Sunday, August 26, 2012

Suffering Servant

There is a tendency among us moderns to regard ancient peoples as somewhat unsophisticated, living in a preliterate world and without our understanding of the world and how it works, their lives riddled by superstition and folk legend.  Primitive is a word often used of these people.
Then we are reminded that some of the greatest works of literature were written at the same time as many of the books of the Bible, some even earlier.  Homer, the great Greek writer of the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, lived in the 7th or 8th century B.C., about the time that the prophet Isaiah lived.  Isaiah 40–66 is one of the greatest pieces of poetic writing in all history. A message of comfort and hope for God’s people in the hopelessness of exile, it constantly stresses the greatness and sovereignty of the one true God over against the idols of Babylon and those who follow them, including those who seem to be great kings and tyrants on the earth. But it also repeatedly plays off the power and faithfulness of YHWH against the folly and failings of Israel itself; Israel has not only given up hope, but seems to have abandoned faith as well. 
So God is there in the middle, flanked on the one side by the cruelty and wickedness of Babylon and the failure and faithlessness of Israel on the other.  In this juxtaposition Israel more like the Babylonians than the God they claim claims them.  Their rejection of Yahweh is every bit as wicked as the Babylonians ignorance of Him and their arrogance toward Israel.
Into this tension emerges a third figure, bearing the divine purposes into the heart of the storm. The “servant of Yahweh” is introduced in 42:1–9, and his work is to bring to fulfillment the rescue operation God has in mind.  But this rescue operation is different than the kind Israel was accustomed to—and different than the kind that is heralded in Western culture.  This is no Clint Eastwood riding in pistols drawn, gunning down all the bad guys.  No, this rescue operation is accomplished through suffering and, ultimately, death.  It is through his suffering and death, described here in terms of sacrifice (53:10), that the sins of the people find atonement and forgiveness. Throughout Isaiah 40–55, this “forgiveness” means, quite explicitly, return from exile; exile had been the punishment for the people’s sins, and their return is the embodiment of their forgiveness.  But it is not just forgiveness that his suffering and death accomplishes, but the ultimate defeat of those powers like Babylon that depend on violence, force, and oppression.  We are not talking about sin and death here as abstractions, but as those tools which the powerful use to terrorize, conquer, subjugate and exploit people.  The ability to kill, to bring death to whole villages—even the mere threat of it—forces people to bow to the powers that be. 
The way that these powers are defeated, however, cannot be by playing their game, only bigger and better; that just perpetuates the problem.  It is by serving, suffering, and dying that these powers are defeated.  It’s not for nothing that this character is called, “The Suffering Servant.”  These are the means of rescuing the oppressed and bringing in the Kingdom of God.  The result, in the great prophetic poem, is a new covenant and a new creation.   “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant.”  (Isaiah 55:3)  Eventually it becomes clear that this Servant is no mere man, though man indeed he is; somehow, in his work and his death, he is doing what Yahweh himself had promised to do—rescue, redeem, and restore Yahweh’s kingdom.  The return of Yahweh to Zion, on the one hand, and the suffering of the servant, on the other, turn out to be two ways of saying the same thing. And the overall point is that this is where the power of pagan Babylon and the failure of God’s people Israel are met with the sovereign, saving, kingdom-establishing rule of God himself.
Jesus died not just to forgive sins, but to establish God’s Kingdom.  We tend to emphasize the former and neglect the latter, but we can’t ever separate the two. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A New Center

That religions are no longer confined to geographical regions but are now all around us is a major shift that Christians in America will have to adjust to.  I wrote about this last week, and undoubtedly it had already come to your attention before I talked about it.  But there is another giant shift, perhaps even larger, that is occurring within Christianity that undoubtedly has gone largely unnoticed by the average Christian in America.  They wouldn’t have reason to notice it, for it isn’t occurring in their backyard—or front yard, for that matter.  But it has huge implications.
Christianity began in the Mediterranean basin and remained there for the first few centuries.  Paul’s letters reflect this, as they are written to churches in Asia Minor or Italy, and refer to churches in Jerusalem, Macedonia, and Spain.  Though unmentioned by Paul, we also know that there were strong Christian communities in Egypt and Ethiopia.  Over the centuries it spread into Russia and Europe, but not without problems.  A schism in the 5th centuries led to the Egyptian church—called Coptic Christianity—to go its separate ways, and in the 11th century the church suffered another great schism, this between the western churches centered in Rome—what became the Roman Catholic Church—and the eastern churches centered in Constantinople—what became the Orthodox Churches.  The Protestant Reformation was a fight within the western church.  Thus even Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians etc. are part of Western Christianity, and this is the perspective that many of us take.
But Christianity is no longer centered in the West.  This is not just because Christianity is declining in Europe and stagnant in N. America, but because it is growing in the global South—S. America and Africa—and East—in S. Korea and China in particular.  And even if its spread there is the result of missionaries from the West, these cultures are giving Christianity their own unique flavor.  Beyond the cultural differences between western Christianity and that in the global South or East, there are two other major differences.
First, the churches in these areas are in the religious minority.  Christianity is expanding most rapidly among millions of people whose cultures are steeped in millennia of Buddhist and Hindu motifs, Confucian values, and indigenous African and shamanic rituals.  For many of them, it is dangerous to be a Christian, and many have faced family rejection as a result of their faith in Jesus.
Second, in stark contrast to the relative wealth of western Christians and the churches they attend—or belong to but no longer bother to attend—these Christians live in poverty, real poverty.  As a result of these two things, there is a real vitality to their faith.  They have neither the time nor the inclination to debate each other on points of doctrine like predestination, the exact nature of the Trinity, and proper modes of baptism.  Instead, they read Scripture and energetically discussed the problems their communities were facing in light of the passage they had read.    Jesus is less a “personal” savior whose mission was to rescue individuals from a sinful world, but the one who announced and demonstrated the nearness of the Kingdom of God that is to come to their world.
In these two areas—their minority status and their poverty—the new center of Christianity reflects the time of the early Christians much more than the western church ever has since the time of Constantine.  Unsullied by wealth and power, unencumbered by endless—and pointless—theological debates, unfettered by the insistence that a particular form of church governance is the only right way, these churches and these Christians are vibrant in their community life and their witness.  It’s as if, because it’s hard to be a Christian in these areas, Christianity is flourishing.  Christians do best under pressure, when “taking up the cross” is more literal than metaphorical.  We should be watching and learning from these Christians.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Close Proximity

Our world is more religiously pluralistic than ever before, which is not to say that it is more religiously diverse than before.  It’s always been diverse.  All the major faiths have been around for centuries if not millennia.  Islam is the youngster at “only” 1600 years, followed by Christianity (2000), Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism (2500), Hinduism (3000), and Judaism at 3800 years. old.  (All ages approximates.)  That’s just the major religions, the ones with the most adherents.  There are lots of religions with smaller numbers.  So the world has always been religiously diverse.
But each of these religions tended to be geographically and culturally separated from each other.  You used to be able to look at a map of the world and locate the major religions by looking at certain continents: Hinduism occupying the Indian subcontinent, Buddhism spread across Southeast Asia from Thailand and Cambodia up to Japan, Confucianism and Taoism in China, Islam spread across north Africa, through the Middle East, and into Indonesia, and Christianity sprawled comfortably across both Americas and Europe.  Today all these religions are everywhere. The other religions are here, not just there. Immigration patterns have transported large Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim populations to Europe and America. Pagodas and mosques nestle among churches and synagogues. You don’t see it as much in Frederick County, but go down to Montgomery County or over to Baltimore County.  And religious pluralism is coming to Frederick County.  It’s already started.
Unfortunately, proximity has not typically engendered respect.  More often it has bred suspicion, fear, and even outright hostility.  Hindus and Muslims slaughter each other on the Indian subcontinent. Ultra-Orthodox Jews and radical Muslims aggravate rivalries in Israel and Palestine with claims that Yahweh or Allah has given them the land. The recent killing of Sikhs by a neo-Nazi—which, unfortunately, in America claim to be Christians—mistakenly thinking that they were Muslims is indicative of the problem.  If we can’t avoid one another (as if that should have ever been our goal) then we must avoid fear and hostility.  We must understand one another.  We must educate ourselves.  We must talk.
It’s interesting: even though Jesus never met a Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu, they have met him.  While none accept that he is the Son of God, these religions, if not their followers, do hold him in high regard.  Jews and Muslims regard him as a prophet; in Buddhism he is a bodhisattva, a person who is able to attain nirvana but out of compassion delays doing so in order to save suffering humans.  To Hindus he is an avatar, an incarnated god and divine teacher.  They are not attracted to Christianity, nor necessarily to Christians, but they are attracted to Jesus.  But their attraction has less to do with who he was than what he did and taught.  They are drawn to this Jesus for his exemplary courage, his compassion for the disinherited, and his willingness to stand up to corrupt political and religious authorities.  And they are especially drawn to his emphasis on the possibility of another kind of world where gentleness and equality prevail.  This world, of course, Jesus called the Kingdom of God.
It’s interesting, though, that many Christians are drawn to Jesus for who he is and what he can do for them, and have little interest in what he really had to say about the Kingdom of God.  Most hardly notice that he talked about it at all, or think that was just his way of talking about heaven.  Maybe it’s time for Christians to be as enamored with Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God as the other religions are.
Then maybe we’ll have the basis of something to talk about.  Because if we are going to live with these people, we better start talking to them.  Then maybe we won't disrespect them, fear them, discriminate against them, and kill them.
And it seems to me that’s a big step towards the Kingdom of God that Jesus oriented his whole life around.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Maybe, just maybe...

The O’s are 8 games above .500.  And it’s the second week in August.  If the playoffs were to begin today, they’d be in.  Playoffs?

Maybe this year they won't falter down the stretch.  

Maybe this year they won’t rip our hearts out.  

Maybe it’s time to nominate Buck for beatification.  (He’s already got the miracle thing down, which always seemed to me to be the hardest obstacle to sainthood for anyone.  That and you gotta be dead.  But we are all going to die, so I'm sticking with the performing miracles thing.)

Maybe it’s time to start believing.


Thursday, August 2, 2012


When you read the Bible in its full sweep—not just bits and pieces here and there, a verse-of-the-day or even a chapter a day, but as one interconnected whole—you get the feeling that the universe is going somewhere.  There is a story that is being played out, even if its plot line is sometimes hard to discern.  This may seem obvious,  because in our worldview history is viewed as something moving along a line.  (It’s not for nothing that embedded in the word “history” is that word “story”, which implies a beginning, middle, and end, or at the very least a first chapter and then second, third, fourth and on in subsequent order.)  But that is because our Western culture has its roots in a church culture (even if that church culture was at times not a Christian culture) that shaped it.  Not all cultures and the religions that shape them look at history in the same way.  Buddhism, for example, has no account of creation and denies any beginning or end of space or time: what is now always has been and always will be. The Hindu saga consists of endless cycles of time and innumerable universes.  History is not a line but a circle or perhaps more accurately a spiral.  But the biblical story is neither static nor cyclical. It depicts a reality that is moving in a certain direction. The Bible opens poetically with a world rising out of chaos (“the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,” Gen. 1:2) and ends, also poetically, with a world in which “there are no more tears” (Rev. 21:4).  The Bible portrays the world as a creative process, not the changeless substance the ancient Greeks favored.  And even science agrees.
It’s not popular in some Christian circles to embrace current scientific theories concerning the origins of the universe, but if we would stop and listen, we might hear some pretty profound things.  Starting with the fact that our universe is expanding and working backward, scientists postulate a time, called a singularity, when the entire universe was densely compacted into a space just a few millimeters in diameter.  It then exploded and has been cooling and expanding ever since. 
What was the universe like before the singularity?  No one knows, and there is nothing out there that gives any clue.  There is just the singularity, and nothing before.  In other words, there is a beginning, and there is everything after that.  And to say that there is a beginning is to say that there is an end, but not in the sense that all movement will come to a screeching halt.  To say there is an end is to say that the universe is going somewhere—that there is a destination.  It isn’t static. There is a past, and there is a future, and while the two are linked, they are different.  The future is not the same old thing as in the past—a static view—nor is it a repeat of the past—the cyclical view, but it is a whole new thing that is in keeping with what came before. This is very biblical.  The Bible portrays our world as having a beginning and an end i.e. a goal, a time of fulfillment.  Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.
There is a clear link between past and future, beginning and end.  But it does not consist of trying to return to a lost golden age.  All churches face the struggle with those who want the church to be the way it always was and those who want to move it forward, but this is natural.  Indeed, just about every denomination and every recent new movement in Christianity claims to be trying to return the church to some ideal past, whether it be Pentecostals reviving the church depicted in Acts, or Catholics claiming a straight-line progression from Jesus through the apostles down to the present pope, or the Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists each claiming that their form of governance is that of the New Testament church.  But there is no road back to the primitive church or to the “old-time religion” American revivalists sing about.
Nonetheless, the impulse to look back is good.  The future is not forged by forgetting the past but by learning from it, both from its mistakes and from its successes.  What we should be doing today and tomorrow is to continue what Jesus and those who immediately followed him were doing; otherwise we’ll find ourselves doing something very different and calling it Christianity.  Looking backward in order to move forward is not easy, but it is not frivolous. Unlike Hinduism, whose beginnings merge into the mists of primeval legend, there was a real historical time when there was no Christianity; then suddenly there it was. It is understandable, therefore, that Christians periodically revisit Jesus and the first few Christian generations to remind themselves what the original movement was about at its onset. Understanding our past can reopen roads that might have been taken, but were not.
Our pasts can shackle us, but if we follow Jesus as he moves toward the promised Kingdom, our pasts can also root us into the full sweep of an ever expanding faith.