Posts Tagged ‘devotional’
Reflections on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2009
“Faith has to do with marrying Invisible and Visible. When we engage in an act of faith we give up control, we give up sensory (sight, hearing, etc.) confirmation of reality; we give up insisting on head knowledge as our primary means of orientation in life. The positive way to say this is that when we engage in an act of faith we choose to deal with a living God whom we trust to know what he is doing, we choose a way of life in which bodily senses and physical matter are understood as inseparable and organic to vast interiorities (soul) and immense beyonds (heaven), and we choose to no longer operate strictly on the basis of hard-earned knowledge, glorious as it is, but over a lifetime to embrace the mystery that ‘must dazzle gradually/Or every man go blind.’ (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 44; the quote at the end is from Emily Dickenson, The Complete Poems.)
I preached from Ezekiel 37 this morning but only the first 14 verses. The Lord takes Ezekiel for a walk through a valley, a plain—maybe the plain of Meggido—and shows him the remains of what had probably been a battle. The dead, likely of the losing army, had been left on the battle field. Their bodies over time had decayed and been picked clean by the animals and birds. All that was left was bones. A valley of dry, very dry bones. And as Ezekiel retells the events of that day, he recalled that the Lord had showed him all around the valley that day after setting him down in the very middle of that pile of bones. Listen to Ezekiel recall the day’s events.
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
Ezekiel was shown a valley of desolation, a plain of hopelessness, the valley of the shadow of death. There was nothing there but death, dead, dry bones and that is all that Ezekiel saw. Ezekiel was far too literal; he hadn’t yet developed the eyes of faith, eyes that see what eyes cannot see. The Lord showed Ezekiel everything there was to see: A vast, endless, sea of dead, dry, very dry bones. From a purely human point of view, the question the Lord asked Ezekiel was unfair and I believe that Ezekiel’s answer betrays that: “Lord, you alone know.”
This was, I believe, Ezekiel’s way of giving a perfectly orthodox theological answer without being committed to faith: “You alone know Lord.” Yes. The Lord knows. I think it was Ezekiel’s way of saying something like, “Lord, you can do anything, but I seriously doubt that this valley of dry, very dry bones can or will live. You alone know, Lord; yes, I agree. But this is a valley of dry bones. That’s all I see. There’s no hope for this valley of dry bones. And yet, Lord, I will obey; I will speak.”
The thing is, that’s not what the Lord saw. Later we learn what the Lord saw. Listen to what the Lord told the prophet.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off. Therefore prophesy and say to them: `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ “
That’s the difference between God’s view of things and our view of things. God sees the things that we do not, or cannot. God sees life where there is death; hope where there is hopelessness; the House of Israel where there is only a valley of dry bones. God sees things that we cannot. You might say that God has a sort of faith that we do not. I might say I want that sort of faith.
Maybe Ezekiel wasn’t quite ready to give up control; maybe I’m not. He knew what he saw: A valley of dry, very dry bones. Maybe he wasn’t ready to give up sensory control or his insistence upon a purely intellectual, visual, orientation to life. It’s not easy to live in that sort of, from a human point of view, randomness. We like control. We like knowing, seeing, hearing. We do not like things being out of the ordinary; we like routine. Faith is a way of living that says, if I may, ‘to hell with routine; to hell with what I know, see, hear; to hell with control.’ I know that sounds almost like anarchy, but I assure you it is actually the sort of life (the only sort of life) that can say, “Yes Lord I will take my son, my only son, whom I love, and sacrifice him on a distant mountain even though I don’t see the sense of it;” or “Yes Lord I will prophesy to a valley of dead, dry bones even though I don’t think anything will happen when I do;” or “Yes, Lord, continue believing in you even though there are people who want to kill me for doing so;” or, “Yes, Lord, I will dance and become even more undignified even though people will mock me, people from within my own family; or, “Yes, Lord, I will go to the world with your hope even though they will reject me and crucify me.”
That kind of faith is the kind of faith that defines the people of Christ. And it is also the kind of faith that we are asked to exercise in every situation. The hardest times to exercise such faith are the times when we happen to think that such faith isn’t actually necessary. “Oh, it’s a small decision. I can make it on my own. God doesn’t care what sort of toaster I buy. All I need here is common sense and Sunday’s ads.” But that is not faith. Faith is that extraordinary trust, small and often indiscernible, even when things seem simple and uncomplicated. It might be easy to display a herculean sort of faith during times of great stress and pressure and attack, but I think it is most important to practice such faith when things are at their easiest and least complicated. It shows that we don’t trust ourselves at all; that we need guidance in all ways.
If we don’t practice such faith then, do you think we will practice such faith when life is up in arms and the enemy is crowding us, desiring more space in our lives, when things are really, really hard? If I won’t have the faith required to preach faithfully to a captive audience (let’s face it, a valley of dry bones is a rather captive audience; they’re not going anywhere; they can’t do anything but ‘listen’), then how will I faithfully preach to a living body of Christ? (Maybe it says something about Ezekiel that the Lord entrusted him to preach to a valley of dry bones first before he asked him to preach to the ‘whole house of Israel’.) It’s a small thing to preach to dry bones; it’s quite another thing to preach to the Living Body of Christ. I notice Ezekiel did preach to the bones; we are not told that he preached this particular message to the ‘whole house of Israel’ (See vss 7, 10, 12-14.)
I know I am mixing up all these words: Faith, faithfulness, God’s ‘faith’, my faith. What I’m getting at though is that perhaps faith is the letting go of what we know and see and hear and the living of life that comes from knowing, seeing and hearing and instead living a life that is oriented around what God sees, hears, and knows. I mean think about it, what’s better? Preaching to what we see, that is, a valley of dry bones or preaching to what God sees, the whole house of Israel? But until we have the sort of eyes that see what God sees, the whole house of Israel, our efforts, our preaching, our faith—indeed, our very lives–will be full of frustration and futility.
We live by faith, not sight. But it’s that kind of faith; God’s kind of faith. So Ezekiel prophesied.
And there was a noise, a rattling sound.
Thoughts for Second Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2009
I’m preaching a series of sermons from 1 Corinthians to the church I serve during Lent. We are focusing on the essential and necessary oneness of the church that was forged in the crucifixion of Jesus. Part of the goal of these sermons is to introduce the congregation to some of the history of the so-called Restoration Movement while exploring the basis of our oneness in Christ. ‘We’ have a long history and I thought it would be appropriate to share some of that wonderful history that is so often overlooked when official church history is discussed.
Back in the day, there was a small publication that existed simply called The Plea. It was published in Tennessee by a Christian church and edited by Fred W Smith. I’d like to share a quote with you from the August 1951 editorial. He wrote:
“The Christian world is divided, not simply into congregations of believers for mutual benefit and service, but torn and rent by parties, factions, and schisms which claim exclusive rights to the promises of sacred Scripture. This is the ‘falling away’ which the Apostle Paul referred to in his epistles. (Fred W Smith, The Plea, August 1951, volume 7, #6. p 2)
The Restoration Movement was born out of a desire for Christians of all denominational stripes to recognize that unity has already been forged for us by Christ and that we need to but recognize and maintain it. The ‘founders’ of the movement came from Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and other denominations. Some were Pentecostal, some were not. Some believed in instrumental music, some did not. Some practiced infant baptism, some did not. Some believe in mission societies, some did not. Some believed in conventions, some did not. Some believed in weekly communion, some did not. Sometimes they got along and worked hard at being one. Other times they failed and became two.
For the most part, I think the Restoration Movement has been a failure, at least in practice. Instead of bringing together the denominations it has, sadly, created yet two or three or four or five or more denominations (depending upon how you count the various churches who claim as their heritage the work of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W Stone among others). Nevertheless, the ideal still prevails and should be recognized for what it is: A call to recognize what Christ has already declared in Scripture to be true. If we failed in practice, perhaps we haven’t failed in theory. Perhaps the theory is still a good idea. We may not forge it, but we can at least recognize and honor it.
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6, NIV)
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6, NASB)
So what is our goal? Are we as the people whom Christ has called walking in a manner consistent with our calling? Are we walking with humility, gentleness, patience? Are we showing tolerance in love for one another? Are we making it our ambition, as people of Christ, to preserve or maintain that unity that has been forged for us in Christ and worked out in the Spirit? Are we making it our goal to live in peace with one another? Seriously? We really need to ask ourselves these questions continually.
Are we wise enough to recognize that no matter how many different denominations we create, no matter how many theological systems we construct (all theology is a matter of opinion anyhow), no matter how many blogs we write (each one no doubt claiming exclusive rights (and rightness!) to the interpretation and proclamation of God’s truth!), no matter how much we fight and argue about who is right and who is wrong–at the end of the day: There is ONE body. We cannot change this. Christ has declared it to be so and nothing we can do will alter that declaration. There is ONE body. It is unfortunate that this Biblical fact causes so much upheaval among people. It is even more unfortunate that some have made it their life’s ambition to narrow this field as much as they can and cause as much division as they can in whatever way they can. Our goal, thus, should not be causing so much division that the expanse of the church is narrowed. Our goal should be recognizing and maintaining what Christ Jesus forged in his own blood.
That Body includes people that do not think like I do. That Body includes Democrats and Republicans and maybe even some Libertarians (I jest). That Body includes people who do not take communion every week like I do. That Body includes people who do not believe in a literal 6-Day creation like I do. That Body includes people who immerse as the first act of obedience instead of, as I do, the last act of conversion. That Body includes people who are monergistic and not synergistic like me. That Body includes Calvinists and Arminians and Calminians and Arminiasts. That Body includes pre-millenialists like John MacArthur and amillenialists like me and maybe even post-millenialists and pan-millenialists. That Body includes so-called Emergent types like Rob Bell and so-called hyper-Calvinsts like Mark Driscoll. Believe it or not, that Body even includes some Baptists, Lutherans. Methodists, Catholics, Nazarenes, Church of Christ, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox (and others; many others). And so on and so forth. My point is that who can number the Body but Christ? Whose job is it but Christ’s?
Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. (Revelation 7:4)
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9)
What he heard and saw corresponded in some way. He heard a perfect number; he saw a massive heap. And yet:
And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:10)
They sang together. They worshiped the Lamb as One! Do you see? Do you understand? They had one thing in common and it was Christ Jesus!
Practically speaking, the Restoration Movement was doomed before it started. Who, to be sure, could ever decide what is opinion enough for there to be liberty and what is essential enough for there to be unity? ‘We’ were stumped in those two places before we ever got to the ‘in all things love’ part. Still, I think there is hope and we are not outwitted just yet and I don’t think that our un-oneness has caused the Lord great consternation or upheaval. Could just be that our un-oneness exists also for his glory.
Maybe this is why he specifically told us to Love one another. Maybe this is why he said we are saved by grace. Alone.
“Christianity also is not intolerant because anyone can believe, regardless of race, gender, or social status. No one is excluded. Christianity is the most inclusive and exclusive of all religions. Anyone can believe, but it is only by faith in Jesus Christ that a person is saved. It is that glorious message of salvation through Christ alone that should be our banner and that which unites us. Jesus said, ‘If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to me.” Let our churches [and, I might add, our blogs] be known, then, for their strong and unwavering message about the crucified Christ, the very Son of God.” (Bob Russell & Rick Atchley, Together Again, 53)
Day 10, Colossians 1:11-12: Strengthened with God’s Strength
“…being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.”
Well, I haven’t worked on this series of ’90 Days’ posts for a while, so I’m hopeful that I won’t foul up too badly.
So, then, how do we ‘live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God’? Can we? Should we bother trying? We are weak people, weakened daily by the pressures of daily friction involving our friends, co-workers, family members and any and all in between; strangers and enemies too. The fact that Paul says we are ‘being strengthened’ (he says something closer, and rougher, akin to ‘by all power being continually empowered’) means that we are necessarily weak, prone to weakness, constantly being drained of whatever we may call power or strength.
I think it also means that we have no strength in and of ourselves. We constantly need to be replenished. We are wearing down constantly and but for the strengthening and empowerment of God we would likely whither into nothing. This echoes, I believe, what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
And this is no mere strengthening or empowerment. No the apostle says we are being empowered according to his glorious might precisely so that we do not run out of endurance are flag in our patience or become wishy-washy in our joy or lackadaisical in our thanksgiving. Instead, we are strengthened with his strength so that we can persevere in joy and patience and thanksgiving and endurance. I wonder sometimes, when I am weak, do I remember that as long as I try to persevere and endure in my own strength I am doomed to fail? This is why He strengthens us.
We are the ones who grow bored in the flesh. Ailments, pressures, anxieties, people-the flesh has a way of wearing us down, burning us out, beating us up and we fail. But God strengthens us according to His strength, according to his glorious might. I wonder if this means that we always have enough strength even when we find ourselves particularly weak. I wonder if this means that our weakness isn’t quite as bad as we like to imagine it?
That’s not all, though. The Father has also qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. This is nothing less than an unqualified, unconditional expression of God’s grace. He has qualified us. He has qualified us. He has qualified us. It’s all quite remarkable as he will point out in verse 13. Not only qualified, made sufficient, but transferred from the dominion of darkness and into the kingdom of light (13). He has qualified us. This is no small, individualistic thing. We are in this together. We stand qualified together. What a great love the Father has showed us to qualify, make sufficient, those who were at once weak and defiled and slaves.
It was said elsewhere, “Once we were not a people, but now we are a people. Once we were not shown mercy, but now we have been shown mercy.” We are a totally new people, qualified by God (I believe he is talking here of an instant, the moment we first believed), and now continually strengthened by His glorious might.
So if we are qualified by God, who then has a right or an obligation to doubt or qualify our qualification? It is God the Father himself who has qualified us. We stand, even now, qualified by God. I read, “H.C.G. Moule therefore rightly argues that the reference is “properly to the believer’s position and possession even now. This Canaan,” he explains, “is not in the distance, beyond death; it is about us today, in our home, in our family, in our business,… in all that makes up mortal life” (pp. 65, 66).
Two of the biggest problems we face as Christians are thus weakness and anxiety. First, weakness of the flesh. This is an outer turmoil, so to speak. It comes to us in any of a million forms a day, but we are constantly being strengthened according God’s strength. Weakness will not trump God’s empowerment no matter how weak the weakness. Second, there is a sort of inner turmoil we face, which is, the constant anxiety over our salvation. Paul counters this by noting for the Colossian church that we are qualified by God. As such, our qualification neither rests upon our shoulders nor is rendered moot because of fleshly weakness. We can have such confidence in God’s work to qualify us. It is God who does this work for us. He qualifies us. He changes our status from unqualified to qualified. He rescues us. He, not we.
And finally, this is a community idea. We stand even now as those who have already inherited the kingdom of light. We already share in that blessing and we stand together. We are strengthened. We are qualified. We share in the kingdom. Maybe it would be a good idea for the church, for the saints, to celebrate the community aspect of our faith more often. I don’t mean in a superficial, and merely Sunday morning, kind of way, but an always, everyday, praying, encouraging, suffering kind of way. The practice of Christian faith must come alive and stop being stagnant. We share in the Kingdom of Light. The Kingdom of light is visible not only to the world around us, but also to one another.
Something to Do with Resurrection
Luke 12, Genesis 13
People are fond of using Jesus for the wrong ends. We have all seen it. Jesus the judge. Jesus the arbiter of relationships. Jesus the ‘good teacher’ of ‘our theology.’ We silly people have all sorts of ideas swirling around inside our toilet bowl heads about what we think Jesus should be and do. Many of these ideas, sadly enough, end up published by ‘Christian’ publishers. More of them end up be bought by ‘Christian’ readers. And way too much of it ends up as ‘Gospel’ (i.e. Left Behind).
‘Jesus’ has said a whole bunch of things that Jesus never said. This is sad because it really messes people up when they are trying to understand the things Jesus did say.
This pericope in Luke 12:13-21 is one such story. “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” This is Jesus’ rather pointed way of saying, “I’m not here to do the things you want me to do. I’m not here to fill roles you have designated. I’m not here to accomplish the purposes of man.” But even this is quite beside the point of these verses. The real point comes in where Jesus uses the occasion to teach about what matters here on earth, among men who live here: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
There are kinds of greed?
Then Jesus tells a parable. The parable seems simple enough and rather straightforward. There parable has something to do with a type of greed that lingers in the hearts of man. It is the type of greed that ‘stores up things for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ This is a dangerous type of greed and I think it has something to do with resurrection. That is, the person engaged in this type of greed simply does not believe in Resurrection.
I think this is a safe guess because the man in the parable, the unnamed man, the every-man, says something like, “I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’” Well what caught my eye about this verse is that it is quoted by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (32). Paul quotes it in the context of talking about someone who does not believe in resurrection.
This person has nothing to live for later. Those whose lives are defined by resurrection are not defined by the worries and cares and wealths and greeds and ambitions of this world and this life. Those whose lives are defined by resurrection can afford to sell all again and again and give it to the poor. Those whose lives are defined by resurrection can afford to store up treasures in heaven. (See Matthew 6:19-21)
But the resurrection person stands in stark contrast to the man in the parable. The man in the parable is self-reliant and has no use for resurrection talk or of a need to consider himself as the man in the ditch who needs lifting out (see Luke 10:25-37). The man in the parable will use his ingenuity more than faith. He will not acknowledge the source of his blessing and life. He is not prepared to face the prospect of death and all of his stuff, all of the stuff he used to define himself here on earth, will be lost. For him, this life is enough. There’s no need to think about tomorrow because all he has or needs or wants is today. Resurrection people don’t think this way or live this way.
I have a sneaking suspicion that resurrection people are never quite so content. There is always something to do, someone to serve, someone to love. Resurrection people are restless.
So it makes me wonder: What defines us? NT Wright well asks, “We have now reached the point where we must ask: So what? Is all this talk about God’s ultimate future, about ‘life after life after death,’ simply a matter of tidying up our beliefs about what will happen in the very end, or does it have any practical consequences now? Is it simply a matter of getting our teaching and preaching right and of ordering our funerals and other liturgies so that they reflect biblical teaching about death and what lies beyond instead of nonbiblical and even antibiblical ideas that have crept into the church here and there?” (Surprised by Hope, 189)
He’s right, of course. We are resurrection people who are not just building little fiefdoms to the self here. We are resurrection people who, like Abraham, are going around conquering the land, building little altars here and there to the greater glory of God. The ‘parable of the rich fool’ has very little, in fact, to do with the personal wealth of the person and everything to do with the deafening roar of unbelief. Jesus is saying: There’s something more. How can you be so content with mere stuff? How can you miss that you were made for more? How can you ever be satisfied with merely eating, drinking and being merry?
There might just be a life that consists in the absence of possessions. I think this parable has something to do with Resurrection. The resurrection life is necessarily, and decidedly, different from the dead life.
Abraham the Warrior
Genesis 12, Luke 11
Abraham is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. There is something about his character, his unassuming personality, his toughness that resonates with my own spirit. Not that I am tough or unassuming like he was, but just that…well, I just like Abraham. He, along with David and Moses, is one of the most often spoken of people in the Biblical narrative and what is ironic about it is that he just sort of appears out of nowhere. I know he is mentioned at the end of chapter 11 in connection with his father, Terah, and his brothers and Lot. But after all that took place in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, I guess I have always been somewhat surprised at the intrusive nature of the Abraham narratives.
It’s such a striking contrast, this call of Abram. One is forced to wonder: What is God up to? How does this seemingly new story flow out of the previous stories?
To be sure, it is startling to me, as a reader. That doesn’t mean his intrusion is altogether intrusive to the narrative though. The genealogies connect Abraham with the previous eleven chapters which suggests to me at least that the narrative assumed Abraham at some level. At least I think it is safe to say the author of Genesis didn’t find Abraham’s story an intrusion but that ‘he’ rather saw it as a necessary denouement to the first eleven chapters and also a perfect preface to the rest of Scripture. The call of Abraham is a watershed moment in the Biblical narrative, but perhaps there is something more to the narrative about Abraham that should be noticed.
I will branch into chapter 13 just a bit in this brief sketch, so I ask your patience.
Israel, Abraham’s son, eventually went into exile in Egypt. Long before that God had promised Abraham on oath, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you.” He had also promised him this: “ ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’” To an extent, I am at a loss as to why Abraham would want this promised land, and I am at an even greater loss as to why God would give him this particular land. Time and time again we read, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” (These are the same Canaanites who were cursed by Noah in chapter 9, ‘Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.’) Why would anyone want to live in such a place, a place inhabited by people under a curse of slavery? Strange, but that’s what happened.
As time moved along, Abraham was forced to leave Canaan and go to Egypt. He was forced to go because ‘there was a famine in the land.’ This is the same circumstance that forced Israel to Egypt many years later. There is also no little foreshadowing in Pharaoh’s rejection of Abram, “ ‘Take her and go!’ Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.” While Abram was in Egpyt, he plundered them: “[Pharaoh] treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants and camels.” It’s all a rather brilliant scheme on the part of Abram. This all reminds me of the life of Israel in Egypt as we are told of in Exodus. Pharaoh didn’t change much in that period of time. Abram’s going up from Egypt foreshadows Israel’s going up from Egypt many years and generations later.
For the most part, however, Abram wandered around the land of Canaan. He lived near a tree at Shechem. Later he moved along to Bethel near Ai. Then Egypt. Then we are told of Abram’s ‘great wealth.’ Back to Bethel and as chapter 13 rounds out, he has separated from Lot and moved near more trees, the trees of Mamre at Hebron. He would go to a place and, evidently, live there for a while, pitch a tent, acquire wealth, the move to a new place. It’s rather brilliant never staying in one place too long and giving your enemies a chance to wrestle from you your wealth.
So here’s where all this comes together for me. Everywhere Abram went he did what? Not only pitched his tents and fed his cattle and grew wealthy, but what? Look, it’s there; in verses 12:7, 12:8, 13:4, 13:8: He built an altar! Well this is certainly not a mere side note to the narrative. The author is telling us something. Not only did he plunder Egypt (12:10-20), but he was, in effect, conquering Canaan! You see every place he went he built an altar which was Abram’s way of conquering that land for the Lord. Abram was dotting the land with not so subtle reminders of YHWH’s presence.
That’s also where Luke chapter 11 comes into the picture: “ ‘When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder’” (11:21-22). As Jesus went through the land, that’s exactly what he did. He plucked off a demon possession here, healed a cripple there, raised a dead man in this place, healed a bleeding woman in that place. That’s what Jesus did every single time he went about preaching the kingdom: he was building little or giant altars to God in the midst of Canaan. He was continuing the conquering of the land that was begun in the life of Abraham and continued under Joshua and David; the Land that was lost in the exile; the land eventually taken over by the Romans.
Everywhere Abram went, he built an altar. Everywhere he went, he conquered a small piece of the land–driving out all the demons and claiming that place for the Lord. He was taking it back for the Lord. I am hard pressed to believe that our goals are any different now. We are sent out, in the power of the Spirit of God, and commissioned, empowered, to take back the land, which in this case is the people of God, a little at a time. Abram wasn’t taking back the land for himself: he was conquering for the Lord. That is, he didn’t build altars to Abram; he did build altars for the Lord. Every life that Jesus touched was another altar he built for the Lord.
I’m hard pressed to think that it is any different for us now. (See Romans 12:1-2)
As People Moved Eastward
Genesis 11, Luke 10
The first time we read of man moving ‘eastward’ it was in Genesis 3 and in direct relation to the curse which was a direct result of the sin. The eastward march continued with Cain who ‘went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden’ (4:16). Here, a few chapters later, and a significant narrative distance removed from the flood, man’s march continued, ‘As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.’
God drove Adam and Eve east, and seems to have done so with Cain. Here in chapter 11 it appears that man’s eastward march seems to be under his own power. And not only is man ‘moving’ eastward, but now he is ‘settling’ in the east; a place geographically ‘out of the Lord’s presence.’ I don’t see anything here that suggests God is behind man’s eastward pilgrimage. I guess it is fair and safe to conclude that perhaps man is simply starting to feel far more comfortable in the east, away from God’s presence, away from Eden.
I’ve often wondered if Adam ever sat outside the Garden of Eden staring at the flashing sword as it flashed back and forth and sighed with regret. I wonder if he ever tried an end-around or tried to out-flank the flashing sword and sneak back inside the Garden.
It’s that word ‘settled’ that has me rather unsettled. I think that is the author’s way of saying that the people made a permanent residence away from God. Thus, they start building a tower. I have had this Sunday school image in my head forever that they were trying to build a sort of stairway to heaven or maybe a stairway from heaven. Maybe they wanted to climb up or maybe they wanted God climb down. Then I got to thinking, dangerous I know, what if that tower were more like a watchtower built to keep watch and make sure God wasn’t coming? What if the tower wasn’t so much an attempt at salvation as it was an attempt to keep guard against God moving in or against God destroying them with another flood?
I know they wanted to make a name for themselves and not be scattered over the whole earth, but what does that mean to us? Maybe they were simply marshaling their forces and efforts and power against the prospect of God moving in and outflanking them?
Frankly that seems to make a lot better sense to me. They were moving east, settling east, building a watchtower, trying to make a name for themselves, and prevent scattering—these aren’t people who were building a tower to climb to heaven or bring God down, these are people doing everything they can do to war against God. Bricks and mortar suggest permanence and defense. They were building defenses. Against whom? I suggest at this point their enemy had become God. They were no longer running: they were fighting. They were fortifying, building defenses.
These are a people who had come to see God as the enemy. That is a long way from Eden.
But what is perhaps the worst part of this, at least as far as the English translations are concerned, is this: ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.’ Do I hear God saying that he, at least in a sense, feared what man could do when united together in such an effort? Well, of course a God who has the power to confuse language and accomplish the very thing man feared (‘scattering’, see vs 4 & 8 ) is not a God who fears man. Rather, it seems to me that what God is doing here is preventing this united, unified effort against himself. I suspect that this is actually a picture of grace at some level.
And no matter how far east they moved, no matter how impressive their fortifications against him, no matter how unified their efforts they cannot thwart God or hide from him. They cannot, as it were, win. Or, maybe we look at it this way: No matter how much they waged war against him, no matter how much they tried to defend themselves against him, he was still gracious enough to come down among them. He still cared about them. He still heard them. He still saw them. Instead of waging war against them, he demonstrated grace. He came down among them
Isn’t that like God?
It’s the same sort of picture we see of God in Luke 10 if we imagine ourselves to be the man in the ditch (as suggested by William Willimon). God climbs into the ditch and rescues us: “The one who had mercy on him” (Luke 10:37).
Or, Jesus in Luke 10 does this: He sends out seventy-two others to go out ahead of him and gather those who had been scattered. Tell them, he said, “The kingdom of God has come near you” (Luke 10:9). In Genesis 11, God came down. In Luke 10, the Kingdom was near. Isn’t it like God: The further we move away, the more he chases after us?
The further eastward we wander, the more defenses we build up against him, the more he chases after us. He pursues us. He comes down, destroys all that we build against him. He comes down, and breaks all united fronts. We can stand against him. Our best efforts against him are nothing. He laughs at our efforts against him because he is not the one sending us east any longer. Now he is gathering to himself. Now his kingdom has come near.
As people moved eastward, God went with them. They tried to run away, he was already there. That’s grace.
A Powerful Kingdom of Poverty
Genesis 10, Luke 9
I’m not a little behind on these, but I promise I have been doing the reading. I actually have notes for several days’ worth of writing. I’ve just been wiped out lately and unmotivated to write. Nevertheless, today I’m in the mood to write. Today mostly focuses on Luke 9.
I love that Jesus called his disciples together and ‘gave them power.’ But he didn’t give them power for the sake of giving them power. No, he gave them a vocation as well: Power was accompanied by authority to drive out demons. Ability and responsibility. Power is never an exclusive possession. Power is a gift given to be administered in service to those who lack power—in this case, those who didn’t know the Kingdom; those who were sick. Power and proclamation seem to go hand in hand, and here the power is given for both purposes.
Jesus sent them out with nothing but power and proclamation (1-6) and after they returned, it was these two that still remained (10-11). Jesus models for his disciples what he expects them to do and be to those who come to him.
Later (49-50) we learn that this power is not an exclusive power for a few close people. Jesus’ power is spread about for his purposes, and to accomplish his ends.
As the chapter moves on, we learn about the cost of following Jesus and this cost is not cheap. There is power, yes; and authority, yes; and responsibility, yes. But there is more, and the more doesn’t just come in verses 57-62. Underlying this chapter is the simple fact that Jesus is heading to Jerusalem (51) and even before that Jesus has said twice (I don’t like the term ‘predicts’) that he is going there to die (21-22 & 43-45). So the cost of following Jesus is no small investment. It will involve all our being. There are no shortcuts. As I looked at this chapter and saw how Jesus interacted with his disciples and the things he said, I became convinced that following Jesus is not for the faint of heart.
He is going to Jerusalem (51). We go forth with nothing but power and proclamation (1ff). There will be little rest (10-11). Ours is a cross life (23ff). There will be heights of glory that we misunderstand and misinterpret (28-36). We will fail (37-43). We will be rebuked (55). We will not be great (48). We will not be exclusive (50). We will travel through the land of opposition (53). We will be homeless, discipleship will be urgent, and there will be no time for anything else (57-62). Truly, being a disciple of Jesus is an effort, not something for those who are inclined to give in easily when the pressures of said discipleship start pressing in all around us.
In the midst of all this talk of discipleship is talk of crucifixion. I count three times if you include the talk in verse 31 about his ‘departure.’ It is interesting to me that so much of the Kingdom talk in this chapter is mingled with crucifixion talk. Another serious implication to our discipleship is that we are following a Jesus who was going to the cross, going to Jerusalem, who had ‘set his face like flint’ towards that place. Strangely enough, he warns us that if we continue following him through Samaritan territory and on to Jerusalem we too must ‘take up our cross daily’ and follow.
And this Kingdom talk is also all mixed up with talk about opposition and poverty and rejection. How can power be woven into a conversation about weakness? What kind of Kingdom is this that Jesus is building? What sort of kingdom does he expect ‘us’ to go out and proclaim? Does he really expect to win people over to this kingdom when all he talks about is crucifixion, rejection, opposition, homelessness, no bags, no staff, no bread, no coins, and no turning back? “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
I’m not a little afraid of this. Who can accept it? This is just not the sort of kingdom that most people are looking for today and yet we are supposed to, in some way, and with power and authority, proclaim it! How can we reconcile our concept of kingdom as power, wealth, influence and politics with Jesus’ idea that kingdom is poverty, opposition, hiddenness, shared-influence, crucifixion, poverty, loving enemies, carrying crosses, childlike humility and dependence? Jesus’ idea of kingdom is nothing like the one we have constructed and continue to construct.
Jesus told his disciples to preach the kingdom and care for the poor (sick). We have preached affluence and ignored the poor. Jesus said we are armed only with the word and healing. No sandals. No bags. No staffs. No nothing that might suggest power, influence, or self-sufficiency. In other words, we go out armed with nothing that will suggest the kingdom is of ourselves or our making or that it is anything other than what it is: A kingdom of the cross.
That is power!
He gave his disciples power and yet told them that power would not gain them a home, friends, position, immunity from trouble, exemption from the cross or anything else of that sort. Those who are given the power of Christ are still expected, and must necessarily, live the life of crucifixion. The power and authority give by Jesus to preach and heal is to build up the kingdom of God—not the kingdom of self.
“Taking up the cross is not a merely passive operation. It comes about as the church attempts, in the power of the Spirit, to be for the world what Jesus was for the world—announcing his kingdom, healing the wounds of the world, challenging the power structures that keep anger and pain in circulation. We need to pray that we will have the courage, as a church and a Christian persons, to follow the Servant King wherever he leads. That, after all, is why we come to his table. We have seen in our century what happens when people dream wild dreams of world domination, and use the normal methods of force and power to implement them. We have not yet seen what might happen if those who worship the Servant King, now enthroned as Lord of the world, were to take him seriously enough to take up our cross and follow him” (Following Jesus, NT Wright, 51)
Abounding Boundless Love
Genesis 9, Luke 8
If I am brave enough to do so, I will take Luke chapter 8 at face value. I realize that this might get me in trouble with some Christians who are more cutting-edge than I, but I’m willing to take that risk. At face value, Jesus talks about things that are not altogether great topics for discussions. I don’t happen to recall the last time I told a sermon about dirt. I haven’t spent any time at all talking with anyone about lamps. And just to be on the safe side, I have used zero of my life expectancy driving out demons, raising the dead, calming storms, or healing anyone of any kind of disease let alone a woman with a bleeding issue. But here’s Jesus, in Luke 8, attempting to win a crowd by talking about, of all things, dirt, seeds, and lamps.
After the initial teaching section of Luke 8, there are three stories tied together by one common theme: In them, Jesus did something that no one else could do. In the first story, he rebuked a storm that was threatening the small boat he was on with his disciples; his disciples couldn’t do that and were afraid. In the second story, he rebukes a man possessed by more than one demon and calms his mind; he had been bound with chains and guarded with guards which couldn’t calm him down. In the third story, he cured a woman who had suffered for twelve years with a blood issue; no doctors had been able to heal her. The third story contains also the story of a dead girl whom Jesus raised; since she was dead, I assume no one else had the ability to do that either.
Jesus overcomes all sorts of obstacles and manifestations of devilry and restores people, humans who were suffering in one way or another. We readers see clearly the point of these stories: Jesus’ power goes out and trumps the power of evil and destruction. Jesus walks right into the territory of the enemy and takes it back for himself. He rebukes the storm. Well, who ‘rebukes’ a storm? That’s the point. The storm came upon them while they were on the sea, the abyss, the place of ultimate chaos and devilry. Jesus rebukes and takes it back for himself.
He does the same thing with the man named Legion. Jesus walks right into the place of the dead (the man had been confined to the ‘tombs’, v 27). Jesus doesn’t fear the darkness of the tombs. He doesn’t fear the place marked by a raving lunatic who, possessed as he was, couldn’t be kept bound even in chains or by an armed (?) guard. Jesus takes back this man for himself; steals him from the demons that held him in a captivity worse than the chains he so easily broke.
And the woman with the blood issue? Well, Jesus rescues her too, doesn’t he? He takes this woman who was necessarily and outcast (because of her blood issue) and restores her to the community. Mark says of this story, “Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering” (5:29). He takes this woman and reclaims her for himself, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.” He calls her daughter because she too is a child of Abraham.
Finally, the little girl who was held in the bonds of death. It’s rather easy to see how he sets her free is it not? He says, “My child, get up!” She too belongs to Jesus. Death, in other words, has no claim on this little one. Death cannot hold in bondage that which Jesus sets free. Jesus called her back, or woke her up, to himself. She is his. Death is made impotent. Death is defeated.
The abyss is now the sea. Legion is now a man again. That bleeding woman is now daughter. The dead girl is now alive.
He calms a storm and the faithless are astonished. He rebukes a herd of demons and the town-folk are terrified. He heals a bleeding woman and the disciples question him. He raises a dead child and everyone laughs at him.
The sea is calm and obeys Jesus. The man formerly known as Legion is sitting at the feet of Jesus in his right mind. The formerly bleeding woman has fallen at his feet cleansed and healed. The little girl, once lying flat and dead, stands up at his command. Who is this indeed?
The raging sea rebuked listens to Jesus. Legion running wild in the tombs falls at the feet of Jesus and begs for mercy. The woman with the blood issue knows that Jesus is talking about her and comes to him trembling. And the dead child, dead as she was, still hears the voice of Jesus and obeys his command. “Who is this that the wind and waves obey?” they asked. Who is this that the dead hear his voice and wake up!
Jesus is not afraid of the fringe elements of society. He’s not afraid of men who may as well be dead if their place of residence means anything (v 27); he’s not afraid of storms and, perhaps, is a little upset that he had to be awakened from a nap to deal with it (more an inconvenience than anything); he’s not afraid of a social outcast; he’s not afraid of dead body. These things have no power over him. He’s not afraid of the faithless (8:25), or legions, or unclean, or the dead. Not Jesus. It seems he does his best work out on the margins, on the fringes, among the weak and powerless and faithless.
Storms cannot overpower him. Demons cannot disobey him. The unclean cannot ‘infect’ him. And the dead cannot defile him. He is Jesus: Master of storms and Lord of the faithless. He is Jesus: Compassionate enough to ask the man his name before he drives out the demons. He is Jesus: Powerful enough to heal even when he is not trying to. He is Jesus: Strong enough to reverse death.
Jesus’ love knew no bounds. He saved his faithless friends. He cared more for one man than he did for a whole herd of pigs. He did not rebuke the smoldering wick of a woman who had suffered for twelve years. And he gave a young child back to her parents so great was his love. I see in these stories more than a man or a God with great power and will. I see in these stories a man and a God with such great love and compassion that it knows no bounds. He will let nothing stand in the way of taking back what is His from the one to whom it does not belong.
No, nothing stands in his way. So great is his love and compassion, that he will go anywhere, with anyone, to rescue anyone from any problem. Jesus proves his power to undo any evil and any bondage caused by evil. More, Jesus demonstrates the reason why he does so: He loves.
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God Remembers Us
Genesis 8, Proverbs 2
In my estimation, those three words are some of the most important words in the Bible. “God remembered Noah.” Not only are they some of the most important words in the Bible, but they are some of the most beautiful.
I don’t happen to think there is anything profoundly theological about those words. They are just words that describe a thinking God. God remembered Noah. That is to say, He didn’t forget him.
Floating around in the ark, I suppose it would have been easy enough for Noah to think that God had not remembered. All that water, swelling up around on every side, all those animals, all that time. I think sometimes there are long periods of time in between the times when God makes an ‘appearance.’ I suppose, too, that it would be only logical for Noah to assume that perhaps God had forgotten him.
God remembered Noah, and all the wild animals, the livestock—everything; He remembered.
I love that God remembers. It gives me great comfort and encouragement to know that God is thinking of me, thinking of you. Not only did he remember Noah (and the animals), but I think he remembered something else too. Genesis 3:15: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers’ he will crush your head, and you will strike his heal.” This is what God remembered: he remembered that he had promised with his own mouth to utterly undo evil, to utterly destroy enmity, to utterly wipe out all that prevents ‘Emmanuel’, all that prevents such victory.
‘God remembered Noah,’ which is the author’s way of saying God remember his prophecy of Genesis 3:15.
God loves his creation. He is faithful, Paul said, even though we are not (2 Thessalonians 3:3). Genesis 8 is a re-envisioning of Genesis 1. Noah’s story is, to an extent, Adam’s story. What God began in Adam, what Adam ruined, God restarts in Noah. The earth is wiped clean. Just as ‘streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground’ (2:6) so too did they with Noah (7:11-12).
God remembered Noah, but let’s be honest, God doesn’t just remember the parts we would like him to remember. So before the flood, God noticed that that ‘every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time’ (6:5, 11-12). After the flood, I noticed that not much had changed, ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of human beings, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood’ (8:21). In other words, not much had changed: God remembered. God remembered Noah and God remembered man’s inclination and proclivity towards sin and degradation.
But there is another verse that intrigues me. It’s verse 22: “As long as the earth endures, seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”
Man didn’t change, but neither did God.
And the beauty of chapter 8 is that it is a chapter about grace. It is logical to assume that God has no responsibility or obligation to remember those who never change. Yet God, in his grace, chooses to remember us in spite of the fact that we don’t change. Verse 22 is God’s declaration of his manner of dealing with humanity: It’s called grace. Even though he knows man is a rebel, still the world will be filled with his grace and operate according to the principle of his grace.
That the God of the universe is ‘small’ enough to remember us is simply astonishing. That he even remembers the animals is astonishing more. All I’m saying is this, just ponder it for a minute: God does not forget you. “But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me.” (Isaiah 49:14-16)
‘God remembered Noah,’ which is the Scripture’s way of saying God is faithful to his promise. ‘God remembered Noah,’ which is Scripture’s way of saying God is not at all like us.
Asleep in Anxiety
Genesis 7, Psalm 3-4
There are wounded people all around the world. There are people whose lives are under constant threat from enemies. There are people whose lives are under constant strain of economic instability. There are people whose lives are marked by constant floods and the daily concern of what to eat and drink.
Enter Psalms 3-4. “Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me? Many are saying of me, ‘God will not deliver him.’” We are entering the prayer of someone whose life is in serious danger. This is a person who says ‘tens of thousands assail [me] on every side’ (6). (Well, he says he will not ‘fear’ them, but even if its merely hyperbole, the point is the same: This is a person in serious trouble from other humans.) The story of Absalom’s rebellion against David is a terrible tragedy and David must have truly felt that the world was against him.
Still David can say, “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.”
As the reader of the Psalms, or the prayer of the Psalter, moves into Psalm 4 he is confronted with a similar situation. Here is someone calling out to God because he is in trouble again. “Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.” I suspect that during much of the day such prayers are going up before God and I have no doubts that he hears all these cries of the oppressed. It could be that this Psalm speaks very poignantly to our current situation in America: “Many, Lord, are asking, ‘Who will bring us prosperity?’”
Again, the Psalmist writes, “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”
I’m confused. I thought, and I could be wrong, that we smart people were supposed to stay awake all night long and worry about the turmoil in our lives? You know, like when the world (‘tens of thousands’) are rising up against us; or when the economy (‘grain and new wine’) is faltering. I thought we were supposed to struggle through these things, fill ourselves up with all sorts of anxiety and fear and turmoil and stress and allow these things to slowly dismantle us from the inside to the outside. I don’t remember anywhere being told that we should, let alone can, sleep during times of discomfort and distress.
Kind of makes me wonder if Noah ever had any sleepless nights, full of restless anxiety, while he was on the ark full of animals, his children, and his wife. Nah.
Asleep in anxiety? Can it be? At some point the Psalmist realized that he was in so deep, surrounded by so many, undone by so many struggling economic issues that if God would not rescue him or could not rescue him then he was hopeless. I think it takes just enough faith to allow us to sleep well. You might say there is a fine line between faith and fatalism. Still, it seems to me that when we don’t sleep well in the midst of all such turmoil it is likely because we are not trusting in God who is able to rescue us. (See Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel’s Gospel.)
Is it naïve of me to think that rest can come so easily? I don’t know. In Psalm 3, David is confident that the Lord will answer his prayers (v 4). In Psalm 4, David is not so confident (v 1-2). David sleeps either way. It seems to me then that there is a sort of faith that is even greater than the mere expectation of an answered prayer. That is, David puts his faith and hope and confidence in the God who hears prayers (4:3), not in the answers (either with thunder or silence) to the prayers.
It seems to me that there is a peace that transcends the circumstance and confounds the flesh. David continues to pray. Sometimes he hears the voice of God shake the world from ‘his holy mountain’ (3:4) Sometimes David has to keep beating on the doors and pleading for God to hear him while he is being humiliated and embarrassed (4:2). Still, David sleeps; rests.
I wish I had that sort of faith. I wish I had the sort of faith that could sleep well regardless of whether or not God answers the prayers. I wish I had the sort of faith that is more confident in God than in my ability to rattle the heavens with words and petitions. I wish I had the sort of faith that could sleep through a storm, or a flood, or an economic downturn.
These Psalms really challenge our ideas of confidence.
Murdering the Image of God
Genesis 4, Luke 5
Today’s reading takes us back to Genesis again. The book is full of surprises for the interested reader who will pay attention. We’ve learned the glories of creation, the goodness, the majesty of the God who creates, the grace of the God who created us to be in fellowship with Him. We learn of sin. It didn’t take long for sin to take over what God had given to us. Chapter 4 is full of sin; full of murder. By the end of chapter 4, the narrative has run-a-muck. By the end of chapter 4, murder has become the human way of getting things done.
We humans are terrifically good at inventing ways of murdering. There is no one humans won’t kill if given the chance. Old people are targets. The unborn are targets. Poor people are good candidates. The rich are equal opportunities. Humans are also good at finding reasons for murder. In Genesis four, it was jealousy (Cain) or revenge (Lamech), but it doesn’t matter. Murder is murder. Humans find ways to do it, create excuses for doing it, and in some cases stop at nothing to be a part of it.
Murder was on the minds of those humans. Murder became justifiable early. Murder became a subject to sing about and the plot to early poetry (Lamech). Murder became the defining characteristic of the culture at an early stage of human existence. It only gets worse as the rest of the narrative unfolds. Soon single acts of murder against individuals (Cain & Lamech) become full-blown, government funded, and justified, genocides. We call them wars and we are fond of finding reasons for justifying them. We sill inhabit a culture of murder.
The chapter opens and closes with Adam and Eve working hard to fulfill their God given purpose of being fruitful and multiplying (4:1 & 25). But in-between these two attempts to perpetuate the image of God on earth, there is murder, and these are just the murders we are told about by the author. This murder is the enemy’s attempt to ‘strike the heal’ of the seed of the woman, to snuff out God’s prophecy, to rid the world of the Image of God. This is what Jesus said, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding on to the truth” (John 8:44). The desire of the murderer is to destroy the image of God, to wipe the earth clean of the knowledge of God. He does this by killing those who bear the image.
I also noted that Cain moved further east. This eastward march is further and further away from the presence of God, further and further away from the knowledge of God, which means further and further away from humanity looking anything like the God in whose image they were created. You see, it is hard to look like that which you do not know and it is hard to know that which you are not around or with or in the presence of. As man moves east, in other words, he looks less and less like God.
I think this is the goal of the enemy, still. He uses whatever means and measures are at his disposal to rid the earth of the image of God: War, violence, destruction, murder, chaos—euthanasia, abortion, suicide. He doesn’t care. He is a murderer, and as we moved away from the presence of God—east—we began to project a new image: that of a murderer, that of the enemy.
But there’s verse 25 of chapter 4. “Adam again knew his wife and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth, saying, ‘God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.’” Seth becomes the son through whom the lineage of Adam is traced and perpetuated (5:3-8). Interestingly, 5:3, reads, “When Adam lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth.” This echoes 1:26-27 and 5:1-2 and this is the only son of Adam of whom this is said. My point is simply that the image of God was perpetuated through Seth. The murderer thought he had solved the problem of the Seed of the Woman who would crush his head and perpetuate God’s image on earth: Kill one brother, banish the other. Problem solved. But God had other plans, “God has granted me another child in place of Abel.” In other words: In His grace, God’s promise stands true: The Seed of the Woman is still alive.
The murderer did not remove hope. God’s promise holds true: The enemy’s head will still be crushed. In his grace, God provided another son.
Try as the enemy might, he cannot thwart the purposes and promises of God. Verse 25 is a declaration of Life and grace; it is a picture of resurrection. Abel, in a sense, was resurrected in Seth. The Seed was preserved. The enemy was thwarted. God’s purposes remain. In his grace, God has provided another Son.
Jesus, Kingdoms, and the Spirit
Genesis 3, Luke 4
In my daily reading today, I found myself reflecting on the previous 3 chapters of Luke’s Gospel as I read the fourth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. As I did, I remembered a significant feature that begins each chapter. It goes something like this.
In chapter 1 (excluding for my purposes Luke’s prologue in verses 1-4), we read this: “In the time of Herod, king of Judea…” Sounds innocent enough, I suppose.
Then chapter 2 begins this way, “In those days Caesar Augustus issue a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” OK. The ‘entire Roman world’ was fairly large, I suppose; larger anyhow than Judea.
Then chapter 3, also begins this way, “In the fifteen year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galille, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitus, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” OK. The reigns of kings is spreading out to cover, or double-cover, any area that might have been missed by Caesar who ruled the only ‘entire world’ that mattered at the time, ‘the entire Roman world.’ These kings are proliferating, expanding, conquering, dominating.
Then chapter 4 begins. There I am struck by something I haven’t seen yet in Luke’s Gospel: “Jesus.”
The other chapters began with the rule of men; kings of the earth; kingdoms of power, wealth, intrigue and ambition. But chapter 4 is different: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, let the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.” Then, this tidbit: “The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And said to him, ‘I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.’”
Wait a bloomin’ minute! I thought that Herod, Caesar, Pilate, Philip, Annas and Caiaphas and others ruled the entire Roman world?! Well, it sort of begs the question, doesn’t it?: Who gave the devil these kingdoms with all their glory and splendor? And, what did these ones Luke mentions in chapters 1-3 do to acquire the kingdoms that the devil states he owns and has a right to share? At best we see here that these rulers mentioned in chapters 1-3 are in collusion with the devil, at worst they are puppets manipulated to serve only his ends. Did they have to bow down and worship him? Is that how the kings of the earth gain their power; do they too have to worship the devil in exchange for the power they possess?
So along comes Jesus and he, strange sort of kingdom builder he is, rejects the devil’s offer. And, in fact, Jesus starts going around ‘in the Spirit’ (4:1, 4:14, 4:18) and begins undoing all the work that the devil had perpetrated in the kingdom he owned. Jesus goes to his hometown and is rejected because he dared preach the Scripture and hinted that Gentiles might just be as important as Jews. Then he goes to one of their ‘church’ services and drives the devil out of its midst. Then he goes and starts releasing people from all sorts of bondage to physical ailments and diseases. It is easy to get the impression that Jesus, who goes around ‘proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God…’ is invading enemy territory, will not use the same tactics that the enemy uses to raise his kingdom, and is setting people free from his slavery. Jesus is binding the Strongman and raiding his house. I think he still is!
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord.” (Zechariah 4:6)
Jesus is, well, strange. He refuses to manipulate people through their stomachs (4:4; he’d rather they followed him hungry than to be fed); he refuses to rule people through an alliance with evil (4:8; he’d rather not have them than to acquire them this way); and he refuses to guard his rule, and thus exalt himself, through a corruption of God’s promises (4:12; he’d rather fall to his death than to manipulate God for his own ends). But this isn’t how to get things done in this world. In this world it is the Herods, Caesars, Pilates, and Caiaphas’ who get things done—regardless of what it takes to see that happen. (See, The Jesus Way, by Eugene Peterson)
Jesus was going to rule another way. Jesus was going to conquer another way.
“And he kept on preaching the synagogues of Judea” (v 44). Strange. What sort of Kingdom is this? It is probably not ironic, then, that as Jesus begins to undo the devil’s work, the devil’s kingdom, he doesn’t start in the imperial courts of Caesar or the castle of Herod or the palace of Pilate. No. Luke four tells us that when Jesus began to undo the devil’s kingdom, he started in the synagogue (4:15, 16, 20, 28, 33, 38, & 44).
Rivers & Marriage
Genesis 2, Luke 3
I’d like to continue my thoughts from yesterday by focusing on the reading from Genesis. I think too much anxiety exists in the world, in the church, about the purpose of the book of Genesis. It’s easy to do that. I have learned to be patient when trying to understand the book; even more patient when trying to discuss it. I have had to in the past avoid discussions of the book because I don’t like arguing about it. Genesis is a beautiful book; the first two chapters are grand.
Notice a couple of features in chapter 2. The first feature I notice is the water. If light played an important role in chapter 1, water plays an important role in chapter 2. It’s kind of strange, I suppose, that of all the things God could have inspired the author to tell us about he chose to inspire him to write about the river that flowed in Eden and the rivers that flowed out of it into the lands beyond Eden. So important was this feature that he names the rivers. This locates the rivers in geography. Gives those who knew them an idea of their significance: they are named in Scripture!
I don’t want to make more of these rivers than is necessary, but I notice that one unnamed river flowed out of Eden and then split into 4 other named rivers that spread throughout the lands outside of Eden. Eden was the place where there was fellowship and grace and provision and life. Eden was the place we are told that God walked with man and man walked with God. Out of Eden this one unnamed river flowed and provided the water for four other rivers. We are not told where this river had its source, just that it flowed out of Eden.
I picture this as God’s provide-ance. It is a picture of the God whose grace is so expansive that he sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike. This one unnamed river that watered Eden also watered other parts of the creation too. There is another time when we are told about a name-less river that flows and provides grace and healing and life. It is in Revelation 22: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the lamb down the middle of the great street of the city.” He talks about the trees, as did the author of Genesis; he talks about the removal of the curse, the curse we learn about in Genesis. Once again a river of God’s grace flows, but now its source is named: The throne of God and the Lamb! Then, a garden; now, a city: both supplied by the gracious river of God’s life. I suspect that as he is the source in Revelation, so also is he the source in Eden.
There’s another image in Genesis 2 also that stirs me to wonder. It’s the picture of a marriage between a man and a woman. It is amazing that of all the things God could have decided to tell us about the beginning that one of the things, besides rivers, was marriage. To be sure, it’s a marriage unlike any we might imagine. No clergy. No legal documents. No Blood tests. No bridesmaids. No mothers. No controversy. Just a man and a woman, united in one act of physical unity; one flesh. Times were much simpler then, I suppose.
I’ve always found it odd that God created man and then decided that something was ‘not good’ after 5 straight days of ‘good.’ It was ‘not good’ for man to be alone. Man had the fullness of fellowship and communion with God and yet man was ‘alone.’ The presence of God did not satisfy man. The presence of animals did not satisfy man. Man by himself did not satisfy man. So God creates someone who would fill the glaring void in man’s life: He gives him his wife. Man thus understands her importance: She satisfies a need in man that God, by his own admission, could not.
Our history begins with a marriage—a beautiful consummation of love and life and flesh and the destruction of alone-ness. But it also ‘ends’ there too. Again, I go to the Revelation, chapter 19:7: “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” In the beginning, the marriage was given as a ‘cure’, as it were, to heal our alone-ness; to give us completion; to perfect the image of God on the earth. I suspect the point is no different at the end.
Both images, the River and the Marriage, show us that we are dependent beings. We are dependent upon God’s provision of grace, life, and companionship. We are dependent upon one another in order to complete the purposes for which we were created: To be fruitful, to multiply, to bear the image of God.
It’s beautiful to know that ultimately both of these images, the River (grace) and the Marriage, will be satisfied fully (perfected) in Jesus Christ.
God’s Image and True Humanity
Proverbs 1, Genesis 1
I love the book of Genesis. It is first, foundational. It is where our faith story begins. It introduces us to God and God’s intentions. I think it is not surprising at all that the history of human redemption begins in the book of Genesis.
In all likelihood, I have missed the greater importance of the first chapter of Genesis in the past because I have minimized its import to the faith story. Don’t get me wrong: I still believe that much hinges on whether or not Genesis 1 is true, that is, on whether or not God actually created the heavens and the earth in all their vast array.
In recent days, however, I have started to look at Genesis deeper. I have written elsewhere that we probably miss a great deal of the importance of chapter 1 when we miss that we were created to live in relationship with God. He created us for fellowship. He created us to live with him, for him, and dependent upon him. Learning to live this way all over again, in Jesus, is a major aspect of our faith journey.
But we also learn about much about the God who created. We learn that in the beginning God created all things good. I take this to mean, since I’m reading English and not Hebrew, that he made all things perfect, incorruptible, and exactly the way they were meant to be. They lacked nothing. They were created in the fullness of a complete God. God didn’t create an incomplete or imperfect world.
We also learn that God created variety. I don’t happen to think that God is satisfied with a monotone, monochromatic world. He created trees and plants and animals in all sorts of variety. This is not a dull God. This is a God who will eventually draw unto himself people from every tribe, and tongue, and nation, under heaven.
We learn that God created order. This has been brought up by others so I won’t belabor the point here except to say: The world apart from God was chaos. It was madness. There are many forces in the world (sin, evil) that seek to return God’s created order back to a nonsensical chaos. God brought into being a world of peace that could be inhabited by creatures bearing his image.
There’s one other aspect I’d like to note about this creation account, the creation of light. Again, I’m reading English and not Hebrew, but if the English is anything close to the Hebrew then ‘light’ is mentioned 13 times. Interestingly enough, we first learn about the earth as a place of darkness, formless and empty. So the first thing that happens is God creates light. Presumably God did not need light to see. I assume he could ‘see’ even when the earth was cluttered with darkness and formlessness. So why did God create light? Well I think he created light so that we could see. God wanted us to be able to see all the good that he had created, what was impossible to see so long as the earth was shrouded in darkness. We need light to see.
In the light we are able to see the creation as God created it to be: Good, perfect, complete. It’s probably not ironic then that when the Gospel writers tell us of the death of Jesus they tell us that darkness covered the land for 3 hours (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33). The crucifixion of Jesus returned humanity, for a time, back to the pre-creation days when chaos and darkness covered the land; the world without Christ is chaos. Resurrection Sunday is like the dawn of a new day; morning when light breaks out all over again.
In the light we can also see that we have been made in his image. This is no small thing. We are made in his image and then we are charged with the responsibility of doing god-like work: Subduing the earth, ruling the creation, continuing the creation process by ‘being fruitful and multiplying,’ that is, filling the earth with more and more and more of God’s image bearers. We are his image, we are to perpetuate His image in this creation.
I think Jesus came to restore that purpose in us. Granted, it is far more complicated than just that. But part of the loss of innocence, so to speak, was a loss of purpose. God had instilled in us that purpose at the beginning: Bear His image, be fruitful, multiply. We lost that in sin. When Jesus dealt with sin, he restored our purpose: once again, we can be image bearers of God, we can fruitful, we can multiply. Isn’t this exactly what Jesus told us to do: “Go into the world, make disciples of all nations…and surely I am with you always.” This sounds just like the creation mandate: ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ becomes make disciples’; ‘bear my image’ becomes ‘I am with you always.’
Part of making disciples is restoring to them purpose and image. This is the work of the Gospel. “But you are a people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who call you out of darkness and into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9) In other words, we are truly human inviting others to fulfill their created purpose in Christ.
God’s Extravagant & Reckless Grace
Daily Reading: Jonah 3-4, Psalm 1-2
We have been talking a lot lately (at http://www.christianresearchnetwork.info) about God’s salvation. I think, perhaps, we might have been inadvertently, or not, talking about the extent of God’s grace. Grace is a subject we do not speak of highly enough or often enough or with enough humility. I wonder if we don’t sometimes shrink God’s grace because we are so disturbed by those to whom God demonstrates his grace?
I think Jonah’s problem is one of not fully understanding God’s grace. Then I read this:
The central promise to their father of their faith, Abraham, was that God would bless his people so that they would bless the world. It is always about wealth, health, possessions, and influence being used to bless others. But the disciples’ interest isn’t in the ends of the earth. They’re interested in regaining the kingdom of comfort they once had. They long for the blessing of God for themselves. Deep in their bones is the belief that they are God’s favorites. For them, blessing is about favoritism. We are chosen and elect and favorite; therefore we deserve certain securities and benefits…They’re still trapped in the entitlement of the old covenant religion. (Bell & Golden Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 110)
Or maybe he didn’t fully understand who God had called him to be. Or maybe he didn’t fully understand who God was.
This is the question that is asked at the very end of Jonah 4, by God, of Jonah who is at least a fair representative of Israel as a whole, is: “You have been concerned about this gourd, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Ninevah, in which there are more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and many animals also?”
God is asking Jonah, “How much grace do you think it is fair for me to dispense to the world that I have created?”
I have always been amazed that the book of Jonah has no ending. In a sense, the book of Jonah is appropriately named: It is about Jonah. It is far more about Jonah than it is about Ninevah. Then, it is far more about God than it is about Jonah. Still, God wants Jonah to answer the question about how far his grace should extend; he is asking us too.
We have our ‘own’ book of Jonah in the New Testament. It’s called Luke chapter 15. As far as words go, Jonah is not much longer than Luke. As far as intent is concerned, both have the same general idea. As far as literature is concerned, Jonah has no ending; neither does Luke 15. “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” We are left with the impression that the older brother is still on the outside of the house, refusing to go into the party. Just like Jonah.
Jonah and the older brother were left sitting on the outside, refusing to join the party. They were people who believed they were favorites because they did everything right and they could not understand this God, this Father, whose grace was big enough to welcome home those who repented. He is rather amazing, isn’t he? I wonder they were trapped in the entitlement mindset that Bell and Golden speak of? That is: “We have done all things right. We have not strayed. How dare God welcome with rejoicing those rebels. Don’t we deserve something better?”
“Or are you jealous that I am so generous? Don’t I have a right to do with my grace what I want?”
Father in heaven, have mercy on us; sinners all. Lord, forgive me because I have been less than generous, I have lived like I’m entitled. I have more often lived as if I don’t have to rejoice—as if you have sanctioned my anger just because I call it ‘righteous indignation.’ I have more often lived with anger at those you choose to save—especially those that I think you should not save. Remind me Lord that you care more about the world than I do. Remind me that it is OK for you to be gracious to whom you will and that it is OK for me to rejoice when you are.