Apocalyptic

o that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence —
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil —
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

In the approach to Christmas this year, I’ve been rolling these words from Isaiah 64 (verses 1 & 2) around in my head. Because they shed so much light on what God was up to that first Christmas.

Speaking out of the depths of Israel’s disappointment and painful — though richly-deserved — judgement, Isaiah puts into words what must have been a common longing. The longing for God to intervene in their plight. Personally and dramatically.

What’s fascinating is that this longing for an expectation-shattering apocalyptic intervention of God is actually a longing for God to do his characteristic thing (verse 3):

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

Of course, Isaiah knows that Israel’s plight is self-inflicted. It’s the holy and true God’s response to their unholiness and failure to worship him.

And yet, Isaiah also knows that God is Israel’s Father(!). And this stokes his almost outrageous confidence to plead with God to reverse their situation. To relent. For the sake of his people, his holy city and temple, and — underwriting all this — his own name and reputation (verses 8-11):

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity for ever.
Now consider, we are all your people.
Your holy cities have become a wilderness,
Zion has become a wilderness,
Jerusalem a desolation.
Our holy and beautiful house,
where our ancestors praised you,
has been burned by fire,
and all our pleasant places have become ruins.

Ultimately, Isaiah even seems to be convinced that God won’t be able to help himself. He won’t be able to do anything but — stunningly and surprisingly — bring salvation through the disaster of judgement overshadowing their current experience:

After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?
Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?

This is what God was doing that first Christmas. Fulfilling Isaiah’s desperate plea for him to turn up in person to save!

what if you feel disappointed with God? (coda)

When I was growing up there was a guy in our neighbourhood that all the kids made fun of.

He muttered to himself. Wore rags. Smelled funny. And collected empty drink cans — filling his garage with them.

I don’t think I ever spoke with him. So I don’t know his story. All I have is speculation. As well as the adult realisation that he was catastrophically broken. One of those people who had been let down by life — whether in one big way or in innumerable smaller ways.

Truth is, we’re all that guy.

In our own way, we all have our garages full of something. We’re all eventually overtaken by our brokenness and disappointment. Left to cope with the fallout of things that happen. Ultimately, inhabiting our own private Chernobyls.

Like I said when I started this mini series, I’m increasingly sure that sooner or later disappointment will be the pastoral issue for me and my peers.

Whether we’re dealing with it ourselves. Or standing beside those who are. Or perhaps desperately trying to fend it off — either by playing life completely safe or by constantly recalibrating our trajectory in order to present a moving target.

But this is where Christmas holds such good news for us.

Because, according to the birth narratives in the New Testament, Christmas is all about God breaking into our desperate and disappointing circumstances.

It’s about God not playing life safe or standing at a distance. But coming to be with us. Plunging fully into our mess and brokenness — not shying away from the messiness of being conceived by a not-yet-married teenage girl in an honour-shame society.

It’s about God making himself vulnerable. Vulnerable to disappointment, to being let down, betrayed, arrested and ultimately crucified.

It’s about him taking our brokenness upon himself. And making it his own. In order to overcome it for us.

The good news is that in the midst of our brokenness and disappointment, joy, hope, peace and comfort have arrived!

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

God wants to plant what where?!

I heard a terrific sermon at church yesterday on James 1.19-27 — a passage famous for commending activism, and activism of a potentially noxious kind.

With all its talk of not simply hearing the word but doing it, this is exactly the sort of thing that led Martin Luther to regard the letter of James as ‘a right strawy epistle’.

But what hit me like a sledgehammer was the way this section begins. There, James calls not so much for activism as for a certain kind of inaction — namely, listening:

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

Learning to listen each other prepares us to listen to God.

And we need this preparation because listening to God is something that requires a heck of a lot of effort — if my experience and the images James uses in verse 21 are anything to go by: weeding (not my favourite leisure activity) and displaying hospitality.

Even more mind-bending, though, is the way James describes God’s word. He calls it “the implanted word that has the power to save your souls”.

This word isn’t already there inside us — like a hidden and unrealised capacity or tendency.

Nor is it simply something external — a barked order or categorical imperative demanding our obedience even (or especially) when it cuts across our desires.

No. God puts his word inside us. He implants it.

According to James, God’s word is like a donated organ. Or a pace-maker. It does for us something our own bodies cannot do. And, in doing so, it enables our bodies to function as they’re supposed to.

So this ‘implanted word’ is alien. That’s why we need to work with it, by uprooting anything that threatens to choke it out — “all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness”.

At the same time, this gracious invader liberates us, allowing us to become more fully ourselves. This ‘implanted word’ gives us a whole new lease on life. Indeed, it has the power to save us.

Social Design for mission and ministry (1): work from the outside in

According to Facebook Developers’ Social Design guidelines, there are two main ways to model a social product:

  1. Work from the inside out — ie. “allow people to create an identity, let them share it and build a community over time”. They claim this is how Facebook began (although as the story’s told in The Social Network, its origins owe more to the elitist in-group dynamics of Ivy League campus life).
  2. Work from the outside in — ie. “utilize the existing community users have built, define new conversations and let them continue to build their identities further”.

I want to suggest that it’s this second strategy that holds most promise for Christian mission and ministry.

On the face of it, this claim may seem odd. After all, isn’t Christianity fundamentally about being given a new identity? And doesn’t it all begin as we’re united with Christ by faith? Then doesn’t it go from there as we learn how to faithfully remember and consistently live this out?

But I find the outside in approach promising because it directs our attention to two closely related but often overlooked things about becoming Christian and living the Christian life.

On the one hand, it helpfully acknowledges the community and relational contexts we’re all always embedded in.

No-one ever simply ‘creates’ a new identity for themselves ex nihilo. This certainly holds for those with whom we would share the gospel. Jesus won’t so much obliterate their existing identities as straighten out whatever is bent and twisted about them.

His grace is an alien invader. But its arrival somehow makes profound sense, ‘decoding’ our diverse identities, journeys and senses of vocation as Andrew Cameron puts it (Joined-up Life, page 97).

It’s the same with those who’ve been united with Jesus. We continue to inhabit our existing networks of relationships — families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, communities, etc. We may disturb and even subvert established patterns within these networks because of our allegiance to Jesus. But I take it that being salt and light requires our ongoing presence within them rather disengaging to form a new separatist community or whatever.

On the other hand, the outside in approach helpfully points us to the fact that the new identity we’re given in Christ necessarily joins us together with others. The network of relationships called ‘church’ both arises from our new identity in Christ and leads us ever deeper into it — giving others a tantalising glimpse of what Jesus offers them.

That‘s why Christian mission and ministry should learn to work from the outside in.

how to be an apocalyptic optimist

Apocalyptic optimism? Huh? What the heck am I talking about?

No. I’m not weighing in on the whole ‘rapture ready’ debate that predictions about a May 22 end of the world — or was it the beginning of the end? — sparked last week (I doubt I could top this beauty from Michael Bird anyway).

I’m talking about drinking deeply of what Paul says in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians about the impact of the cross on what we value.

So deeply, in fact, that we can see and acknowledge that the Christians message and life and community is foolish and unimpressive and odd-ball by most people’s standards.

Reflect on the Christian communities you’ve been part of. Isn’t that true?

They’re not usually How To Win Friends And Influence People type material, are they? Even when they’re full of gifted and godly individuals.

What’s your response when you recognise this? When this reality presses itself on you so you can’t deny it?

To be honest, it tends to drop me into a bit of a pessimism spiral (either that or it lets me feel like I’m off the hook for my failures and inadequacies).

But I think I react to our apparent weakness with pessimism because I don’t actually believe what Paul says — that God has chosen the weak and foolish to display his glory and strength.

That’s how it was with Jesus. And that’s how it will be with his disciples.

So, as far as Paul’s concerned, a frank admission of the unimpressive-looking reality of Christian preaching and community shouldn’t lead to pessimism or despair. Nor should it lead to patting ourselves on the back while we scale back our expectations.

Instead, it should lead to a tremendous hope and confidence in God.

We should be expecting big things. Apocalyptically big things. The kind of things the prophets promised would happen when God acted to fulfil his promises, invading his arrant world and wrenching it back into shape.

That’s apocalyptic optimism.

And the secret to it is to believe — to look to Jesus, and to take up your cross and follow him…

where’s your theological centre of gravity?

I think the way you pray — and even sometimes the words you choose — can reveal a lot about where your theological centre of gravity lies.

I’ve been challenged by the way Paul prays for the little church he’d been involved in planting in Thessalonica — 1 Thessalonians 3.11-13:

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

The content of Paul’s prayer is, of course, inspiring. How often do we pray these kinds of things for each other?

But almost as inspiring is the way Paul prays here.

I’m not talking so much about the way he frames this prayer for God to stir up the Thessalonians’ love for each other and for all with dual references to ‘our God and Father’ and ‘our Lord Jesus’. (Although that is awesome.)

I’m talking about the fact that Paul doesn’t once ask God for “help”.

Look at the things Paul asks God about: intervention to open his way to return to Thessalonica, increasing and abounding love, hearts strengthened in holiness for a blameless verdict at Christ’s return.

This kind of ‘directness’ is often lacking in my prayer life. I usually find myself asking God to ‘help’ me do things (often good things — though, if I’m honest, not always). But I rarely ask him to work more directly — stirring me up, teaching me, guiding me, strengthening me, opening the way for me.

Yet Paul’s theological centre of gravity lies in a radically different place. For him, God’s initiative and action is far more decisive than ours. And it’s so refreshing!

the beating heart of Paul’s theological imagination

I was struck by something as I prepared to speak on the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians a couple of weeks back. At the end of the chapter, Paul sketches out what it looked like for them to become Christian (verses 9b-10):

You turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.

The three key features of this brief verbal sketch belong together — almost self-evidently. Right?

But according to Jeffrey Weima (Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old), the combination of terms Paul puts together here is highly unusual.

‘Living and true God’ is an utterly unique description for Paul, drawing together significant strands of God’s self-presentation in the Old Testament. Likewise, the actions of ‘turning to God’ (from idols) and ‘serving’ him alone are only directly correlated in 1 Samuel 7.3.

This got me wondering: What moved Paul to put these ideas together?

Then it struck me. Although the may not occur together in the space of a single verse (or even across a few verses), these ideas all appear in roughly this constellation in Isaiah 40-66.

Isaiah’s majestic vision of God’s intervention to comfort Israel and restore Zion begins with a New Exodus and culminates in a New Creation, repeatedly striking the following notes:

  • The folly of idolatry (and the corresponding need to repent).
  • The truth/faithfulness and living authority of Israel’s God.
  • And the eschatological scene of the Great Assize, in which God judges his enemies and vindicates his faithful servant.

Isaiah reworks the familiar themes of Old Testament faith — monotheism and the supremacy of Israel’s God — against an eschatological backdrop. And this takes us straight to the beating heart of Paul’s theological imagination!

what Joel and Ethan Coen can teach us about reading the Old Testament

I’ve been wondering what the relentless realism of the Coen brothers’ films can teach us about reading the Old Testament.

Earlier this week Stanley Fish posted a provocative appreciation of the Coen brothers’ latest film, True Grit (a remake of a John Wayne movie). I say provocative because Fish concludes by contending:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

I’m keen to see the film. Not least because Fish’s review reminded me of this imagined conversation between Karl Barth and Joel and Ethan Coen about No Country For Old Men.

I can’t say that I’ve found many of the Coen brothers’ films enjoyable to watch. Especially not No Country.

But neither can I say that I enjoy reading a whole lot of the Old Testament. The historical narratives in particular often leave me feeling bewildered — and a little bit nauseated.

To me, biblical Israel’s history resembles nothing so much as a horrendous car wreck in slow motion. Perfect source material for Joel and Ethan Coen!

Of course, there are flashes of grace. There are hints anticipating God’s ultimate triumph. Indications that he does have purposes — good purposes — that he’s patiently working out in and through the messy, tragic humanness of it all.

But these flashes don’t point to some fulfilment of an intrinsic trajectory within human history. As if there were some promising germ of perfection within it — buried deep but straining continually towards realisation (lurking somewhere in the special identity of Israel perhaps).

Instead, they point to God’s apocalyptic, unlooked-for, in-person invasion of human history. Not to cancel it out. Or offer an escape from it. But to finally perfect his original intentions for it — in liberation, redemption and glorious transformation.

That is, they point us to Christmas. And beyond it to Christ’s return.

I don’t think this resolves all the problems we might have reading the Old Testament.

But I am convinced that learning to face reality squarely (from the likes of the Coen brothers, for example) may help us embrace God’s governance of history without smoothing over its tragic angularities — either in the Old Testament or in our own experience…

a providential coincidence?

We’ve just finished a series on Ruth at church. And one of the things that struck me is how significant coincidences are in moving the story forward — people ‘just happening’ to be in the right place at the right time, like at the start of chapter 4.

My impression is that this is a pretty common feature of biblical narrative (I’d like to wrestle with its significance in the Gospels one day).

Gustave Dore, 'The Gleaners'

And yet for all that the story may work to highlight the contingent and fortuitous nature of each occasion like this, it also constantly invites us to see God’s providential hand — even in the most surprising turn of events. In this case at least, Calvin’s insistence that it is unwarranted to speak of ‘fortune’ or ‘chance’ is on the money (Institutes I.xvi.2, 8-9).

Nevertheless, recognising this ought not obscure the fact that things didn’t have to turn out as they do. And, in fact, the way things do turn out is nothing short of an expectation-shattering reversal of pretty much every foreseeable possibility at the end of chapter 1.

What I think we glimpse in Ruth is the good and faithfully loving God of Israel invading this tragic human situation so that he can put things right (rather than completing or bringing to fruition its latent tendencies). That is, I think the Book of Ruth operates with what contemporary theologians have begun to speak of as an apocalyptic view of God’s action in history. And in so doing, it proves marvellously able to testify to the sovereign God’s gracious — and surprising — work without thereby ironing out all the agony and messiness of human history and agency.

In fact, I suspect it’s only such a view of history that will enable us to hold God’s sovereignty together with the reality of human history and agency, so that we can echo Peter’s words about that most providential of coincidences — the death of Jesus: ‘this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law’ (Acts 2.23)…

why cataclysm and doom may not be so bad after all

Over the weekend, I finished reading J G Ballard’s novel, The Drought (which Natalie blogged about back HERE). I loved it. He’s like a late twentieth century Joseph Conrad — if that means anything to you.

The edition I was reading had a short essay by Ballard on the topic of ‘Cataclysms and Dooms’ appended to it. Get a load of the way he asks himself this probing question:

As an author who has produced a substantial number of cataclysmic stories, I take for granted that the planet the writer destroys with such tireless ingenuity is in fact an image of the writer himself. But are these deluges and droughts, whirlwinds and glaciations no more than over-extended metaphors of some kind of suicidal self-hate?

This suspicion is writ even larger for Christians. Not only are the books of Daniel and Revelation bursting with images of cataclysm and doom. But a solid case can be made for seeing the whole of Jesus’ ministry as well as Paul’s writings in apocalyptic terms. Nietzsche saw this more clearly than we sometimes do — and accused Christianity of expressing a savage hatred of life as a result. (In a paper recently delivered at the Moore College School of Theology, Michael Jensen sketched a response to this critique in view of Paul’s ethics in 1 Corinthians. I had the privilege of reading the paper in draft. You can read George’s summary HERE.)

But Ballard’s answer to his own question is worth pondering: ‘I believe that the catastrophe story, whoever may tell it, represents a constructive and positive act by the imagination rather than a negative one, an attempt to confront a patently meaningless universe by challenging it at its own game.’

I wonder if there’s a hint here about how Christians might best grab hold of our apocalyptic texts. Rather than proposing some transhistorical, spiritual meaning for history (as, for example, most utopian narratives of progress do), might we need to see biblical apocalyptic as challenging our meaningless universe at its own game? That is, might we need to see it not as pointing away from history but as pointing towards a particular moment within it as its decisive invasion by God’s future?