Monday, August 20, 2012

God Behaving Badly: Part One

On Thursday of this week I will begin my third year teaching Senior High Bible at Somonauk Christian School. Our Bible curriculum indicates that this year I will teach Old Testament Survey. I love the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. I especially love the consistency of the narrative that begins with Genesis and “concludes” with The Revelation. It has become common amongst our church family for me to lift up my copy of the Scriptures and ask, “How many books am I holding?” And the answer, “One!” will resonate through the pews. I love the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, because within its pages I encounter the one God, my heavenly Father as I understand the Bible through the Spirit to testify of Christ, the only Begotten Son of the Father.

An Ancient Struggle

Nonetheless, I also understand the unity of the Bible is not easy to grasp. Certain aspects of God’s Word are indeed difficult to interpret in a way that leads to Christ and his unique and full revelation of the one God. From as early as the Second Century, the Church has struggled to read the Bible without describing the God of the Old Testament and the God and Father of Jesus as “other than one.” Marcion infamously professed the existence of two “gods” – One god is Yahweh, the creator and god of the Old Testament, while the other god is the Father of Jesus, the god of the New Testament. The good Bishop from Lyons, Irenaeus, came to Marcion and said something like this, “You’re free to believe that Marcion, but don’t call yourself, Christian.” More specifically, Irenaeus wrote this.

Marcion divides God into two, and calls one God good, the other just; and in so doing he destroys the divinity of both. For he who is just is not God if he is not also good; for if he lacks goodness he is not God; while he who is good without being just is similarly deprived of divinity (Against Heresies, III. xxv. 3).

Marcion fell in the all too common trap of understanding the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as somehow different. Some folks may believe that, but they may not call themselves “Christian.” As Christians we believe in “one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” The God who made heaven and earth and who is the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is one.

Within this ancient struggle to understand the Old and New Testaments as testifying to the reality of one God, David Lamb offers the Church his helpful book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?  David loves the Bible and is committed to the orthodox confession of the oneness of God revealed through the words of Scripture within both the Old and New Testaments. At the same time, however, he is honest with the struggle many of us have to understand the Bible to support such a confession. Because Lamb’s book will be required reading for the Juniors and Seniors in my Old Testament Survey Course, I thought it would be helpful to blog/email my way through it.   

But also …         

It doesn’t take long for Lamb to subvert the false assumption that God is nice in the New Testament and not so much in the Old Testament. In fact, he likes to begin the class he teaches by posing this question to his students.

How does one reconcile the loving God of the Old Testament with the harsh God of the New Testament?

You see there are many false assumptions behind the all too common perception that the God of the Old Testament is full of wrath and the God of the New Testament is full of love. The plain truth is there are many places in the Old Testament that describe God as overflowing with love and there are many places in the New Testament that describe God as acting out of wrath. For example the word, “hell” does not occur in our English translations of the Old Testament. In the ESV, “hell” occurs 14 times in the New Testament and 12 of them are from the lips of Jesus. Furthermore, when the apostle Paul begins to articulate his gospel message for the Roman Christians, he begins in this way:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (Romans 1.18, ESV).

Furthermore, it is often asserted the God of the Old Testament is judgmental and unforgiving and the God of Jesus is quicker to forgive. This is plainly not the case. Just this morning, I read these words.

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared (Psalm 130,3-4, ESV).

Also notice these words from the Psalmist.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, not repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him (Psalm 103.8-11, ESV).     

Obviously a few Scripture citations will not resolve a struggle the Church has endured for more than 1,800 years. These references should remind us, however, to get in the habit of saying, “BUT ALSO.” You see almost anyone can find a proof text for anything. Stringing together proof texts does not good theology make. We arrive at “good theology” by interpreting the biblical text. Do difficult texts exist? Yes! But difficult texts must be interpreted like all texts. And I hope that David Lamb’s book can help the Church interpret both the Old and New Testaments in a way that is good and true and faithful and edifying and above all, Christian.

So I want us to get into the habit of saying, “BUT ALSO.” In other words, the God of the Bible can become really angry, BUT can ALSO be extraordinarily patient. In the Old Testament, God seemed to view women and wives as property, BUT he ALSO selected women as spiritual and political leaders over Israel. God commanded the Jews to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites, BUT ALSO commanded them to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans and the Canaanites.

Bottom Line: A Hermeneutic of Humility

In one of his final concerts Rich Mullins talked about the peril of proof texting, and then he said this: “When God gave us the Bible it was to prove that God is right and the rest of us are just guessing.” I appreciate those words from the late singer/songwriter because they are a humble acknowledgment that understanding God’s Word can only take place within the humble confession that God is God and we are not. This is what I call a hermeneutic of humility. In other words the Bible will not be understood by those who seek to master it but by those who seek to be mastered by the God who gave us the Bible. I believe that God wants to be known and one of the ways he wants to be known is through the Bible. We need to be motivated by a humble desire to know God as we open the sacred text and that text will be over abundantly full of complexities – kind of like the God who gave it to us. Amen.      

Monday, August 13, 2012

Grace Takes the Blame ...

According to former Miami Dolphin Receiver, Chad Johnson, his wife head-butted him. According to Mr. Johnson’s wife, he head-butted her. Following these most recent troubles, the Dolphins terminated the controversial NFL wide receiver’s contract. And the narrative of passing the blame that started in the Garden of Eden goes on and on.

This morning I looked out the front window and thanked God for last evening’s rain. A few moments later I looked out the kitchen window into our backyard and noticed the toys and games my kids had left out in the rain. In this moment, I felt less than thankful for the evening rain. Next I noticed two books I have been reading that had also been left out in the rain. Please believe me when I tell you, this is the thought I had!! “Why didn’t those kids bring my books inside?” Immediately, I thought to myself my kids shouldn’t be responsible to pick up after their daddy. As I retrieved my treasured books, now saturated, I had this thought, “Why didn’t Yulinda bring in the books?” And the narrative of passing the blame that started in the Garden goes on and on.

There is something within our fallen nature, when confronted with our sin, that “naturally” elicits a response that passes the blame to someone or something else. It wasn’t me Lord, is was “the woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Don’t blame me, God. It was “the serpent [who] deceived me, and I ate.” It wasn’t my negligence, Lord. It was those kids you gave me – they distracted me! It wasn’t my forgetfulness. It was the wife you gave me – I thought she was collecting my books! And the narrative of passing the blame that started in the Garden goes on and on.

As we begin another week, I would like us to contemplate another narrative about blame in another Garden. The narrative goes something like this. Jesus, the Second Adam, is in the garden of Gethsemane. He is undergoing unimaginable temptation to not trust his Abba and work for his own will on earth. He doesn’t want to obey, but in this moment, instead of trusting his own resources, he asks for help from some trusted friends.

My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me (Matthew 26.38, NIV).

He doesn’t like the direction obedience is taking him, but in this moment, instead of trusting his own feelings, he prays.

My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will (Matthew 26.39, NIV).

Jesus went away yet another time and proclaimed to his Father that no matter what he would always utter these words, “may your will be done.”

When the first Adam was tempted in a similar Garden, he said to God, “my will be done.” And when he was confronted with his sin, he passed the blame. When the second Adam underwent a Garden temptation, he said to God, “your will be done” and full of grace and truth, he took the blame that the first Adam and all his sons and daughters deserve.

Thanks be to God for the Lord Jesus, our second Adam, who instead of passing the blame, took the blame for our sin, that we might enjoy union with him as sons and daughters of God. Often times we are encouraged to “own what’s ours.” That is all well and good. When we hear those words, however, we should be reminded that Christ owned what was yours and mine, so we could be free from the burden of sin’s consequence. When someone tells you to own what’s yours, say thanks to Jesus for owning it for you! 

Furthermore, the narrative of the Second Adam in the Second Garden must give us our identity. We identify with the First Adam when we pass the blame. We were meant to live for so much more. The Grace of the Second Adam takes the blame, because I don’t have to be burdened by it anymore. Jesus took it for me. Thanks be to God!!  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Fasting for Guidance

“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8.3, NIV).

We are often faced with a decision for which there is no clear answer. So we follow the wisdom of Proverbs and seek advice from a few trusted counselors. How do we proceed, however, when the wisdom of our counselors proves contradictory? It is in these moments I believe our kind Father is pleased to allow the conceptual fog to remain that we main learn at least two lessons. 1) God is God and we are not. When I fail to come to grips with how exactly to proceed in a complicated situation I must learn to trust my heavenly Father as I tentatively advance down the path I think I believe he is opening for me. It is during these times our trust muscles get their greatest workout. The discomfort of the disorientation created by the fog of uncertainty can sometimes cause us to hastily choose the path of surety when God has really provided no indication of the direction we should take. Sometimes the fog is a gift from which we must not flee.

The second lesson these complicated decisions can teach us is 2) Life is ambiguous and God never intended otherwise. I went through a period in my Christian and pastoral life when I thought there was a verse for everything. Every decision … every conviction … every practice must have clear biblical precedent and if we couldn’t find it we simply had not searched hard or long enough. This led to a quasi-form of Bible Deism. In other words, God had given the Bible to us as the definitive word for all time and now there really was no need for him to communicate with or be involved in the lives of his people. Aside from the many Biblical reasons (!) this perspective is wrong-headed, my first six months in ministry were enough to teach me that the Bible does not address every possible scenario. In other words, there will be many times when we are faced with a decision for which there is not clear Biblical direction. The Bible may offer applicable principles – the Bible may establish a trajectory that we must follow together in order to learn what is the wise choice to make. However, this reality requires us to live our lives in community, in active dependence upon the wisdom Christ has granted to the Church.

Scot McKnight reminded me this morning that God’s people have traditionally fasted during times when they yearned to know God’s will. I believe God desires to communicate with his people. He does not want us waver helplessly – wondering what to do. He exhorts us to live in active dependence upon the Spirit of God by engaging in disciplines that open us up to the Spirit’s movement. In Ezra 8, the people of God were on the verge of returning to the Promised Land after staying in Babylon far too long. They knew it was God’s will for them to return home. Under the leadership of Ezra, they paused, however, at the river Ahava and fasted in order to seek guidance and protection from Yahweh. The word, “paused,” is chosen intentionally. Don’t you think they would have been in a hurry to get home after spending so much time exiled? The wisdom of God’s prophet led them to wait – to wait in order to deny themselves of comfort and pleasure in order to seek what they desired more –  the presence and guidance of Almighty God. The early Church followed this same tradition. In Acts 13 prophets and teachers had gathered with the Church at Antioch shortly after Herod had died.

While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13.2-3, ESV).

We are provided here, with an excellent example of the ministry the Holy Spirit longs to accomplish within the worship life of the local church. Based upon this example in Acts, I believe the Holy Spirit intends to work and speak and move within our midst when we worship together and when we engage in the sacred discipline of fasting together.

Do our Spiritual desires have a bodily response? How desperately do we long to know God’s will? How much do I desire greater union with God? Is my enjoyment of fellowship with God greater than the satisfaction provided by Subway’s Spicy Italian sandwich?

Father, awaken with us a greater yearning for communion with you.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God of the Living God, have mercy on me a glutton.