Sunday Meditations: Inheriting the Nations

I’ve been in the Old Testament a lot this past week, and one passage that came up that I’d not considered much in the sense of… well, in any sense, really… is Deuteronomy 32, particularly verses 7-9.

Remember the days of old,
consider the years long past;
ask your father, and he will inform you;
your elders, and they will tell you.
When the Most High apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;
the Lord’s own portion was his people,
Jacob his allotted share.

Deuteronomy 32:7-9 (NRSV)

The whole chapter is a reminder of God’s faithfulness to Israel and their mutual covenant.  What is also interesting is what this implies about the other nations.

This passage talks about when Elyon “divided humankind.”  He split them up into separate nations.  This is probably a reference to the story of the Tower of Babel.

What is interesting is that God gives the nations over to other gods, but he keeps Israel for Himself.  This is a theological summary, since Israel did not exist as a nation at Babel, nor are they listed in the tables of nations in Genesis 10 and 11.  But their ancestors were there, and out of Mesopotamia, God calls Abraham for Himself.  The other nations will serve other gods, but Abraham and his descendants will belong to Yahweh forever, even as they grow into numberless descendants.

But the nations are not just cut off from God and left to their own devices.  God growing His people in Abraham is the plan for eventually blessing all the nations of the world.

Deuteronomy’s concern, of course, is with the ongoing faithfulness and prosperity of Israel, and this passage serves mostly as a reminder of how special Israel is to God.  Out of all the other nations, Israel was God’s portion – His inheritance that He kept for Himself in the days when the other nations were turned over to other gods to go their own way.  This is meant to be both a comfort to Israel about her future as well as a reminder to special faithfulness to her God.

But this special portion has the long term trajectory of, eventually, blessing the nations.  And this trajectory is really long term.

The first five books of the Old Testament can sometimes really skew our notion of time.  There’s the story of Adam, then Adam’s sons, then Noah is pretty quick after that, then Babel, then Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, then Moses, you get the idea.  Because these stories occur one after the other, in our heads, we sort of place them one after the other – as though each of these things is only a few decades apart.  We forget that huge passages of time happened between the pivotal events the Old Testament tells us about.

And this section is no different.  How long will it take for one family to grow into so many descendants that they cannot be numbered and, by doing so, bless all the nations?  This is something that simply cannot happen within a few generations.  For centuries, your average Israelite would be born, live their lives, and die knowing that they were simply part of the long, mundane flow of history that was their current iteration of moving the plan forward.

Some of them lived in particularly interesting times, but many did not.  They would know of the promises of the past and how it brought them to where they were.  They would know where they were going as a people and their hopes for the future, but their own lives of quiet faithfulness were them passing the baton along – making a glacial movement forward of God’s plan.

And what was that plan?  The reclamation of the nations – the day when Israel’s God would be confessed as the God and Lord of all the nations – the day when God’s people would be everywhere, and we would not worship on this hill or that hill, but God would be worshiped in all places by all peoples.

There are points in history where this goal hit milestones.  In fact, as far as the New Testament is concerned, “the nations” are more or less the Roman Empire, and that Empire comes under the dominion of Christ in a pretty concrete way.

But we also know something the New Testament authors did not, and that is that “the nations” are bigger than the Roman Empire and outlying tribes.  And God’s people went about the task of bringing the news of the Creator God into those places as well.  There is still much to be done in that project.  And who knows?  Maybe we’ll discover other life in the universe and find that “the nations” are larger than we could have possibly imagined, just like Paul trying to imagine the Mauri or the Inuits or the Sioux.

Although the horizons may broaden with time, and although the concrete forms of the people of God may shift with circumstances, the mechanism continues to the same: the people of God remain a faithful witness that calls their neighbors into the family and service of this God, and in this way, all the nations are blessed.

Perhaps we are near the end of this project, or perhaps we are just a blip on an unbelievably huge timeline that takes the entire universe into its scope.  Those things belong to God.

In the meantime, we are called to faithful service of the God who made the heavens and the earth, and through this faithfulness, others will be called by His name.

 

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Sunday Meditations: Update and Worship Music

I realize the blog has been pretty silent, lately.  Work has got me deep in the trenches, and I also started a website to provide resources for recovering addicts, and adding content to that site takes like three times as long as it does to write content for this site.

Still, I have not abandoned this project.  I have thought I might take an intermission from the gospel of Matthew just to get the juices flowing again.  A friend asked if I might do some work in Romans, and that’s interesting to me, so I might do a little in that before getting back to the gospels.

This Sunday morning in church, we were taught a new song that we were told we might have heard if we listen to Christian radio.  As soon as I heard that, I knew we were in for a slog.

It’s not that Christian radio just churns out bad music.  That does happen, but I don’t know the ratio is much different than any other sort of radio station.

What prepped me for disappointment was this: songs you hear on the radio are pretty much designed for a solo performer with perhaps a backup singer or two.  Songs performed this way allow the performer a lot of room to artistically perform their vocals.  There can be frequent shifts in key or overall range of pitch.  In some lines, the lyrics might be spaced apart; in others, several words might run together to fit.  There’s no real set structure because the vocal performer has constructed a performance and, as an artist, will just do what they do to make the song work and present it as a work of art.

The same things that draw us to outstanding vocal performances are also the same things that make a song poorly suited for congregational singing.

I’m not saying congregational songs all have to be musically super-simple, although I do find there seems to be a trend in congregational songwriting that is trending more musically complex and lyrically shallow, which is the exact opposite of what I wish were happening.  But you want something that’s easy for everyone to sing together.  You want something that serves as a platform to assist a group of people expressing themselves together in worship without thinking, “Oh, is this the verse where we sing the third line really high, or is that the next verse?  Oh, this line was like twelve syllables shorter in the last verse.  How do we have to sing this to get it to fit?  Oh, wait, the worship leader is pausing.  She didn’t pause last time.  I’ll have to remember that.”

The thing is, a song may be very inspirational and powerful when a vocalist with a backup or two is belting it out.  And, since many “worship teams” are structured in a similar way, it may sound good in rehearsal.

But when a whole congregation is trying their best to sound like Bono or whatever because that’s what’s actually required to pull the song off, it ends up being a chore.  This bothers me because I have an idyllic picture of all God’s people, little children and grandparents, good singers and bad singers, able to worship corporately together and focus on all the right things while doing so.  The goal of a worship service, to me, is not to create a performance for the people in the audience.

I may be projecting here, somewhat.  Many Sunday mornings, I need corporate worship, and anything that draws me away from being able to pour myself out in worship and join communally with my brothers and sisters in that is most unwelcome.  I don’t want to be tripping over irregular meters and crazy pitch modulations so that we can sound like the CD, artistically delivering lines that basically come out to, “I think God is pretty sweet for vague reasons.”

But there’s something else that troubles me about this sort of worship song.

Let’s say everyone learns the song, learns where all the weird pitch changes and meter changes are, learns where the arbitrary bridge comes in, learns where you’re supposed to say the word “Jesus” before the chorus and when you aren’t, etc.  In other words, everyone can more or less sound like the vocalist on the radio.

Well, we still don’t have a congregation singing together; we have an aggregation of soloists singing the same song at the same time.

The next time the church in America has a big vote, one of the things I would like to vote for in corporate worship is a greater emphasis on our shared experience as the collective people of God and less emphasis on my individual experience.

This is not to say there’s no place for individual experience; it’s just that I have individual spiritual experiences all week.  I came to church to share the mysteries of our faith with brothers and sisters.

This is sort of a weird thing that has happened with evangelical churches in America.  We already evangelize people with a highly individualistic story, and then we describe church as a place where saved people, for their own good, should go to grow.  In other words, church becomes a collection of individually saved people in the same room as opposed to the assembling of the corporate people of God – and you happen to be a member of this group.

Our worship, if we’re not careful, can further entrench this highly individualistic way of thinking.  Our songs tend to have a lot of “me,” “my,” and “I” in them and not very much “we” and “us.”  There is a difference between a hundred people singing, “God has delivered me from my darkness” and the same hundred people singing, “God has delivered us from our darkness.”  The former is a group of individuals making individual declarations of praise; the latter is a collective making a unified statement of praise, together.

The distinction may be subtle to an extent, but when you add them all up, you end up with the lamentable fact that, in most churches, you could install dividers between all the seats and everyone would have basically the same experience they do, now.

This is not the emphasis of the biblical narrative, however, and it troubles me to see it incrementally fade from our consciousness as time goes on.  The Bible tells us a story about God calling a people to Himself and saving them when necessary.  It’s a story about Him and His special group, not a story about Him and a bunch of otherwise unrelated individuals who get together from time to time.

I think it’s totally appropriate to pursue an individual relationship with God, grow that, and express it.  I can easily do that on my own in the morning or sing along with the dude on the radio in my car or whatever.

But America already does enough to lock us into an individualized, isolated, self-oriented box during the week.  I don’t want to see that way of thinking entrenched in my corporate worship experience.  I don’t want corporate worship to be an intense, personal time with God and there just happens to be other people also having intense, personal time with God.  It’s a time for God and us – us having shown up, together, to meet with him as our forefathers did millennia ago.

And I would like to see our worship constructed along those lines.

Now, if only someone really, really wanted my opinion about this.

Sunday Meditations: The Alien God

First, I want to send a shout out to my Pinoy brothers and sisters who are reading the heck out of this blog article for some reason, according to the WordPress stats.  I was born in Manila and teach arnis, so the idea that anything I wrote is particularly helpful to you guys is pretty great.  Although, I don’t have comments turned on, so for all I know, the only reason that link is so popular in the Philippines is because you’re all talking about how dumb it is.

Second, the title of this blog post does not refer to extraterrestrial aliens, so if you came across this searching for information about Cthulhu or Manos or whatever, it’s not going to be here.

What I’ve been meditating on the past few days is how alien God is.  How otherworldly and just how other He is.

In Christianity, we try to represent both God’s otherness and God’s immanence, and in American evangelicalism, if I had to pick, I’d say the emphasis has been largely on God’s immanence.  In other words, the focus is on how near to us God is.  How we can talk to Him.  How He cares about our day to life.  How we can have a personal relationship with Him.

And none of that is wrong.  After all, God has not left us to mystically intuit Him.  God has acted in history, chosen a people, and shown us what He is like in mankind’s finer qualities of love, justice, and good judgement – and most clearly in Jesus Christ.  In the Old Testament, people speak to God in their language and hear back in their language.  Often, they speak very reverently.  Other times, just being flat out honest.  Jeremiah probably wins the Holy Cajones Award for flat out telling God that God deceived him into becoming a prophet, and God takes all this in stride.

God sends His Spirit at the end of an age to Jew and Gentile and, by doing so, unites all who receive Him to Jesus and Himself.  Through the Spirit dwelling in and among people, God is present among us throughout the world.  Jesus and His apostles encourage us to pray and tell God our cares because God cares about us.  The hairs on our head are numbered, and even though not a single sparrow dies apart from God, we are worth more to God than many sparrows.

So, please know that I am a big fan of the God who is among us with whom we can communicate and whose presence we can experience.

I think that in our pursuit of this experience, we can sometimes forget that this God who has made so many concessions to have a loving relationship with us is also a being who is wholly alien to our experience.

C.S. Lewis gave us a little picture of this by casting God as a lion (Aslan) in his books.  On the one hand, Aslan talks, reasons, lets children pet him, and so on.  But on the other hand, it’s a lion.  Lions are a little scary.  They have lion brains and feel lion things.  We don’t always know what a lion is going to do, and they are capable of great and terrible things.  Aslan is not a man in a lion suit; he is a lion who speaks with a man’s voice.

Long before there was a you or even a human, God dwelt in silence.  God can manifest locally, but in and of Himself, He has no sense of locality or containment.  He is not a man-shaped ghost; He is everywhere present.  He has neither eyes nor ears to take in sensory information, but He is aware of all information.  He is not a wizard.  He does not operate on the universe through magical powers.  He does not mystically force things to go His way.  We have absolutely no point of reference for how God works.

That black, pinpoint of mystery is important.

We can easily imagine, for instance, a very powerful being who has a will that they want to make manifest, so they wave their hands or exercise some kind of hidden power, and lo! what they will occurs.  This is how Greek gods work.  This is where our ideas of wizards and magicians come from.  This invisible power they exercise seems mysterious but, at the same time, the idea is very comprehensible to us.  We can imagine a person  or something like a person doing that.  They will it, and some manifestation of supernatural power moves and lightning shoots from Olympus or into a crowd of orcs.

But that is how we imagine will being made manifest – through the exercise of some invisible power that makes stuff happen.  But God is not an extraordinarily powerful man.  God is not a wizard.  God does not do magical stuff.

How does He do stuff, then?  We don’t know.  That’s just it.  We are not a being like God and can only conceive of Him working the way a very powerful created, localized being could work, even if we ascribe mythical, absolute power to it.  But He doesn’t work that way.  He does something Different than that.  We do not and can not have anything close to a concept of what it is God does that makes His will manifest, or if it even makes sense to talk about God having a will in any sense besides analogy.

This is why conversations about the sovereignty of God can get tricky, because the only way we can conceive of a being’s will definitively happening is to conceive of them making it happen.  How else?  What other way to do it is there?  That’s just it.  We have no way of conceiving of a being whose will is made manifest in any other way than them making it happen or setting it up to inevitably happen or whatever, because that’s the only way we can operate.  So, if God is sovereign, humans can’t be free.  And if humans are free, God can’t be sovereign.  Because that’s the only way we could possibly envision this playing out.

But what about an unlocalized, uncreated being who is everywhere present who is not even composed of matter or energy as we understand it?  It is here we have to admit that we only know of God what can fit into our brains and our methods of perception, and while that knowledge made be true, it is also incomplete and analogous, ultimately.  We have to acknowledge that God is wholly unique.

This is something to bear in mind when we think about “evidence” of God’s existence.  What are we expecting when we think about such evidence?  Are we expecting a localized being?  Are we expecting something so disruptive to what we normally perceive that there is no other explanation?  Are we expecting some kind of way to detect that the universe was first formed with invisible, magical power?

What if the fact that anything exists at all is evidence of God?  Why should anything exist?  Why should there be matter or energy?  I can think of an almost infinite amount of things that don’t exist.  The amount of things that actually exist versus the amount of things that theoretically could but do not is incredibly slim.  What if models of God waving His hands and using magic power to form the “natural world” and setting it into motion may be a useful picture to get us pointed in the right direction but are ultimately absurd compared to the reality?

If this were true, then the universe is constantly screaming to us that God is there.  Every natural process that exists that seems to get along just fine without magic powers pushing it along is like a neon sign telling us, “God is here, now.”  Every mundane event is a miracle, and every miracle is simply a disruption of our expectations to draw our attention to something – a sign!

Because then it wouldn’t be a matter of a natural, mechanistic world clicking along and God dropping some magic God power into it from time to time – the very evidence that people claim they are looking for when they say they want evidence of God’s existence.  We have a being whose actual operations occur in a manner wholly incomprehensible to us.  They do not fit what it would look like for a powerful being to operate within the confines of the universe; they are Something Else.

And we as human beings ought to embark on the scientific enterprise with great hope, because the universe that is so much like us in so many ways has so much to explore and so much to reveal to us as time goes on.  But our brains are part of the very reality that we study.  We have limits.  We will never be able to know, perceive, or even conceive of anything besides what we are actually capable of knowing, perceiving, or conceiving of.  And dare we say that the limits of human comprehension define what can and cannot be real?

We daren’t, I hope.

Meditating on this mystery humbles me, but it also comforts me, because it doesn’t make the natural world any less rational, scientific, or mechanistic – but it all becomes an instrument.  It’s a vehicle presenting to my awareness a being that would otherwise be unknowable.  I do not have to choose between scientific explanations and “religious” explanations because they are not positing two, different realities.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,” David says.  “The skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

And I must be careful that, as I pursue a relationship with God and can speak to Him as a friend about anything, that I do not fall into the trap of believing that He is just like me, only lots more powerful.  That I do not assume He is motivated the same way I am or makes decisions like I do or that the things that I see as I make my way through life will always be intelligible to me because there has to be some kind of rationale that I should be able to apprehend.

God is very near and has revealed Himself in all kinds of ways.  He is also Something Else.

Sunday Meditations: Mary the Revolutionary

I’m just about to finish the book A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary was a Virgin and Why It Matters.  I’d only recommend the book to certain people.  Not because of the conclusions the author comes to, but because I don’t think the book is all that helpful in formulating your thoughts on the virgin birth.  It’s not a bad book, but the center of gravity is mostly on how theologies of the virgin birth and incarnation have duked it out with a special emphasis on avoiding a sort of docetism where Jesus doesn’t sweat, stink, spit, etc. like we do.  So, the book is especially valuable for people interested in the development of theology around these issues.  It may also be useful for people who don’t believe in the virgin birth and wonder about the ramifications for their Christian faith.

But in one of the chapters, the author talks particularly about Mary and how she achieved the place she did in theology, especially Roman Catholic theology, as well as specific cultures such as Central and South America.  He also discusses the primary lens that male-dominant theology has seen Mary through – emphasizing her submission and meekness and valuing her for her virginity, and in this, he also brings up certain feminist takes on Mary that are challenging and insightful.

I’ll admit up front, I’m not a big “-ist readings of X” kind of guy, but I like being confronted with readings that challenge my status quo, whether I end up agreeing or not, and one of the things pointed out was a certain revolutionary tone in Mary’s Magnificat – the prayer/song she bursts into when she visits Elizabeth and Elizabeth recognizes that Mary will give birth to the Lord.

The song is found in Luke 1:46-55:

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 

Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)

Look at that last half.  In the arrival of Jesus, God has shown strength, scattering the proud.  He brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.  He fills the poor and sends the rich away.  He helps Israel according to the promise He made to Abraham.

Mary, who is a girl probably between the ages of 12 and 16, sees in the prospective birth of Jesus an act of God whereby the powerful will be brought down from their thrones and the fortunes of Israel will be reversed.  It’s a very subversive and political song.  Mary believes that Jesus will be the beginning of God bringing down the powers that dominate Israel and putting the poor and humble faithful back on top.

In my mind, this actually helps explain why Mary reacts to the birth the way she does.  She is not some victim of forces beyond her control, and she just has to grit her teeth and deal with it gracefully.  She is instrumental to the revolution.  She is favored and all will call her blessed because of her role in bringing down the rulers from their thrones, sending away the rich, and liberating Israel.  It is not difficult at all for me to imagine a teenager with this sort of idealism and passion.

In the original Terminator movie, a woman named Sarah is told by a man from another world (well, the future) that she will carry the child who will liberate humanity from their oppressors in the future, so it is imperative that she stay alive, give birth to the child, and prepare him for his role.  In the later movies, we find Sarah becoming something of a survivalist and a soldier, acquiring the skills she needs to pass on her son.

This is 100% speculative, but I wonder what Mary taught her son Jesus in preparation for his role in God bringing rulers down from their thrones and exalting the oppressed of Israel.  Maybe she didn’t teach him military tactics or how to do a field dressing, but I’ll bet she passed along stories of the promise God made to Abraham, the glorious days of Israel under David and Solomon, and the weight of the Exile that, while technically over, was still going on.  I’ll bet she explained to him why they were poor and why Israel was poor and about the Romans.  She explained to him why some of his own people had become loyal to the Empire.  She explained the lure of riches and comfort what it does to a man’s heart when the alternative is poverty and death.  She explained the importance of loving his people and sticking by them on their side and not crossing over to the side of the rich and the powerful, of maintaining the faith of his forefathers and not giving it up for paganism or civil religion.

In other words, although I don’t know this and there’s no text I know of that says this, when I read those lines in Mary’s song, knowing her hopes and expectations, I can’t help but think she was instrumental in raising Jesus the prophet who would save his people, preparing him for his mission.

Yes, she was submissive to God’s will and obedient and a lesson to all of us in that way, but it’s not simply because she was a submissive person.  It was because she foresaw a great revolution at God’s hands, and she was going to play her very instrumental role in the movement.

Sunday Meditations: Let Your Light Shine

Today in church, we sang one of my new favorite songs.

Musically, it’s nothing great.  Lyrically, it’s fairly shallow and I’m not sure I could sign off on some of it without some qualification, but the chorus goes like this:

We are the light of the world
We are the city on the hill
We are the light of the world
And we gotta, we gotta, we gotta let the light shine

Ok, not exactly T.S. Eliot there, I admit, but the images it pulls together come from the Old Testament by way of Jesus Christ, and it always gets me going to sing those lines because it is a clarion call to identity and mission.

If it makes sense to talk about an overarching “story” to the Bible, it really gets rolling with Abraham.  The people who told the stories and wrote the writings that would become the Old Testament did so in a world that was already broken.  The opening chapters of Genesis are the prologue – the prequel – the setup.  They are the explanation of how the world ended up in the state that it was in to make something like Israel necessary.

But once the stage has been set – the world is full of injustice, violence, oppression, and ignorance of or rebellion against God – we get the calling of Abraham.  God is going to use him as the father of a new creation in the midst of the present creation.  His descendants will be priests to the rest of the world.  They will be called by God’s name to worship and serve Him, and in doing so, will establish a society that runs off of compassion, justice, mercy, restoration, and care.

This wouldn’t happen perfectly, of course, and was never intended to.  There’s a reason the Torah has redemptive and restorative laws in it.  But the idea is, even when you screw up, there’s a way to make things right, again.  Nobody is ever written off.  Not the poor, not the weak, not the sinners.

And this community is designed for evolution, too.  No set of laws can remain static forever and still be good laws.  Circumstances change.  The world changes.  Cultures change.  Sensibilities change.  And the Torah reflects this.

But though the laws change, certain principles continue to define this nation – loving God with everything you have, and loving your neighbor as if they were your own self, no matter what you happen to think of your neighbor at the time.

Israel’s mission in the world was not primarily to deliver a message or convey information; her mission was to be a new creation.  She was to look different than everyone else.  As a society, she was supposed to run off a different engine.  She was a model.  She was a colony that came from another world – a better world – a living incarnation that testified that Israel’s God was the true God and the world He wanted was not only better for the creation He loved, but was entirely possible.

Israel was meant to be a pillar of fire in the darkness, showing everyone the way through the wilderness, being the flesh and blood version of God’s Spirit in the world.  She was a light to the world.  She was the city on the hill.  Other nations were to look at her and go, “Yeah, we want that, too.”  In the eschatological visions of the prophets, they saw the nations repenting and coming to the true worship of YHWH with Israel showing them the way.  And, at times, she even seemed to be this.  Other times, not so much.

Because the cold of this world seeps into your bones.  The darkness has a way of reasserting itself.  You are called to be this model nation, but you look around at the neighboring nations and, before you know it, you start to want different things.  You want the gold and the buildings they have.  You want their luxuries.  You want their power, and you watch them and see what people have to do to get it.  You see what it’s like for the people on top of that nation and on the bottom, and in your mind you think, “That looks pretty good.  I just need to make sure I’m on the top.”

And then you feel threatened, and you start to look for something to save you.  And those other nations with their vast armies and chariots and superior metals and track record of conquest start to look pretty good.  It’s one thing to say you trust God, but the fact is that those spears and horses seem to be doing a pretty good job of keeping those other nations safe.  The harshness and the darkness of the world starts to press in, and trusting in God and keeping His ways seems like a thin cloak against poverty or destruction.  Let’s just do what everyone else is doing; just make sure you come out on top.

But, you see, this is the way you become darkness.  You may not become overtly evil, possibly, but you become darkness.  You are part of the undifferentiated environment that makes the world what it is – harsh, dark, hurtful, ignorant, a graveyard – a pyramid of bones that a select few can claw their way to the top of for a few, glorious moments before sinking under.

People from other nations walk past yours and mutter, “Move along.  Nothing to see here.”  And they are correct.  There is Nothing to see, there.  It turns out that you can actually build an empire of nothing.

Oh, how tempting it is, when you feel things starting to slip away from you, to become a predator in that darkness.  How tempting it is to tell yourself that the darkness is all there is.  Violence, resources, and power are the only currencies that will let you ride on top for a while until you fade, and this is what you should do, because this is the Real World.

Well

God wanted a people who would show everyone in the middle of that darkness that the Real World does not have to be like that at all.  There is another world, another age, another creation born from above that can shine in the darkness and silence every anti-sermon ever whispered from its corners.  And God is committed to the establishment of that world, so much so that He will raise them from the dead who share His commitment.  So much so that He will pour out His Spirit on all nations, resting those pillars of fire above everyone who will pursue His mission.  Tiny temples, tiny menorahs dispersed throughout this present creation.

If you think being the city on a hill or the light of the world means telling people a message to get them to pray a special prayer, your vision is too small.  If I live by myself in an apartment, I can make the parts of the world I touch look more like the world God wants.  If I have a family, I can treat them with mercy, justice, and compassion.  If I have a church, if I have a workplace, if I live in the woods, I can be something even when I don’t say something, and if I am being that something, then I am saying everything I need to say to earn the right to say more.

We want to call people out of this world, but what are we calling them into?  More of the same except with crosses and doctrine?  We lament people leaving the church, but what is their reason to stay if we aren’t being something different?  If we aren’t giving people a better world to live in?  What is the point in warning people about Hell if we are complicit in perpetuating or are functionally apathetic to the Hell they live in, now?  If salt loses its saltiness, what use is it?

When people in America think of the Christian church, what do they think of?  Do they see a better world?  Do they see a better offer than what they’ve got?  Are we known as the great hope for the world, lighting a path to a better future?  If you take away the words, are we offering anything at all?

Or are we known for ignorance, power plays, anger, self-righteousness, and all-consuming personal morality that we’d like nothing better than to make totalitarian?

If you want to be the light of the world, a city on a hill, you have to be something.  It has to look like something people can see, not just play a message they can hear.

I will grant you that there is a lot broken in the world, and it can be paralyzing to think of it.  But we don’t all have to do everything.  We can all, however, start with something.  Perhaps it is in a way I behave toward the people around me.  Maybe it’s in the way I do my work or behave toward my family.  Maybe it’s a little bit of time or money that I divert to something that is not strictly about my own advancement or pleasure.  Maybe its finding a small group of like-minded people who would like to start taking care of each other.  We can all find something to make the world God wants real in our midst.

And if we could do that – if we could be that thing in the world – we wouldn’t need to worry about secularism or “losing America” or whatever it is that panics our churches these days.  We would be doing our people of God thing, and if we were doing it well, there wouldn’t be a thing anyone could say to discredit it.  If we were doing it well, people would be coming to us.

You can see glimpses of this world.  It runs as an undercurrent through the Law and the Psalms.  It flashes sharply in the criticisms of the Prophets.  It burns brightly in the words and life of the man Jesus Christ.  It sparkles in the communal life of those first century believers after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Pastors and Teachers, show us this world in the Scriptures and in our lives.  Prophets, tell us what this world looks like, today and where we need to be going and what we stand to lose.  Evangelists, announce to those who walk in darkness that this world has come, it shines, and it carries within its borders new hope and new life for all who will come – whose king is the risen Jesus and whose God is the creator of heaven and earth.

And if you are not any of those types of people, you have the most important and challenging job of all – being in your flesh and blood that reality you confess with your lips.  Being our fundamental apologetic and proclamation in your day to day life.  Taking your tiny corner of the world and lighting it up.

Sunday Meditations: Christmas in Another Age

Twenty-one centuries ago, Israel was in a very bad situation and had been for a long time.

Centuries before that, her leaders had forgotten her calling to be YHWH’s special nation in the world, and they had become like all the other nations.  They made and broke alliances, schemed for power and territory, and fleeced their own people for money and power.  The rich could get away with murder while the poor were ground down.  The gods of the surrounding nations were adopted along with their values.

While the worship of Israel’s God was maintained in a perfunctory manner, the nation’s heart was not in it.  Idols dotted the landscape and the hearth.  People chose the most non-viable animals to sacrifice so they could check off that box without any great loss.  Spiritually and politically, she had become a people who had taken the God of her youth who had walked with her for so long and relegated Him to a dusty closet while she pursued new loves.

But becoming like the other nations carried a terrible price.  She soon found herself on the wrong side of these alliances and, as the covenant with God stipulated, she was conquered by a pagan nation and exiled, losing her own, promised land.  There was a brief window when it looked like she might be restored under Persia, but more empires came through, and eventually the wheel stopped on Rome – the conquerors of the world.

Rome had their own gods – even their Caesars were revered as becoming divine.  While they interfered little in the daily lives of the common Israelite, they had a stranglehold on the power structure.  The High Priest was appointed with Rome’s consent.  The local “King of the Jews” was an Idumean who had helped Rome capture Jerusalem.  And of course, there were the steep taxes, grinding the people down into inescapable poverty – taxes collected by their own people complicit with the Empire.

Where was God in all of this?  He was largely silent.  On auspicious occasions, prophets would speak in His name warning Israel of her coming fate and urging repentance and heartfelt return to her God who would forget her trespasses and renew His vows and restore and protect her, but Israel did not listen.  She killed those prophets – those upstarts who would overthrow the cart.  Because, you see, the powerful did not care about the loss of their faith or who was in charge or whose symbol hung over the Temple – they cared about what they always cared about: their money, their power, their fame, and if Rome would prop that up, so much the better.

I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining.
I believe in love, even when I feel it not.
I believe in God, even when He is silent.

Anonymous poem scratched into a wall in Auschwitz

It was four hundred years between the words of Malachi and the words of Gabriel.

Into this silence, God gave a sign that He was still with His people and would not leave them to their situation.  That sign was the birth of a special child to a young woman who would not ordinarily be having a child.  This child, the angel said, would save his people from their sins.  He was both the sign of God’s presence and actions as well as the promised king who would fulfill that sign.  He was the true King of the Jews such that even pagan outsiders recognized it at his birth – the stars themselves proclaimed as much.  Although we do not know the month or date or even for certain the year this happened, this great sign and promise is what we celebrate at Christmas.

This man would be God’s presence among broken Israel.  He would woo her back, showing compassion to the very least.  He would heal her of her sicknesses and cast out oppressive spirits.  He would teach her, shed tears over her, forgive her sins, and call her to repent – to turn away from the life she knew to once again embrace a faithful calling to a faithful God who would not abandon her to judgement.  He recreated her, forming the kingdom of God around fishermen, farmers, and tax collectors.  He raised up a priesthood from prostitutes, notorious sinners, beggars, and the lame and diseased.  He did not fashion an army with swords and armor, for he saw that such was the way of destruction.  Rather, he committed the faithful spirits of his people into the hands of their God who would act.

His kingdom challenged the kingdom that was.  His warnings challenged the leaders of Israel who had sold their souls.  His message of a new regime where the high would be brought low so that the faithful could reign was met with hostility, and this dark, broken world that he challenged killed him, demonstrating the might of the present evil age over the so-called Messiah.

But God was neither thwarted nor unmoved by this willing sacrifice, and He raised Jesus from the dead, exalting him above all worldly powers, giving him the name that is above all names as a reward for his faithfulness, vindicating his message, his identity, and the future that waited for his people.

God marked the beginning of the end of their age by sending the Holy Spirit, letting them know the time was near.  Now, instead of one Jesus, there were thousands of Jesuses, spreading his message and doing his works.  Gentiles who heard what God was doing turned away from their empty lives of dissolution and pursuit of power to follow the true God, having believed in what God had done in Jesus.  And lo, they also received the promised Spirit, being adopted as sons and part of the same destiny as faithful Israel!

Jerusalem would be sacked and the Temple – that last vestige of the old religious regime of oppressive power – would fall, but that kingdom Jesus had built survived, spread, and grew like sown seeds.  And these plants grew, Jew and Gentile together, until the day when Caesar himself bent the knee and declared Jesus the Lord of the Roman Empire.  Jesus, centuries after his death, had conquered the world, and Israel’s God was the God of all nations.

The trajectory of the world was never the same after that.  No, things did not always go well for the kingdom, nor did they always act in a manner consistent with their identity and calling.  But despite these ebbs and flows, the faith spread outside the bounds of the known world at the time of the New Testament and into all the globe.

That kingdom as we knew it is gone, now, and its influence is receding.  We find ourselves in a situation that, at times, looks very much like exiled Israel, first century Israel, and the early church all at once, along with our own unique particulars.  When we read the Scriptures, we find narratives that sometimes seem to fit our own situation and sometimes do not.

We have our own set of crises, too.  Certainly, in parts of the world, faithful followers of Jesus are actively persecuted.  In other parts, they are not but look suspiciously like an Israel right before the Exile, having the forms of religion but without the heart – the intense love for God that is coupled with an intense love for neighbor that manifests as a just and compassionate society.  The rise of secularism in the West makes faith untenable for some and perfunctory for others.  Environmental damage creates more and more palpable effects.  And looming over all of this is the prospect of mankind’s destruction – individually by Death, corporately by war, and all created things by the slow death of the universe itself.

Is this where God has brought us?  Were the powerful events of the past just high points on the road to ultimate futility?

The people of God have asked themselves this question at many times throughout history, and always their trust was rewarded, even if it came through dark times.

Our prophets need to rise up and have the guts to speak.  I don’t mean the milquetoast “God is releasing angels of harvest” sort of prophets that tell us nothing and lead us nowhere.  I don’t mean the prophets who affirm the world powers and assure us of peace and safety under their rule.  I mean the ones who can show us the signs God has for us that He is with us in these moments and has not left us to our fate.  I mean the ones who can tell us where our road will lead unless we turn to greater faithfulness and what that faithfulness will look like in our time, in our world.

We celebrate Christmas not only as a commemoration of the powerful, world-changing work God did in Jesus in the past, but as a sacramental sign and seal of a current and future hope – a hope of new creation and the road to get us there.  The signs and the events they heralded were once new, tentative, and uncertain things.  The signs to our age will be as well.  Let us find them where we may as candles of hope lit against this present darkness, and in those times when all we can see is darkness, we can live in trust, anyway, knowing that our God has never failed us.

Christmas Present: Recovery Resources

Hard as it may be for some to imagine, the holiday season is a very difficult time for many people.  Part of it is simply that people may be struggling in life, period.  If that’s so, it becomes very sharp around this time of year, not to mention the season-specific challenges and griefs that can come around for people.

What follows is a short list of resources I have found to be personally helpful in recovery.  Even though some are issue-specific and I did not struggle with that particular issue, I have personally read/used everything here, just applying it to my own struggles.  By contrast, you will notice that many “classic” Christian books about recovery are not on the list.  This is because I did not find many of them to be very helpful and, in some cases, would probably make the situation worse.

By way of disclaimer, this is just a list of things I’m familiar with; it’s not exhaustive.  Also, the people who produced these resources represent a pretty wide variety of religious, psychological, and scientific backgrounds.  Their presence on this list is not a blanket endorsement from me on everything they have to say.  They’ve just been helpful to me.  They might not be helpful to you.  In any case, here they are:

Resources About/Related to Recovery

Alcoholics Anonymous – The “big book” of A.A.  Technically, this is issue-specific (alcoholism), but the principles and 12 Steps are broad enough that many have used them in all kinds of other areas.  There is also a lot of wisdom to be found here simply in honest, transparent, fearless, and selfless living.

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions – If you are working through the 12 Steps, there is a lot of clarification and helpful additional information and inspiration to be found, here.  Even if you aren’t, the material on Step 12 about being of service to others is very much worth the read.

Breathing Underwater – This might be my favorite book on the 12 Steps.  Rohr is gentle and wise and has great insight into how to weave a life of recovery and increasing health into spirituality.

Narcotics Anonymous – The “big book” of N.A.  This is also issue-specific (drug addiction), but I actually like the explanations of the 12 Steps in this book better than the original A.A. book.

The Life Recovery Devotional – Ok, not all of these devotions are going to be amazing, but it is a helpful tool for having a daily time of reading and meditation and cultivating that daily mindfulness.  It can be very easy to “coast” when it comes to our recovery and growth, and it’s good to have something to remind us daily to pay attention to that aspect of our lives.

The Chemistry of Joy – The vast majority of the time, our compulsive behaviors or habitual sins are ways to shield ourselves from pain.  The ability to build emotional resilience is vital for every human being and especially so for those in recovery.  This book addresses the topic holistically – diet, lifestyle, vitamins and supplements, etc.

Resources with Actual Recovery Activities

Narcotics Anonymous Step Working Guides – Technically, they are oriented to drug addiction, but you can mentally abstract them to other areas and struggles you may have.

A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Steps – I think any Christian who struggles with a habitual sin they can’t let go of should give this book a shot and do the work in it.  Like most material that deals with 12 Steps, it is not just about big addictions; it’s about patterns and unconscious choices that draw us to things that are bad for us.  If you sponsor anybody in a 12 Step program, this is a great book to go through with them.

Facing the Shadow – This is issue-specific to recovery around sex-related issues, although once again, it provides a task-based way to address struggles that could be applied to most things.  I will warn you that this workbook will get very intense very quickly.  I highly recommend working through this book with a therapist, a sponsor, or a group of like-minded people also going through the book.

The Life Recovery Workbook – A less-intense, less issue-specific workbook to go through that may be an easier first run for people who are early in their journey of trying to tackle their struggles.  Yes, these are the same people who produced the devotional book mentioned above.

Joy Starts Here – Once again, addressing the topic of emotional resilience, which I have come to believe is completely vital for anyone trying to recover from addiction or any behaviors that they can’t seem to stop.  This is explicitly Christian and deals with the subject of resilience from the standpoint of increasing joy.

Prayer and Meditation

Centering Prayer – I could have picked a few different books, here.  I read several and they were all fine.  Learning the practice is more important than the specific book you choose.  If you are not a theist, you probably won’t get much out of this book unless you are mysticurious.

Listening Prayer – Similar notes as above, but I picked this book because it also has guidance on keeping a prayer journal.

HoloSync – These are audio tracks that put you into a meditative state, and if you’ve ever tried to get into a meditative state with all the distracting thoughts and such, you know that it is often very difficult.  I ran across these because of a physical trainer who called it “meditation that works.”  I will personally attest that HoloSync has made a huge, observable difference in my resilience and mindfulness and, as much as I’m skeptical of the marketing hype the website uses and as weird as they may seem, I recommend them without hesitation.  Your mileage may vary.

Journaling

Joyful Journey – This is produced by the same people who made Joy Starts Here, mentioned above.  It pulls together threads of building joy, journaling, and using the journal as communication with God.  It also has some material on listening prayer.

Penzu – A free, private (if you choose), online journaling tool to get started with instead of waiting until you buy the perfect notebook or whatever.

I hope there’s something on that list that lightens your burden a little.  Christian, Muslim, atheist, devotee of the mystery cults of Isis – all of us are alive together right now and are having to get through it together, and my prayer for all of you this season is that your tiny corner of the world will be restored and repaired, even just a little bit, and the world will look incrementally closer to the dream God has for His creation.

Hidden Treasure: Matthew 13:44

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

Matthew 13:44 (NRSV)

We are now in a section of rapid-fire parables.  While these may all have been delivered in one shot, keep in mind that Matthew is explaining that Jesus taught the crowds regularly in parables.  We may be seeing a compilation of parables delivered on multiple occasions.  At the very least, it seems likely that Jesus would use the same parable on more than one occasion.

Unlike some of the other parables in Matthew 13, this one does not have a clear Old Testament origin.  There are other “hidden treasure” stories in the ancient Jewish tradition, generally pointing out how easy it was for the treasure-finder to forget God with their newfound wealth or commending landowners and buyers for good compromises.

There may be an allusion here to Proverbs 2.

My child, if you accept my words
    and treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
    and inclining your heart to understanding;
if you indeed cry out for insight,
    and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver,
    and search for it as for hidden treasures—
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
    and find the knowledge of God.

Proverbs 2:1-4 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

The rest of Proverbs 2 talks about how wisdom and commandments will protect the faithful as opposed to the wicked who are destined for destruction.  This is pretty central to Jesus’ message, so it’s not unlikely he’s thinking of this proverb when he tells his parable.

The particulars of this tiny parable describe a situation that the poor in Israel would know well.

The Roman Empire is known for a lot of things, some of them being dramatic buildings and statues.  As people came to power in the Empire, they wanted to leave a legacy of their rule – secure a certain kind of immortality, if you will.  Often, they were motivated to outdo the accomplishments of their predecessors.  Huge building projects, ornate statues, all of these things had civic benefit but also served as a sort of memorial to the rule of a governor or Caesar, himself.

These projects did not come free, however.  Materials, labor, and imports cost a great deal of money, and this money did not come from the personal coffers of these officials.  Rather, they came from taxes.  If you were wealthy, you could probably get by all right.  Not only did you have the money to pay, you had the money to bribe the tax collectors.

If you were poor, however, these taxes were like a gigantic press grinding you down with every turn of the screw.  It was only a matter of time before you had to sell your land or the government seized it from you to pay your debts.  A rather large amount of Judean peasants became sharecroppers, some of whom worked land that used to belong to them and had been in their family for generations.

In this story, we have someone working someone else’s land (or randomly digging in someone else’s land, which seems unlikely), and they uncover a treasure.  This treasure is worth more than their land, more than their possessions.  This person hides the treasure, again, and is filled with joy contemplating the future that waits for them when they obtain this treasure.

In the story, however, the person doesn’t just run off with the treasure.  To get the treasure free and clear, they have to sell everything they own.  They have to lose all their possessions.  What meager security they have in life, they have to give it up, but they give it up joyfully because of the life to come that is held out before them.  It’s a no-brainer, as we say.  The treasure they will receive is worth many times over what they will have to give up to obtain it.  The man in the story then buys the field, and that’s the end of the story.

We aren’t told about him gaining the treasure.  We aren’t told what his life looked like after that.  None of that is important to Jesus’ point, because his point is all about giving up what you have so that you might obtain a better future – in this case, entrance into the kingdom of God and life in the age(s) to come.

This is a timely message.  We have already seen Jesus at this point in Matthew preparing his disciples for the persecution that will surely come if they follow Jesus’ path and take his message, warnings, and deeds to the rest of Israel.  They will certainly give up their lives as they know them and may even in the process lose everyone dear to them and their own literal lives as well.

But it is by following this dangerous, faithful path that Jesus’ followers will obtain life in the age to come, either by surviving into it or being resurrected into it.  This is, in fact, the very path that Jesus walked, himself.

Observing this, the author of Hebrews encourages those early Christians who followed after Jesus in their own persecution:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

Hebrews 12:1-3 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

In a tiny, bite-sized parable, Jesus has captured a key dynamic of the kingdom of God: you can endure the loss of everything now with joy because of the treasure you are about to obtain.  This drove him down his own path, and he was very up front with all would-be followers that they would all walk similar roads.

But, it should be noted, the emphasis of the parable is not on the hardship.  The hardship passes in a blink, hardly worth mentioning.  The emphasis is on the obtaining of the treasure.  For Jesus, the coming kingdom was as inevitable as getting the hidden treasure out of a field you bought.

Paul captures this well in his letter to the church in Rome:

When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

Romans 8:15b-18 (NRSV)

For Paul and those first century sufferers and martyrs, they had taken on this dynamic of the kingdom, enduring their hardships with joy because of the coming revelation of the kingdom of God with Jesus on the throne.

It is important, too, that this is not a parable about heaven.  This is a parable about the kingdom of God.  The great treasure in the parable is not a spiritual afterlife; it is God’s kingdom made manifest in history, when the kingdoms that ruled Israel would give way to the rule of God over the nations in Jesus Christ.  It is life in that world that motivated those early followers.  They looked forward to the present situation giving way to that future situation.  They looked forward to being free of oppressors, having their land back, weaponized taxes being a thing of the past, and their religion restored to something beautiful and helpful that would save the world, not as a tool for grinding it down.

The kingdom of God coming would be a game changer, and it was life in the world under that rule that they purchased with faithfulness, sacrifice, tears, and blood.  It was a concrete reality they wanted, hoped for, and received (although perhaps not in the manner nor the timing they expected).  They didn’t want to escape the world; they wanted it radically changed.

To us on this side of Jesus’ resurrection, it seems like a no-brainer.  But to them, it was a gamble, and to walk that road was to walk in faith.

Consider This

  1. What is the nature of our future hope?  What do we long for when we long for new creation?  What are we willing to give up to enter into that world?
  2. The imagery of the Scriptures describing the coming kingdom of God is often grandiose, even cosmic.  The historical progress of that kingdom, however, rarely played out the way those grand images implied.  It was progressive and had plenty of setbacks and struggles, and the kingdom of God was not free from abuses.  How might this affect our understanding of new creation?  Might we be missing the progressive transformation of the power of God in seed form right under our noses?

Hearing, They Listen: Matthew 13:34-35

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:

“I will open my mouth to speak in parables;
    I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

Matthew 13:34-35 (NRSV)

This is an interesting thing for Matthew to include in the story at this point.  Yes, Jesus has been talking in parables, but just a few verses ago, Matthew told us that Jesus spoke in parables so that the people who rejected him would not understand his message.  Here, on the surface, it would seem like Matthew is contradicting this.  Jesus is speaking in parables in order to reveal things that have been hidden.

As usual, helpful hints are available if we look at the Old Testament passages Jesus is alluding to.  In this case, it’s Psalm 78.

As far as Psalms go, it’s kind of long, but I encourage you to read the whole thing as background for what Matthew is saying about Jesus, here.  The quotation part comes from the opening verses:

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
    incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
    that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
    we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
    and the wonders that he has done.

Psalm 78:1-4 (NRSV)

This is neither here nor there, but it’s interesting to me that Matthew refers to these as the words of “the prophet.”  Psalm 78 is a psalm of Asaph.  Asaph was a priest whom David put in charge of the singing in the Temple, and the temple singers are sometimes referred to as Asaphites.  There are other Asaphs mentioned, or the same Asaph mentioned in different ways, but this Asaph (or another temple singer) is a likely suspect.  In either case, this is a psalm, not a prophecy, and it was not written by a prophet.  Either Matthew is saying this psalm turned out to be prophetic (and there are great reasons to say that), or “the prophet” is just a general reference Matthew is using for the Old Testament.  It calls to mind the author of Hebrews citing the Old Testament by saying, “It is written, somewhere, that….”

In any case, if we just look at the teaser Matthew gives us to the Psalm, it seems to contradict what Jesus said, earlier.  These passages are about the psalmist proclaiming the words and deeds of YHWH – things that have been passed down from generation to generation, and the psalmist will speak in a parable to reveal these things to a new generation.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge that this is not fundamentally incompatible with Jesus’ earlier words.  Jesus’ parables are meant to conceal his message from those who oppose him, but they are also meant to contain his message for his followers – revealing these truths from the past to a new generation.  The contradiction is at least somewhat resolved when we take into account that Jesus calls his followers “blessed” because they get to hear Jesus revealing the truths hidden in the parables.  There is a difference in the purpose of the parables for those on the “inside” and those on the “outside.”

That being said, we know that when we see a quote from the Old Testament in the New Testament, it is generally intended to serve as a pointer to the larger passage and context of the quote and not just the specific verse(s) quoted.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for the “quote” to summarize lengthier passages rather than being a word for word citation.  With this in mind, we look at Psalm 78 and find a scenario that Matthew is certainly importing to describe Jesus’ message to his generation.

In the next passage, the psalmist talks about the necessity of teaching God’s law to children so that the next generation will not be unfaithful like the generation before them.  This is something the psalmist intends to do with parables, and you can see how Jesus is trying to do this in his own day – calling Israel to repentance and back to faithfulness, recreating with his teachings the Israel That Was Supposed to Be as opposed to the Israel That Actually Happened.  He is creating a generation that has the chance to be a new Israel, who will have life in the ages to come.

The next sections talk about the miracles done in front of Israel, yet they still fled from battle and tested God, demanding that He satisfy them.  This is Jesus’ complaint in Matthew 11.  They have seen wonders of healing and deliverance, and yet they do not respond.

The next portion of the psalm talks about the judgement and calamity brought onto Israel by God because of their disobedience, and still they did not repent.  On the one hand, the Israel of Jesus’ day was under Roman oppression because of her breaking of the covenant.  On the other hand, there was a tidal wave of judgement yet to come.  Jesus is desperately trying to save as many as he can from this coming judgement by his message of urging repentance and being faithful even unto death, which is his own path.  And yet, the majority of Israel is not repenting.  If anything, they oppose Jesus.

So, the psalm presents us with a scenario where God was full of blessing and provision for Israel, and they spurned Him.  This is followed by a scenario where God was punishing Israel, and they still spurned Him.  No matter what He did, His people would not keep covenant with Him.

Right before the end of the psalm, we are presented with this frightful picture:

He abandoned his dwelling at Shiloh,
    the tent where he dwelt among mortals,
and delivered his power to captivity,
    his glory to the hand of the foe.
He gave his people to the sword,
    and vented his wrath on his heritage.
Fire devoured their young men,
    and their girls had no marriage song.
Their priests fell by the sword,
    and their widows made no lamentation.

Psalm 78:60-64 (NRSV)

It’s hard to know exactly which events this Psalm is describing.  On the one hand, if these words are coming directly from one of David’s appointees’ he probably has in mind one of the times in Israel’s history where their sins caused them grievous losses at the hands of their neighbors.  Also, since the last passage of the Psalm seems to indicate Israel as a divided kingdom (God does not choose Ephraim or Joseph, but Judah), it could refer to Israel’s woes at the hands of much larger national powers that were beginning to be threats to the whole region.

Or, given that this psalm comes to us through a post-exilic redaction process, it could be that this passage does have in mind the great defeat and exile under Babylon.

In either case, it is clear that the Psalm makes this the next point in the trajectory.  God gives His people blessing and prosperity, and they turn against Him.  He punishes them, or at least allows calamity to befall them, and they still do not turn back.  So, finally, He leaves them completely and gives them over to the swords of another nation.  This is not only what happens to Israel after David and Solomon (hence the prophetic nature of the Psalm, itself), it is the same point on the eschatological map that Jesus is drawing up for his own generation.

So, we see that Jesus is speaking in parables to bring Psalm 78 into his own generation.  Like the psalmist, Jesus proclaims and demonstrates the word and works and Law of God so that a later generation of Israelites will be faithful, unlike their ancestors.  God has done works of provision and mercy for them, but they have not repented.  God has punished them with calamity, and they have not repented.  And just like the psalmist was (potentially) prophetic in predicting the nation being given up to the sword, Jesus, also, is prophetically indicating the same thing.  In both cases – the Psalmist and Jesus – the motivation for this message is not to condemn Israel, but to call her to repentance and greater faithfulness.

Because Psalm 78 does not end with the destruction of Israel.  It does not even end with the division of Israel.  In the Psalm, Israel’s invasion wakes YHWH up, and He returns to them and delivers them from their oppressors.  This is how the Psalm ends, with a loving, attentive God back to shepherding Israel.  The damage done by God’s abandonment sort of snaps Him out of it and changes His relationship with Israel for the better.

Jesus, I believe, also sees this coming down the line as well.  While he can, he is shepherding faithful Israel in God’s name as God’s chosen representative, but at the same time, he knows that a disaster must happen that will turn God’s heart back to His people.

Jesus will place himself in the path of that disaster to win the end of Psalm 78 for his people.

Consider This

  1. The Old Testament sometimes portrays disasters that befall Israel as God punishing them for the purposes of getting them to repent.  Although this was not an issue for ancient readers, it may not sit well with us as modern readers.  Do you think this is or was an accurate way to interpret these events?  How would you describe what God was doing in those events?
  2. Now that we are long past the events that caused Jesus to speak in this way, is there anything about what Jesus was doing that could be analogous to our present situation?  Although Jesus is not speaking about the situation of a Christian church twenty centuries later, what elements of his message or ministry seem especially fitting of our present situation in the world?

Like Leaven: Matthew 13:33

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Matthew 13:33 (NRSV)

If I had a little more foresight, I probably would have just tacked this on to the end of the parable of the mustard seed.  The overall point is basically the same.  The kingdom of heaven starts as a small introduction into a much larger entity, and before you know it, it’s grown throughout.

Where things differ somewhat is in the precedent for the imagery.  With the growing tree, we saw how this was a metaphor used in the Old Testament to describe the rise of powerful rulers and their kingdoms, not the least of which being an image of the restoration of Israel after other trees have been cut down.

By contrast, there’s no consistent use of the imagery for yeast.

There is a fair amount of yeast imagery depicting the spread of sin and corruption in the world.  We see this in both Jesus and Paul’s use of the image (Matthew 16:6, 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, Galatians 5:9).  The fast-spreading properties of leaven are used negatively, here.

Of special note is the Matthew 16:6 passage, because Jesus explains that the leaven is the “teaching” of the Pharisees.  In other words, it’s not the intrinsic, sinful desires of the Pharisees Jesus warns about, but rather the teaching of the Pharisees.  This comes after another episode where the Pharisees try to trap Jesus by asking for a sign.  The Pharisees are a force in the world that is destructive to Jesus and his disciples.

In the Talmud, yeast is used as a metaphor for the spread of sin and evil a few times, but perhaps the most illuminating is the prayer of Rabbi Alexandri as we read in Berachos 17b:

Rabbi Alexandri, when he finished his daily prayer, said the following: ‘Master of the Universe, it is revealed and known to You that our true desire is to do Your will. What prevents it but the “yeast in the dough” and the subjugation of the exile! May it be Your will, O Lord, to deliver us from their hands, and we shall return to perform the decrees of our will with a perfect heart.’

In this prayer, the image of yeast in the dough is paired with “the subjugation of the exile.”  Foreign dominion created an environment that permeated the Jewish people, turning their hearts from doing the Lord’s will.  In the prayer, we see R. Alexandri asking for political deliverance that will result in a changed heart and a return to faithfulness.

Also, unleavened bread is a key feature of the Passover story as well as the laws commanding future observance of the Passover.  Absolutely no leaven is to be used.  In the story, this is because the Israelites have to leave that very night.  There is no time to make leavened bread, so the unleavened bread is a marker of the haste with which God will deliver them from Egypt.

However, this also takes on an ethical significance.  Passover observance requires, not only the use of unleavened bread, but the complete purging of leaven from the house.  A Sephardic prayer that follows the burning of the gathered leaven ends with, “Just as we did remove chametz from our homes and burned it, so we pray that we should be able to remove evil inclinations from within us always.”

Leaven, however, also has positive implications.  Leavened bread is used in peace offerings and wave offerings as commanded in Leviticus.  One particularly interesting reference to this practice is in Amos 4:

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan
    who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
    who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!”
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness:
    The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
    even the last of you with fishhooks.
Through breaches in the wall you shall leave,
    each one straight ahead;
    and you shall be flung out into Harmon,
says the Lord.
Come to Bethel—and transgress;
    to Gilgal—and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
    your tithes every three days;
bring a thank offering of leavened bread,
    and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them;
    for so you love to do, O people of Israel!
says the Lord God.

Amos 4:1-5 (NRSV)

In a common type of prophetic warning, Amos points out that Israel observes the Torah laws for worship (sacrifices, tithes, offerings), but this display only makes God angrier because they oppress the poor and the needy.   Interestingly, for Matthew’s purposes, this is followed by a long list of things God had done (punishments) before Israel, yet they did not repent.

Are any or all of these facets behind Jesus’ parable?  With the mustard seed, the imagery very strongly recalled the idea of oppressors being cast down so Israel could be exalted.  Does his use of leaven recall, like R. Alexandri’s prayer, deliverance from an oppressor so that Israel would return to faithful service?  Does it recall the warnings and promise of Amos, that the leaven of true faithfulness would be a condemnation against a corrupt Israel who would not repent despite what God was doing in their midst?

Did he just pick leaven because it spreads fast and takes over?

Jesus does not tell us, and unlike the parable of the mustard seed, his language can’t be closely mapped to Old Testament usage.

The one thing we can say with some confidence is that, like the parable of the mustard seed, the focus is clearly on something that begins as small and insignificant, yet grows to spread throughout the whole shebang.  Just as a little yeast leavens all the flour, even though there is much more flour than yeast at the beginning, so, too, will the kingdom of God fill the world, despite its apparent size at the beginning.

A hopeful teaching that would be important to would-be Jesus followers at this point in Matthew.  It would be easy to get discouraged at the lack of response.  Jesus does not tell them that the numbers don’t matter, nor does he talk about quality over quantity.  His declaration is that this tiny bundle of faithful Israel will grow and spread throughout the known world – Abraham’s promise renewed.

Consider This

  1. Did early church history bear out Jesus’ analogy?  How did such a small, insignificant movement in a backwater Roman province end up swallowing empires?  What were the actual historical mechanisms by which this happened?
  2. In our contemporary world, we generally think of the “spread” of Christianity as sending people with a message to tell people who have not heard it.  This was certainly part of how the kingdom spread in the early church.  Was it the only part? What can we observe in those early centuries of church growth that have an analogy, now?