Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Clueless Prophet [John 11.45-53] (25 March 2011)

Can you imagine the scene? Jesus has just raised Lazarus, another miraculous sign that points toward who he is. He is the resurrection and the life and so he is able to bring Lazarus back to life. This is the last miracle Jesus performs before he is crucified, crowning his ministry by healing Adam’s disease – death itself!

But the response of the Jewish leaders is to want to destroy him. Seems strange that Jesus had just restored life and in response people wished to take his away.

But let us focus on the words of Caiaphas. John tells us clearly that Caiaphas said something that was prophetic in nature. What does that mean? What does prophecy entail? Is it simply telling what is about to happen? It cannot be in this context. We know that though Jesus did die, the Jewish nation was dispersed and ceased to exist just a few decades later. Caiaphas could not have gotten that wrong and still have been prophesying.

So what was Caiaphas prophesying? John tells us, “He prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the Jewish nation. Caiaphas certainly does not have this consciously on his mind. No! For him “it is better to have one man die than for the whole nation to perish.” He has in mind a diversion of attention. The other leaders had said that Jesus’ popularity would invite Roman wrath and that the nation would be destroyed. But Caiaphas sees a sinister solution. He sees the truth that humans will forget their real problems if they can find a small minority – in this case a single person – who can be blamed for the problems. Wherever you see minorities persecuted, Caiaphas is speaking on his own account. He is the master exponent of targeting a scapegoat so as to sweep the real problem under the carpet. He sees that, if only Roman wrath could be directed at Jesus for a while, the catharsis that resulted would buy the Jewish people some more time. With this wannabe messiah dead the zeal of the Jews would subside and Rome would rule them longer without having to disperse them throughout the empire. Caiaphas knows that Roman wrath and Jewish zeal could be dealt with if one charismatic troublemaker could be made into a scapegoat. That is what he has in mind. One man, Jesus, would die and the Jewish people would be spared from Roman wrath.

But that is not what makes his words a prophecy. No! Prophecy in the Old Testament did not consist mainly in foretelling the future. Rather, the main thrust of prophecy in the Old Testament was on revealing the true nature of things from God’s perspective. 

And so when Caiaphas says, “it is better to have one man die for the people” through him God was speaking another truth. Jesus’ death is not about one man dying and others not dying. It is not about one man tasting death so that others may be snatched from death’s jaws. It is not about Jesus dying in place of others. It is not about Jesus dying instead of others.

Rather, it is that Jesus’ death positively benefits others. It is better that one man dies for the benefit of others, in order to work something positive in their lives, for the express purpose of improving their condition. Through Caiaphas, God was revealing his inscrutable purposes. This death will not be like that of the wannabe messiahs who preceded Jesus. Their deaths only accomplished the short term diversion that Caiaphas had in mind – targeting of a scapegoat. But Jesus’ death would work to positively benefit all of God’s children. Caiaphas had in mind a human solution that had to be repeated every time the people were stirred up. God had in mind a divine solution that would happen once but be effective through time and space. In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth we are told that in Jesus God is with us. But here through Caiaphas God tells us that the only reason God can be with us in Jesus is that God is for us, on our side and that in Jesus he has put that divine ‘for-ness’, that divine favor, into action.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Flip Side of God's Grace [Jonah 4] (4 September 2011)

Many of you would probably know that India is mentioned in Esther 1:1. But how many of you know that Bangalore is alluded to in the bible? In fact, the allusion is in the passage we just read. If you are not convinced, perhaps a clip from Youtube would convince you.

Bangalore has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left! But jokes aside.

We were in the US when the great towers came crashing down. I had woken up late that day and Alice had already gone to work. As Prayerna slept – Tasha was not born yet – I did something I do not normally do. I switched the TV on. And was utterly shocked and dismayed. Unlike many people, the focus of my thoughts was not on how such an act of terror could have been successfully carried out. No! My focus was on the thousands who had woken up that morning, said goodbye to their families, and then, within hours, had their lives snuffed out. Why? Why such injustice?

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t then have, nor do I now have, any delusion that the USA was God’s chosen country and could never do any wrong! But does anyone truly deserve to die like that? And why do such things happen?

Within two days of the disaster, while so many people in the USA and around the world were searching and yearning for answers, we had prominent Christian leaders present their view of why the towers fell. Here is one.

Last week, we dealt with Jonah 3 and heard about how the Ninevites repented on hearing Jonah’s message and that God, seeing their repentance, did not destroy the city.

Jonah 4 begins with an angry Jonah remembering what had transpired between him and God the first time God had given him the task to proclaim a message to Nineveh. “I knew,” Jonah says. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” 

This is almost an Old Testament creedal statement. It is almost verbatim from Psalm 145:8. It appears also in Joel 2:13, Exodus 34:6-7, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, and Psalm 111:4 and with similar ideas, though not verbatim anymore, in Nehemiah 9:17 and 2 Chronicles 30:9. But this occurrence in Jonah is the only one in which the speaker is angry and disappointed and dissatisfied. 

On Jonah’s lips, this statement of faith becomes almost an indictment. It is as though Jonah turns this statement of comfort and assurance on its head and makes it into an accusation. “I knew” is Jonah pointing his finger at God.

“I knew... that is why I did not go.” “I knew... that if I went, that would introduce the possibility that they would repent.” “And I knew... that if they did you would forgive.”

For Jonah, the world is crumbling. The Lord of heaven and earth is not punishing those who deserve to be punished. The Ninevites had not just sown violence, they had been downright evil. Let me quote from the annals of King Ashurnasirpal II who reigned from 883-859BC.

"I slaughtered them; with their blood I dyed the mountain red like wool…. The heads of their warriors I cut off, and I formed them into a pillar over against their city; their young men and their maidens I burned in the fire. … I destroyed, I demolished, I burned. I took their warriors prisoner and impaled them on stakes before their cities. I flayed the nobles, as many as had rebelled, and spread their skins out on the piles of dead corpses… Many of the captives I burned in a fire. Many I took alive; from some I cut off their hands to the wrist, from others I cut off their noses, ears and fingers; I put out the eyes of many of the soldiers.”
So powerful was the Assyrian army and so brutal and inhumane their methods of torture, that whole nations just surrendered rather than run the risk of being tortured. They had taken intimidation and torture to new heights – or perhaps we should say depths.

The Ninevites had sown violence. There was no doubt about that. And Jonah asked, “Why did they not reap violence at the hand of God? Why are they not being punished as they deserve?”

Jonah cannot believe that there is no justice in the world, that God will not be just and do what is right. God is gracious and compassionate to his people because he promised that he would be. But he made no promises to the others right? So he can be the wrathful judge toward the others right?

And so Jonah goes outside the city, makes himself a shelter and sits in its shade. But even here the story drips with irony. No sooner have we been told that Jonah has built a shelter than we read that God provided a vine to give Jonah shade and to ease his discomfort. The shelter Jonah had built was just not enough. Even here, while he is angry with God, it is God’s provision that enables him to live on. And Jonah is quite content and presumably he slept soundly.

But the next day his sleep is disturbed by the simple fact that the vine was inside a worm! God had sent a worm to eat up the entire vine. And that worm is doing a very great job. Before Jonah could even understand what was happening, the worm has decimated the vine.

If Jonah was annoyed then, his troubles were only beginning, for God now sends a sirocco, so hot and dry and furious that all the humidity vanishes and the sun dehydrates Jonah to the point where once again he expresses a desire to die.

In his view, even though he may have run away the first time, he has come around and done what God had asked him to do. In his eyes he is a righteous person, one who should enjoy the blessings and grace of God and not an evildoer who should be punished by God. But in his eyes he is being punished.

Not only has God refused to punish those who everyone would denounce as violent evildoers, but also he now punishes his reluctant, but obedient messenger. And this is an unjust world, Jonah concludes, not one in which he would like to live anymore. 

This is a world in which God allows good things to happen to bad people and bad things to happen to good people. To use the stronger wording of Jonah, God orchestrates bad things happening to good people while at the same time refusing to let bad things happen to bad people. 

Jonah can live in a world in which good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. That is a predictable world in which he would be able to function. Evildoers should be punished.

Why does Jonah think this way? He wants a black and white world, where cause and effect are closely linked. As you sow, so shall you reap. If you sow violence, you reap punishment. If you sow faithfulness, you reap blessings.

So many of us would like the world to work that way. If it were true that you reap what you sow, then we need not be in anguish because someone is suffering or if someone suddenly falls ill or if someone is being mistreated by others. After all, if we reap what we sow then evil and suffering are not mysteries. Rather, they reveal what was sown.

And so how often have we concluded from the situation a person is in that he or she has done some evil, sinned in some way? Have we not entertained the thought that someone’s suffering is due to that person’s sin? We join the ranks of Job’s friends and point the accusing finger.

The clip we saw earlier is unsettling to me. Unsettling because we all have that tendency in us – to greater or lesser degrees. Like Jonah, we are quick to resort to the law of cause and effect when dealing with others. Have we not said – at least in our hearts – God will punish those evil doers, those... and here you can fill in the sin that troubles you the most?

In the clip you are about to see, Gandalf provides a sobering word to Frodo in the Lord of the Rings.

Have we at times been like Jonah, disappointed that evil did not befall those who we think are sinners and evildoers? Have we been quick to embrace God’s grace and compassion when it is directed to us while at the same time yearning for recompense for those whom we believe are sinful?

Jonah ends in a strange way. The story has no closure. It is open ended, the plot unfinished. Because it ends with God asking a question. And the question is directed toward the reader. “Should I not be concerned?” is God’s question. When we find ourselves thinking that judgment will befall a person or a group of persons we are to go back to this book and ask ourselves, “Should God not be concerned?”

And our response is critical. The law of cause and effect is the law of karma, make no mistake. Do we really want the law of karma active in our lives? Do we want that predictable world in which everything can be explained? Or have we readers realized – unlike stubborn Jonah – that God’s gracious compassion is what frees us – and even those whom we consider evildoers – from the tyranny of cause and effect? 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Salvation Belongs to the Lord [Jonah 2] (21 August 2011)

I get a, pardon the pun, fishy feeling when I read Jonah 2. Something just doesn’t seem quite right. Something seems out of place. Let me see if you get that feeling too. Here are some phrases from vv. 2-8:

“I called to the Lord and he answered me.”
“I called for help and you listened to my cry.”
“You brought my life up from the pit”

All of verses 2 to 8 seem to indicate that Jonah is reporting about some event that had already reached its favourable resolution. But he is still in the fish! He may have been saved from drowning, but he’s still not out of troubled waters!

If you have a bible with cross references, you will find a whole bunch of them for these verses. There are links with at least ten Psalms, in addition to Lamentations, 1 & 2 Samuel, Job, Deuteronomy and 2 Chronicles. 

The links are revealing, especially the links to the Psalms. They are from two types of Psalms. On the one hand is Psalm 86, which is a prayer, much like our prayers, in which we use present tense imperatives while asking God to do something. Save me from this situation, deliver me according to your love, etc.

On the other hand is Psalm 18, which is a thanksgiving psalm, in which a person who was in a distressing situation recounts publicly how God delivered him. Here we have verbs predominantly in the past tense. I was in distress and he delivered me, I was surrounded by enemies and he rescued me, etc.

In Jonah we have the strange situation of a person who is still in distress offering a mish mash of elements from the Psalms that sounds like a thanksgiving. Nowhere in the Psalms do we find the situation of a person who is still in distress offering a thanksgiving. The person may make vows and promises concerning what he would do if he were delivered. But he does not offer thanks before thanks is due.

Jonah’s words sound like a knee jerk response to a trying situation. It sounds not quite genuine. It sounds as though Jonah, who seems to have known scripture very well, was simply repeating some of the lines. In other words, in his situation it sounds like religious platitudes.

And though v. 1 tells us that Jonah prayed to God, he begins by saying, “In my distress I called to the Lord.” Does one actually pray to God that way? Do we tell God, “In my distress I called to the Lord?” Does that not sound like something we might hear in a testimonial? In fact, if v. 1 did not tell us Jonah was in the fish and that he was praying, we would quite easily have concluded that these verses belong after chapter 2, after God has actually delivered Jonah.

In fact, some scholars have suggested that we move the last verse of chapter 2 to just after the last verse of chapter 1 so that all these past tense references might make sense. But I think the author of Jonah’s story is making another point and is using Jonah to make it.

Having told us that Jonah prayed, the author tells us actually that Jonah babbled some random verses from the Psalms and other books of scripture. We would be hard pressed to comprehend what Jonah was praying for because there is no such thing as a request in all these verses. There is not even one present tense imperative in the whole passage! There is a promise to fulfil a vow in v. 9, but absolutely no indication of what God’s part of the bargain was!

But the author is a remarkable storyteller. In 1.17 he has told us that Jonah was in the fish for three days and nights. Surely he can’t simply go to 2.10 and have Jonah spat out. No! He needs some time to pass in the reading. 

And the reader would be thinking, “What in the world did Jonah do for all that time?” And the author tells us, “He prayed.” But it is evident that this was supposed to be tongue in cheek. Jonah ‘prayed’ – that is, he repeated some phrases already etched in his mind, but he was actually just saying words.

But through all of this, God was teaching Jonah something. And what that something is, is revealed in the timing used by the author. At the end of chapter 1 we read that Jonah was ready for death by drowning. And just at that time the author tells us, “But God provided a fish.” The strangest of provisions, but enough to spare Jonah from drowning.

But once again, Jonah is in distress. He is in the fish, in pitch blackness. His fate is uncertain. But God commands the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land. And the author tells us that this happens just after Jonah himself, despite his babbling has voiced the central lesson of the entire book. 

Verse 9 stands as a literary hinge in the book. Just as the reader is beginning to think, “Ok, he’s babbling in the fish. When will this get over?” Jonah finally says, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”

And immediately he is on dry ground. What the author is trying to tell us is that we may know all of scripture, but that is not going to save us in any way. Rather, salvation is God’s prerogative.

This is something Jonah had forgotten. He ran away toward Tarshish because he knew that taking any message to Nineveh might open a door through which God could save the Ninevites. He ran away to Tarshish because he wanted to have the final say about what happened to the Ninevites. He thought, “If I refuse to go, they will never hear the message and will perish.”

He is even willing to die when he asks the sailors to throw him overboard. In those days, very few Israelites knew how to swim even in calm water, let alone in a churning sea. When he asked to be thrown overboard, he expected to die. However, the author tells us, “but the Lord provided a great fish.”

Jonah may have had plans. But his plans were not going to thwart God’s plans. But God provided a great fish. And Jonah finds himself still alive. 

And when he finally admits what the real situation is – namely that salvation is God’s prerogative – he finds himself ashore and with the same task.

Salvation belongs to the Lord. It is a declaration, not just about God being in control. Rather, it is also surrender. It is surrender to the foolishness of God’s ways. 

Jesus compared himself to only one prophet – Jonah. To those listening to him, Jesus had mentioned his impending death and his resurrection. Everything from Jonah 1.17, where God provides a fish to swallow Jonah, to Jonah 2.10, where the fish vomits Jonah, is used by Jesus as a sign of his death and resurrection.

To those who were waiting for salvation to come to the Jews through military might, Jesus said, “Unless a seed dies, it remains by itself.” And finally that is how God chose to save the world.

Salvation belongs to the Lord.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Count your blessings, Count on Jesus [Acts 4.1-22] (10 July 2011)

I have often had my attention gripped by the sign boards that read “Church of God (Full Gospel) in India”. Very common in Kerala and now even in Bangalore, the boards imply that there might be something as a not full gospel, or an incomplete gospel. And indeed there is. The text we read today indicates what such an incomplete gospel would be.

I must point out that the incompleteness mentioned in our text is not the incompleteness suggested by the sign boards. The sign boards allude to the perception of that group of Christians that other Christians do not experience what they would call visible signs of the baptism of the Holy Spirit – normally centred around speaking in tongues.

But our text speaks of another kind of incompleteness – the kind that is most rampant today both inside and outside the church. So let us go back to our text with a little background.

Can you imagine what the talking point among the Jewish leaders would have been in the days immediately following Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and immediately following the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost? These were all events that could be dismissed. The first two were private events. Jesus’ resurrection appearances were only to his disciples, not to Caiaphas or Pilate or to Jews who were not in his little group. His ascension too was witnessed only by his disciples. Pentecost was a public event, but they could always blame it on drunkenness. 

But the increasingly public nature of this new movement would have been a cause for concern among the Jewish leaders. Peter’s sermon, recorded in Acts 2, would have been really troubling because these former timid people, who had deserted their leader upon his arrest, were suddenly claiming the most extraordinary things. And they were laying the blame for his death firmly at the doorstep of the Jewish leadership.

What the leaders had hoped for had not materialized. The movements around all prior messianic pretenders had fizzled out as soon as that person had been arrested or killed. But this one was like a bad coin that just wouldn’t go away! Jesus had died. But less than two weeks later he was back in the preaching of his formerly cowardly followers.

And now they have themselves seen that the man who was formerly crippled, was walking. As they themselves say in today’s passage, “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have done an outstanding miracle, and we cannot deny it.” They would have loved to deny it! But they could not. This event was too public, the former cripple too easily recognized, for them to deny it.

So they come up with a solution. It appears once in v. 17 and then again in v. 18. They warned Peter and John not to speak in Jesus’ name.

You see, when they had first taken the two apostles into custody they had asked them, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” But in v. 2 we read that the leaders were perturbed because the disciples were preaching about Jesus. So they knew the answer. But presumably the leaders were not present when the healing actually occurred. So they wanted the apostles to testify. They perhaps hoped the apostles would incriminate themselves.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter is no longer a naïve person. He asks them if they are interrogating him because of the good deed that had been done. This puts the leaders in a Catch 22 situation. They know they cannot deny that a good deed had been done. But they cannot then say that they have detained the very persons through whom the good deed had been done because that would mean that they do not approve of such healings.

We will hold off on the rest of Peter’s response and continue to the final command of the leaders. They do not ask them to discontinue the healings, but to discontinue preaching in the name of Jesus.

There are many within the church who are willing to do this. This is because most people simply want the healing – no questions asked. In the words of one paraplegic person who attended a healing crusade, “We’ve tried everything. Feng shui, wind chimes, crystals and positive thinking. We really wanted to give this a go.” Another, born with spina bifida and now suffering scoliosis thought that maybe the pastor could do something for her.

Our country is filled with such religiosity, such searching for blessings and miracles. People make pilgrimages to this and that holy place seeking for all kinds of blessings – a new job, a child, restoration of a marriage, healing from a devastating disease. And I am not talking about non-Christians only. 

They go to these holy places and holy people at holy times of the year to hear something like:
Come in! Please have a seat. What can I do you for? Uh! I mean, do for you? Oh that? That is not a problem. But one must show that one is genuinely asking for this. Just sign here. Good. Consider it done.
That’s all Peter and John needed have done and things would have been smooth sailing for them. They would have been allowed to set up shop in the temple precincts itself. A good miracle once in a while is always good for religious business. And the very fact that a miracle is supposed to be rare would only make people who do not experience a miracle get disappointed. But they would not question the whole enterprise. No! Rather, they would come back at the time of the next big miracle crusade. 

Most humans are like that – extremely gullible. When they are at their wits end, they will believe anything. And so many peddlers of healing would make King Midas seem like a pauper and many sites of religious pilgrimages are bursting at the seams with the offerings of people who come with anxious and expectant hearts. 

And if only Peter and John had realized it, they could have made a real killing, instead of getting themselves killed later. Instead, what does Peter say? “This man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Now we must understand something of the language Peter is using. When he speaks to the former cripple in chapter 3 he says, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” The phrase “in the name of” does not mean that they are using Jesus’ name in some incantation. 

Nor that they are using it as some kind of formula. They are not saying that if we repeat “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” - the Jesus prayer – often enough he will forgive us. The view that the very name of Jesus and its utterance have power is not supported in the bible. Moreover, it is quite a ridiculous view when you consider that Jesus was not really his name. It is an Anglicized version of his name. No one ever called Jesus, Jesus!

What “in the name of” means is “by the power of” or “by the authority of” or “as the representative of”. If you think that this lessens the meaning of the phrase let me offer you a few things to consider.

First, a name is not unique. Many others in the New Testament itself bore the same name as Jesus. This is why Peter has to add “of Nazareth” to specify which Jesus he was talking about. If it is the name itself that had power, then it would have had power regardless of ... ah but that would be to give the game away!

Second, the authority of a person is bound to the person’s being in a position from which he could act decisively. So Mr. Vajpayee, Mr. Gowda and Mr. Gujral, although having held the position of Prime Minister, no longer have the authority to issue orders as the Prime Minister.

Third, representation of a person cannot take place after that person has died. In legal practice there is such a thing as a durable power of attorney under which a person is permitted to act for another person – the latter called a grantor. However, once the grantor dies, the power of attorney no longer has effect. This is because a dead person cannot act for himself, nor can he delegate others to act for him.

You can see now how devastating the phrase “in the name of Jesus” is. If the phrase only meant that Jesus’ name could be used to work miracles, the leaders would have had no problems. 

If Peter and John were promulgating Jesus’ name as some kind of fetish or totem, the leaders would have had no issues precisely because fetishes and totems related to people almost always have to do with people who are dead.

But the Jewish leaders understood the language being used. Peter and John were not saying that Jesus’ name had power, but that Jesus had power – right then and there. And that could only mean one thing – he was alive at that time and in a position of authority. When Peter says “in the name of Jesus” what he is saying is this: Jesus is right now in a position of authority, meaning that right now he is alive.

The resurrection is central to the Christian message. When we pray “in the name of Jesus” we are confessing to the world that Jesus is alive and we are telling the Father that we believe he raised and exalted Jesus.

For Peter and John, the option that the leaders gave them was unthinkable. They could not stop speaking about Jesus, not because not using his name would have made them powerless. Rather, they say it quite matter-of-factly, “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” They could ask the former cripple to stand up only because of what they had seen and heard. They had seen Jesus raised from the dead and they had heard him tell them to do similar things as what he had done. They knew that it was Jesus they were dealing with because he looked like Jesus, talked like Jesus and had the same priorities as Jesus. And as the saying goes, “If it walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.”

If Peter and John were around today, they would have something to say to people who clamour for blessings of various kinds. A vow here, a pilgrimage there, a fast here, some self mutilation there. The things people do could form an endless list.

But to us Peter and John would say, “You must go, like we did, in the name of Jesus.” But we can only represent a person we have met and whose mind we are thoroughly familiar with. This means that anyone who intends to use the words “in the name of Jesus” must have a living, vibrant relationship with this Jesus. And then to those millions who mindlessly grasp at miraculous straws, blindly hoping that something might work we can say, “If you want to count your blessings, you must learn to count on Jesus.”