Hearing Jesus in the prophetic key

It sometimes feels to me as if we have spiritual amnesia. We have forgotten what we had once hoped, longed, and prayed for.

I was thinking this as I was reading the first chapter of Mark tonight. In that beautifully tight opening scene of Jesus’ ministry, we are cued in to the great hope of Israel that is fulfilled in Jesus. Mark points us to Isaiah and Malachi. These are the voices that prepare us for the coming of John and Jesus.

These are voices preparing us for the day of the Lord.

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 4:1-3)

The prophets promised a day of God’s justice for all the earth, a day when the wicked would be thrown down and the righteous raised up.

That is the hope that the disciples held in their hearts in Acts 1. Some of them had heard Jesus preaching of the coming kingdom from the first days. Now? Is now the time?

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

The words of Malachi and Isaiah and the other great prophets must have been ringing in their ears as they pressed the Lord with this question. They had such hope that evil would not prosper.

I wonder if we dare to hope as much.

We have no shortage of evil around us. The prophets name names for us:

“So I will come  to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. (Malachi 3:5)

Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land. (Isaiah 5:8)

Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine. They have harps and lyres at their banquets, pipes and timbrels and wine, but they have no regard for the deeds of the LORD, no respect for the work of his hands.(Isaiah 5:11-12)

Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit and wickedness as with cart ropes, (Isaiah 5:18)

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. (Isaiah 5:20)

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. (Isaiah 5:21)

Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent. (Isaiah 5:22-23)

I could go on and on.

The promise of the day of the Lord’s coming is the promise of the day when all these wicked ones are punished. It is the promise of a day when accounts are settled and the justice of God repays the wicked for their evil ways.

I have to be completely honest here.

I don’t know how many middle class and upper middle class American Christians have that same hope. It does not seem like many do. What we seem to want more than anything is for God to help us through our family problems and to give us a sense of meaning in a world that often seems empty of meaning. We want something that will keep us from going hysterical when the cancer diagnosis comes in or the stock market turns south. We want God to tell us its okay to enjoy sex and drive sports cars.

But I’m not at all convinced that is what Isaiah and Malachi had in mind.

A few days ago, I argued that the church’s purpose is to bear witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth. If we would do that, we must do so in light of the prophets, who also bore witness to Jesus.

If we would speak of Jesus rightly, we have to learn how to speak the same language of those prophets.

How do we tolerate Marley’s ghost?

This is the season in which millions of people will watch with joy some version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

It is interesting to me that we can watch this story and approve of its viewing in a world in which any talk of judgment is labeled as destructive to the mission of the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The central arc of this story is a redemption story driven home by the horrible fate awaiting Ebeneezer Scrooge if he does not repent. Granted, an eternity walking the Earth as a ghost burdened by heavy chain is not hell fire, but can there be any doubt that Scrooge’s reform is set in motion by the prospect of the wrath to come?

It strikes me as a deeply Christian parable. But make no mistake, it is a story that stands in deep judgment of Ebeneezer Scrooge and flinches not an inch at the punishment his heart’s unholiness deserves.

How can we reckon this with the popular response to judgment?

In our creed we say Jesus will judge the living and the dead. The Bible certainly says the same thing.

Although some people have popularized the idea that their is no judgment, I cannot agree with such ideas, no matter how appealing. I can’t agree because such a sentiment makes void so much of scripture and church teaching. It also seriously undermines the claim that God is just and faithful, a keeper of promises. The notion that there is no punishment for the wicked strikes me as a hope that only the comfortable hold dear.

The oppressed pray for justice. The oppressors and their anesthetized allies plead for a “reasonable” god, who does not hear the cries arising from Egypt and Babylon.

Isn’t Marley’s ghost nothing more than the convicting spirit of the Holy Ghost? Why do we reject conviction in the church but enjoy it on our television and computer screens?

Are we being Ahab?

Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’ “One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’ (1 Kings 22:19-21, NIV)

I’m always intrigued by how God does things in the prophetic books.

Here, we find YHWH seated in the throne room surrounded by the throngs of heaven and looking for one of them to come up with a plan that will get the king of Israel to enter in a war that will lead to his death. It raises interesting questions for me. The first being, why doesn’t God just strike Ahab down?

Equally interesting to me is that God sends the spirit to deceive the prophets of Israel, but when Micaiah inquires of the Lord, the truth is revealed. God who had a spirit put lies into the mouths of the 400 prophets, would not lie when Micaiah sought out the Lord.

Ahab and Jehoshaphat are aware of the unreliability of the 400 because they seek out Micaiah after hearing the rousing encouragement to go to war with Aram, which would breach a three-year peace. Is it that the 400 are the court-appointed prophets of the king, yes men who exist to approve what the king wants? Are they the successors to the 400 who Elijah faced down in his earlier conflict with Ahab? Such men are useful to a king, but no help when things really matter and truth is required.

The exchange between Ahab and Jehoshaphat before Micaiah is brought forward may shed some light for us. Ahab said he did not want to bring in Micaiah because he only says bad things and never good. Jehoshaphat admonishes Ahab for that attitude, and yet Jehoshaphat does end up going to war with Ahab, even trying to protect his fellow king by trading clothing with him.

It is an interesting and rich story.

It leaves me wondering where the church — specifically the piece of it in which I reside — is seeking to inquire of the Lord and where we are listening to the voices of the prophets that we put in place to tell us what we want to hear. Who are the 400 and who is Micaiah?

Or, as Jesus is our prophet, are we listening carefully to him or turning our backs when he says bad things about us that we do not wish to hear. Are we being Ahab all over again?

I am a goat

 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matthew 25:31-33, NIV)

In a conversation over on Morgan Guyton’s blog, he asked me whether I ever felt as if I deserve eternal torment.

It was a good question. Like all good questions, it brought something from my own life into clearer focus. It pointed out to me that I analyze the situation from the other side. I don’t start with the assumption that I deserve paradise and God must prove the case if he would take it from me. I don’t put God in the dock. Continue reading

The eternal damnation of Kirk Douglas

In Harm’s Way is an old movie, but an interesting one to reflect upon from a pastoral point-of-view. In the movie, Paul Eddington, played by Kirk Douglas, is a skilled naval officer with deep flaws. He drinks too much and has a volcanic temper. Near the end of the movie he rapes a young nurse. When the woman commits suicide, he runs off on a suicide mission of his own that secure vital information for the American forces.

He is part hero, part villain, although the movie clearly gives him respect for the qualities that make him useful in war.

I’m sure most people don’t ask this question, but I found myself wondering about the eternal fate of the Eddington character. Of course, he is fictional, so this is hypothetical. And, of course, were he not fictional, it is not my job to judge the living and the dead. That job is taken already. And yet, I was musing about this.

Eddington’s rape of the nurse surely is not outweighed by his other good qualities.

At the resurrection, when the sea gives up its dead, and Paul Eddington stands before the throne, do his rape of that girl and other sins outweigh whatever good qualities and virtues we might say he had? Does he partake of the life in the heavenly city or is he cast into the lake of fire?

I can hear multiple arguments.

If we have a high view of holiness, then it is hard to imagine any option other than the lake of fire. Other than a worldly sense of honor and loyalty, we see little in his character that sounds like Jesus. Even his self-sacrifice was fleeing the consequences and shame of his crime.

But then I think of Abraham haggling with Yahweh over Sodom and Gomorrah. For the sake of even a handful of righteous people, won’t you spare the city, Abraham asks. And God agrees. For the sake of what is good in Paul Eddington, will God spare the man whose evil is plain to see?

It is enough to make me sympathetic to the Roman Catholic creation of purgatory and Rob Bell’s recoiling over the notion of eternal torment for temporal sins. Given a choice between heaven and hell, I’m not sure where to put Eddington for eternity. I suppose that is why I do not have the job of deciding such things.

Do I make broad what is narrow?

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NIV)

These words were brought to mind recently listen to someone opine about the love of God. The gist of the argument this person was making was that if God loves us, he would never hold against us such minor things as the kinds of sins most of us do. It would really be unfair and disproportionate to leave in the power of the devil those who do not conform — or aspire to conform — to a high standard of holiness.

And as pleasing as this sounds to my ears, I cannot avoid thinking of Scripture passages that appear to say the very opposite. The above from the Sermon on the Mount stands out the most clearly to me.

The biblical witness appears to describe a black and white choice. With apologies to Adam Hamilton, the Scripture does not appear to see much gray. There is a way of life and there is a way of death.

In his sermon on the two verses at the top of this post, John Wesley pointed out just how broad the way of death is:

For sin is the gate of hell, and wickedness the way to destruction. And how wide a gate is that of sin! How broad is the way of wickedness! The “commandment” of God “is exceeding broad;” as extending not only to all our actions, but to every word which goeth out of our lips, yea, every thought that rises in our heart. And sin is equally broad with the commandment, seeing any breach of the commandment is sin. Yea, rather, it is a thousand times broader; since there is only one way of keeping the commandment; for we do not properly keep it, unless both the thing done, the manner of doing it, and all the other circumstances, are right: But there are a thousand ways of breaking every commandment; so that this gate is wide indeed.

Now we recoil at this description of God and our status before him. I have long lost count of the number of people who have told me that talking about sin with people is the surest way to turn them away from God. I have to admit that all the talk and my own natural inclination to get along with people and not offend has kept me from preaching about the topic nearly as much as John Wesley would have me do it.

In the end, though, my people pleasing side just cannot shut up the voice of Scripture. Both testaments speak of the holiness of God in very clear terms. Neither describes a large mushy gray area between the way of life and the way of death, the holy and the unholy, the righteous and the wicked. As much as we Wesleyans like to talk about both/and, the Scripture trades in a lot of either/or talk about these issues.

So, then, how can I be a faithful preacher and proclaimer of Scripture and not draw attention to passages such as Matthew 7:13-14 and the other places where Scripture teaches us to mind where we tread?