Outsmarted by Babies and Dreams

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I was leading a Bible study earlier this week where one of the participants asked why God doesn’t just part the heavens and come down, saying, “Hey everybody, I’m here! This is absolute proof, so you’d better believe in me!”

I thought this was a great question. Why doesn’t God do that? It would certainly make some things easier. We wouldn’t have to wrestle so much with our faith. When refuted, we could simply point back to the absolute proof and blow our opponents’ arguments out of the water. Everything would become totally clear.

But I also wonder: What would be the cost of such certainty? We already know we live in a world where the strong dominate the weak, where history is written by the winners, and where winners often win by violence and manipulation. We lament this sad state of affairs, but fail to imagine any viable alternative.

Could things ever be any different?

At least one person has imagined so.

The poet in our psalm this morning spends his/her time imagining a different kind of ruler from the ones who tend to seize power on the global scene. The psalmist dreams instead of a ruler who governs by the power of gentleness and divine justice, rooted in the natural ebb and flow of creation itself. This dream is voiced as a prayer for the king:

“May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.”

That is a very gentle, life-giving image. It makes me think of sitting on my back porch in the spring time, watching the rain fall and the flowers beginning to sprout up after a long winter. Could that be a model for sound government?

The psalmist thinks so:

“May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.

He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.

From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.”

That might sound like a utopian pipe-dream, bound to end in disappointment, but the psalmist sees a different kind of outcome:

“May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”

In a world governed by the power of violence, this dream might seem unattainable, but we Christians, who accept these words as sacred Scripture, are duty-bound to take them seriously as part of God’s Word. In God’s universe, it is right that makes might, not the other way around. If we really believed otherwise, why would we bother coming to church on Sunday?

This is no utopian pipe-dream or abstract principle for us Christians. We believe that this idea took on flesh and came to fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. St. Paul refers to this as “the mystery of Christ” in today’s epistle:

“In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel… so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

In Paul’s vision, God wins the victory, not by dominating or destroying Gentile enemies, but by including them as friends in the redemption that Christ won for the world. This, in Paul’s mind, subverts the dominant paradigm of the powers-that-be.

The way of God’s kingdom stands in stark contrast to the powers of the world, like King Herod, who we read about in today’s gospel.

Herod vies for power, using all the means at his disposal. When he perceives a threat to his power, he gathers the scholars and clergy as part of his military and political intelligence program. He manipulates people with lies and fake displays of piety. When, at last, he is outsmarted by babies and dreams, he unleashes the full force of the military in a campaign deliberately designed to destroy innocent lives in the interest of maintaining his position.

The good news is that his plan fails miserably. God intervenes through unorthodox means, using pagan philosophers to subvert the diabolical schemes of this tyrant. Jesus, the one child Herod sought to kill, escapes unharmed and grows up to become the greatest personality in human history, not to mention the central figure in God’s plan to redeem the world.

The good news for us in this is that the ancient dreams of poets and prophets are coming true. There is a deeper justice in the universe that trumps the demonic schemes of powerful people. “Survival of the fittest” and “might makes right” do not have the last word in the order of life. By contrast, God seems to be saying to us in these texts that history is written by the losers, the weak ones, and the vulnerable, because history’s last word is written by the God who chose to become vulnerable in the infant Christ.

Sure, God could have parted the heavens and come down with irrefutable evidence to demand faith and obedience from the human race, but this would have been at odds with God’s actual plan for the world. In point of fact, God did come to earth, not as a ruler, but as a baby. God does not force the divine will upon us from without, like any other human tyrant, but influences us from within, respecting our freedom and inviting us to cooperate with the way of gentleness and vulnerability.

St. Teresa of Calcutta famously taught us that “Not everyone can do great things, but everyone can do small things with great love.” This is the way of God’s will in the world. It is the way that Christ invites us to follow.

The power of Jesus resides, not in inflicting pain, but in offering healing; not in pronouncing judgment, but in forgiveness; not in threatening deprivation, but in feeding hungry people with abundance; not in dealing death, but by rising to new life from the grave.

King Herod was not the last ruler who felt his power being threatened by Jesus. At the end of his life, Jesus stood before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who seemed to succeed where Herod had failed. He handed Jesus over to be tortured and crucified for crimes he did not commit.

They thought Jesus was a terrorist, plotting to overthrow the Roman government. Little did they know, Jesus’ real goal was far more dangerous: he was (and still is) plotting the overthrow of the entire world system of power based on endless cycles of violence.

Jesus brought those cycles to an end in himself by absorbing the violence of this world without retaliating. He allowed himself to bear the weight of our sin and be dragged into hell. But then, on the third day, he demonstrated the gentle power of God by tearing open the gates of hell and emerging victorious from the tomb. He undid the power of violence by showing it to be futile in the end.

We Christians are invited to share in this victory by walking in this world as Jesus walked. St. Paul tells us, “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). We are the members of Christ’s body, his hands and feet on earth today.

In times such as these, the greatest temptation is for Christians to give in to the demonic spirits of despair and cynicism. We think that violence of word or sword is the only way to guarantee peace and justice in life. We “study war” in our political and personal lives. We mistakenly come to believe that the only way to get ahead is by stepping on the backs of our neighbors and enemies.

Friends, I would humbly suggest to you today that there is another way. It is the way of gentleness and forgiveness, the way Jesus and the cross. While it is true that this way is likely to lead to crucifixion and death, it is also true that it leads even further into resurrection and the eternal life abundant that Christ promises for all who trust in him and walk in his ways.

The Wrath of God and the Presbyterian Hymnal

The number one rule of the internet is: “Don’t feed the trolls.”

Hopefully, I’m not about to violate it, but we’ll see.

I came across an article this morning that got my kettle boiling (more than it usually is).  It came from an online publication called The Blaze.  I’m not familiar with this one, but they seem to have an affinity for conservative ideas, so far as I can tell from a cursory scan of their website.

The article is titled: Why Is a Major Church Denomination Banning Famed Hymn ‘In Christ Alone’ From Its New Song Book?  It’s about the denomination I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and our new hymnal that comes out this fall.  I have several bones to pick with this article: some technical, some theological.  Hold onto your hats, because here we go… (takes a deep breath):

First of all, the song wasn’t “banned” from our hymnal, it was voted out.  The Committee on Congregational Song, after much discussion and discernment, democratically decided (9 to 6) not to include it.  Such was the case with many other suggested songs.  In Christ Alone is not prohibited from being sung in PC(USA) congregations.  I have done so on several occasions.  The choir even sang it as a special anthem at my ordination service.  Songs that mention God’s wrath were not targeted for exclusion by the committee.  They included Awesome God by Rich Mullins, which sings about “the judgment and wrath He poured out on Sodom”.

Second, the PC(USA) is not “liberal” or “leftist”.  I should know: I am liberal.  I sometimes wish the PC(USA) were more so, but it isn’t.

In reality, our church is extremely diverse in its theology and politics.  We have evangelicals and progressives, Democrats and Republicans, folks who like traditional liturgy and folks who like contemporary worship.  We’re a mixed bag of people who dare to believe that our differences can make us stronger and more faithful to Christ, if we let them.  If anything, our leaders for the past half-century or so have been largely influenced by the Neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Niebuhr brothers.  You can see this in several of our more recently added confessional statements: the Barmen Declaration, the Confession of 1967, and the Brief Statement of Faith.  These statements reflect a theological middle ground between fundamentalist and liberal perspectives.  You can call us equal opportunity offenders.  Purists, fanatics, and extremists of all stripes tend to be equally frustrated with the Presbyterian Church (USA).  We are what we are… deal with it.

Third, the problem with the original wording of In Christ Alone has nothing to do with liberalism or squeamishness at the idea of God’s wrath.  The controversial line in the song goes like this:

“Till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”

I have big problems with that line and I agree with the committee’s decision to axe the hymn based on the authors’ refusal to allow them to change the words to “the love of God was magnified.”  I reject outright the idea that God’s wrath put Jesus on the cross or kept him there.  It was the all-too-human selfishness and violence of religious and political powers-that-be that put Jesus on the cross.  It was Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence and his tremendous love that kept him there.

The original wording in the song is based on the theory of atonement called penal substitution, famously developed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century.  Anselm’s delineation of the theory depends greatly on its assumption of feudal notions of justice which we no longer hold.  In that society, the severity of a crime was measured by the relative social positions of perpetrator and victim.  Crimes against the nobility were punished more harshly than crimes against the peasantry.  In Anselm’s mind, any crime against an infinitely holy God must necessarily be punished eternally.  Drawing upon priestly and sacrificial language from the New Testament, Anselm presented Jesus as the perfect solution to the problem of justice: fully divine, fully human, morally stainless.  His voluntary substitution of himself resolves the problem presented by the feudal theory of justice.  Anselm’s use of this model was more apologetic than ontological.  He was simply trying to make the gospel recognizable to people in his own place and time, just as we are called to do.  However, we who no longer accept the feudal theory of justice are likewise not bound to accept penal substitution as the one and only interpretation of the significance of Calvary.

Here are my problems with penal substitution as a viable atonement theory:

First, penal substitution sets up a scenario where Jesus saves humanity from the rage (not the wrath) of an out-of-control, abusive parent.  When all is said and done, the church gathers around a crucifix and hears, “This is your fault.  Look at what you made God do.  You are so bad and dirty that God had to torture and kill this beautiful, innocent person so that he wouldn’t do the same thing to you.  Therefore, you’d better shape up and be thankful or else God will change his mind and torture you for all eternity.  And don’t forget: this is Good News and God loves you.”  If any human parent did that, he or she would be rightly incarcerated, even if the innocent victim was willing.  If that’s what Christianity is, then you can count me out.

Second, penal substitution renders both the life and the resurrection of Christ unnecessary.  If Jesus simply “came to die”, then we can conveniently ignore all those pesky red letters in our Bibles.  We also might as well sleep in on Easter Sunday because the real work was done on Good Friday.  God just tacked on the resurrection so that the story would have a happy ending.  It’s little more than icing on the cake of atonement.

The atonement theory toward which I gravitate bears more resemblance to the Christus Victor model.  According to Christus Victor, the powers of evil threw everything they had at Jesus to oppose and silence him.  They did their worst, as they always do: dealing death to anything that challenges their power.  To paraphrase biblical scholar Marcus Borg: the crucifixion was the world’s “No” to Jesus, but the resurrection is God’s “Yes”.

And God’s Yes trumps the world’s No every single time.  God rejects the world’s rejection of God.

The miracle of the atonement wasn’t in Jesus’ blood shed on the cross.  That’s just the world doing what the world does best: Killing.  The miracle of the atonement is in the resurrection of Christ: the triumph and vindication of a Love, stronger than death, that endured the very worst that the world had to offer and kept on loving anyway.

This, my friends, is the love that wilt not let us go.

This is the Good News of salvation in Christ that I am called to preach.

There, on that cross, as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified. 

I believe those words with all my heart.

I respect the authors’ decision not to have their lyrics altered, but I also respect the committee’s decision to set this hymn aside because of its deficient atonement theology.

Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal comes out this fall.
Click here for ordering information.

If you want some actual information on the committee’s theology and use of language, visit the Committee Statements page on their website.

In closing, here are the words of Chelsea Stern, one of the committee members, about what they know, pray, and hope in relation to the new hymnal (taken from the Hymnal Sampler, p.5-6):

This we know:
We know this hymnal will change lives.
We know this hymnal will inspire the church.
We know these songs will enliven worship in powerful ways.
We know the familiar songs will sing anew.
We know the new songs will speak truth.

This we pray:
We pray that as we sing together from this hymnal we will come to have a deeper sense of unity in the body of Christ.
We pray that the Holy Spirit will bring surprises and breathe new life into our churches through this hymnal.

This we hope:
We hope the cover imprint fades from greasy fingers.
We hope the pages become wrinkled and torn from constant use.
We hope our kids will sing from this hymnal – we hope our grandkids will too.

We praise!
We praise God for this collection of song and give God the glory!