Saturday, January 28, 2006

Oedipus Obscurus

The universe of Oedipus is a riddle, a blind old prophet taunting him with his empty eyes. He cannot escape the fates; destiny pulls him under like a tsunami undertow, all his struggles are in vain. Is Oedipus’s fate the result of a conspiracy? Hardly. Chance consults with no advisors. Destiny keeps no council.

According to the utterance of the faceless oracle, Oedipus is promised a future of pain and suffering: after murdering his own father, he will marry his mother and bring disaster to his entire house. But of course, the very attempts to avoid destiny are the steps leading directly into it. Oedipus flees with his eyes open into the darkness that Tereisias sees with the light of no day. And thus as Oedipus comes to ‘see’ the truth that he has already fulfilled the prophecy, his body fills with darkness, and in anger and remorse he blinds himself, joining Tereisias in the ‘light’ of hopeless knowledge, calloused and hardened.

The answer to the riddle of the Sphinx was both the salvation and the destruction of Thebes. While freeing the city from the tyranny of the Sphinx, it simultaneously delivered Oedipus up to his fate. As a result of the acclaim he receives through delivering the city, Oedipus is offered the kingdom and the hand of Queen Jocasta (his mother) in marriage. The riddle is famous: What crawls on four legs in the morning, two at midday, and three in the evening? The answer in general is man, but in the story of Oedipus, it is Oedipus himself. Oedipus is the child flung to a mountainside by his parents seeking to brace themselves against the words of the oracle. Oedipus is the king who stands on two legs at midday ruling the people of Thebes, and it is Oedipus who struggles, leaning on a staff, blind and weary through deserted places waiting for death in the twilight of his life. Oedipus’s life is the riddle of the sphinx. Life is a riddle, a blind riddle, one damn thing after another pulling him under.

To this the Christian gospel proclaims salvation. And in particular we proclaim the gospel of answers. This is not to say that the Christian faith claims to have all the answers: Far from it. Nevertheless we do claim that we serve the One who does. And we serve a God that listens to His people, a God that answers the prayers of His people. We do not serve faceless chance or blind fate; we serve the Triune God who is a community of persons. He, in a mystery far beyond our reckoning, has decreed the end from the beginning, every last detail through the spinning galaxies of time and space, and if that were not enough, He has invited us into the story and invited us to take part in the telling of the story. The Christian faith declares that in Jesus Christ, men, women and children are invited into the presence of the God who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. We are not only invited into that presence, we are invited into that presence in order to speak. Our words, our hopes, dreams, and goals, our thoughts and opinions are asked of us. Wonder of all wonders, the Triune God cares what we might think or want.

Oedipus struggles against a blind force, but the Christian gospel tells the story of an exhaustively sovereign God who invites His people into His councils. He delights to hear us, and He listens to us. God declares the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham speaks and God amends His intentions. God declares the destruction of Israel, and Moses intercedes for them and God relents from the woe He had promised. God promises the destruction of Ninevah, and when the city repents in sackcloth and ashes, God relents, even in the face of Jonah’s protestations. And at the climax of all human history God poured out his eternal wrath against sin, the horrible justice due to our filthy deeds. But Jesus the Messiah stood in our place, and God relented.

God may say no; He may say yes, but the point is that we serve a personal God, a God we can actually appeal to, a God who answers. Fate speaks, destiny beckons and all of the scrapings of Oedipus are like sand in the wind. But YHVH speaks, YHVH beckons and the prayer of the righteous man avails much.


Thursday, January 26, 2006

Sermon Outline: 1 Kings 16:29-17:24

The season of Epiphany is a season that emphasizes the anointing of Jesus for ministry at His baptism and this blessing of Christ going out to the gentiles. We have much to recover culturally in these areas, but we must at least begin by studying these patterns throughout Scripture and seeking to apply them in thoughtful ways.

The Sidonian Princess
The story begins with a Sidonian woman, a princess whom Ahab marries. This Jezebel, whose name may mean “great woe” or perhaps “coastal honors”, brings Baal with her. (Jezebel’s name is related to the same root for the name Zebulun, which has associations with the coast and sea, e.g. Gen. 49:13). Ahab has no scruples about competing with Jeroboam for the infamy of worst Israelite king, and sets about building a temple and an altar to this foreign storm god. He also built the ‘asherah’ and gained the distinction of “doing more to provoke YHVH God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16:33) All of these things are indications of a reversal of the conquest. Pagans are being invited in (and married no less), temples to idols are being built, and altars are being erected to worship them. However, in case it was not clear enough, the text relates that it was during these days that Jericho was rebuilt, built on the blood of sons as Joshua had declared (16:34).

The Sojourner
Elijah’s appearance cannot be considered unrelated to the preceding material. YHVH’s anger has been aroused, and His response is in the person of Elijah. Elijah appears out of nowhere, and this is fitting as his title is “Tishbite” which appears to be a bit of a mystery in itself. The word is closely related to the word that follows it which could be translated “inhabitant” or “sojourner.” It’s possible that his title could be better rendered, “the Sojourner.” This is exactly what Elijah ends up doing throughout his ministry, and of course that’s why he shows up in Samaria quite unannounced. Elijah gives the decree of YHVH swearing by YHVH’s life (17:1). Following this, the Lord directs Elijah to the Brook Cherith. The name of this stream cannot be insignificant, as its root is the same for the word “cut” and a near relative of the word is “divorcement.” YHVH has declared a drought, displaying the status of Israel’s marriage covenant with Him, and Elijah is enacting divorce proceedings. The word “cut” is also the same verb that is used to make a covenant. When covenants are made, they are “cut”, and Elijah’s existence, drinking from the “Cut River” and being fed bread and meat in the morning and evening remind us of Israel in the wilderness, where God cut His covenant with them and fed them with manna and quail (Ex. 16:6ff). Thus Elijah is continuing the reversal of the Conquest.

The Brook and the Widow
When the brook dries up (remember the Red Sea), YHVH sends him to Zarephath a city in Sidon. It is believed that Zarephath is also a coastal city just south of Sidon. Now Ahab has brought a Sidonian woman into Israel, and YHVH is sending Elijah out of Israel to a Sidonian widow. There are a number of parallels and contrasts here. The woman is gathering sticks (two to be precise) in order to (presumably) build a fire and cook a bread cake with the last of their flour and oil. The circumstances are so desperate that she is resigned that she and her son will die after this (17:12). Jezebel and Ahab are building temples and altars where they offer food to Baal, and the Sidonian widow is building a fire where they can make their last meal. Of course Elijah declares that the flour and oil will not be used up, and they and their household eat for many days. But later the widow’s son becomes sick to the point that his “breath/spirit was not remaining in him.” In Samaria, the wickedness is so great that men are building cities in the blood of their sons (16:34), and here the son of the Sidonian widow dies and she immediately considers her sins (17:18). But the connection is even tighter than that. The widow is called a “widow” or “the woman” throughout the narrative except for verse 17 where she is referred to as the “mistress of the house,” but the word in Hebrew is “baalah” that is, the feminine form of “Baal” which literally means “husband” or “master.” The princess of Sidon has brought Baal to Samaria, and the nation is being built on dead sons. Now here in Zarephath, the Sidonian widow is a Baal in her own house and her son is dead.

A Son is Raised
Elijah takes the boy up to his “upper chamber” and after laying on top of him three times, God sends the boy’s spirit back “into the midst of him.” (17:21-22) It’s difficult to consider this story apart from what follows in the next chapter where Elijah challenges Baal to a duel on Mt. Carmel, and there a great reformation begins in Samaria. Elijah raises the Sidonian son in much the same way that the Israelite son needs resurrection. Just as Elijah raises the Sidonian Son in the ‘upper room’ so Elijah in the next chapter will raise the Israelite Son on Mt. Carmel. And of course the son in Israel is Israel. This was YHVH’s plea to Pharaoh when His people were in Egypt. Israel is God’s son, His first born son (Ex. 4:22-23). But this son, Israel, is dead and needs to be raised; it has starved and died of dehydration. But even after Mt. Carmel we know that exile still awaits Israel. The spirit has left the boy. Elijah signifies the Spirit, where Elijah goes, there goes the Spirit of YHVH. The Spirit of God has left His Son, Israel. There is no Spirit left in Him.

In Luke 4, when His own first begin their rejection of Him, Christ cited this very story as evidence of Israel’s death. “But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon to a woman who was a widow” (Lk. 4:25-26). Some seven hundred years later, Christ comes to Nazareth and sits down in a synagogue and reads: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to declare the good news… Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus claims that the Spirit is upon Him. And if the Spirit is upon Jesus, then the Spirit has returned to the midst of Israel. The breath has returned the son. And if the breath has returned to the son, the son will live again. How is this possible? Because YHVH gives His own life for the life of His people.

In this season of Epiphany we do well to consider these things: In the baptism of Jesus, the Spirit descended upon Him. The breath has returned to Israel in Jesus Christ, and after He rose again and ascended into heaven, He sent that Spirit down upon His Church, the new Israel, His Well Beloved Son. We are the Well Beloved Son because we are in the Well Beloved Son. And as Elijah brought life and salvation to the Sidonian Widow, so the gospel is good news: to the Jew first and then the Gentile and to the ends of the earth. This is nothing short of the overwhelming kindness and grace of God.

In a few minutes God will continue to pour out His kindness upon you by feeding you at His table. If the lesson of 1 Kings teaches us anything, it teaches us to follow the food. Food goes with Elijah, because the Spirit is with Elijah. And therefore since you come here to His table week after week, His Spirit is with you. Follow the food. Epiphany means manifestation. And in Christ Jesus, you are the manifestation of God because His Spirit is in you, therefore come and eat in faith and then go and give life as you have been given.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Out of the mouth of Atlas Students

So there we were, minding our own business, reading some Greek. We were reading the first chapter of the gospel of John. We read and translate around the room, taking turns and whatnot, and then we came to verse 29. A very well known verse, where John announces the arrival of Christ at the Jordan River. The student (who shall remain nameless) read and translated until he got to the phrase "Behold! the Lamb of _______" and for whatever reason, completely blanked on the next word which is not only well known in English, but frankly, the Greek is one of the most common words ever. Anyway, as a hint I suggested that our word 'theology' came from the same Greek root. The lights burned bright in his eyes and he smiled knowingly, restating the verse for the record: "Behold! the Lamb of Theology, who takes away the sins of the world!"

And while we laughed at the mix up, I wondered how many people have lived and studied as though what this boy said was actually true.


Number Two

I saw a picture of my second descendent on Thursday. This child is actually quite small, a mere 2 inches at this point. But I am nevertheless quite pleased with the progress so far. It was quite clear that this child has two arms and two legs, a head, a body and a vigorously beating heart. How could I not be proud?

We're excited, elated and simply thankful for another chance at making a person. Of course Jenny is doing most of the hard work right now, but I'm playing support and all that good stuff. Thanks for your prayers; number two should be here around the end of July.


Monday, January 09, 2006

When YHWH doesn't Sabbath

Just a little tid bit: In Ruth 4, when the women of the city bless Naomi they bless Yahweh "who has not left you this day without a close relative..." (v. 14, NKJV) The Hebrew actually says something like "who did not rest for you a redeemer." And even though that's kind of clunky sounding, the point could be made by saying "who did not rest in finding/providing you with a redeemer." The word is SHABAT which is verb for sabbath. The women of the city bless the Lord for not taking a sabbath when Naomi was in need. Yahweh is the God who gives sabbath, but He does not rest until the work is really done.


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Thoughts on Education: Magic Words

In the beginning God spoke. Creation teaches us that God used words to make the universe, and with terrifying power, His words became the universe. Perhaps this is what is meant by the writer of Hebrews: the Son made the worlds and upholds “all things by the word of His power.”

Others, far more adept than I, have made the point, but some recent reading has sparked my imagination again: Words are magic. They are not magic by some autonomous, independent existence. They are magic because language was given to us by God, and they accomplish His vast and inscrutable ends which usually include far more than we ever intend. Consider the words of the gospel which when declared are able to make the hardest heart soft. Consider words of promise that are able to enact peace, words of institution that consecrate bread and wine, words of blessing that empower a people, words with water that incorporate an infant into Christ, words of pardon that release sinners from their faults. The stories of these sorts of words and language events testify of the power of God in language. And thus I affirm: words are magic, magic because God does with words more than seems possible.

There are many directions to go with this, but I would only suggest two. First, language is not insufficient for communication. It is not in se crass or crude. It is not an invention of God’s that is in any way demeaning or humiliating to Him. It is not as though God lives in a world of ‘pure thought and ideas’. God, from all eternity spoke the Son. The Son is from all eternity the Word of the Father begotten through the power of the Spirit. God speaks a Word from all eternity. This means that our language, our speech, our words are fundamentally sufficient and capable of true and lively communication.

Another way of saying this is that true communion does not take place with the least amount of matter possible. It is not as though the finest form of communication would be by some inter-cerebral-spiritual harmonizing of pure ideas. That ‘ideal’ simply doesn’t exist. Our bodies are not the prisons of our mind. Our affections and words are not the inhibitors of true knowledge and communication. Our bodies and words were given to us so that we can know, so that we can communicate. ‘A meeting of the minds’ occurs every time two or more people interact (and I mean this in its broadest sense). And interaction always occurs with words, symbols, art, shadows, touch, smell, sound, taste, etc. There is no such thing as a ‘pure idea’. Ideas have sounds and shapes and can often be photographed.

Secondly, words are heavy. Because they are God given and are images of the Son, the Word of the Father, they represent us, our histories, our futures, our loves, hates, thoughts, dreams, and conversations, in an analogous fashion as the Son is the perfect representation of the Father. Like pieces of clay passed from hand to hand, words meld and form through stories, poems and events. Words have physicality: not only do they take part of us with them, they also impact those they address. This is why St. James says that the unbridled tongue is a fire and a world of iniquity, and is so set among our members that it can defile the whole body and set on fire the course of nature. Of course it can become a temptation to make too much of human words, and thus we must remember that God’s Word is the heaviest. It has the most impact; it brings worlds into existence from nothing. But our words image His, and so we do well to guard our tongues and use them for blessing.

There are many applications of this, but one of my concerns is in the area of education. Education necessarily includes communication and a significant part of communication is with words. Because of the weight of words, because of the magical and transcendent quality of language, it is absolutely necessary that a teacher have faith. This faith informs not only our trust that our word will accomplish praiseworthy ends, but it also comforts any fears that we have started fires with our tongues in ways that we may or may not have intended. But faith has to rest in the fact that God has given us words to speak, sing and listen to, and we cannot shy away because we are afraid of the possible misuse of them.

But teachers also need to recognize how little is in their control. We must study to know our material well. We must be diligent to consider the best ways to present and incite the interests and attentions of our pupils. But the fact must always remain before us that far more is taking place in a classroom than a simple conscious presentation of information. The sunlight pouring into the classroom windows, the artwork on the walls, the tone of the instructor’s voice, the smell of the carpets, the wooden chairs and desks, and everything else and their histories intersect, interpenetrating in moments (some conscious but probably mostly unconscious) and all of it mingling to create the experience, all of it bending together to form what we know.

The sheer magnitude is overwhelming, but to the faithful, it should create a deep humility, joy and diligence. The humility comes from realizing that our pontificating (however organized and well researched) is a tiny fraction of what is actually being accomplished. While God is pleased to do much with words, the classroom is a dance of sentences, smells and sentiments (not to mention the fact that we are sinners and all of the hurdles that entails). The joy builds on this humility. Recognizing the teacher’s microscopic existence in the panoply of the classroom experience makes us thankful that we are even heard at all. Again, it’s the magic of words for the teacher to be heard of over the commotion of windows, chairs, hunger, fatigue, boredom, pencils and the pictures whirling around the room. Finally, I want to emphasize that a classroom where these things are accepted does not mean a chaotic classroom, an apathetic teacher, or lazy students. Recognizing the infinite in the finite, is always recognizing grace pouring through our nature. Seeing the impossible and far more than we think or imagine being accomplished before our very eyes reminds us that the Holy Spirit is ever active, making harmony of our dissonance, making sense of our noises, shapes and colors. And if it’s the Spirit of the Triune God active and present in the details of our classroom, then our utmost diligence, highest expectations and hardest work is the least we can do in return for the gift of Magic Words.