Tag Archives: Grace

The Gilead Novels (Marilynne Robinson)

I have read Gilead and Home twice now, and I have just finished reading Lila for the first time. I have also listened to the audio versions of Gilead and Home. These are beautifully written novels, gentle, slow, and humane. Robinson’s gift is bringing her characters to life in an easy and unforced manner, letting them grow in depth, colour and texture as the novels proceed. The novels are set in the 1950s, although they recall earlier periods of American history as the stories of the characters’ lives unfold.

Each of the novels centre around the Iowa town of Gilead where Rev. John Ames is pastor of a small Christian congregation. Late in life—and to his utter surprise—Ames marries and fathers a child. Gilead tells something of his story, of Lila, and of Robert, their son. It also introduces the Boughtons who have been lifelong friends of Ames, and still are. Home picks up the Boughton’s story, especially that of Glory, one of the daughters, and of Jack, the wayward and troubled son come home.

Each of the novels unfolds from the inner life of its major character—John Ames, Glory Boughton, and now Lila Ames. Detailed observation and rich dialogue introduce and develop the other characters and provide the drama of the novels. Through the dialogue and reflections we are introduced into the complexity and wonder of human life and relationships. Surprises and intrigue emerge, as does a portrayal of human life and relationship in all its messiness and meanness, glory and hope.

The religious permeates the pages. Robinson brings depths of theological reflection into her work, including her admiration of Calvin and her undying conviction of the supremacy and triumph of divine grace. One of the amusing sentences in Lila has Lila responding to something Ames says:

“That’s Calvin. The way he talks about it, they must still have been doing it in the sixteenth century. Four hundred years ago.”

“I didn’t even know he was dead. Calvin. The way you and Boughton talk about him” (Lila, 131).

It is likely, however, that stricter Calvinists will be less than happy with her universalist tendencies which are present in each volume, but especially so in Lila. Lila fills in the back story of Mrs Ames, and is a very different novel, because Lila’s is a very different voice. Abandoned and stolen as a child, and cared for by a fugitive, Lila grows up isolated and lonely, scared and suspicious, hurting and ready to flee. Lila’s inner reflections run seamlessly between reminiscences of an earlier time, and present thoughts and conditions. Much of the novel is about her learning to live a different life, to relax into a new kind of life completely foreign: to be loved, and to be happy. That she is married is as much a surprise to her as it was to Ames. That she will be a mother is a revelation, and the ground of new anxieties and hopes.

There is much to savour here, not least the beautiful and evocative style Robinson brings to her work. Her vision is of life suffused with grace, utterly permeated with divine providence even in the midst of the sheer ordinariness of everyday existence if only we have eyes to see it. Indeed, the providence is there even when we cannot see it, or can see it only dimly or in hindsight. But there is no easy faith here. Life may be ordinary; it may also be banal, cruel, and tragic. And yet divine grace is all around, tugging and calling gently to any and all. And grace—the divine goodness at the centre of it all—cannot bear to be without that which it loves.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 1:21-28

Read 1 Samuel 1:21-28

After the birth of Samuel Hannah did not return with the rest of the family for the annual sacrifice at Shiloh until after her son was weaned. In ancient times many children were nursed for over three years, and a child may have been over five years old before fully weaned (Evans, 29). Although Samuel would still have been a young child when he arrived at Shiloh, it is unlikely he was just an infant.

In bringing Samuel to the Lord at Shiloh, and placing him in Eli’s care Hannah was fulfilling the vow she had made to the Lord. Evans notes that it was Hannah who made the vow, and Hannah who took responsibility for its fulfilment (29). Along with the sacrifice of the bull, Hannah was making an even greater sacrifice, a sacrifice of the heart, giving her all, her best, to the Lord. She was returning that which she had received, to the Lord who had given it. Her gift to the Lord was the gift she had received from him. This pattern of reception and response suggests a manner of spiritual life (“Freely you have received, freely give…”). All that we are and have comes to us from the gracious hand of God; to offer ourselves in worship, gratitude and service back to God acknowledges and fulfils this gift of grace. The proper response to charis (grace) is eucharistia (gratitude).

Hannah’s prayer—actually a psalm or song of praise—is given not at Samuel’s birth, but at the time of her handing him over. This suggests perhaps that she was not so much “making a deal” with God, but in her heart of hearts had hoped for a son that she might devote him to Yahweh.

Hannah’s thanksgiving to God does not happen when she becomes pregnant or when Samuel is born, as if what she wanted was a child to rival Peninnah’s brood. … what Hannah wants from God is a deliverer for Israel (Murphy, 19).

In her sorrow she had cried out to God, and now in her joy she praises him. Either way, her heart is turned toward God. Little Samuel has caught the spirit of his mother, for he also “worshipped the Lord there” (1:28; though perhaps this is a reference to Elkanah?), and when his family left him and returned home, “the boy ministered to the Lord in the presence of Eli the priest” (2:11).

Francesca Murphy regards Hannah as an oddity in Israel, atypical in terms of Israel religion and culture:

Out of the human tendency to avoid unpleasantness, we tend to reconfigure the story in a moralistic way and imagine Hannah as though she were typical of Israelite culture, whereas in fact she is presented as atypical, an isolated oddity. We make the light that shines on Hannah alone shine on everyone around her, imposing our moralism on the story because its own realism is too grim for us to endure. … Hannah was a maverick in a culture that mixed soliciting the gods of sexual reproduction with pilgrimages to the shrine of Yahweh. What was outward and public in Israelite religious (sic) was not true to Israel’s God; only what was inward and secret, in Hannah, was genuinely committed to the God of Israel (Murphy, 21).

Hannah is presented in the narrative as a forerunner, leading to real Israel, and a genuine knowledge of and faith in God. Later in Israel’s history another faithful woman will sing another prophetic song based very much on Hannah’s song in 2:1-10: Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Christian tradition has long linked these two mother/son stories in iconography and liturgy, for in the former we see the latter prefigured, and in both, the one story of God’s redemption of his people through the birth of a child.

The Blood of His Cross (11) – Anthony Thiselton

The more I read of Anthony Thiselton’s The Hermeneutics of Doctrine the more I appreciate it. His three chapters on the atoning work of Jesus and the interpretation of the cross provide additional cause for appreciation. The first chapter is inelegantly titled “Hermeneutics and Linguistic Currencies of Theologies of the Cross,” with Thiselton developing a quite simple analogy and making a quite straight-forward point. The analogy: “In financial currency-markets hard currencies are those that do not readily fluctuate with time or with changing conditions in other economies” (320). The point: biblical language is like a hard currency; it must be understood against the historical-linguistic contexts in which it emerged, but holds its value in the face of different contexts and “economies.” He cites Wolfhart Pannenberg with approval and emphasis:

The fact that a later age may find it hard to understand traditional ideas is not sufficient reason for replacing them. It simply shows how necessary it is to open up these ideas to later generations by interpretation, and thus keep their meaning alive. The problems that people have with ideas like expiation and representation (or substitution) in our secularized age rest less on any lack of forcefulness in the traditional terms than on the fact that those who are competent to interpret them do not explain their context with sufficient forcefulness or clarity (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 2:422; cited Thiselton, 312).

The chapter progresses in four moves. First, Thiselton argues that Christian interpretation and proclamation of the cross must begin with two interpretive horizons in view. First, the interpreter must deal with human pre-understandings, those points of contact in common human experience which may function as a bridge to understanding doctrinal truth. Second, the interpreter must deal with the subject matter itself in its own historical-linguistic context. He illustrates this opening contention with three examples.

The first concerns the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” Thiselton suggests that while the jury is still out with respect to the best way to understand the nature of first-century Judaism, and so also Paul’s doctrine of justification (the second horizon), the old perspective at least has the advantage of linking the work of the cross to the experience of the human condition and plight (the first horizon). That is, “a human experience of struggle, guilt, or alienation from God” is “ingredient in the revelation of the self in relation to God” (315), an experience addressed by the cross of Christ. In a pointed conclusion Thiselton writes,

We cannot exclude a horizon of understanding, then, that responds to questions about human plight in terms of the saving work of Christ. While Sanders’ work invites respect in exploring a horizon of understanding in the second sense, its validity is by no means self-evident or beyond criticism, and Käsemann rightly warns us that if we press such approaches, we may end up replacing Paul’s core concerns about justification by grace with issues of ecclesiology (316).

Far more important for Thiselton is his insistence that any discussion of atonement theology must begin with the New Testament emphasis on the grace of God. As such, we understand the atonement best not by starting with ideas of human fallenness or divine wrath and judgement, but with the love of God toward humanity. Further, objections to atonement must likewise deal with Old and New Testament contexts of the teaching.

Finally Thiselton notes that the variety of metaphors and images used in the New Testament to describe the work of Christ all provide horizons of meaning and points of access for understanding that work.

In the next two sections of the chapter Thiselton explores the “hard currencies” of the biblical language for redemption, salvation, reconciliation, and mediation. He insists that these terms must be understood against their Old Testament usage, with an eye, consequently, to the way in which they are modified in the New Testament. This usage then provides the initial hermeneutical horizon within which the meaning of these terms is to be understood.

Thus in his discussion of redemption, he notes that the term “usually denotes transference from a state of bondage or jeopardy to a state of well-being by a costly act” (321). In the Old Testament the pre-eminent symbol of this work is the exodus with its themes of political and social liberation.

In very broad terms the Exodus paradigm remains a founding model for a horizon of understanding within which to perceive the meaning of redeem and redemption. However, the New Testament writers qualify the salvific model with a sociological one. This is the model of release from slavery to an oppressive master to the lordship of a new master or Kurios. … The transaction in Paul’s theology involved a price not for freedom but for change of ownership (322).

Hopefully the theological, pastoral and homiletical implications of that final sentence are clear. Christian salvation involves not liberation in an abstract sense so that now one is free of all limitation, restraint, authority, and responsibility. Rather, it is liberation from an oppressive master to become dependent upon and responsible to a new Lord.

Although there is no explicit linguistic background in the Old Testament to the language of reconciliation and mediation, Thiselton argues that the New Testament imagery is grounded in and develops ideas and images present there.

The final section of the chapter returns to the fact that the New Testament uses multiple concepts and images when discussing Christ’s saving work on the cross. Again his point is simple: these multiple approaches to understanding the work of the cross serve as models and qualifiers. That is, each of them communicates an aspect of the truth, and so they also complement and condition each other, as well as provide imaginative avenues for appropriating and participating in the work of the cross (331). Thus Thiselton discusses the work of the cross utilising ideas of sacrifice, forensic approaches, Jesus’ obedience, and the theme of victory. Of particular interest in this series of blog posts is his comment with respect to forensic approaches:

Some writers concede that it is legitimate to speak of substitution in these two passages, but reject the traditional Reformation term penal substitution. Yet…the cross and crucifixion belong to the conceptual domain of punishment for crimes. The antipathy toward using penal is understandable if or when this one aspect is overpressed, as if no other concept qualified it. Equally the term penal substitution becomes misleading if it is abstracted from its proper hermeneutical horizon of divine grace as an overarching understanding. Vincent Taylor judiciously observes, “Everyone desires a better word than penal, but until we find it we ought not to abandon it [simply] because it has been used in ways that revolt the conscience…” (334).

Reading Karl Barth on Election (2)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:12-24, The Orientation of the Doctrine of Election.

Barth then develops his next major point, namely, that the doctrine of election must be understood as gospel, as grace. There can be no parallel or coordination of election and reprobation otherwise the good news becomes “bad news” (12-18; the reference to “bad news” is on page 18).

The truth which must now occupy us, the truth of the doctrine of predestination, is first and last and in all circumstances the sum of the Gospel … Its content is instruction and elucidation, but instruction and elucidation which are to us a proclamation of joy. It is not a mixed message of joy and terror, salvation and damnation. … The election of grace is the sum of the Gospel—we must put it as pointedly as that. But more, the election of grace is the whole of the Gospel, the Gospel in nuce. It is the very essence of all good news (12-14).

Barth acknowledges that the doctrine “throws a shadow” (13), but insists that the No must be spoken only in service of the Yes which is the first and last word. For Barth, the doctrine must be understood unequivocally as gospel. Barth notes that this positive statement of the doctrine has been asserted throughout the tradition, which indicates its “evangelical character.” Barth provides a brief biblical overview of the nature of election as grace in which he insists that there are not two columns in the Book of Life, but one column only. Whence, then, the doctrine of “double predestination”? Barth traces the concept through Augustine, Aquinas, Isidore of Seville, Gottschalk, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and the Arminians.

The basic demand by which any presentation of the doctrine must be measured, and to which we ourselves must also conform, is this: that (negatively) the doctrine must not speak of the divine election and rejection as though God’s electing and rejecting were not quite different, as though these divine dealings did not stand in a definite hierarchical relationship the one with the other; and that (positively) the supremacy of the one and subordination of the other must be brought out so radically that the Gospel enclosed and proclaimed even in this doctrine is introduced and revealed as the tenor of the whole, so that in some way or other the Word of the free grace of God stands out even at this point as the dominating theme and the specific meaning of the whole utterance (18).

Barth identifies three central characteristics which all “serious” conceptions of the doctrine have in common: “they all find the nerve of the doctrine, the peculiar concern which forces them to present and assert it, in the fact that it characterizes the grace of God as absolutely free and thereby divine” (19). This grace is free, mysterious, and righteous (18-24). There is no cause for election other than God’s free grace. No works or righteousness or even faith are the ground for being elect. God’s grace and therefore his election is mysterious and incomprehensible, and so can be investigated only in faith and adoration. God cannot be called to account before the bar of human reason. Finally, the tradition has also insisted that in the exercise of his free and mysterious grace, God is also righteous. At this point, Barth qualifies the tradition insisting that only as we understand who God is can we agree that election is righteous. If the believer’s agreement is forced, if they harbor secret questions, doubts or protests about the nature of election, it is not true adoration: “We are not bowing before the caprice of a tyrant. Our submission cannot be such that it is accompanied by a still-remaining and ever-increasing inward complaint and resistance” (22). There can be no sacrifice of the intellect in this matter; conversely, we must allow our intellect to be instructed by God: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Barth provides a number of citations from Calvin (23) in which Calvin argues that “God’s will is reason” because God is perfectly just and the fount of all justice. There is no higher court of appeal to which God must give account. God’s justice may be secret; it is also blameless.

For the will of God is so much the highest rule of justice, that whatever he wills must be considered just. So when it is asked why God acts in such-and-such a way, it must be replied, ‘Because he wills’. But if you go further, and ask why he has willed it, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, which cannot be found … We are not describing a lawless God, who is a law unto himself… The will of God is not only pure of all wickedness, but is the purest rule of perfection, even the law of all laws [Inst. iii.23.2].

If a mortal man pronounced that he willed or commanded that his will was to be reason, I would say his statement was tyrannical. But to extend that to God is a terrible sacrilege. For it is not permissible to attach anything improper to God, such as that desire springs up in him as it does in men. But by this merit of honour, it is attributed to his will that it be worthy of being reason, since it is the fount and rule of all justice (23; Congrég. C.R. 8, 115?).

Barth thus accepts these three primary characteristics of the doctrine of election in the tradition. To the degree the tradition expounded Scripture as testimony to the work of the triune God, it may be considered Christian theology, and their intention—if not their results—may be accepted (24). Therefore he concludes this discussion of the orientation of the doctrine by viewing these three central characteristics through the lens of the gospel (25-34). The election of God is not bare choice as though the concept of choice can be absolutized.

Reading Karl Barth

Church Dogmatics Study Edition

Selection: The Church Dogmatics IV/4:3-10, Baptism with the Holy Spirit.

Barth’s chapter on the foundation of the Christian life (Church Dogmatics IV/4) begins with a discussion entitled, “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” in which Barth addresses the origin, beginning and initiation of human faithfulness which replies and corresponds to the faithfulness of God. How is it that one becomes a Christian, especially given that this is a human impossibility? Barth assumes that one may indeed become a Christian, yet how this occurs is both a miracle and a mystery. The Christian is a completely new person with a new name and character; despite being identical with the person that they were previous to becoming a Christian, they are now utterly new.

On pages 3-4 Barth turns to Scripture to validate his assertion that the possibility of human faith is a divine rather than human possibility. He goes on to insist that to say otherwise, or to count on something other than God himself as the foundation of Christian life is to speak ignorantly. That a person is faithful, a Christian, is the work of God; and yet, it is the person who is faithful. The human agent is the subject of their own faithfulness, yet the ground of their new subjectivity lies not in themselves but in God. This is both the mystery and the miracle of the event in which a person becomes a Christian.

Barth rejects three common approaches to understanding the question of the foundation of the Christian life. First, he rejects what he terms the view of Lutheran orthodoxy following Melanchthon, in which a favourable divine verdict has been issued concerning the person but which leaves the person unaltered by it in their inner being, so they remain a sinner rather than a faithful covenant partner. Second, he rejects the popular Roman Catholic view whereby a person is infused with supernatural grace by which, if they use it properly, they may become faithful. Third, he rejects the view he associates with Neo-Protestantism (of both liberal and Pietist varieties?) whereby the work of God is simply to catalyse inherent moral impulses in the human personality. Barth sets these approaches aside:

None of them makes it clear how there comes into being the Christian, the man who responds to God’s faithfulness with faithfulness, the man who as a free subject is God’s true partner in the covenant of grace. None of them can show in what sense the existence of this man is grounded in the great possibility of God, in this alone, but in this truly (5).

Against these three common approaches, therefore, Barth sets “the answer which Holy Scripture gives,” which he describes as

The change which comes on man himself in the freedom of the gracious God, the change in which he himself is free to become what he was not and could not be before, and consequently to do what he did not and could not do before, i.e., be faithful to God. … The Christian life has its true source in this change which God brings about in man (5-6).

Barth then concludes his opening salvo with a discussion of four primary sets of images from the New Testament which describe the ‘mystery and miracle’ of the ‘divine turning’ to particular individuals in terms of the miraculous renewal whereby the recipient of divine grace receives a new being and a new heart by which it is indicated that they have become a new person. They have been born from above as a new creation, raised from the dead and given a new existence.

The Christian life begins with a change which cannot be understood or described radically enough, which God has the possibility of effecting in a man’s life in a way which is decisive and basic for his whole being and action, and which He has in fact accomplished in the life of the man who becomes a Christian (9).

Reflections

  • Barth does not reject the particular truth which each of the three approaches endeavours to set forth, but denies that they can function as the ground by which one becomes a Christian. It is evident that against the three common approaches Barth appeals to his Reformed heritage to emphasise the priority of divine grace in the event of conversion. This graces operates monergistically (my word, not Barth’s), ‘coming upon’ the person and ‘opening’ them, etc.
  • Barth refers to God’s action as a ‘divine turning’ – similar to the language used to describe the action and movement of divine grace in his discussion of the perfections of the divine loving.
  • Barth refers several times to the ‘miracle and mystery’ of this event, using the same kind of language he uses to describe the mystery and miracle of the incarnation.

Scripture on Sunday – Exodus 31:1-11

Supermarket WorkerAs I was reading the Bible one morning this week, I had “a moment.” Not a major moment, a life-transforming moment, not a remember-this-for-the-rest-of-my-life-because-God-spoke-to-me moment, not a spiritual experience moment, but a moment nonetheless. The passage I was reading was Exodus 31, where the Lord tells Moses about Bezalel and Oholiab, two master craftsmen who are to take charge in the construction of all that God has commanded Moses to build with respect to the tabernacle and its furniture, as well as the high priest’s garments and accoutrements.

I love these kinds of moments—an “ah-ha” moment, a moment of inspiration or understanding, of fresh vision, of renewed understanding, of seeing something I had not quite seen before in the scriptures. It came simply as an insight or an idea, yet perhaps from the one Spirit who not only inspired the scriptures in ages past but continues to confirm them and speak through them afresh in every generation. The passage tells of God equipping Bezalel with his Spirit. I have heard that this is the first occasion in the Hebrew Bible in which a person has been said to be “filled with the Spirit of God” (v. 3). The whole passage reads,

The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. Moreover, I have appointed with him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have given skill to all the skilful, so that they may make all that I have commanded you. … They shall do just as I have commanded you.

The question raised by this passage concerns whether this infilling of the Holy Spirit was given to Bezalel specifically for the task of construction of the tabernacle and all that that involved, or whether it was a more general filling which enabled him to become the craftsman he was.

I have always simply assumed that God was equipping Bezalel for this particular task. This view understands the anointing of the Spirit as the empowerment of God’s people for particular forms of service, mainly leadership or prophecy in the Old Testament, or a broader range of activities in the New Testament. In particular, then, this work of the Spirit falls under the redemptive work of the Spirit in the lives of those who are already God’s people.

The “moment” I had last week was a sudden realisation that what we often understand as the innate talents and abilities of a person—which must be developed, honed and trained, to be sure—are, or at least may be, the very specific gifts of the Holy Spirit to each individual. This passage suggests that in the case of Bezalel, Oholiab and “all the skilful,” the very skills that these possess, as well, therefore, as the initial abilities which make such skill development possible, are the gift of the Holy Spirit. This indicates further the creational presence of the Holy Spirit with every person, assuming, legitimately I believe, that every person has some skill, some talent, some orientation or ability which singles them out as gifted and unique. It may be an ability in the realm of mathematics, sports or colours, of abstract thought or mechanics, of music, comedy, baking, or any other innumerable possibilities.

If my meditation has any validity, this verse suggests that

  1. There is no person devoid of the Spirit’s grace in a creational if not a redemptive sense. Given that the divine ruah is the life principle in humanity (see Genesis 2:7; Psalm 104:29-30), there is no person outside of the Spirit’s creational ministry in any case; but this adds an additional layer of meaning to that ministry.
  2. The talents and abilities of people are not simply natural gifts, but gifts of grace given by the creator Spirit. These may be distinguished, of course, from the “spiritual gifts” in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, which are special gifts given to members of the body of Christ for evangelism and edification. But they are gracious gifts nonetheless.
  3. God gives these gifts as means by which we might join God in his creative work. Each of the abilities mentioned in the text are creative expressions, intended for the worship, service and glory of God. More broadly, however, they are also the kinds of work which contribute to the common good of the community generally.
  4. Although the text speaks particularly of various crafts, the idea might legitimately be extended to other arts, and to all forms of work which add to the commonwealth.
  5. The gifts, talents and abilities of others are gifts to be welcomed and celebrated as the diverse and empowering grace of the Spirit—with the acknowledgement, of course, that such gifts can be turned in directions never intended by the Spirit.
  6. Our gifts and talents are to be nurtured and developed so that we might become skilful in our work, contributing as best we can as valuable members of our society—though our value as persons can never be reduced to the contribution we are able—or unable—to make.
  7. That our work—when we are using and developing the grace given to us—is divine service and divine stewardship, a means of glorifying God. While we should never worship our work, our work may indeed become worship.

In sum, work is a dignified activity, a means by which we not only express the innate and developed gifts with which we have been endowed, but contribute to the common good and glorify the God who has so graced us. Work, then, as a “structure” within the created order, is to be welcomed and celebrated. Further, if at all possible, our work should be an expression of those particular gifts that we have received. I suspect that then we will not only make a contribution, but will find a degree of satisfaction and joy in our work that may otherwise escape us. This is not always possible in formal employment. If so, perhaps we can find other ways of bringing these gifts to expression in life-affirming, community-building and God-glorifying ways.

A Sermon on Sunday – Matthew 1:18-25

ImmanuelToday, Monica and I are in Geraldton, joining Craig and Janelle Palmer and the good folk of Geraldton Baptist Church in worship. They have asked me to preach on this passage as the congregation prepares for Christmas. Whenever I think of the virgin birth, I am reminded of the way Karl Barth spoke of it as the miracle which testifies to the mystery.

Introduction…
Do any of you remember the 1995 song One of Us by one-hit-wonderJoan Osborne?

If God had a name, what would it be              
And would you call it to his face
If you were faced with him in all his glory     
What would you ask if you had just one question

What if God was one of us 
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus                                
Trying to make his way home

If God had a face what would it look like       
And would you want to see                                   
If seeing meant that you would have to believe                                                                               In things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints and all the prophets

And yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

What if God was one of us 
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus                                
Trying to make his way home
He’s trying to make his way home                  
Back up to heaven all alone
Nobody calling on the phone                           
Except for the pope maybe in Rome

Amazing lyrics, amazing questions! If God had a name what would it be? If God had a face what would it look like? What if God was one of us? The lyrics express a spiritual hunger but no idea of where to look for food; and maybe a bit cynical about the things Christians would generally say about God’s greatness and goodness? 

Matthew 1:18-25                                                                                        
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

 All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

The Miracle
Marriage in first century Palestine had two aspects. First the betrothal and then the marriage proper. The marriages were usually arranged by parents or professional match-makers. Betrothal was a legally binding arrangement that could only be set aside by divorce. The couple were understood as husband and wife although the woman remained in her parent’s home for one more year between betrothal and marriage. After the year had expired there was a formal ceremony and the marriage was consummated. Mary’s becoming pregnant during this period exposed her to public ridicule and shame, and possibly death. It also exposed Joseph to public ridicule, shame and humiliation. If he claimed the child as his own he would suffer the loss of his reputation and community standing. Who would believe the story? The idea of a virgin conception was just a ludicrous then as it is now. (‘You might think he’s an angel sweetheart, but I want a word or two with him!’)

  • A modern possibility? The marvellous birth in 1895 of my great grand-father, Peter O’Neil…

Matthew doesn’t tell us how the Virgin Birth took place—except that it was by the Holy Spirit. Luke gives a little more detail, the angel telling Mary that ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.’ The Virgin Birth is a divine miracle in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew tells us two things about Jesus (Yeshua = “Yahweh Saves”): What he does: You shall call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sins. Many people looked forward to national, political and economic deliverance when the Son of David came in conquering power. But Matthew shows us a much deeper human need: he comes to save us from our sins—our spiritual needs far outweigh other needs.

The Mystery
The miracle of the Virgin Birth, though wonderful, is really the secondary matter in this passage, a sign of the far greater miracle and mystery of the Incarnation—the mystery of God becoming flesh and taking his place amongst us as one of us!

You see, God has become ‘one of us.’ This is one of the major differences between Christianity and Islam. For Islam, Allah is so high and so holy it is inconceivable that he could have contact with such as us—he remains aloof, untouchable and untouched by human contamination, suffering and need. He can send angels, prophets or messengers but he cannot come. Christianity is different: God didn’t just send angels, prophets and messengers—he came!  In Jesus, God has come close. God has taken human nature and human life to himself—he has joined human nature to his own divine being. This is all of grace, all of God who is a God who stoops to take us by the hand.

In this respect, Matthew quotes from the Old Testament: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him “Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”’ If the name Jesus is descriptive of what Jesus does, Immanuel is descriptive of who Jesus is—God with us.

  • Other texts: John 14:9; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3

The miracle of the Virgin Birth, then, points towards both the humanity and the deity of Jesus. He was a human person born in the normal way. He is also the eternal God who has come to us—the God-man. Jesus didn’t begin his existence at Christmas, but as eternal God, entered into time and space at Christmas. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given… (Isaiah 9:6).

The Meaning
So many people are ‘in the dark’ about God and don’t see him clearly. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Jesus Christ is the “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing…” That is, he is the revelation of the will, wisdom and person of God. He is God’s communication to us, both the promise and the command of God. His teaching is the instruction of God. His death is the death of God-for-us. His resurrection is the victory of God! The meaning of Christmas is first and foremost a message of amazing grace, of a God who comes near.

The second meaning of the miracle of the Virgin Birth is a new creation, the beginning of a whole new world—what we couldn’t do for ourselves, God has and is doing. Into a world of brokenness and sadness God has come by means of a supernatural birth in the power of the Holy Spirit. But what was begun there doesn’t end there: the same Spirit who hovered over Mary and brought about a miracle of new life and transformation in her can also do the same in us! You must be born again! Regardless of who you are or what you have done—you!—can be born again, can start a whole new life as part of the new world. Jesus is the answer to our deepest needs. He is God come among us in order to save us from our sins—rescue us from the deepest cause of our alienation and brokenness. When we start from the inside out we can have hope that the entirety of our life can experience the transformation he brings.

  • Philip Yancey analogy: the fish in the fish tank
  • If God had a name what would it be?
    If God had a face what would it look like?
    What if God was one of us?

Scripture on Sunday – Philippians 1:21

To Die is GainFor to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

I could never have written such words; I hardly dare to write them now. Their claim is too bald, too bold. From the pen of the apostle, however, they have the ring of truth. Paul was not just saying these words; he lived them. That, perhaps, is the reason he could say them and I cannot. Paul is imprisoned awaiting trial and very possibly death. Yet his letter to the Philippians is known as an epistle of joy. He rejoices despite his circumstances and he calls the Philippians likewise to rejoice despite theirs.

For to me, to live is Christ. This is an outrageous claim, that one could be so consumed with the vision of Jesus Christ, with such devotion to his mission, such conformity to his life, and such delight in his will. It was also Paul who could say elsewhere: It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20). In chapter three he will go on to say:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… (Philippians 3:7-9).

Paul’s entire life was devoted to the presence, mission and message of Christ. Christ was his centre, Christ his motive and goal, Christ his source and power.

Nor was this merely an idealistic, romantic or other-worldly spirituality. For to me, to live is Christ: Not as mysticism but as concrete witness and proclamation that Jesus Christ might be magnified: this is what it meant for Paul to say these words. It is not uncommon to hear Christians speak of seeking an “intimate” relationship with God, to seek mystical union or experiences of grace. Such desires are not illegitimate, for truly we need a touch of the mystic, a touch of the Spirit’s presence and power, experiences of grace. Yes, indeed, but not as a goal.

A great danger with some forms of contemporary spirituality is the temptation to separate the grace of Christ from the mission of Christ. Paul did not seek some kind of personalised, individualised and interior experience that had no living connection with the mission of Christ, the work of the gospel or the need of the world. He sought concrete union with Christ “in the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings” (3:10). Even though confronted with trial and possible death, even in the midst of imprisonment and suffering, he still cried:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (1:20-21). 

“That Christ will be magnified in my body…” that is, in the public sphere of his existence, in the concrete witness of his very life and death, in his proclamation and ministry, his service and suffering. For it is only as Christ is preached (1:18) that Christ is magnified.

And so we pray with Paul:

That our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that we may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God. Lord, you have begun a good work in us; carry it onto completion until the day of Christ Jesus (1:9-11, 6).

And also with St Patrick:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Scripture on Sunday – Proverbs 10:4

??????????????Proverbs 10:4
A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.

Proverbs 10:22
The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it
.

Matthew 6:24
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money
.

In the early days of my Christian experience I attended a church that was part of the “faith message,”—health and wealth, prosperity, etc.—and so these verses in Proverbs were well known to me. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew was not unknown; because one could not serve money we were to give it, to our church and its leaders, and to other “reputable” ministries in the same movement. Of course, in giving we would receive, for as the verse says, “the blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich” (KJV).

Thus we have an Old Testament promise of prosperity, or at least, an acknowledgement of diligence leading to success and riches, and a New Testament teaching condemning the pursuit of wealth. The problem, of course, is that I am wealthy. Exceedingly so, when considered with a global perspective. Even when I struggle to pay the bills, the truth is, I am rich.

Old Testament wisdom literature, based on observations of life, advises the reader to work diligently, to gather and store up their wealth, and thus to see accumulation as a reward. The gospels on the other hand, routinely condemn such a pursuit of wealth, and surely the gospels and the teaching of Jesus must trump the Old Testament?

So, then… I am already rich, loaded down with possessions, and still I accumulate. Especially books! But not only books. I hunger for success and acclaim. I hate not having enough money to do some of the things I would love to do, like travel and holiday whenever I like. I don’t seem to hate not having enough money to give… It would appear that in some ways, then, that I am hopelessly compromised by mammon.

Some years ago when I was wrestling with these matters I put pen to paper in my journal and wrote the following:

Resolved – Yet Still Listening!

I will not live for success but to serve God faithfully,
in obedience to Jesus Christ and for the glory of God;
I am a servant of his name, his kingdom, and his will.

Yet nor will I despise success if God graciously gives it.
Nor will I avoid success or sabotage its possibility
through indolence, laziness, false ideological commitments or lack of courage.

I will labour diligently in the gospel and in pastoral leadership
with all the skilfulness and integrity I can muster;
I will prayerfully and humbly trust God for fruitfulness from my labour;
I will gratefully accept what God gives:
whether smallness, with perseverance;
whether hardness, with endurance;
whether success, with gratitude.

Help me, Lord!
Grant me wisdom to know your way,
and courage to live and walk it.
(January 11, 2008)

I wish I could say that in the intervening years I have followed through on this pious expression of devotion. Sometimes I have. Often I have failed. Yet God is good, and God’s blessing has enriched my life in more ways than I enumerate. The richest blessings are those everyday provisions of grace we often take for granted: an opportunity to work, the love of a faithful spouse, the delight of a healthy grandchild, friends who care, a few moments of peace to write a blog post, food on the table, food in the cupboard, a bed to sleep in and a roof overhead, friendship, the respect and encouragement of peers. The list goes on.

But!

“No one can serve two masters! … You cannot serve God and money.”

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.
(Luke 12:48).

But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
(Luke 12:20-21).

And so we return to the central question: what am I to do with all this grace? It is not enough just to be rich; how can I be rich toward God?

Bruce McCormack on Prevenient Grace

prevenient-grace1I enjoy finding biographical data about the theologians I am studying. Knowing something of their life helps me better understand their theology. In his discussion of Open Theism, Bruce McCormack inserts this interesting biographical note, which not only describes his views on prevenient grace, but also “conversion” to Reformed faith:

On a personal note, when I was a student at Covenant Theological Seminary in the late 1970s, Pinnock’s newly edited volume on the universality of grace and the conditionality of election provided me with arguments which helped me to withstand the Calvinist perspective which was dominant there. It was not until I had transferred to my denominational seminary, Nazarene Theological Seminary, that I experienced a “second conversion”—one which moved me from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective to a Reformed outlook. The occasion was a paper I wrote on John Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace. The disappointment I experienced as a consequence of close study of this doctrine was tremendous. I regarded it then (and continue to do so to this day) as a sophistical attempt to overcome the doctrine of “total depravity”—a doctrine to which Wesley was theoretically committed—by means of a “grace” which is alleged to restore in all just enough freedom so as to put every human being in the position of being able to accept or reject “saving grace” when it is “offered.” The problem for me did not lie simply in the fact that such a view only pushes the logic of irresistible grace back one step (since the liberty which is restored in all must be the work of God alone if the affirmation of total depravity is seriously meant). It did not even lie in the fact that the net effect of Wesley’s teaching was to make his affirmation of total depravity meaningless, since the totally depraved turn out to be an empty-set. The real problem for me lay in the fact that there is not a hint, so far as I can see, of such a concept of grace to be found in Holy Scripture. Having said that, I should add that I do understand the allure of Arminianism, for I too was once an Arminian.[1]

[1] McCormack, Bruce L., “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Responses, ed. McCormack, B. L., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 202-203.