Looking at the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 for my writing project. A very Old Testament sort of narrative. Tell a lie, die. The Holy Spirit doesn’t mess around. We always hear people saying they want more of the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure they’ve factored in all the Biblical stories…
Category Archives: Scripture
A little taste of what I’m writing these days:
The cross is a definitive call to reject the patterns of identity formation offered by the various systems in an environment. This is rightly understood as a way of death, rejecting the systems entails a rejection by the systems who seek to preserve and replicate their fundamental place in a society. The resurrection is the promise that rejecting such patterns will result in an even fuller life. Liberation of the oppressor comes through the way of the cross but promises a new story in light of the resurrection. Which brings us back to Moltmann’s admonition not to dwell on what people lose but what people gain. We let go patterns and systems of death and dissolution because we do not need their promises of identity or security. We are freed from such anonymizing demands. Radical trust in God leads to radical realignment with the systems, embedded in them with a cohesive narrative of the Spirit’s transformative power.
I’m about 25 pages into a look at various Scripture passages to see how they develop a theme of liberation of the oppressor. I’m arguing there’s a cohesive narrative and theme throughout Scripture on this, one that primarily is about letting go other forms of definition and finding our idenity in God, which brings freedom because by being free in God we become truly free to be who we are made to be in community with others who are free to who God has made them to be. I hear a lot of critiques about theology texts, that they don’t engage Scripture. I find engaging Scripture to be a key element to what I’m trying to do.
After growing up reading the Bible, it’s always a great pleasure to come across some tidbit or insight that I never noticed before that fundamentally changes how I read a passage. For a book project, among a number of other passages, I’m going over the story of the rich young man as found in Matthew 19.
We’re familiar with the story. The guy has done everything right, above and beyond, faithful in his zeal and disciplined in his actions. He asks Jesus what it will take to find eternal life. Fulfill the commandments, Jesus says. I’ve done that, he responds. There’s only one more thing, Jesus adds, sell everything and give it to the poor.
Now, in reading this and hearing about it my whole life, the story is that the guy couldn’t do it, left Jesus behind. He loved his riches more than anything else. Harder for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom, Jesus says.
Only the thing is, the Bible never says the guy didn’t do it, that he didn’t sell everything. It only says he walked away sad about it.
Which means, really, the story is open-ended. Maybe he goes off to revel more in his wealth and miss eternal life. Maybe he sells everything and finds his way deeper in God. Either way there is loss and there is gain. Either way there’s something to be sad about. Which does he do?
We aren’t told. We’re just told that it’s impossible without God. Why do it otherwise? Why give up what we think we need? Why let go our sense of identity and value? Only if there is something better, a way of life now that leads to a fullness of life in eternity. Not a pie in sky for later but a sharing of the pie we’ve been given in the present.
Scripture tells us the guy walked away sad, not what he did about his wealth. We read into it, adding our own conclusion and making it part of Scripture.
I think we do that a lot.
Spoke on the atonement this morning. Flew up to Nampa, Idaho to join in with the Wesleyan Theological Society. Good time. Good people.
I’ve never really been all that interested in doctrines of the atonement. I was raised in a Christian family and so never had a dramatic conversion. And the other popular interest in atonement theories almost always are about drawing divisions in Christianity, using the cross as a bludgeon to attack people who don’t measure up to a perceived, generally parochial, orthodoxy. The conference theme was on atonement so I started thinking about it last Summer, and once that started, I got very interested in where my studies were taking me. So, over the last 2.5 weeks I wrote a 25 page paper as a beginning exploration of what I think is a somewhat novel approach. Well, novel in theology, it’s entirely throughout Scripture. That’s my argument and evidence at least. Got it down to 10.5 pages to present this morning. Seemed to go well.
Anyhow, here’s my intro:
Over the last half-century, there has been a shift in how we think about God’s eternal nature and work in this world. This relational turn in theology emphasizes a social model of the Trinity and with this a sociality of God’s kingdom rather than a political or hierarchical model. This is not, to be sure, a new conception.
The terminology of perichoresis—God’s eternal dance—has, for instance, been a key model especially in the Christian East for many centuries, dating back to the early church. In what follows, I will propose a model of the atonement that derives from this emphasis on God’s relationality. This is a preliminary exploration for what is a much larger project certainly in need of further refining and development. For the moment, I will propose themes and lay the groundwork for this approach that can be honed in future works.
A theology of the atonement involves two extremely important underlying questions. The first asks what is sin? Is it a violation of God’s honor as Lord? Is it corruption that leads to death? The tendency to establish a scapegoat? The devil’s capture of us in enslavement?
These questions point to the second key question. What is God’s primary pattern of interaction with this world? In the late twentieth century there was a shift of understanding of the human condition away from a strict legal construction and towards understanding sin as more of a disoriented identity that results in relational violations.
Such a view on the human situation is key in the theology of many contemporary theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann. They both assert that attempts to establish our identity in a person, cause, activity, or goal other than God results in dis-integration—with God and with others—as nothing other than God can sustain identities into eternity. Such dis-integration requires re-integration.
However, models of the atonement have not derived, for the most part, from the starting point that Pannenberg and Moltmann, and others, suggest. This gap highlights the need for a new model, one that better incorporates contemporary understanding of the Trinity and anthropology.
This may also become a model that can include other models within its scope as it suggests the underlying priority, expressed through different themes, of God’s work throughout the Biblical narrative.
My initial conception is this: The relational trust between God and humanity that allowed for relational intimacy was broken through sin. God’s initiating movements then created contexts of obedience or disobedience as particular people chose where they would put their trust.
The expressions of obedience were insufficient both as a sustaining and as a fulfilling expression. The judgment of God expresses a relational displeasure, a response to betrayal and falsehood in attempts to instantiate ourselves through alternative means.
The cross becomes the ultimate expression of obedience and thus trust, denying false forms of identity and embracing the fullness of God’s promise. This act of obedience becomes the avenue of trust for humanity and the avenue of trust for God, who trusts those who trust the Son.
Such trust is first an ontological restoration as it orients a person within God’s field of force, his perichoretic substantiation that we call justification. This then re-initiates those who trust in the cross into a new transformative path of obedience, a new birth that re-constitutes the human identity and leads it to a path of identity reformation, which we call sanctification.
I’m not posting the whole thing because I’m considering what I want to do with it. It’s at least a book project, maybe my summer project now, but I may work on submitting the initial version as an article.
We are very “just the facts” sort of people, we want facts, and figures, and statements that give us intellectual content. That’s how we have been taught to approach religion. We have worship, sure, that part that is supposed to get to our heart. But then we get to the head stuff.
The head stuff is separated from the heart stuff. We’re not supposed to think about worship and we are supposed to think about the content of Scripture. How can we bullet point each passage? How can we make it clear the right things to believe and the wrong things to believe.
Revelation isn’t like that. It’s not about what to believe, sorting it out like a puzzle. It’s meant to provoke an emotional response that affects our commitments and actions. Are we with God or are we against God?
Do you know Modern Art? It’s infuriating because it’s not about anything, not portraying anything, but that was the point. It wasn’t about making a copy of something in the real world, it was intended to bypass that intellectual part of ourselves, to hit our emotions.
That’s what movies do? Right? If you boil a movie down to its essence, just the bare plot, you often are left with a much weaker impression.
Or, if you spend so much time on details, you likewise can lose the point, trying to figure out the symbolism of everything. Then arguments develop as people disagree, and people who aren’t interested in such detailed examination move on.
That’s why most of us don’t like movie critics. There’s symbolism in movies and it helps to know some details, but if we get caught up in the details we lose the sense of the emotion.
CS Lewis once noted a similar thing about love. What is love? Well, it’s a complex chemical interaction in our brain that evokes a sensory response when around particular people or things. We can get into the scientific or philosophical nature of love. Go on for hours. But who would stay for that? No, love is an experience that in the experience defies analysis.
I suggest that’s how we should approach Revelation. There weren’t movies or television shows in these centuries. What they were was story tellers and they were masters of the craft. We have letters and we have histories, which are useful, but the goal of apocalyptic literature was something different, it was using the context of the time to evoke an emotional response, and in that response get us to go beyond mere intellectual analysis, which often leaves us agreeing but not really changing.
Revelation is intended to lead us towards transformation, to take hold of our mind, but also our heart and soul, to get a holistic response from us that actually leads us to become more in tune with what God is doing and what God will do. It’s like what we see with Nathan and King David: 2 Samuel 12:1-6
We’re meant to get the message but get the message with an emotional response that is driven by the imagery and allusions, the references to other parts of Scripture and contextual connections the readers would know.
So, our goal should be to get to know the allusions and the context, but not get so caught up in the details we lose the message. We should be emotional about this, God is trying to stir up some kind of passion, a passion that would lead the audience to turn from their ways and turn towards God.
READ PASSAGE: Revelation 2:18-29
“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze:
The core issue in Revelation, like with Genesis, is who is in charge? Now in Genesis we had images of Creation, as nature was the way people saw who was in charge.>
Here, the nations and empires had created cults, the gods were expressed through statues, the guilds in this city were themselves centers of both craft and idolatry. Caesar was often worshiped in other cities, but here we have Apollo, who was often represented on coins and statues. Thyatira was known for its metal working artisans who were initially supported for their ability to make weapons and armor, then broadened their appeal.
Christ is depicted as being in charge, and using the imagery that put Christ in the place of Apollo, that reflected elements of metal working—furnaces and products, images those in the city would see this in both an emotional and contextual way. Jesus, the real God, is in charge of all the materials, he is the one who has the ability to judge and condemn.
“I know your works—your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first.
They’re on the right track. They seem to have the right priorities for the most part. Love, faith, patient endurance (which suggests hope). Faith, hope and love. 1 COR 13:13. These are the things that matter, the things that will last forever. And they’re putting it into practice with service. They’re getting a lot right. And they’re getting better.
But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.
I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication.
1 Kings 16:29-31
Jezebel was famous for leading astray because of religious syncretism. Religious justification for the wrong direction and wrong identity. Who is in charge? Who decides what is right and what is wrong? Syncretism mixes the messages, saying God is in charge of some things, other gods are in charge of other things, and we’re able to decide who is in charge and what we get to do.
That’s the core issue in Genesis too. Remember the temptation, the serpent told Eve that God was trying to keep something from them, that if she ate the fruit, Adam and Eve would have complete knowledge, complete insight, they could do what they wanted, they didn’t need a relationship with God, and in fact God was keeping them from their fullness.
That continues to be a religious argument. It’s not justifying based on giving into our worst selves, its appealing to our pride, to our sense of supposed religious maturity.
We think we can get away with more because we’re better. And we end up following people who lead us astray, who mimic spiritual maturity but in fact are false prophets.
But what about eating food sacrificed to idols?
1 Corinthians 10:14-23
Not all things are permissible
In Thyatira, we learn about religious justification for going astray. A prophetess was teaching the people that, apparently, God didn’t mind their behaviors.
Missing the mark can involve going too short or too far.
Too much devotion can lead us astray. If we’re devoted to wrong gods, wrong prophets, wrong ministers. We can put our stock in someone’s seeming spiritual or earthly authority and be led far away from who God is calling us to be in every area of our life.
Too little respect for the limits God has set, saying that one part of our life can be left out of this religious stuff.
Putting stock in the wrong person, letting our identity be shaped by prophets instead of by the Spirit.
What’s the sin here in Thyatira? Well, the audience knew, no doubt, who and what John was talking about, but we don’t. Maybe sexual immorality—and there certainly was a lot of that in both the culture and the religions of the day. We also, however, have echoes of Old Testament prophets. When the people of Israel worshiped false gods they weren’t just choosing a different way to worship, they were committing adultery with them, they were having an affair.
That’s the imagery here too. The Christians were being led into behaviors and practices that were adulterous. They were excusing it based on some kind of prophetic ideal.
This means that we can become fornicators with anything that leads us away from finding our identity in Christ. Life matters, every part of life matters, that’s what John is saying here, there’s no getting away from Christ, there’s no compartments in which life and religion are separate.
For some, it means sexual activity, excusing immorality because the culture does it, it’s not a big deal, it’s just the body. For others, there are other ways of fornication, and we continue to hear false prophets leading good Christians astray. Money, food, power, relationships, things that are good in their place but can easily dominate our attention and lead us away from seeing Christ as lord. The trouble with idolatry is it puts up a false lord for us to worship.
Like with our society, work was tied very closely to identity for the Thyatrians. What we do is who we are?
We can find our identity and excuses in work, or relationships, or money, or cars, or education, or music, or so many other things. Which isn’t to say those are bad but they become bad when we make them lords of our life.
But Christ demands that all parts of our lives are put under his lordship.
We’re to find our meaning and identity in and through Christ, and when we do that this lordship is involved in all parts of our life.
Our bodies matter and what we do with them. Our time matters and what we do with it. Our actions matter and what we do with them. What we eat, drink, value. These things matter and we can’t excuse our actions saying they don’t affect our faith. They do! Even if we don’t want to admit it, they do.
Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead.
This teaching seems to suggest it was appealing to people’s religious pride. That there were deeper teachings that the “enlightened” people knew and so they justified their behavior from a false sense of spiritual maturity. We see this a lot even today. People indulge their passions for wealth, or sex, or power, or whatever and justify it by saying its part of God’s plan, a result of some faith.
But John argues that this is missing the point and leading people not only into error but real adultery with these things. Adultery. We’re having an affair with wealth, power, sin. And we’re betraying God.
And God is letting it happen for a while, and seeing who betrays him. There is still a chance for repentance, so there’s hope, hope for all of us, but the time is coming in which God is going to assert his power. That Son of God with bronze boots and eyes blazing fire is watching.
And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.
God is in charge. God cares not only about our thoughts, what we believe, but also our actions and motives and everything about us. We make religion into intellectual consent, we can get lost. God makes the lordship of Christ about everything, like in Genesis, so too here. Adam and Eve had an opportunity and they had a temptation. Were they going to find paradise with God, or were they going to give into the deceit and try to indulge what they wanted, thinking they could determine for themselves right and wrong. They ate the fruit. This prophetess in Thyatira was eating the fruit. Others in the church were eating the fruit.
Do we eat the fruit? That is the challenge for us even still.
But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call ‘the deep things of Satan,’ to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden; only hold fast to what you have until I come.
The warning here is pretty clear. The people who have stayed out of this problem, need to keep doing what they are doing. Hold on, keep at it, John is saying. The temptation is to make the issue a crusade or to over-compensate.
Church history is filled with this, someone doing something wrong, so everyone focusing their attention on it, and forgetting to do what they were called to do. Or someone doing something wrong, so everyone reacts by making their own behavior more severe.
The holiness movement had this response, over-compensating in so many cases and losing the emphasis that Wesley put on a holistic participation in this world. The worry, for instance, about how early Liberals were both rejecting the resurrection and emphasizing social works, caused people to reject social works and service thinking that it was some kind of package.
We tend to see movements or leaders as packages, either entirely right in every case or entirely wrong.
So, a prophetess has something good to say, and folks follow her wholesale even into the fornication. Then, people might see this error and dismiss everything, even the good. But that’s wrong too. We need to see through the lens of Christ and Spirit, what is good and bad, fruitful and destructive, not package people as entirely right or wrong.
The issue of “no other burden” comes up in Acts 15:23-29.
To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end,
I will give authority over the nations;
to rule them with an iron rod,
as when clay pots are shattered—
even as I also received authority from my Father.
Clay pots are shattered when they are not made right or they have been polluted. Christ here shows who is in charge of determining this. Christ is in charge, and those who hold onto his identity, his calling, are going to be saved, and not only saved, they are going to be the ones who are given authority to know true right and wrong as well, through God, not apart like Adam and Eve, Ahab and Jezebel, and us today.
To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
The one who conquer the trials and temptations on earth will be given heaven. Phil 3:12-4:1
It matters what we do. We are called to live our whole lives in light of Christ’s lordship, not look for secret knowledge, or excuse our behavior or influences as not mattering.
There are those who will tempt us through our weaknesses, showing what the world offers.
There are others that will use our own religious devotion, leading us astray by making us feel like we’re part of the in-crowd, not limited, and able to use our freedom for sin.
Christ is Lord of all. Every part of our life. He is calling us to live lives of love, faith, hope, expressed in our practices, not giving into being swayed by people who are tempting us away from who we are called to be in Christ. Some of those people tempt us through the world, some tempt us through spiritual sounding words and encouragement.
We are called to be conquerors with Christ, holding on to who he calls us to be in every part of our life, patiently enduring the trials and temptations, not veering to the right or to the left. In the power of the Spirit, we can indeed find this way expressed in our lives. Let us not listen to false spirits, false gods, false prophets, or anyone that tries to steer us away from God. Let us hold firm to the fullness of truth in heart and mind and soul. In this is the way of peace and true victory.
I was invited to preach at the PazNaz Saturday evening service last evening. These were my sermon notes. I write things out first because I think better through writing, but then I use these notes more as cues, not reading it through just giving me a framework along the way.
This past Saturday evening, I preached at the PazNaz Saturday evening service. Here’s the page of notes I wrote up as a guide.
Made Clean – July 29, 2012
“The Best Thing and the Worst Thing” – Acts 15:36-16:5; Galatians 2:11-13
Our Context: Those of us who have been in churches a while have almost certainly been hurt by being a part of churches.
When there’s clear sin happening, it makes sense, right? People are intentionally moving away from God’s work so of course there is evil. There’s a famous heretic Marcion who lived in the second century. He has this famous quote, “I’m going to tear your church and make a rent in it forever.” He wanted division because he thought the church was wrong and he was right, and he intentionally sought ways to destroy the church and lead a new group in a new direction.
When someone clearly has the church’s worst as a goal, we know where to stand.
It’s like Moses and Korah.
What if there are differing opinions, however, on what direction the church is to go, conflicting opinions on ministry or how things are to work, resources? That’s where, I think, the most church issues come into play because with those we expose fissures, cracks of faith and commitment to each other.
We might say we trust each other but when disagreements come, we want to be right and if we’re right the other person must be wrong and if their wrong we need to do something about it.
So many church problems come from people who are sure they are serving God coming into disagreement with others who are sure they are serving God—each person thinks they’re right and each person thus thinks the other people must be opposing not only them, but also God. How many denominations do we have because people split off into different factions because of often very minor issues of mission or doctrine?
My story—working in a church, young adults, spiritual gifts, getting people involved.
Their goal, mission, door to door evangelism. They thought it had to be one or the other.
We alienate people when we generalize our own calling.
This isn’t new. READ PASSAGE
Some background: Galatians 2; Acts 13:13
Paul – Paul’s mission was the churches and the message. He wanted to build churches. He was a missionary and an evangelist who often got in difficult circumstances, so he needed to know who to trust. Life was unsafe, and he needed safe people around him.
Barnabus – Barnabus’s mission was the people. He wanted to raise up new leaders and invest in people. He did this with Paul, remember, using his own reputation to help Paul transition into a trusted role. John story?
John Mark — John Mark wanted to serve Jesus. But he was immature. He had failed and stumbled. Was there grace? He wasn’t trustworthy, that’s true, but he wanted to be. Help my unbelief, Lord.
God’s work –Did I say three characters, I meant 4. We have to have God’s heart.
Personal experience – NewSong—God had put something onto my heart, God had put something on other people’s hearts. How do we know which direction to go?
How do we go forward when others want to go left or right or up or down? That might be forward for them, but not for us. Like the universe, however, God’s work is expanding in all directions.
At the heart of this passage is the reality of the stress and strain of learning how to live as a body—if each of us have been given different gifts and passions and callings—which we have—then we’re going to have different priorities and perspectives and goals. How do we learn how to listen in a way that celebrates this diversity instead of erupting into division?
In this text we have forms of redemption: Barnabas and John Mark go to Cyprus.
Paul takes Silas and later Timothy—two helpers who were much more suitable to minister to Gentiles.
We shouldn’t idealize the early church, because we see the problems there that we still experience. What we should do is trust in God, who works all things together for good because at the end of the day it is his mission, and we’re just part of it. We also need to remember that we’re not the only bearers of God’s mission and our part isn’t everyone’s part.
I like the story of Narnia where Aslan won’t tell other people’s stories—we’re not told everyone’s stories, we’re just told our own and called to join with others not as same people but as diverse people with a shared mission and savior. Rather than causing division, we should celebrate that we have different gifts, different places and ways of influence.
Last evening, I had the opportunity to preach at the Saturday evening service over at PazNaz. This year, the church has been going through the book of Mark and so rather than having a traditional Advent passage, the passage I was given to preach on was Mark 13:14-27.
Do you know this passage? On the surface it appears entirely non-Christmasy. But, I quickly realized that it was absolutely an appropriate, if nontraditional, passage to preach on during this time of year. What follows is my sermon outline notes I used last night. They’re not a script, nor a traditional outline, rather they’re more like thoughts I write out that serve as cues as I move along. If my mind blanks I can look down, but for the most part I just glance at the theme of each paragraph and talk. I’m getting better at it, Amy says.
The service began with Amy leading some songs in worship, and then an advent liturgy. I then talked a little bit about Christmas and the usual thoughts of family, peace, joy, life, hope that come during this season. At that point I read the passage.
14 “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. 16 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 17 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 18 Pray that this will not take place in winter, 19 because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again.
20 “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.
24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
Merry Christmas? Doesn’t exactly fit, does it? But this is a great passage for Christmas. Let me finish the passage:
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
Still doesn’t quite seem a Christmas passage? But it is! Let me explain why. Though just as a bit of warning, means I’m going to be doing a lot of history and a bit of reading. God works in history, after all, and we can’t just take a passage out of its context and think we know what it means. Mark assumes that his readers know the history, because the Jewish people and the early Christians were, if nothing else, people who knew the Scriptures and in the Scriptures they were reminded of the workings of God throughout time. As Christians, we tend to ignore history, thinking that it’s not relevant for our future or our faith. That’s troublesome because that’s one of the remnants of liberal Christianity that found its way into conservative circles.
Back in the day, scholars wanted a faith but didn’t really believe in God’s working, they liked the idea of God but thought all the stories and miracles and such were a bit absurd. Nowadays, we might affirm the stories, but we do so in an ahistorical way. That’s how this passage is often read too. This passage and others have so much intriguing imagery that teachers and preachers like to fill it in with their own thoughts and in doing that provoking panic and fear and isolation, encouraging people to succumb to their worries, to look for things to fret about.
They cause people to be wary of this world, to see it as us against them, a competition over meaning or resources. But that’s where Christmas comes into play. Reading this passage wrongly makes us afraid and wary of this world. But Jesus came into this world, being born in a manger, participating in it. Not with an attitude that everything is okay as it is, because it’s not, but with an attitude of love, offering the hope of salvation, the hope that what is experienced is not in fact the defining reality of this world.
Which reality do we want to participate in? The one that competes and is afraid, constantly worried about signs or disasters? Or the reality that Christ brings, that of true hope, true joy, true peace? That’s the message of this passage. And this passage immerses us in the history of God’s work with his people so that by understanding this work we might have confidence in his work in our lives and his continuing work in the future.
An abomination that causes desolation? What is that? Well, throughout the Bible we have these sorts of phrases and prophecies that, for the readers, served as an allusion of sorts, bringing to mind events of the past and pointing how these events are not just in the past but are models of our lives and the future of this world. We have this image of the abomination that causes desolation? What is this?
Well, it’s like what is sounds like. It’s this world shattering event or moment in which that which defines us, which gives us meaning and direction and identity, somehow utterly defiled. Everything we put stock in, that which we thought was the most important thing, that’s ruined and it leaves us in desolation. Sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes spiritually.
To understand this issue, we have to go back to the beginning, and by beginning I mean the very first story of humanities interaction with God.
Adam and Eve – the abomination of eating the fruit, desolation in being kicked out the garden. How did that work out? God reached into human history to set things right.
We go on from there, and can talk about Joseph in slavery. Tossed into the well. Abomination that caused his desolation. He did everything right… but everything went wrong. With Potiphar’s wife maybe he could have just adapted to his situation, try to make the best of it. He stood close to God, and desolation followed. Then God worked.
Exodus – the abomination of killing the babies, of slavery made harder, of freedom then starvation and thirst. The abomination of the wilderness, the desolation of the journey.
Abomination passage itself is originally found in Daniel
Daniel (1st Temple): Remember Daniel? Daniel 1:1-6.
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.
3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— 4 young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. 5 The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.
6 Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.
Daniel was this guy, in every respect gifted in intelligence and good looks. He had everything going for him. Then everything, every part of his life was stolen, he was taken from his destroyed home, and it is quite likely that he was made into a eunuch. He refused for this desolation to give him identity. He clung to the identity of God, as did his friends, even in the face of persecution and isolation and desolation.
Here’s what he writes about the abomination that causes desolation:
25 “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. 26 After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. 27 He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.
31 “His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation. 32 With flattery he will corrupt those who have violated the covenant, but the people who know their God will firmly resist him.
33 “Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. 34 When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them. 35 Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.
“From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. 12 Blessed is the one who waits for and reaches the end of the 1,335 days.
13 “As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.”
Do you know the story of Hanukkah? [Here I summarized, but if I had more time I would have read a passage in Josephus and one from 1 Maccabees — here’s a link that summarizes those]
So, Hannukkah celebrates this restoration of the Temple and the restoration of the Kingdom.
Romans (2nd Temple): The people forgot their devotion and things went bad, so bad the corrupt descendents of Judas got into their own corruption and problems. I won’t go into the details, but basically this all led to Rome taking over in Israel. And that leads to the situation we encounter at the time of Jesus’s birth. We know Herod, yeah, but we don’t know how vicious and mean he was. He did all sorts of terrible things to keep the peace, to keep the peace of Rome that was imposed upon the people. He wasn’t the only one. Up in Galilee, where a Roman governor was in charge there was the story of Sepphoris. [I summarized Rome, Herod, Sepphoris abominations]
Herod himself creates abominations, he rebuilt a majestic Temple, one of the grandest buildings of the time, sure. But then he killed all the boy babies in Bethlehem. Echoes of Pharaoh and Egypt? Sure! The people were living in a reality where others were imposing on them what it meant to live in this world. There was rebellions and disasters, and massive amounts of violence, so much so that it would take weeks and weeks to talk about all the stories of suffering and sacrifice.
And it wasn’t over when Herod died.
What did the readers of Mark think about? Maybe all the things I shared. More immediately, to them, though, they thought of the Roman siege of Jerusalem. Scholars think that Mark was written not long after Jerusalem was destroyed, and that destruction involved its own desolation and abomination. Let me read a little bit about that from a passage written by Josephus, that the early church historian Eusebius quotes.
That was, no doubt, in the minds of the earliest readers of the book of Mark. They knew abominations, they experienced desolations.
So, what was Jesus talking about here? Remember the passage in its context!
Prior to this, the whole book, he’s talking about the kingdom, what it’s like, what the people are like who live in this kingdom.
Don’t get distracted. Don’t give into competing claims. What was Jesus talking about earlier in the chapter? The importance of love, the sacrifice of the widow in giving what she had. These are messages of what it means to live in God’s Kingdom, a way of life that won’t be defined by other attempts to define rule and law and identity in this world. More than this, however, in this passage Jesus is telling us that life is absolutely not going to go fine just because we claim Jesus as our savior. The people of God experience suffering, and this story of suffering is throughout the Bible.
We’re told to expect this. But we’re also told not to obsess about it. There’s the hope that comes from God, and there’s a false hope that comes from people trying to use suffering or evil or problems in order to take advantage of those who want, who need, to hear a good word. The trouble is that so often they then point to hope that isn’t God, and because we’re so desperate for hope we look to those other people to give us wisdom and guidance, who to be for and who to be against.
When we follow those false prophets and false messiahs, we’re no longer following Jesus.
So even if they sound like they’re talking about Jesus, or using Christian words, if they’re pointing to a sort of Kingdom that is different than what Jesus talks about, they’re not of God. If they’re pushing us to be afraid, or to worry, or to get caught up in this sign or that sign or obsess about all the details of Christ’s return, then, according to this passage, they’re not from God.
The message here is that we should not, can not, define our suffering as the true reality. Jesus is telling us not to get distracted by the competing claims or those things which seem to destroy our whole sense of meaning and purpose.
As bad as it can get, and it can and will get very bad, we are to stick to being the sorts of people that live in accordance with God’s Kingdom, people of love, of hope, of life and light, not people of fear and worry and constantly fretting about this event or that supposed sign. God is in charge. God wins.
So, what does this have to do with Christmas?
Another image of possible devastation. Isaiah – Isaiah 7
1 When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it.
2 Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.
3 Then the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field. 4 Say to him, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. 5 Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, 6 “Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.” 7 Yet this is what the Sovereign LORD says:
“‘It will not take place,
it will not happen,
8 for the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.
Within sixty-five years
Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.
9 The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all.’”
10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”
12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.”
13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.
We make it about competing kingdoms, one winning is the other losing. We’re tempted to pick sides, to make it about competing over the same piece of the pie — the land, the schools, the whatever.
However, God is not competing with the other kingdoms. He defines reality.
They are suggesting one kind of reality, we are participating in another. This is not other worldly, this is true worldly, God the creator re-creates, he does a new thing. A baby is born. Both sides are liberated.
It’s not that we don’t feel it, giving into a religious soaked denial of our circumstances. No, we’re in the midst of the suffering, we feel the desolation at times. We are rightfully enraged by the abomination.
It is in this experience of suffering that we hear a voice crying in the wilderness. A Son is Born. Christ is with us. God is working. We have true hope.
Joy of the Redeemed
1 The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.
8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and those the LORD has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
Here’s the outline/text of the sermon I preached last night on Mark 11:1-11, 15-19. It served more as a guide than as a script, but it’s full enough that I think it’s worth posting here.
The Book of Mark is about what? The Kingdom.
The Kingdom…. But what kind of kingdom? We are told of the Messiah, but what kind of Messiah is this?
The Messiah is the promised bringer of the promised Kingdom.
But so often instead we’re so intent about finding the Messiah that we want, we miss the Messiah that we need. And coming to terms with the Messiah we need is about more than reading the right books, having the right religious statements. It’s even more than about reading our Bible or doing good works. Because the Pharisees did that, did that better than any one of us.
And the disciples did that too, indeed they spent day and night with Jesus, and you know what, up to now, up to our passage, they missed understanding the Messiah they needed because they were so intent on getting the Messiah they wanted, a Messiah who would make them important and put them in places of honor, and help make Israel important again in the world.
They wanted a restoration of the kingdom like David had enacted, and they thought that the Messiah was going to do exactly that. As the earliest followers of Jesus they thought they were in a good place for all the rewards that come with having networked right and early with the key guy.
They had an answer about the kind of Kingdom they wanted and they had an answer about the kind of Messiah who would bring that Kingdom. We have the same answers. We have a kingdom in mind and we have a Messiah in mind. What kind of kingdom? What kind of Messiah?
The whole book is about answering these questions, so we could survey the whole book, but let’s look at the last 2 chapters — 9 and 10 — before we get into our passage.
We have the transfiguration (9:2-13), what does this say about the Kingdom? It’s real and it is cosmic.
We have the demon possessed boy (9:14-29) (note how this ends in v.29, and keep that verse in mind). Jesus frees this boy from the possession, taking away the barriers that have blocked him from experiencing true freedom.
On the other hand, those who make it more difficult for others to get it, to find freedom, are judged. Be ruthless about what is required, right? Get rid of that which gets in the way and get rid of those who get in the way. If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out, right? Give someone water to drink and you’re giving Christ water. If someone gives you water, helping you on your way, they are giving it to Jesus, because as we progress in this real Kingdom, we are progressing right along with the Messiah who makes it possible.
In Mark 9:30-35, Jesus talks about his death and resurrection, but the disciples don’t get it. They miss the point, they miss this whole core message of their Lord, and then spend the rest of the trip talking about who was the greatest.
What does Jesus say in response? He sits them down and says the least are the greatest. What?! He picks up a child, whose name we aren’t given, leaving him nameless to us. This nameless child becomes the model of the mission of the Messiah.
Chapter 9 ends with a more conceptual teaching as the disciples sort out what this kingdom is all about. They want to control the power, but Jesus says whoever is following the Kingdom is part of it, equal to the rest. There’s no power play in the Kingdom, after all. Those who get it, are part of it.
And get rid of anything that gets in the way of getting it, and living it out. If the salt is filled with dirt, it’s worthless. Don’t let it get ruined. Get your way into the Kingdom, and let go of anything that causes barriers to you or others.
But, again, what kind of Kingdom is this? What kind of Messiah is initiating this Kingdom? How do we recognize it? What should we look for?
Chapter Ten carries us forward in answering these key questions. Verses 10:1-12 is about divorce and marriage. The emphasis here is on maintaining the bond of unity, not forsaking the old for someone new, not trying to trade up for some supposed better model. Be faithful, that’s part of the Kingdom, we learn. And be faithful to each other, because in a marriage it’s not about one person carrying the burden while the other gets to do whatever he or she wants. Remember what Jesus said about causing someone to trip? Don’t trip your partner by pushing them down or away.
Verses 13-16 are about children again. The least among them, they’re excluded. Jesus says to include these least, because that is what the kingdom is like. It belongs to the least of these, to children and to people whose humility and inclusion is like children. It belongs to the powerless, the excluded. Yeah, that’s a strange Kingdom. But that’s the Kingdom that Jesus tells us about.
That’s not the Kingdom the rich young ruler wanted or expected. We read about his story in the next verses. Jesus told him what was necessary. This young man didn’t want that Kingdom or this Messiah, so he walked away. He wanted the Kingdom he wanted according to his own definitions. Jesus said, “go and sell what you have.” The young man just went.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. Which is another way of asking “Who do you say that I am?”
With the beginning of chapter 11, Jesus is still asking this question, but more importantly he is also giving us answers. What do you want me to do for you? The people want a triumphant king.
Who do you say that I am? The Messiah, they say, a religious and political leader.
A bit on Triumphant Entries, Caesar, Alexander, Titus
Jesus showed that he is the Messiah, then he shows what kind of Messiah he is, what kind of Kingdom is declaring.
Some details worth noting.
Followers were not random people. These were people who already believed.
Colt – a gesture of his claim to the throne of Israel. Horses tended to be foreign and exotic. The donkey meant he wouldn’t walk, he would ride. Not as a foreign power copying foreign trends, but as a Jewish King with Jewish habits. The colt, some think, ensures that it had not been ridden before, so Jesus isn’t stepping into anyone’s shoes or following anyone’s pattern. He’s a new King, making his way into the city fresh. Want some confirmation of this? Zechariah 9:9
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Clothes being laid before him and on the donkey – 2 kings 9:13
They quickly took their cloaks and spread them under him on the bare steps. Then they blew the trumpet and shouted, “Jehu is king!”
Branches – 2 Maccabees 10:1-8
Judas Maccabeus and his followers, under the leadership of the Lord, recaptured the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. They tore down the altars which foreigners had set up in the marketplace and destroyed the other places of worship that had been built. They purified the Temple and built a new altar. Then, with new fire started by striking flint, they offered sacrifice for the first time in two years, burned incense, lighted the lamps, and set out the sacred loaves.
After they had done all this, they lay face down on the ground and prayed that the Lord would never again let such disasters strike them. They begged him to be merciful when he punished them for future sins and not hand them over any more to barbaric, pagan Gentiles. They rededicated the Temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, the same day of the same month on which the Temple had been desecrated by the Gentiles.6 The happy celebration lasted eight days, like the Festival of Shelters, and the people remembered how only a short time before, they had spent the Festival of Shelters wandering like wild animals in the mountains and living in caves.But now, carrying green palm branches and sticks decorated with ivy, they paraded around, singing grateful praises to him who had brought about the purification of his own Temple.
Hosanna: means “God save us”
Open for me the gates of the righteous;
I will enter and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD
through which the righteous may enter.
21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
you have become my salvation.
22 The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
23 the LORD has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 The LORD has done it this very day;
let us rejoice today and be glad.
25 LORD, save us!
LORD, grant us success!
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.
From the house of the LORD we bless you.
27 The LORD is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.
God save us from what? God save us for what? These are key questions.
This wasn’t an expression of humility by Jesus. This was him saying that he had the answers and authority. Jesus embracing, setting this up, being surrounded by his followers was a significantly bold statement of who he was. Jesus is declaring himself to be King, to be Messiah. Not a Roman King. Not a Greek King. A Jewish King following very clear Jewish prophecies about who he was as King.
Jesus then went to the Temple, because at the end of a triumphant entry one gets a triumphant welcome at the place of triumphant power. But it was late, Jesus looked around at the Temple, and the Temple was not ready for him. The Temple was not ready to embrace the kind of Messiah he was nor the kind of Kingdom he was bringing. The Temple, up to the time of Jesus the most visible symbol of God and his reign on earth was expressing a different kind of authority. And apparently he did not like what he saw. So he left, but he came back the next day.
And when he came back the next day, we learn what this Messiah of this Kingdom, thought of the Kingdom as it was being expressed in the Temple.
15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.
19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.
Jesus has two aspects in his ministry that we see. He confronts established powers and he includes the excluded, liberating the latter from being oppressed and liberating the former from oppressing.
That’s the kind of Messiah he is. This present passage is a case of him confronting the powers, saying that the established power structures in the Temple are getting in the way of the purpose that God intends.
Note that while we may think of this in terms of being against consumerism, buying and selling, it really isn’t that. The buying and sacrificing of animals is in the Law, in the OT. (Lev 5:7; 12:6-8) People were to bring a lamb or sheep, the poor could bring a dove or pigeon. So if Jesus didn’t come to overturn the Law but fulfill it, what’s this about?
The actions of Jesus go deeper than this, and are attacking the power structures that gain and maintain their power through the use and misuse of religious power, choosing who is in and who is out, who succeeds and who fails. It is a prophetic protest against a broader kind of corruption, one that is declaring its own particular kind of Kingdom, and thus declaring a particular kind of salvation, one that enables Temple leaders to be powerful and wealthy. It’s not the Temple salesmen Jesus is after, it is the Temple power structure, and thus the religious aristocracy. He’s undermining the power of the religious leaders by both attacking a core area of their concern and by focusing the Temple on an area they do not control, that of prayer.
Remember the passage from Maccabees, about their cleaning the Temple from impurities and idolatry. Remember that when we think of what Jesus did. He’s saying to the Temple, you’re getting it wrong and I’m going to clean you out.
He quotes Scripture while doing so. Let me read those phrases in their context.
These [the outsiders] I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”
8 The Sovereign LORD declares—
he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
“I will gather still others to them
besides those already gathered.”
And Jeremiah 7:8-11
But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.
Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.
The Kingdom is not about transaction, it is about freedom. But, the starting point of freedom does not begin with us getting what we want and doing whatever we want. The starting point of freedom begins with us being freed, first of all, from ourselves, from our attempts to dominate, to compete, to compartmentalize our spiritual and social lives in a nicely wrapped transaction approach to life.
We too often make transaction the substance of our identity: do this, get that. We want a Messiah that fits into this model. Life makes sense to us when he does.
Jesus pushes back against that. Gouge out the eye, cut off the hand, turn over the tables.
And those of us who are claiming this Messiah as our Messiah and this Kingdom as our Kingdom, sometimes experience Jesus as the Messiah who overturns the tables in our own life. Because the Temple, this Temple [point to self], is now the Temple of the Holy Spirit, in us, and we are not to be part of the transactional, power seeking, dominating Kingdom. This house [point to chest], this house [point around to others and repeat], is to be a house of prayer. Are we seeking power and dominance and influence? Do we operate with the assumption of transaction to get what we want? Or do we humble ourselves and listen and follow the Spirit?
Are we trying to assert a different Messiah of a different kind of Kingdom? Sometimes, like with the temple, we may even look very religious and good.
Or are we people of humility and people of prayer who will let go of anything that binds or confuses or prevents us from seeing Jesus as he reveals himself to be? Throwing out the spirits of the world, those false ways of trying to secure meaning or purpose or identity, like with the demon-possessed boy, are driving out through prayer. That’s why the Temple, [point to self] temple, has to be a house of prayer.
When I was at Wheaton, I got my tables overturned. It’s a much longer story, but basically comes down to the fact that life was really falling apart for me in most every way. I became pretty severely depressed my junior year and found light by discovering some deeper truths in Scripture, church history. I really started readding Wesley, fasting, praying, studying at a good college. I thought I was on my way, thinking I needed to sharpen my spiritual life? But the more I did the more went wrong. Why I asked, and I didn’t get it. Because even though I said I was for Christ and His Kingdom, in my heart, in my deepest self, what I wanted was answers to my frustrations, dating, money, success. I was, basically, trying to make a transaction with God. And I got my tables overturned. I had a crisis of faith for a long time because I thought I was doing everything right but everything kept getting worse and worse. Only now I realize that I had a crisis of faith because my faith wasn’t in the Messiah who was and is, but the Messiah who I thought I wanted.
Jesus overturned my tables so that I could realized the Messiah I needed, and become the person, finally, he created me to be. This didn’t just happen at Wheaton. This happened for most of the ten years after Wheaton. I was a mixed bag, doing and thinking a lot of right ways, but mixing in far too much transactional theology. Not intentionally, but it was there. I thought if I did the right things I would get the right things. But I did so much of what was right, but everything kept going wrong. I realize now that much of this was Jesus overturning my tables. I was mixed, because it wasn’t that I was malicious or deceptive. All along I would have said I want Christ to be all and all in me. But, underlying those statements were some wrong assumptions. I had a crisis of faith because my faith was in the wrong kind of Messiah.
This isn’t to say, not at all, that all our problems are caused by Jesus trying to put us right, of overturning the tables. That’s the brilliance of these various passages put together. Sometimes we are sick and need to be healed, sometimes we are being attacked by evil and need to be freed from that, sometimes we are thirsty and need a glass of water, sometimes we are among the excluded, like the little children, and need to be included. The Kingdom is about real freedom, and freedom for some, for so many, means being encouraged and empowered and renewed for this participation.
But others, and the disciples and the religious leaders and the Temple patterns are a model of this, are arguing who is the greatest, and maneuvering for positions of power or going through transactions to trade their wealth or influence for more power. These are the sorts of people who get their tables overturned. Not because the tables are themselves inherently wrong, but because they are in the way of understanding the truth of the Kingdom for what it is. Those people, so many of us, get our tables overturned precisely because we’re trying to do what we think are the right things, in all the right ways, to get noticed and get involved, but in doing so we’re pursuing—often unconsciously—the wrong Messiah and thus the wrong Kingdom.
Sometimes we are in need of both healing and getting our tables overturned.
We like to think of ourselves as the people along the street waving our branches at the Messiah, but so many of us, and I include myself in this, are also the people in the Temple, selling our wares, trying out our sacrifices.
And to us Jesus says, “Stop. I want you, not your performance. I want you, not your transactions. I want you to pray, to listen, to be transformed. I want you to see, see the Messiah for who he is and see the Kingdom for what it is.”
One way or another we will see the Kingdom for what it is, if we are blind in our eyes, Jesus will heal us.
If we are blind in our understanding, Jesus will teach us. If we are blind in our actions, Jesus will stop us and point us the right direction, the direction of real freedom.
If we are seeking the Kingdom, truly open to the Messiah for who he is, we might be healed from our suffering or we might get our tables overturned.
It’s the same work of the same Messiah for the same purpose, to lead us all, however and wherever we’re coming from, into the presence of the King, to be the kind of people who really get, who really live out, this reality of the Kingdom in ways that help others live it out. We are freed and in this freedom we can help others find freedom in Christ.
Who asks, “What do you want me to do for you? Who do you say that I am? We answer this in our actions, with our whole life. Jesus shows us his answer. Are we ready to let go and serve this kind of Messiah? In this kind of Kingdom?
Who do you say Jesus is? What do you want of him?
Be careful, because Jesus will answer you. Because he is the Messiah.
And he may lift you up or he may turn over your tables.
Either way, keep holding on because Christ and his Kingdom is the way of peace and hope and life.
Last night I had the privilege of teaching on the topic of the spiritual discipline of confession. I’m slowly making my transition from depending on a complete written out manuscript (such an academic thing to do) to speaking more freely. I’m currently somewhere in the middle of this process, so I have a kind of expanded outline that I didn’t read from, but which did help me stay on track, and gave me something to look at when my mind blanked a little bit. In case you’re interested in what I think about confession, here’s that expanded outline, with some parts filled out for this post.
Intro to Confession: The discipline we don’t want to brag about. We honor the people who are great at prayer, we respect those who fast, we want to be people who serve more, or study better. So many of the spiritual disciplines are habits we respect in others and might feel proud about as we do them. Not confession. Someone who confesses a lot sounds a bit suspect, right?
Growing up in the church, confession wasn’t really at all a part of my experiences. Almost just the opposite. People didn’t confess their sins, they hid them. They weren’t open about their weaknesses, they promoted their strengths. Everyone has walls up, staying hidden, showing only their best, most holy-like, self. Which creates, I think, a culture of competitiveness and secrecy, two immensely damaging traits for any community.
When I initially thought about the topic of confession a few images immediately sprang to mind.
Images of Confession:
A. Religious 1: Catholic, confessional and priest, solved by acts of penance
B. Religious 2: Martin Luther, couldn’t confess enough. Penance wasn’t enough. This sort of penance goes to a quality of religious guilt before God. We confess so that we let go of the burden.
C. Legal: Detective Show interrogation
Courtroom drama, Matlock or Perry Mason. Confess guilt to hope for mercy or lesser sentence.
Those didn’t feel all that scriptural, to be honest, so I thought it would be good to think about confession in Scripture. And King David immediately sprang to mind.
D. The confession of David: Psalm 51
David was a great sinner and David was a great confessor of his sins. It’s the second part that is a big part of why God continued to bless him and his family. Saul, after all, wasn’t nearly as big of a sinner, but he would refuse to confess. Remember 1 Samuel 15:17-26?
A bit on Sin and Holiness
When we talk about confession as a discipline, we are by nature talking about sin. What is sin? That’s a much bigger topic but basically it involves going against God’s call in our life. We tend to think of sin in terms of do’s and don’ts, in terms of rules, but sin is much more than that. Sin isn’t as much violating a rule as much as it is resisting God. We are going against who God calls us to be and oftentimes in doing that we are resisting his work or his goodness or trying to make our way in this world without him. The template for sin is that original sin in the Garden. Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God told them not to eat, they did so because they were tempted by the serpent to get wisdom without God, to get this freedom to live as they wanted to live without having to depend on God. But, there’s no life without God. God is the giver and sustainer of life, and so sin, in its essence is us fighting against life itself, causing chaos or frustration or disharmony. No wonder sin is tied to death.
What is holiness? Holiness is walking in a way that’s in tune with God, with his harmony and purposes. It’s not equivalent to following the rules, it is equivalent with us following God however and whenever he leads. That’s why rules are sometimes bad indicators, as they may or may not match up with what God is actually calling us to do. Think about the Pharisees, for instance, who had all sorts of rules and laws, but Jesus saw much of these as a hindrance to real holiness.
And so confession is this way of acknowledging how we’ve left God’s path, in big and small ways, not so that we can fix it ourselves or beat ourselves up over it, but mostly so that we acknowledge that we are indeed off the path, once more, and need God’s grace in helping us get back on it. It’s when we’re off God’s path and don’t know it, or don’t admit it that we get into trouble.
Which makes me think of the story of the pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18:9-14
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Confession is a way of humility for us, leading us away from assuming our attempts at holiness are really sufficient.
Which makes a lot of sense before we know Christ, right? When we are lost in our sins, and need a clear savior, confessing our sins and believing in the salvation that only comes through faith in the Risen Lord is so apparent.
These fits those confessions I mentioned before, for the most part. Jesus paid the penance, something Luther learned so clearly.
Confessing our sins is the beginning of the Christian life. But what about as a continued discipline? If sins are forgiven by Christ, what is the role of continued confession?
E. One more image: Doctor: Medical confession. Tell me your symptoms.
We don’t think of confession as being something that happens when we go to the doctor, but that’s precisely what happens. We tell the doctor everything. We tell the doctor all our symptoms, all the ways our body isn’t quite working right. We’re probably never more open than when we’re in a doctor’s office. Why? So he can say that our symptoms don’t matter anymore, that we can feel good about ourselves because we told him our bodily failings? No, we confess all our symptoms because we want to be healed from them, and confessing everything is how the doctor knows what steps to take next. We confess because we want healing.
Confession of sin as a continued discipline isn’t equivalent to us confessing a crime and getting a reduced penalty, or penance, or getting our guilt taken away. We rightly continue to confess that by believing Jesus our sins are already forgiven.
Confession of sin as a continued discipline is much more like confessing symptoms to a doctor. Sitting in a doctor’s office is by its very nature humbling, not to mention all the poking and prodding and such that might take place.
And it’s certainly not about feeling guilty, even if sometimes we have contributed to particular health problems. We confess our symptoms to our doctors because we need help getting better, and only by confessing our symptoms does the doctor understand what might be wrong and what might be the cure.
Now, this isn’t to say that God waits for us to confess in order to find out we did something wrong. It’s like after Cain killed Abel, God asked Cain to confess, but knew exactly what Cain did. Confession is our way of being open about the symptoms God already knows about. And by being open to our symptoms we become open about addressing them.
And can I say this is one of the areas in which I’m so glad to be in a tradition that believes in, and indeed pursues, sanctification, a reality in which we know that God is calling us to be more, be holy, be more who we were created to be, and indeed empowers us to make steps towards this every day of our life.
And so confession is a discipline which is particularly suited for those of us in the holiness tradition. We confess our symptoms that are our sins, so that we become more aware of where we are still incomplete and in need of further growth.
James 5:16: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
Note the wording at the end, it’s not about forgiveness like we are confessing a crime. It is about finding healing, because we are, at our core, sick and sins are our symptoms. So, there’s no place for posing or trying to put on a show of holiness and moral health, that delays the healing we truly need.
Like Jesus said to the blind man, “Do you want to be healed?”
You know this passage: John 5:1-6
1 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda[a] and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
Do we want to be healed from our sins? Do we really? Or do we want to hold onto them, find our identity in them, letting them define us? Or do we actually want to get well?
If we want to be holy, truly holy, we confess our sins so that we may find healing. Do we want to get well? Getting well means being vulnerable about where and how we are broken.
This is why confession was at the core of Wesley’s own pattern for disciplines in the Methodist Bands. In 1738 or so, he wrote up some rules for the Methodist ‘bands’, something we now would call small groups. At the end he writes,
“Any of the preceding questions may be asked as often as occasion others; the four following at every meeting.
1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting.
2. What temptations have you met with.
3. How were you delivered.
4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not.
He knew that confessing sins was a starting point to being open to others, understanding ourselves, and relating rightly to God.
Sin as symptoms: As we confess our sins, we don’t only look at the sins themselves. We are pushed by ourselves, by the Spirit, or by others to go deeper and see what our sins are illustrating in our own life. For instance, I realized that my own sins were so often tied to a loss of faith. Confronting my wrong attitudes or actions was something I need to do in my life, but along the way I confront the deeper issue of faith by growing in my participation with God in various ways. Confession becomes a tool for me to examine my present state so that I can see my tendencies and ways I try to maneuver away from God.
Confession is also something that confronts me as I interact with others. That’s what is so brilliant about the confession aspect in the Lord’s prayer. We all know it, right? Forgive my trespasses as I forgive those who trespass against me.
hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”
I confess to God my sins while at the same time opening myself up to those who confess to me, with me. How can I be stay closed off to them without incurring the wrath of God? I can’t.
So confession has these three aspects.
Confession Before God: humility, opening ourselves up to listening to the Spirit, to being restored by God.
Confession Before Ourselves: Admitting our weaknesses helps us have a right perspective about our place in this world, both our strengths and our weaknesses, we find healing when we acknowledge our sicknesses.
Confession Before Others: by confessing to others we open ourselves up to honest interaction in which there is no place for posing or intimidation. Holiness is not about looking like we are better than others, that’s the image of the Pharisee and the publican. Holiness is being wholly healed so that we are renewed in how we live our own lives and how we love others. We give them space to find healing for their faults and find a shared unity in seeking together healing from God that helps transforms us individuality and as a community.
I want to close with one final image. This one isn’t an analogy but something I experienced.
Confession Image: Wheaton Confession.
Confession is vulnerable, maybe the most vulnerable discipline, but necessary.
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Okay, I know. Way, way too academicy recently. So, here’s where I take all that preparatory stuff and finally–finally–get to the point.
Singleness is not a higher calling than marriage. That’s not really a dramatic thing to say anymore. There’s very few people who celebrate that supposed “gift of singleness” after all.
At the same time, and what needs to be said a whole lot more, is that marriage is not a higher calling than singleness.
Neither is better. However, both can be worse. They’re equal callings but they’re different callings. Callings is a terribly religious/Christianese sort of word, isn’t it? I’m not going to use that anymore.
Marriage and singleness each offer their own expression of identity. They are about who we are as individuals and who we are among others and who we are before and with God.
Both suffer if we make either way all about us. If I make marriage all about satisfying my own interests and needs, I’m in trouble with God first of all. If I make singleness all about satisfying my own needs and interests, I’m in trouble with God first of all. We’re not allowed to be selfish either in marriage or in singleness.
This is where these states of calling are the same.
Here’s where they are different:
If you’re married, your identity with God is bound up in your contribution to the life of your spouse, and your family.
If you’re single, your identity with God is bound up in your contribution to others.
This is a tricky bit. Because I’m not saying your identity comes from your spouse, or that your identity comes from others. Rather, our identity can only be grounded in God. But, our identity with God includes contributing to the lives of others. Love God, love your neighbor, thems the rules.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that married people shouldn’t pay attention to others. I am saying, however, that if they pay attention to others more than or in exclusion to their spouse and family, they’re sinning. They’re not right with God.
That’s what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 7.
If you feel your calling is to serve others more broadly, don’t get married. If you can’t focus on others, and spend all your life trying to get married, just get married. Because if you’re single and you’re spending your energy and efforts to find a spouse, and pouring yourself wholly or most fully into the life of a single other person, then you’re not right with God.
So, if you want to be married, great! There’s a way of life God has for us in this path. Your primary contribution is to the emotional and spiritual well-being of this other person. This doesn’t mean you’re to be co-dependent, finding your identity in this other. It means that you’re to help this other person most fully find their identity in and with God, and that person is to help you most fully find your identity in and with God.
If you are single, great! That means you can devote yourself to contributing to the lives of others, free from having to pay attention to the needs of one particular other. Your time is your own, and you are free to go and do all sorts of tasks in all sorts of places. Like Paul did. And because that was his calling (to evangelize and serve others) he saw his state of singleness as a gift. The gift, after all, isn’t being alone, it’s being able to contribute in all kinds of ways to all sorts of people. A single person hsa the gift of time and space, able to use their time for others, and able to spend their time in other places.
Unfortunately for so much of the Protestant churches, and especially in Evangelicalism, these two paths got mixed up. And all sorts of hell, literally, breaks loose.
More on that in the next post, including examples of people who have done each right and examples of people who have done it wrong.