Why all our efforts at self-rescue and security fall short, and how the frustrating Son of Man brings peace

san_francisco_fire_1906Ghost Ship Fire in Oakland

On December 2 fire broke out in a warehouse that had been used an artist collective in Oakland CA. There was an unpermitted concert event in the building happening at the time as well as some illegal habitation going in in the building. Thirty six mostly young adults were killed in the fire.

The aftermath of such a tragedy is now predictable for us. A whole series of questions arise.

  • Was the city aware of the activity in the building?
  • Had there been an inspection?
  • What responsibility do the owners of the building have?
  • Are there similar situations that might result in a similar tragedy?
  • Can we, with greater vigilance avoid such a tragedy again?

This tragedy captured national attention because such things happen so rarely for us. We shouldn’t forget that throughout history fire was a major cause of loss of life and property especially in cities. The great Chicago fire of 1871 killed over 300 people. More lost their lives in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

After each loss of life we re-examine building codes, infra-structure, fire codes and enforcement and reasonably and productively reduce the likelihood of such a thing happening again.

The very process of taking steps to prevent such a thing from happening also sets up the question and the expectation that such a thing is preventable and we are capable of preventing it. That’s a good thing.

If we travel across the world, however, we’ll see that lots of other tragedies, like war, are fully human caused and fully preventable in terms of material causes but seemingly unavoidable. We might see the tragedy in Alleppo. Most of us assume that there will be other wars, larger wars, and there will be greater losses of life to come.

For all of our smarts and abilities that we see in the reduction of tragedies like we saw in Oakland, we face the reality that so often the greatest human tragedies are simply caused by us. While we might reduce the kinds of loss of life we see in Oakland we can’t seem to very easily reduce the human caused tragedies that have cause great suffering either in overt ways like wars or smaller, quieter, more private ways like what happens in every home and lifetime.

The God-Fix

Last week we saw John the Baptist thundering like a prophet warning people to flee from the coming destruction of God’s righteous return to cleanse the world of sin and free it from our miseries.

John the Baptist had gotten into trouble with Herod Antipas who was in power because he had taken Herodias, who was both his niece and his brother’s wife as his own wife. John the Baptist denounced this and so Herod threw him in prison but didn’t want to kill him for fear of a revolt. Matthew 14 tells the story of his later execution.

While he was in prison, however, he sent messengers to Jesus asking if Jesus was really the Messiah or if he should wait for another. People have taken this question a variety of ways throughout church history. I fall on the side of John’s doubts.

Jesus’ answer, as we saw last week was illuminating.

Matthew 11:4–6 (NIV)

4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

While modern readers immediately key into, with approval, the “positive” ministry of Jesus, as compared to the kind of judgment John’s sermons seemed to point it, John’s and Jesus’ listeners would have immediately recognized a number of Old Testament texts and prophesies, one of which is one of the most beautiful visions in the book of Isaiah chapter 35.

Isaiah 35:1–10 (NIV)

1 The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. 3 Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 4 say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” 5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. 6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. 7 The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. 8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. 9 No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, 10 and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Jesus clearly sees his ministry in terms of fulfillment here. Those who know something of the history of Israel will also recognize a “return from exile” motif here.

There are other issues here in Isaiah 35 that, despite the beautiful imagery of peace and healing will give some modern Western readers pause. There is a moral element to this way and an exclusionary element as you can see in verse 8.

An Post-Jesus, Unsaved World

It seems to me the source of John’s doubt is the source of the doubt of many. If Jesus is the savior of the world, and Jesus’ death and resurrection were so important, why is the world still so unsaved? Why is the world still such a mess?

One might point even to the saving elements of Jesus’ illustrations and note that all the recovery of sign and hearing and mobility and even life itself didn’t resolve many areas of trouble for the lives of those he helped. It wasn’t the case that only the disabled were miserable and all those walking around with good eyes, ears and legs were perfectly happy enjoying the fulfillment of all of their dreams. This isn’t to diminish the joy at which the people healed by Jesus felt at their release and rescue from their difficulties, but it should help us understand something of Jesus’ ministry, especially as he continues to engage “the crowd” in Matthew.

Happiness studies have noted some surprising things about people, fortune, and misfortune and happiness. We all imagine that winning the lottery, suddenly having millions of dollars at our disposal would make us happier. We also imagine that losing control of our limbs, becoming a quadriplegic would be a terrible tragedy, making us unhappy. Happiness studies repeatedly show that while both windfalls and tragedies cause temporary happiness and unhappiness, within a relatively short window of time people return to their baseline level of happiness. In other words, those who grumbled because of their blindness felt immediate exaltation over gaining their sight, soon might return to the level of happiness they had before but just might have new things to complain about.

Now we might say that Jesus is certainly doing good in doing the miracles he’s doing, but he’s clearly NOT providing the kind of fix that John is looking for, even if he seems to, perhaps, be connecting somewhat with Isaiah 35, even if in John’s opinion he’s falling some questions about some of the moral and exclusionary elements. We did, however, talk about that last week too, how Jesus looks both more merciful than John imagines he should be while we see in the Sermon on the Mount he’s more demanding than even the most demanding elements of the Old Testament law.

We must begin to ask the question “Is John asking for something that can be given?”

Four Tribes of English Colonization

Historian David Fischer wrote a book entitled Albion’s Seed in which he traces the immigration and impact of four separate groups into colonial America. You can find a summarized treatment of that book at SlateStarCodex. He describes four different groups that made up the English colonial population:

  • The Puritians in New England
  • The Cavaliers in Virginia
  • The Quakers
  • The Borderers

As you look at the four different groups you begin to get a sense of the trade-offs in our choices. Most of us are probably most familiar with the Puritians, our English Reformed cousins.

Most of us would probably find life in Puritan America a bit oppressive. Mandatory church attendance, moral rules enforced by the state, etc. “Scott Alexander”, who is by no means a Puritan makes a number of observations.

So life as a Puritan was pretty terrible. On the other hand, their society was impressively well-ordered. Teenage pregnancy rates were the lowest in the Western world and in some areas literally zero. Murder rates were half those in other American colonies. There was remarkably low income inequality – “the top 10% of wealthholders held only 20%-30% of taxable property”, compared to 75% today and similar numbers in other 17th-century civilizations. The poor (at least the poor native to a given town) were treated with charity and respect – “in Salem, one man was ordered to be set by the heels in the stocks for being uncharitable to a poor man in distress”. Government was conducted through town meetings in which everyone had a say. Women had more equality than in most parts of the world, and domestic abuse was punished brutally. The educational system was top-notch – “by most empirical tests of intellectual eminence, New England led all other parts of British America from the 17th to the early 20th century”.

In some ways the Puritans seem to have taken the classic dystopian bargain – give up all freedom and individuality and art, and you can have a perfect society without crime or violence or inequality. Fischer ends each of his chapters with a discussion of how the society thought of liberty, and the Puritans unsurprisingly thought of liberty as “ordered liberty” – the freedom of everything to tend to its correct place and stay there.

As he goes through the Cavaliers, Quakers and Borderers you see similar trade-offs. What is it exactly that we want, besides for God to simply make the universe a reflection of our wills from one moment to the next?

Jesus uses his relationship with John to illustrate the contradictions of humanity

We’re not quite sure how John responded to Jesus’ answer to his question, but the point of this telling of the story seems to be for the sake of the “crowd”, who in Matthew is the rather fickle audience of Jesus’ proclamation, and for us.

Matthew 11:7–10 (NIV)

7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: “ ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

At first it might seem that Jesus’ illustrations here seem strange. Why is he talking about reeds, fine clothes and king’s palaces?

We often think of Jesus as being a-political in the midst of a very fierce and bloody culture war, but he sometimes drops coded messages into his words. Any listener in Jesus’ time would note that the reed was a symbol of the Herods. The Herods knew enough to not put images in coins for use by the Jews so they simply put the reed.

You should also remember that John is being imprisoned by one of the Herods for wading into what was the kind of perpetual family drama that makes the Kardashians look like Puritans.

What is Jesus saying to his listeners? 

Jesus is pointing out that the majority of people had little hope that the Herods would be the messiahs sent to free and elevate the Hebrew people from their long exile. The people themselves knew this. Herod the Great, the original Herod rebuilt the temple as an attempt to appropriate for himself the mantle of messianic Jewish savior, but the people didn’t buy it. They knew better. They knew what the Herods were about. They were about their own power, wealth and exaltation. The people had no hope in them.

Jesus continues to not only remind the people that the Herods are frauds fooling no one, he then turns the tables on his audience and exposes them for being similarly duplicitous.

Matthew 11:11–19 (NIV)

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear. 16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: 17 “ ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Misery: What is he saying to the crowd and to us? 

We are the consummate consumers. We are asking our neighbors, the government, our lovers, God and just about anyone and everything else expecting something in this world to finally fill us, satisfy us, make us whole.

The miracles of Jesus were of course designed to give samples, foretastes of wholeness and restoration, but were themselves only signs, not the thing itself.

Verse 11 draws attention because it seems to either be saying not enough about John or too much about what we imagine would be “the least” in the kingdom of heaven.

John is according to Jesus the climax of the ancient world, the old covenant in its longing for shalom with its expectations of how that restoration must occur. We might glance back to David and Solomon, a dynasty that in memory seemed to be everything the Hebrews would want, but even in Israel’s literature David and Solomon were dramatically flawed and broken rulers. Even under the great Moses Israel was a mess and her relationship with God hardly smooth.

There are two problems.

  • Each of us as individuals are in serious conflict with God. We are alienated from him, deeply suspicious of him, and desperately wanting to replace him or demand that he simply become a reflection of our own wills and selves.
  • Each of us has a similarly conflictive situation with one another. While we may on a small scale “get along” with one another as a race we are bent on de-humanizing, marginalizing, repressing or destroying the individual and collective wills of others. We harbor power fantasies that God or government or “great leader” will somehow bring into this world a regime that mirrors our desires and perspectives on what “good” is supposed to be.

God’s Problem

Our problem sets up God’s problem. Can he redeem us and live with us forever? Can he actually make us happy, complete us and fulfill us and still be himself?

One vision of hell is God finally giving up on this project and ultimately surrendering us to ourselves.

Deliverance: Jesus

Jesus clearly sees himself as the answer to this dilemma. He drops the Malachi 3 quotation right in the middle and identifies himself as both “Son of Man” and “Wisdom” into John’s frustration in prison and the conflict that Jesus has created in the midst of the 1st century Judean culture war.

The Malachi 3 quotation comes in a specific context.

Malachi 2:17–3:5 (NIV)

17 You have wearied the Lord with your words. “How have we wearied him?” you ask. By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?” 1 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years. 5 “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.

The Malachi passage demonstrates that John’s dilemma and the people’s misery are nothing new. Jesus now has come and he will do all that Malachi 3 and Isaiah 35 envision.

Jesus will do it, however, not like John imagines but in a radically different way. He will bear the people’s judgment and win our hearts not by fear, but by love and beauty. When he offers himself, and we see his blood on our own hands, along the blood of others, we begin to see ourselves and begin to see God in his conflict with us and his love for us.

Verse 12 is another puzzler here but I think it says exactly this. Jesus simply notes what John and his own, and our own fate will be. Violence. These imagined “least” in the kingdom of God will be the lambs of God taken to the slaughter, but the original lamb of God slaughtered for us has been raised, giving all such following lambs a similar hope.

Moved by his beauty, receiving his rescue and redemption, we finally learn to trust and make our peace with God, even in this world of bloody crosses, burning warehouses and babies born blind. We learn to trust in him more than we trust in ourselves.

Gratitude: What about the big project? 

Jesus illuminates the source of John’s doubts with what we’ve learned about our collective capacity to save ourselves in the Herods. While the reign of Moses, and David and even the Herods, or the good building codes of Oakland may bring us good things, they all fall short. Making sure that no one dies in a fire brings no more happiness that the child born with good eyes, ears and legs. They are all insufficient to address the heart of our problem.

Jesus’ ministry is shaped as it is, and not as John imagines, because we at this point are simply not capable of bringing the level of shalom our hearts long for as we currently are. We live today between the cross and the empty tomb, not on the other side of the tomb where we will finally reign with him, where the fullness of Isaiah 35 and Malachi 3 will be seen.

What our vocation then becomes is closer to the signs that Jesus does that he pointed out to John. We heal, we restore, we serve, we give, all knowing that even these are tokens of a greater fulfillment. We work on building codes, we work with artists and as artists, we do all of this, however, knowing that they are just signs of the larger restoration that is to come.

About PaulVK

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

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