Tuesday, January 29, 2008

God in the Concrete

“But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.” “ (Jonah 1:4 ESV)

God acts concretely in the Jonah narrative. God hurls. God appoints, a fish; a plant; a worm; a strong east wind. He does these things, not in the abstract, but in the concrete.

If a meteorologist had studied the maps in the moments leading up to this storm, what would he have seen? Did God arrange for this storm using natural means, or was it a surprising, inexplicable occurrence? Or what about the fish (1:17)? Did it have a mommy fish, growing the way that fish grow? And did God move the boat to where the fish was, or the fish to where the boat was? Could God have created that fish right then and there, so that Jonah was its very first meal?

Whether or not God worked through means and processes, or whether He acted in more radical fashion, what we have are God’s acts in the concrete. But in our world today, we are often left with only abstract references to God and abstract expectations of God.

When someone says, “Well, I guess the good Lord was watching out for me today,” he probably is referring more to a god-idea or god-principle than he is to the Almighty God who breaks into history to accomplish His purposes. I am not arguing against the providence of God. Not by any means. I am arguing against the widespread notion of God that denies His fierce reality. When we say, “Watch out! God might strike you with lightning!” we don’t really believe that God might actually do that. We don’t really believe in that kind of God, who stops people in their tracks, or puts His finger on a prophet gone AWOL.

Not only is God really real, but so is the incarnation and resurrection of His Son. Jesus really rose from the dead, in the concrete, not just in abstraction. Some teach that Jesus rose “spiritually.” Somehow we are to be inspired with this sentiment. But Jesus’ resurrection actually involved the reversal of all the effects of death in a human body that had already begun. It is this physical, concrete resurrection which assures us that the concrete God will work again to make a New Creation that is rid of sin and evil. It’s more than just an idea or theory. It is a confident, concrete expectation.

And so, then, Christians should be more than abstract Christians. Am I a concrete follower of Christ? Do faith, hope and love have concrete expressions in my life, clinging to God’s Word over my own senses; living beyond current conveniences in the expectation for future glory; sacrificing self for the sake of others?

A merely abstract God is no God at all.
A merely abstract Jesus is no Savior at all.
A merely abstract Christian is no Christian at all.

A final word. No Christian perfectly expresses faith, hope and love. At times we despair in the almost-absence of these evidences. But God will fan into eternal flame the smallest sparks of His saving grace in our lives. We are not saved by our faith, hope and love. But we seek to encourage such concrete expressions, that the world might be convinced of God, so much so that they “ “falling on their faces, will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” “ (1Corinthians 14:25 ESV, edited)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

In God’s Face

In God’s Face

In a world where people have a hard time grasping the concept of sin, we struggle even more with the truth that our sins are offensive to God. Isn’t it His job to forgive? Isn’t He big enough to get over it?

God says to Jonah, “their wickedness has come up before Me.” (Jonah 1:2 NAS95S) The phrase could be translated literally, “their wickedness has come right up in My face.”

We have a hard time facing up to our sins against God. Perhaps this illustration will help (in part, gleaned from Colin S. Smith, “The Ambassador's Job Description: 2 Corinthians 5:11-21” in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, D.A. Carson, general editor, 2000, p.185). If I dig a hole in the garden with a shovel and cut an earthworm in half, I’m not bothered at all. If I hit a squirrel with my car, I go, “eww,” but don’t lose any sleep. If I back over the neighbor’s child, the lives of several people, including my own are shattered. But when I sin against God - and all sin is against God - it affects my relationship with God eternally, unless that sin is dealt with in a satisfactory way. The gravity of an offense is measured by the value of the being that is offended. Cut a worm in half. Two worms. Hit a squirrel. Nuts. But human beings created in the image of God, devastating. And offending God. Damning.

So Nineveh’s sin is serious. So is your’s. So is mine.

When King David fornicated with Bathsheba, conceiving a child while her husband was on the battlefield fighting for David’s kingdom and David’s honor, David sinned. When Uriah refused to come home and sleep with his wife (so as to cover up David’s earlier sin) while his comrades were still fighting, and so David had him placed on the front lines in order to be killed, David sinned. And finally, when David confessed his sin, he said, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,” (Psalms 51:4 ESV). Strange. Seems to me David sinned against more people than just God. But David got something right. Because of the value of the Person offended, his sin was mostly, primarily against God.

When I sin, it has consequences for me and for those around me. But the magnitude of my sin is right up there “in God’s face.”

About Face

The best way to know one’s mind is not only to hear his words, but to also see his face. And so God, in making known his holy mind to sinful men sends His Word delivered by prophets with human faces.

Jonah, and Jesus, are prophets. One was an Anti-Prophet. The other is the Ultimate Prophet. Once again, we must decide if we will follow Jonah, or Jesus. The (literal) use of the word “face” in the opening verses of Jonah provides the starter material for our discussion. “But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.” (Jonah 1:3 NAS95S) The phrase could be translated literally, “from the face of the Lord.”

Where is God’s presence? Isn’t it everywhere? “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?”
(Psalms 139:7 ESV) For this prophet, a fair interpretation would be to say that when Jonah ceased to be where God wanted him to be, and go where God wanted him to go, then he was no longer living in God’s presence, or before God’s face.

So Jonah forsook God’s face, rejecting the message, and he also fled from the mission field, rejecting the recipients, refusing to communicate with them face to face. There is a lesson here. Rejecting the faces of the recipients of God’s message coordinates with fleeing from God’s face. “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar;” (1John 4:20 ESV) We cannot love the Lord fully and not also love those to whom we have been called or sent.

As followers of Jesus and representatives of the Ultimate Prophet, we may wish that God’s mind could be communicated merely with propositions. Air drop some literature on Nineveh. Send a mass e-mail to all my associates. Let’s be done with it. But the message is not merely propositional. It is also personal. Jesus came and delivered God’s mind to us in person – He spoke the message (propositions), but even more, he incarnated the message. There is an application here. So we also must seek “face time” with those who would be recipients, in those places where God has called us to be, and those places where God sends us to go.

We live in an informational age overladen with technologies that permit and encourage minimal personal contact. But the very culture that maximizes such capabilities at the same time hardens people against the practice. People are resistant to mere propositions. They need to receive the Good News from someone they can respect; from someone they can know and trust; from someone who will take the time to sit with them face to face.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Jonah: The Recalcitrant Prophet

This past Sunday (1/13/08), in introducing Jonah, we looked at some of the historical and geographical background.

Regarding the historicity of Jonah and this story:

The truthfulness of the Jonah story is no more difficult to swallow than is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, just as our hope in a new heavens and new earth is no less justifiable than is our acceptance of the creation of this present earth as described by God in Genesis 1,2. Yes, our faith embraces that which is utterly fantastic, and we deal with a God who is wild and wonderful. And what is our problem with that?

Regarding the geography of Jonah:

The far, even unreasonable distance which Jonah was unwilling to travel east to Nineveh was more than matched by his willingness to travel even further west to Tarshish (perhaps on the SW coast of Spain). But then, the distance that Jonah was willing to traverse in order to avoid God, God is willing to solve in order to forgive and fellowship with His people:

“as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” (Psalms 103:12 ESV)

“I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 8:11 ESV)

The low esteem which Jonah held toward the Ninevites could be contrasted by the high value he placed on his own self and independence from God. Jonah helps us to see more clearly, then, the humiliation of Jesus, who placed such high value on miserable sinners that he voluntarily humbled himself to serve us and save us.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8 ESV)

And so we see Jonah, the Recalcitrant Prophet, that is, one who digs in his heels and resists his summons to testify. Perhaps we can see some parallel with this excerpt from a portion of our legal code, and maybe even a hint of what is in store for Jonah, the Anti-Prophet.

U.S. Code Collection: TITLE 28 PART V CHAPTER 119: § 1826. Recalcitrant Witness (a) Whenever a witness in any proceeding before or ancillary to any court or grand jury of the United States refuses without just cause shown to comply with an order of the court to testify or provide other information, ..the court, upon such refusal, ..may summarily order his confinement at a suitable place until such time as the witness is willing to give such testimony or provide such information.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Faith Illustration

This illustration is designed to show that faith is not a work. It helps me to think about the relation of grace and faith, as in Eph 2:8,9.

Think of a milkshake. God graciously gives the milkshake. We didn't provide the resources, or make it. God did. But we are supposed to drink it.

Some people would say that our faith-response to God's gracious gift is the straw through which we suck up the milkshake. But I don't think so. God gives the straw as well.

So then faith must be our ability to suck the shake up the straw to ourselves. But I don't think that is right either. We can't even suck without God giving the ability, and even then, I don't think that is where faith comes in.

I think faith is more like God doing everything, providing the ingredients, making the shake, giving the straw, drawing the shake to our mouths, and the response of faith is merely savoring what God has done.

I think that is what faith is. It is realizing that without God, we can not be saved, and that we cannot contribute to the process. Faith is savoring, appreciating, and valuing what God has done in Christ. Faith is savoring Christ. Is it essential to salvation? Yes. But it does not place our actions at the center. God through Christ is at the center.