Creative Redemption

This blog seeks to explore themes from the Bible, theology, spiritual formation, creativity, and responses to change and conflict to discover how to promote God's redemptive work in his creation.

Archive for the month “July, 2013”

The Jacob Factor

Jacob plays a vital role in the biblical narrative of God’s redemption, despite the fact that he does not serve as the greatest role model in his relationship with God. Nor do his deceiving, cheating, scheming ways endear him to us on a personal level.

Sadly, however, this dimension of Jacob’s character lives on in the rest of us. When Jesus describes Nathanael as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (John 1:47), he singles out this new disciple as an exception to the rule.

Deceit works on at least three inter-related levels. A person can be deceived, practice self-deception, and deceive others. Jacob may have experienced all three. As his struggles demonstrate, a habit of deception as a means of gaining advantage over others reveals that one is deceived and/or self-deceived. Jacob’s life certainly stands in contrasts with the faith of his grandfather Abraham.

In Jeremiah 17:9, the prophet explains the root of Jacob’s problem – and ours:

The heart is deceitful above all things,

and desperately sick;

who can understand it?

This verse contains a significant link to Jacob that is not evident in translation. Most Bible students know that Jacob’s name derives from the word “heel,” reflecting the way he grabbed the heel of his twin brother Esau in an apparent attempt to emerge from the womb as the firstborn. Esau refers to this wordplay after Jacob had gained both the birthright and blessing (Gen. 27:36).

In the verse above, uses the same root for Jacob’s name. Most translations, as above, render the word “deceitful.” Jeremiah’s lament reveals that, as deceptive as Jacob was, the greatest deceiver is not “out there” but “in here,” that is, in the human heart.

In the Bible, the heart refers to our inner nature, including our thoughts and desires. The heart is dangerously deceptive because it is dangerously subject to deception. When we recognize this fact, we can no longer reduce sin to a list of rules. We can’t focus on simply learning the rules and mustering enough willpower to keep them.

By exploring the heart problem underlying human sinfulness, we can better understand how to combat what separates us not only from God, but also from one another, and even our own true self.

In future posts, I will reflect on the causes and results of our deceitful hearts, as well as ways we can become more closely attuned to the heart of God. Feel free to offer your own insights or requests for issues to be discussed.

Living In the Present But Not Of the Present

In John’s Gospel, Jesus provides insight into his surprising approach to the kingdom of God, which befuddled his opponents, his Jewish followers in general, and even his own inner circle of disciples. As he stands before Pilate, Jesus explains that his disciples do not take up arms and fight because his kingdom is not “of this world” (John 18:36). In the previous chapter, Jesus had prayed for his disciples in anticipation of his death. A central theme of that prayer is Jesus’ desire for his first disciples – and all subsequent generations – to follow his lead as one sent into the world but not of the world (see John 17:6, 11, 14, 15, 16, 18).

The ongoing call for Jesus’ disciples to be in the world but not of the world challenges us both in terms of understanding and practice. Part of the problem derives from the various possible meanings of “world.” On the one hand, John’s Gospel famously proclaims that God sent his Son into the world out of his great love for it. This love extends not only to the human inhabitants of the world, but also to the creation as a whole (see Romans 8:18-23).

1 John 2:15-16 helps us understand the sense in which we are not to be “of the world”:

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.

We are not to love “the world” or be of “the world” in the sense of the current fallen state of God’s creation. This calling is difficult because we are part of that fallen creation. At present, our corrupted desires tend to divert us from our calling to glorify God through a benevolent stewardship of his creation. Instead, we vainly seek to satisfy our selfish appetites as consumers of the creation.

The next verse of 1 John 2 provides a slightly different lens through which we might understand being in the world but not of the world: “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” A similar idea appears in 1 John 2:8, which speaks of the truth that “is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.”

We live presently in “the overlapping of the ages,” during which we recognize by faith that the darkness of the present fallen order remains but is passing away, because the light of the in-breaking kingdom of God has already begun to shine. Genuine followers of Jesus reflect this light because those who are in Christ are already part of the new creation: “The old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Revelation 21:1-5 mirrors the renewal language of 2 Corinthians 5:17 when describing “a new heaven and a new earth.”

When we combine these passages with Romans 8, as mentioned above, we see that followers of Jesus share in the redemption of the larger creation that Jesus set in motion. The present age/order is passing away, not the world in the broader sense.

The title of this post – Living In the Present But Not Of the Present – reminds us that Scripture speaks into the present fallen world, but it also reveals something about God’s intent for creation before the entrance of sin, as well as his vision for his creation after he completes his redemption. We can only live in the present, but we are called to do so in light of our roots in the original creation and our future in God’s new order.

The challenge for looking back to the pre-fallen world is that we possess such a small amount of revelation with which to work, and we have no personal experience in such a world. The first chapters of Genesis, however, pack into a few words a great deal of foundational insight about the nature of God and his intention for his creation, including humanity’s place in it. These insights stand in stark contrast to the flow of human history from the ancient Near East to today.

As we trace God’s unfolding work of redemption in most of the rest of the Bible, we see his calling of a covenant people to serve as witnesses to the rest of humanity of the future toward which history is moving. Passages like James 1:18 and Revelation 14:4 refer to God’s people as a kind of “firstfruit” of his new creation. In other words, just as Israel offered the first produce of their harvest to God as an offering in anticipation of the larger harvest to come, so Christians serve as the first evidence of God’s ultimate new creation.

When we examine the Bible’s visions of God’s new creation, as in Isaiah 2:1-4; 11:6-9; Revelation 22:1-4, we find a picture of peace, justice, and fruitfulness that transcends the fallen divisions built upon race, gender, nationality, and ideology. To live in the present but not of the present requires us to acknowledge our role as witnesses and firstfruit of a future that returns us to and perhaps extends God’s original creation intent. We must engage the present order, but not on the terms and by the means that only further fuel the present divisions.

Participating in partisan power struggles and flexing our political muscles reflect neither the path nor the destination toward which God is moving. Following Jesus’ example of selfless love and healing, and embodying redemption and reconciliation, on the other hand, position us more appropriately as witnesses and firstfruit of God’s new creation.

Why I Love Laments

Can laments be lovable? Perhaps not like a cute kitten in a video can be lovable, but there are good reasons to love the biblical laments. If you believe me (or if you’re open to being persuaded), read on.

On Sunday my partner-in-preaching, Phillip Camp, continued his series on Matthew by addressing Matthew 23:34-39. These verses conclude some of Jesus’ harshest words, a series of woes against the Pharisees for their failures as Israel’s spiritual leaders. Such a passage reminds us again that Scripture’s strongest rebukes typically target those who profess to know God without truly humbling themselves before him rather than unbelievers.

Despite Jesus’ strong condemnations, the passage ends with a touching lament:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.

The sadness inherent in words like these reflect God’s longing for a better ending, as well as his determination to accomplish a better ending. He grieves over his judgments, even though they are righteous and necessary, because he remains committed to redemption.

Isaiah 65 contains a similar lament. God mourns that although he has held out his hands continually to his obstinate people, crying out, “Here am I, here am I,” they remain committed to their rebellious ways (verses 1-2). God pronounces judgment but will not destroy because he sees his people as a cluster of grapes in which some juice remains and thus “there is still a blessing in it” (verse 8). At the end of the chapter Isaiah describes the new heavens and new earth that the divine Redeemer will create as his ultimate “better ending.”

Most of the laments in the Bible pour out of the hearts of faithful servants of God such as the psalmists, the prophets, and the wisdom writers. I love these laments because they provide fascinating insights into the divine-human relationship, even though we may find their brutal honesty discomforting. They reassure us that our own struggles do not mark our faith as “defective.” Living by faith in a God whose ways are far above ours cannot lead to a simple, by-the-numbers experience. Consequently, bringing our doubts and struggles honestly before God follows solid biblical precedent and makes it possible for us to learn and grow.

Laments serve an important purpose, however, apart from our own times of struggle. Praying and reflecting on them allows us to identify with our fellow believers who are experiencing hardships such as persecution.

What I appreciate from Phillip’s sermon is his highlighting of another type of identification found in Jesus’ lament. By identifying with his lament, we also share in his compassionate longing for those over whom he laments.

Remember that Jesus’ lament begins with a reference to the killing of the prophets by “Jerusalem.” Jesus knows that soon he and many of his followers will join those earlier martyrs. He does not express the typical human response of anger and hatred, however, but sadness over the tragic continued rejection of God’s will. 

Divine laments are closely tied to to divine action that transforms the circumstances of the lament into a better future. In this case the divine action is Jesus’ surrender of himself to those determined to end his life. As we identify with the divine laments, doing so should be closely tied to our actions as well. We cannot provide atonement for the sins of others or create new heavens and a new earth. Nor does judgment belong to us. We can, however, bear witness by our words and our lives to God’s redeeming love, even in the face of hatred and rejection.

Seeking to reflect God’s love and God’s better future even now can guard us from a danger inherent in lamenting unbelief and sin in our world. Unlike the Father and the Son, we remain deeply embedded in the lamentable condition of the present creation. Remembering this fact keeps our lamentation over the sins of others from turning us into the beam-in-the-eye hypocrite in Matthew 7:3-5 or the self-congratulatory Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14.

Taking to heart Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem should engender in us neither hatred nor condescending self-righteousness. Instead, it should lead us to identify both with the divine sorrow for humanity’s plight and the divine love that results in the redemption of creation.

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