Monday, August 15, 2011

Confessing in Caesarea Philippi

It is probably not coincidence that it is in Caesarea Philippi that Jesus questions his disciples about his identity.  The name itself tells us quite a bit about this city.  It bears both a name from Roman government (Caesar) and Jewish royalty (Philip, son of Herod the Great).  In it, stood a temple built for Caesar by Herod the Great.  It is a city that represents not only power, but specifically Rome's seemingly unconquerable power and the collusion of Jewish leadership with it.  In other words, this city is probably representative of just about everything that 12 Jewish men might be hoping a Messiah would deliver them from.  And it is here that Jesus asks "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"

The disciples share with Jesus a quick synopsis of public opinion regarding him.  "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  While we often think of these as the wrong answer as compared to Peter's confession two verses later, they are actually instructive in themselves.  Jesus' ministry looked very much like those of these prophets.  He went around speaking God's word to the people of Israel much like Jeremiah and the prophets, performing powerful signs and miracles like Elijah, and living an unsettled existence somewhat like John the Baptist.  Jesus often compares his own ministry to the prophets in that he will be rejected as they were.  So its not that these answers are so much wrong as incomplete.  Jesus is certainly "a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people" but he is also more than that.

Jesus now turns the question to the disciples themselves.  "But who do you say that I am?"  Peter, probably eager to distinguish himself, answers "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."  Now what was incomplete in the crowds understanding of Jesus has been made complete in Peter's confession.  Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son that God has chosen to be Israel's deliverer.  Peter's confession has hit the bull's eye of Christ's identity; so much so that Jesus says this was revealed to Peter by God, not by human deduction.  Indeed, Jesus proclaims that Peter (whose name means "rock") is the rock on which Christ will build his Church, a Church so powerful that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  (If you are a fan of Lord of the Rings, just picture Aragorn and his army standing before the gates of Mordor.)  This Church, of which Peter is the foundation, apparently even has the ability to impact heaven through its earthly ministry (whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven...).

But for all that Peter gets right (and Matthew's certainly wants us to see that his confession really is significant), there is still much he does not understand.  The very next thing that Jesus does after affirming Peter's confession of him as the Christ is to begin to talk about his suffering and death.  Understandably, Peter takes Jesus aside to remind him that he can't talk like this.  After all, it was just settled that Jesus was the Messiah which means he is a conquering hero, not someone who will suffer and die.  But Jesus knows he is going to be an entirely different kind of Messiah, one who will look much more like Jeremiah than David.  So he tells his disciples not only that he will die but that if they truly want to follow him they must deny themselves and take up their own cross as well.

Monuments to power fill our own world.  Often these powers are so overwhelming that we feel our only hope is either collusion or open conflict.  In the midst of these monuments of power, Jesus question to us is whether or not we know him.  Of course, we think that we do.  While our culture may label him as merely a prophet like others, we know that he is more, that is the Christ the Son of the living God.  But then the real challenge when Jesus wants to show us what he means by that word "Christ" and what he means when he call us "disciples".   This Messiah and his followers will not be defined but yet another monument of power but by one of a weakness.  To truly confess Jesus, to truly know who Jesus is, is take up our own cross, our own denial and follow him in a life of sacrifice and service.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Pattern of Promise

Throughout the book of Genesis, God's promises, which is to say God's plan of redemption for our world, have been continually at risk.  God's promise first came to Abraham in Genesis 12 as a promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation and that God would make his name great and make him a blessing.  In the simple reality of Abraham's aging, this promise comes to be at risk for Abraham grows old without having an heir.  It's difficult to become the father of a great nation if you aren't even the father of one child.  But out of the deadness of Sarah's womb and Abraham's old age, God brings forth life, a son, and therefore new possibility for his promise.

The promise is set at risk again as God calls upon Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, this very same son who was so graciously and miraculously given.  There is no hint in this story that it has a forgone conclusion.  It is only after Abraham shows he is willing to sacrifice Isaac that God says "now I know that you fear God".  What if Abraham fails to trust God?  Will that nullify the promise of God?  What if Abraham does trust and actually kills his son?  How will God fulfill his promise with Isaac dead?  But out of this conflict between God's command and God's promise arises a new future in which God's promise can continue.

Abraham's son Isaac marries Rebekah and they have two children, Esau and Jacob.  Perhaps we begin to think now that the promise is well on its way; the family lineage from Abraham is continuing and gaining strength.  However, the relationship between Esau and Jacob is characterized by struggle and conflict even within their mother's womb.  We come to know Jacob as a deceiver and con-artist whose only real goal is self-preservation and advancement.  As such, Jacob poses a new kind of challenge to the promise of God.  Can God really fulfill his promises to Abraham and Isaac through a person like Jacob?  If the fulfillment of God's promise earlier depended so much on Abraham's obedience, will not Jacob's complete lack of moral character and total inattention to God force God to find someone else to work with, thereby abandoning his promise to Abraham?  Apparently not.  God makes the same promises to Jacob that he made to Abraham and Isaac and God keeps those promises despite Jacob's character (or lack thereof).

Twelve sons are born to Jacob, who is now renamed Israel, and so the picture of Israel as the mighty nation promised to Abraham begins to come into view.  These twelve sons are the patriarchs of Israel.  But rather than the promises of God being established firmly in these twelve, the promise now faces what might be its greatest risk yet.  For this is a family torn apart, even driven close to murder, by favoritism and jealousy.  Joseph is Jacob's favorite son and he makes no attempts to hide this favoritism but actually flaunts it by giving him a special robe that was more than just a piece of clothing; it was a designation of this son's status.  Add to this the fact that Joseph was the second youngest of the twelve sons (and for some time the youngest since it seems Benjamin was not born until much later) and Joseph's propensity for grandiose dreams in which he played a role superior to his brothers, it becomes easy to see how Joseph's brothers "hated him and could not speak peacefully to him."  As a result, Joseph's brothers begin to plot his death, only swerving from that plan because they decide it would be better to profit from their brother than to simply kill him and so they sell him into slavery.  Again, the promise of God is in serious trouble.  God had spoken to Joseph in dreams just as he had spoken to his father Jacob in dreams but now instead of those grandiose dreams being fulfilled, Joseph had become a slave.  Moreover, how was God to raise up a great and holy nation out of a family like this one; a family willing to sell their own brother into slavery?

And yet, in the attempt of Joseph's brothers to kill his God-given dreams, they have actually put the fulfillment of those dreams in motion.  Joseph's being sold into slavery is what will bring him into Egypt which, through a series of events involving more dreams, is what will ultimately allow him to become known to Pharaoh and thereby become the powerful man he dreamed he would be.  By Genesis 45, the story has come full circle.  The same brothers who sold Joseph into slavery now come to him in a position of humility, needing the grain which only he can supply.  Joseph aptly sums up his story in Genesis 50:20 by saying to his brothers "you meant evil against me but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive".  One again, the promise of God has not failed.

Even with Joseph in charge, the promise of God does not rest safe and secure.  For Joseph will eventually die and the eighth verse of Exodus tells us that "there arose a new king over Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph."  This will lead to the entirety of Joseph's descendants being enslaved, again causing us to wonder if this where the promise of God will come to an end.  But like the story of Joseph himself, the enslavement of his descendants is only setting the stage for God to bring life where their seems only death, for God to create a new future for the people of his promise.  God delivers the people from their slavery in Egypt and thereby makes them the nation he had long ago promised to Abraham.  The story of God's promise is the story of God making a future that seems impossible in the present.  That is, in fact, why it is promise at all.  It is not merely an accumulation of human events.  It is God's speech made real in our world.

Thus the Joseph story is especially adept at highlighting a theme that has run through Genesis and continues on through the rest of scripture: that God's promises will be kept, God's will will be done.  Which is NOT the same thing as saying that God's will is always done in every circumstance or that everything that happens is the will of God.  All kinds of things happen in our world that are not willed by God.  God does not will slavery, rape, famine, and genocide.  No, what the story of Joseph and many of the stories in Genesis teach us is not that God willed everything that happened but that God will accomplish what he desires one way or another in spite of all that happens against his will.  There is nothing in scripture that indicates that God willed Jacob to be the kind of man he was or that God willed the jealousy and hatred that existed among Joseph's brothers but God was able to work through it to bring his promises to fruition in spite of those things.      This is not determinism but, in fact, its opposite: hope, a hope that God can bring wholeness even out of our brokenness and faithlessness.  It is a hope that where our past and present seem impossible the word of God can speak a new future into existence in which God's promise can prevail.