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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The First and the Last - The Living One

I must confess a theological struggle that has plagued me recently. As followers of Jesus, we make the claim that Jesus was and is 100% God. In the incarnation (Jesus coming, born of Mary, and living as a 1st century Jew), he is also 100% human. Without a blink, we determinedly make both claims. Recently, I blinked.

With a scrutinizing eye, I combed through John's Gospel to find where it is definitively stated that Jesus is God. I didn't have to go far. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us (John 1:1, 14a, NRSV). Case closed: Jesus is God! But for me, the case wasn't (and isn't) closed.

I continued reading and what I found is Jesus being referred to as the "Son of God." Jesus is the one "sent by God." Jesus doesn't say, "I am God." Jesus continuously subordinates himself and speaks of God as a Superior Other. Jesus is subservient to the Sovereign God. For me this became more than just a difficult notion to understand. It's a given that it is hard for a human to grasp that Jesus is a man and at the same time is God. Here's what became hard for me. The Bible over and over failed to say Jesus is God. Why?

I share all of this to be open with you about my own theological pickle. I hesitate to call this a moment of doubt or a crisis of faith. The more I read of John's Gospel, the more I became convinced that whatever else is true, one thing I am sure of is our call to worship Jesus. I don't think I have ever been more confident that life is all about serving Jesus and salvation is only found in Him. I am just not so sure about what we (Christians) have said about him.

So, what to do? How does a pastor preach every week with these questions swimming through his mind? This inner theological debate has waged in my brain for months, and you haven't head a thing about it. Why am I am coming clean now?

The key for my own understanding (and return from the edge of theological abyss back to evangelical orthodoxy) has been a text in Revelation. The resurrected Christ is speaking to John: "he placed his right hand on me, saying, 'Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one'" (Revelation 1:17-18a). The phrase "living one" would have been understood by a first century Jew as referring to God and no one else. It was used repeatedly in Isaiah in that way, and the same idea is conveyed about God in Revelation 1:8. So, for Jesus to tell John he is "the living one" is to self-identify as God. I really needed Him to do that.

That self-identification, coupled with the verses from John I cited, helped me sit down and exhale. I can, on faith, believe in two key Christian doctrines - the trinity and the dual nature of Christ. Of course I am an unfinished product and I continue to have theological questions. But I am relieved to have this one calmed to the point that I can speak openly of it to my church. Starting today, I am going to spend the next several months sharing other insights from Revelation. I recommend you read it through, several times. I also recommend Craig Keener's commentary on Revelation in the NIV Applicaton Commentary series.

I conclude with this. Don't be afraid of your questions or doubts, and don't bury them or pretend they aren't there. Our growth in Christ comes when we are 100% honest with Him. So if theological uncertainty is nibbling at your soul, face it. Take the questions head on. If you need to, come to me and let me help you. I have questions too. Jesus is the answer.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Amos 9

“I will restore the fortunes of my people” God says in Amos 9:14. This book, the oracles of the Prophet Amos, has been filled with anger and ominous words. The visions Amos predicted came to fruition as the might Assyrian empire conquered and humbled the northern kingdom of Israel. Assyria’s conquest, asserts Amos, was allowed by God. As intimidating as the enemy was, their victory could have been prevented by God. He allowed His chosen people to be squashed by a bloodthirsty invader because God was enraged by His people’s decision to worship idols of stone alongside their worship of Him. God was furious that his people would exploit the poor in Israel even as they put on lavish displays of worship. The temple worship would be impressive to anyone, but we recall God saying (through the voice of Amos) “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (5:21).

Why the rejection of the worship the people offered? A lack of justice, especially for the poor (5:24)!

This theme runs throughout Amos and thus the beginning of chapter 9, the final chapter, is in keeping with all we have read. “I saw the Lord standing before the altar and he said: Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake, and shatter them on the heads of the people; and those who are left I will kill with the sword; not one of them shall flee away, not one of them shall escape” (9:1). To be a prophet of God is to be called by God to see things no one would want to see. I don’t ever want to be that close to God’s anger. Amos didn’t either, but God called him and Amos answered the call and faithfully preached these unwanted prophecies.

God killing with great thoroughness and violence – it makes one shutter. But it could have been avoided as can the destruction people today bring on themselves. What idols do we prop up and put in God’s place? When do we relegate God to small corners of our lives? When do we lock our faith in a small box, shove it under the bed, and only bring it out for nighttime prayers or Sunday worship. What other forces or factors determine how make decisions? Obviously here I am addressing people who claim to be God-worshippers. The questions would change for those who are utterly indifferent to the Lord.

When people today – including you and me – practice 21st century American idolatry God notices, and our lives will be hurt by our rejection of God’s ways. When believers today neglect the poor, God sees our indifference just as God saw in Amos’ day. We will feel consequences for our refusal to see as God sees.

And yet …

From the “I will kill …” we keep reading in Amos 9 up to verse 11, where God says, “I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in days of old.” The God who punishes is also a God who forgives, gives second chances, and makes new that which has failed, has been corrupted, and has died. This too is who God is.

So, as I conclude my reflections on Amos, I consider it a book that among many things shows me what God is like. Make no mistake – Amos is a dark book because God is one who won’t tolerate sin. If we read that and think, O, God doesn’t tolerate sexual sin, drinking, smoking, swearing, and other things I don’t do, we miss it. To conclude from Amos that God will punish other people, people not as righteous as us, is to completely ignore Amos’ word. The right conclusion is to realize how much God despises when we set up idols in our lives, idols that occupy the place that belongs to God. The right conclusion is to realize God cares about the neediest of the needy in the world, and if we want to be on God’s side, we must care about what matters to God.

Finally, the right conclusion from Amos is to recognize that the angry God is also a restoring, forgiving God who sent his son Jesus to take on himself the punishment for our sins (Romans 3:25). There is no hint of Jesus in Amos – Amos is not a Messianic prophecy. But Amos, especially Amos 9, shows the character of God. A major aspect of God’s character is mercy, and another is forgiveness. God rebuilds what has broken. So when we realize we have engaged in idolatry (money, success, the “American dream” can all be as idols), and when we realize we have neglected the poor God loves, we repent (turn away from sin, and back to God), ask forgiveness, and once again worship God as we work for justice and exalt Him above all others.