About Me

Arborg, Manitoba, Canada
Married to the love of my life with whom I (and God - all three of us) have co-created three incredible sons. Interested in philosophy, theology, and how to live Truth. Love music but couldn't carry a tune to save my life.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Faithless Israel, Faithful God

Jeremiah 2-8

This morning we look at Jeremiah 2-8. This is a lengthy text, and we will be reading quite a bit of the text because we need to follow Jeremiah as he speaks to Judah. We will read sections of the text, and from time to time I will interrupt the reading to reflect on the history that Jeremiah’s words call to mind, or otherwise establish (suggest) a context for Jeremiah’s message.
In this text Yahweh is agonizing about the judgement that is about to fall on Judah. When we read these texts in isolation it can seem to us that God is pretty quick to judge. In this case I want to get a sense of the agonizing that Yahweh experiences, and the delays he engages, to give his children chance after chance to turn from idolatry, so that judgement need not fall. In the end, we know, judgement will come, but it is not for a lack of calling, cajoling, pleading, waiting, and warning. In the end Israel and Judah were judged because they chose their ways rather than Yahweh’s ways.

Jeremiah begins by recounting Israel’s early history.

2:2“‘I remember the devotion of your youth,
how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the wilderness,
through a land not sown.

These were the good ol’ days, the days when Israel was, if not passionately, at least somewhat eagerly, for a day or three, following Yahweh out of Egypt, and back to the Promised Land. Even then, Israel seldom managed more than a few days without grumbling and pining for the good ol’ days of captivity in Egypt, but at least Israel was following, albeit often reluctantly, following Yahweh to the Promised Land.
Even then, however, the good times did not last:

2:5“What fault did your ancestors find in me,
that they strayed so far from me?
They followed worthless idols
and became worthless themselves.
6 They did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord,
who brought us up out of Egypt
and led us through the barren wilderness,
through a land of deserts and ravines,
a land of drought and utter darkness,
a land where no one travels and no one lives?’

Even before they cleared the borders of Egypt the fathers were whining about perishing at Pharoah’s hand, when they were caught between his armies and the Red Sea. Then Yahweh saved them, brought them safely through the Red Sea while Pharoah and his armies perished, and on the other side the Israelites sang the song of Moses:

Ex 15:1“I will sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.
2“The Lord is my strength and my defense[a];
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.

Three days later, at Marah, they were again complaining bitterly “What shall we drink?” Three days after enough water to drown Pharoah’s armies they were worried about what to drink, because the water was bitter. Then Moses threw a piece of wood into the water, and the water became fit to drink.
Yahweh kept on leading his people, grateful or otherwise, to the Promised Land. Then, on the threshold of the Land flowing with milk and honey, they decided it wasn’t worth it, the inhabitants of the land were too big for them, and so they spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness, and it was their children who entered the Promised Land.

7 I brought you into a fertile land
to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
and made my inheritance detestable.
8 The priests did not ask,
‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who deal with the law did not know me;
the leaders rebelled against me.
The prophets prophesied by Baal,
following worthless idols.

Unfortunately even in the Land their faithfulness did not last. They erected altars to Baal and followed other gods. It was all but unheard of for nations to change allegiance to other gods, but Israel did it time and again.

2:11Has a nation ever changed its gods?
(Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their glorious God
for worthless idols.
12 Be appalled at this, you heavens,
and shudder with great horror,”
declares the Lord.
13 “My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Israel had privileged access to the spring of living water, but she chose to dig her own cisterns, cisterns that proved to be broken, prone to profuse leakage, and unable to hold water. There was -and is- no God but Yahweh, and yet Israel turned away from the Living God to follow after idols.

Jeremiah’s job was to remind Judah of her history, and their future, and above all, remind them of their God, who had been spurned so many times, but who was still calling for them, waiting for them, yearning for them to return to him. In spite of all the cycles of betrayal and return that Israel had already foisted on Yahweh, still he waited, still he called, still he stood, with arms wide open, ready at a moment’s notice, to welcome his children back to his bosom, if only they would, but rather than pursuing Yahweh, Israel (and now Judah) pursued betrayal, unfaithfulness, and other gods, who were no gods.

2:20“Long ago you broke off your yoke
and tore off your bonds;
you said, ‘I will not serve you!’
Indeed, on every high hill
and under every spreading tree
you lay down as a prostitute.
21 I had planted you like a choice vine
of sound and reliable stock.
How then did you turn against me
into a corrupt, wild vine?
22 Although you wash yourself with soap
and use an abundance of cleansing powder,
the stain of your guilt is still before me,”
declares the Sovereign Lord.
23 “How can you say, ‘I am not defiled;
I have not run after the Baals’?
See how you behaved in the valley;
consider what you have done.
You are a swift she-camel
running here and there,
24 a wild donkey accustomed to the desert,
sniffing the wind in her craving—
in her heat who can restrain her?
Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves;
at mating time they will find her.
25 Do not run until your feet are bare
and your throat is dry.
But you said, ‘It’s no use!
I love foreign gods,
and I must go after them.’

The passion Israel lacked for Yahweh she did not lack for gods who were no gods, but these gods never came through for Israel. Then, when Israel was in real trouble, then she came running back to Yahweh for help, but as soon as the trouble was over, she went back to chasing after idols.

2:27 They say to wood, ‘You are my father,’
and to stone, ‘You gave me birth.’
They have turned their backs to me
and not their faces;
yet when they are in trouble, they say,
‘Come and save us!’
28 Where then are the gods you made for yourselves?
Let them come if they can save you
when you are in trouble!
For you, Judah, have as many gods
as you have towns.

These charades had been going on now for about 800 years (exodus to Jeremiah), and Yahweh wanted a change. He had patiently waited for many lifetimes, always welcomed his children when they returned, always watched with a pained heart when they wandered, but never repulsed them when they came back, no matter how many other gods they had given their best between times of bedraggled return. What to do? Yahweh wanted lasting reconciliation. He so powerfully desired to redeem his people for himself, he was willing to do whatever it took to welcome them back one last time for good, but what would it take? What would it take? How much more could he take?

3:1 “If a man divorces his wife
and she leaves him and marries another man,
should he return to her again?
Would not the land be completely defiled?
But you have lived as a prostitute with many lovers—
would you now return to me?”
declares the Lord.

Could Yahweh take Israel back after all the betrayal and unfaithfulness and adultery? Should Yahweh take back such an unfaithful people? Was it not high time for them to learn their lesson of the consequences of rebellion? Did not Yahweh owe them a dose of reality after all the generations of chasing other gods? Should he be gracious again? Could he? Could he not?

3:12“‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord,
‘I will frown on you no longer,
for I am faithful,’ declares the Lord,
‘I will not be angry forever.
13 Only acknowledge your guilt—
you have rebelled against the Lord your God,
you have scattered your favors to foreign gods
under every spreading tree,
and have not obeyed me,’”
declares the Lord.
14 “Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband.”

19 “I myself said,
“‘How gladly would I treat you like my children
and give you a pleasant land,
the most beautiful inheritance of any nation.’
I thought you would call me ‘Father’
and not turn away from following me.
20 But like a woman unfaithful to her husband,
so you, Israel, have been unfaithful to me,”
declares the Lord.
21 A cry is heard on the barren heights,
the weeping and pleading of the people of Israel,
because they have perverted their ways
and have forgotten the Lord their God.
22 “Return, faithless people;
I will cure you of backsliding.”

Right and fair and just don’t matter. All that matters is God’s desire for his people. Let me rephrase that: Right and fair and just matter, but not as much as God’s desire matters. Right and fair and just must all bow to God’s sovereign mercy. God had said to Moses many generations earlier (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15):

“I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”

Did Israel deserve another chance? Hardly. Would God be justified in giving up with them and starting over as he had already proposed to do once, when Moses talked him out of it? Most assuredly so, but now, with no Moses to stand in his way, Yahweh still prefers to call again, because God’s justice is not tempered with mercy. Rather, mercy is an integral component in God’s justice. It is not as though God is torn and bifurcated by conflicting desires that drag him in opposite directions. God is love, and God is just, and God is merciful, and so God does as God is, because he answers to no one and no thing. And so if judgement is what it takes to bring his children back, then judge he will, because God’s mercy includes judgment if that is what it takes to call his children back to him, and warnings of judgement are all but ubiquitous in the prophet’s message.

4:12 “Now I pronounce my judgments against them.”
16 “Tell this to the nations,
proclaim concerning Jerusalem:
‘A besieging army is coming from a distant land,
raising a war cry against the cities of Judah.
17 They surround her like men guarding a field,
because she has rebelled against me,’”
declares the Lord.
18 “Your own conduct and actions
have brought this on you.
This is your punishment.
How bitter it is!
How it pierces to the heart!”

22 “My people are fools;
they do not know me.
They are senseless children;
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil;
they know not how to do good.”
23 I looked at the earth,
and it was formless and empty;
and at the heavens,
and their light was gone.
24 I looked at the mountains,
and they were quaking;
all the hills were swaying.
25 I looked, and there were no people;
every bird in the sky had flown away.
26 I looked, and the fruitful land was a desert;
all its towns lay in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

And so judgement must come, and it will come. It will come suddenly and harshly, and terribly, but not without mercy. Even when it seems that nothing will turn Israel from her idolatry, still God will not utterly destroy that sinful nation. Even when judgement falls as it must, it will fall with mercy, and with hope for redemption.

27 This is what the Lord says:

“The whole land will be ruined,
though I will not destroy it completely.
28 Therefore the earth will mourn
and the heavens above grow dark,
because I have spoken and will not relent,
I have decided and will not turn back.”
29 At the sound of horsemen and archers
every town takes to flight.
Some go into the thickets;
some climb up among the rocks.
All the towns are deserted;
no one lives in them.

Even as judgement falls, Yahweh is pleading with Israel to take some thought for what she is doing, for the harm she is bringing to herself, for the vanity of her ways that may seem expedient for the moment, but ways that can only exacerbate her already dire situation.

30 What are you doing, you devastated one?
Why dress yourself in scarlet
and put on jewels of gold?
Why highlight your eyes with makeup?
You adorn yourself in vain.
Your lovers despise you;
they want to kill you.
31 I hear a cry as of a woman in labor,
a groan as of one bearing her first child—
the cry of Daughter Zion gasping for breath,
stretching out her hands and saying,
“Alas! I am fainting;
my life is given over to murderers.”

Back in Abraham’s time Sodom and Gomorrah could have been saved for just 10 righteous people. Now God is even more eager to save.

5:1“Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem,
look around and consider,
search through her squares.
If you can find but one person
who deals honestly and seeks the truth,
I will forgive this city.

Even when judgement falls, it will not be utter destruction.

10 “Go through her vineyards and ravage them,
but do not destroy them completely.

18 “Yet even in those days,” declares the Lord, “I will not destroy you completely.”

And again, the warning of judgement to come is interrupted by a reminder that Yahweh had showed them which way to take, but they refused.

6: 16 This is what the Lord says:
“Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.
But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
17 I appointed watchmen over you and said,
‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’
But you said, ‘We will not listen.’
18 Therefore hear, you nations;
you who are witnesses,
observe what will happen to them.

And so judgement comes as the fruit of their choices.

19 “Hear, you earth:
I am bringing disaster on this people,
the fruit of their schemes,
because they have not listened to my words
and have rejected my law.”

And the judgement comes as obstacles to make their way hard, because the way they choose is a way that leads to destruction, and a good loving God cannot endlessly enable that trajectory. Not even a good and loving God, but especially good and loving God, must eventually step aside and allow the consequences of sin to bear the fruit of judgement.

21 Therefore this is what the Lord says:
“I will put obstacles before this people.
Parents and children alike will stumble over them;
neighbors and friends will perish.”

But the purpose of judgement is always correction and refinement and restoration.

27 “I have made you a tester of metals
and my people the ore,
that you may observe
and test their ways.
28 They are all hardened rebels,
going about to slander.
They are bronze and iron;
they all act corruptly.
29 The bellows blow fiercely
to burn away the lead with fire,
but the refining goes on in vain;
the wicked are not purged out.
30 They are called rejected silver,
because the Lord has rejected them.”

Again and again, interspersed with the warnings of judgement, are interludes of pleading again for Judah to return to her God.

7:2 Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4 Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” 5 If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6 if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7 then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8 But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

Yahweh reminds Israel that he has given them instructions, he showed them the paths of life, and instructed them in how they should walk, and he has sent judges, and prophets to remind them of the right ways, and they had already experienced interludes of judgement and correction, and yet they kept turning away. Time and again they refused to listen and live.

21 “‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! 22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, 23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. 24 But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward. 25 From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. 26 But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors.’

This particular section of Jeremiah does not end on a hopeful tone:

8: 3 Wherever I banish them, all the survivors of this evil nation will prefer death to life, declares the Lord Almighty.’

Judgement will lay heavy on the people, but judgement is not inevitable. The passages that speak in those tones come across as Yahweh urging himself to hold the course, to allow his children to bear the consequences of their choices, and not to relent too easily and again allow them the terrible delusion that bad choices do not carry commensurate consequences. Yahweh has been patient with his children for 1600 years (Abraham to Jeremiah), but the time for judgement has come. Nevertheless, even now it is clear that judgement comes not as vindictive retribution, but as redemptive action that hopes for restoration. As we read further Jeremiah contains incredible passages of hope for a future bright with promise.
For now, however, it is time for judgement and as history unfolds, Yahweh’s pleadings for Israel to turn are again unheeded and terrible judgement falls, clearly against Yahweh’s fondest hopes and deepest desires. However, it is a measure of Yahweh’s mercy that restorative judgement comes and Israel does finally learn the folly of her idolatry. This is not to say that all is well after this lesson is learned, because then there are more lessons to be learned. Though Israel never again fell into the same kind of idolatry of worshipping the gods of the nations around her, she still did not recognize her God when he took on flesh.
But who would? Who could??? Yahweh becomes flesh to bear in his own body the judgement of his childrens’ sins? Our sins? That is preposterous! It is unbelievable!! And yet... And yet… this is the preposterous story that is told by Christian theology – that God himself suffers the worst of our judgement with us and for us, so that even while we suffer, we never suffer alone, and in our suffering we reap the benefits of God suffering for us, and we suffer in hope. But Yahweh, who judges, does not simply pass judgement as one would expect a sovereign deity to do. When Yahweh finally allows judgement to come, he lays aside his royalty, he takes on flesh, and serves not only as the Judge, but also as the judged, and he himself participates in the judgement for sin. And so, always we have hope, along with Israel, because of Christ.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Hobby Farmer

I visited this hobby farmer yesterday. He had these piglets. They are not very big now, but cute, and they came when he called. Crazy farmer, he is. It was a blast to see his place.

He gets on the fence and calls his pigs, and I’m thinking to myself (didn’t say anything, of course) “The bloke’s a wee bit daft!! Pigs don’t come when you call ‘em. Dogs maybe, and horses, maybe, but pigs? Nah.” Then wouldn’t you know it, before long there is this black shape on the ground some distance away, undulating in our direction. And then there is this monster big thing that is unmistakably a pig, running across the horizon, obviously not coming our way. Turns out the black shape is a horde of piglets coming from the barn, running all hell bent for leather in a mad dash to be the first to get to the farmer. And the big sow that was obviously not coming our way? Just running alongside a fence to find its way around it, and it's heading this way too! Well I never! And in no time he is surrounded by piglets and the monster, all scrabbling madly to be closest to him. And all the while, he is feeding them carrots and talking coolly about how they are all destined for the slaughter. Except the mother. She needs to make more bacon yet.

Then later, when he went to call his chickens, my incredulity was a little more tempered, but I was still thinking “No chicken ever has had sufficient brain power to respond to a farmer calling them”, but I was wrong. Again. They all came, clucking and chortling, to see what the farmer had for them, and just a touch was fine. No food required, they just liked the man. I figured (but didn’t say nuthin’ again) somebody ought to explain to these poor biddies that the farmer just wants their unborn babies. That appreciation may be mutual, but the affection ain’t.

Then he had Dexter cows, and miniature horses, including one itty bitty miniature horse born just last Saturday. He had no idea the mare was even pregnant. Just got lucky. And a dog, and cats. Apparently one of the cats they affectionately called their teenage cat – all respectful and cooperative, I assumed.

Quite the experience, it was.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Reflections on Isaiah 6

Isaiah prophesied in the mid to late 8th century BC, beginning before the northern tribes of Israel were carried away by Assyria 722BC. Isaiah 6 is the story of his call to Yahweh's service. Israel has already had a long and checkered past in their relationship with Yahweh, who has at this time been relentlessly pursuing his children for thousands of years, with often dismal results. The call of Isaiah is another in a long series of attempts to get Israel's attention, to persuade them to listen to his call, to catch a glimpse of Yahweh's vision for his people, to turn and be healed.

But let's review a little more history.
The story of Israel begins with the story of Creation and the Garden of Eden. In the beginning God created, and after he had made all things beautiful he placed the man and the woman in the Garden to care for it, and they would enjoy each others' company in the cool of the day. Far too soon, however, this idyl was interrupted by human intransigence. When God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden he gave them all but one of the plants for food: Gen 2:16f “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil...” From which tree did they eat? And thus was set the course of human ingenuity for the rest of history – Tell them what not to do, and that is the very thing they will do.

For their own good, humans are expelled from Eden before they can eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in their sinful brokenness. A few generations later human wickedness threatens the entire species with extinction.
Gen 6 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.
This is the first recorded instance of human activity fomenting climate change that resulted in the destruction of the planet.

Years later God calls out an individual whom he promises to bless, and through whom he will bless all peoples of the earth. When Abraham and Sara run out of patience waiting for the fulfilment of the promise of many descendants they resort to what was a common and entirely acceptable alternative of that culture and time. Sara offers her servant to Abraham so he can have children with Hagar. This plan works and Ishmael is born, but then Sara is jealous and Abraham gives her carte blanche to do as she sees fit. The end result of what Sara “sees fit” drives Hagar with Ishmael into the wilderness, and they find themselves only a few breaths from death. An angel comes to their rescue and repeats Yahweh's promise of descendants too numerous to count, in this case the promise is very explicitly applied to Ishmael (Gen 16:10 “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”) Hagar and Ishmael return to Abraham and Sara. Ishmael is circumcised with Abraham as a sign of God's covenant with Abraham, but in the end Sara's jealousy wins out and Abraham sends his firstborn son away so that Isaac will not have to share his inheritance with Ishmael. Abraham has a total of eight sons, a good start for this huge family that he has been promised, but all save one are sent away (Gen 25). The only son who is not sent away comes within a scant whisker of being slaughtered by his own father.

The pattern you should be discerning in these stories is that people are amazingly adept and persistent in “hearing” God's words, and liking his promises, then running hell-bent for leather in the other direction. Adam and Eve eat from the one tree they are told not to eat. Every inclination of the human heart was seen to be only evil all the time. Abraham may have been quite taken by God's promise to bless him, and to bless all peoples through him, but his actions seem all but orchestrated towards the sabotage of God's intentions for him. He “listens” but runs the other way.

This pattern continues. When Abraham is shown the land promised to him he sets up a tent (showing spectacularly bad judgement for one who was to inhabit the land permanently) and then breaks camp and travels on to Egypt. He later returns to the Promised Land, but his descendants soon return to Egypt, and not even abject slavery inspires them to return to their Promised Land. After 400 years of slavery Yahweh still has to drag them, kicking and screaming, back to the Promised Land.

When they get there they are initially led by judges whose role is to lead them in Yahweh's ways. The people prosper when they follow godly judges, but repeatedly fall into idolatry between periods of good leadership. Eventually they come to Samuel, who will be their last judge, and they ask for a king. They don't want to just follow Yahweh, their God who is unlike any other, they want a king, like everybody else. Yahweh recognizes that this is not a rejection of Samuel, their judge; this is nothing less than a rejection of the God who called Abraham out of Haran, and Israel out of Egypt.

The first king starts well but quickly goes bad. David, possibly the bright star in terms of Israel's kings, is not allowed to build the Temple for Yahweh because his hands are too bloody, and that they most emphatically are. David's son Solomon is touted as the wisest man who ever lived, but by the end of his reign he is leading Israel into idolatry. The kingdom promised to David is divided in his grandsons' day. The ensuing generations of kings are a litany of wickedness, idolatry, and debauchery, with only a few rare flashes of hope as a handful of kings do lead Israel in a return to Yahweh. God keeps calling, pleading, and cajoling, but the people for the most part keep running the other way.

By the time Isaiah comes on the scene Yahweh has been dealing with these recalcitrant children for over a thousand years. Those of you who have been tempted to think your offspring's teenage years an interminable interim, you ain't seen nuthin' yet! Yahweh has been around the block and back with these guys, and he has developed a pretty good sense of what can be expected, but ... he hasn't given up on them yet. Now he calls Isaiah, and sends him to call again.

All of the prophets are reiterations and retakes of what Yahweh originally told the Israelites when he first called them out of Egypt. Leviticus 26 promises rewards for obedience, and punishments for disobedience. The punishment discourse is repeatedly interrupted by phrases like ''But if you will not listen to me and obey, then... If after all this you will not listen to me, then... If you remain hostile to me and refuse to listen to me, then... If in spite of these things you do not accept my correction but continue to be hostile toward me...''

Yahweh is pleading with his children to turn and be healed, please come back so I can relent from punishing. And at the end, when the children refuse to listen, and are sent into exile, even then Lev 26:40 “‘...if they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors —their unfaithfulness and their hostility toward me, 41 which made me hostile toward them so that I sent them into the land of their enemies—then when their uncircumcised hearts are humbled and they pay for their sin, 42 I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. 43 For the land will be deserted by them and will enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them. They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees. 44 Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the Lord their God. 45 But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the Lord.’”

Yahweh will never forget his children Is 49:15f
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.
Punishment is always for the purpose of restoration, and Yahweh longs to gather his children, even more than a mother longs to nurture her children. (repeat) Yahweh longs to gather his children, even more than a mother longs to nurture her children.

Isaiah's call is another step in the same direction. Yahweh is still calling, and he is calling Isaiah to call out to Israel. The text of Isaiah to this point is Yahweh recalling his history with Israel, rearing children that rebelled. There is a plea to ''Come now and let us reason together... If you are willing you will eat of the best of the land.''

Then we have Isaiah's call in chapter 6. After the call and Isaiah's response ''Here am I. Send me.'' Yahweh's words:
9 He said, “Go and tell this people:

“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.[a]
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

Even in the context of what we have seen in history to this point it is clear that these words do not reflect the modus operandi of the Creator. With our benefit of additional millenia of seeing God at work in his world and among his people, we know this is not a summary of his agenda. Much more, after seeing Yahweh stretch out his hands and die for love of his people, we know with an unshakeable confidence that these words are descriptive, not prescriptive. They reflect the pattern of human response to God since the Garden of Eden. When people hear God, they generally turn and run the other way. That's not what God wants. That's what breaks the heart of God, and yet he sees it happen time after time, again and again. And yet always he hopes ''Surely, this time it will be different. I will send Isaiah to call them again. Maybe this time they will listen. Maybe this time, instead of running the other way, maybe – just maybe – this time they will really hear and come to me.'' But time and time again, people choose not to obey, but turn away, and their hearts are hardened.

Isaiah is not entirely uninformed about Israel's history, so he asks a very prudent question: “For how long, O Lord?” Isaiah knows his people, so he wants to know how long he will be expected to pursue this mission impossible.

Yahweh's response is both debilitatingly discouraging, and yet profoundly hopeful:
“Until the cities lie ruined
and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted
and the fields ruined and ravaged,
until the Lord has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken.
And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”

You keep going, Yahweh says, until the bitter end. You keep calling until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant. You keep calling until there is no one left to hear, and no one left to even ignore your message. You keep calling, because I am Yahweh, and I never give up.

When Isaiah begins his ministry the Northern Kingdom, the ten tribes to the north of Judah, are not far from their time of exile. Isaiah begins his ministry about 740BC, and the northern ten tribes are carried away in 722BC. That leaves about a tenth of Israel, one lonely tribe of Judah, in the land, but about 100 years later (606BC and 586BC), they too are taken into Babylon, and nothing is left of the once glorious kingdom of Israel. The throne of David and Solomon are just fading memories.

And yet. And yet ... “as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
Even when it's all over, when the fat lady has sung, the lights have gone out, and everybody including Elvis has left the building, it's not all done. When all that is left is dead stumps, God still has a plan. God is in the business of redeeming hopeless situations, a Master at raising life out of death. When God's children insist on running the other way every time he calls, he hurts, but does not likewise turn away. He calls, and calls again, and Isaiah is the story of Yahweh calling. Our lives today are another instance of Yahweh calling. Even if a mother forgets her nursing baby, Yahweh will not forget his children. He has engraved us in the palms of his hands.

So let us hear, and pray for understanding.
Let us see, and pray for vision.
Let us turn, and obey, to be healed.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Reading the Bible After Christendom

The following book review was written for The Messenger. Much more could be said about the book, but the word limit for book reviews in this publication is 250 words.

Lloyd Pietersen, Reading the Bible After Christendom (Harrisonburg, VA/Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2012

There is much lament over the diminished profile of the church in society. Pietersen is keenly aware of this reality yet remains optimistic about the possibility of significant positive benefit arising from a reading of scripture that authentically honours scripture, even when society appears to have rejected it.
Pietersen promotes a “reading from the margins” which reflects the situation and values of the early Anabaptist movement. While it may be true that the church no longer carries the influence that it has in times past, it does not follow that the truth of scripture can no longer effect positive change in people and society. Pietersen believes that this can happen when scripture is read from a place of weakness on the margins, yet with a strong voice of deep conviction that issues a clear challenge to the injustices perpetrated by a society that has lost its moorings.
Pietersen reviews how scripture has been read throughout church history, notes imbalances that were fostered by the church's prominence and authority, and highlights key characteristics of an Anabaptist reading. He rightly cites the biblical indication that Jesus Christ is the clearest revelation of God as the prime concern of an Anabaptist hermeneutic, and then does a high level flyover of the entire Bible that models this consideration. Unfortunately, in spite of the solid merit of this reading, the exegetical work lies beyond the scope of this book.
Reading the Bible After Christendom presents a solidly Christocentric call, and a roadmap, for a return to biblical truth.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Greg Boyd on Mennonite theology

Hi, Greg Boy's reflection on the place of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology within the current (in 2008) context of religion in our world is an intriguing read. Greg was an atheist before coming to faith as a student at Yale. Please keep in mind that the theology Boyd appreciates is not reflected in all streams of Mennonite thought, nor is it restricted to those who identify themselves as Mennonite. Boyd lists several movements (eg., the emergent conversation, which was stirring up substantial controversy at the time, I think precisely because it was the sort of prophetic voice of challenge to the evangelical community that Boyd portrays as characteristic of Mennonite theology) that share some of the values of Mennonite thought that he appreciates. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Scripture reading collage for my mom's funeral

My dear mother passed away on her 87th birthday, January 4, 2012. The scripture collage below was read at her funeral.
Go with God, mother. Love you so much! Miss you so much. Rest in peace. Till we meet again.

Scripture reading collage
Job 19:1, 25-27
Job answered “I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!
Lamentations 3:17-26
I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is.
So I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the LORD.
I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
Therefore I will wait for him.”
The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.
Isaiah 25:6-8b
... the LORD Almighty will prepare
a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
the best of meats and the finest of wines.
... he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces;
Isaiah 26:19
your dead will live, LORD;
their bodies will rise—
let those who dwell in the dust
wake up and shout for joy—
your dew is like the dew of the morning;
the earth will give birth to her dead.
1 Corinthians 15:53-55, 57
For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
... thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Revelation 21:1-5a
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
Song of Songs 2:10b-13
“Arise, my beloved,
my beautiful one, come with me.
See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.
The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my beloved;
my beautiful one, come with me.”