failure of imagination

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.” Then Isaiah said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The LORD will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”

Isaiah 7:10-17; NRSVue

If there’s anything the Christianity I’ve seen is plagued with by and large, though with some notable exceptions, it’s simply the failure of imagination. And I mean imagination in the realm and reality of faith, not just our own imaginations. God wants us in faith to imagine better things with regard to our own lives, the lives of those we love, the world which we know and in which we live, and the world at large.

In the case of Ahaz, he was not only a weak king, but one who was not committed to God, and acted and lived accordingly. Yet God appealed to him as one who was a part of God’s people, in fact king of Judah at that point in time. And Ahaz refused to respond. Since Ahaz did not act in faith, he would receive the fruit of the way that he had chosen, as God’s word makes plain in the account above.

For us who profess faith in God through Jesus, what kind of faith do we have? Is only the inevitable going to happen, or can we imagine something better from God? And imagination here can mean simply an openness to say, I don’t know, but I do know that God can do what we possibly can’t imagine. At the same time though, God can give us an image and help us imagine something of what God might do, which even if not knowing the specifics, can sense the grandeur, glory and goodness of it.

It’s good though hard to really be aware of the dangers present in this time or any time. But it’s also just as important, if not more so, to become aware that God neither loses sight of this, nor is God not at work in it. And we need to know that God’s light is going to shine in this present darkness in ways we might not anticipate or want. But we have to steel ourselves for whatever that might involve, only by God’s grace. And hold on and not lose out on the blessed imagination that God wants to give us. In and through Jesus.

how are we “more than victorious” (or “more than conquerors”) in this life?

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than victorious through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35-39; NRSVue

ὑπερνικάω is a heightened form of being victorious, meaning “we are winning a most glorious victory” (BAGD). Although the old translation: “we are more than conquerors” might suggest more strenuous activity on our part, the more accurate rendering still indicates that we’re very much active. We are participants of God’s victory in Christ. But just how?

Romans 8 from where our passage is taken is one of the greatest chapters of the Bible. We read at its very beginning that there’s now no condemnation in Christ Jesus because of the new law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus which has set us free from the law of sin and death. And what the law given on Mt. Sinai could not do since it was weakened by the flesh, Christ did by coming the likeness of sinful flesh to deal with sin by his death. And that because of this spiritual reality in which we “in Christ” live, we no longer have to give into the flesh, since after all, we’re no longer “in the flesh” but “in the Spirit” if Christ dwells in us. That we’re to set our minds not on the flesh, what it wants, but on the Spirit, what the Spirit wants. And that actually becomes what we want, even while in this life we sometimes think and live contrary to that.

And what precedes the above passage would be good to note here:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for all of us, how will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ who died, or rather, who was raised, who is also at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.

Romans 8:31b-34; NRSVue

The gospel is essentially given to us in the first four books of the New Testament: the gospel according to Matthew, the gospel according to Mark, the gospel according to Luke and the gospel according to John. Gospel is the English translation of εὐαγγέλιον which means “good news.” In Jesus and his coming is the good news for the world. Of course, it’s through Jesus’s incarnation in God becoming flesh, completely human. In his life, miracles, teaching: all about and within God’s kingdom present in him, then in his death for sins and his resurrection to give us new and eternal life. With the promise of his return when what has begun now, making all things new, will at long last be completed.

And with that said, it’s up to us whether or not we’re going to answer the call of Christ. I believe that call is on every human’s life: past, present and future, but that’s another topic, and really quite above my head. Though really when you’re considering anything spiritual and specifically pertaining to Christ and the gospel, it is all above us, but God wants to help us begin to understand and live in it. But first we must answer God’s call in Christ. And it’s simply, as we see in the gospel accounts, a call to follow Christ. That means following Christ as our rabbi whom we not only learn truth from in his teaching, but whom we seek to imitate and become more and more like over time, a lifetime endeavor to be sure. And of course, that’s based on his coming, not only his death and resurrection, but the whole works. He became one of us, living in the same dirt and grind and mess in which we live, and then taking the worst of humanity on himself, both the acts and the results of such acts, all the rapes and murders and everything in violation of love to God and neighbor that has ever been done, every single act of ours and all humanity past, present and future. Yes, Christ took all that on himself at the cross, but did so for the joy set before him, enduring the cross, scorning its shame. For the love of the Father, for the love of the world, all in God’s love for the world, for all of us sinners.

Now to get to the main point: How are we overwhelmingly victorious in this life? It’s simply through following Christ through thick and thin, preferably all together as church, the one body, his body. We follow him in all of life, doing what Christ has told us to do: loving our enemies, blessing those who curse us, praying for and doing good to those who despise us, even turning the other cheek after we’ve been struck, never physically resisting evil, although fleeing and avoiding that is usually a good thing, and I would do what I could to prevent someone from harming another, never killing them. But we’re to seek to overcome evil with good, hate with love. Never taking up the sword, since we’re not in a struggle against humans, but against spiritual entities which do affect human rulers, and also do what they can to hinder us and our desire and endeavor to live in the reality of the good news in Jesus.

When Jesus told his disciples to get a sword if they didn’t have any, they told him, Lord look, here are two swords. And Jesus replied that two was enough. Remember when he sent the disciples out two by two previously, he told them specifically what to take, and the sword was not included. Very soon afterwards Peter takes one of those swords and slashes off one of the ears of a servant of the high priest. Jesus immediately rebukes Peter and tells him to put down the sword, that all who take the sword will perish by the sword, and that after all, he must do God’s will. Soon after that Jesus told Pilate that if his kingdom as King of the Jews were of or from this world, then his servants would fight, but no, his kingdom is from another place. So how we’re victorious has nothing to do with the world’s way of being victorious. It’s never physical, but always spiritual. Yet carried on in physical bodies in down to earth ways. Like feeding your enemies, giving them something to drink, and in so doing, heaping burning coals on their head, which I take to figuratively meaning they are ashamed.

Through the worst life and those opposed to us has to offer, as we continue on faithfully following our Lord as his faithful and called, following the Lamb wherever he goes, “we are more than victorious,” overwhelming so. That is the victory in which we live, the victory of our Lord which at the heart of it is taking the way of the cross. Becoming like Jesus in his death. But at the heart of that, coming to really know Jesus. That is after all what following Jesus is all about. It’s not merely knowing something in our heads, or thinking we know something. It is hearing the call and responding. It is heart to heart, involving a full commitment of ourselves to Christ. And that with others; we’re not to be on this journey alone. We want to help others come along, and we want to learn from each other, especially from others who have been on this journey longer. In doing so, we’re all being blessed by Christ, who has gone through it entirely, but is now ever present in our midst as well as in us individually and collectively by the Spirit.

And the last promise: nothing, nothing, nothing at all, including when we feel unloved and rejected and are tempted to despair, maybe even fall into that. Nothing at all can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That is a love personal to us, but which is also meant for each other, and out of that for the world, including all of our enemies. God’s love in Jesus meant to do the same for all as for us: Making enemies friends through Christ as we respond to Christ’s call to us with repentance and faith.

Yes, we are more than victorious, more than that, through him who loved us.

sometimes you can only endure (and that’s it)

You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

James 5:11b; NRSVue

If you read the book of Job, you’re not going to find a patient Job. Job was arguably and I think accurately impatient with both God and Job’s friends. And one possible reading of Job is that he holds out to the very end, not necessarily impressed with God’s answer (Pete Enns on Job). There is more than one way to read Job, and in Jewish tradition, that is normal. And we might even say there’s an openness to it in the Christian tradition through Lectio Divina and perhaps in other ways.

When it gets right down to it, there may be days and times that one has to endure, trudge and even grind their way through. You endure in the sense that you keep doing what you have to do, trying to always be loving and right in what you do. And just keep doing that. Or maybe like in the case of Job, the pain is so excruciating and the loss so hurtful, that you can only cry out in painful lament, while not letting go of faith, enduring as far as faith is concerned.

Job was declared right in the end, and his orthodox correct friends wrong, which is interesting (note link to Enns above). God is revealed in Christ, unbroken by the way in that God is fully present in Christ, and not somehow absent at the cross as if the Trinity could be divided. God takes on God’s Self all of our wrong, every bit of it, and turns that into forgiveness through death and the new life which follows. God endured in Christ too, out of love. And in that love, we too are often called to simply endure. Endure, endure and endure again. Especially during most difficult seasons, but day after day as well. In and through Jesus.

love is about helping others

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge the weak brother or sister for whom Christ died is destroyed. But when you thus sin against brothers and sisters and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never again eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13; NRSVue

In the Hebrew Bible God is superior to all other gods. But we learn in the New Testament that in actuality that there is no other god but God. However not everyone readily understood or received that. Those who did could easily look down on those who didn’t. Paul makes it clear that while love does not mean setting aside knowledge, to love means that we temper what we do with that knowledge.

Knowledge can be weaponized to put people in order. That can result in the loss of faith by those who are not ready for the change and perhaps never will be. Paul in his writings seems to try to point out that those who are weak in their faith in that they don’t accept the changes that have come in Christ, but remain scrupulous to Jewish laws and tradition, should accept the fact that others who have faith in Christ but abide by none of that are completely accepted by God. With the obvious implication that they too no longer have to abide by such customs.

Love is central in how we navigate everything. We don’t set aside knowledge for the sake of love. But we act with that knowledge only in accordance with love. Our goal is to help others and if that means we curtail both what we do and say, then sobeit. At the same time the weak are told not to judge the strong, not to look down on them. Which is another important theme in Paul’s letters. Recent work on Romans sees that as major in that letter.

We may think we know better on this and that. But how will that help others who think differently? While we won’t agree with them, the goal must always be kept in view. It is to love in a way that will help others come to see and understand all the truth of the good news in Jesus.

what it means to be a Christian not just in name, and how

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Mark 1:16-18

Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

Mark 2:13-14

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Mark 8:34-35

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.

Acts 9:1-3

Christian is seen in all kinds of ways, but it has been common during my lifetime to view it as those who profess faith in Christ, go to church, and are more or perhaps less marked out from the culture as different. Much fits into this space. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that there’s often an insistence in accepting the penal substitutionary atonement theory, that Christ took the punishment for our sins on the cross. If you believe that, accept that for yourself, then you’re marked as a Christian.

Setting aside for now the problem with substitutionary atonement at the very least in the way it has been presented, I would want to say that all the truth about Christ’s death for the forgiveness of our sins and resurrection by which we receive new life however we formulate that ends up being a given, as long as the crux of the matter is right. And here is the crux of the matter.

To really be a Christian in the sense given in the New Testament, to become one in the first place is all very simple while being profound. It means following Jesus. Individually and in community. Becoming Jesus followers. 

Yes, we have to decide individually, but it’s meant to be lived out in community. This is where we start, where we continue, and where we end. Following Jesus. 

By the Spirit in the community of the church. The entire church is supposed to consist of those who are followers. That’s the ideal. Of course everyone is in a different place in their spiritual journey. But unless we press home the necessity of following Christ, then we’re falling short of what it really means to be a Christian. Following Christ’s lead and in so doing, changing over time. Becoming more and more like him.

All of this as always, in and through Jesus.

 

accenting giving thanks (yes, for answers, but) no matter what

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Scripture after scripture mentions giving thanks to God for the many blessings God bestows. One other passage might intimate this (Ephesians 5:20), but the above passage for sure tells us to give thanks not just for what God has done for us, but in anticipation of the good God will do regardless of the circumstance we face.

This is uplifting, just the help we need as far as our part goes when we thank God when something either not so good, or maybe not good at all comes our way. Instead of being down in the mouth, and perhaps cursing under our breath along with complaint after complaint, we’re instead looking to God the good God will do in it.

Of course that doesn’t make bad things good at all. It doesn’t mean that somehow God miraculously makes that so. But that God works for good in everything (Romans 8:28) and somehow redeems everything, even our wrongdoings. But we’re never to give thanks in the midst of our sin. That would be seriously misreading this passage. “In all circumstance” takes for granted that we’re endeavoring to walk in good faith, following our Lord.

So next time and times, since this will happen likely multiple times each day, but next time something either bad, or not really good happens, let’s give thanks to God. For the strength and help God gives us to see us through the situation, as well as for the good God will bring out of it.

In and through Jesus.

we’re on our way in this life, so keep going (don’t stop)

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

Philippians 3:12-16

The sense of having arrived, so that one thinks they’re all set as far as their lives are concerned is not a good place to be, even a dangerous place, frankly. If Paul could say he hadn’t arrived, then all the more so true of any of us. In fact Paul calls it a mark of maturity to acknowledge that, as well as to keep pressing on.

We are on a journey. It has inevitable difficulties along the way. One can’t help but think of John Bunyan’s epic work, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Although my own theological understanding in many ways does not line up with his, that entire story is a great illustration of what I’m trying to get at in this post. For “Christian” there are difficulties and challenges right to the very end on his journey to the Celestial City.

There ought to be the sense of having arrived only in the practices we ordinarily always do. But there is that sense in our hearts that indeed we’re still on the way, anticipating what we can hardly imagine, what apart from the Spirit’s help we can’t imagine at all, seeing Jesus as he is, and becoming like the one we love.

Let’s not forget that it’s always not only about us individually. “…the arc of history is long and bends toward justice…” God in love is working God’s purpose out, and God will get God’s way. Within that thought, we long for Christ’s return to at long last clean up this mess, and put in the new order.

But until then, and until our end in this life comes, we want to press on, in fact we have no other choice but to keep doing so. God will see us through to the very end in and through Jesus.

don’t go there

And we do this so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

2 Corinthians 2:11

It’s always important to look at the context of any particular passage, and the above passage is no exception. It has to do with an issue in the church involving one who needs the kind of help that only the church can give them. The person does respond to the church’s action with Paul’s help (some interpretation, here), and now Paul presses home the need to move past that, not as if nothing happened, but in a wise way in which the person knows they are fully accepted and loved.

Just the same, we can still pull something out of the above thought. Our spiritual enemy is out to trip us up wherever and whenever it can. Yes, at opportune, strategic times, as well. They know our weaknesses, what pushes our buttons, and indeed are active in setting us up for “the evil day” as well. We don’t want to be people who focus on the spiritual enemy. But as we seek to keep our attention on the Lord, we do need to be aware of what they can be up to, so that we can begin to sense and discern that in our lives, as well as in the lives of others so that we can pray for them.

All that said, this simply means that we need God’s help to refuse to take the bait, the allure the enemy drops or sends our way. We need discernment to understand when this is taking place, and to understand how this is developing. And how we may be unwitting accomplices in it.

Don’t go there! Yes, resisting that will amount to resisting the devil. As we seek to keep our attention fully on the Lord, that we may be led by him in all of this. This is a step of faith which may not be easy, in fact will likely be hard, being counterintuitive to us, since we have given into it so many times before. But as we take that step and follow through, God will help us in this. In and through Jesus.

This podcast from Tim Gombis, “Faith Improvised,” only 36 minutes in length (finish it, to get the benefit) was helpful to me on this subject, certainly applying on a host of issues.

glimpses of light, but the darkness not lost

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.

1 Corinthians 15:28

Scripture is loaded with stories which can make you wonder. If we read the Bible as though it were flat, then we put it together like a jig saw puzzle. And what is often said is that one part is as legitimate as another, for example Jesus’s words not to resist evil and to turn the other cheek do not at all cancel out the violence in the Hebrew scriptures, but both somehow are equally legitimate, though inevitably contradictions won’t stand. Jesus himself did not allow such, rebuking his disciples for suggesting fire should come down and destroy the Samaritans who did not receive him, telling them they didn’t know by what spirit they were speaking.

There are things both in Scripture and in our lives which are broken and need redeemed. And that is not an easy process. But God is faithful, and we can actually help the process and reduce the pain and trouble if we commit ourselves as well as hold on to faith in God, that God will see everything through to the good end in Christ. That is not unlike the messes we see in Scripture, even including arguably either the accommodations or mistaken notions or projections we find there about God, what God is doing.

Everything really needs to be understood in term of the God who is love, who makes that love known which we find everywhere in Scripture, but is revealed fully only in Christ, and Christ on the cross. We have to read and see all of Scripture in that light, as well as all of our life in the same light as well. There are inevitable difficulties from simply living in the world, as well as from our own errors, mistakes, missteps, sins. God is out to redeem all.

What we need to do is to hang on by faith in spite of what we’re going through, what our experience is. To the extent that we do, we’ll begin to at least sense, and hopefully begin to experience what is the end of God’s purpose in Christ: complete, unmitigated love, with nothing whatsoever able to withstand that ultimately, and if we can only trust God, what we’ll more and more experience here and now, the same reality which will be ours and all of creation forever in the redemption and reconciliation of all things in Christ.

Something we not only look forward to, but begin to experience now, even with the inevitable even in part necessary difficulties we go through. In and through Jesus.

accepting and being willing to go through the trial, and doing so to become more mature: itself a sign and mark of maturity

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4

Trials are an inevitable part of life. We would rather not go through them, not face them, somehow be able to bail out. Some people attempt to do that, sometimes in unhealthy, even destructive ways. Or else we melt under the pressure, and don’t respond well at all. Or we allow the trial itself to have an effect on us which is not healthy.

What James is calling us to here is much better, but that doesn’t make it easy. A trial is still a trial. And going through it, the experience is not going to be a cakewalk, or anything thrilling. It might be more like chilling, but God is with us in Christ by the Spirit and through others in Jesus.

We do well to accept and be willing to go through it. At the same time asking for wisdom, and God’s help, even deliverance from it. What often gets us in a bad way here is the desire to go through a good experience, and not to have to struggle. We think what we’re going through surely comes across to others badly, and there’s no question, it’s no good as far as we’re concerned. We want to feel the love, peace, and joy of our Lord.

But God’s help will break through to us, if we learn to settle into what we have to go through, seeking to let the endurance that the testing of our faith can bring take full effect. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to get God’s answer and help concerning the trial itself. That itself is an important part of the maturing process. But while we do so, we refuse to squirm and try to wriggle our way out of it. Instead we accept it, we accept the element of simply having to endure, not enjoy something. If we hold on to that, God will not only see us through the trial itself, but will bring much good out of that. Even if we’re left with a limp from the experience.

One last word. I remember an esteemed professor from my past tell us something like, he thought that God especially values the effort of those who hold on to faith and persevere in the midst of great struggle, as compared to those who seem to joyfully sail along with little or no care at all. Thankfully God does give us peace and joy along the way. But going through the trial, fears and our weaknesses can and at times will beset us.

But I want to go through what is inevitable anyhow in the way prescribed here, getting the growth God wants through the trial, maybe not unlike the caterpillar struggling to get out of the cocoon, as it becomes a beautiful butterfly. In and through Jesus.