Saturday, September 05, 2009

Judah, Samaria and the mystery of God's patience and discipline

Another title could be this one:

Yahweh doesn't believe in sympathtic magic but we Christians sure do

I have been immersing myself in commentary and in the reading of the biblical narrative of Israel over the last few y ears. I am not going to soft-sell this, Driscoll's almost total lack of responsibility in handling a responsible exegesis of biblical narrative books is what inspired me to go the other way and try to let the biblical text, so to speak, speak for itself rather than just continue to put up with fanciful self-indulgent agenda-pushing. Now, to be fair, I expect good things from Driscoll's teaching in Luke because he's actually got some competence in NT literature and his greatest preaching has come from Lukan texts. I'm not afraid to suggest that not only will a Lukan series be awesome but Driscoll and Mars Hill elders shouldn't feel afraid to tackle Acts while they are at it, so that the Lukan literature can be covered in its mind-bending fullness.

But I am grateful to the Lord Driscoll sucks so bad at preaching through Old Testament historical books because God has used that to remind me that preachers are just preachers, sinners like everyone else being saved by the mercy of God. They have strengths and weaknesses and what is weak in you the Lord can make strong and what is strong in you (so you think) the Lord can render powerless.

So as I have travelled through the history of God's people, Israel, up through to the exile I have been considering how even in that history it is wildly inaccurate to say that God has some one-to-one correspondence between wicked people and wicked leaders who get terrible punishments on the one hand and godly kings and godly people who get only blessings. Ahab tore his clothes and hit sackcloth and while God evebtually had him killed for his unrepentent sin ... God spared Ahab's life for quite a stretch of time. It was some time after Elijah's prediction of Ahab's demise that the demise happened.

And Elijah's life itself is fascinating because, as Provan so trenchently points out, Elijah was a prophet who actually DIDN'T DO several things he was told to do. Elijah was considered one of the greatest prophets and yet in his own way he could be as disobedient and recalictrant as Jonah! There were things llike annointing rulers that Elijah didn't do while he was on earth, things that were done by Elisha. And yet the Lord took up Elijah in a chariot of fire! You can't help asking yourself, when you think about it, how God could give such a spectacular exit from earthly life to such a stubborn and even disobedient prophet!

By contrast, at the end of 2 Kings we see that though Josiah was obedient to the Lord in ways unlike any other king in the history of Israel this obedience was not enough to save his life. He died in battle. Not only did he die in battle his obedience and even the repentence of the people were, good as those things were, were not considered good enough to compensate for the wickedness of Mannesah. Chronicles tells us something else, that when Neco came up to fight he explained he was not there to fight the king of Judah. Josiah didn't listen to the word of the Lord spoken through the Egyptian king and was killed in battle but was thereby spared seeing the full extent of Judah's destruction, humiliation, and downfall.

The words of the Egyptian king should be a serious warning to use who are in Christ. We must remember that God has at different times spoken wisdom through those who do not even know Him. God does reveal truth to unbelievers yet many Christians would say that this is not possible. In fact I heard a certain pastor say it's not possible to learn anything about the Old Testament from Jewish teachers ... which is about the speed of the simplistic reductionist thought that pastor tends to employ on Old Testament literature as a whole but, Lord willing, the Lord will soon have shown him the error of his ways and give him some actual humility before the text, if not before people. :)

But let me get back to Josiah--his life is a sobering notice that even if you do everything right you can still die a miserable death. If one is to speculate as to how Josiah could have lived or died differently we can reflect on Josiah meeting Neco on the battlefield. Josiah died, the Chronicler tells us, because he did not recognize or heed the word of the Lord through a foreign conqueror. He went out to fight a fight that was not his to fight. He went out, as it were, to defend a cause tha twas indefensible that did not warrant his endorsement. There isn't much indication that Josiah did or didn't consult a prophet regarding his military venture. Why Josiah sought to meet an Egyptian on the battlefield isn't explained directly and I am not yet at a detailed study of Chronicles so I'm not going to pretend I know.

What is interesting is that despite Josiah's genuine love for the Lord and despite the reforms these were not considered good enough. It seems that Israel was still a profoundly idolatrous nation. Taking Kings and Chronicles together forces us to recognize that God can choose to crush His people despite their being led by the best of leaders. To put it another way, an unusually sinful church can be crushed by the Lord even if they have the best pastor on earth. Conversely, even the worst pastor can have moments of repentence for which the Lord will delay a judgment. But nowhere can we say with certainty that there is some formulaic, simplified one-to-one correspondence between a great pastor and a great church.

I understand the skepticismof those who suppose that the Chronicler "has" to find some sin to account for the fall of any Judean king or any Israelite king. There is room for the editorial agenda of a biblical author while still having it be scripture. Taken together, however, it seems that we get a warning that God's ways with respect to judging humanity can be, have been, and are mysterious in many ways. If the Chronicler locates Josiah's fall in the sin of not heeding the word of the Lord through Neco and the author of Kings locates the fall of Josiah in punishment on Judea for the sins of Mannaseh (who in Chronicles is shown to have repented at the end of his life) then it reveals that in our day and age simply asserting that someone met a miserable end or met with disaster because of some sin is not a wise path to take.

But we as Christians can so easily persuade ourselves and others that if someone is a failure it is because he or she or they happen to be a loser. We can still look on outward appearances as Samuel did even after the disastrous consequences of annointing Saul king over Israel. God had to remind Samuel that appearances are not what they appear to be and that God assesses a person's heart. The spectacle of Elijah's greatest accomplishments may blind us to his great failures. Josiah's goodness as a king did not mean he wouldn't meet his end in battle, and yet the fate awaiting Israel was so terrible that compared to the fate of Judah as a whole Josiah could be said by the Lord to have died in peace!

Throughout the narrative of Samuel and Kings we see the Lord's most powerful and disturbing form of discipline is to give His people what they say they want. Then they buckle under the weight and shame of getting what they wanted and discovering it was not as good as they hoped it would be. Saul was a self-aggrandizing madman. David was a man after God's own heart and yet also a man of bloodshed and multiple wives. Solomon continued this path and eventually became an apostate. And when Solomon's son listened to the voice of his peers and not the voice of the old men who served in his father's house his vanity and brutality brought with it the division of the kingdom, which was threatening to divide into the northern and southern kingdoms even at different points throughout the officially united kingdom.

I don't think this means that God is actively stomping on people so much as I have come to believe that there is a mysterious sense in which we reap what we sow but God sees to it that there are, to invert the metaphor, some tares of His mercy among the wheat of destruction we sow for ourselves. We are often fortunate the Lord does not LET us reap the harvest of what our heart and actions would produce. Think of it this way, how many sinful kings and sins of even God-fearing kings in Israel and Judah did the Lord tolerate on the throne before the final, full exile took place? Centuries passed! Just as it is foolish to suppose there is a magical formula that sin=God's active wrath or God setting up laws of cause and effect to bring punishment it is also foolish to suppose that success is proof of God's favor. Saul was successful in many campaigns but nowhere does it say the Lord was with him as it says about other kings in the scriptures. Success is not a proof of divine blessing.

There are Christians who think that Obama being in office is a sign of divine judgment against the United States for choosing the godless path. Never mind that both parties have a less than sterling record where godliness goes. Would Christians who seriously propose that God has some cause-and-effect punishment for wicked people who vote for Democrats or Republicans look at their own lives and surmise that their bankruptcy of physical ailments are God's judgment on them for their unrepentent sin and choosing a path of wickedness? This is not usually what I see.

A person who can say without batting an eyelash that God is punishing the United States because people are voting for Democrats may have racked up a pile of debt in bad real estate or other investments or may even blame someone else as the bad guy for their own lack of competence in the job market. Instead of admitting that you just aren't qualified for this or that job you might find it easier to blame the other people who are getting the job. I could easily see how an old white person who has no real competitive job skills or history would decide to resent Hispanics who are bilingual for somehow "stealing" the jobs that white person thinks he or she should have. Thing is I work with bilingual people and it is just smarter business strategy to have people who are bilingual Rather than consider his or her own lack of marketable job skills and experience a person, especially an older person whose health may not be very good and who feels over the hill, can find themselves blaming the people who are getting hired because they are more qualified for simply being of a different race, ethnicity or gender.

It would be easy for an older man to resent a young bilingual Latina getting hired on the supposition that she only got hired because she's young and cute and has somehow compromised true Americanism by knowing another language besides the "real" language of America. This is, by extension, ,wanting an Israel in which God "only" reards the people who jump through the right hoops. This way of thinking would claim that Josiah should not have been killed in battle for being so obedient to the Lord. This is the kind of thinking that woulld say that Ahab should have been killed by the Lord right away instead of being allowed to live on for years after the warning of judgment.

What these sorts of Christians want to do is to imagine that Obama is some kind of Ahab who deserves to be destroyed. But who knows, Christians, whether or not Obama might be spared because he got into office, found out the war on terror was not what he thought it was, repented, and decidd to continue policies set in place under the Bush administration? Suddenly the black Democratic president is considered evil for continuing policies that weren't seen as dictatorial when a white man was ehind them. No offense, but that's funny. As a wise man once said, don't get giddy about power for yourself you wouldn't be happy for someone else to have. Republicans who dread the power Obama has now should have recognized that it was creepy when Bush had it.

In fact amidst all this study of God's mercy toward Judean and Samarian kings this is why I find Piper's comments about a tornado to be so odd. Piper knows the scriptures and knows how long-suffering God was toward His people at their most disobedient. It would be nice to claim there's some clear-cut connectiono because that would make life simpler but the scriptures already are what they are. Jesus told a parable in which he pointed out that those who ignored Moses and the prophets would ignore even someone who came back from the dead. In other words, it doesn't matter what signs are sent to those who don't believe, they won't believe, and if the ELCA put themselves in the position of not believing the scriptures about homosexuality within the church then really there's nothing a tornado would accomplish. Sure enough, some Lutherans seem to have taken that tornado as a sign of the wind of God's approval lilke some kind of Pentecost moment. As I was just saying ... .

Now I have had more than a few words to say about how Driscoll isn't so hot as an exegete from the pulpit or how he has embrodiered biblical narratives with his own brand of pietistic legalism in which the married-with-children set are more godly and responsible than unmarried people. I used to answer theological questions the pastors thought were important enough to get answered but not quite important enough to get answered directly by Driscoll so as an unmarried man I admit to being just a teensy bit cynical about that simplification. However, Driscoll has been right to say that our problem as people is that we want mercy for ourselves and justice for everyone else.

I used to know Christians who seriously proposed Samson went bad because his parents dropped the ball. I used to know Christians who just said that Saul wasn't elect and that was that without really discussing how praiseworthy Jonathan was, Jonathan who actually did the things Saul was commanded by the Lord through Samuel to do. I have seen countless Christians overlook David's sexual life and bloodshed and still imagine that somehow leaders of God's people are called to a higher standard. Well, yeah, and that means they are are even more likely to FAIL to meet that standard than those to whom (we are told implicitly) are NOT called to that standard, never mind the "royal priesthood" and "holy nation" discussion, never mind the priesthood of all believers that suddenly isn't a priesthood of all believers if you think someone else isn't qualified to be a pastor because they hurt you.

These things all point to ways in which Christians employ double standards. Samson went bad? Blame the parents even though the scriptures say God had a purpose for it. Jonathan was noble? Well, maybe he wasn't after all. Samuel's sons were so bad it inspired Israel to ask for a king? Well, Israel was sinful (sure, and so were Samuel's sons). It's fascinating how people want one side exonerated no matter what when it suits them but won't brook the slightest failure from the other side. Even within the scriptures the painful realization that God allowed utterly depraved men to lead his people doesn't mean people had to be happy about it. It also did not mean, however, that that line of reasoning automatically applies to a church now (though if you're Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican I get the argument that the sacraments are blessed even if depraved priests adminster them. This is waht an application of "mercy for me, justice for others" approach can look like. The man who says Samson's parents dropped the ball may not feel like they dropped the ball of his daughter abandons the faith and shacks up with some non-Christian guy. The mother who thinks that God punishes the sinful by visiting disaster on society may be left wondering how she failed if her son comes out as gay. What sins did she commit that warranted her son being gay?

Well, none. A parent may model that the sexual relationship is the highest and greatest good and thereby promote an idolatry of the sexual relationship as THE defining relationship for all of life but that STILL doesn't mean that if that parent's child goes off and sins that there is some magical correspondence that says "Because you have made an idol of sexual fulfillment, John Doe and Jane Roe, the Lord is going to punish you by making your children sexual profligates." There is an appearance of wisdom to that, folks, but in the end it can simply be a form of sympathetic magic. If I just jump through all the right hoops and home school my kids and don't let them hang out with godless Democrats and prepare them to work as housewives and tradesmen then I will ensure all my kids are good little Christians who have lots of grandchildren and vote Republican and are straight. Well you can do all that and raise a bunch of atheistic gay activists, too. You can't control your life, let alone the lives of others, with that kind of precision and power.

I see this all the time among American Christians and their politics. A person who wants "justice" to pour out against Obama wants mercy for themselves rather than consider the possibility that their health and financial disasters are strongly self-caused. It's more fun to say the country is being destroyed because evil people voted for an evil man than to admit you're dying of something like diabetes of heart failure because of a life of gnostic spirituality that allows you to ignore the long-term consequences of what you do to your body. It's easier to plead spiritual warfare or demonic attack than just admit that your family has a significant history of mental illness and neurological disorders or sexual abuse and get some actual treatment for that stuff. Christ bis us to repent of OUR sins not to keep telling other people what sins THEY need to repent of. If even the most wicked of Samarian kings can find mercy from the Lord despite their apostasy how much more will someone who loves Christ find mercy by continuing to seek the Lord for liberty from the bondage of sin?

Don't we then have to admit that sin is slavery to us? This is exceptionally hard to do. A lesson we can draw from Kings and Samuel and Chronicles is that we are not alone, and have never been alone in our slowness to recognize how powerfully sin is at work within us and how powerfully we can delude ourselves into thinking we are all right with the Lord when the Lord is letting us slowly reap the consequences of our own sin in bits and pieces rather than bringing the full weight of our sin upon us. Even in His judgments God still reveals His love and this is soemthing I wish more Christians might discuss. Just as Job was not showing he deserved punishment through what he suffered so we may find that when God permits disaster it may not merely be to punish us for sin but test our faithfulness. We as American Christians can often struggle to admit that God's ways are mysterious. But I have rambled enough for aw eekend.

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