Friday, October 31, 2008

Beyond the Obvious

Mark 4:26-29
by Daniel Harrell

As election day approaches we’re back to the political sayings of Jesus, those verses printed with red in some of your Bibles. While some may think that coloring Jesus’ words red bodes well for Republican John McCain, the color is actually supposed to represent blood. A Christian magazine editor back in 1900 decided it might be a good idea to print Jesus’ words in red since Jesus said, “this cup is the new testament in my blood shed for you.” Blood―red―New Testament, you get it. I’ve been focusing on the red-letters of Jesus due to a book called Red-Letter Christians by Tony Campolo. He wrote it to coincide with the presidential election since in his view the sayings of Jesus carry political implications. My ongoing interest in these political implications led one emailer to ask, “Why is it really worthwhile to spend time as a church or a pastor on political things? Don’t they pass away? Being relevant is nice but there are plenty of worthwhile personal/moral/spiritual issues to talk about and plenty of those the culture needs to hear. Voting or politics or this country in one time and place is petty and parochial almost I think. We have hard things to do in loving our neighbor on a personal level and that clearly has eternal value and is hard enough. So why jump to issues that seem so temporary and I’m not sure how they merit even being part of a church effort at all, because we have more important things to do?”

I responded that while politics may eventually prove irrelevant some day, you could hardly argue that to be the case presently. Moreover, the Bible itself is stocked full of God’s interactions with governments be they brutish (as in Egypt, Babylon and Rome) or benevolent. Likewise, Paul and Jesus both speak often of issues like money, taxation, poverty, justice and war, all of which are clearly political. Moreover, words like savior, salvation, peace, gospel, church and Christ derive from the political lexicon of the Roman world. Gospel was what the Romans called their political propaganda and church was what they called their political assemblies. In pillaging Roman language, Jesus takes aim at Roman power. If all we do in church is view Jesus’ words through a grid of personal piety, we quickly sever ourselves from God’s public redemptive activity. How can any faithful Christian community do that?

Granted, my emailing friend was particularly wary of the ways church and government have become so entwined, sublimating any prophetic power to worldly manipulation. This is always a danger. And yet, the church that separates itself from the world renders itself irrelevant in ways that being the kingdom of God in the world never implies. The gospel’s intent is much more than merely one’s own individual salvation. Jesus did not get crucified for preaching about how to have a personal relationship with him. What got him killed was preaching about the imminent Kingdom of God, political language considered treason by the Romans and blasphemy by the Jews. To be the kingdom of God in the world is to be a visible countercultural community, a corporate body politic transformed by grace whose life together defies the status quo of the Roman empire or of any empire. To believe the gospel is to not be swayed by the seductions of military or monetary power. The Bible uses the word saints to describe such alternative communities, a noun meaning holy ones or set apart. But don’t confuse set apart with separate. Consider instead the King James Version which renders holy as peculiar. To be holy is not to be separate, but to be noticeably different: different from those outside the church and different from the way we used to be when we lived just for our own selves.

The kingdom of God is political language alright. Yet Jesus’ red-letter words tonight do come off as more agricultural than political. They read like some description out of a seed catalog. “Plant your seeds and they will sprout with first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, put a sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” The farmers in the audience had to be thinking: “Tell me something I don’t know.” Actually, the main thrust of these verses seems to be that nobody does know how seeds grow, though that’s not totally true. We all know that seeds contain a tiny embryo under a protective coat, that when given the necessary amount of water and oxygen, and exposed to the right temperature, they will grow, break through the coat, and push their way up through the soil. A seed stores all the energy it needs to germinate, even though to look at a seed makes it difficult to imagine it as a living organism. It looks dead. The fact is that seeds have evolved the ability to remain in a dormant state until conditions are favorable for growth. Some seeds will germinate after hundreds of years if the conditions are right. What does this have to do with the gospel?

For one answer let me shamelessly plug a book I’ve written that has finally appeared up on Amazon and CBD (see right) entitled Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, (which, I know, for some of you sounds as ridiculous as politics inspiring faith). The controversy between Christian faith and science has been exacerbated by increasing mounds of scientific data that lend weight to evolution. Paleontology, biochemistry, cosmology, physics, genetics—you name the discipline—each regularly puts forth newly discovered evidence in support of Darwin’s simple idea of descent with modification. While some people of faith choose to keep their doors closed to such ideas, I argue that shutting out science is not necessary. While Christian faith is grounded in extraordinary events that defy scientific explanation (like Jesus’ resurrection), God is not only present where science is silent. The expansiveness of the universe, the remarkable makeup of human consciousness, the beauty and complexity of organic life—all naturally explicable occurrences—are also understood by Scripture as manifestations of God’s handiwork. Christianity consistently asserts that all truth is God’s truth, implying that faith and science, despite differences when it comes to explaining why, nevertheless should agree in regard to what is. Why bother talking about God if he has no relation to observable reality? That the earth manifests the handiwork of God means that Christians can welcome accurate scientific descriptions (if not scientific interpretations of those descriptions). We should welcome accurate scientific descriptions as revelations of divine truth.

Which is sort of what Jesus is doing here by talking about seeds. More than stating the horticulturally obvious, Jesus makes a statement about God using creation as his illustration. We know from the previous parable of the sower that seeds represent the word, which for Jesus means the word both spoken and the word made flesh in him. Whereas in the sower parable a farmer spread the word (a farmer most interpret as being God given similar Old Testament analogies), here the sower is described as just a man, meaning that it could be anybody. Just as I throw a few seeds in my flower pots each spring, anybody can plant a seed in the ground. In time the seeds sprout, though you don’t know exactly why they do this (nor do scientists for that matter), until eventually, and automatically (that’s the Greek word for “all by itself”), they produce fruit for harvest. For Jesus to say “nobody knows” is just code for saying “God knows.” The emphasis on inexplicability emphasizes the activity of God. Just as everyday seeds grow and bear fruit as created by God to do, so gospel seeds grow and bear fruit, the fruit of new creation.

Some interpret this parable as an encouragement to share the gospel with everybody because who knows, it might actually take root. Like spreading a few seeds in your garden, spreading the word should be natural and normal. Of course talking about seeds rising out of the ground is one thing, comparing that to a man rising from the dead is something else. Sure, Jesus could say it and have people believe him, but he could do miracles too. For you and me it just sounds too, well, peculiar. Ironically, this may be one reason we don’t talk about it so much. For years I’d been good friends with this guy whose lifestyle and values I readily interpreted as being shut off to any talk about religion. He didn’t like to talk politics either. He’d voiced his suspicions of Christianity, which was why it took me as long as it did to come clean about being a minister. I waited partly because I didn’t want our relationship to get goofy, with him acting all weird once he found out I was a saint. But mostly I wanted to build up some trust so that when I did talk about Jesus we could actually have a conversation as friends instead of him feeling like a target. Not that I ever expected to see him in church or anything. Are you kidding? I became his quaint little pastor buddy whom he knew he could call if ever he needed a wedding or a funeral or Red Sox tickets (we pastors get discounts). But then one night after church, I’m shaking hands at the back, and out strolls my friend, this devilish look on his face. “Liked your sermon, dude,” he said. Who knew?

In light of our missions conference that starts next Sunday, I should probably mention that this is why we send actual people into the world instead of just shooting off emails. The gospel spreads when real people spread it―real people who have been really changed by it. Not that you yourself can change anybody else. It’s God who does it, which again, I think is Jesus’ main point here. God does it in a way that defies human understanding and sometimes even human perception. God makes things happen even when we’re not seeing it. No way people could have seen in a crucified Jesus any viable alternative to Roman power. No way could anybody have seen the grace of God either. All anybody could have seen in a crucified Jesus was a criminal cursed. But just like a seed that looks dead in your hand, bury it in the ground and it comes to life.

I spent this past week in Kansas City at the theology conference where a participant asked the presenters, all New Testament scholars from across the theological spectrum, whether it mattered that Jesus actually rose from the dead. If his goal was to establish an alternative to Roman rule, and by extension an alternative to all worldly power, who cares if he resurrected? Can’t we just heed his wisdom and get the same political and personal results? The scholars shook their heads. Even the ones who didn’t necessarily believe people could rise from the dead insisted that without the resurrection Jesus’ wisdom is nothing but lunacy. The resurrection validates everything that Jesus taught and everything he did. We’re used to seeing depicted as part of Christian iconography an empty cross on a hill, but travel any road in ancient Rome and it would be lined with thousands of crosses, warnings to everyone of what happens when you cross an empire. Thousands and thousands of men were crucified, it was how Rome kept the pax. Crucifixion was not an extraordinary event. It happened all the time. But not resurrection. That only happened once. Resurrection is all that matters.

Without the resurrection, “love your enemies” is idiotic advice. Why love the person who wants to hurt you? The same with going last or being humble or storing your treasure in heaven. Without the resurrection, all that leaves you with is getting left out and run over, without any treasure on earth. And why care for the poor without the resurrection? Sure, it’s a nice humanitarian thing to do, but isn’t that energy better spent taking care of yourself? After all, without the resurrection, this life is it. You better make the most of it and live it up. And don’t even talk about forgiving people without the resurrection. Why bother? Write them off! Be done with them. And don’t bother with feeling guilty about the bad stuff you’ve done and wanting to be forgiven yourself. Without the resurrection, that ain’t happening. Sure, Jesus may have died for your sins, but if he didn’t rise from the dead and declare victory over sin and death, you might as well say Elvis Presley died for your sins. People called him the king too.

It is the resurrection that exalts Jesus high above every name, so high as to compel every knee to bow in worship and obedience to him. It is the resurrection that proves God’s ironic power through powerlessness, the power of life through death, for Jesus and through Jesus for us too. Life out of death is God’s design. True for his creatures and true for creation too. Biology posits that there would be no life without death. If you’re willing to view the evolutionary epic as a positive process whereby the negativity of death is redeemed for the sake of new life, then you can see in it a reflection of the way God acts act to redeem the negativity of death due to sin. Just as the death of an organism will allow for its flourishing reproduction and continued genetic life (not that the Bible would put it this way), so does the death and resurrection of Jesus result in the flourish of God’s kingdom until that day when all things are raised and made new and death is no longer required. Jesus said in John’s gospel that, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” More than stating the horticulturally obvious, Jesus is describing the way God works.

“And as soon as the grain is ripe,” verse 29, “he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” Now the image of harvest is a common Old Testament image of divine judgment, only here in Mark, the image is not one of a grim reaper but a glad reaper. The word has done its work, as sure as any seed planted in good soil. Perceptions of insignificance and weakness to the contrary (seeds really are little things), the kingdom of God by the will of God grows and flourishes even now. Christians comprise a body politic, a body of Christ politic, the true green party, a community garden fertilized by faith producing the spiritual fruit of love and joy and peace and hope, not as personal attributes, but as public acts. Christians are people who love their neighbors and forgive their enemies, who preach hope amidst sorrow, who instill joy in the little things and make peace and do justice and speak truth and care for one another with evident beauty. These acts do seem small and insignificant, but again, isn’t that the point?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hot Off The Press

Now available! Daniel Harrell's book

Nature's Witness:
How Evolution Can Inspire Faith.

Get it on
Amazon or CBD

An excerpt is printed below with permission from Abingdon Press.

Walking across the Boston Common one cold winter’s eve, I was approached by a gentleman, somewhat agitated, who recognized me from church.

“Are you the minister who’s writing the book on evolution?”

This didn’t sound good. “Uh, ... yes?” I replied, bracing myself.

“Do you believe in the word of God? Do you believe that God created the heavens and the earth in six days, like the Bible says?” His articulation was semiautomatic—as was his tone.

I assured him that yes, I believed the Bible says that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. I also believe that rivers clap their hands and that mountains sing (Ps 98:9) because the Bible says that too. But I don’t think that the Bible means six twenty-four-hour days any more than I believe that the Bible means that rivers have literal hands.

He worried that I suffered from delusion (which as far as I am concerned is never outside the realm of possibility). However, I reminded him that there are two types of delusion. There is the delusion that believes something that is not true, and there is the delusion that fails to believe something that is true. If evolution is an accurate description of the emergence of life, as science attests, then believing it alongside the Bible should pose no threat. There’s no need to fear any honest search for truth because in the end, all honest searches for truth inevitably lead back to God.

Historically, religious faith, particularly Christianity, served as the loom onto which the discoveries of science were woven. It was within a Christian theological framework that scientific disclosure found its transcendent meaning. Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler and Newton, believers all, saw their work not as replacements for faith, but as extensions of it. The idea was that the best of science and the best of theology concerted to give human beings deeper insight into the workings of the universe and, subsequently, into the divine character. Scientific discovery was received with gratitude to the Almighty for the wonder of his creation. Scientists, alongside the psalmist, would proclaim, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps 19:1 NIV).

The balance between faith and science (or reason) was established in the Middle Ages by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, building on Augustine, established a delicate equilibrium between theology (reasoning down from faith) and philosophy, analogous to science (reasoning up from sensory data). Aquinas, unlike the Reformers who would follow, taught that human senses and rational faculties, as made by God, were competent for understanding reality, albeit from a limited standpoint. The limits were filled in by theology. Aquinas asserted that God acted through “secondary causes,” creating the world according to his laws and then giving nature room to unfold in accordance with God’s laws. Whatever was good science was good as far as God is concerned; science simply described what God had already done.

However, if God operated mostly behind the scenes as the prime cause, then it wasn’t long before people started wondering whether he was there at all. In time, reliance upon divine revelation gave way to human reason in its Enlightenment form, and soon the supernatural was rendered superfluous. As science advanced, Christians reacted by retreating into a sort of Manichean dualism whereby science was demonized and faith grew reliant on a super-supernatural world where any ordinary explanation raised suspicion. With battle lines so starkly drawn, scientists were left to assume that any move toward Christian faith was akin to committing intellectual suicide. Conversely, the faithful relied on science for their medicine or the weather forecast, but much more than that was to attempt spiritual suicide. Let a spark of evolution in the door and you were liable to catch the whole house on fire.

The controversy between Christian faith and evolution is exacerbated by increasing mounds of scientific data that lend weight to evolution. Paleontology, biochemistry, cosmology, physics, genetics—you name the discipline—each regularly puts forth newly discovered evidence in support of Darwin’s simple idea of descent with modification. While some people of faith choose to keep their doors closed, shutting out science is not necessary. Christian faith by definition defies human conceptions of reality (1 Cor 3:19). Its claims are grounded in extraordinary events that defy scientific explanation (most importantly the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus). But God is not only present where science is silent; he remains present even where science speaks loudest. The expansiveness of the universe, the beauty and complexity of organic life and the remarkable makeup of human consciousness—naturally explicable occurrences—are also interpreted by Christians as manifestations of God (Rom 1:20). Christianity consistently asserts that all truth is God’s truth, implying that faith and science, despite differences when it comes to explaining why, nevertheless should agree in regard to what is. Why bother talking about God if God has no relation to observable reality?

An avalanche of books has been devoted to the controversy between Christianity and evolution. Don’t expect a contribution to that debate here. There are plenty of other places where that conversation occurs. Instead, I’d like to look at Christian faith in the face of evolution as essentially true as most scientists assert. Now I know that just because a particular theory makes sense of the way something could have happened, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it actually happened that way. But if evolution truly provides an accurate description of life on earth, and things did happen the way evolution describes, how might we rethink the way we think about what the Bible says? To rethink what we think about the Bible is not to rewrite Scripture, nor is it to capitulate to Christianity’s detractors. Instead, rethinking and reworking our theology in light of accurate data results in a more dependable and resilient theology. To be a serious Christian is to seek truth and find it as revealed by God both in Scripture and in nature. If God is the maker of heaven and earth, as we believe, then the heavens and earth, as science describes them, have something to say about God. Natural selection need not imply godless selection. To be reliable witnesses of creation can’t help but make us more reliable witnesses to the Creator.


Revelation 18

by Daniel Harrell

Perhaps you noticed the striking contrast in sermon titles on the board outside as you walked in this morning, bleary eyed from yet another night of stirring playoff baseball. Mine reads Post-Mortem while Gordon’s sermon for tonight is entitled Born Again. Clearly my sermon title was posted prior to Thursday night’s dramatic come-from-behind victory. “Just like you to always be looking on the dark side,” a friend remarked. Perhaps. But this morning my dark side actually has a bright side, and I don’t mean the Red Sox. My topic remains the wicked witch of Babylon, whom you may remember from last time. This so-called “The Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations of the Earth,” bedecked in extravagant array and fine jewelry, managed to bedazzle even the apostle John with her witchcraft. Mercifully, an accompanying angel snapped him out of it so that John could see how what he thought to be glamorous was really ridiculous, that what seemed so desirous was in fact ludicrous. Here in chapter 18 her seductions no longer cause any dread because (ding dong) the witch is dead. Surprisingly, she was consumed by her own irredeemable accomplice, the notorious 666 beast on which she rode. The beast turned on her and devoured her, testifying to evil’s own proclivity for self-destruction. Though it was all God’s doing. Chapter 17 declared that: “God put it into their hearts to perform his purpose.” God executes his will through both the righteous and the unrighteous The harlot now lies fallen, we read in verse 2, her carcass a haunt for every detestable demon and spirit.

“All the nations had drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries,” verse 3, “and the kings of the earth committed adultery with her.” “Adultery” in common parlance is cheating on your spouse, but in Biblical parlance, the spouse is God. In the Old Testament, unfaithful Israel committed adultery whenever they practiced idolatry; whenever they worshipped other gods. Here in the New Testament, the old pagan idols are gone but not the idolatry. Golden calves gave way to golden coins—the lust for which explains the second stanza of verse 3: “the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.” Greed and excessive wealth are labeled deadly dangers throughout Scripture, mentioned more than practically anything else. “No servant can serve two masters,” Jesus said. Though given the marriage analogy he could just as well have said “no woman can have two husbands. Either she will hate the one and adore the other, or she will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot love both God and Money.”

The Harlot of Babylon as symbolic of greed, excessive wealth and the deceptive power it brings, led to its identification as the ancient superpower Rome. However, more than a mere polemic against ancient Rome; Revelation condemns every arrogant abuse of power whatever institutional or political form it takes. In light of Revelation’s (and the rest of Scripture’s) particular emphasis on the evils of monetary excess, and with our current worldwide financial crisis having been fueled by so much greed and arrogance, I went so far last time as to refer to Wall Street as an example of the mythic Harlot and her demise. The chapter 18 descriptions do fit. Verse 2: “Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!” The Dow, the Dow, has fallen alright—some 5000 points from its high last October. In verses 9 and 10, the kings of the earth (aka the politicians) who shared in her luxuries bemoan her demise and the subsequent loss of their own power and prestige. We’ve seen plenty of that too, especially as dramatic government attempts at intervention have so far failed to do as promised. In verses 11-15, the merchants (the business sector) bewails their disastrous loss of capital and stock value. And in verses 17-19, seafarers likewise mourn, representative perhaps of people like you and me. Caught up in the high tide of bloated real estate prices, easy credit and a surging stock market, we all gave in to greed. And predictably, in no time at all, verse 17, all that “great wealth has been brought to ruin.” Verse 23: “By your magic spell all the nations were led astray.” I’d say that pretty much sums it up.

It’s not like Jesus didn’t warn us. Back in Revelation 3, the risen Christ dresses down the church at Laodicea, chastising them for loving too much the buzz of economic prosperity: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ Don’t you realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked? Take my advice and buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Buy white clothing from me to cover your shame and ointment to open your eyes. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.”

And be quick about it too. Here in verse 4, shifting tenses from past to future, a voice shouts down from heaven warning God’s people to run for their lives because his judgment against greed and all evil stands at the door to knock it down. The warning echoes those given to Israel about historic Babylon. Jeremiah warned the Israelites to “flee from the fierce anger of the Lord.” Jesus issued similar warnings himself about Jerusalem: “Let those in the city get out, for this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.” Revelation paints mythic Babylon’s future doom with the past tense to underscore the certainty of evil’s fate. Her certain defeat elicits a song of joy, a victory chant in verse 20: “Rejoice over fallen Babylon, O heaven! Rejoice, saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.” The glory and luxury with which she clothed herself came at the expense of those she exploited. Verse 24: “In her streets flowed the blood of the prophets and of God’s holy people and the blood of people slaughtered all over the world.” This stanza indicts Babylon’s disregard for human life; she blithely eliminated any who dared threaten her power while using the rest to supply her voracious appetite for more.

The pride and fall of Babylon patterns the hubris and downfall of all systemic evil. The harlot failed to see herself as vulnerable. Verse 7: “I am the queen; not a widow. I will never mourn.” Again we hear Old Testament echoes. In Isaiah, the Lord said to historic Babylon: “You have trusted in your wickedness and have said, ‘No one sees me.’ Your wisdom and knowledge mislead you when you say to yourself, ‘I am, and there is none besides me.’” Likewise in Jeremiah: “I am against you, O arrogant one, for your day has come, the time for you to be punished. The arrogant one will stumble and fall and no one will help her up; I will light a fire in her towns that will consume all who are around her.” As in Jeremiah, Revelation inserts an object lesson as an exclamation point. Jeremiah tied his prophecy scroll to a stone and sank it in the Euphrates river as a sign of historic Babylon’s plummet. In Revelation, a mighty angel lifts an enormous boulder, evoking the historic culmination of all evil, and hurls it into the chaotic sea from which it came. The lights go out, verse 23, and the Harlot is no more.

This defeat of evil that Revelation portends has in effect already occurred. As theologian NT Wright reminds in his book Evil and the Justice of God, it is in the death of Jesus that evil is confronted, defeated and had its power exhausted, even though a continuing virulence persists. It is true that the beast remains on the loose, as does the false prophet and the dragon, Satan himself. But their days are numbered. Babylon’s doom will be theirs too. If the Bible teaches us anything, it teaches us that every evil power we confront on earth is already a beaten power—no matter how contrary it may seem to our experience.

And yet, it is this contrary experience that recurrently dogs us. We refer to it as the problem of evil. If God is great and God is good, why do bad things happen? If Jesus had evil by the throat on the cross, why not throttle the life out of it completely? Why leave it to torment and wreak such horrific havoc so many centuries hence? Why leave it to so severely obstruct those who might otherwise believe? Part of the answer to this dilemma has to do with recognizing this crucial aspect of God’s victory over evil: The supreme act by which God demonstrates his power is not an act of power but an act of powerlessness. Jesus defeats death by dying. He annihilates evil by exploiting evil—by using it to do God’s thing just when evil thought it was doing its own thing. I think this helps explain why God still allows evil to exist. The idea of evil may typically obstructs faith, but get a dose of real evil and even skeptics start believing in God in a hurry.

Trace back through Christian history and you rarely find evil addressed as a “problem,” that is, a puzzle to be solved or a question to be answered. The reason is because evil eludes reason. Evil makes no sense. Its incomprehensibility extends beyond the problematic. Its illogic is part of what makes evil so evil. Even if you blame the devil, what made the devil decide to become the devil? Adam and Eve, created as good by God, had no commonsensical reason for choosing evil. They just did it. And we’ve all suffered since.

The irony, or perhaps the tyranny, is that while evil possesses us, we remain responsible for the possession. Because we choose evil, evil proves the existence of free will, but this autonomy, this independence and freedom to choose, this greatest of modern goods only ends up the epitome of evil itself. The freedom to choose is really not freedom at all because as soon as we choose we are no longer free. As Paul made clear in Romans, our choices set boundaries, our unavoidably bad choices set inescapably tight boundaries that affect our futures not only in finite time and space but for eternity too. Our freedom constrains to such a severe extent that Paul could only speak of it in terms of enslavement. “I do not understand myself,” he memorably wrote, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” How can a person raised to new life with Christ still be so plainly buried in the dirt? How is it possible to be both lost and found, sinner and saint, old creation and new creation, dead and alive simultaneously? Saint Augustine argued that evil and good necessarily go hand in hand, because like cancer, evil gets its energy from the good it perverts. The language we use testifies to this notion: words like immorality or injustice or dishonesty or iniquity. Because evil is so inextricably entwined with the good things it perverts, evil becomes indestructible apart from destroying the good things too. God cannot destroy evil without destroying his entire creation—including you and me. Therefore the gospel declares that what God did instead of killing evil in us was to divert evil away from us and onto Jesus. The spotless lamb becomes the black sheep; the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world by taking on the sins of the world. Your sins and mine.

And yet we still “we do the very things we hate,” demonstrating over and over that while evil may be a defeated power it is still powerful enough to harm. How long before fallen Babylon finally falls? This was the question posed back in Revelation 6 by martyred Christians, murdered by their Roman persecutors, whom John saw in heaven nevertheless complaining that God’s final judgment was too slow in coming. They called out in a loud voice of desperation, “How long, O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge and avenge our blood?” Does your mercy endure forever? No, not forever, but it will endure for as long as it takes. Because evil is so inextricably entwined with the good things it perverts, God cannot destroy evil without destroying his creatures whom he loves. And thus the tardiness of God is not an abdication of justice, but a determination to save. As St. Peter put it, “The Lord is not slow about his justice, as some think of slowness, but is patient, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” God so loved the world that he gave his only son, humiliating Himself for the sake of the humiliated and for the sake the oppressed—but for the sake of their oppressors too. In Christ, God enters into the condition of the guilty. He does not die a natural death, but rather the violent death of a guilty offender. Jesus suffers the suffering of injustice; but he also suffers the suffering of condemnation. The spotless lamb is the black sheep; the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world by taking on the sins of the world. Yours and mine and theirs.

The evil Jesus crushes on the cross he crushes not by throttling its throat, but astonishingly, by forgiving it. And not only does God forgive, but he also forgets. “I am he who blots out your transgressions and remembers your sins no more,” he declares in Isaiah. And similarly in Jeremiah, “I will forgive their iniquity, I will remember their sin no more.” NT Wright goes on the add how by forgiving and forgetting, “God not only releases the forgiven world from any residual feelings of guilt, but also, so to speak, releases himself from always having to be angry with a world gone wrong. Not only evil, but all of its shadows are gone too, since with God to forgive is to forget.” But how is this vindication? How is this justice? How is this real comfort? If God is the God for the victims and for the oppressed, how can He forget their oppression, especially as long as the victims remember? Doesn’t this amount to a sort of complicity with the perpetrators? If God forgets sin, don’t the wicked in the end just end up off the hook?

No. Because the sin God forgets is forgiven sin. Because God is love, He exercises patience and relents from allowing us what our deeds deserve whenever we ask. God’s loss of memory regarding sin is what brings prodigals back into the unreserved embrace of their father’s arms—arms already outstretched because the father could not lose memory of the relationship. As long as anyone repents and asks for forgiveness, there is no sin God will not forgive. The only unforgiveable sin is the sin for which one refuses to repent. You can’t receive grace if all you do is reject it. The sins God remembers are the sins we won’t let him forget.

Which brings us back to Revelation 18 verse 5: “her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes.” In the Old Testament and later Jewish writings, being lifted up or piled up was an idiom for the extreme degree of defiant sin. God remembers Babylon because she sticks her sins in his face. The tormenters whom God never forgets are the tormenters whom God never forgives because they never cease and repent of their tormenting. Therefore one day, verse 6, She will receive as she has given; even double for what she has done. She will receive “as much torture and grief as the glory and luxury she gave herself.” Verse 8: “her plagues will overtake her: death, mourning and famine. She will be consumed by fire, for mighty is the Lord God who judges her.”

Revelation 18 draws upon Biblical doom-songs, such as Lamentations, which are directed at the failure of those people, societies, governments, institutions, principalities and powers who refuse to acknowledge God’s mercy and yield to his goodness. Those who like the lukewarm Laodiceans of chapter 3, are lulled into complacency by their prosperity, or who find rejecting the mercies of grace a reasonable price to pay for the favors offered by the harlot.

In verses 9 and following, the kings, merchants and seafarers—power-hungry politicians, profit-hungry businessmen and seasick consumers—all mourn the death of their sugar-momma. In verse 10, they stand far off, terrified at her torment, and cry: “Alas, alas, O wonderful city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour it’s over! Your doom has come!” God’s mercy may feel like forever, but when it finally does end, the ending is quick. This mention of one hour in verse 10 refers back in chapter 17 where God gave the politicians authority for one hour with which to do the right thing. But they chose instead to pledge allegiance to the beast. The merchants could have done the right thing with their businesses, choosing to do good work and provide good products at fair prices and fair wages, but instead in verse 13 we read mention of human slaves—indicating not only that the merchants traded in human beings but in products manufactured by slave labor. The miserly merchants weep, not for the misery they’ve caused, but only for their own loss of profit. In verse 19, the seafarers heap dust on their heads, which is often a sure sign of repentance. Only here, as they witness the smoldering ruins of fallen Babylon, there is no change of heart; they don’t want to get their lives on the right track. All they want is their old life back.

“Get out of there,” Revelation warns, “run for your life! Do not share in her sins or you will share in her judgments.” “I am against you, O arrogant one,” says the Lord to Babylon and all her inhabitants, “your day has come, the time for you to be punished. The arrogant one will stumble and fall and no one will help her up; I will light a fire in her towns that will consume all who are around her.” If our own overly indulgent economy continues its fall, I can’t help but wonder, is God lighting a fire in us? What if God is teaching us finally to stop putting our trust in riches and trust him instead? What if we finally get it through our heads that the love of money is the root of all evil? What if we finally understand that we cannot serve both God and money? What if God makes us to care about the poor by making us poor? It wouldn’t be the first time. “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” Jesus said. “So be earnest, and repent.” What if God by getting rid of your excess gets you to repent of your greed so that he might get rid of that too? The dark side can have a bright side. Rejoice over fallen Babylon. Her gloom is God’s glory, and it can be your glory too.

Jesus for President

Mark 4:21-25 by Daniel Harrell

A new novel is out entitled American Savior by Roland Merullo which has Jesus returning to earth to run for president of the United States. God knows we need him. As one reviewer wrote, “With a faultless candidate and foolish opponents, there is not much call for careful political strategizing. To his campaign staff of disciples, Jesus’ moves often seem impulsive, but the candidate’s instincts are perfect. His speeches are generalizations arguing that foreign policy must be founded on ‘moral rather than strategic imperatives.’ As president, he promises to apply the principle of the golden rule and to end greed and stupidity.” I’d vote for that. I haven’t read the book, but I do understand that Jesus wins the election. As much as I’d like to say that’s no surprise, if you turn to the gospels it’s hard to imagine Jesus winning any election. Oh sure, he scores big with the socially marginalized and outcast—Simon six-packs and hockey pucks—but among his supposed base—religious people—he’s treated like a heretic. He had them in the beginning, but as soon as he started claiming divine prerogatives for himself, like forgiving sin and working on the Sabbath, no way could they stay in his camp.

Most of us like to think that had we been devout believers living in Jesus’ day, we would never have written him off like the Pharisees did. We wouldn’t be like Jesus’ own family who thought he was crazy. If Jesus were running for President, most of like to think he’d have our vote. But imagine Jesus sharing the stage with Barack Obama and John McCain last Tuesday night. Tom Brokow asks a question about housing. Obama responds with tax credits and McCain talks about buying up bad mortgages. Jesus? “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” What about the war? Obama will withdraw troops and McCain will stay there for as long as it takes. Jesus? “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen.” How about education? Jesus says, “The Holy Spirit will teach you what to say.” Energy? “The wise take oil with them.” Healthcare? “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Really. How about global warming? “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

What about the current financial crisis? McCain and Obama both favor government intervention for Wall Street. Jesus is less charitable: “Woe to you who are rich,” he says, “for you have already received your comfort.” If only that were so. Perhaps you read about how AIG, the insurance company thrown an $85 billion life preserver with our hard-earned tax dollars, that just one week later plunked down $442,000 on a California resort retreat for some of its sales agents. The tab included $150,000 for food, $23,000 in spa charges, $10,000 in bar bills and $7,000 in greens fees. Jesus has something to say about that too, not only for the AIG sales agents but for people like me with their disappearing 401(k)s. His words come from our text tonight: “To those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

Here's what his campaign commercial might look like.

OK, there goes my vote. Jesus may win in a work of fiction, but no way he gets elected president for real talking like this. No way he wins in the gospels either. If you’ve been following along as I’ve walked through the red-letters of Mark (the red-letters indicative of the sayings of Jesus), then you know that all the religious opinion polls are running against him. Jesus still draws large crowds, but not the kind of crowds that matter much. Of course it’s just a matter of time before those crowds turn on him too. Even his campaign staff will desert him in the end, denying that they even know who he is. You’d think that Jesus, knowing his future looks doomed, would shift his message to rally his base and win over the undecided. But instead, he chooses to confuse everybody by talking in parables. Riddles. It’s as if he doesn’t want people to know the truth. Last week it was a farmer sowing miraculous seeds. This week it’s an oil lamp lit under a bed and the rich getting richer.

Puzzled by this themselves last Sunday, the disciples pulled Jesus aside and asked if he wouldn’t mind clearing things up a bit. Instead, Jesus only confused them more by telling them that, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.” And they’re like What secret? Remember that secret is not what we tend to think of it as; that is, something that is immanently unknowable. In Biblical parlance, secret or mystery is something hidden and yet to be revealed by God. In regard to the kingdom of God, the secret revealed is that God’s Old Testament promises of victory and justice are fulfilled through defeat and injustice; specifically through the defeat and unjust death of Jesus. In other words, Jesus’ success depended on his being a failure. The supreme act by which God demonstrates his power is not an act of power at all, but rather, an act of powerlessness. Jesus defeats death by dying. He takes away sin by taking it on himself. He annihilates evil by using it to do God’s will. Jesus wins by losing. As do his followers. “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it,” Jesus later says, “but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” None of this gets Jesus elected president. It gets him crucified.

If you’re serious about following Jesus, it gets you crucified too. Christ’s death for sinners is the death of sinners. The cross kills your sinful self, leading the apostle Paul to declare how he had been crucified with Christ and that it was no longer he who lived, but Christ who lived through him. Granted, among Jesus’ first disciples, losing your life also literally meant losing your life, which explains why they all initially ran once the Romans got out the hammer and nails. But for us, with martyrdom being fairly uncommon, at least in America, losing your life for Jesus isn’t nearly so daunting. Actual death is rarely required. But what if by losing your life Jesus also meant losing your lifestyle? You may recall the story of the rich and righteous young ruler. He comes to Jesus enthusiastic about inheriting eternal life. What must he do? Jesus says sell all your stuff, give it to the poor, come follow him and get riches in heaven. The rich ruler’s enthusiasm immediately evaporates; he sadly turns and walks away. Jesus shook his head and remarked to his disciples, “It is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” And just so he wouldn’t be misunderstood, he added: “It is easier to thread a camel through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were blown away by this. In their worldview, not too unlike ours, piety coupled with possessions was usually construed as a sign of God’s favor. The disciples bemoaned: “If a pious rich guy is out, what chance do poor sinners have? Who the heck can be saved?” “Humanly speaking it is impossible;” Jesus replied, “but not with God. All things are possible with God.”

Some have taken this to mean that God can bail out the greedy too—just like the Federal Government. And they are right. Grace shows no partiality. But salvation of the greedy always entails salvation from greediness. And like salvation from every sin, it only happens through loss. I wonder if that’s what’s going on now? Unwilling—unable—to lose our lifestyles for Jesus, since humanly speaking that is impossible; I wonder if God is taking matters into his own hands. It is interesting to note how this current financial mess is being described by almost every news outlet as “global economic apocalypse.” If you were in church a couple Sunday mornings back, and heard me preaching out of Revelation 17, I went so far as to refer to Wall Street as the Whore of Babylon. Now I’m not one of those Biblical prophecy bloodhounds who scrutinize every social crisis for hints of end times, but I am one who’s willing to view world events through a Biblical prism. I’ll leave it to you to go up to the church website or blog for how I did that, but suffice it to say here, everything that goes on in Revelation and throughout Biblical history is ultimately God’s doing. All things are possible with him. The Sovereign Lord executes his will through both the righteous and the unrighteous; through both Israel and Babylon; through both the church and the world; through both good and evil, through the just life of Jesus and through his unjust death.

What if the current economic meltdown is a means whereby we finally learn to stop putting our trust in riches? What if we finally get it through our heads that the love of money is the root of all evil? What if we finally understand that you cannot serve both God and money? What if God makes us to care about the poor by making us poor? That’d be good thing, right? But wait, you might say, “I know God. He would never cause disaster or hardship to strike!” “God would never allow evil to succeed!” or “I know God! He would never make me poor or unhappy” –no matter that in Scripture God in fact does all these things. This was the Pharisees’ problem in Mark. They knew God so well that they couldn’t recognize him as Jesus. Now given the Pharisees’ past history, descended as they were from those faithless Israelites banished to Babylon and overrun by Rome for refusing to heed God’s word, you’d think that they might remember their past so as not to repeat it. But like every mutual fund prospectus: “past performance does not guarantee future results.” I mentioned a letter to the editor I ran across a couple weeks back where the writer bemoaned the stock market and housing meltdown. He asked: “Did anyone really believe that real estate could continue to sell at the crazy prices of recent years? … Yet as bad as it all is, the crash may bring us back to our senses.” The date of this letter was November 8, 1987.

Five years earlier in 1982 was the financial crisis year many pundits compare with this year’s crisis. The country was in deep recession in 1982, just as I was about to graduate college. Job prospects were bleak—which partly explains why I’m standing before you tonight. I was trying to take Jesus’ advice to store up my treasures in heaven by becoming a minister. My fraternity brothers thought I was crazy. Members of my family did too—and they were good church folk. It’s one thing to attend services and say your prayers, but to make it your career? I’ll confess that it does kill me sometimes to tell people what I do for a living. Sometimes it kills me just to admit I’m a Christian. Is that what Jesus meant by losing my life? If so, then coming clean is also what it means to follow Jesus. Which finally brings me around to our text for tonight: “Don’t bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed. Put it on its lampstand instead.”

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says this to prod his followers to live their faith for the world to see. He says, “Let your light shine before people, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Here in Mark, the lamp is Jesus himself. But if it is the case that you have been crucified and Christ lives in you, then the difference between the lamp as Jesus and the lamp as you should be pretty much indistinguishable. In John’s gospel Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” He also says “you are the light of the world.” Jesus did not come to hide, but to reveal himself. Likewise with us. Verse 22: “Nothing is hidden except to be disclosed; nothing is secret except to come to light.” He did not speak in riddles to keep people in the dark, but to show us the light.

But then he tells another riddle. Verse 24, “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and you will receive even more.” If you understand measure as weight, as in a “measure of wheat,” then it’s easy to interpret Jesus as saying “the rich get richer,” especially when coupled with what he says in verse 25: “To those who have, more will be given.” But if instead you understand measure as weigh, as in “weigh what you hear,” then I think you’re closer to what Jesus intends; especially when coupled with what he says in verse 23: “If anyone has ears, listen carefully to what you hear.” Measure Jesus’ words carefully. Take seriously what he says. And how do you do that? In Hebrew and Greek, the verb to hear is the same as the verb to obey. What you believe is not what you say you believe. What you believe is what you do. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it”—whether that’s losing your life or just losing your lifestyle.

In this vein, “those who have” are those who hear and do something about it; to them “more will be given.” They will be blessed. By contrast, “those who have nothing” are those who do nothing, to them “even what they have will be taken away.” As to exactly what will be given and taken away, Jesus doesn’t say. But if you flip to Mark’s version of the rich young ruler, Jesus says “I tell you the truth, no one, who by obeying me and the gospel, loses home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, will fail to receive a hundred times as much now (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and property—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.” Jesus throws in “persecutions” so that you’ll know his is no prosperity gospel. So then what does he mean by saying you’ll get back “a hundred times” what you lost now? Last week when Jesus told how a farmer sowed seed in good soil that produced a hundredfold crop, folks thought that was ridiculous. Only miracle seeds could grow that much. But Jesus wasn’t talking actual seeds then and here he’s not talking private property or actual biological mothers here (one of those is enough). But he is talking about miracles. He’s talking about us. We are the hundredfold fruit. As in chapter 3 when Jesus said “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother,” the hundredfold increase in family and houses and property are those who heed Jesus. To follow Christ makes us family. Brothers and sisters in Jesus. My house is your house and your house is mine. It adds up quick. This is a good thing. Because if this economic collapse continues, I might need a place to stay.