranatha!" He promises to come. He will come. Some day,but not yet. Not yet. So we wait and watch and wait and hope....

Thursday we celebrate Thanksgiving Day. Some will gather with family or friends. Some will be isolated and alone. The brokeness which is present in our hearts and lives invades even the holidays. Some celebrate. Others pine. Hungry for more than turkey and dressing, hungry for human connections around the table. Hungry for conversation and connection. Haunted by memories of better days gone by now lost to new and worsened circumstance, perhaps, or saddened by biting recollections of past holiday disasters, for such persons these are not the best of days... Most of us will have an empty chair (or more). We miss the voice, the melodious laughter, the wrinkled smile, the warmth and closeness of a lost loved one. Some celebrate the day over seas, fighting a war which others forget about most of the time. Some will patrol our streets, man our fire stations, staff hospitals and treatment centers; working those and other jobs which have no day off.

Even the best of dinners and most connected of connectedness will still have something missing. In a reflective heart we notice such things. The hunger that cannot be filled. The hunger which quietly aches (or bellows in deep resonant un-ignorable power). We want more. We want more than this which is before us. We want more, something permanent and something worthy of our awe and wonder. We want a Temple which has stones which last forever, a Temple NOT made by human hands.

That is the greatest gift, that hunger. As our hungry eyes survey the scenes of our lives we need to remember that hunger. Turkey and cranberry cannot touch it. Laughter and family and friends serve only to intensify it. The worst of holidays is a stark reminder, the best of holidays the same.

Only in God will my soul be at rest.
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and we will not be satisfied until we are with Thee.
God is my source and my goal, all banquets a sign of The Great Banquet, all celebrations a finger pointing to The Marriage Feast of the Lamb, all relationships a foretaste of The perfect love found in unity with the Trinity--where being one and many are the mysterious same thing.

Whatever state you are in remember this. All stones fall down. It will all disappear. All things pass. Except His promise. He is slow in coming, but He comes. He will because He said He will. So give thanks. And give more thanks. And for good measure, thank again!

Thursday, November 15, 2012


One of the occuppational hazards of being a priest is the questions which you are asked. My guess is, in an increasingly secular world, there will be fewer people asking them in the days ahead. I think, in part, that some of the deeper reflection necessary does not take place. People, by and large, are engaged in surface issues and surface relationships. Much of our social interaction occurs in a tweet or a quick Facebook disclosure. Noise dominates our lives, in the car, at work, in the home. We are moving and going constantly.

My grandpa used to fish. He would spend hours in a boat on the Mississippi in Wisconsin. Just him and the wide open skies and the broad river. In those hours he had plenty of time to ponder and think. He was not an educated man and was not to my knowledge especially intelligent. But he had a certain wisdom and I am convinced it was, to some degree, the fruit of many hours of contemplation.

The other day I had my first real experience of that in some time. I usually have ten or twenty minutes, but I was truly able to sit for two hours and ponder the psalms and scriptures of the day. It was four AM and no one else was up. I was not going back to sleep and I was not so sleepy exhausted that I couldn't stay awake. So I prayed. And prayed. And in the listening I was able to  "hear." It wasn't a voice. It wasn't some clear message. But it was a sense of things. And in the days since there have ben insights perculating up which have been helpful. There is some clarity of mind and purpose. And it is good.

Why are our nations leaders constantly revealed to be sexually promiscuous? Why is it in every age we find our heroes cannot be faithful to their spouses?
Why is Sesame Street's Elmo associated with an equally disturbing scandal?
Why do people disagree so strongly and adamently about everything? Why can't we get along?
Why are there so many different kinds of churches and why are so many of them bleeding membership? And why can't I get my folks to show up every Sunday and be more generous with time, talent and treasure?
Why? Why? WHY?????

And the Psalm read: Be still and know that I am God.
Hush. Quiet. Be still. and know. know God is. Know God is God.
Pause and ponder. Hush. Be still.
That is the environment of prayer and meditation. And it takes time and effort to get there. And it presupposses a desire to be there, a hunger for God. And a willingness to let go of "Why's" and embrace what is and the ONE Who is. Not for answers but for thanks and praise.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

When Jesus Gets Married

Continuing Revelation 18-19.
The images of this apocalyptic work bounce back and forth between "the Authentic" and "the Perverse imitation." The Whore is the world's version of the Bride. The True Woman is the Bride. Babylon is the 'cheap imitation' which seduces people from God. As I wrote last time, the primary mode of this seduction is economic and it appeals to all manner of people. Personal morality is not immaterial, but in this book the prime focus is economic.

One common theme of presidential elections is to ask the question, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" While no doubt personally relevant and certainly motivational, a good case can be made that my own personal financial success may not be the primary question. It certainly is not the question Jesus asks...

The whore of Babylon collapses and is destroyed. No earthly power can, in the end, replace God. Angels sing Alleluia and the smoke of the smoldering city rises forever and ever. One sees the connection to the incense (prayers of the saints) which rises before the altar of God. Is there an ironic parallel here? Then loud voices, a roar like mighty waters or a huge crowd declare, "this is the wedding day of the Lamb."

Marriage imagery resonated for me in light of a wedding I did this saturday. One great debate in the churches centers around whether marriage is a sacrament of not. Some would say, "no" it was not instituted by Christ. (Ancient Christian arguments would beg to differ. Jesus is The Word. And everything is created through the Word. Genesis says God made them male and female so they can marry. Hence, Jesusas-God not-yet-Incarnate created marriage..) Whatever ones' view of the sacrament, obviously marriage is a sign of Christ's relationship with the church. Marriage is identified as a way to understand the coming of the kingdom.

How is marriage a fit model to understand the coming Kingdom? Certainly one key element (for an ancient) would be the celebration. Marriage feasts were big events and rare opportunities to celebrate. Life was hard for them, harder than it is for us. The notion of joy is prevalent here. You and I are invited to a deeper sense of joy. Anticipating the joy yet to come is another way of describing the church's vocation.

Marriage is also about union: man and woman become one. And marital love is fecund; it produces new life. The relationship of Christ to church has long been compared to man and wife. The church is both the wife and the children (apocalyptic imagery is multivalent and cannot be limited to one sense). Knowing the future we are invited to live today in a way which reflects that hope.

Reading this text and praying over it, I made an effort to meditate my self into the joy of a wedding. I used the recent event as fodder for my thinking. I was amazed at how my mood changed. In a world full of sex scandal (generals and muppets), division (states petitioning to secede), and potential wars (Israel vs....) it is  helpful to recall that the apocalyptic vision of Jesus was a stern warning not to be dismayed by all the birth pangs. Bad stuff has always been around, frequently much worse than what we experience. I do not know the whens and hows of The End. I do know the imagery: Wedding! And if God loves us so, then in the midst of worries, we can relax, enjoy and give thanks.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fallen! Fallen is Babylon!

Picking up on Revelation 18. This was from Saturday MP and I did not write that day--a wedding and family demands squeezed blogging out-- and so I wanted to visit it today.

When I did my Bible study on the Book of Revelation it was a revelation! Having been shaped by the "end of the world" and "predictions" approach to this book, as I read through various commentaries (stretching from Evangelical/Fundamentalist to Ancient Church, Catholic and Contemporary scholarship) I found myself embracing a new understanding. The themes that yelled out loudest to me were: Liturgical worship, the import of fidelity (witness and morals), and the ongoing "end of things" in every age. I was also struck by the concurrent past-present-future in each text. This multi-polarity of time and space is sort of disorienting and I realize that that is part of the genius of apocalyptic. It may be revealing the future, but not in terms we understand. Probably the greatest discovery was that Revelation is a Book which literally pieces together, constantly, OT stories, texts and words. It felt like I was reading a ransom note from a 1970's movie where every word and letter are a different shape and size because they were cut out of different magazines (a practice no longer in vogue)

For example, "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the Great!" echoes Isaiah 21:9 (see also Is 46:1; Jeremiah 50:2, 51:8). I am not going to list every Torah and Prophetic reference, get a Bible with footnotes that will do it for you. Go on a "parallel search" and find out all the innerconnections!

The fall is spoken of primarilly in economic terms. [The radical critique of wealth is not a big part of Jewish teaching, although injustice echoes in the prophets. However, it is more prevalent in the teaching of Jesus and occurs with some regularity in the NT.] There is a list of those who have been seduced by the whore: merchants (18:11),  traders (18:15) and shipmasters (18:17) bemoan and mourn  because "luxuries and splendors are lost," "great wealth has been laid waste" and they mourn because no one buys their goods any more.

I am sharp tongued and have not held back my frustration and even contempt for the sins manifest in our church. I am still, isolated and frequently alone, a public voice against the innovations of the Liberal/Modernist Christians. I am angry about their acceptance of abortion and frustrated with their ridiculous arguments for the pansexual agenda. I have spken with the Presiding Bishop and given her my respectful disagreement on her teaching on Jesus. But for all their sins and errors, and for all they have done, are doing and will continue to do wrong, I am also very aware that this word of doom we read in Revelation 18 is aimed at a far broader group.

The embrace by orthodox/traditional Christians of the conservative politics of our nation has not been without its own set of compromises. And it is our infidelity which is in the judgment, too. Too often we (ME!) and our allies have been seduced by Secular Babylon and her insitutional wiles. Too often we have been taken up in the pursuit of wealth, the pursuit of more and bigger and better. Too often in our battle against Liberals as they attempt to steal from the workers and redistribute to others (all in order to achieve their own sense of justice---and did I mention it gets them votes and keeps them in power?) we forget that our values must also include God's own declaration (the love of money cannot live side by side with the love of God). So, my dearest and closest allies, we too are confronted by this wonderful revelation, this unveiling of God's heart and will. And we do well to ask first (second and third) "how am I judged here?"

It takes no effort to see, to articulate and to condemn the sins of those with whom we are in disagreement. It is, however, an amazing skill set to be open to the truth of God in our own lives. I have sold out in so many ways to the culture of wealth and affluence. And I am not alone in that. And Revelation 18 reminds us, that seductive whore Babyon is dead and defeated by the Blood of Jesus and His sacrifice. So let us embrace our freedom and find our foundation and salvation in HIS arms. In truth, as I watch the world economy stumble and fall and I hear endless warnings about the economic ruin of this great nation (USA) I am aware that there also resonates a prophetic message of doom on our country (and all countries, empires and kingdoms). Economic success is not evil, it is not wrong, but it is seductive. The benefits of wealth are a blessing when employed in Kingdom living, but since Adam we are not very adept at maintaining the proper balance and order. And the word of judgment is a reminder that as we are stripped bare of everything we (over)value, that it provides us an opportunity to restructure our own orientation. We can moan less about the loss of luxuries and wealth and celebrate more the Coming King!

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Great Whore

As we are reading from the Apocalypse (ch 17 now) in Morning Prayer, each day is a tantalizing bit of mysterious imagery full of all manner of possible meaning. As we are in a rather difficult time globally and the Israel situation with Iran is never far from our awareness curious people will ask me from time to time, "Do you think this is it?" I am too much a student of history and too impressed by how bad it has been at other times and in other places to think anything today is different in degree (much less kind). In fact, in many ways, even with all the troubles, life is safer and easier than it has ever been.

The Great Whore is on a scarlett beast. She is later called "Babylon the great, the mother of whores." Now anyone who studies the Book of Revelation in any depth finds out quickly that there are a half dozen approaches to the text, each with its advocates. I am pretty clear it is best understood symbolically (and that is why every theory of exactly what it means makes sense, it is intended to fit into various times and places because that is what it is!) The reference to "seven hills" is clearly Rome. [Which is why reformers were so quickly able to make the connection between the Roman Catholic Church and the anti-Christ] [Which is think is inaccurate, wrong, and a huge problem to this day, in case you wondered...]

I believe the writing is overtly symbolic and general. The ancient author employed the name "Babylon" because it came from the time of the Jewish Exile in the 6th Century before Christ. So Babylon was a code word for earthly kingdoms set against God's Kingdom. Clearly, in the 1st Century AD, the church would have seen Rome as embodying the same place in opposition to God. Also, hills (or mountains, an alternate translation, can mean empires) is a symbolic word. It is probably best to see the Whore as the principle of seduction at work at all times and places. It is the principle used by the Institutional Powers (in our age Nation States, in ancient times Empires and Kingdoms). Today the referent could be Russia, Islam, and the USA (none of which is God's Kingdom and all of which are Institutions governing on the earth)

An in depth analysis is not possible (read Stephen S. Smalley for the absolute best commentary on Revelation) but a few points are. The Kingdom of God is under constant attack. The images of "fornication" and "intoxication" are not literal. In other words, they are not about drinking and sex. They are about something wider and more subtle. The infidelity to God which comes from being seduced by all the pleasures of the earth (which, by the way, include sex and booze, but also all the other trinkets of consumerism). The "political" powers at work on the planet use such things to distract folks from the One Who Rules to those who rule among us. And that is the point. Traditional values like independence and hardwork and thrift are important for citizens, and I prefer them. But the seductive power of the Whore is she sates our appetites (whether we earn the money on our own or not). And our appetites are the road to perdition (whether we drive a welfare van on someone else's nickle or tool along in our paid-for-in-cash Lexus). It is easy for me to see how God's Judgment (which is what chapter 17 is all about) would be appropriate on a nation where there is so much pornography, living outside of marriage, alternative sexual couplings and, worst of all, wholesale murder of unborn babies. And conservatives are right to prophetically condemn such things. BUT, and I repeat, BUT... The concerns of chapter 17 are in a different direction. It condemns injustice and ostentatious consumption. It concerns hard working folks who spend themselves pursuing the dream of their culture (rather than the Kingdom of God). It is about people who would cut off welfare checks while pontificating on the sanctity of human life (and ignoring the living human babies in their innercity). It is about "The World" vs. "The Kingdom" and in that sphere we are all under judgment.

Good News. Jesus is "Lord of Lords and King of Kings"
Bad News. Each of us has citizenship in both Kingdoms. And sometimes we are so busy singing hymns that we do not notice we are living a lie.

Book of Revelation is given us as a template for every age. Each period has its Prostitute, strutting her wares and seducing God's people. She is in the church and outside. She is living in Liberal and Conservative communities (although looking different in each). We are always at risk of giving her our hearts. We are always at risk. But, God be praised, Jesus has conquered her, and the beast, and the other masqueraders who would be replacements gods. And this includes your business, your political party, your family and your own heart. So hang on, Jesus is coming. And keep your eyes open.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Christianity and Karma

I was asked a few days ago what my church's position on the election was. What I told him was true, though probably not accurate. (The accurate answer is the "official" Episcopal church would endorse Obama and hope he would be less conservative). The truth I shared was my official position on the election: The American people as a body will get what they deserve by electing whom they elect. He seemed to like the answer and it is a truism so it is true.

Pondering the election results (not just nationally but locally, even down to our new school board) got me to pondering the issue: what do we deserve? And for some reason I found myself recalling the words of the fomer Memphis coach (currently at Kentucky) John Calipari. I know that John is a Catholic and from what I heard he was a church attender. I know nothing of his personal faith. I do know that he regularly referred to "karma." I also know that Catholics do not believe in karma. But of course, it depends on what you mean by the word, doesn't it?

Karma predates Buddhism, but it is spelled out in the Buddhist faith. One key concept, and one which makes it anathema to Christians, is that in our previous lives the choices and actions we engage in create the good and bad of our current lives.Here is a handy overview

I do not believe in previous lives. People who do are not Christians (though they may be a hybrid of some sort). Therefore, I cannot and do not believe that my current life is a result of previous lives. However, there is some room to discuss the karma-like understanding of life offered in the Sacred Scriptures.

Proverbs 22:8 He who sows iniquity reaps calamity, and the rod destroys his labor.
Hosea 8:7 When they sow the wind they shall reap the whirlwind
Sirach 7:1-2 Do no evil, and evil will not overtake you; avoid wickedness, and it will turn aside from you.
Job 4:8 those who plow mischief and sow trouble will reap the same

The NT continues to express the same idea in Paul, Galatians 6:7 No one makes a fool of God! A man will reap only what He sows and even the Lord Jesus, Mark 4:24, Listen carefully to what you hear. In the measure you give  you shall receive and more besides.

 My concern is this is true. And my worry is that choices I have made, the decision to do bad and wrong things, continue to produce fruits in my life and, yes, in the lives of my children. (They are the recipient of blessings and curses from me, their father.) And others I care about also suffer from my previous choices. I obviously do not think it all begins on the other side of death. In other words, I do not think the reference is heaven and hell. It starts now.

As I made clear last week, I firmly believe we need a savior. I also believe this life, here and now, is real and meaningful. I do not think the only thing that matters is "pie in the sky when we die." I am convinced that the life we have, here and now, and to some extent, the life we will have forever after, are intimately connected to the choices we make. It is not always clear to me how Jesus rescues me from my sins. I am aware that today, in many ways, I am suffering, sometimes greatly usually moderately, for the sinful choices I made as a younger man. And you are, too.

So where is the hope? How can one live in peace and joy when every day we are confronted with the fruits of our misdeeds? When we just cannot shake the reaping of what we sowed?

Well, there are two things that bring me comfort. One is this, I get what I deserve. There is justice. And I am receiving what I so regularly claim I want others to know: justice. What is fitting for them is fitting for me. To carry on with courage and endurance is the right thing to do. However, this provides only a small amount of comfort!

The second thing is this. Jesus Christ, in the incarnation, in living on earth, in His ministry, in His suffering, crucifixion and death,He has reaped for God what God has sown. The eternal God made the world. That was His choice. And because He chose to create, to love and to relate to us, He, too, reaped a harvest. The harvest was death, but God is stronger than death. Resurrection and life. That is the comfort, the suffering ends, death is not the last word. Life. Beauty. Joy. Love.... GOD, God is the Last Word. And that is what matters most.

So as I (and you) continue to experience the fruits of our lives, we can know, we deserve it and we will be rescued from it. And in the meantime, we can bear it with courage. And we can have insight into the lives of others and even compassion. And we can be gentler and kinder knowing the truth.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


I am regularly "challenged" by parishioners because I am not as upbeat as they would prefer. It is something which weighs on my mind and heart. As a young man I was known for my sense of humor. I was voted the funniest boy in my graduating class. And for my whole life I have been blessed with the ability to quickly make humorous connections and bring people to fits of laughter. But there is that other side. Dark moods fall suddenly upon me, sometimes for no discernable reason. It is not the debilitating depression we hear about from the clinically oppressed, but it is a sadness and worry which impacts heart and visage. And it manifests in my teaching and preaching.

What is one to do?

Sunday, while preaching on the Great Commandments to love, I shared that "loving God more than anything and loving others as much as myself" is terrifying. I am not adept at either and it seems that failure to truly love could be fatal in the eyes of Jesus. Now, in my discussions I have come to see that there are two kinds of people. Those who think God is merciful so they do not fret about failures and those who think God is serious about His demands (and have a corresponding concern about the future judgment). Inspite of my best efforts, I fall in the latter category.

With this in mind, I prayed MP yesterday and read the Gospel in Luke 13. It starts out with Jesus commenting on "the evening news" for His local area. A group of people were crushed by a falling tower and another group was massacred at the Temple. In both cases Jesus makes two things clear. First of all, the tragedies did NOT mean that these people were worse than others. Jesus is clear, there is not a direct correlation between evil and personal tragedy. God does not visit doom on people that way. But He also says, "repent or something worse will happen to you." So there is an ultimate connection. And that ultimate connection has eternal significance. And that makes me afraid.

Then He tells a tale about a fig tree. It has not given fruit so the Master says, "Chop it down." This is a judgment. No fruit equals no need for you to be around. The steps from connecting the fig tree to Israel are short. This is transparent imagery. And another step brings us to the church. No fruit means chop it down. No fruit means it is useless. There is, however, a word of hope. An unnamed vinedresser (Jesus?) makes a request. Give me one more year to "throw dung." The Greek word kopria only occurs twice, here and Luke 14. It is not a commonly used word. And the idea of dung as grace bedazzled me in 1982 when I prepared and preached my first homily in seminary. To paraphrase "the poo-poo in our lives may be the merciful hand of God's grace trying to produce some life and fruitfulness out of our otherwise death-sentenced fig trees."

Can grace appear as dung? Are those bemoaning the recent elections ready to open their eyes and see God at work among us? Are those sitting in pews ready to hear God's demands and judgments? Are those who skip church prepared for the same? Are those who laugh and joke (woe to you, says Luke's Jesus) ready to weep and mourn (for lack of fruit)? And are those oppressed by worry, sadness and fear (Blessed are you, says Luke's Jesus) prepared to embrace hope and joy?

I worry that the church's lack of fruit demands God's condemnation. I fret about the salvation of those entrusted to my care. I worry that our nation's misplaced values (sorry, I think both sides) invite God's doom. I worry that I am lost in a haze of confusing and contradictory truth claims. And I worry that I worry....

But I know this, there is hope for "one more year." God's hunger and desire is that the sinner turn and live. And life in Christ produces fruits. So ponder that: your choices and your actions. Ponder how your faith is creating God's works. And embrace the "dung" of life because it may be Jesus at work trying to save you!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Salvation and the Bible 5: Mission

Having finished up the OT over view, one point I wanted to make clear is that the norm for God is to mediate salvation. It is in and through humans that He saves. Another issue, that act of saving seems always to be costly, both to the recipients and the 'saviors.' This story seems writ large into creation and is fertile ground for meditation on the question, what kind of world do we live in. I made the point that the OT is really where we get our foundation for understanding salvation, what follows is the conclusion of my talk. I will add some final reflections in a couple days.

So salvation is a BIBLE-wide concept. And with that foundation we look to the NT. The Greek word, sozo means
to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction; from injury or peril
to save one suffering from disease, to make well, heal, restore to health
to save in the technical biblical sense
to deliver from the penalties of the Messianic judgment
to save from the evils which obstruct the reception of the Messianic deliverance

What if “To save in the technical biblical sense” is applied to all the usage? What if the OT reference to the God who saves Israel is also a technical biblical usage? How does that impact our understanding of God’s work among us?

More importantly; How does it change our view of the ministry of healing and exorcism?

The word sozo occurs 113x in 101v in the NT

However, the first appearance of the word salvation is in the OT Genesis 49:18. It recounts Jacob blessing his sons, but the verse seems to be prayer unexpectedly dropped in.

“I wait for your salvation, YHWH”

I am inclined to give special prominence to things which appear first. I am tempted to think that there is a special message in this first appearance of the word salvation. It is something for which we WAIT. There is a future aspect to salvation. And Jesus certainly told us “to watch and wait” in His parables and exhortations. There is great wisdom here. Salvation is something for which we wait, even when we have it. In healing of mind, body and soul, we experience HERE AND NOW the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. The finger of God is among us and the fruits of the new Jerusalem are manifest. Yet even as we celebrate we know there is more. There is, in a real sense, the realization that healing is a foretaste of the kingdom. It is a 'commercial of coming attractions'. It is a 'free sample' at a grocery store, enough to excite our taste buds and make us hunger for more. It is real. It is here. And it is something for which we wait. Anxiously!

COME LORD JESUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Salvation is, in a sense, going home. It is a return. A return to Jerusalem, perhaps a return to the Garden. And it is always an unmerited gift. God saves not because we deserve it but because we need it. And while unearned, it costs everything. Long days trudging through the hot desert sands. Constant conflicts and battles, bloody and brutal, as they fought for every inch of the land which God had graciously given them. Day and night, under constant threat and duress, the people of Israel struggled and fought to find their way. They worked so very hard to receive the free Gift from God’s hand

That work and battle continues today.

Their story of salvation is our story too.
You and I, fallible humans all, have been chosen to be vessels of salvation. We are the sacrament of  healing/salvation. We are the sacrament of Jesus.

If we understand that we live in a world which is ultimately under God’s control, but not yet directly under His dominion, then we also understand our task.

We are to pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.”
We are to go forth and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
We understand that we are not orphaned, that He is with us always, but we are also clear that He has ascended to His Father and we are to wait, patiently in hope and courage, for His return. And we know that we are not merely to stand looking up at the sky, but like the apostles in Acts 1, we are to return home and engage in the every day work of proclamation.

Healing the sick and exorcising demons is the most effective way of declaring God’s Kingdom. Salvation is, in the end, inclusion in God’s Kingdom. Salvation means we belong to His people. Some day, as Revelation 21 says, that Kingdom will come.
God will make His home among mortals. He will dwell with us and we will be His people. God will be with us, He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more…to the thirsty He will give from the spring of the water of life. He will be our God and we will be His children…. There will be no Temple because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb will be its temple, and there will be no need of sun or moon, because God is its light and the Lamb is its lamp.

Salvation impacts mind, body, heart, soul. It renews all creation, every relationship. It makes us healthy and strong. And it begins today.
It frees us from sin and punishment, yes, but also the consequences of this earthly sojourn. Today we declare to you that God does hear, He does see, He does know and He does remember His covenant with you. God has come down to save His people, again and again, temporary rescues which give us hope in the final rescue.

He sent Noah, Abraham, Moses and Joshua. Ultimately He sent Jesus, and now, in this day, Jesus has sent us.

To declare a time of favor.
To set prisoners free.
To forgive sins.
To cast our demons.
To heal the sick of mind, body and spirit.

And all we need do in response is believe. Perhaps, like that Father at the mountain’s base the best we can do is say “I do believe, help my unbelief.” But let us live in this faith, however weak or flawed, each day. Let us cling to it. Let us act like people who have been sent forth with Jesus’ Spirit. That is what our world needs and hungers for. It is why the church exists.

Come Lord Jesus
And until you do come in glory, come in us to do Your work!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Salvation and the Bible 4:History & Mystery

Yesterday we looked at Genesis' creation account. In summary, we see that the Biblical text tells us that from the beginning humans had to work, to labor and to struggle to conquer and subdue creation. There was also a need to guard the garden. Such concepts led me to suggest that earth was always intended to be a place of struggle, but that the Fall of Man with the first sin added curses to the situation. Since then it has gone from bad to worse. With a need for a savior made crystal clear, the next phase is the unfolding story found in the rest of Genesis. In my talk I added this: "Sometimes I wish I could remove the words 'God can do anything' from the Christian vocabulary. Too often it leads us to ignore the reality of creation and the rules God plays by. He might have been able to do whatever He wanted, but since He made this real creation He is also under the limits which He self imposed."

The Biblical story continues with Noah and the ark, and ten generations later Abraham.  As we will see, salvation almost always has human mediation. In Genesis 6, Noah builds the ark, as God directs, but Noah is the one who puts in endless hours of labor. He is responsible for a boat load of animals and his extended family! God does not snap His fingers and make it happen!

Likewise, Abraham is a vessel of salvation. Genesis 12 is the remarkable narrative of this event. Ironically, like Adam and Eve, he must go into exile. “Leave” God says. "Leave your country, your father’s house and your land." SALVATION comes at a cost. To receive the promise Abraham must give up everything.

And I think one sees here a preview of the demand of Jesus
[Mk 3:35// Mt16:25// Lk 9:24] “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel will save it”.  This is not arbitrary, it is at the heart of how the world works.

Here is the paradox of salvation and grace. Salvation is a grace; it is free, but it costs everything. And God’s promise to the world is funneled through the travels and travails of Abraham and Sarah (and her aged womb).

Abraham got his orders. "Leave it all, your home and identity. Leave everything. And Go." So salvation requires faith. God promises, we trust and act. He gives Abraham no indication of the destination; just a demand that he leave everything and go. TRUST is all he has. The cost of Abraham’s salvation and the cost to Abraham to become a link in our salvation is EVERYTHING. And it his faith, an acted-out-flesh-and-blood- wandering-homeless-to-only-God-knows-where-faith which makes it happen.

What is the promise of salvation? The words echo in Genesis12:2-3. God says, "I will make you a nation. I will make you a blessing. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you." Through you, Abraham.

When I read Jewish commentaries, I am struck by their struggles to explain exactly what this means. Perhaps, they say, it is the amazing contributions the Jews have made to humanity, after all a disproportionate number of Jews have been hugely important in a variety of fields. Maybe it is law or Jewish understanding of Justice. They just aren’t clear.

But you and I know. We have little trouble explaining this message of blessing.

The answer is the very first line of the very first book of the New Testament, Mt 1:1, “The beginning of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the son of Abraham.”
Yes in deed. Abraham is the first father from whom has come our Salvation. Jesus is how Abraham has blessed all the peoples on earth!

The story of Abraham’s descendents (Israel) twists and turns through endless family squabbles and conflicts. They are not always faithful. They are portrayed, warts and all, for us to see. And eventually the seed of Abraham, grows so large that the Egyptians forget about Joseph and see them as a threat. And in the book of Exodus we encounter the paradigm of salvation which undergirds the entire Bible.

You know the story. The Jews are sorely oppressed and placed in forced labor. Their sons are marked for death at birth. There is great suffering. A baby, mysteriously spared when he is placed in an ark (the only other use of this Hebrew word is in Noah's story) amongst reeds and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, grows up. His name is Moses. When he comes of age the plight of his people moves him. He intervenes and kills a cruel Egyptian task master, but soon after he flees for his life when he learns his deed is known. Moses then “saves” a young woman who is being mistreated by bullying shepherds at the watering hole. Like any action hero in the movies, he single handedly makes short work of them and helps the damsel in distress. Moses ends up marrying the girl and takes on a new life.

Meanwhile, the book of Exodus tells us, the people of Israel groan and cry out. God hears, we are told. God remembers His covenant. God looks on them and He cares.

In Ex 3 we read about the Burning Bush. God reveals Himself to the amazed Moses. And God shares with Him His heart. I have seen the misery. I have heard the cry. I care. So I have come down to save them…. And then lastly I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.
Always, again and again God acts through human agency and mediation. God acts, but it is in and through a person, a free person, a person who can decide.

The rest of the OT is the story of EXODUS. It is the first story of SALVATION. It is the basis for understanding the NT story and Jesus.

Salvation is a rescue from a bad situation. It is a situation, in part, or our own making. It is also a situation, in large part, over which we have no control. It is a situation created by humans, sometimes our friends, frequently our enemies. It is a situation created by fallen nature. And, Jesus declares, it is a situation under the influence of The Ruler of This World, the demonic Prince, Satan.

Salvation includes many dimensions, but it is always connected to COVENANT. God promises His people and God delivers on His promise. And the covenant is CORPORATE. God saves His people. "I" am saved because He saves "us". The Lord did not take single individuals out of Egypt, one at a time like the run away slaves of America’s Underground Railroad. Instead, He takes the whole group. Being saved is infinitely personal and God saves each one. But it is not in isolation and it is not independently of others. It is a group excursion. And the group’s behaviors impact the personal experience of each and every one.

Eventually, Israel becomes a kingdom, then after civil war, two kingdoms. Sin is punished. First Israel is destroyed, the tribes lost forever. Later Judah suffers the same fate and is exiled in Babylon. But through Cyrus of Persia, we read that God saves His people. The story of the “second exodus” is found in Nehemiah and Ezra, which are filled with transparent references to the story of Exodus.

Exodus is the Jewish Good News, it is their Gospel. It is a story which spells out in concrete form that our God is a God who saves. And because He has saved, over and over again, we can trust Him To Save in days ahead. He is faithful to His covenant promises and we look ahead to the ultimate fulfillment of His promise to make His Kingdom among us.

And the connection between OT and NT is clear. The night before He died, Jesus gathered with His friends in the upper room. He took bread, He took a cup and He celebrated the Passover.
This is my Body broken for you.
This is my Blood shed for you.
Looking ahead to the next day, Good Friday, and His crucifixion and death, Jesus ties His sacrifice to the blood of the lamb on Passover. He is priest and victim, He is the sacred, once and for all sacrifice, which procures our salvation. Like the OT Joshua, the NT Joshua (Jesus is Greek) leads us into the Promised Land, first washing us clean in our own Red Sea experience, the waters of Baptism, the “red” sea of His saving blood.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Salvation and the Bible 3: Creation

The day of the conference I was the second speaker. The speaker ahead of me spent the last few minutes of his talk reflecting on The Garden of Eden. He talked about the original perfection and its loss and about God's desire for the world and its inhabitants. He good naturedly and jokingly said, "If anyone says different call them a heretic and burn them at the stake!" Knowing what I was about to say, I was a bit nervous. Let me share it here and my reflections after....


Let’s start with creation and look at Genesis. The actual creation accounts are different from the story told in my childhood religious education. In our religion books we had pictures of Adam and Eve. Remember how she tastefully combed her long hair and he modestly stood behind bushes to spare our young eyes anything too revealing? They were usually surrounded by wild animals, most notably a lion and some sheep. In their naked, primal innocence, we learned, everything was perfect. Perfect. Until the apple mishap and ever since….misery! Booo! They blew a perfect deal!

Reading the Bible with that story in mind, it was many decades before I actually saw that the Biblical account was not quite so simple or perfect….

Let’s look at Genesis 1:26

The human is made in God’s image and likeness. For thousands of years people have debated about exactly what it means to be the image of God. Some think it refers to reason. Others free will. Perhaps it is creativity. Recently I read that Jewish Law forbids any images (idols) and the only image of God is us. I think there is something there! Whatever the case, everyone is clear that humans have a unique and special place in creation and image/likeness is a way to express that.

Now, I want to look at the Hebrew words which are usually translated as subdue and dominion. (see the Blueletter Bible for an awesome online resource! )

Kabash sounds like cavash (Qal) and means to bring into bondage, make subservient to subdue, force, violate, dominate, tread down

Radah (Qal) to have dominion, rule, subjugate
(both verbs are in Qal)

These are conflictual words which seem to imply that the planet was not totally friendly from the beginning. These words appear numerous times in the OT and usually depict events with a violent edge to them; often times about oppressive invasions. Therefore, it seems that, BEFORE the sin of Adam, planet earth was not perfect or compliant. It has always been a struggle to keep things under control. The original state of things was chaos and perhaps the remnants of chaos were still present.

Genesis 2:15 Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and keep it. Two more words to look at in Hebrew.

‘abad (sounds like avad) (Qal) to labour, work, do work, to work for another, serve another by labour, to serve as subjects, to serve (God)Shamar (Qal) to keep, have charge of, guard, keep watch and ward, protect, save life

These two words also imply struggle. To do labor and work means one is working and doing labor. It does not mean a free and easy, never ending vacation. And if Adam was to watch, guard and protect the question is: Why is their need for protection? from who or what?

So, from the beginning, the earth seems to have been somewhat challenging. There was a degree of “out of control” and a need for humans to work and struggle and battle to keep control.

And there is one other point: in Genesis 3:8, we read that “they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the Garden in the cool of the day.” While we often see the close intimacy of God with humans here, I think it equally important that we also recognize that the absence of God was apparently the norm during the heat of the day. In fact, we are told that Adam and Eve are able to hide from God, so that He has to call to them.

This picture of God is very anthropomorphic and primitive, but that is the nature of the narrative. It does, however, indicate that from the beginning, even before “the fall”, we had some distance from God, even though He made Himself available. God was simply NOT always around. Human autonomy was coupled with responsibility. We were, at least sometimes, left on our own.

Sadly, with the decision to disobey, things got worse. Human relationships are damaged. Human relationship to the earth is cursed. There is pain in childbirth. There is animosity between man and the serpent. But hidden in all of this, say the Church Fathers, is a promised savior. “He will bruise your head and you will bruise his heal.” This refers to the battle between Satan and Jesus, our salvation.

And so we have the setting to discuss salvation. A world in which challenge and struggle was already present is now a broken and cursed world populated by broken and cursed people. Expelled from the Garden, the humans inhabit a more dangerous world. They get some clothes to wear, but the angel’s sword bars any hope for return to Eden. That way is forever closed. The need for salvation is established.

The Bible indicates that God takes us seriously. We are ordered to dominate and protect the world. Our choices and behaviors play a part in the ongoing creation of the world. God has made room for us and given us freedom. Without freedom we cannot love or obey. We would be little more than glorified sock puppets. A Stepford wife may appear outwardly to be perfect, but she is not human. Hers is an empty and faux-imitation of love and devotion, because she is merely a robot. Any pleasure she brings is a meaningless fantasy.

God wants us to be His loving, obedient children. So He took a chance and set us free. And the rest, for better and worse, has been history.

I think these texts are important for purposes of meditation. What was life like "before" the Fall and how is a material and limited creation going to impinge on "perfection." In explaining my image to the group, and in trying to affirm the previous speaker, I suggested mine was a nuance of his position. Eden was good, it was very good. But probably not complete. It was potentially perfect, but the fact is it was lost. And if it could be lost then in what sense was it perfect? It is certainly our belief that in the end we will not lose "the Kingdom" (usually called heaven). SO the Garden was potentially but not a fully realized experience of the fullness of the Kingdom. And conflict and struggle take on a new meaning if that is our original purpose. Maybe our childhood imaginations have ill-equipped us for the reality of life. We will continue the story of Genesis and its impact on understanding salvation tomorrow...

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Salvation and the Bible 2

“SALVATION” Healing Conference Talk October 2012

Talking about salvation to a bunch of Christians is a treacherous thing. It is a doctrine about which many people have very firm beliefs. In days gone by some people even fought and killed each other in their arguments. Even so, I want to ponder Scripture together in the hope of providing some useful ideas.

Our world is a tough place, full of suffering, death and sin. We are too small and weak to defeat the forces at work against us and within us. We need help. We need a Savior.

Unlike other world religions the Christian Gospel, as descended from the Jewish Gospel, is not so much a plan to get saved as it is a declaration that GOD SAVES. We announce ‘He has saved,’ we demonstrate, “He is saving” and preach ‘He will save’. Salvation is God’s gracious activity. This is GOOD NEWS. We need only believe it, trust God and live accordingly.

   How do we best proclaim such salvation? To me, one problem is the way we talk about God. Let me illustrate:

In May 2008 a young flight attendant (Eder Rojas) took some paper towels into a rear bathroom and lit them on fire. His plan was to put the fire out and proclaimed a hero. However, to no one’s surprise, but his, he was found guilty and is serving 6 years in prison and was fined $100,000. No one has hailed him as a hero.

The problem is sometimes the way we talk about God sounds like He is a divine version of Eder Rojas...

God, we are told, is in complete and total control. He is pulling the strings and causes everything that happens every moment of every day. I often hear people say in the face of tragedy “Everything happens for a reason,” and the implied reason is God did it.

But this raises difficulties.
Does God create a drought so we will pray for rain?
Does God cause cancer and heart disease so we will pray for healing?
Is God ruining people emotionally, physically and mentally and then just healing a few?

Now He is God so if that is how He operates, so be it. But then we need to say “He saves us from the damage He does to us.” And our catechisms should indicate he behaves like a parent with Munchausen by proxy syndrome.

The Bible’s story of salvation does not sound like this. Yes there are occasions when God visits punishment on His people, but those are identified as special exceptions, not the constant norm. I do not think that God brings disease upon a person and then swoops in to heal and expects hymns of praise. Now I also admit that the complexity of creation far exceeds my capacity to understand. I am not smart enough and there are too many moving parts. However, it seems that in the midst of all that complexity, we can still know that God does not start fires so He can look like a heroic firefighter.

This may seem a slow motion way to address the issue of salvation, but we need to consider what it is from which God saves us. And I think it a bad idea to assume He saves us from Himself. I think it a bad idea to believe that God does harm so He can undo it. Everything happens for a reason, but sometimes the reason is not simply God. Sometimes it is the nature of a finite creation, a creation populated by free beings, beings who can choose and have chosen evil.

As we turn to the Bible, I want to begin in the OT. When Jesus rose from the dead the Gospels say that He taught the disciples by opening the scriptures. The only scriptures Jesus that had is our OT. There was no NT. So we can safely begin there. In fact, I would say ignoring the OT is a reason why the concept of "salvation" has been drained of much of its power in our current church situation.

Now I do need to add one clarification. In the OT there are places where God is depicted as the sole source of all events: "for weal and woe." However, it is best to understand that in light of other religions and their polytheistic beliefs. Israel made a radical claim that there is only ONE God. There are not multiple sources of reality. There is no cosmic war between competing divine entities, nor are there two principles, one good and one evil, which are the source of a schizophrenic creation. In earliest strata the first Jews/Israelites did not have a developed theology. They were not a theoretical people and their language is quite concrete. For example, in talking about time God does not live 'forever' but from age to age. So identifying God as the cause of everything they are actually declaring there is one God. Later, we note the appearance of lesser spiritual beings who are identified with evil, culminating with the NT and its notion of spiritual warfare, demonic forces and Satan. This may seem overly nuanced, but in the Bible word pictures are telling a story. We need ears to hear their message...

While the plain and literal reading would seem to be "God causes good and ill" it is probably not accurate. Remember, what was plain and literal three thousand years ago is no plain or obvious to us. Our assumptions are much different. While this does not prove my point I hope it makes it possible to at least entertain it. However, it is true that God is THE SOURCE of all creation and by virtue of that the AUTHOR (ultimately) for all that happens. He is the First Cause. But the creation has autonomy because He governs it by "physical laws" and as handed over free choices to the creatures. While the ultimate source of everything that happens, He is not the proximate and sole cause. The guy who stabs his neighbor is not a puppet doing God's bidding. God made the guy and created the elements formed into the knife but the man chooses to use the knife. The Bible also says God does not tempt us to evil. [tomorrow we will look at Genesis...]