Sunday Meditations: Unbelievable

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read two books that share a title.  Each of these books was written by Christians, but they approach the subject in very different ways.

The first book is Unbelievable? by Justin Brierley, bearing the subtitle: Why after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian.  The second is Unbelievable by Bishop John Shelby Spong, with a slightly different tack for the subtitle: Why Neither Ancient Creeds Nor the Reformation Can Produce a Living Faith Today.

You can tell the influence of the Puritans on American theology by the fact that you have to cram your book’s entire thesis into the subtitle.

Justin Brierley is a brother in the UK who, for ten years, has been running a radio show (also called “Unbelievable?”) that pairs Christians and atheists to discuss various topics.  Not every show features a big, famous name, but whatever names you might recognize from Christian theologians and apologists or notable atheist authors and speakers that have produced works about Christianity, they have probably ended up on the show at some point.  (For you young folks out there, a radio is a device that detects audio transmitted via “radio waves” that are broadcast from large antennae.  Your “radio” device picks up these waves and translates them back into sound.)

I have to say, I love this project, and it’s available via podcast for those of you who don’t live in the UK and/or have no concept of what a radio is or how you might get hold of one.

One of my friends who is an atheist of the New variety used to hold a small gathering at his house that was very similar – a small group of Christians and a small group of atheists would assemble on his patio to talk about stuff.  It wasn’t topically structured or anything, but the conversations were still good and generally congenial.  So, I had a lot of warmth in my heart for Justin’s stories about his experiences facilitating these kinds of things in radio.  Honestly, if more thoughtful, kind Christians just spent time chatting with thoughtful, kind atheists, I think both parties would end up with a lot more thoughtful, kind regard for one another and their positions, and the world would be a better place.

The book is organized by topic: God, Jesus, Original Sin, Miracles, Resurrection, etc.  Each topic has some stories about how this topic played out in discussions on the radio show.  They also describe the points that have been most meaningful to Justin on that topic as well as the more common objections raised to those points and how Justin has thought through those.

I’m not sure this book would be an onslaught of unanswerable points for anyone, and the author says as much.  People who are looking for books to buy their atheist friends to convince them (BTW: If this is you, we need to talk about what you’re hoping to accomplish and why you think buying books is the way to do it.) may not find this to be the book.  I think about this book more along the lines of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.  It’s more of a thoughtful, armchair articulation of the Christian view of various things in a defensible, thought-provoking way, but not with the rigor of thoroughgoing argumentation.

Personally, I enjoyed the stories about the radio show.  The author has a lot of warmth for both the atheist and Christian guests he’s talked with over the years, and you can tell he’s not gone unchanged from the conversations.  The book was inspirational to me on that point.  It affirmed what my own experience has borne out, that a lot of good conversation can happen within the context of mutual respect and people who believe walking away on friendly terms may be more important than rhetorically destroying the other person.  After all, Christians and atheists have to share a planet, and Christians in particular have a biblical mandate to be at peace with everyone and supply their reasons for hope with gentleness and respect.  Wouldn’t it be great if people could disagree and honestly and passionately express themselves without letting their brains treat the discussion as a threat to their survival?

It was also interesting to me some of the theological positions the author put forward, which I believe may have been influenced by his dialogues with atheists.  For example, he does not have a literal understanding of the early chapters of Genesis and, although he does not explicitly state this, seems to be operating from an evolutionary understanding of the development of life.  He obviously holds to a Big Bang view of beginnings and has some interesting things to say about how it was originally a theistic argument and was labelled the “Big Bang” by atheist detractors.  He does explicitly express that he is an annihilationist, and I appreciated this because – mostly due to getting more in touch with the first century world and early Jewish theology – I’m in that neighborhood, myself.

If you’re a Christian and you enjoy books like Mere Christianity, I think you’d enjoy this book as well.  Frankly, I think it’s worth a read if it helps Christians be more respectful and thoughtful about atheists and atheism.  If you’re an atheist, you might enjoy the book as well on similar grounds, and maybe Justin will point out a thing or two you haven’t run across, before, but again, this is not really a rigorous defense of Christianity.  You might find interesting the stories he tells of people who were atheists who found reasons to convert.

Bishop Spong’s book is organized very similarly to Bierley’s book – the chapters are topical and based on fundamental points of Christian doctrine.  In contrast to Bierley, Spong argues that each of these points simply are no longer viable for contemporary Christians to actually believe and, therefore, must be reformulated into more believable versions.

I was actually excited for this project.  People who know me or who have read this blog for a long time know that I’m not really a fan of most evangelical theological beliefs and formulations, although mostly on exegetical grounds.  I also have an avid interest in how Christians should act and speak in an increasingly secular West that actually does good, helps people, and is intelligible and winsome in that world.  I think that Spong is correct that the Church cannot simply state sixteenth century dogma in a world where empiricism and the scientific method have shown us so much truth about our world and has made at least a very highly-literalized way of understanding the Bible somewhat untenable.

But although I was warm to the project, I was fairly unimpressed with the execution.

Spong generally begins each section with the reasons a given Christian point of doctrine (again, organized into things like God, Jesus, the Virgin Birth, etc.) is “unbelievable” in its traditional form.

There is good information in there, and I don’t want to give the impression that everything about it is poorly thought through.  In fact, much of it is worthy of Christians who are trying to be intellectually honest to grapple with.  However, he also does two things that make me crazy when critiquing traditional Christian thought.

One is knowing enough history to make a criticism but not enough to get it right.  You only need to check out the plethora of New Atheist memes to see this phenomenon in action.  Jesus is a recycling of the Horus (or Baldur or Mithras or Ra) legends.  Jesus is a “dying and rising god” of which there are many.  Romans kept meticulous records and we don’t have a record of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Christians destroyed the library at Alexandria.  The Church killed cats in Europe and that contributed to the spread of the Plague.  And on and on.  All common critiques, all wrong.  That’s not to say Christianity doesn’t have its historically critique-able episodes – it absolutely does – but in the zeal to critique it, it’s easy to get the history wrong and subscribe to either a very shallow account of events or total fabrications.

For Spong’s part, especially given the thesis of the book, he depends some on the Conflict Thesis – the idea that the Church and science have historically been at odds with Christianity using its cultural and political power to actively suppress science until recently.  This is so wrong that atheists are calling out other atheists on it (as well they should, just as Christians interested in speaking the truth should call out other Christians when we misrepresent history and not leave it up to the atheists to do that job for us).  But it’s this sort of surface-y understanding of history that gets used at times to present why Christian doctrines are suspect.

The second thing that makes me crazy is closely related, and that’s being uncritical about critique.  If it calls a traditional understanding of a Christian doctrine into question, Spong will cite it as absolute truth.  Christianity does not get the benefit of a doubt, and the sources of the criticism do not get subjected to the same scrutiny.  This cropped up a number of times where “biblical scholarship” allegedly undid the viability of a doctrine, but that scholarship itself was highly debatable.

Another area where this happened was his marshaling of Judaism.  I am all about bringing the Jewish understanding of things to how we understand the Scriptures.  Spong has long had an active collaboration with the Jewish community, and I have no doubt he knows more about contemporary Jewish theology than I do.  However, he will tend to cite a contemporary (and usually more progressive) Jewish view on something as if that is how an author or original reader of Scripture would have understood that same concept, and then use that to demonstrate that our traditional readings are incorrect – as if the views of the rabbis that he knows were the views of an Old Testament writer or Second Temple Judaism.

For instance, Spong talks about how Jesus’ death shouldn’t be understood as an atonement for sin because Judaism did not understand sacrifice as an atonement for sin, but rather an offering to God of our full potential as human beings.  From my own readings of early rabbinical writings, I feel fairly confident this was not at all an early Jewish understanding of sacrifice.  It may very well be a strain of contemporary Jewish thought on the meaning of Old Testament sacrifices, but it would be inaccurate to take that contemporary Jewish theological outlook, project it back into the first century or beyond, and go, “See?  We’ve never understood this correctly.”

Not everything in the book suffers from those criticisms, but they are thoroughly marbled in with the material that does not.  So, you have to be sort of discerning when going through the critical portions of the book, and my fear is that people who perhaps do not know history, biblical scholarship, or the progression of Jewish theology very deeply will simply take his word for it and consider the state of Christian belief to be very dire, indeed, not realizing that a fair amount of the critique is suspect.

Then, each chapter moves on to Spong’s recommendations for the reformulation of the doctrine under examination.  This was at the same time the most thought-provoking part of the book as well as the least compelling.

For instance, Spong offers that we should stop thinking of God in traditionally theistic terms – an omniscient, omnipotent person – and instead think of God as the ground of existence, itself.  In other words, God is existence.  God is being.  When we look at a lion or a rock or another person, we should see God there because those things exist and that principle of being is God.

To some of you, that may sound silly, but not to me.  The fact is that anything existing at all is highly improbable, and yet, here we are.  There have been many religions and philosophies that have posited that God to some degree or another is embodied in the physical universe that exists.  It builds our respect for all created things and underscores our connection with them.  Further, by relieving God of actual personhood, we’ve just crossed off some of the greatest objections to the existence of God like the problem of evil.  Why does God allow suffering?  God doesn’t allow or disallow anything, because God is the ground of all that exists, not a being interacting with it.

Furthermore, this way of defining God makes sense to a secular West currently in a love affair with positivistic empiricism.  How do I know God exists?  Well, you exist, right?  Things exist, right?  There you go.  God is the fact of that existence.

And, honestly, I’m very sympathetic to thinking of that as an aspect of God.  All our understandings of God are analogies, anyway, and a lot of trouble comes from a concept of a God who is basically just like us except all-powerful, all-knowing, and gooder.

But to exhaustively define God this way seems to carry its own problems, not the least of which being that… there’s no particular reason to define God this way other than personal preference.  And this is my basic problem with most of Spong’s recommendations.  There’s nothing to recommend those recommendations except for the fact that Spong came up with them and they are more amenable to a secular worldview.

Virtually all the world’s religions testify to a concept of the divine that somehow has knowledge of the world and interacts with it in some way, even if it’s just thoughtful regard.  And these testimonies continue.  If Spong is correct, then I have to write off all that testimony as not just flawed or limited but actually completely fictional – every last account.  I’m not even just talking about the Bible, here, although obviously the Bible becomes completely incomprehensible if we think of the God who appears in those stories as the bare fact of existence.  At that point, I’m not exactly sure what value there is in even positing this as God at all.  Why not just say, “Isn’t it amazing that anything exists?  Existence is great, and I feel a strong kinship with everything that shares existence with me?”  That would make you a fine person who probably did many ethical and caring things for your fellow man and also an atheist – atheism, by the way, also circumvents many of the philosophical problems with God’s existence.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you’re going to redefine Christianity solely in terms that are amenable to a materialistic way of understanding the universe, and that redefinition is just coming from your own preferences, anyway, what are you getting out of that enterprise?  The dedication to Jesus’ social message?  You can do that, anyway.  The ability to claim that you’re a Christian and Christianity is now demonstrably correct?  I guess I just don’t care enough about claiming victory for that to be worthwhile.

So, anyway, I’m not sure what audience I’d recommend Spong’s book to.  Atheists will read it and go, “Well, yes, this is all stuff I agree with.  Not sure why I need to tie it to Christian categories,” and Christians will read it and either wonder similar things or, if they buy into the project, construct a Christianity that – at least to me – doesn’t seem to have a reason to be.  You can be a principled, caring atheist full of wonder at the universe and even acknowledge that there are mysterious aspects of human experience; there’s no need to dress materialism up as Christianity so you can continue to maintain that you’re a Christian.  I mean, why would you do that?

And that may be my failure as a reader.  Obviously, Spong is a smart man and a spiritual man and has his reasons, and the fact that I cannot divine them (no pun intended) may be an indication of my own prejudices.  I did enjoy the challenging ways of thinking about these topics and even found some thought-provoking points that made me think I ought to incorporate some of those insights into my own thoughts about these topics, but I didn’t find the overall mission of the book to be a compelling solution to the problem it was trying to solve.

Anyway, two books that both confronted the idea that Christian belief has become unbelievable in the contemporary world and took very different paths as a result.  Surprisingly, to myself, I found myself more impressed with the evangelical apologist.

Advertisements

Sunday Meditations: What to Do with Bible Knowledge

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I’d been thinking about our/my overestimation of the value of knowledge about the Bible and its contents.  Knowledge about the Bible’s contents, its historical context, the languages, exegesis, hermeneutics – these things are just not the big deal we tend to make them in the West.  There are several things the Bible itself holds up as more valuable than knowledge and even has its fair share of warnings that knowledge carries a serious – nearly inevitable – danger of producing pride.  Yes, pride: a top-tier sin in its own right that gives birth to innumerable others.

This has been an uncomfortable phase of my journey because I have a lot of identity, self-worth, and ego wrapped up in knowing and teaching stuff about the Bible.  For most of my life, it’s the main asset I’ve had to offer the church.  When I’d read Paul’s analogy of the church as a body, I’d think of myself as an eye or an ear, and I’d take care to make sure I wasn’t devaluing some “elbow” or “spleen” gift like encouragement or helping.

Well, joke’s on me.  Turns out that Paul doesn’t stop thanking saints who were an encouragement or helpers, but he never includes in his letters, “And give my thanks to Argus, who shared so many insightful facts about the Old Testament to so many of you.”  And if declaratory gifts are your thing, Paul holds out prophecy as a high gift to desire.

It turns out that doing the works the Father is doing is more important than knowing things about what the Father has done.

So, I’ve been thinking through this a lot, because knowing the Scriptures and being able to communicate that knowledge to others has value.  It may not be the peak of the mountain we’ve sometimes made it out to be, but it’s still part of helping the Church accomplish her mission.

This meditation is not about the value of personal Bible study or sermons; that’s a different topic.  Rather, I want to explore what it means for someone to be gifted in the study and teaching of the Bible and what benefits they can bring to the Church with that gift.

I should say at the outset that, like pretty much all of the Sunday Meditations (and probably everything on this blog), this is just me working through this issue.  I hope it’s useful to you.  You can probably think of things that I haven’t or even better things than I have, and I hope so.  If you know how to get in touch with me, I’d like to hear them and learn from you.

Making the Bible Strange Again

You know how easy it is to “peg” someone, right?

Let’s say you have a co-worker at your job as a bank teller – we’ll call him Joe (sorry, Joe).  You’ve worked in the booth next to Joe for a year, now, and the thing that stands out the most to you about Joe is that he has no patience with customers who aren’t ready to be helped.  If they have to fumble around to find their checkbook (people still use their checkbooks for things, right?  I feel like I’m losing control of this analogy) or don’t have their account number and ID ready when they get to his booth, he becomes very curt and snappy with them until they leave.  That’s Joe – the guy who get’s all crabby with people who delay him.

Because Joe is the “crabby with slow customers” guy, that framework you have in place for perceiving Joe makes it almost impossible for him not to be that guy.  Every time he’s crabby with a slow customer, you chalk that up as evidence that Joe is who you thought he was.  Every time he just deals normally with a slow customer, you won’t even see it.  It doesn’t register on your radar because it doesn’t get caught in your framework.  Maybe Joe is only crabby with 60% of slow customers.  Or 40%.  Or 10%!  But every instance where he is consistent with your expectations reinforces those expectations, and every instance where he is not tends to be dismissed.

If you are a Christian in the West, chances are you “knew” what the Bible “said” before you’d even read any of it.  If you grew up in the faith, then you were passed down child-sized stories and teachings (maybe even with Flannelgraph).  If you converted later in life, someone probably explained the Bible’s message to you.  In both cases, you were probably exposed to actual Scripture, but you weren’t exposed to it outside of someone’s summary of its teachings, which they passed along to you.  You had it pegged.

When you already know what the Bible says, it’s incredibly difficult to hear it.  Things that fit the framework add to it, strengthen it, and flesh out the details, but things that don’t fit the framework tend to slide on by.

Note, I’m not talking about having the “right” framework.  The issue of our interpretations being corrected is a different issue than what I’m talking about.  What I’m talking about is the ability to even hear something the Scriptures have to say because our existing familiarity with the Scriptures screens out the other stuff as irrelevant.

Take, for example, the book of Romans and the infamous Romans Road to Salvation.  You may notice that the Romans Road leaves out a passage or two from the book of Romans.  In fact, it leaves out virtually all of the book of Romans, instead constructing a theology from a half dozen verses.

Granted, part of this is due to the time constraints envisioned by someone sharing the gospel.  But I would also offer that part of this is that the vast majority of the book of Romans is irrelevant to a narrative about individual sin and reconciliation with God.  It’s not that those things aren’t in there, but saying the book of Romans is about how an individual gets right with God is like saying a symphony orchestra is about the woodwinds.  But, if you know what Romans is “about,” then Paul’s comments about Jews and Gentiles are just not relevant to anything really meaningful, and the examples involving Abraham are kind of weird, and so on.

I believe that Christians today have a hard time truly hearing God speak through the Scriptures because they already know what He has to say to them.  The Scriptures are familiar.  We don’t even have to crack a Bible open to tell you the gist.

People who know the Bible in-depth, though, know that this collection of writings is complex and strange.  Such people are in a position to shake up the pre-existing narrative – not for the purposes of destruction or looking smart, but for the purpose of helping people read with fresh eyes and listen with fresh ears.  You are in a position to gently, lovingly, cause people to second guess.  There are even new translations of the Bible that are being specifically written to use uncommon words and turns of phrase to provoke people into engaging the reading instead of being on autopilot.

Maybe they don’t know what the Bible is saying, here, or at least shouldn’t assume that.  Maybe the Greek doesn’t lend itself well to the standard way of reading a text.  Maybe the historical circumstances around a text make it unlikely an author is talking about what we see when we read it.  Maybe this obscure, weird little passage actually throws the whole chapter into a different light.  When you take away the safety of the familiar (again, slowly with love and gentleness), people have to reengage these Scriptures and are actually in a position to hear them.  It generally takes someone with a good degree of Bible knowledge to facilitate this.

Making the Bible Familiar Again

Being a Jew in the first century was no guarantee that you’d understand Jesus.  We sometimes talk about knowledge of Second Temple Judaism as if it’s the Rosetta Stone for finally understanding Jesus rightly.  But the narratives of the Gospels and Acts demonstrate for us that this is not the case.  A listener had to approach Jesus in humble faith, and God would open their eyes and ears to understand.  A fisherman might understand a great mystery about Jesus that eluded the Torah scholars of the day.

At the same time, it can’t be stressed enough how much foundational influence the historical context of a writing has on its contents.  Jesus’ disciples spoke the same language, traveled together through the same towns, attended the same religious services, had the same day to day elements of life, lived under the same government, experienced the same newsworthy events, small talked about the same circumstantial and environmental kinds of things that we talk about with our co-workers, and generally shared all the same foundations for communication and understanding.

We, as an audience, are very distant from all of those things, but all those things form the basis for understanding the way people of a time talked to each other.

Consider the plays of William Shakespeare.  When the audiences of his time saw his plays, they understood the turns of phrase.  They understood the people and things he was parodying.  While there may have been some wit or some particularly poetic expression that a common audience might have trouble with, everyone who saw one of Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t have trouble for the most part knowing what was being said and what was going on.  Why?  Because that was the way they also talked.  The people and institutions Shakespeare parodied were people and institutions they were familiar with.  His way of communicating via drama was conditioned by and for 16th-17th century England.

By contrast, we often have trouble understanding Shakespeare’s plays without any help.  If you just grabbed some random people and took them to see “Hamlet,” they might pick up the gist, but a lot of the communication would pass them by.  The language seems arcane to us.  The historical people and places back of Shakespeare’s critiques are not part of our day to day world.  It would be like people in the year 2500 watching a “Saturday Night Live” skit about Sean Spicer; what meaning would such a thing have to them without any explanation?

Shakespeare’s plays are documents that were produced only four hundred years ago by an Englishman for England.  I’m an American, and Americans, today, still need a lot of help understanding those texts.  How much more so, then, do we need help understanding documents produced in the Near East millennia ago?  How is it that Shakespeare or Sartre or Freud are difficult texts to work with, but the Bible is a straightfoward, simple collection of documents that can be understood just like reading the newspaper?

People with Bible knowledge can help bridge this communication gap.  It doesn’t mean we can dictate that communication, but it does mean we can help communication be possible.

For example, in the first act of “Hamlet,” two guards meet each other.  One of them challenges, “Who’s there?” and the other responds, “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.”

If you didn’t know anything about older versions of English or Shakespeare’s world, the second guard’s response probably seems very weird.  He makes the same sound a horse makes, and then he tells the other guard to “unfold” himself like a contortionist.  If that’s all I had to go on, I’d probably come up with a very unique interpretation of that line.

But someone who was more familiar with the forms of communication in Shakespeare’s day could explain that “Nay” means “no” and “unfold yourself” was a phrase meaning “reveal yourself.”  She might also explain that guards did not have walkie-talkies or IDs, so if visibility were poor, this sort of situation might easily take place where two guards did not recognize each other at first and had to figure out if there was a threat.  And, sure enough, subsequent lines of text show that it’s late at night.

Now, that information does not dictate to me all the things I might glean out of that passage, but now communication is possible.  Now I know what I need to know to be able to read those lines closer to the original audience and get a better grasp on what Shakespeare was trying to do, there.

I think Bible scholars are in a position to help the Church come further across that bridge.  It’s not the same thing as telling someone what they can and can’t get out of a passage, and it’s not the same thing as telling someone their view is wrong, but it clarifies important contextual information and clues that can help an ancient passage communicate to us – information that is available through knowledge of the time.  This is an obstacle the earliest believing communities only had to leap for Old Testament writings, and even then, they still had some cultural continuity with the original authors.  We have to leap it for everything, and depending on who you are, you may have exactly zero cultural continuity with the original authors.

Bible scholars can help light the path for us.  We still have to walk it ourselves and make it our own journey, and we may even decide to hack our way through some bushes instead of going down the paved road, but the illumination is helpful.

Bringing Knowledge of the Way

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NRSV)

 

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.

Matthew 13:51-53 (NRSV)

 

Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions, and my suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:10-17 (NRSV)

I love that Nehemiah 8 passage.  For all the times I’ve seen “the joy of the Lord is your strength,” quoted, I’ve never seen it quoted in reference to the grief or fear one feels when they realize how far short they fall of God’s requirements, which is exactly what happens in the original context.

Nehemiah and Ezra are helping Israel understand the Law.  As a result, the Israelites are grieved at how disobedient they’ve been.  These Torah scholars tell these people, in essence, “Hey, what are you upset about?  Now you understand how to live in a way that pleases God!  This is a day of celebration!”  These scholars help the people understand, not just the content of the Scriptures, but also give them some healthy perspective.  The people had interpreted the Law as simply pointing out how terrible they were, but Nehemiah and Ezra helped them see that this information was actually a reason to rejoice in what their lives could look like going forward instead of wallowing in the past.

The Scriptures say of themselves that they are useful for teaching and reproof and correction and training in righteousness for the end purpose that all the people of God would have what they need to do good works.  In 2 Timothy, Timothy is the guy facilitating that.

Timothy is supposed to know and understand information about what Jesus has done so that he might guide his congregation into a proper way of life – a way of life that is defined and incarnated by Jesus our King.

On the one hand, Paul is very clear that the Spirit is who gets us where we need to go, ethically.  This is the crux of Paul’s message to the Galatians – why would you turn to the Torah to keep its obligations that will only curse you when you have the Spirit who will lead you in the ways of the life of the ages to come?

On the other hand, Paul knows by practical experience that the Spirit doesn’t force someone into right behavior, and for all kinds of reasons, people will still pursue a way of life suited to their fleshly desires and even construct doctrine to help them do it.

People need the freedom to be led by the Spirit, but they also need help in being brought back to center when they start pursuing the paths of their desires and ego, and being brought back to center is really about bring them back to Jesus – the living Word.  The Scriptures are a way to do this.

Does this mean Bible teaching is only about ethics?  Well, no.  If all of this was about the list of things we should do and the list of things we should avoid, that could have probably been done in a single writing.  No, the biblical writings bring us the story of God’s relationship with His people through history, and this story is a fully-orbed, incarnate story that describes the creation and re-creation of worlds and worlds within worlds in which Jesus is a watershed moment.  We don’t just figure out what we’re supposed to do, but we learn things about who God is and what His intentions are for the world and how we fit into that.  We learn about what values are important, what our thoughts should be, the disposition of our heart, and, yes, our practice and how all of that is derived from and pointing to what God Himself is doing, displayed for us in widescreen surround-sound by Jesus Christ.

But the sticking point is that the goal of all this is not to possess and affirm correct information.  Demons possess and affirm correct information.  The goal of this information is to be useful in producing a people that God wants who is instrumental in bringing about the state of affairs that God wants – to wit, a divine and earthly family where the true God is known by all and our unity and love with one another is a reflection of the unity and love we enjoy with the Father.

This is action.  This is being.  You do not love if you are not doing loving things.  The knowledge we acquire equips us for the purpose of doing the Father’s work in the world.  There is a connection between knowing rightly and acting rightly, but the knowledge is in service to producing a people who are what God wants doing the things God wants done.

This knowledge that equips comes from our special stories of the past.  Historically, the things that the Bible describes are, for the most part, events that have long gone by.  But they are revelatory of the things we need to know and they form a trajectory that keeps us moving in the right direction – ultimately a trajectory that leads us to and is defined by Jesus Christ, who should be the point of exaltation of any spiritual pronouncement.

This is, perhaps, what it means for a scribe trained for the kingdom to bring new treasures out of old.  Not that we are to slavishly confine ourselves to what has gone before in every jot and tittle, but that we use that knowledge to understand who we are, how we got here, and where we need to be going.  The Scriptures should not blind us to what God is doing in our day, but rather help us understand it and take part in it.  They should help us understand our world.  Their events should become our events, and we should find ourselves in those stories even as we bring those stories forward into our present circumstances.

This sort of thing, I think, is a noble and valuable goal for those who have been gifted with knowledge of the Bible.

Sermon: “A Sign from the Lord” – Isaiah 7:10-17

Well, Thanksgiving has just passed us, and if the holidays teach us anything in America, it’s that we should always be thinking one or two holidays ahead of the one we’re actually celebrating.  If you play your cards right, this works out really well.  You can put up a tree for Halloween and decorate it with spiders and ghosts and whatnot, and you’re halfway home when Christmas comes around.  I’m thinking this year of hanging up heart-shaped wreaths around the house just to get the jump on Valentine’s Day.

But we know Christmas is near, and that means, along with the annual furor over what Starbucks is or isn’t doing with their cups, Christmas plays and Christmas specials are on their way.  And along with presenting the Christmas story, usually out of Luke’s gospel, it’s also common to talk about some Old Testament passages that we understand to tell us something about the Messiah who is to come that we (and the Apostles) believe is Jesus.  If you like Handel’s “Messiah,” as I do, you know a lot of it is around Old Testament passages.

The problem we run into, though, is that these performances don’t generally have the time to explain how these passages work.  And I can understand that.  When you’re trying to write a gripping Christmas play, it’s hard to find room for the character Bible Nerd #1 who explains to everyone what was going in the ninth century BC.  When Linus stands up and the spotlight comes on, every kid in America would fall asleep if he launched into an explanation of Second Temple Judaism and the political situation in Judea.  To me, that would make Linus even more awesome, but you can see how most kids, or human beings for that matter, wouldn’t care for it.

But unfortunately, this means we lose the original context and meaning of the passages themselves.  We lose the story.  The Apostles can quote those passages because they expect you to know the original story and apply it to the life of Jesus, but when we don’t know the original story, we lose all that meaning the New Testament depends on.  These passages just become raw predictions, and the Old Testament starts to look like a lot of unrelated material, but, sprinkled here and there are these secret code passages that reveal the future.  And we all know all the books that have been written that treat the Bible like this, right?  Like, if you hold it upside down and squint and read every third word, you’ll discover that the Old Testament predicts all the great disasters in the world like World War II and Justin Bieber’s music.

The Old Testament, though, is a story of a relationship between Israel and her God and what happened between them.  It is this story that the New Testament needs you to know so that you can know Jesus better – so that you can know God better and how we relate to Him better.  And that’s what I want to share with you this morning.  Allow me to magically transform into Bible Nerd #1.  You’ll notice that didn’t take very long.  And let me share this story with you so that we might see Jesus in all the ways he wants us to know him.

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”

The time is the late eighth century BC in the region where Israel now sits.  Israel herself has had a split.  Most of Israel did not accept Solomon’s son to be their king and the majority of the tribes rebelled and formed a new kingdom.  The tribe of Judah, and Benjamin shortly afterward, decided to be loyal to David’s line and did not rebel.  So, Israel was divided, with the northern portion being the ten tribes who rebelled and the southern portion being the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

This may just seem like the way nations go.  In America, we also had a time when our nation was divided into the North and the South.  Many countries experience division like this.  But you have to keep in mind that, in the Old Testament, Israel is not just some nation.

Israel was the product of God’s promises to Abraham, that his descendants would fill the world and all the nations would be blessed by them.  God rescued the Israelites from Egypt because of the promises He’d made, and He made new promises to them – that He would be their God and they would be His people.  He gave them His laws and set up His priesthood in Israel.  If you belonged to another nation and wanted to worship the true God, you had to join on with Israel.  God promised that a descendant of David would rule Israel forever.  He promised them peace and prosperity in the land of their own.  He promised that rule would never depart from Judah.

So, you have to understand that, when disasters happen to Israel in the Old Testament, there’s a problem that we don’t have when we’re simply reading the history of nations.  The problem is: how can God be faithful to His promises when the situation looks so bleak?

Oh, we can point to Israel’s own disobedience.  This is, in fact, what the prophets spend most of their time doing.  Being an Old Testament prophet is ten percent predicting the future and ninety percent getting on to Israel for her bad behavior and urging her to repent.  The covenant, or “the deal” Israel had with God also outlined that there would be consequences if she decided not to keep her end of the bargain.  If she refused to be the faithful, righteous people in the world that God wanted to bear His name, and instead became power hungry, unjust, greedy, and idolatrous just like all the other nations, she would lose her place and prosperity.  So, yes, we can easily say this is the outcome of Israel’s sins.

But here’s the snag: God – because He is merciful and faithful, and His word is His bond no matter what, and His promises are sure, and He is deeply in love with His people – will make good on His promises no matter what.  He will keep up what He said He would do even if everyone else goes back on their word.  What’s more, God promises that Israel will get her glorious future back!  And so we have a problem – how can this possibly happen?  How can God have a righteous descendant of David ruling over a prosperous, just, and faithful kingdom of Israel when Israel is split in two, has two, different rulers, and is notoriously unfaithful?  God said one thing, but everything in the world at the time looked very much like those things simply could not come to pass.

It gets worse.

You see, the northern kingdom of Israel (which is usually just called “Israel” at this point in history, because it’s 10/12ths of the nation) and the southern kingdom (usually just called “Judah”) are not living peaceably together.  Yes, they share a border and the land, but they are not getting along as you might imagine.  They resent each other for what has happened.  And both believe they are the rightful owners of the Promised Land and are the rightful rulers of it, and this leads to all kinds of troubles.

By the time we get to our passage, Israel, in the North, has allied themselves with what we would call Syria, and they are marching on Judah, trying to figure out a way to take the city of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem, obviously, is not just the capital, but God has made several promises to and about Jerusalem.  Occupying Jerusalem is not just about good strategy; it’s about who gets to be the true Israel and all the rights and promises that come from that.

We read earlier in Isaiah 7 that when Judah’s leaders heard this was happening, “the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”

I want you to take a minute and really try to put yourself in ancient Judah.

The armies of Ephraim and Aram are not abstract concepts to the people of Judah.  Those people in Jerusalem are not besieged by a metaphor.  No one is walking the walls going, “You know, this is sort of an allegory for life.”  When you are in Judah at this point in the text, soldiers are coming to kill you.  Lots of them.  They will take your city, take your house and belongings, and probably do terrible things to your spouse and your children.  You could look out and, around the city, see sunlight glittering off spears and shields like it glitters off the ocean.  The campfires at night would fill your vision – multitudes surrounding you with only one goal in mind.  You can taste the grit in your teeth from the dust that has risen up and blows through the streets from the marching of a great army.  Somewhere in that camp is someone with brown hair and hazel eyes who is stronger than you, faster than you, and his sword has your name on it.  Under the hot sun, in those dusty streets, everywhere you look, you can only see the inevitability of death staring back at you, and there is nothing you can do to stop it from happening.

It’s hard to come up with a modern scenario that would help us really feel what they felt.  You know, there was a time when people in the United States thought this might happen with Russia.  There’s even a movie about it called “Red Dawn,” which I understand they remade.  I guess Hollywood felt this was a timeless tale that future generations needed to experience.  But that didn’t pan out, and we couldn’t really think of who else might have the manpower to invade us, so we went to zombies, I guess.  All our apocalyptic movies of America being overrun are about zombies, now, and if that helps you to imagine how these people felt, then go with it.  Imagine looking out your bedroom window to find that you are surrounded by a horde of the living dead.  It’s only a matter of time for you.  It’s inexorable.  You can’t stop it.  In one of these movies, one of those zombies is going to figure out how to use a doorknob or a gun, and then we’re really in trouble!

I’ve taken a long time to set this up, but that’s because this is the part we don’t hear about.  These people are staring at their own very real, very imminent destruction.  The only thing that can quite literally save them is their God, and where is He?  Prayer and obedience seem like a very thin shield against the very real spears and the very real people who wield them making their way to your gates.

I want to say right now that it is common for a good, faithful follower of God to be faced with very real and terrible circumstances and feel like God is not there for you.  Let me say that again: it is common for a good, faithful follower of God to be faced with very real and terrible circumstances and feel like God is not there for you.  It does not mean you do not have faith or are a bad Christian to survey the terrible realities around you and feel as though you are on your own and are about to get steamrolled.

One man who understands this better than anyone is Jesus, himself.  Jesus, who prayed about his upcoming execution for hours.  Hours!  He did not get a sense of peace about the situation.  An angel did not visit him.  He kept at this for hours, at one point telling his disciples that he was distressed even to death.  He was staring at his own torture and death and praying his guts out to God into that night sky and got back… nothing, as far as we know, just like Israel had experienced before him at times.

And in that moment, he had a decision to make.  All he had to do was abandon ship.  “I’m sorry I gave anyone the idea that I was actually the king of the Jews and that the kingdom of God had come in the midst of the Roman Empire.  I’m sorry I let anyone think I was the promised Messiah.  None of that is true.  I’m sorry for the confusion, and I think we should all get back to our families and shows, and I’m just want to say how glad I am that I live in an Empire like Rome with a Caesar who is so great and lets us have our own Temple and everything.”  All he had to do was stop.  That’s it.  And all these real crosses with real wood and real nails would go away.

In that moment, when he was pouring out his anguish and not getting any response back, he said, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”  He decided he would be faithful, anyway, regardless of what did or did not happen.  We can look at a lot of episodes from Jesus’ life that seem godlike to us, but that moment seems very godlike to me.  No matter what anyone else will or won’t do, I will be faithful.  I will see this through to the end.

The story of faith, beloved, is the story of people being surrounded by terrible circumstances that constantly preach the anti-sermon that God is not there, and if He is, He obviously can’t do what He said or He doesn’t care.  And there is very little evidence that steps in to counter that message.  We are the counter to that message.  We have a choice.  We continue by faith, regardless of the outcome, and it is those moments that the God who was there the entire time will use in ways that we may not even be able to anticipate.

In this case of our text this morning, although not in all cases, God will give a sign that He is with His people.  Immanuel – God with us.  The “el” is God’s name, and “immanu” is a weird Hebrew word from which we derive words like “immanent” – something that is right there on your doorstep.  A child will be born to a girl who would not normally have a child, and the birth of this special boy will be a broadcast to God’s people that He is not done with Judah.  He is about to do a great thing that will change Isaiah’s world forever – he will sweep away the northern kingdom and her allies with Assyria.  And when this has happened, God will raise up a mighty, righteous king of Israel.  This disaster that she faces, now, is the stepping stone to a victory that, at the moment, seems unlikely.  But God has said it, He will do it, and the birth of little Immanuel is the sign!  God is not absent.  He is not uncaring.  He is not unable.  He is here, and amazing things are about to happen!

Hundreds of years later, long after this situation is a matter of ancient history even to Israel, she will find that she is also surrounded by those kinds of circumstances we talked about.  The Promised Land is ruled by Rome – a nation of pagans who worship other gods and their own leader.  Israel’s religious leaders, for the most part, have sold out to this regime so they can keep their jobs.  The High Priest is on the government’s payroll, and the position gets passed down to whoever is rich and socially mobile.  Israel is not prosperous, but is ground under by taxes to pay for buildings and statues, such that most of them barely eke out a survival.  Many of them are sharecroppers on land that used to belong to their family, but now belongs to a soldier or a governor or the Sanhedrin.  This once great nation that God had made so many glowing promises to was in captivity.  The nation of kings and priests was the flotsam and jetsam in the backwaters of a far superior Empire whose strength knew no bounds.

But there was a man who went among those people and stirred their hearts.  He reminded them of their God who loved them, showed them how to turn away from their lives to new lives of faithfulness.  He healed their sick and cast out spirits.  He brought a new kingdom to them in the midst of the one that held them down, and he showed them that for those who were steadfastly faithful, even in the face of a cross, that not even death could end them.  And that kingdom grew, and generations later, the Caesar of Rome would declare that Jesus Christ was Lord of the Empire.  You and I are here, today, because of this man, Jesus Christ, and I proclaim to you that He is lord, and though it is not without hardship and setbacks, his kingdom continues to roll out to all corners of the world, pushing back the darkness in favor of a people who live with compassion, justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

And it started with the sign – the sign that dropped right in the middle of a waiting Israel, ground under the thumb of the nations around her.  The birth of a special baby, the Immanuel of the first century AD.  Jesus, whose special birth told the world that God was not silent, that He was there, and that He was for and with His people.  And no matter how it might appear to you, He still very much is.

Let’s pray.