Posts Tagged ‘textures’

I have found cause to observe before in this space that the biblical vision of those things that matter most is stubbornly, relentlessly communitarian.

‘This is my story, this is my song’ is an anthem that finds its value not in narcissistic celebration of an individual’s experience, but rather in the foundationally communitarian phenomenon that we call testimony. Testimony begins and ends with community, in the first instance because the individual with a story to tell comes to us as an individual-in-context. In the second, testimony unfailingly appeals to a widening circle of shared life and shared live-ers.

It takes a village.

When the apostle Paul finds it necessary to straighten out some of the paralyzing, if not damaging, thinking of the Thessalonian believers, he does so principally via the reassurance that nobody will be left out. And that all of us in this expanding people of God will be both together and with the Lord.

The wolf at the door, here sent packing back into the woods whence he emerged, is a fragmented community and the alone-ness that results. Paul tells his readers that this particular wolf need not worry them overmuch.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 ESV)

We should set aside the theory of ‘rapture’, at least for the moment if not for all time. It is in my view an unfortunate reckoning with texts that appear to describe events very different than the ones to which the word ‘rapture’ commonly appeals. Paul’s language of ἀπάντησις and ἀπαντάω consistently refers to a traveling out beyond the perimeter of a village or a city in order to meet a visiting dignitary and to escort that guest back into the community in which he is welcome and even celebrated. These are homecoming words.

Here the victorious and returning Lord is welcomed back into human community and, presumably, to earth. It is a transformed and wholly reconfigured earth, to be sure, where he will rule with his own. But the directionality is not one that moves out into space or off into ‘heaven’. Rather, it resettles an earth—elsewhere described as ‘new heavens and new earth’ and ‘Jerusalem descending’—that has finally been put right.

I mention this here only because it will help us to understand the communitarian nature of Paul’s instruction if we reckon with the Lord’s renewing return to that community here and as we know it. It is in every full sense ‘the coming of the Lord’ rather than a momentary stop before he takes those who belong to him off to somewhere else.

The salient point for the perturbed Thessalonians church is that the circumstances of death—in light of Christian hope the dead are here only ‘sleeping’—will not have wrecked the communitarian dream after all.

Those who have ‘fallen asleep’ before those of us who are still awake will miss nothing.

All of us will be together and always with the Lord.

The critical point, difficult as it may be for Western individualists to understand without a long, slow stare at the facts, is that this is for the apostle the very best thing he can say. He anticipates that this little clarification will banish all fears and restore peace to troubled minds.

One might as well get used to the crowd.




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Perhaps we read bare privilege a little too easily into Jesus words. Perhaps, in our quest for honor, we lose the breadth of his presence.

If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:26 ESV)

The context John gives to this word is a somber one.

Indeed the words just previous speak of that death which is necessary in the Father’s strange design.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24–25 ESV)

No blithe guarantees there.

Similarly the words that follow. Jesus finds his own next steps profoundly unsettling, even worthy of causing a total rethink.

Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. (John 12:27 ESV)

How then should we understand Jesus’ claim in verse 26 that ‘where I am, there will my servant be also’.

Abstracted from its context, it reads like a facile promise that the follower of Jesus will not become separated from his leader. There is, almost certainly, something of that in the statement.

But the follower of Jesus is not here addressed so much as an apprentice as he is engaged as a servant. In fact, the would-be servant of Jesus is rather warned of an obligation: he must go where Jesus goes. When we take the measure of the context, we catch more than a whiff of hard duty here. Indeed, Jesus next steps will take him precisely into the teeth of awful suffering, one from which he comes close to shrinking as he contemplates the horror of it.

It seems that Jesus’ word to his would-be servant here is at least principally a declaration of solidarity in unjust suffering as it is a prediction of Jesus’ own ubiquity in the life of the believer.

Yet the paradox of redemptive logic would have us choose not to reject the one in the recognition of the other.

For better or worse, we might conclude, we will be with Jesus and he with us.

Precisely here lies our plight, our predicament, our death, our glory.



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One of the many paradoxes that the book called Isaiah places before us lies almost hidden in the binary choice that the prophet declares in the book’s eight chapter.

And when they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. (Isaiah 8:19–20 ESV)

It might seem, even to a reader who is committed to the view of things that the biblical text advances, that the choice here is that of living, breathing, even activist religion over against a reliable deposit. That is, between a religiosity that is brewing with live mischief although patently opposed to YHWH’s way over against an orthodox faith that is solid, if a little inert.

It might seem to others, perhaps less inclined to look with favor on ‘what the Bible teaches’, that the most advantageous choice is not exactly an easy one to discern.

Yet the prophet’s language here, upon slow reading and closer inspection, shows that the field of play is not quite so ambiguous. The choice, when things are seen as they are, is not a difficult one to decide.

Here is paradox, indeed, but not much ambiguity.

In fact, the prophet fills the left column of his legal pad with all things deathly, the right with all things alive.

The chirping and muttering of the necromancers, the presumed rumination of the mediums, are for all their apparent vocal dexterity nothing more than death dressed up in the ‘got-your-attention-didn’t-I’ robes of death itself. Isaiah considers the consultation of them a sit-down visit with darkness and decay. People who engage in such doomed conversation ‘have no dawn’.

On the other side of the page, the ‘life’ column fills up with ‘God’, with ‘the living’ themselves, and then—this is where we might stray off course when tracking the prophet’s logic—with ‘the law and the testimony’ and with ‘this word’.

Let’s suppose for the moment that ‘the law and the testimony’ and ‘this word’ roughly abbreviate the accumulated declarations of the prophet in YHWH’s name. More than this is likely insinuated, but we can do without that complication for now.

The prophet aligns these written-down words not with stultifying tradition or a ‘dead letter’, but rather with a God who is very much alive and—the detail is critical—aligned with and active among ‘the living’ who surround the prophet and who are in this terrifying moment scared a little witless.

In the prophet’s view, YHWH has spoken—through him and others—an accumulated deposit of reality that can be declared in street or temple but in awful moments of imminent doom like this one can be written down, consulted, whispered aloud, and treasured.

Far from being inert, we are to understand this ‘law (better, ‘instruction’) and testimony’ as life-containing and life-giving. If other sources of supposed counsel require the dead and lead only to death, this ‘instruction and testimony’ hints at new growth, at fresh eruptions of life, at possibilities still unknown. Though quiet and even silent in this moment, this little reservoir of truth holds the promise of shouting, of dance, of song when the night has faltered and the dawn has come.

If this is how things really are, then why should a people consult the dead on behalf of the living?

Just so.



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Biblical wisdom probes inconveniently into our multi-tiered strategies for bailing out.

If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength being small; if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death, those who go staggering to the slaughter; if you say, “Look, we did not know this”— does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds? (Proverbs 24:10–12 NRSV)

Awash in a sea of refugees, newly awake to working-class seething of long standing beyond our earshot, bombarded by raw evidence that racial peace is not the settled shalom we had imagined, it is nice from time to time simply to look away.

The biblical witness follows us to our corners, asking nagging questions.

The wise are toned for the day of adversity, it insists. It is when their memorable work gets done.

Neither does a probing Watcher does accept our pleas of ignorance. He discards the defense that we were busy elsewhere.

Where were you when … ? What did you do in that hour … ?

We might have saved some who were staggering to the slaughter.

Oh, here they are again. Through my window, just across the way.


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If there is a passage in the entirety of Isaiah’s massive volume that more precisely captures the book’s trajectory than does its fourth chapter, it is hard to imagine what that passage would be.

In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain. (Isaiah 4:2–6 ESV)

The brief oracle reckons with Zion’s filth and Jerusalem’s bloodstains without allowing this scrutiny to eclipse the beauty and glory that shall be hers.

The key to understanding how this paradox can stand occurs at the core of this brief prophetic declaration. Rarely does a future perfect deliver itself of more consequence:

… when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.

This is where the drama of collapse and rebirth becomes white hot. YHWH’s great expectations for his people are a future upon which he will insist with the most redemptive zeal. Yet Zion will not achieve her final destiny without the burning cleansing that is YHWH’s judgement. There’s no other way to get there from here.

The Hebrew משפט requires in each instance that the English translator choose ‘justice’ or ‘judgement’. The nuance is important each time the decision has to be made, and to some extend this linguistic necessity veils a most crucial fact: Zion will become full of justice only when she has survived the fulness of judgement.

For the student of this massive scroll, it can almost be said that chapter four says everything that must be said. The rest is commentary.


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The early verses of Isaiah’s fiftieth chapter are pregnant with enigma and resistant to simple theodicy.

Thus says the Lord: ‘Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away? Or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away. Why, when I came, was there no man; why, when I called, was there no one to answer? Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver? Behold, by my rebuke I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a desert; their fish stink for lack of water and die of thirst. I clothe the heavens with blackness and make sackcloth their covering.’ (Isaiah 50:1–3 ESV)

On the one hand, the passage contains elements of that familiar prophetic explanation of national calamity. ‘It was for your iniquities that you were sold, and for your transgressions that your mother was sent away.’ (more…)

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We often think of religious leaders as unable to change. We think they believe they know it all, have the answers already, cannot alter their presumably doctrinaire convictions.

So refreshing, then, this priestly cameo in one of Luke’s summary reports of growth in the early, Jerusalem-based Jesus Movement.

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7 ESV)

Luke seems not to be going anywhere with this observation. He has no agenda on this front. There is no subsequent re-take on priestly influence at the core. After this, Jerusalem’s priests are largely left alone to live their lives unobserved. (more…)

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