Discontent with God

A sermon from Luke 14:1,7-14 and Jeremiah 2:4-13 (preached on August 28, 2016).


Sit in the lowliest spot at someone’s wedding banquet (Lk 14:7-11), and when you throw your own banquet, invite those whom societies invariably treat lowly (14:12-14). Jesus teaches these behaviors at a meal in a Pharisee’s house. Now, the fact that he accepts the invitation of a Pharisee may be a lesson itself. It is also a Sabbath, a commanded day of rest from work. And yet, en route to the meal, Jesus performs an act of work, healing a man whose worth to on-lookers ranked lower than that of an ox. Of course, no one would say it that way. But words have a way of polishing a shine onto our injustices. In Jesus’ situation, how can people who will rescue an ox and ignore a human go on to prepare a feast for humans who are poor, crippled, lame, and blind?

Is Jesus just a prophet of table etiquette?—the first century’s very own—though very Jewish and male—Emily Post? If Jesus wishes to teach about meals and manners and move on, I suppose that is fine. But what if Jesus is challenging people’s deepest prejudices and most socially acceptable injustices? What if Jesus is unmasking widespread evils that are accepted and perpetuated by even the most religious members of Israel in his society?

To admit that Jesus is right is to admit defeat, to confess that God’s Teaching has not, after all, accomplished as much in our lives as we would like to have thought. Perhaps we are not so familiar with God. Then again, perhaps we are perfectly familiar with God, but secretly and begrudgingly dislike what he tries to accomplish in our lives and in our world. Perhaps he is not the God we want him to be. Perhaps we have exchanged him for a god made in our image, a god whom we try to fashion closely enough to the real thing to console our guilty, idolatrous consciences.


Perhaps we are perfectly familiar with God, but secretly and begrudgingly dislike what he tries to accomplish in our lives and in our world.


Amid people’s pantheons of pious idols, then and now, Jesus lives and teaches—he embodies—the true God. This is, of course, the doctrine of the Incarnation: the word of God has become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth (Jn 1:1,14). It is interesting, then, that, centuries prior, a word of God came to the prophet Jeremiah accusing Jeremiah’s audience of exchanging the God of Israel for other gods. I can imagine modern Christians reading Jeremiah’s message with some confusion and pity: confusion at why the kings and people of Judah would exchange their God for an idol, and pity that they did not know any better. The true God had delivered Israel from Egypt, had fed and preserved them through years in wilderness, and had brought them into a land of plentiful fruits and good things (Jer 2:6-7). How could that generation find things wrong with God? How could they go after worthless things and defile God’s land (Jer 2:4,7)? How could several hundred years in the land find Jeremiah’s contemporaries in the same rut they were in with Moses? Why do people keep going after other gods?

The word of God to Jeremiah did not come in a vacuum. Though we do not know the specific prompt for the message of Jeremiah 2, the beginning of the book indicates that Jeremiah served as a prophet at a time of great national and international uncertainty for the kingdom of Judah. Judah’s sister kingdom to the north, which included most of Israel’s tribes and land settlements, had fallen to, and been radically reconfigured by, the Assyrian Empire. The late-600s BC saw the waning of Assyria’s power and the competing growth of Babylon’s. Judah had managed an anxious independence from Assyria, and worked to maneuver protection against Babylon’s encroachments. To bring it closer to the issue at hand, a foreign power with its foreign gods threatened Judah’s power, Judah’s independence, and, so it would seem, Judah’s God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the Exodus and conquest.

Is it really too unrelatable, then, for a fearful, threatened king and people to question the role of their God in a changing international landscape? for these people to seek help in other gods, gods who had been worshiped in Canaan longer than Israel’s God, gods who might want to protect this land from Babylon? Maybe this is what people do when they start to suspect that their God may not have their priorities as his own. Maybe they try to force the issue, to get out in front of God to show him the way the world needs to be. Maybe they change gods (Jer 2:10-11) because they cannot be content with obedience to God’s commandments, even in mundane daily relations, when foreign powers they fear stand knocking at their door.


Maybe this is what people do when they start to suspect that their God may not have their priorities as his own.


Moses’ Israel—and sometimes Moses himself—was often discontent with God. Jeremiah’s Israel—the kings and inhabitants of Judah—manifested similar discontent with God. Jesus’ Israel—the Jews scattered abroad, but especially those inhabiting Roman-controlled Galilee and Judea—likewise found themselves discontent with God. Why doesn’t he free us from the Romans and put a son of David on the throne? Why doesn’t he establish his kingdom? And why does this Jesus insist that humility and hospitality to the marginalized have something to do with that kingdom? What kind of God does this Jesus believe in? What kind of God does Jesus think he is revealing to us? These moral teachings could make humanity nicer, but these teachings surely cannot be what is most important to God. We can be kind, compassionate, and just to each other, and let God work on the bigger things.


These moral teachings could make humanity nicer, but these teachings surely cannot be what is most important to God.


Do we really believe that God comes to us in people who have nothing, who are crippled, who cannot walk, or who cannot see? Do we really believe that God comes to us when we spread a feast for those who cannot repay us? And are we content with such a God?

Decision 2016: One Nation under God

A sermon from 1 Peter 2:9 (preached on June 26, 2016).


Not long ago, I had one of those uncomfortable experiences. You know the type: you are stuck in a conversation with someone, desperately hoping that your face is not betraying your true thoughts and feelings. I was at a wedding reception. A gentleman, who happened to be a brother in Christ, kidnapped me into a monologue I cannot possibly reproduce. I do recall two things. First, it had nothing to do with the newlyweds. Second, he stated that he did not see how any Christian could vote for candidates from a particular political party. I’m not sure now how I managed to jump off of this run-away train, but I think I employed two common tactics: my cup of punch was empty, and I reacted the way you do when you are in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and a native is speaking to you: I smiled and nodded. I think I know why there is punch—and, quite often, alcohol—at weddings. This one just had punch.

Many Christians in the United States believe that their faith should relate to social and political life, and, indeed, any faith worth having will have a bearing on these things. At the same time, much of what I see and hear reveals a malnourished understanding of Christian faith. One conversation in which I find such nutritional deficiency is the debate over whether the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. The historical evidence is complex, and can be selectively used to argue various positions. But what troubles me is Christians’ failure to understand their own Bible very well. First Peter 2:9 is saying something that far too many American Christians miss. To catch it, we have to know the whole Bible and its overarching story—in this case, the story the Bible is telling about the nation God has been forming for himself and for his world.

~

About 4,000 years ago, a middle Eastern man heard a god unfamiliar to him address him with a command and a plan: “Leave your kinfolk, and I will make you a great nation” (Gen 12:1-2 paraphrase). In the mind of an aging and barren couple, having a child must have stretched credulity—let alone becoming a nation. What land would belong to their nation? How would they relate to other nations? Answers to these questions were unclear. The purpose of Abram and Sarai’s nation, however, was stated: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:3 ESV). The purpose of this family and its eventual nation was to bless others. Coming on the heels of the dispersion of families and nations from their common ancestors in Genesis 10 and 11, God’s plan for one man and woman turns out to be his plan for all people.

By the end of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah’s family numbers seventy strong and lives in a fertile region of Egypt, though the patriarch and matriarch do not live to see it. The blessed fertility of their family is their undoing, and a real nation enslaves them as a result. Prayers to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob seem to fall on deaf (or dead) ears, as the gods of Egypt succeed. Maybe it’s home-court advantage. The God of Abraham liked the land of Canaan an awful lot; maybe he couldn’t enter other nations.

Eventually—as in, hundreds of years later—a questionable man—an ethnic Hebrew in the Egyptian royal house—claims that Abraham’s God has chosen him to liberate the tribes of Israel. Something about a bush that was on fire. Then lots of strange and devastating things start happening to Egypt, and this nation wants the family of Israel gone. After Charlton Heston lowers his staff, Egypt’s nation loses an army and Israel gains wilderness freedom.

Encamped at a mountain, Moses passes along to Israel the word of Abraham’s God: “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant  . . . you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6 ESV emphasis added). “A kingdom of priests” might sound rather disappointing—akin to “a battalion of preachers”: priests aren’t your typical soldiers or kings (though many ancient kings did serve as priests), so it’s hard to imagine a whole kingdom of them. On the other hand, since priests facilitate people’s relationship with God, “a kingdom of priests” might be a vivid metaphor: Israel’s power in the world will be exercised by facilitating people’s relationship with God. It’s a different kind of power, a different kind of kingdom. As one commentator described this kingdom of priests: the people of Israel are “a display-people, a showcase to the world of how being in covenant with Yahweh changes a people.”[1]

Thus, Israel will be God’s nation, in fulfillment of the word to Abraham. For now, they are a nation without a land, a nation of the wilderness. They will conquer and inhabit the land of Canaan, but they are constituted as a nation before having land. What makes them God’s nation, then, is not land and borders, but commitment to covenant with God, which includes learning to live his ways in the world—his Torah. It is not unimportant that Israel have its own land. Land will offer them security and the earth’s food provisions. In fact, God gives them commands for how they will use such provisions: their tithes would be agricultural tithes and were supposed to be shared directly with others, including orphans, widows, and immigrants (Deut 14:29). The land—all land—belongs to God, and his nation will be a steward of one part of it.

Thus, land could be a blessing and a curse—the curse being that Israel would come define itself, its nationhood, and even its God in terms of human borders. Israel’s common ethnic history would present another blessing and curse for its nationhood. On the one hand, God took an already-existing family and cultivated it into a nation, blessing a distinct ethnic group. But does their nationhood depend on their ethnicity? If it does, then how do we explain the Canaanite prostitute, Rahab, whose family was drawn into Israel’s society? How do we explain the Moabite woman, Ruth, who would be the great grandmother of Israel’s second king, David? How do we explain the (apparently) Hittite woman, Bathsheba, a wife of David and mother to Solomon?

Still, ethnicity has a legitimate place in the nationhood of biblical Israel, but it has more to do with the role of the nuclear family in teaching God’s Torah than with the family’s DNA, so to speak. Indeed, prohibitions against intermarriage in the Old Testament seek to guard the theological purity of the people, not the racial dimensions of their people as such. The potential curse of ethnicity is that Israel would come to define God in ethnic terms, as one of them. God would be a tribal deity, a God interested in the welfare of one ethnic group. Ethnicity becomes theology.

We are reminded, though, of the plan for Abram’s nation: “in you all families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). God wants his nation to bless other people. The prophet Isaiah will speak of God’s servant in Israel as “a light for the nations” (42:6; 49:6, emphasis added). God wants other nations to have his light, to see clearly. Other messages in Isaiah will go beyond giving light to nations to affirm the place of people from foreign nations within God’s nation, within Israel (56:3-8). (Much later, the apostle Paul will develop the same idea in Romans 11.)

By the time of Jesus, Israel would have experienced a united kingdom, a divided kingdom, the destruction of both kingdoms, and centuries of foreign rule over them and the lands they once ruled themselves. The pressing question is then, Where was God’s nation during all of this? Was it destroyed? Or did it survive intact because its nationhood never required land and political administration of it in the first place? An exodus nation can become an exile nation.

Jesus ministered to the not-free survivors of Israel, the Jews of his day (Mt 10:5-6). His ministry included people of other nations (“Gentiles”; Mt 15:21-28). And he commissioned his apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:18-20). He was not seeking to replace Israel. He was fulfilling Israel and what Israel had always been meant to do: to bless all people.

Jesus’ apostles and disciples fulfilled his commission. Peter fulfilled the commission: a scandalous dream prepared him to draw Cornelius into the Jesus-people, the Jesus-kingdom, the Jesus-nation: “in every nation anyone who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Ac 10:35, emphasis added). Years later, Peter will write from Rome to disciples in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1 Pt 1:1), and, using the very words of God to Israel in (his version of) Exodus 19, Peter will say to these disciples of different lands and different ethnicities “you are . . . a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pt 2:9, emphasis added). Once again, people are gathered at Mt. Sinai, so to speak, and are constituted as God’s nation. Peter believed in a Christian nation, but it was not defined by existing political borders, a specific language, a specific ethnicity, nor adherence to Roman codes of law that were in place at the imperial and local levels. None of these was necessarily bad to Peter, but they did not define the Christian nation for him.

~

It is now 2016. How should Christians in America define the Christian nation to which they belong? How about God? When he pulls up Google Earth on his GodBook Pro, where does he find the Christian nation? What does the flag look like? What are its colors, and why? What is the population count? What natural resources are available, and how are they distributed? What is its national anthem? its pledge of allegiance? What are its policies? How does it determine citizenship? How does it determine its neighbors (“Who is my neighbor?”, Lk 10:29)? How does it relate to its enemies? How does it relate to the various rulers and authorities of the world?

And so, in an American election cycle, with a freedom holiday upon us [July 4], and amidst so much noise and confusion, perhaps one gift we Christians can give is being crystal clear as to the identity of the true Christian nation and living in the light that that nation has to offer, to bless all families of the earth. May our words and actions enact on Earth what John saw taking place in heaven:

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ ” (Rev 7:9-10, emphasis added).


[1] John I. Durham, Exodus, Word Biblical Commentary 3 (Nashville: Nelson, 1987), 263.

Conviction and Complexity 3

Continued from “Conviction and Complexity 2.”


God is always more than we think we know about him. He is inexhaustible. The Bible is much more than any of our current views and interpretations of it. It continues to speak to people of vastly different beliefs and perspectives, to reveal surprises to receptive readers, both delighting and challenging them. These convictions about God and the Bible govern my approach to science / faith relations, and I commend them to you in these relations as well.

Truth. I believe in the ultimate harmony of all truth. I may or may not be able to see or hear that harmony at any given moment, but I suspect that each of us seeks it out, to bring coherence to the complex dimensions of our lives. Truth is complex, and the pursuit of truth is complex. Different people have legitimate parts to play in seeing and clarifying truth, even as different tools are needed to understand different dimensions of life.

Science reveals truth. As I understand it, “science” is both a process and a result. It is a way of seeing the world, exploring it, analyzing it, and testing one’s grasp of it. It is a way of knowing. It is also a result: the data, the findings, the analyses, the conclusions. In my own engagements with science, I have tended to focus on natural sciences (e.g., geology, biology), as opposed to other fields of study (e.g., social science, political science).

Faith reveals truth. In addition to studies of the Bible and life experiences, the writings of Karl Barth, an early- to mid-twentieth-century Swiss theologian, have taught me much about faith as a way of knowing, especially in his work on St. Anselm. In effect, Barth argues that one cannot fully know the Christian faith until one commits to it and tries living life as a disciple of Jesus. Only then can one know what it is like to see the world and experience it as a follower of Jesus. Only then can one discover whether there is truth in Jesus’ teaching, for example, to love one’s enemies. One cannot try to establish that truth from a different position in relation to Christ. One must love one’s enemy to know if the teaching of Jesus is true. In this and analogous ways, faith is a path to truth.

Science / Faith. Science and faith both reveal truth, and they are both legitimate paths to truth. Some (not most!) scientists and science supporters are inclined to dismiss faith as a legitimate truth pursuit. Now, to be sure, I have witnessed versions of faith that I would consider illegitimate, but one should patiently seek the wisdom to discern good and bad forms of faith, and not dismiss all faith just because some people live theirs rather poorly, or even just fail to articulate their faith in ways one finds compelling.

I also cannot help but wonder, when there are such lashings out at faith, if these reactions stem from frustrations or pains that are not immediately obvious on the surface? Maybe it runs deeper and is more personal than we sometimes realize? Complexity.

On this note, do not buy into stereotypes of scientists. For a more factual, scholarly study of what scientists really think about religion, read Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (New York: Oxford, 2010).

On another side, some people of faith dismiss science, even if they claim to support science. Such believers often support a redefined version of science. That is, I have not seen any Christian in my context think of himself or herself as “anti-science.” In my experience, no one wants to be “anti-science.” Instead, some Christians redefine “science” and make their own judgments as to what does and does not count as real science. Convenient.

Many Christians simply do not understand science: how it is done, who is actually doing it, what the results really are, and how to make sense of it. This lack of understanding does not prevent some Christians from forming strong opinions about science, however. A word of caution to Christians who handle science, however: if you misrepresent what science really is and does, is this not a violation of our shared command not to bear false witness (Ex 20:16)?

Real Christian faith has nothing to fear from science. After all, if God is more than even our best and hardest-earned thoughts about him, and if the Bible is more than even our best and hardest-earned understandings of it, then what should people of faith be afraid of? Does God disappear if the earth bears record of things we did not know happened? Should the Bible be tossed in the garbage can if we find that a formerly-clear interpretation is now inadequate, and we find ourselves pushed to read it again?

Christian responses to science should be carefully thought out and provisionally enacted. I might be wrong. You might be wrong. Being wrong may deliver a blow to my ego, but it does not mean that truth is not real, or that my pursuit of truth was not worth it. The relationship is far more complex than this. Truth is far more complex than this. By all means, let people of profound faith explore science / faith relations. Let them proceed with conviction, but let that conviction include the commitment to understanding the complexity of life, of our world, and of what it takes — and whom it takes — to understand our world more faithfully and more truly.

Conviction and Complexity 2

Continued from “Conviction and Complexity 1.”


I could describe here my science / faith relationship in terms of specific topics and what I think about them (e.g., climate change). Some blog posts will do this, I am sure. I have come to realize, however, that I have core convictions and assumptions that guide and govern how I think about scientific topics. Everyone has such convictions and assumptions, even (especially!) those who deny that they have them or pretend to be objective in the matter. Here, I offer a glimpse into convictions that guide my science / faith relationship.

God. I believe in God, but I also believe that God is always more than what I think I know about him (I adapt the Bible’s masculine pronouns for God without believing that God is male as such). This belief means that any number of experiences may change my view of God. My understanding of a Bible passage may change my view of God. Contemplating people’s experiences of suffering or claims of healing may change my view of God. And, more to the point here, scientific findings may change my view of God.

Lest this sound like spineless, conviction-less, wishy-washy theology, I contend that true faith admits when it is inadequate, and especially when it has crammed God into something smaller and more manageable. This, of course, is the sin of idolatry.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything….” (Exodus 20:4 ESV)

In my experience with Christians, many Christians carry around with them their images or likenesses of God, even if those images have been carved in their minds. If such images influence the way we relate to our world, then they function as idols. God is no idol. He is always more than what we think we know about him.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV)

The Bible. I have always believed in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, but what these terms mean has changed as I have learned more about the Bible. In my experience, many well-intentioned believers confuse inspiration (how God has related to the production of a biblical writing) and interpretation (how a passage should be read, understood, and appropriated).

Before I ever considered how to read the Bible in relation to scientific findings, I found my interpretation of various biblical passages changing in light of rigorous studies required of college Bible majors and graduate students. In short, my church tradition’s way of reading the Bible turned out not to have exhausted what the Bible actually contained and conveyed. To my dismay and delight, the Bible was much more than what I knew or expected.

This has continued to hold true in my studies of science / faith relations. Some people (some Christians and atheists alike) read the Bible with kindergarten-level maturity. Still, I am repeatedly pleased to find people, when pushed by scientific findings, going back to the Bible to see if there is more to it than they had imagined. Lately, I have seen not just biblical scholars and theologians doing so, but even scientists and agnostics. Again, if we will look and listen, we will find complexity in people’s science / faith relationships.

In the future, I will have more to say about how I read the Bible in relation to scientific findings. For now, I continue to find in the book of Isaiah a helpful way of thinking about our attempt to hear God’s word when we read in the Bible a collection of passages that were not, originally, written to us, but still have something to say to us:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
(Isaiah 55:10-11 ESV)

Whether God’s word (spoken or written) accomplishes our purpose in the science / faith relationship or not, there is the claim here that God’s word will accomplish God’s purpose. The Bible may have for us messages lurking we had not considered because we had hastily committed ourselves to particular interpretations of particular passages. In this complex relationship, my conviction is that the Bible has much more to offer than we often give it credit.

Lastly in this section on the Bible, I contend that changing one’s reading of the Bible in light of scientific findings is not a case of giving up on the Bible, but rather a case of keeping the Bible. It is not a case of losing faith in the Bible’s truth, but persisting in one’s belief that it does, and will always, have truth to convey to us, and that its truth cannot so easily be snuffed out. Some Christians can be made to feel that their change of interpretation is a loss of faith, when, in fact, and quite to the contrary, their change of interpretation is a clear sign of the perseverance of their faith. They keep holding onto these texts for a reason, and their faith may be greater as a result.


To be continued in “Conviction and Complexity 3.”