Why Christian obedience looks so stupid, and then again so beautiful

Amstersdam

Over the last few weeks we’ve been talking about the relationship between the story-verse and the matter-verse. As human beings we must inhabit stories yet as we saw with Jim Carrey there is an uneasy relationship between the stories we inhabit and the stuff of the matter-verse upon which our stories seem to depend.

In the Western world our ability to believe that the matter-verse is dependent on the story-verse has become susceptible to skepticism. Why is it so hard for some to believe but not others? Who is right? Are there reasons behind people’s beliefs that expose them as being illegitimate?

Russell Shorto in his history of the city of Amsterdam notes the startling transformation in belief in that city as illustrated by one woman.

Indeed, by the later twentieth century, that kind of religious freedom was itself able to evolve in the direction of freedom from religion. Maybe the most profound post-1960s transformation in the city was in the role that religion played in people’s lives. In the city of the miracle of Amsterdam, in what had been one of Europe’s most devout societies, people simply stopped going to church. A single set of statistics tells the story. In 1900, more than 45 percent of Amsterdammers identified with Dutch Protestantism, the Christian denomination for which their ancestors had fought a war of independence against the Spanish empire. By 1971, only about 18 percent considered themselves part of the faith. In 2000, the number was 5 percent. If liberalism is, as many of its adherents and detractors alike have said through the centuries, a force that ultimately stands in opposition to religion, or as an eventual replacement for religion, then here too Amsterdam seems to be leading the way.

The implementation of the social welfare state after World War II also brought sharp and nearly instantaneous changes. People suddenly got subsidies: unemployment payments, sick leave. Jobs came with built-in pensions. There is a relationship between the rise of the welfare state and the steady unchurching of the city and the country, as the welfare state took over some of the security-blanket functions that churches had provided. And many people found this to be a positive development. Jan Donkers, for example, told me how throughout his childhood in North Amsterdam his devout Catholic grandmother kept three statues of saints on her living room mantel. Then she started getting welfare checks of forty guilders a month. The next time he went to her house, he said, he saw the statues outside next to the trash. “She said, ‘What has the church done for us, apart from anointing German tanks when they came? Churches didn’t buy bread for us. The Labor Party did.’ ”

Shorto, Russell (2013-10-22). Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City (pp. 299-300). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Shorto’s reading of the source of this is with the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. He was part of the Jewish community that fled Portugal in the 17th century and found refuge in the Netherland who had been resisting the Roman Catholic Spanish. Shorto’s reading of Spinoza on religion is nearly post-modern.

Devils, hell, and sin, and for that matter miracles and heaven: these were seen by freethinkers as invented devices for controlling people, for keeping them chained to the will of the established authorities. The new philosophers promoted common sense and reason in ordinary life. Theologians saw at once what was at stake: if a system such as what Spinoza advocated took hold, society would not be rooted in church and monarchy; instead, people would insist that politics have as their guiding principles things like the promotion of individual life, individual liberty, and the pursuit of individual happiness.

Shorto, Russell (2013-10-22). Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City (pp. 207-208). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Now four centuries later, we inhabit a world where religion seems a lifestyle option, something that might be useful if we’re hungering for meaning or comfort especially in the service of personal happiness, expression or fulfillment. If it doesn’t pan out we can, as the Dutch woman did, throw it in the trash and embrace politics, art, entertainment or whatever works for us.

Lent in the Consumer Culture

Lent was the practice of Christian communities for centuries that embraced a renunciation of pleasure or comfort in anticipation of the remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. James Smith, a philosopher at Calvin College notes that the change in the cultural water around us similarly impacts how we experience and imagine this traditional practice.

“even our self-denial is an act of self-expression. Our submission to discipline is converted to act of will power.”

All over social media men and women will tweet and Facebook what it is that they are giving up. This will all be a part of the assumed effort of self-improvement. Even though it tends to rub against Jesus’ comments on fasting in the Sermon on the Mount  on the whole the selective appropriating of the tradition for edification is likely no worse than selective neglect. What Smith helps us see is that the dominant story-verse that grips us is that of the individual pursuit of happiness and if religion can be called into service to pursue such an end even ardent atheists can become selective libertarians.

Jesus Changes Time in the Story-verse

The most talked about book of the last 10 years on this subject is Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age he notes that part of the dominant story-verse today has a great deal to do with time. Time for us is culturally experiences as a linear march of endless uniformity starting with the big bang and despite being warped by gravity as Einstein discovered makes its way to the eventual cool death of the ever expanding universe. “Time stops for no one” we say.

Taylor noted that this story-verse assumption has not been shared by all cultures or societies. In fact this assumption would be a strange one to many cultures. Most cultures imagine that time and space is changed by ceremonies, acts, characters and events. We experience this liturgically all the time. In a strange way when we are assembled as Christians on Good Friday we are “closer” to that day than the calendar reveals. Every Easter or even every Sunday when we gather together to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus we draw nearer to the tomb than we were on the previous Tuesday regardless of what the date and time says. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we travel through time to sit at the table with his disciples in that Upper Room and are at the same time at the foot of the cross.

If you want to have a sense of how the Bible works, what it has to say, and the life it intends to draw us into we need to have a sense of this kind of time changing, warping, travel. This is the reason the church has had its “seasons” for many years, to invite its people into this Christian time, to invite us into Jesus’ story-verse for us to inhabit.

What We Want Divine Power to Do for Us

In the midst of our contemporary skepticism we find, with the ancients, the promise of transcendent power too alluring. We pay attention to God, the gods or “the universe” when we find our desires, needs and ambitions outreach our grasp. We fantasize as humans what god-like power would enable for us? We know this of ourselves. What might a man who is also God become?

Our need, desire and ambition usually fall into three spaces:

  • Our circumstance in the matter-verse
  • Our limitations at controlling other persons
  • Our desire to be the center of glory

Mythologies are rich with gods playing in these pools. Relationships between humans and gods circulate around these poles. Now in the Christian story God becomes flesh. What will he do? What can he become? What will that mean for us?

The devil, never one to miss an opportunity, knew what to do.

The Temptations of Jesus

The first Sunday stop in Lent is traditionally the temptations of Jesus, in this cycle from the Gospel of Luke.

Many careful readers of Scripture understand that in this story not only is the time of Jesus transformed in this story-verse time warp but his identity as well. Jesus goes into Egypt in the gospel of Matthew to connect him to Israel. Now he goes into the desert to re-address what had happened and to make it new.

Luke 4:1–2 (NET)

1 Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,2 where for forty days he endured temptations from the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were completed, he was famished.

Jesus here re-enacts, lives in remembrance of Israel and alone walks for 40 days the 40 years of Israel’s wandering.

The temptations he confronts will echo the temptations of Israel.

Luke 4:3–13 (NET)

3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone.’ ” 5 Then the devil led him up to a high place and showed him in a flash all the kingdoms of the world.

6 And he said to him, “To you I will grant this whole realm—and the glory that goes along with it, for it has been relinquished to me, and I can give it to anyone I wish. 7 So then, if you will worship me, all this will be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You are to worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’ ”

9 Then the devil brought him to Jerusalem, had him stand on the highest point of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’11 and ‘with their hands they will lift you up, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ ”12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You are not to put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”13 So when the devil had completed every temptation, he departed from him until a more opportune time.

Jesus quotes the book of Deuteronomy 3 times to address the devil and his temptations.

Deuteronomy 8:3 (NET)

3 So he humbled you by making you hungry and then feeding you with unfamiliar manna. He did this to teach you that humankind cannot live by bread alone, but also by everything that comes from the Lord’s mouth.

Deuteronomy 6:13 (NET)

13 You must revere the Lord your God, serve him, and take oaths using only his name.

Deuteronomy 6:16 (NET)

16 You must not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.

The Matter-verse Test

While Matthew and Luke change the order of the second two temptations each begins with the hunger test. For those of us today who live in a story-verse that insists that the story-verse is dependent upon the matter-verse the test of hunger, which is the test of survival seems ultimate, but in this setting it is the first, the introductory, and the most basic test.

For most of us our relationship with God begins at this most basic level. Will he reach down and deliver me out of my need? Surely the god-man will exclude himself from need.

The fact that we imagine this is the ultimate test reveals how little we know ourselves.

Why is it that it is in affluent, Western societies where man and women, young and old commit suicide for story-verse reasons even if their physical welfare is not in danger?

If you read Laura Hillenbrand’s telling of the life of Louis Zamperini (read the book, forget the movie) it should cure you of the illusion that everything is simply about survival and physical pain or pleasure. Zamperini survives unspeakable torture and suffering seemingly in this life for no other reason than he didn’t want to lose. He was not yet, at that point in his life a Christian. He was just stubborn. It was only after he returned to North American, married a beautiful woman, had food and a job and all that middle class mid-20th century life could afford that he begins to kill himself with alcohol.

In the first temptation Satan invites Jesus to privately use just a tiny bit of the power he will display in his miracles (stilling a storm, multiplying loaves and fishes, healing the sick, raising the dead, etc.) to just take the edge off what is natural flesh naturally demands. Who would know? I’m sure the devil would promise to keep a secret.

Jesus, however, while Israel ate manna from heaven will not exclude himself from the kinds of suffering common to us. He will not use his power to advantage himself if it seemingly does not harm to another.

The Politics Test

Even the smallest sample from Democratic and Republic presidential debates will reveal that all are making promises that neither they, not the US government could possibly keep. They promise to end racism and discrimination, to bring security and prosperity, to provide to each American citizen the life we’ve always wanted. What stands between these earnest candidates and the fulfillment of their promises? People.

The very first story of the Bible presents the obstacle of every Utopia, other people. No matter what vision you have for others, how pure, how good, how right, how just, as long as that vision isn’t perfectly embraced by others it remains a dream and its beholders remain frustrated.

The normal processes by which the world manages this reality is manipulation, grooming and violence. The kingdoms of the world, the ones the devil shows to Jesus are all established political mechanisms by which the will of one is imposed upon the many. Empire is the means by which the earth is tames and its people become tools for the power and the glory of the elite. The devil declares that he stands atop this great pyramid of tyranny and that if Jesus would only submit to him, then the power of all of that control would flow to him.

In Jesus’ rejection of this offer we see a lie, a sin, and the character of God.

The lie is that the devil really does control these kingdom. They are not really his to give. All of these pyramids of rebellion are corrupted by means through which they stand. What you can most predictably expect from rebels is rebellion. All are opportunists looking for their chance to scramble on top of the pile. God alone provides what sustains real community, which is love. Jesus will not be a rebel.

The sin the devil invites Jesus into is clear. Worship God alone.

The character revealed is of God and now his Son. This God exhibits tolerance, patience, forbearance, long-suffering. He affords space for rebellion in anticipation that rebellion is transformed into love. The devil offers Jesus a short-cut to victory, one that does not involve a cross. Jesus will refuse the short-cut and take the long road.

The Offer of Glory

The devil, not finding success in his first two attempts now tries to turn God’s goods back upon himself. It was for glory that the world was made. It was is for glory that Jesus comes to redeem the rebels. If Jesus is to be the king of glory there is no reason to wait. Employ the power of the divine to dazzle the rebels and seduce.

This of course would assure the god-man, his insecurities, fears and impatience wanting immediate proof of God’s faithfulness, making faith itself unnecessary.

Jesus now experiences the layered strain of hungry, thirsty Israel in the desert. Delivered from the violence of Egypt by divine wonders, only to find herself in desert places where water was insecure. Will God follow through? Is he reliable enough to me to wait?

Rather than attempt to invoke an angelic theophany which would vindicate Jesus without the cross and the tomb, he will walk the journey of faith. He will have no place to lay his head. He will have sinful, dim, self-important human beings attack him, revile him, reject him, mock him. He will not over-power them, or seduce them, or coerce them through violence. He will endure them. He will walk his road that will require faith, the kind of faith his followers will also need. He will take no short cut.

Living in Doubt and Faith

The Dutch woman who gleefully throws out her statues is delighted to no longer need faith. She’s got the “sight” of 40 guilders a month.

The politicians who compared to thousands of others have demonstrated ability to “make things happen”. They need no faith. The have the sight of being fighters who can overcome their political adversaries to create and impose government mechanisms that will deliver what they promise to their constituencies.

The religiously successful who have gathered crowds and followers don’t need faith. They have proofs that God or the gods will heed their call. They don’t need to suffer, or wait, or fail, or die.

Jesus, and behind him his followers, are subject to all of this. The rejection of the devil seems utterly pointless and futile. There is no payoff. Jesus will have to acquire bread by normal means. He will be rejected and assaulted by not just the Roman empire but also by the client Jewish state and the religious authorities who are either collaborating or resisting the cultural progress of the Greeks.

Even after Jesus’ Easter vindication his disciples will lack for bread, have no political power, and look anything but successful or glorious. Paul will draw these comparisons with the elite of the Corinthian church who are not hungry, are well connected socially and politically, and believe themselves to be full of supernatural-spiritual power.

2 Corinthians 11:23–29 (NET)

23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am talking like I am out of my mind!) I am even more so: with much greater labors, with far more imprisonments, with more severe beatings, facing death many times. 24 Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes less one.25 Three times I was beaten with a rod. Once I received a stoning. Three times I suffered shipwreck. A night and a day I spent adrift in the open sea. 26 I have been on journeys many times, in dangers from rivers, in dangers from robbers, in dangers from my own countrymen, in dangers from Gentiles, in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, 27 in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing.28 Apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxious concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not burn with indignation?

What we want from Religion, Politics and God

What do we want? We want it all.

The strangeness of Jesus is his willingness to wait, to suffer and to lose. Waiting, suffering and losing make little sense to us who possess hearts that “want what it wants”. Our hearts are mercenary and we will serve whatever God, whatever plan, whatever politician offers the most realistic means by which we can get what we want.

The story of Israel is the story of the world. In the temptations Jesus gathers up the story of Israel, takes on her identity in her story and changes it. Israel that could not wait but wailed and faithlessly flailed now refuses to use divine connection to achieve her ends. In Jesus Israel refuses to use the means of empire. David and Bathsheba are exposed. Ahab’s seizure of Naboth’s vineyard undone. Jesus refuses to become an angelic figure that dazzles and by the dazzle seduces the people. Instead the glory will be seen through the scars of pierced hands.

Misery

We would love to imagine that we like Jesus would resist the temptations. That we would refuse to do a private trick to relieve our hunger. Do you not satisfy your various hungers in secret ways at the subtle expense of others?

We imagine we would resist the temptation to take the reigns of empire to turn the world right. Can democracy not be seen as the fractional acceptance of the devil’s invitation to take command of the empire?

Do we believe that if given the opportunity to compound our 15 minutes of fame we would quickly do so to stand in the spotlight for as long as it favors us?

I do believe we are little better than Israel in our flesh. We are suckers for the tempter’s invitations.

Deliverance

The most important observation to make in Jesus’ assumption of the identity of Israel is that he wins FOR her. Israel cannot stand so he stands FOR her. While Jesus surely is our example, he is not an example we succeed at, but an example that shows us both success and our own shame because we cannot succeed.

Gratitude

The Heidelberg Catechism locates the Christian life in gratitude.

The reason we succumb to temptation is because we find resisting it to be pointless to our aim. We have, with Spinoza come to the conclusion that the meaning of life is embracing our desires and achieving the goals of the heart. Why then did Jesus do this? What were the goals of his heart?

The goal of Jesus’ heart was us, our rescue from ourselves and the tyranny of the devil.

If we believe Jesus, as he takes on Israel and our identity, is faithful where we and Israel fail, we are then, with Paul, invited to in small ways overcome temptation even if unevenly and haphazardly.

Why do we as Christians hunger when reaching for all kinds of bread is common and in the eyes of our neighbors justifiable? Why should Christians hold back from the reigns of empire when they are offered to us? Why should Christians seek that another be glorified instead of ourselves?

Christians finally trust that all has been accomplished and the hunger, faithfulness and humility have a beauty in themselves that will be perfected and revealed as greater glory on the day of His appearing.

We see in Jesus’ hunger, failure and humiliation the love a adult child sees in the worn out life of her mother. We see the glory of calloused knees and arthritic hands who spent themselves for love.

We see in the empty tomb the promise that such sacrifice is not given in vain. We see that in the humility of Christ the love of God is revealed and the promise of all things made new tasted. Such beauty brings us to hunger, to be long-sufferingly faithful, and to be humble because the beauty we finally desire belongs to Him and we want it more than anything.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Why Christian obedience looks so stupid, and then again so beautiful

  1. Pingback: “Lord, Will Only a Few Be Saved?” | Leadingchurch.com

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