Friday, January 16, 2009
(And no, I don't think that in saying this I'm violating my belief that pastors should remain apolitical. Saying that waterboarding is wrong is not a political statement. It's a moral statement about how we as a nation treat our neighbors. Even in war, we are to treat our neighbors with consideration.)
Thursday, January 15, 2009
The January 13, cover emphasized an essay and three responses composed by four different Christian scholars of the Old Testament. The questions which the four pieces seeks to answer are simple:
- Does the promise of the land of Canaan which God gave to Abraham and his descendants, the Jews, still hold? (see Biblical passages below)
- If so, in what way does it hold?
The implications of my response were several. First, I didn't have to deal with the nettlesome business of God's election of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah and how that stood today in light of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Second, I didn't have to get involved in discussions of the disputes between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
If people pressed me, I would say that modern Israel had a right to exist as a matter of realpolitik.
But, without realizing it, I think that I subscribed to a kind of supercessionism, the idea that the new covenant in Jesus Christ supercedes the old covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants. I wouldn't have admitted that and, I should add that I have always abhorred antisemitism, a notorious result of past Christian adherence to overt supercessionism. But the upshot was the same: This Lutheran Christian who affirms the authority of the Word of God was, in a way, denying the authority of that Word. How? By saying that a claim God had made for all time on earth had been abrogated.
I didn't see that abrogation in the so-called "Jewish rejection of Christ," as centuries of Christian antisemitism has claimed. I have always felt that the crucifixion of Jesus came as part of the fixed plan of God and that He was killed by Gentiles and Jews, that He died for the sins of all the world, Gentile and Jewish. My sins killed Jesus. I killed Jesus.
But I saw the old covenant superceded, rendered irrelevant, by Christ and the new covenant He instituted, namely that all who turn from sin and follow Him live with God forever.
I still believe that all who repent and believe in Jesus have eternity with God, of course. I also still believe that all who reject Christ condemn themselves for eternity.
But I no longer believe that the new covenant renders the old covenant irrelevant or inoperative. As Gary Anderson asserts in his Christian Century essay, "If the promises of God are inviolable, then Israel's attachment to the land is underwritten in God's decree."
Does that mean that as Christians we are duty bound to support any and all actions undertaken by the modern Israeli government? Are we bound to support Israel in its policies in Gaza, for example? Some evangelical Christians say yes and yes to these questions. But I think that many do so for sick and selfish reasons. They want Israel to incite a conflict which, they believe, will trigger Armageddon and force the hand of God to bring about the Second Coming. There is no faith in God in that. It is faith in self, in human action, a belief that God is a puppet we can manipulate.
I won't get into the thicket of current politics and conflict here. But my bottom line answer to the two questions in the previous paragraph is no and no.
Anderson argues, and I think convincingly, that the promise to God's people is both eternal and conditional. In occupying the land that God has given them in perpetuity, they must do so justly. In Old Testament times, God's people were only to drive peoples out of the land who failed to live justly. Otherwise, they were to live as co-inhabitants of the land God gave to them, enacting God's justice and grace. When Israel failed to exercise just stewardship of its land, including worshiping God alone and the just treatment of the foreigners in its midst, the Old Testament says that, as part of God's covenant, Israel was overtaken by foreign armies, such as in 587BC.
Eminent Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says that while Anderson's essay is "good," his theological framework is essentially useless in addressing the real life political situation in the modern Middle East. As deeply as I respect Brueggemann, I think that his view veers close to my own previous facile thinking. There were really no good political reasons for world powers to recognized the modern state of Israel in 1947. In other words, the underpinnings for the existence of today's Israel are theological. One cannot understand the realpolitik of the Middle East in 2009, without acknowledging the power, if not the validity, of God's promise of land to Abraham and his descendants.
Marlin Jeschke rejects Anderson's notion that God's promise to Abraham was meant for the patriarch's genetic descendants or for a crescent-shaped piece of land on the eastern rim of the Mediterranean Sea. Abraham was called, he claims, to show people how those who follow God are to treat whatever land they occupy and the neighbors with whom they share it. But, to me, this approach risks making God into a removed general principle-giver. Both the Old and New Testaments affirm God is One Who gets involved in specific lives--our specific lives, in specific places. God called a specific person named Abraham. God came into the world in a specific person named Jesus. It's true to say that Abraham was called to become, if you will, a prototype of faith. In Romans, Paul says that Abraham shows all people how sinners are made right with God: Abraham believed and God counted his belief as righteousness. (See here and here.) But Jeschke both universalizes and, I think, over-spiritualizes God's promise to Abraham.
Read the essays and the responses: here, here, here, here, and here.
Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”
Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? 2Much, in every way. For in the first place the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. 3What if some were unfaithful? Will their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4By no means! Although everyone is a liar, let God be proved true, as it is written, “So that you may be justified in your words, and prevail in your judging.”
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
The word cloud below was created from the front page of 'Better Living' before this post appeared. You can create your own word cloud from text or web sites by going to Wordle.net.
[Click on the image to enlarge.]
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Monday, January 12, 2009
I write 'Better Living' with the goal of sharing Christ in accessible ways with all sorts of people, Christian and non-Christian, leaving every kind of reader to decide for themselves what they make of Jesus and His claims to be both God and man.
On top of that, not taking positions on political issues on which I don't see God speaking clearly in the Bible, I try to cast a fair eye on the politics and trends of the day, drawing strongly on my lifelong study of history and my past life as a political activist.
Occasionally, you'll find other things that might interest you or your friend here, if not in the currently posted items, then maybe in the 3900+ pieces posted here since I started 'Better Living' back in 2003.
Please do send a link to Better Living to all your email friends...and keep coming back.
Thanks and God bless!
A preacher named Origen, who lived in the third century, once told the story of a city that received a gift. It was a huge statue, so massive that nobody could see it clearly or know for certain what it was. Finally, some people got an idea. “Why don’t we miniaturize it?” they suggested. And that, according to Origen, is exactly what they did. By making the statue smaller, the townspeople finally could look at it and say, “Oh! That’s what it really is!”
The Bible says that God did something like this to Himself in Jesus Christ. As I said last week, in Jesus, God shrinks Himself down to our size so that we can say, “Oh! That’s what God is like!” This is exactly what Martin Luther meant when he said that if we want to know what God is like, we just look to Jesus on the cross. There we see how God focused His power and compassion into a sublime act of self-sacrifice that can save the sinner who turns from sin and trusts in Christ.
We’ve just begun a season of the Church Year designed, in fact, to help us all see God clearly. The season of Epiphany began on Tuesday. January 6 is always Epiphany Day on the Church calendar. That specific day remembers the visit by the wise men (or the magi) sometime within the first two years of Jesus' life. They were led to the house where Joseph, Mary, and the baby were living by a star that shone overhead. Epiphany, epiphane in the Greek of the New Testament, means “to shine upon.”
Throughout this Epiphany Season, as we consider how Christ calls us to be disciples--followers, we’ll be seeing again and again how Jesus authenticated His right to call us to follow by showing Himself to be God.
The light of the world shines on us in Jesus and our call is to let His light shine in our lives, letting Him take control!
The Gospel lesson appointed for the first Sunday after January 6 is always about one of the strangest incidents recounted in the Bible: the baptism of Jesus by His relative, John.
I say that it’s strange because the writer of our Bible lesson, Mark, has already told us that John was calling people to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” But Jesus, the Bible repeatedly tells us, was completely and totally sinless. So why on earth is a sinless Savior undergoing a baptism designed for people turning from sin?
A little story may help us to understand the answer to that question. As you know, I can’t swim and in fact, I have an irrational fear of water. Once, when Philip was a year old, we went to a pool party. Everything was going well. The burgers and hot dogs were on the grill, the kids were playing in the pool, and the grown-ups were having those conversations that bore the life out of their children. And then, I don’t know how it happened, Philip fell into the pool. Right next to where I was standing!
Frankly, at that moment, I didn’t give my fears a first, let alone a second, thought. Not certain of the depth of the water, I was about to go in after Phil when somebody already in the water picked him up and handed him to me. When I thought about it later that night, I realized that in spite of my fears, I would have jumped into that water if I’d had to do so. Now, there's nothing heroic or laudable about that. I suppose that it would be instinctive to do much more than what I conemplated, even to risk their life for a family member.
But God doesn’t operate on instinctive love. God loves the unlovable. He loves the Osama bin Ladens and even the Mark Danielses of the world!
For God, love isn’t an emotion, but a commitment to do the most possible—even the impossible--to bring sinful human beings back into fellowship with Him.
God will go to the absolute depths in order to save people. And He’s anxious to spare not just the cute and cuddly from the sin and death that threaten us, but every member of the whole human race.
Jesus waded into the Jordan River so that He could reach down to us, sinners all! No wonder the New Testament has six different accounts of Jesus’ baptism and only two accounts of His birth. Jesus’ baptism is more stunning and more important than Christmas, because in His baptism, Jesus demonstrated how far God is willing to go to reach out to us!
That's the first thing I want you to remember about Jesus' baptism by John.
But, here's another thing I want you to remember: Jesus’ baptism demonstrates that when we repent--turn from sin--and confess our need of Him, something wonderful happens. Mark writes this in our Gospel lesson: “...when [Jesus] was coming out of the water, He saw the heavens torn apart...”
The word for torn apart in the New Testament Greek is schizomenous. (It’s related to the word schizophrenia, which means a split, torn personality or psyche.)
The college football season has just come to an end with more bowl games than I could keep track of. Many times in those games, running backs or quarterbacks broke amazing runs resulting in first downs or touchdowns. Everybody cheered for the runners. But nine times out of ten, those runners only got big yardage because of some unsung lineman who blew a hole open in the defense.
To use a homely analogy, I would say that Jesus is our lineman! He blows the doors of heaven open for us. The tearing of the heavens at His Baptism symbolizes this.
And Mark hammers this point home later in his book when, as he describes Jesus' death on a cross, he mentions that the curtain in the Jerusalem Temple that once concealed the Holy of Holies, God’s very presence in the world, was torn from top to bottom. Through His life and His death and His resurrection, Jesus opens eternity to us!
Our call to be Jesus’ disciples starts with Christ Himself. He enters our life and He tears open the doors to heaven for us. Whatever good we do, however much we grow as people, will be rooted in our willingness, like the people who came to the Jordan River, to confess our sins, to repent, and to follow the lead of Jesus.
This is a time of year when we make all sorts of resolutions. "I'm going to lose twenty pounds," we say. Or, "I'm going to read the Bible every day. I'm going to serve my neighbor no matter how inconvenient it may be." We grit our teeth and snarl, "I'm going to be a joyous Christian!"
But by January 2, each year, we recognize that there's a problem with this approach to changing our lives. It's this: It begins with us. It's based on our faulty capacity to accomplish things on our own steam.
So, simplify and revise whatever resolutions you’ve made for the year. Resolve to follow Christ wherever He leads. Let the way you live each day start with Christ. Period.
Jesus is God made plain to the world and if we follow Him, He’ll help us do what truly needs doing and forgo everything else.