Thursday, August 18, 2016

Streams, Trees, and Gadgets

A few days ago I had lunch with Anne and her tennis buddies. At the table next to us was a pretty, well-dressed woman with her teen-aged son. He sat across the table from her with his smart phone on and his ear buds embedded, bobbing his head and offering an occasional surly grunt to her conversation. She obviously wanted to spend some time with him, but couldn’t get across the electronic divide. I felt sorry for her.

I need to make it clear that, in spite of my sarcasm about the technological revolution, I appreciate electronic progress. I obviously am using a computer right now, and am a regular Facebook denizen. I am at the age at which I am glad for medical advances. My concern is a common one: do we control our technology, or does it control us? Here is a test anyone can use to make that determination.

Drive to the mountains (I’m thinking Appalachians). Find a trail head. Leave anything that beeps, rings, chirps or flashes in the car. Walk on the trail @one mile. Turn off the trail and walk @100 yards, far enough to not be seen, but not far enough to lose the trail. Sit down with your back to a tree, be quiet, and listen.

Listen to the small sounds—chipmunks scurrying, birds fluttering in the brush, dead twigs falling on the forest floor. Absorb the fear that something larger than a chipmunk may be out there—that’s part of the experience. Listen to the stream bouncing over rocks somewhere downhill. Think about how young and excited it is, hurrying to grow and meet other streams, rushing into the flat lands where (not foreseen in its exuberance) it will become a river, flowing past cities where it will learn the taint of pollution, over the fall line, and as age creeps on, will slowly trudge through the marshes until it finds rest in the ocean.

Look up at the trees. They are God’s perfect worshipers. Rooted in the soil left by their predecessors, they strive for heaven and wave their branches at the slightest impulse of the wind—the ruach of God. If the wind blows while you are sitting, you are doubly blessed. If it rains on you, you are thrice blessed. Think of the blessings of nourishment and refreshing that come to you from heaven and from others. Acknowledge that you are small and dependent.

Get up, dust off your butt, go back to your car and reignite your gadgets. If you found the whole experiment distasteful and boring, you are in bondage to stuff. But if something ignited in you, if you enjoyed it, you may find that you have a heart instead of a circuit board.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Babel and the Glory of God

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

The Presbyterian church in which I was raised practiced what was for them a high church liturgy. I grew up with the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Doxology, and the Gloria Patri, quoted here in its old form. I still associate the word “glory” with the vacant spaces and smells of that old sanctuary, other-worldly and comforting at the same time. But as I’ve aged, I’ve found there is more to the word than a feeling. Let’s explore it for a bit.

We usually think of God’s glory as light, effulgence, radiance, that which is observable around that which is too bright to be seen directly. This is a redemptive concept, in that God condescends to reveal Himself in ways that we can perceive, while His very essence would overpower us. Certain groups of Christians, notably charismatics, center much of their worship around touching the glory of God and experiencing its healing and transforming power. This is a valid description of glory.

Of course, there is another, almost opposite, description. God is often portrayed in the Old Testament as dwelling in “clouds and thick darkness.” In the presence of sin and rebellion, God hides Himself and protects His absolute purity and holiness behind a veil. The cherubim that covered the mercy seat were not only his bright golden chariot, they were also His armed guards that shrouded Him in mists. This darkness in response to human depravity is also a valid form of His glory.

The Hebrew word for glory (kabadh) is instructive. Its root meaning is “to be heavy.” The feelings aroused by the word are similar to those felt by Isaiah in the presence of God: overwhelmed, smothered, not just humbled, but humiliated, at a loss, undone. We might call it oppressive. I prefer the term “ponderous.” It is insurmountable, fixed, immutable, an obstacle against which fallen man pounds his fists.

The New Testament also reveals this dual nature of the glory of God. The disciples saw the effulgent glory of the Son at His transfiguration and at the resurrection. But the disciples also encountered “clouds and thick darkness.” They were constantly confounded as their preconceptions and expectations crashed against the truth of Christ’s words and Person (“you have heard it said, but I say unto you…”). It wasn’t until the Holy Spirit opened their inner eyes through a new birth that they were able to “walk in the light as He is in the light.”

Culturally speaking, whether or not a people see the glory of God as light or darkness depends on their response to His revealed moral law and to the Christ who perfectly kept it on their behalf. A nation that openly flaunts its rebellion against God’s purposes will find Him resistant to theirs. I am one of those unlikable Christians who believes there is a relationship between the sins of the culture and the rise of violence within it. I will not bother to discuss those here. There is a deeper attitude from which they all spring.

That attitude is hubris, an arrogance that, after thousands of years, still afflicts humanity with an obsession with utopia. We can waste time debating whether our founding fathers were evangelicals or children of the Enlightenment, but whether they were influenced by the Reformation or by John Locke, they were anything but utopians. They envisioned government as a tool to protect us from one another so we could live free lives; hopefully, lives of service to God and to one another. In every way they tried to curtail unlimited authority, and never saw governmental (or ecclesiastical) authority as the chief means of achieving a utopian dream of human excellence.

I hear hubris at both ends of the political spectrum. One promises the brave new world of a universal village, seeking to answer Jack Nicholson’s clueless question, “Why can’t we all just get along?” The other is a new nationalism accompanied by a lot of chest thumping and grunts. Both make promises that can’t be kept. Both ignore the curse that hangs over man. I believe that God will honor a culture that above all lays down its arrogance, admits its limitations, and manifests some humility and the need for divine intervention.

God resists hubris because He will have no perfect kingdoms in competition with His own. He responds to it by surrounding it with His glory cloud of darkness. The result is the confusion of tongues. No man can understand his fellow. The stronger the arrogance, the more division and incoherence emerge. We are building a tower to heaven, and wonder why when we ask our neighbor to pass the hammer, he tosses us a brick. The cherubim are dispatching shadows.

Because God is always present, his glory is always with us. To the humble, it will be light and redemption; to the arrogant, clouds and darkness-- but the glory of God nonetheless.

Monday, June 27, 2016

A Short Blog About a Mountain

In June 2007 Anne and I flew to Seattle for a family gathering. We arrived at the airport around ten or eleven at night, rented a car, and headed down I-5 to find our motel. As I was driving and looking for road signs, I saw something above the highway that took my breath away—a huge white shape with a pinkish hue that demanded my attention and overpowered the landscape. I knew rationally that I was looking at Mt. Rainier. I knew that the northwest was famous for these old volcanoes that randomly dwarf the Cascades and their foothills. I also knew that we were there when the nights were shortest and that the mountain was reflecting a far off sunset.

So much for knowledge. Emotionally I was in a different place. I have to call my primary feeling fear. The thing was too big, too close, too smothering, too terribly out of place to someone who lived most of his life near the Appalachians. At the same time, I realized I was seeing something incredibly beautiful. I was drawn to it. It bordered on something personal, beyond rock and snow. There should have been a voice, or music.

OK. If you know me, you’re probably afraid I’ve imbibed to much Tolkien. But stay with me. What I realized then, and have again since, is that terror and beauty are not opposites; they are manifestations of the same experience, or of the same ultimate reality, of God; and it is the constant need of fallen humanity to deprive Him of both, to make Him tame and ugly.

God is to feared because He is immutable, unbending in His requirement that we keep His law, “who will by no means clear the guilty,” and who offers us forgiveness only because He meets the demands of His own justice, which never wavers. This is fear that arises out of the relationship of God and man.

But there is another reason we fear God. We understand that beauty is the quality that anything possesses as it moves toward its own ideal or its own perfection. The more something fulfills its purpose and becomes what it was meant to be, the more beautiful it is. God is the completely beautiful because He is completely perfect. That beauty is fearful because it uncovers our imperfection, but for those who love God, to behold the Terrible Beauty means to be transformed by it, to become what we were meant to be.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Paul and the Gap

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.

-1 Corinthians 2:1-5

Paul, who was usually confident and forceful, in this letter to the Corinthians described his attitude during his first visit to them as one of weakness and fear. Why would an apostle with such an assurance of the call of God confess weakness? He certainly was not intimidated by his hearers, because the rest of the epistle is a straightforward attack on their carnality and immaturity.

The underlying key to his fear was the fact that the Corinthian congregation was primarily Greek; folks who, though not with the sophistication of the Athenians, still revered and expected persuasiveness and rhetorical skill from their teachers. Paul had the training that made him capable of both.

His fear was that his ability as a preacher and theologian would get in the way of the pure gospel of the Lord Jesus. He knew that “plausible words of wisdom” would cloud the power of the Holy Spirit and, while tickling the minds of the Corinthians, would leave their souls empty. He knew that the release of the Spirit’s power to change hearts was directly connected to an accurate portrayal of what God had done not merely through Christ, but through “Christ crucified.” Paul could not allow his hearers for a moment the impression that Christ was a great teacher or example, or the logos only, or one emanation in the Gnostic chain of being.

Paul had to be perfectly clear about his message from the beginning. He had to present Christ to them as Son of God, redeemer, substitute, ransom, reconciler, savior, and Lord, but above all, Christ as crucified. Christ crucified was a brutal shock to the neat and orderly quest for beauty that existed in the Greek mind. It disturbed religious complacency and was an indication that there was something terribly wrong with humanity, so terrible that it needed a terrible remedy. Paul trembled because he wanted his preaching to be so true to the gospel that repentance and faith would follow, and no hearer would escape its clarity, or be misled by eloquence. And it is likely true that Paul wanted his own heart to be so full of the presence of Christ that he would not be tempted to fall back on his natural ability to explain and persuade.

This gap between the head and the heart continues to manifest itself in the life of the church. Several years ago I read about the number of pastors and church leaders who drop out of ministry in their fifties and sixties, not because of heresy or immorality, but because of burnout. The article stated that the ministries of these men had outrun their spiritual capacity. They had developed proper exegetical and rhetorical skills and learned to rely on them in the pulpit and in counsel, but on the inside their reliance on the Holy Spirit was neglected.

I also remember a discussion about this issue with my pastor in a former church, a man who fortunately understood about the gap. He said that many a preacher reads a text, runs it through the sieve of proper word study, proper theology, proper homiletics, and produces an impeccable intellectual creation with some appropriate illustrations to engage the emotions. But he seldom takes the time to let the Holy Spirit work the passage into his own heart to create repentance or joy or awe, and the hearers may learn something, but have not touched the life of God in their leader.

Of course the gap not only applies to leaders, but to all Christians. It’s sometimes referred to as the “evangelical disease:” the presumption that because I walked the aisle and prayed the prayer forty years ago, I must be OK with God even if I only give Him an occasional passing greeting. More simply, it’s the assumption that because I know something, I am living it.

Let me give a suggestion in light of the “impending distress.” The nation is in a mess within and without. Our great ship of state (forgive the clichés) has loosed its moorings and is floating in uncertainty. Everyone is thinking and analyzing overtime. The left, the right, the middle, and the lunatic fringe are shouting their agendas, and are less and less heard. But we don’t need just knowledge; we need light and life.

There is a short phrase in 1 Samuel 30: “And David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.” David was in distress. His family was in danger, he was homeless, and Israel was on the verge of losing a war. At a time when the logical thing was to figure things out, he turned from his mind to his heart and to a relationship that transcended circumstances. I wonder if the best thing Christians can do now is to leave the arguments that separate us from the culture and from each other, and turn to the glory of the person Christ, to strengthen ourselves in him—not just so we can achieve peace, but also so we can be refilled with the light and life that the world needs.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Word of Faith, Theology, and Jesus

The secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

-Deuteronomy 29:29

I’ve been wanting to do a blog on Word of Faith teaching, because I occasionally come across it, and it frankly makes me uncomfortable. I assume that my readers are familiar with it. In summary, it stresses that God is completely and inherently good; and prosperity, health, and well-being are the will of God for all people, especially Christians. The reason that we do not attain to his will is because of lack of faith and negative speech and attitudes. My difficulty with Faith teaching is that God becomes passive, a force whose goodness can be tapped by human effort. The times that I have tried it created more stress for me than peace.

I think of faith, not as a metaphysical force, but as trust (which is included in the Greek pistis). I also believe what to Faith teachers is a heresy: that there is a purpose for suffering in the Christian’s life. Trying to write about such emotional and deeply personal commitments on the part of some Christians is difficult. If I try to deal with the teaching itself, I will simply get on the hamster wheel of an endless argument that exists because there are deeper issues that have to be faced before we can get off the wheel. What is really at stake here is not how we can get things from God, but how we view Him. So allow me to indulge in some Systematic Theology before going any further.

When theologians talk about God, particularly God as Trinity, they first distinguish between the “economic” Trinity and the “essential” Trinity. “Economic” is not in this case a reference to finance. It comes from the Greek word for “house” or “household,” and refers to a self-contained system of order, the cosmos, or the world. My mother would have said it is a “high-fallutin’ word” for existence as we know it. When theologians speak of the economic Trinity, therefore, they mean God as he relates to mankind in judgment, redemption, and salvation. It has to do with the Trinity and its operations as they are revealed to us at our level of understanding. The “essential” Trinity, however, refers to God as He exists in Himself, shrouded in cloud and mystery, His “secret” self beyond our capacity to conceive or reason. Because God in His essence defies our understanding, we never contemplate the essential Trinity without confronting a paradox.

When the early church began to struggle with heretical definitions of the Godhead and produced the Nicene Creed, it presented us with an inevitable paradox. The Trinity is not three gods; it is not one God in three modes. The Trinity is three Persons in One Essence. No one has ever improved on the Nicene formula. If you can do better, you are wrong. Notice that Nicaea produced a creed, or a confession, but not an explanation. It was to be confessed, not understood. That is because it was a confrontation with the essential Trinity.

Likewise, Chalcedon produced a creed that dealt with the God-man nature of Christ. It confessed that Christ was fully man, fully God, without confusion of the natures, and yet existing as One Person. Again, a paradox, and a confession, not an explanation. Let me say this again: our understanding is necessary when facing God as judge and redeemer, but it fails us when facing God as God in His own inscrutable being. Additionally, we are required by truth to maintain the integrity of a divine paradox by refusing to choose either of its opposites at the expense of the other. Nicaea dealt with the paradox of the One and the Many, and Chalcedon with that of the human and the divine. In both cases orthodoxy required a balance, while heresy flourished at the extremes.

Systematic Theology may be no more than a continuation of the Norman plot to impose Latin words on us poor Anglo-Saxons. So let me state the above in short words, and paraphrase CS Lewis: divine paradoxes are like the ends of strings, and the two separate strings that we see hanging down before our eyes are actually the ends of the same string looped in the cloud above us, but we can’t see the loop. If we pull one end, the other disappears. It is safer to hold to both at once.

I think I started with some comments about the Word of Faith movement, so I should probably get back there. One theme runs through the teaching of the movement: it is always the will of God to see us healthy and wealthy. It should be evident now that as soon as an attribute as high and mysterious as the will of God is mentioned, we are back in the realm of the essential Trinity, and if so, we should expect to find a paradox; and that is exactly what we find. On one hand, if God wills something, that something will occur because God is God, but that something may not be what we classify as “good.” On the other hand, if God is good, and only wills the good, then the fact that the “good” does not always occur in our lives means that some other forces are at work to frustrate his will. Theology would call this the paradox of God’s Sovereignty and God’s Goodness.

As with other divine paradoxes, the dangers are at the extremes. Some Calvinists take sovereignty to such a degree that it become dour fatalism, and at its worst is callous and indifferent to human suffering. Goodness is redefined as whatever God chooses to do. Word of Faith teaching is at the other end. Because God wills the good, and it does not occur, then God is thwarted, and sovereignty passes from his hands into the hands of the believer who learns how to tap into the will of God. I believe both are errors.

I have now gone as far as Systematic Theology can carry us. It is after all, systematic. It can define how God relates to us, but is not itself relational. It can define the Persons of the Trinity, but is not personal. It can describe divine mysteries, but is not in the least mysterious. So since we are Christians, it might be a good idea to turn to Christ. And there we find something transcendent. Jesus apparently lived in what to us are paradoxes with no stress or difficulty at all. Take a look at this:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

Do you see that? Sovereignty and goodness at rest. No stress, no quest for balance, just peace. Jesus bundled up these attributes of God that perplex us into one word: “Father.” With that word, everything falls into place. What we treat as concepts are really aspects of a whole and intact Personality, and therefore we need fellowship with the Father more than we need answers (see 1 John 1: 1-4). In His presence fear of His purpose and my need to control Him both vanish.

But there is more. Christ not only pointed to the Father as the resolution of all paradoxes. He Himself became the resolution of all perceived contradictions. When He prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done,” sovereign predestination and redemptive goodness were united, all history paused at their union, and those things that we call extremes were absorbed into the great Center of the cross. Fatalism and our desire to manipulate God both died there.

My friends and I used to joke that the answer to every question we were asked in Sunday School was, “Jesus.” Maybe we really were not so far from the truth.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Old Testament and Some Other Stuff

I’ve developed a habit of reading the Bible when I get up in the morning. When I was young and zealous, I would read 3 chapters in the Old Testament, and 2 in the New. That way I would cover the Old Testament in a year, and the New two and a half times a year. Today I pretty much read one chapter in each Testament, and often not even that, because my mind goes up a rabbit trail before I get to the New Testament reading. I’ve fixed that by occasionally starting with the New Testament and wandering off before getting to the Old.

My point, from which I have already wandered, is that the Old Testament habitually frustrates me. That’s because I grew up sitting in a circle with a teacher holding up pictures of the Red Sea parting, or David holding Goliath’s head (the boys loved that, especially because the girls were grossed out). We learned that those Old Testament characters were super heroes who always obeyed God and dwelt in a supernatural realm that we would experience if we obeyed God too.

But my reading of the Old Testament as an adult has violated my expectations. Every page is filled with moral failures, rebellion, and unbelief. Adam falls. Abraham begets Ishmael. Jacob connives. Moses strikes the rock. The people indulge in pagan idolatry even before they get to the promised land. For four hundred years the nation shifts from idolatry to conquest to repentance and back again. Saul completely fails. David is a murderer and an adulterer. Solomon begins well but condones idolatry to keep his harem happy. The northern kingdom goes completely pagan. Its prophets whine and complain. Judah’s religious preferences depend on who’s on the throne at the time. And even after deportation and restoration, Nehemiah has to slap people around because of lapses against the Mosaic law. I’ve come to believe that Old Testament Judaism was definitely ordained by God simply because no one trying to manufacture a religion would portray its adherents in such a negative light. A charlatan would have given us the Sunday School Old Testament.

My frustration with the Old Testament is of course based on faulty expectations from my childhood. Let me suggest some other perceptions that have been a help to me. The first I gleaned from a former pastor who pointed out that the Old Testament (duh) is about God. He is the hero, and the only hero. Against a background of human depravity and failure he keeps showing up with unmerited grace and deliverance, for his own purposes. He pours out this grace on the nation, but also on individuals. Adam is clothed. Abraham receives the promise for his descendants. Jacob is humbled and becomes a prince of God. Moses sees God face to face. Israel enters the land under Joshua. God raises up deliverers in the period of the Judges. David becomes an example of humility and gives us the penitential Psalms. Solomon is given insights that passed to us through the Wisdom Literature. God does miracles in the lives of common people through the prophets of the northern kingdom. God moves a pagan ruler to bring Israel back from captivity and reestablishes his law through Ezra and Nehemiah.

The Old Testament is about extremes: darkness and light, life and death, depravity and mercy, sin and grace. I don’t like it, because I prefer the mediocrity of a sweet and predictable God with easy morals who tolerates about everything and kills giants. I would like to be Daniel without spending time in the lion’s den. The Old Testament tells me that God by definition is God, and he is an extremist. Extreme sin, extreme guilt, extreme failure on the human side; and extreme grace, forgiveness, and acceptance on his side. Without that perception, the Old Testament constantly frustrates my expectations.

Another concept that I bring to my understanding of the Old Testament is that of the Remnant. Paul states in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 that God makes “foolish the wisdom of the world,” and that God has chosen “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,” and “what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” God in building his kingdom by-passes what would be my obvious choices and calls out those least likely to be noticed as kingdom material at all. This was a pattern in the Old Testament. Israel is called out of the world. Judah is called out of Israel. David’s line is called out of Judah. At one point the prophet Elijah complained that he was the only faithful follower of God in the northern kingdom. God reminded him that there were still “seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal.” There is no indication that these seven thousand came from a particular class (prophets, priests), but were common folks scattered throughout Israel and known only to God. These unknowns apparently were in existence through Old Testament history, so that when we open the New Testament we find some of their spiritual descendants. After three hundred years of Greek and Roman influence, after all the corruption and intrigues of the Hasmonean period, we find some common folks who would argue with angels, but not for a moment question their existence (see Luke 1 and 2). These were salt of the earth, down to earth, maybe naïve, but stubborn believers in God. They represented the faithful Remnant.

I hope it is helpful for my reader to apply these presuppositions to his reading of the Old Testament. Now I’m faced with another question: do these presuppositions apply only to the Old Testament? It is common to blame the failures of its characters on incomplete revelation; that is, they behaved badly because they only knew types of shadows that pointed to the fullness that the New Testament revealed. By that argument, those who believed the gospel of Jesus lived instantly on a higher moral ground. I’m not so sure about that. Before the death of its first leaders, the church was dealing with moral depravity, heresy, infighting, struggles for power, legalism, mysticism, Gnosticism, pride of gifting and ministry, and party spirit. This seems a bit familiar.

Church history fairs no better: heresy, divisions, diverse traditions, powerful movements of God that hardened into monuments to the past, inquisitions, auto de fes, the Great Schism, the wars following the Reformation, my own English ancestors who slaughtered each other for forty years in a religious frenzy, and then sat down, had a cup of tea, and decided to all get along. It’s a bit embarrassing. Not to mention the American church, carrying the same divisions, but eschewing slaughter, limits itself to irritating one another on Facebook.

To be fair, there may be a deeper reason for this, perhaps locked in the New Testament itself. The gospel is so counter-intuitive, so alarming, so expansive, that no one human mind can take it all in. Hence, varieties of interpretations arise based on what part of the gospel one is focused upon. I have no idea what has happened to Bruce McLaren and Emergence (I feel no obligation to keep informed), but I do know that his A Generous Orthodoxy had an impact on me. In it he analyzed the strengths of the seven or eight major divisions of Christendom. When I finished, I realized that his outline was based on the whole Christ event—incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, second coming. Each division of the church focused on no more than two of these, but usually just one; the point being that there is a fullness of Christ expressed by the church universal, but compartmentalized.

But it is simply impossible to take all of Christendom into one’s heart and experience. The best we can do is to be faithful in our own tradition, but keep its walls porous. I grew up Presbyterian, and spent thirty years in the charismatic movement. That means that I am most comfortable with an esoteric group of charismatic Calvinists. Yes, they really are out there, under the suspicion of both charismatics and Calvinists: God’s tongue-speaking elect. I’ve tried other avenues, especially Anglicanism, which I dearly love. But I never could get the nuances, the inside humor, or the via media. I was outside looking in, hoping to find CS Lewis. So I’m back to the Puritans, although I will read Athanasius and St. John of the Cross out of reverence for traditions outside my own. (I do draw the line at Word of Faith books. I am not that porous.)

Thank God for blogging, which allows us to say whatever we want without documentation or the rigidity of a formal essay. I say that because I am aware that I am off my initial subject, and will now try to wander back.

Let’s go back to the alarming notion that God is God. History is exactly where he wants it, and it is moving according to his purposes. I am having trouble finding the exact word to describe how I think he works. “Sneaky” is not bad, “stealthy” might be better, but both are a bit pejorative. I prefer something more like “counter-intuitive” even though it is becoming a cliché. God seems to enjoy moving outside our boxes and definitions and structures. For instance, I have read, but not confirmed, that numbers of Moslems in the heart of the Middle East have had direct encounters with Isa through dreams and visions. As jihad expands, something unpredictable is going on at its center. Even if these reports are overstated, they are still a good example of not only God’s sovereignty, but of his sense of humor. As in the Old Testament, there is still in the world this contrast of sin, heresy, depravity, etc., and unmerited grace, mercy, deliverance working in the world, unexpected, unearned, and based solely on God’s desire to show off.

Likewise, the concept of the Remnant is equally valid in the New Testament age. While structures and confessions are absolutely necessary for the purity and continuation of the visible church, there is still a company within it who are united in love to Christ, and who are known only to Christ. They include a babushka before her icon, a nun with her rosary, a Pentecostal gentleman waving his handkerchief in the aisle, a Presbyterian seminary student struggling with Hebrew verbs, and a host more. These love God and leave a residue of love in the lives of others. They form the Kingdom of God. God sees them. They are the church. The external structures they represent, while necessary, are shadows to God. As in the Old Testament, God still has a remnant.

In summary: God is not worried. Everything is OK.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Grace and Offense

“Then David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her, and lay with her; and she bore a son, and called his name Solomon. And the Lord loved him, and sent a message to Nathan the prophet; so he called his name Jedidiah, because of the Lord.”

-2 Samuel 12: 24-25

Church folks are familiar with this story. David has firmly taken the throne of Israel and is expanding the kingdom, and is concluding a war with Ammon. While walking on the roof of the palace, he sees a woman bathing on a rooftop below. In an act of lust and power, he has her brought to his bed. She conceives a child, and in desperation, David recalls her husband Uriah from the war, hoping that he will sleep with his wife, and the child can be passed off as his. Uriah as an honorable man refuses to take advantage of the amenities of home while his fellow soldiers are in the field. David has him killed in the subsequent battle and takes Bathsheba into the palace.

Nathan the prophet confronts David (who repents) and predicts the death of the child and a season of discipline at the hand of God. The child dies, and a series of disasters fall on David’s family and the kingdom: rape, fratricide, an attempted coup and the death of Absalom, and recurring rebellion and tension between Judah and the other tribes of Israel. David bears with all this patiently. But the innocence of the “sweet psalmist” and the humility he manifested during Saul’s reign are sullied.

In the middle of the author’s narrative comes the passage I quoted above. It is counter-intuitive and breaks the logical flow of the story. Bathsheba is called David’s “wife,” indicating that both God and the prophet accepted her new status. Bathsheba becomes queen (earlier wives are not mentioned), and becomes an influence at court in David’s latter reign and the beginning of Solomon’s. In addition, her second “legal” child is special to God and called Jedidiah (“beloved of God”) by the prophet, and is heir apparent to the throne. If we were to “type” this passage, we would say that God is comforting David with a coming day of peace (“Solomon” is a derivative of shalom), pointing to the final eschatological kingdom of the Messiah, and a promise that David’s line would continue forever.

My teachers of old told me to never to preach a sermon or do a Bible study without a practical application. OK. But at that point we run into several dangers. One of the most common ways to apply the gritty stories of the Old Testament is to moralize, to look for some timeless (but trite) truth that we can apply to our own lives. Sunday School teachers of small children have reinforced this approach for decades. The moral of the story of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar is that we should never run ahead of God. David and Goliath teach us that even the weakest person can overcome huge obstacles. Daniel in the lions’ den warns us to be faithful to God no matter what (I never heard the part about the children of Daniel’s persecutors whose bone were broken before they hit the floor). The moral point of the passage we are considering is that no matter how tough times get, there is a bright future.

Moralising is a shallow way to deal with earthy biblical passages, and can be found in any secular self-help literature. A much safer and rewarding approach to Old Testament interpretation is to see God, not the human characters, as the central actor in the biblical narrative. Since the Bible declares itself to be the Word of God, it only makes sense to look for what it tells us about Him. And since Jesus is declared to be the living Word, it is correct exegesis to look for Him through its pages, including the old covenant. I have already alluded to the fact that Christ is revealed through the reign of the “king of peace,” and that there is a hint of the coming of Messiah in the propagation of David’s line. In addition, David himself is a representation of a coming Priest-King. There is also a fresh revelation of the grace of God manifested in the midst of human sin. One might even make reference to the doctrine of election.

All these theological points exceed moralizing, but I want to suggest that while they satisfy the intellect, the Word of God has not yet reached the heart. There is still one more interpretive step. The next question is not “What do I think?” but “How do I engage personally with Christ in the text?” At this point I have to ask how I really feel when I read 2 Samuel 12:24-25. And I have to answer: I feel irritated. I know it is politically incorrect to quote Gone with the Wind, but my response at first is, “It ain’t fittin’, it ain’t fittin’, it just ain’t fittin'." It is not just right of God to exalt the child of a relationship that began in murder and adultery. It is not right to raise the woman involved into a place of preeminence. It is not right for David not to be impeached, deposed, or stoned. It is obviously not right for God to bring such grace into the midst of such wickedness. Every time I read this passage, the Pharisee in me rises up not only in indignation, but with anger at God. Now I am getting somewhere. The Word of God has backed me in to corner and said, “Gotcha!” Now the Word has exposed my heart.

I also feel surprised; surprised by an unwarranted, unmerited, bright and shining grace that obliterates all the darkness of lust and evil intent. I am consequently forced to back off and sulk, or accept the impossible reality that you and I are Jedidiah, beloved in spite of and far beyond our dark histories, because a greater than Solomon has come.