Posts Tagged ‘Rob Bell’

Jesus Wants to Save Christians
Chapter 3, David’s Other Son

“One thinks of the prophets of Israel, of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, all of them. They were par excellence the putters of words to things, and the words they put are so thunderous with rage and exultation, with terrible denunciations and terrible promises, that if you are not careful, they drown out everything else there is in the Old Testament and in the prophets themselves. At the level of their words, it is not truth they are telling but particular truths. They are telling about the nations and naming names, telling about Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Persia, and, above all, about Israel as a nation, and the truth they are telling until the veins stand out on their necks and their voices grow hoarse is the truth that by playing power politics Israel is not only bringing about her own destruction as a nation but is acting against her holy destiny, which is to be not a nation among nations but a nation of priests, whose calling it is to be a light to the world. -Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, 17-18

“It is important to read Jesus’s parable of the lost son in the context of the whole of Luke, chapter 15, but the story has an even larger context. If we read the narrative in light of the Bible’s sweeping theme of exile and homecoming we will understand that Jesus has given us more than a moving account of individual redemption. He has retold the story of the whole human race, and promised nothing less than for the world.”-Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God, 90

In my estimation, this is the best chapter in the book. I mean that sincerely. The authors bring us into the story in the earlier chapters, but in this chapter they focus our attention on a single point within that history. All eyes are turned towards the powerful, the Solomon son of David, the power-brokers like Rome and her Caesars. The prophets kept pointing and looking and searching–and they were not pointing to the powerful, the wealthy or the influential except to say ‘look at what won’t work.’ No, they pointed to God and said, ‘Behold God!’ Then one night, there in the midst of a dark and frightful place, all the light in the universe converged on a single human being: Jesus, the son of David.

And this chapter sets about the problem of understanding what it really means to be a, the, son of David. They also point us in only one direction for it seems to me that the authors have taken this approach: there is only one true son of David. So over the course of 16 choppily written pages, the authors of the book scatter that Name 61 times. You may think I am merely making a rather pedantic observation that proves absolutely nothing. What can mere word counting prove or accomplish? Maybe you are right. My point is, however, that usually when an artist wants you to see something in a painting, something rather particular, she draws her picture in such a way that the perspective is drawn towards only one point. For example, the Last Supper by Da Vinci. All the perspective is focused on Jesus. Or a musician who writes a symphony will add in a refrain and come back to the refrain at various times throughout the piece.

That’s what Bell and Golden did in chapter 3: they brought our attention back to Jesus over and over again. As I read through the chapter, I kept seeing the name Jesus, over and over and over again. These men want me thinking about something…someone…in particular. They are drawing the perspective in such a way that I can neither see nor think of anyone else but Jesus. In other words, David’s other son can only be one person: Jesus. And they did so masterfully. For people who are routinely accused of being un-orthodox or anti-christian, or heretics, or whatever other label you may have heard–they sure do spend an awful large amount of energy to work their narrative and understanding of Scripture and history around Jesus of Nazareth.

It’s almost, dare I say, as if they were constrained to do so. It’s almost as if these god-haters read the Bible and see that there is only one possible outcome to the story. It’s almost as if they can could do nothing but write the name of Jesus over and over and over again in this chapter. Almost? These are men who have read the Scripture and they know where Scripture leads and the story it tells. Of course they were constrained! Of course there was nothing else they could write! Of course the only possible outcome of this story is Jesus. Of course.

Now I’d like to make a couple of pointed observations about the chapter that I found either heartening or troubling. I’ll keep these brief so as not to give away too much or overwhelm you with minutia.

First, one reason why this book resonates with me is due to the authors’, in my estimation, proper understanding of Israel as a kingdom of priests. I know there are all sorts of ways to understand and misunderstand the role of Israel in redemptive history. I doubt seriously any of us will ever fully exhaust the literature or debate. But in my judgment, I think many theologians have overplayed the ‘Israel’ card much to the detriment of Israel. Jesus, yes, was ‘sent to the Jews’ first, but I don’t this was ever meant to mean that he was sent to the Jews only. In fact, when Matthew tells us of Jesus’ beginnings, he quotes from Isaiah’s prophecy and said that Jesus fulfilled it. What does he quote? A passage about Gentiles! (Matthew 4:12-16). So Bell and Golden note, “Jesus hears everyone’s cry, even the cry of the Canaanites” (79). Or, another way, “Not just Jewish exile but human exile […] So if all creation is in a sort of exile, east of Eden, estranged from its maker, far from home, what’s the penalty for that?'” (88, 89). This also comports with the quote from Kellar above.

I guess I sort of grow weary of the typical John Hagee approaches to Israel. Bell and Golden rightly view Israel as priests, a son of God (‘out of Egypt I called my son’), who were meant to fulfill an important, redemptive role, but failed. “The prophets had declared that someone would come who would be willing to pay that price, the price for all of creation breaking covenant with God. And if that price was paid, that would change everything” (89). Indeed. And they say that it was Jesus who was Israel, the son of David, the Adam who didn’t fail, the Suffering Servant, the new Moses. Jesus and only Jesus. That’s a rather important and exclusive thing to say because if it was Jesus it cannot be anyone else; there can be no other way.

Second, a complaint. On pages 83-84, the authors bring up an important point: “The writers [prophets] want to make it very clear that this new son of David isn’t just leading a new exodus for a specific group of people; he’s bringing liberation for everybody everywhere and ultimately for everything everywhere for all time” (83). The problem here is that this language is a wee bit fuzzy. I’m fully on board with the former statement (‘…not just a specific group of people…’), but that latter part of the statement is a bit fuzzy and unclear and unrefined (and to an extent, undefined). Jesus did, indeed, promise that he will ‘draw all people’ to himself (83) and I think Bell and Golden are right to emphasize the ‘all’ of this, but here I think they can easily be accused of espousing a non-exclusive version of redemption (not a Calvinistic sort of limited atonement, but an atonement that makes no demands on those who are saved). “The ‘whole world,’ ‘all nations,’ ‘all people,’ ‘all things’ are the biggest, widest, deepest, most inclusive terms the human mind can fathom. And they were on the lips of Jesus, who is describing himself” (84). I think this statement is far too vague and indeed I didn’t think they spent enough time or space unpacking what they mean by this. They step to the edge, but never walk over it. Maybe it was intentional.

I really don’t want this to relapse into a discussion concerning universalism. They are clear, I think, that Jesus is the way (81). They are unclear on who will follow that way and exactly what ‘Jesus is the way’ means. I’m not saying they don’t clear it up later, but I am saying that this is an easy place for someone who is nit-picking to do just that: nit-pick. Here I think the language should be clarified or they are open to the very charge they probably don’t want to be labeled with. I’m not saying they are universalists. I am saying that they open themselves up to the possibility of being accused as such. (In my judgment.)

Third, the authors are wholly dependent upon Scripture to make their case. They rely on the prophets. They rely on Moses. They rely on the Gospels. In fact, the last 8 pages are an exposition of sorts on Luke 24. The best sentence in the chapter highlights the importance they place on Scripture: “In a couple of hours, using nothing but the Hebrew Scriptures, this man converted all of their despair to hope and a vision of the new future” (90). They are pointing out what Jesus saw as the real problem: “In Jesus’ day, people could read, study, and discuss the Scriptures their entire lives and still miss its central message” (90). This is their point: By taking those two disciples on the road to Emmaus back through the Scripture (Law, Psalms and Prophets) Jesus was saying, ‘Look, I was there all along. God had already told you what to look for and you missed it.’

The authors are warning us, as preachers should, not to miss Jesus. It is far too easy and far too often that people miss the greater point. We get so consumed by systems and ideas and proof and (being) right (thinking we know when really we do not) that we miss the point of Scripture which is, surely, Jesus. We want to carry around Scripture like a sword in our hand instead of as sword in our mouth which it really is. In doing so, we miss the point; we don’t hear the refrain; we get caught up in a detail and miss the perspective, the focal-point. This, it seems to me, is their warning: We cannot afford to miss Jesus. And if those who walked with him did, how much more easily will we if we are not cautious? “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27; see also, Luke 24:44). 16 pages. 61 times. And if you have read the book and noticed the style of writing and sentence structure then you know that this is a much greater ratio of words to words than it is words to pages. Don’t miss Jesus. (See page 91.)

There are some other things that are important about the chapter, but these sort of stood out to me. Other points that could be discussed are: their use of exclusive terminology (81), the importance of the suffering servant (87), their discussion of exile (89), the importance of non-violence (88), and the crusher of serpent’s heads (90).

The Scripture presents to us the history of humanity. A pretty picture it is not. It is a tragedy. According the Buechner, “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy” (Telling the Truth, 7). But it doesn’t end there: “But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy” (Telling the Truth, 7)

But if we miss Jesus, the world will never know that. Bell and Golden’s point is that if we miss Jesus how in the world will anyone else get him? David’s other son is, and can only be, Jesus. This is the Jesus who crushes the head of the serpent, this is the Jesus who suffers, this is the Jesus who leads us out of exile, this is the Jesus who instead of resisting violence absorbs it, this is the Jesus whom Scripture speaks of in exclusive terms. This is the Jesus of bad news and good news. “In Jesus’ day, people could read, study, and discuss the Scriptures their entire lives and still miss its central message. In Jesus’ day, people could follow him, learn from him, drop everything to be his disciples, and yet find themselves returning home, thinking Jesus had failed” (90)

Jesus wants to save Christians from thinking that he failed. Jesus wants to save Christians from missing the point of Scripture. Jesus wants to save Christians from missing Jesus. And if there wasn’t a real danger that we might, or a dangerous reality that we have, there wouldn’t be a need for a warning, would there?

Soli Deo Gloria!

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The Cry of the Oppressed
Exodus 3:1-12

January 11, 2009

Let’s begin this morning’s message by reading together from the Word of God, the book of the Exodus, chapter 3. We are picking up the story of God’s work among the Israelites about 400 some years after the death of Joseph. Moses has been born and he has been living out in the desert, tending sheep, for about 40 years or so. This is where we pick up the story of God shaking Moses’ world, shaking the Israelites’ world, shaking the world of Pharaoh, and shaking the world. Nothing was the same after that encounter; everything changed.

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”
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A month or so ago, I was in my bed on a Saturday morning, sleeping wonderfully, dreaming, when the phone rang. I rolled over and answered the phone and whose voice did I hear at 8:30 or so but Dana She began by telling me that she was traveling with her husband and reading the paper while she was driving and talking to me on the phone. I asked her to turn down the radio for a minute…

She continued by telling me that she had just read in the paper that the Madison Food Center was losing its free rented space and only had 6 months or so before they had to be out of the Lantern. I was surprised because I, along with Linda, Ellen and my son Jerry, work at the food center and I had heard nothing at all from the directors with whom I am also friends, and who had been at our church a month or so previously to share with us the ministry of the food center.

That was about the extent of the conversation. I called Chris later that morning and eventually, after some phone tag, we talked and she confessed the entire story to me: Dana had told the truth. Thus I became aware of a vast right wing conspiracy to undo our congregation: Here was just the opportunity we had been waiting for. Finally, God was beginning to entrust us with some talents. Finally, we might be able to discover our niche in this community, we might be able to grow, we might be able to minister to hungry people in this community.
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“Scripture renders a living, breathing, demanding personality, not a set of freestanding, self-evident, abstract, allegedly biblical propositions. Yet then again, a personality with whom we are in relationship obligates us, demands that we take our place in the relationship. In Jesus, salvation and vocation are linked. The pardon and freedom of salvation carries with it a summons. Friendship is inherently demanding, which is one reason why we have so few friends. A proposition asks only our intellectual assent to what makes sense to us. An abstraction or a generality, no matter how noble, will never move us to love or to give half of all we’ve got to the poor” (William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, 116)

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A week or so ago I finished reading a book that I never in a million years thought that I would like just because I have heard ‘things’ about one of the book’s authors and I was sure that he was a heretic and didn’t deserve my time or attention or my $19.99 plus tax and tip. Nevertheless, my wife Renee bought me Jesus Wants to Save Christians for Christmas and I was undone by page one. The book is a scant 181 pages and that is a generous figure given the style of the book. (Jesus Wants to Save Christians by Rob Bell and Don Golden)

“Jesus,” the authors write, “Wants to save our church from thinking that the priests are somebody else.” (Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 178 ) And their point is quite realistic: When the church becomes consumed by an attitude of entitlement, that is, when we start thinking the church is all about us, when we forget that it is all a gift of God’s grace, then we forget that God has not just called us to salvation, but to vocation: “Entitlement leads to immunity to the suffering of others, because ‘I got what I deserve’ and so, apparently, did they.” (125)

In the book, the authors cite some statistics that are rather horrifying and all the worse because they are true. I’ll reference a few:

One Billion people in the world do not have access to clean water, while the average American uses four hundred to six hundred litres of water per day. I have a 40 gallon hot water tank that is emptied at least 4 times a day so that my family can be clean.

Every seven seconds, somewhere in the world a child under the age of five dies of hunger. Americans throw away 14 percent of the food we purchase. I watch the kids at the middle school—some of them get a lunch and dump it in the trash before they sit down.

Nearly one billion people in the world live on less than one American Dollar a day.

Another 2.5 billion live on less than 2. There an estimated 6 billion people in the world which means that more than half live on less than 2 American dollars per day.

Nearly 1 billion people in the world cannot read or sign their own name.

I don’t tell you these things to make you feel guilty. “Guilt is not going to solve a single one of these problems.” I’m not telling you these things because I think all of you are safe from them. I’m not telling you these things to justify any personal ambition I might have.

I’m telling you these things because these are the very people God means to redeem. These are the people, the undone of this world, that Jesus means to save. Luke 7 gives us a brilliant picture of who Jesus saves:

At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[b] are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. 23Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

I think what he means is this: Blessed are they who don’t fall away on account of me because I am not what they expected. Blessed are they who don’t fall away on account of me because I reach out and save the one’s the world rejects. This Jesus! Here’s what I wrote in a devotional yesterday at my blog:

I think they recognized it too. Consider what they said, “A great prophet has appeared among us. God has come to help his people” (Luke 7:16). Oh, I have heard this before haven’t I? “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hands of Egyptians and to bring them up…” (Exodus 3:7-8).

This Jesus—I have asked before—what sort of person is he who welcomes in such riff-raff? Won’t they mess up our church? Won’t they break things and get stains on the carpet? What of these blind who see, what if they try to get us seeing the way Jesus has them seeing? What if the deaf try to get us hearing the way Jesus has them hearing? What if the lame try to get us walking the way Jesus has them walking? What if the poor try to make us as rich as Jesus made them? What if the dead try to get us living the way Jesus has them living? “The Son of man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’

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“Sometimes the will of God is scary because he is asking us to choose between a life that looks successful and a life that is actually significant, between a life that wins the applause of our peers and a life that actually transforms lives through love” (Gary Haugen, Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, 119)

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I think we have to seriously ask ourselves: Why am I a Jesus follower? Or, when I followed Jesus, did I count the cost? Or, when Jesus called me, did I leave all behind, take up a cross and follow Him? Or, since he has saved me, what does he expect me to do, to be, and how? Here’s what Peter wrote:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

The cry of the oppressed goes up before our God. In the church we have made salvation too personal, too much a transaction between me and God for my sins with the expectation that once my sins are dealt with, that’s quite enough. But he calls us to more! The cry of the oppressed goes up before God and God, blessed Be His Name!, rescues them. He rescued Israel from Egypt and made them into a kingdom and priests so that they in turn might be his servants in the world, his witnesses, his people; and we too. We are those he has called out of darkness, transferred from the dominion of darkness, and into his kingdom of light, to declare his praises.

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Chapter 2: Get Down Your Harps

“Scripture renders a living, breathing, demanding personality, not a set of freestanding, self-evident, abstract, allegedly biblical propositions. Yet then again, a personality with whom we are in relationship obligates us, demands that we take our place in the relationship. In Jesus, salvation and vocation are linked. The pardon and freedom of salvation carries with it a summons. Friendship is inherently demanding, which is one reason why we have so few friends. A proposition asks only our intellectual assent to what makes sense to us. An abstraction or a generality, no matter how noble, will never move us to love or to give half of all we’ve got to the poor” (William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, 116)

“Sometimes the will of God is scary because he is asking us to choose between a life that looks successful and a life that is actually significant, between a life that wins the applause of our peers and a life that actually transforms lives through love” (Gary Haugen, Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, 119)

“The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3, NIV)

Rob Bell and Don Golden continue to insist, in chapter two, Get Down Your Harps, that God is interested in a relationship with his people. In this chapter, relationship is spoken of in terms of a marriage. They also continue to insist that God’s salvation is much bigger than we sometimes want to admit-and that it has always been much bigger than the people Israel wanted to admit-that it is for all. But I wonder if perhaps the authors of Jesus Wants To Save Christians are not hinting at something else in this chapter, something Christians tend to overlook, something we tend to, however inadvertently, neglect and despise. Get Down Your Harps…it does make me wonder if they are getting at something else. I’ll come back to this.

But, and here’s the thing, in my estimation if your mind is not steeped in the New Testament you are not likely to make the connections that Bell and Golden are making subtly and not overtly. I fully grant, they are asking the readers to read between the lines-maybe that’s why they chose such an odd format-and figure out what they are saying. They want us to think about it, they want us to remember the New Testament. They want us to put two and two together and imagine the only way possible for these things the prophets spoke of to happen. They don’t need to come right out and say it because the person whose mind is baptized in the New Testament will have already figured it out before the end of the first page of the chapter. Some may not like this. To me, it is the essence of a great sermon.

I think it is a brilliant strategy. Those who are experienced preachers know all too well that there are times when you build the intensity as you go along. African-American preachers (at least the ones I have had the joy of listening to) excel at this art. The preacher keeps giving hints, clues, adding a piece here and a piece there, stacking words upon words, images upon images; sentences and paragraphs become large canvases upon which to paint other sentences and paragraphs. You tie it in at this point and leave it dangle at that point. You regroup, retrace your steps, go back and repeat it all over again. The intensity builds like the steam in a pressure cooker. You hold the audience on the edge of the precipice until they cannot help but cry out the “Amen!” And then the preacher says, “Gotcha!” And the listener cannot help but draw the intended conclusion without the preacher even saying it. There’s no escape.

Bell and Golden follow the Old Testament in this respect: “And this is how the Hebrew Scriptures, also called the Old Testament, end. With all of these suspended promises, hanging there, unfulfilled, undone, waiting” (72). They build the intensity page after page after page and like good preachers leave us dangling, wanting more, hungering for what we already know to be true: “What if David had another son?” they ask. We already know the answer; they need not even say him. But this is no let down. This is no shock. This is no surprise. They have been doing this since the beginning of the chapter. In this regard, they simply follow the Old Testament pattern. The Old Testament left us dangling, sitting on the edge, waiting for the preacher to drop the bomb. The end of the Old Testament makes us want to read the New. It leaves us hungry and with an appetite for more. But it never quite gets us there. It’s that old saying, “The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed, and the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed.” Ah, yes.

The mind steeped in the Scripture-they don’t quote a lot of Scripture verbatim in this chapter-will know exactly what they are getting at. But like good preachers in need of another sermon the next week, they leave us hungry and wanting more. We know the answer is Jesus. I couldn’t help myself as I read this chapter. Page 65, for example: A new exodus, “Jesus!”; a new way, “Jesus!”, a new marriage with a new covenant, “Jesus!”; a new city, “Jesus!”, with a new temple, “Jesus!” Or page 69: a Prince of Peace, “Jesus!”; David’s throne, “Jesus!”; servant, “Jesus!” Or page 68: like Moses, “Jesus!” Or page 70: who would crush all evil once and for all, “Jesus!” Or page 67: a new heavens and new earth, “Jesus!”; wolf and lamb feeding together, “Jesus!”; salvation to the ends of the earth, “Jesus!” As you read this chapter, if you are thinking about anything but Jesus, you have seriously missed the point of the chapter. Seriously.

Now, just a couple of final points in conclusion, and, obviously, I’m not commenting on every single aspect of the chapter. They are unfolding a theology for us, chapter by chapter, and theology takes its time. The other day, I hate to do this, one of the commenters here wrote this: “From what I could discern, there is little emphasis on redemption and a focus on curing the world’s ills. I fear a moving away from the gospel, death, burial, and resurrection, and a moving toward a humanitarian message. Humanitarian expressions are vital to showcase God’s love, but only the gospel message can elicit faith and a genuine conversion.” (Rick) This may well be true, but that is not the entire point of the book. The book is written to those whose faith has already been elicited, and not necessarily to those whose faith needs to be elicited. And to the point, after faith has been elicited (whatever that really means), what are we to do with it, what should God do with it? Leave it sit? Leave it stagnant? Or shouldn’t that faith get involved in the story that God is telling and involved in the work that God is doing?

The book is not even about ‘curing the world’s ills’ as much as it is about curing the church’s ills and reminding us that, in Willimon’s words, ‘salvation and vocation go hand in hand’ (paraphrase). If we suggest this series of theological sermons written to Christians is a move ‘away from the gospel’ (which necessarily includes, death, burial, and resurrection) then of course we are going to object to the content. But that’s just the thing about this book. Even if, and I’m not conceding for a minute they are, but even if the authors have interpreted the Scripture in a way that is not ‘reformed orthodoxy’ they have done no damage to Scripture’s intent. They followed the apostle Paul’s dictum that “these things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). They are not interpreting Scripture any differently than Paul did in Galatians when he wrote about Sarah and Hagar and Isaac and Ishmael and mountains and faith.

On the other hand, it is about redemption. It is about the New Exodus promised by Isaiah, Jeremiah and the prophets, Moses, David, the Psalms, and culminated in Jesus of Nazareth. They do not explore the ‘hows’ and ‘means’ of this yet because the Old Testament only gave hints and clues (1 Peter 1:10-12). But they do explore and explain the necessity of it, and the scope of it. It is this New Exodus that has offended some people, but it is there. Their job in the book is to remind us of the fact of our liberation, of our freedom, of our Exodus. They do a fine job of it, and point two below explores what they mean by this exodus they speak of.

Second, the authors talk about our bondage to sin. They describe this bondage as ‘Egypt’: “There’s an Egypt that we’re all born into, and that’s what we really need an exodus from. So when Isaiah speaks of this new exodus, he doesn’t just speak of liberation from a particular oppressive empire; he speaks of liberation from anything that oppresses anybody anywhere” (57). And they do a fine job of emphasizing the ‘all’. It’s what Karl Barth noted, “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (as quoted in Willimon, p 38). This is also what the apostle Paul wrote, “All have sinned.” And just to clarify what Bell and Golden mean, “The real problem, the ultimate oppressor, is something that resides deep in every human heart. The real reason for their oppression is human slavery to violence, sin, and death” (57). That sounds strangely orthodox to me.

To go along with this is the emphasis that ‘All peoples will see it together’ (58, quoting Isaiah 40:5). The authors lay heavy emphasis on the fact that if all are held in bondage, all have equal access to freedom as God intended. This is the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12 and announced by Jesus early in his own ministry (Matthew 4:12-16). This chapter goes a long way to undoing any narrow ideas about salvation being limited to a particular nation or tribe: “By the rivers of Babylon, the prophets began to reimagine grace. They started to see what it would look like for Israel’s debt of sins to be paid. And what they saw was a reconciling grace so big, so universal, that it could bind all human beings into a brand-new way for the divine and the human to relate” (60-61, my emphasis). They thus rightly express this as possibility and not certainty. (Their argument is a little more detailed and contains much more Scripture, but I think this is the gist of their point. Some of you may wish to highlight other aspects of what they are saying, but rest assured, I did not personally pick up any hints whatsoever that this was a universal proposition guaranteeing salvation for everyone, everywhere. Thus the ‘could’.)

Finally, I’d like to explore their points about ‘marriage’ between God and man, the ‘forever’ aspect of the rule of the One to come, and what I’ll call the national reconciliation into one body of all all the peoples of the earth (Ephesians), but I don’t want this to be too long and any more cumbersome than it is already is. Their point about an ‘altar being built in Egypt’ is an excellent point and I think properly echoes what the New Testament says about Jesus in Philippians 2 and Revelation 7. Suffice it to say that these were the expectations, written in the prophets, that are easily overlooked and ignored. A fitting conclusion to these is found on pages 70-71, “What started as predictions about an earthly ruler exploded into an expectation of a divinely sent servant who would in some powerful new way rule forever…Israel’s failed marriage to God had never produced that child….The promise is so poignant because from the beginning, from the first moments when our primal ancestors began longing for a way out of this mess we’re in, the ache had centered around the birth of one who would crush evil forever.”

That is a very, very orthodox interpretation of Scripture (and I can point you to the lectures that prove it.)

I will close with this. The title, Get Down Your Harps, indicates that the harps had been hung up, left desolate, forgotten; put on a shelf and silent. “They hung up their harps” (52). “The harp was an instrument of joy and celebration. People played the harp because they had reason to praise God” (52). This chapter begins by reminding us that we have been rescued. “If God freed people once before, couldn’t God do it again?” (54) The implication being, of course, that He already has! He has freed us! We have a reason to be playing our harps! And we are still acting like we are in exile; our harps are still hanging, we are still weeping beside the waters of Babylon.

Or worse, we are like the older brother who refused to go in and rejoice with the family when the younger brother came home. Or we are like Jonah who sat outside Ninevah angry at God for being forgiving. I certainly doubt we are like Jesus who wept over the lost Jerusalem. Whatever the case, I think Bell and Golden’s point in this chapter is to say: “Get down your harps! God has freed us! You know how he did it! You know who did it! Get down your harps, you Christians, and start singing, rejoicing, and worshiping God! Join the party!”

Like good preachers, they don’t say it in so many words. But we know who they are talking about on every single page.

Jesus.

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.

Friends,

I am happy to announce to you that along with my weekly sermons, I will begin doing a series of podcasts here at Life Under the Blue Sky.

The first series of podcasts I have scheduled will be from the book of the Revelation. I will not be covering the entire book, but rather focusing on the first three chapters and the words of Jesus to the Churches. There is a wealth of teaching in chapters 1-3 of the Revelation and I hope to share my particular understanding of those chapters with you.

In this episode of the Rain and Snow Skycast, I will be exploring Revelation 1:1-8 and laying a foundation for our understanding of Revelation 2-3. Thanks for stopping by. As always, your comments are welcomed and appreciated.

Grace,

jerry

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The Unveiling of Jesus to the Church: Revelation 1:1-8

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Part 2: The Cry of the Oppressed

“What are we waiting for? And what are we going to do about it in the meantime? Those two questions shape this book. First, it is about the ultimate future hope held out in the Christian gospel: the hope, that is, for salvation, resurrection, eternal life, and the cluster of other things that go with them. Second, it is about the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it. And it is about the ways in which embracing the first can and should generate and sustain the second” (NT Wright, Surprised By Hope, xi)

“God is looking for a body” (Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 34)

“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.'” (Matthew 2:14-15)

It is easy to miss that verse. The prophet Hosea first said it (11:1-11). When he said it, he was talking about the people of Israel, the Israelites, the Chosen People. He was reflecting on the story of their national identity: The Exodus from slavery in Egypt; ruminating on the prospects of future enslavement in Assyria or Babylon. “The NT writers insist that the OT can be rightly interpreted only if the entire revelation is kept in perspective as it is historically unfolded (e.g., Gal 3:6-14)” (DA Carson, Matthew, 92-93). So Matthew does just that by showing how Jesus, the Son of God, succeeded where Israel, the son of God, failed (see Matthew 4:1-11). The entire narrative is thus kept in perspective.

Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea, guided along as he no doubt was by the Holy Spirit, states, quite unequivocally that Hosea was talking about Jesus. Such a hermeneutic is spoken against in better homiletics and hermeneutics classes. If I were to stand up and preach such an allegorical interpretation of, say, the Exodus I would likely be branded a heretic or a liberal ‘liberation theologian.’ Yet Matthew looks back, finds a rather obscure passage of Scripture, in a prophet decidedly dwarfed by his contemporary Isaiah, and states boldly, loudly, formulaically: This verse is about Jesus and this before Jesus had ever even gone into Egypt let alone come out of it. “Not surprisingly the infant Christ, who summed up in his person all that Israel was called to be, was likewise threatened and delivered; and although the details differed, the early pattern was re-enacted in its essentials, ending with God’s Son restored to God’s land to fulfil (sic.) the task marked out for Him” (Derek Kidner, Hosea, 101-102; my emphasis).

The Son of God

I bring up Matthew and Hosea because this is the point of chapter 1 in the book. Consider:

” ‘Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation'” (30) “So when God invites the people to be priests, it’s an invitation to show the world who this God is and what this God is like” (31) “God is telling Moses that Pharaoh will see him as God, or at least ‘like God’? And this is not Moses’ idea; it’s God’s idea. What’s going on here? The answer leads us to a universal truth: God needs a body. God needs flesh and blood. God needs bones and skin so that Pharaoh will know just who this God is he’s dealing with and how this God acts in the world. Not just so Pharaoh will know but so that all of humanity will know” (31) “This God is looking for a body” (34) “God is inviting. God is looking. God is searching for a body, a group of people to be the body of God in the world” (34) “God was looking for a body, a nation to show the world just who God is and what God is like” (36) “Remember, God is looking for a body, flesh and blood to show the world a proper marriage of the divine and human. What happens when your body looks nothing like you?” (43) “God is searching for a body, a community of people to care for the things God cares about” (44)

The authors keep coming back to this theme, this most important idea: Israel failed. They failed time and time again. They became slaves of the wrong masters: “Exile isn’t just about location; exile is about the state of your soul…Exile is when you find yourself a stranger to the purposes of God” (44, 45). Rob Bell and Don Golden are making a serious charge: The Church has failed (and likely will continue to unless some things change) to ‘look like God’ even as Israel failed, even as Solomon-the one held up as the prime example of said failure-failed. This is why the one who succeeded is called the ‘son of David’ and not, for example, the son of Solomon. Their exegesis and interpretation of Solomon’s lifestyle, his rule, his failure is dead-on the mark with the best scholars. Solomon, they note rightly, had become the new Pharaoh; Jerusalem, the new Egypt. Failure.

Their contention is that we have enslaved ourselves all over again. Commenting on the prophet Amos they ask: “God calls their church services ‘evil assemblies’? God hates their religious gatherings? When God is on a mission, what is God to do with a religion that legitimizes indifference and worship that inspires indulgence. What is God to do when the time, money, and energy of his people are spent on ceremonies and institutions that neglect the needy?” (46) The church, the son of God, the body of Christ, in other words, has become slaves of the wrong master. If Israel was the son of God (see Exodus 4:22-23) that failed, Jesus was the Son of God who did not (Matthew 4:1-11). Bell and Golden are asking: Which son of God are we, the Church, like? Their conclusion seems to be that we most effectively emulate the former not the latter. Can we properly worship a God when we don’t have in our hearts the same things that God has in His? (That’s what Amos was asking.)

God came down and set us free. He released us from slavery, ended our exile, concluded our captivity. As the Body of Christ, the ‘Son of God’, God expects us to be about the business of doing the same in the lives of those still in captivity: “At the height of their power, Israel misconstrued God’s blessings as favoritism and entitlement. They became indifferent to God and to their priestly calling to bring liberation to others” (44). This is what the title of the book means: Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Why? Because we are slaves to the wrong master; because we have forgotten our story of liberation; because we have neglected the weightier things of the law. In a real sense, we don’t love. The church is so internally focused that we forget the suffering that is going on all around us. We sometimes so forget our redemption from slavery by God that we fail to remember those who are still there. We are so comfortable in our comfort that we forget to comfort the afflicted with that same comfort (2 Cor 1) we ourselves have received. Paul said it too: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (Galatians 2:10).

William Willimon wrote, “Christians go to church in order never to forget that we were strangers and aliens out on the margins (Eph 2:19)” (Who is Saved?, 54) I agree. Once we forget, we are lost. This is why we read so much in the Old Testament about the Exodus and why God told them to remember it: why the Psalmists sung about it, why the Prophets preached about it, why Moses wrote about it. They were never to forget who they were, where they had come from. In the New Testament, Jesus continues this very thing except that ‘remember it’ became ‘remember me.’ I wonder if we have forgotten? Bell and Golden are reminding the church, God’s son, of who we are: We are the liberated, the freed, the unleashed, the undone. We are the ones who were in a ditch, needing rescued and there are many others still there, still needing lifted up.

Sermons on Idolatry

This chapter is a long sermon, and a well done sermon at that. In it you will find an exposition of Genesis, Exodus, 2 Kings (Solomon), the 10 Words, Amos and 2 Chronicles. The authors brilliantly tie all these books together, as they should (see Carson above) and demonstrate the seamless narrative of God’s grace and love for all of his creatures, for all his created peoples. We are to learn from Israel (1 Corinthians 10; Hebrews) so that we do not fall into the same error as they did. I think the authors did a fine job of demonstrating that if we don’t pay attention to the history of God’s redemptive work, we will be doomed to perpetuate the same mistakes and sins that others have before us.

One of the better aspects of this chapter is the authors’ intent to deal with idolatry and do this well especially so in their handling of the Solomon narratives. They spare nothing when it comes to Solomon’s failures. They point out just exactly how far he fell: “Seven hundred wives? Three hundred concubines? But the point for the storyteller is not the numbers; it’s how his wives affected Solomon. They turned him away from God, and ‘his heart was not fully devoted” (41-42). I think we are meant to ask ourselves: Are our hearts fully devoted? In doing so, they warn us of the great and subtle dangers of idolatry. After reading their exposition of the Solomon story, I wondered: Do we talk enough about idolatry in the church? (1 John 5:21!)

The Messed Up World of the Oppressed

An important question to ask ourselves is this: Are we willing to be the body of Christ, the son of God, on this earth? Are we prepared to be his people, on his terms? Peter told us: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 1:9-10). Peter then goes on to point out the distinctive way a people of God is supposed to live.

Bell and Golden are asking us: Are we prepared to live according the standard that God himself has raised? “The Hebrew Scriptures have a very simple and direct message: God always hears the cry of the oppressed; God cares about human suffering and the conditions that cause it. God is searching for a body, a community of people to care for the things God cares about” (44).

Will we be that people? Will we care about the things that God cares about or will we continue to live in exile, slaves to our own passions, our own desires, and our own sins? Are we willing to do an evaluation and see if we are slaves of the right master? Didn’t Jesus say: You cannot serve two masters? That’s the gist of this chapter: If God has liberated us, what are we doing to liberate others? What are we doing about being God’s people?

You see, those of us who ‘are a people’, who ‘have received mercy’ know exactly what it is like to be on the other side: not a people, not receiving mercy. We know. We’ve been there. We understand. We can relate. But life is not just about understanding or relating or having been some place. It’s about more than just ‘learning to listen’, although that is surely a place to start. This brings us back to NT Wright: “First, it is about the ultimate future hope held out in the Christian gospel: the hope, that is, for salvation, resurrection, eternal life, and the cluster of other things that go with them. Second, it is about the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it. And it is about the ways in which embracing the first can and should generate and sustain the second.” Are we doing that? Does the first, our narrative, our redemptive history in Christ, do anything to generate and sustain the second of those two points in our lives?

I’ll close this portion of my review with a short story. In our community, we have an ecumenical food center. What started as a small project, with volunteers from all different congregations, has grown into a major ministry that, in November 2008, fed over 1,000 hungry people in our community. This is a ministry blessed by the Lord.

The food center directors recently learned that the rent-free space they have used for 2 years will no longer be available by May of 2009. They need a new home. When I heard about this, I immediately called and said: We have space. We really do. The entire bottom half of our ‘education’ wing is empty space being used to educate young bats on how to locate rogue mice. We don’t even heat it. What needs to happen is that space, sitting empty now, needs to be turned into a living, breathing, place where people can find hope in this present world; and a good meal. It needs to be converted into a space where 1000+ people every month can get food, find friendship, discover a body of Christ that love and cares for them when they are at the end of their ropes.

“Think about your life,” Bell writes. “What are the moments that have shaped you the most? If you were to pick just a couple, what would they be? Periods of transformation, times when your eyes were opened, decisions you made that affected the rest of your life. How many of them came when you reached the end of your rope? When everything fell apart? When you were confronted with your powerlessness? When you were ready to admit your life was unmanageable? When there was nothing left to do but cry out? For many people, it was their cry, their desperation, their acknowledgment of their oppression, that was the beginning of their liberation” (24). (See also Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, p 53-54)

What I hear is: “How is this going to inconvenience me?” All I hear is: “God is not big enough to accomplish this here.” All I hear is: “I’m more concerned about holding on to space I don’t use, that we might need, than I am about hungry people in my hometown, who need something to eat and someplace to get it.”

I think that is kind of what Bell and Golden are ‘complaining’ about in chapter 1 of this book. And they are right to do so. If the church won’t be the son of God, the body of Christ now, who will? If we won’t be agents of mercy, ministers of compassion, voices in the wilderness calling out for justice, who will? The government? The politicians? The strong? The powerful? Bah! The church has already surrendered too much of its priestly role the powerful, the rich, the influential, the arms dealers, the generals, and the Caesars, the presidents of this world. I agree with Bell: God is looking for a Body. He has prepared a body, but when we are more concerned about holding on to that which isn’t ours, or spending on ourselves what should be spent on others, then we have failed.

That’s what God has created us for: Whatever it takes! Your will be done! Here I am, send me! That’s what he has liberated us for. Christianity, salvation, is not just about a place we go. It’s about who we are, what we do. “Salvation isn’t just a destination; it is our vocation…We have been shown something that much of the world is waiting to see, even when the world doesn’t yet know for whom it awaits” (William Willimon, Who Will be Saved?, 3, 29)

The question is: What sort of God will we show them?

Next: Part 3, Get Down Your Harps

rob-bell“My concern is provoked by the observation that so many who understand themselves to be followers of Jesus, without hesitation, and apparently without thinking, embrace the ways and means of the culture as they go about their daily living ‘in Jesus’ name.’ But the ways that dominate our culture have been developed either in ignorance or in defiance of the ways that Jesus uses to lead us as we walk the streets and alleys, hike the trails, and drive the roads of this God-created, God-saved, God-blessed, God-ruled world in which we find ourselves. They seem to suppose that ‘getting on in the world’ means getting on in the world on the world’s terms, and that the ways of Jesus are useful only in a compartmentalized area of life labeled ‘religious.'” (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 1)

When Eugene Peterson writes, I read. There is scarcely a word he has written in book form that I have not read. He is a respected preacher and pastor whose understanding of Scripture is profound and whose theological perspective holds Jesus in the highest possible position. He has a high view of the Word of God and interprets it within a tangibly orthodox hermeneutic. So when I heard echoes of Peterson in Rob Bell’s book Jesus Wants to Save Christians, I started paying closer attention to both writers.

I will state at the outset that I have not read any of Rob Bell’s other books. Nor have I ever watched a Nooma video. I have listened to exactly 23 minutes of one of his sermons  My point in noting these things is to say that I am coming at this series of posts unbiased. I am neither for nor against Rob Bell. I am interested only in what he has written, along with Don Golden, in this book. The book is only recently published, but I don’t think it is too soon to offer a critique of the work.

That said, my wife bought me Jesus Wants to Save Christians for Christmas. I have desired to read this book since I saw this blurb in a flier for Family Christian Stores, “There is a church in our area that recently added an addition to their building which cost more than $20 million. Our local newspaper ran a front-page story not too long ago revealing that one in five people in our city lives in poverty. This is a book about those two numbers.” (This also appears on the back of the book.) I was intrigued and decided that I should read this book and make it my first introduction to the work of Rob Bell. Now I am reading it, and I cannot tell you how thoroughly surprised I am by what I have read.

I was fully prepared to hate this book. I had browsed it at the book store. The silly green pages bothered me. The unorthodox writing style annoyed me: Sentence fragments; sentences that are chopped up and drawn down the page in a column-like structure in an effort to fill the two covers with more and more pages than are necessary. The book is certainly not a DA Carson or David F Wells type of theology. However, if it is true that we should not judge a book by its cover, neither should we judge a book by its particular stylistic format.

I should say a couple of other things about this book before I go too much further. First, there are a scant 218 pages in this book. I think that is probably more than there actually are given the format of the book. Still, I think Bell has said a lot in those 218 pages. This book serves as a fine introduction to the New Exodus perspective.

Second, there are 34 pages of endnotes written in a very traditional, single spaced (double between) format. That’s a total of 326 endnotes. 256 of those 326 notes are direct references to Scripture. If my son did his math correctly, that means 79% of the notes are Scripture references, more detailed explanations of Scripture, Scripture quotes, or more commentary on Scripture. Sometimes, a note contains more than one reference to a passage of Scripture.

What this indicates to me is simple. It means that Rob Bell (and co-author Don Golden) has not written a book that is based on his own idea or his own imagination. This is a book that relies far more on Scripture than it does on anything else. Here is a man who has written a book and allowed that book, and I believe his theology, to be shaped by the Word of God. And when one reads through the book, one discovers that much of what is written is merely (I say that not at all meaning minimally) a retelling of the story of Scripture-from Genesis to Revelation.

In fact, this is what is stated at the outset of the book, “In the Scriptures, ultimate truths about the universe are revealed through the stories of particular people living in particular places…We join you in this tension, believing that the story is ultimately about healing, hope, and reconciliation” (8) He goes on, “This is a book of theology…This book is our attempt to articulate a specific theology, a particular way to read the Bible, referred to by some as a New Exodus perspective” (8) Make no mistake about the intent of this book and the authors: It is designed to make you think about God and about what God’s Word says to its readers about what God is doing in the world. They do this, again, by constantly referring the reader to Scripture.

This further indicates to me that Bell and Golden have a very high view of Scripture. They could tell these things their own way, but they deliberately chose not to. Instead, they quote from Moses, the Psalms, the Prophets, and the New Testament (I thoroughly enjoyed their interpretation of the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch). They don’t challenge the Scripture. Scripture speaks. (I regret that I couldn’t find the page number, but as it is said, “God has spoken; everything else is commentary.”) These are not men who are picking and choosing what ‘fits’ their idea. Their idea is driven along by their high view of Scripture. For someone who has been accused of doing exactly the opposite, this is a great risk for Bell. He might actually be accused of being too orthodox for some readers.

This is my first introduction to Rob Bell’s theological point of view and I have to confess that, intrigued as I was by that blurb in a flier, I was skeptical. Sadly, Rob Bell is held up as a poster child for all that is wrong with the church, with Christianity, with this generation of believers. Yet, as I read the introduction I was struck by this statement: “For a growing number of people in our world, it appears that many Christians support some of the very things Jesus came to set people free from” (18). I was struck by it because I had heard it before: Eugene Peterson wrote a statement very similar to this in his book The Jesus Way. It seems that on the horizon there is more than one person saying that there is something seriously wrong with the way ‘we’ are doing ‘Christianity.’

What does he (Bell) analyze that problem as? Simple: Too many in the church have associated a certain brand of political persuasion and nationalism with the ‘right sort of Christianity.’ “A Christian should get very nervous when the flag and the Bible start holding hands. This is not a romance we want to encourage” (18). This is a real problem, as I see it too, because it makes the Scripture ‘mine’ instead of God’s. It makes the Bible no longer God’s Word to us and instead it becomes more a weapon we use to determine who is and is not in the club. This is decidedly the wrong approach for us to have towards Scripture. It slants everything in our favor and becomes a tool for oppression instead of a declaration of emancipation for those held in captivity by the ‘very things Jesus came to set us free from.’ Scripture becomes a handbook for winning elections instead of a declaration of war on the things that keep people prisoners, enslaved to a system that hates them.

Bell and Golden are right: We are east of Eden, but remember, the book is written to Christians. It seems to me that Bell and Golden are saying there is something seriously wrong with the church, with Christians. What they are thus proposing is a solution to our problem. It should be interesting to see what they propose is the solution to our problem.

Next: Part 2, The Cry of the Oppressed

Friends, here is the final installment of my series 90 Days with Scripture. In this sermon, I examine, however surfacely, Revelation 21. The conclusion of all things is that humanity has messed things up terribly and that God has solved those problems in a way we did not, and still do not, expect. His solution is Jesus. As always, the print version is below and can be downloaded from Box.net. Thanks for stopping by. I hope these sermons have been a blessing to you.

You can download here: The Future, Revelation 21

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Part 1: Genesis 3, Where it All Went Wrong
Part 2: Genesis 12:1-9, A Blessing for All People
Part 3: Exodus 7-12 (a), Freedom For God’s People
Part 4: Exodus 7-12 (b), Freedom For God’s People, b
Part 5: 2 Samuel 5-7, The King
Part 6: Isaiah 60-66, The New Heavens and New Earth
Part 7: Jeremiah 31, The New Covenant
Part 8: Matthew 1, Jesus pt 1
Part 9: Luke 1-2, Jesus pt 2
Part 10: Mark 15, Jesus, pt 3
Part 11: John 20, Jesus, pt 4
Part 12: Acts 2, The Church
Part 13: Romans 1-5, Grace
Part 14: Revelation 21, The Future

Always for His glory!

Over at CRN.info, another blog where I write, the other writers and I wrote a Christmas post where each of us explored, in a paragraph or two, the sentence “God with us,” or in Jesus, “Emmanuel.” Below is my contribution to the post. I encourage you to stop by CRN.info and read the entire post.

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In the beginning. It all begins there for me, for us. Too many debates about Genesis miss what is likely the most important part of Genesis: God created us to be with Him. Rob Bell correctly notes: “The writer, or writers, of Genesis keeps returning to this eastward metaphor, insisting that something has gone terribly wrong with humanity, and that from the very beginning humans are moving in the wrong direction…We are east of Eden. Something is not right” (Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 14, 17) I’m not far along enough to know if Bell correctly notes that what is wrong is that we humans decided, early on, that it was far more important for us to be like God than it was for us to be with God. East. That’s the problem, humanity is not with God; God is not our God.

This is where ‘God with us’, as truth, takes on a whole new dimension. God with us. This is the name of Jesus, Emmanuel. NT Wright correctly notes that no one else was given this name (Matthew for Everyone, 8). If that is true, and it is, then what does that say about what God thinks ‘God with us’ means? Wow; just wow. God took the steps; radical steps; risky steps. He took the initiative. He made the first move; God with us. We see it all throughout Scripture: God walking in the Garden; the tabernacle among the camp; the ark of the covenant among the army; the temple in the center of the city; the bread of the presence; Jesus ‘tabernacling’ among us; the pillar of fire and smoke; the Shekinah; the Son of Man walking among the lampstands; the Holy Spirit. All these images, and more, point to the overwhelming passion of God’s heart: He wants to be our God; he wants us to be his people.

Jesus, the Emmanuel, is the means whereby ‘God with us’ becomes more than prophetic rhetoric. Jesus puts flesh on the phrase; gives form to the formula; gives power to the prophecy; gives strength to the story. Jesus makes the impossible possible; the unthinkable a reality; the unimaginable a delightful joy. Truly if God had told us, none of us would have believed it. God with us. He has always wanted to be with us. This is amazing to me: The God of the universe, the Creator, the Provider, the Redeemer wants to be among us humans. “How can I keep from singing?” (Tomlin) So the Bible ends right where it begins: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Revelation 21:3). This is our promise, and in Jesus it has already become a reality even as we continue to hope for it.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Friends,

This post attempts to dismiss the angst many have over so-called ‘feminine’ theology. Much of the angst comes from those who are simply afraid that God might not fit into their pre-conceived ideas. Of special concern is the angst many have over The Shack’s presentation of God as a fat, African-American woman. (I suspect much of it comes, too, because people haven’t actually read The Shack.)–jerry

I read this:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)

Then I read this:

After looking at an increasingly androgynous Rob Bell in this video, I’d say Bell doesn’t seem limited to a gender either. Any time the feminine side of God is touted by religious leaders, support for homosexuality is never far behind. After all, the thinking goes, if man is made in God’s image, why would he/she be limited to a gender either, right? The goddess, feminine theology, introduced here by Bell and also by the recent Shack novel, will go a long way to push this thinking forward.

Then I thought, “Hmm….I’m an educated man (did very well in college thank you very much). I read a lot. I read The Shack. Strange that when I finished reading it I didn’t come away with even the foggiest notion of goddess worship. Strange that when I finished reading the book I came away with a profound sense that perhaps, yes, God is still very real even when stories don’t have happy endings. Strange that while I was reading the book I had a profound sense of humility that more often than not I have tried to create God in my image instead of allowing the Scripture to control my imagination and, thus, allowing God to be God in his own image. Strange that when I finished reading The Shack, I didn’t feel inclined to worship Aphrodite or Diana or even my wife. However, it was equally strange that I didn’t feel like worshiping an old man with a long white beard, or Zeus, or even myself.

“Strange that I, an educated man who reads, writes, and preaches for a living was not at all uncomfortable with idea that God might look more like Aunt Jemima than Arnold S, more like The Oracle (from the Matrix) than Charlton Heston. Strange that someone might think God purposely goes further out of his way to avoid our stereotypes and pigeonholes than we give him credit for. Strange that when I finished reading The Shack I suddenly believed that God was more powerful, more compassionate, more wise than even I had imagined. Strange, this God who delights in ambiguity and mystery.”

Then I remembered:

“I guess here is my real question in all this…why couldn’t you have made things clear? People go to the Bible and find all these ways to disagree with each other, even or especially theologians. Everybody seems to want to acquire their little piece of doctrinal territory and put fences around it so only those with the secret handshake can get in. Some find support for Universal Reconciliation; some find proofs for eternal torment in hell, and some find it just easier to annihilate everyone who doesn’t make it.” Now I am ranting, but can’t seem to help myself. “The Calvinists find all their verses to debate the Armenians, who find their list. Then there are the ones who believe in eternal security fighting with the ones that don’t.  Every silly idea of eschatology finds its own proof texts and in the middle of all these debates it seems that love is all that gets left behind. We even find ways to fight about grace and love. Couldn’t you have just made it simple and clear; unambiguous?”

I look up and Papa has a big grin on her face, but I don’t return the smile. Without really understanding why, this question is suddenly important to me and I can sense that it has threads connecting many of my internal conflicts.

Papa simply let me tread water in my rant for a while, until some of the emotional residue subsides. “Do you think that all this has surprised me?” she asks gently? “Do you think that I thought, ‘There, they now have the scriptures; they will totally get this’?   Human beings are very creative. They have an incredible facility to take some of the simplest and most obvious truths and make them ambiguous. If I didn’t know better, it would surprise even me.”

“But,” I am struggling to keep my question from becoming an accusation, “Why couldn’t you have made it clearer? How hard would it have been to just have one of the writers put truth down in such a way that there would be no confusion?”

I look up and she is still grinning, obviously enjoying the conversation more than I am. “Like a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) at the back of the Bible?” I roll my eyes, even though part of me thinks that might have been a good idea. Papa pauses to take another sip of her steaming whatever. “Have you ever thought that ambiguity, that mystery, might have purpose?” she posed.

The question actually surprises me and I begin to feel the uneasiness that usually precedes my paradigms being challenged. “Nope. I’ve never thought about that at all. I’ve spent most of my life so focused on certainty, that ambiguity and mystery have always been, sort of…the enemy. Are you telling me that ambiguity is a good thing?”

I think the reason some are afraid of a ‘feminine’ [and there’s a big difference between saying ‘feminine God’ and ‘female God’] God is because we haven’t been properly instructed in Scripture. Truth be told, those who think God looks (or acts or is shaped) like a man have a woefully inadequate understanding of God who is Spirit. Truth be told, those who think God looks (or acts or is shaped) like a woman have a woefully inadequate understanding of God who is Spirit. Truth be told, those who cannot imagine God as either, both, and neither have a woefully inadequate picture of the Holy God who will not be limited by the imagination that he built within us in the beginning. Why is this so hard to understand?

I suppose those who think God is one or the other are perfectly satisfied with their understanding of God and, thus, have nothing more to search for, nothing more to seek, no more reason to open their bibles, no more reason to pray, no more reason to even hope. Those who reject ‘feminine’ metaphors have no need for a mother; those who reject ‘masculine’ metaphors have no need for a father. But is aren’t we incomplete without both? Can we even exist if one is absent? I don’t want a god who is limited by my ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’. I don’t even want a god who is limited by my ideas of mere ‘god’ and ‘goddess.’ I want a God who is strong and sensitive, masculine and feminine, burly and beautiful, willing and wonderful, purposeful and passionate. I want a God who is perfectly masculine and perfectly feminine and creates both to His own glory. I want the God of the Scripture who is perfectly shown us in Jesus.

Ambiguity is a good thing because it keeps us from becoming content in our misconceptions. Ambiguity is good because it keeps us from becoming careless with our caricatures. Ambiguity is a good thing because it keeps us from becoming conceited about our wisdom. Ambiguity is good because it chops us down to size, turns us all around, and makes us rely on grace all over again. I reject out of hand the idea that we will be saved because we have all the right answers to all the wrong questions. Ambiguity is good because it strips us of pride and causes us to cry out all over again, “God have mercy on me, a sinner!” Ahh, grace.

Then it all came together:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

Now I understand why God gave me a mother and a father. There is a subtle ambiguity in this verse if both man and woman can be created in the image of the same God. Thus, this sentence is just wrong: “Any time the feminine side of God is touted by religious leaders, support for homosexuality is never far behind.” Wrong! That sentence is so wrong it could not be more wrong. It is beyond wrong. It is abysmally wrong. When both sides of the coin are presented, when they are held in tension, when the ambiguity is unresolved, we have a complete picture of God in whose image man and woman were created. I reject the idea that because both ’sides’ of God are present that a teaching about homosexuality is, and must necessarily be, close behind. Rather it seems to me that when one side is neglected, and only one side is presented, then will homosexuality follow behind closely. I wonder how many male homosexuals didn’t have a father? I wonder how many female homosexuals didn’t have a mother? Not all, mind you; but I wonder how many. In other words it is the absence of correct theology of the ‘feminine’ side of God that creates the problems for the church, not its presence.

I’m troubled by all this talk not because I feel a personal need to defend The Shack (although I do) or because I think there is a glaring omission of ‘feminine’ theology in the church (although there is). I’m troubled because in all our talk about God we are missing the greater point: The only real image of God we have is Jesus. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” Jesus said (John14:9).

And Jesus wasn’t afraid of feminine metaphors or masculine metaphors as images of God. Jesus was perfectly content, it seems to me, to allow that God would be the perfect standard of righteousness for both men and women. If God’s image is the image in which men and women are created, and God’s righteousness is the perfect standard for masculinity and femininity in the church (unless there is more than one God!), then it seems to me that exploring both ’sides’ should not only be encouraged, but it is also quite necessary for our understanding of ourselves and God. He gave us one image by which to explore ‘both sides’: Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Originally posted at CRN.info