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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"The Bible," the Bible, and the Word of God

Last night my wife and I finally sat down to watch the fourth episode of The Bible on the History Channel. We had enjoyed the first episode (I reacted to it here) and looked forward to the remainder of the series. The second episode, with its ridiculous Samson portrayal, cooled us to the program, though. The third episode was somewhat redeeming, although the dust-up over Satan resemblingPresident Obama stole much of its effect.

This fourth episode, in which Jesus’ ministry goes from the calling of Simon Peter to Jesus’ arrest and nighttime trial before the Sanhedrin, was spectacular. Yes, the effects of Jesus’ walking on water looked fake and low-budget, but the way in which the producers and writers wove the narratives of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels into one story was well done.

Jonathan Merritt has written about 10 things that The Bible got wrong, many of which I, too, have found unnecessarily unfaithful to the narrative of the Scriptures.

But here’s what I find tantalizingly interesting about Merritt’s analysis, and that of others: everyone I talk to and read about this miniseries offer a mixture of interpretation and “literalness” in their explanations of why they like or don’t like the series.
            Merritt lists 10 ways in which The Bible “deviates” from the Biblical text. He laments the opening scene of Episode 1 in which Noah tells the creation story from Genesis 1. What “sticks out” in Merritt’s mind in this case is that good Biblical scholarship locates the origin of both the creation story and the flood story in the era of Moses. He tries to moderate his objection, saying, “Noah recounts the creation narrative as it appears in Genesis, but there’s one problem: the story was not written until later. Conservative Christian scholars believe this story was drafted by Moses many centuries after Noah’s flood; more liberal scholars claim it was penned even later.” So both “conservatives” and “liberals” have a problem with this double-story because one story in the narrative of the other is too much turducken for either to stomach.
            Here’s what I find painfully ironic about his objection: Merritt relies of Biblical scholarship to support his objection to a non-literalist interpretation of the Genesis account while at the same time such scholarship presupposes that such events cannot be taken literally. This is the same as complaining that Once Upon a Time blends the stories of Pinocchio and Snow White in the same episode!
            Be careful here – I’m NOT saying that the stories of Genesis or any others of the Scriptures are at the same historical or literary level of fairy tales. I’m not interested in debating the word “myth” or other terms used in describing the early narratives of Genesis in this entry; perhaps later. What I want to highlight is the idea that placing the creation and flood accounts in the mouth of Moses presupposes a lot in Biblical scholarship that biblical literalists would certainly find objectionable.

            While Merritt’s analysis is more robust than many of the anecdotal conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues about The Bible the same ironic nature of their interpretations is present. In a conversation this morning with a co-worker about the show I was reminded just how murky our interpretations are. I asked her whether or not she had seen any of The Bible, and she responded that she had only seen it in passing. Further, she offered that the brief scene she did see caused her to instruct her son, who was curious about the story being portrayed, that he should “read it for himself,” and not trust the images on the screen.
            I happen to know that this friend is a member at a very conservative SBC church and that her theology of Scripture is in line with that denomination’s teaching. What was interesting to me is the way in which her distrust of anything on television led her to “protect” her son from The Bible’s interpretation of the story of Moses by telling him to read and interpret that story for himself.

Here’s the point of this brief and hopefully rational post: interpreting the nature of the Scriptures is as unavoidable as interpreting the individual stories that constitute the Scriptures. What has been exposed through the massive popularity of The Bible is that our interpretations of the Scripture do not always line up with our theology of Scripture. If nothing else is accomplished by the production of The Bible I pray that it will cause viewers to examine what they find to be “inaccuracies” in the narrative of the show and that such an examination will cause our families and churches to consider their theology of Scripture afresh.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

In Our Right Minds

In Our Right Minds
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
March 17, 2013
The Fifth Sunday of Lent

For five weeks we have endured the increasingly difficult and soul-challenging journey into the wilderness in preparation for Easter. We have, no doubt, failed in some way in our sacrifices, and we have undoubtedly learned something new about ourselves in these weeks of penance. Maybe we’ve learned something positive and encouraging about ourselves; perhaps we’ve learned to pray without ceasing during those moments of temptation or frustration. Maybe we’ve each learned something negative and shameful about our souls; perhaps we’ve seen just how depraved our cravings are and how sinfully dedicated we are to the satisfaction of our own bellies.
            Whatever we have learned or experienced these last five weeks, it is good for us to be reminded of just why we have journeyed so far into the wild. Here, five weeks into a six-week journey, we are closer to the end than the beginning. We have been at this so long we may well have forgotten what “drove” us into the wilderness in the first place.
            Remember, my friends, that this season has been an intentional sequestration from our usual habits and ways of life that we might prepare our souls and bodies for Holy Week, that central and crucial period in world history. Remember, too, that this is no hollow recreation of the drama of Easter so that we may demonstrate the cross or the empty tomb to the world as though the meaning of Easter could be demonstrated like a Christmas pageant. No, we should remember that the Lenten season is not one of mere recitation or re-enactment; this is a season when something happens to people. We are dragging our souls through the briar patch and into the desert to see what being followers of Christ is all about.
            In Lent we are confronted with the nature of discipleship. You all know that I’ve been living and breathing that word in recent months. The season of Lent, I believe, is one built for discipleship because it forces us to discover the true and essential meaning of that word. It is not the process of learning or even of understanding what Jesus said and taught. It is not the recitation of a Creed or Prayer. Lenten discipleship is the participation in the journey toward the Cross-it is the emulation of the life of Jesus. Yes, it includes the learning of the teachings of Jesus, but only insofar as those teachings inform the lives of those who would follow the Teacher. Yes, it includes the recitation of a creed or prayers, but only inasmuch as these are tools to bring concentration and motivation to the task or taking up the cross and following the Master. Gerald Hawthorne comments that, “the pattern of discipleship…is less a matter of belief than of practice, less a matter of orthodoxy than of orthopraxis, less a matter of what one thinks than how one lives. It is, in fact, imitating the model of life exemplified by Jesus himself – that is, cutting the cloth of one’s life according to the pattern for authentic living that has been given by Jesus Christ and so following his example with respect to one’s attitudes and actions.”[1]
            In short, we must remember that the journey of Lent is a blueprint of the discipleship life: taking us from what is lax and comfortable, leading us through the wilderness of doubt and struggle, and ending at the cross.

            There are times when I can’t even remember what started me into the wilderness. By now, the fifth week of the Lenten journey, I’ve become accustomed to my new diet, my new routine, and my new life. Memory is treacherous, you see. As individuals and as cultures we have a tendency to remember selectively, even going so far as to romanticize those things that have traumatized us. Even the short season of Lent is long enough for me to forget the hunger pangs I felt that first week. Even my short annual practice of Lent has seen enough years to foster a “ho-hum” attitude, as though this time or preparation was just another season in the cycle of the Church year.
            That’s how memory is tricky. We remember the way things have been done before and how we learned to adapt, how to muddle through, how to get over something. When the calendar rolls around to Lent we, like we did last year, eventually get over it.
            This season also has a tendency to exacerbate our anxieties and fears about following Jesus. In our moments of intentional prayer and fasting we are reminded of our need for God’s Spirit to prop us up each day. We are reminded of just how deep our need for God is and how pitiful our attempts at self-control and self-determination are.
            In the divinely directed exile that the people of Israel endured we can see glimmers of such despondency among God’s people. They had been taken into custody by a vastly superior civilization and were encouraged to integrate into that society as best they could, since they would be in captivity for an indeterminate time.[2] They have a cultural memory of the last captivity they endured, and of how God sent Moses and ten testifying plagues to secure their release.[3] This time, though, there is not going to be a Moses, nor will there be a series of catastrophes to convince the Babylonians to release the Jews. Isaiah points this out most specifically, saying, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
            Isaiah demands the people to do two contradictory things first, he asks them to remember that theirs is the God who makes even the mightiest armies bow down and surrender. Such language no doubt conjures the great destruction of the chariots that Pharaoh sent after Moses and the Hebrews. Certainly the language of making a path through the waters inspired hopes in the Exiles that God would miraculously provide a second exodus from their captivity in Babylon.
            But these ways of God’s deliverance are not what the people are to concentrate on. Rather, they are to remember that God is the deliverer, that God does, in fact, lead his people through the wilderness. The methods will be different, but the God will be the same. John Oswalt says it well in a sermon from 2004: “The Israelite tendency was like ours: they tended to forget what they should remember and remember what they should forget. What should they remember? What the past tells us about the character and nature of God. We should remember all the evidence of his power, his faithfulness, and his love that his actions in the past have demonstrated. We should forget how he has acted in the past and believe that his power, faithfulness, and love will be applied to new situations in new ways.”[4]
            Even if the wilderness journey looks familiar, we must not be so accustomed to this season that we neglect the new and transformative ways in which God can and will act in and through us. There may not be plagues and a parting of the seas; there may be instead a revelation of the Spirit of God in your heart that wells up to a newness of life not heretofore experienced.
            All of this is the essence of Christian discipleship. The nature of Isaiah’s call to forgetfulness and remembrance is exactly the nature of following Jesus. It is not the recitation of tried-and-true methods, prayers, and incantations that makes one a disciples of Jesus; rather, it is the painful, uncertain journey away from the expectations and securities of years gone by toward an even more painful and torturous cross in the name of Jesus Christ that makes us disciples. Something new is going to happen, something we cannot predict and therefore cannot control.

            This same trickiness of memory is exemplified in Paul’s brief autobiographical paragraph in Philippians 3. This wonderful passage is Paul’s way of saying that no matter the backgrounds of the people in Philippi, there is nothing they can claim that measures up to the new thing God has done in Christ Jesus. Paul’s rejection of his hereditary position in Judaism as well as his earned honors as a Pharisee and as one “righteous before the Law” are not devaluations of those things, as though he could go back and undo them. Rather, “Paul is first outlining the privileged status he enjoyed as a member of Israel, the people of God, and then showing that, because of Christ, this membership had to be regarded as something not to be taken advantage of. He did not give up his membership; he understood it in a new way, avoiding all possibility of taking advantage of it for self-aggrandizement…Belonging to God’s people did not, he new realized, mean a privileged status, outward symbols of superiority, an elevated moral stature in the world. It meant dying and rising with the Messiah.”[5]
            This new thing that God has done in Paul (as well as in the lives of his readers) is the new way of being the people of God. It is no longer the recitation of the old ways in which the same God worked out salvation – it is the expectation and the exciting, sacrificial journey of the new Way in Jesus. Yes, God has delivered through miracles of nature in the past; yes, God has sent rulers like Cyrus to release his captive people. Now, though, through Christ Jesus a new thing has come to pass. This new Christian discipleship is so new and so life changing that everything in Paul’s life has been cast aside in favor of the new life in Jesus.
            David de Silva help us with clarity here, saying, “"The things behind" are not the claims of Jewish privilege, which Paul had come to consider a debit, but accomplishments in the service of Christ, or achievements as a Christian. These, too, are "forgotten" or "left behind," a necessary requirement for making progress in the race. All Paul's energy is focused in the forward direction. There is no place in a race for stopping to take pride in achievements or privileges, and slowing down out of self-assuredness (or "confidence in the flesh") means losing the race.[6]
            That race, that journey, is the way of Christian discipleship. It means forgetting the things that have come before, whether they were profound or even miraculous. It is the putting away of degrees, baptismal counts, church plants, and temptations overcome as ends in themselves in favor of the one true goal, our increasing emulation of Jesus Christ. It is not that we can go back and undo the things we’ve accomplished any more than we can undo our sins. We are called instead to put these things aside and press onward through this wilderness or trial toward the surpassing glory of Jesus.
            We do not give up on our work or on our ministry; rather we pray for the strength to remain faithful. We do not measure our Christian success in numbers baptized or in consecutive days without a cigarette. We measure one footfall after another on the way to the giving over of ourselves to the nature of Jesus Christ. Ellen Babinksy comments, “It is not that we are to be inactive and unengaged; this is no passive way of living that is unconnected to the necessary tasks of the day. It is rather that we place all our valuing in our true treasure, Christ alone. What we do does not make us holy, but whose we are. We do not do holy things but, instead, dedicate heart, mind, soul, and strength to the One who has made us his own. We do not do holy things but make holy what we do. Not only the stripping away, but also the "becoming like him" are indicators of the strain of the enterprise. This knowing and becoming is the goal, which Paul, by personal example, urges upon us, for which we are to forget about everything that lies behind and give ourselves to the prize toward which we are to strain with every ounce of our being. The prize is Christ himself, that reality by which we are able to undertake the enterprise at all.”[7]
            This “holy forgetfulness” is essential to our discipleship task. It is the motivation to move forward into Christ-likeness that will bring us out of the wilderness. Paul himself has not arrived, and we certainly have not. Because Paul had not been resurrected or perfected, he continued to pursue Christ, even as he had previously persecuted Christians. The apostle longed and yearned to take hold of God’s future in Christ in the present even as Christ had taken hold of him in the past. Paul determined to forget the things behind him – be they good, bad, or indifferent – and to stretch toward the things in front of him, like a runner striving for the finish line.[8]
            In our self-imposed exile we must prayerfully seek out the new way in which God is calling us as believers and as a church to become more like him by following Jesus. I’ve mentioned before that if we dare to walk behind Jesus through this wilderness, we must keep in mind that Jesus is walking toward the cross toward a resurrection.
            It is this resurrection that we look toward. It is the “hope of salvation” that kept the Exiles from losing their identity in Babylon; it is the hope of salvation that drove Paul to race with all his might toward Christlikeness. So it is left to us, hoping in the salvation offered to us by God that though we give up everything, even those sweet memories of our successes, we would find new life.
            “Therefore, we are not to be surprised if living as Christians brings us to the place where we find we are at the end of our own resources, and that we are called to rely on the God who raises the dead. Living by faith rather than by fear is so odd for us, so scary for us, that it takes a lot of learning. Bit by bit we must open ourselves to the power of this resurrection God; and sometimes this will only happen when we find ourselves in the sudden crisis when there is nothing else we can do. Don’t be surprised if this happens, not least when you face an uncertain future. Use such an opportunity as the moment when your belief in the resurrection of Jesus, your trust in the God who raises the dead, you determination to follow the Lamb wherever he goes, reaches down one or two levels deeper into your own innermost being, the place where all those fears still live.”[9]

[1] Gerald F. Hawthorne, “The Imitation of Christ: Philippians” in Patterns of New Testament Discipleship, edited by Richard N. Longenecker. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996, 166.
[2] Cf. Jeremiah 29. This is contra Oswalt, whose sermon will be quoted below.
[3] Cf. Exodus 5ff.
[4] John N. Oswalt, “The God of Newness: A Sermon on Isaiah 43:14-21,” Calvin Theological Journal, 39 (2004), 386-90.
[5] N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993, 88.
[6] From David A. DeSilva, “No Confidence in the Flesh: The Meaning and Function of Philippians 3:2-21.” Trinity Journal 15 no. 1, 49-50.
[7] From Ellen L. Babinsky, “Philippians 3:7-15,” Interpretation, 49 no. 1, 71.
[8] Paraphrased from Todd D. Still, Philippians and Philemon, Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 2011, 108.
[9] N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994, 71.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reaction to the First Episode of "The Bible"

I finally got a chance to watch the premier episode of The Bible, which aired on Sunday night on the History Channel. I wrote a post[1] late last week in anticipation of that episode and in response to a Wall Street Journal article that the producers of the miniseries had penned.

I admit that I went into my viewing of the episode with high hopes and low expectations. So many television adaptations of the stories of Scripture have been cheesy, low-budget affairs that left me shaking my head in shame. The Bible didn’t necessarily disappoint me in this way, but I still came away with neither a sense of excitement nor shame. All in all, the episode was a wash for me.

I do not want to recap the scenes of the first episode; rather I want to explore some of the “under the hood” things I noticed as a Bible nerd and pastor.

First, we must consider the selection of stories that were told in this first episode. Those stories included Noah and the Flood (with a dialogue of the Creation narrative from Genesis 1), the call of Abram, the desertion of Lot from Abram’s camp, Abram’s rescue of Lot, the birth of Ishmael to Abram and Hagar, the destruction of Sodom, the departure of Hagar and Ishmael at the birth of Isaac, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the birth of Moses and rescue by Pharaoh’s daughter, his murder of an Egyptian, the burning bush encounter, Moses’ return to Egypt and the plagues, the Exodus from Egypt through the Red Sea, the reception of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, and finally Joshua’s reconnaissance of Jericho and the introduction of Rahab. 
            My first observation is that the producers had to choose what stories to include in the series. There is enough material in Genesis alone to fill a 10-part miniseries! The producers had to choose, therefore, those narratives that helped them make their point, which was “trust in God,” a mantra repeated over and over in the first episode. I understand the exclusion of some of the Genesis material for the sake of plot development, and there are certainly sections of that book that can be excluded because of the general audience implied in the network airing of the program (i.e., Lot’s daughters offered to the men at Sodom and their later rape of their father after Sodom’s destruction.)
            The stories that the producers chose are indeed those that are “more familiar” to the general public, and thus they are the ones that would make the miniseries more compelling to the widest audience.
            I thought that the mixture of the Flood narrative with the Creation account of Genesis 1 was very well done and shrewd for two reasons: first, there is enough material between Genesis 1 and 9 to dominate and entire episode, which would have been impractical. Secondly, the creation accounts are the ground of so much discussion and argument that the producers could have spent too much time and production interpreting and then rendering their interpretation of Genesis 1-3. Thus, by combining two major narratives (especially these two oft-argued ones) the produces quickly moved the plot of the episode to Abram, where there is certainly more “meat” on the bone for filmmakers.
            Another highlight for me was the sacrificial scene in which Abraham takes his son Isaac to the mountaintop as an offering to God.[2] It was a new experience for me to see that scene acted out with its themes of betrayal, murder, sorrow, and hope all thrown into one. I was moved to tears by the (admittedly mediocre) acting of Isaac and by the miraculous appearance of a lamb as a replacement for the boy on the altar.
            This scene is also where I began to realize why I was slightly bothered by the details of the episode. In the Scriptures it is God who speaks to Abraham and instructs him to sacrifice Isaac as a test. In the TV version, Abraham seemingly comes to this idea of child sacrifice on his own (in other instances of communication between Abraham and God in the show God’s voice is heard by Abraham and by the audience). It is a further complication (and certainly foreshadowing by the producers) that a lamb is caught by its foot at the top of Mt. Sinai at the exact moment of the sacrifice. In the Scriptural account of that incident it is a ram caught by its horns that takes Isaac’s place.
            This may seem like the splitting of hairs by a Bible nerd, but I think these two accounts are indicative of a serious assumption that the producers of The Bible have made in the weaving together of a grand narrative of Scripture. It is clear to me that the producers are moving the plot along toward the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus and are making subtle attempts to connect the Old Testament narratives that they have selected more appropriately serve that plot. Please understand – I believe that Scripture should be interpreted in light of the Cross and Resurrection. The lens through which Christians read Scripture is that of Jesus’ Incarnation and his teachings. It is his interpretation of Scripture that drives our interpretation of Scripture.
            Therefore, I understand the producers’ redaction of the Biblical narratives to serve this purpose. However, by altering the details of the narratives they run the risk of overlaying their specific understanding of God’s redemptive activity in too heavy-handed a manner for educated Christians to stomach. Further, while it is clear that no interpretation of Scripture or any other source in film is without directorial interpretation, such interpretation and plot-manipulation can become the narrative of the show rather than the Bible it intends to bring to life.
            Underneath all of this is one major reflection I had at the conclusion of the episode: it is impossible to produce something like The Bible intends to be without filtering it through 21st-century sensibilities. Consider two elements of the first episode:
            First, Abraham’s relationship with Hagar. In the episode it is Sara who is mourning her inability to bear Abraham a son, contrary to God’s promise. She recommends to Abraham that he impregnate the woman Hagar, who just happens to be in the camp with Abraham, Sarah, and their entourage. Abraham resists, acts shocked and slightly revolted by the idea of “cheating” on Sarah. When he is finally convinced to go through with it, we see him coming out of Hagar’s tent with a look of disappointment or anger, or even shame.
            The Scriptural account[3] we have few details of the encounter between Abraham and Hagar, and even less of Abraham’s moral perspective on the situation. What we know about ancient cultures, though, renders the 21st century morality demonstrated in the episode moot. Hagar was a slave. She had no choice in the matter, most likely, and I doubt that Abraham would have demonstrated the same martial fidelity that we see in the episode when Sarah gives him the “hall pass.”
            Further, it is anachronistic to see Lot’s wife arguing with Lot in front of Abraham and Sarah. I realize that we’ve come a long way in our treatment of women from the times of the Old Testament,[4] but the 21st-century perspective on husband/wife relationships was hard to swallow.
            Second, the segment concerning Sodom. In the producer’s interpretation of this thoroughly troubling narrative from Genesis 19 the two angelic visitors to Lot’s house are warriors. These two men take Lot, his wife, and their two daughters out of the city, in harmony with Scripture. However, the producers saw fit to make the two angelic warriors draw inappropriately modern swords and proceed to cut down dozens of Sodomites in true action-flick style. Apparently the producers couldn’t find enough action in this segment of the narrative to make it palatable to American audiences, so they created some swordplay, blood, and death to spice things up.
            Why?! Isn’t there enough morally questionable content in this portion of Scripture? Would it have been more objectionable to have Lot say to the crowds outside his house, “I beg you brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please…”[5] Apparently so. We, the viewers, can handle some canned death and dismemberment that’s not in Scripture, but we couldn’t stomach the morally inflammatory content of the actual narrative.
            In the final analysis, The Bible is a well-made show about some of the more popular stories of Scripture. It has an agenda that will certainly be demonstrated in future episodes, though for now the driving theme of the series is “trust in God.” I maintain that the broader culture needs to hear and see the Scriptures, and I understand that any production of the Bible will necessitate some interpretation. Of the shows I’ve seen that try to bring the Bible to life, this is the best. However, as a Bible nerd I am aware that even this good effort cannot help but leave gaps that must be filled in by minsters and mature Christians everywhere.

[2] Cf. Genesis 22
[3] Cf. Genesis 16
[4] See William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. IVP, 2001.
[5] Genesis 19:8, NRSV.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Humility of Lent

The Humility of Lent
Delivered at Madison Chapel, Madison, MS
March 3, 2013
The Third Sunday of Lent

            One topic that has dominated many of the things I have read in recent years concerns the growth in popularity enjoyed by the Reformed movement in Protestantism. This movement has taken on titles like “neo-Reformed,” “neo-Calvinism,” and especially the “Young, Restless, Reformed” impulse. The Reformed trend in Protestantism is certainly neither new nor novel, but it has certainly become something more than in generations past. Calvinism, the root theological system at work in this neo-Reformed movement, has become a buzzword in popular debates among scholars and preachers, such as in the dueling authors N.T. Wright and John Piper.
            The latest flare-up of Calvinistic trouble is at Louisiana College, an SBC-sponsored school that shares many similarities with my Alma Mater, Mississippi College. The president, Joe Aguillard, has taken a “not in my back yard” stance on the teaching and official endorsement of that theological system at LC which has garnered much criticism.[1]
            I bring this up today not to discuss the theological intricacies of the Doctrines of Grace or of the differences and similarities between Calvinism and Arminianism; rather I want to bring up one theological point that seems missing in all of these debates, that is, the Christian’s humility.
            Regardless of which side of the theological fence you land on in this or any other topic, the Christian is obligated to maintain humility even in the face of Spirit-inspired conviction and the certainty of their position. We must never lose sight of the fact that we are to filter everything through a Christ-like love for our God and for our neighbor. I fear that we, like those who argue their positions in the secular world, have forgotten that it is the love of Christ crucified which compels us.

            During our journey in Lent we are stripped down. First comes the hunger, then the thirst. Soon we are considering giving up and returning to civilization, pretending to be holy and blameless. If we have the spiritual compunction to stay in the wilderness seeking God, we are sure to be stripped down even further. This time it’s not the hunger or the thirst or even the shame of wanting to quit – this time our very clothes fall to rags and we stand in our nakedness before the God who sees our sins inside and out.
            That’s the real heart of the matter in Lent – our sins and sinfulness laid bare for the Lord and for our own eyes to see. Any season of prayer, fasting, and intentional devotion opens us up to the liability of encountering the Holy One. Such an encounter will always leave us exposed, guilt-ridden, and humbled. Like the Israelites who saw Moses when he descended from the Mountain, we are uncomfortable with the Holy, and we quickly erect things to block it and to make us feel better about ourselves.[2]
            Where do we hide? With what do we clothe ourselves? Some wrap themselves in success and accomplishment. Some cover the walls of their hearts with diplomas and accolades. Some avoid the accountability of the Holy by spreading themselves thin in volunteering, in work, and in family life. Some mask their hearts in cloaks of piety: singing songs, praying prayers, and taking social stances that make them appear as holy as the one from whom they hide.
            We can, through these things, make ourselves out to be a group of strong, well-adjusted disciples. Such thinking necessarily makes others weak, less developed believers. That’s the type of trouble that got the believers in Corinth in trouble with Paul.
            The believers at Corinth were living in an over-realized eschatology. They had been baptized into Christ and were living as though the freedom that came from that commitment offered them license to live in any manner in which they saw fit. They were eating and drinking with the pagans, sleeping with prostitutes, and dividing themselves into cliques of stronger believers and weaker believers. They believed that with the coming of the Holy Spirit the Kingdom was theirs and they could live as they pleased.
Paul is quick to renounce and denounce such ungodly license. By conjuring the memory of the Israelites journeying in the wilderness, Paul communicates the risk that the Corinthians run by living in such ways. B.J. Oropeza comments on this idea, saying, “They [the believers at Corinth] have experienced an eschatological salvation through their initiation but its culmination lies in their future… The Christian ought to run his or her life in the present so as to attain the future life expressed in imagery of completing a race and completing a journey… Paul believes that the Corinthian congregation must live out that tension in perseverance until the end of their natural lives. A persistent failure to do so would result in the forfeiture of the future life. In such a case, the Corinthian member would thus perish with the corrupt and transient world and not attain that final future salvation in the age of incorruption. This could happen to the Corinthians despite their genuine initiation, election and membership in the body of Christ.”[3]
The believers in Corinth who are haughtily living as though the Spirit’s presence excuses all things are living dangerously. They are running the risk of expulsion from the Body because of their apostasy in the wilderness of this in-between time ‘twixt the Ascension and the Second Coming. William Baird adds to the danger, saying, “The lesson is absolutely clear: Although the Corinthians have been blessed with the gifts of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, God can readily become displeased with them. Participation in Baptism and the Supper provides no easy security. Like Paul, the Corinthians, and today's Christians, can be quickly disqualified.”[4]
This threat of disqualification must not be taken lightly. When we become too comfortable in our salvation, when we rest on our laurels of faith rather than progressing on our journey through the wilderness we are not, I repeat, are not fulfilling God’s will for us in Christ. Hear again the hammer-strokes of Paul’s argument: our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food, and all drank the same supernatural drink…the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness. It seems that faithfulness to the will of God is not as easy as fitting in with the majority, even if that majority looks as though they are following the Way.
When we stop moving along the narrow path laid out before us because of the threat of fear or the temptation of comfort, we have a tendency to lose the humility that comes from relying on the God that calls us into the wilderness in the first place. But we’re so good at feeling confident and secure! As Baptists we hold to the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints, which holds that nothing can cause a person marked for salvation to lose that salvation. There is no sin so great or circumstance so awful that God will reject a person’s faith in Christ Jesus for eternal life.
Oh how comfortable that makes us! The certainty of salvation and the good, old-fashioned Protestant allergy to “works” often renders us as the “frozen chosen,” feeling neither the need nor the compulsion to live in the dangerous, naked wilderness. The popularity of folk-Calvinism professed by many in the neo-Reformed movement adds to this inertia of the soul by laying a divine determinism over the souls of men and women that amounts to fatalism for many believers. Since God has pre-determined our salvation[5] and nothing we can do can alter such an unmerited gift, what should motivate us to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling?”[6]
The motivation comes in our determination to be faithful to the life of discipleship to which God has called us. We are to live and serve as Jesus did, holding the lives of our neighbors above even our own. This Lenten journey into the wilderness should lay our hearts bare – we should be as exposed to ourselves and to God as we have ever been. For surely we have not served, we have not loved, we have not walked as we should.
What should wake us from our comfortable spiritual slumber is that we will certainly be judged by our Holy God. We like to speak of judgment as much as we like to speak of sin. Yet it is judgment that is at the heart of our Scripture passages today. It is the judgment of God against the apostate Israelites in the wilderness, the ones who forsook the God who had just delivered them. It is judgment that threatens our complacency; judgment that will certainly cut more deeply than our Lenten confessions ever could.
But let us be clear about what sort of judgment. The crowds surrounding Jesus are bothered by the same fatalistic superstitions that cloud the minds of so many modern Christians. They see God’s wrath behind every earthquake and hurricane, his judgment motivating every catastrophe. To cut through the clutter of misconception Jesus tells a curious story of a fig tree that bears no fruit. Charles Hedrick helps us understand the implication of this parable: “The Galileans whom Pilate killed and the eighteen unnamed persons who died in a disastrous fall of the tower of Siloam were no worse than those who escaped the tragedies, and those who escaped were no better than those who died. Thus everyone stands under the threat of God's judgment unless they repent. In this kind of a context the story about the fig tree seems to be a warning to everyone to repent in view of the impending judgment. From this perspective the immediate context and the story come together: bear the fruit of repentance or perish in the judgment.[7]
            Here is where the right humility of the Lenten season appears. It is in the knowledge that regardless of our position on the journey of discipleship, no matter how many burdens we bear, no matter strength of our faith or the fortitude of our souls we will be judged. We must not live in the comfort of knowing it all or confessing it all or praying it all. There is more to do, more to love, more to give. We have not arrived.
            We must be humbled by the judgment and brought low by the holiness of our God, the God who meets us in the wilderness when we have nothing left, when we are naked and without dignity or pride. We are humbled at the great weight of sin that has been borne on our account by God’s own self. In our theology, in our prayers, in the very way in which we do church, we must live lives marked by the humility of one following Jesus to the cross.
            It is painfully ironic how we treat God’s grace. We usually slide from humility to the arrogance displayed at Corinth within a single prayer. Believers quarrel with others, accusing them of apostasy and heresy over their interpretation of God’s grace – GRACE! We need to be reminded, again and again and again and again that the invitation to salvation offered to all the world is the essence of God’s call to us. It is that call, simple and profound, that humbles us ultimately, When we, in the wilderness, are honest and naked before our Holy God, when even ashes and sackcloth are insufficient to adorn our guilt, all we have to hold on to is the great love of God that is offered to us. That, friends, is the nature of Lent’s humility. When we have nothing left, we have the love of God. When our theological constructs are swept away, we have the love of God. When our pretentiousness to holiness is exposed, we have the love of God. This is the time to seek and find that love, in the midst of our sorrow wilderness.
            “Isaiah 55 proclaims that God's grace… was intended not only for those who remained faithful, but even for the defectors and "back- sliders." The cost of faithful discipleship includes the hard lesson of accepting the injustice of divine grace, and grace is a challenge to all our notions of "meritocracy," about who deserves what. But the invitation, thank God, is to all: Ho, everyone who is thirsty, come to the waters . . . and inquire of God while he is near.”[8]

[1] See and There is also an article relating to the controversy in The Baptist Message, but it is only available online to subscribers.
[2] Cf. Exodus 34:29-35.
[3] From Oropeza, B.J., “Apostasy in the Wilderness: Paul’s Message to the Corinthians in a State of Eschatological Liminality,” JSNT 75, p. 69-86.
[4] Baird, William, “1 Corinthians 10:1-13,” Interpretation 44 no. 3, p. 286-290.
[5] Some in the Calvinist camp would argue that God’s pre-determination covers the non-spiritual as well. See R.C. Sproul, Chosen by God, Tyndale, 1994.
[6] Cf. Philippians 2:12.
[7] Hedrick, Charles W., “An Unfinished Story about a Fig Tree in a Vineyard (Luke 13:6-9), Perspectives in Religious Studies 26 no 2, p. 169-92.
[8] Sanders, James A., “Isaiah 55:1-9,” Interpretation 32 no 3, p. 291-95.