Posts Tagged ‘biblical storyline’

Twenty-two of us gathered around a table in the basement last night to talk about Christmas. We also eat at these gatherings. We seem to take cues from those first century gatherings we read about in an old book we call Acts so when we get together we are often eating (I suspect some come for the eating). We weren’t quite talking about Christmas, but about Advent. One has to go through Advent in order to get to Christmas. We are preparing. We are waiting. We are getting ready. In a way, I suspect we are like shepherds tending sheep in the fields or like Magi traveling from the east.

Our conversation actually included a prophet for hire and a donkey who talked. These are great stories but it was the words of the hired prophet that stick out in a context for Advent. “I see him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel.”

I love these meetings. While I do not tend to like labels, we have had people who call themselves Congregationalists and Methodists and Lutherans and Pentecostals attend these meetings. What do you get when you put a group like this in the basement with a holiness preacher for the purpose of listening to old texts together? I think you get a great picture of church. Sometimes this text simply fascinates us. Sometimes it creates more questions than answers. Sometimes it challenges us in ways we did not expect. But we always benefit when we get together for the purpose to hear what it says.

It is our hope that our readings and discussions lead to things like belief and behavior and belonging. If they don’t, then why spend time in the basement on a cold, dark night anyway? We don’t want to be a people who just talk about things. We want these things to spill out onto the street and into the surrounding community. What happens at 212 N High Street, doesn’t stay at 212 N High Street.

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The older I get the more I realize how opinionated I am becoming. I even form strong opinions about things that don’t matter much. One of these is about award shows. (Seriously, does anyone else think this is simply marketing disguised as entertainment)? I have friends who love them. I know people who throw parties on award show night. I am that guy sitting in the corner wondering when real entertainment will ever make a comeback. 

If there have to be award shows, why do we give so many? Let’s just give awards that matter. I think we can narrow it down to one award. One hit song will not get you mentioned. One great performance will not earn you a nomination. Let’s give the award to someone who has done it again and again. Someone who has given years of performance that shapes, influences, and entertains. I understand that no one would go for this idea, we can’t just give the awards to Betty White and Willie Nelson every year. 

I realize that some may think my opinions are a bit over the top. But I do struggle with the people that are put in front of us as people to admire and imitate. I can’t understand what makes the masses stand in line to be amused by trivial stuff that will be out of season next year. 

There are people to admire. There are people it would be worthwhile to imitate. But these people do not get invited to news shows, they don’t become internet sensations, they aren’t interviewed by journalists. No one gives out awards to people for their integrity or humility or their ability to do the right thing for a long time. 

On wiser days, we might check to see what the Bible says. As it turns out, the Bible is full of people who aren’t very heroic. Check the resumes of these people, they lie and cheat and commit adultery. It almost seems like the Bible does this on purpose. We don’t get a lot of people to admire. Instead, what we find in the Bible is a lot of God. When one of these people fall, God picks them up. We start to realize these stories aren’t about floods and giants and lions and big fish, these are stories about God. 

The Bible doesn’t want us to become roadies for some heroic spiritual superstars. The Bible doesn’t let us celebrate one good hit along the way or allow us to follow religious celebrities. Instead, we are encouraged for a long-haul journey with God.

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Readers of the Bible know the story isn’t over. The principalities and powers appear to have the upper hand. There are still dragons out there. A roaring lion still prowls about seeking whom he may devour. And a battle continues to be waged. A resistance group continues to infiltrate society. Maybe you belong to it. Maybe you know someone who does. Maybe you are thinking about joining. It might not look like it on the surface. But readers of the Bible know the resistance is winning.

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We lived in a rural setting saturated with Appalachian influence. Appalachia presents a great deal of cultural uniqueness and this includes its spirituality. We agreed with ideas about the omnipresence of God, but indirectly we were taught that God resided at the altar. This was the place to find Him and the primary place we could go to talk to Him. But we also believed that God could be found in revival meetings, camp meetings, and preachers. In our part of the world the louder the preacher and the more the preacher chastised the listener, the more of God they seemed to have.

We were also taught that God did not reside at bowling alleys, skating rinks, movie theaters, or places where dancing was permitted. It improved the odds of having an encounter with God if we only stayed away from the wrong places and the wrong people. Even other church groups were not as holy as we were and we had doubts they would even be in heaven. This influenced the way we prayed. It became essential to pray for others; after all we wanted them to become part of the right church.

The most significant impact on my spirituality during this time was my parents. They had become serious about their own spiritual lives and we were barraged with spiritual influence. We began attending church three times a week. We were frequent attenders of revival meetings. We listened to Christian programming on radio. We were encouraged to pray before bed, before our meals, and without ceasing. We were encouraged to memorize scripture. Somehow Mom and Dad were able to sort through the excess baggage and unnecessary furniture that came with much of Appalachian spirituality. Even more, they were able to point us in the direction to begin a journey with God.

Much of this was due to the high regard they gave to the word of God. The Bible was not just any book in our family. It was the book where we learned about direction and the place we learned about God’s will. I learned early that the Bible invites us into its story. I had discovered how a nation of slaves had been rescued. I had learned a young shepherd had taken down a giant with a rock. I had learned that three young Hebrews had survived a fiery furnace without a scratch. I discovered that a runaway prophet was swallowed by a big fish. These stories were eye opening for me. There were no doubts these were the kind of stories I wanted in on. I was convinced I was related to these people.

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We are told the human story begins in a garden. We are told there were trees pleasing to the eye and they were good for food. We are told there was gold and aromatic resin and onyx. I imagine it to be a place where the wind blew the scent of lilac and lavender and honeysuckle. A place where fish and frogs and turtles splashed in its waters. I imagine laurel and ferns and other ground cover where canines and felines and bovines made paths as they made their way through.

I imagine it to be a place where these trees reached upward, deciduous and conifer, boasting seasonal bloom and color. Trees that became home to owls and woodpeckers and cardinals. I imagine the garden to be full of amphibians and birds and insects that joined as a great choir. I imagine sunny skies by day and shimmering night lights. I imagine brilliant colors on the horizon both evening and morning visible from strategic places in the garden. I imagine a dazzling creation display. While my imaginings are tainted by my local eco sphere, there is something we are told for certain. This is a place where God dwelt with his people.

When humans entered Genesis, we entered as stewards of creation. We also entered as representatives of God. Genesis not only tells us who we are, but what we are made for. We bear the image of God. This is not only a statement about identity, but also about mission. The primary task of an image bearer is to represent the one whose image you bear. Image bearers are to reflect the Creator’s wisdom into the world.

As image bearing representatives, we are designed to work with God toward His purposes. We are designed to use our gifts to follow God’s plan. Yet, we often use our abilities to generate other gods. We abort God’s plan and work toward our own glory. We literally sabotage the very thing we have been made for. The biblical storyline essentially says that by worshipping other gods we give ourselves to wilderness wanderings and exile, principalities and powers. If we expect the world to take us seriously, we need to become more serious about our role as God’s representatives.

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Here is how N. T. Wright describes the common view of sin in The Day the Revolution Began “A killjoy, finger-wagging, holier than thou moralism” that focuses on “small personal misdemeanors” and ignores “major injustice and oppression.”  Such a definition eventually arrives at “A severe story line that cheerfully sends most of the human race into everlasting fire.”

The Greek word for sin means “missing the mark.” It is a picture of shooting for a target and failing to hit it. Wright suggests this is far different than receiving a long list of things you must and must not do. He proposes it was wrongdoers who used to worry about sin, but no more. Now “The people banging on about sin are those who think it’s someone else’s problem.” Some of us still try to cling to the old rules. Others have become trendier and thump the pulpit “against fossil fuels rather than fornication.”

What I like most about Revolution is N. T. Wright’s attempt to be faithful to the biblical storyline. His attempt to talk about sin in context of the biblical story results in stimulating discussion. He is convinced we have tended to talk about sin in ways that the bible does not. Wright suggests our conversation about wrong behavior usually sounds like failure to keep a moral contract. He goes to great length to tell readers that sin is more serious than breaking a moral code.

Wright tells us we have willingly “handed over control to forces that will destroy us and thwart our original purpose.” We have rejected our God given vocation to be “image bearers” and have given our authority to other powers and forces within creation. These forces have taken that authority and “run rampant, spoiling human lives, ravaging the beautiful creation, and doing their best to turn God’s world into a hell.”

Wright labels this “Idolatry” which he explains “covers a lot more than simply the manufacture and adoration of actual physical images.” This happens when we place anything above the Creator. When humans worship parts of the created order or forces in creation, they give away power to those forces which will then rule over them. Sin then, is not simply the breaking of a moral code but is missing the mark of genuine humanness by worshipping idols rather than the one true God.

Sin is bad. But Wright wants us to know that it is a symptom of a deeper problem. And that problem is addressed by the biblical storyline. “The problem is that humans were made for a particular vocation, which they have rejected.” And “This rejection involves a turning away from the living God to worship idols.” And “This results in giving life to the idols – ‘forces’ within the creation – a power over humans and the world…”

When humans fail in their image bearing vocation, the powers seize control. And the Creator’s plan for creation does not proceed as intended. The problem is not that humans have misbehaved and need punishing. The problem is that we have refused to play our part in God’s creation. It may be a moral failure but is also a vocational failure. To worship creature rather than God is to choose death. Genesis 3 is deeply etched in the biblical storyline and the pages of history. Obey the serpent’s voice and you forfeit the right to the tree of life. Just as the prophets insisted, exile is the result of sin. Leaving the land is as leaving the garden.

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I recently picked up N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began. Admittedly, I loved it as soon as I read the title. I loved it even more after being pulled into the biblical storyline and enjoying Wright’s ability to pull me into the narrative. Here is an excerpt from the first page; “Another young leader had been brutally liquidated. This was the sort of thing that Rome did best. Caesar was on his throne. Death, as usual, had the last word. Except that in this case it didn’t…” He goes on “Something had happened that afternoon that had changed the world. That by six o’clock on that dark Friday evening the world was a different place.”

Crucifixion was intended to demonstrate who holds the power. And that the powerful were willing to use extreme pain, brutality and shame to make that message clear. Crucifixion was designed to stop a revolution in its tracks. Wright tells us that when Jesus told followers to carry their cross, they would not have heard this as a metaphor. In opposition to the worlds displays of power, the shame and horror became part of the meaning. The biblical storyline became clearer for the followers of Jesus.

The biblical storyline is not the only thing that helped shape the meaning of the crucifixion. There were already existing meanings of the cross as a death instrument that were influential. Wright gives three meanings for crucifixion in the first century. 1) The cross carries social meaning. Simply, we are superior and you are inferior. 2) The cross had political meaning. We are in charge here and you are not. 3) The cross had theological meaning. The gods of Rome and Caesar (son of a god) are more powerful than your gods. As Jesus hung on the cross, these meanings were heard loud and clear and appeared to be true.

Wright spends significant time talking about the themes and narratives that early Christians would have already had in their heads that allowed them to make sense of the crucifixion the way they did. We might ask, alongside Wright, “Why did they not see this as an end of a potential Jesus based revolution?” Instead they saw crucifixion as the beginning. The New Testament insists that when Jesus of Nazareth died, something happened that changed the world.

Early Christians started talking as if this shocking, scandalous execution launched a revolution.  They began to see this as the pivotal event in the story of God. In fact, this was the vital moment in all of human history. God had put his plan in operation – his plan to rescue the world. They saw the crucifixion as the inauguration of God’s plan. The early Christians insisted that followers of King Jesus became part of the difference. The New Testament, with the cross at its center, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven. According to Wright, the first sign the revolution was underway was the resurrection.

Wright wants us to recognize the cross as more than allowing for personal salvation, more than a ticket to heaven. He does not deny personal meaning for individuals, but wants to be clear that the cross carries significant meaning for the wider world. Wright wants us to know that Jesus died so that we could become part of God’s plan to put the world right. Welcome to the revolution.

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