Showing posts with label I Corinthians. Show all posts
Showing posts with label I Corinthians. Show all posts

Monday, July 9, 2018

St Maximos the Confessor & God wisely dividing the ages





The following excerpt is from a very recent translation of St Maximos the Confessor’s (ca. 580-662) Responses to Thalassios, the Libyan abbot of a monastic community, probably in Carthage, whose letter to Maximos contained a lengthy series of questions, requesting written interpretations (p. 8).

What is presented below is (at least in my own estimation) one of the most profound responses to the eschatological question, “If God in the coming ages will show his riches (Ephesians 2:7), how is it that the ends of the ages have come upon us (I Corinthians 10:11)?”

Here is the written response by St Maximos:
He who brought all visible and invisible creation into being solely through the momentum of His will, had in His good counsel determined—before all ages and even before the very genesis of created beings—an ineffably good plan for his creations. And this plan was for Him to be mingled, without change, with human nature through a true union according to hypostasis, uniting human nature, without alteration, to Himself, so that He would become man—in a manner known to Him—and at the same time make man God through union with Himself, and thus He wisely divided the ages, determining that some would be for the activity of His becoming man, and others for the activity of making man God.  
Thus, inasmuch as the actual “ends of the ages” predetermined for Him to become man “have come upon us”—since the divine purpose of the Incarnation has been fulfilled through the events themselves—the divine Apostle, having carefully examined this, and seeing that the end of the ages intended for God to become man had come about through the very Incarnation of the Word of God, says: “The ends of the ages have come upon us”—not simply “the ages” as we ordinarily understand them, but clearly those which, intended for the actualization of the mystery of embodiment, have reached their proper limit, according to the purpose of God. 
Since, then, the “end of the ages”, predetermined according to God’s purpose to become man, “has come upon us”—inasmuch as God has in truth actualized and brought to completion His own perfect Incarnation—we must henceforth await those other ages that are to come for the actualization of the mystical and ineffable divinization of human beings, in which "God will show the overflowing riches of His goodness to us,” completely and actively effecting divinization in those who are worthy. For if He Himself reached the limit of his mystical activity of becoming man,—becoming like us in every way but without sin, and having descended into the lowermost parts of the earth to where the tyranny of sin had driven man—then there will certainly also be a limit of God’s mystical activity for the divinization of man in every way (with the obvious sole exception of any identification of man with God’s essence), making man like Himself and raising him beyond all the heavens, to where the natural grandeur of grace dwells and calls fallen man through the infinity of goodness. And this is what the great Apostle mystically teaches when he says: “in the ages to come, the overflowing riches of God’s goodness will be shown to us.”1


1. St Maximos the Confessor, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios 
(The Fathers of the Church, Volume 136), Translated by Fr Maximos Constas; Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018; pp. 150-151











Saturday, March 19, 2016

The stones will cry out (A meditation on Luke 19:29-40)


Palm Sunday
Liturgy of the Palms
Year C
Gospel Reading: Luke 19:29-40 



I love the film, Memento. What I love most about Memento are the little nuggets of plot-development hidden in plain sight, and how those becomes crucial for appreciating the entire story. 
    At the beginning we learn about the main character, Leonard Shelby, who suffers from extreme short term memory loss because of a severe brain injury incurred at his home, seconds before witnessing the murder of his wife. Just as Leonard witnesses his wife suffocating to death, an armed robber violently strikes Leonard on the head, and from that point forward in life, Leonard's long-term memories are haunted by that final, enduring image of his wife's suffocation. He then sets out on a life-long quest to find those who killed his wife, and to satisfy justice.
    Fast-forwarding to the end of the story, a detective named Teddy is murdered by Leonard Shelby. Leonard thinks Teddy was part of the conspiracy to murder his wife, but of course, because Leonard suffers from severe short-term memory loss many people throughout his life after that event—including Teddy—become suspects of that conspiracy accidentally, even though they aren't necessarily guilty. All Leonard wants in life is to find those who conspired in the murder of his wife, and he will do whatever it takes to bring vengeance upon them. But we come to find out in the end of the story that so much more had been going on all along, and best of all it was hidden in plain sight, right in front of our very eyes. 
    Spoiler Alert: Just before the death of Teddy, the detective, we learn some mind-blowing details about Leonard's life. First we learn that Leonard Shelby's wife didn't actually die the night her husband had his brain injury. She survived that night, but Leonard doesn't remember that because he suffers from extreme short-term memory loss after his brain injury. All he remembers is her suffocating. Every day, he still thinks she's dead. And eventually, over time, she does die; and she's even truly dead by the time the events within the film take place. However, as the plot progresses, we learn that Teddy, the detective, already brought Leonard to the real attacker, and Leonard already avenged his wife, but Leonard doesn't remember that either. Finally, as if those tidbits of information weren't shocking enough, we also learn the most shocking fact of all: Leonard actually murdered his own wife, by assisting her in committing suicide. It turns out that after his injury, his wife became so depressed with having to live with his short-term memory loss, that one day she tested him. She was diabetic, and in need of regular insulin shots, so she tested him over and over again by requesting him to give her shots, minutes apart from each other. She eventually died of overdose. That was her way of coping with what she perceived to be the loss of the real man she loved and married. But he doesn't remember ever assisting her suicide. Leonard even gets a tattoo on his hand to assist his memory about that, but the tattoo doesn't help. All throughout the film we are shown that tattoo, and the message is in plain sight, but Leonard interprets it differently. Even when you hear or see that phrase tattooed on his hand repeated over and over again ("Remember Sammy Jenkins"), if the viewer does not stop and think about it's significance, or its significance is misunderstood, it is possible to watch the entire film and walk away from it with a very different message than what the director intended. 
    This is true with the theological nuggets we find scattered throughout Luke's gospel. If we overlook or misunderstand some of them hidden in plain sight, we might walk away from the gospel story with a very different message than what Luke intended. And in today's reading, we have one of those theological nuggets. It is found in Luke 19:39b–40, which the ESV translates this way:
"Teacher, rebuke your disciples." He answered, "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out."

Usually, when I'm preparing a meditation for any given day, I try to harmonize as many of the lectionary readings as possible and unite them into a common theme. But with this week's lectionary readings, something very different happened as I was studying. I became stuck on this one very brief statement.
    Do you want to know why I've been stuck on that passage all week long? It's because the Greek text underlying that English Standard Version does not say that. And I've been hung up all week on what it actually says, and why Jesus said that. What the Greek text actually says is this:
"Teacher, rebuke your disciples!" And answering, He [Jesus] said: "I say to you-all, that when these [disciples] become silent, the stones will cry out!"1

As I perused through my biblical commentaries, I noticed that this passage is usually explained in one of two ways. It's either explained as a comparison between animate human beings (i.e. disciples) and inanimate objects (i.e. stones), illustrating somehow, some way, that Jesus deserves to be praised by His creation, e.g. "If people stop praising Jesus, surely these stones on the ground will instead!", or it's expressing a contrast of faith between the Pharisees and stones, illustrating that even stones understand their Creator better than Pharisees.2
    With either option, I'm left unconvinced. And I think it's important to convince others to remain unconvinced as well. But in order to reach any conviction about the meaning of this theological nugget (whether one agrees with me or not), it always helps to start by asking obvious questions. For instance, why does Jesus mention stones? Is it merely because they can be classified as inanimate objects? In that case, wouldn't the reference to stones be somewhat arbitrary, as though Jesus could have mentioned any other static material on this planet—such as trees, saddlebags, or belly-button lint—to illustrate the same point? He just mentioned "stones" for no essential reason, I guess. Perhaps it was the first thing that popped into His mind, someone might say. That sounds like a dubious proposal at best. 
    What if the whole point of mentioning stones is simply to point out how lifeless the faith of the Pharisees is? Although I don't doubt that the faith of many Pharisees was dead, I don't think that clarifies what Jesus actually said. Again, all one has to do to notice my contention is to simply look back at the text. Re-read it a few times. Such explanations about dead pharisaical faith hardly accounts for what Jesus actually said in context. (Besides, if you've read the previous 18 chapters of Luke's gospel, you should have already realized that their faith was dead.) So let's go back to asking obvious questions again. 
    Why must stones cry out if Jesus' disciples are silenced? That is what the text actually says.3 Is it because stones perceive God better than Pharisees? That doesn't answer the question. That begs the question. If the point, supposedly, is that Jesus is also worthy of praise by stones, then why aren't the stones also crying out at the same time as the disciples? Why wait until the voices of Jesus disciples are silenced?

I think that in order to make sense of Luke 19:39b-40, we need to review the story of Luke's gospel briefly to find other tidbits hidden in plain sight for us.
    In the close context of 19:39b-40, Jesus is on his way into Jerusalem for the first time in Luke's gospel. Toward the beginning of the Lukan travel narrative, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem (9:51), and he wouldn't cease ministering to people until he was silenced in Jerusalem. Throughout Luke's travel narrative, that message of reaching Jerusalem and being killed by Israel's rulers is repeated three times for emphasis (9:22, 44; 18:31-33). Alongside that tidbit, Luke's travel narrative is also filled with allusions to soon-coming judgment upon Jerusalem for rejecting their King. Even before  Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, the shepherds of Israel have no excuse for rejecting him as their King, and they also have no excuse for refusing to repent of that rejection.
    In the middle of Luke's travel narrative, we find one of those nuggets hidden in plain sight. But there, Jesus does more than make allusions to Jerusalem's judgment; he emphatically declares that its temple is forsaken, abandoned by God, because they were not willing to accept His terms of peace:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'" (Luke 13:34-35)

Now fast forward to the end of Luke's travel narrative, where Jesus is about to leave Jericho and enter into Jerusalem for the first time. There we find Jesus telling one last parable to his disciples en route to his triumphal entry (19:11-27). In that parable Luke goes out of his way to emphasize the allegorical relationship between Jesus' servants in Jerusalem and Himself entering that city as their King. By the end of the parable the "wicked servants" and "enemies" have proven themselves hostile and indignant toward their King. Not only had they perpetuated gross injustice while the King was away (similar to the claim above about "killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to it"), they also would not repent or accept His terms of peace and reconciliation. They refused to let Jesus rule mercifully over their merciless kingdom. For that reason, the King decrees that they be slain upon his arrival. With the merciful, he would show himself merciful. With the blameless, he would show himself blameless. And with the crooked, he would make himself seem torturous (Psa. 18:25-26; 2 Sam. 22:26-28). Jesus saves those who are humble, but his eyes are on the haughty to bring them down. 
    After that final parable, Jesus follows his prophetic cry with more sovereign lamentations explicitly directed at first century Jews in Jerusalem (Luke 19:41–44):
And when he [Jesus] drew near and saw the city [Jerusalem], he wept over it, saying, "Would that you, even you [Jerusalem], had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation."
Much like the prophet Habakkuk's reasons for thundering woes against Jerusalem, it is this incessant rejection of Israel's King by their rulers which leads to the toppled stones of the Temple's ruin crying out against those perpetrating violence and injustice within:
You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples! You have forsaken your life! The stone shall cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond: "Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!" (Habakkuk 2:10-12)
I believe these nuggets of prophetic woes scattered throughout Luke's gospel are designed to clarify what Jesus said to Pharisees during his triumphal entry. The "Wisdom of God" repeatedly told Jerusalem that His prophets and apostles would be sent to them, but they would not listen. Instead, the harlot-city would silence the Lord and His servants (Luke 11:49–52). With that trajectory toward rejection and judgement, when we reach the point of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and we see the Pharisees still attempting to silence Jesus' disciples (19:39b), Jesus' response makes perfect sense if its understood as a prophetic, Habakkuk-like cry toward Jerusalem and its corrupt rulers. As Jesus' disciples cry out, "blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!", the Pharisees tell Jesus to rebuke the disciples. So when Jesus responds to the Pharisees, its trajectory is directed toward the harlot-city, toward Jerusalem's rejection and consequent judgment:
"I say to you-all, that when these [disciples] become silent, the stones will cry out!"

Little did the Pharisees know that the prophets, apostles, and disciples of Jesus were living stones of God's new temple-building project (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-6), so when those stones cry out for vindication, judgement is right around the corner because their voices are heard by Jesus himself in his heavenly temple. This was the Lord's mysterious and marvelous plan all along. It is through the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of God's incarnate Son that the blood of all the prophets and apostles, shed from the foundation of the world, would cry out and finally receive vindication for all their suffering. They witnessed to the truth of God and His reign over all, and their shed blood would be charged against Jesus' generation (11:49-52). That generation would be definitively judged.
    All of this brings us back around to the passage in Luke in which Jesus prophesies about disciples being silenced for their testimony of Jesus' lordship, and stones crying out as a result. I think its clear that Jesus' woe alludes to the Habakkuk woe spoken to the leadership of Jerusalem. In that prophecy, the stones of the temple walls cry out because of tremendous injustice perpetrated within its walls and upon God's people. Historically, it was during the Jewish wars (66—70 AD) that Jerusalem and its idolatrous temple were finally destroyed by the Lord's visitation. Because Jerusalem did not know the time of her visitation, and the testimonies of those who bore witness to Jesus were silenced, the stones would cry out from the wall: "Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity!" But "blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!"
   
At this time, someone might be asking, What is the bottom line of all this?

That's a good question. How does this affect our understanding of the gospel story, so that we don't miss out on what the director envisioned for us? 

A few responses immediately come to mind:
    First, because there is a pervasive tendency among Christians to "proof-text" scripture into emotional and spiritual nonsense, it's always important to remember that the gospels are about real life, flesh and blood, pus and guts, historically documented events. Even the prophecies of Jesus were not some kind of gnostic, esoteric, mystical future cataclysm. Certainly they were about future events. However, Jesus was addressing historical events which would come upon his own generation (Luke 7:31; 11:29,30,31,32,50,51; 16:8; 17:25; 21:32). This is often missed, and the gospels misinterpreted, because the fulfillment of those divinely imposed judgments within his generation are not taken into account by the average, run-of-the-mill Christian. It is absolutely vital to the understand and acknowledge that the destruction of Herod's idolatrous temple is the most significant historical event in Israel's history. And that was clearly on display in Jesus' mind throughout Luke's gospel. That event is the definitive end of the old covenant, and the decisive action which vindicates all the disciples of Jesus Christ in the first century. The entire course of history dramatically changed after that cataclysmic event.4 And it's not a mere coincidence that Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension strike the match and light the wick leading to that cosmic judgment. So it's important to familiarize yourself with those events, and to read scripture through the lens of those concrete historical promises.
    Second, remember that because every statement within the gospels is part of a much larger story, we need to search, discover, and meditate upon the nugget-like tidbits scattered throughout the story. Those tidbits are not tertiary details. Just like in Memento, if they are overlooked or underestimated, the director's vision behind the story can be misunderstood. If Jesus' explicit promises regarding Jerusalem's destruction in that generation are overlooked or underestimated, then the first century Jewish-Christian context of New Testament theology can be misunderstood.
    Finally, but just as important as the previous points, this brief tidbit of Luke's gospel teaches us something significant about the character of God. Throughout evangelical circles, Jesus is often mistakenly portrayed as the "light" version of the old testament God. Just like Budweiser has their light beer, Jesus is the old testament Father's light-bodied persona. He's low on calories, while still offering the full-bodied flavor of the original Divine recipe, which we all love. As such, the Church mistakenly thinks of Jesus' character differently than the Father's, and that is a mistake. Both Jesus and YHWH are love (Deut. 7:9; Psa 36:7-10; Joel 2:13; I John 4:8,16). Both Jesus and YHWH are a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29). Jesus' gospel was about consuming fire and love. It is our God, Jesus, who considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict his children, and to grant his children relief through affliction by inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know Him and on those who do not obey the good news of our Lord Jesus (2 Thess. 1:6-8). 
   In fact, it is precisely because Jesus is love, that we must heed Jesus' warnings and not reshape the love of God into our own American idol. When we see Jesus loving all those around him, we also need to see that love as an expression of warning his own generation of consuming fireof tangible, down-to-earth judgment upon flesh and blood because of their exceedingly great wickedness. It's also important to see Jesus as the son of man coming to judge them (Matt. 10:23; 12:40-42; 13:37-43; 16:27-28; 24:30-34). As the son of man, part of the way he loves the world is by waging war upon its evil every day; and that is a good thing. It is good that Jesus must continue waging that war until he has put all his enemies underneath his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). Only then will true peace cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. Jesus was indeed the most loving human in history, and yet his love did not violate the free will of those whom he loved, and so he warned them about how destructive their idolatry had become, and he waged war against those who refused to accept his rule. In an thoroughly corrupt and evil generation, there can be no peace without war. Thankfully, though, most people throughout the world are not destroyed. Instead, many are confronted by the heinousness of their own sins and destructive tendencies, and are brought to their knees before King Jesus. God graciously makes Himself available to them, and when they sincerely repent and surrender to him, they are shown mercy, and they receive new life in Him. 
    Another way to look at Jesus' prophetic warnings is like this: Jesus loved the world so much that he gave his life for it, but there comes a point in time when an entire generation needs to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings and he knows our needs better than we do. He knows how to establish and cultivate peace on earth better than we do. If parts of his creation become rotten to the core, he knows best, and he knows how to uproot and plant something new and healthy in its place if need be. In a world where the ground is cursed and humanity is exiled from the presence of God, the whole process of uprooting, tilling the soil, and planting new is an expression of love. The fact that the Gardener even draws near to his fields all over the world and tends to their needs worldwide is a good and beautiful thing. 
    Within the exhortation of our Lord about disciples being silenced and stones crying out, is his decree to tear down the diseased house of the old covenant in order to build an exceedingly glorious temple in us. And his temple-building project isn't over yet. His global gardening project is not over yet. There still is a lot of work yet to be done. Don't be bashful about that, and don't be afraid to walk in the way of Christ's suffering for that. Rather, walk humbly in the way of his suffering that you may also share in his resurrection. Believe that, witness to that, and proclaim that. That is true, just as God's love for the world is true, and his warfare against evil every day is true. 
   If you start thinking about how gloomy and corrupt our current generation is in comparison with the glorious future promised for God's kingdom, don't be worried about it. Continue witnessing to the good news of King Jesus and his terms of peace for the world. He is always far more willing to give mercy and extend favor than we are to receive it. He is called the King of Peace for good reasons. 
   And if you ever become anxious about these temporary, mortal bodies of ours returning to the soil, leaving the fruitful praise of our lips silenced, don't worry about that either. Other stones of God's temple will continue that proclamation. Blessed indeed is our King, Jesus. He is the reason why there is any peace on earth and in heaven. Glory to Him in the highest!



* * * * * * *

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 










1. This is my translation of the Greek text: Διδάσκαλε, ἐπιτίμησον τοῖς μαθηταῖς σου. καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν· Λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅτι ἐὰν οὗτοι σιωπήσουσιν, οἱ λίθοι κράξουσιν
2. Darrell Bock, a reputable Lukan scholar, offers a variant of this, claiming that inanimate objects—like stones—"have a better perception of God than the people He came to save." Even though that is a clever and truthful way of spinning what Jesus actually said, I still think that greatly misses Jesus' point. See Darrell L. Bock, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books; 1996), p. 1,547
3.  A few other technical details are worth noting. As I have argued here and elsewhere on my blog, I think mainstream english translations of the New Testament are based on an interpretation disconnected with the destruction of Jerusalem as foreshadowed in the consistent typological messaging of Israel's prophets. To me that disconnect seems clear for grammatical reasons as well. For example, in the ESV we find the insertion of "very" into the text (which isn't even implied in the Greek). In English, the insertion of "very" could be construed as connoting an idea of contrast between animate and inanimate objects, which is unnecessary if Jesus is actually prophesying future historical events related to Jerusalem and its temple. Another disconnect is seen in the confusing translation of "were silent" and "would cry out" like it's a conditional subjunctive, which it's not in Greek. Both verbs are future-active-indicative. The ἐάν with a subjunctive verb would express a probable or hypothetical future condition (which is why the conditional conjunction is translated "if" in the ESV), but the indicative verbs remove that probability and instead express certainty (which is why ἐὰν here is better translated as "when").
4.  See Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2008, eighth ed.), pp. 23-46

Monday, February 29, 2016

God Tests Everyone (A Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year C)







Third Sunday in Lent
Year C
Epistle Reading: I Cor. 10:1-13

In a school setting there are different kinds of tests which teachers give their students. Some are written tests were you can answer one of multiple choices, while others are completed in the form of an essay or summary. Tests can also be in the form of activities, like in gym class where you're tested to perform the drills over and over again. In all of these examples, the purpose and goal is not (or shouldn't be, anyway) merely to evaluate who is getting the highest test scores, or even building up the most stamina. Rather, those tests are (or should be) for the maturity and development of the student body.

In the passage today from Paul's letter to the Corinthians, we are reminded that God tests us. Paul says that "We must not put Christ to the test (ἐκπειράζωμεν), as some of them did test (ἐπείρασαν)", and also, "These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us." In other words, the previous examples of God testing Israel are on our exams too, so we would be wise to keep them in mind when we are being tested. 

Paul continues: "So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing (πειρασθῆναι) has overtaken you that is not common to everyone."

God tests everyone. Testing is common to everyone, according to Paul. But this isn't a unique idea of Paul's. It is an overwhelming theme of the Bible. In the wilderness God tested his people:
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test (πειράσω) them, whether they will walk in my law or not. (Exodus 20:20 LXX) 
Moses said to the people, "Do not fear, for God has come to test (πειράσαι) you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin." (Exodus 16:4 LXX) 
And the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” And he cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a log, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.There the Lord made for them a statute and a rule, and there he tested (ἐπείρασεν) them (Exodus 15:24-25 LXX) 
Take care lest you forget the LORD your God ...when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them,and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, ...who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness... and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test (ἐκπειράσῃ) you, to do you good in the end. (Deuteronomy 8:11-18 LXX)

God even tests his people individually: In Eden God tested Adam. He tested Cain and Abel and others too. One of the most memorable tests of Scripture which God ever gave was to Abraham:
After these things God tested (ἐπείραζεν) Abraham and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." The Lord said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." (Genesis 22:1-2 LXX)

How would you like that to be your test?

Even toward the end of Israel’s history as a nation, in second Chronicles 32:30-31 (LXX), we see another test, and that test also alludes back to the principles we just learned in Deuteronomy 8:11-18 (above) about tests through times of prosperity:
And Hezekiah prospered in all his works. And so in the matter of the princes of Babylon, who had been sent to him to inquire about the sign that had been done in the land, God left him to himself, in order to test (πειράσαι) him and to know all that was in his heart.

There are numerous other passages I could reference, but I think these few illustrate my point. God tests us, and yet, interestingly, in the background of all those passages, God isn't the only one testing us. God's adversary, the devil, and our earthly adversaries take advantage of God's tests, to test us also. Writing to the Bishop of the church in Smyrna, Jesus offers these promises:
I know your tribulation and your poverty and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested (πειρασθῆτε), and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelation 2:9-10)

Whenever we examine Scripture’s examples of testing, whether those examples are about God testing us or being tested by evil, we are always tested in one common aspect of our lives: our loyalty to God.

I find it interesting that in our lectionary reading from Corinthians, not only are we taught to expect tests, but in all of the examples Paul gives us about how not to respond to those tests, he mentions the people putting God to the test. In other words, when Paul teaches us about the tests of life, he wants to know what our response will be: Will our response be loyal love toward God, or will we side with evil against God? Will we put Him to the test?

One of the most striking examples of testing in the New Testament is with Jesus right after his baptism, where he goes into the wilderness and is confronted by Satan. There, at the very heart of Satan’s test, Jesus is challenged to question his loyalty to God. As we know, Jesus passed the devil's test. However, at the very beginning of that story we are told that it is the Spirit who lead Jesus into the wilderness for testing (Matt. 4:1). Not only did the adversary test Jesus, but God tested His own Son too, according to that story. God tests us and our adversaries test us. It is very possible for God’s adversaries and ours to take advantage of those circumstances—those tests from God--to test our loyalty to God.

And as we were reminded by Paul, there is no testing of man which is uncommonTesting is common to us all. If you think your situation of testing is unique, think again. Even Jesus “had been tested (πεπειρασμένον) in every respect as we are”, yet he endured it all without sin (Hebrews 4:15). It is for that very reason we ought to follow the example of Jesus and pray as He instructed us: "Heavenly Father, lead us not into testing (πειρασμόν) but deliver us from the evil one (τοῦ πονηροῦ)." (Matt. 6:13)

After studying the Lord’s Prayer in detail years ago, and offering some thoughts about it, I concluded that the best translation for Matt. 6:13 was “testing,” not “temptation.” The reasons being, first, that by implication, the phrase “Lead us not into temptation” carries the baggage of God tempting us—even tempting us with evil--which He never does, for He can never be tempted to do evil Himself (James 1:13). Secondarily, and as I have already noted, God does lead us into testing, and because the same word for “temptation” (πειρασμός) used in Matt. 6:13 more often means “testing” throughout Scripture, and also is not a contradiction with James 1:13, that seems to be the only reasonable translation. And with that translation of "testing" comes an important lesson about Christian maturity and development, as any loving teacher should want a student to receive. If translated as “testing,” it turns out that Matt. 6:13 is not about deliverance from God ever testing us to mature and develop in life. It's not a request for God to cancel our tests altogether. Rather, the petition, "Lead us not into testing, but deliver us from the evil one" is a description of abandonment—to not be abandoned to go our own way or to fall by evil. Even the surrounding context of the Lord’s Prayer sheds light on that meaning. 

Immediately before the Lord’s Prayer on the Mount, where do we find Jesus being tested in his loyalty to God? In the wilderness (Matt. 4:1). The geographical description could not be more obvious for those familiar with the exodus typology utilized throughout Scripture. It is in the wilderness with God that the evil one tested Israel. He tested Jesus also; and it is there where the evil one tests us too. The Lord's prayer is for the new Israel, the Church, who desperately needs deliverance from the evil one if left to our own ways in the wilderness of life.

Therefore, when we pray as Jesus taught us to pray, that portion about God not leading us into testing is not a request to never be tested, but an acknowledgment of our vulnerability before Him in the wilderness of life. We are the ones who, when tested, are free to side with evil and even respond by testing Him back, by grumbling, complaining, and by not seeking deliverance from Him. So Paul says, don't do that! Instead, pray to your Heavenly Father who alone can give us courage through trials and also will deliver us when we turn to Him. The Lord's Prayer is for God's mercy to spare us from testing that we cannot handle. "For to Him belongs the kingdom and the power and the glory, now and forever."

To Him belongs the power and glory…so seek Him while He is near.

Paul tells us that God is faithful through every test we endure, and He will not let you be tested beyond your ability. With the testing he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. That’s God’s promise to you. God never puts you in a situation where you must sin. He always gives you the freedom to side with Him. So remain loyal to Him through all the tests of life.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

* * * * * * *

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.




Sunday, November 30, 2014

Facing away (A homily for Advent, Isaiah 64:1-9)





First day of Advent (Year B)
Isaiah 64:1-9


If you are familiar with the history recorded in the books of Kings and Chronicles, you know that time in which the prophet Isaiah lived was not a pleasant one. Isaiah lived during the reign of four kings: Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah; and during that time northern Israel and the fortified cities surrounding Judah would endure political and economic turmoil, as well as many, many wars. By the end of Isaiah's life, a number of Israel's fortified cities would be laid to waste, and many of Gods people would be dragged into captivity by the Assyrian military.

The reason for all of that, Isaiah says, is because Israel's iniquities had ruptured their relationship with the Lord. Isaiah tells the people that their hands are covered in blood—but the blood shed is not caused by murder; their hands have become bloody by defrauding their neighbor and suing their brother to the point of leaving him impoverished. Their hands are covered in blood by speaking lies too; and even when they do speak the truth, they speak it in such a way that that speech is violent. Isaiah also denounces the rulers of the land for being companions of thieves, people who love bribes. Instead of upholding justice for the poor, the widow, and the stranger within their gates, Israel's leaders disregard the cries of the poor, and they exploit the widow and stranger. And to make matters worse, when the Lord confronted His people with their sins, they merely went and offered the correct sacrifices, pretending that would appease God's frustration with them and make all things better. 

But the people of God didn’t stop their wicked schemes

Time and time again, the Lord stretched out His hand to help Israel turn from their wicked ways, but the people would not listen; and they would not call upon the name of the Lord for help to change their own ways. They would only call upon the lord to deliver them from troubles. Israel's wickedness had risen to such frustrating heights that the Lord turned His face away from that terminal generation and didn't look back.

All of this stands in the background of Isaiah’s prayer in chapter 64 (part of which is in the lectionary reading for today, vv. 1-9). Here in these verses, Isaiah is found pleading on behalf of Israel, pleading for Yahweh to come down, tearing the heavens open and shaking mountains in order to make His presence known. Isaiah knows Yahweh could come down and visit His people again because the Lord had done it many times before, delivering them from oppression, from fools, from enemies, and even from their own sin. 

Isaiah cries unto the Lord asking Him to come down and make His presence known, to deliver Israel from the Lord's enemies. But the irony of Isaiah's plea is that the Lord had already come down and judged His enemies. Surely it would be great if the Lord came down to deliver Israel from His enemies again, as He had done in the past, but what was Israel to do once they had become His enemy too? What was Israel to do once Yahweh had turned His face away from that generation of His people?

Speaking on behalf of Israel, Isaiah 64:5-7 says this:
Behold, you were angry, and we sinned. We continued in sin for a long time, and shall we be saved  
We have all become like a person who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, carry us away.
There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of You, for You have hidden Your face from us, and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. 

The picture which Isaiah paints is not pretty. God's people walked obstinately in wickedness for a long, long way, and they had reached a point in which even they should have wondered if they had passed the point of no-return. Even they should not have been surprised when the Lord finally turned His face away from them. Isaiah asks, "Will we be saved?" Or, to put it another way, Isaiah is wondering, 'Why would the Lord save us?' After all, they certainly didn't deserve the Lord's help. Isaiah describes them all as being unclean, and even their best attempts of doing good demonstrate their uncleanness. At best all their righteous deeds were like polluted garments--garments spotted by the flesh, bloody garments which kept them from drawing near to God's holy presence.

At this point in the story we should be asking ourselves, ‘What hope would there be, or could there be for the people of God?’ The Lord seems to have already made up His mind, and so, what could Israel do to change that? 

What would you have done if you were in their situation? Would you quit on God or would you wait for Him to return again? 

The reason why I think we should be asking these questions is because of the season that begins today. Today is the first day of Advent, and Advent is a time when questions like these should be asked by the people of God. Advent is a time when Christians are supposed to think through where they have come from, how they stand today in their relationship with God, and how they got from where they were before to where they are now.

Because Advent is a time of serious reflection about life, it’s also a time of repentance and penitence for the people of God. It's a time when we should want Jesus to come into our lives again, delivering us from our sin, to deliver us not only from the oppression of our enemies but also the way we oppress others. We wait upon Christ to come and deliver us from our foolishness, from our hardness of heart, from our injustice, from our ingratitude, so that there is no more blood on our hands.

Isaiah describes the importance of waiting upon the Lord in this way, even during times when everything appeared hopeless:
From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear; no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him. (v.4)
O Yahweh, you are our Father. 
We are the clay, and You are our potter. 
We are all the work of your hand. 
Be not so terribly angry, O Yahweh, and don't remember our iniquity forever.
Behold--please look!--We are all Your people  (vv. 8-9)

As we wait upon the Lord this season we not only remember that Christ has come, but that Christ comes again in time and history, in our lives now as well as at the Last Day. When we look around and see how dark and confusing the world is without Christ, Advent reminds us that it's not, in fact, hopeless. It's not hopeless because Christ came into the world to make all things new, and He keeps visiting His people to keep making all things new. His Kingdom has come and His will is being done on earth, as it is in heaven. Christ is deeply involved in His creation, and He will remain deeply involved in this fallen world up to its Last Day. 

God is not absent from His world, and He has not turned His face away from everyone in it either. That is, in part, what we learn from participating in the Eucharist. That is partly why we feast at the Lord's Table week after week as a rhythm of life. In first Corinthians, the apostle Paul teaches that by participating in the Eucharist we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes, and that proclamation of death each and every week is a continuous token of hope for the world until our Lord comes in final judgment.

In the Eucharist we proclaim the death of a man who tore the heavens open and came down to condemn the sins of His people--that includes the sins in Isaiah's day, in Jesus' day, and even our sins today

In the Eucharist we not only proclaim the death of a man who condemns our sins; we also proclaim the death of a man who took all of the condemnation that we deserve upon Himself, on a cross, to save us from Judgment.

In the Eucharist we receive Christ, and by receiving Christ we have assurance from God that He has not, in fact, turned His face away from us.

* * * * * * *

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins that we may greet you with joy at the coming of our Lord. Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.