Monday, January 29, 2007

Nehemiah's Response to Grief

The book of Nehemiah is not exactly a focus of most preaching or lay reflection. A good number of people don't even know that there is a book of Nehemiah in the Bible! In addition, what little preaching I've heard on Nehemiah tends to focus on how great a leader Nehemiah was for going to Jerusalem and spearheading the effort to rebuild the city's defenses. And this is indeed true, and can offer good contemporary points of application. But to limit the story of Nehemiah to leadership only is to miss a great deal. Nehemiah chapter 1 offers a rather comprehensive response to grief that we also find in the life of Christ himself. In this post, I'd like to discuss one particular aspect of Nehemiah's response to grief.

In Nehemiah 1.4, it says that Nehemiah wept over the plight of the Israelites. But what was so bad about the condition of the Jewish remnant that caused Nehemiah to do this? A little bit of background; Nehemiah is writing while in Babylon, hundreds of miles away from the Promised Land. He is writing about one hundred years after the end of the Jewish exile from Israel at the hands of the Babylonians. For one hundred years, Jews had been returning to Israel to rebuild their nation. But in vv1-3, Nehemiah receives a report that the new nation is in serious trouble. Its capital city Jerusalem is defenseless because the defensive wall around the city has not been rebuilt. What’s important to see here is that the condition of Jerusalem’s defenses here are basically the same as they were over a hundred years ago when the Babylonians originally destroyed the city and sent the people into exile. In other words, the Jewish people had been returning to the land for multiple generations by the time of Nehemiah, but were not rebuilding the nation. Nehemiah, who is hundreds of miles away in Babylon, sees this as a full-scale national crisis. Think of how all of us felt in the aftermath of 9/11. We felt like we were immediately in a national crisis right then and there. Yet here in Nehemiah, this national crisis has been going on for a hundred years now. So Nehemiah properly responds to this crisis by weeping and mourning.

But notice two things about Nehemiah’s mourning. First, he was not ashamed to mourn. Nehemiah was a great man of God, someone of strong faith. Yet, he mourns without shame. But second, notice also that Nehemiah doesn’t just have one good cry and then moves on. Verse 4 says that he wept and mourned for some days. Nehemiah didn’t treat mourning as something to cross off his ‘Honey-do’ list, and neither should we. There’s this persistent idea that Christians shouldn’t grieve and mourn, because to do so somehow reflects something negative about their faith. Well, somebody forgot to tell this to Nehemiah. He mourns because he should be mourning. See, it is often the case that grief over the same event comes and goes over time with varying degrees of intensity, and is often cyclical. Mourning is not a bullet-point to be scratched off the list like some finite chore. Nehemiah is giving us an honest look at grief, as well as a realistic portrayal of humanity.

This is tough stuff because most of us, as human beings, like bullet-points. We like our sermons that way, and we like our lives that way too. The larger culture often tells us to avoid, minimize or eliminate our grief because after all, grief is a hindrance to a happy life. But folks, it just ain’t that simple – we’re not that simple. And if you don’t believe me, all we have to do is look at Jesus himself. The God-man, who knew all things and had all power, wept at the grave of Lazarus in John 11. He wept even though he knew full well that just a few minutes later, he would raise Lazarus from the dead. Does Jesus’ grief sound simple to anyone? I don’t think so. So if you’re in the midst of a painful season of grief and crisis, take comfort in what both Nehemiah and Jesus show us. It’s okay to mourn. It’s necessary to mourn. It is purposeful to mourn. This is positively counter-cultural, and I know it may feel a little strange. But give your sorrows and grief to the God-man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief (Is. 53.3), and he will meet you there and care for you.

Much more could be said about Nehemiah's response to grief in chs. 1-2. In addition to mourning, the opening verses of Nehemiah also tell us that he fasted and prayed continuously (mourning does not entail inaction). He then takes the additional step of taking responsibility. Notice in v7 that when he prays to God, he doesn't say 'those people in Jerusalem' have acted wickedly, or that 'previous generations' have not obeyed God's commands. Instead, he says 'we' have been unfaithful. This is simply incredible. Nehemiah was not in Israel goofing off while the defenses of Jerusalem lay in ruins. It wasn’t Nehemiah who originally went back to the land and decided to leave the ruins as is rather than rebuild. Nehemiah is hundreds of miles away and hasn’t been in Jerusalem for years! Yet, here he is lumping himself in with everyone else, and accepting responsibility for the dismal state of affairs in Jerusalem (which then leads to him personally taking ownership over the defensive wall project in chapter 2). Now you may say, “Hey, I didn’t know word one about Nehemiah before today, but still, all this sounds kinda familiar!” Well, you would be right, because Nehemiah’s act of identifying himself with the people was something of a temporal picture of what Jesus supremely did for us. In John 17, as Jesus prays to the Father before being led off to the crucifixion, he identifies himself with his people. Beginning in John 17.21, Jesus prays that his people would be in him just as he is with the Father. We are sinners, while Jesus is not. Yet, he identified himself with us and took on the penalty of our sins so that those of us who belong to him through faith might have eternal and permanent peace with God.

Put simply, Nehemiah gives us a full-orbed response to grief that should serve as a model for us as we struggle and strive with difficulty, disappointment, and despair. Nehemiah, like Jesus, doesn't shrug off grief by trying to minimize it or falsely pretend that it's not that painful. Nor does Nehemiah wallow in his grief to the point of complete withdrawal and paralysis. Many of us know people who fall into both categories. But Nehemiah offers a different way, a truer and more authentic way of grappling with life's struggles. Take comfort O Christian - suffering and grief do not render your faith useless!

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Real State of our Union

By law, the President must provide his version of the State of our Union to the Congress and citizens. By custom, Presidents of both parties tend to tell us that the state of our union is strong, and our current president was no exception the other night. And to some degree, this assessment is true. Our citizens are still the most generous in the world by far. Our nation is doing more to combat disease and death in Africa than anyone else. Our citizens remain incredibly productive in order to maintain a standard of living and job creation that remains the envy of the world. American scientists are making fresh discoveries all the time, and our level of care for the sick remains unrivaled in the world. In these and many other ways, the state of our union is indeed strong.

But it is also true that the state of our union is on far shakier ground. Our nation is no longer united on much of anything, and the national fabric is in great danger of being severely torn. Bitterness and acidity have seized control of our politics. The 3 branches of government no longer work together for the common good, but actively try to undercut each other. Legislators fight with fellow legislators. Cabinet members sharply squabble with fellow Cabinet members. Higher courts routinely scold the rulings of lower courts.

It is common to blame politicians for operating in a detached fishbowl and accuse them of being out of touch. It has been routine to say that the severity of partisanship in DC does not accurately reflect the mood and comity of the country. But if this was ever true in the past, I have my doubts that it is true today. I happen to think that more and more, our politicians are accurately reflecting the increasing bitterness of citizens toward other citizens. During the 2004 campaign, John Edwards said that we increasingly have 'two Americas'. I disagree. I think there are many more Americas than that in the US. Americans of all stripes have very different ideas about who the good guys and bad guys are. Our lust to find villains and vilify them is not just a DC phenomenon. For some, the 'radical religious right' is the chief villain. For others, it is the 'godless liberals'. For some, the big villains are big oil or the 'greedy drug companies'. For others, it is the trial lawyers and 'Hollywood lefties'. I wonder how it feels to know that regardless of whether you're a preacher, a feminist, a lawyer, an actor, a businessman, a stay-at-home mom, a Caucasian, an African American, a young person, a retiree, or anything in between, somebody thinks you're the villain. The 'brother against brother' mantra of the Civil War has found its reality in today's national climate.

This phenomenon is a chicken-and-the-egg dilemma. Are the citizens following the lead of the politicians here, or is it the other way around? And since politicians are in fact citizens, and many citizens are politicians (albeit not vocationally), where does someone start on the loop in order to prescribe some remedy for our deteriorating national fabric? Our public discourse is not governed by thoughtful listening and respect of others, but by a WWE smackdown mentality that assumes that disagreement equals sworn enemy. I don't know if George W Bush really listens to those who disagree with him, and I'm very certain that many people who can't stand Bush long ago stopped listening thoughtfully to him. In some ways, it reminds me of how the Brits and their Royals often relate to each other.

There is no government program that can turn this tide. There is no piece of legislation that could be passed that can restore respect, dignity, and shared comity to our national purpose. The solution lies with the citizens of our union. As long as we substitute stereotypes and simplistic bullet-points for substantive, respectful, and thoughtful discourse, the state of our union will continue to deteriorate. Folks from all stripes hold many fellow citizens in disdain, and it shows in how we treat each other. The 24 hour press accentuates the partisanship, and before long, we as a nation can't have a civil discussion about much of anything. The press will never take responsibility for the mostly damaging role it has played in the cultural Balkanization of our country, so it is left to us to repair the damage.

I love America, but I'm not one who believes that America should be fought for at all costs. When America loses the ideals of its national fabric and purpose that longed made it a beacon of hope for millions around the world, America becomes unworthy of fighting for. There was once a time when people understood that in a free society, there will never be universal agreement about anything - not even close. It was with this understanding that people could disagree with each other and still consider each other as good Americans worthy of respect, loyalty, and dignified treatment. This has been lost, and we must get it back. The only way it's gonna happen is for us to take ownership over the role we have individually played in the coarsening of our culture - and repent. 'Love your neighbor' is a divine command that keeps civilization from unraveling into chaos. For us to merely parrot it does not give it power. We must live it tangibly and radically, regardless of who our neighbor is. To do anything less is to reduce the greatest commandment to the hollow rhetoric it has become in our culture.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Faith and Works According to John and Paul

Christians tend to get very imbalanced on the relationship between faith and works. This imbalance reflects itself in disagreements between Catholics and Protestants, and especially between conservative and liberal Christians. At least in the 20th century, it was too often the case that conservatives stessed radical individual faith while giving much less airtime to the role of works in the Christian life. Likewise, it was too often the case that liberals stressed good works while greatly deemphasizing the need for radical personal faith. Scripture offers little comfort to both positions, and this is certainly true in the writings of the Apostles John and Paul. For brevity's sake, this post will be limited to discussing faith and works in 1 John and Titus.

1 John offers the constant drumbeat of faith and works working together to demonstrate the power of salvation. Throughout 1 John, there is an emphasis on 'walking in the light' (1.6-7, 2.9-10), obeying God's commands (2.3-6, 3.22-24, 5.2-3), doing God's will (2.17, 5.14), doing what is right (2.29, 3.7, 3.10, 3.12), and tangibly caring for the brethren through good deeds (3.17-18, 4.20-21). The Apostle John clearly believes that the full measure of salvation is manifested in those whose lives give evidence that they are totally surrendered to Christ in deed. But John is not merely giving us a Kantian secular ethic to do good for goodness' sake. 1 John also has much to say about the necessity of faith in Christ as the Son of God who died for sinners. 1 John repeatedly emphasizes the need for belief in this Christ (1.2-3, 2.22-23, 3.23, 4.2-3, 4.14-15, 5.1, 5.6-13). For John, one cannot have works without faith, and one cannot have faith if he has no works to point to.

Paul's letter to Titus is very much of the same trajectory. Paul sees sound doctrine as a necessary means of fortifying faith (1.1-4, , 1.6, 1.9, 1.13, 2.2, 3.15). However, like John, Pauline faith is not an empty faith. In Titus especially, good living is presented as an apologetic for the truth of the faith and of Christ (ch. 2, 3.1, 3.8). Like John, Paul's words in Titus indicate that Christian conduct must rest on God's saving work in Christ. But in addition, as Reggie Kidd has eloquently pointed out, Paul's letter to Titus urges the believing community to demonstrate the deity of Christ by putting forward evidence that Christ really does change the people he has redeemed. Put simply, the people should reflect Christ's beneficence and noble deeds.

In both John and Paul, we must realize that their conception of belief and works is thoroughly intertwined. In both cases, theology is not just about operating in an abstract realm of ideas with no practical action. To the contrary, for both John and Paul, a people's true beliefs can be seen in how they live. Another way of saying this is to paraphrase Eph. 2.8-10 - we are not saved BY works, but we are saved FOR works. To minimize either faith or works is to set up shop squarely in the crosshairs of the apostles of Christ. We don't want to be there.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Wealth, Discipline and Godliness in 1 Timothy

While most quarters of NT scholarship resist the idea that the radical and urgent Apostle Paul of Galatians wrote the 'tame and institutional' Pastoral Epistles, I am unimpressed with the arguments made in support of this position (particularly when the main agenda fueling this view is the demotion of the Pastoral epistles in favor of the Acts of Paul & Thecla, which more align with critical predispositions). One of the exegetical reasons why I am unimpressed with Dibelius and company is that Paul's discussion of wealth in 1 Timothy is hardly supportive of the kind of bourgeois ethics that critics of Pauline authorship believe pervade this letter. To the contrary, while Dibelius and his spiritual children naively try to force a modern-day diamond-shaped sociology onto the first and second centuries, the Pastorals as a whole, and 1 Timothy in particular, are concerned with helping the socially superior members of the community better relate to the rest of that faith community. This is definitely the case when it comes to issues of wealth, and how Paul addresses it within the context of error in 1 Timothy.

In 1 Timothy 6, the opponents of Timothy in Ephesus subscribed to "false doctrines" that stand in opposition to the instruction of Christ. Specifically, it was believed that godliness should lead to financial gain, so that the pursuit of holiness was really the pursuit of earthly wealth, since it is said that the false teachers were eager for money. In addition, Timothy's opponents apparently reveled in whipping up dissension within the assembly through quarreling about words and obsessing about controversy. The result was "constant friction" and envy, among other things, within the congregation.

It isn't just that the false teachers believed financial gain should derive from godliness as purely a doctrinal matter. It is possible that they themselves may have profited from their teachings, or from their adherence to the Law (1:7), and believed that holiness would necessarily result in wealthy abundance. But 1Tim 6.9-10 show a downward progression emanating from the desire for the wrong thing (money). This leads to temptation that is indulged, which results in the plunging of men into ruin and destruction. Paul's exhortations to Timothy exalt characteristics that are the opposite of those of the false teachers.

In contrast, 1 Timothy 4 links godliness to discipline, training, labor, striving, diligence, and perseverance. Unlike 1 Timothy 6, where the false teachers wrongly link godliness to wealth, Paul makes a positive link between godliness and discipline in 1 Timothy 4. Paul compares physical training with spiritual training, believing that while physical training serves some good, spiritual training is more important because it contains benefits that will be realized in both the present and future age. Paul commends spiritual discipline to Timothy in order that he might be a powerful model and blessing to the congregation that he serves.

By comparison, the link made by the false teachers between godliness and financial gain is a false and destructive link in Paul's view. Whether it's an interest in financial gain, a desire to get rich, a love of money, or placing their hope in their wealth, such pursuits and attitudes are neither the mark nor the result of an authentic Christian experience. Paul commends contentment as the true way of gain, not wealth and riches. Paul exhorts Timothy to be rich in good deeds and generosity, not money or material wealth. In stark contrast to the love of money exhibited by Timothy's opponents, Timothy is told to be content in the simple necessities of food and clothing. Richness, for Paul, is not about how much you have, but how much you do for others and how much you edify yourself and others with the truth of Scripture. The arrogance of those who trust in their wealth is contrasted with the contentment that Timothy should find in trusting God to make daily provision for his needs. While wealth is uncertain and unstable, God's provision is certain and solid.

In our day of get-rich-quick schemes and the pursuit of wealth and all its trappings, 1 Timothy is hardly putting forth a bourgeois ethic of comfortable living as either the highest goal, or the logical result of effective ministry. The writer of 1 Timothy was hardly the institutional company man that Dibelius made him out to be. The Christian church has been repeatedly embarassed by health-wealth preachers who I doubt have ever preached a sermon out of 1 Timothy 6. But again, this is where having a high view of Scriptural inspiration becomes invaluable. It's not a fluke that a letter written 2,000 years ago would so eloquently speak to the modern day scourge of the prosperity gospel. As Christians, we must face the reality that we will never totally escape the painful question often voiced by unbelievers and even a lot of Christians that Christianity is a tough sell when Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, Paul Crouch, and Creflo Dollar are its celebrity salesmen. But we do have a response, not only from the whole of Scripture that speaks against the trappings of wealth, but from 1 Timothy in particular.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Beneficiaries of Salvation in Luke

My wife is beginning a small group study series on Luke, and this motivated me to get reeducated on the reasons why Luke is such a great Gospel. There are many things that could be discussed, but this post will be limited to Luke's ideas of who Christ's salvation is most directed towards. Who, according to Luke, are the primary objects of the Lord's salvation? In a word, 'outcasts'. Luke's Jesus blesses and welcomes the needy rather than those that society would expect He would call. Luke gives us a Jesus that ushers in a complete reversal of expectations in both his words and deeds. In Luke, God is not just sovereign and in control, but He is a God of great compassion and is ushering in a Kingdom of compassion for the marginalized…

1) Tax collectors and sinners (3:12, 5:27-31, 7:29-34, 15:1, 18:10-14, 19:1-10). Christ's sympathy toward the despised tax collectors, and their positive response to Christ, is emphasized more in Luke than anywhere else.

2) Women. Women hold a place of great prominence in Luke (1:5-7, 1:13, 1:24-62, 2:5-7, 2:16-19, 2:22-24, 2:27, 2:33-52, 4:25-26, 4:38-39, 7:11-17, 7:36-50, 8:1-3, 8:19-21, 8:40-56, 10:38-42, 11:27-28, 12:53, 13:10-17, 13:34, 15:8-10, 18:1-8, 20:27-38, 21:1-3, 23:27-31, 23:49, 23:55-56, 24:1-11). Luke emphasizes that women traveled with Christ and supported his ministry financially (8:1-3). This is unprecedented in Jewish society and is simply a radical statement about the inclusive nature of Christ's ministry. In Luke, women are repeatedly held up as models of piety and devotion (1:38, 1:42-45, 2:36-38, 21:1-3). In the Luke 7 account of the immoral woman, Jesus praises the woman and her act of piety while condemning the supposedly pious Simon the Pharisee.

3) The poor. Luke's emphasis on the poor is enormous (1:52-53, 3:10-14, 4:18, 6:20-23, 11:41, 12:13-34, 14:12-14, 14:21, 16:19-31). BTW, Luke continues this theme in Acts. Luke's version of the Beatitudes in Luke 6 emphasizes physical hunger and poverty rather than the spiritualized poverty stressed in Matthew 5. In addition to blessing the poor in the Beatitudes, Luke emphasizes a rather strong contrast between the proud foolishness of the rich versus the need of the poor. The uniquely Lukan parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 is particularly memorable, but this contrast is evident throughout this Gospel (1:52-53, 3:10-14, 11:41, 12:13-34, 18:18-25). Luke's point in stressing this contrast is very clear – the rich rely on themselves and don't think they need God, while the poor are exalted because they understand their need for deliverance from sin.

Those who appreciate their plight and the compassion of Christ find salvation. Those who trust in themselves or their riches/societal status have no use for Luke's Jesus, and are excluded from the salvation he brings. There is little doubt that Luke's message endures and is urgently relevant in today's culture.