Preaching and Discovering Incarnation

National Flags of Russia and United States. Superimposed over them is the National Flag of Syria in the form of a map of Syria. For those aware of current political dynamics, this image is potent and full of meaning.

If the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement ranked claims that ‘validate’ its interpretation of the Christian faith, strong preaching would be one of the top two. Yet the movement itself would never endure pointed preaching. If exceptions exist, IFBs have little patience for in-depth exploration of Scripture. Thoughtful questions little interest them, and those who want depth will find their way out of the IFB movement.

Over the years, I’ve practiced a self-made spiritual discipline that places highly disparate perspectives beside Scripture, and then teases out a kind of dialogue between them. The extra-biblical texts intentionally contain deep social antagonisms.

The intent in doing this is not to create a simplistic parody. That is not right, desirable, honest or even possible. Rather, the intent is to think about the text and social conditions creatively, deeply and incarnationally. Often, more questions than answers result. But the questions generated in this way can broaden and deepen our understanding of faith and life.

Social Antagonism:

As the Presidential election spectacle unfolds, the unmentionable reality is that US/Russian relations are quickly metastasizing with substantial risk of direct military confrontation with Russia. This means a new world war.

This also explains why Clinton’s campaign attacks Donald the Despicable from the right as being soft on Russia/Putin. A Clinton victory can then be twisted to infer that the election was a referendum on war on Russia.

The Disparate Reading:

‘With boundless hypocrisy, US State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement that Russia had failed to maintain its end of the bargain…’

‘Moscow has instead made increasingly clear that it is unwilling to back down in the face of US threats to encourage Islamist terrorists to direct their attacks against Russia. After Kirby menacingly declared last week that extremists could attack “Russian interests” and even Russian cities, an ominous pronouncement given Washington’s long-standing collaboration with Jihadi terrorists, Russia shot back that any US escalation in Syria would lead to “total war” and cause “tectonic shifts” throughout the Middle East.’

— Jordan Shilton, Oct 4, 2016 in US Suspends Talks with Russia

Terrorism, Patriotism, Nationalism, Preaching

US citizens know that they are often held in contempt. But they might be surprised to learn that in part, this is because we are sometimes seen as a supporter of terrorism. Seems absurd, right? Yet it does no violence to read John Kirby’s words to mean, ‘do as we say about Syria, or we’ll introduce terrorists into Russian cities and destabilize your country.

The point here is not to debate ‘facts,’ premises or politics, or to decide who to blame. Instead, this is held up as a kind of ‘still picture’ in which the spiritual dynamics at work in the cited commentary are studied.

The Biblical Reading:

‘While He was on the way to Jerusalem, he was passing between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten leprous men who stood at a distance met Him; and they raised their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they were going, they were cleansed. Now one of them, when he saw that he had been healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine– where are they? “Was no one found who returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has made you well”‘ [Lu 17:11-19].

— Revised Common Lectionary, Gospel lesson for Oct 9, ’16.

Beginning Dialogue:

What are God’s kingdom interests in the John Shilton quote? How might the antagonisms of the Shilton quote inform our reading of Lu 17:11-19?

How do we understand ‘disease’ in the Biblical text? We know Hansen’s Disease [leprosy] results from bacteria; and we cannot endow bacteria with personality. But in the Biblical world, leprosy was understood to have a spiritual and religious dimension, not so unlike demonic personalities. What, if anything, might this suggest about the Shilton quote and how we understand the demonic potentialities of US/Russian relations?

How might the symbols/imagery of the story connect these two readings? If only in an ‘hypothetical’ sense, can we ‘see’ disease as spiritual power? Is it possible for us to ‘see through the eyes’ of disease? Or is it possible to see political relations as ‘diseased’ or through the eyes of disease? Can we relate the antagonisms between Jews and Samaritans to relations between the US, Russia, Syria, Israel, the Occupied Territories, Iraq, Iran, China and others? If so, what does Lu 17 suggest about these relations?

What are the worst effects of disease? Do we desire to be rid of them? Or do we cling to disease as a weapon to be used? What would it mean if the ten lepers refused to keep their distance? In today’s world, what does ‘showing yourself to the priest [i.e., to be ‘clean’] mean? Is this like transparency? Is this revealing ourselves? In what ways might threats of war or of unleashing terror relate to possession/ownership of disease?

What is revealed about spiritual pathology in ‘keeping one’s distance?’ What do alienation and reconciliation mean in the Biblical reading? What do alienation and reconciliation mean in Shilton’s quote? What is revealed about Dread and Death as demonic powers of this age? What does it mean that Christ overcame all earthly powers? How do the healed lepers in general, and the Samaritan leper in particular say about preaching Christ and praising Christ in our world?

In such a world, what does it mean to ‘turn back,’ prostrate one’s self, give thanks, praise, or be made whole? What does ‘faith’ mean in such a world? Understanding ‘prostration’ as a relinquishing of power/will, at whose feet have we ever prostrated ourselves — as a people, a nation, a church or as individuals? Will we ever do this? What might that suggest about our relationship with God as alienation or reconciliation? What does this say about our faith and wholeness and wellness?

The first question asked in this ‘Beginning Dialogue’ section was, ‘what are God’s kingdom interests in the John Shilton quote.’ If we can find no indication of God’s kingdom interests in that quote, how might that relate to the nine whose praise to God is absented from the picture? And if we can find nothing to say about God’s kingdom interests and praise in our world, what does this reveal about our church/nation grasp of the gospel?

Concluding Question:

Suppose that after prayer, a pastor’s next step in sermon writing was to prepare a list such questions for their text, and keep that before her/him as [s]he brokered issues of disease/alienation/faith/reconciliation in the life of members, the church, nation and world with the Biblical text.

What difference would that make for preaching?

Discovering Preaching:

Those who embrace what that means will never be IFBs. And we DO need that list. Whether the story is a young, unarmed man shot in the back by police, the breakdown of a cease-fire, or a story of rescue or perhaps of deep reconciliation at great, personal cost — it is simply imperative that preachers incarnationally connect faith to life. And that means that one seeks out points where life and the cross intersect.

Where life and the cross intersect, they interpret each other. And at that point, incarnational preaching happens.

Friday Challenge — Find the Freedom in the Gospel

Key to Freedom

Church and Kingdom

“I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” [Mt 16:18-19].

Good dispensationalists [which Independent Fundamental Baptists are] reliably push kingdom into the future. They are well aware that that any interest in social justice likely means theological and spiritual rot. People who are interested in kingdom eventually question a system which values profit over people and wealth over work. This means they question the Good News of Capitalism and its false promise of infinite growth. So it is for good reason that God’s kingdom has no place in your local IFB sect.

But kingdom was the theological core of Jesus’ preaching. If you push that into the future, wouldn’t that make a markedly different church? That ‘difference’ may be behind yesterday’s cartoon at the Naked Pastor.

My observation suggests that IFB preachers are very clear that kingdom concerns Israel and the future. God brings the kingdom in his own good time. Our concern is with building the church. As you know, that means building the IFB pastor’s fundamentalist empire.

What’s curious is that Jesus appears to have gotten it backwards. Jesus said, ‘I will build my church’ and ‘YOU get the keys of the kingdom.’

See the difference?

We can now dispense with those pesky questions about hungry masses, closed schools and failing communities while our allegedly cash-hungry nation blithely poured nearly 5 trillion into wars over the past 15 years.

Where’s the Freedom?

In his temptation, Jesus refused to align himself with the powers of this age — War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. He formed a kingdom in which we would be freed from the domination of demonic powers. That truly was/is Good News. But it isn’t ‘Good News’ you’ll hear in IFB sects, or in many broadly evangelical congregations for that matter.

The truth is, we’re far better at locking people up than setting them free. And we enlist many ‘present age’ narratives to rationalize it. You can’t help those people. The only thing they understand is force. If we cut them off, they’d learn to fend for themselves and become stronger.

Today’s Challenge

But sometimes, people are better than their theology and better than their stated convictions. Today’s challenge is to tell/find a story of genuine redemption experienced in an IFB setting.

This does not mean substituting one form of death [addiction/slavery/etc.] for another [legalism/hypocrisy/etc.]. It means that despite its theology, some IFB sect somewhere used the keys of God’s kingdom to redeem a situation and set someone free to the praise of God’s glory and grace.

Revelation as an Apocalypse

Perspective 6
The Andromeda Galaxy, an immense island of some 200 billion stars, 2.52 million light-years away from our galaxy. Together with M33, the Milky Way and a handful of dwarf galaxies, M31 is in the local cluster of galaxies. This may help put some things in perspective…

Apocalyptic Perspective

‘Apocalyptic’ is a literary genre to itself. Its distinctive characteristics, motifs and perspective must be interpreted AS apocalyptic. Daniel has apocalyptic passages. Sun and moon darkened, earth shaking, creation unmade etc. are also apocalyptic themes [Is 13:10; Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10, 31; 3:15; Amos 8:9; Mic 3:6; Mt 24:29; Ac 2:20; Re 8:12, 9:2, etc.].

RB notes that Revelation is an apocalyptic work in many respects. But he focuses on two main points.

Transcendent Perspective

John wrote seven churches Asiatic churches in concrete, historical situations, and gave them a transcendent perspective on the world.

John enables churches to see God’s purpose for their specific situations, and bring a kingdom-appropriate response. That’s the point of Re 4-5.

God transported John by this vision into his throne room. There, he saw God’s take on the world. He saw behind-the-scenes glimpses which give him understanding/meaning to world events in every time and place.

One immediate result is to break the boundaries of Roman power and ideology. Believers in the seven churches could then see the transcendent greater purposes of God at work in the world. And so can we!

John’s intent is NOT to give esoteric knowledge the future, but to let us see the here-and-now very differently, as through God’s eyes.

Revelation ISN’T about seeing a DIFFERENT world; it is about seeing our OWN world very differently IN WHATEVER TIME OR PLACE we live.

John intends for the churches to see and respond very differently to the dominant, Roman imperial view of the world and all that said view entailed. RB writes: ‘Revelation counters that false view of reality…’

[I think that once this is grasped, it has explosive potential to revolutionize the church and its role in the world. Ex: rather than bemoaning social conditions as ‘signs of the times,’ preachers can say that current social distress are judgment on the world: because whenever nations war, poverty reigns, social calamity befalls us and death tolls rise, it means that the four horsemen bestride us. And we can point to our political parties and say together, they have four policies — War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. So why should we follow any of them?].

[Ironically, this actually makes the Revelation FAR more accessible to and relevant to believers than what we’ve been told.].

Who Is Lord

As soon as you touch on the boundaries of power, the question arises, ‘who is Lord over all the world.’

RB notes that Jewish apocalypses [books of Enoch, Abraham, etc.] were concerned with unfulfilled promises, judgment on evil, the salvation of the righteous, and God’s rule over the world. Other apocalyptic themes include the suffering righteous, flourishing righteous, and the rule of the world — not by God, but by evil.

He continues saying that apocalyptist bolster the faith of the righteous against the oppression of evil, political power. But it is characteristic also for the apocalyptic worldview to insist that ‘despite appearances, it is God who rules his creation,’ and that ‘the time is coming soon when he will overthrow the evil empires and establish his kingdom.’

RB’s take on Revelation is that God’s rule over the world is contradicted by the rule of Caesar, whose rule [in any time or place, and by any name] hijacks the rule of God to itself. So apocalyptic seeks to demonstrate that God, not Caesar [under any administration, by any name, in any time or place] is in fact, ‘Lord.’

While irrelevant to the study of Revelation [or Bauckham’s book], it may help those grappling with a Fundie past to think of Fundamentalism as an apocalyptic sect. It certainly evidences very similar traits.

But more, this reading of Revelation gives Christians very serious reason to consider who/what they call ‘Lord.’ Certainly, the correct answer in the theological sense is to say, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ The problem is, John is intent on challenging our relations with the world. Many of us may stand in need of repentance. Your IFB pastor/university/ministry included.