Monday, November 30, 2009

Gospel Flesh = Evangelist

One more thought on the connection between "gospel" and "flesh":

Most of the uses of the verb BASAR, meaning to share news, give a report, etc. include actual messengers. People bring the news, they declare the report. These messengers might just as easily be called evangelists, bringers-of-the-news.

This helps explain the connection: the "news" is incarnated in the person of the messenger. The messenger, the one who declares the message is the "flesh" of the original event. The event, the verdict, the fact that is being shared in a particular situation comes in the "flesh" of the evangelist, the one who brings the good news.

Jesus is the flesh of God, the incarnation of the original event, verdict, fact. Jesus is the original evangelist. What is that fact, that event, that verdict He comes to declare? That God IS, that the Father, Son, and Spirit are and ever will be. And yet this announcement itself becomes a further event/announcement. For now this God who is and ever will be is here with us and for us and for the world.

We are evangelists of the original evangel.


Gospel Flesh

In Isaiah 40, the voice is told to cry out that "all flesh is grass" and fades like flowers of the field. Only the word of God stands forever (40:6-8).

The word for "flesh" is the word BASAR.

The following verse famously addresses the mountains of Jerusalem and and the cities of Judah calling upon them to spread the good news: "O Zion, you who bring good tidings, get up to the mountain; O Jerusalem, you who bring good tidings, lift up your voice with strength..." (40:9) And we should note that "bring good news" could just as easily be translated "preach the gospel."

What's striking is that the verb for "bring good tidings" has the exact same consonants as the word "flesh." It's BASAR. The word for "preach the gospel" has a near relative (that's spelled the same) that means "flesh."

In other words, the Hebrew already seems to have the incarnation rumbling around in its bones when it describes "bringing good news." Jesus is the good news of God, the gospel of God, in the flesh.

Jesus is the flesh that is grass that does not fade. He is the Word of God that stands forever.


Our Signs in the Heavens

When the Lord comes, He comes to judge, He comes to unmake old worlds and comes to remake them into something new. He comes to break up fallow ground and make it fruitful. He comes to break the sea in two and bring His people through in safety and drown His enemies in the same waves. He comes to break Adam open and remake Him with a wife in marriage. The Lord comes to break families apart, even parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and He comes to break apart the old world in order to make a new one. He shakes the heavens so that those things which may be shaken, are shaken and fall, so that He might establish that which cannot be shaken more and more. And so here we are enacting the Advent of the Lord, here at this meal. We come, we take, we break, and then we eat and rejoice together as a new loaf, a new body, a new family. The sacraments are called “signs,” and in the gospel text for today Jesus tells His disciples that they will see signs that prove that one world is coming to an end and a new one is being established. This meal is an ongoing sign of that very fact. Here we display the sign that our God rules over the world, and He comes and judges, He comes and shakes the nations, shakes our families, shakes our lives, and when we see this sign, like the signs in the sun and the moon and the stars, then we, like the first disciples ought to look up and lift up our heads, because our redemption draws near. If God has come for us in Jesus, then we can have no doubt that He continues to come for us, He comes to break us open by His Word and Spirit and to shake us and remake us in His image and glory. So come, come and be broken, come and be shaken, come and be healed, come and rejoice. Your redemption is near.


Real Penitence Real People

Today is the first Sunday in Advent and this season has historically been understood and celebrated as a season of preparation and penitence. And it might seem odd to us as we begin celebrating this season of penitence to start having parties and singing carols and putting up decorations. Isn’t penitence all about sitting quietly, morosely meditating in the dark, all alone? Of course there may always be times for quiet and thoughtful reflection, but one of the most powerful ways the Spirit plows the fields of our lives is through people, through children, through spouses, through parents, through siblings, through other friends and family and even strangers. And so I can’t think of a much better way to celebrate a penitential season than by having numerous occasions with all kinds of people in the same room. Going home for the holidays? Perfect. Going to see Great Aunt so and so for Christmas? Excellent. Having the whats-their-names over for dinner? These are all great opportunities to see the Spirit do His thing. And what’s His thing? Well, how will you respond when the dinner guests are late? Or they don’t like your food? Or they’re kind of cranky about celebrating Christmas? You know it was a pagan holiday, right? What about when the kids run through your freshly picked up living room and leave it in shambles right before the Advent party? What about when Uncle So-and-so launches into a speech on the evils and dangers of Peter Leithart and Douglas Wilson? People are ready made chances to see sin and opportunities to fight your own dragons. When does sin rear its ugly head in your life? When you’re tired, when you’re stressed, when you’ve spent too much money? When you’re annoyed at the commercialism of our culture, when the canned Christmas musack won’t stop? When the lines and crowds are milling around you? Use Advent as an opportunity to see your sins and confess them, to see your pride when you are slighted and confess it, to see your greed and envy and confess it, to see your lack of self control and contentment and confess it. Sinful people can always come up with a tidy penitence. We like the idea of confessing sin in the abstract, but we frequently hate actually doing it. Because it means saying out loud that you were wrong, that you sinned, and asking God and whomever you’ve wronged to forgive you. So plan the parties, decorate and sing and remember to confess your sins so that your joy may be full.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Is Sarah Human?

With the advent of Sarah Palin’s new book Going Rogue and the spotlight turned on our Alaskan hockey mom again, a few thoughts:

First, I’m not a Republican and I’m not a Democrat. While I’d certainly line up with the prolife stance of some Republicans, I’m increasingly convinced that most of them are only selectively prolife. Very few if any of our representatives are Biblically prolife, very few are interested in defending life according to the standards of Scripture. Many are romantically prolife; they are opposed to abortion because babies are cute. But bomb the hell out of Afghanistan and Vietnam and who’s to say? Muslim school kids aren’t as cute as American babies.

Second, I just can’t get that worked up about Barack Obama. Sorry. Some of my most respected friends and family are worked up, but this all feels like normal to me. Normal and awful, sure, but normal. We’ve been in a downward spiral, and Obama is just par for the course it seems to me. And there’s at least a great deal of momentum built into the system: you know, defense contracts and money to be made in foreign oil. And there’s a lot of mixed motivations, good and bad and well, here we are. I don’t trust Obama, but I didn’t trust any of his predecessors either. So what’s new? Printing and spending gazillions of dollars we don’t have? We’ve been doing that for a while. Socialized medicine? We already had that with lots of government regulations, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. Torturing suspected terrorists? Already had that too. Killing babies? Check.

Third, and what’s interesting to me, is that some of this seems to fall along generational lines. I remember talking to several men in their 50s and 60s in the summer before the last election, and when I told them I thought Obama was sure to be elected, they completely disagreed. They didn’t think Obama had a chance. But I couldn’t see how he couldn’t be elected. I didn’t think McCain had a chance. How’s an old white man going to beat a sexy black man? And I honestly think Obama was elected primarily for his smooth words and good looks. And he’s got credentials that make him a darling of big money liberals. That helps too.

Last, and to the point, I’m not yet convinced that Sarah Palin is the run of the mill GOP candidate. She still intrigues me for basically two reasons. First, I still can’t figure out why the liberals are so worked up about her. If she’s such the country bumpkin, why not just ignore her and let her go quietly into that good night? Why the shrill rhetoric from the left and for that matter, why so much crap from her own party? It sounds like she talks the party line on foreign policy and economics which is very annoying, but I wonder why she’s such a threat. And this leads to the second thing that intrigues me about Sarah, it’s the long list of complaints that so many conservatives have about her. She’s an outsider, she’s inexperienced, she’s ignorant, she’s got all kinds of naiveté. She’s quaint, she’s country, she goofs up in interviews, she has a funny accent, etc. She’s completely unvetted for the political scene, and that’s what’s intriguing. She’s cute, but she’s not slick. All the other politicians got neutered in law school. They got cloned into slight variations of one another, talking heads with talking points. They got their union cards, and it doesn’t really matter which party they are in. It’s like there are two baseball teams and they just counted off by one’s and two’s and now they have their team assignments.

But Sarah obviously didn’t get a union card. She doesn’t know the secret handshakes, and stares like a deer in the headlights sometimes because she doesn’t know the game. And time will only tell whether she doesn’t know the game because she really is just a newbie and she’ll settle into business as usual with the rest of the clowns in DC. But maybe, just maybe, all these liabilities are proof that at some level, she refuses to play the game. And that’s huge. If she were elected she’d make bad decisions, she’d say silly things, and we might laugh at some of the ways she'd run things. But it would be legit. It would be a human in office and not a machine. It would be a person for a change. And I could go for that.


Monday, November 16, 2009

The Politics of Omnipresence

Bucer outlines the similarities and differences between the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdoms of this world. He says that one significant difference is that while kings of this world must have "representatives, vice-regents, and other authorities, and also have in their power men outstanding in prudence and wisdom, whose counsel they may use in their royal administration," our King on the other hand, "is according to His promise, with us everywhere and every day," and "He himself sees, attends to, and accomplishes whatever pertains to the salvation of his own."

Bucer immediately recognizes that Christ does have ministers and a number of specific offices which are established for "his work of salvation," but he says this is quite different than representatives in the ordinary, civil realm. Those representatives act with some degree of autonomy and must make decisions independent of their sovereign and prove their worth through their diligence, industry, and judgment. The work of Christ's ministers on the other hand "is vain unless he himself gives the growth to their planting and watering... For they cannot even think that they of themselves contribute anything to the administration of this Kingdom..." (De Regno Christi, 179-180)


Martin Bucer to Obama

"It would seem fitting to write for Your Majesty a little about the fuller acceptance and reestablishment of the Kingdom of Christ in your realm. Thus it may be better understood how salutary and necessary it is both for Your Majesty and all classes of men in his realm, thoughtfully, consistently, carefully, and tenaciously to work toward this goal, that Christ's Kingdom may as fully as possible be accepted and hold sway over us." (Bucer, De Regno Christi, 175-176)


No More Wrath to Pour

In the sermon text, we read the words of Jesus’ prayer to the Father, “let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless not as I will but as You will,” and then the second time, “if this cup cannot pass away from me unless I drink it, your will be done…” Matthew says that Jesus went away and prayed again, a third time, saying the same words. His prayer to the Father concerns the cup of God’s wrath and judgment against sin. Notice though, that there is a slight but significant progression in Jesus’ prayer. He begins by explicitly asking for the cup to be taken away from Him, allowing for God’s will to be done. But secondly He prays that God’s will would be done even if it means taking the cup away after He has drunk it. Jesus prays that the cup would be taken away either by God removing it all together or by taking it away after Jesus has tasted it. We know that it is the will of the Father for this latter scenario to come to pass. The cup of God’s wrath and judgment is taken away after Jesus drinks that cup on the cross. He drinks the cup of wrath, and the wrath and judgment of God is absorbed by Jesus in His sufferings. The resurrection is the proof, the event of the cup of judgment being removed. This is why for all those who are in Christ, this cup is not a cup of judgment, but the cup of blessing, the cup of forgiveness, the wine of joy and gladness in the blood of Christ. This means that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. God does not pour out his wrath against sin on us who are in Christ. He does not pour out His wrath on us because there is no more wrath to pour. The cup of wrath is empty; Jesus drank it all for us. But then what of our hardships and sufferings? We know that God does discipline us as a faithful Father His children. And that means that this cup has been refilled. What was the cup of wrath and judgment for sin was emptied in the cross – Jesus drank it, and then Jesus bled, and His blood has become the wine of a wedding feast, a cup of joy and blessing.


Making a Big Deal About the Goodness of God

We are drawing near to the end of Trinity Season in the Church calendar. Two weeks from today is the First Sunday in Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Advent is the beginning and the end of the Church Year. It is the end in so far as it commemorates the final coming of the Lord Jesus in judgment at the end of the world, the culmination of all things. And it is the beginning in so far as we look back and remember all the advents of God in history, culminating in the Incarnation. And as we look forward to this season, I want to exhort you to two things: First, on the practical side, you should start preparing now for Advent and Christmas and the coming celebration of the life of Christ. But your preparation should not be based on the commercials and advertisements and catalogues that are beginning to fill your mailboxes. Of course, we want to be a people full of generosity and gift giving is certainly part of that, but begin planning for it. This means planning with regard to your budget, planning to be generous, planning to share with others. This means planning your calendar: how will you celebrate Advent with your family? What about Christmas? How about Epiphany? How will you remember together and with friends and neighbors? Remember that the calendar is really just an excuse to say thank you; the calendar is a way of organizing your thankfulness to God and we express that gratitude by sharing it with our children, with our neighbors, and coworkers. The last point is that we want to do all of this in light of the end. Advent remembers all the ways God has come, and looks forward in faith to all the ways He will continue to come, culminating in His second coming, the Final Advent when the Lord comes to judge the living and the dead. And this means that we want to celebrate, give thanks, and rejoice in light of eternity, in light of the Final Advent. We want to celebrate now as those who are ready for the return of the Master. Of course Jesus may not return for another fifty thousand years, but remembering the end of the story is one of the best ways to be faithful in the middle of it. And the point is just be thankful and rejoice in the Lord, don’t put on a show, don’t envy your neighbors, don’t pat yourself on the back for doing more than the guy down at that other church. Just be thankful, and use every chance you get to make a big deal about the goodness of God.


Friday, November 13, 2009

The Life Span of a City

Just a got a copy of Douglas Wilson's new book: Five Cities that Ruled the World (Thanks, Doug!).

He writes in the introduction: Cities, like the men and women who live in them, have life spans, and that life span is approximately 250 years. John Glubb pointed to this seemingly obvious truth, but one that is still routinely missed: "Any regime which attains great wealth and power seems with remarkable regularity to decay and fall apart in some ten generations." (Introduction, xviii)


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On the Brink of Incarnation

From The Forbidden Image by Alain Besancon, speaking of differences between Judaism and Islam:

"Judaism always seems on the brink of Incarnation. That is why the Jewish people need the commandments from their God, to resist the temptation to make an image of him or to imagine him. In Islam, the image becomes inconceivable because of the metaphysical notion of God. As soon as proof of submission (Islam) to that God is given, the association (shirk) between God and any external notion of his essence, any person (as among Christians), and a fortiori any matter, is perceived with horror as an attack on unity, as a return to polytheism." (78)


Solomonic Sex

This is a shout out to Tim Challies' recent string of blog posts on lust, pornography, and the marriage bed.

In particular, I'd draw your attention to his wife, Aileen Challies' guest posts over the last few days: Part I, Part II, and Part III. These are addressed to women, but these could serve as good conversation starters for you and your wife (or you and your husband).

He's also compiled his previous blog posts on lust and pornography into two pdf forms, one for single men (here) and one for married men (here). Good basic summaries of the problems, the Scriptural teaching, and suggestions for facing these dragons down.

Of course more could always be said about this area, but we, Christians, just need to be talking about all of this far more than we do. And by this, I mean both the pitfalls and areas of sin and temptation and so forth, but also calling one another to faithfulness in the marriage bed. And of course there are tacky ways to do this, but there is at least one book of the Bible dedicated to celebrating sexual love. And that means we have a duty to cultivate that kind of wisdom, that kind of culture that delights in the freedom of Solomonic sex.

Last note: isn't it wonderful that the only book dedicated to the topic of sexual love was written by a man who was a spectacular failure in this area? The same Solomon who celebrates the God given gift of sexuality in the Song of Songs had all kinds of sexual sin to deal with as well. A man as prolific as Solomon doesn't come away from hundreds of wives and concubines without serious sin, and yet God in his wisdom, put Solomon's name on that portion of Scripture. And rather than casting aspersions on the trustworthiness of Song of Songs, what this ought to prove to us is the great mercy and grace of God. The God who superimposes His Words in the words of fallen creatures, inspiring all Scripture, is the same God who still superimposes His blessings on the lives of fallen creatures who turn to Him.

Most Christians have struggled with various levels of sexual sin whether it was before coming to Christ or after, whether many years ago or with ongoing challenges, but the grace of God is not powerless to heal all of this. If a Solomon can become a model of Christian sexuality, then every Christian marriage has that same hope.


Monday, November 09, 2009

You are Forgiven

In the sermon text today, we have Matthew's record of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the familiar words that we recall and recite week after week as we seek to be faithful disciples, imitate Jesus our Master. But we should notice that this meal is situation smack dap in the middle of betrayers and deniers. On side of the celebration we have disciples who are indignant that costly perfume has been wasted on Jesus and Judas who is the extreme form of this indignation striking a deal with the authorities to betray Jesus. And there is enough static in the air apparently for there to be great uncertainty about whom Jesus is speaking when says that one will betray Him. Apparently many of the disciples were plausible suspects. Following the celebration of the meal, Jesus plainly says that all of them will stumble. In varying degrees they will all betray Jesus, they will all deny Jesus, they are all Judas’s. And there Jesus is sharing his body broken with his betrayers, sharing the blood of the new covenant with those who will stumble, those who will deny Him. And this original context has held true down through the centuries. Sometimes we may think that if we have struggled with particular sins throughout the week, perhaps we are not worthy, perhaps we ought not to partake. But Jesus knows He is surrounded by betrayers and deniers, and He invites them and shares the meal with them. And He still does, and that is what the grace of this sacrament is all about. The grace of this sacrament is forgiveness enacted. I’ve snapped my children this week; I’ve lusted. I’ve had angry outbursts, I’ve lied, I’ve allowed bitterness and regret to fill my soul. And Jesus says to you, Take eat; this is my body. This is My blood fo the new covenant which is shed for many for the remission of sins. Here Jesus invites sinners to eat and drink with Him. Here He enacts your forgiveness. As surely as there is bread in your mouth and wine on your tongue, you are forgiven. So come, eat, drink, and believe.


Baptism as Revolution

“" Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, Against the Man who is My Companion," Says the LORD of hosts. " Strike the Shepherd, And the sheep will be scattered; Then I will turn My hand against the little ones. And it shall come to pass in all the land," Says the LORD, "That two-thirds in it shall be cut off and die, But one- third shall be left in it: I will bring the one-third through the fire, Will refine them as silver is refined, And test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, And I will answer them. I will say, 'This is My people'; And each one will say, 'The LORD is my God.’” (Zech. 13:7-9)

Here Zechariah is in the middle of declaring that God is planning to bring a great crisis, a great revolution upon Israel which will have a number of results. At the center of the crisis is God Himself acting and being acted upon. He says that He will judge the nations in this revolution, and at the same time, they will look upon Him whom they have pierced and mourn. He says he will cut off all the idols from the land, and that He will cause a great fire to burn that devours the wicked and refines the gold. Then the subject shifts from the first person who is pierced to a third person referent: “Awake O Sword against my Shepherd, against the Man who is my companion, ‘ says the Lord of hosts. “Strike the Shepherd and the sheep will be scattered…” And Matthew says that this Shepherd is Jesus. So the crisis, the revolution has a narrow and wide focus. There is a center to the crisis which focuses on this One who is pierced, who is struck, but more broadly you have the images of nations being destroyed, idols being cast down, enemies devoured in fire, and a remnant saved through the fire and refined as gold. And the gospels insist that this great Revolution that Zechariah prophesied occurred in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The death and resurrection of Jesus was the great Crisis centered on a Man who was pierced and struck, but this crisis has global implications, the casting down of nations and idols, the devouring of God’s enemies in fires of judgment, and the salvation of many through the refining fires.

The New Testament repeatedly tells us that baptism is the death and resurrection of Jesus applied to people. In baptism we are buried with Jesus and raised to newness of life. In baptism, we are crucified with Jesus and reborn to resurrection life. This means that baptism is the continuation of the great Revolution. It is itself part of the ongoing wide lens view of that original act. Jesus died and rose again 2000 years ago, and we’re still feeling the aftershocks. It’s still echoing throughout the world. But we can also view each individual baptism itself as the Great Revolution begun again. In baptism, God Himself comes to an individual, and promises to be their God, to forgive their sins, and makes that individual His child, His companion. The old man is crucified with Christ, and a new man is put on through faith in Christ. This child is no long a child born of Adam, no longer an individual outside the household of faith, but now a child and an heir of the promises of the covenant, a recipient of grace. That’s the Revolution in miniature. But if that’s the narrow view, there is also the global and wide view. Every baptism declares and some way joins in the judgment and destruction of nations, the fires of destruction for the wicked, idols being torn down, and the salvation and purification of God’s people. Every baptism is another instance of this Great Revolution, this Great Crisis. And we must believe that this simple act of a little water sprinkled on a baby is weakness and foolishness to the world, but it is the wisdom and power of God to cast down the wicked and the proud, to raise up the humble and the meek.

In this way, the gospel Revolution, the Great Gospel Crisis which began in the death and resurrection of Jesus was like the first boulder setting off an enormous landslide. Every echo multiplies exponentially its effects and after effects. And here we are 2000 years later amidst the great roar, the great thundering roll of God’s grace growing and filling the earth. When the Shepherd was struck, He began a great landslide in which His grace struck others and they have struck others and still others. We are the great revolution, the great crisis, and baptism is our entry into the Storm, into that Great Revolution, and here God promises to bestow on His people His Spirit, His refining fire. And here God speaks and says, “This is My people,” and we respond and say, "The Lord is my God."

So Peter and Claire, as you raise up young Peter, as He grows up, teach Him about the Great Revolution. Remind Him that when He was baptized He was struck by the Shepherd who was struck. And He must embrace the calling to carry on this Revolution, repenting of sin, welcoming the refining fires of the Spirit in His life, and working to extend the justice and mercy of our God to the ends of the earth. Remind Him that here God claimed Him as a member of His people, and teach him to respond in faith saying, The Lord is my God.


You are Family

We are a family here at Trinity Reformed Church. We are a family bound together by the blood of Jesus. We are family, and so we meet together regularly, we fellowship in one another’s homes, we rejoice together, we mourn together, we gather here for our weekly all-family dinner, we embrace one another, we kiss one another, and share with one another. We are family. And for Christians this family is tighter and more fundamental than our last names. “Christian” is the more fundamental identity than nationality, ethnicity, culture, or family ties. And this means that we watch out for one another like family. When a member of this family stumbles we do not just watch and let it happen. We do not ignore it politely and hope it goes away. When one of our brothers or sisters falls, we go after them in love. We seek the straying sheep, and we rejoice when they are restored, just like you would rejoice if one of your children went missing and was found safe and alive. Sometimes this occurs in small situations: when a father corrects and disciplines his child in love, he is calling a younger brother or sister to faithfulness in Jesus and going after that little lamb in love. Or maybe an elder or pastor calls up a family and asks how they’re doing and asks about areas that perhaps need attention. And sometimes this can happen on a bigger scale over the course of months or years or even decades. We pray for individuals most weeks during the prayers of the people, individuals who have left the faith or have been excommunicated or are straying in various ways. We pray for them that God would restore them to the family. There are empty places at the table, and we mourn their loss and pray that the God of the resurrection would restore them to us. But this is the point: we are family and we are family not merely in name, but in fact. We have all taken vows to this particular family in Christ. We have relatives in this family all over the world and in many congregations across the Palouse. But here are our people; here is our family. So let us love one another not merely in word or in tongue but in deed and in truth.


The Vine Son

In Psalm 80, Israel is described as the vine that Yahweh brought out of Egypt. The vine grows and extends branches, and then in judgment she is broken down. The psalmist laments the judgment and prays that God would remember the vineyard which He has planted, and the "son" which He had made strong (80:15). The vine has been burned and cut down, but the psalmist prays that God's right hand would be upon the "man of your right hand," upon the "son of Adam" which He has strengthened for Himself.

This "son" title for Israel goes back to the commissioning of Moses at the burning bush where Yahweh calls Israel His "firstborn son." (Ex. 4:22)


Saturday, November 07, 2009

Proverbs 28:1-5

28:1: The wicked flee when no one pursues, But the righteous are bold as a lion.

This proverb is structured chiastically with “wicked” and “righteous” in the center:

When no one pursues
Like a lion
Is Bold

This structure is designed to make the contrast explicit at every point. In every way, they are different.

The point seems to be that all the difference is really in the moral qualities. Righteousness results in boldness and wickedness results in cowardice. It also suggests that the righteous are pursuers while the wicked are the pursued. The righteous are likened to a lion, a beast that hunts for prey. But the Proverb says that the wicked run away even when no one is pursuing. The proverb suggests that the righteous will be perceived as a threat by the wicked and the wicked will act in fear even when there is no danger. The proverb says that the righteousness of the righteous is really boldness, but the wicked see only a predator, a fierce lion on the loose. There is also an implicit comparison of fear. The righteous fear the Lord and are therefore bold, but because the wicked do not fear the Lord they are fearful. Fearing God means we have no fear of man. Conversely refusing to fear the Lord is a guarantee that we will fear men. Waltke also points out that there is good objective reason for this fear and lack of fear. The promises of God surround the righteous, but only warnings of punishment and disaster surround the wicked. In one sense their fear is unfounded (“no one pursues”), but on a deeper level it is actually very well founded. Living antagonistically with the King/Lion who rules the world is never safe.

28:2: Because of the transgression of a land, many are its princes; but by a man of understanding and knowledge right will be prolonged.

The parallels here are as follows:

In the transgression of the land
Many are its princes
In a man [ADAM] of understanding and knowledge
The right will long continue

The parallel sets up a contrast between “transgression” and an “Adam.” With the contrast in mind, we might think of “transgression of the land” as something like Adam’s first sin. The contrast is even stronger when we note that this Adam has understanding and knowledge which is what the original sin focused on, the tree of knowledge and the question of whether it would make one wise and give understanding. There is also the parallel between the “land” and “ADAM(AH).” A man is a sort of ground which can have produce, fruit grows out of it. A land full of transgression grows and multiplies princes. The implication is that princes are a sort of weed, a curse on the sins of the land. On the other hand where the soil is mixed with understanding and knowledge, right is maintained.

The political statement seems to be that where a people is unlawful, laws and law enforcers multiply, but where wisdom and prudence characterize a people, righteousness is maintained. Given the implied contrast, we assume that this righteousness is without many rulers. People know what is right and they do it without having to be forced or without enforcing what is right, i.e. its princes are few and do their jobs well. It may also be implied that the multiplication of princes is a futile attempt at dealing with transgressions. Many princes is not the same thing as righteousness being maintained, but in the implication is that princes were not doing their jobs well and so the burden of the transgressions can justly rest on weak rulers as well. The proverb says that only understanding and knowledge can produce sustainable justice. Remembering that Proverbs is written to a prince or perhaps multiple princes makes this a pointed warning to the original audience.

28:3: A poor man who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain which leaves no food.

The obvious point seems to be that rain ought to be a source of nourishment for crops. A poor man ought to understand the plight of a fellow poor person. The word for man often has connotations of strength. So this is a weak-strong-guy which is an oxymoron. And this weak-strong-guy is oppressing the poor apparently with his strength. The weak-strong-guy is probably a leader who has had some misfortune befall him. He’s had a bad year; there’s a recession, etc. And he grasps at what the poor-diligent have produced. This weak-strong-guy (leader) parallels that “driving” rain, the rain that is meant for nourishment has become a source of ruin. Literally the “driving” rain is a “prostrate” rain, a rain that lies down (Jer. 46:15). This highlights the oppression as a sort of laziness. Perhaps it also suggests a foolish impatience: ie. If I dump a lot of water on my plant right now, maybe it will grow faster. But overwatering is a good way to kill crops too. The final thought is: “there is no bread.” And this is ambiguous enough to cover a specific instance of oppression as well as broader national policies in any given land. There is a way of pouring resources into a land that is actually a form of oppress and results in less food for everyone.

28:4 Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but such as keep the law contend with them.

This proverb is about antithesis. It describes those who have the law (Torah) and then abandon it and thereby align themselves with the wicked. And it describes those who guard the law (Torah) and thereby fight against the wicked. We are either for God and for His people or we are against the Lord and against His people.

Lawlessness is itself a compliment to the wicked. It praises them. It is also compliment because it is imitation. It also praises the wicked as an encouragement to be wicked, setting the apostate up as an proof of their pseudo-wisdom.

Conversely, Torah-keeping is a kind of warfare. This parallels 28:1 somewhat where the righteous are bold like lions and threaten the “wicked.” While in one sense the righteous are not a real threat to the wicked (in the way they think of a threat), in other sense the righteous are always a threat to their way of life. The righteous keep Torah, and that will always create contention and warfare with the wicked.

28:5:Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand all.

Here the proverbs return to the necessity of having “understanding.” An Adam of understanding prolongs justice (28:2), but here evil guarantees the lack of understanding. And specifically, it is no understanding of judgment. And the contrast is radical: those who are seeking YHWH understand everything. The comparison may also be in the “seeking.” Evil from earlier in Proverbs are looking for evil to do, plotting to do wickedly. The only other option is to plot righteousness, seeking Yahweh. And the promise is that in the seeking, understanding will come. But we do not understand in order to seek; we seek in order to understand.


Thursday, November 05, 2009

Last Ellul

Just finished Ellul's The Subversion of Christianity. Some concluding thoughts:

In some ways, Ellul improved as he went along. But this "improvement" was also mixed with various levels of ambiguity, saying things that seemed contradictory to earlier statements. But this is not so surprising given the fact that he had already stated that "everything in revelation is formulated in antithetical fashion... It unites two contrary truths that are truth only as they come together... We never find a single logically connected truth followed by another truth deduced from it. There is no logic in the biblical revelation. There is no 'either-or,' only 'both-and.'" (43-44) And this is not necessarily wrong, but it might be and we ought to keep up our ninja alertness.

So on to the final chapters:

First, in the chapter on "Nihilism and Christianity," Ellul makes a lot of good sense. He lays the debt of modern nihilism squarely at the feet of the Church. In so far as the Church has successfully proclaimed the gospel, the Lordship of Christ, and the emptiness of the gods, it has successfully neutered all paganism of meaning. The success of the gospel is measured by the emptiness of the alternatives. The alternatives are increasingly ridiculous and shallow. "It is either God's absoluteness or nothing" (140). On the flip side, Ellul insists that the need to turn to "nothing" away from the gospel and the "absoluteness of God" is also provided by the failure of the Church. "Christian convictions have prepared the ground for terrorist outrages" (144). As the Church has colluded with various strands of unbelief, we have offered a myriad of false gospels, false freedoms. We have done this through pretending that the gospel is mostly synonymous with various political movements and philosophies, whether with workers unions and socialism or Marxist materialism or capitalism and conservatism. When these collusions fail which they must necessarily do, usually with the Church's stance co-opted and vetted for public consumption, the world turns to alternatives. If that's the gospel, they want nothing to do with it. I met these similar sentiments first in David Bently Hart's outstanding article "Christ or Nothing" originally published in First Things, I think.

Ellul's chapter "The Heart of the Problem" is more of a mix. He says that the Christian faith "does not change the structure or the functioning of the state or politics" (158). And as I've noted previously, there's an underlying eschatology at work here which begins to emerge more explicitly toward the last few chapters. And there is a static nature/grace duality riding the wake of many of these assertions. I have no problem with some ways of describing a nature/grace duality, but I think the most important question has to do with time and eschatology. A static duality, a permanent, changeless dualism is at odds with the doctrine of Creation and the doctrines of the Atonement, and that means it's bad.

In defense of the changeless duality, Ellul cites the hypostatic union of the natures of Christ which is an excellent thing to do. Three cheers for the hypostatic union. But Ellul gets this plain wrong. He rightly insists that Jesus had a normally functioning human body and that the incarnation did not alter the normal circulation and digestion of His human body. Sure. But the incarnation is not static. It does not end in the womb of Mary or even on the cross of Golgotha. The incarnation even has an eschatology. The glorified flesh of the Lord Jesus is the glorification of His true human nature. Even the life of Christ had different phases leading up to the resurrection and exaltation. His incarnation played different roles throughout His life, going from one kind of presence in the world in His childhood and young manhood, taking on a particular role in His ministry of healing and teaching, finally exalted in the crucifixion and then resurrection, etc.

Ironically, all of this business of the changelessness of society and state, etc., all comes in the context of wanting to insist that the Church must change, that institutional forms and solidification are the death knells of the faith. "Salvation is not a finished thing. I never hold it. I never own it. It is not an acquired situation. I may lose it (Paul himself tells us so). Nothing is ever finished with God. I am never installed." (162) And Ellul pushes these statements I think with the cross in mind. "Renounce everything in order to be everything. Trust in no human means, for God will provide (we cannot say where, when, or how). Have confidence in his Word and not in a rational program." (172) And that's fine, but how can we not allow this freedom, this renunciation to penetrate society and philosophy and politics?

This flows into "Dominions and Powers" where eschatology is again coming to the fore. He rightly challenges preterist readings of Revelation and Matthew 24 that seal up those passages as though their A.D. 70 fulfillments exhaust their usefulness and applicability. This is good and right and a real temptation for postmillennialists like myself. But here, Ellul over-corrects and undermines his basic point. Rather than using those eschatological passages as types which may be carefully applied and projected into our times as patterns that God frequently follows, Ellul projects the doom and judgment on Jerusalem as apparently a semi-permanent reality for all time. He says: "Seduction by many saviors of all types, the growth of wars, the development of rumors about wars and disasters, increased famines... treachery and injustice springing up everywhere, the loss of love... It is all there. The fabulous growth of the strength of these powers is expressly set forth for us" (188-189). He closes the chapter asking the right question, "Does it mean, then, the defeat of the Holy Spirit?" And while he qualifies his answer a touch, the answer is still "yes."

He says that the Spirit does comfort us in our distress, but "there is never any imperial triumph. No head of state is inspired by the Holy Spirit. No capitalist achieves success by the Holy Spirit. Science and technology do not develop under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The success of the powers, then, is the direct opposite." (190) While he is willing to grant resurrections in history (a question I asked in an earlier post), he insists that these resurrections can only be seen by faith. They cannot take the form of a success as viewed from man in his natural state.

His final chapter returns to this theme, insisting that for all the failures and compromises of the Church, Jesus and His Spirit are still there in the Church. And "because individual and collective resurrection is assured and promised and certain, then in the course of history, which is the visible, concrete expression of this resurrection, there is this astonishing survival of the church, the perceptible sign of the communion of saints" (198). Ellul knows there must be resurrection in history, but he insists on limits which is in striking contrast to the main thrust of the book, in which he argues for a faith without limits, a faith without morals, a radical freedom open to the whims of the Spirit. Why may we limit the Spirit here? Why is it OK to institute by-laws for the Spirit when it comes to the fruit of the Spirit? Only this much love, Ok? No more. Only this much peace, then stop after that. For all the hype over the Beatitudes, is there no place for the meek actually inheriting the earth? On Ellul's reading the meek must not inherit the earth.

Ellul does seek to close on a more optimistic note, citing several examples of what he sees as hopeful signs in his day, writing in the 1980s. And his point that the Church must not sellout to political parties still needs to be learned by American Christians who continue to follow the Republican Party around like a stray dog, same thing for liberal Christians and the Democratic Party. The Church must speak into the world in its own way, and resist all of the pressures to simply become another political party. The Church is neither of the current parties and not a third party either. And Ellul is absolutely right on this count. And I agree with him that Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were some modern Protestant attempts at bringing the gospel to the political world without compromise. He notes several other traditions doing similar things in their own contexts: Roman Catholics in Poland and Latin America and Baptists in the (then) USSR.

I still think he exudes something of a perfectionist/legalistic/cranky streak, but he goes some way to correcting that in the last chapter.


Canon Press Sale

Canon Press is at it again. Currently, they are running a $1-$5 book sale. Get your stockings stuffed.


Recognizing Images

During his ministry, Jesus expects people to recognize him. But no one has ever seen God before.

Most pictures we recognize because we've seen the original, the model, the person whose image we are seeing.

The word "recognize" implies an act of knowing again, re-knowing.

And Jesus expects people to recognize Him, that He is Yahweh, Israel's God in the flesh.

But this implies that something other than a strict image parallel is at work. The Old Testament prohibited images of Israel's God, and made a point to emphasize that they had not and could not see Him.

Jesus expects Israel to recognize Him not because they have seen Yahweh's form before, but because they know Yahweh in other ways besides face to face. They are expected to have known Yahweh through His words, His actions, His stories.

This implies that there is something more fundamental to images than physical correspondence.


Monday, November 02, 2009

A Memorial for All the Saints

Every week, we celebrate this meal as a memorial. This means that we enact a reminder for God and His people and the world. As often as we celebrate this meal we show forth the death of Christ until He comes. This meal is a proclamation, an enacted prayer, an appeal to God to act in accordance with the death of Jesus, an appeal to His people to remember and believe, and an appeal to the world to come and find rest and salvation. That’s what we mean when we say this meal is a memorial. But there is more: you and I and all of God’s people get taken up into this memorial. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the great down payment in history, the beginning of what God intends to do for the whole world. Everything that flows from the cross is taken up into this memorial, all the faithful martyrs who shed their blood and whose blood cries out for judgment before the throne of God, all the faithful saints who have dedicated their lives to the service of Jesus, all the self sacrificing mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, children and servants, down through the ages. As we partake of this memorial, we are joined to this memorial. Our lives are not accidental or incidental, our works, our faith, our tears, our pain, our longing, our loves and joys and plans are all taken up into this memorial. And it comes before the throne of God, and it cries out, how long O Lord? When will you fulfill your promises, when will you put all of it right, when will you come and establish our work? And so as we eat and drink together we join that nameless woman who anointed Jesus for burial, that nameless woman who is not lost to the ages, who is not forgotten in history, but who like us and all the faithful saints is remembered to God in this the great memorial, the great remembrance. Here we are assured that God will not forget us, and He will not forget us because our lives are hidden in Jesus. All of our hopes, dreams, hurts, joys, all of it is taken up into this great memorial in Jesus. And God promises to remember, and God promises to never forget. And so we celebrate All Saints Day, and we lift up this great memorial. We eat and we drink and we celebrate the God who does not forget any of His saints and promises to remember and raise us all up.


Anointed for Burial

In the sermon text today, Jesus is anointed for burial. There are a number of things going on in the passage, but it is worth noting that Jesus is anointed on His head like a King or a Priest for burial. Jesus’ coronation is for death; His ordination is for the purpose of dying. His duty is to die. We too are anointed in baptism, and Paul says that in baptism we are buried with Christ, we are joined to the likeness of His death. Our baptisms are also ordinations. When we are baptized, we are given the same calling as Jesus. We are called to take up our crosses and follow Him. We are ordained to die. The way to life is through the cross; the way to be a King is through dying. And we enact this in numerous ways in our worship every Lord’s Day. But one of the important ways we enact this is through the Confession of Sin. One of the most important ways you ought to think about this Confession of Sin is as a Confession of Faith. As we enter the house of the Lord, we confess that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and grace. We begin worship by dying. We begin worship by telling God and everyone else here that we are failures. This confession of sin is a corporate confession to God and to one another that we are all miserable sinners in need of grace. We come here as priests and kings, having been anointed in baptism and by the Spirit, and therefore we begin by dying to ourselves, by proclaiming that we are failures, we are broken, we are sinners who desperately need grace. And that is what the Church is; it’s a family of people who know that they are lost, know they are empty, they are sick and they are dying apart from the grace and mercy of God. But our hope is in the God of the resurrection, the God who declares the filthy clean. We confess that we are sinners, but we are also sinners whom God declares forgiven. And that declaration of forgiveness is always a call for faith. When we believe that God does in fact accept us, and that He accepts us sinners as righteous in Christ, when we believe that, forgiveness washes over us and we are given grace to forgive one another and to forgive all those who have trespassed against us.