Thursday, March 23, 2006

"conversations on soteriology", or 'what does it mean to be saved?' PART ONE

-----Original Message-----From: **** [mailto:****] Sent: Tuesday, March 21, 2006 3:31 PMTo: David McDonaldSubject: couple questions for you. :-)

I have a couple questions. I was wondering where people went when they died before Jesus was born? I am asking this because I just finished Job. In the end of the book when God speaks to Job and his friends, after they're done arguing; God tells Job's friends to give Job some of their animals as burnt offerings and then Job would pray to God for them and he would accept Job's prayers and not deal with them any longer?!.... I really didn't understand what God was doing. I realize before Jesus was born and died on the cross things were a bit different in terms of "salvation" but were Job's friends not "allowed" to speak to God, and why was God speaking to them if they couldn't speak to him?

To be honest the last couple weeks I've been re-thinking, if you will the whole traditional "salvation" thing. ____ and I were out with ____and ____talking about God, the Bible, etc. We started discussing those in the primitive tribes who have never heard the word God or Jesus before and I wondered how does God judge those who have been born into a world where the Bible has, or might never be introduced? Then ____ brought up a good point. She said "How do you really get 'saved' anyway." This brought questions to my mind. I wasn't thinking of this salvation thing as if it applied to me, but I have started to become torn between the "traditional" salvation message; the one where you have to pray a certain prayer and tell God you believe Jesus died on the cross for our sins, etc; and the one she was proposing which was more of a relationship, faith, belief thing. I started thinking if someone came to me and asked about God how would I explain "salvation"? Would I explain it the way I've always heard? Would I feel right if I didn't? Sometimes I wonder if the convictions you feel are convictions God actual gives you or convictions a church had implemented?

Because WestWinds is different than the Baptist church I started attending with ____, or other traditional churches I've been too I can honestly say I do not have answers my own questions. I mean I am a believer and "saved" if you will... but I don't want to misrepresent God to someone else. For example, My niece is 6. Her parents (____'s sister and Brother-in-law) attended Bob Jones University in North Carolina and still attend the church; this is probably the most conservative approach to Christianity you can think of, dresses, skirts, suit and ties, the whole 10 yards of rules and regulations! Anyway, ever since my niece has been an infant they have done the Bible/Family time every night, using only the King James version, commanding her to recite Bible versus and reprimanding her if she doesn't, praying at every meal, hands folded, eyes down, out loud... you probably get the picture and are rolling your eyes by now.... I know what you're thinking! I thought the same thingJ Anyway, my mother-in-law told me awhile ago back ____, my niece got saved. She asked Jesus to come into her heart type thing.
I hope you understand what I mean?? I thought I would ask you over email as this would give you time to answer my question when your schedule allows. Please be completely honest in what you think! Lay it all out on the table if you'd like I won't get offended I promise! I trust always the staff and leadership at WestWinds to be the correct view and thinking. This has been something I've been thinking about for a long time, not just since our night out with ____ and ____ but always wondered why WestWinds never did do the "salvation message" the traditional way.

Thanks again... and Sunday was great! As always! I always go away with much to think about... always! It's a good thing because sometimes I think "I have it all figured out" and then WestWinds comes along and gives me a reality check.

Kindest Regards,


a little exegesis from len sweet

When Jethro said farewell to Moses, he used the Hebrew phrase . . . "lech l'shalom" . . . literally, "Go TO Peace" (Exodus 4:18) . . . . towhich the rabbis added "and he succeeded," going on to return to Egypt and liberate his people. But when David said goodbye to Absalom for what turned out to be the last time, he said, "lech b'shalom" . . . . literally "Go IN Peace" (2Sam.15:9) . . . after which "he died."
We "Go TO Peace" for a life of mission and ministry. We "Go IN Peace" when we find the completeness and wholeness and perfection of death. In life we can only word towards peace, but never be "in peace."

thoughts, condensed, from my friends

True loyalty is loyalty to each other's differences NOT loyalty to each other's sameness to us.

When diversity disappears, we are diminishing/losing part of the body of Christ.

We embrace the diversity that seems interesting or exotic, but often ignore diversity that isn't as pretty; diversity for us is a BBQ restaurant that offers four kinds of sauce.

Jesus was always found in the margins - among the "difference". . . on the borderlands.

It's the margins, the peripheries (not the boundaries), where beauty and simplicity reside.

"conversations on soteriology", or 'what must i do to be saved?' PART FIVE_FINAL

Ok. It really boils down to me not complicating it more than what it really is. All your answers are great and they are giving me just what I need to know. I'll let it sit in for awhile and if I come up with anything else I'll let you know; but you've pretty much covered my repeating questions.

Thanks again.


"conversations on soteriology", or 'what does it mean to be saved?' PART FOUR

From: David McDonald [] Sent: Thursday, March 23, 2006 10:40 AMTo: ****: RE: Do I get it?

hey b. - glad to see you're still wrestling with all of this!

one clarification i'd like to make, though, concerns the idea of 'acknowledging jesus.' if we're talking in very strict terms, i don't think the bible supports the idea that merely acknowledging jesus is "sufficient" for entry into the kingdom of heaven - after all, even demons know and acknowledge that jesus is lord, but it seems unlikely to picture heaven being full of red devils and horned monkeys, right?

so, there has to be an additional piece other than simply admitting that jesus is divine/supreme/lord and i'm convinced that piece is all about following jesus.

the disciples literally followed jesus from town to town and tried to imitate him

the other followers of jesus - those he taught in the mountains, who witnessed his crucifixion, who listened to him at the temple - were identified as 'christians' because they followed jesus of nazareth like puppies follow little boys. and it is through our emulation of jesus that we have greater access to himto the benefits of knowing himto learning his likes/dislikes/preferences/ethics

so, the value in following jesus is really a kind of "on earth as it is in heaven" value

it's the value of making his world our worldof heaven colliding with earth

it is possible to be a christ-follower and be miserable

but the more we know jesusthe closer we get to himthe harder it becomes to stay miserable
because our perspective changes
because our source of security and identity changes
because our family and our resouces change
because following jesus is a whole other way of living that goes way beyond a "belief"
it is a "way"
we are followers of the way
jesus is the way

"salvation" is about more than avoiding hellit's also about reducing hell on earth

ok - talk to you again soon!

"conversations on soteriology", or 'what does it mean to be saved?' PART THREE

From: ****[mailto:***] Sent: Thursday, March 23, 2006 9:47 AMTo: David McDonaldSubject: Do I get it?

Ok... I GET IT... I think?! I did a lot of thinking, reading, praying, thinking, talking, reading, etc; yesterday and this is the conclusion I have gathered from your response....

It's not that I have been "doing" things wrong the whole time, it's just the understanding was/is now different. Correct me if I'm wrong but what I am getting is you can be "saved" by acknowledging Jesus was sent to die for humanity's sins, and to bridge the way for God and man to have an earthly and eternal relationship. Acknowledging Jesus would get you a parking space in Heaven, but that would be about it if you only acknowledged him- thus the term you can be saved and not be a Christian, like Amish, or Catholics.

I understand what you are saying when you talk about what it means to be a Christian and since thoroughly reading this I can honestly say I've been placing God on a lower level than what he should be on. I thought last night. "What really makes God angry ____?" Was I putting too much emphasis on the little things? Then I started thinking about the things that really enrage God...were these the same things that enraged me? My answer was yes, however, there were more things bothering me than God.

I know what you are saying about the divine adjudication and it was the same thing I was thinking. There are only a couple questions I have, other than those on the email I sent you last night re: WestWinds. Why would someone believe in Jesus but not be a Christian? And if all you have to do is believe in Jesus to get into Heaven then why follow Christ?

These last couple of questions you might not be able to answer and that is ok; they don't really apply to me because I want to follow him, I think he deserves at least that much... but sometimes I doesn't quite feel like I'm following him, it's more like running after him out of breath; but what would I say to someone if they asked me these questions? Because it's the right thing to do - ok yes, but there are some I know who don't just go with the flow.

Anyway, THANK YOU SO MUCH! You've cleared up... I think ...a few important questions of mine for a long time.

Talk to you soon,~_____

"conversations on soteriology", or 'what does it mean to be saved?' PART TWO

hey b. - thanks for the email [wow, sounds like you've been doing a lot of thinking here lately :)]

in an effort to try and level the playing field, let's - just for purposes of this conversation - avoid the term "salvation." it's not that the term is bad, quite the opposite actually - i consider myself saved and very much value my salvation - but that word may have a little too much baggage for us right now.

instead let's think about what christianity really is.

christianity is all about jesus.
it's about the person of jesus christ
about jesus christ, fully god and fully man, who alone bore the full measure of god's wrath that was intended for the shortcomings of sinful humanity
who alone substituted his own life in payment for the lives of all men and women through all time
who makes friendship and love with god available to all who choose it
without any who deserve it of their own merit

that's what christianity is all about


so, when i think about what it means to be a christian
i think about following jesus
i think about serving jesus
i think about emulating jesus
imitating him
pleasing him
honoring him with every thought, word, guesture, commitment and intention
i think about trying to make jesus proud
about what it might take to have him cheer me on
about the things he says he likes and the things that make him angry

now, the word "salvation" implies we need to be saved from something

well, what do we need to be saved from? hell? ok, hell - but what else?

see, i think jesus saves us from hell, but he also saves us from a million other, more immediate things
like guilt
like despair
like the reality of a world without hope or purpose or meaning
jesus saves us from finding our identity in what we wear or what we do, and instead frees us to be the people he has created us to be complete with our own preferences and aesthetics, friendships and covenants
jesus saves us from the need to possess things or be possessed by other people

so, when we talk about salvation we're not only talking about some kind of eternal parking space
but also about a life lived in service of jesus christ
in relationship with god
in fellowship with our creator and his incarnate self

and - to answer your first question - i think this is an understanding that stretched back before christ [for example, to the time of job]

when there was no person "jesus", there was still god and the means of salvation for humanity was still being in right relationship with god
the way[s] in which people entered and remained in that right relationship were different then then they are now
but they were always just means to an end

the end has always been union with god
oneness with jesus christ - the same god who [ironically and metaphysically] existed before there even was a "jesus"

i suppose this also springboards into another discussion about people who are presently alive and have never heard about jesus
and what rubric god uses to appraise their relationship to him in the absence of a christ-figure;
but, i'm afraid i don't really have a compete answer here

like all of the answers i'm trying to supply, this is another area where i cannot claim absolute certainty
because it is the dominion of divine adjudication
and the best we can hope for is that the soverign justice of god works in harmony with the soverign grace of god
to "save" all he can
because we know it is his wish that no one should perish
that no one should be held without grace
that all humanity should receive the gift of grace and walk with god
like we did in the beginning
in eden
in the garden

and maybe that's the best way for us to understand salvation
as a present return to the garden of eden
where we walked with god as a friend

when we were saved from isolation

anyways, i hope that helps foster some more thinking on your part

talk to you soon!

Jeremiah: Hostility and Fury, Part Three

I think for us when we start to think about what persistence looks like, it might take different forms. It might take the form of romance, the pursuit of love. It might take the persistence to finish your education, to finish out high school or to finish up college. It might be the persistence of becoming a better husband and father and developing your internal character and who you are. But that piece of persistence is something that I believe God has put into us. It’s something that I think we see represented in the Bible and specifically, in the life of Jeremiah.

This is Jeremiah 25, beginning in Verse 3, where the prophet is talking to the people.

From the thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah right up
to the present day—twenty-three years it’s been!—GOD’s Word has
come to me, and from early each morning to late every night I’ve
passed it on to you. And you haven’t listened to a word of it!

Twenty-three years of preaching to people who didn’t listen [please, don’t let that be foreshadowing].

Not only that, but GOD also sent a steady stream of prophets to you
who were just as persistent as me, and you never listened. They told
you, “Turn back—right now, each one of you!—from your evil ways of
life and bad behavior.

Now, we talked about this a little bit in the previous couple of weeks. We talked about the Temple prostitution, the child sacrifice. We talked about the evil deeds, literally evil deeds that the people were committing – not just different beliefs or different ideologies, we actually talking about things that every human being alive on the planet today would consider wicked and evil.

“Turn back from your evil way of life and live in the land GOD gave
you and your ancestors, the land he intended to give you forever.
Don’t follow the god-fads of the day, taking up and worshiping
these no-gods. Don’t make me angry with your god-businesses,
making and selling gods—a dangerous business!”

“You refused to listen to any of this, and now I am really angry. These
god-making businesses of yours are your doom.”

You know, the consistent complaint of God to his people, of Jeremiah to the people, is that the one god who loves them - their creator, an actual, real god, who intimately knows them, who counts the hairs on their head, who bottles their tears, who values them the way he values us, to where he values every living person alive today and all the way backwards through time—that that god is the only god that they’ve ignored, that instead these people have sold themselves to gods that they’ve made [this is literally as ridiculous as you or I going into our woodshop and making a little carving of a little fat guy, or a dwarf with horns and a pointy tail, or a beautiful lady and then sitting that on our mantel and burning incense to it every night]. God’s complaint against these people was, “I made you and you made them and now you’re worshiping them instead of me. That doesn’t make any sense. It’s a hunk of wood; it’s a piece of stone. Not only that, but in service to these things you’re taking away human life.”

Jeremiah comes really to the end of his tether and at this point in the book. This is the time where Jerusalem, where the whole Kingdom of Judah, gets its comeuppance. This is the time where the bill comes past due. This is the time where judgment finally arrives. Through a series of three sieges, the Empire of Babylon lays waste to the Kingdom of Judah—first in 598, then 597 and then finally in 586 B.C.

Now, there’s a whole host of reasons for these attacks that we can learn about if we do our historical homework. We find out that Judah was involved in double-crossing Babylon. We find out really that the Hebrew people in this story, at this point in history, weren’t always the good guys. They weren’t always good to God and that played out in their relationship with everybody else.

This is something I think we all understand, that you are the same person in your dealings with God as in your dealings with other people—you’re the same. It’s always you.

So, in 598 B.C., Babylon rolls over Jerusalem. They topple Jerusalem’s king, set up a puppet in his place and they leave. They carry away all the valuable things. They come back a year later, because Jerusalem revolts, and they overthrow another government and put up another king. Then, after ten years of putting up with all this garbage, again, from the Kingdom of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar - who we read about in the Book of Daniel, who becomes such a famous king, who, historically, is one of the great world rulers, who you can find just a host of information about online or at any good library - finally says, “Enough’s enough,” and shows up, again, at the doorstep to the Kingdom of Judah. This time, however, he destroys the Temple and carries the people of Israel [except for a few, who we’ll refer to as the remnant] into captivity and makes them slaves.

Chapter 25 takes place just prior to the Babylonian invasion of Judah in 586 B.C. Chapter 25 is where Jeremiah says, ‘for twenty-three years I’ve been begging you to honor God. For twenty-three years I’ve been pleading with you to have a change that actually mattered in your heart...twenty-three years.’

Remember, too, that we are in the midst of ongoing metaphorical language – that of a groom [YHWH], and honeymoon bridge [Judah]. So, while Jeremiah is making his accusations against Judah, God is also saying, ‘I’ve been begging you to be faithful to me, but you haven’t done it. I’ve been calling you to reconcile with your groom. You are my bride, please come back to me.’

I often feel like God says these kinds of things to me. “Dave, you talk all the time about the changes you want to make, the changes in how you process anger or resentment or the hurts that you had when you were a little guy.” It’s like God’s saying, “David McDonald, for twenty-three years I’ve been telling you to forgive the people who hurt you in school. Can’t you get over it? Dave, for twenty-three years I’ve been telling you not to resent church or church people because of the things they did to your dad when you were a boy. Can’t you get over it?”

Jeremiah’s saying the same kind of thing persistently, persistently. Now, that word persistence, from the Hebrew word Hashem, is derived from another word, Shekem, which means shoulder. It comes from the town of Shekem, which sits in a valley between two mountains, called “the shoulders”. When Israel first came into the Promised Land, He had half the people climb up one mountain and half the people climb up the other mountain. They stood on these two “shoulders” and yelled at each other. The one group of people yelled blessings and one group of people yelled curses and it went something like this: “If you love your god and serve him all the days of your life, he’ll bless you.” Then the other group of people would yell back, “If you forsake your god and you run away from him, he’ll curse you and harm you.” They went back and forth and would yell these things at each other from the places, from the shoulders.

That commitment to shouting blessings and curses at one another to remind us of our covenantal obligations - of our relationship to God, of what He meant to us - that persistence that was required not only shaped language but it shaped an entire people. It shaped the people in the way that they understood themselves and the way that they understood their relationship with God.

It shaped Jeremiah and Jeremiah at this point is bringing an indictment against his own people saying, “You’ve forgotten the very people who you are. You’ve forgotten what it was like to have your ancestors stand on those mountains and call back and forth blessings and curses at one another. You forgot what it was like to live in that little town, in the shadow of those two mountains, and prepare to go on a journey. You forgot what it was like that it was God brought you there, that it was God that made you, that it was God that called you and loved you and adopted you as His own, that it was God that married you. You forgot what it means to be persistent.

“But I am reminding you.”

I think it’s good for us to just have people sometimes to remind us, to remind us that there are things that matter beyond our day-to-day lives and operations. There are things that matter beyond just making money and living and subsisting. There are things that matter that go right to the very core of who you are and why you have breath, that really actually matter, that the spiritual life, your life with your creator, that thing which tingles you, which excites you, which gives you conviction and challenges you, which gives you open hearts endures.

We’ve going to use three symbols to try and understand this point in the story. The first one is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Alef. Alef is a symbol for Jerusalem, for the city Jerusalem, because that city was first among the cities of the world and because it was the first love in the people’s hearts. When the Hebrews identified themselves with their city, they understood it to be God’s holy city, the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, the city of King David, the city of God. Just the very idea of that place was special.

I don’t know if we necessarily have a great one-to-one relationship with place today in the way that they did. Maybe “Ground Zero” for us could be considered a place of such sacred importance. Maybe for Catholics Notre Dame or the Vatican could be considered a place of such significance, of such importance, but for the Hebrew people Jerusalem was everything. It was the center of the world. For those in Judeo-Christian history and thought and tradition, Jerusalem was understood to be the naval on the belly of the earth. It was the very center of all that mattered and everything that mattered flowed out of Jerusalem in concentric circles.

Now, if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan at all, you’ll recognize that Minas Tirith, the White City in Gondor is actually designed not only after the understanding of Jerusalem in the Old Testament, but also after the understanding of Heaven, because Heaven – according to some Jewish mystics – is the existential model for Jerusalem, having seven concentric circles flowing from that prime space.

That’s Jerusalem; it’s everything to these people.

You remember we talked about the Northern Kingdom of Israel being carried off into captivity and the Southern Kingdom of Judah where the city of Jerusalem was remaining free until this point in history?

The reason that was such a big deal was because Jerusalem, the center of everything that they valued as a people, was still free. That’s the reason that the captivity that took Judah into Babylon as slaves was so much more devastating to the Hebrew people as a whole than the captivity that took Israel into Assyria, because Judah had Jerusalem. It had the magic spot, the golden jewel, the center of everything.

I wonder if maybe there’s something for us to learn here a little bit about identifying with our city. I wonder if maybe there’s something that God is putting in your heart, some kind of concern for the city where you live or the town that you’re from, if maybe there’s a piece of Jeremiah that’s growing in you that says, “You’re task is to care about where you live.”

My mom grew up in North Carolina, in Winston Salem. She has all these horrible stories of what it was like to grow up there, but when she tells them they become the most beautiful, almost song-like, tales. You get the picture that it was like she was playing with Bambi and Thumper and little butterflies were landing on her shoulders; but then the details of the story are always things her not having shoes because they were too poor. But for my mom to talk to about Winston Salem puts magic in the room. For her to talk about North Carolina, it makes you feel like you’re moving to Oz. She connects total happiness with that part of the world.

I think there’s something that happens to us when we become attached to a place. We’ve talked a little bit about sacred space here at Westwinds. We talked about sacred space being a place of shared memory. It’s not just the ground that makes something holy. It’s not the architecture. It’s the fact that we’re here together. It’s the fact that our story, the story of Westwinds, is a story of endurance and a story of persistence. It’s the fact that we have memories here together and that tonight we’re making a memory again that you’re going to remember for a long time—sitting on the floor, sleeping during the sermon. We’re creating those holy moments in this space, because of what we experience together, because maybe for you tonight is the first time, the first time, that you’ve been encountered with the fact that God desperately loves you and cares about you and the fact that we share in that experience together makes this place a little more important, makes this town a little more important to you.

It allows us to understand the value of Jerusalem to the Hebrew people.

In sharp contrast to the wonder and magic of Jerusalem, however, is the tyranny and dominion of Babylon.

The name Babylon actually means Gate of the Gods. It was home to the Temple of Ninmah, who was the goddess of the underworld, represented as a beautiful woman, who was the mistress of bulls and dragons.

So, we’re going to use a dragon, or a snake, for our symbol of Babylon, which appears all throughout ancient hieroglyphics as the symbol of Babylon.

We talked about Babylon being a world-class city, about Babylon having been the first chink in the armor of the Assyrian Empire, the first spirit of independence that rose up in defiance of a world tyrant. There’s a sense in which Babylon is almost idealized by the rest of the ancient world at this point, because they fought for what that was going to come to them. The Kingdom of Babylon, including the Hanging Gardens of Babylon which were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, grew so powerful that it endured right up until the time of Alexander the Great.

The relationship between Babylon and Judah was always a little muddied, as they double-crossed each other and turned back on each other numerous times, but Nebuchadnezzar - the king of Babylon – ironically shows a tremendous amount of care and concern for Jeremiah as a person after he conquers Judah.

It’s the weirdest thing; you’d think if anybody was going to oppose Nebuchadnezzar, it would Jeremiah.

And he does.

In fact, he curses him; he calls out awful things to him. He reprimands him for what he’s done to the Kingdom of Judah and to Jerusalem and tells him that his time is coming soon, that he too won’t escape God’s judgment, that Nebuchadnezzar himself in his arrogance - his might, his loftiness - will too face the judgment of God.

And yet, there is a respect for Jeremiah that Nebuchadnezzar and all his high servants protect.

But these two have a fascinating relationship that develops. I don’t know if I’ll call it friendship, but they have this incredible dance that they go through, that, again, if you want to look up any of that, you just find it littered all over the pages of the Book of Jeremiah or Kings and Chronicles. You find it all over the pages of the other prophets or in any history books. You’ll find this incredible tension between them, this mutual regard.

Nebuchadnezzar makes sure that Jeremiah is treated correctly, makes sure that he has every benefit and every privilege. Remember, too, that Jeremiah never got that from his own people. I mean remember all the other priests and prophets, the kings, with the exception of Josiah, with whom Jeremiah served, like threw him in jail. They beat him up, they stripped him, they called him names, they ignored him, they left him to starve or to rot in a hole, not once but three different times, but this foreign ruler extended grace.

Do you understand the like how little sense this makes, how backwards it feels, that the conqueror, that the nation of bulls and dragons, would embrace the one lamb with teeth?

Babylon has forever been a symbol to the Hebrew people of desolation, of destruction. We see Babylon as a symbol of wickedness in the New Testament, as a symbol of injustice, because despite what the whole of the ancient world thought about them, they destroyed the country of the Hebrews.

They destroyed the Temple; they spurned God.

Babylon for us, I think, is an incredible paradox, something we have to wrestle with. We have to ask ourselves how it’s even possible that God could use a wicked kingdom to bring about a just judgment. We have to ask ourselves how it’s even possible that God could hold up Babylon and preserve her as a nation in order for her to be his tenant farmer, his axe, his yoke, his ox, his boiling pot. I mean there’s thirteen or fourteen different images that Jeremiah uses to describe Babylon as an instrument of God’s judgment, that God allowed them to do that.

I hope this creates problems for us as we try and understand why this happened. I hope it forces you to wrestle a little bit with what it means for God to use the snake. Without trying to supply you with easy answers, maybe I can at least put you on an “A” track, that maybe there are times where the story that we find ourselves in, our story, our interactions with God, become muddy. The details become confusing, because we start thinking about somebody else’s story, because instead of thinking about our relationship with God and how that works, we think about what God’s doing in that other place. Instead of first addressing where we are, our relationship with the Creator, our orientation, our persistence, we start thinking about, “How come this?,” and “How come that?,” and “How come this other thing?” While it’s okay to wrestle with those, in fact we encourage you to do so, let’s start at the right spot.

The last symbol we’re going to use is a Sanskrit symbol. This is the symbol that is used in meditation. When you see this symbol, you’re supposed to chant, “Ohm.” It’s a symbol for peace, and if there’s anything that we can see represented in the character of Jeremiah and the character of God, it is the desire for peace - a desire that’s never fulfilled.

We talked about the two shoulders. We talked in our introduction about persistence, about Hashem. We talked about people yelling back and forth and, “If you’ll love your god and serve him, he will bring you peace.” It was always God’s desire for peace, it was always Jeremiah’s desire for peace, “Turn and embrace the god of your fathers; remember.”

For twenty-three years Jeremiah preaches, “Remember,” he preaches restoration, coming back to a place of oneness with God, because of that desire for peace and it’s a desire that’s never fulfilled, not because God is unjust, but because He is just and because there’s never a turn in the hearts of the people.

Jeremiah prophesized in the book that there will come a time where the rules between God and man change, that they are no longer going to be rules about what you do or what you eat or what you wear or how you take a bath; instead, they’re going to be rules written on your heart, instead they’re going to be rules written on a tablet of flesh.

It’s going to be a law of peace.

It’s going to be a law of love, not a law of legislation, of rules, of sub-points and articles, but a law that means something right to the core of who you are.

We understand that God gives us this ability to be connected to him through our hearts. I wonder in you if you were to ask yourself the question about your heart, about whether or not that law is written there and you ignore it, or if that law is written there and you’re blind to it.

I wonder if you’d be willing just to ask yourself the question what that law might mean for you if you embraced it.

Peace is more than just the absence of conflict. Peace is more than just you getting along with your co-workers or your spouse. Peace is something far deeper. It’s the presence of God’s justice, the presence of his love, the presence of him, himself, the awareness of God. Maybe as we talk about all of these things to do with a kingdom so long ago, a person so long ago, maybe the real thing that we’re talking about, the real thing that might matter or be important to you, is not the peace of that place or the persistence of those people, but the peace that’s available to you through your persistence in finding and hearing God.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Hostility and Fury, Week Two_C: Josiah’s death, Pashur’s confrontation, and the linen belt

Our last symbol for this week is the Chet, a letter of the Hebrew alphabet which has come to be synonymous with the graciousness and compassion of God.

It is a symbol that shows up throughout the text of Jeremiah, and a lesson for us about God’s mercy being exteneded all the time.

To Pashur
To Judah
To Babylon
To Assyria
To you and I and all the world.

It is a symbol that seems so hard to see when we pick out snippets of the book, because the book is heavy and deals with unrepentant people; but it is there all the time nonetheless if we look for it.
And it’s all around us as well, for the story of Jeremiah is not just history but our story as well, and the words of mercy and grace are not just words of hope to the people of Judah, but to the people of the West and the people of the whole world today

the enduring unpopularity of decay [rehashing a discussion from my friends]

ever think about how wonderful it is for certain things to die? or even how important rottenness is to life? it's in the decay of some things that we find our most delectable pleasures - cheese, for example, which comes from old milk, and chocolate from rotting cocoa.

what is bread? rotten wheat
what is wine? rotten grapes

len sweet likes to talk about the best things coming through the path of rot.

yogurt, sauerkraut, fertilizer.

and maybe, for us, church.

it's like whatever is coming next [in terms of ecclesia] will be born on the decay of what has come before. that's not necessarily to say that church-as-an-institution will go away or be completely relegated to irrelevance, but i do mean to suggest that whatever new forms church will take will be funded by the organic decomposition of the church we're all going to now.

so we ought to hold loosely to some of the things we love
and we ought to be a little more generous about some of the things we're reacting to

because we are all mushrooms and penicillin

Hostility and Fury, Week Two_B: Josiah’s death, Pashur’s confrontation, and the linen belt

If you remember we spoke last week about the fact that all the other prophets and priests in the book of Jeremiah being ‘gladhanders’ and ‘happytalkers.’ They all seemed to be more concerned with glossing over the tricky bits of life and less concerned with accurately representing God to the people.

One particularly bad egg, Pashur, found out that Jeremiah was bucking the trend and preaching ‘doom and gloom’ and had him locked up into a bit and left their to rot overnight. When Jeremiah was released in the morning by court officials, he sought out Pashur, rebuking and cursing him for his wickedness and falsehood.

God cannot stand Pashur’s duplicity, and so neither can Jeremiah; but the reason for their mutual disgust with Pashur has to do with the misrepresentation of YHWH.

If there’s one thing that God will not abide, it is someone who claims to speak on His behalf and then doesn’t. Whether it’s the Pharisees in Jesus’ day or the false teachers in the book of Jude, or the corrupt sons of Eli, God is infuriated by these men and their propensity to lie on His behalf.

And this is why we’ve chosen the tetragrammaton – or, 4 letters – as our next symbol. This is the Hebrew transliteration of the unpronounceable name of God, from which we derive the english letters YHWH, which are then pronounced YaHWeH. Throughout the history of the Jewish people, this name has been considered so holy – so separate and otherworldy, supernatural and awesome – that to even write it would be considered taboo and a violation of the holiness of God.

In kabbala it is said that the tetragrammaton was The Word spoken at creation, and that if any person could pronounce it again Creation would be unmade.

It is a symbol for how incomprehensible the infite God is to finite humanity, and how intolerant He is of our attempts to reduce Him to a brandname or a byproduct, a justification for behavior or a motivation for hatred.

It is this name, this symbol, that represents for us why God’s nature cannot stand Pashur and all those like him today.

Hostility and Fury, Week Two: Josiah’s death, Pashur’s confrontation, and the linen belt

We’ve been talking about interpreting symbols and signs – semiotics – in the book of Jeremiah; and, while this angle leads us through the book looking at some of the prophetic signs Jeremiah gave as warnings to the people of Judah, it also allows us to look at the “signs of the times” in the text. It allows us to see the world through Jeremiah’s eyes, to have his perspective on the changes in government and the trends and habits of the people.

Looking at the signs of the time in Jeremiah also permits us to look at the signs of our time. We begin to open our eyes to the trends of our entertainment and to the habits of our conversations and economics; and we are left to wonder about how history will remember us, and how we may want to alter that memory.

Growing up, my favorite movies were the ones with epic battle scenes. Movies like Star Wars, Ben Hur, and Top Gun were always a kind of anesthetic to the monotony of rain and cartoons, and I can remember looking forwards to acting out the famous confrontations in my bathrobe with some friends and a spent paper towel tube.

But I never got enthused about the epic battles in the bible – there just always seemed to be no glamour or glory in their descriptions, and whatever heroes were mentioned never really stayed around long enough to get the girl or make a sequel. In fact, the national upheavals and the battle scenes in the bible read less like history and more like html, making little sense and having less relevance to just about everyone.

So, when we read about the earth-shaking battles in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles that toppled Judean kings like dominoes, we have to contextualize the significance of those battles and force ourselves to realize how epic they truly were.

SYMBOL: Star of David

The Star of David is a symbol for good leadership in Israel [and Judah]. It reminds people of King David and his orientation towards God of worship and thanksgiving, repentance and justice. The Star represents the standard that all the Hebrew people would have had in their minds for what a good king was – how prosperous the nation was, how famous the nation was, whether or not God was pleased with the nation, etc…

And it is a standard no one met after Josiah died.

Josiah was killed in the Battle of Megiddo in 609BC. Having allied Judah with Babylon against the all-powerful Assyrian Empire [who had enslaved the Northern Kingdom of Israel], Josiah rode out against the reserve forces of the Assyrians who were en route to rescue their masters. Pharoah Necho II led these forces and it was his archers who killed Josiah during the battle and his forces who overcome Judah on the battlefield.

Josiah’s son Jehaohaz took his place as king and ruled only for three years before also being defeated by Necho and being carried off to Egypt as a prisoner. During those three years Jehoahaz undid all of the reforms of his father and returned the nation of Judah back into apostasy [worshipping Molech by offering child sacrifices and temple prostitution]. It was a time of incredible heartache for the prophet Jeremiah, who had devoted his life to the redemption of Judah in the eyes of God and who had found an ally in King Josiah. When Josiah died, so did Jeremiah’s last hopes for a holy Judean state.

Jehoiakim succeeded Jehoahaz as king, a puppet placed on the throne by Necho after the Egyptians sacked Jerusalem, and it was his infamous intolerance that led to the destruction of the original copies of Jeremiah’s writings and prophecies. Jehoiakim demanded the prophecies be read to him and was angered by their tone of religious intolerance so he ordered them destroyed.

In 601 Jehoiakim turns coat against Judah’s former ally, Babylon, and fights alongside Egypt and the very Pharoah who had murdered both his father Josiah and, by this time, his brother Jehoahaz. Egypt defeats Babylon at the Battle of Migdol, but Babylon regroups and destorys Jerusalem in 597 BC in an act of vengeance. During that seige, Jehoiakim – whose name means “YHWH throws” – is bound up into a little ball and catapulted over the walls of the city as a peace offering to the invading armies.

It worked.

Nebuchadnezzar allowed most of the Judeans to stay in Jerusalem, marching only a small contingent off into exile in Babylon so that Judah could rebuild.

If we remember these three kings, Josiah and Jehoahaz and Jehoiakim, we must remember how they were judged; they were judged according to the standard of King David. King David epitomized good government and a right heart before God, and it does seem like the national history of Judah always puts those two things together. We never hear of a good king who forsook YHWH, nor of a righteous king who governed poorly.

And that ought to leave us with some questions. For example, is goodness perhaps more than an intellectual or moral abstraction? Is it, perhaps, also a human quality that reflects the qualities of our creator? Or, maybe we ought to ask ourselves what standard we are using to appraise government? Where do our affections and allegiances lie?

To be fair, I really don’t just see this as a political piece, but as a piece that may reveal to every attentive person how we govern our individual lives and whom we honor in the process.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Hostility and Fury: Week One_C, The Call of Jeremiah

One of the things I find amazing about Jeremiah’s connection with Judah, the level of emotion that he committed to his own people, was how bad they actually were. Remember, this was a time where the word “civilized” actualy meant you only had concubines that you knew, that you only raped your own servants, and that the idea of sacrifice wasn’t just a metaphor.

In fact, the gods that Judah was ‘flirting’ with were gods who demanded sacrifices of temple prostitution and child sacrifice. Molech, for example, the god of the Moabites whom the people of Judah were particularly attracted to, required the people to bang drums while the children were sacrificed in order to drown out their screams. The place where they were killed was called Tophet, which means “many drums”, and is in the valley of Hinnon on the south side of Jerusalem.

It was the town dump – they burned children, like they burned their garbage, alive in the town dump.

In Jesus’ time this place would come to be known as Gehenna, and it serves as the biblical model of hell.

And it was because of this that God decided they needed to be punished.

Jeremiah 2:7-11 (The Message)
7"I brought you to a garden land
where you could eat lush fruit.
But you barged in and polluted my land,
trashed and defiled my dear land.
8The priests never thought to ask, "Where's GOD?'
The religion experts knew nothing of me.
The rulers defied me.
The prophets preached god Baal
And chased empty god-dreams and silly god-schemes.

9"Because of all this, I'm bringing charges against you" --GOD's Decree--
"charging you and your children and your grandchildren.
10Look around. Have you ever seen anything quite like this?
Sail to the western islands and look.
Travel to the Kedar wilderness and look.
Look closely. Has this ever happened before,
11That a nation has traded in its gods
for gods that aren't even close to gods?
But my people have traded my Glory
for empty god-dreams and silly god-schemes.

This is why we’ve chosen the mathematical symbols for “therefore” and “because” as our third symbol. God’s says “because you have done these evil things…therefore I will bring judgement.” These are symbols of causality, and they are symbols that can be expressed in concrete-sequential terms as well as emotional-relational anecdotes; and, one thing we might begin to notice in the text, is the way that God’s language shifts throughout Jeremiah from a language of relationship to a language of causality.

A language of relationship, imagery of Judah as God’s bride or firstborn son, expresses God’s desire to be close to His people and have fellowship with them. The language of causality, on the other hand, makes it seem like God has resigned the people to an equation and no longer looks to them for reciprocal love and communion. These two languages appear to flip-flop throughout the book, showing that God never fully gives over to causality and the separation from relationship with His people.

And, true to His character, God never acts arbitrarily nor withour warning. He sends Jeremiah to the people, over and over and over, to give them signs of the coming judgement. Jeremiah uses images and words, poems and objects lessons to try and connect the consequences of apostasy with the heart of the people – but they never get it.

They never read the signs.

Do you?

Do I?

Do we look at the world around us and recognize that God is speaking to us using signs and symbols all of the time, trying to remind us that He loves us and is desperate to be together with us as bride and groom?

At some point, maybe even today, God is going to use an object or a conversation or a piece of media as a sign to you. He is going to show you – somehow – that He cares about you specifically, particularly, and wants you back.

Will you pay attention to that sign?

Will you take it seriously?

Hostility and Fury: Week One_B, The Call of Jeremiah

It is Jeremiah’s task to tell the people about the consequences of their actions.

A young man, scholarly and of a gentle nature, Jeremiah refuses God’s appointment as a prophet and begs God to have mercy on His people. It is this quality of compassion that has come to identify Jeremiah as the “weeping prophet” and that depicts the great irony of his life – for he is desperate for personal and national peace, but doomed to a life announcing terror and judgement.

The Chinese character for compassion is our second symbol for today, and will contine to serve as a symbol for Jeremiah himself throughout the remainder of the series. It was that compassion that funded Jeremiah throughout the reforms of Josiah, the boy king of Judah who led the nation in a reorientation towards God.

When Josiah was placed on the throne of Judah at the age of eight by the "People of the Land", the international situation was in flux: to the east, the Assyrian Empire was in the beginning stages of its eventual disintegration, the Babylonian Empire had not yet risen to replace it, and Egypt to the west was still recovering from Assyrian rule. This favored the resurgence of the prowess of Jerusalem, which Josiah expressed in the 8th year of rule by his sincere championing of the God of Israel's cause. He had the foreign cultic objects of Baal, Ashterah or Asherah), "and all the hosts of the heavens" in Solomon's Temple destroyed, the living pagan priests dismissed from their posts and the bones of the priests exhumed from their graves and burned on their altars -- an extreme act of desecration against these pagan deities. (2 Kings 23:4, et seq.)

In 18th year of King Josiah, he again worked on behalf of Yahweh by having the High Priest Hilkiah take the taxes that had been collected over the years, and use them to repair the neglect and damage the Temple had suffered during the reigns of Amon and Manasseh. While Hilkiah was clearing the treasure room of the Temple (2 Chr. 34:14), he is said to have found a scroll described as "the book, book of the Torah. Hilkiah brought this scroll to Josiah's attention, and the king had it read to a crowd in Jerusalem.

In that same 18th year, Josiah celebrated a Passover which hadn’t been done "since the days of the Judges" (2 Kings 23:22). At some point between this year and his death, Josiah reasserted Judean control in the former territories of the kingdom of Israel, which is recorded in 2 Kings as systematically destroying the cultic objects, as well as executing the priests of the pagan gods. The only exception he made was for the grave of an unnamed prophet he found in Bethel, who had foretold that these religious sites Jeroboam erected would one day be destroyed (23:15-19).

It was during this time of reform, which was accompanied by significant death and destruction, that Jeremiah’s complexity as a biblical character was revealed. One the one hand Jeremiah is enthused about the reforms and begins to experience some hope for his people; but, on the other hand, he is still broken-hearted about the pain and suffering that his own people must endure because of their wayward condition.

So great was Jeremiah’s heartfelt compassion for the people that he compared himself at one point to a rabbi in a Jewish fable. In the fable, the high priest was about to perform in the temple the ceremonies prescribed in the case of a woman suspected of adultery [Numbers v.12 et seq.], and who, when he approached her with the “cup of the bitter water,” beheld his own mother.

Hostility and Fury: Week One, The Call of Jeremiah

Have you heard the term ‘semiotics?’ Semiotics is study of signs and symbols, which – of course – is something we do all the time. We study road signs and street lights, people’s expressions during a conversation or trends in the marketplace, etc…

What I’d like to do during our Jeremiah series is help us all to become better semioticians, to become better at reading signs; reason being, while I think we see and interpret signs all of the time, I’m not sure we’re either aware of it or conscious of its importance.

And it is important. Just think if you failed to heed a “children at play” sign or a “school zone” sign and sped through a crowd of little ones, possibly hurting someone. Paying attention to signs then becomes the most obvious, most important thing you should have done.

There are signs everywhere in our culture, in our church, in our world – signs that tell us what is going on in people and in society that ought to concern and involve us as followers of Jesus Christ. We ignore these signs to our own peril, and the church becomes meaningless to most people as a result.

Jeremiah lived in a world governed by signs. Ancient Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, and Cuneiform were all “sign” languages; prophecy was always accompanied by signs, either miracles or signs of validation through future events; kings and emperors gave their approval to servants and neighbors through a seal, a sign made in wax. So we’re going to teach the book of Jeremiah through signs and symbols – and we’re going to teach ourselves that the world of the bible isn’t the only world in which signs matter.

Jeremiah 1:5 (The Message)
5"Before I shaped you in the womb,
I knew all about you.
Before you saw the light of day,
I had holy plans for you:
A prophet to the nations--
that's what I had in mind for you."

9bLook! I've just put my words in your mouth--hand-delivered!
10See what I've done? I've given you a job to do
among nations and governments--a red-letter day!
Your job is to pull up and tear down,
take apart and demolish,
And then start over,
building and planting."

The book of Jeremiah, by the way, is actually a reconstruction of the original. Jeremiah had his personal assitant, Baruch, write down his life’s events and his prophecies as a record, but the wicked king of Judah, Jehoiakim, had it burned in the 6th C BC because it was offensive. What we have now are 23 recollections of Baruch and Jeremiah’s memories about the original documents, and their continuation of the story after Jehoiakim. As a result, we have a real chronological mess that spans over 40 years of Jeremiah’s ministry, covering 5 Jewish kings, 4 foreign empires, two seiges of Jerusalem, three personal captivities as well as national exile, and a partridge in a pear tree. This, of course, is why we’ve provided a timeline for you during the course of our study of the book.

If you’re curious about what else was going on in the world – what the world was like – you may want to consider reading the biblical books of Daniel, Hanakkuk, Nahum, Ezekiel, and Zephaniah which were all written during the same time period; or, globally, you might be interested to know that this was roughly the same time period that Buddhism, Taoism, and the Shinto religion were introduced in the East, that Japan’s first Emperor took the throne. Also around this time, the great canal was built between the Nile River and the Red Sea, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were constructed, and Rome was declared a Republic.

In short, this was a time when the ancient world was really coming into it’s own, where human achievement was said to have reached it’s highest peak and mankind knew no limits to progress.

Sound familiar?

Well, our concerns in the book of Jeremiah are actually a bit more localized, for we are looking at the Southern Kingdom of Judah – the more loyal part of the divided kingdom of Israel after the civil war of 928 BC. We are concerned with a country about twice the population of Grand Rapids, living in a land about the size of Yellowstone National Park. We are concerned with the people called “God’s Chosen”, whom He describes as His bride, His son, His flock and His vineyard, and who have broken His heart.

For, make no mistake, this book is about the heart of God for His people. It is the story of an omnipresent God, who sees all things, beginning His Bride to understand that He is always close and always watchful. It is a story of a husband who knows what His wife has been up to. It is the story of a husband whose wife has run off, and Jeremiah has come to serve her papers. He comes preaching a message of fidelity to the ‘she-camel in heat…hunting around for sex, sex, and more sex’ [2.24]

It is this image of fidelity that brings us to our first symbol, the moon, sun, and 12 stars. This is a symbol used to identify Israel, for the moon and sun are Jacob and Rachael and the 12 stars are the 12 sons and thus the 12 tribes of Israel. We see marital faithfulness represented in the marriage of Jacob and Rachael, and even before that in Jacob’s 14 years of labor to be given permission to marry Rachael, and that faithfulness is continuously modeled in God’s dealings with Jacob and his descendants through time.

The issue, you see, wasn’t just that people didn’t care about God – the God who delivered them from slavery, created them, sustained them with His breath and gave them an everlasting promise that they would be special – but that they had prostituted themselves to other gods – gods made out of paper and wood and rocks. God’s complaint against the people was that they had begun flirting with other kinds of fulfillment, and then gradually made their affections manifest and begun sleeping with the enemy. The sexual imagery is not just imagery, by the way, for the people actually were having sex in the temple of YHWH with the priests of the other gods on slabs of stone and rock altars designed for temple prostitution – so there’s a lot more than a pointed metaphor going on in their unfaithfulness.

Independent of personal injury, of how He feels about their apostasy, God challenges their wisdom and logic in their affair with other gods. He compares their affair to someone who leaves a spring of living water – a brook or a river or a stream – and instead builds a well to hold the water they take from the stream; the problem, of course, is that the well can’t hold any water, and what water it does retain becomes rancid and stale. So God asks why they would do this? The fulfillment is less for the people, their contract with God is broken, and they will be punished for their unfaithfulness to the Creator.