Monday, November 28, 2011

The Hope of a World Set Right

Psalm 85 bears a lot of resemblance to the Psalm (80) from which I preached last week.  Both are Psalms in which the Psalmist cries out to God for deliverance.  Both ask how long it will be before God restores the people of Israel whom he has punished for their sin.  Psalm 85, however, adds an element that Psalm 80 lacks.  Whereas Psalm 80 ends by repeating its cry for deliverance, Psalm 85 ends by describing the characteristics of the deliverance for which Israel hopes.  In order to describe this deliverance and restoration, the Psalmist makes us of some of the richest and most deeply meaningful words in all of Israel's theological vocabulary.

Hesed:  Often translated mercy, steadfast love, faithfulness, loyalty, loving-kindness.  This word reflects a profound sense of faithfulness, often even a faithfulness beyond what might be expected under normal circumstances.  There is a sense that someone who exhibits hesed is one who has willingly bound themselves to the fate of another.  As a result, it is most often used to refer to God's continuing faithfulness to Israel, a faithfulness that continues even in the midst of Israel's unfaithfulness (thus the connotations of mercy and kindness).  It is sometimes used to describe human faithfulness lived in accordance with God's faithfulness.

Emet:  Often translated faith, faithfulness, truth.  This word carries a connotation of firmness or standing fast in the face of adversity.  Since it can also be translated faithfulness, it obviously has some overlap in meaning with hesed.  However, emet is more often used describe human faith/faithfulness in response to God's faithfulness which is usually described as hesed.  Emet is probably the closest Hebrew equivalent to the Greek word pistis which is translated as faith/faithfulness in the New Testament.

Tsedek:  Usually translated as righteousness.  In its most basic sense, this word carries the meaning of moral uprightness.  However, its use throughout the Old Testament demonstrates that it does not refer to some universally recognized moral code.  Instead, it more specifically refers to uprightness in regard to God's covenant with Israel.  The perfect example of this is the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38.  In that story Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute in order to get her father-in-law Judah to sleep with her, obviously an act we would consider morally reprehensible.  However, she does this because her two previous husbands (both sons of Judah) had died before she had any children.  According to the laws of Israel, the third son was supposed to raise up offspring for his dead brothers with Tamar.  However, seeing that his first sons did not fare well with Tamar, Judah holds back his third son from Tamar, fearing that he may die as well.  Judah thereby violates the law of Israel.  Tamar, in contrast, goes to great lengths to fulfill the law, posing as a prostitute so that she will still become pregnant by a relative of her dead husbands.  While we may find this story odd, it illustrates the meaning of righteousness as loyalty to God's covenant law at any cost because by the end of the story when Judah realizes what has happened he concludes "She (Tamar) is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Selah."  Since much of Israel's law had to do with one's covenant obligations to the poor and oppressed, tsedek also took on a strong connotation of justice (mishpat in Hebrew) without being reduced to a mere synonym.  This can be seen even more clearly in the New Testament where the Greek word usually translated as righteousness (dikaiosune) shares a root with the word for justice (dikaios).  In its deepest and most profound sense, this word speaks to God's ability to accomplish his purposes in the midst of our broken world; God's setting right a world gone wrong.

Shalom:  Usually translated as peace.  This peace can mean safety or absence of strife but it often describes more than just an absence of danger or war.  Shalom speaks to completeness, wholeness, harmony, fulfillment, and even health.  To be at shalom is to be in right relationship with God, neighbor, and one's self.  That is why Shalom  is so often paired with Tsedek in Scripture.  To live in accoradance with God's covenant law (tsedek) is to be in right relationship with God and others.  Conversely, an absence of open conflict in which injustice is perpetuated is not shalom but simply another attempt at human manipulation and control. True righteousness is the only way to true peace.

In the final verses of Psalm 85, this abundantly rich vocabulary is meshed together.  Hesed and emet meet.  Tsedek and shalom kiss each other.  Emet springs up from the ground while tsedek bends down from heaven.  The Lord gives what is good and the land produces its fruit.  Its as if we are to picture God's righteousness raining down from heaven causing human faithfulness to spring up like a great harvest in response to that rain.  This is how the Psalmist describes Israel's hope, the hope of what God can do in our world.  It is found at the crossroads of justice and peace, at the intersection of God's faithfulness and faithful human response to God's righteousness.  It is the hope that God's overwhelming mercy can set us right and set right our world as well.  

Monday, November 21, 2011

Of Fast Food and Advent

"Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved."  Psalm 80:3
 This is the resounding cry of Psalm 80.  It is a cry of deliverance repeated again in v. 7 and 19.  In between those verses the Psalmist recalls God's faithfulness to Israel.  God took his vine, Israel, out of Egypt, cleared ground for it, planted it, provided for it in every way and this vine grew and filled the land.  But now, the Psalmist says, God has broken down the wall that protected his vine and any passer-by or wild boar can pluck away or trample its fruit.  So the Psalmist cries out to God to restore Israel, wondering how long it will be until God hears this cry.

It seems likely that this cry of deliverance is in regard to the attack of the Assyrian army on Samaria in 721 B.C.  (since only Northern tribes are mentioned in v.2 and the Greek version of this Psalm even includes "on account of the Assyrians" in the title).  If that is the case then the answer to the Psalmist's question of "How long?" is a really long time, longer than the Psalmists own life.  That's because the people of Israel were not delivered from the Assyrian onslaught.  Instead, they were taken into exile and did not return home until 538 B.C.  Although it's impossible to say for sure when this Psalm was written in relation to Israel's exile, I think its fair to say that the "How long?" of this Psalm was being asked and prayed by the people of Israel for all of those nearly 200 years.

There is a sense in which this cry for deliverance must also be the Church's cry, especially in this season of Advent.  This is to be a season of waiting and hopeful expectation for us; a season in which we remember Israel's long, painfully long wait for deliverance as expressed in this Psalm.  And yet, how can this be our cry?  In a culture of I-want-what-I want-and-I-want-it-now, where I can have a hamburger in minutes or any book or movie in the world displayed on the screen in front of us in seconds and when it doesn't work that way we wonder what's gone wrong, how can we learn to wait on God?  Shouldn't God's answers be at least as fast Google's?

I'll be the first to admit that I enjoy these advances in technology as much as anyone.  But that is precisely why the need for the Church to take up this cry is all the more pressing.  The idea of having the world at our fingertips is so seductive that its not long before we begin to act as if anything worth having should be immediately available to said fingertips and if its not then its not worth the time it takes to find it.  The truth is that the Church is already a part of this culture of instant gratification.  We already expect God to conform to these standards and when he doesn't we usually just give up looking and satisfy ourselves with whatever else is more immediately available and easily manipulated to our own needs.

So the Church must take up this cry for God to deliver us precisely because we ourselves are so immersed in this sea of instantaneousness that only God can pluck us out, we can not save ourselves.  We must recognize the long term costs of our fast food spirituality and seek sustenance around the Lord's table.  We must pray "Restore us, O God, to be your people of patience and trust; let your face shine that we may be saved from our own ingenuity in meeting our own needs."  And then we must wait ...and pray...and wait.... and perhaps in waiting for God's deliverance we will find that God is delivering us in our waiting.

Monday, November 14, 2011

King of the Least

Matthew 25:31-46 fascinates me for a couple of reasons.  One of those reasons is that in this scene of final judgment where Jesus describes himself separating the sheep from the goats, that is, those who will inherit his kingdom from those who will not, there is no mention of faith in Christ.  So often when we talk about final judgment, heaven and hell, etc., the first criteria that is mentioned is believing in Jesus as the Christ, trusting in Christ for our salvation.  But in this passage, faith, trust, and belief (which are all really the same word in Greek, pistis) are never mentioned.  Instead, the separating is done based on how the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned were treated.  No other criteria is brought to bear in this judgment.  In this passage, it is solely a matter of how those being judged treated "the least of these".

I'm not suggesting that salvation is really earned by our works after all or that we should throw the language of faith, trust, and belief out of our theological vocabulary simply because it is not used in this passage.  But I do think it is more than noteworthy that Jesus is able to talk about the final judgment without using those terms; something most evangelical Christians seem incapable of doing.  I am suggesting that a passage like this one should cause us to pause and reconsider what we mean when use words like faith, belief, and trust.

Even though the word faith (pistis) is not used in this passage, I think Jesus' (and Matthew's) audience still would have recognized pistis in the examples of compassion that Jesus mentions.  That's because pistis not only means faith but also faithfulness.  One is the other.  There was no need for two separate words because they are not two separate things.  Faith is faithfulness.  To really believe something is to live like it.  To place our trust in Jesus is to live like Jesus lived and if we are not living like Jesus then we do not really have faith in him, regardless of what we think about the inner life of our minds and hearts.  To think, as we often seem to in the Church, that "believing" (by which we usually mean something having to do only with thoughts and attitudes) is the critical element to being Christian while serving the least of these is just an optional add on for really saintly people is to divide in two something that is really one.  It is to misunderstand what the New Testament writers mean by the word "faith".

The other aspect of this passage that fascinates me is the equation of Christ the King with the least of these.  It is Christ who says "I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger....".  The righteous are surprised by this, saying "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink...?".  And Jesus says "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the lease of these my brothers, you did it to me."  What we do (or don't do) for the least of these is what we do for Christ.  I often feel that if I could get this single idea through my thick head and dull heart, I would live very differently.  If I could only see Christ in each person I encounter, no matter how much they frustrate me or hurt me, regardless of their appearance or need, it would make all the difference in the way I relate to people.  If in every conversation and interaction I could stay grounded in the reality that the person before me is an image of God...

Mother Theresa, who knew something about living this passage, said "When you touch the poor, you touch Christ.  When you are touched by the poor, you are touched by Christ."  Do you really long to know Christ?  Spend time with the hungry, sick, immigrant, and imprisoned and Christ has promised we will find him there.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Thieves, Comfort, and Security

In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul writes about how "the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night".  Here, Paul uses the phrase "day of the Lord" to refer to the return of Christ.  However, it is worth nothing that this is not a phrase Paul simply made up.  It is one used regularly in the Old Testament (see Isaiah 13:6, Ezekiel 13:5, Joel 1:15, 2:1, 2:31, 4:14, Amos 5:18, Zephaniah 1:14, Obadiah 15, Malachi 3:1-2) to speak of a day of judgement and God's justice being fulfilled.  The coming of the Lord is often pronounced as a fearful message for those who have opposed God but it is a hopeful one for those who have heeded his commands.  This is the case because the day of the Lord means the establishment of God's reign and righteousness which in turn means the defense of the needy and the casting out of the oppressor.  Paul believes that all the promises/curses associated with the day of the Lord will be fulfilled by Jesus when establishes God's kingdom in its fullness.

I mentioned briefly last week that Paul's description of the day of the Lord being like a thief in the night does not mean that it will be secret, it will not come and go stealthily unnoticed.  Paul's words in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, as well as the descriptions of this day by the prophets, make it very clear that it will be an obvious and publicly observable event.  Instead, this metaphor speaks to its suddenness and unexpectedness and its demand for constant watchfulness.  One never knows when a thief might try to break in.  Additionally, while we might take reasonable precautions to keep thieves out (locks, gates, alarm systems, etc) any of those precautions might be defeated by a thief that is determined enough.  There is no advance preparation that can be guaranteed to keep out the thief and provide complete safety and invulnerability.  The only fail safe is to keep constant vigil.  Paul says the day of the Lord is like this; there is no time for sleeping or drunkenness, no time in which we can rest on the merits of what we have already done.  The Christian life demands continual watchfulness; a constant seeking after God.

Paul continues to strike at this illusion of security in 5:3 when he says "While people are saying "There is peace and security then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman...".  Commentators on this verse will point out that other historical documents of the period suggest that "peace and security" was sort of a slogan of the Roman Empire.  It was Caesar and his empire who had provided peace and security for the world.  Paul, then, seems to be undercutting not only the Thessalonians individual attempts to provide peace and security for themselves but also their attempt to do so by finding their identity with the Roman narrative.  Paul is challenging them to trust in a crucified messiah rather than placing their trust in a vast empire that had spanned the known world and promised to provide everything for everyone.

Such a challenge is ripe with implications for the Church in America.  The world has never seen a group of Christians as comfortable as we are, who have enjoyed as much peace and security as we have.  The problem with being comfortable is that it makes it very easy to fall asleep, very difficult to remain watchful.  What is worse is that most of us have bought into the narrative that it is our nation that has provided these things for us.  Paul calls us to a different narrative; a story where we find our peace and security in God alone, even when that peace and security may not provide comfort, and to keep watch, constantly being vigilant for the Spirit's leading.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

New Podcast

I wanted to make sure that my many, many faithful listeners know (all 3 of you) that my sermon podcasts have moved. is ceasing operation Dec. 1 so I've moved my podcast over to podomatic.  The new address is  The good news is I think this podcast site works better with iTunes than my old one did.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Resurrection Rather Than Rapture

The content of Paul's writing in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 suggests that one of the primary reasons for Paul's letter to the church at Thessalonica was because of their concern for those in their congregation who had died.  Repeatedly in these verses, Paul speaks of "those who have fallen asleep".  It seems there was a concern among the Thessalonians that those Christians who died before Christ's return might have missed out on the salvation they had been promised.  This leads Paul to reassure the Thessalonians that those who die in Christ will be raised from the dead just as Christ was raised.  Paul describes the coming of the Lord this way:
"For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord."  
These verses have often been used to support an idea known as "the rapture".  The rapture refers to the idea that before Christ's return to earth every Christian in the world will suddenly be taken up into heaven.  It has been popularized in my lifetime by the Left Behind book and movie series in which a pile of clothes is the only thing left of Christians who have been raptured by God to heaven to be with the Lord.  This is usually thought to happen secretively; without any warning, every Christian will simply vanish.  There are a number of reasons I don't think rapture is a biblical or theologically sound idea but for now I'll limit myself only to why I don't think this passage from Thessalonians is speaking about rapture.

One thing is very clear in this passage; there is nothing secretive about Christ's return in itself.   Those who think of the rapture as a secretive event where everyone will wake up the next morning and notice that all the Christians are gone are often thinking of Paul's language in the next chapter of Thessalonians where Paul compares Christ's return to the coming of a "thief in the night".  However, the purpose of that metaphor is not to say that Christ's coming will be quiet and unknown but that the timing of his coming is unknown.  No one knows when he will come just like no one knows when a thief might break into their house.  However, Paul's language in chapter 4 makes it clear that when Christ comes it will be an event that can not be missed: a cry of command, the voice of an archangel, the sound of God's trumpet, the raising of the dead.  Those all seem to indicate a very public event that can not be ignored. This holds true even if these images are a metaphor like the "thief in the night" imagery since the point of the metaphor is that something easily observable and unmistakable is taking place.  In fact, if we take 2 Thessalonians into consideration along with this passage, it seems very clearly that much of the intent of Paul's language here is to reassure the Thessalonian Christians that the Lord's coming is something that will be obvious and that they can't miss.  While Paul may not be able to describe the return of the Lord exactly or say when it will be, he assures the Thessalonians that they will know when they see it.

But what of Paul's language in the next verse where he speaks of being "caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air"?  Doesn't that sound like Paul is talking about rapture?  It probably does if we already have the idea of rapture in mind when we come to this verse.  However, it seems unlikely that Paul's audience would have understood him that way for at least two very significant reasons.  First, the idea of rapture is a young one in the history of the Church.  It was first widely published by a man named John Nelson Darby in the mid-1800's.  If rapture is the obvious way of understanding this passage then its difficult to see why the all the Christians who lived in the 1800 years of Christianity prior to Darby didn't understand Paul this way.

Even more significant is that the words translated as "to meet" (eis apantesin in Greek) in the phrase "to meet the Lord in the air" are not just generic for any meeting of any kind.  It is a technical phrase that was used in Greco-Roman culture for the meeting of a city delegation with a VIP or dignitary who was visiting that city.  In this custom, the delegation of important and influential people from the city would go outside the city gates to meet and welcome the visiting dignitary.  The purpose, of course, was to welcome them into the city, not remain outside of it or go somewhere else.  The very reason for the delegation was to honor this great person as they entered their city.  It seems very likely that as people living in this Greco-Roman culture that the Thessalonians would have heard Paul making an allusion to this specific practice.  In that case, the purpose of the meeting with the Lord in the air is not so that Christians can continue on to heaven but so that they can welcome Jesus to earth where his reign and kingdom will now be established in its fullness.  

What is most important, however, is that we recognize that Paul's theological reflection on Christ's return in these verses is not mere speculation about the future.  Instead, these are words of comfort to those who are grieving in the midst of death.  Paul is not helping the Thessalonians make a timeline chart of the end of days. He is writing to a people who have been confronted with the death of their loved ones and are wondering how that death relates to their new faith in Christ as Lord.  Interestingly, Paul's words of comfort say nothing of heaven or going to a better place.  Instead, Paul's hope for those who have died is that the same power which raised Jesus from the dead will raise them as well so that they can participate in the kingdom of righteousness and peace which Jesus will establish.  The Christian hope is ultimately not that we will escape the evils of this world but that God will purify this world of its evil and make all things new.