Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice

Over
The Bible’s story hinges on what God wants to do and what God can do with Abraham’s descendants—and neither is particularly clear in the early chapters of the saga. God and Abraham seem to both be feeling their way through the new relationship, and I’m beginning to take more seriously the language of Abraham as God’s friend—it’s kind of easy to read the story almost like Abram and God are pals, traveling around together just for the sake of it.

There are of course moments when something else shines through all of the odd episodes of Abraham’s story. The narrative reaches outside of itself and shows itself to be more than a story about one man’s weird relationship with God. In these moments, the Abraham saga becomes a critical piece in the story of God and Creation. One such moment takes place in Genesis 18.

Here is a well-worn story of Abraham bargaining with God, negotiating on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, or at least on behalf of his kin who live there. I won’t retrace the story here, because I want to focus in on one particular facet of the episode—the terms of the negotiation. We’ll pick up with God’s internal monologue (dialogue?) regarding whether or not he’ll let Abraham in on what’s about to happen:

 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

Here God opens up, just a smidge, about the long-term plan for Abraham and his descendants. They are to become a great nation which will bless the world, (just as God promised Abram in Genesis 12. But also, catch the important added note here:  What kind of nation will they be? What does God want to become the characteristic mark of Abraham’s children?  They are to be a people who keep the way of the Lord by “doing righteousness and justice”. Continue reading “Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice”

Kingdom Come: A Sermon about Matthew's Genealogy

He was the “Son of God”, the “bringer of Good News”, the Lord, the Savior, the one who would restore order and justice to the earth—at least that was Rome’s official story about Caesar.  History also seems to look favorably on the Pax Romana, and in many ways, that version of reality isn’t that far off. The Roman Empire brought relative peace, wealth, and stability to many in the mediterranean world.

However, there was another side to life in Caesar’s world. Beneath the heel of the empire were whole peoples, exploited for the empire’s sake, hopeless to fight back against the efficient military machine of Rome’s storied army. In Palestine, a particularly dark cloud hung over the recipients of Caesar’s “good news”. The Jewish people living in Judea and Galilee lived in a world in which power was king—and they had none of it. They had always been a proud people, and once a powerful nation, but now lived under another flag. Over and over again they rose up to resist the Empire, trying to beat the empire at its own game by asserting their own power—and they failed miserably. Rome brutally asserted its power over what was, to them, a strategic territory filled with a stubborn, irritating, and irrational people. Religious leaders based in the temple used divine distinction to stoke the fires of resentment that justified bouts of armed revolution. Many a would-be leader rose to fame by resisting the Romans, claiming divine consent for their revolutionary attempts to throw the pagans out. Certainly not everyone joined in the violence, but everyone felt the force of Rome’s response to it. To some it was an empire of peace, but to others, it was an empire of violence.

Also, while it was an empire of wealth, it was also an empire of poverty, built on the backs of slaves and enslaved nations. Wealth drifted upward, and the few who controlled land or other means increased their assets while the poor became poorer with each generation. Some of the most recent historical work is trying to move beyond simple binary descriptions as elite/nonelite or haves/have-nots, but even still, the best estimate show that between 75-97 percent of the population in the roman world lived in poverty, if that is defined by living at or near subsistence level.

Beyond that violence and turbulence, the economic conditions were tough as well. Under  the empire and its elite accomplices, a small minority controlled land, food, and wealth. Although historians are working to get beyond simple distinctions like elite/poor, the best estimates now are that somewhere between 75% to 97% of the population across the empire lived in poverty—meaning at or below subsistence levels, with very few resources. Palestine, having been rocked by violence and dependent on agriculture, was worse off than most areas.  For many of the Jews of Palestine, life under the Roman empire was anything but a life of wealth—it was a life of poverty.

As far as stability goes, Rome knew that it needed local leaders who sought to keep the people in check, and found more than enough who were willing to become accomplices to the empire’s power in exchange for a few of the empire’s coins. These imperial elite played a dangerous game, negotiating the terms of the relationship between the people and the empire. When the people were pushed too far, revolution erupted. When the empire’s power was too openly challenged, the military convincingly crushed the opposition. The imperial elites danced between these two, trying to keep both parties reasonably content in the effort to maintain their own power, and often failing. Thus the people of Judea and Galilee faced a cycle of would-be revolution, followed by crackdowns, growing dissatisfaction, and new uprisings.

Caesar promised a world of peace, wealth, and stability. For many of the people living in Jerusalem, Judea, and Galilee in the first century, the reality was a life of violence, poverty, and turbulence. Is it any wonder that many of the people were anxious for a change? Caesar’s world was a world where power stood in the place of justice, where influence held more sway than righteousness, and where rich and the poor were nearly destined to become richer and poorer. Depending on who you were, you either hoped it would go on forever, or hoped and prayed that God would intervene, and remake the world into something else.

The book of Matthew grows out of the latter perspective, and is thoroughly subversive to the empire. It begins with the assumption that this is not Caesar’s world. It is God’s world, and God has been active in it a lot longer than Caesar could imagine. The book’s opening line, “The book of the generations of Jesus Christ” calls us back to Genesis, to the story of God creating the world and of God’s relationships and promises to the patriarchs. It points toward the language Genesis uses to introduce its own narrative (“The book of the generations of the heavens and the earth” Gen 2:4), and to move to new phases of the story. (5:1, 10:1, etc.). Matthew uses it here to let the reader know that he is about to tell about a new phase in that same story. He does all this because he wants us to know, from the very beginning, that this is not a narrative set in Caesar’s world—it is God’s world, and Caesar is just living in it. Beyond that, the genealogy is a substitute for a formula such as “in the days of Caesar Augustus…”, and gives the story of Jesus it’s primary context, which is not in the history of the Roman empire, but in the narrative of God’s covenant people. He is the son of Abraham and the son of David, being born in this moment of the story of God’s people.

Matthew marks the significance of the moment by structuring his genealogical list into three periods. There is the period from Abraham to David, one from David to the Exile, and from the exile to the moment of Jesus. Abraham, David, the Exile, represent critical moments in the story, and by noting the time, Matthew is underlining the importance of Jesus. Matthew 1:17 points out the symmetry of this for the reader, “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.” The only problem is, Matthew’s math is wrong. 

Most of the time, we don’t notice stuff like this because we read the Bible too quickly, but if you count up the named generations Matthew lists, the numbers should be fourteen, fourteen, and thirteen. Now, to be clear, I don’t think that’s a mistake—ancient authors loved to play with numbers in settings like this, and I feel certain that Matthew is doing this on purpose, somewhat playfully. I think he is setting us up to look at the story and ask, “Who comes after Jesus?” It’s a great way to open his book, because the rest of the gospel really teases out this question, as Jesus recruits disciples, teaches them about a new way of life, and then eventually charges them to do the exact same thing, replicating their experience of discipleship throughout the world. The genealogy is therefore connected with the rest of Matthew’s story, right up to the end, where Jesus gives the great commission, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew’s gospel, from the genealogy to the commission, points to the question, “Who comes after Jesus?” and, I think, to an answer.

The answer is “us.” We are the descendants of Jesus. Ultimately, Jesus’s work is producing a sustained community that lives consciously under the reign of God—a community of which we are now a part. In our living as disciples of Jesus we find ourselves in Jesus’s story, and the mission of his life become our mission. We continue his story. We are the fourteenth generation.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Some folks worry about who their ancestors were. I am more concerned with who my descendants will be.” Matthew’s story shares that concern, and even the genealogy, which seems to look back, looks forward to the fulfillment of Jesus’s mission. As we take our part in that mission, may we look forward to its fulfillment as well, and trust that to that end  we will be used by God, for God’s own glory.  Amen.

Naming the Elephant: Worldview as Concept by James Sire

This book runs about $10 on Amazon

Lately I’ve been writing and thinking about how reading the Bible works as a formative practice, and it’s led me to think about the concept of worldview.  I found James Sire’s Naming the Elephant helpful in thinking about the concept, both as an abstraction and in terms of the worldviews I see at work in our community. Personally, Sire’s book helped me come towards a better articulation of my own worldview.

Sire has been interested in worldview studies for a while. I know his book The Universe Next Door was used at Harding while I was there, and having gone through several editions, it’s probably been as influential in the way evangelicals think about worldview as anything else, particularly in how we see the differences between ourselves and other faith traditions.  As you would imagine, that has some intense missiological implications, and thus Sire has probably been read mostly in that context.

This shorter book is particularly interested in teasing out the worldview concept itself, and Sire is candid about places where he felt his earlier definitions and examples have perhaps fallen short. Here, he surveys of perspectives on the worldview concept from philosophical, theological, and sociological sources to give a better articulation to what he means by this root concept. Ultimately, he comes the following well-thought definition:

A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.

Most of the book, which is a quick read at 160 short pages, is the work of setting up this definition and giving it substantial nuance. He teases it out against the backdrop of worldview thinkers over the past two centuries—this is not a casual definition. Sire’s work on critically thinking through the implications of his definition is evident throughout the book, and the little book is quite worthwhile for that reason. The descriptions of Sire’s wrangling with the philosophical decision between the priority of ontology over epistemology is interesting, as is his writing about his growing recognition of the importance of story as a vehicle for worldview.

Less satisfactory are the questions Sire offers as a mechanism for teasing out particular worldviews. He sticks to his guns with the following seven questions, although through the text he expands the questions as including more than they seem to on the surface.

1. What is the prime reality—the really real.

2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?

3. What is a human being?

4. What happens to a person at death?

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

7. What is the meaning of human history?

Sire has used these same questions for years, and in Naming the Elephant he interacts with questions posed by different authors and compares them to his own. There are a couple of places where I still think better questions exist.

For instance, Sire discusses a set of questions posed by Walsh and Middleton,”Who are we? Where are we? What’s wrong?” and “What’s the solution?”. Sire wishes to subsume the first (Who are we?) within question 3 above, which seems fair, as does his inclusion of “Where are we”? within number 2 above. However, he also wishes to include the last two (What’s wrong? and What’s the solution?) within questions 6 and 7 above, and it really seems to me that as a set they function importantly enough to merit their own place in worldview analysis.

Another criticism of the book might be that Sire’s assumptions about the Christian worldview seem to me to bypass critical theological issues. Of course, that’s not a fair criticism, since Sire isn’t really doing formal theology here, but implicitly doing practical theology, and his assumptions probably do reflect a good bit of ground level theological thinking in the sort of folk Christianity that exists in America. Beyond that, Sire recognizes that when he talks about a “Christian worldview” he is really thinking about his own worldview, which he perceives to be Christian. By and large I think he’s correct, and articulates the main parts of what might be fairly called Christian worldviews accurately.

This is a fantastic little book. Sire is, for the most part, fair and measured in his analysis, and recognizes his own commitments as they come up within his argument.  Ultimately I think Sire moves the concept of worldview forward in helpful ways, and provides a good resource for anyone wanting to understand themselves, or the world around them, with greater clarity.

Shepherds and the Story—A Sermon about Elders

I’ve been thinking about how our understanding of elders and their roles as shepherds relates to the big picture, the story the church has been brought into by Jesus. With elders, as with many other parts of church life, it’s too easy to think about them in isolation, as though we can simply turn to the proper chapters of scripture that address them and retrieve the list of rules that will tell us what to do. A much healthier approach is to start with the larger story in which we live, and let our understanding of the church’s shepherds grow out of that context, out of that story.

That larger story announces the reality of God’s reign in the world and his willingness to love and redeem the world. It is the story of how the creator God remains concerned with his creation, and is active within it. It is the story of how that God made for himself a people, by making covenant with Abraham, and with his rescued descendants at Sinai. It tells of God’s pursuit of Israel even when the covenant was broken. It tells how, in Jesus, God has made a new covenant with his people and opened the door for men and women of all nations to join Israel in becoming the covenant people of God. That story offers a way for humans to live within God’s reign, and warns of judgment for those who continue to live in rebellion against God’s reign. That story brings humans into participation in God’s plan to fight the darkness that has corrupted the world, and announces that his victory is certain, and what is wrong will be made right.

The church exists because of that story. It exists in that story. And it exists as an expression of that story.

When we talk about shepherds and elders, we can’t jump out of that story and imagine that we’re just dealing with a simple fact of ordering religious life. The shepherds actually function, like the rest of the church, within the context of that larger story. Continue reading “Shepherds and the Story—A Sermon about Elders”