Saturday, February 25, 2012

God the General/President/CEO

Sermon for North Hill Adventist Fellowship
Sabbath, February 25, 2012
Text: 1 Samuel 17:44-47

Summary: When God needs something done, he usually calls on a human being to do it. (Humans in contrast to angels, animals, direct action by the Holy Spirit, robots.)

The February 27, 2012, Newsweek cover features a picture of a group of huge 20-something year-old men with crewcuts charging toward the camera. They're dressed in dark pants and T-shirts, clothes and combat boots and some faces dirtied with sand. It looks like a picture taken during Hell Week. The caption under the photo: The Seals: How Obama Learned to Use his Secret Weapon. Inside the magazine, the article begins with the story of the rescue of Richard Phillips, the captain of the American container ship Maersk Alabama from pirates off the coast of Somalia.

In April, 2009, pirates stormed the ship. The American crew fought back and the pirates fled the ship, taking the captain, Richard Phillips, with them in one of the ship's life boats.

There was a happy ending to this story for Captain Phillips. The president of the United States rescued him. How did the president accomplish this? By using his “Secret Weapon” (in the words of the article).

Of course, the President did not aim any weapons. He did not fly an airplane or helicopter. He did not parachute into the ocean. The President remained in Washington, D. C. dressed in a suit and tie. He accomplished this dramatic rescue by authorizing Navy Seal Team 6 to take action. In this case, deadly action.

This is, of course, how the world works. Presidents don't do much of anything, in terms of actual physical action. Generals don't aim rifles or even artillery pieces. They don't pilot bombers. They don't patch up wounded soldiers. They don't provide counseling and support for soldiers struggling with the body- and mind-warping consequences of combat. All of this is done by a myriad of largely nameless and faceless individuals. Presidents and generals are responsible for making the plans for military actions and for the care and support of their soldiers. But the actual, down-to-earth action is performed by “nobodies.” By “nobodies” I mean simply that these individuals are not likely to be famous. Their specific actions are not likely to end up on the front page of a newspaper. They are not the subject of blogs and news features.

Presidents and generals are famous. They set strategy and make executive decisions. But the implementation of those strategies and executive decisions are carried by regular people.

It works that way in the spiritual realm as well.

One of the pictures of God used by the Bible writers is God as the Great King. God as the Great General. The Bible is clear that God has plans. There's stuff he wants accomplished here on earth. While there are stories of angels and miracles, most of the time, in fact, almost all of the time, when God has some mission he needs accomplished, he calls on some human to do the job.

Consider the story in 1 Samuel 17.

The nation of Israel had been invaded by the Philistines. Saul, the Israelite king, had called the army together and they had stopped the advance of the Philistine raiders. But for six weeks they had been locked in a stalemate, the Philistine army entrenched on one ridge line, Israel across the valley on another ridge line. The Philistine's prime weapon was a giant named Goliath. Every day he would swagger out onto the hillside over on the Philistine side of the valley and taunt the army of Israel.

“I defy the armies of Israel. What are you, a bunch of little girls? Come on out and fight. Send your best man. We'll fight it out. He wins, we'll all become your servants. I win, you guys belong to us.”

The king of Israel, Saul, was himself exceptionally tall, at least a foot taller than anyone else in the Israelite army. But he was no match for the size of Goliath who was between seven and nine feet tall (depending on which ancient manuscripts you consult). Just the head on Goliath's spear weighed 15 pounds!

Every day for six weeks Goliath the Giant, marches out and hurls insults, taunts and challenges at the Israelites. For six weeks the Israelite soldiers cower in their defensive positions, terrified that Goliath and the Philistine army will bring the fight to them.

Then a kid shows up. David. He was a shepherd. His father had sent him to the army to bring some supplies for his brothers who were with army. He hears the Philistine giant hollering and insulting the Israelites and their God. He is outraged. How can the Israelite army tolerate such blasphemous effrontery? The soldiers explain the situation to David. That guy who looks so small over on the opposite ridge is actually a giant. He's nine feet tall! The king has offered all kinds of rewards to anyone who can take out the giant. But it's impossible. The guy is huge.

David asks for details. He learns more about the giant. He learns the actual rewards the king has offered—the hand of the king's daughter in marriage, permanent exemption from all taxes.

David is interested. People bring him to the King. David tells the king, “No worries. I can take out this heathen. I have fought both a lion and a bear. I killed them both. This giant will be no different. God rescued me from the mouth of the lion and the paw of the bear. He'll deliver me from the spear of this nasty man who is spewing insults against God's people.”

The king tries to talk David out it. He looks like a kid. Goliath is a battled-hardened giant. It's hard to imagine a more uneven fight. But Saul has run out of options. He needs someone to go after the giant and no one else is volunteering.

The king offers David his armor and sword. David tries them on, then gives them back. I can't fight in this stuff. I'm not used to it.

David takes his sling and heads off for the giant wearing no armor of any kind.

The giant sees him coming and is outraged. Goliath is outfitted in the latest armor of the period. A massive helmet, a breast plate, greaves on his shins, a coat of mail. He has a shield bearer in front of him. And here comes this kid, wearing only shepherd's clothes.

David stops and picks up five rocks from the stream bed at the bottom of the valley then advances up the other side toward the giant. The giant shoves his helmet back. What's the use of all this armor when all he's dealing with is a kid shepherd who has rocks as his weapon?

As David gets closet the two men get into a shouting match.

Goliath curses David in the name of his Philistine gods. Then beckons him. “Come on little boy. I'm going to feed your flesh to the vultures and jackals.”

David retorted, “You stand there armed merely with a sword, a spear, and a shield, but I come at you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, the God you have defied. I'm going to feed you to the vultures and jackals so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.”

David went on, “Then this entire crowd, Philistines and Israelites, will know that the LORD does not need a sword and spear to save his people. Indeed, the battle is the LORD'S, and he will give you into our hands.”

Goliath began to swagger down the hill toward David. David began running up the hill. As he ran, he reached into his bag, pulled out one of the five stones he had picked up, then still running, he placed the rock in his sling and whipped it at the giant. It smacked in the forehead, knocking him unconscious.

Of course, everyone in both armies had been watching. When Goliath went down, the Israelites roared and poured out of their trenches and fox holes headed for the Philistines. The Philistines also made a lot of noise, but it was the noise of astonished horror. They also emptied out of their positions. But instead of heading down toward the Israelites they fled in retreat.

Notice a couple of phrases in David's speech to Goliath.

“I come at you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” This phrase, “the Lord of Hosts,” is a common name for God in the Old Testament. “Hosts” here is a euphemism for army. The “Lord of Hosts” is God as a general. He is Commander-in-Chief of the angels of heaven conceived of as God's army. He is commander-in-chief of the armies of Israel—seen as the army of God. David is going against the giant as a soldier in the service of the Great General. This is no freelance operation. It's no isolated, individual action. David is on mission for the Great General.

A second phrase: “The LORD does not need a sword and spear to save his people. Indeed, the battle is the LORD'S, and he will give you into our hands.”

David says, “The battle is the Lord's.” However, if you and I watched a movie of the action that day, we would not have seen God. We would have seen David. We would have been impressed with David's courage as he started out to face the giant. We would have been astonished at David's physical strength. After crossing the stream bed in the bottom of the valley, David charged UP the other side toward the giant. Have you ever run up hill? Up a really steep hill? Not on a trail, but cross country? That takes truly impressive strength and cardio conditioning. Then, while we are still gasping about David's strength as he is running up the hill, he reaches into his bag, grabs a rock and slings it at the giant—all while still running up hill.

The rescue of Captain Phillip from the pirates involved truly impressive marksmanship. Three Navy snipers on a rocking boat simultaneously shot three pirates who were on another rocking boat some distance away. But at least they had rifles with sophisticated scopes. David took out Goliath with a single rock whipped from a sling while he is running up hill.

David said, “The battle is the Lord's.” You and I watching could not help thinking, it was a good thing God had David on his side. David was not a robot in this operation controlled by God. God did not aim the rock. It was an incredibly skilled and practiced shepherd who loaded a rock into his sling and whipped into the giant's forehead.

You could not properly say that God could have used just anybody. God needed David. God needed someone with courage, yes. Someone with guts. Sure. God also needed someone with skill, a skill honed through hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of practice.

Just as a human president or general cannot accomplish important missions without the skill and training and courage and discipline a whole host of nameless soldiers, so God has tasks he wants done that call for the courage, skill, training and discipline.

God needs you.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sin Is Alien, not Natural

Recently a friend quoted a common Christian proverb: “Sin is not something we do. It is what we are.”

I protested: “Sin is alien to humanity. It is an intruder, a disease. It is not the essence of being human. So it is not accurate to say even of egregious sinners, 'Sin is what they are.'”

In response, my friend wrote that he was “vile.”

I think I understood his intent. I certainly recognized his words. This kind of language has a long and broad history in the literature of Christian spirituality and even in theology. But I was perplexed. How could this friend, a life-long Christian, an Adventist minister, an apparently sweet, good person be “vile?” How could it be accurate to say he IS “sin”? Here is my extended musing on this conversation:

I am sin.

I am vile.

I am a worm.

I am a piece of garbage.

I am no better than anyone else.

I am sinful through and through.

These are approved self-descriptions by Christians. Not just brand new Christians fresh from their careers of running drugs and women up and down the I-5 corridor or decade of meth addiction or twenty years of victimizing boys in Pathfinders or wrecking companies and lives through vulture capitalism. (Not apocryphal stories, except the last one. I don't personally know any regenerate vulture capitalists.) No, these are approved self-descriptions for people who were baptized and raised to new life, have spent thirty years daily inviting God to fill them with his Spirit, regularly read their Bible, consciously manage their money under the sovereignty of God, practice forgiveness and sexual continence, say grace at meals and believe that God is loving, generous, empowering and transformative.

I know these kinds of self-descriptions have a long history in Christianity. (See my note below on two hymns that employ the word “vile.”) But I have become utterly dissatisfied with them. If they were appropriate and accurate they would be sufficient reason to reject Christianity and look for a better religion/philosophy.

If dying and rising with Christ in baptism and daily requesting the infilling of the Holy Spirit for thirty years produces people who are vile and sinful through and through, it would be irresponsible to recommend Christianity to young people. Secular cognitive behavioral therapy does a better job. Secular hedonism does not do any worse. Buddhism does a better job. A life of meditation produces people who are compassionate, peaceful and happy. That is certainly preferable to “vile and sinful through and through.”

Further, if the words actually mean what they sound like they mean, we should prohibit Christians (people who are vile and sinful through and through) from serving as pastors, babysitters, Little League coaches, doctors or nurses. I would certainly do everything in my power to make sure my daughters did not marry a Christian.

As Christians we have a very high ideal—the life and teachings of Jesus. Our clear vision of that ideal and our awareness of our own condition enables us to see room for growth in our lives. Christians who speak of themselves as vile and sinful intend to honor the exalted goodness of Jesus. They are affirming height and nobility of the ideal. But taken at face value, their words contradict the tenor of Jesus' teachings (John 8:11; Luke 10:33; Mark 12:32-34; Mark 9:36-37; Mark 10:14-16; Matthew 9; Luke 9:47-48; Matthew 25 [In three dramatic parables Jesus condemns AND commends. There is no reason to obscure his commendations and exaggerate his condemnations.])

“Room for growth” is not the same thing as “vile.”

We don't need to denigrate people—including ourselves—in order to exalt Jesus. And if Jesus is so incompetent that with all the power of the Holy Spirit, all the wisdom of his teachings, all the efforts of his church, and all the faith his followers can muster, Jesus is unable over the course of three decades of tutelage to raise his followers from vile to commendable, then Jesus is the problem not the solution.

I, of course, think better of Jesus. When I instinctively tell myself I'm a worthless piece of junk because of some sin of omission or commission, I now correct myself. I failed. Yes. But that failure is not the pattern of my life. And I am not worthless in the service of God or humanity. I may be tainted with sin, but I am not sin through and through. In fact, most of the time, not only my intentions, but my actions are holy. I am generous. Not always. And not with absolutely pure motives. But my generosity is certainly as much “me” as are my impulses toward pride or selfishness.

And I am convinced the same is true for you and many other followers of Jesus.

You are not vile.

You are not sin.

You are a competent, devoted follower of Jesus. Sometimes you err. Sometimes you stumble. But those errors and stumbles are not the essential you. Proof of this is your disappointment with yourself when they occur. If these things were the real you, you would respond to them differently.

I would be disappointed if my children thought of themselves as vile, failures, embarrassments to their father, as worms. Our heavenly Father is no less disappointed when those who have devoted themselves to his service for a lifetime diss themselves.

When God talked about Job, he bragged on him. “Have you seen my servant Job?” When Jesus spoke to his disciples shortly before they all chickened out on him, he said, “You are all clean.” He said of his disciples, “You will do even greater things than I have done.” When the 70 returned from their mission trip, all excited, Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall from heaven.” The devil was defeated by the 70! Jesus said so. When Mary dumped perfume on Jesus in a socially gauche but spiritually rich demonstration of affection and appreciation, Jesus was delighted. “She has done a beautiful thing to me,” he said. “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mark 14:6.

I believe God brags on you. And if God is bragging on you, when you diss yourself, you are contradicting God. I think we would do better to agree with our heavenly Father.

Note on hymns that feature the word “vile:”

The classic hymn, “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel's veins” celebrates the truth that even if I am as “vile” as the thief on the cross, in that fountain I can “wash all my sins away.”It is a sweet affirmation of the largesse of heaven. No matter how horribly I have screwed up, no matter thoroughly I have allowed the vileness of sin to permeate me, Jesus offers hope and healing. The song does not intend to suggest that Christians are stuck in perpetual vileness till death or the Second Coming.

Unfortunately there are hymns that eloquently state the darker view of human vileness, vileness as the essential, natural state of humanity. Note this from Isaac Watts:

Lord, I am vile, conceived in sin,
And born unholy and unclean;
Sprung from the man whose guilty fall
Corrupts the race, and taints us all. . . .

While guilt disturbs and breaks my peace,
Nor flesh nor soul hath rest or ease;
Lord, let me hear Thy pardoning voice,
And make my broken bones rejoice.

This is a reworking of Psalm 51, David's lament after stealing Bathsheba and murdering by proxy Uriah. Note the goal voiced in this psalm (and hymn) is rescue from guilt, not growth in holiness, an increase in wisdom, or greater skill in loving.

I argue that the misery-driven words of a man fresh from an episode of adultery, perfidy, and murder are not a good foundation for constructing a healthy spirituality. They have their place in dealing with crises, like chemotherapy for cancer. But just as chemo is not part of an ordinary regimen for health, so vileness theology has no place in constructing a healthy spirituality.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

God's Standard in the Judgment - 2

[A continuing commentary on some questions raised by friends.]

There are a couple of inherent problems with the idea that humans will be judged on the basis of an eternal, objective standard.

First, the very notion of an “objective standard” for assessing all humans is untenable. All human systems of justice include the notion of intent. Killing someone accidentally is not the same as killing someone on purpose. Killing someone with malice aforethought is not the same crime as killing someone because of sudden, drastic provocation. Some might argue that God can “objectively” assess motive. I argue that humans often operate from mixed motives, so even if God were to “objectively” and accurately assess the motives behind an action, labeling that action good or bad would still involve a subjective decision by God.

Further, how can we imagine a unified, objective standard of judgment when the those being judged range from infants to centenarians, from physicists to people with severe cognitive impairment, from people raised in cannibalistic societies to people reared in stable, warm, stimulating homes. Trying to imagine a single, unified, objective standard for assessing every human across the staggering variety of brain function, social conditioning, religious background and stage of psycho/spiritual/cognitive/social developmental is pointless. You end up with a standard that is so vague or simple that any meaningful application of the standard would require huge subjectivity on the part of the assessor.

Second, one classic approach to the idea of a universal, eternal, unitary standard is to make the simple statement of God's ideal—love God with your entire being and your neighbor as yourself—the standard. This works only if the purpose of the standard is to secure the condemnation of all humanity—a view apparently supported by some passages in Paul. A standard which is impossible to meet is not a meaningful standard. One could reasonably argue that the creator of such a standard invented it as a cover for his animus. Since God created both the standard and the people being measured by the standard, a one hundred percent failure rate by the people is stronger evidence against the creator than against the people. 

I argue it is wholly inappropriate to conflate “ideal” and “standard.” An ideal is a dream, the highest imaginable attainment. The command, “Love God with your entire being and your neighbor as yourself,” is an ideal. It provides guidance for life. It is an impossible standard—impossible to make sense of, impossible to apply, and (according to classic Christian views) impossible to attain.

Impossible to make sense of: are you loving God with your entire being when you are sleeping? When you are intensely engaged in solving a complex math problem? When you are making love to your spouse? Not unless you embrace either pantheism or panentheism. Or you redefine "love" or "entire" or "being" or all three.

The command is a nonsensical standard. It is a compelling, magnificent ideal.

The Ten Commandments will not work as an eternal, universal, objective standard. Jesus specifically declared the “murder commandment” an inadequate standard (Matthew 5:21-22). “Honor your parents” is hugely subjective and situation-contingent. A ten-year-old honoring his strong, capable  mother means something different from an eighty-year-old honoring his feeble, incompetent mother. Not only does the “standard” change. Even the ideal changes. The second commandment is nearly unintelligible in contemporary American culture: “You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea” (Exodus 20:4). Sure, we spiritualize this command and gain wisdom for resisting the allure of contemporary “idols.” But we have to put “idol” in quotation marks because when we mean something wholly other than what the original audience understood.

So, neither the Two Commandments nor the Ten Commandments will work as an “eternal, universal, objective” standard. So where do we find the eternal, universal, objective standard? I argue it doesn't exist. Instead, we find a number of Bible passages that explicitly argue for a subjective standard—one that varies with the person and circumstance.

But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required. Luke 12:48

In the parable of the Talents, each servant receives a different trust to administer. Each produces different results. The clear implication is that proportional results are expected not equal results. Matthew 25.

Naaman the Syrian is authorized by the prophet Elisha to bow in the temple of Rimmon in direct contradiction of the second commandment not to bow down to idols. 2 Kings 5:18-19.

If there is a “universal, eternal standard” (note the absence of the word “objective”), it is the deeply rooted, though amorphous, sense of right and wrong that lives in all of humanity. (By “all” I mean the 80 percent of people in the center of a bell distribution curve, not literally 100 percent of humans.) Abraham invoked this “standard” when he challenged God before the destruction of Sodom: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). Curiously, the Philistine, Abimelech, lectured God on the basis of this same standard when God threatened him in regard to Abraham's wife. Abimelech said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Didn't Abraham tell me, 'She is my sister'? And she herself said, 'Yes, he is my brother.' I acted in complete innocence! My hands are clean.” God acknowledges the legitimacy of Abimelech's argument and tells him how to avoid punishment for his unintended violation (Genesis 20:1-7). Paul refers to this standard in Romans: “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law” (Romans 2:14).

Here is my bottom line: God does what is right in the eyes of intelligent, mature, good humans. The decisions of God are the decisions that would be made by jury of wise people. God is not constrained by an inflexible, unattainable standard. “Justice” is not conformity to a rigid, objective standard. Justice is never a “technicality.” We sense it through some faculty that is essential to the fullness of being human. I argue the human sense of justice is part of the Image of God, the indelible mark of God's involvement in our creation. God does what is right according to this "standard."

Does this idea ultimately give hope or drive us to despair? I'll address that in my next post.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Standard in the Judgment - 1

A friend sent me a list of probing, difficult questions. I am going to work my way through them one at a time.

Question: Are people judged on the basis of an objective, eternal standard or are they judged as they judge?

To begin processing my response to this question I ran through the gospel of Matthew looking at passages that seemed relevant:

"Don't misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God's law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. 5:17

"You have heard that our ancestors were told, 'You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.' But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell. 5:21-22

"Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others.* The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.*
* Or For God will judge you as you judge others.
* Or The measure you give will be the measure you get back. 7:1-2

"Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. 7:12

Not everyone who calls out to me, 'Lord! Lord!' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. Matthew 7:21

I tell you the truth, the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be better off than such a town on the judgment day. 10:15

Then Jesus began to denounce the towns where he had done so many of his miracles, because they hadn't repented of their sins and turned to God. "What sorrow awaits you, Korazin and Bethsaida! For if the miracles I did in you had been done in wicked Tyre and Sidon, their people would have repented of their sins long ago, clothing themselves in burlap and throwing ashes on their heads to show their remorse. I tell you, Tyre and Sidon will be better off on judgment day than you. "And you people of Capernaum, will you be honored in heaven? No, you will go down to the place of the dead. For if the miracles I did for you had been done in wicked Sodom, it would still be here today. I tell you, even Sodom will be better off on judgment day than you." 11:20-24.

And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you. 12:36-37

The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent. The queen of Sheba will also stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for she came from a distant land to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Now someone greater than Solomon is here—but you refuse to listen. 12:41-42

"Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?" Jesus replied, "'You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments." 22:36-40

"But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.' 25:31-36

In Matthew, there is no statement that neatly declares the law is the standard in the judgment. So then I considered the rest of the Bible. It's just as nebulous there. Adventists (and I right along with our tradition) have celebrated the role of the law as the great standard in the judgment. But this idea is not a theme in the Bible. The Bible does make numerous statements about people being judged according to their deeds, their words, their faith. There are statements that everything about a person's life will be scrutinized. But there is no clear statement that the totality of a person's life will be measured by the law. Instead we will be measured/evaluated/assessed/judged by the judge.

What criteria does the Judge use? According to Matthew: how we treat naked, hungry, imprisoned people. Whether or not we did the will of the Father. By our words. By our response to the preaching and/or person of Jesus. By our standard for judging others. By how we treat our brother.

This is a very diffuse “standard.” It seems to give the Judge wide latitude for his own personal assessment. In Matthew, the emphasis is on ethics not religion, compassion not ritual/ceremonial/parochial concerns.

If the criteria of judgment in Matthew is pushed as an absolute norm—measure up or else—it would be a counsel of despair. I don't think that was Jesus' purpose or the purpose of the author of the book.

I will continue this in the next blog.

Friday, February 10, 2012

God the Lover

Sermon for North Hill Adventist Fellowship for February 11, 2012.
Text: Deuteronomy 7:7-10

One of my favorite love songs is “Would You Go with Me?”

Would you go with me if we rolled down streets of fire?
Would you hold on to me tighter as the summer sun got higher?
If we roll from town to town and never shut it down?

Would you go with me if we were lost in fields of clover?
Would we walk even closer until the trip was over?
And would it be okay if I didn't know the way

If I gave you my hand would you take it and make me the happiest man in the world?
If I told you my heart couldn't beat one more minute without you, girl?
Would you accompany me to the edge of the sea, let me know if you're really a dream?
I love you so, so would you go with me?

Would you go with me if we rode the clouds together?
Could you not look down forever if you were lighter than a feather?
Oh, and if I set you free, would you go with me?

If I gave you my hand would you take it and make me the happiest man in the world?
If I told you my heart couldn't beat one more minute without you, girl?
Would you accompany me to the edge of the sea, help me tie up the ends of a dream?
I gotta know, would you go with me?
I love you so, so would you go with me?

“Would You Go With Me”
Songwriters: John Sherrill;Darrell De Shawn Camp
Performance: Josh Turner.

Imagine a rugged guy in leathers standing beside his Harley talking to a sweet, beautiful girl. He's pleading:

Would you go with me . . .?
Would you hold on to me tighter . . .?

He's tough. He doesn't walk, he swaggers. He makes his own way in the world. He does what he wants, when he wants, the way he wants. He's used to barking orders not asking favors. But now . . . he's begging.

Would you go with me?

It's no a casual invitation, no flippant flirtation. “Hey, you want to go for a spin? No? That's cool.” This guy pours his whole heart into his proposal:

If I gave you my hand would you take it and make me the happiest man in the world?
If I told you my heart couldn't beat one more minute without you, girl? . . .

I love you so, so would you go with me?

He is in love. The entire universe has been condensed into the beauty who has captured his heart. He needs her. He wants her. Will she come with him?

This is the third in our series on “Pictures of God in the Bible.”

First: God is the Almighty. The Rock.

Second: God is the judge.

Today: God is a lover.

It's a wild and daring picture. Some of us who are philosophically inclined like to think of God in terms of principles and ideas. God is love – as a principle. God is just. God is eternal. God is merciful. God is light. We conceive of these as statements of principle, as predictable laws of being and action. As long as God remains confined within these categories, he's fairly safe. He's manageable. We can make confident statements about what God will and will not do, because there are logical implications of these principles. But God as lover introduces a note of non-rationality. Love does wild things sometimes, things that are not predictable. Love involves emotion and desire, jealousy and dreams. Dangerous stuff.

Note for theologians: Anders Nygren argued in his book, The Christian Idea of Love through the Ages: Eros and Agape, that divine love—Agape love—is a purely spontaneous outflowing from the heart of God. There is nothing in humans that awakens or calls forth this love. We are not desirable, but God loves us any way. God gets nothing out of his love for us. God does all the giving. We receive all the benefit. Eros on the other hand is love that sees something desirable in the beloved. The lover finds great delight in the loveliness of the beloved. Nygren argued this was unworthy of God. Nygren was wrong. His God of principled, unilateral love is a rather sterile ideal.

Back to the motorcycle lover in our song. If the girl had responded, “See ya later,” the tough guy would have been crushed, devastated. No matter how he acted on the outside, inside he would have died.

If I gave you my hand would you take it and make me the happiest man in the world?
If I told you my heart couldn't beat one more minute without you, girl? . . .

But what if she didn't take his hand? What if she refused his affection? She would make him the most miserable man in the world. He would question the value of life itself.

He offers her everything. He declares his love. And desperately hopes she will say yes. She has to come with him. She can't say no. He can't imagine life without her. This is one of the pictures the Bible paints of God.

(v. 1)When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations . . . (v. 5)This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. (v. 6)For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (v.7)The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. (v.8)But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharoah king of Egypt. (v.9)Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands. (v. 10)But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him. Deuteronomy 7

To paraphrase: God says, “I love you. I love you more than I love all those Canaanite people. I don't want you mixed up with them. And I don't want you flirting with their gods. Those gods are my rivals. Don't look at them. Don't mess with them. I love you. I want you to love me. I am not willing to share you. Why did I pick you? Because I loved you. Don't bother asking about 'objective' reasons. It doesn't matter what outside observers think. I picked you because I loved you. Period.”

A careful reader might object: What about the statement that God's love is compelled by the oath he swore to Israel's forefathers? This just pushes the very same question back a few generations. Why did God choose Abraham out of all the tens of thousands of people in Ur of the Chaldees? Why did God choose Jacob over Esau? The only answer is the non-logic of love. God loved Abraham. God loved Jacob. God loved Israel. He wanted them to be his own special people.

God's love for Israel was no casual invitation to dance. It was a fiery, passionate proposal of irrevocable union. I love you. I want you to love me. Love only me. Love me forever. If you do, I will give you every blessing. If you don't, I will curse you. I will hate you!

Wow! That's intense!

Another instance where Moses plainly gives personal love and affection priority over cool, reasoned principle is in the story of Balaam the prophet.

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, even down to the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharaim to pronounce a curse on you. However, the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loves you. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live. Deuteronomy 23:3-6. [The story referenced here is told in detail in Numbers 22-24.]
Do you hear the emotion in these words? The anger? “Those people did not meet you with bread and water!” Any slight to someone you really love cuts you to the quick. The Moabites refused hospitality to Israel. They slighted God's lover. God was deeply offended. And he remembered!

The Moabites went even further. They hired the prophet Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam was famous for his supernatural powers. When Balaam blessed people, they were blessed, indeed. People he cursed were in deep weeds. But when Balaam came to curse Israel, it didn't work. Note Moses' words: The Lord would not listen to Balaam and turned his curse into a blessing BECAUSE HE LOVES YOU.

It didn't matter that Balaam had a track record. It didn't matter that Balaam and God had apparently cooperated in the past. When Balaam set out to curse Israel, his mission was doomed to failure. Not because he was a fraud. Not because he didn't have supernatural power. He was guaranteed to fail because he was running up against God's affection for Israel. God loved Israel and would do whatever it took to protect his beloved.

Moses does not describe God's action here as the cool, reasonable application of the principle of justice. It is an intense, emotional, driving desire. God loves Israel with every bit as much fiery passion as burns in the heart of our motorcycle lover. Israel's response matters to God. God is saying,

Would you go with me if we rolled down streets of fire?
Would you hold on to me tighter as the summer sun got higher?
If we roll from town to town and never shut it down?

I love you so, so would you go with me?

Let's be clear, there is nothing casual about climbing on the back of that hog and roaring off down the road. You're not merely a passenger. You're a lover. And driver of the motorcycle is a wild, burly man.

And so is God . . . at least in these pictures from Deuteronomy.

Another passage that features imagery bordering on lurid is Ezekiel 16. In this chapter, the prophet pictures Israel as an abandoned newborn. The Lover sees the helpless infant and rescues her. He assigns her to competent nannies and showers her with every advantage. She grows into a stunning beauty. He is utterly smitten, enthralled. When she reaches marriageable age, he marries her. All he has is hers—all his affection and desire, all his money and status.

She begins taking lovers. When she is unable to attract them with beauty alone, she pays them, with her husband's wealth, to sleep with her. She is like a dog in heat desperately seeking every opportunity for sex.

The Lover finally can't take it any more. He strips her naked and parades her publicly. He manages to turn all her lovers and paramours against her. They abuse and reject her. He drives her to confront her shame.

Somewhere in all this ruin and punishment she awakens to her shame. (Not merely feelings of shame, but the genuinely, ontologically shameful nature of her behavior.) She gives her heart to her Lover and he takes her back. They are reunited and lived happily ever after.

The entire chapter bleeds desire and anger, outrage and passion. God's love is portrayed as unreasonable. Any counselor would have told him long ago, “She's not that into you. Let her go. You can't make her love you. She obviously doesn't. Quit trying to force what can't be won.”

God rejects the wisdom of the counselor. He rejects the advice a good friend would give. He is an irrational lover. His love is full of passionate desire. And when his love is betrayed, when his beloved uses him and cuckolds him, he reacts in hurt and anger and outrage.

The flip side of this picture of the fiery negativity of love betrayed is the magical wonder of romantic love. God wants us. God schemes and connives to win our hearts when we are reluctant. God does not give up. Through a thousand rejections, through a thousand instances of unfaithfulness, God pursues us still.

Going back to the Bible, Israel is described as the bride from hell. Failure after rejection after affair after neglect. Twice in the Bible (Jeremiah 22:28-30, Matthew 21:43-46) there are formal declarations by God, I'm finished. It's over. I'm through! Then later Bible passages describe God coming up with work arounds so that both statements of “divorce” become effectively invalid. And God again is pursuing the girl who will make him the happiest man in the world, if she will only take his hand. (See Matthew 1:12 [Jeconiah is the same as Jehoiakim] as a de facto repudiation of Jeremiah 22:28-30 and Romans 11:26 and Revelation 7:1-8 as invalidations of Matthew 21:43-46.). God cannot “get over” his love.

Even after he's roared off, blasting our ear drums and spewing gravel, in his rage at rejection, he circles the block and idles up to us again, singing,

I love you so, so would you go with me?

God the Judge

Sermon at North Hill Adventist Fellowship, February 4, 2012.

This is the second in my series on Bible Pictures of God.

Some day I may get the manuscript published on this blog. For now, it's available in audio. See the link.

I Have Seen the King

Sermon at North Hill Adventist Fellowship for January 28, 2012.

Gayle Lasher preached on Isaiah 6. She announced the launch of a new church plant in the town of Fife, WA, just a few miles from our church. She invited people of North Hill to join her in this new mission to people in a rather depressed town. You can hear the sermon in our audio file.

Gayle has all the marks of a great church leader. I expect her church will outgrow North Hill. I wouldn't be surprised if her congregation grows into a megachurch. We at North Hill will do anything we can to encourage and support her work.

God Almighty

Sermon at North Hill Adventist Fellowship on January 21, 2012.

This was the first in a series I'm doing on Pictures of God in the Bible.

I still have not polished the manuscript for this sermon. You can listen to it if you wish. Just follow the link for the audio.

I compare God to Mt. Rainier. Here in the Northwest, we celebrate its beauty. In July and August, it's meadows are full of flowers. It is a most inviting, lovely place.

There are other times when the mountain becomes a terrifying force. Even those most intimate with it cower. Sometimes intimacy with the mountain is a lesson in our nothingness and insignficance.

This is not my preferred picture of God, but I think it is an important element of a complete understanding of God.