Posts Tagged ‘William Willimon’

Like many people right now, I am reading Michael Spencer’s book Mere Churchianity, which was recently published by Waterbrook Press. I’m only two chapters in, but already I know the reason I bought the book and why I visited the late Spencer’s blog Internet Monk so frequently.

He tells his readers in the introduction exactly to whom he is writing and why:

Mere Churchianity is written for people who have come to the end of the road with the church but who can’t entirely walk away from Jesus. In the wreckage of a church-shaped religious faith, the reality of Jesus of Nazareth persists and calls out to them. I’m talking to those who have left, those who will leave, those who might as well leave, and those who don’t know why they are still hanging around.

And I’m writing to the outsiders who might be drawn to God if it weren’t for Christians.” (5)

I am one of those people to whom Spencer is writing. mere_churchianity It’s a sad thing, really, that I am an ordained minister, have a Bible college education, earned my living from the church for the better part of fifteen years, and have been a Christian since I was at least thirteen, maybe sooner, and have very little interest, right now, in the church—and precisely because of the people who make up the church. I know it is a strange thing since I too am part of that problem, part of the church.

I’m not that far gone though. I still worship with the church on Sundays and when I am asked I am still willing to step to the pulpit and speak the word of God to God’s people. Truth be told, I love the church which is the main reason why it is so terribly painful to be living in this borderlands place that I am living right now. I know Jesus loves the church—ugly as the church is—and that he will never quit on the church no matter how far away the church wanders from or quits him. I know that I have no right to despise the body of Christ.

Yet I suppose that is the very temptation I have had to struggle with so much over the last eleven months of this pilgrimage: how can I not despise the very place where I have been so despised while serving as a pastor/preacher? Oh, it’s that grace thing I suppose and I’d rather not think of that; it’s much easier to keep provoking and nursing those needling thoughts about all I would like to say. The first time I was treated poorly by a church I went right back to the pulpit and took out a lot of frustrations on unsuspecting congregants. This time, the Lord is not so quick to allow me that opportunity again. So I have been wandering for nearly a year.

William Willimon wrote a smart little book he titled Sinning Like a Christian wherein he explores the so-called seven deadly sins. I was minding my own business tonight when my wife grabbed the book, opened to a random page, and began reading:

Maybe that’s why the Scripture tells us, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay.’ Vengeance, once of the most popular motivations for indignation, righteous or otherwise, is not a gift God gives to us. Vengeance, the ultimate, final righting of what’s wrong with the world, is God’s business, not ours. Because our anger can be so self-deceptive and delusional, so very dangerous to ourselves and others, the church has called Anger a sin, and a deadly one at that. We are to guard against it, fight it with all our might, repress it and stuff it in because, not being wise or as loving as God, we are not to be trusted with Anger.” (76)

Well, I wasn’t too happy with my wife after she read that ‘random’ passage of Willimon to me. I would have been much happier if she had read me a love-letter or a birthday card or the menu from our favorite local Chinese restaurant. Truth is, it hit me hard.

In about five minutes, on June 23, I will turn forty. I don’t care any more. I had my mid-life sinning willimoncrisis when I turned thirty ten years ago and celebrated with folks from the church who, nine years after that fact, terminated my employment and sent me into a tailspin of anger, church homelessness, and depression. Forty? Pshaw! I can do forty standing on my head in the snow.

But forty is a special day because it also marks the first day of the rest of my life and the beginning of another change I need to make. I haven’t been on good terms with my Lord for the last year; he is so patient. He gave me a year or so to sort it out or, rather, to wrestle with all the emotions that come from such a drastic change as I have had to make. July 12 is the real anniversary, but June 23 marks my fortieth birthday and it is also the day I have decided to open up my Bible again and begin to read it and pray it.

I needed a break from it. I needed to know that I still hungered for it. I needed to know that it was still the Word of the Living God. I needed to know that despite everything that had changed about me, the Word was still capable of changing me even more. Frankly, I had to know that I still believed what was written in the book. So I am breaking my fast (it hasn’t been as complete as I make it sound) from the Bible and beginning all over again again because I believe that the Bible was also written to misfits like myself—people who are on the brink of walking away—people like those to whom Michael Spencer wrote. And Spencer did not write to justify their walking away, or thinking of walking away, but rather to show there is a reason to continue loving the church.

The Bible too.

I will be reading the Bible afresh, with fresh eyes, with new perspective, and with a new confidence—not confidence that it has ‘all the answers’ to my questions or that God will all of a sudden reward my diligence with new sermons or jobs or ideas or anything of that sort. No, nothing like that at all. Rather I will be reading the Bible just to see what it says about God and his way of dealing with rebels like me.

I have known my anger. I have known my bitterness. I have known my disgust. I have known hatred and a desire for revenge. I have known rebellion, distance, and blasphemy. I have known cursing. I’m tired of all that. I’m tired of the exhaustion that comes from living apart from a real living faith and conversation with the Living God.

I want to know Jesus. Better, He still wants to know me. And maybe together, Jesus and me, I will learn how to love the church again like I used to; like he never stopped doing, the way He always does.

Today’s readings: Numbers 16:20-35. Romans 4:1-12. Matthew 19_23-30. Psalm 94.

Sinning Like  a Christian, by William Willimon

Abingdon Press, 2005

A Peculiar Prophet (Willimon’s Blog)

I wish I had the courage to sin like William Willimon, but I know that if I did, people might looksinning willimon at me funny. After all, I’m not William Willimon.  The problem with Willimon is not his theology. I think he is a fine theologian. His problem is not his preaching: he is thought provoking, at times his tongue is sharp, his wit is acerbic, and his sense of irony and sarcasm is astounding. I can take him in tempered doses which is why it takes me a month to read a  150 page book like Sinning Like a Christian. I read Willimon like I read Anne Lamott: slowly, cautiously, and with a small glass of sipping whiskey.

The problem with Willimon is that, for all his intelligence, he really doesn’t know when to quit, and when he keeps going he comes off as terribly judgmental, arrogant, and ungracious.  So, Willimon, true to form, published a Postscript at the end of this book wherein he waxes eloquently about grace and love and happy-happy-joy-joy but manages to take swipes at former president George W. Bush and an unnamed ‘conservative, evangelical, Bible-thumping pastor.’ It’s at this point that Willimon tends to lose me: for as much as he talks about grace, he seems to reserve not the tiniest bit for those who are on the opposite side of the political aisle from him. I find this to be true of a lot of theological liberals.

However…

__________________

Sinning Like a Christian is Willimon’s exploration of the so-called seven deadly sins. Overall, I think this book is worth the read if, and I say if, you can read with a light-heart and laughter. For example, take this quote, “Jesus was crucified for the very best of human good reasons such as peace, justice, doctrinal fidelity, national security, and on an on. We are rarely more murderous than when we are defending some noble ideal like freedom or democracy” (29). Frankly, it is this sort of statement that makes me want to vomit on the book. It is so painfully obvious what he is saying (and thank God and the warmongering conservatives he can say it!) It really gets old when one’s person political agenda manages to makes its way into a book that is not about politics. This is not the only time it happens in Willimon’s book, and it never, ever gets new.

It is difficult to continue reading Willimon after he makes such a blatant political statement. But, then, he will keep typing and come up with something like this:

The most moving moment in Sunday worship for me is when my people come forward at Holy Communion, streaming down the altar, and there they hold out empty hands like little children, like the famished folk they really are, empty, needing a gift in the worst sort of way…What’s strange, from the world’s point of view, is the empty-handed, needy, empty request for grace. (47)

That is beautiful. I wonder if Willimon is confident enough in God’s grace to serve communion to President George W. Bush? The true test of grace, it seems to me, is not how you treat your friends, but how you treat your enemies—especially your enemies who are your brothers in Christ. I’m not sure if Willimon is attempting to appeal to the more liberal folks among his readers or if he is just trying to irritate the more conservative folks among his readers. Anne Lamott is at least wise enough to realize that someday she will have to share a table with the former president (see her book Plan B, Further Thoughts on Faith). Sometimes I wonder if Willimon realizes that?

So what I’m trying to do here is write a short review that a) talks to the strengths and weaknesses of what is written on the pages of the book I am reviewing and b) gives you enough reason to actually want to read it. I’ve read enough Willimon books to know that he is, frankly, difficult to pin down theologically. Sometimes he is profoundly gracious and other times he is profoundly stupid. I say that lovingly, of course; he’s probably said the same thing about most of the people he reads. That’s why I say that Willimon is hard to read: sometimes you love him, other times not. I know, you need a reason to read him so I’ll go back to what I said at the start.

Don’t read him for his political views (I don’t happen to think that his theological or political liberalism is any better an option than another’s theological and political conservatism.) Don’t read this particular book because you hope to find something particularly insightful, or new, or interesting about sin. Don’t read this book because you hope to find something that cures what ails you because I don’t think the book is chock-full of the sort of answers you might be looking for. But if you want, and if you dare, read the book because no matter how much Willimon appears to withhold grace from his political enemies (i.e., those who are ‘conservative, evangelical, [and] Bible-thumping’), I believe Willimon actually understands grace all too well—and perhaps that is what frightens (motivates?) him to write in the first place.

This is who we are, says Jesus, not big, self-sufficient adults, but rather little children, naked, frail, empty, and hungry, needing a gracious God in the worst sort of way. You can’t get into this Kingdom if you are all grown up and big and important. You can only come in through a very small door as an inept, bumbling, ignorant, and empty little child” (47)

And this is exactly the reason why I keep coming back to Willimon. No matter how distasteful he finds conservative politicians and haughty academics, he always comes back to grace. He cannot stay away from it. He circles it, swoops in, hints at its borders, dabbles here and there, and then in one final blow he unleashes a barrage of grace missiles (I couldn’t resist using a warfare metaphor to describe the tactics of a pacifist writing about grace; it’s my own bit of irony)—even he cannot stay away from it! It’s like he is writing along, happily minding his own business, and wham! out of nowhere—grace.

I’m a big fan of grace and my reason for reading Willimon is that he is too and he has found a way, amidst all the hoopla that is America, academics, politics, church and church-folk to articulate it in such a way that I actually find myself loving Jesus more and despising those who disagree with me less.

That, my friends, is the worth of a good writer.

By the grace of God, a good-enough church, and lots of practice, it is possible even for ordinary folk like us to become saints” (146).

Amen.

Friends,

Here is my second installment of study notes for this week’s lectionary readings. This one focuses on Acts 4:5-12. The study focuses on the Spirit’s role, the Name, and the Exclusivity.  Quotes from William Willimon, Richard Philips, John Stott, Robert Tannehill, LJ Olgivie, DA Carson, Eugene Peterson, Aijith Fernando, Mark Driscoll, and more. There are 13 pages worth of notes, quotes, and commentary. There is Here’s an excerpt:

The leaders seemed to think that the church was no threat until the church started preaching in Jesus’ name. The world can safely ignore the church until we start making such exclusive claims about Jesus. The church is beside the point until Jesus is brought into the conversation. That is when the world begins to act in opposition. As long as the church is merely a glorified, so to speak, social services or dr phil, the world has no problem with us. It’s that pesky Name; that pesky Jesus whom the world crucified—But God resurrected! God issued his verdict on Jesus  and God’s verdict on Jesus ran and runs contrary to the world’s verdict on Jesus. Thus, the world is in opposition.

Acts 4:5-12, The Name of Jesus, May 3, 2009

Be blessed.

UPDATE: Access complete sermon mansucipt: No Other Name

Or download the MS Word manuscript here from box.net; formatted for your convenience.

Excerpt:

There is no other Name given by which men must be saved. What else on earth could possibly be of interest to the church but the Name of Jesus? Have we lost our nerve? Have we grown weary of the Name? Have we lost interest in the Name above all Names? Have we tired of the Name at which every knee will bow and every tongue confess? Do we think that people will be more interested in us if we preach something different or something softer or something more compelling or something more interesting?

Friends,

This is the third in a series of preliminary sermons I have preached from the book of Hebrews during Lent. You can download the manuscripts at my box.net (I have provided the links.) I will be preaching through the entire book starting in May 2009.

Sermon one is: Listening to and Thinking about Jesus

Sermon two is: Resting in and Holding Fast to Faith

Sermon three is: Growing in Jesus and our Understanding of His Work

Sunday, March 15, 2009 (PM)
The Imperatives of Hebrews, 3
The Book of Hebrews

This past Wednesday evening we talked for a few minutes about Matthew 24-25 and Jesus’ long answer to the disciples question, ‘when will it happen, what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’ So the disciples essentially asked three questions.

When will ‘it’ happen is the first question they ask. By this I assume the ‘it’ refers to the statement Jesus made ‘Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’

The other two questions they ask seemingly come out of nowhere and yet, for some reason, the disciples must have associated the ‘it’ with the ‘coming’ and the ‘end.’ And it certainly appears that Jesus was not averse to answering all three questions as if they were related to one another even if we happen to be somewhat confused about why they would associate the ‘coming’ and the ‘end’ with the ‘it.’

Well, I’m revisiting that conversation from Wednesday evening so that I can bring up an article that I also made more than a passing reference to.  In his essay The Coming Evangelical Collapse [you can find this by searching at Christian Science Monitor–jerry] blogger Michael Spencer wrote:

We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the “Protestant” 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.

This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.

I have a friend who is skeptical of Mr Spencer’s claims. I think I told you Wednesday that I don’t particularly care one way or another about the collapse of a major, in my opinion defunct and corrupt political institution; I do care about the local church.

Then yesterday I got a couple of books in the mail. I glanced through the first couple pages of one book because the forward is written by my hero Eugene Peterson. When he writes, I read. He wrote, then, in the book Christianity Beyond Belief: Following Jesus for the Sake of Others, words very similar to those of Mr Spencer:

We live in a country that is becoming less and less Christian by the day. People who make a living compiling statistics on these kinds of things tell us that we have an epidemic of people leaving the church. Recently I was told that one of these pollsters has concluded that nonbelievers are the fastest growing ‘faith’ group in America. The alarm has been sounded and panic is widespread. There is considerable finger-pointing at the failure of the church to stanch the hemorrhage of membership. (9)

We can deduce, from these two readings, that there is a significant problem with the church in America. Frankly, I think the damage is done and there is very little that can be done to stop the bleeding on a national level. With some giving us ten years and others suggesting that it has already come upon us, who knows what the next step really is.

Here is where the book of Hebrews, I believe, makes strong inroads into the wound that we have undoubtedly been the cause of. I shudder to think what the church would be like if the Gospel hadn’t been so watered down in a previous generation. But the very thing that the church thought was its measure of success, was actually its very undoing. Thus it seems the church thought it could afford to scale back on the things that the Gospel seems to suggest we most certainly cannot afford to scale back on-such things as, Gospel content, the faith once delivered, core doctrines, and foundational beliefs.

But I submit to you that we have allowed certain aspects to become so watered down and we have paid such close attention to those who would undo the Gospel with skepticism and lies that we have no foundation upon which to stand. This is why I am fond of saying that once Genesis 1:1 is done away with, nothing else really matters. Genesis 1:1 is foundational. You can say, Genesis through Deuteronomy is the Bible and everything else is commentary. But you get my point, once we have reduced the stories to mere local myth, upon what will we stand?

Into this the author of Hebrews has insisted on an allegiance to those very stories ‘we have heard’ in order to prevent the very thing that Spencer and Peterson (among others) warn us of. If we fail to listen, fail to pay attention, fail to hold on to the faith we once confessed, we will drift away; slowly, but surely. Or we will ‘fall short’ of the intended and expected goal. And how, in chapter 6, as we encounter our 5th ‘imperative’, we see that the results might be even more disastrous.

5. The fifth marker found along the way is in chapter 6, verse 1: “Therefore, let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity…”

Well, the first thing that stands out to me about this passage is that if there are ‘elementary teachings’ there must be elementary teachers. It seems to me that there must have been teachers in the church who were content to continue wrangling over the same foundational teachings over and over again. Well, don’t misunderstand, I think it is terribly important for there to be foundational teachings in the church. I also believe we should revisit those teachings periodically in order that we don’t forget (‘listen to’) what we have been taught. But I also think it incredibly naïve to think we can stay in those places. Why? Because then we never mature.

And so the author here says something like this: You are babes. You are stuck on milk and cereal. You need to be teachers now, but in fact you are still itty-bittys when it comes to the faith. I can’t even begin to teach you about meat, and righteousness, and the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ. You haven’t constantly trained yourselves in the Word so as to be able to sufficiently tell the difference between good and evil. Listen to The Message translation of chapter 5:11-6:3:

I have a lot more to say about this, but it is hard to get it across to you since you’ve picked up this bad habit of not listening. By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one-baby’s milk, when you should have been on solid food long ago! Milk is for beginners, inexperienced in God’s ways; solid food is for the mature, who have some practice in telling right from wrong.

1-3So come on, let’s leave the preschool fingerpainting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ. The basic foundational truths are in place: turning your back on “salvation by self-help” and turning in trust toward God; baptismal instructions; laying on of hands; resurrection of the dead; eternal judgment. God helping us, we’ll stay true to all that. But there’s so much more. Let’s get on with it!

The gist of what the author of Hebrews is saying is this: We need to grow up in Christ and to do this we must progress in our learning and understanding of the work that He did. What happens if we don’t grow up? Look at verse 6: “…and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.:” Now I’m not going to unpack all that because for now it is enough to say that the person who refuses to grow up will eventually ‘fall away.’ This is no mere ‘drifting away.’ This could mean ‘to commit apostasy.’ It is, at minimum, a radical departure from the faith.

Continue Reading »

Sunday, March 8, 2009 (PM)
The Imperatives of Hebrews, 2
The Book of Hebrews

[These sermons are also available for download at my box.net account.–jerry]

1. Listening to and Thinking about Jesus
2. Resting in and Holding Fast to Faith

Last week [here], we began some preliminary explorations of the book of Hebrews, in preparation for the 90 Days with Jesus which will start in May. Our preparation for the 90 Days comes in the form of exploring what I have dubbed the ‘imperatives’ of Hebrews. They are imperatives I think only to the extent that we are willing and ready to listen to the God who spoke. (1:1-2) These imperatives come at fairly regularly placed intervals in the book of Hebrews as if to remind us constantly to be looking back, opening our ears, softening our hearts. “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

So these imperatives are God’s word to us. They are his promises. They are his voice speaking to us and we have to learn how to quiet ourselves and listen. We must pay attention to what he is saying. William Willimon notes:

Contrary to [the] contemporary stress on spiritual practices, [we] are reminded that the church is created and sustained through the proclamation of the Word, not through practices or the formation of allegedly Christian character. The church must rise anew, in each generation, among those who have head, not simply among those who have been inculcated and indoctrinated. The Word is forever tearing down and rebuilding the church, disrupting, confusing, killing in order to raise us from the dead. (Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 230)

So we listen. And the Word does its work inside of us. We don’t know exactly how it works just as we don’t know exactly where the seed will land once it is scattered. Yet we continue to listen for God’s voice. Sometimes it is clear, audible and majestic. Other times we have to discern it. But there it is, speaking to us in Christ.

So last week, we tuned into the first of these several imperative gestures. The first being that we need to ‘pay close attention to what we have heard so that we don’t drift away.’ I note, not in mere passing, that these imperatives are always spoken out of and to a community. ‘We’ and ‘us’ dominate these sentences. I also note that they are given to us with an intention. That is, we do not just ‘pay attention’ for the sake of paying attention. Nor, I might add, do we pay attention to just old thing we like. On the contrary, we ‘pay attention’ in order that we will not drift away. Paying attention serves a purpose in our lives. And we pay attention in this case to ‘what we heard’. What have we heard? We have heard the God who spoke to us and speaks to us in Jesus. It is probably also not insignificant that he says ‘what you heard.’ There is an emphasis on the importance of the proclaimed, spoken, audible word.

Second, we were concerned with ‘keeping our thoughts fixed on Jesus our apostle and high priest.’ What we hear is the Christ speaking to us and instructing us, praying for us, leading us and directing us. What we fix our thoughts on corresponds to what we have heard with our ears and with our eyes. We fix our thoughts on the one sent to us, the sacrifice, and the High priest, the one who offers the sacrifice. When we fix our thoughts on Christ our mind clears and is refreshed. And his person is so dominant and attractive that we can scarcely find room within for competing lords and gods. In other words, if your thoughts are fixed on Christ, how can there be room for any other thinking?

So, let’s examine a couple more of these ‘imperatives’ this evening. The first is found at the head of chapter 4, verse 1:

3. The third marker along this journey is found in 4:1: “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.”

This is explained thus:

“The author argues that the purposes of God are not frustrated because Israel of old disobeyed him and failed to enter the rest he had promised his people. The promise remains. If the ancient Israel did not enter God’s rest, then someone else will, namely the Christians. But this should not lead to complacency. If the Israelites of an earlier day, with all their advantages, failed to enter the rest, Christians ought not to think there will be automatic acceptance for them. They must take care lest they, too, fail to enter the blessing.” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, online source)

The promise still stands. That is, it is hasn’t been fulfilled completely yet. This means we have to press on. The Promise itself still holds, which suggests that its fulfillment might be a time off yet: There is still room for entry by those outside, and there is still room for failure for those inside.

But what does the author here mean by ‘rest’? Does the author here mean long lazy days of relaxation and peace and tranquility by the lake? Or perhaps does he have something a bit more expansive in mind? Three specific ideas come to mind as we reflect on the Old Testament promises of Rest. There is certainly the idea of Sabbath rest which we learned about early on in the history of Israel. God himself took Sabbath and commanded his people to do so as well. Sabbath is a powerful idea and practice in Scripture. There might also be the idea of ‘rest from enemies’ that God promised to Israel. But the author in Hebrews is building on Psalm 95 and the idea of rest found there. The Psalm reads:

1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.
3 For the LORD is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
6 Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
7 for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.
Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the desert,
9 where your fathers tested and tried me,
though they had seen what I did.
10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.”
11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
“They shall never enter my rest.”

Now the author of Hebrews brings this into a new generation. First it was spoken to Joshua and Caleb’s generation as Israel wandered in the desert. Then the author of Psalm 95 recites it for his own generation. The author of Hebrews quotes it for his own generation. And now you and I are hearing it in our time: If you, the flock under his care, today, hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. And it was their hardness of heart that prevented them from entering into the rest of God: “They shall never enter my rest.” The rest he is speaking of his rest. These are people who did not know God’s ways, whose hearts went astray, who tested God, who hardened their hearts and quarreled, who tried God-even though they had seen what he did-these are the ones prevented from entering his rest. The author of Hebrews brings this into his own situation. What we wonder is this: Will our generation be the generation who will finally enter his rest? Will we listen to his voice or will we harden our hearts?

“For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed.” The author of Hebrews is saying to us: Don’t fall short of it. Don’t fall short of the rest of God because you have all the advantages, everything is in your favor, all the cards are stacked for you and there is no reason why you should fall short. Whatever this ‘rest’ is, it is God’s rest, and I don’t happen to believe that God desires to say to this generation, ‘you shall never enter my rest.’ He’s talking about obedience as if there is a sort of disobedience that will prevent us from partaking of his rest. This rest is not from Moses, David, or Joshua-it is a far more comprehensive and less mundane promise of Rest that still stands. And he concludes with what would be a fourth marker: “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (v 11). He thus comes full circle. The promise of rest is somewhat contingent upon our perseverance in towards it. Stopping short because of disobedience will not nullify the Promise, but it will prevent our participation.

He says three times: Don’t harden your hearts if you hear his voice. He also says three times, “they shall never enter my rest” (11, 4:3, 5). Again, listen and obey so that you can enter.

4. The fourth marker is found in 4:14: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”

I think a new section was started in verse 12 of the previous chapter. There, after a short exposition of the rest we hope to inherit, the author of Hebrews breaks out with this even shorter doxological type of statement concerning the Word of God and God’s judgment:

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to diving soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Therefore, he writes, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. What is the connection between the ‘there’ and the ‘fore’ in this marker? Andrew Murray chose to emphasize the word ‘have’. We ‘have’ a great high priest. He notes, we ‘have a great high priest. You own Him; He is yours, your very own, wholly yours. You may use Him with all He is and has. You can trust Him for all you need, know and claim Him as indeed your great High Priest, to bring you to God.” (184) Well, I don’t like the word ‘you’ and ‘yours’ because the author of Hebrews uses the word ‘we.’ But Murray’s point is taken. We are not so much in possession of Christ as he is in possession of us and we have access to Him.

Twice previously the author has also used the words ‘hold firmly.’ In 3:6 he wrote, “But Christ is faithful as the Son of God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed, we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.” And in 3:14 he has also written, “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold firmly till the end our original conviction.” Now, “Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” It’s no longer a matter of ‘if’ we hold firmly, but a command: Hold Firmly.

The short and long of it is this: He has gone through the heavens, he has finished the work, nothing escapes his eye of judgment, everything is laid bare-why give up? No one can take away from what Christ has already accomplished. He knows the struggles, he knows the weaknesses, he knows those who cause trouble-why give up? Why turn your back on what you know to be a finished work? And here again we are confronted by this living Word of God-this God who speaks. He has spoken his word into our lives, into our community, into our world. It cuts deep and rips us in two. It causes a schism within ourselves. There’s part of us that wars against his judgment and there’s part of us that struggles onward. We are quite divided beings.

And he says: Press on! Don’t be so quick to let go of what you know inside is true.

So what is the confession we made? Back in 3:1 he uses the same word, “…fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we confess as our apostle and high priest.” Now here, “…hold firmly to the faith we confess.” What we are confessing is a high priest who has finished the work that needed to be finished. We confess Jesus who gives us the promised rest that Joshua could not. He softens hearts that Moses could not. We confess Jesus who is God’s Word to us. We confess Jesus, our high priest, who is able to understand our weaknesses. So again, we are not confessing some wimp. We have confessed this Jesus, this Son of God who is faithful over God’s house (3:5).

This is a call, if you will, to consider deeply who it is who calls us into being. This is a call to consider wisely if we will follow and consider carefully before bailing out on such a confession. The confession we make is no small thing in light of who we are confessing. Frankly, I don’t think we make enough emphasis on this confession. Our confessions are cheaply constructed and probably not carefully thought out. Perhaps if we put a little more thought into whom we have confessed we would not be so quick to jump ship or to fail when we struggle or when things get rough. We have confessed one who is ‘able to help those who are being tempted.’ Since he can, perhaps we should.
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It seems to me that these markers we have focused on this evening are about persevering in the right way. Much of the effort that we make when it comes to persevering is silly because it has as its focus or goal something elusive and primitive. But we in Christ are not called to something primitive and elusive, nor something mundane and trivial. We are called to faith in the living Son of God who understands us too well because he has been made like us.

So there is a right kind of perseverance that will not fall short and there is a kind of perseverance that will miserably fail. I think if we are persevering for merely earthly objectives then we are certainly bound over to failure. Earthly objectives can be met, often without much struggle at all. But the true objective, who is living, is Christ Jesus. He is our goal. Indeed, the writer says, “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold firmly to the end our original convictions.”

Before us will be all sorts of stumbling blocks and hazards and chicanes. But these things I have said to you tonight are book-ended. In 2:18: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” And again in 4:16: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Here we see the great objective. Persevere! Cling to the faith confessed! Cling to Jesus! He is not about to fail you because he has already succeeded and won where the world has already and continually fails. Don’t give up. Stay the course!

If we are being torn down, ripped apart, it is only that He might put us back together, that He might Resurrect us according to his own will. This is God’s word to us.

Sunday, March 1, 2009 (PM)
The Imperatives of Hebrews
The Book of Hebrews

“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.”

“The book of Hebrews offers us, quite simply, Jesus. It offers us the Jesus who is there to help because he’s one of us, and has trodden the path before us. It offers us the Jesus who has inaugurated the new covenant, bringing to its fulfillment the age-old plan of God. And it offers us, above all, Jesus the final sacrifice; the one who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, who has lived our life and died our death, and now ever lives to make intercession for us.” (NT Wright, Following Jesus, 10)

The book of Hebrews begins by reminding us that God spoke, both in the past in various ways and with various means, and in the present in Christ Jesus. This is not an odd way to begin a book that has so many things to say about the finality of God’s voice in Jesus. In these last days, God has spoken to us. He has raised his voice above the din and clutter of noise that is all the other voices so easily heard, and clamoring to be hear, and He spoke. To us.

I am here stuck in the same awe that renowned theologian Karl Barth was stuck in: God spoke to us. Us! He desired that we hear his voice. He desired, and desires, that we engage him in active listening and active speaking. God’s word to us is not mere monologue: we pray, and sing, and worship in any variety of ways. William Willimon notes, “Who is the human being? Someone who is ‘summoned by this Word.’ Our great, God-given dignity is that God wants to talk to us. God speaks to us and what God says is, ‘I will be your God and you will be my people.’” (166) The essence of our existence is that God took initiative and spoke to us!

But Willimon makes another point too, and perhaps an even more important point about what we hear, what our task is as hearers, and our role as speakers:

“Knowledge of God is always in Barth linked to the call of God, communication and disclosure are always linked to commission and call, and revelation divinely given is linked to obedient human response. Our challenge, as preachers, is not to master God’s word but rather to develop the skills to listen to God without despising God for speaking to us. The God of the Bible who speaks is the God who commands and one wonders if many of our hermeneutical and homiletical strategies are designed to manage that command. For Barth, every single verse of scripture is a potential act of vocation. The question to be put to any of God’s three forms of proclamation is never simply, ‘Do I understand?’ or certainly not, ‘Do I agree?’ but rather, ‘How am I being called to change and commit through this word?’” (165)

So the book of Hebrews, as we call it, begins here with “God spoke.” This is the most radical thing God can do and did. He spoke to us in Jesus, his Son. Everything else flows from here and everything else said in the book only makes sense when we accept that God has spoken, in these last days, through his son. We have to get into our heads first who spoke and and how (in the Son) then we can get into our heads what he spoke and then we can try to understand why he spoke it. I think at some level, though, we hear his commands (‘what he spoke’) merely for what they are. They are words with a certain emphasis placed on them, perhaps an imperative, but as a command we are to act out under his watch they are perhaps nonsensical.

Radical Christianity, radical Scripture, Radical God is not for anyone and everyone. It is for those called together by this Son who is the exact character of God in the flesh. And Hebrews offers no apologies for taking such a radical approach to lived out faith. I’m not suggesting that only a few are invited. I think the invitation is wide open to any and all who hear and obey. What I am suggesting is that as we read through the book of Hebrews we hear the voice of God saying to us: Buckle up. It’s not going to be an easy go of things. You will be challenged at every step to turn back and quit. That is where I would like to break into this letter tonight and show you several major stops along the path that is Hebrews.

This book is filled with some of the most profound theology and Old Testament biblical exegesis in the entire canon. However, along the way, the author periodically stops and looks back in order that he might point forward. The call is radical: radical indeed. He speaks for a moment or two on some important issue, and that issue is always the superiority of Jesus or the better nature of the Jesus work, and then he challenges the reader. He marks off these challenges with the word ‘therefore’. There are eleven of these markers found in Hebrews. Let’s begin.

1. The first marker is found in chapter 2:1: “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.”

What must we pay attention to? God spoke. We have to pay attention to what we hear from Christ who now speaks to us in these last days. He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Fact is, we cannot afford to not pay attention. There are many, many voices clamoring for our attention. The basis of our listening and paying attention is that Jesus is ‘superior angels’ and has ‘inherited a name that is superior.’ Therefore, we must pay attention. He warns us here that if we do not pay attention we will ‘drift away.’ We will be like a boat that has lost its tether and floats off out into the ocean where it can be tossed about by every wind and wave and storm that comes up.

Continue Reading »

My current reading project is Willimon’s Conversations with Barth on Preaching. It is a fascinating book for any number of reasons, but it is especially helpful if you happen to be, ahem, a preacher. I was warned as a young college student to be afraid of Barth and his strange version of unorthodox orthodoxy, and I’ll confess that even now I am only a very wet behind the ears sort of student of Barth. What I appreciate about Willimon’s reading of Barth is that he is so evenhanded: Critical when criticism is warranted; effusive with praise when it is praiseworthy. What I have learned about Barth from this reading so far is that a) he has a terrifically high view of Scripture; everything he wrote and preached is dependent upon, and infused with, and drawn out of Scripture and b) he has a remarkably, equally high view of the act and work of preaching. I commend this book to you.

In my brief period of reading this morning, I was in chapter 5, Word Makes World. Barth’s understanding of what happens in preaching is simply astounding. I don’t confess to understanding all of the epistemological and philosophical or even theological underpinnings of his ideas, but I did understand what Willimon was saying on page 120. I’d like to share several paragraphs with you followed by a couple of thoughts of my own.

“Christianity is born in an assertion that it is virtually impossible not to see God. Whereas Israel’s story is a long record of an attempt to be faithful to the first commandment, the church’s story is a long story of attempting to be faithful to the first commandment (the prohibition against images) by saying that we are not to make an image for God because we already have the supreme image for God—Jesus Christ.

“Yet Lash also notes that such statements do not do justice to the nuances of our claim of God in Christ. There is, amid Christian claims of unveiling, a strong claim of veiling that is tied, not to God’s inherent obscurity, but rather to the identity of the God revealed in it—the crucified, suffering servant, the weak and poor one from Galilee. In both the person and the work of Christ, we are struck by our unknowing. God came to us, in the flesh, and the way God came to us led us to say, in the words of the Spiritual, ‘We didn’t know who you was.’

“The Jewish challenge to Christian claims of knowledge rests not only in the unique and surprising person of Christ but also in his work. To put it bluntly, if Jesus is the Redeemer, the faithful Jew wants to know, then why does the world not look more redeemed? Why don’t we as Jesus’ followers look more redeemed? This is a serious question for the Christian. Undoubtedly, to persecuted Israel, our claims of the ‘now and the not yet’ quality of the kingdom of God seem a bit limp, and our pointing to the church as the foretaste of Jesus’ complete redemption seems, at best comical.

“Yet, while Christian theology must confess its uncertainty, the constant contestableness of its most cherished concepts, its inherently unstable affirmations, it would do better to admit to its dependency, to receive with thanksgiving the revelation it has, to dare, despite all we do not know, to testify to what we know. It is the nature of the Crucified Messiah to be veiled and unveiled at the same time.” (120)

I like Willimon’s point about the ‘Jewish challenge.’ However, and I don’t think he means to limit it, I’d like to expand that thought a little. I think that challenge is one we face from all people. As a preacher, I honestly have to spend quite a lot of my time convincing people who are redeemed that they are redeemed and that, as such, they ought to live that way. It’s no wonder we are challenged by others in this way who make no claim to faith in Christ. Could it be that we simply or profoundly do not understand the redemption life? Do preachers not do enough to, in the words of Paul, ‘portray Christ crucified clearly’?

It comes from everywhere. I think sometimes I ask myself the same question of the people in the pew (but only, please read this well, only after I have asked that question of myself first!!): Why don’t they (indeed, we) act and talk and treat one another in a redeemed sort of way? Why all the ‘past living’? Is it enough to answer that question with a mere ‘now and not yet’ sort of answer? No. If that answer isn’t good enough for Willimon’s Jewish challengers, I think it is, at times, even less sufficient for the preachers’ congregational challenges. I think it is comical to preachers as well, and I think we are doomed to failure if we don’t laugh. No one can take the church that seriously, and yet we must. Which leads into my second thought.

I love this idea of Barth’s paradoxical tension in the Christian faith and I think Willimon appropriately highlights it for us in Barth. But is this just Barth’s idea? No. This is a Scriptural idea that is only forgotten or misused or paid lip-service to. That is, preachers talk about paradox, but don’t really grasp it or live it or preach it. This does damage to the church because preachers are then held to a level of academic achievement that simply cannot be maintained: “What do you mean I am saved and will be saved? What do you mean the Kingdom is here and we pray the Kingdom to come? What do you mean God is seen and unseen?” But instead of always trying to answer those questions, perhaps it is best to let those questions simmer in the hearts of those asking the questions. Perhaps the answer is not an answer. Silence?

The Scripture is full of this radical, paradoxical tension and it is delightful to behold. Why? Because it destroys pretense and legalism. The greatest threat to the church is the idea that any one idea of any one person is THE idea. Willimon had written on the previous page (119): “Barth fulminates against taking the gospel, which ought to be ‘truth that is new every morning,’ and attempting to ossify it ‘into a sacred reality.’” I think what he means there is just this: The gospel must not be reduced to mere principle or idea or law. When Gospel is ossified, when it is no longer alive, we are doomed. There in that ossification is the death of all that creates life and sustains life because there is the death of grace. (Perhaps I carry this a bit far.)

So Barth rightly fulminated against the idea. Living in this paradoxical idea is one thing. Preaching it quite another, but there it is. It is the story of a God who takes things that are not and makes them into things that are. It is the yes and the no. It is the veiling and unveiling. It is the seeing and blinding. It is the Christus Victor and the Crucified Lord. It is the knowing and the unknowing. It is the glory and the travail. It is crucifixion and resurrection. This paradox is captured beautifully in the Revelation, “Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.’ Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center before the throne…” (5:5-6) That scarcely makes sense: A Lion who is a Lamb? A triumphant Lion who is a Slain Lamb?

There at once is the tension, the paradox; the Triumph and the Travail. But we have to live in this tension because it prevents us from becoming (too) dependent upon ideas and structures as opposed to being dependent upon God’s grace through faith. That is, it (paradox) enables, nay, demands that we live only in and by faith. It is only those who cannot live in this paradoxical divine economy who find themselves living opposed to God’s grace. These are the ones who must construct all sorts of rules, laws, and opinions and live by them strictly and force others into the same mold. They miss the new mercies each day. They miss the freedom of being set free. They have traded one form of law for another and become slaves all over again.

The paradox also keeps us alert and searching. There is nothing worse, in my mind, than people who refuse to grow and learn and seek and search. These are the ones who have all the answers, who know what the Scripture says and are, by God, going to let us know. These are the ones who have abandoned any idea of paradox and live only in the world of the black and white where there is no ambiguity—where ambiguity means ‘less than fully saved.’ These are the ones who have ossified God’s grace into another code of law where now there are numerous and multiple conditions placed upon the reception and practice and distribution of God’s grace. They are in heaven by themselves.

Paradox keeps us humble.

This is, then, a serious aspect of the preaching of the Gospel: not to avoid the tension nor to avoid the paradox; not to eschew the mystery nor vacate the majesty, but to preach them both, together, at once and with urgency. It is ours to proclaim, to announce the Kingdom in all of its mystery and majesty, crucifixion and resurrection, turmoil and triumph, slavery and salvation, loss and gain, death and life. It is rather strange, isn’t it, how the same Gospel both opens and closes eyes, unveils and veils God, creates and destroys, saves and condemns. And yet this is the Gospel we preach—Jesus Christ crucified and triumphant. The Triumphant Lion who is the Slain Lamb.
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“It must be so solely the truth and miracle of God if his Logos, as he does not regard the lowliness of his handmaiden…or view the unclean lips of Isaiah as an obstacle…does not think it impossible to pitch his tent in what is at best our poor and insignificant and stammering talk about God.” (Willimon, quoting Barth, 121)

Friends,

Here is episode #2 of the Rain and Snow Skycast. In this episode, I finish my exploration of Revelation 1 by studying with you verses 9-21. I also included a book review of NT Wright’s book Surprised By Hope. I close the Skycast by talking about God’s grace and how the modern manifestation of the church seems to be lacking in grace to one another and those who are not like us. This is a serious, serious problem. The podcast opens with a quote from the book The Justification of God (or free here). by PT Forsyth which I believe serves as a great segue into my discussion of the contents of Revelation 1:9-21. This episode is about 34 minutes long. Thanks for stopping by. Tell your friends about the Rain and Snow Skycast. Thanks, and may God bless you as you search His Scripture, jerry

Listen here: Resurrected Jesus among the Churches

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You can listen to the previous episode of the Rain and Snow Skycast, The unveiling of Jesus to the Church,  here:

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I’ve been trying to think about what I would like to preach this year. Back in November and December of ‘08, I wrote out two complete series of sermons-each 10 weeks long. I was ready for ‘09. Then, well, let’s just say there were some issues with my mouth and my pen and then, well, let’s just say that I won’t be preaching either of those series of sermons anytime soon. Sermon schedules aren’t that helpful when the preacher is being undone by the Spirit.

So that leaves me here, wondering, staring at snow and a computer monitor, drinking a cup of hot tea, contemplating…what shall I preach? What does my church need to hear? What do I need to wrestle with in prayer and what Scripture do I need to be confronted with over and over again so that it becomes the breath in my lungs and the blood in my veins and every waking thought in my head and heart? No, not that one!

Then on the way home from the gym this morning, I was suddenly overcome by a thought, one word, something I had toyed with but that seemed too convenient at the time. (I don’t suppose there is ever a convenient time to preach it.) I mean, of course I should preach about that. Always; who shouldn’t? It’s not that I don’t preach about it, every sermon I preached is infused with and under-girded by this. And I think also, at the same time, even though the thought has continued to regurgitate itself, I have been fighting against it. Seriously: there is a part of me that does not want to preach this. There is a part of me that thinks if I preach it now it might seem choreographed to justify myself or something silly like that. Strange that I cannot get beyond trying to discern the motives of others when I should really be examining my own motives.

Even now, I am afraid somewhat to post this, lest someone misunderstand MY motives. It is a terrible thing, it seems to me, to live for nothing other than trying to discern motives when even the apostle Paul didn’t care about motives.

William Willimon wrote, “Preachers, by the nature of their vocation, are those who speak because they have been told something to say. Can you imagine Paul pacing about his prison cell, agonizing because ‘I have nothing to say to First Church Corinth?’” (Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 47). We speak, he notes, because God has spoken. I am normally very organized in my preaching schedule. Right now I’m not. This is one of those times when I have to ‘not worry about what to say because the Holy Spirit is teaching me what to speak’ and, I am fighting it. I don’t want to preach what the Holy Spirit is telling me to preach. I want to preach from my neatly organized sermon schedules that are lying upon my desk, printed on nice clean paper, not from some fit of inspiration that certainly did not come from within me. He’s stalking me.

Seriously. I don’t want preach this word, but as I was on my way home from the gym this morning, was so overcome by this that I literally had to pull off the road. I’m not like that at all. I’m organized. I’m a planner. I want to know where I’m going and how I’m getting there. “Oh God, don’t do this to me. I don’t want to preach on that.” Christus Victor, yes! Resurrection, yes! Anything but this. But it is a losing battle. I can’t shake it. I’m defeated. I’m undone! It’s much easier to preach what I want, when I want. It’s much harder to listen and follow and preach what he commands.

“‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’

“‘Lord, where are you going?’”

Jesus commands us to love. Why? Because if it is not commanded we will likely not do it. Seriously, loving one another is hard work and not work we are likely to engage in if we don’t have to. How many of us make an effort to love the ‘least of these’? How many of us go out of our way to ‘love one another’?

I don’t want to preach on love, not now. How can I love now when I know there are ‘issues’ and when I feel like some haven’t loved me. It might seem too fake, too contrived, too choreographed. Right. Like preaching a ten-week series on church leadership isn’t contrived! Still, God is not being at all merciful to me right now. I don’t want to do this, but…

And here’s the worst part of it: I know he’s talking to me; first. I looked briefly at another blog yesterday (I won’t mention which one, but use your imagination) and saw that the top three posts on the front page were all scathing attacks against pastors, men who stand in a pulpit each week and proclaim the Gospel of Christ; imperfectly all, yes, but done nonetheless. And Christ empowers their words or he doesn’t. My heart broke when I saw those blog posts–vitriolic un-love against pastors of Christ’s Church. I am asked to love a person who has not a kind word for even these preachers? How can I do that?  “I don’t want to preach on love! I can’t preach on love! I am too angry to preach about something so redemptive, something so resurrection empowered, something so kingdom oriented as love. Can’t I just preach on something else. What words could come out of my mouth now about love?” That Hound of Heaven has me in his jaws and the more I wriggle around and excuse myself and justify my Jonah-like attitude about this sermon, the deeper in those jaws sink to my flesh and spirit.

Who cares if we don’t love one another? And how will preaching change any of that at all? Then I was slapped in the jaw with this: If we don’t love one another, how on earth are we going to love our enemies and the poor and those who persecute us? That is, if we don’t, won’t, or can’t love one another-those whom it should be easiest to love-then how on earth are we ever going to be able to love those it is the most difficult to love? Or, worse, if I cannot love those I can see in the flesh, then how can I ever begin to love the God whom I cannot see?

It is far easier, I think, to simply pretend that I love ‘one another’ and go on in life without any real level of commitment to those persons. Words can be terribly empty at times, can’t they? I think it is far more complicated and difficult to be obedient to the command to love one another when there is nothing to gain except a possible rejection. Yet the command is not abated or rescinded. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Wait until everything is A-OK and then love one another’ He just said, “Love one another” and he qualified this in no way at all. Love. We are the only ones who qualify love.

Paul wrote that ‘love keeps no records of wrongs,’ but that doesn’t mean love begins with a clean slate. It means that love wipes the slate clean and starts all over again-each second, each minute, each hour, each day. It means that I forgive 70 times 7 70 times 7 times a day. Do you understand why my flesh is rebelling against this? Jesus has commanded us to do the most difficult thing imaginable: Love one another. My God, I cannot love one another. Or maybe, I don’t want to. Either way, what you are asking Lord is too difficult. Lord, how do I love those and preach love to those that I am struggling to love right now and who are not struggling at all to love me? Is there room in the church for this love? Better: Can the church survive without it right now?

And I don’t want to preach it. I really don’t. Wouldn’t it be safer for all of us if we didn’t have to love those we are like and unlike? Wouldn’t it be safer if I didn’t have to extend and expend myself for someone else and take the risk that they might just be in need of love or that I am commanded to love regardless of reciprocation? Loving one another might mean I have to forgive or humble myself or repent or admit that I am wrong-sometimes even if I am not wrong. Loving one another might mean that I have do all that I can to secure peace even if means that I have to ‘be wrong’, which Paul seems to think is far better (1 Corinthians 6:7). What is impossible with man, is possible with God.

Why is it easier to love those outside the church than those inside it? Why does our flesh rebel against this command of Christ? Why is it that ‘loving one another’ has to be commanded in the first place? Well, I sure don’t understand that at all!

Jesus three times said, “Love one another.” Yet when he was finished Peter looked at him, I assume with a straight face, and said, “Lord where are you going?” You know why I don’t want to preach it, love, that is? That’s why. What Peter said, or what Peter asked. Right over his head what Jesus said.

And yet, Sunday’s sermon is already written. Now I am free to practice what I preach. Better, now I am free to love. That is, Jesus didn’t tell me to preach love, even though I should preach love. He told me to love. And he set no boundaries for doing so.

Semper Deo Gloria!

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.

Continue Reading »

Jesus Describes the Ideal Church
Genesis 6, Luke 7

I’d like to focus on Luke 7 today, but I will begin by pointing you to a great commentary on Genesis 6. Genesis 6 twice describes how God saw the earth and what it had become and what man had made it. Not only does the curse in Genesis 3 lead us to chapter 5 where death becomes the standard bearer for all of life, but it also leads us to chapter 6 where twice we read some variation of this: The earth was a wicked, terrible, horrifying place to be. Man didn’t learn from all the death he saw in chapter 5 and change his ways. Instead, he grew more and more sinful, more and more wicked, more and more vile. (See verses 5 & 11-12). For a superb commentary on this chapter, I suggest you watch the movie The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger’s Joker is, beyond doubt, the personification of Genesis 6. Genesis 6 is a story demonstrating that man is the problem. His heart has grown dark. If death is the King of an empire, sin has become his vassal; man has become his serf.

“Go back and tell John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Luke 7:22)

Jesus said, and it is recorded in what we call Luke 5:31, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” In this verse Jesus tells us what an ideal church looks like. In chapter 7 he begins to show us what an ideal church looks like. It is certainly not what we think an ideal church looks like. I imagine it is not anything like what those who heard him preach thought it looked like either. Who wants a church full of the outcasts and the devil’s rejects? You know how it is, people are used and abused by the devil, he promises to be their friend and when he is done destroying their lives—well, he is done with them. Then whatever is left of them is on display for all the world to see.

I think the reason Jesus doesn’t say something like, “I came to save everyone,” (even if it is implied) is twofold. First, the powerful, rich, and righteous really need no saving, do they? They are self-sufficient, self-reliant. They can save themselves and don’t need any help even if they do need help. Second, the poor, the sick, the weak, the broken—well, these are the ones who know they need help. I like William Willimon’s words…well, I’ll just let him tell you in his own words as he comments on Luke 10 and the parable of the good Samaritan:

“Like most of Scripture, the story of the man in the ditch is a story about God before it is a story about us, about the oddness of our salvation in Christ. I’ve used this interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan before, and I can tell you that my congregation didn’t like it. They like stories about themselves more than they like to hear stories about God. They are resourceful, educated, gifted people who don’t like to be cast in the role of the beaten poor man in the ditch. They would rather be the anything-but-poor Samaritan who does something nice for the less fortunate among us. In other words, they don’t like to admit that just possibly they need to be saved.

“I’m saying that more difficult even than reaching out to the victim in the ditch (which is hard enough for us) is coming to conceive of yourself as the victim, learning to live as if your one last hope is the Savior whom you tend to despise.

“When Jesus was criticized for the company he kept at table, he was clear that he saves only the abandoned and the dying…Jesus reacts to our situation in the ditch, not with more rules and regulations, not with harsh condemnation, but with a sort of love that can only be called reckless, extravagant, prodigal. There is, dare I say it, a kind of promiscuous love in his extroverted love.” (Who Will Be Saved?, 10-11)

Do we recognize ourselves as the people in the ditch? Those are the ones Jesus came to save.

So Jesus shows us what a church looks like, at least an ideal church. It consists of centurions—those powerful soldiers, Gentiles—who have faith; it’s full of grieving widows whose tears only Jesus has the courage to wipe away and the authority to command a halt to; it’s full of doubters like John the Baptizer who sometimes have second thoughts but won’t stumble; and it’s full of ‘sinful’ women who weep and are thought with no better words than ‘if he knew what kind of woman that was.’ These people Jesus can command to halt their tears (widow) and encourage their tears to flow freely (‘sinful woman’). He can pronounce the doubters (John) blessed who do not stumble and the faith-full (centurion) as models for the rest of us. (Oh, and don’t forget about the children Jesus has singing and dancing. I wonder if there is room for them?)

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.’

“Blessed is anyone who does not stumbled on account of me.” And stumbling over Jesus, this Jesus who welcomes into his embrace these kind of people, is quite the possibility and rather simple to do.

But blessed! This is his ideal church. A motley collection of people whom God came down to rescue, whom he brought up out of Egypt, whom he has set free. The ideal church; one that even I can belong to.

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.

Friends,

“My calling is to speak and to speak clearly. …If I wanted to be liked, I would be quiet.” –Karl Barth as quoted by William Willimon in Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 13

jerry

Interesting, very, very interesting.

Another pastoral implication is that human beings are not the source of our own salvation–or anybody else’s. It’s tough enough for me to know that I can’t save myself. But it’s also hard to believe (and perhaps this is a problem only for us pastors) that I am not the source of someone else’s salvation. I can tell the story, I can trot out my little arguments, I can sit with them and try to be a good example to them. I can go out into the night and seek them, but I am not the Christ. I’m only an ambassador. I witness under the conviction that Christ wants this life, that Christ is already active in this life long before I got there, and that Christ will continue to work in this life long after I’ve gone on to whatever Jesus has in store for me next. But only Jesus saves.

Sometimes we pastors try to be the messiahs for our people rather than to the the Messiah save them. In such moments we imply that their salvation is through a competent, capable pastor who enables them to get their act together. No. Salvation is allowing Jesus to intrude among us, as he is, rather than as we would have him to be. In my experience, any pastor who is overworked to the point of disillusionment and exhaustion is probably due for a refurbished soteriology.” (Who Will Be Saved? 130-131)

What, you mean the preacher not only cannot save people but isn’t even responsible to? Wow.

jerry

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