Monthly Archives: April 2012

Mark’s Gospel on Cultivating Discernment

In Mark’s Gospel, the temple in Jerusalem becomes the object of God’s judgment.  The temple apparatus had become a system of oppression and exploitation rather than a means of blessing for God’s people and for the nations.

Jesus wants his disciples to discern the temple’s true condition and Mark wants his readers to do the same.

On his way to Jerusalem to violently perform God’s judgment in the temple, Jesus curses a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14).  The cursed and withered tree is to be the interpretive lens through which Jesus’ disciples—and Mark’s readers—understand God’s opinion of the temple.  It’s a corrupt institution and its overpowering stature and beauty mask its rotten soul.

Mark makes sure that his readers closely associate the cursed fig tree and the judged temple.

He follows Jesus’ action in the temple with this in vv. 20-21:

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!”

So Mark frames Jesus’ temple action with the cursed fig tree.

But there’s one more very subtle detail.  Mark notes that Peter remembers Jesus cursing the fig tree, and this is a tip-off to readers that they need to keep it in mind as they read the rest of the Gospel.  They, too, must remember this perspective on the temple.

Readers should recall this passage when a disciple says something very similar to Peter’s words regarding the fig tree.  Mark 13 opens this way:

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

The “look, Teacher!” of 13:1 should call to mind the “Rabbi, look!” of 11:21.  Alert readers will know that this disciple’s perspective needs correction.  He’s overawed by the temple’s immediately impressive grandeur.

If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem, you’ll know that this is easy to do.  The temple platform and its massive stones are simply astonishing.

Mark, however, wants his readers to gain discernment, to see through immediate appearances to the temple’s inner reality.

The system of oppression that prevents people from truly encountering God and experiencing shalom is protected by a shiny and impressive outer façade.  It’s so lovely, it can’t be a devouring monster, an evil and oppressive beast!  Look how impressive it is, how efficiently it is run!  God must be pleased with it!

Readers of Mark—and churches that read Mark together—must cultivate this discernment, too, learning to see through immediate appearances to the reality of their own tendencies toward corruption.

According to Mark, the stakes are high: If buildings and institutions become systems of oppression, they abide under God’s curse.


The Elusiveness of the Kingdom: A Homily

*Originally given at Midtown Christian Community, Sept. 4, 2010

Mark 11 shows us some of the ways, patterns, and dynamics of the Kingdom of God.  It also reveals to us some of the ways that we end up missing what the King and the Kingdom are all about.

Last week I quoted from U2’s The Wanderer: “I stopped outside the church house where the citizens like to sit; they say they want the Kingdom, but they don’t want God in it.”

Everyone in Mark wants God’s Kingdom.  The question is how the Kingdom comes, and how people participate here and now in God’s Kingdom reality.

The Kingdom of God is elusive in Mark.  Quite often throughout this Gospel the people who should be getting on board with Jesus just don’t get him.  They can’t comprehend what he’s saying and what he’s all about.  The problem is not that Jesus is saying all sorts of mysterious things—though sometimes we read what he does and we’re like, “what on earth is he doing cursing a fig tree!?”  But it’s not that he’s doing and saying mysterious things that causes people to miss what he’s all about.

What causes people to miss it is that they are so blinded by their own desires, by their own preconceptions of what the kingdom of God must be like that they miss it when Jesus talks about God’s agenda and what that means for Jesus.

We see this in Mark 8:31-32:

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

“I’m sorry, Jesus, what was that little bit about being killed!?  Let’s rewind and start that again.  I think you’re reading from the wrong script!  That is not how this goes!  There’s no dying or betraying or being killed!  We go to Jerusalem, take over, slaughter the Romans, and set up the Kingdom and enjoy God’s blessing upon his people.  That’s how this thing turns out, got it?”

But Jesus turns to Peter and says loudly so that everyone can hear, “Get behind me, Satan!” 

Why does Jesus rebuke Peter?  Is it because Peter is steppin’ up on Jesus and Jesus wants to put him in his place?  Not at all.  He rebukes him harshly because Peter “does not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” 

Remember, Peter is not saying, “hey, forget about the Kingdom, let’s do something really interesting with your divine power!”  No, Peter wants the Kingdom.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is that he wants it to be brought about in the wrong way.

Peter is plotting to bring in the Kingdom exactly how humanity would do it—through power; triumphalism; a show of force; domination of enemies; revenge; payback to those who have dominated and exploited us for so long.

So Jesus has already told them about the Kingdom and has already corrected their desires and their vision of what the Kingdom must be and how it must come.  But we’re going to see here how people tend to miss what the Kingdom is about—how the Kingdom of God is elusive—unless our hearts are attuned rightly and our eyes and ears are open for the right things.

Now, as we think through this narrative, I want you to try some good Bible reading practice.  We are not so much interested in what Mark has to say here simply because it’s just so fascinating.  We want this chapter of Mark to move into our fellowship and do some work, to do some damage, and then do some redemptive repair work.  In order for that to happen, we need to do our part.  I want all of us to put ourselves in the place of the disciples and the crowd in the first 11 verses or so, and then I want us to consider ourselves as the chief priests and the teachers of the Law in the second portion of the chapter.  This may allow us to see how Jesus wants to work in our community to help identify misplaced desires, wrong expectations and notions of what the Kingdom of God among us looks like.

Our aim in studying Mark is not to see how stupid the disciples and the other characters are, but to see how we are people who need to be changed and transformed.

We’re at something of a crossroads in the story of Midtown, and this may be a good time to lift up the hood on how we’re thinking about being Midtown in order to let God truly go to work to identify foolish ways of thinking and of desiring so that we can all truly enjoy God’s presence among us.

I want to identify three ways in this passage that the Kingdom of God is missed, or misunderstood, and perhaps as we see these, you will notice that they have analogies in our own lives and in our own fellowship.  Let’s discuss those and if you see other things here in this wonderful yet bizarre passage, we can discuss those, too.

First, we have what we might call “Jesus’ Pathetic Entry” in the first 11 verses.  Now, that may sound offensive to you, but I think that’s how Mark crafted this passage.  Pay attention to the details: Jesus rides in on a colt; a young horse.  Notice what he is not riding in on—a stallion.

Centuries before, Judas Maccabeus entered Jerusalem riding a glorious stallion and leading a huge army.  A few decades later, Simon Maccabeus entered Jerusalem and was hailed with the following: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord to provide salvation to Jerusalem!”

This scene is pretty familiar in Jewish memory.  In fact what’s happening in Mark 11 is not at all what we might imagine.  Jesus isn’t making a triumphant entry at all.  He’s purposely making a ridiculous entry, one that is completely consistent with what he’s been all about from the beginning of his ministry.

He had told his disciples that he’s going to Jerusalem for a confrontation, betrayal, and death.  And he’s going to bring in the Kingdom through doing what’s right, suffering the murderous wrath of the perverted and exploitative religious establishment, and being raised from the dead by God.

So Jesus isn’t triumphant here at all.  He asks for a colt—kinda pathetic.  But his disciples and others are still holding on to their hopes for triumph.  So they drum up local support, try to whip up the crowds into messianic fever and make acclamations that would be suited for the epic heroes from ages past.

They shout: “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”  These are not genuine responses that Jesus is looking for at all—they are expressions demanding that Jesus conform to their agenda.

Note two small details in the text.  First, where are the people in relation to Jesus?  Ahead of him and following him.  Mark notes very purposefully that nobody is “with” him.  A small detail in Mark that does not have merely to do with where everyone is standing.  Mark means to indicate that no one is on board with Jesus’ agenda.

And what is Jesus’ response?  What’s he doing?  I always imagined him doing the royal wave.  Nope.  If anything, he’s probably shaking his head.  “You still don’t get it.”  Mark notes no response.  He just continues on his way.

Remember, Jesus has been saying over and over what’s ahead of him in Jerusalem, right?  “I’m going to Jerusalem to be rejected and put to death.  My Kingdom comes through self-giving and servant-hood, unto death, and not through grabbing for power or self-assertion.  You will know that I am King when I’m a withering corpse on the cross, and when God raises me from the dead.  And the way that you enact the Kingdom and participate in my joy is through self-sacrifice, service to the poor, and through broken prayer to your father in heaven.”

The Kingdom is elusive—not because Jesus is unclear, but because our desires are so powerful that they cloud our vision.  We are constantly making Jesus into our own image, making him the servant of our agendas.  We are just like the disciples, trying to turn Jesus’ “pathetic entry” into something that’s glorious, impressive, something that will make us look good.

We find a second way that the Kingdom is elusive in the second half of this chapter.  Jesus then goes into Jerusalem and does two of the most bizarre things in the Gospels—he curses the fig tree and then goes into the Temple to clear it out.  We call it a “cleansing,” but that’s a misrepresentation of what Jesus is doing.

Well, what on earth is Jesus doing!?  Did he just have a bad day and decide to go all Tonya Harding on a fig tree and Herod’s Temple?

Jesus’ actions are symbolic of the Temple’s coming destruction.  The religious system that God himself had set up was meant for good.  As Jesus said, it was meant to be a house of prayer.  But not only that, the Temple was supposed to be a missional temple—a “house of prayer for all the nations.”

Israel was called to be the people who received God’s blessing with great joy and thanksgiving, and then turned to radiate that blessing all around them.  That meant sharing good things with the poor, the orphan, and the widow.  And that meant forming risky and open-ended relationships with other nations.  It meant being a nation of self-sacrifice and self-giving, having faith that sharing what they had meant receiving more from God.  After all, God owns everything.  If we give away what we have and share it with others, there’s an infinite store that God works from and there’ll be plenty more to enjoy.  They were supposed to make it easy for outsiders to come to the Temple to encounter God, and a delight to come to Jerusalem to celebrate God’s universal reign of blessing and plenty.

That never happened.  Israel joyfully celebrated receiving God’s love and then went about fortifying their borders so that they never met outsiders.  Then they cut off the poor, the orphan, and the widow.  After all, if something is wrong in their life, that’s probably a sign that God is disappointed in them.  They shouldn’t be in the Temple anyway!

And the Temple administrative apparatus began to be exploitative, taxing the poor and charging huge prices for sacrificial animals.  The God-business was lucrative.  Forget being a self-sacrificial people!!  That’s a bear market—what’s the point!?

So Jesus performs a parable of judgment and then speaks a parable of judgment.  In the Old Testament, the God of Israel would show up to his vineyard and examine the fruit.  If there was no fruit in the vineyard, then the people would be judged.  That is, if they were not being the joyfully self-expending people that God wanted to make them, they would be cast out of the land into exile.  So Jesus performs what God would do.  He enters Jerusalem, looks around and leaves.  His impending word of judgment is foreshadowed by his examination of the fig tree—it has no fruit.  So it is cursed.  This action looks ahead to what Jesus is about to do in Jerusalem.  He’s about to curse it and hand it over to judgment because it has no fruit.

Something very similar had happened in the Old Testament, in Jeremiah’s day.  Jeremiah’s judgment on it was, “I’m going to destroy this temple and send you into exile; you have made it into a den of thieves.”

So when Jesus says to them, “you have turned my house into a den of thieves,” why are the religious leaders furious at him?

Not only because of Jesus’ verdict on them, but because it means the Temple is going to be destroyed.

So here, we see that the religious leaders have the same problem.  The Kingdom has proved  elusive to them because of their greed.  They have tried to stop up God’s blessing, to hoard it for themselves.  God’s verdict?  Destruction.

The third instance of how the Kingdom is elusive is when it comes to prayer.  And I think we can turn the spotlight off the disciples and the leaders and turn it on ourselves—or, maybe on me, if you’re not nearly as self-oriented and self-focused as I am.

This passage finishes with Jesus’ note about prayer.  I have to admit, I’ve always read this in terms of prayer in general.  Jesus is talking about praying with great faith and asking for wildly outrageous things—“I so badly want a sports car, God, and I have the great faith to know that  you’ll give it to me!” 

More cruelly, we can think of things that seriously hurt us or cause us pain—“Please God, take it away, fix this problem!”

…. and nothing happens ….

But Jesus isn’t talking about prayer in general here, and he isn’t talking about faith in general, either.  The disciples remind Jesus of the fig tree and he tells them, “Have faith in God!”

In the near context, there’s a group of people who are not having faith in God—the Temple authorities.  They are being unfaithful, treasonous to God!

Then Jesus says that they will be able to say to this mountain, be tossed into the sea!  And it will happen!  Jesus is not talking about magical abilities to do sorcery, is he? 

In the context, the mountain is the temple; it is the obstacle to God flooding his people and the world with his blessing.

So, Jesus is saying, “No longer is that building the site where God encounters humanity.  It’s corrupt and about to be destroyed.  You rag-tag, knuckle-headed bunch of disciples are the group that God wants to turn into his new agency for blessing the world, and if there are obstacles among you to that happening, pray that God would remove them, and he will do it!”

That’s precisely the opposite of how I’d normally read this passage.  I want to read it so that God will fulfill all my desires.  But Jesus means that if my desires and selfish plans are in the way of God making this community what it can be, pray that God will transform me and purify my desires God will do it!

And what’s the practical application of this that Jesus makes?

Forgiveness. 

The most immediate way that Midtown can enact being the agency of God’s life on earth is by loving each other, forgiving each other.

As I’ve mentioned, Midtown is at a crossroads.  We’re not sure what the future holds.  But one way we can guarantee that we will wither like a fig tree and will not become a community of flourishing is by pointing fingers and blaming one another. 

If we do that, we’re done.  If we do that and Jesus were to show up, he’d throw over the BBQ grill and toss our tables around as a sign that God is on his way to judge.

But if we’re a broken people, praying for God to give us renewed hearts, renewed minds, Gospel eyes and ears, then God truly can work among us to give us life, to make us flourish, and to use us in ever-so-small ways to be a blessing to Springfield for the glory of King Jesus.

Amen.


Prayer for the Weekend

O Ruler of the universe, Lord God,
great deeds are they that you have done,
surpassing human understanding.
Your ways are ways of righteousness and truth.
O King of all the ages,
who can fail to do you homage, Lord,
and sing the praises of your Name?
For you only are the Holy One.
All nations will draw near and fall down before you,
because your just and holy works have been revealed.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Speaking Frankly When We’re Wrong

A few days ago, Metta World Peace (it’s just so hard to write that and not laugh) of the Los Angeles Lakers hit James Harden of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the head with an elbow.

He claimed afterward that it was accidental.  It was part of his celebration of the previous play, and Harden just happened to be in the way.

“It was bad timing for me and then, physically, it was bad timing for Mr. Harden,” World Peace said after practice was over. “Who can write up a left-hand dunk and then all of the sudden somebody is right behind you? It’s hard to draw that up and to plan something like that. It was just the worst timing for me.”

Watching the video of the incident, it’s hard to believe in World Peace (sorry, can’t resist).

Much of this is seriously uninteresting.  World Peace (formerly, Ron Artest) is a thug and a hopeless attention-seeker.  In 2004, after sparking the worst arena-wide brawl in NBA history, he went on radio talk-shows hawking his rap CD.

What I do find interesting, however, are the tortured justifications of an obviously intentional and brutal action.  I say this because I have the same tendencies toward self-preservation that drive me to try to evade the truth and obfuscate in order to escape blame.

I have found that when I’m wrong—when I’ve spoken hurtful words or behaved selfishly—I enact World Peace (alright, that’s enough).

When I’m wrong, my heart races with self-justifying impulses and my mind frantically casts about with strategies for self-preservation.

And I look just as stupid.

The impulse for self-preservation—trying to preseve as much dignity as possible—prevents genuine reconciliation.

True freedom and genuine reconciliation are possible only when I speak frankly.  However painful it is, I need to speak honestly about what I’ve done and ask for forgiveness.  That sort of truth-speaking opens up hope and clears the way for reconciliation.

It satisfies the heart of the one I’ve wronged and it’s the only way to open up roads of redemption.


Evangelical Resistance to the Gospels: How & Why

A few days ago, I wrote that Christian people, evangelicals included, have developed the terribly unfortunate habit of misreading the Gospels.

It goes beyond unintentionally cultivated habits.  I think that reading the Gospels for what they’re really saying threatens to upset and destabilize our church community dynamics that have become predictable and comfortable.  Contemporary Christians—evangelicals included—are too threatened by the Gospels to read them for what they’re actually saying.

Resistance to the Gospels takes many forms and happens for various reasons.  We’ve noted in the comments some of the forms resistance takes over the last few days (e.g., older premillennial dispensationalism, some forms of a Law/Gospel contrast). 

Here are a few more.

I can recall our Gospels-resistance reading strategies from Bible studies in high school and college.  We would encounter a challenging statement of Jesus, such as that in Luke 14:12-15:

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Realizing that Jesus very clearly says to invite the poor and those of shameful social status, we would fall silent and then ask, “what do you think Jesus means by this?”

Inevitably, someone would say, “I think Jesus is referring to our hearts—that we should have willing hearts in case we’re ever called to serve.”

This is a familiar strategy, one I’ve encountered (and used myself) many times.  We stare at the clear words of Jesus that challenge our well-established social patterns and community dynamics, and we flinch.  We relegate Jesus’ commands to motive-purification, ignoring that he’s calling for purposeful transformation of actual social practices.

N. T. Wright is dead-on when he says that evangelicals are Bultmannian when it comes to the Gospels (How God Became King, pp. 22-23).  Bultmann sought to strip away the “husk” of the historical details of the Gospels in order to get to the “kernel” of theological truth the Gospels writers were really communicating.

We strip away the “husk” of Jesus’ clear words to find the spiritual “kernel” that we apply to our hearts and motives. 

This is a reading strategy whereby we keep Jesus safely tucked away in our hearts, self-satisfied with our piety.  But we intentionally avoid doing what he says with our bodies, social practices, and community dynamics.

It’s too threatening.  If we actually did the things Jesus says to do, we’d have to change, and we just don’t want to.

Another example, not so much of why Gospel-resistance happens, but how.  Several years ago, a senior colleague confronted me angrily about something I had written.  He quoted to me the following passage from a paper I had presented on racial reconciliation:

[The gospel is] the announcement of the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom of God—the announcement that God has come in Jesus to begin his work of reclaiming and redeeming the world, which begins with a redeemed people—a holy people who will manifest, in their social practices, the very life of God on earth.

He demanded to know where I could have gotten such a statement.  I thought he was joking.  He wasn’t.

I told him I got it from reading the Gospels.  He brushed that aside, insisting that this was a sign that I was “emergent.”

I’ve had a number of conversations like that more recently.  I spoke to one person about the church embodying Kingdom life through transforming corporate practices.  He told me that was the “social gospel,” a distraction from the mission of the church.

I said to another that based on a certain text in Mark, Jesus calls the church to take uncomfortable steps of faith—to go beyond what is familiar—in order to enact the Kingdom of God.  He asked me for a few examples, so I suggested that he and a few of his friends initiate a church-based urban mentoring program, looking after some junior high boys who don’t have fathers.

He told me that “sounded emergent.”

I asked him if he thought a more effective demonstration of faith would be getting together with his friends and praying for impossible things.  He nodded. 

After a brief pause, he smiled and said that he may have been speaking out of his theological conditioning, admitting that he doesn’t want to be pushed out of his comfort zone.

We could go on for quite some time giving examples from a variety of theological perspectives and Christian traditions of ways we manage to resist hearing what the Gospels are saying.  My sense is that many of us feel deep-down that there’s too much at stake–our comfort, the predictability of our church community life, our positions of influence, our entrenched interests. 

All of those are threatened by taking the Gospels seriously and letting them radically sift, reorder, and transform the community dynamics and social patterns of our churches.

It’s easier to relegate their clear message to the “safe zone” of our hearts and label calls to actually obey them as “liberal,” “emergent,” or “social gospel.” 

Or, here’s a new one: “That’s something N. T. Wright would say.”


Feast of St. Mark, the Evangelist

In the church calendar, today is the Feast of St. Mark, the Gospel writer.  I’m not sure it’s appropriate to say, but Mark is currently my favorite Gospel.

Mark 1:1-15 is the Gospel text for today, and below is the prayer.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way—a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Almighty God, by the hand of Mark the evangelist you have given to your Church the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God: We thank you for this witness, and pray that we may be firmly grounded in its truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


A Reason for Misreading the Gospels

I agree with N. T. Wright that modern Christians tend to misread the Gospels.  I think there are many reasons for this and many ways in which it happens.

One instance of it is how we miss that the story of Israel and the reality of the Kingdom of God are central for the Gospel writers.

Personal conversion, or individual response, to the proclamation of “the gospel of the Kingdom” is indeed necessary.  But this expectation of obedient response is a call to repent and enter the Kingdom of God, the new reality that creates new individuals, new communities, new patterns of life, new relationships, new uses of personal property, new social patterns, and new relational dynamics—all under the gracious reign of a radically different sort of King.

That corporate reality was to be the realization of all that God called Israel to be in the Scriptures—a corporate people that embodied in its national social patterns, economic behaviors, housing policies, and agricultural practices the very life of the Creator God on earth.

The Gospels have everything to do with God’s vision for Israel and its fulfillment in the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and therefore, the Gospels have everything to do with renewed holistic human behaviors.

In my opinion, Christians miss the story of Israel and the reality of the Kingdom of God when we read the Gospels because it’s far easier to cultivate private piety than to participate in and play a role in bringing about community transformation.

I think Christians have learned to misread the Gospels in order to avoid Jesus’ demands for ongoing repentance and change of life on individual and corporate church levels.

Resistance to hearing and reading the Gospels faithfully is pervasive in evangelical Christianity.  This is partly due to well-worn practices—we’re just not used to seeing these dominant realities there. 

I would suggest, however, that another major factor is that seeing these realities threatens to upset and destabilize our church community dynamics that have become very predictable and comfortable.  Very simply, contemporary Christians—evangelicals included—are too threatened by the Gospels to read them for what they’re actually saying.


Reading the Gospels without Israel

One of the concrete ways that Christians misread the Gospels is by reading them without reference to Israel’s story.  When we open the pages of the New Testament, we are not encountering a beginning.  The Gospels are part of another story that is already well on its way.  They claim to bring the story of Israel to its completion—the story of the God of Israel and his relation to his people and his commitment to reclaim the nations through them.

N. T. Wright elaborates on this missing element in Christians readings of the Gospels:

The problem is that we have all read the gospels, if we haven’t been careful, simply as God’s answer to the plight of the human race in general.  The implied backstory hasn’t been the story of Abraham, of Moses, of David, of the prophets; it’s been the story of Adam and Eve, of “Everyman,” sinning and dying and needing to be redeemed.  Israel’s story sneaks in alongside, in this version, in order merely to offer some advance promises, some hints and signposts.  But the story of Israel itself, for most modern readers of the Bible, is to be quietly left aside.  It was part of the problem, not part of the solution.  It seems, after all, to be so dark—such a failure, such a disappointment. . .

But when we turn to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John we discover that they at least think it’s important to re-tell the history of Israel and to show that the story of Jesus is the story in which that long history, warts and all, reaches its God-ordained climax (p. 67).

The gospel writers saw the events concerning Jesus, particularly his kingdom-inaugurating life, death, and resurrection, not just as isolated events to which remote prophets might have distantly pointed.  They saw those events as bringing the long story of Israel to its proper goal, even though that long story had apparently become lost, stuck, and all but forgotten (p. 73).

But why is the story of Israel so important?

In Israel’s scriptures, the reason Israel’s story matters is that the creator of the world has chosen and called Israel to be the people through whom he will redeem the world.  The call of Abraham is the answer to the sin of Adam.  Israel’s story is thus the microcosm and beating heart of the world’s story, but also its ultimate saving energy.  What God does for Israel is what God is doing in relation to the whole world.  That is what it meant to be Israel, to be the people who, for better and worse, carried the destiny of the world on their shoulders.  Grasp that, and you have a pathway into the heart of the New Testament (pp. 73-74).


Embodying Resurrection: A Homily

*Given at Midtown Christian Community, May 2, 2010

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18
Revelation 19:1,4-9
John 13:31-35
Psalm 145

Last week we talked about how we live in the shadow of Easter.  The resurrection isn’t just an event that happened a long time ago, it’s a reality that stands over us, holds us up, gives us life, changes our lives, gives us hope.  We said last week that the question isn’t, “Did it happen?”  But, “what happened, when it happened?”  There are many windows into the resurrection, so many ways in which it is significant.  Throughout the Easter season, which runs for some weeks past Easter Sunday, we ponder some of the ways in which the resurrection is important.

Our passages for this week will provide us yet another window into the resurrection, giving us a new and fresh perspective on what God did in raising Jesus from the dead.  These passages invite us to think about the resurrection from the big story of what is going on in the world. 

It all starts with how much God loves his world.  His heart is for this world and he loves to show his goodness to his creation.  God longs for the world to enjoy his life and blessing.  This was God’s original intention for his world—that the world would enjoy his life and love and his life-giving presence.  In fact, that’s what normal human existence would look like.  God intended for the world to be his temple, and God’s presence was supposed to be everywhere.  And people were designed to enjoy God’s world and God’s presence and one another.  We were to worship God by being like God, only it would look less like God being God—it would be humans imitating God.  God loves his world and loves enjoying it.  And people were supposed to do the same thing.  We were supposed to notice the wonders of God’s world and say, “isn’t that amazing!  Hey look, a huge fish!  Oh wow, a sweet waterfall!”  When we acted like this, God’s heart would soar and he would thrill at our enjoying how wonderful his world was. 

God wanted people to enjoy his creation and to enjoy one another.  Serving and loving others would have been normal.  Doing good and honoring one another was just the way things were supposed to work out.

Now, we all know that’s not at all how things work in our world, right?  We don’t naturally love one another.  We don’t serve others.  We’re selfish.  Unkind to one another.  We hurt each other.  We think only about our own needs and desires.  We are impatient.  We slander one another.  If someone else gets hurt because I get what I want, that’s fine.  That’s just how it goes.

But God isn’t satisfied with that.  Because creation is in this kind of broken condition, and because people treat each other like this, God’s heart is broken.  He can’t stand it.  He longs for creation to enjoy his life and goodness and presence.  We see this in the psalm.  Our God loves to do good.

Because God is this kind of God—because he longs for people to enjoy him and one another and to have a blast being in his world, a long time ago God called Israel to be a nation that would help him fix creation.  God desired to call the nations of the world back to himself, to start enjoying the world again.  So God called Israel to be a “holy” nation.  As it says in Leviticus, God told Israel that he was “holy,” so they were supposed to be “holy.”  And holiness means “different.”  God is a different kind of God than any other god.  The one true God is unlike all the other gods in the world.

Typically the gods of the nations are nasty gods.  They are selfish and have very small hearts—just like the Grinch, whose heart was two sizes too small.  The gods want stuff from people; they aren’t interested in giving stuff to people.  The gods of the nations love to keep their people cowering in fear; they manipulate their people.  This is so because the gods of the nations are projections of humanity and humanity’s worst fears.  But the God of Israel, the one true God is so totally different.  As we see in the psalm he loves to give.  He opens wide his hand to satisfy the needs of every living creature.  He is faithful; he is near to those who call upon him; he upholds all those who fall and lifts up those who are bowed down.  The gods we invent are only near to those who are important, or who have lots of money—because that’s how we’d be if we were God.  But God is different, he is holy.

And because he is holy, he wants Israel to be holy, which does not mean that they’re supposed to be boring and can’t have any fun and are supposed to be super-serious and never do anything wrong.  It means that they are supposed to be a people who enjoy God, God’s world, and other people the way that God originally intended.  Israel was called to reflect in their lives the character of God—who can’t be seen.  You can’t see God, but you’re supposed to be able to look at a bunch of people called “God’s people” and see what God is like.

So, as God’s holy people, Israel was supposed to do the things that Leviticus 19 says: and here I want you to do some work.  Look at Leviticus 19 on your service sheet.  If we were to put things in our own terms, what kinds of behaviors was Israel supposed to exhibit toward one another?

Now, sadly, the Old Testament story is the story of the failure of Israel.  What is tragic is that Israel actually chose to follow other gods rather than to follow the one true God.  Now, before you judge Israel as being really stupid for following other gods, remember what it means to “worship” a god.  It just means that you live life in a certain way. 

The worship of the one true God is enjoying this world as God’s world and enjoying other people—loving them and receiving their love; being committed to people; and serving them and being served by them.

It sounds like it should be easy to do that.  But it isn’t.  It’s far easier to be selfish.  It’s far easier to spend my time living for myself.  It’s more normal for me to spend my mind time thinking about how I can get things for myself and how other people need to pay attention to me and how I never get what I want.  It’s easier to be transformed into people who serve other gods, and Israel ran into that very problem.  Instead of being a different nation—a holy nation—and instead of helping the nations love one another and serve one another, they turned into a nation that was totally like all the nations that serve other gods.

They did this because they were sinful, broken people—like us—but also because there was something radically wrong with the world.  This world had become enslaved in darkness, sin, and death.  Satan had become the ruler of this world and was making sure that people’s mindsets were selfish.  The powers of darkness made sure that there was something about the very air of the world that made people suspicious of one another, thinking thoughts only of serving themselves.  The very fabric of creation itself was broken, so that no one was interested in living in the world in the way that God wanted.

So God had to begin to fix the world.  And that’s where Easter comes in.  God sent Jesus into the world to live a life as God intended.  He loved others and was delighted on the few occasions when people actually loved him back.  He served other people.  He went to the broken, to the poor and the outcast.  He healed parts of God’s world that were in pain.

But the powers of darkness, along with Sin, Death, and Satan made sure that Jesus was put to death.  They have hijacked God’s world and make sure that there is no genuinely human conduct going on.  The death of Jesus, God himself, shows that God’s world is in a seriously broken condition.  But God began to reverse all this when he raised Jesus from the dead.

And that’s where we get this window into Easter.  When God raised Jesus from the dead, he broke the stranglehold that God’s cosmic enemies held over the world.  God’s world is now in the process of becoming whole again.  And God has sent his Spirit into the world to create a new people—the church, to do the job that Israel was supposed to do.  We are to be a holy people, a totally different kind of people.  And here’s the big point—that project is actually now possible because God fixed what was wrong with the world.  The very air of creation was polluted with death and the world was captive to Sin and Death so that Israel couldn’t be God’s people rightly.  But now the world is being freed from Sin’s and Death’s captivity, and we are empowered by God’s Spirit to live lives of restoration and salvation.

What does that mean?  How does it look?

Well, we get lots of clues from Leviticus 19, but also from the Revelation and John passages.  It means we are to love one another.  That was Jesus’ parting instruction—love one another.  Go back to being human as you were designed—to love and be loved, to enjoy one another and do good.  This is reflected in Revelation 19, where the saints are clothed in fine linen, which is their righteous deeds.  That doesn’t mean that we have to work our way to heaven or try really hard to please God.  It only means that our worship of God consists of our small and simple acts of service and love for one another.

So, praise God for raising Jesus from the dead!  When God did that, he began his project of fixing the world and he now empowers us to be a community that reflects all that he is.


How Evangelicals Hear the Gospels Wrongly

There is much to say about N. T. Wright’s claim that evangelicals, among other Christian groups, misread the Gospels.

It seems to me that one factor that fosters such a misreading is that the gospel as entrance formula orients evangelical culture and theology.  Evangelicals are all about personal conversion—that transaction whereby someone becomes a Christian person.

Evangelicals historically have emphasized that transaction’s importance more than anything else—in popular preaching, training for participation in ministry, teaching on discipleship relationships, and even theological reflection.

We read Scripture, therefore, through the lens of that central concern, emphasizing passages that seem to speak about that transaction.

Over the decades, that focus and those discussions shape our vision so that we tend to see only these things in Scripture.  We imagine that personal conversion is the central thrust of the Bible—its main topic.  We might say that “this is what the Bible is all about,” and we regard the material in the Bible as more or less important depending on its relation to “the most important decision you’ll ever make.”

The problems with this are manifold, and Scot McKnight has argued that this isn’t a faithful reading of the New Testament in his The King Jesus Gospel.

My point here is simply that this historic evangelical emphasis is one reason we have misread the Gospels.  We have turned them into something that they are not.  We encounter them with expectations of what we should find there and we thereby fail to hear them for what they are actually saying.

The Gospels tell the story—in four wonderfully distinct ways—of Jesus in relation to Israel and the nations, how he redeems and completes the story of Israel, fulfilling its hopes and expectations.

The Gospels most definitely address the question of how individuals and communities can participate in the God of Israel’s redemptive move in Jesus.  But personal conversion and entrance transactions are not the Gospels’ main concern.

There are good historical reasons for this evangelical emphasis, but we would do well to understand the meaning and importance of conversion within the context of the larger story of Scripture.  That includes first understanding the Gospels on their terms and only then reflecting on how we regard personal conversion.


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