The Absolute Standard

Abraham’s family must have wondered what possessed him when he said he was leaving the comfort of Ur for somewhere unknown, but then he had heard a promise to bless him. It must have been hard to hold on to that promise when he found he could have no children and was approaching old age. Yet, it was when all hope seemed lost, that God gave him a son. So, you can imagine how precious that son would have been and the shock he felt when God asked him to sacrifice that son. It is difficult to imagine what must have gone through his mind. Yet, remarkably, Abraham was willing to go through with it. It is the first reference in the Bible to worship: Abraham placing God above all else by giving his very heart and soul. Of course, God’s promise were still on the table, but how they would work out was not Abraham’s problem. God would find a way. And Abraham’s faithfulness to his God was never forgotten.

It is this absolute placing of God first that is also reflected in the Great Commandment:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

But love needs to be expressed, or it is not really love at all. We see this clearly with Abraham, in placing God before all rivals, even that of his own son. But love has other expressions too. When we are in love, there is little we will not do for our loved one. We find it easy to love the things they love, and we do it easily. We delight in the pleasure of our beloved. Well, if I am loving God with every fibre of my being then I am going to want to love those he loves, even when I find that they are lying in a gutter, smelling to high heaven, laying drunk in a pool of their own urine. In fact, he even loves them enough to die for. So, the second command Jesus gives is like the first: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” It is part of the same command really. The Great Commandment sums up the standard God has always set for us. It is why, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is at pains to say that it is not enough that we don’t murder, but we should not even hate. There are no grey edges to this.

At this point I’d like to make an important aside. We, in the West, get very confused by the idea of sin. Yet, in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the new, the word used is the word an archer might use when they miss a target. Later, it also came to mean the missing of a standard, such as a law or expectation. Knowing the standard we are expected to follow is thus important. It avoids the debates with those who think we sin if we ignore Victorian morality, or those who hardly think we sin at all. Jesus reminds us through the Great Commandment what that standard is. It is a standard that has not changed. It is the standard of loving God to such an extent that we love the world, just as he loves it. It is, of course, an impossible standard by ourselves. Yet, we have the promise that, by the power of the Spirit, we can keep it and, by the faithfulness of Jesus, forgiveness when we don’t.

Recapitulating Mark

There was an ancient prophesy that before the Lord returned, he would send a messenger. So, when John the Baptist started proclaiming a time of repentance the people of Judea came to listen and be baptised. Jesus also came to be baptised, and when he came out of the water a voice from heaven declared: “You are my beloved son.”

A short while later, Jesus began to proclaim the good news of the approaching Kingdom of God, demonstrating it with the power to heal the sick and cast out demons. Yet, the scribes and pharisees could not believe he was from God because he mixed with sinners and did things on the Sabbath. At one point, even his own family doubted him. Yet, he continued to spread the good news of the Kingdom, declaring that although starting small, the Kingdom would grow like a tree. Having preached his message on one side of Lake Galilee he crossed to the other. While they were crossing a great storm arose and they were in danger of sinking. Jesus was sleeping at the time, but when his disciples woke him, fearing for their lives, he simply told the storm to be quiet and the storm was still, filling his disciples with awe.

When they got to the other side he cast out a legion of demons from a man and into some pigs. The people were amazed at his power, but it also filled them with fear, so they asked him to leave. Travelling further north to Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples who people thought he was. They replied that some thought John the Baptist, or a prophet like Elijah. He then asked who they thought he was and when Peter said the Messiah he told them not to repeat it. Shortly after, Jesus went up a mountain and was transfigured before them and a voice said, “This is my beloved son”, but he told them not to tell anyone until after he had been raised from the dead, although they did not understand what he meant. He also told them how he would suffer and be rejected and that those who want to follow him would not be amongst the great, but must be a slave to all and as children, for even he had not come to be served but to serve by giving his life.

They travelled south towards Jerusalem at the time of Passover and as they approached the city the people began to cheer, but not the city leaders, they would have had him arrested if it were not for the crowd. The disciples were expecting him to be made king, but he warned them not to be misled by the signs. Times would be hard for them, but the good news of the Kingdom would be proclaimed and after that he would arrive in glory. At the Passover meal Jesus broke bread saying, “This is my body”. Then giving them wine saying, “This is my blood, which is poured out for many.” It was later that evening that he was betrayed and arrested. Meanwhile his disciples fled. The next day Jesus was mocked for being a king and crucified, but it unexpectedly became dark and the temple curtain torn in two, so the centurion declared, “Surely, he was God’s son”! They sealed his body in a tomb, but a few days later the women found the tomb had been opened and as they entered a man dressed in white said, “Jesus has risen. Go tell his disciples.” But they were terrified and ran off.

Solving the Right Problem

We live in a broken world filled with those who are hurting and lost. Glibly, we say the problem is sin, but in an age that no longer recognises sin it has no meaning. We live by the mantra of not hurting others, if you feel guilty you are sick, so see a psychiatrist! We give the wrong answer because we do not listen to the question.

I was recently given an insight into this while helping fix a problem with central heating. Some of the radiators were not getting hot and the room they were in became cold. It turned out their was an air lock stopping the hot water circulating properly. So what was the problem? Well, clearly, the radiators were not working, but equally clearly, it was the air lock. The air lock was actually the root cause and so the more important issue – even if most people don’t see this. What they understand is that the radiators are cold. What struck me was that the gospel also seems to function at these two levels. The root level is always that of sin, but there is also another level, the level through which it is perceived. For example, for first century Israel the problem addressed was the dominion of the Romans. It was not so much sin they wanted delivering from, but the Romans. Similarly, for fifteenth century Europe the problem was less the sin, but more the guilt and punishment which resulted from it. In both cases, the root cause would have been understood as sin, but the pain they were suffering was different. For one the Romans, for the other guilt – and the gospel spoke to both because it dealt with the root cause, which was sin.

So, how does that relate to today? Well, clearly, people are not looking for deliverance from the Romans. Nor do they want deliverance from guilt (for which they see a psychiatrist). Yet, this does not mean that we are all well sorted now. Quite the contrary. We are, with our media, perhaps more aware of the brokenness we live in that ever before. We still need deliverance – from something, because we still suffer and the root is still sin, as it always has been – even if sin is no longer understood by the majority of people. The Gospel still restores the wholeness that is the hallmark of the Kingdom.

We need to understand the problem that needs solving, not look to what needed solving five hundred years ago at the time of the Protestant reformation. In our Western culture, the answer will be complex, but likely to include certain themes. In a fragmented society, with loss of both family and community, we cry out in our loneliness for love and belonging. In an infinitely vast Universe we are overwhelmed by our insignificance and look for significance somewhere – even if just fifteen minutes of fame. In a world with a material reality that is only here by chance, we seek for something beyond ourselves to bring meaning to it all. Our entertainment drowns the pain of our lostness, but the problems are never far away.

The gospel message of the fifteenth century no longer touches lives, as it deals with a problem that is rarely experienced. We need to learn to listen to the heart-cry of people, to understand what is broken in their lives and from which they are looking for deliverance. We will then realise that the gospel is as powerful today as it always has been.

Israel and the Worhip of God

You will misunderstand the New Testament if you read it out of context. It is not a new story, but the sequel to an older one, one that hinges on the worship of God and that begins with Abraham.

Now, Abraham trusted God: when God said leave, he left; when God said give up your only beloved son, even then, he chose to obey. Abraham took his son up the mountain to worship, but I doubt if he felt much like singing, but then, that is not what worship means – even if that is how we interpret it. In the Hebrew, the word means to prostrate before someone, as an act of homage and allegiance. Which probably sums up exactly what was going on for Abraham – even if he did not know how it would pan out. He could give his allegiance because he trusted in God. And God rewarded Abraham for his trust by making of him a great nation, beginning under the watchful eye of the Egyptians, who became alarmed at the threat and so chose to enslaved them while he could. Which is why, what happens next, is God calling Moses.

Moses was not exactly thrilled by the idea of confronting Pharaoh, who was not exactly renowned for his goodwill towards Israelite slaves. But Moses obeyed God and Egypt was reluctantly forced to let Israel go. An event that is celebrated even today as Passover (and, significantly, the occasion when Jesus was crucified – but that is another story). After the people had been freed from Egypt, it was through Moses that God gave them the Commandments – encapsulated in the single command: to love the lord their God with all of their being and have no other gods. God desired their free and complete allegiance.

It was Joshua who eventually led the people into the land they had been given, but it was under David that they became great. Now David is an interesting man. He was a man of war, who committed adultery and murder, which is all kind of odd that he is most remembered as a worshipper. Yet, his allegiance was clear, whether against Goliath or foreign armies. For sure, he messed up, but his heart was towards God and God could forgave the rest. He was, after all, a man of worship.

Yet Israel became complacent and began to look to other gods. But a divided loyalty is no loyalty at all. It reduced God to the same level as carvings of wood. How was that worship? But God did not give up on them. He sent prophets, but they were ignored. Eventually, God separated himself from them and left them to the Babylonians, who carted them off, until they repented for what they had done. So God allowed them to return to their land, but he remained far off. Their sins had made a separation between them that he was not yet ready to forgive. Yet he promised a day when he would return and blot out their sin.

Daniel was given the timetable: 490 years. Meanwhile they were oppressed by whoever passed by: Persians, Greeks, Romans. It mattered little. Whoever was in charge, the people looked for a deliverer, another Moses, who would lead them on a new Exodus from their bondage. Of course, nobody worried about exact calendars, but a time arrived when the period was nearly over. And it was at that time that a man, dressed like Elijah, began proclaiming in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for God’s coming!’

The Message and the Gospel

Ken 03 Dec , 2016 2 Comments Kingdom

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy there comes a moment when Arthur Dent realises that there is something wrong with the Universe. I have also had such a moment. On one occasion when I read Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, I read that the gospel was the power of God and realised something was wrong. This was not what I was seeing: either Paul had it wrong, or, somehow, we have.

This sense of something being wrong has led me to explore exactly what the gospel is. To somehow pull it apart to separate its heart from the bits we have encrusted it with. I am aware that I need to tread carefully here, yet I must take the challenge seriously – even if it means upsetting a few of my own apple carts.

It is nonetheless a difficult task, because we do not see our own assumptions, but we can start by allowing the message to comment on itself, by juxtaposing one gospel messages next to another. And this is where we shall begin…

Shortly after Jesus rose again, on the day of Pentecost, Peter got up and gave a good news, bad news, story. It was the first gospel message ever recorded. It was to a large crowd of Jews and ran roughly like this:

You remember all of the prophesies about a great and terrible day, when the Lord would return to bring deliverance? Well we are in the middle of it now. The Messiah we have been waiting five hundred years for has arrived. Unfortunately, you just killed him. Yet, God has vindicated him and has now raised him from the dead – ready to make his enemies his footstool. This was the Jesus you just crucified.

You can imagine the panic as the people realised what they had done and the consequences for them. Is it any wonder that they cried out, “What must we do”? In view of the seriousness of the situation, Peter’s response is disarmingly simple: repent, be baptised in the name of Jesus. Instead of calamity, God was offering forgiveness.

Roll forward the clock fifteen hundred years. The Empire is Christian and believes itself heading for heaven. The trouble is, they were not acting that way. So, to encourage better behaviour, the church emphasised the need to go through Purgatory to purge the guilt of your sins and the need for good deeds for mitigating your time there. (Hell was only for those outside the church.) Of course, your good deeds could include giving to the the church building programme, which gave rise to the system of ‘Indulgences’.

Luther (along with many others) saw Indulgences as scandalous, which sent him searching for a better answer to the problem of sin and guilt. This led him to the very different solution: trusting in the forgiveness found in Jesus, which we probably think of today more in Calvin’s judicial terms: of owing a debt due to our sins that needed paying and Jesus paid that price.

I am struck by how different they look. Yet, they have both carried the power of God and so, I’d argue, must both be regarded as the gospel – or at least close. So what is going on? For one thing, the circumstances were very different. Peter’s Jewish message would not have made much sense to a Medieval audience. And here we hit the rub, because I am not convinced that Luther’s Medieval message makes sense to people today. So, our challenge is to find out what the gospel message for today’s audience is.