Walls: Getting Your Head Round Nehemiah

Nehemiah is an easy book to get your head around in a lot of ways. The story’s pretty straightforward: royal cupbearer hears sorry state of Jerusalem, takes life in hands by appearing sad before the king. King commissions aforesaid cupbearer to go and do something about it. People rally around said cupbearer and begin work; inevitable opposition arises and is roundly trounced. Cupbearer institutes religious reforms. The end.

But in other ways it’s an odd book to read, particularly as a Gentile.

Over two and a half millennia later, we don’t really get why the wall of Jerusalem being broken down and its gates burned with fire is such a big deal. I at least am disturbed by some of the apparent racism of Nehemiah’s religious reforms, and unsure of why it matters that the people had taken foreign wives.

In the modern world of controversial border-wall proposals, is “building the wall” really the sort of signal we want to send?

All in all, the book is quite Jewish. I have difficulty viewing most of Nehemiah’s religious reforms as anything other than proto-Pharisaism, and several earlier parts of the story, for example the opposition to the building, seem to have lost something in translation.

The earliest chapters of Nehemiah are the least troublesome. Nehemiah hears that Jerusalem’s wall is broken down and its gates burned.

The previous major Biblical event being the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish nation, part of me always comes to this and says “well, duh?”. What do you expect? The Babylonians just got done burning it. Aware of later history with the Maccabees, the Romans and Masada, we’re apt to read back onto this the troublesome and rebellious nature of the Jewish province, and think to ourselves that no ruler in their right mind is going to let anyone arm such a dangerously secessionist piece of turf.

This, of course, is telescoping about six hundred years or so of history together. It had been over 70 years since the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, and under normal circumstances the wall would be the first thing to be rebuilt, because until it was complete, everything you built was vulnerable to every raider or bandit in the region.

In the ancient world, walled cities were the norm. Your city wasn’t more than a large village unless it had a wall, and until it did, it was at the mercy of everyone.

More than mere security, a wall around the city was a mark of identity; a “this is us” statement that distinguished the “safe” area inside the city from the dangerous barbarian wilds beyond.

It’s difficult for us to adjust our thinking enough to cope with this ancient-world truth; in our day it is the inner city that is the dangerous wilderness, and “the countryside” holds an almost mystical reverence. We want wild spaces and pristine landscape; in an Iron Age era where there were lethally dangerous animals living within long bowshot of the city walls, plus raiders and other human predators, the city was the good part. Untouched wilderness didn’t mean “unspoilt”; it meant “unsafe”.

And Jerusalem’s wall had remained in ruins for over two generations, because, so we are told, the local provincial governors had a vested interest in keeping the Jews down.

It seems, on the face of it, difficult to fathom their thinking. Another walled city on an important trade route would mean another safe haven for merchants, and being able to say that your province held 87 walled cities rather than 86 would have been a symbol of status as an important governor. It would even pay for itself eventually in increased trade revenues into the royal coffers.

Sadly, though, not all rulers make decisions on the basis of logic and reason. The governors only had to answer to their Emperor, not to their subjects, so they had less pressure to be reasonable, and even today there are rulers and politicians who make decisions on little more than whatever whim fills their heads that moment. And aggressive war is one of the least amenable to reason of any national decision. In 1939, for example, Germany’s biggest trading partner was France. It didn’t, economically speaking, make sense for the Germans to attack. Similarly, it doesn’t quite make sense to me that there was so much official opposition, but I take the Bible’s word for it that there was.

The wall, then, was a statement of identity. Jerusalem’s wall-less state should be viewed as a physical representation of what was in danger of happening to the Jewish nation. Any other nation in history, once removed from its ancestral homeland, has eventually lost their identity and become subsumed into another. Under different circumstances, the American colonists developed an identity as something other than subjects of the British crown. Away from “home”, “home” begins to be somewhere else, and identity changes. Or is lost altogether.

God had a vested interest in that not happening. These were and are still His Covenant people. Besides, no Jewish nation meant no Son of David, because at the time He was yet to come.

Sanballat and Tobiah’s opposition may not entirely make sense with the limited data we’re given, but we can read onto them every tyrant or oppressor who has ever persecuted one group in order to increase their prestige in a different group. Tomas de Torquemada and the Jews. Tamerlane and the Central Asian churches. Modern far-right groups and Muslims. It doesn’t have to make logical sense. “They” are the real Bad Guys; you go off and hate them, and ignore the tyrant’s rule closer to home.

Maybe walls aren’t a good symbol in the post-Resurrection world, where the end goal is people “from every tribe and nation and people and language”. We don’t want to be putting barriers in people’s way, or decreeing “pagan-free zones” within our churches. This is self-evident. And yet, are we building walls of hatred towards Muslims, or anyone else for that matter?

Christ died for these individuals. He has not given us the right to push them away.

But a metaphorical wall as a token of identity… Yeah, it’s actually important. We should not let go of who we are in Christ, nor of Whose we are. Guarding our heart, as the Proverbs puts it, is a vital duty, because if we lose heart it’s all over.

This wall is built brick-by-brick from the knowledge of God and what He’s done for us.

I still have questions about the sort of signal this wall-building sends, but it’s not at odds with the character of God as revealed by the rest of the Bible.

And then those religious reforms.

This is probably the part of Nehemiah that I’m least comfortable with. It looks rather racist, at least in the Eurasian sense of nationalities rather than the American sense of black and white. And in part it certainly smacks of the birth of the Pharisee movement of Jesus’ day; the idea that doing is what earns you favour with the Lord.

What’s the deal with these other nationalities? Nehemiah seems fully prepared to decimate, or at least exclude, a sizeable chunk of the nation, just because they’ve married foreigners. As far as he’s concerned, the right thing to do is for these marriages to be dissolved.

And I have a problem with that.

What about all those women and children? Where’s the compassion of the Almighty? Why were these foreign marriages so wrong that the pain and trauma of destroying families was preferable?

It doesn’t make a lot of sense coming from the same God that we are told “sets the lonely in families” and Who opens faith in His Son to all who call on Him, no matter their ancestry.

And yet, as I’ve said before, if I’m going to take the Bible seriously, I don’t get to pick and choose which bits I trust. There’s nothing figurative about this, and the tone of the passage is that Nehemiah was acting righteously with the sanction of God. I can’t dismiss it just because I don’t like it. Something makes it fit with what I know from the rest of Scripture about the character of God.

Was this something particular for the Jewish nation and not specifically for Gentile Christians? Was there something specifically wrong with the nationalities involved? Was this just something like God making sure of the bloodline of the Messiah? Was this a particular instruction for that time and place, a part of God’s national Covenant with Israel?

Certainly I think that probably plays into it. In the Covenant with Israel, God works nationally, with the entire 12-tribe nation. Involved with that are several uncomfortable things, like apparent genocide and the waging of aggressive wars of conquest. Things that don’t fit well with our modern sensibilities trained in multiculturality and the fact that God loves everyone.

Tribalism in the Bible is something we have to reconcile with. I personally am more or less of the opinion that it was a fact of ancient life that God worked with and through even though it wasn’t His best will, rather than an end in itself, but passages like this do challenge that opinion. At least where the Jewish nation are concerned, perhaps there’s more to the seemingly-tribalistic “Jews good, foreigners bad” mindset than simple Iron Age-ness.

The Jewish nation were the nation through whom God had promised to send Messiah, and no Jewish nation at that point would have meant no Messiah. There’s a prominent strand of Scriptural interpretation that seems to view most of the difficult passages of Old Testament Scripture through this lens, and it does make a sort of sense. I believe there’s more to God’s Covenant faithfulness to Israel than the mere preservation of the Messianic bloodline, but I suppose it’s possible that if the Jews had been permitted to intermarry willy-nilly with surrounding nations that the line of the House of David might have become so diluted that the prophecies of Messiah would have been rendered meaningless.

This seems like a nice, neat explanation, but I’m still uncomfortable with it. I feel like it implies unpleasant things about God’s character: effectively, that He’s a rather Macchiavellian Deity more concerned with His plans than with people.

I know this isn’t so, which is part of why this interpretation sits so poorly with me, but how else do you reconcile the apparent righteousness of Nehemiah’s actions with the character of a loving God who accepts everyone regardless of their background?

Thinking about it, I believe we have to remember that the Jewish nation wasn’t defined primarily by ethnicity. It has never been a closed set; to this day it’s possible to go through a certain process including the covenant act of circumcision (for males) to bind oneself to the national Covenant of God and become a Jew.

It’s true that God will accept anyone into His Kingdom regardless of their background, but there are steps you have to take to be added to the Kingdom. You have to believe in Jesus the Messiah and His finished work of salvation, trusting Him with your life to the extent that He’s in charge. You have to renounce sin – all the destructive self-centred behaviours and attitudes that separate us from God and from one another. You have to become a citizen of His Kingdom.

The fact that these were characterised as “foreign” marriages tells us that these people hadn’t bound themselves to God and His Covenant. If the Jewish nation was (and is) defined first and foremost by its Covenant relationship with God, there literally cannot be any “foreign women” that are married into the nation but retain their own gods and practices.

Religiously speaking, you aren’t allowed be half a Jew and half something else. It’s an all-or-nothing deal. Similarly, you can’t be half a Christian. Either you have a New Covenant relationship with the Lord, or you aren’t actually in His Kingdom. He doesn’t grant citizenship privileges to those who are still foreigners.

If anyone ought to know this, it ought to be me. I live in the United States as a legal permanent resident, but I’m not a citizen. I don’t get to vote in US elections, I don’t get to stand with my hand over my heart during the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner. I’m not a citizen.

It’d be convenient to become one, but I’m still in the place where I cannot in good conscience swear an oath that includes renunciation of allegiance to “any other nation, prince or potentate”. And in my heart I’m still loyal to my Queen and my Country, and I don’t see that changing.

Similarly, citizenship in God’s Kingdom is one thing or the other. As Jesus said, you can’t serve God and Mammon both, neither can you hold onto the old things you pursued and reverenced: beauty, strength, worldly power, fame or whatever your personal idols are.

And now I believe I get the point. It looks harsh. It’s unpleasant. But there’s no other way. God will not allow people who won’t be His into His Kingdom. Ethnicity or nationality as we think of them today are not the issue. Look at Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, Naaman… No; the issue is “Who are you going to worship?”

[Repost] Not For Sale: Calvary and the Grace of God

[This is a repost of an earlier blog post.  It seemed appropriate to Good Friday]

There’s something appropriate about the betrayal of the Son of Man being a financial transaction. Selling the gift of God for thirty pieces of silver seems somehow an apt symbol for how thoroughly we miss the point sometimes.

We live in a capitalistic society. People earn money as recompense for labour, and spend money on food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, whatever. What we need and what we want. Trading websites like Ebay have huge traffic and make millions. Wall Street dominates our lives, even if we have no stocks. Advertisers spend billions buying our online data histories – what we like, where we go and what we do there – in the hopes of getting better at manipulating us into buying more stuff.

Everything – our stuff, our time, our preferences, our information – is for sale. The way of the world is buying and selling, and there’s something about the mentality of buying and selling that is opposed to God and works against grace.

It’s not that buying and selling is wrong. Proper capitalism is far better that communism. Getting a fair return for your labour is important; it’s a manifestation of justice.

But it’s not the way the Kingdom of God works. The ways of God are giving and receiving.

Emblematic of this difference is Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” Sin pays a wage, but God gives a gift. It’s a completely different kind of transaction.

It’s to be expected. Grace is part of God’s fundamental character, and our English word “grace” comes from the Latin “gratis”: free, not to be paid for, not for sale.

Our buying and selling mentality frustrates grace. We want to pay for the gift somehow. But a gift, by its very nature, is something that is not for sale.

Later, Simon the Sorcerer was to fall prey to the same mentality. His attempt to buy the ability to confer the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands was standard operating procedure for pagan magic. Spiritual influence was for sale, as it still is in many non-Western parts of the world, and once he had purchased the ability, he would naturally expect to treat it as a commodity – to sell it in his turn.

Peter’s response is as harsh as it is for a reason. “May your money perish with you because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:20).

Grace in turn frustrates avarice and the commercial impulse. Just because we don’t use physical coin does not make us immune to the idea that we can buy what God offers as a gift. We spend the currency of faith and purchase favour from the Almighty. We tithe and expect God’s blessing as if we have bought it. Even the surrender of our lives to Christ can become a sort of reciprocity, an attempt to buy what is freely given. God’s gifts will not be bought. They are free.

Today, we are so captured by the commercial spirit that if something is free, we think that either it is worthless or it’s some kind of bait or hook to get us to spend more money in other ways.

Not so the Son of Man.

He was the gift of God, because God loved the world so much. The eternal life given to us as a result of His death on the cross is likewise the free gift of God. We can’t buy it because it isn’t for sale. All we can do is receive a gift.

But how we hate to receive a gift of this magnitude!

“You shouldn’t have”, we say when someone gives us something unexpectedly. “This is too much”.

I’m not worth this.

What? Are we now arguing with the eternal and all-wise God over our value? Are we trying to claim that we see more clearly than He?

Besides, that frames the whole thing as a purchase rather than a gift.

From one perspective, it is, of course. We are not our own. We were bought at a price (I Cor 6:19-20). But from another, it’s a free gift that cannot be bought. And it isn’t about our perceived value or lack of it.

Magnanimity was one of the great attributes of ancient and Mediæval kings. The giving of gifts was a kingly prerogative: the greater the king, the more lavish the gift. The Bible makes reference to this when it says that “[Jesus] ascended on high… He led captives in his train and gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8).

You didn’t tell a king that his gifts were “too much”, because that was tantamount to telling him that his kingship wasn’t great enough to warrant this kind of magnanimity. And no-one in their right mind would try to buy the royal gift, because that would be tantamount to making yourself equal to the king in question. Really rather dangerously insulting on either count.

God’s Kingship is absolute. He’s the Lord of the Universe. God of angel armies. Sovereign I AM. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Are we now trying to tell Him that His Kingship is not great enough to support His gift? Is that what we truly believe?

God is All-Giving because He is All-Sovereign. It’s part of His kingly majesty to give gifts, and gifts that reflect His greatness.

It’s not for sale because we are not equals of God to purchase it. It’s ridiculously lavish because God is ridiculously great.

Grace. The free gift of the King.

How Silently, How Silently

Every year, as the season of Advent progresses, I find myself focused on a different aspect of the Christmas story.

Some years it’s been Mary and the amazing faith it took to embrace her part in the Lord’s plan.

Some years it’s been Joseph and what it takes for a man to be father to the Son of God.

A couple of years ago it was the giving of gifts and the Lord’s generosity.

Last year it was connecting the First Coming to the Second.

This year, I think the focus might be on the hiddenness of it all. How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.

Anyone who’s been around the process of giving birth ought to be aware that this is a bit of a conceit, rather like “little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes”. Jesus was, in fact, a real human being, a Baby for all intents and purposes just like every other baby, with real tears and real wails of distress. And He didn’t come into the world without pain, either.

But that’s not really the point. The point is that the birth of the King-Messiah wasn’t in an imperial palace and heralded with trumpets.

The world, as it is wont to do, was focused on the lives and times of the rich and great. Augustus Caesar was on the throne in Rome; the Roman puppet Herod the Great ruled in the province of Judea. His building projects expanding Temple Mount and building the Herodion palace were fairly recently completed, monuments to himself and to human ideas of greatness.

And in a small village in the very shadow of Herod’s fortress palace, a couple of poor teenagers displaced by the great Caesar’s tax census laid their newborn in a feeding trough to get him off the floor of the barn.

The Son of God, the promised Deliverer and King, possessing more intrinsic greatness than every ruler or potentate that history has ever called “the Great”, born into the equivalent of a refugee camp for displaced persons in a conquered province, to a couple of teenagers from the very bottom of the economic ladder.

In the shadow of “Make America Great Again”, it’s… challenging.

Jesus’ homeland had no military power. It was occupied territory, under the sandaled heel of the empire that invented crucifixion as a means of execution and which came up with the terrifyingly simple Pax Romana: “Do not fight, or we will kill you”. The Romans were good at killing people in job lots.

And in this conquered territory, Jesus was born in a small village. Today we tend to exalt country life as a lifestyle to strive for, but back then it was the cities that were the places everyone wanted to live; they were the safe places where you could live out your life without so much fear of bandits or thieves. In terms of how we think about different types of places, Jesus was born in an urban ghetto.

Not only that, but He was born not to rich, powerful people but to the poorest of the poor. The “pair of doves or two pigeons” sacrifice for a firstborn that Joseph and Mary made to fulfill God’s Law was the very least sacrifice for the very lowest income bracket. Today, Mary and Joseph might not be earning enough to even pay income tax; back then, they were being shunted around like pawns on a chessboard by those who demanded their taxes.

Herod’s greatest self-named monument to his own glory, the palace at Herodion, was visible from Bethlehem, but what a difference! Swimming pools and gardens in the rocky Judean wilderness, all constructed on a mountain effectively built by Herod’s engineers, Jesus’ human family would probably have looked too scruffy even to live in the servants’ quarters.

Born in a stable, because there was no room in the inn. And you’d only be staying in the inn to begin with if you had no family in the area to stay with. Both of them being “from the house and line of David”, where were their relatives? It seems Joseph’s decision to obey the Lord and marry Mary anyway may have caused his relatives to disown them.

And so comes the King of the Universe. So very silently that even the Magi almost missed it. Not in a palace, not with trumpets. His birth proclaimed to shepherds – a profession so unskilled that it was frequently left to dozy children, of so little status that even farmers looked down on them. These are the fast-food restaurant workers and tollbooth attendants of the ancient world.

It’s appropriate. The Kingdom of the Messiah is fundamentally inverted compared to what humans value. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn…” in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. Paupers, widows, tax-men, revolutionary terrorists, women and children exalted, the devout, God-fearing good folk of the Pharisee movement castigated and insulted. By the time of the early church, towns were screaming in panic that “the people who have turned the whole world upside-down have now come here!”

A Kingdom for the weak, the disadvantaged, the poor, the marginalised. Losers, misfits, the ugly and the unsuccessful, those who couldn’t make a go of it in the Roman world’s system. Led by a homeless man who had a political revolutionary among His inner circle and whose followers would institute a communistic economy among themselves, based on giving and sharing rather than buying and selling. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

Tremble, o world.

Sin Pardoned, Right Restored

They don’t make ’em like they used to.

In the case of all the militant old crusading hymns, I suppose it’s a good thing on balance. The word “crusade” as anything positive has almost completely died a death, and on that at least I have no regrets. The Crusades and all the bloodshed, death and atrocity committed therein remain one of the most horrible sins of the global Church, and I for one don’t see any advantage to trying to use the Christian equivalent of the word Jihad for what ought to be the spread of the Good News by peaceful, nonviolent means.

Still, for all that there’s a large part of me that regrets the apparent demise of all the martial old hymns: “Onward Christian Soldiers”, “We Rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender”, “Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided”, “Fight the Good Fight”.

For one thing, I happen to groove to the bombastic strains of that sort of music. I find the sheer pompous martiality of it deeply satisfying on a primal level. It should be little surprise, given how my taste in Classical music runs: the Marche Slave, the 1812 Overture, In the Hall of the Mountain King

Yes, of course I’m aware that the words can be easily misconstrued by those who don’t understand. Someone is always going to hear “Marching as to war” as a call to actual physical battle, if only to make an objection to it.

But surely many of our modern worship songs have words that are equally fraught with the potential for misunderstanding? You’re trying to tell me that the sloppy wet lyrics of Oh How He Loves Us aren’t going to be misinterpreted as a perversity by anyone not determined not to? Or that anything recorded by Mandisa isn’t a redirected boyfriend song?

We’re quite willing to re-image the Godhead through the lens of Venus, it seems, but to do the same through the lens of Mars is still apparently anathema.

I mention all of this mostly as an introduction, because I recently rediscovered the wonderful old martial hymn Thy Hand, O God, Hath Guided.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, it has one of those wonderfully sprightly, military-march kind of tunes, and though its lyrics are less martial than some, they’re really quite instructive:

Thy hand, O God, hath guided

Thy flock from age to age

The wondrous tale is written

Full clear on every page

Our fathers owned Thy goodness

And we their deeds record

And both of these bear witness:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy heralds told Thy message

To greatest as to least

To all the invitation

To share the great King’s feast

Their Gospel of redemption –

Sin pardoned, right restored –

Was all in this enfolded:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

Thy mercy shall not fail us

Nor leave Thy work undone

With Thy right hand to help us

The vict’ry shall be won

And then, by men and angels,

Thy name shall be adored

And this shall be our anthem:

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

It’s actually the second verse that particularly struck me. I think it’s one of the best and most personally helpful depictions of evangelism that I’ve seen in a while. Ok, there’s no particular emphasis that we ought to be numbered among those “heralds”, but in the context of verse 1’s focus on the deeds of those who have gone on before us it makes perfect sense. I’m not sure that actually needs to be in there, because I can’t hear those soaring strains without being filled with a desire to emulate those bygone heroes of the Faith.

The message is told to “all”, to “greatest as to least”. It may be my latent Mediaevalism that seizes on this so strongly, as it’s not a social division that would readily come to the mind of someone raised in the republican democracy of the modern United States, but it’s worth bearing in mind. How many of us, even if we are comfortable telling the Message to “the least of these”, are comfortable telling the Message to the rich and the powerful?

The “invitation” is not to get your needs met. Not to discover how much God loves you, not even to get your sins forgiven. The image is a different one: sharing in the great King’s feast.

I have to say I love this image. I love the overtones of celebration, magnanimity and the raising up of the bowed down, the notes of fellowship that do not drown out the clarion-call of majesty. For me at least, it strikes the right balance between God’s Immanuel nearness and His YHWH Sabaoth power and royalty.

Not that getting your sins forgiven is completely ignored, you understand. The song immediately transitions to “sin pardoned, right restored” as a summary of the “Gospel of Redemption”. I’ll admit that the Gospel being “in this enfolded:/One Church, one Faith, one Lord” wouldn’t be my normal pithy summary of the Good News, but maybe there’s more even to that that it appears at first glance.

Anyway, “sin pardoned, right restored”. I like this as a summary of the Gospel. Not merely getting your sins forgiven, but being transferred to the side of righteousness. The call to bring justice and mercy in the world, restoring Right. There are so many places and spheres in our modern world that need “right restored” that we neglect this aspect of the Good News, and yet this is no mere social Gospel or substitution of activism for right relationship with the Father. It goes hand in hand with “sin pardoned”; the two are part of the same Gospel of redemption.

Not only that, but “right restored” in our own lives as well. Not just the requirement to live holy lives pleasing to the Lord, but also the ability to do so. Not in our own strength, but through the power of His indwelling Spirit. This, too, is the Gospel of redemption. Because if we’re only forgiven of our sins and left in our fallen old natures, we only have half a redemption.

So, “enfolded” in “one Church, one Faith, one Lord”?

I’ve always had a strong interest in church unity, but I don’t think even I would go so far as to say it “enfolds” the entirety of the Gospel. Still, Jesus did say that “by this all people shall know that you are My disciples: that you love one another”.

One of the most persistent objections of those who reject Faith concerns the dividedness of the church. In my native Britain, at least, I believe we’re mostly past the hard division of ourselves along denominational lines and its accompanying suspicion and denigration of “those Baptists/Methodists/Anglicans/Pentecostals/whatevers”. America has yet to fully catch up, but I am confident she’ll get there, if only that in the upcoming generations there aren’t enough of us to make Christian domination of the spiritual marketplace an assured thing any more. On a purely human level, we’re no longer competing just with ourselves for market share; there are Muslims and Buddhists and Taoists and Shinto, not to mention atheists, outright pagans and everyone else.

Even maintaining our different denominational names (and there are good reasons to do so), being “One Church” in the important sense of being “one in spirit and purpose” cuts the ground out from under this argument like only the truth can. One Faith, because we do all believe the same core body of doctrine. One Lord, whom we all worship. It’s important.

Then, too, “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” speaks more subtly to the absolute right He has to our service.

This isn’t something we talk much about as Christ’s followers. It’s a truth we find uncomfortable; it strikes directly at the heart of our independent-minded “no-one tells me what to do!” determination to have our own way.

More, it’s something that runs directly counter to this present age’s glorification of rebellion and self-will. There is a truth in this present age: no-one but you are answerable to your own conscience. But the fact that God has a right to expect our worship, loyalty and service – our fealty, to use the old Mediaevalist term? No, we don’t talk much about that.

It’s true, though, and the sooner we accept His right to our obedience the better off we will be for discipleship purposes. As others have said, the Gospel preached by the Apostles wasn’t “Come to Jesus and get your needs met”; it really was “Jesus is Lord; what are you going to do about it?”

The link to this from “one Church, one Faith, one Lord” isn’t all that overt, I’ll admit. But the fact that there really is “one Lord” to whom we owe our highest allegiance as His right, “one Faith” alone, “one Church” composed of all those who call on His Name, that to me communicates Jesus’ absolute right to our allegiance.

The Lord’s Prayer redux (with all the pointy bits)

The Lord’s Prayer is really deep, and quite pointed.  We’re so used to it, though, that we sometimes don’t notice.  The points get worn down with the abrasion of repetition.  So I decided to see if I could reword the prayer a little.  To take it out of its comfortable rhythm and force us to think about what we’re praying.  This isn’t the sum total of its meaning, but it’s a part of it.  With all of the pointy bits:


 

Our Father in Heaven, Source of our life both spiritual and physical.  All-glorious Creator of all things and Owner of the cattle on a thousand hills.

We pray that You would be glorified amongst us now.  We pray that Your Name would be lifted up, in our worship and in our working, in our meeting together and in our going forth to proclaim Your Gospel.  We pray that those who have not yet heard the Good News would be able to hear, and we offer and dedicate ourselves to that task.

We thank You for all Your goodness to us, in bringing us to Yourself and in providing for all of our needs.  We trust in Your power and Your goodness; Your ability and willingness to bless.

We ask Your forgiveness for when we have faltered and fallen of late, for when we have infringed on other people, or hurt them, or offended them, and we ask Your help in forgiving those who have offended and hurt us.  We ask Your blessing on them today.

We ask that You would keep us from the temptation to hold on to our offendedness, to demand our own way and to put our priorities ahead of Yours.  Protect us from the one who sows temptations and discord in the Body and who would devour us if he could.  We trust in Your Almighty power to shield us as we abide in You.

This earth is Yours, O God.  You are the Ruler, not us.  Have Your way among us, we ask.

 

In Jesus’ Name, amen.

It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Eschatology is a potent and rich field of theological study.  The investigation of what the Bible has to say about the “last things” is profitable for numerous reasons, not least of which that it frequently puts our own troubles into perspective and acts as a caution to the idea that we can metaphoricalise the alchemists’ ancient dream: we can make golden ages by our own power and goodness.

More, the return of Christ is something we are instructed to earnestly look for and expect imminently, and we know that the Bible places this coming at “the end of the age”.  Revelation is the only one of the sixty-six books which specifically proclaims a blessing on those who read and take to heart its message.

Eschatology is also, however, one of the fields of theological study which cause most dispute, upset and plain error, as we falteringly try to grasp and make sense of the prophetic language in which the Biblical material deals with the Last Days and relate it to the world we see.

In our own day, we see this fascination with teaching on blood moons and the idea of national judgments connected with the heptannual cycles of the Hebrew calendar.  We see a peculiar certainty that ours is the last generation, that events are even now occurring that harbinger the social chaos out of which the new world order of the antichrist will arise.  We see detailed charts of the events of the Biblically-foretold Great Tribulation and its surrounders, charts in which the Son of Man sometimes appears to bounce up and down like some sort of celestial yo-yo.

I personally find some of these just a little irreverent in their suggestion of a “bouncing eschatological Jesus” (my term), but there you go.

There are two main kinds of error into which it is possible to fall regarding the Last Things.

The first is to ignore them, the second is to hyper-focus on them so that we are in danger of ignoring anything else.  I’ve been guilty of this second error, and I’m sometimes now guilty of the first in the way I live my life, but like all who call on His Name, I’m trying to align my perspective with Christ’s.

Culturally we seem to be more in danger of this second error at the moment, but even so we can fall prey to this first danger by living as if Jesus isn’t coming back, treating our national and this-worldly concerns as if they are absolute.  Beside the coming End, even the prospect of the potential accession to the US Presidency of a notorious mocker like Donald Trump is, if you will pardon the pun, not the end of the world.

Our small concerns are rendered petty and unimportant alongside the great events of His Kingdom; what does it matter that the United States lose a little of its power in the world, if Jesus is coming back to put an end to all of our Republics and Kingdoms and Empires and Federations?  What does it matter that this or that political party come to power in one of many nations on the Earth?  Is God constrained to work only through one political party?

This is not to say that followers of Christ should be indifferent to politics and government, but neither should we treat the process as if it is God’s own major project.  We live in the world, as the Scripture says, and rightly maintain a concern for God’s will to be done “on Earth as it is in Heaven”, but we must take care not to be captured by the world, to fall into the trap of believing that our agenda is necessarily God’s.

The second error into which we may fall is to become captivated by echatology to the diminution or exclusion of much else.

We are specifically warned against inquiring too much into “the times and dates which the Father has set by His own authority”, and that even Jesus, quizzed by the Eleven, didn’t know when the End would come.  Some of our modern (and ancient) attempts to read the signs come perilously close to this error of date-setting, if they do not actively constitute that error.  Interestingly, no-one seems to want to set a date that is far removed from their own generation; the practice invariably seems to lead to a date within a few years of its being floated.

Attempting to set a date, of course, counteracts one of the main thrusts of Biblical teaching on the Last Things: namely that we must be ready at all times, not only a select few dates, for “the Son of Man comes at an hour you do not expect”.

But attempting to determine the day and the hour is only one of a cluster of eschatological errors that can be caught up with overfocus on it.  There are probably as many perspectives on the Last Days as there are theologians, and Christians disagree with one another on the relative timing of the Rapture of the Saints, the Great Tribulation, the Millennium and the Last Judgement, so that a great confusion can sometimes result among the unschooled in such things.  The temptation, with so many conflicting views, to side with one and go forth to do war against the others, is a very real one, and one to which we none of us are immune.  Despite the fact that some even among our sisters and brothers in the faith can view the whole debate as an abstruse theological argument rather like discussion over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, we want to be right and to visibly conquer wrongness wherever we find it.

The simple fact of the matter is that until that which is prophesied actually occurs, all that we have is speculation.  We try hard to make it informed speculation, but it is speculation nonetheless.  Whether those who follow Christ will be caught up to meet Him in the air before, during or after the Great Tribulation (“time of great troubles”) we cannot know until it actually happens.

At which point all of our disputations necessarily become moot.

Increasingly, I find my question to be “what does the Kingdom of God gain by numbers of us engaging one another in verbal combat over our divergent speculations?” The only one who would appear to gain by that is our enemy the devil, sowing discord among the Body of Christ and distracting us from the task of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom.

Some people go so far as to stockpile food, money and even weapons so that they will “be prepared” for the social chaos which they presume will occur before the end and out of which the Antichrist will rise to power.  This, again, would seem to me to be a distraction from our main task, and evidence of a lack of faith in God’s ability or willingness to take care of us.  The Lord really does know all our tomorrows, and will take care of us so that we may trust that whether by life or by death we will glorify Him and be known as His.  Or as the Bible puts it in connection with the End, “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go”.  Your guns and food and stockpiled money will not thwart God’s plans, and He really is in charge of these things.  Stockpiling “just in case” would appear to be exercising the spirit of worry and unbelief rather than the “patient endurance” that the same Bible passage says is called for.

Simply put, I believe that enough is written so that we’ll recognise it when we see it.  Indeed, if we have eyes to see we will hardly be able to keep from recognising it; it is those who wilfully close their eyes who will be caught napping.

Are we doing what the Lord has charged us with doing?  Then even if we are taken by surprise we need have no worries when the Master of the House returns.

Are we “beating the other servants” with our own speculations about when and how He will be coming back, drunk on our own certainty and disengaged from the task?  Are we trying to begin the feast on our own rather than extending the invitation to those who haven’t heard?  Well, Jesus’ parable doesn’t have good things to say about that servant.

So on the one hand, we need to remember that Jesus is indeed coming soon, that our this-worldly concerns aren’t necessarily at the centre of His agenda nor our earthly fears actually absolute.  But on the other hand, we need to remember that what we are told about His coming we were not told so that we could spend all of our time trying to fit all the pieces together ahead of time, but so that we would recognise it when it comes.  We need to recognise that His coming places a time limit on the task He’s given us: we do not have forever to accomplish the Great Commission, nor is He going to put up with human sin continuing to hurt those He loves for the next aeon.  This world is not all there is, and time does not go on forever.  There will come an End.

And that is a Good Thing.

Christians Anonymous

I live in America (specifically, in Texas). I go to church in America. Like it or not, I’m part of American Christianity now.

Judging by what I see on the internet and in the advertising mailers we occasionally get from various Christian bookstores, I’m kind of embarrassed about admitting that.

Oh, there’s plenty of good things. America is still Christianised enough in these parts that saying you’re a Christian is still considered a positive thing. There’s a wide selection of numerous Christian radio stations and TV channels. There are several large Christian bookstores around. People set up plumbing companies with names like “Apostle Plumbing”. Politicians openly claim to be Christians. You don’t get any of that in Britain.

But.

So much of popular American Christianity seems to be either trite and shallow or weird and crazy.

The church where I and my family worship isn’t like that, at least not in the regular services and meetings. You’d look at that and think that American Christians are normal.

But if you look at what we’re buying in terms of what’s in stock in the local Christian bookstores, you ought to be given pause.

And if you look at what we’re reading and supporting in terms of what we post online, you really ought to be given pause.

Seriously, between the Bible story action figures (my Jesus isn’t poseable), the aggressive bumper stickers urging you to “Keep Christ in Christmas” by objecting when someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” (if you don’t know Jesus, merely saying “Merry Christmas” will not save you, and if you do, saying “Happy Holidays” will not keep you out), the latest crazy fad books about the coming End of the World, or at least the End of America (apparently they’re the same) and the horribly cutesy “inspirational” plaques with their Precious Moments angels and twee little sayings (that seem more about making us feel better than encouraging us to follow Christ), these days I walk into a Christian bookstore and feel like Jesus in the Temple courts. Making whips and overturning tables feels like it wouldn’t be that out of order.

Seriously, what is wrong with us?

At best, this is the spiritual equivalent of candy and junk food. It’s ok in small doses, but the constant diet to which we’re subjecting ourselves is lethal to our spiritual health and vitality.

Christian radio is no better. The stations bill themselves as “Encouraging music. Words of hope”, or “Safe for the whole family”, and have advertising testimonials from people saying just how wonderful it makes them feel.

And at times, this is appropriate. But Peter probably didn’t feel very good when Jesus told him to “Get behind me, Satan!”, the Pharisees undoubtedly didn’t feel good when Jesus demolished their arguments, and the rich young ruler went away from his encounter with Christ sad, because the Lord had exposed his love of money, and God is not now and never has been remotely safe.

It’s not Christian to make people feel better all the time. Jesus was full of truth as well as grace, and it was frequently the religious and the visibly devout that bore the brunt of His truth-telling.

However, neither is it Christian to go out of our way to be gratuitously offensive the way we sometimes want to either. Jesus dealt incredibly gently with the immorality of the woman at the well, with Zacchaeus, with Matthew the tax-collector, with the woman caught in the act of adultery. Not from His mouth any personal attacks, harsh demands to repent and shape up, or remonstrances that these sinners are corrupting the pure culture of contemporary Judean society. He was full of grace as well as truth.

No, the people that talked long and loud about the social corruption wrought by these dreadful pagan sinners were the Pharisees.

Are we working the wrong way round? We’re frequently overly gentle with ourselves and harsh with unbelievers. Jesus was frequently harshest with religious people and gentlest with sinners. And He was the Truth, so we can’t get away with misbehaving by calling it “making a stand for truth”. Just saying.

So much of what is on display is unbelievably shallow. Pre-milk. Spiritual colostrum. Or not even that – spiritual junk food. Compare the latest fad personal devotional book with something like My Utmost For His Highest and a lot of the time it’s actively shocking from what a great height we’ve fallen.

And if it’s not shallow, it’s often actively crazy. The Christianised astrology of “blood moons” (yeah, actually it’s just like astrology), the continual fear-peddling survivalist nonsense about stockpiling food, money and even weapons in preparation for the collapse of society that heralds the End Times (Um, God will take care of us tomorrow. Our job is to build His Kingdom today, not spend ages in preparing ourselves as if He’s powerless), the latest “revealed mystery” fad, whether it’s the “Bible code” or some kind of Jewish feast-based cycle of judgment or whatever. We feed ourselves so little meat of Scripture that we don’t know how to properly weigh and test anything. It seems we’ll believe anything if it has the right labels, forgetting that Satan himself is adept at having the right labels to the point of looking just like an angel of light.

And this is American Christianity as shown by what we sell ourselves. It’s embarrassing.

The frightening thing is the implication that this is what the market wants. Christian bookstores are commercial enterprises, and if it won’t sell, they’re not interested in stocking it. Which means it’s our fault that so much of what they sell is either shallow drivel or fear-mongering crazy.

Applying “you are what you eat” to what we buy, read, follow and post online, I’m becoming somewhat frightened and embarrassed to call myself a Christian. Is this tosh really what we are?

I take some comfort from the fact that most of the churches I’ve been in are relatively normal, but if our churches are so normal, why is our merchandise and online presence so dire?

And so with all due embarrassment I have to confess that I am indeed, by definition, a part of American Christianity now.

If there’s a counter-revolution, it begins here.