Monday, November 24, 2008

Thy Kingdom Come?

"Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down." Isaiah 64 begins as an earnest plea for God to show up and do something. It is a call for God to exercise his mighty power as he had done in the past. The next several verses continue on with similar language asking God to come down and make his name known to his adversaries. Isaiah assures us that God acts on behalf of the righteous, the ones who remember the ways of God. Up to this point, you can almost hear Isaiah's audience cheering Isaiah on. Perhaps they even shout out "Amen" a few times or whatever the ancient Israelite equivalent of that would be. Certainly, God's people would get excited as the prophet Isaiah begins to talk about God doing mighty things on their behalf once again just as he did at the Exodus.

But then this passage takes a sharp turn. In the second half of verse 5, we hear about God being angry because Israel has sinned. There is even doubt expressed as to whether or not Israel will be saved. Isaiah says that they have become unclean; so unclean in fact that even the deeds they consider to be righteous are like mentrual rags. The people wither like a leaf and are blown away by the wind.

The crowd that was just cheering Isaiah on has received a punch to the gut. The wind has been knocked out of their sails. Just moments earlier they had been excited and adament about God showing up in their presence so that God's righteousness might vindicate them. But now they have realized what's God's righteous presence will mean for them as well. They themselves are not without sin. Therefore, if God comes to them as they have asked, it will mean that their sin will have to be dealt with as well.

However, this fact does not cause Isaiah to rescind his appeal to God. He continues to earnestly seek God's coming but he does so with the recognition that it will involve judgment for he and his fellow Israelites as well. Therefore, Isaiah calls upon God as a father and asks him to deal with Israel's sin but to do it mercifully and not with anger beyond measure. He describes God as the one who shapes the clay which is Israel; meaning that God has the right to do whatever he pleases with Israel but also that this God would no more discard this sinful and flawed people than an artist would discard a work of art into which she has poured much time and energy. God will deal with Israel's sin but Isaiah believes that he will do it in a way that will not destroy but salvage the damaged vessel.

There could hardly be a more appropriate message for the Church as we begin the season of Advent. In this season, we remember Israel's long and expectant waiting for a messiah while also looking forward to the final establishment of Christ's kingdom upon his return to earth. We will talk much over the coming weeks about how we long for God's kingdom to come so that all the wrongs of our world might be righted. But even as we hope for that kingdom, we must be reminded that the Church will not be excluded from the light of God's presence which will expose all sin and unrighteousness. When that day comes, we too will find that many of the actions that we regarded as our most righteous and pious acts are actually more like filthy rags in God's sight and that we may well have neglected the weightier matters of God's law. Therefore, we must continually look back to that man, Jesus Christ, in which God did rend the heavens and come down among us and take on our flesh. The same Spirit which lived in him must also rend our world and dwell among us so that we might become more and more like him now as we anxiously await the arrival of his kingdom.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

My Daughter Can Dance

At less than 10 months old, my daughter already has more rhythm than I do.

Looks like she is working on driving a little early too.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lord, Be My Everything

I saw this video on Eugene Cho's blog and thought it was worth passing on. (The link to his blog is on my list of blogs on the right side of this page. It is the one entitled beauty and depravity. Eugene consistently does some excellent writing on some important issues.)

Everything from justin pae on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remarkable Confidence

Psalm 90 appears to break down into four distinct but closely related sections. The first section (V.1-2) celebrates the eternal nature of God. This God has been Israel's dwelling place in all generations and existed before the mountains. This section of the Psalm even uses a feminine image for God, saying that God gave birth to the mountains. We often think of God as Father and Scripture repeatedly portrays God with masculine imagery but this is one of the rare places in Scripture that shows us that the analogy of a mother to her child can also serve as a fitting metaphor for the relationship between God and God's creation.

The second section (v.3-6) of this Psalm constrasts God's everlasting nature with the transitory nature of humanity. We are reminded that human beings simply return to the dust and that a thousand of our years are like yesterday to God. Humanity is also compared to grass which sprouts anew in the morning but is already fading by evening of the same day.

As if the life described in the second section of the Psalm were not short enough, the third section (v.7-12) of the Psalm compounds the problem. Not only is life short but in addition to this the Psalmist says "we have been consumed by your anger". God knows all of the sins and failings of Israel which leads thier short life to be filled with God's wrath.

What is probably most interesting is the Psalmist response to all of this. One might easily conclude that despair is the only proper response if the everlasting God knows all the sins of our short, almost insignificant lives. But that is not the Psalmist's response. Instead, Moses (this is the only Psalm attributed to him) cries out to God for deliverance. He does not despair that God knows all his sins and the sins of his people. Instead, he asks God how long it will be before God does something about it. He asks for God's loving-kindness and favor and that God's works would once again be evident to God's servants. He asks even that the work of their hands might be confirmed.

This Psalm demonstrates the remarkable confidence that Moses has in God. And why wouldn't Moses have that kind of confidence in God? Moses knew all too painfully of his own short-comings. He knew also of Israel's failings. And yet he had watched God deliver Israel through him with amazing power and unthinkable love. Even though God is infinite and we are finite, even though God knows all of our sins and failings, we can still call upon God to work in us and among us because his love for us and his power to work in us are that great.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

Today is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. I want to encourage anyone who is reading this to take some time to pray for Christians around the world who suffer for the sake of Christ. You can also learn more about the persecuted church and how you can take action by following the Voice of the Martyrs and International Christian Concern links below on the right sidebar of this blog. The situation in India is especially intense right now and is deserving of special attention.

Heavenly Father, who has all power to save, deliver your Church. Deliver from harm and oppression those who suffer for your name. Deliver those who rarely suffer for your name from complacency and indifference. Unite your Church as the one body of your Son, broken for the sake of the world. Whatever our fate, may we know the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in Christ's suffering as we are conformed to the image of his death by the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Prayer for Election Day

Heavenly Father, who reigns over all the earth, we give you thanks that this day has come and will go and that you are still our King. Whatever happens today, may your Church be a people who value and embody life, justice, and peace. Forgive us for the times that we have misplaced our allegiance that belongs only to you. Rid us of the illusion that our feeble attempts at government could ever bring about your Kingdom. May your light and your truth lead us to your place of worship. Amen.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Prayer for Deliverance (from the election)

I have to admit that I find Psalm 70 quite difficult. Like many of the others Psalms I have preached from lately, I find it difficult not because its message is hard to understand but because its words can seem so unlike Christ. The point of the Psalm seems pretty simple. It is a prayer for God to deliver the Psalmist from his enemies and to do it quickly. However, what is so troubling is the repeated call for the Psalmist's enemies to be put to shame. He asks God to let them be ashamed and humiliated, let them be turned back and dishonored, and let them be turned back because of their shame. A considerable portion of this Psalm is devoted not just to the Psalmist's deliverance but explicitely to seeing the Psalmist's enemies publicly shamed. Jesus certainly prays for his own deliverance (Lord, let this cup pass from me...) but even then he insists on the Father's will and not his own and never calls on God to shame his enemies. Quite to the contrary, he asks for their forgiveness even as he hangs dying on the cross.

Perhaps this language is only troubling to me because I am a privileged, relatively wealthy (by global standards), educated, white male who hasn't really had many experiences that would cause me to cry out to God with this kind of urgent need for deliverance. There have certainly been times in my life when I've felt somewhat mistreated or taken advantage of but for the most part, I have not been the victim of any kind of systemic injustice or outright persecution. I imagine that for our brothers and sisters in Christ who have experienced those things, the words of this Psalm and others like it must be very dear to their hearts.

I have to imagine that the current election has some play in the way that I read this Psalm as well. I am so thoroughly disgusted and disheartened by the dehuminization that has taken place throughout the campaign and has only intensified with the election now being so near. I think anyone who knows me knows that I thoroughly enjoy a vigorous debate over issues of substance and I am happy to enter into these kinds of conversations even with those I know will disagree with me and whom I will likely never persuade to share my position. It is not the civil disagreements that bother me. It is the exalting of one party or candidate to the status of righteous defender of God's will while demonizing the other party that sickens me. It is the saying anything to get your candidate eleceted, no matter how untrue, unfair, or uncharitable those words might be. It is allowing our loyalties to Christ to be blurred by our loyalties to a certain understanding of American politics that makes we want to vomit. And it is the constant assumption that I must be right and that my political positions must also be God's political positions and that anyone who disagrees with me must be either lazy or stupid that pushes me towards an unhealthy anger. This kind of incivility carries a certain kind of dissapointment with it when you find it in your average Joe (a phrase which itself has become another victim of sloganeering) but it takes on a whole other level of disgrace when you find it in your brothers and sisters in Christ. (I give much thanks to God and to the members of our congregation for keeping these shallow practices out of our local church and maintaining a Christ-like attitude in political conversations throughout this election season.) So when I come to a Psalm like this one which calls for the shaming of one's enemies, it is easy for me to hear the words of those who have done everything they can to try to bring shame upon their political enemies.

Even setting that baggage aside, there seems to be a terribly strong tension between the words of this Psalm that call for God to shame the Psalmist's enemies and Jesus' command to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44)." Is this a place where we must allow Jesus' words to outright trump those of the Old Testament? Possibly. After all, this is one those "You have heard it said...but I say to you..." sayings of Jesus in the sermon on the mount in which Jesus does some serious re-interpreting of the Law. Maybe Jesus is saying that Psalms like this one just didn't quite get it right and he is the only one who has the authority to correct the error. Is that the only possible resolution to this tension?

We have been studying Paul's letter to the Philippians here on Monday nights. Of course, any discussion of Philippians is often dominated by the Christ hymn found in 2:5-11. This hymn exhibits a movement from high status (being in the form of God) to progressively lower status and even shame and humiliation (he emptied himself, took the form of a slave, became obedient to death, even death on a cross). However, this humilation and shame eventually leads to vindication and exaltation (therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name). This exaltation in turn means that all others now have a lower status in relation to the one who has been exalted (so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow ... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord). This a pattern that repeats itself in Paul's letters as he describes the ministry of Christ as well as his own ministry in emulation of Christ.

Perhaps this pattern of shame leading to exaltation can be seen in Psalm 70 as well. After all, if the Psalmist finds himself in need of deliverance, this likely means that he is in a lowly and shameful position. This might take on even more significance if this Psalm, which is credited to King David, was written as he flees his enemies even after he has been anointed as King of Israel. If this is true, then the Psalmist's own situation would reflect the pattern of movement in the Christ hymn; he is the anointed but is forced into the lowly, shameful position of fleeing but is eventually exalted to the highest position in the land because of his complete obedience to God. Additionally, like the Christ hymn which ends by saying that this pattern of shame and exaltation is "to the glory of God the Father", so also Psalm 70 declares "Let God be magnified".

Maybe if we read Psalm 70 in this light then the call for shame upon one's enemies can be seen less as a vindicative demand for vengeance against one's adversaries and more as a trust in God to restore the justice of his reign. Practically speaking then we might say that the Christian should pray for his or her enemies as Jesus says while also praying that the wrongs those enemies perpetrate might be righted and their injustices judged justly. We can love our enemies while simultaneously asking God to make both us and them more just people so that we might be enemies no longer. That, indeed, seems to be a piece of what we ask when we pray "thy kingdom come."