Good Job Jesus

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Peter Kwon about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost (Job 1.1, 2.1-10, Psalm 26, Hebrews 1.1-4, 2.5-12, Mark 10.2-16). Peter is one of the associate pastors at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including being single and ready to mingle, shout outs to staff, the authority of God in Job, reading canonically, tests, looking for Moses in the New Testament, the absence of angels, and talking about divorce in the church. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Good Job Jesus

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Babbling Grace – Karl Barth and Genesis 11.1-9

Professors in seminary can make all the difference. Some can call you into the strange new world of the bible through their passionate lectures and you will never be able to look at scripture the same way again. Some can refers to moments of history in the church that decisively reshape the way you understand the church today. And still yet others can turn your entire understanding of the kingdom of God upside down through just a few lines in one lecture.

Stanley Hauerwas is one of those professors.

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In 2013, I had the good fortune of participating in his last ethics class before he retired. In it, he did his best to make us Christians more Christian. By highlighting problems that the church is facing, and has faced for a long time, he helped to provide a better grammar for what it means to be a Christian in the world.

During one of his lectures on the remarkable importance of the gathering community, he briefly mentioned a sermon he once wrote on the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. At the time, the story of Babel was one that I remembered from my youth; the pictures we drew of people attempting to build a tower to God, the lesson it conveys about why there are so many languages on the earth. But I honestly hadn’t thought about it having much to do with my life as a Christian.

Dr. Hauerwas said, “The divisions at Babel are healed and reconciled at Pentecost. The language divisions were still present, but within the gathered communal identity of the church was a common Lord in Jesus Christ. Pentecost was a new day of creation, not unlike those we read about at the beginning of Genesis.”

In just a few sentences, Hauerwas jumped from Genesis 11 to Acts 2 and it blew my mind. Now it seems so obvious, that the Lord would bring together God’s people through the power of the Holy Spirit therefore redeeming what had happened at Babel. But when Hauerwas connected them in that lecture, it was like I was given a new lens by which I could read scripture.

For a time I attributed this new way of thinking and reading to Dr. Hauerwas, and it was only later that I realized he got it from Karl Barth.

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In Church Dogmatics III.4 Karl Barth uses the story of the Tower of Babel to evaluate the problem of nationhood in the modern period. For Barth, Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride, which has resulted in our divisions as a species. It is a story, not unlike Adam and Eve’s first sin, that reminds us of the brokenness in our world.

I have always seen Babel as a kind of means by which we can teach a lesson to children or young Christians about the dangers of pride. I have seen Babel as a shadow of what the church is supposed to be. But for Barth, Genesis 11 is all about grace.

Barth is quick to note that, “A Christian people is one in which heathenism and national egoism are broken, judged, and purified by the Spirit of Christ… As we are warned in Genesis 11, rebellion against God leads to the forceful disintegration rather than the organic development of national identities.”[1] Babel should frighten us, as a people, about what happens when we rebel against the Lord to such a degree, but the story is about much more than the Lord’s “punishment” at the end.

The Tower of Babel, for Barth, contains elements of both divine wrath and divine blessing. The story begins with: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen. 11.1). As a unified people, they settled into the land of Shinar and decided to use bricks to make themselves a city and a tower, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11.2-4). In response to this, the Lord goes down to examine the city and tower and eventually confuses humanity’s language to remind them of the divide between Creator and creature.

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Barth immediate questions the supposed sin within the story: What is inherently wrong with building a city or a tower? The constructions of such objects were not completed against God; attempts at civilization are never formally wrong.[2] For Barth, the thing itself, the object built, is not the fault but rather when a people want to create something for themselves in order to reach an attempted equality with God there lays the sin. The depth of humanity’s sin is the “arrogance of thinking that man himself can and must take himself as he takes the brick and mortar, and make himself the lord of his history, constituting the work of providence of his own work.”[3]

In light of humanity’s over-determined arrogance, God must respond with punishment. If God let humanity build the tower to completion, just as if God had let Adam and Eve stay in the Garden after eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humanity would further perpetuate itself as a sinful people. The scattering of the nations at the end of the story is an example of God’s divine wrath, and usually where I would let the story finish, but for Barth (and Hauerwas) we cannot understand Babel without the rest of the Bible.

Barth sees grace at Babel through, of all things, Jesus’ parable of the sower: “The constant sowing of the seed of the divine Word will always find soil even if there is no true harvest in one place. Even in this passage we must not fail to see the Gospel in this sense. Even in the terrible decree of v. 7 (“Come let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”) we must not miss His grace.”[4]

Important for Barth’s understanding of God’s grace in his exegesis is the fact that God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine miracle to achieve God’s condemnation. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done through the flood in Genesis 7, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining destruction upon humanity, God limits the punishments to linguistics.

Additionally, God does not abandon humanity to their own devices even after their construction. Regardless of the self-righteousness employed by humanity, God will remain faithful even when we are not. Babel could have been the end of the relationship between the Creator and the creature, but God remained steadfast.

Morever, Barth’s final move regarding the babbling grace of Genesis 11 comes in the recognition that, as Christians, we are aware that God has more in store for his creatures than the end of the story in Genesis; we know what happens at Pentecost. What transpires at the end of the Babel narrative is not the ultimate decree on the matter but rather, “only a penultimate word, and that the curves of the separated ways are so ordered in advance that they will finally come together again.”[5] Here is where Barth shines the light of God’s glory the brightest: even though the main emphasis of the Tower of Babel in on how the separation and division of people was right (at the time), God’s original desire is for humanity to be in unity.

For Barth, we cannot read Genesis 11 outside of, or in spite of, Acts 2. These two different stories, separated by thousands of years, though different in form and content, contain the beginning and the next step of God’s action toward creation. God intended for humanity to remain in unity, and through our own self-righteousness were have rejected the divine unity for our own division. And yet, according to Barth, we are to remain grateful to God’s out-pouring of grace which simultaneously remaining discontent until there is a total reunification of God’s creation.

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Barth, time and time again throughout Church Dogmatics, refuses to read particular texts as isolated witnesses. To read the bible is to read it canonically. Narratives from different places help to inform one another and the Old Testament reads into the New just as much as the New reads into the Old. Babel and Pentecost are connected. Eden and Revelation are connected. David and Jesus are connected. Exodus and Acts are connected. And so on.

As Christians reading scripture, we have the benefit of knowing how the story “ends.” We know that in the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided nations have come together. In the Holy Spirit of Acts 2 the conclusion of Genesis 11 takes place: “The miracle of Pentecost tells the us how the decision is take to look and break out from the nations to the one people of God, how the divine disposition of Genesis 11 is rightly understood as a teleological divine purpose, and how it is recognized in the form of the corresponding orientation from the near to the distant, the narrower sphere to the wider.”[6]

Barth’s reading of scripture, and in particular his exegetical work in the excurses of Church Dogmatics has directly influenced the work of Stanley Hauerwas and a whole mosaic of theologians over the last century. To be a Christian is to read, and to read well; to look for the connections from book to book; to identify the thread that God pulls through seemingly unrelated stories; to see ourselves as characters in God’s great narrative.

And for Barth, the story of Babel is not one for us to leave for children’s Sunday School rooms and flannel-graphs. It is one that we must read with conviction knowing full and well how the story ends. Just as with the construction of Babel, humanity still consistently places brick after brick of our own presumed infallibility in direct contradiction to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Barth’s work reminds us that we have divided ourselves against God’s original and good intentions, and to complete the end of the story we must take seriously God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, desiring for humanity to one day be made perfectly one.

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.4. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 306.

[2] Ibid., 314.

[3] Ibid., 314.

[4] Ibid., 316.

[5] Ibid., 317.

[6] Ibid., 323.

Questions: The Old and the New – Sermon on Genesis 11.1-9 & Acts 2.1-4

Genesis 11.1-9

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Acts 2.1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

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Today we continue with our sermon series on “Questions.” After requesting responses from all of you regarding your questions about God, Faith, and the Church, we have, again, come to the time when I attempt to faithful respond to those questions. Last week we looked at what it means to be saved and how we can come to understand it in our own lives. Today we are talking about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, how can we reconcile the vengefully destructive God of the Old Testament with the loving merciful God of the New.

So, here we go…

I saw the two representatives walking up and down the street, knocking on the doors of all my neighbors. Sitting at my kitchen counter, I was at home on break from JMU working on a paper for my class called “Jesus and the Moral Life.” As I sat there, Bible and computer spread before me, I eagerly awaited any distraction.

I wondered what organization or church the two men represented. It was clear that whatever they were trying to sell was not working out for them because they were moving quickly between the houses on the other side of the street. I remember trying to focus on my assignment, but my mind wandered regarding the the possibilities of the speech the pair were giving to my neighbors.

When the doorbell finally rang, I sprinted to the front door with my bible in tow.

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“Good afternoon sir,” they chimed simultaneously with seemingly forced smiles that almost hurt to witness. “Have you heard about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” I mumbled something in response about being a Christian, but they continued as if I wasn’t really standing there.

“Are you aware of God’s impending destruction of the earth? We have failed to be obedient, and God is surely going to rain down his wrath upon all of us. There will be earthquakes, floods, and famines. Nothing can stop God’s judgement, but we can save you.”

“Tell me more,” I replied.

“Well, Satan and his demons were cast down to earth in 1914 which initiated the End Times. Over the years he has begun to take over human governments in order to create evil on earth. God will come to destroy Satan, and this entire earth with him, but if you join us, God will protect you from his armageddon.”

Now, before I continue, I urge you to remember that I was a young and foolish biblical studies student, convinced that I knew everything there was to know about God, faith, and scripture.

And so, it came to pass that after listening to these two men describe for me the fall of Satan having occurred at the beginning of the 20th century, and their ability to save me from God’s impending destruction, I could no longer contain myself…

“Where does it say that in the Bible?”

“Well, if you look at our pamphlet, it clearly outlines…”

“Where does it say that in the Bible?”

“These charts will show how natural disasters are connected to Satan…”

“Where does it say that in the Bible? I’ve got one right here, and I would love for you to show me where your facts come from.”

At that point they slowly started to step away from the door, thanked me for my time, and continued their evangelistic work to the rest of the neighborhood.

Thinking back upon that interaction, I regret the poor Christian hospitality I showed those two men. I had a predetermined commitment to scripture that blinded me from hearing them out and kindly responding to their interpretive theology. However, I believe the interaction does point to a faulty mode of reading God’s Word that has plagued the church from the beginning.

Marcion was a Christian bishop during the first century. Like many Christians, he saw discrepancies between the actions of God in the Old Testament and during the time of the New Testament. And after wrestling with the differences, Marcion proposed completely rejecting the existence of the God described in the Jewish scriptures, and also argued for omitting the sections of the New Testament that were connected with the Old. Central for Marcion’s edited bible was the idea that the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with the actions of God as found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

After numerous debates, fights, and even scandals Marcion was declared a heretic by the early church fathers and was removed from the church.

Like the two men who came knocking on my door, Marcion (and many others) had a very tunnel-visioned understanding of scripture. If it did not agree with their beliefs, they omitted it, they ignored it, and they taught in spite of it.

Without a doubt, if you read through the stories of the Old and New Testaments you will discover a number of difficulties regarding the actions of God throughout time. Wrestling with these changes has been a part of the church’s history from the very beginning and still takes place today. To fully address these differences it would take numerous sermons series and bible studies, and certainly cannot be fully proclaimed in one sermon. If this is something that you really wrestle with we can talk about doing something in greater detail down the road, but for today’s purposes we can only accomplish so much.

One of the major problems with the inconsistency of scripture is that we tend to view chapters and narratives in isolation. We take one verse from the Old Testament and compare it to one verse in the New. I am thankful for the numbering of chapters and verses for organization, but I believe they have also stratified our understanding of scripture into tiny bits that can be reorganized for our understanding. The Bible is one thing, it is the single story of God with God’s people; it may be divided into two testaments, with numerous chapters and verses regarding a plethora of people and places, but it is nevertheless one unified collection of the living Word for God’s people.

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Rather than reading in isolation, we are called to understand and experience God’s word canonically, which is to say we have to understand each individual narrative in light of the entire saga of scripture. Reading, preaching, and teaching canonically opens our eyes to the many ways that God runs through both testaments like a river; the water may change with the seasons, but the water always moves.

In Genesis 10 we find the story of the tower of Babel. Humanity had one language and had gathered in the plains of Shinar to settle down. There they decided to build a giant tower into the heavens in order to make a name for themselves. God witnessed the construction of this tower, recognized that this was but one domino leading inevitably to a belief that humanity did not need God, so God confused their language and scattered the people over the face of the earth.

In Acts 2 we find the story of the disciples gathered together 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. While they were all together a great wind came from heaven filling the entire house. All of the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

Babel and Pentecost, two stories, one from the Old Testament, one from the New. These stories are often used in church to make separate points about the identity of God and what it means to be a disciple; Babel demonstrates God’s punishment of humanity for sin and Pentecost shows God’s desire for the gospel to spread amongst all nations and languages. However, they cannot be fully understood without the other. They are not two separate stories describing two different Gods, but are instead part of the greater canonical narrative of how God is God.

Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride. Like the garden, Babel exhibits that same sense of sin whereby humanity believed it no longer needed God. Though the story clearly contains examples of God’s wrath, it also contains an abundance of grace.

In striving to build a city and a tower for themselves, humanity had lost sight of the unity under which they already enjoyed from God. The true sin evident in the story is the arrogance of thinking that humanity must take itself as one takes brick and mortar, and make themselves the lord of history. In violation of the original unity of creation, in humanity’s desire to control its own destiny, the people of Genesis 11 were no longer naturally organized under the great Shepherd, but instead were brought together by the selfish desire to live in ignorance of God’s created order.

God punishes the people gathered together by confusing their language and scattering them over the earth. His wrath is evident, but his grace also lies under the surface. God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine example of control to achieve the punishment. He could have destroyed the tower and everyone in it. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done with Noah and the flood, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining down death and destruction, God limits the punishment to linguistics.

We discover God’s unyielding grace in the fact that God will continue to be our shepherd regardless of our self-righteousness. God will not abandon us to our own devices but will remain faithful even when we are not.

And remember, the story of Babel does not end in Genesis 10, it continues on throughout the Old Testament and finds reflection in the New. As Christians we are aware that God has more in store for his creation than one isolated story from the past would have us believe. In the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided world finally comes back together. It is in the story of Pentecost that we are reminded again of God’s desire for humanity to rest in unity, not division.

Pentecost tells us about the miracle of the Holy Spirit coming down to help reunite the world in order to fruitfully live into God’s kingdom. God did not abandon the people of Babel, just as God has not abandoned us while we continually act as if we can make through life on our own.

The same year I met the two men who knocked on my door, I took a group of college-age Christians to Taize, an ecumenical monastery in Burgundy, France. We camped for a week on the property, gathering together with 5,000 young Christians three times a day for prayer and reflective hymns. The Christians gathered together that week came from all over the globe, representing nearly every continent. In between the worship services, we met in small groups talking about faith, scripture, and discipleship. When the last day arrived, my group sat together and I asked us to end our week by standing in a circle to pray with each other. I asked everyone to pray the Lord’s prayer together in their native tongue, and then individually pray it so that we could hear what it sounded like. For perhaps the first time in my life, Pentecost became really for me while we prayed together in that field. Though all of us had been divided across the planet we were all brought together by Jesus Christ. Though we had been previously separated we were gathered in unity by the great “I AM.”

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Babel and Pentecost are intimately connected but I want to be clear that the relationship between the two testaments is not that God fixes the problems of the Old Testament with the revelations of the New. God did not change himself from wrathful to graceful. The New Testament is not the band-aid for the Old.

Yet, the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ changed everything. The Old Testament tells of God’s interaction with creation and the New Testament inaugurates the event where God came to dwell among us. Jesus Christ is the lens by which we are called to read scripture, both the Old and the New Testament. God’s love of creation is woven into the fabric of scripture, consistently revealed through people like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus, Mary, Peter, and Paul and places like Egypt, Galilee, Samaria, and Jerusalem.

This is one great cosmic story, a story that begins with God’s creation of all things declaring them good, a story that has no end because it still taking form right now.

So, how do we reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament? We read scripture knowing that it does not happen in isolation, but can only be understood within the canon of both testaments. 

We read knowing that, like all great things, God is mystery unrevealed until its proper season. We read with faith knowing that God has not abandoned us, though we struggle to find meaning in the shadow of suffering, fear, and doubt, God’s plan for us is greater than we can possibly imagine. We read knowing that God does not choose us because we are good, but because he wants us to be good.

We read scripture in the light of Jesus Christ recognizing that where we find wrath, there is also grace; when we suffer we discover our hope; and when there is death there is also resurrection. Amen.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer On Canonical Reading

As a devotional practice I have been reading through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters & Papers From Prison. It has been my experience that preachers today, and for some time, have tended to preach almost entirely from the New Testament leaving the Old Testament to collect dust. In a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge, which had to be smuggled out of the prison, Bonhoeffer speaks toward a more canonical reading of scripture [both Old and New Testaments]:

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To Eberhard Bethge (Advent 2) December 5th 1943 from Tegel

My thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and more like those of the Old Testament, and in recent months I have been reading the Old Testament much more than the New.

It is only when one knows the unutterability of the name of God that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ;

it is only when on loves life and the earth so much that without them everything seems to be over that one may believe in the resurrection and a new world;

it is only when one submits to God’s law that one may speak of grace;

and it is only when God’s wrath and vengeance are hanging as grim realities over the heads of one’s enemies that something of what it means to love and forgive them can touch our hearts.

In my opinion it is not Christian to want to take out thoughts and feelings too quickly and too directly from the New Testament.

 

 

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters & Papers From Prison (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972), 156-157.