Monday, 17 December 2007

The Surprising Locations of Grace

I don't think many people would disagree that Ahab, King of Israel in 1 Kings, was a thoroughly unpleasant individual. He was, in many ways, the ultimate wicked character in a fairy tale.

[Digression: You can be fairly certain that Ahab would have been ugly and without any fashion sense, or had some serious physical defect because, as Disney teaches us, you can't be a wicked prince unless you are disagreeable to look at. It just doesn't work. Surely the reason why he's wicked is that he tries to impose his ugliness on the beautiful princess?* Thankfully there is no beautiful princess in the Ahab story (because Jezebel has to be ugly as well because she too is wicked!), so we are saved from such a difficult dilemma. Which is just as well, because this post is really not about fairytales at all].
*Despite attempts to reverse this in Shrek, it is remarkable that 'unattractive' Shrek and Fiona both look a whole lot more attractive than the prince, etc.

To get back to Ahab - he really is a dreadful king. The heart sinks as he is introduced, not just because we know him by reputation as evil and we know it won't be good. But also because of the narration: "Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him." (16:30) The exile looms. And yes, we always knew it was coming, but it's a bit like Frodo's movement up to Mordor in the Lord of the Rings - the closer he gets the more your dread grows. Yes, you know he'll defeat the odds and all that (oh, come on, if you don't know how it ends now, you never will). But the process is so excruciating, you can't help wishing that it could be avoided, that in fact Ahab could be avoided.

But having introduced Ahab as the evil king par excellence, he then becomes almost comic. He is there when Elijah triumphs in the name of the Lord over Ba'al with fire sweeping down from heaven and demonstrating the Lord's greatness. And what does he do? He runs back home to Jezebel and dobs on Elijah. It is Jezebel who then threatens Elijah and sends him running into the wilderness. Ahab is standing there watching the whole scene unfold and does nothing. His silence does not give consent however, as his interaction with Jezebel shows: he is just too spineless to do anything himself.

Similarly, when he defies God by making a covenant with his enemy and hears God's judgment against him, his response is to be 'sullen and vexed' (20:43). In the next chapter, he tries to get Naboth to give him his vineyard, which would mean that Naboth would have to break God's laws of inheritance. He is again so 'sullen and vexed' when Naboth won't do this that he actually 'lay down on his bed and turned away his face and ate no food.' (21:4) I know 6 year olds who have more emotional maturity. Again, it is Jezebel who sorts it out for him, and if we thought going to bed and refusing to eat was an overreaction from a grown man, we get the female version from Jezebel. Not only does she murder Naboth but destroys his reputation in the process, (like using a rocket launcher to take out a rabbit really). So Ahab looks like a joke: a dangerous joke because he will get his own way, even if he can't do it himself and needs his wife to use her rather terrifying imagination to carry out his whims.

It is no surprise to then find the comedy of errors which happens at the end of Ahab's life in I Kings 22. Here Ahab is so certain that a particular prophet will prophesy against him that he refuses to hear him. When the king of Judah insists that this prophet be heard, he actually prophesies in Ahab's favour. Ahab doesn't believe him and insists that he tell the truth. Whereupon the prophet does tell the truth: he tells Ahab that in the council of God, his demise has been determined through the deception of all his prophets (who are prophesying positively about the upcomign battle), but that defeat is certain. So, Ahab will be deceived. Ahab's response? "Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?" (22:18) You can almost see his lower lip protruding, complete with tremor. And he throws the prophet into prison, making his (Ahab's) return from battle the condition of his release, which of course the prophet already knows will not come about.

He is told he is deceived and he is deceived.

[This would deserve its own chapter in the Biblical Theology of Deception: it is so full of issues - God deceiving, but is it deception when God actually tells you the truth about the deception? Because you can't say that God hasn't been absolutely honest with Ahab (and Jehoshaphat for that matter). So is it still deception?]

Ahab feels like a joke: the kind of king who is so inept that he needs his wife to come up with the wicked plans: weak, dithering, childish - someone to make Macbeth look decisive and malevolent.

Which is why the two twists in the Ahab story stand out so much.

The first is the rescue of Israel back in chapter 20. This is standard, run of the mill stuff for the OT, in which the army threatens God's people, God reassures the rulers that he will deliver and then he does, miraculously. God fights for his people. God rescues his people from threats. And he does it all twice.

It's just that you don't expect God to do it for Israel (who are steeped in idolatry). And you really don't expect God to do it while Ahab is on the throne. Surely God can only use willing, obedient people who love him? Surely God would only be committed to his people when they aren't caught up in idolatry and when they aren't split into two 'nations', and even then, surely he would be more interested in Judah?

But God is not so neat! And his mercy is extraordinary, and nowhere seen more explicitly and more extravagantly than when it is poured out on his people. So, at precisely the place where most of us would turn from such a messy situation and wait for a better king with a more obedient people, God steps in and rescues. He demonstrates again that despite everything these are his people and he will not be deterred from their salvation. And he will not be deterred from demonstrating his love and kindness in whichever context he chooses. It takes the idea that God can only use the obedient and holy and turns it on its head. God will use whom he will to accomplish his purposes, and this is seen dramatically and frequently in God's decision to save the unworthy.

The second twist is in Ahab's reaction to God's judgment in the wake of Naboth's death. There is a long prophecy against Ahab from 21:20-24, which is really quite awful: there's blood, dogs, birds involved, the end of a dynasty and the gory death of his wife. Not what anyone wants to hear. The narrator interrupts here, and just in case we had forgotten reminds us that 'there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the Lord...' and goes on to list some of those things for two verses (vv25-26).

Then we get Ahab's reaction, which is deeply surprising. No pouting or holding of his breath, but repentance, of all things. And this is not about God's people now, but about this individual. Surely after all he's done, God will get the dogs and birds ready and ignore this petty repentance?

Yet, we are left with the impression that his repentance was serious and God took it seriously, and so God was gracious. So his repentance was no momentary regret but a genuine recognition that he had done the wrong thing. We only know this because of God's words to Elijah (seriously - Ahab could have gone 'about despondently' and we'd just think he was sulking again; we only know it is serious because of what God says to Elijah). (21:29) God tells Elijah that Ahab's death scene is mitigated - it happens to his sons instead (which to us seems unfair but that is something for another day). We are never left with the impression that Ahab's repentance 'made up for' his wickedness.

And it is an interesting display of his mercy. God comments to Elijah but interestingly not to Ahab. Does Ahab ever know? It is not in the passage or anywhere else and Ahab goes to his grave without the dogs or the birds - but given that he dies slowly in the field of battle, does his heart chill at the cawing of the carrion?
(An argument from silence of course, but I always find an argument from silence is good for the imagination, if not the soul; and it can keep one's mind occupied at 2am, so it's not all bad).

But this reaction of grace by God is the most unexpected of reactions: the entire rest of the passage has set us up for the justice of God's condemnation of Ahab. There is no way, if we are paying attention that we can want Ahab to get away with the awful things he has done. He has stumbled the entire nation of Israel and moved the exile event that much closer. Terrible things will happen to people and in the narrative have already happened to people because of Ahab. Worst of all, he has led the people into idolatry and scores of people are facing God's anger because of their worship of other gods. All because of Ahab. He's not just a weak idiot who affects no-one; he is king over God's people and he has devoured them. Even though he is a joke, his evil is no laughing matter.

Why should he receive any mercy? And here I think we find grace again nestled in a most scandalous place.

God shows mercy to Ahab.

It reminds me of Jonah - God showing mercy to a group of the most bloodthirsty and wicked of nations, all because it repents. It feels so easy. Why should someone have their curse removed or mitigated because they were genuinely sorry? Why should they 'get away' with such wickedness?

There is no easy answer to such a question. Indeed, there is no way of really understanding the way God's grace works. But it does demonstrate again that God will 'show mercy to whom he will show mercy' and will expect his people to rejoice in the face of the repentance of the wicked. God does not delight in the death of a sinner, but in salvation, where he declares and reveals himself.

And it implicitly calls on us to rejoice that God has been gracious to another sinner, because that is always the reaction of the people of God to the grace of God being shown, in however small or however strange a way. I think that is why God told Elijah: so he could rejoice as well as to understand that when Ahab died it would not be as previously prophesied. Ahab did repent, if only once and we are to be glad. Not just because we too were God's enemies and at that moment Jesus died for us, and so in one sense we are no better than Ahab. But because of who God is - he is the God who will be merciful, even in the grimmest, grimiest of situations, even to the most unexpected and unworthy of sinners.

God saves and saves and saves again. That is the story of the Bible. It's a scandalous story but one which rejoices the hearts of those whose lives depend on just that kind of God and his salvation in life and death.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Knowing, Believing and John's Gospel

I read again during the week that 'knowledge about God is insufficient compared with knowledge of God'. The writer was trying to show that a personal relationship with God can't be generated by knowing a lot of facts about God.

I have no quarrel with this per se. But it tends towards the view that ignorance is an excellent way to know God, and that knowledge about God gets in the way of knowing God. And I know more than one person who exults in their limited knowledge as a kind of badge of spiritual honour. It's a cute position because there is no argument against it. You can't even engage with it; if you do, you demonstrate knowledge and so are obviously spiritually inferior and not worth listening to.

Having spent a chunk of time this week looking at how knowledge functions in John's Gospel, I am more convinced that ever that this view is neither helpful nor particularly Christian. In fact, I'm beginning to think its sheer laziness masquerading as spiritual righteousness. I have long thought that the self-righteousness produced by this position is an indication that it can't be a good position to hold, but saw it more as a means of self-protection by those who held it. I am beginning to discard this caveat, however. And I'm beginning to discard it because of how knowledge seems to work in John's Gospel.

Knowledge is of vital importance in John's Gospel. I think we see it most clearly in the way it works in people's lives throughout the Gospel. There are two key groups who give us a good indication of the importance of knowledge. There are those with some knowledge, and those whose knowledge grows before our eyes as the Gospel unfolds. In both cases, knowledge is of critical importance to how a person responds to Jesus. And so, knowledge is critical to a person's salvation. It doesn't get more significant than that.

In the first case, where there is some knowledge, that knowledge is used and filled out by Jesus to demonstrate who he is and generate belief. I think we see this most clearly in the woman at the well (ch 4) and in Martha's confession (ch 11). Both the woman at the well and Martha say "I know that..." and then include a piece of important, genuine knowledge about God. With the woman at the well, it is that the Messiah is coming and will reveal all; with Martha it is that God will give to Jesus all that he asks and that the dead will be raised on the last day. In both cases, Jesus then takes the important information they have provided and shows how he fits and exceeds the category. With the woman at the well, he so fulfills the category of Messiah (revealing all) that she runs off to bear witness to him to her township; with Martha, Jesus shows her that the knowledge she has of God as the God who will resurrect and who knows and honours Jesus, his Son is true to an extent that she hadn't imagined prior to this. So, she learns that Jesus is not merely an agent of the resurrection, but is himself both life and resurrection. He embodies it, showing that he is the true God of life with the power to resurrect: the God of the last day standing before her.

In both cases, knowledge which is genuine and valid is used to reveal Jesus to these women. He does not negate their knowledge. Their knowledge is not an impediment to belief but has established good and right categories in their thinking which Jesus enlightens. Knowledge is good for these women in their relationship with Jesus.

On the contrary, the prolonged argument with the Jewish leaders which peppers the entire book continually brings up the issue of their knowledge (and lack of it). So, they don't know where Jesus is from (9:29) and this impedes their ability to listen to him, let alone believe what he is saying. Or they know that salvation is found in the Scriptures but don't know that Jesus fulfills the Scriptures and so don't believe. Their lack of knowledge (and incorrect knowledge in other places) stumbles them to the extent that they reject Jesus completely and teach others to do likewise. Their lack of knowledge cuts them off from believing in Jesus.

The other group who show us the importance of knowledge are the disciples. Their growth in knowledge is important in their relationship with Jesus. From their earliest confessions in chapter 1, through to their post-resurrection realisations (for example: 2: 21-22), their knowledge of who Jesus is continues to grow. The critical moments seem to be in Simon Peter's confession (6:68-69), where Peter confesses not only that Jesus is the Holy One of God but that he alone has words of eternal life. The second moment seems to be the disciples' realisation in the Farewell Discourse (16:30), where they state that they now know that Jesus has come from God. This is particularly significant because in the following chapter Jesus uses this confession as proof of their genuine belief in his prayer (17:8). This is not their position at the beginning of the Gospel, but one which they have reached on the basis of hearing and watching Jesus. They believe because they know.

Far from knowledge stunting their growth as followers of Jesus, it is on the basis of knowledge that the disciples come to a fuller, deeper trust of Jesus and a belief that is not even toppled by the crucifixion event. They believe in Jesus, because they have remained with him (as he invited them to do in chapter 1), and so have seen for themselves who he is and what he has done. Certainly, part of this knowledge is relational kind of knowledge, but that is not the knowledge they speak of when writing their Gospels. In the Gospels they report what happened: what Jesus did, what he said, how he responded to things and so forth. This is the kind of knowledge that they provide us with in order for us to believe, which is their goal in writing their Gospels. The relational knowledge is no doubt there and no doubt significant, but the basis for the belief they call us to is found in the actions and words of Jesus: 'factual' knowledge.

In John's Gospel, Jesus is establishing them as witnesses, not only to those in their generation, but even to us today. And they would be useless witnesses if their belief was based on a sentimental attachment to Jesus which had no solid basis. We rely on their testimony: on what they saw and handled and touched. Our knowledge is dependent on their knowledge. If all they had to report was a collection of vague notions or feelings which could not be known, their witness would be severely limited. Instead, they tell us what they know to be true: what happened, what was said, what is meant by what was said and the reactions of others (good and bad).

It is on the basis of this knowledge that we believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God, sent by God to redeem the world. We need a rock-solid knowledge base to believe something as grand as that. We need knowledge that is based in historical activity and speech, that is based on reliable and trustworthy sources. Only this is substantial enough to stand the test of life, with all its difficulties and with all its transient emotions. Believing because we know takes the limelight away from us (our knowledge is outside ourselves after all), and demonstrates that we depend on God and his word to know him through his Son. There is no room for the swollen pride of the ignoramus here.

Friday, 23 November 2007

God's Justice and Our Self-Deception

One of the most striking things about the passage in I Kings 13 is the way the younger and older prophets are treated by God.

It seems so unfair! The older prophet deliberately deceives the younger prophet in order to tell whether the prophecy he brings will come about. The younger prophet, with a good Israelite sense of respect for his elders believes the older prophet, and so is deceived. God speaks to him and tells him that he will surely die for his disobedience. Sure enough, on the way home the younger prophet dies: he is mauled by a lion who does not seem to be all that hungry: it neither eats him nor it seems does it even have an appetite for his donkey (who is no doubt traumatized by the event, though the passage is strangely unconcerned with the donkey’s state of mind). The older prophet hears nothing and is not punished at all.

God speaks clearly to the younger prophet, who is concerned to obey God in all the detail he is given. The relationship is obviously one of a God-fearing, bold prophet with a God who makes his purposes and desires known and is utterly faithful to those purposes he’s made known. On the other hand, the older prophet has no such relationship with God. By the end of the chapter we doubt that he is even a ‘prophet’. God never speaks to him (even when God tells the younger prophet he will die, no word is given to the older prophet who has masterminded this situation to the detriment of the younger prophet). The old prophet does not trust God’s word: God has already given a sign that the events the young prophet speaks of will come about in the destruction of Jeroboam’s altar. Yet the older prophet sets up the younger prophet for death in order to check whether he is genuinely a prophet, which he himself appears not to be. It would hard to argue that he feared God. God certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do with him. The closest he gets to any kind of relationship with God is to be buried with the bones of the younger prophet. He rejects God’s word to cultivate for himself a sign which satisfies him, and in doing so rejects God.

Yet, it is by no means certain that he thinks he rejects God. He doesn’t have contempt for the younger prophet when he finds out that he is a genuine prophet. Instead, he wants to be connected with him: he gathers up his bones and insists on being buried with them, which demonstrates a real respect for and desire for kinship with this younger prophet. It matters to him that this prophet was a genuine prophet and as he grieves he identifies with him as ‘brother’. If you’d said to the prophet: “Are you a prophet of God?” I think he would have answered, “Yes”.

And God seems to reject him. One of the most terrifying aspects of the narrative is that God does not say a word to this ‘prophet’. God is completely silent. He is a ‘prophet’ who has no access to the Word of God. The best he can do is trick a real prophet into having tea with him, and then plead to be buried with his bones. That is the closest he gets to God. God has nothing to do with him.

That is far, far worse than the fate of the younger prophet. The younger prophet hears the Word of God and then is tricked into disobeying. God then tells him that he’s going to die because of it, and sure enough he does. The young prophet has a relationship with God. God is completely faithful to his word, from first to last, and he speaks to this prophet. There are no games, no tricks as far as God is concerned.

This is God’s justice. There is nothing unjust about God’s treatment of either prophet. It probably makes most of us feel uncomfortable, but that says more about us, I think at this point. Two thoughts:

(a) We confuse ‘fairness’ with ‘justice’. We think that something is only just if it is ‘fair’, and we have incorporated into our view of ‘fair’ the idea of things being the same for everyone. This is a nifty invention of the Enlightenment, and from time to time is helpful for us. But on the whole it doesn’t help us deal with reality. Life is not fair. A cursory look at the water situation in the first world, compared with that in the third world should make it obvious that life is not fair. Even if we like to think of ourselves as scrupulously fair, we may not be ‘just’ or ‘righteous’. We might, for example, dispense our affection evenly throughout our family or friends, not taking in account that some might need more of it than others. We could congratulate ourselves on our ‘fairness’, but have we actually done the right thing?
And God is not ‘fair’. He is certainly ‘just’, but he doesn’t treat everyone the same. He gives gifts to those whom he will. He gives different life spans to people. And so it goes on. It is true that he doesn’t play favourites: he remains unimpressed with the beautiful, the intelligent, the wealthy, the highly talented, etc. Instead, he chooses for his family those who demonstrate that he is God and will be glorified through the weak, pathetic things of the world. All this should show us that God’s justice is beyond us. We can’t fathom it. We simply don’t have the wit to understand the wideness and complexity of it. And part of the reason is that our view of justice is stubbornly encrusted in the small, recently invented category of ‘fair’. God is far bigger than ‘fair’ and won’t be constrained by it. He is working with a far greater, more complex entity: Justice.

(b) One of the other issues raised by this narrative is the question of deception. How is it that God allows the younger prophet to be deceived by the older prophet? Why doesn’t he jump in and stop it? The assumption behind this is the idea lurking in our minds that God owes people who follow and trust him. He is obliged to smooth the path, at least partly, for those who take him seriously. After all, they are on his side.
But God doesn’t do this for the younger prophet. And this raises for us the disturbing possibility that God allows us to be deceived and even to deceive ourselves. Of course, this must be self-evident if we reflect on the number of Christians who disagree about important matters. We can’t all be right in everything. It is likely that we are all wrong in something, and that this ‘wrongness’ isn’t just a flaw in our logic. We get in the way of our own logic and believe things we want to believe: about ourselves, about God, about life, about other people. None of us understand the depth of our own sinfulness, so why should we have a handle on anything else in the world? We can’t function in the grip of such skepticism, and so, as Luther put it, we go and ‘sin boldly’, knowing that none of our actions are ever completely pure. But in knowing this, we must always know ourselves to be capable of self-deception and of being deceived by others. When we pray “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”, we are not praying about a hypothetical possibility, but about a real situation. The Bible does not stress that we are to be alert and pay attention to what we think and believe for no good reason. We readily and easily deceive ourselves and are deceived by others, often because we want to be.
In the end, if God does not open our eyes when we are deceived, we are hopelessly enmeshed in delusion. There is nothing we can do to cut the net.

This is scary, because we can’t ensure that we won’t be deceived. And we can’t be sure we won’t be deceived about something that really matters with significant consequences (like disobeying the word of God and being eaten by a lion, for example). How do we live with this? We live with it by realizing that we are only like this because we are sinners. This is not someone else’s fault. This is not God’s fault. This is not the ‘older prophet’s’ fault (whoever that might be in our lives). It is because we are sinful that we can’t see clearly. And the only thing left for sinners to do is to throw themselves on the mercy of God and pray for deliverance. Sinners can’t save themselves from their sin nor from anything else. They can only depend on God for salvation, and for clarity of mind and thought (and everything else they need for that matter). Pretending that we can work things ourselves on our own terms only binds the net more tightly around us and incapacitates us more. If we stop thinking we can be deceived, either by ourselves or others, we ensure we are deceived.
Depending on God is not a guarantee that we will not be self-deceived (or deceived by anyone else). God may allow us to be deceived (as he allowed the younger prophet to be deceived and to die for it). It is wise therefore to be suspicious of oneself and know that we are likely to be deceived. That’s why humility is so important: not some kind of ham-fisted attempt to pretend we have faults, but a genuine realization that we aren’t self-sufficient and aren’t on a level with God. We stand under his rule. When we say he is ‘all-wise’ we don’t mean that he is slightly more wise than we are, but that he is wise in a way we know nothing about.
So, we trust what he says because we know that he always tells us the truth about everything, including ourselves. A true understanding of ourselves as sinners capable of self-deception – probably engaged in it at this very moment – helps us depend on and be grateful to our only wise, faithful, true God who has promised wisdom to those who ask for it.

1 Kings 13 helps us to realise the kind of God we are dealing with: one whose Justice is beyond us. And it helps us realise who we are: the kind of people who are not self-sufficient and who can't trust ourselves to even think clearly. This is where 'trusting God' moves from a pious phrase to a living reality, as we say 'yes' to his justice and wisdom, acknowledging that both are out of our league.

Don't Feed the Messenger!

I have been thinking recently about what I consider to be one of the oddest chapters in the Bible. 1 Kings 13 gives us a narrative of the prophet who condemns Jeroboam, and is then deceived by another older prophet on his way home so that he falls under God’s judgment and is killed by a lion.

Leaving to one side the issue of 'fairness' (which will be dealt with in the following post), the passage calls up the importance of the message and the messenger and how the two are linked in a fairly vivid way. We see this in a few ways.

The first is in the odd instructions God gives to the prophet. He is not allowed to eat or drink on his way home. We could come up with all kinds of reasons why this might be the case, and sometimes God gives instructions to prophets which have a symbolic meaning. But in this case simply don’t know and we’d only be guessing. The narrative goes out of its way to show us (through repetition) that this is a clear, explicit command given by God and understood by the prophet.
And it demonstrates in a concrete way that the prophet belongs to God. He not only brings God’s message, but he has no independent existence apart from God. God literally controls his life: what he will say, to whom, and even when he will eat and drink. The prophet does not say his two cents worth and then go back to being a private citizen. He can’t divorce himself from his job or from his message. He is the prophet, not just the guy who sometimes prophecies.

The second thing is that others relate to him on the basis of his message. The older prophet wants him to come back with him because of his message, not because he wants to spend quality time with him as a person. We see this when he finally concedes that his prophecy was genuine in light of the younger prophet’s death. The (ironic, offensive and pathetic) outpouring of grief he has on the death of the younger prophet comes about only after he is convinced that this is a genuine prophet: he doesn’t grieve for the prophet as a man he had tea with, but as a prophet.

The young prophet dies because he is a prophet. God holds him accountable to his word in a public way because he is a prophet; the older prophet deceives him because he is a prophet.

It’s a great passage for bringing home the point that God’s word is not a neutral thing. It isn’t like any other word, and this raises a variety of issues. Here, one of the key issues is that the relationship between the messenger of God’s word and the word or message are strongly linked. The younger prophet doesn’t stop being a prophet – even his bones are the bones of a prophet (and so come to have value to the older prophet).

We see this most clearly in Jesus, who is both the great and final message and the last and ultimate messenger. The two ‘roles’ cannot be cut off from one another, effectively tying who he is with what he does and demonstrating his relationship with God and with humanity. You can only relate to Jesus on the basis of what you think of his message, because he is the messenger. Being messenger for Jesus meant dying for our sins and rising again and that is precisely the core of the message he brings. The Lord Jesus is not a private citizen but one who puts aside any private preference he might have and in order to welcome us to God embodies the message even as through his Spirit he speaks the message of forgiveness of sins through his cross. It’s no great surprise that the writer of Hebrews contrasts Jesus first with ‘messengers’ (angels) in Hebrews 1 as he shows that Jesus is superior, not only in bringing God’s message but in being the message. In Jesus, messenger and message come together.

And the warning for us lies in how we treat the messenger and his message. We can’t pretend to accept the message and deny the messenger; we can’t pretend to like the messenger and reject the message. The two are intertwined. This pushes us into understanding ourselves as always under the message or word in our relationship with Jesus, striving for an attitude of submission to him, by being ruled by his word through his Spirit.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Thoughts about Childbirth

I've been thinking about childbirth recently. Not too surprising really, given that hopefully I'll be doing this in about 7 weeks, depending on when Tiny decides he's had enough and wants to come out and play. I've got the skeleton of a 'birthplan', so that everyone does what I want them to do while I'm busy screaming. And we've gone and inspected the hospital, which looked sane and sanitized and an easy place to be while everything is happening. We only own a car seat for this poor child so far (which is sad given that we don't have a car), but slowly I am getting my act together and hopefully in the next two weeks will buy many infant related products.

There are two major things that have been buzzing around my mind in all of this, though. The first is the great category Luther gave to us. The feminists all hate Luther for his bombastic sexist remarks, which are often quite funny (I think they're funny - feminists do not find them amusing at all). I can't quote it verbatim (our boxes still haven't turned up with all our stuff in them), but one of my favourite quotes from Luther is found in Luther on Women: A Sourcebook By Susan C. Karant-Nunn (which I strongly recommend), and goes something like this:

Childbirth is a good work, to be embraced by all women as a privilege and a God-given task, which would could even cause men to want to be women so that they too could do this good thing. Will you die in childbirth? So, good for you, pass on over. You have died doing a good and worthy task.

You can see why feminists don't like this! It's typical, cringeworthy, over the top Luther at his most passionate. I am quite attracted to it though because it isn't being painfully careful and allows you to see behind what he is saying to the larger categories, which are quite useful I think.

The category I most appreciate is that Luther has moved childbirth from a demonstration that women are under the curse and are somehow cursed in and by childbirth (the medieval Roman Catholic view), to childbirth being one of those good works which God has prepared for us in advance to do (Ephesians 2). In other words, redemption really does roll back the curse in a genuine way for Christians this side of heaven.
It doesn't completely remove the curse and leave us 'bearing children, while contemplating God calmly and peacefully' as Luther argues would have happened prior to the Fall. The pain and the 'toil' of it is still very much present. But the context is so completely different. Far from being merely the frustrating, meaningless pain of futility tied up with the curse, when we know Christ we move to understanding that all we do for others is part of these good things that God has planned for us to do. Whether it is changing nappies (Luther again - referring to men here), doing great and wonderful things, doing menial tasks or doing something as difficult as childbirth - it is caught up in this extraordinary category of things God plans for us to do and gives us the opportunity to do as an expression of love. We don't need to be sentimental in the doing of them, but we are given a rock-solid reason based on who we know God to be, which doesn't remove the pain, but which dissolves the futility of the situation. Going through childbirth isn't just a necessary evil to be endured and detested, but something one does for someone else, with the blessing of God, knowing that this is part of the work he has given us to do.

I'm grateful to Luther for pulling things together like this. We tend not to speak publically about childbirth, so you kind of have to rattle around and do your own thinking about it and I think that can be a bit tricky sometimes. It's good to have some sturdy categories in which to rest your thinking with something like this.

The second thing I've been thinking about is death. Our baby has now got about 90% chance of surviving even at this 'early' stage if the birth was to take place now (which is quite amazing I think). I have an excellent chance of survival. In fact, no medical professional has even mentioned to me that I might die. I know it worries Mark, but I don't think most people really think about it.

Yet 100 years ago, and more so 200 years ago, it would have been a strong possibility. There is a service in the Anglican Prayerbook of thanks to God for mercy in childbirth. Bach came back from a months-long gig to find that his wife and child were dead and buried (and because of communication problems back then he found out when walked in the door). Just two reminders of childbirth going horribly, tragically wrong.
I'd be quite surprised if I died, and I'm not really worried about it, though of course it is possible; I worry more about Tiny dying. But this is the nexus of life and death: here where life is made possible (because Tiny cannot live indefinitely in my womb: trust me - there simply isn't room for a lot more growing to happen), but made possible only in the face of potential death.

I've heard that many people faced with the whole experience of childbirth are amazed and start to wonder whether there is something more to life than the merely material. It makes a lot of sense to think that because we recognise that we can't really control life. And it makes a lot of sense, not just in our day, where the focus is only on life, but in the past where death and life dwelt together during childbirth and the outcome was by no means certain.

I hope I remember somewhere in the chaos of it all, of this new mercy of a lowered death rate that God has showered on the human race, particularly if it applies to Tiny and to me and we are both alive at the end of it. I hope I remember it because it is an extraordinary blessing not to be contemplating and actively preparing for the possible death of myself or my baby at this point, but smiling to myself at the thought of a new life. And running around buying cot sheets and doing other trivial things.

Because life is always a blessing from God: none of us can make it happen. None of us can so much as add an extra hour to our lives. Life is a gift God gives and it is good for us to appreciate it and give thanks.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Author, Canon, Inspiration

The idea that a book of the Bible is actually written by the guy who says he is writing it (like Paul writing the letters of Paul, or Peter for Peter's letters or John for the three letters of John, for example), is fairly old-fashioned. Modern wisdom has it that the early church was fairly relaxed over the whole issue of people writing as a famous person and really had no problem with the average John Smith adopting the pseudonym of Paul, Peter or John. From here it is then suggested that therefore we shouldn't get too strung up over the issue and just accept that they probably didn't write the books they seem to have written. Some magnanimous souls allow a several books to be accepted as having been written by the person who states they wrote the book, but many allow only a few.

So old fashioned creatures such as I are fairly rare. I think it is actually a fairly important issue and I'm not convinced that the early church was as relaxed about it as modern scholars would want to argue.

This conviction was heightened during the week as I continued to read some introductory material regarding the book of Revelation. I discovered that while the book was readily accepted throughout the early church as Scripture (not the case with all the books of the NT), there was an exception to this. A bishop, Dionysius of Alexandria, wanted to argue that the book of Revelation was not in the canon (in order to stifle a heresy he was battling in his part of the world that appealed to material in Revelation for support). So he set about trying to prove that while the book was inspired it was not written by the Apostle John, and therefore could not be included in the NT. Subsequently, several other bishops around Alexandria rejected the canonicity of Revelation and it wasn't until some time later that it was accepted in that part of the world.

It is important to remember in all of this that Dionysius was not just an ordinary church goer with some funny ideas. He was a bishop. In our day that doesn't mean much. Bishops wear strange clothes and appear to be either trouble makers or completely useless, or earnest men, who might be able to make a difference but on the whole don't. Actually this is probably just a post-60's thing to a certain extent, where yet another authority figure is rejected for no other reason than their being an authority figure.

But in different places Bishops are still remarkably important. In a hostile zone in Africa, I heard of how during a recent civil war the Bishop of the area gathered up his congregations and hid them in the jungle until it was safe to come out. And now that the war has ceased, he is rebuilding the church, physically as well as spiritually. And this fits with how Bishops were in the early church: it was the Bishop who met the barbarians at the gates of Rome, for example, and managed to sue for a limited peace which protected the bulk of the people. Bishops were not just strange people wearing odd hats (in fact, they probably had the good sense not to wear bizzare 'religious' garb), but were (and are) real community leaders and real religious leaders. When a bishop made a decision, it had a serious impact on the people under his care. It doesn't mean they were all good, by any means, but it does mean that they had genuine influence in the life of the church in ways we don't always notice now.

So, a bishop in Alexandria is not to be quickly disregarded. And if, as is the case, his ruling leads to a group of bishops in his area also insisting that the Apostle John did not write Revelation and it is therefore non-cannonical, I think we have reason to question the generally accepted position that the question of who the authors of NT books were did not matter much to the early church. Even if it only mattered to this group of bishops (which I find hard to believe), it renders the accepted position suspect. It means that more needs to be said to confirm this favoured position than a mere assertion. And simply showing that some secular writers thought that pseudonymity was fine is not enough here because church leaders do not necessarily go along with their culture (even today!). Some serious primary source evidence from key church leaders would be a great start. I shall have to go and read more on the issue.

One of the interesting things in the whole discussion with Dionysius was that authorship was elevated even over inspiration. Dionysius was unwilling to dismiss Revelation as not genuinely inspired. Instead, it was on the grounds of questioning whether it was written by the Apostle John that he 'removed' Revelation from the canon. I'm not sure I agree with his ruling (God has been known to use donkeys!), but it does show that he (and his fellow bishops) took authorship seriously. It wasn't enough for a book to be the Word of God to be authorative--it had to be written by a ridgey-didge apostle!

It does give people like me, who are suspicious of this apparent ease the early church had regarding authorship, a growing confidence that the easy dismissal of my position by much of the scholarly world is not based on the substantial and rigorous evidence often assumed in the literature.

Sunday, 21 October 2007


Among the things which sit less comfortably with me about the Bible is the emphasis it places on rewards. You notice this in the Sermon on the Mount, where the reward you look for is from God the Father and not from those around you, when you pray, give alms, etc (Matt 6); it pops up in places like 1 Peter 5:4 as the motivation for being a good leader (and follower; 5:6) and so forth.

There are many reasons to live a life of obedience to God:
because he is good,
because Jesus died for us and calls us to such a life,
because he is God,
because Jesus modelled for us a life of obedience,
because it is good for those around us,
because God is transforming us by his Spirit to seek out this life... and so on.

'Reward' later for living this kind of life seems ignoble and small compared to these reasons. And the triumphalism which has sometimes accompanied Christians crowing about their heavenly reward as though it is their right (as history records), is further disincentive to focus on this aspect of Scripture.

But there has to be a legitimate Christian way of being motivated by heavenly reward and not sinking into the pious but possibly un-Biblical practice of asking, "Why would I need a reward? Just knowing God is reward enough." Surely we can be genuinely satisfied with God in a deep and real way, and look forward to a reward, at the same time if both are elements of how the Bible paints the redeemed life.

In the past, I have noticed from time to time our habit of passing over the reward passages as though they aren't there to legitimately motivate us, but never put serious thought into it. Which meant that as I read through Revelation I became increasingly uncomfortable. Rewards are promised throughout the book. But more than that, the Christians in heaven seem openly keen to get them. There is no demure: "I couldn't possibly...!" but an eager recognition that their reward is important to them.

One of the places this is seen is in the climatic scene in Revelation 11, where finally the 7th angel blows his trumpet unleashing the 3rd woe. Uncharacteristically, the 'woe' seems to be the handing over of the kingdom of the world to Christ, which hardly seems a tragedy. This fits with the disorientation that has been building in the letter, in which patterns are established and then broken. The worst offending (up to this point), is the pattern of the angels and their trumpets. Here, in chapter 11 the entire pattern is turned upside down and the reader (naturally) wonders where the 'woe' is. Has it happened yet?

And then the 24 elders, who seem to symbolise believers (not sure of that), explain it in their response to God:
"We give you thanks, O Lord God, the Almighty, who are and who were, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign. And the nations were enraged, and your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth." (11:17-18)

The woe is two-edged. Those who stand with God are rewarded; those who stand against God are judged. It is part of the Bible's ongoing theme of judgment and salvation being accomplished by God in a simultaneous action.

But the reward is not incidental to the 24 elders' understanding. They don't seem to hold with the view that insists that we glorify God as the goal of our lives, even if he damns us in the end. When I came across that idea, it seemed brave and noble, but the more I think about it, it really doesn't square with the Bible. Wanting the reward of salvation in all its fullness, which includes but is not limited to enjoying a relationship with God, seems to be part of what it means to be in relationship with God. There is no sense in which the rewards promised in Revelation can be separated from a relationship with God or with his salvation. (So even the slightly odd rewards in the letters at the beginning of the book, including my personal favourite: "I will give him a white stone and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it" - all have to do with a relationship with Jesus and the salvation he offers).

In fact, it would not surprise me if wanting the reward God offers us is a result of his work in us, transforming us by his Spirit, so that far from dismissing his rewards, we strive harder to achieve them. They become things of worth and immensely valuable to us, not separate from our relationship with him, but precisely because of our relationship with him. Wanting our reward is the work of the Spirit as we come to understand through God's word the immense reward he holds out to us.

Wanting God's rewards then, not dismissing them as being unnecessary; trying to figure out what they are and what they mean and actively using them on ourselves as incentive to live a life which pleases God - all seem to be legitimate (and praiseworthy) responses in the NT to God's promises of reward. Of course, it would be ridiculous to put 'reward' at centre stage, eclipsing God's salvation as God's work from first to last, thoroughly embedded in grace and his kindness to us who have no 'right' to a reward. But this awareness should not so swing back our pendulums that we shy away from cultivating an eagerness to receive our reward from God. Just more of the freedom we have in Christ to be genuinely human!

Friday, 12 October 2007

Revelation: A Narrative?

I have spent some time in the final book of the Bible over the past week. I am doing a master’s research project on this, which means I need to seriously increase my knowledge of the book!

Finally, here, I’ve had some free time to actually start grappling with it. I’ve discovered a number of things, but on my initial read through (which is still in progress) the narrative structure of the book is really impressing me.

I wouldn’t have said that Revelation had a narrative structure. I’d have thought it was too apocalyptic for that. Instead I find some of the best dramatic tension, a whole series of offline/online switches and other narrative techniques. The ‘plot’ slows down so much in places that there are whole chapters where the narrative doesn’t so much as move forward a single inch. There are even weird sort of Brecht-ian moments where John reappears in the narrative to remind you of his all-important witness to these events. I’m sure there are other reasons which I just don’t see at the moment for his reappearance as these precise moments. All very clever, but who really cares?

I care.

Because I think this demonstrates that John the Apostle is the author of Revelation. I know this is hopelessly old fashioned, because after all that is the tradition of the church and the evidence of the text, so it must be wrong. But I really don’t care. John the Apostle (whom I also think wrote John’s Gospel, demonstrating that I am lost cause on the issue) is remarkably clever at story telling. He arranges his Gospel with all the artistry and scientific precision of a da Vinci, incorporating different genres (narrative and teaching) to breathtaking effect. This is precisely what I see happening in Revelation: a blending of genres, (letter, apocalyptic, narrative) which dovetail and create a meaning more substantial than is possible with any one genre. John seems to be a master craftsman when it comes to shaping content using form, in which the form is more than the packaging but adds meaning to the content. Revelation, although it has different stylistic features and uses different language, feels Johannine in this way.

But John is doing more than merely being clever. At this stage in my thinking, I would say that the overarching theme of Revelation is the sovereignty of God. God owns all people, all creatures, all of history and he will bring it to an end and rearrange everything. Those who love him will be recognized by him, and will themselves recognize and applaud his work. Those who hate him will be compelled to recognize and submit to his rule, despite his rejection of them. It is a stark message. The focus from the beginning is the rule of God in this, seen in the content of the various chapters.
However, the form adds to this content in several ways: (in no particularly order)
• Worship completely slows down proceedings. The action completely stops while various groups cry out to God about how extraordinary he is and praise him for what he has done. Nothing can happen for an entire chapter, twice between chapters 4-11 because of the worship. It could have been written as a less detailed narrative: “And all the angels, creatures and believers worshipped God in various ways.” But instead the detail is given: who is speaking, what they are saying, what they are doing and in what order. The effect is to show us that responding to God is not incidental. God is not merely acting without any interest in the response of his creation: their response is important. The reader’s response is also important. And the effect is also to model a response. Some of the things happening in the book are unusual to say the least and it is hard to know what is going on, let alone how one should respond. The detailed responses help orientate the reader as to his or her response: the book is not intended as a showpiece of apocalyptic literature but to call from us faith and love. These scenes also show that there are definite groupings (each grouping has a different level of intimacy: believers almost exclusively are the group which use ‘you’ to address God; the whole of creation (and presumably those who hate God) only speak of God in the third person). This too is to help us respond appropriately now and learn to love God before finding ourselves hating him, we are cut off from him forever.
• Everything is numbered. Yes, the numbers are very interesting and you can add them up and do all sorts of things with them. But when someone numbers something, then you can tell they are in full control of it. The seven angels with seven trumpets, for example, show that the woes visited on the earth are under the precise management of God himself. They are unleashed at precisely the right time in precisely the right order, with lots of narrative clues along the way that this is the case. The end of the world does not happen because God loses control of the cosmos even momentarily and it unravels accidentally. The end of the world happens because and as God chooses. The form and the content make that crystal clear.
• The narrative focuses our attention on the critical moments by drawing out the action and creating dramatic tension. There is a major interruption between the sixth and seventh angel, creating substantial dramatic tension in the narrative. Not only that but the fifth and sixth angels have between them completely broken the pattern of the angels with their trumpets, so that the reader is completely disoriented and remains disoriented as a strong angel (who fits no pattern) pops up and proceeds to push the narrative in a different direction with John re-emerging into the narrative once again. The effect is to highlight the seventh angel and his ‘woe’, which is nothing less than everything being handed over to Jesus as true Lord of all lords. The narrative is structured to focus all of our attention on it.
• God is introduced, seated on a throne. He is surrounded by colour, movement, noise (presumably melodious but that is simply not in the text; the various creatures may be singing off key for all we know) and various responses to him. God says and does nothing. That is a rather unfashionable observation because it sounds like the ‘unmovable mover’, but I think it is done deliberately to set the context for the rest of the book. God isn’t frantic. He isn’t busy. This is not one of the Parthenon of gods, restless and ill at ease, planning things. God is utterly in control. The proper response to this God is to worship him and acknowledge his rule.
So John isn’t just being clever with his design of this immensely complex book, but is carefully helping us wade through complicated apocalyptic things and see the real message of the book: God is utterly sovereign; Jesus is Lord. He wants to help us see and say these things now and live in light of them (rather than be condemned by saying them against our desires in the final day), and so he does that in various ways. One of those ways is through the actual design of Revelation.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Disappointment with David

A few weeks ago I preached a series of sermons on I Samuel. It was the first time I have really preached on OT narrative (although I’d wanted to for a long time) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. One of the key things I spent time on was unpacking how Saul tragically and unequivocally disobeyed God’s word and was unrepentant in the wake of this. I contrasted this with David in I Samuel as he struggles to live as the Chosen One in exile and in uncertainty, sometimes making good choices, sometimes bad choices, sometimes confusing choices. But always David seems to orbit his life around God’s word in a genuine if imperfect way. He takes the brave, defiant trust in God displayed against Goliath and lives this out in the difficult, unsettled life he is called to lead after God anoints him the leader of his people.

Of course, I never had a rosy-eyed view of David. The callous Bathsheba incident, the clueless, disinterested father of II Samuel, the misguided devotion to Absalom (however commendable to see David exhibiting some paternal emotion) and so forth demonstrate a less than perfect king with some truly deplorable weaknesses. But the Bible never shows us perfect people, but people who encounter God and are transformed in the core of their being through his word and by his Spirit.

The depressing thing about David is his deathbed. I Kings 1 shows an ailing king without a sense of what is going on around him. He appears to be at the mercy of his advisors and sons as to the succession. But so much worse than this is his sudden rallying just prior to his death and his instructions to Solomon in the following chapter. Two ‘acts of mercy’ (the Joab incident never appears to be mercy but calculated self-interest) are overturned. David hasn’t carried out vengeance because he hasn’t worked out how to get away with it. He’s been waiting for a successor who will be wiser than he and will know how to carry out his vengeance for him without getting into trouble. This is the David of the Nabal/Abigail incident: you have to make it worth his while to engage with you; if you treat him rudely he won’t overlook it, he’ll wreak bloody vengeance with all his resources. Abigail of course, cuts this short with her words: “When the LORD has done for my master every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him leader over Israel, my master will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself.” She and David both recognise the providential nature of her words and David repents and turns away from vengeance.

David of course, inhabits the world of ‘eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth’ where vengeance is limited by God’s Law but still allowed. At his deathbed, it isn’t so much that David seeks vengeance that is so reprehensible. It is that he has appeared to show mercy, but has not in fact offered mercy. He has simply delayed vengeance.
And he has made the first acts of his son’s reign the carrying out of these measures. This is not a good legacy. It is not what you would expect from someone who had heard from God that though he (David) was a man of blood, his son would not be and so his son would build God a temple. David thrusts a bloody sword into his son’s hands even as he seats him on a colt and declares him king.
We can be broadly sympathetic with David: all three situations are ones in which he had a serious case against the individuals involved. But it appears that he is using the kingship precisely the way that Saul used the kingship: as a personal possession to settle his own scores. Possibly my 21st century sensibilities intrude here and I think the king of Israel can and should make a distinction between who he is as an individual and as a king.

David’s deathbed is a disappointment. There is always something disconcerting about someone dying uncharacteristically. One wonders whether their true character is revealed at the last and whether they have been overestimated in life. But perhaps it is not too surprising in David’s case. He always needed counsellors: those who stood beside him and whispered wisdom into his tempestuous mind. He could withstand foolishness (as the suggestions to kill Saul in the cave and elsewhere show in I Samuel), but the wisest moments of his life are often those moments when someone brings to bear the word of God into his situation. The absence of such a counsellor at his deathbed, pointing him to a better mind may account for his disappointing decision. In any case, David demonstrates what the Puritans maintained: it is a hard thing to die well.