For He Has Done It

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
 Why are you so far from saving me,
 so far from the words of my groaning?
O my god, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
 by night, and am not silent.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
 you are the praise of Israel.
In you our fathers put their trust;
 they trusted and you delivered them.
They cried to you and were saved;
 in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

But I am a worm and not a man,
 scorned by men and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
 they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
“He trusts in the Lord;
 let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
 since he delights in him.”

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
 you made me trust in you
 even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast upon you;
 from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
 for trouble is near
 and there is no one to help.

Many bulls surround me;
 strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions tearing their prey
 open their mouths wide against me.
I am poured out like water,
 and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
 it has melted away within me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
 and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
 you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs have surrounded me;
 a band of evil men has encircled me,
 they have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones;
 people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my garments among them
 and cast lots for my clothing.

But you, O Lord, be not far off;
 O my Strength, come quickly to help me.
Deliver my life from the sword,
 my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
 save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

I will declare your name to my brothers;
 in the congregation I will praise you.
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
 All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
 Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or disdained
 the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
 but has listened to his cry for help.

From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
 before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
 they who seek the Lord will praise him–
 may your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth
 will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
 will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
 and he rules over the nations.

All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
 all who go down to the dust will kneel before him–
 those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
 future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness
 to a people yet unborn–
 for he has done it.

Signs and Their Signified

Living, as I do, just 150 miles or so from New York City and having, as I do, a pair of siblings who live within said city, I like to take the short journey down to the Big Apple once or twice each year.  I can’t go too often, though, because I consistently find myself overwhelmed by the place.  There is so much to do and see in that great metropolis that if I don’t go with a specific plan, I wind up paralyzed by the multiplicity of options.

via Wikipedia.org

I do recall, however, an early trip to Gotham, as a young boy, with one quintessential item on the tourist agenda.  We had to walk through Times Square at night.

Times Square, of course, is the shock and awe of the advertising world, where millions of eyes are stabbed by millions of flashes of neon light.  In many ways, it is a wonder of human ingenuity.

It doesn’t take long, however, before the mesmerizing din of marketing gives way to several subtle questions.  Would I feel as stimulated eating a McDonald’s hamburger as I do staring into these million watt golden arches?  Are the undergarments I wear beneath my jeans really deserving of a hundred foot billboard?  And then there’s the fifty foot bottle of glowing Coke labeled “The Real Thing,” which is slightly larger and more electric than the real thing I might buy in the bodega on the corner.

Some signs, you see, overstate their case.  And in doing so, they lessen the thing to which they point.

via Wikipedia.org

For too short a time, I lived in a small town 30 miles north of Boston.  It was rather quaint and rather affluent.  (As a seminary student at the time, I may have been quaint, but I was not affluent.)  Along the lone stretch of state highway that ran through town, after passing by the very small commercial zone, you would pass a nondescript driveway with a small–no, tiny–golden sign hanging along the roadside.  Hundreds of drivers pass it each day.  Few likely even notice it.

That little wooden sign, sits at the entrance to the Myopia Hunt Club, an exclusive country club founded in 1882.  It boasts one of the oldest continuously used polo grounds in the nation.  Accompanying that honor, the club is among the charter members of what is now the United States Polo Association.  Further, Myopia is the home of a renowned golf course, which played host to four US Open golf tournaments around the turn of the 20th century.

Some signs, you see, understate their case.  If you only knew the real value of what the sign points to, you would understand that no sign could really do it justice.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently in the gospel of John, famous for its use of “signs” that Jesus performs throughout the book.

The reader isn’t long into the narrative before she finds Jesus performing his first sign, changing water into wine at a wedding celebration (Jn 2:1-11).  It’s a display that astounds the groom’s guests and affects the hearts of Jesus’ disciples.

Not long after, Jesus heals a dying boy simply by giving the word (Jn 4:46-54).  The sick child isn’t even present, but suffering in a distant village.  Then, the story proceeds with the healing of a paralytic (Jn 5:1-15), the feeding of the five thousand (Jn 6:1-15), the opening of a blind man’s eyes (Jn 9), and the resurrection of Lazarus (Jn 11).

A cynical approach to the gospel might read these stories and look on them as one with some years under his belt looks on Times Square.  The signs are too grand, too perfect to possibly point to anything better.  Surely, Jesus is overstating his case.

But for those who have met Jesus, for those that read the gospel and experience the reality of Christ as they do, the realization slowly and subtly dawns that John’s report of Jesus’ works far undersell the real thing.  The believing reader finds herself nodding along with John’s concluding statement: “Jesus did many other things as well.  If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (21:25).

If you only knew, she might whisper, the value of what the signs point to, you would know that no sign Jesus performed could have done himself justice.

Silly Jesus: Of Course There Are No Figs!

It’s the Lenten season, for those who pay attention to such things.  I do so from time to time.  But usually by the time I realize it’s Lent, it’s, well, already Lent.  So there’s that.

Nevertheless, many Christians who, you know, plan will be reading through the gospel accounts of Jesus’ final days.  My own church is doing a series focused on the original holy week.  This week’s message took us to Mark 11, in which Jesus ruffles the Temple’s feathers.

Those familiar with the passage will no doubt recall that on either side of the Temple story, there’s a curious little tale about Jesus and an unfortunate fig tree.  Jesus approaches the tree, finds it without any figs to munch, curses it, proceeds to the Temple to do his business, and then returns to the fig tree the next day to find it sad and withered.

Many astute readers have noticed for centuries that the whole deal with the fig tree has something to do with what Jesus does in the Temple.  The thought process goes something like this: “OK, so Jesus is furious with a fig tree that has no figs because it’s out of season.  So he curses the tree.  Weird, but OK.  Then he goes to the Temple and messes everything up because they’re robbing people.  Then he comes back to the tree and it’s dead.  So, I guess Jesus is cursing the Temple too?”

It’s hardly the clearest narrative in the gospels.

Among the zaniest bits in this story is the fact that Mark tells the reader its not even the season for figs (Mk 11:13).  It’s Passover season–springtime.  Of course there won’t be any fruit on the tree.  Silly Jesus.

But once we’ve read the story in this way, Jesus suddenly becomes cruel, cursing the tree for not doing what he couldn’t have expected from it in the first place.

But it could be that Mark is trying to say more (and something different) than we realize.  By mentioning a fig tree with no figs, he could be alluding to Jeremiah 8:13, in which God pronounces judgment on the nation of Israel:

I will take away their harvest, declares the Lord.  There will be no grapes on the vine.  There will be no figs on the tree, and their leaves will wither.  What I have given them will be taken from them (NIV).

Mark’s comment, then, isn’t about Jesus’ poor sense of timing.  It’s about the fact that Israel has no fruit, a sign of its judgment, a sign Jesus further acts out by strolling into the Temple, guns blazing.

The Inter-Cosmological Highway

via dickinson.edu

Prior to 1883, the only real feasible way to travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan, or vice-versa, was by taking a ferry across one of the fastest flowing and busiest rivers in North America.  Terrifying!  And intolerably slow!  I’ll just stay home in Brooklyn, thank you.

Such a formidable barrier as the East River not only kept many people from crossing over from city to city, it also helped maintain the varying development of business and culture and government in these to cities.  And indeed they were two distinct cities.  Brooklyn was its own municipality in those days and was, in fact, the third most populous city in America for much of the 19th century.

But in 1883, Washington Roebling completed construction of the monumental Brooklyn Bridge, the first to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River.  Now pedestrians and vehicles alike could span the 1,500 foot gulf in a matter of minutes.  The vast chasm that had separated these two great cities had been crossed.  Everything had changed.

It wasn’t long, then, before Brooklyn and Manhattan, along with the other three boroughs of New York, merged in 1898, forming one massive city.

A similar gulf between two realms occupies a major theme in John’s gospel.  In John’s mind, however, it is not two cities, but rather the chasm between earth and heaven.

For many years already, prior to Jesus’ birth, Jews had recognized that their God the Creator was not particularly close to the people of Israel.  Although there had been in their history certain golden ages during which it seemed that God was closely partnered with the nation of Israel (the Exodus, the Conquest, David’s reign), these had been in the distant past.  In the first century, however, many Jews wondered where God had gone and whether He might ever return.

This was not the ideal, of course.  No, the Jewish conception of the ideal was something like a marriage between heaven and earth.  They hoped for a day when God would act to put an end to all sin and death and evil that had separated earth from the realm of God.  They hoped that when God acted so decisively, the two domains would once again see heavy traffic flowing back and forth.

Just as the Brooklyn Bridge connected and eventually married these two great cities on New York harbor, so many Jews were waiting for a bridge to be erected between God’s domain and the home of humankind.

So, when John describes the meeting of Jesus and the young man Nathanael, Jesus first remarks that Nathanael is a true Israelite.  That is, he hopes for what his people hope; he dreams of what his countrymen dream.  In other words, he’s a native Israelite, through and through.

And Jesus promises precisely what Nathanael wants.  “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51, NIV).  If Nathanael would only follow Jesus, in other words, he would see a highway connecting heaven and earth, and it would run straight through Jesus himself.

Jesus has similar comments for Nicodemus a couple chapters later.  Engaged in a compassionate yet challenging debate with the religious leader, Jesus assures Nicodemus that he knows the way between these two realms.  “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man” (Jn 3:13).

If the Jews were waiting eagerly to reestablish connection with their God, Jesus tells Nicodemus he’s been there before and he knows how to get back.  If this bridge between heaven and earth was going to get built, he was the guy to do it.

Twerking Our Way through the Bible

via wikipedia.org

Among the elements that makes understanding the Bible (and any other ancient texts) so difficult are the various cultural barriers that keep us 21st century readers out of the original world of the author and his readers.  Quite naturally, we don’t live in the same world of Homer (the Greek, not Simpson) or Chaucer or Saul of Tarsus.  One or two things have changed since these old writers lived and worked.

To see what I mean on a lesser scale, watch an episode of “Leave it to Beaver.”  Does your family look like Ward and June?  Do you look at the world through the same lenses that the shows writers did?  How foreign do things look through those eyes from where we sit today?  So it is (though far more magnified) when we approach Scripture written two thousand years ago and more.

It is the task of each generation, then, to reinterpret these ancient texts.  Every new community of believers has to learn to read these old stories and letters and translate them so that they take the leap from their ancient context into our own world.

via wikipedia.org

Sticking with the television theme, this practice is the equivalent of “Happy Days” (a show about the 50’s produced in the 70’s & 80’s), “The Wonder Years” (a show about the 60’s produced in the 80’s & 90’s) and “That 70’s Show” (a show about the, well, 70’s, produced in the 90’s & 2000’s).  (Has anyone yet mastered the 80’s?  Alas, I pine.)  These are all the retelling of earlier eras, reinterpreted to speak to our own present situation.

So this is what we are continually doing with the Bible, reading and rereading these ancient texts, trying our best to understand them for what they meant in their own contexts, so that we may then retell them to one another in such a way that they make sense for 2014.

The process, however, is fraught with difficulty.

The hardest part about grasping the message of the Bible is not about whether you know Greek or Hebrew.  It’s not about our inability to diagram sentences.  The greatest barrier to accurately understanding and then translating the Bible is what we do and do not know about everything that’s not in the Bible.

In my own journey with Scripture, I find that the texts seem to come alive in greatest measure when I’m in the process of learning about the world around the biblical eras, rather than about the text itself.  For example, when I’ve learned about Jewish cultural movements in the intertestamental period (after Malachi, before Matthew), it’s opened great windows of clarity on what it was Jesus was up to and what others thought about what he was up to.

Sorry, no twerk pic available.

It’s like being in on a good (or even a terrible) joke, like twerking our way through the Bible.  But if you aren’t tuned into pop culture, you don’t get it, even if you are actually better off.  So the question is, Who were the Miley Cyruses of Paul’s day?  If they weren’t twerking in first century Palestine, what were they doing?  And how might the gospel writers or Peter or James have referenced these cultural phenomena?

More on this anon, specifically, regarding Paul and the Roman Empire.

Go Get Refreshed

I may have mentioned this before, but I occasionally post at another blog, which is more devotional and encouraging in nature.  It’s called {re}fresh (the brackets are silent) and I’ve got an advent post up there now.  Please do check it out, but not for my sake.  Tour around a bit and enjoy the writing and thoughts of some of my friends, who are actual friends in actual life, not just the digital kind.

Oh, and since I’m dumping links, if music is your thing, I’d recommend these two songs from Joel and Amy Davis.  Joel is the singer for Ascend the Hill, a worship band out of Tampa. Amy is his wife.  I can guarantee you’ve never heard a worship band like Ascend the Hill, unless, that is, you’ve previously heard Ascend the Hill (for proof, see below).  By the way, their music is available for free (legally!) at Come & Live!  Anyway, Joel and Amy had me literally crying at my desk this morning, and not because they dropped in to punch me in the face.  These two tracks are just that good.

Politics and Religion in Paul’s World

I really am the best uncle.

I really am the best uncle.

I’ve begun working my way through NT Wright’s massive new study on Paul, titled Paul and the Faithfulness of God.  It’s very good stuff so far in the early going.  And precisely because it’s such good stuff, it’s also a slow process pushing through.

(I mentioned to someone the other day that I was just beginning chapter three, which was to say I’d already read 200 pages.)

Regardless, as I monitored my nephew’s swimming lessons last night (I’m the best uncle), I was forging ahead into the beginning of Wright’s treatment of the first century Greco-Roman world (as opposed to the first century Jewish world).  This is new territory for me, so I’m rather excited about what I might find.

And find I did!

Our Western 21st century cultural perspective puts us at a disadvantage at times when looking into the ancient world.  This is not least because we’ve compartmentalized things like “religion” and “politics” and, well, the rest of life.  In the history of the world, this is a rather new (and probably unfortunate) practice in mental gymnastics.

Wright:

In the western world for the last two hundred years the categories of “politics” and “religion” have been carefully separated, each being defined negatively in relation to the other.  “Politics”, for the modern west, is about the running of countries and cities as though there were no god; “religion” is about engaging in present piety and seeking future salvation as though there were no polis, no civic reality.  “Philosophy”, in the modern western world, has maintained an uncomfortable and complicated relationship with both “politics” and “religion” (203).

But this would not have been so in Paul’s world.  For him and those around him, politics had everything to do with religion, not least because world leaders (and one in particular) were deified.  Further, philosophy had everything to do with politics because philosophy in the ancient world was first about how the world works and how to live in it (a far cry from the ethereal ivory tower).  And religion had everything to do with everything because the spiritual world (however you might see it) was inextricably intertwined with the natural world.

Even without considering the implications this has on our understanding of Paul and his letters, it certainly raises the question for us today.  Have we divorced religion from the public square to our detriment?  Have we suffered ill effects as a culture from insisting that the two neither can nor should converse (never mind that if they were to do so at this stage they would be speaking entirely different languages)?  As Christians, what might be gained from reading our Holy Book as though it had everything to do with the political world and government and, well, every other aspect of life?