Friday, November 23, 2018

Old Testament

       Each of us should please our neighbors for their good,  to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself  but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. 
-Romans 15:3-4 (NIV)

“The Old Testament.”
     It just sounds bad, doesn’t it? I mean, in most any other context calling something old is a way of differentiating it from what’s new, and therefore preferable. For instance:
Why do I have to drive the OLD car?
Are you going to wear that OLD shirt again?
Isn’t it time to replace that OLD carpet?
My phone is getting OLD and slow.
My husband is getting OLD and slow.
     The Old Testament has a branding problem. Some people call it The Jewish Scriptures, but that doesn’t really help to make it sound more relevant, especially for non-Jews. Some people prefer The First Testament, but I’m not sure that helps a lot (and it sounds a little pretentious). Maybe you could call it The Story of Israel?  The Account of God’s People? I don’t know — neither of those seems to help.
     It’s more than just a branding problem, though. The Old Testament can be an obstacle to belief. It’s long and confusing, and there’s lots of war and killing and mayhem and sex, so it can seem a little like trying to base a faith system on Game of Thrones. What’s the difference between an Amorite and an Ammonite? Somebody point out En Gedi or Goshen on a map. 
     Most of what gives people doubts about the Bible is in the Old Testament. The age of the earth, the origin of human beings, the structure of the universe: the Old Testament makes claims about all of these things that seem incompatible with science. 
     And then there are the commands. Sure, nine of the Big Ten make sense. But what does building a parapet around my roof have to do with living a good life? Why shouldn’t I boil a young goat in its mother’s milk — oh, and why would I? Should I really not shave my sideburns? Is it really a big problem to wear a nice cotton/poly blend? And, if I can discard those commands, which others might also be disposable?
     You get what I’m saying, right? It’s no wonder that at least one high-profile preacher thinks we should “unhitch” Christianity from the Old Testament. Few Christians are willing to say stuff like that, but most of us read the Old Testament selectively, at best. The parts that are really confusing, or seem insensitive, or defy our best efforts to explain — well, we sort of leave those alone, don’t we?
     Good thing we have a New Testament. 
     Here’s the thing: the New Testament writers had another name for the Old Testament. They just called it The Scriptures, and, for them, it was pretty authoritative. All but two or three New Testament books quote from or allude to the Old Testament. While the New Testament writers made it clear that Christianity wasn’t contained by strict adherence to the old ways, they also made it clear that it wasn’t completely disconnected, either.
     When Paul wants to encourage the Christians in Rome to bear with each other instead of insisting on their own way, he pointed them to Jesus’ example. But to nail it down, he quoted from Psalm 69: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” He used the quote — from a different time and place, about a different person — to remind his readers that when they followed Christ in serving others over themselves, he would identify with them and take on himself whatever abuse they might receive.  
     Right after that, Paul tells his readers what he hopes that quotation accomplished: he wants the ancient examples of faithful people enduring suffering for God, and the encouragement that they received in their faithfulness, to give faithful people of his day hope that their trust in the same God would not go unrewarded. “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us,” he assures them. The first Christians didn’t think that the Old Testament was a puzzle that needed to be unraveled or irrelevant history to be ignored. They didn’t see those books as dead documents, but as the living Word of God to be received as a source of hope that the same God who was active and faithful to his people back in those days centuries in the past could be trusted in their own day and time. 
     That’s not to say that they believed everything in it could or should be obeyed to the letter in their day. Jesus himself was willing to walk back some of the commands of the Old Testament*, and the early church made the decision to welcome non-Jews who had faith in Jesus whether they obeyed any of the Old Testament commands or not. Salvation was definitively determined to rest in God’s work through Jesus, and not on obedience to the Old Testament.
     Strikingly, though, they didn’t see that as license to throw out the Old Testament — even as their own Scriptures were coming into existence. Even as their new identity in Christ replaced their old identities and loyalties, those Scriptures took on added meaning. They began to see in those Scriptures foreshadowing and anticipation of God’s final work of salvation, and began to see how Jesus’ work and death and resurrection were the last acts in the working out of God’s purposes in his world and in their lives.
     To be sure, working out what the Old Testament has to do with us today is, if anything, more complicated now than it was then. The story of the fall of Jericho doesn’t teach us that if we walk around the walls of a city -- provided we can find a city with walls to walk around — that God will knock those walls down. The story of David and Goliath doesn’t teach us to fling stones at our enemies, and Amos’ judgment against Damascus shouldn’t dictate policy in the Middle East. But seen as sources of endurance and encouragement, they can and should lead us to hope in the faithfulness of our God to his promises and to his people.   
     We don’t need to adopt the worldview of the Old Testament to see the hope it offers to God’s people and adopt it as our own. We don’t have to see every command as meant for us, every reference as a secret code to be deciphered. We read it, in short, to see God. We echo its psalms in our hearts as we lift our own voices to God. We see its commands not as a moral code to be obeyed to the letter, but as a revelation of God’s character. In its stories we look for, not obscure history, but the account of events in which God’s people back then found out just who this unchanging God is.
     You’ll find, I think, that reading it like that will never get old.

*He said, for instance, that the kosher food laws no longer applied, and that the location in which his followers worshipped was not important — both of which were central to Jewish identity in the Old Testament. He refused to allow divorce (except for sexual immorality), even though the Old Testament did. In the Sermon on the Mount, he “fulfills” the Law of Moses by redefining it as an expression of the perfect love of God.   

Friday, November 16, 2018

Words Made Flesh

      In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind…. 
     The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 
-John 1:1-4, 14 (NIV)

Unless you’ve been trying to avoid it, I imagine you’ve heard about the group of refugees known as the “Migrant Caravan.” The group of several thousand moving north from Honduras and other Central American countries toward, they hope, asylum in the U.S. has been a media talking point and political football for several weeks now. 
     Chances are, someone has told you what you ought to think about it. Someone at work, at school, on social media, or maybe a stranger at an airport — it seems like everyone has an opinion about this group. Some call them an “invasion.” Some hysterically claim, with little to no evidence, that they’ve been infiltrated by terrorists. Others, with maybe more sober views, recognize that many or most of them are people fleeing with their families from violence and danger in their homelands, hoping to make a new life in America. Maybe you’re having a hard time knowing what to believe.
     If so, I suggest you believe Gavin Rogers.
     Gavin is a San Antonio pastor who wasn’t exactly sure what to believe either. But he didn’t settle for Googling it, or for trying to make something coherent out of the competing views of the talking heads on TV. Neither did he wrap himself in the security and certainty of his own prejudices. Instead, he went to see for himself.
     He joined the migrant caravan.
     I mean, for four days Gavin traveled with them, ate with them, slept with them as they walked, hitchhiked, and rode trucks toward Tijuana, Mexico. Gavin has posted extensively on Facebook during his travels, so I won’t say too much about that here. Suffice to say that you should check out his page if you want some information about these refugees. He shares many stories of the people he’s met and lived with, including the teenager who held on to him to keep him from falling out of a truck, and the strangers who rushed up to him as they walked to return his wallet, which he’d unknowingly dropped. 
     Gavin says that many of the migrants he met have family members in the United States. Many want to get legal help in applying for refugee status. (I hope that, instead of more soldiers, our government will send some immigration lawyers!) He says some of the travelers he’s met have taken offers from Mexico, but that many are wary of seeking asylum there because they doubt that the country’s unstable political situation and threats of violence will be an improvement over the lives they’ve walked away from.
     Refugees who were willing to share their stories with Gavin told him of having their children kidnapped and other relatives killed in Central America. Their journey, he says, is “not about a better life in American terms, it’s just about living.” They want their kids to be educated. They want to “be free from violence and rape and murder.”
     Is everyone in the “caravan” a saint? No. Are there people there who might take advantage of the situation? Almost assuredly. I don’t know exactly what the U.S. should do, nor does Gavin. But what you take away from looking at his photos and reading his posts is what we should already know: that from a distance you can’t know people. That arguing about policy seems inappropriate after you put faces on the faceless horde that some in our country would like to use to scare us. That when you walk with people, learn their names, and hear their stories, things come into much clearer focus. 
     In other words, don’t knock the inner city until you’ve spent a few nights there. Don’t demean those on welfare until you’ve tried to put dinner on the table for minimum wage (or spent some time with someone who has). Don’t waste a moment trying to solve other peoples’ problems from a distance; if you really care about them, you’ll have to do it close up. And if you won’t get close, then all you’ve got is an uninformed opinion. 
     Gavin Rogers reminded me of this. But I didn’t learn it from him, originally. 
     When God acted to save us, he didn’t do it with words. Not really. Oh, I mean, I know we have Scripture, and I believe its words are from God. I know people have preached the gospel through the centuries using words. I’m writing words right now. I believe God has given us words, and I know that he’s used the words of his servants to do his work in the world. The last thing I want to do is devalue words.
     But that’s actually sort of my point: as useful and as powerful as words can be, the only One who can literally create worlds with his word didn’t act to save us with words. At least, not spoken or written ones.
     John goes to great lengths to describe God’s word. “If you know the Genesis creation story,” he says, “then you know how powerful God’s word is.” God’s word can’t be separated from him. It’s always been, just as God has always been, been there from the beginning. It’s the creative force behind everything that exists, even human life. When God speaks, what he speaks just is. 
     Even so, God didn’t save us with words. He didn’t speak our salvation into existence from a distance.
     Instead, John says, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
     Everyone in our world has words to share. Words to speak, write, post. Words to shout and growl through clenched teeth. Words used as projectiles to hurl at one another, words like knives in the back, whispered about one another. Words that carry lies, empty promises, fake news. We use words to proclaim our wisdom, our power, our superiority. We employ them to get other people to do what we want them to, or what we think they should, or what we believe is best. 
     There is no shortage of words about the “migrant caravan,” or whatever other issues you might think of. No shortage of words in our world, about anything.
     There is, however, a shortage of words made flesh. That’s what Gavin’s example reminds us of.
     May those of us, especially, who praise God for his word made flesh in Jesus, not hesitate to make our dwelling with those we would save. Let us be known for fostering children, feeding those who are hungry around our tables, visiting those in prison, spending time with people forgotten in nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals. Let us be known more for walking with the refugees of this world’s sin and death than giving our opinions about them. May we do it for no other reason than that our Savior did.
     And may we do it knowing that through our words made flesh, they might very well come to know the Word made flesh. They might see his glory.
     Next time we feel like speaking about something, let’s be sure we put flesh on our words first.

     Who can you walk with today?         

Friday, November 2, 2018

Jesus Is Political

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, 
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
     Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled  in your hearing.” 
-Luke 4:16-21 (NIV)

“Jesus isn’t political.”
     I’ve heard that declaration all my life. It’s come from my own mouth often enough. In a Christian fellowship that doesn’t particularly encourage organized political engagement, it’s a phrase that allows us to keep our politics personal.
     There are good things about the “Jesus isn’t political” stance.
     For one thing, it might keep one political ideology from being conflated with the gospel. Not that any church or any Christian would do that intentionally, but sometimes it’s best if we guard ourselves against our unintentional mistakes, and it’s hard to deny that large sections of the church in our world have been co-opted and compromised by extreme adherence to a party line. (Sadly, much like the state churches in some formerly Communist countries, which were only legal if they had a member of the Party on the church board. Only, in our case, we’ve chosen this for ourselves.)
     Based on what we think “politics” means, “Jesus isn’t political” might even be correct. Jesus was neither Republican or Democrat, nor Libertarian, nor Green. You can’t sum him up — or dismiss him — by calling him Conservative or Liberal. (It’s interesting how political persuasions across the Conservative/Liberal spectrum all find something about Jesus to love — and something about him to ignore!) You have to do some twisting and editing of Jesus to get him to fit completely onto any party platform.
     There were political parties in Jesus’ day, and he didn’t fit well into any of those, either. The Pharisees thought he was too liberal. The Sadducees thought he went too far. The Zealots and Essenes wouldn’t have thought he went far enough. (Yes, those were political parties as well.)
     Sometimes, though, what we mean when we say “Jesus isn’t political” is more like this: “I don’t want to think about what my faith has to do with my politics.”
     Or, “I’m too invested in my political philosophy to seriously consider what Jesus might have to say.”
     Or, “I prefer huddling with those who are like me politically over engaging with people whose experience  might force me to rethink my positions.”
     Or, perhaps, even something like this: “My political positions mean more to me than does following Jesus.”
         We sometimes argue that the church should be about preaching the Gospel. Hear, hear. The gospel — the “good news” — that Jesus came preaching was regime change: God’s kingdom is near, and it will supplant the schemes by which the rulers of this world attain and hold power. It’s only because we’ve twisted “kingdom of God” into something other than the obvious meaning of those words that we can think he wasn’t being political. He told his hearers they should “believe the good news,” not in a “Huh, isn’t that interesting” sort of way, but by repenting of all the stuff in our lives that doesn’t line up with God’s rule of the world.
     Look at the text Jesus used to declare his mission in the world, from the book of Isaiah. He found in that text a light that illumined his own priorities: to, by the Spirit of God, bring good news to the poor, release for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and freedom for those who are oppressed. He came to announce “the year of the Lord’s favor” to those who need a year like that most. He wasn’t shy about it all: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
     In any other context, we’d say Jesus was being political. He’s talking about dealing with poverty, imprisonment, health care, and human rights. But because we hear those words in church we sometimes say Jesus was talking about the spiritually poor, imprisoned, blind, and oppressed. We gather to thank him that he saved us when we were spiritually in that condition — and somehow manage to think that he’s a “no comment” on political questions that most impact those who are literally poor, imprisoned, blind, and oppressed! (Even though he did, literally, spend his life ministering to exactly those people!) 
     I’m not talking about whether the Republicans or Democrats have the right answers as to how we should deal with these problems: I’m saying that Jesus cares about them and expects his people to do something. I’m not making a statement about how much government should be involved: if the church was doing its job, maybe the government’s role wouldn’t be such a big issue one way or the other. 
     Jesus is political. The things he taught and did should push those of us who follow him out into the world to teach and do the same things. Following him will, inevitably, have political ramifications. It should make us consider our votes carefully, and for the right reasons. It should make us care about those who haven’t managed to get the kinds of breaks in this world that we have. It should make us inclined to take the side of the powerless over the powerful, and it should make us instantly suspicious when anyone demands loyalty to a country or a system or a party or a platform over human beings created in God’s image.
     We haven’t always done well with everything on that list.
     Jesus is political. If you still doubt it, then look at how his life ended. He wasn’t crucified because most people felt his message was comfortable and non-threatening. “We have no king but Caesar,” they cried out as they demanded his blood. They didn’t say that because they missed the point. They said that because they got the point. Better, perhaps, than those of us who wear his name sometimes do. 
     So, let us do what he says: let us “repent and believe the good news.” Not the good news that Jesus died to save me — I mean, that’s good for me, but what about everyone else? No, the gospel Jesus preached is the gospel that God’s kingdom is kicking down the door and renewing and restoring all the damage that Satan has done to the world and the people he created and loves so much. It’s the gospel that, through his death and resurrection, we are set free to live new lives as instruments of God’s righteousness in our world. That, dear reader, is most definitely political; it was in Jesus’ day, and it will be in our day too, for as long as those on top in our world would enrich themselves at the expense of those on the bottom.
     The church’s answer to the political division in our world shouldn’t be that Jesus isn’t political; it should be that he is, and it should be to invite others to come to know him.

     It should be to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, with our words and with our lives.