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No morbid Christians here!

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The Bible is not an easy book! It was never meant to be easy, because easy things are rarely worth much. Jesus himself said something very confusing:

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” (Mark 4:11-12)

It sounds strange, like God doesn’t want people to be saved. That’s contrary to everything we believe about Jesus. He was not preventing people from coming to him. He was simply saying that the Bible is not easy, it’s not for casual readers. Christianity is not for easy slogans. Christianity is not easy believers!

Today he tells us to pick up our cross and follow him. It sounds serious. It is. But perhaps not in the morbid way that monks and other morbid Christians have interpreted it. It’s not about being masochists, punishing our bodies and our senses, denying all pleasures and conveniences.

The morbid understanding of Jesus preferred by monks = Not the best way to understand Jesus' words.

The morbid understanding of Jesus preferred by monks = Not the best way to understand Jesus’ words. (click to enlarge)

It is about following Christ, not just believing with our lips. It’s not about wearing the cross as a fashion statement; it’s about accepting the Cross and what it says about Jesus Christ. Peter had trouble accepting the idea of a cross and Jesus on it. And when Peter protested, Jesus answered him in a very harsh way (Mark 8:31-33): “Get behind me, Satan! You are not on the side of God, but of men.” Those are strong words, and it is right after he said this to Peter that he spoke the words about picking up my cross and following him. So when Jesus says deny yourself and take up your cross, he’s speaking against Peter and all who treat Christianity as a walk in the park.

Deny yourself means deny your easy, convenient understanding. God is beyond human understanding. As Paul told us last week,

Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)

The Cross is an invitation to deny easy human answers, and Paul describes what it means to follow Christ in Philippians chapter 4. There is nothing morbid or self-punishing about it:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.

That is part and parcel of taking up your cross. Don’t think morbid; think joy, freedom, peace, excellence, justice, honor. And that’s how I understand Paul’s statement today: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

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Of course Paul wasn’t always this positive and this open-minded in his letters. He was often harsh, and the Bible is often harsh. The Bible can mean anything you want it to mean. The Cross can be turned into an idol, a weapon, a slogan, an imperial symbol of war, a fashion statement… My blogging friend in Scotland began a new series of studies the other day on the psalms, and he immediately addressed the issue of harsh language in the Psalms, language of hatred and prejudice, language of violence and envy. And I love what he wrote“In other words, they speak my sinful language.” Yes, that’s what I’ve always believed – though I’ve never said it as eloquently and simply as that. I tell people to read the psalms, even the ones that make you uncomfortable. It’s okay, we are complex creatures, and the psalms are a voice for all our emotions and feelings, both good and bad. God is not offended, God has heard it all. And the Cross is the answer to everything you feel, all your doubts and confusion, all your failures. Don’t let any of that bring you down.

12038603_710983499001254_3385016150428588025_oLast night’s season opener of Doctor Who presented an amazing picture of the character known as the Doctor. Everything he thought he knew about himself and about his enemies, was called into question. His understanding was stretched to the breaking point. Will he pick up his cross in next week’s episode? What will save him from the situation he is in? The Bible stretches my understanding to the breaking point, some times I totally reject what the Bible is saying. Sometimes I find it a terrible book. But then I try to remember, only the Cross can give me the answer. And that means surrendering to the wisdom of God.

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Only Two Ways to be Honest with God

In thinking about today’s reading from Genesis 12:1-7, I can’t find something better to write than what Mike Mair wrote a couple months ago about this passage. He is a biblical blogger in Scotland whom I’ve quoted in the past and who has posted some responses to my own posts. I obtained his permission to quote his commentary here. His original blog post can be found here.

This begins a new section of the book of Genesis: the story of the beginnings of humanity in general is complete and the story of Israel begins. Of course, the author has planned this from the start. He wants to say that God’s solution to the problem of his out-of-control creature, humanity, is to persuade some of humanity to learn his goodness and to represent it in the world. We should wonder at this strange tactic. Why can God not control what he has made? The answer is evident in the story of Noah: he could wipe out humanity but he cannot force a creature made in his image to obey him; so unless he wants to start all over again he has to find another tactic. He has to persuade humanity of its own free will to go his way. So we have to see his work with Avram and his descendants as an expression of his faithfulness to his creation and to his human creatures especially.

Persuasion, even divine persuasion, starts with one person, in this case Avram, a descendant of Shem, whose father Terah has moved from Ur of the Chaldees, more accurately in Sumer, to Harran in the territory of the Mitanni, on the border of modern Syria and Turkey. The accompanying map shows the extent of the migration. Ancient sources record a variety of nomadic peoples whose journeys took them across the borders of great empires like Sumer and Egypt. Avram’s family is identified as already nomadic, since his father has migrated from Ur to Harran. The command of the Lord, therefore is not utterly foreign to Avram, but it is presented as decisive. There is no preliminary explanation given by the author, just a command: Go-you-forth. It is not an aimless journey, however because a destination is declared: “the land that I will give you”, which is identified within a few verses as Canaan. Both the author and his original audience know that this is the land of Israel, the land promised.

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The command of God points to a future in which Avram and his descendants will enjoy God’s blessing but will also be carriers of God’s blessing to the human family. This is God’s solution to the problem of humanity. Avram is to BE a blessing to others. God  cannot simply bless his creatures! The blessing has to come through creatures who have been persuaded of God’s goodness and will in turn persuade others. This is a very strange concept of deity. As the passage tells it, God needs Avram more than Avram needs God.

Avram’s ready response is made clear; he moves out of Harran with his wife and his own complete household. Other members of his family remain but his nephew goes with him, along with the “people they had made-their-own”, that is, workers and slaves. Avram is not exploring, he is moving house. 

Ancient landmarks such as Shekhem, Moreh and Beth-El are noted in connection with Avram’s places of sacrifice to YHWH, but the crucial detail is that Avram “sees” YHWH, that is, he has a vision of him. In the story of Avram and subsequently in Genesis, God no longer talks person to person as he does to Noah, but is a little more distant; perhaps there is a vision or a sign, or a messenger, or several messengers, but the communication is a little less direct than in chapters 1-11. Some have suggested that the author wants to depict Avram as the first of the “seers” or prophets of Israel. In any case the verb “to see” will play an important part in his story.

Holy-Patriarch-AbrahamThe narrative makes God’s promise crystal clear: “I will give this land to your seed”; and shows Abraham’s acceptance of it by his establishing of sacrifice sites and his journeying through the land. The reader is left in no doubt that this passage records a new, distinctive vision of God. Some of what has seemed contradictory and inexplicable in chapters 1-11, now becomes comprehensible as the long-term strategy of God is made clear.

Most of us read this beginning of Abraham’s story with a sense of removal. We don’t hear the voice of God telling us to get up and go somewhere. But then we’re not Abraham and our ears are too busy listening to other voices. Today’s reading of Isaiah 29:13-23 speaks to our own experience as followers of Christ who struggle to preserve some authenticity and wholeness in our faith walk. But immediately before this reading come two verses (29:11-12) that are simply amazing:

And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”

The illiterate cannot read. But neither can the literate read, because “it is sealed.” What is sealed? The prophecies, the scriptures! Who sealed them? The rulers of the people, who are labeled as “scoffers” in 28:14. But more immediately here in chapter 29 (verses 9-10), the prophets!

Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor,
    blind yourselves and be blind!
Be drunk, but not with wine;
    stagger, but not with strong drink!
For the Lord has poured out upon you
    a spirit of deep sleep,
and has closed your eyes, the prophets,
    and covered your heads, the seers.

It is a horrifying vision. What hope is there for the people when even the prophets no longer receive the words of God? This is the famine that the prophet Amos warned about:

famine 1“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord God,
    “when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
    but of hearing the words of the Lord.

This is why we have trouble relating to Abraham’s hearing the voice of God. We are living in the time of famine! Yes, millions of copies of the Bible are printed every day in every known language of the planet. In English alone we have who knows how many translations and versions that you can pick up in a local bookstore or order from Amazon and have delivered to your door by UPS! It would appear that there is plenty of Bible going around. And yet, there is a famine – because the people of God are in a drunken stupor of materialism and comfortable Christian lives (so-called). Were these words spoken by God only for the dwellers of Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time?

“Because this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote. (29:13)

Woe to those who hide deep from the Lord their counsel,
    whose deeds are in the dark,
    and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
You turn things upside down!
    Shall the potter be regarded as the clay;
that the thing made should say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”? (29:15-16)

How many of us do not shiver when reading these words? And yet, we claim to read the Bible! Every year, on the Monday of Holy Week, at the evening service of the Bridegroom, the Gospel reading includes all of chapter 23 of Matthew. I don’t know how I make it through that reading every year or how I don’t hang up my vestments and quit on the spot. I don’t know how anyone in the Orthodox Church makes it through that reading! I don’t know how any priest or bishop of the Orthodox Church can read that Gospel and not quit or start a revolution of faith! Those are the only two options it seems to me.

These are the only two ways that we can be honest with God: Either quit or start a revolution! Everything else, everything in between, is lip service. This easygoing relationship we have with God, church tradition, the Bible, and with our own consciences – it’s all dishonest. God started a revolution with Abraham. By the time of Isaiah, the revolution was long in the past and easy believism ruled the lives of the people. But even here, God was ready to do something new, to renew the revolution that had started with Abraham:

Therefore, behold, I will again
    do marvelous things with this people,
    wonderful and marvelous… (29:14)

In that day the deaf shall hear
    the words of a book,
and out of their gloom and darkness
    the eyes of the blind shall see.
The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
    and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (29:18-19)

Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob:

“Jacob shall no more be ashamed,
    no more shall his face grow pale.
For when he sees his children,
    the work of my hands, in his midst,
    they will sanctify my name;
they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob,
    and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.
And those who err in spirit will come to understanding,
    and those who murmur will accept instruction.” (29:22-24)

I pray that God can still do this renewal. I pray that God can still renew the fire of revolution in the church and in the hearts of all who want to follow Jesus. May the cloud and sleep that have come over our faith be dispelled once again, and may the famine cease. As Mike wrote in his post that I’ve quoted above, Abraham is not exploring, he is moving house. We also need to move house, and there’s a lot of moving to do! May Lent challenge us every year with these readings from Genesis and Isaiah to set a moving date.