Saturday, December 30, 2017

City Notes '17 | Faith Without Illusions: Sacrificial Embrace Instead of Cynical Rejection




Faith Without Illusions | Biblical Alternatives to Cynicism


This final post to close 2017 is about a book that I continue to come back to as I continue to walk with Jesus and seek His Kingdom and His justice and righteousness among skeptics, seekers, and believers. 

Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint is a thoughtful reflection on how disillusionment can help us understand what's really real and move us into hopeful realism. Author Andrew Byers shows that throughout the Scriptures, God has provided us with a way through critique and cynicism  of religion, the Church, and ourselves  and if we follow Jesus through it, we'll find His abundant life for us and others.

Below is the previous post:


Faith Without Illusions
 | The Righteous Lord Will Make All Things Right


Though the prophets, sages and poets of Israel exhibit much in common with the cynicism we see directed toward God and the church today, their indignation and misery were ultimately more constructive than destructive. The despair and fury are not to be blunted or dismissed, but it must be acknowledged that their ministries were ultimately grounded in the unfolding drama of God's redemption and restoration of all things. The ranting and raving of either Job or Jeremiah could give our fiercest contemporary cynics a run for their money. But the canonical witness of their stories within the wider story of the Bible nudges us toward a hopefulness premised on the belief, however faint it may be in dark times, that there is a righteous Lord who will make all things right – one day. + pgs. 119-120


For an unflawed role model for addressing God and his people in disappointment and dismay, we have only one we can turn to. ... Of all the leaders of both Israel and the church, no one has had more reason to cynically give up on the people of God than the Messiah, and yet no one gave so much. Of all the leaders who found themselves seemingly rejected by God after embracing a divine summons to service, no one had more reason to shake a cynical fist heavenward, yet no one obeyed so fully. + pg. 121

The Way of the Prophet | Prophetic Anguish Instead of Cynical Anger

If we are to understand prophetic criticism, we must see that its characteristic idiom is anguish, not anger. – Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, pg. 123


This is the burden of a prophet: compassion for man and sympathy for God. + Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, pg. 123

 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. + James 5:10

Prophetic ministry is the outcry of God through his servants in specific situations in life. When Amos writes that God 'does nothing / without revealing his secret / to his servants the prophets' (Amos 3:7), he is affirming that our God is a God of means. God conducts much of his work in this world via human agency, vocalizing his protest against injustice and error through faithful servants. ... the church's need for prophetic ministry is just as dire today as it was during the days of Isaiah or Zephaniah. + pg. 128

During the days of Elijah and Elisha there was a school of prophets dwelling in remote areas due to political persecution. Certain groups of false prophets happily delivered oracles that tickled the royal ear of the king, but those whose voices were faithfully fractious were unwelcome in the public square and relegated to the fringes. Elijah's vocational hazards repeatedly compelled him to seek refuge in wilderness regions or in Gentile territory. When Jezebel began programmatically destroying Yahweh worship, prophets became an endangered species. A fellow named Obadiah found one hundred of them for whom he provided the safe haven of a cave. Years later the priest at Bethel during the reign of King Jeroboam II (with whom Jonah may be associated, at least in a literary sense if not in a historical sense) told Amos to leave town and take his inconvenient oracles elsewhere. A century later we encounter Jeremiah, perhaps the most unwanted prophet to walk the streets of Jerusalem (until Jesus, at least). The false prophets happily declared 'peace, peace' (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11; cf. Ezekiel 13:10, 16) where there was no peace were heartily received in the royal court and on the temple steps. The prophets true to God were such nuisances that they were tossed to the fringes. + pgs. 129-130

Even so, disgust and frustration were not accepted as excuses for prophets disengaging themselves from God or his people. It was certainly a temptation. Elijah seemed ready to turn in his prophetic mantle and die under that broom tree (1 Kings 19). Isaiah was instructed to proclaim truth to those who would never embrace his message (Isaiah 6). Jeremiah may have wanted to run, but he found himself unable to abandon his sorrowful mission of preaching God's word – 'I am weary with holding it in, / and I cannot' (Jeremiah 20:9). They did not take jibes and critical shots at Judah or Israel while seated comfortably on the fringes with their prophet cronies. Instead, they were nudged by God to keep plodding from the fringes to engage those to whom they were sent. ... It does not appear as though the prophets cracked derisive smiles when they vocalized God's disappointment. They often exhibited sympathy and were at times personally grieved over the pain and turmoil of their tough messages. Though shoved to the fringes, they were called to embrace and even embody the plights of the people they served, occasionally identifying with forthcoming national sufferings by way of symbolic actions: Jeremiah strapped a yoke to his back to symbolize the coming lordship of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (Jeremiah 27); Ezekiel laid on his side eating food baked over dung to personally represent the siege of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 4); the New Testament prophet Agabus bound his hands and feet with a belt to show Paul the fate awaiting him (Acts 21). These dramatic actions served as visible means of instruction and required the prophet to physically identify with the impending misery of God's people. Even when the prophets did not overtly sympathize with the misery of their hearers (Jeremiah was told at certain moments not even to intercede for them! (Jeremiah 7:16; 11:14; 14:11-12)), they were nonetheless called to sympathize with the misery of God himself. + pgs. 132-133

It is difficult to care for those who frustrate us. It is difficult to care about a belief system that seems to have left us empty. Without a vested interest in the health of the church, cynics sneer at the shortcomings and tragedies in organized Christianity rather than plodding from the fringes into the fray to somehow bring salutary correction. There is an absence of pathos (apathy) rather than a participation in the pathos (sympathy). And sometimes apathy is simply the prelude to a cruel antipathy that delights in seeing the bubbles burst (or the city consumed with fire from the sky). ... When God is angry with his children, it is not divorced from compassionate grief. Reading Hosea is a bumpy journey through the conflicting emotions of One who is not only full of wrath but also full of longing for his wayward people ... Only if our anger is sourced in the slow and conflicted anger of God is it justified. ... 'The cross is the assurance that effective prophetic criticism is done not by an outsider but always by one who must embrace the grief, enter into the death, and know the pain of the criticized one.' ... The hope offered through the prophets was the hope that God himself would make all things right, that God would be the shepherd Israel's leaders failed to be (Ezekiel 34), that God would be the King no mortal son of David could be (Zechariah 14). And this hope is conjoined with a passionate love not only for God but also for the troubled people whom he intends to redeem. + pgs. 133-137  

The Way of the Sage | Biblical Wisdom Instead of Cynical Intellectualism


This phrase 'the fear of the LORD' opens and closes the first major section of Proverbs (see Proverbs 1:7; 9:10), and it is found at the book's closing (Proverbs 31:30), forming in both cases what in literary terms is called an inclusio. This worshipful reverence cannot be underestimated; without it, the cynic's pursuit of insight will be doomed to failure from the start. Biblical wisdom is never divorced from a human and godly disposition – 'He stores up sound wisdom for the upright' (Proverbs 2:7, emphasis added). If we want to be numbered among the wise, then we must subordinate our academic careers, our late-night readings, our early morning studies and our sparring dialogues beneath the ultimate objective of fearfully honoring the One who has no need for anyone's instructions. + pg. 142


(Job's friends') theology is tidy, respectable, clear. But when we get to the end of the book, God rebukes them, because they 'have not spoken of me what is right' (Job 42:7). In his moment of greatest need Job is barraged with an idealizing misuse of wisdom that was as unsustainable in Uz as it is today. Good things happen to good people, Job. God helps those who help themselves. God will never give you more than you can handle. The popular wisdom that Job's story is written to silence is centered on ancient ideas regarding 'retribution' the righteous will experience blessing and the unrighteous misfortune. If we live a clean life, then we won't get cancer and our business will thrive. If we do get cancer, if our business falters or if our marriage or ministry crumbles, then there must be unrighteousness somewhere in our lives. Each of Job's friends express this oversimplified, popular wisdom that bad things do not happen to good people who faithfully follow God. ... the kind of God Job worships and refuses to curse threatens all mortal aspirations to be in control. The uncomplicated god of Job's friends plays by the rules, blessing those who do good and afflicting only those who do wrong. ... Contrary to the aphoristic and vapid theology of Job's idealistic friends, God presents himself as one who defies all attempts at domestication, as one who knows no limits as defined by human convenience. The God of the book of Job is free, that is, free to act as he deems appropriate on the basis of a wisdom too profound for mortal minds. And this divine freedom can sometimes seem to impinge on human existence. What does it do to our theology to know that Job's suffering can be traced back to a little wager God made with Satan in the opening chapters of Job? What does it do to our theology to know that God keeps a great, fire-breathing dragon as a pet? This God we serve and worship keeps monsters as 'plaything.' + pgs. 144, 146-147

If anyone has the right to remain a lifelong, card-carrying cynic in the story, it is Job every character seems to let him down. But he does not eye his friends in contemptuous annoyance for long. Though God would not hear the idealists' prayers, we find in the final chapter that Job is instructed to intercede on their behalf. After all that pop theology, after all those rosy comments, Job prays for them. Would a cynic have prayed for mercy to be shown to his idealist friends? + pg. 148   

'Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few' (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2). ... In a brilliant work interfacing Ecclesiastes' wisdom with the claims of postmodernism, theologian Peter Leithart argues that Qoholeth (here 'Solomon') teaches an eschatological perspective that embraces hopefulness. 'Solomon's unblinking examination of power and oppression is pervaded by an eschatological faith that this world of tears under the sun is not the only world, a confidence that there is a time after the time under the sun.' Leithart points out that Ecclesiastes ends with the expectation of divine judgment: 'For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil' (Ecclesiastes 12:14). This is not a pessimistic statement but an expression of trust in the character of the mysterious God who will one day set straight the human frailty and the cosmic chaos that makes everything under the sun appear vain and senseless. + pgs. 152-153

The epistle of James is a New Testament example of Jewish wisdom literature, and early in the first pages we are taught that true wisdom is granted from God in response to childlike trust: 'If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind' (James 1:5-6). Later, James offers an important description of this biblical wisdom: 'But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peacable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:17-18). + pg. 155

The Way of the Tragic Poet | Worshipful Lament Instead of Cynical Complaint

The psalms of negativity, the complaints of various kinds, the cries for vengeance and profound penitence are foundational to a life of faith in this particular God. Much Christian piety is romantic and unreal in its positiveness. As children of the Englightenment, we have censored and selected around the voice of darkness and disorientation, seeking to go from strength to strength, from victory to victory. But such a way not only ignores the Psalms; it is a lie in terms of our experience. ... The Jewish reality of exile, the Christian confession of crucifixion and cross, the honest recognition that there is an untamed darkness in our life that must be embraced – all of this is fundamental to the gift of new life+ Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms, pg.157


At times it will appear as though God has failed us. Where will we go when we've turned to him who is the first and the last, the beginning and the end, and he is either nowhere to be found or, even worse, the one who seems to be the source of our affliction? ... For vocabulary and grammar suitable to such dark and bitter pain, we turn to the despondent laments of tragic poets who, before us, suffered from disillusionment with God. Though most of those haunting cries are found in the Psalms, we have already encountered some cries of the poets – the prophet Jeremiah and the sage behind the book of Job were certainly familiar with the Hebrew language of lament. When we find ourselves in spiritual shambles, quaking in our disappointment with God, these tragic poets and their tumultuous words help us navigate our way through the murky waters. ... Scholars have identified various categories of our 150 psalms, and the largest of these categories is the lament, representing roughly a third of the entire Psalter. So within the worship book of Israel, within the pages of that collection designated as 'Praises,' there is mourning. There is pain. There is groping in the dark. + pgs. 158-159

Claus Westermann, one of the most influential scholars on the psalms in the twentieth century, writes that 'it is an illusion to suppose or to postulate that there could be a relationship with God in which there was only praise and never lamentation. ... (S)omething must be amiss if praise of God has a place in Christian worship but lamentation does not. The cries and blunt questions directed to God in the Psalms, however, are only appropriate within the context of worship. The voluminous presence of laments in the Psalter show us that just as our responses to victory and divine deliverance must be acts of faithful devotion, so also our expressions of pain and misery before God must be acts of faithful devotion, however discordant the tone. At some point along the way the Western church stopped associating weeping with worship. ... Because of this, we have become less hospitable to the dispirited and injured individuals for whom the church should serve as a haven for healing. When the depressed and the disconsolate are in our midst, do they feel free not to answer 'fine, just fine' to our greetings? Are they silently shunned when they talk of God as though he is their oppressor rather than their Deliverer? Does the worship service provide them with a context in which they are encouraged to express their pain (and not just their joy) as an act of worshiping God? ... When the church fails to provide some outlet for crying to God from 'out of the depths' (Psalm 130:1), then broken souls will turn elsewhere. ... (Again) By minimizing – or worse, eliminating – the biblical role of lament in the life of the church, we are communicating to the world, as well as to members of our own congregations, that they must take their struggles with God elsewhere+ pgs. 160-161


Biblical laments exhibit a couple of literary features that bear tremendous theological importance for how we address God out of darkness and despair:

(1) The first is that most lament psalms begin with an immediate address to God, usually employing the covenant name Yahweh (denoted in our English translations in small caps as 'LORD' or 'GOD'). This is no minor detail in the structure of laments – such an initial invocation demonstrates that God is ultimately the one to whom we turn, even when he seems to be the reason behind our pain. This God-ward orientation places the complaint within the context of worship: 'The lament is not a mere venting of emotion intended primarily to provide emotional relief to the psalmist; rather it is a supplication of divine assistance, and in this it is an implicit statement of faith.' The fact that laments regularly open with 'O Yahweh/LORD' confirms that our suffering is to be incorporated into our worship. If pain and disillusionment are removed from the realm of personal communication with God, then further bitterness is inevitable. In exposing their wounds to Yahweh, the stricken poets were presenting themselves before a person God who had entered into a sacred covenant with his people. The direct divine address of the lament psalms encourages us to approach God in our own anguish, though we must do so as worshipers who have such a personal relationship with him that we can call him by his revealed covenant name. Eugene Peterson observes of the psalms: 'Every skeptical thought, every disappointing venture, every pain, every despair that we can face is lived through and integrated into a personal, saving relationship with God.' ... The opening address of God in the psalms of lament demonstrates that, in spite of the emotional turmoil of their tortured speeches, these tragic poets were vigorously God-centered. We must therefore bring our disillusionment with God to God, and this address is worshipful in that it acknowledges God as the one audience who matters most: 'O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you' (Psalm 38:9). 'But as for me, my prayer is to you, O LORD' (Psalm 69:13).
(2) A second literary feature of the lament psalms instructive for how we deal with our disillusionment with God is the sudden insertion of praise or expressions of hope in the midst of the despairing please. Almost every lament psalm has at least some inkling of hopefulness. In many cases, the shift from complaint to praise is found at the end of the psalm. This 'internal transition' is so common that Westermann is convinced that 'there is not a single Psalm of lament that stops with lamentation. Lamentation has no meaning in and of itself.' 

... With these two literary features – the immediate address of God and the transition from sorrow to hope  the tragic poets of Israel encourage us to bring our pain and grief before the God who will one day set us free. Disillusionment with God does not license us to cease worshiping him. + pgs. 162-165


No matter how fierce the trial, no matter how severe the torment, we are always the supplicant. We are never in the position to demand mastery over our fate. We are always clay in the hand of the Potter. But we can ask questions of God, even pointed, impassioned, tear-choked and agonizing questions. In each of the psalms cited (Psalm 22:1; 42:9; 74:1; 79:10; 115:2; 85:5-6; 94:3), the questions are eventually followed by the characteristic transition from despair to hope or praise. The tragic poet of Lamentations even manages to break out into energetic praise in the middle of chapter 3. So though we may bring our aching, yearning questions before God, we do so as worshipers who are ever pressing toward praise, rejoicing that 'the reason the darkness can be faced and lived in is that even in the darkness, there is One to address. + pg. 166


Thomas Merton wrote that 'there is no night of the soul that has not been experienced before us by the psalmists.' + pg. 168 

Whether it is right or not to angrily question God, the reality impressed on us as we read the biblical laments is that at times we will angrily question God. Somewhere in the tension between 'woe to him who quarrels with his Maker' and 'Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?' we must acknowledge that God graciously permits limited space for us to vent our languishing, bitter pain in anger. I don't think God welcomes or encourages our indignant interrogations – I'm just saying he seems to graciously provide a bit of room for them, and he is big enough to handle the fuss. Though Job's questions were ultimately drowned out by God's own questions back to him, it was Job's friends – the ones who tried to shut him up – who God reprimanded for speaking about him wrongly. + pg. 170

I would never want to deny or ignore the gnawing darkness of Psalm 88, one of the rare lament psalms in which there is no discernible transition out of despair. Those terrible, weary words, so pregnant with aching, groaning misery, are ever-screeching and shouting out from the dead center of our Bibles. So there may indeed be some mysterious place between blasphemy and reverence from which we may cry out to God in utter horror and in bitter anger. Should we ever find ourselves in such a precarious, risky place, however, we must remember in our importunate banging on heaven's door that 'all who have raged against him / will come to him and be put to shame' (Isaiah 45:24 NIV; cf. 2 Kings 19:28; Isaiah 37:29). We will likely find ourselves humbled and silenced like Job, but perhaps in such catastrophic pain it is possible that no other path is available. May God help us – and forgive us. + pg. 170


Imprecatory laments must not be employed for self-centered means. The prayers for vindication are overwhelmingly God-centered, just as we have seen that the complaints of the Psalter are ultimately God-centered. We must remember that these furious cries for justice in the lament psalms are still a part of Israel's hymn book – the ultimate purpose of the prayers for judgment is the worship of the Judge. It would be all too easy for jaded Christians to wrongly appeal to the tragic poets' demands for vengeance to justify personal vendettas with others or grudges toward the church. The imprecations of the psalms and lament, however, are the indignant protests of those who have been trained in the righteousness of Yahweh and refuse to tolerate injustice. Though the experience of their enemies' assaults is acutely personal, their desire for personal vindication is ultimately rooted in their desire for divine vindication. It is God's honor that is most at stake when the wicked prosper and cruel assailants take what they want. + pgs. 173-174


Though the New Testament recasts how we treat our enemies as we await this new situation, we may still pray passionately for immediate justice as we anticipate the eventual day of judgment. The imprecatory section of Psalm 69 is cited by both Paul and Luke in the New Testament (Romans 11:9-10; Acts 1:20) and the martyrs in John's apocalyptic vision cry out 'in a loud voice' words that seem more fitting in an Old Testament lamentation: 'O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth"' (Revelation 6:10). These holistic prayers of the tragic poets will disturb the comfortable. For those who are disillusioned with God because they have suffered violently at the hands of others, they may provide comfort; though their presence in Scripture must not be used as excuses for nurturing a begrudging, self-centered bitterness. They instead challenge injured cynics to ground their hope for justice in the righteousness of God and not in their own sense of self-dignity. + pgs. 174-175

For complaints to be truly biblical, however, they must ultimately be characterized by worship. Now, as discussed earlier, worship can be in the form of weeping – it does not have to appear tidy and nice. Worship can even be in the form of posing questions to God since, in the questioning, there is the implicit acknowledgement that God is the one with the final say. ... But any attempt to approach God outside of worship is not only wrong, but dangerous (and in the end, impossible, actually). Even dreary Psalm 88 begins with the characteristic address of God by his covenant name Yahweh, indicating a God-ward orientation on behalf of the beleaguered poet. So the ultimate distinction between worshipful lament and cynical complaint is the orientation of worship. ... The brokenness of human misery before God may recede into bitterness, but healing comes when we bring our maladies to him and check into his healing ward. We do this not by avoiding him in disillusionment but by crying out to him from the depths and striving with all our might to grasp onto something hopeful from his hand. There may be no greater act of worship than an embittered cynic daring to bring his injured, angry soul before the presence of the One who seems to have caused injuries. 'Let the bones that you have broken rejoice' (Psalm 51:8). 'Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God' (Psalm 42:11). ... The tragic poets' prayers arise from trials that lie at the limits (and at times beyond the limits) of the bearable. Since these laments are canonized as Scripture, we can utilize them to give voice to our own sufferings; yet we do so only with great care and respect. The sacred language of biblical laments that have emerged from pestilence, from severe illness and from heart-stopping regret are not available for cynics who are just looking for any old ax to grind with God. + pgs. 175-177 

The Way of the Christ | Sacrificial Embrace Instead of Cynical Rejection

What does it mean to recall the God who was crucified in a society whose official creed is optimism, and which is knee-deep in blood. ... Jesus Christ died crying out 'My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?' All Christian theology and all Christian life is basically an answer to the question which Jesus asked as he died. + Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, pg. 179


Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. + Hebrews 12:3pg. 179

We are faced with this wonderful, or not-so-wonderful irony: Jesus – most admired, most worshiped (kind of), most written about. And least followed. + Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, pg. 179


If anyone in our Scriptures had a right to be cynical towards God's people, it is the One who suffered most unjustly at their hands and yet gave more than anyone else on their behalf. If anyone had a right to be cynical with God, it is the One who suffered the most excruciating divine abandonment ever and yet deserved it the least. Can anyone justify being a cynic if Jesus was not a cynic? + pg. 185

The confrontational nature of his teaching is best seen in his interrogatory response to the religious leaders during the last week of his life. Just as God silenced Job's questions with questions of his own, Jesus silenced the scribes, priests and lawyers by responding to their questions with even better questions. This continued until finally 'no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions' (Matthew 22:46). His brilliant didactics clearly placed Jesus among the celebrated sages of Israel's past. But Jesus was much more than just a sage: 'The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here' (Matthew 12:42). John tells us that Jesus was the 'Word' and that the 'Word became flesh' (John 1:1-14). Wisdom could be personified in ancient writings and associated with the concept of 'Word' (logos in the Greek). Jesus was not only a sage, but One 'greater than Solomon,' who came as the very embodiment of divine Wisdom. ... Jesus was unafraid to challenge his hearers with his knowledge, but he also knew when to hold back – 'I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now' (John 16:12). He did not exploit the masses with his superior intelligence. + pg. 188


The scene from Jesus' boyhood (see Luke 2:41-52) encourages us to be exceptional students of wisdom and intimately conversant with the Scriptures. Mary and Joseph saw that Jesus yearned to remain 'in my Father's house' (Luke 2:49), surrounded by all that exhilarating teaching, but he did not embrace a pedantic life confined to ivory towers. He took his wisdom to fishing shores and dusty streets. As the preeminent Sage, his example challenges us to avoid intellectual banter behind closed doors (or behind the backs of the untrained) and to actively engage the people of God with strong, focused teaching that undermines falsehood and promotes truth. + pg. 188

The seven judgments of Matthew 23 are followed by a prophetic lament so poignant with grief that we must read the woe pronouncements as coming from the lips of a broken, mourning shepherd: 'O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing' (Matthew 23:27 NIV; cf. Luke 13:34-35). By ending the woes with imagery of maternal longing, it is clear that 'the woes were uttered in regret, that the indignation was righteous.' The picture of a mother hen stretching out her wings to draw her helpless little ones into the safety of her breast betokens a Savior whose arms are aching form being outstretched for so long. His disappointment in his people is only as acute as his love for his people. + pg. 191


Jesus' compassionate response to those who cried out in distress is consistent with the openness of Yahweh to receive the cries of Israel in the Old Testament laments. ... when we have no words yet must somehow say something in darkness, we may turn to the laments just as Jesus did, when in his first awful shout he 'cried with a loud voice, ... 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'' (Mark 15:34; cf. Psalm 22:1). To give voice to the horror of the moment, Jesus embraced the tragic poetry of Israel's hymn book. + pgs. 193-194

The most compelling action from the life of Jesus for cynics to ponder is not his cleansing of the temple or his cursing of the fruitless fig tree – it is his inaction on the cross. Behold the restraint of Jesus when they mocked his captivity to a cross he could have splintered and consumed in heavenly fire, yet he did not. He could have prayed for legions of angels to appear with flaming swords (Matthew 26:53), yet he did not. And instead of praying an imprecatory prayer, Luke writes that he prayed, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do' (Luke 23:34). If there is anyone who deserved to be cynical, it was the guy with Gentile spittle running down his beard and his nation's demands for his death ringing in his ears. But Jesus was not a cynic. If he had been a cynic, Jesus would not have given his life for crowds that said things like 'We have no king but Caesar.' If he had been a cynic, Jesus would not have given his life for friends he saw scatter in disloyal cowardice the night before. A cynic would not die for misguided masses gorging themselves with pop theology. A cynic would not die for pompous religious leaders drunk with power and blinded to their religiosity. A cynic would have crossed his arms and turned away in hurtful anger. But Jesus arms were fixed to a cross and splayed wide open. + pgs. 196-197 

On the Roads to Emmaus and Damascus | Resurrection, Paul and Hopeful Realism 

"Resurrection announces the end of cynicism. And the end of cynicism will sound like this: 'O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? (1 Corinthians; cf. Isaiah 25:8; Hosea 13:14). Resurrection announces the end of cynicism because it heralds the end of all that makes us cynical. The old age of sin and death, thorns and thistles, disorder and disillusionment – it entered its dusk on the dawn of the third day. Satan is weeping and gnashing his teeth. Death is choking on its own death rattle. And the sweet fragrance of new creation is rising from the blank emptiness of Jesus' grave. Resurrection renders cynicism obsolete. Cynicism is no longer necessary in the face of death's impending death and with the light of new creation shining out in the distance and in our midst. + pgs. 201-202

Christ's resurrection is the signature of new creation. It claims that nothing is irredeemable. Nothing. Cynics may protest that a perspective of already but not yet is simply not good enough for life lived in the present. But the drama narrated throughout Scripture pressures us to live in the present in light of the future. To make matters even better, the New Testament clarifies that tomorrow is ever encroaching backward into today. When we believe that new creation is in the works and on the way, then a daring hopefulness infuses our experience of daily reality, even when that reality is steeped in the brokenness of the old age, kicking and screaming in its waning hour. ... To our great relief Scripture's overarching story gradually reveals the shockingly good news that God is not only Creator but also the Re-creator. The One who made all things 'good' will one day make all things 'new.' ... Remember that odd scene in Joh's Gospel when the resurrected Christ breathes on his disciples and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:22)? This is the reenactment of Genesis 2:7 when God breathed his 'breath of life' (the word for 'breath' here in the Hebrew can also mean 'Spirit') into dust and created Adam. Jesus is God's agent of new creation. The consummation awaits his return (the parousia), so for the time being we live in this awkward overlap of the ages. Chaos and Satan still screech and howl, but amid the din of death there is a new sound, the new age's sweet melody, the faint but lovely tune that preludes joyful trumpet blasts. Those who lack ears to hear this melody will by cynics. Those who hum along while groaning with creation are hopeful realists. + pgs. 202-203, 205


'I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you' (2 Corinthians 2:4). Is this normal attitude we take when confronting churches today? Do we admonish more out of disgust or out of a love so strong that we can say with Paul, 'I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls'? (2 Corinthians 12:15). Even among the dysfunctional Corinthians, Paul exemplifies a ministry that is constructive and not destructive, one that is 'for building up and not for tearing down' (2 Corinthians 13:10). ... This is who you are in Christ (indicative), now act like it (imperative). Paul was as pastorally engaged with the filth and the funk of sinful Christians as any minister who has ever served a church. But his insistence that new creation is on the way and breaking into the present prevented him from becoming a cynic. + pgs. 207-208

I think Paul would balk at the disillusionment of most Christian cynics today. He would wonder if we had ever read a page out of our New Testaments. Jesus promised his followers a life of adversity, a life Paul knew intimately. There is no way around it – to follow the way of the Christ is to end up on a cross. But to follow the way of the Christ is also to rise from out of a tomb: 'If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his' (Romans 6:5; cf. Philippians 3:10-11). In maintaining the dual realities of creation's groaning and eventual renewal, hopeful realism must embrace a life shaped both by the cross (cruciformity, Michael Gorman's helpful term for describing the shape of a cross) and by the empty tomb (anastasisity, Michael Bird's creative term from the Greek word for 'resurrection'). Paul had to become content with distress, pain, frustration and suffering because they characterize the mode of life necessary for following the way of the Christ. There is no true Christian ministry apart from the potentially disillusioning experiences of suffering, betrayal and imminent death. These experiences did not lead to cynicism, because Paul knew that the cross is not the terminal stop in following the way of the Christ. Entering Christ's death and agony will result in exiting out of his grave – and one day our own. + pg. 209


When we realize that embracing cross pain and resurrection joy are the biblical standards of discipleship, then our wounds can lead to 'newness of life' (Romans 6:4) instead of bitterness of soul. When we realize that 'the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us' (Romans 8:18), then our trials will become less disillusioning. ... Resurrection is God whispering death threats in death's ears. The open tomb of Jesus is a hole in the system that cannot be patched. The re-creating King has climbed up out of his grave. He is out there, loose, at large, roaming free – and returning at dawn. + pg. 209, 211 

City Notes are meant to provide you with direct quotes from some books I've read this year, so you can get a taste of the overall theme of the book and then begin to chew on what your life might look like if you applied what you read.

Here are links to previous City Notes books:


+ Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

No comments:

Post a Comment