Friday, March 31, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (18)

The Seven Trumpets 3 (8:2-11:19)

The Seal Cycle brought readers to the point of judgment. Those opposed to God sought death or protection from his wrath. This cycle was an exposé of what was really going on in history beneath the surface. The dreadful Four Horsemen are loose and riding, martyrs are crying for justice, and the specter of judgment haunts everyone and every project opposed to God.

The Trumpet Cycle displays various kinds and intensities of judgment at work in the world. In particular we learn that there are spiritual powers at work as well as human evil deeds. God is sovereign over all this judgment though not directly responsible. Other agents, human and beyond-human, are granted freedom to wage their rebellions against God without compromising God’s sovereignty. Indeed, it is precisely because God is utterly sovereign that his creatures have freedom at all.

Between the sixth and seventh Seals is an interlude concerning the church and what is true of it as it moves through history. Sealed by God and thus secure, the church can carry out its mission with confidence and courage.

Likewise, an interlude exists between the sixth and seventh Trumpets. Again its subject is the church. In ch.10 the mission of the church is to “prophesy” to the world about the good news of the gospel of Messiah/King Jesus. This gospel, the announcement that the world’s rightful ruler has come and claimed his throne, is controversial and offensive to a world set on ruling itself and maintaining its own sovereignty. The call to the church to prophesy, then, is a call to suffer, and perhaps even die, for this commission.

[The first “woe” (or “alas”) was the fifth Trumpet blast (8:1). The sixth trumpet blast and this interlude are the second “woe” or (“alas”; 11:14).]

Interlude (11:1-14)

John is given a “measuring rod” to measure the temple, the altar, and worshipers gathered there. This suggests some form of protection since the outer courts of this temple are not to be measured but remain vulnerable to the assaults of the nations. This sense of protection is parallel to the sealing of the people of God in the first interlude in ch.7.

If the usual dating of Revelation in the last decade of the first century is accurate the actual Temple in Jerusalem lies in ruins and has for well over a decade. The Temple John sees in this vision must be something else. And that must be the church, as is common in the New Testament (1 Cor.3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor.6:16; Eph.2:21; 1 Pet. 2:5).

The church rests under God’s protection during its ministry of prophesying and the push back from the world it will receive. Not physical protection from harm, of course, but ultimate protection from the spiritual forces that seek to undo them (see v.7 on the “beast”).

John introduces a new symbol at this point. He calls the duration of the nation’s despoiling the “outer court” of the Temple and the city “forty-two months” (v.2). V.3 converts this period to days, 1,260 (42x30). We find an annual computation of this time period as three and a half years is given in 12:14. These time periods all refer to the same period, that between the resurrection of Christ and his return in glory. The time of the church’s ministry of prophesying. The church age.

In this age God gives authority to “two witnesses” to prophesy repentance (that’s the significance of “sackcloth.” The good news that God has acted in Christ to reclaim and restore his rebellious creatures is the word they bear. And this vision portends negative reaction, but not wholly so as we shall soon see.

Surprisingly, the next verse transforms these two witnesses into “two olive trees” and “two lampstands.” The latter we have already met in 1:20 where we are told they are churches. Presumably the “olive trees” represent the same thing. And working back from the known (“lampstands” = churches), the “two witnesses” must represent the churches too.

Olive trees” comes from the prophet Zechariah in ch.4. There two olive trees stand beside one lampstand and symbolize the power of the Spirit God will give to Zerubbabel before whom even great mountains will be overcome (Zech.4:6-7). Zerubbael and Joshua are the two olive trees, the Lord’s anointed ones who stand by him (Zech. 4:14). The lampstands may be dual to match the olive trees but likely their duality reflects the Old Testament’s insistence that truth is verified by at least two witnesses (Dt.17:6; 19:15; Jn.8:17).1

Equipped with the Spirit and authorized by God, and their witness/weapon the gospel (v.5) - the foundation of the church’s witness - these two witnesses act in Mosaic and Elijahanic style (v.6) to contest idolatry and make the name of the Lord known to the world.

Agents of God’s word, which is judgment and mercy in service of God’s love (as we have seen), the church encounters a new foe - a beast from the bottomless pit (v.7). This figure, presumably loosed by the fallen star we met when the fifth Trumpet sounded (9:1), will later figure more prominently in John’s vision (ch.13). Here, though, he emerges as the one who appears to squelch the church’s witness by killing it (v.7). However, this murderous rampage does not squelch the church’s witness. Notice the two witnesses “finished their testimony” before the Beast can touch them. Ironically, the display of their dead bodies for 3 ½ days2 for their faithful witness “in the street of the great city that is prophetically called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified” (v.8) patterns their deaths after Jesus which includes them in his resurrection and vindication. The people of the world think the Beast has won this struggle because it seems the gospel they preached had been silenced.

The 3 ½ days John sees is a variation of the 3 ½ years John will introduce in the next chapter as another numeration of the period between Christ’s death and resurrection aligned with the three days Christ was in the tomb. After this brief period of death’s seeming triumph over the church, it like its Lord was raised by God. And those who persecuted it were terrified (v.11). And God calls the church to come up to him – a symbol of their victory after all (v.12).

And here we meet the positive effect of the church’s message hinted at above. Darrell Johnson aptly calls this “reversed arithmetic.”3 It may not seem so at first glance. 1/10 of the city where the witness died and were raised, 7000 people are felled in a great earthquake. Even though the rest “give glory to the God of heaven” (v.13), that’s still a lot of carnage. But listen to Johnson:

“All the numbers in the book of Revelation are symbols: one-tenth and seven thousand. Symbols of what? Symbols of mercy! Remember, John is steeped in the Old Testament. One-tenth, seven thousand. Sounds awful. And it is. But John is doing gospel here. All we need to do is the math:
            · Isaiah 6:13: God will save one-tenth, nine-tenths will fall. Revelation 11:13: one-tenth falls.
· Amos 5:3: God says a city of one thousand will have one hundred left and a city of 100 will have ten left – one tenth saved, nine-tenths fall. Revelation 11:13: one-tenth falls. John says nine-tenths are saved, only one-tenth falls. Revelation 11:13: seven thousand die.
· 1 Kings 19:18: Elijah bemoans the fact that only seven thousand are left. Revelation 11:13: John says only seven thousand die, and sixty-three thousand are left!
Do you see what Jesus has shown John? He has reversed the arithmetic. Not one-tenth saved, nine-tenths destroyed; but nine-tenths are saved! Not seven thousand left and the rest lost; but sixty-three thousand are saved!”4

And this is the result of the church’s witness and living out the truth of their faith with coherence, urgency, and integrity.

Thus ends the second “woe” (suitably interpreted by the reversal of images entailed in the great reversal of images of the Lion/Lamb in ch.5.

The Seventh Trumpet (11:15-19)

The seventh Seal parallels the seventh Trumpet. The former brought the world to judgment with those opposed to God seeking death or protection from God. The latter brings heavenly acclaim and the announcement that God’s kingdom has come and he reigns. The martyrs have their justice and vindication (“rewarded,” v.18). The creation too is recompensed for atrocities imposed on it by “those who destroy the earth” (v.18). The old world has passed away into its redemption and transformation – the new creation of Rev.21-22.

The first time the twenty-four elders sing is in ch.4 in worship acclaiming the Creator. Here is the last time they sing in Revelation. This time acclaiming God as the one who has taken his reign having defeated all his enemies. When John gives us a picture of their defeat in chs.21-22, though, we may have surprises in store!

And that’s why we have so much of the story remaining even though here we seem to have reached the end. What’s more to be said? Plenty, as we shall see.
1 Leon Morris, The Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 144 suggests this might refer to the two of the seven churches that Jesus addresses in chs.2-3 that receive only commendation for their ministry. This seems a bit far-fetched to me.
2 An abomination for Jews who required that corpses be buried before sunset on the day of their death.
3 Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, 209.
4 Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, 208-209.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Prayer isn’t our work, it’s God’s

  Apr 12, 2017 issue

To put it more bluntly: Isn’t it ridiculous (and maybe even idolatrous) to think that through our supplications we can persuade God into doing something God might otherwise not do? You might be surprised to hear that I take it as self-evident that the answer to that question is yes.

The God of Job isn’t a god we can manipulate—by spiritually sanctioned means—to do what we want. Too often when people tell me they’ll pray for me, the implication left unsaid is that God is otherwise not already with me or at work in me and that if I’m not healed then somehow their prayers didn’t work. Such an understanding of prayer is incompatible with the God of the book of Job, a God who is at every moment the reason there is something instead of nothing.

read more at 

Resisting Trump with Revelation (17)

the seven trumpets 2 (8:2-11:19)

Serving Christ un a World Under judgment
The following are some thoughts reflecting on the reality that we live and serve Christ in a world under divine judgment.

Our task as the church is not to “change the world,” “make the world a better place to live,” or be the “moral guardians” of our time and place.

-The first is Christ’s job, and he’s done it. -The second is a pagan preoccupation. -The last is a perversion of the gospel.

Christ has changed the world. Period. That’s what the cross and resurrection are all about. Sin has been forgiven. The powers are defeated. New creation has dawned. The old world is passing away. The church lives from and into this new world amid the old world that is passing away.

The church is not about “making the world a better place to live.” That’s what the old world, the pagan world, is up to. It’s about “Making America Great Again.” The church, however, is about demonstrating a new world, a new way of being human that in Christ has become our destiny. The church lives a conflicted relationship with the old world, the old way of being (sub)human. Indeed, it’s presence is a reminder that that world exists under the judgment of God. A judgment of mercy directed to restoration and reconciliation; but a judgment that resisted means the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rev.6) have their way with that old world. As such, this old world can never be made “a better place to live.” It is riven by the judgment that rests on it and those who give themselves to facilitating that judgment.

Within such a world the church’s first business to is witness to the new creation that has dawned in Christ. To be a prototype of what God desires for human life. It bears this witness not as moral guardians who tell everyone else how to live. Rather, we live out our witness as those who take responsibility for the mess the old world is, confess our complicity and guilt in making it that way, and bear Christ’s cross in it. This cruciform way of life stands with others immersed in daily life, helps and serves them in doing what can be done to help them (both justice and mercy), sees the old world most clearly when it sees it from the point of view of those who suffer. If “follow the money” is the best way to keep tabs on the shenanigans of the wealthy folks’ schemes, “follow the suffering” is a gospel way of identifying where and how God is active in our world. And we are to be there with him. The church bears up under the judgment that already rests on the world and lives under its pressures and terrors in such a way that testifies to others that it is “Godness” not goodness that matters. And the name we give that “Godness” that rules our world in Christ is “Grace”!

Interlude (10:1-11)

Jesus has given us insight into what’s really going on in the world in the Seals cycle (the first point of his sermon). In the Trumpet cycle he overlays that picture with a detailed answer to the cry of the martyrs in the fifth seal: “How long till we are vindicated and your way proved right, O Lord?” (the first six Trumpet blasts). Just as there was an interlude between the sixth and seventh Seals that dealt with the church’s status as God’s “sealed” and secure people in a world under judgment, there is an interlude between the sixth and seventh Trumpets. This one deals with the character of the church’s witness in such a time as this.

A “mighty angel” descends. One who bears a striking resemblance to God and Christ. Note the rainbow (see 4:3), “face like the sun” (see 1:14), “legs like pillars of fire” (1:15), and “like a lion roaring” (5:5). “Wrapped in a cloud” suggests power and authority. Not identical to Christ but clearly closely tied to him. At the same time we remember the lion is the slaughtered Lamb who works God’s will through sacrificial, serving, cruciform love. This imposing presence, indeed, this angel stands astride land and sea (10:2). Grace, I think, trumps judgment is the message here. The wild and bizarre beasts just described do what they do, terrifying and lethal. But they are no match for this Lion/Lamb who has the right to unroll the scroll of God’s fulfillment of his purposes and has defeated death itself!

This gracious note is highlighted by the sealing up of the seven Thunders (presumably another set of judgments) before John can capture them in writing. The angel, having been interrupted from heaven (v.4) from delivering the vision of the Thunders to John, swears a solemn oath that it is now time for the seventh Trumpet to sound, and God’s work will be fulfilled according to what he has spoken in the prophets (10:7). Much like the sixth Seal brings us to the time of judgment, so this interlude between the sixth and seventh Trumpets bring us to the same point.

The voice from heaven, an authoritative voice, directs John to take a “little scroll” resting in the hand of the mighty angel who stands astride land and sea. We have meet the action of taking a scroll from someone earlier when the slaughtered Lamb took the scroll from the One on the throne (ch.5). Here John mimics such action as he takes a smaller scroll from the hand of a divinely authorized agent. I suspect we have analogy of a “greater to a lesser” here. As Christ took a scroll from his father so John takes one from the hand of an angel. Here John, representing God’s people mimics, that is, participates in the ministry of the Lamb through this mimicry. That the Lamb opens the scroll but the one John is bidden to take is already open (10:8) points in this same direction.

This scroll, doubtless, is also about the fulfillment of the “mystery of God” (10:7). In other words, it reveals the secret of God’s work as Jesus’ own way of conquering through sacrificial, self-giving love. Grimsrud comments:1 "The 'mystery' is the pattern of Jesus, especially insofar as his pattern of persevering love is the means to conquer. Such a path is indeed, in Paul’s words, “foolishness to the Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). In a world shaped by the Beast’s ideology of domination, it is indeed a “mystery” how persevering love can conquer."

This perhaps accounts for the “sweet and sour” taste of the scroll when John obeys the divine voice and eats it (10:9-10). The fulfillment is coming, indeed, is at the doorstep. Yet the beast and his minions and the judgments they have loosed (the bottomless pit” (9:1-11) on the inhabitants of the earth must be faced and borne with the love by which Jesus conquered in his life, death, and resurrection.

John’s mission (and ours): prophesy. Bear the word and deed of God’s coming kingdom to “many peoples and nations and languages and kings” (10:11). We met the first three in 5:9 and 7:9. They are among the people of God and the Lamb. Interestingly, “kings” are always with the “bad guys” – the oppressors, aggressors, tyrants, opponents of God. Yet, in the final scene of the vision we find this about the New Jerusalem: “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day . . . People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (21:24-26). Apparently some of these “bad guys” may be won over by the gospel!

Notice it is the gospel that wins them over. Not the judgments. They come as God’s response to human betrayal and the violation of their relationship to him, mostly as God allows the consequences of their perfidy to play themselves out. This is divine parental discipline (Heb.12:5-6) designed to recall and restore children to their familial loyalty. It is not the discipline itself that that effect the cure. It's the good news of God's inexhaustible love ready to forgive and welcome back that does that!
1 Grimsrud,

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Lent: Call to an Altared/Altered Life Romans 12:1-2 (5)

12 1-2 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (The Message)

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.

God will change us “from the inside out” as we seek him and his will for us above all else (Mt.6:33). But God will not change us without us! It the relational Paul has been pushing us toward all Lent in this text. In this relational thing between God and humanity it's always a two-way street. Not an equal two-way street to be sure. God is always the first and primary partner who initiates, establishes, and sustains this relationship. But our response and participation is equally necessary in the way it is between any two friends. When we give ourselves to someone else in friendship or love a network of reciprocal obligations is created. Both sides must interact in good faith for the relationship to be genuine.

That's why Paul immediately turns from “fix your attention on God” to “Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it.” The relationship God established with us in Christ holds both these aspects together. Our quick and obedient response to what God wants from us is precisely the way he changes us from the inside out. God changes us. He really changes us. Such that we want now nothing more than than to be with God and live as his people.

But we are slow learners. Otherwise Paul would not have had to admonish his readers as he does here. We get distracted easily and readily find reasons not to what God wants us to do promptly. It may well be this vulnerability to distraction is not just a weakness of our flesh but a tactic of our enemy to diminish or derail our discipleship. At least C. S. Lewis thinks so. He has displayed this conviction literarily in his wise and witty classic The Screwtape Letters. A senior tempter, Screwtape, instructing his nephew Wormwood on the art of spiritual seduction has this to say about deflecting his patient from following a nudge from God. Beyond the immediate setting of the letter the tactics Screwtape advises are paradigmatic, I believe, of the “flaming arrows of the evil one” (Eph.6:16), he uses against us in every area of life.

But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. the enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what he says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been his line for when I said 'Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning', the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added 'Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind', he was already half way to the door. once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a no. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man’s head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of 'real life' (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all 'that sort of thing' just couldn’t be true. he knew he’d had a narrow escape and in later years was fond of talking about 'that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic'. he is now safe in our father’s house. You begin to see the point? Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things. above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. they will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. there have been sad cases among the modern physicists. if he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don’t let him get away from that invaluable 'real life'. but the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is 'the results of modern investigation'. Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!”

Paul well knows of tactics. Doubtless he's experienced them himself. That's why he exhorts us to “Just do it!” when responding to God. There is a “use it or lose it” quality at work here. If we do not “do it” before long there will be other matters ready to claim our attention and response, other reasons entertained for not doing it at the moment. The “Yes, But” syndrome (or is it sindrome?) will soon overtake those who hesitate. You know it, don't you? That moment we feel convicted or called to do something for God it doesn't take long for us to think “Yes, Lord, I should do that. I want to do that. But (reason why I can't, won't or shouldn't do it now).

What this hesitation to do God's will means, whether from human weakness and/or satanic suggestion, is that we have not fully fixed our attention on God. And rooting us in a place where we can hold the attention and response Paul calls for here is a key aspect of the journey of Lent.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Stringfellow on the Tactics the “Powers” Use to Control Us

From An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land
The Powers main goal is to sustain themselves (survival). And yet, that brute fact is rarely discussed candidly and in the open. Still, the state functions as the preeminent principality and power.
  1. The Denial of Truth/lying
  2. Doublespeak and Overtalk/euphemism or jargon
  3. Secrecy and Boast of Expertise/hiding the truth
  4. Surveillance and Harassment/intimidating those who seek truth
  5. Exaggeration and Deception/absorbing the truth
  6. Cursing and Conjuring/banishing, smearing, locking up dissidents
  7. Usurpation and Absorption/co-opting the truth
  8. Diversion and Demoralization/diverting, distracting
These (assaults on truth) Stringfellow calls Babel. It overwhelms and dumbfounds the faculties of comprehension: conscience and sanity:
Babel means the inversion of language, verbal inflation, libel, rumor, euphemism and coded phrases, rhetorical wantonness, redundancy, hyperbole, such profusion in speech and sound that comprehension is impaired, nonsense, sophistry, jargon, noise, incoherence, a chaos of voices and tongues, falsehood, blasphemy.
The noise of technology he also includes under Babel.
Babel lays the foundation for violence. Stringfellow quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
Let us not forget that violence does not exist by itself and cannot do so; it is necessarily interwoven with lies. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his method must inexorably choose falsehood as his principle. 
And given that the state sits at the top of the hierarchy of demonic powers, the state is generally named as "the Antichrist" in the biblical witness. Consequently, in her battle against the Antichrist the church exists in a state of resistance in relation to the state:
Those human beings and communities of humans who persevere in fidelity to God and to the gift of their humanity, those who resist death and thus live in Jesus Christ--whether that be a public formality or not--do so under the condemnation of the State in one way or another, be it in ridicule and ostracism, in poverty or imprisonment, as sojourners or fugitives, in clandestine existence, as a confessing movement, or, otherwise, in resistance.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Lent: Call to an Altared/Altered Life

Romans 12:1-2
12 1-2 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (The Message)

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.

Last week we looked at the way conformity to our culture hinders our pursuit of faithfully serving God. This week we look at the obstacles in us that hinder that pursuit. The rigor of the changes in us that faithful discernment exacts. Someone has quipped that the only problem with the “living sacrifices” (Rom.12:1 NRSV) Paul encourages us to become is that we keep climbing down off the altar.

John the Seer gives us a thumbnail sketch of the kind of people God wants and intends us to become in Rev.12:10: people who conquer the enemy by Jesus' blood (his way of loving, self-sacrifical way of serving others, by holding to his testimony, and willing to give their lives for Jesus' sake. I don't need to detail the struggles each of us has in coming to terms with what this will cost us. But there you have it.

Paul's counsel is to “fix your attention on God.” We face our struggles by turning our faces to God, to Christ. That's how we get “changed from inside out.” St. Augustine tells us how this works: we become what we adore. Not by dint of self-effort or moral improvement but by adore and fixed attention on the God we know in Jesus Christ. And that's right where the Lenten journey takes us. To the God who hands on a cross for love of us to rescue us from whatever hell we have found our way into.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's story “The Great Stone Face” captures this truth dramatically and memorably.

In a rural valley there was a rock formation that to the locals looked like a human face. The local folklore of the valley includes a prophecy that one day a local would be born who bears a stricking resemblance to the Great Stone Face. Others woud recognize this resemblance and acclaim him as "the greatest and noblest personage of his time." Ernest, a young mane of the valley, sets humself to discover the promised hero. He spends hours just looking at and ponering the Great Stone Face.

As time passes and Ernest grows to manhood, the story of the Great Stone Face gets around the United States. Others, who fancy they may be that hero revisit the valley to seek if others will acclaim them to be the one. A weathy merchant, a successful general, a skilled politician, a brilliant writer comme one by one to town. Ernest, however, discerns significant character flaws that disqualify them from fulfilling the conditions of the prophecy. They don't quite look like the Great Stone Face.

Ernest is a good bit older by now and is lay preacher for the community. He has faithfully kept up his vigal pondering the Great Stone Face.For one of his sermons the congregation has asked Ernest to deliver his sacred remarks from a the base of the cliff where everyone can see the Great Stone Face high above.

Hawthorne describes the climax of Ernest's sermon:  
“At that moment, in sympathy with a thought which he was about to utter, the face of Ernest assumed a grandeur of expression, so imbued with benevolence, that the poet, by an irresistible impulse, threw his arms aloft and shouted, 'Behold! Behold! Ernest is himself the likeness of the Great Stone Face!' Then all the people looked, and saw that what the deep-sighted poet said was true. The prophecy was fulfilled.”

The Benedict Option and the Way of Exchange

    by Alan Jacobs 3 . 20 . 17

Surely there has never been a richer and more deeply faithful model of Christian faith and practice than that offered by the leaders of the Church in Roman Cappadocia in the fourth and fifth centuries. Think of Basil the Great, exhorting the rich of Caesarea to “empty their barns” to feed the poor, building hospitals for the sick, upholding Trinitarian orthodoxy against the Arians, teaching young Christians the right uses of pagan literature. And Basil was only one among many great ones, even in his own neighborhood: His sister Macrina, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, were all titans of faith and charity, and built a thoroughgoing Christian culture the likes of which the Church has rarely if ever seen.
In 1974, when the great bishop-theologian Lesslie Newbigin retired from his decades of labor in the Church of South India, he and his wife decided to make their way back to their native England by whatever kind of transportation was locally available, taking their time, seeing parts of the world that most Europeans never think of: from Chennai to Birmingham by bus. Newbigin would later write in his autobiography, Unfinished Agenda, that everywhere they went, even in the most unlikely places, they found Christian communities—with one exception. “Cappadocia, once the nursery of Christian theology, was the only place in our whole trip where we had to have our Sunday worship by ourselves, for there was no other Christian to be found.”
If the complete destruction of a powerful and beautiful Christian culture could happen in Cappadocia, it can happen anywhere, and to acknowledge that possibility is mere realism, not a refusal of Christian hope. One refuses Christian hope by denying that Jesus Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, not by saying that Christianity can disappear from a particular place at a particular time.

Therefore, to argue, as many have, that the argument Rod Dreher makes in The Benedict Option is despairing, and hopeless, and a failure to trust in the Lord Jesus, is a category error. It takes a set of sociological and historical judgments and treats them as though they were metaphysical assertions. Anyone in Roman Cappadocia who had said that the culture Basil and his colleagues had built was not bound to last until the Lord returns would not have been deficient in Christian hope. Rather, he or she would have been offering a useful reminder of the vagaries of history, to which even the most faithful Christians are subject. Dreher’s argument in The Benedict Option may be wrong, but if so, it is wrong historically and prudentially, not metaphysically. . .


Monday, March 20, 2017

Submerging Church Meets the Benedict Option

Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option is all the rage these days. And rightly so. Rod articulates an important perspective as the North American Church continues to try to find its bearings as the reality of the death of Christendom sinks very more deeply into our ecclesial psyche. I have a proposal to throw in the ring too. I call it the "Submerging Church." The following very brief statement will give you an idea of the direction in which I'm thinking.

Submerging Church

Though we live (or have lived) in the age of the Emerging/Emergent Church, I have a different proposal for a new vision of church. I call it the Submerging Church! Am I serious, you ask? Read on and see what you think.

The Submerging Church, as I see it, is radically subversive, relentlessly incarnational, and ruthlessly hospitable. It dives deeply into everyday life, sharing it with others, while at the same time questioning and critiquing the conditions of that life we share. Since this community lives from its center, the risen Jesus Christ, its boundaries are porous and permeable with arms outstretched to everyone who encounters it.

Here are some characteristics of the Submerging Church:

§  first, it is hard to find because it is small and spread throughout the community;
§  second, it is difficult to join because “membership” is relational and based on a shared journey towards the center;
§  thirdly, it is culturally atheistic, that is, not committed to a cultural Christ or his civil religion;
§  fourth, it is more like yeast (which though small permeates the whole) than a beast (a mega-church prominent in the community);
§  fifth, it finds its “niche” with those at the margins and their experiences, which generates the “lens” through which it views and responds to the world; and
§  finally, it focuses on “inner-tainment” (life with God) rather than entertainment.

The core content of the Submerging Church comes from:

§  first, being a Kingdom Outpost rather than a religious institution;
§  second, following a Cruciform Jesus rather a Cultural Christ;
§  third, living by a Holy Script (Bible) rather than a cultural script;
§  fourth, being centered on a bath and a meal rather than programs;
§  fifth, seeking justice for all (especially the poor) instead of good for “just us”; and
§  sixth, sharing “communitas” rather than just fellowship (Google it!).

Well, there’s the basic outline of my vision for the Submerging Church – what do you think?

Submerging Church Spirituality

If becoming a Christian is at heart becoming human, and surely it is, then living
Christianly must be living humanly, in a human style and at a human pace. What we call
spirituality,” then, is nothing more or less than a human way of life. Living a Christian life, or even explaining it to others, as we must, does not require specifically Christian acts or words. Since it is living humanly, these everyday ways, can be explained in everyday non-religious language.

The lexicon of faith, the language of “Canaan,” is our “arcane discipline,” of worship
and devotion (Bonhoeffer), the depth that undergirds our non-religious life and language. The Jesus we worship and adore, the “man for others,” (Bonhoeffer) is the content and goal of human beings we are becoming.

What might such “non-religious” language and living look like? How might we describe
it? Perhaps the following will help us make a start. Human, that is, Christian, living is
shaped by actions such as the following:

Slow Down (Sabbath from Speed)
Three-miles-an-hour is the speed at which humans normally walk. It is the “human” speed. But, as Brooks, a character in “The Shawshank Redemption” said upon release from prison after fifty years, “The world’s gone and gotten itself in a big damn hurry.” By becoming human, Jesus brought “God” to us at a “speed” we could understand and relate to. If Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, and if I constantly move at faster and faster speeds, if I am perpetually “too busy,” I will discover myself more and more out of touch with a Three Mile-an-hour God (Kosuke Koyama)

Sign Out (Sabbath from Cyber-Space)
If cyber-space becomes our primary connection to life, it has become a surrogate reality. In spite of, or perhaps because of, its gifts, we need regular breaks from cyber-space, periods when I sign out in order to reach out and lay hold of the life-in-relationships that alone sustain me.

Stay Put (Sabbath from Mobility)
Submerging spirituality recognizes the importance of “location, location, location.” My ability to get up and go whenever I please often inhibits God’s call for me stay and grow where God pleases. (See The Wisdom of Stability by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove)

Shut Up (Sabbath from Words)
Just listen!

Stoop Down (Sabbath from Controlling)
Humility, the grace to confess that I am a creature (who is not in control) and not God (who is), is best made palpable to me by re-connecting with the humus, the dirt from which God made me. I daily eat a “sacramental” pinch of dirt to help this grace hit home for me. We are a part of God’s creation, and by grace his partner in reclaiming and restoring it. We best play our role by remembering who we are and the grace by which we live.

Stare (Sabbath from Distraction)
Distraction and diversion are in my experience the heart of the enemy’s strategy to disable our living humanly. It short circuits my capacity to be present to my life. I suffer from “Spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder.” Wholeness in living comes for me when I rediscover the truth Kierkegaard captures in the title of his book
Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.

Sing (Sabbath from Memos)
Discursive, linear, pragmatic thought rules most of the time. I heard Walter Brueggemann call this kind of thought “memos.” He said that such memos will kill you, but poetry (he was talking about the Psalms) gives life. I encounter poetry mostly in song. So I need to sing (even though I can’t carry a tune). I think it was Augustine who said that the one who sings, prays twice.

Share (Sabbath from Me)
My life is my relationships, and relationships mean sharing. I must learn to share my necessities of life (food, communitas, faith) and joys and burdens with others while receiving their gifts and sharing their burdens as well. This, as I said, is my life.

Simplify (Sabbath from Clutter)
I need to pursue the path of downward nobility rather than upward mobility, divest, and de-clutter. I want what I have and know and do to serve life rather than me serving them. To know the difference between want and need is a great gift.

Sleep (Sabbath from Self)
Sleep, enough sleep is a basic form of selflessness and trust. To give ourselves unreservedly to God in the needs of our creatureliness is to affirm our Creator’s wisdom and the goodness of what he has made. Sufficient rest is a primal act of faith and powerful witness in beleaguered, fatigued, workaholic world.

Friday, March 17, 2017

ResistingTrump with Revelation (16)

the seven trumpets 1 (8:2-11:19)

Before the seven angels can wind their trumpets that is prefaced by an angel who has gathered the prayers of the martyrs in a golden censer filling it with fire from the altar and casting it on earth. Thunder, earthquakes, lightning, and rumblings afflicted the earth (8:3-5). This sets the context of the forthcoming judgments, or plagues, in an Exodus framework. This is the seventh seal.

This cycle, then, is organically related to the preceding one, intensified in that it cuts deeper (the 1/3 reach to the Seal’s ¼ reach). I think this language intends to take us deeper in insight rather than forward in time. As we have seen, these three cycles cover the same period of time from Christ’s death and resurrection and return in glory. There is nowhere to go forward to in time.

This point of Christ’s sermon is driven by the martyrs’ question “How long till we are avenged and God’s purposes fulfilled?” We say earlier that this cry is not for revenge but for justice, for God to set all things right. That is to bring his good purposes for his creatures and creation to fruition. The logic seems to be this in the sermon so far: Christ reveals what is really going on in the world, that those who have given their lives for his cause long for the fulfillment of God’s loving and redemptive work, God has sealed and secured throughout their journey in life. If “the inhabitants of the earth” are Egypt, the church is Israel.

Told to rest and wait in the Seal’s cycle, the martyrs here learn that even now God’s judgment is active on earth against those who resist him. If the church faces hard times by an Egypt under God’s judgment it can persevere by participating with God and the slaughtered Lamb in his loving and redemptive purpose. This judgment means that “something is wrong and we had better get it right. The harsh realities of history sound the alarm that ‘you are going down the wrong road,’ and you had better turn around.”[1] It’s a warning to provoke change not a judgment born of condemnation. The language and imagery of this judgment is meant to spur its readers to respond in repentance.

The First Four Trumpets (8:7-12)

The Trumpet’s cycle follows the pattern of the Seal’s cycle: 4 linked scenes followed by 2 longer scenes, an interlude, and then the seventh Trumpet which is the seven Bowls cycle.

                These first four Trumpets allow and abused and tormented creation to strike back at its tormenters. The similarity to the plagues on Egypt is unmistakable. 1/3 of the earth, 1/3 of the sea, 1/3 of fresh waters, and 1/3 of the sun, moon, and stars, and their light are affected. The foundations of life on this planet God allows to rebel against their mistreatment.

                God’s relation to this judgment is real though indirect. Grimsrud[2] offers the following helpful observation on this:

So, the significance of all the “was” and “were” language of 8:7-12 may best be seen as a way of addressing the paradox of a universe which is governed by a sovereign God whose character and power are love. In such a universe there is an openness and respect for human freedom that makes possible a lot of evil and destruction—such as reflected in the admittedly hyperbolic plague visions. But none of this defeats or even operates in complete autonomy from the providential love of the Creator. This paradox cannot be easily defined, but it can be illustrated.”

The Fifth and Sixth Trumpets (9:1-21)

The final three Trumpets are introduced by an eagle soaring in midheaven announcing them as “woes” or “alas.”[3] The sorrows on the “inhabitants on earth” are about to get worse.

The fifth Trumpet (9:1-11), the first “Woe,” takes us deeper still into understanding what is happening in and to the world around them. Into a “bottomless pit” in fact (9:2). A “fallen star” (cast into the bottomless pit himself in Rev.20) is “given” a key with which to open this pit. Given, not his by right, possession, or ownership. This fallen star does not unleash further havoc on earth apart from the will of the One who does have the key by right, possession, and ownership. The Creator signs off on and limits (“five months,” 9:10) his activity and those of the horrors he unleashes.

This judgment affects those not bearing the seal of God on their forehead (9:4). The hideous creatures (or better, anti-creatures, parodies of God’s creatures[4]) released from the pit, these locust-like[5] fiends torture those who stand against God. Driven to their limits, those so afflicted long for death (9:6) but will not find it. That is not the end for which judgment is given. That end, is repentance (9:20). Judgment is a for the restoration and renewal of the God’s creatures. It is not purely or primarily punitive. There are consequences to living out of sync with the Creator’s will and the order he has inscribed in his world, to be sure. Judgment is often God’s allowing these consequences to play out in hope that the consequences will turn God’s creatures back to him and his way for us. Paul has a similar view. In Romans 1 he three times (v.24, 26,28) claims that God has “handed over” a rebellious and idolatrous humanity to its lusts and idols. This is the “tough love” of a divine parent toward his rebellious and incorrigible creatures.

Here we see that humanity’s troubles are not simply the sum of their own evil. There are other and more than human agents at work as well.  But they too are part of God’s loving restorative judgment (tough love) on a recalcitrant humanity.

Craig Keener in the IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary explains the symbolism of the fantastic beasts and images John uses here:

“An invasion of locusts could be described as warhorses (Joel 2:4), and horses could be described as being as numerous as locusts (Jer 51:27; cf. 51:14). The crowns might reflect prior military exploits. The image of human-faced scorpions derived from nightmarish traditions from the East, and Mediterranean zodiacs eventually applied it to Sagittarius, who was often portrayed with long hair (see comment on 9:8). Although the image is not meant literally, it draws on the most terrible, repressed images of that culture’s unconscious fears to evoke horror at the impending judgments.       

“9:8. Joel 1:6 described locusts with “teeth like lions” to emphasize their destructiveness to the crops and everything else. In Joel, the image would terrify an agrarian society; in Revelation, it would remind readers of the lion’s proverbial ferocity. The “hair like women” would be a more obvious allusion to most of John’s readers: everyone in the Roman Empire knew that “barbarians” outside the Empire, unlike most people in Greco-Roman society, had long hair. In the context of a military invasion, the readers would immediately think of the Parthians (or, in apocalyptic terms, perhaps the evil spiritual realities behind them). By way of illustration, the reigning emperor Domitian’s father was reported-perhaps fictitiously-to have joked about the Parthians’ long hair in view of a long-tailed comet portending his death.                      

“9:9. The “noise of chariots” is borrowed from the military imagery for locusts in Joel 2:5; the swarms would be so intense that they would sound like an invading army, a sound great enough to make a land quake (Jer 8:16). The scales of a kind of locust’s thorax are compared with scaled armor in a later Jewish text; here John uses a more updated armor image.                                                                                   

“9:10. Their tails may be mentioned simply because that was the weapon of scorpions (9:5), but the reverse could also be true; scorpions could be mentioned because of the tails. It may be of interest that the Parthians (9:8) had become famous for their rearward archery: they had retreated up hills mounted on horseback, and when unwary Roman legions had followed them, the Parthians had released a backward hail of arrows, wiping out several legions before the Romans learned not to follow them up hills.

“9:11. “Abaddon” is a Hebrew name for the lowest depths of the earth, the realm of the dead (cf. Job 31:12; Ps 88:11; Prov 27:20); the Dead Sea Scrolls also linked the “spirit of Abaddon” with the “angel of the pit.” “Apollyon” means “destruction” in Greek. (Some scholars have secondarily connected the name to Apollo, a Greek deity one of whose totems was the locust, and whose incarnation the emperor claimed to be; cf. Rev 2:18. Because Apollyon as a name is otherwise unattested, it is not impossible that readers in Asia could have suspected this allusion; in this case, the emperor’s supposed patron deity is in reality an evil angel who, in the sovereignty of God, will be used against him; cf. Ex 12:12; Num 33:4. But the allusion is not altogether clear.) The final, terrifying touch to this description of an army with elements from Joel’s locusts, from Parthians and from scorpions is that these are the armies of hell, sent by death itself to fill its bowels.”

The sixth Trumpet sounds and a vast army 200,000, 000 strong are unleashed by four angels bound at the river Euphrates. They will kill 1/3 of humanity. Fire, smoke, and sulfur came out of the horses’ mouths slaying people. Notice that these beasts “were released.” This Trumpet has sounded. This horde roams the earth today. It is not a future event.

Keener again helpfully explains the imagery.


“Parthians were Rome’s most feared enemies in this period. They were portrayed as untrustworthy, and the authority of their monarchs was absolute. Older Greek prophecies about an eastern invasion of the Roman Empire still made some Romans nervous, and the Jewish Sibylline Oracles prophesied that Nero would return, leading Parthian hordes in vengeance on Rome. (Many Jewish people lived in Parthian territory, and many Jews in the Roman Empire felt no more allegiance to Rome than they would have to Parthia; in the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 many Jews expected Parthia to intervene on their behalf, but their hopes were disappointed. . .                                                                                                                                                              

“9:14. Ancient literature indicates that it was common knowledge that the river Euphrates (16:12) was, above all else, the traditional boundary between the Roman and Parthian empires. Some other Jewish texts speak of fallen angels being bound in the depths of various seas, able to be released only at the command of God or one of his angels.                                                                                                                                                 

“9:15. For all their recognition of demonic forces in this age, apocalyptic writers recognized also the standard Jewish doctrine that God ultimately rules all of history. Casualty statistics like this one are also familiar in Jewish judgment oracles (see the Sibylline Oracles).

“9:16. Parthians were noted horsemen; in contrast to Rome, whose only cavalry contingents were drawn from its auxiliary (non-Roman) units, the Parthians were renowned for their cavalry. “Two hundred million” would be a huge standing army even today (nearly the entire population of the United States, almost four times that of Great Britain, over twice that of Nigeria, and eight times that of Canada); in the first century it may have represented more than the population of the entire world.

“9:17-18. The “dark blue” (NIV; “hyacinth”- NASB; or “sapphire”- NRSV) might allude to the color of the smoke of sulfur’s flame. Cf. 9:7-8 for the source of the image of horses and lions; lions were considered the most ferocious and regal of beasts, which no one cared to meet. In a widely read Jewish wisdom book, a writer had declared that God could have punished idolatry by sending lions or newly created, fire-breathing and smoke-belching monsters (Wisdom of Solomon 11:17-20). But again this imagery may be mixed with the threat of a Parthian invasion: Parthian archers often used flaming arrows.

“9:19. The power “in their tails” may allude to scorpions or to the Parthian cavalry’s rearward archery (see comment on 9:10).”

Again, John notes the purpose of this judgment: repentance. Humanity, however, blunders on in its multitudinous idolatries and foul practices (9:20-21). In light of this refusal of repentance, John’s “purple prose” here is understandable. More on the Trumpet cycle next post.

[1] Johnson, Discipleship on the Edge, 195.
[2] Grimsrud,
[3] Ibid.
[4] Perhaps like the Orcs in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
[5] Locusts, of course, were often agents of judgment, cursing and blighting the crops and spirits of the people.