Monday, October 21, 2013

A World Purged of Violence [Micah 4.6-5.15] (16 December 2012)

When we had decided on the theme ‘Advent through the eyes of the prophets’, it was clear that we had to deal with some specific passages. And when we decided on the passages, there was one passage I was positively fearing. I did not want to preach on it. So I was quite thankful when Uncle Ricky agreed to preach today. However, my fears returned with newfound relevance when he told me midweek that he would be unable to make it. And then Suresh and Grace are not in town and neither is Uncle Ken. And so guess who suddenly found himself gifted with the pulpit for today!? 

You may wonder what gave rise to this fear. Well, let me just put it out there. Micah is one of the most notoriously difficult books in the Old Testament as far as interpretation is concerned. You all know that I like to pay very close attention to the contexts of scripture. That is an exercise I relish. 

But Micah makes that task unbelievably difficult. Did you not hear it when the scriptures were being read? There are seeming historical references as when Assyria is mentioned. 

But there are other places that are evidently talking about an ahistorical future, such as when the prophet declares that nations will transform their destructive implements into constructive implements – swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks. 

Just yesterday we heard about the horrendous atrocity at Connecticut, in which children were slaughtered by a rampaging gunman. So much sorrow to all those parents and to countless others. 

As usual, I looked for what Christian leaders were saying. There were views all across the board. Unfortunately, there were those of the so-called religious right who insisted that this happened at a school because Christian prayer is not allowed in public schools anymore in the US. And my heart was wrenched. No Christian leader should ever be saying such things. Whatever your take on the issue, which of those 5 year olds was guilty? We cannot allow out view of God to make these innocents out to be collateral damage. 

And ironically, it was an atheistic Facebook page that insisted, “The problem was not the absence of God in the school. The problem was the presence of the gun.” That is what all Christian leaders should have been saying, that it is the culture of violence that is to blame. How can we who have this vision of non-violence in scripture not see it? 

Clearly such elements as universal disarmament is a future hope that we should work toward. But a future hope nonetheless. It is something we would love to see happen right? Which of us would not want to be able to walk without fear in this city or anywhere in the world and at any time? Yes, it is something we would love to see happen. But dare we expect it? 

Knowing the human capacity and propensity for evil and violence, we dare not expect that Micah’s vision will become a historical reality. 

But then what of all this talk of Assyria? Assyria was the major power, the super power, in Micah’s day. So the problem with Micah is that there are historical references mingled with what just cannot be historical. And then the problem is, “Who is to decide between the two?” 

But there is an even greater problem. What do we do about the presence of 5.8 in this context? Suddenly, the remnant, which in chapter 4 is said to consist of the lame, suddenly it is a ravaging lion! In 5.4, the deliverer is said to be a shepherd tending for his flock, but suddenly in v.8 the remnant is an out of control lion mauling sheep. 

Furthermore, Micah’s prophecies are remarkably difficult to pin point. Last week, I mentioned how Isaiah’s prophecy about Syria and Israel had actually come to pass. Most of the prophets have this, or at the very least they have some concrete reference to historical happenings. Not so with Micah. If Micah did not tell us he worked during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah, we would have no internal evidence for that. Even the references to Assyria are quite vague and difficult to identify in terms of known history. 

In fact, if you read Micah through in one sitting you will find sudden shifts from talk of peace and salvation to talk of war and destruction, without any proper breaks or transitions. One simply blends into the other. And you might come away thinking that God somehow managed to get a hold of a person with some bipolar personality disorder to be his prophet. Prophetic schizophrenia maybe. 

But. There it is. But, if you allow the prophet to have a different strategy, one that includes irony, taunt and ridicule, something else emerges. 

At the beginning of chapter 5, Micah seems to support military action. But he is quoting the words of the contemporary military strategists. If you are under siege, you must brace yourself to withstand the assault. 

But Micah proclaims that it will not amount to anything for the king of Judah would be debased. In the Ancient Near East, you did not slap another person who had the same stature as you. That would bring shame to you, not to the person you slapped. But you were free to slap a slave. So when we read that the king of Israel would be slapped on the cheek, we are to understand that he would be made a servant to Assyria. 

Micah is saying, “Go ahead! Gather the troops. In fact, go all the way so that you become a city in which everyone is a soldier. You will be a city of troops. But it will not help. Assyria will come and thoroughly humiliate you and your king.” 

Micah toys with his audience over and over. Later in chapter 5 he describes how 7 or 8 Israelites would rule over Assyria and how they would deliver Israel from the Assyrians. This is stuff that the people longed to hear. He goes on to describe the ravaging remnant wreaking havoc on the Assyrians. And the people listening to him would have lapped it up. 

Earlier, in chapter 4, he had spoken about Israel breaking many nations. Through all this you can probably imagine the audience, with all their nationalistic fervour saying, “Preach it Micah! Tell it like it is.” 

And then Micah drops the prophetic bomb. As in chapter 4, again in chapter 5, he says, “‘In that day,’ declares the Lord,” And he gives the vision of God doing away with all the things he abhors – the instruments of violence, the trampling of the weak, the exclusion of refugees. 

You would have liked me to have gotten straight to 5.2. But Micah will not allow us. We need to understand what Micah is doing and how. 

His is a glorious vision, of a world purged of violence, of a world in which there is no enmity, of a world in which everyone worships the living God Yahweh, of a world in which there is no one who is marginalized, no one who is rejected, no one who is not whole. 

And in the midst of that marvellous vision he tells us about a ruler. We focus on the place of his birth, Bethlehem. But once again, the birthplace is simply a placeholder. It allowed people through the centuries to answer the question, “Where will the Messiah be born?” It allowed Matthew to quote it about Jesus. 

But Micah 5.2 is not about Bethlehem. Nor it is about the simple fact that there would one day be such a ruler. Rather, it is about the nature of this ruler, his character, his charter. 

This ruler has his origin from of old, says Micah. This is not saying that the ruler pre-existed everything. Why that would be relevant is quite difficult to understand. Pre-existence is no comfort. 

Rather, this is telling us that this ruler is not bound by the cycles of war and vengeance that characterize every other ruler. For, if this ruler has a charter of bringing about universal peace and wholeness, he should be beyond the sway of nationalistic fervour that dictates the actions of all other rulers. Do we not hear hints of Jesus’ words to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” in this? 

We believe this passage refers to Jesus. And rightly so. But only if our understanding of him is such that no one is excluded from the scope of his reign, no one pushed to the fringes of society, no one downtrodden, no one ignored, no one driven to take resort in violence. 

We rightly mourn the deaths of the children who were gunned down on Friday. But what of the millions of children who are starving each day because of unjust national and international policies we support through the paying of our taxes? What of the human rights abuses we support especially this time of year when we buy as gifts products made in sweat shops? What of the millions of people who are dispossessed of their home in order to supply our ever growing demand for more electrical power? 

We rightly mourn the deaths of the children who were gunned down on Friday. But what do we say about the man who wielded the gun? We call him a madman and say that he was a loner and that he was a recluse. What these words declare is that, in our eyes, he was an outsider, not one of us, a person who did not belong. 

In Jesus’ kingdom he would not have had any reason, any need, any compulsion to pick up a weapon. In light of Micah 4 and 5 we should wonder not about that man’s pathologies as about the pathologies we allow to continue in our societies. 

As we get ready to participate in Communion, let us remember that the bread and wine were provided precisely because the ruler from Bethlehem refused to pick a weapon. As we eat and drink let us think of this Advent as a time of renouncing violence in all its forms, for we dare not permit any violence, when it is precisely the renunciation of violence that is depicted here at this table in the bread and wine.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Spirit that Divides (11 November 2012)

Accompanying Presentation (opens in a new window)


Last Sunday we looked at what the New Testament has to say about the practice of water baptism. Mind you, we have only scratched the surface. There is much more that we could have learnt, many more angles from which we could have viewed the practice. However, for two reasons, we viewed it from the perspective of the burning of bridges – the renunciation of everything that would turn us away from Jesus. 

First, we had to narrow our focus because the time was short. Since, as we discovered, there is no single passage that deals with baptism in a comprehensive manner, we had to focus on some aspect that was most important. And the perspective of burning of bridges allowed us to see both believers’ baptism and infant baptism as achieving the same goal with different presuppositions, thereby providing a way of uniting different Christian traditions. 

Second, we are looking today at the notion of baptism in the Holy Spirit and the view of water baptism presented last week neatly dovetails with the perspective of baptism in the Holy Spirit that we will look at today. 

The phrase ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ shot to prominence in the wake of the Pentecostal revival that started at the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street in California in 1901. Before that, most Christian traditions accepted the idea, but did not make much of it. Baptism in the Holy Spirit was considered to be something that happened at the time of water baptism. 

The Pentecostal revival challenged this view. Most Pentecostal Christians would say that baptism in the Holy Spirit is something that happens to a person at some time after he or she starts believing in Jesus and that speaking in tongues is the determinative evidence that a person has received baptism in the Holy Spirit. 

To begin our study, let us read from 1 Corinthians 12. Paul’s argument is lengthy, so I will only read a smattering of verses, asking you to trust me not to read or interpret out of context. 

I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit… There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them… 

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit… to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines… Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink… The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” … If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it… Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. 

As I mentioned before we read this passage, many Pentecostal Christians believe that baptism in the Holy Spirit is something that happens after a person expresses faith in Jesus and that it is made visible through the speaking of tongues. Since this view leans so heavily on a particular phenomenon, namely, the speaking of tongues, let us see what we discover in the New Testament. 

The first mention of speaking in tongues is in Acts 2.4, where we read: 

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 

In Acts 2 we can see that, while the apostles and other believers spoke in tongues, there is no reference to their having been baptized in the name of Jesus. Most of them had been disciples of John the Baptist and had presumably been baptized by him. But they had not been baptized in the name of Jesus. So here we have the baptism of John followed by baptism in the Holy Spirit accompanied by speaking in tongues. 

The next mention of speaking in tongues is in Acts 10.44-48, where we read: 

The Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. 

Here, the evidence that those who had heard Peter’s message had received the Holy Spirit is the speaking of tongues. However, note the order. The people in Cornelius’ group first begin speaking in tongues and are only after that baptized in water. 

Also note the rather conspicuous absence of any reference to the faith of those Gentiles. If you were to read the passage without the expectation that it spoke of baptism in the Holy Spirit, you would conclude that their belief, as revealed in their praising God, is actually subsequent to the baptism in the Holy Spirit rather than the other way around. 

The next reference to speaking in tongues is in Acts 19. This is a very instructive passage. Here we read: 

Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 

These people were believers in Jesus though they had been baptized into John’s baptism. On hearing Paul, they received water baptism in the name of Jesus and then were baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues. 

In the three references in Acts to speaking in tongues we see the following. The accounts in Acts 2 and Acts 19 are very similar except for the glaring silence about whether or not Jesus’ first disciples were ever baptized in the name of Jesus. Presumably they weren’t since Matthew 28.18-20 seems to indicate that Jesus just expected them to baptize new disciples. 

Also, the account in Acts 10 contains only three of the elements and they are not in the order that Pentecostal Christians insist on. So it seems that the notion that baptism in the Holy Spirit is something that happens always after one expresses faith in Jesus is not strictly borne out in the accounts in Acts. 

However, what is borne out in Acts is that in all three occasions the baptism in the Holy Spirit is accompanied with speaking in tongues. So does that not mean that Pentecostal Christians are right to claim that speaking in tongues is the external sign that a person has been baptized in the Holy Spirit? Before we answer that question, let us read from Acts 8. 

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 

Here we see that there is no reference to speaking in tongues, though it is clearly an occasion of baptism in the Holy Spirit. So the evidence of the New Testament is not as nicely partitioned as we would like it to be. What we can conclude is that there are occasions in which baptism in the Holy Spirit is accompanied by speaking in tongues. At other times, it is not. At times it comes before water baptism. At other times it comes after. 

Both Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal Christians have focussed on the order of phenomena. But this is a poor way to think about God and how he works in us. 

So we need to ask ourselves what in the four accounts is crucial. In Acts 2, the Spirit baptizes Jewish believers. In Acts 8, the Spirit baptizes Samarian believers. And in Acts 10, the Spirit baptizes Gentile believers. In Acts 19, the Spirit baptizes a now amorphous group, the ethnicity of which we cannot determine. But in all four accounts, Luke is clear that the groups received the Holy Spirit. The variations in the four accounts should lead us to be less rigid about what happens, about the phenomenon of baptism in the Holy Spirit. 

Then we can realize that the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to narrate these four occasions to mark the fulfilment of Jesus’ words in Acts 1.8: 

You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 

These four occasions are not there to instruct about the link between baptism in the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues but to indicate that the three ethnic groups of Christians are on par with each other and that in a few years, they could only be classified as disciples without reference to their ethnicity. 

It is the marvellous work of the Holy Spirit of uniting enemy ethnicities and making them all one group that is the focus of the records in Acts. 

What we realize again, as we did when we looked at water baptism, is that the New Testament record is very fluid. We conclude that our experiences of the Holy Spirit cannot be made universal. Just because I do not speak in tongues does not mean no one else can or that those who claim to do are misled or in the grasp of the evil one. Similarly, just because I do speak in tongues does not mean that anyone who does not is not truly a Christian or are rebelling against God. 

So what, then is this baptism in the Holy Spirit? John told people that Jesus would baptize in the Holy Spirit. And in Acts 1, Jesus tells his disciples, “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit... You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” 

Almost all Christian traditions would accept this simple definition. The arguments begin when we try to unpack what the words mean. What does it mean to receive power? In fact, what is power? 

But Jesus went on to say, “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 

Power is whatever the Holy Spirit decides is necessary and decides therefore to give us in order to fulfil the task of bringing the message of Jesus to the world. It is person specific – depending on the person who carries the message and on the person to whom the message is carried. 

The four Gospels are different in flavour and content despite being about the ministry of Jesus. They are different because different people wrote them and in inspiring them the Holy Spirit did not override their personalities. And they are different because their audiences are different. 

In the same manner, baptism in the Holy Spirit depends on the bearer of the message and the recipient of the message. As in the case of water baptism, we realize that baptism in the Holy Spirit is not a onetime thing. Rather, it is a process that lasts the whole of one’s Christian life. 

The New Testament is clear that every Christian is to be baptized. The New Testament is also clear that every Christian is a bearer of the message of Jesus. And so we realize what Paul means when he speaks of one baptism in Ephesians 4.5. Water baptism and Spirit baptism are not two baptisms. Rather, they are two sides of the Christian life. Both are necessary. But the order in which they appear in a person’s life will differ from person to person. And the external manifestations of Spirit baptism will also differ from person to person. 

Last week we saw that water baptism is burning the bridges that would keep a person away from Jesus. In a complementary manner, baptism in the Holy Spirit can be viewed as crossing the bridges to join the Holy Spirit where he thinks people are ready to hear the message about Jesus. Water baptism is a turning away. Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a turning toward. One is renunciation of powers aligned against Jesus. The other is accepting empowerment from the Holy Spirit who is aligned for Jesus. One is escaping the grasp of things that would keep us from the purposes of Jesus. The other is falling into the embrace of the one who reveals Jesus’ purposes for us. Into this continuous escape-to-embrace Jesus calls us daily by his Spirit.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Water that Divides (4 November 2012)

Accompanying Presentation (opens in a new window)


A Presbyterian pastor and a Baptist pastor were arguing about the mode of baptism. The Baptist insisted it should be by immersion only. So the Presbyterian asked, “So if the person is wet to the knees it does not matter?” “Certainly not!” said the Baptist. “Surely if the person is wet to the waist it is enough?” “No way, Jose!” said the Baptist. “What about if he gets in to his neck?” “Not enough,” said the Baptist. “How about to his forehead?” “Nope! All of him should go under,” explained the Baptist getting quite annoyed at this waste of time. “So you are saying that until all of the person’s hair is wet it does not count?” “Finally, you’re getting the point!” exclaimed the Baptist. “So that’s why,” explained the Presbyterian, “we only pour the water on the person’s hair!” 

Today and next Sunday I have the unenviable task of speaking on two of the most divisive doctrines of the Christian faith - the two baptisms! Did I say two despite Ephesians 4.4-6 where we read, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all”? Keep this at the back of your mind while we try to understand what water baptism and baptism in the Holy Spirit are about over the next two weeks. 

Let me ask you a question. In the image on the screen, what is happening? Crossing of the Red Sea? I think not! Not if you read 1 Corinthians 10.1-2, where Paul says, “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” 

Ok, tell me what’s happening here. What? Jesus praying at Gethsemane? I think not! Not if you read Luke 12.50, where Jesus tells his disciples, “But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!” 

We begin with these two instances of scripture because it seems that when we Christians speak about baptism we have a tendency to become blind to the entirety of scripture. My exposure at Fuller Theological Seminary, however, unveiled my own blindness and showed me a world of interpretations. I don’t necessarily agree with all of them. But what I realized are some assumptions I wish for us to have as we proceed. 

First, people are in general sincere. Just because someone does not agree with you, does not mean that they are intentionally deceptive or that they are under the sway of evil forces or that they are in the clutch of un-confessed sin or that they must be eliminated at all costs. Disagreement simply means that you and the other person are sincere about the same thing in different ways. 

Second, my faith experience is vital to the vibrancy of my faith. But my faith experience is not the plumb line for measuring the faith of another person. Just because I have experienced something does not mean that every other believer should have experienced the same thing. Rather, each of us has experiences in accordance with what God is doing in our lives. God does not deal with you and with me in the same ways. 

When I was at Fuller, for the course on Systematic Theology I decided to write a paper on baptism. Specifically, I set out to understand whether or not infant baptism was valid. Having worshipped at a Baptist church for a few years, I fully expected to conclude that it was not. I was not ready for the string of ironies that I would face. Let me only mention two. 

First, among supporters of infant baptism, the prevalent view of baptism is that it is a sacrament. That is, something concrete and very real happens during baptism in the spiritual realm. Those who oppose infant baptism would largely hold the view that baptism is a testimony of one’s faith and that nothing concrete happens in the spiritual realm. Now people who hold a sacramental view of religious rites almost inevitably are more rigid about the way in which the rite is conducted, while those who do not hold a sacramental view tend to be more lenient. Hence, it is ironical that those who affirm infant baptism accept sprinkling and pouring as modes of baptism while those who reject infant baptism tend to insist on immersion. 

Second, those who affirm infant baptism tend to be from the so called ‘high church’ traditions which have strict liturgical forms, most of which hardly mention the grace of God. On the other hand, those who reject infant baptism tend to be from the so called ‘low church’ traditions which have more contemporary liturgies in which there are many mentions of the grace of God. So it is ironical that in the former traditions God’s grace extends even to the families of believers while in the latter traditions it is restricted to individuals. 

These ironies lead us to conclude that our positions, our beliefs about baptism, are not water tight. Pun intended. There are inconsistencies. There are irregularities. Yet people have been killed over the issue of baptism. In the wake of the Protestant Reformation towering figures among those who supported infant baptism and those who opposed it, instigated violence against those who disagreed with them. Some supporters of infant baptism put to death those who rejected it. And some opponents of infant baptism put to death those who supported it. 

So let us proceed to understand both these positions. Both positions begin with the fact that nowhere in the New Testament is there a clear occasion in which a child or infant was baptized. But the conclusions reached are different. A supporter of infant baptism would say, “There is no prohibition against it” while an opponent would say, “There is no command supporting it.” 

A supporter of infant baptism would say, “We are saved by God’s grace. And God’s grace acts in our lives first when we are utterly helpless, just like an infant. And so infant baptism, which depicts this helplessness, is recommended.” But an opponent would say, “We are saved by God’s grace. But through faith! An infant cannot express faith. And so infant baptism should not be practised.” 

A supporter of infant baptism would say, “The Old Covenant included infants when they were circumcised. The New Covenant cannot be less gracious. That is why women are included. Why then should we exclude infants?” But an opponent would say, “The New Covenant is different from the Old Covenant. It is more gracious because it includes women and Gentiles.” 

You see? The same fact, when viewed through the lenses of lack of prohibition or lack of command leads to different conclusions. Focusing either on God’s initiative or on our response changes the outcome. Stressing continuity or discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants changes the position one will take. 

None of the conflicts over baptism are over the text of scripture. It is the same scriptures that both camps read and love. And it is the same scriptures that both camps aim to properly interpret. However, unfortunately, people in both camps accuse those in the other of not being ‘biblical’ and of adhering to the traditions of humans. But this is a naive position and one that we should avoid at all costs. After all, just because an accusation is made, does not mean that it is valid. Otherwise, perhaps the atheists are right when they claim that miracles are simply an example of how bogus religious experience is! 

So we return to the silence of the New Testament. And in addition to the silence mentioned earlier, there is another. To recap, the first silence is the lack of any reference to the baptism of a child or infant in the New Testament. But there is another silence. There is no mention of the baptism of a child who grew up in a Christian home. We are not told what to do about these individuals. 

Let me draw a parallel. When God instituted circumcision as a sign of the covenant, Abraham was quite old. Ishmael was a teenager. And other males in Abraham’s house were also old. This was the first generation of covenant beneficiaries. And to a person they were not infants or children. Isaac is the first person whose birth is recorded as having happened after the institution of the covenant. And he was circumcised as an infant. 

The New Testament documents were written within a few decades of the founding of the Church. They record instructions to the first generation of those who benefited from the covenant in Jesus. There is no mention of a child. Everyone who is named was an adult at the time. What happens now to the second generation? 

Those who support infant baptism would say that the subsequent generations of Christians should be treated in the same way as subsequent generations of Israelites were treated. Their children should be baptized. And frankly, in light of the fact that there is no admonishment against it, it is hard to press the issue that infant baptism is incorrect. 

But does not the New Testament link belief and baptism? Yes it does! No question about it. And does it not link the baptism of a person with his or her own faith? Here we cannot simply answer in the affirmative. Acts 16.13-15 indicates that Lydia’s household was baptized. But we are not told that anyone apart from her actually believed the gospel. 

If the silence about the baptism of children is to be given importance then we must give this silence importance as well. It seems here that adults were baptized based on the faith of one person! The New Testament record is not as cut and dry as we would like it to be. 

Further, we must pay closer attention to the contexts in which the New Testament documents were written. My tenth standard board exams were done through the ICSE. The ICSE requires students to study a play by Shakespeare. 

And at the exams students are faced with questions like who said such and such a thing to whom and when and where and in what context and to what effect. To be honest, I hated it. But the discipline is important. It is crucial to understanding most of the important speeches, for example, Mark Anthony’s famous speech that begins “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” If you do not have Brutus and the others present at the speech it makes no sense. 

If this is true about Shakespeare, how much more true is it about scripture? The New Testament is written to first generation beneficiaries of Jesus’ work. They were adults at the time of writing. And for adults there is no disagreement among Christians. A person who as an adult begins enjoying the blessings that flow from Jesus must first believe and then be baptized. 

The question is about people who grow up in a Christian home. The New Testament has nothing to say about them! We are neither commanded to baptize them as infants nor prohibited from doing so. More to the point we are neither commanded to baptize them as adults nor prohibited from doing so. And it is precisely this utter silence on the matter that allows the differing conclusions. Both sides are being ‘biblical.’ 

However, each side begins with different presuppositions that lead them to different conclusions. And much as we would like it, the bible does not tell us which conclusion is better or right. There is no passage that tells us how to weigh regarding the continuity and discontinuity between the two covenants. However, if you read documents from either side you would get the impression that the two views are markedly different, that there is no common ground between the two, that the view supported by the author is ‘biblical’ while the other view is a rejection of ‘biblical truth.’ 

But the two views are actually much similar than proponents of either view would have us believe. Remember in all of this that we are trying to determine what should be the approach of the church to children born to Christian parents. 

Among traditions that reject infant baptism the common practice is that the infant is dedicated before he or she is a few months old. Then at some later date, when the child has grown and has been instructed in and can understand the basic elements of the faith, he or she decides to get baptized after proclaiming his or her faith. At Christalaya we are probably most familiar and comfortable with this model. 

So we ask ourselves, “What happens among traditions that support infant baptism?” In these churches, the infant is baptized – obviously not by immersion – before he or she is a few months old. Then at some later date, when the child has grown and has been instructed in and can understand the basic elements of the faith, he or she confirms the baptism after proclaiming his or her faith. 

Let us look at this pictorially. If you look at the slide it is evident that the real dispute is about when and how the water becomes part of the process. Should it be poured on an infant, to be followed by a public confirmation a few years later or should it be withheld until a person makes a public profession of faith, to be followed by immersion? 

Both traditions have a two step process for children born in Christian homes. Such children, following Deuteronomy 6, must be instructed in the faith. They should be brought into the sphere within which they can enjoy the blessings that God’s people enjoy. And then at a later date, when they are old enough they should be given the opportunity of publicly professing their agreement with the faith of their parents. This slide shows exactly how both traditions accomplish both steps. 

We might have laughed at the joke with which I began – the one about the two pastors. But there is so much truth in it. None of us really believes that the baptismal water themselves accomplish anything. Yet, we Christians have become and been so rigid about the water itself. Which is more important? The commitment of parents and the congregation to nurture a baby in the faith or the water poured on the baby’s head? Which is more important? The profession of faith of a boy or girl who grew up in the church or the water into which he or she is immersed? 

In fact, if we take our cue from 1 Corinthians 10.1-2 and Mark 10.38 we can see that baptism is not about the water. Rather, baptism is the burning of bridges. The Israelites turned their back on Egypt and burnt that bridge when they crossed the Red Sea. At Gethsemane, Jesus turned his back on the possibility of avoiding the cross by saying, “Not my will, but yours.” 

In the same way, baptism is burning the bridges that would keep a person away from Jesus. In infant baptism or dedication, the parents commit to doing this for the child as he or she grows. In confirmation or believer’s baptism, the now mature person commits to doing the same with the help of God’s Spirit and his people. 

By viewing baptism as a burning of bridges we can allow our Christian brothers and sisters some leeway. We can stop the ‘my way or the highway approach’ we have often had with regard to baptism. We can recognize that baptism, far from being something that happens at one moment in time, is actually just a depiction of the entire Christian life. And then the water that now divides us can actually unite us as we accept it to depict a constant turning away from the forces of evil, a relentless burning of bridges that would keep us from the one in whose name we are baptized – the Lord Jesus. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Thrust of the Prophecy [Isaiah 7.1-17] (9 December 2012)

When I was at Fuller Seminary, I had the opportunity of being the teaching assistant to a number of the professors. One of those was Dr. John Goldingay. And the course was on the exegesis of Isaiah, which incidentally he is currently teaching. John, yes we are on first name basis, allowed me to grade the various exegesis papers that the students submitted. And through it I realized a big folly even among Christian leaders. We interpret the Old Testament as though it was written in New testament times and as a result we often do not hear the Old Testament. We rather consistently hear the New Testament in the pages of the Old. 

Christians have a fixation, or rather, an obsession. Actually, we have two. Make it three! And the text for today, reveals all three very succinctly if we would but spend some time with it. The inevitable result of these obsessions is that very often we do not truly perceive what the Old Testament is saying. I will not keep you in suspense. So allow me to reveal the three obsessions. 

First, we love miracles. And so we want to see miracles everywhere. We love things out of the ordinary, thinking perhaps that miracles somehow prove that God is working among us. 

But if we read our scriptures carefully, we will see a deep ambiguity about miracles that can be summed up in Jesus’ words, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” Miracles prove nothing to someone who is not already convinced. 

Second, we want to see Jesus all over the pages of the Old Testament. We believe that when Luke tells us, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” it means that every page of the Old Testament has some references to Jesus. While it is definitely true that the Old Testament points to Jesus here and there, we sometimes go overboard in our zeal to identify him. 

Third, we promote gender inequality. Women are not treated with the same dignity with which we treat men despite the opening chapter of scripture telling us that God made men and women in his image. We identify men as good or bad. David was a good king; Saul a bad one. But when it comes to women, there is no good and bad. 

Rather, we see them solely in terms of their sexuality – either as chaste or as promiscuous. And this shows up in how we translate and interpret our scriptures. And unfortunately we don’t have a very good record as far as women are concerned. 

Let us deal with each of these obsessions in reverse order and we will understand what our text is saying. 

The word often translated ‘virgin’ in English bibles is the Hebrew word עַלמָה (almah). Those who reject the doctrine of the virgin conception of Jesus vehemently indicate that עַלמָה means ‘young woman’ and that there is another Hebrew word, בְּתוּלָה (betulah) that means ‘virgin’ and that, had Isaiah meant ‘virgin’ he should have used בְּתוּלָה rather than עַלמָה. Those who accept the doctrine of the virgin conception argue the reverse equally vehemently. 

So where does the truth lie? Obviously somewhere in the middle. My way of interpreting is to look at the context. 

As an example, consider the unfortunate news items we read often these days of women being molested and raped. Suppose one of the items read, “A young woman, 18, was kidnapped by a gang of men and taken to an isolated location, where she was raped.” 

What do we conclude? Are we looking at the atrocity committed? Or are we asking ourselves, “Was she a virgin?” The context is a report on a crime, not a report on the woman’s sexual experience. And we need to be mature enough to separate the two. 

If we follow this interpretive strategy, this is what we will find. In no passage for either of the two words is it required to translate the word as ‘virgin’. Using ‘young woman’ is more than enough. If you desire to check on this, and I encourage you to, I can give you the verses later by email. If you check on it, you will discover that your bible reads ‘virgin’ in most places. Replace it with ‘young woman’ and see if it makes sense. Let us take an example. 

The scripture text that comes most close to requiring the translation ‘virgin’ is Leviticus 21.13-14. Concerning priests the NIV reads, “The woman he marries must be a virgin. He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a virgin from his own people.” Putting aside the male desire to have a virgin bride, there is nothing in this context that necessitates translating בְּתוּלָה here as ‘virgin’ – ‘young woman’ will easily suffice. 

This is how it would then read: “The woman he marries must be a young woman. He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a young woman from his own people.” Of course, in this passage by implication, the woman would likely be a virgin, but that does not mean the word means ‘virgin’ and that certainly does not mean we translated it as such. There is a big difference between translation and interpretation. In this place, to render the word with ‘virgin’ is interpretation, not translation. 

If we put aside the male desire to sexualize women, we will find that none of the passages that contain בְּתוּלָה or עַלמָה actually require that the word be translated as ‘virgin’ though it may be implied. That is the sole reason why each of the sparring schools is capable of debunking the other position. You argue most comprehensively against what you already oppose, while ignoring the holes in your own arguments. 

With that in mind, we can see that Isaiah 7.14 would actually read: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: This young woman will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” 

So now you are thinking, “Deepak does not believe in the virgin conception of Jesus. Let us throw him out of church.” Do not prejudge me. I have only addressed one of the three obsessions! Perhaps you will have more arrows in your quiver once I am through! 

So to the second obsession. In the historical context, King Ahaz of Judah is afraid because Syria and Israel were amassing troops to attack Judah. And Ahaz knew he did not have enough men. So God sends Isaiah with a word of assurance and judgment. Isaiah was to take his son, Shear-Jashub, which means ‘a remnant will return’ to a place where clothes were washed, a detail we easily ignore. 

When Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign, God gives him a sign for each of the messages. Shear-Jashub points to the fact that Judah had also been unfaithful and that they would be attacked by Assyria and reduced to a remnant. Only a small portion of the soldiers would return home from the battlefield. That was the message of judgment. 

But there was also the message of assurance. Isaiah points to one of the women washing clothes and says that she will conceive and name her son Immanuel and that before he was old enough to know the difference between good and evil, the Assyrian empire would utterly destroy Israel and Syria. 

The Jews preserved the messages of Isaiah as scripture because they realized that he was a true prophet. Within a matter of years, Assyria did indeed destroy Syria and Israel. And they did indeed attack Judah, but left a vassal king there so that Judah would be a buffer between Assyria and Egypt. We can therefore conclude that the woman Isaiah pointed to did indeed bear a son and name him Immanuel. 

So now you are thinking, “Great! Deepak not only does not believe the virgin conception of Jesus; he also does not think Isaiah was prophesying about Jesus. Bring the fire and let him burn!” Hold on to your horses! There is still one more obsession to tackle. I just might give you more ammo for your cause! 

So if Isaiah was simply saying that a young woman there, who was washing clothes would become pregnant and name her son Immanuel, we can see that the passage does not speak of any miracle. 

Many women who wash clothes become pregnant. All of them, in my view, would have done so without any miracle other than the everyday miracles of conception and birth themselves. We don’t need to suppose anyone who heard Isaiah or anyone who read Isaiah in the seven centuries that intervened before Jesus’ birth ever thought, “One day, as Isaiah prophesied, a young woman will conceive miraculously without the involvement of a man.” 

To the contrary, in Jesus’ day, many young Jewish women wanted to be the mother of the promised deliverer. But they expected to become pregnant in the normal way, not by some unthinkable miracle. 

So there you are. When it was first written, our passage did not speak of a virgin conception. It spoke directly about the birth of a child everyone then living could verify. And it spoke about a birth as normal as any other. 


Yes, there is more. 

But, then comes Jesus. And in the light of Jesus’ life, Matthew goes back to the scriptures he loves in order to interpret the Jesus he loves. “Who is this Jesus?” asks Matthew. 

And the same Spirit that overshadowed Mary, then inspires Matthew to go to the prophecy of Isaiah. And Matthew realizes something that we perhaps don’t. This prophecy of Isaiah does not point forward to Jesus. Rather, it is Jesus who points back to Isaiah. For scripture is not static. It is dynamic. It might have meant something centuries back. But in the light of this new thing that God has done in and through Jesus, it takes on new meaning. 

Mary was not just a young woman, she was also a virgin, because she and Joseph had not had sexual relations. But if she had not conceived in the normal way, how did she conceive? And Matthew tells us about the role of the Spirit. And so we get to know about this miraculous conception, something unheard of, something never thought of, something never repeated. 

But even here, scripture does not encourage belief based on a miracle. We have it the wrong way round. If you had told Isaiah that one of his prophecies would be fulfilled through a virgin conception seven centuries later, he would have asked Ahaz to have you checked for mental instability. For him the sign was a natural event that would happen within a few years. 

And if you asked Matthew if Isaiah 7.14 is about Jesus, he would say, “Yes, certainly.” If you pressed him and asked if that were because of the miracle of virgin conception, he would say that you had it all wrong. The point of the prophecy was not the miracle. The miracle was just something that happened alongside the major thrust of the prophecy. 

The point of the prophecy was that in Jesus, finally God is with us. The miracle would mean nothing if Jesus were not God with us. And actually, once we realize that Jesus is God with us, the miracle pales to insignificance. Virgin conception? Yes. But that happened at one moment in the past, never before, never again. But forevermore, in the past, in the present and in the future, Jesus is God with us! 

Monday, July 29, 2013

The God Exegete [John 1.14-18] (30 September 2012)

Sermon Recording

In the course of biblical interpretation – called exegesis, there is no greater peril than etymological exegesis. Etymology is the study of the history of words and their origins. And very often we hear sermons based on the etymological interpretation of a word, the preacher making his or her point based on splitting the relevant word into its constituent parts. Let me cite two common examples. 

The Greek word behind the English word ‘church’ is ἐκκλησία (ekklesia). It is formed from two Greek words, the preposition ἐκ (ek), meaning ‘out’ and the verb καλέω (kaleo), meaning ‘to call’. The conclusion often reached is that ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) means ‘the called out ones’. However, the way the word is used in the New Testament and in the Septuagint and in Greek literature contemporaneous to the New Testament indicates that ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) referred to an assembly or gathering. 

The second example is the word παράκλητος (parakletos) used in John’s Gospel in connection with the Holy Spirit. It is formed from two Greek words, the preposition παρά (para), meaning ‘near’ or ‘beside’ and the adjective κλητός (kletos), meaning ‘called’. This often leads to the conclusion that John means that the Holy Spirit is one who is called near us at our side, from which we get the titles ‘Comforter’, ‘Counsellor’ and ‘Helper’. 

However, the word παράκλητος (parakletos) referred to the advocate for the defence in a courtroom scenario and should not be broken down arbitrarily into its components, especially when we see that John’s Gospel makes more sense if we see it as a courtroom drama with Jesus’ being the primary accused and the other characters’ being witnesses either for the prosecution or the defence. 

And now for an English example. Suppose I were a surgeon. During surgeries an intern assists me and gives me the things I ask for – scalpel, sutures, etc. Since she is handing me some things, would I be right to call her ‘handsome’? If I did I could be faulted on two counts. First, just because ‘handsome’ is indeed formed from the two words ‘hand’ and ‘some’, it does not mean that I can simply coalesce their meanings to obtain the meaning of the combination. Second, while in Victorian times calling a woman handsome was a compliment, these days most women would be offended because the word has strong masculine overtones. 

With all of this as background, we can move on to today’s text. I have spoken before from texts in the Gospel of John. And I wish to remind you of a couple of points I have made repeatedly. 

First, unlike the first three Gospels, John’s Gospel does not attempt to arrange its material in chronological manner. We see this in the prologue itself, where John jumps back and forth between Jesus and John the Baptist. 

Second, John’s Gospel reads like it has been written by some absolutely besot with Jesus. This author has experienced a love so great that it shows in the way he writes. For John, it is the person and character of Jesus that is at the heart of the universe. Everything else is a by product. And we see this in today’s text as we will soon see. 

So, let me read the text for today. I urge you to close your bibles and if necessary your eyes as well. Just focus on what you hear. This is my translation of John 1.14-18. 

"And the Speech became tangible and lived in our midst. And we perceived his radiance – the radiance of the only one at the side of the Father, brimming with grace and truth. 
John testified concerning him and pronounced, 'This is the one. He comes subsequent to me but has been placed preferentially to me because he is superior to me.' 
Now from his abundance we all are recipients of grace succeeding grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth have their cause for being in Jesus Christ. No one has ever perceived God. The only one God, who exists in the embrace of the Father has interpreted him."

Except for a few phrases, this must have sounded quite strange. In translating the passage in this manner I have tried to keep two things in balance. First, the Prologue to John’s Gospel is poetic in nature and so I have tried not to be too stodgy with the English words. Second, I have paid close attention to what the various words meant in those days rather than blindly relying on etymology. 

The aspect of etymology comes into play with regard to the Greek word μονογενής (monogenes), used twice in these 5 verses, once in v. 14 and the second time in v. 18. The word is made of two parts – the adjective μόνος (monos), meaning ‘sole’ or ‘only’ and the verb γίνομαι (ginomai), meaning ‘to cause to be’ or ‘to become’. 

The King James version and the NASB render the word as ‘the only begotten’. The NIV has ‘the one and only Son’. The Common English Bible and the Good News Bible have ‘the only Son’. And we could go on. 

The word appears 9 times in the New Testament, 3 times in the Gospel of Luke (at 7.12, 8.42 and 9.38), 4 times in the Gospel of John, once in Hebrews and once in the first Letter of John. All the uses in Luke are not in reference to Jesus. All other uses are in reference to Jesus. Inevitably the uses concerning Jesus include the idea of generation or begetting in the translations. The ones in Luke, which remember do not refer to Jesus, do not have this idea in the translations. 

So is the word μονογενής (monogenes) mainly focused on the idea of generation and begetting or is it mainly focused on the idea of uniqueness? The uses in Luke clearly indicate that the idea of uniqueness is primary. Why then, when it comes to Jesus do all the translations focus on the idea of begetting, when there is no other word in the New Testament that might even suggest such an idea? 

I think we have become hamstrung by our creeds, especially the Nicene Creed in which we find the words ‘We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds.’ The idea of begetting, whatever that means when we are speaking of God, supposedly comes from the word μονογενής (monogenes). 

Unfortunately, since everywhere else μονογενής (monogenes) stresses not the begotten-ness of the person but the uniqueness of the person we need to conclude that the etymological understanding of the word is misleading. 

So what does our passage tell us? Twice in the course of 5 verses John tells us that Jesus has a unique, one of a kind relationship to God. What is John trying to tell us? 

Many Christians decry what they call pluralism. We deny that there are different objects to which people direct their worship. However, we should know better. We see it with our own eyes, hear it with our own ears. We have neighbours offering us food items from this and that place of worship. Religiosity is all pervasive in India, even if few could give you any rationale behind the various observances. 

The same was true of the Roman Empire. Places of worship flourished all over. Farmers would ask ‘god’ to bless their crops. Animal herders would ask ‘god’ to give their cattle or sheep healthy offspring. Emperors would ask ‘god’ to give them victory over their enemies. We could go on. The words ‘god’, ‘lord’, ‘master’, ‘saviour’ etc. would have been heard all over the place. 

Just this past week my mom sent me an email. It was a forward of a blog post. Here is a short snippet: 
Our spiritual life is not multiple-choice, it is not a smorgasbord of options, it is not a variety pack we can pick and choose from based upon what looks good to us. 
The author was well intentioned. However, simply stating something does not make it true. Why, when there are so many gods out there, is spirituality not a variety pack? 

John has the answer. Twice in these 5 verses he uses the combination ‘grace and truth’. Twice he refers to Jesus’ unique relationship with the Father. And he concludes with the claim that Jesus has actually interpreted God for us. 

What does that mean? We often use the phrase ‘Jesus is God’ in conversations or while witnessing to others or while trying to explain the doctrine of the trinity. 

When we do this it is implicit that the word ‘God’ describes something we have some knowledge about. We have a box labelled ‘God’ and we are placing Jesus in that box. Ah ‘Jesus’! This belongs in that ‘God’ box. 

And John has allowed us to do this right from verse 1 in the phrase ‘and the Word was God.’ The word ‘God’ is more familiar to us than the word ‘Word’. And so we would readily conclude that we know what ‘God’ means and try to categorize ‘Word’ accordingly. 

And that works well till the end of our passage. For there John tells us that none of us really have perceived God. We are ignorant about God. It is God who is unknown. But we have perceived and experienced Jesus. 

John knows that all the options available are interpretations of what is unknown – namely God. Unlike the blog, he does not simply dismiss the other options. He is actually inviting people to test the various interpretations. 

John tells us that with Jesus we will find that God is the embodiment of grace and truth, that from him we receive grace succeeding grace. What is unsaid is that all the other interpretations will fail in this regard. In some, instead of grace we will find rules, unforgiveness or intimidation. In others, instead of truth we will find obscurantism, deceit or a denial of reality. In still others, we will find limits to the grace we can receive or conditions under which we may expect to receive grace. 

And John is asking us, “Which of these, if taken to its logical conclusion would yield a world that will flourish, a world in which love and selflessness will prevail?” 

John has no doubts. “Test all you want,” he would say. “But at the end of the day, if you are honest, you will realize that the one definitive interpretation of the person and character of God is – Jesus.” 

In other words, John’s creed would not have been ‘Jesus is God’ though quite obviously he did believe that and would expect us also to believe the same. Rather, John’s creed would have been ‘this world can be one filled with love and justice and truth and faithfulness only if God is like Jesus, for Jesus is the only one who exists constantly in the embrace of the Father and who, therefore, is the only one qualified to give us a portrait of God that we can both understand and trust.’ 

Jesus, in other words, is the one trustworthy God exegete.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Seductive Prison [Genesis 11] (2 September 2012)

I remember in 1983 mom, dad, my sister and I had gone to the US for a holiday. It was a wonderful time. In a matter of days we saw many wonderful things, wonderful, that is, in my sight. From natural wonders like the Niagara Falls to human wonders like the Epcot Center near Walt Disney World in Florida. Yes, yes! To my 14 year old mind that loved science, Epcot Center made a more lasting impression than did Mickey and his buddies! 

And I remember being on the Empire State Building and looking down from heights that would be a sure test for acrophobia – the fear of heights. The Empire State Building was the tallest human structure when it was made in 1931. It no longer is. Anyone care to know which is the tallest standing humans structure today? 

So strange right? How many of us know the most powerful car today? Or the aircraft that can fly fastest? Or the longest artificial dam? But for some strange reason we know that the Burj Khalifa is the tallest human structure today. 

Humans have always been obsessed with heights. Scaling Mt. Everest was the ultimate goal for mountaineers, even though K2, also known as Mount Godwin-Austin, the second highest mountain, is considered by most mountaineers to be the toughest mountain to climb. 

Yes, humans have always been obsessed with heights. And that is probably why we might think that today’s passage is about height. And that is probably why most of our bibles might say that this passage is about the Tower of Babel. 

True the passage mentions the tower. However, to conclude that the passage is about the tower is similar to concluding that the last book of the bible is about Patmos just because the island is mentioned in the first chapter of that book. 

So what is this chapter really about? In v. 4 the people say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” In v. 5 we read, “the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.” In both places the tower is mentioned, preceded by the city. 

However, in v. 8 we read, “they stopped building the city.” There is no mention here of the tower because it is insignificant. The result of God’s action was that they stopped building the city. We can infer that they also stopped building the tower. But abandoning the city was the important outcome. Why? 

We read in v. 4, that the people said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” 

The building of the city has an ulterior goal. They did not want to be scattered. But at the end of our passage in v. 9 we read, “From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.” 

So what we have is this: The humans wanted not to be scattered and so they decided to build a city. However, in response God did something which made them abandon building the city as a result of which they were scattered. 

The crux of the passage is not the tower, but the city. They very fact that at the end of our passage, the city is named shows us that the tower was not important. If the tower were important, why is it forgotten in the second part of our passage? 

Also, the name of the city is important. We must be careful with reading the bible too literalistic a manner. As an example, and a pre-revelation for those who come for the bible study on Wednesdays, in Revelation 11 we learn that Jerusalem can be symbolically called Sodom or Egypt. 

Here in Genesis 11 we are being told not that the city was literally called Babel, or perhaps Babylon, but that its nature was that of Babel, confusion. 

At the textual level the confusion relates to the inability of the humans to understand each other. But the reason the city is called Babel is that the city itself reveals a deeper confusion. Or more to the point, the city produces a deep confusion. 

So let me ask you a question. This is not an open book test, so no peeking into scripture. Where in the bible do we first read of a city? 

Strange that so many knew about the Burj Khalifa, but so few know about the first mention of a city in scripture. 

In Genesis 4, after Cain has murdered Abel and after God pronounces a sentence on Cain we read: 

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. 

God provided some means of protecting Cain from the consequences of murdering Abel and we who have learnt to trust God, even if feebly, can assume that the protective means were adequate. Yet, Cain went away from God’s presence, rejecting this protection. And his first recorded public act is that of building a city. 

Cain’s city, the city built away from God’s presence, soon gives rise to Lamech, under whom the escalation of violence is institutionalized. Read Genesis 4.17-24 to convince yourself. 

Now living in cities, humans became so depraved that God found no way to address this problem than with a flood. But hardly has the flood faded from memory than humans resume their city building. 

In his masterpiece, Meaning of the City, Jacques Ellul, has much to say, obviously about the city. I must give a spoiler alert here to those who attend the bible studies. Referring to our passage Ellul writes: 

Babylon, the great city, or Babylon the Great. The biggest in the world. No one can rival her, not even Rome. Not because of her historical greatness, but because of what she represents mythically. All the cities of the world are brought together in her, she is the synthesis of them all. She is the head and the standard for the other cities. When the wrath of God is loosed, she is struck first. When she is struck, all the other cities are struck in her. The blame laid on her shoulders is applicable to every city... Everything said about Babylon is in fact to be understood for the cities as a whole. 
As all the other cities, Babylon (representative of all the others) is at the hub of civilization. Business operates for the city, industry is developed for the city, ships ply the seas for the city, luxury and beauty blossoms forth in the city, power rises and becomes great in the city. There is everything for sale, the bodies and souls of men. She is the very home of civilization and when the great city vanishes, there is no more civilization, a world disappears. She is the one struck in war, and she is the first to be struck in the war between the Lord and the powers of the world. A city greater than a simple city — the finishing of a work that can in no wise be finished, which man starts over indefinitely with ever the same purpose and the same access. Babylon, Venice, Paris, New York — they are all the same city, only one Babel always reappearing, a city from the beginning mortally wounded: ‘and they left off building the city.’ 

It is important here to note that when Ellul uses the word city, he does not simply mean hugely populated regions. Any place that is primarily a consumer rather than a producer of the necessities of life – food, shelter, clothing – is called a city. Any place that promises safety is a city. In today’s world anything from a village to a town to a city to a nation is what Ellul would classify as having characteristics that are quintessentially those of the city. Keep this in mind as we proceed. 

God intended that humans should spread and fill the earth, sharing its bounty with each other and with the rest of creation. But beginning from Cain and encapsulated poignantly in today’s text, humans reject this. 

We do not believe that God’s protection is enough. We fear being scattered. We fear being so few in number at any place that other humans or animals could overwhelm us. Instead we want our walls, our gates, our gatekeepers, our guardians. The city is ultimately the attempt of humanity to protect itself from the harsh world. People travel to the city from rural areas in the hopes of having a better life. The city seduces us all into believing that we are safer here than elsewhere. 

However, we know better. The city is where danger lurks in day and night. Crime is rampant in the city. Plagues start in the city due to the high population density. War is waged by one city against another. The city promises safety but is the most unsafe of places. 

And so when humans decided to gather in one city at Babel, God decides to put an end to this deception and delusion. The introduction of different languages serve the purposes of scattering the people and of leaving the city unfinished. 

We know and God knows that this does not quench the human desire to build cities. For the building of cities is the means by which humans hope to become safe. 

And the city has its positive qualities. Culture, literature, art, music, and science flourish in the city. And these are good. These are valuable human endeavours. But the problem is that the city is confused. That is why the archetypal city is Babel, confusion. 

And what is its confusion? Where is it misled? Every human city ever built has been built apart from the presence of the true God. There may be temples and mosques and churches and other so-called holy places. But the true God, the living God, is not welcome in the city because the city is the human insistence of living without God. 

But the desire to build and the desire to be creative is good and God will encourage these desires. And ironically, he will finally bring humans to a city. And so in Revelation 21 we read: 

I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it. 

And so we realize the shocking truth about the city’s confusion: That without God at its center, a city is not a protection from what is outside but a prison for those on the inside.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Image in the Temple [Genesis 1] (8 July 2012)

Sermon Recording

Today, we are beginning a series of sermons on the first few chapters of Genesis and the first chapter of the Gospel according to John. We are calling the sermon series ‘Beginnings.’ As many of you probably know, the series on Romans was supposed to conclude two Sundays back and this series was supposed to start last Sunday. I am glad though that it is starting today because something happened this past week.

You may have read in the newspapers that scientists at the CERN Supercollider have discovered the Higgs Boson, one of the fundamental particles predicted almost half a century ago.

Why am I glad? Well, for three reasons. First, I have been following the research at CERN ever since the Supercollider went operational, hoping for the discovery of new particles, especially the Higgs Boson.

Second, I was hoping that in the wake of its discovery, the prominent scientists would disavow connection to the popular term ‘God particle’ that is used for the boson. Both these hopes have now been realized.

Third, I will be giving the same message today that I would have were the boson not discovered. Hence, speaking after its discovery, I can assure you that, profound though the discovery was, it has not affected my beliefs, nor indeed the manner in which I interpret today’s text.

So to today’s text. The text starts with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” When you hear the word “created” in this context, what comes to mind? Probably something like the big bang? God bringing something into existence out of nothing. 

What about when you hear the sentence “He created a piece of art”? Surely not a one-time explosive big bang, but a possibly long process. And we know that the artist would not have started with nothing, but with a canvas, brushes, easel, paints, etc. 

What about when you read 1 Samuel 2.29? “Why do you honor your sons more than me by fattening yourselves on the choice parts of every offering made by my people Israel?” 

What? What relevance does this have? The word translated as ‘fattening yourselves’ is the same that is translated as ‘created’ in Genesis 1.1. The Hebrew word is בָּרָא. 

If we do a word study of this word in the Old Testament we will find the following. First, when the verb takes a direct object, God is always the subject. Second, when the verb is reflexive as in 1 Samuel 2.29, the subject is a human. 

Third, most often, the focus of the verb is not on the material aspects. This is seen in Psalm 51.1, where David sings, “Create in me a clean heart.” He is not asking God to unclog his arteries or to wash the blood pump with soap! We know what he means, and it is not material in nature. 

If we go through all the uses of בָּרָא we will see that the common thread is not that of making something out of nothing, but filling something that already exists with meaning and purpose. 

Mind you, I am not saying that God did not create the material universe from scratch. What I am saying is that the focus of Genesis 1 is not on material creation from scratch, but on God’s giving creation meaning and purpose. It is a wonderful meaning and a powerful purpose, so stick with me. 

Apart from the study of the word בָּרָא, we have some intriguing clues, things that call out for recognition and understanding. 

First, in v. 2 we read, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” We see that, prior to the happenings of v. 3 itself, the earth existed, the darkness existed and the waters existed. So when we read about darkness in vv. 4-5 and about waters in vv. 6-7, the text is not speaking of their being physically brought into existence out of nothing. Rather, the focus is somewhere else. 

Second, why does God call the light, day? Does that not strike you as odd. Why did he not call the light, light? It is like saying, “I will call this group of pages, a book.” Not all groups of pages are books. But all books are groups of pages – even if it is in digital format on your iPad or Kindle. Similarly, not all light is day. But all day it is light. Similarly, it is dark at night, but not all darkness is night. 

Third, v. 4 is inexplicable. There we read that God separated the light from the darkness. But we know and the ancients knew that darkness and light are immiscible! Where one exists, the other is excluded. Darkness is precisely the absence of light. 

It is best to think of the light spoken of in v. 5 not as light in its essence, but as a duration or period of light. Does it not make sense that after reading about darkness covering the earth, that God designated a period of light, which he named “day”? And God designated a period of darkness, which he called “night.” This makes more sense than naming light itself “day”. 

Fourth, if we concentrate on the first three days, we will see that the idea that binds them together is that of separation. On day 1, God separates a period of light from a period of darkness. On day 2, God separates the waters below, that is, on the face of the earth, from the water above, that is, in the sky. 

Now we know that there is no such physical barrier that controls the rains. But that is what the ancients believed. They believed the earth is flat and that there was a canopy that contained the waters in the sky and that from time to time the canopy was drawn back to bring rain. 

On day 3 God separates the land from the seas, bringing dry ground into the picture, where there had been only waters. 

What have these three days accomplished? Day 1 set in motion the diurnal cycle of alternating day and night, without which nothing could exist. Day 2 set in motion the cycle of seasons, which for the ancients was mainly about control of rain, without which nothing could grow and flourish. Day 3 provided the space within which the two cycles could function to bring food into being, here vegetation which depends on both the diurnal and seasonal cycles. 

Isaiah 45.18 captures these three days succinctly when God says, “This is what the Lord says... he who fashioned and made the earth; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited.” The earth has a function and that function is for it to be inhabited. And the first three days of Genesis 1 tell us how God set up the overarching mechanisms as a consequence of which the earth could become habitable. 

So now to the next three days. If the first three days set up the mechanisms or functions for habitation, the second three days describe the entities through which the functions are fulfilled. 

Day and night are brought to the earth by the operation of the sun and the moon. These are mentioned on the fourth day. On the fifth day, the places not inhabitable by humans, namely, water and air, are filled with those who can inhabit them because God wants this earth to be bursting with life. And on the sixth day, the land itself is populated with all sorts of creatures. 

We have now reached v. 25. And the text is still probably quite opaque to us. It is opaque to us because it was not written to us. It was certainly written for us, but not to us. It was written to the Israelites many millennia ago. And in order to make the text transparent, we must ask ourselves, “What would have crossed an ancient Israelite’s mind when he or she read this?” 

The bible is not written in a vacuum. And the Israelites did not live isolated from the people around them. They would have known the writings of their neighbors – the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Sumerians, etc. And the Israelites would have recognized Genesis 1 as being similar at points to yet markedly different from the temple texts of their neighbors. 

A temple text, as the name might suggest, described the building and installation of a temple. The common pattern was three stanzas that described the timings of the offerings, the festival calendar and the acceptable offerings. You will immediately see a parallel between this and the first three days of Genesis. 

After this, in a temple text, comes another three stanzas, which describe the who’s-who of the temple. This is a description of their priesthood. Who is responsible for the daily offerings, who is responsible for the various festivals in the year and who is responsible for the temple itself. 

The parallels here with days four to six of Genesis 1 are not evident. But if you see this text as a parody of the other temple texts it makes sense. There is no specific human priesthood in Genesis 1. This is because all of inanimate creation and animate creation are already accepted by the real true God. There is no need for a priest because God has already declared everything good. 

And if you are not yet convinced, let me ask you, “What do I hold in my hand?” A ring. Any specific ring? It is my wedding ring. When the goldsmith made it, he did not make it to be a wedding ring. He would not have known who would have bought it and for what purpose. When it was bought the purpose was known. However, knowing the purpose and fulfilling it are two quite different things. The ring fulfilled its purpose when it was put on my hand. 

In much the same way, a temple text describes the installation of a temple. But it is incomplete without the final element. This is because a temple cannot function without that final element. Anyone care to hazard a guess as to what that element might be? 

A temple is incomplete without the installation of the idol of the deity. And now we can see the importance and relevance of vv. 26-27. This is not some random strange thought propping up suddenly. 

Genesis 1 is telling its readers that creation itself is the temple of the living God. As scripture says elsewhere, heaven is his throne and the earth his footstool. And elsewhere, the whole earth is full of the glory of God. 

But if creation is the temple of the living God, where is the idol? And Genesis 1 answers that God has created human beings to be that image, that idol. They are the representation of the true God to the rest of creation. 

We can learn many things from this wonderful chapter. Most I cannot even mention because I have not laid the groundwork for them. Indeed, to speak of each of these aspects, we would need many months of messages. But here are a few things we can conclude. 

First, all of creation is God’s temple. The bible warns us about desecrating God’s temple. And so we must be careful about how we treat this creation, all of creation, for there is no separate sacred space. 

Second, the prohibition against making idols must be viewed in light of this passage. If God himself has placed idols, images, icons of his design in this temple of his, who are we to attempt to replace them? To make an idol, at the very least, is to say that God did not know what he was doing when he decided to be represented by humans. To make an idol, at its worst, is to reject God’s designation of humans as his image bearers. It is to say, “I cannot bear his image. Let this lifeless lump of clay do it.” 

Third, every human has been called to bear God’s image to the rest of creation. This is not restricted to a group of priests or a set of rulers. Divine representation is the prerogative of every human, male and female, and any attempt to deny this to any human is an affront to God. 

The very first chapter of the bible insists on an order of equality, rather than a hierarchical one, an order of justice, rather than a lopsided one. It tells us about a marvellous purpose extending to the entire universe. And it tells us about a glorious purpose given to humans. How can we not be in awe of the God who did this?