Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Jesus wept

On Sunday our series in Luke at CCC finally reached Jerusalem, as we tackled 19:11-48.  I was struck again, as I have been before, by the way Jesus reacts as he comes over the hill and the holy city comes in sight: he bursts into tears.  Jerusalem, the city literally named after peace, has not chosen peace; the city which looked forward to the coming of the Messianic King has not recognised him or accepted him.  So Jesus wept over Jerusalem.

In Luke's Gospel this is the second lament over Jerusalem.  The first occurs in 13:31-35, and is if anything even more startling.  Jesus grieves over the city which kills the prophets and stones those sent to it as divine messengers.  And then he expresses his own frustration: "How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not."  It seems clear that when Jesus expresses his frustrated desire here he is referring not to anything that has happened in his earthly ministry, but to his actions as the eternal Word of God, the one who sent those prophets.  In other words, this is a concise summary of the Old Testament: the Word of God repeatedly reached out to rebellious Jerusalem to save and gather in, but Jerusalem was having none of it.

Just two observations:

Firstly, however we state our doctrine of the sovereignty of God, we are on dangerous ground if we rule out the idea that sin in some sense thwarts or turns aside the will of God.  Some strong statements of the doctrine of God's sovereignty - a doctrine, by the way, which I love and will happily defend and proclaim - make it sound like God stands symmetrically behind good and evil, behind the gracious turning of the penitent and the grievous hardening of the sinner.  I  don't think that is compatible with what Jesus reveals of God here.  I think we need to be willing to hold in tension that God will work his purposes out, and that God's will is in some sense frustrated.  Again, that God is sovereign means that ultimately this also is not symmetrical; he will triumph, will have his people, will work out all his good pleasure.  But it's a denial of revelation to rush to that point, or to allow it to undo the tension.  (I wonder whether the desire to reset the gospel as a system and not a narrative, which ends up effectively stripping it of eschatological force and forward momentum, might not lie behind this somewhere.)

Second, Jesus reveals God.  We can never say this too much.  If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.  If you want to know the heart of God, look at the tear-stained face of Jesus.  If we cannot read the character of God from the character of Jesus, then I do not believe we can know it at all.  That Christ weeps over Jerusalem - and he doesn't weep for himself, despite knowing what it coming, but he weeps over the city that has always rejected him and will finally hand him over for crucifixion - that Christ Jesus weeps over this city is a revelation of his love, and his love is the very love of God.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Our problem

Everything I'm about to write might be completely wrong, and nobody would be more happy about that than me.  But I think I've observed this one big problem with my lot, that is to say evangelical Christians of a relatively conservative persuasion.  The problem is that we misidentify our problem.

Specifically, I think we often assume that our problem is with our borders, and that our centre is sorted.

For example, we assume that we're basically sorted when it comes to Sundays - preaching, worship, that sort of thing - and that the real issue, the thing that is holding us back, is our difficulty with evangelism or apologetics or general engagement with the world.  Or perhaps in the realm of ideas we assume we've basically got a handle on theology, but that we need to work hard at understanding the culture.

Two qualifications.  Firstly, I don't mean that anyone out there is saying, 'hey, I've nailed preaching, no need to work on that anymore'.  But I suspect that most of our work on preaching is basically tinkering.  The same sort of thing, mutatis mutandis, could be said about worship or theology.  Fundamentally we know what we're doing, or at least what we're trying to do.  Second, I don't mean that evangelism and apologetics and cultural engagement aren't important, or that we're doing okay at those things.  They are, and we're not.

But here's the thing.  The church lives from its centre, which is Christ.  In particular, the church lives from the proclaimed word, in which Christ comes to it again and again in the gospel, and draws his people again and again to himself.  That is where the life of the church begins, and begins again and again each Sunday.  Then again, that life of the church flows directly into liturgy, into prayer and praise and adoration.  That is both the immediate outworking of life in Christ and its ultimate goal.  That is the expression of the life of the church.  Then again, theology is the crucial rule of the church, the direction of its life, the mirror in which the church sees itself as a people shaped by union with Christ.

So if there's a problem in the life of the church - specifically, let's say there seems to be a problem with our ability to evangelise the world around us, for that certainly is the great challenge we face and it is a challenge in which we are making remarkably little headway - I would suggest that we ought not to immediately look to the presenting problem, but to the centre.  Is the life of Christ evident in the church?

Practically, do we really know what we intend to do when we stand up to preach a sermon, or sit down to listen to one?  Are we sure?  If we are sure, why is so much of our preaching tediously didactic, or dully sentimental?  Where is the power?  Why do we find the sermon over-long when we sit to listen?  Why are we glancing at our watches all the time?

Practically, is our worship an expression of Spirit-fuelled joy, as the Spirit-filled community with Spirit-unveiled faces perceive the glory of Christ?  Do we know what we are doing when we stand up to sing, or sit to pray?  Are we sure?  If we are sure, why have we ended up with so much thin liturgy, so little seriousness?  Why does the joy look more like froth, that evaporates quickly into the air, than deep seated contemplation of the beauty of the Lord?  Where are the holy hands uplifted?

Practically, are we sure we've grasped what theology is all about?  Do we know what we're going about when we seek to read and study or to teach?  Are we sure?  If we are sure, why does so much of our theology seem either totally untethered from what the church of all ages has believed, or alternatively to be a mere repristination of thoughts someone had in the seventeenth century?  Where is the creative engagement with Holy Scripture?  Why is there such impatience with theological questions, the rush to pragmatic solutions, the inability to see the links between different theological loci and practical church life?

Maybe I'm wrong.  But I do wonder whether instead of looking to our borders we ought to be crying out for renewal from the centre.