A new year finds us facing a kind of bleakness – theological, political, and personal – that looks like the scene in the Lion King after Scar has ruled for a time. The birds are gone. The water has dried up. The lush green has turned brown and brittle. Life has been drained from the kingdom. Evil has triumphed. How does the church need to respond to a culture bleak and angry and mistrustful, a culture that has learned to turn lies into truth? How does the Church find the courage to proclaim the gospel in a land that has grown cold and callous?
Did you know that a group of blind men once examined an elephant and each reached a different conclusion about what they were touching? Everybody knows that, but did you know that Christians have been examining the Bible for centuries and each sect, subset, group, denomination has reached the part they like or embrace? Did Jesus see this coming? Is this the expected norm among the churches? But then why do so many groups swear to have the whole truth and thereby exclude all other groups from the kingdom? Catholics and Protestants have drawn the sword on each other more often than the Scripture. Pentecostals would be a different sect without Acts 2 and speaking in tongues. John Wesley got the idea of falling from grace from the Epistle to the Hebrews. Methodists no longer talk about it. John Calvin got predestination mostly from Romans; Presbyterians don’t say much about it except for the PCA – the Presbyterian Church in America. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists are deeply rooted in the Old Testaments, and John Smith, not content with one Bible, wrote a second one for the Mormons. Baptists, it seems, are all over the place, but are especially diminished by a weak ecclesiology and little respect for the tradition of the church. When all we have is the New Testament and now, we have few resources on which to rely. In fact, it seems a lot of Christian faith came more from St. Paul than from the gospels. We all have partial, incomplete, pictures of a Gospel that defies totalizing explanations, a gospel that is far larger and more wondrous than we allow.
Into this befuddling wilderness of readings, interpretations, and beliefs we now tread. Consider it our quest as we look for the gospel in arid deserts, bedeviled wildernesses, and a cacophony of false prophets. At least part of this confusion may be led at the feet of those insisting that any ordinary human can pick up the Bible, read the words right off the page, and know exactly what the meaning is. How such an incredulous idea has taken such deep root in American Christianity seems to have more to do with something we call freedom and common sense than it does with what is actually found in the Bible.
We must make our way through this thicket of simple-mindedness because I contend that we are now reaping the consequences of our simple gospel theology in the political realm. There is an ever-growing danger that the “united” is being lost in the United States of America. The Confederate States tried to destroy the Union with war. The same states are now attempting to accomplish the same goal by using the Bible as a club.
I will argue that the gospel produces two different kinds of layers – one that invites us to a life of adventure, study, and learning and a second that causes us to build up layers of resistance to the gospel because it is so upsetting and so radical and can enrage people. It is the second layer of resistance to the gospel that has landed us in our present predicament. We American Christians tend to be rather smug about our ability to understand the Gospel. We tend to think we can just read the words from the page and the meanings form like gold in our minds. American individualism and common sense are considered the only hermeneutical tools necessary for grasping the gospel.
We have produced a theological environment where Ken Ham can enthrall audiences by claiming that he doesn’t interpret the Bible; he merely reads it. He would have us believe that the words will leap from the page and form like gold in our minds with almost no effort. Jesus’ fierce warning that the blind leading the blind causes everyone to fall in the ditch seems the applicable Scripture here. Not only is his assertion ridiculous; it is impossible. And yet it is a popular idea that anyone can pick up the Bible and make it say whatever he or she wishes it to say. I much prefer Rowan Williams powerful claim that the Bible was meant to be read in company. As the church’s book, the Bible is to be read, interpreted, and discerned in the company of believers and under the direction and leadership of a set apart, divinely called, and duly ordained teachers of Scripture.
According to St. Paul, in Ephesians 3, God has a cosmic plan; a mind-blowing, too big for the human mind to comprehend kind of plan. God’s plan is to unite the universe in the peace and praise of Jesus Christ. Rowan Williams in Tokens of Trust says that this has always been God’s only agenda. God is working all the time to accomplish peace and praise, and in every age and every place, God keeps inviting those with eyes to see to join his agenda. Right off the bat, we should see where we have gone wrong. Instead of promoting peace and praise, unity and goodness, we have learned the arts of war – division, dissension, hatred, lies, deception, and lack of integrity.
Peace and praise are two overlapping circles. Whatever is inside these two circles – God’s plan. Whatever is outside not God’s plan. All our disunity and divisions are outside the circles of God’s plan for peace and praise. “For the praise of his glory” is repeated 3 times in Ephesians 1:3-14 because it matters so much for us to check and see if what we believe and practice go directly to “the praise of his glory.” That seems easy enough until you read church history and look at churches going in circles like a dog chasing its tail.
Yet we remain blind people thinking that the part we know is the whole. Bits and pieces and half-truths all vie for the crown. Individuals claim authority over the church. Do we really think that God would trust the cosmic plan of universal unity to an amateur scientist in a creation museum in Kentucky, an amateur historian in the backwoods of Texas, an amateur predictor of the future who thinks we are all going to be left behind, an amateur mathematician who thinks that God’s plan is revealed in numbers, a brilliant physicist who keeps insisting there is no God, or to a Redneck Baptist preacher in Peoria? I don’t think so. Our security clearance is not that high. We see through a glass darkly and should have enough sense to show some respect and reticence in the presence of the wisdom of God.
And to add significance to this cosmic plan, personal significance that relates to us – God is working out the divine purpose through the church. THE CHURCH! I can’t imagine leaving the church when it is the designated hot spot of the real action. Imagine the “Star Wars” fleet docking at central command and you have a modern image of the church. The church is home base for the kingdom of God. Preachers may lose confidence in the gospel and go “whoring” after secular politicians with no commendable qualities except the ability to win, but that doesn’t mean we should follow them. I am not sure the church got the memo, but we need to read our mail more carefully. Maybe our Baptist theology suffers from a poorly developed ecclesiology because of our fear of Catholics.
What then should I say of the gospel? The broad outline of the gospel is not a secret; it has been publically announced and proclaimed abroad. But the gospel is a secret in the sense that it is capable of such a richness of meanings. These meanings don’t present themselves on the surface and are accessible only to those willing to ponder all these things and search diligently until they find the child. The gospel is a searching process like looking for treasure. The gospel is a pain-producing process, not a pain pill to addle our brains and comfort our deceptions. Having multiple meanings doesn’t mean that we lack the truth. It means that we are on the road to truth.
For those of you who live in fear of something you call relativism, that educated preachers just make up stuff and call it the gospel, this is not the same as making up meanings because we are connected to how Scripture has been read across the centuries. We have a biblical history, a tradition and it is important for us to know how Christians in the past have read the Bible. This means that we are historians and conservatives preserving a tradition. When we interpret texts, we are not making up stuff from scratch. We are working with the Christians who have come before us. I am a conservative when it comes to biblical tradition. I believe in the “old-time religion” – not the 19th century version, that’s too young, but in the 20 plus centuries of Christian reading and interpretation of Scripture. Harry Emerson Fosdick, confronted in the early 20th century with something being bandied about as the “old-time religion” told his Riverside congregation that it was ok to have an old-time religion as long as it was old enough – old as the hills, old as dirt, old as Abram going out by faith not knowing where he was going. Fosdick rightly discerned that 19th century fundamentalism didn’t go back to the beginnings of faith. It was a new-fangled idea all mixed up with an attempt at self-justification by using the “scientific method” on the Bible. We shouldn’t be surprised that the Bible was allergic to the scientific method.
I invite you back into the old-time religion of more centuries than we can count, a religion that has been arguing with God like Job, wrestling with God like Jacob, pleading with God like Abraham, questioning God like the prophets, following God’s will like Jesus of Nazareth. I remind you that we are part of an unbroken line of biblical interpreters that can’t afford to break the line by going off on personal tangents and dead ends.
Let me give you a couple of examples of the “old-time” religion. Did you know Mary was the mother of Jesus? Everybody knows that, but did you know that Mary has an association with the burning bush of Moses? Gregory of Nyssa, in the 4th century, was probably the first of the scholars to make the connection between Mary and the burning bush. In the Eastern Orthodox Church the monks often portray Mary, pregnant or with her child, surrounded by the burning bush. The two stories bring together the seminal moments of the two Testaments: the Sinai covenant and the incarnation. God’s self-revelation is an act of the most intense intimacy – a generative act, literally giving life to Israel, the church, and the world. Thus, to depict Mary standing at the burning bush, at Sinai, shows us the deep unity of the two Testaments. Sinai and Bethlehem. And this is from exegesis over one thousand and seven hundred years old. That’s old and that’s rich.
Did you know that Jacob married Leah thinking she was Rachel? Everybody knows that, but have you ever considered that the swindle of Jacob’s father-in-law might be connected with Jacob’s earlier swindle of his brother Esau? An ancient rabbi imagined a conversation on the morning after Jacob and Leah’s marriage. Jacob says to Leah: “I called out ‘Rachel’ in the dark and you answered. Why did you do that to me? Leah says to him: “Your father called out ‘Esau’ in the dark and you answered. Why did you do that to him?” Jacob’s fury dies on his lips. He sees what it is like to be manipulated and deceived, and he meekly complies with Laban’s offer. Wow! That’s even older and richer!
In C. S. Lewis’s children’s book, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we meet a young boy name Eustace. One night he found an enormous pile of treasure in a cave. He was so excited that he could now live the life of ease and power that he had always dreamed of having. When he woke, however, he had turned into a hideous dragon. Because he thought like a dragon, he had become a dragon. When we resist the gospel, we become hardened and layer after layer of dragon skin piles onto our own human skin. Well, one night Eustace met a mysterious lion. The lion challenged him to take off his dragon skin. He managed to peel off a layer, but found there were more dragon layers underneath. The lion finally said, “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace tells what happened next: “I was afraid of his claws, but I just let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking. I’d turned into a boy again.”
The lion, Aslan, represents Jesus, and until we are prepared to face the gospel and respond to it by allowing Jesus to tear away the layers and layers of dragon skin – the prejudices, the fears, the half-truths, the lies, the perversions, we can’t become as children and enter the kingdom of heaven.
I understand that some are afraid. Like the prophet Habakkuk, you cry, “I hear, and I tremble within; my lips quiver at the sound. Rottenness enters into my bones and my steps tremble beneath me. I wait quietly for the day of calamity.” But our God says “Do not be afraid.” “Do not let your hearts be trembled.” “Lift up your bent necks.” “Look the Lord, the Rock of our salvation.” Perhaps our greatest fear of the gospel has to do with its very essence: the plan of God to unite all things in Jesus Christ. There has always been an implied dislike and mistrust of all outsiders. Politicians can make a career out of fear of outsiders. We revel in outsiders, set up new categories of outsiders, determined to protect our turf and be in charge. “You are not from here, are you?” We live in a world of outsiders – rhetorical creations that we use to maintain borders and boundaries and safety and security. But are we fighting against the gospel? Well, “outsiders” is not a gospel word. In Jesus Christ there are no outsiders. There is neither Jew nor Greek. There is neither male not female. There is neither black or white. There are no foreigners in God’s kingdom that has no walls, only doors and windows.
Look, God has a plan. It’s bigger than all our plans, schemes, and doctrines. It is beyond fundamentalism and liberalism. It intends to heal all divisions and bring about cosmic unity. We are about to have a new president and you deserve to know that nothing will change here. The gospel will not be impacted by secular politics. Politicians can be slick enough to fool a nation wrapped in media illusions; they can’t fool the gospel of Jesus Christ which cuts all our lies and deceptions to the core and reveals the darkness and death within. The gospel will be our shield. The gospel will be our way of life. It will remain the same gospel, and you are still invited to participate. You don’t have to, but you are invited. You can give yourself to peace and praise and be part of the cosmic plan of God.
No matter how the heathen rage, no matter how powerful the high, mighty, and rich become, there will always be a new day. The fig tree will blossom again. There will be fruit on the vine once more. The produce of the olive will increase. The fields will yield abundant harvest and the flock will return to the fold. The poor will be fed. The prisoners will be set free. The immigrants will be our brothers and sisters and we will dwell in peace among all the nations of the world. There will be peace on earth and unity will be our way of life.