Thursday, April 26, 2018

As the waters cover the sea

Every morning I begin my day reading the Bible (a psalm a day lately, #19 this morning) and Oswald Chambers' excellent and often challenging meditation from My Utmost for His Highest, along with the Daily Texts. That is more or less my spiritual breakfast each day, along with time in conversation with God.

This morning I'm challenged and frankly, a little astounded by Chambers. Among other things, he writes,
The great point of Abraham’s faith in God was that he was prepared to do anything for God. He was there to obey God, no matter to what belief he went contrary. Abraham was not a devotee of his convictions, or he would have slain Isaac and said that the voice of the angel was the voice of the devil. That is the attitude of a fanatic. If you will remain true to God, God will lead you straight through every barrier into the inner chamber of the knowledge of Himself; but there is always this point of giving up convictions and traditional beliefs. Don’t ask God to test you. Never declare as Peter did — I will do anything, I will go to death with Thee. Abraham did not make any such declaration, he remained true to God, and God purified his faith.
Notice here what God's end game is. He wants his people to know him. As he later spoke through Isaiah, his long-term desire when God finally has his way with this world is that the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. N.T. Wright loves to point out that this is such a rich metaphor, because in fact the waters are the sea. God wants every atom in his creation to vibrate with the knowledge of him. Psalm 19 this morning makes this explicit, and as I watch the sun east of my window rise above the treeline out of the misty clouds this morning, I'm reminded that it, too, is preaching not God's rules (though those are important, as the psalm makes clear) but the identity of God himself, "like a bridegroom leaving his chamber." 

This thought -- that the knowledge of God is his goal for us -- is revolutionary. Most of us are so willing to settle for a set of principles, a set of laws. Those principles can indeed reveal much of the heart of God. But what to do with Chambers' assertion that living by principle, Abraham would have indeed made that downward stroke with the knife, killed his son, and acknowledged that the tribes among whom he lived who practiced child sacrifice as a matter of course because their gods commanded it, were in fact correct? God calls Abraham right to the edge and beyond, calls him into what has to be horrifying for any of us to read, if we allow ourselves to get into the story at all. God calls Abraham to actions that would later inspire Isaac as an adult to describe his father's God as "the Fear." If any of us took the actions Abraham took we would be locked up these days. God's concern seems to be less about a set of rules and more about a relationship. And when the rules we follow become an obstacle to a deeper relationship with God, he will sometimes break all kinds of laws for the sake of his love for us. I think Chambers is right that at such times -- and we must be careful to diagnose such times accurately -- "if we keep true to God, God will take us through an ordeal which will bring us out into a better knowledge of Himself." To be clear, in such times the breaking of God's laws is a very real, very dangerous thing, and it may carry devastating consequences. But God will bring us through an ordeal (remember Job? Remember the Israelites being led off to Babylon?) that, rising from the crushed ashes of our brokenness, will give us a new insight into God's heart.

I've often heard people speculate about Jesus' story of the Prodigal Son. It's interesting how we so often make that story about the conversion of the younger son, when Jesus' point was so obviously, by context and by the whole structure of the story, to focus attention on the plight of the older son. What happens next? The older son is left standing on his principles outside the party, and the tragedy of the story is that it has finally become clear that he has completely missed his father's heart. The father wants him to come in and join in the outlandish dancing and feasting, the outpouring of all the father has for both his sons -- but the elder son stands outside, saying, "This isn't the way the world is supposed to work!" Will he drop his principled pride and come inside to dance and eat? Or will he slink off to be right in his isolation and bitterness? That's the direction of Jesus' narrative. 

If we start reading the Bible with this idea in mind -- that God's ultimate goal is for us to know him for who he really is -- it will change the way we read his word, even in the smallest details. For example, a few days ago when I was in Psalm 17, I was deeply troubled by verse 14 as I read it in the ESV. It seemed to be saying, contrary to what the rest of the Bible consistently says about God, that somehow God provided children -- "you fill their womb with treasure" -- to those who lived contrary to his word. How to reconcile this with what the Old Testament consistently says about children being a blessing from the Lord, a joy for the righteous, etc.? I got stuck there and was trying to pray my way and read my way into understanding. Was this a new place for me to learn something about the character of God I had missed? The deeper I dug, the more it bothered me because it seemed to contradict so much in the rest of the Bible. At that point I noticed a footnote. Now, there's a principle in biblical translation that when there are variants in the texts, as a rule you should choose the one that is more difficult. That, I think, is what the ESV translators have done here. The variant reading, included in the footnote, in this case says that the text might read "As for your treasured ones, you fill their womb ..." And the text goes on from there to make complete sense in the context of the rest of scripture. While it's not a huge point, I have come to believe that in that particular case, the footnote is a better reading because it reveals the heart of God consistent with his word. 

So what about the ordeal? Is it accurate, plausible, biblical to think that God would put his people through a crisis in order to reveal himself to them? Is it possible that in this crisis he will break down the traditions we've created, the values we thought encapsulated the good, obedient life, in order to lead us into a new vista of knowing him and living in his character? Start looking for this in scripture and you will find it everywhere. Abraham's life from start to finish, Joseph languishing in an Egyptian prison, Moses herding sheep in the desert after a well-intentioned murder, David hiding in caves after he's been anointed king, the Israelites being led off into exile and their temple destroyed, the law-abiding Pharisees castigated by the Son of God as whitewashed tombs whose old wineskins can no longer hold the new wine of the Spirit of God, the churches in Revelation that are threatened with death and destruction because they've missed the character of God ... everywhere. 

The problem with living by the rules is that while it's good for kids and new believers (this is also a biblical teaching) it won't take us to spiritual maturity. (So much of Paul's argument in Romans centers around this idea, and it's everywhere in scripture, both Old and New Testaments.) Our rule-bound lives may well prevent us from experiencing God for who he really is. He longs to pour his love into our lives, to fill us as the waters fill the sea, so that our entire existence, and that of all his creation, becomes an expression of his character. 

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