More Thoughts on Faith…

I was reading the other morning about Jesus’ ministry in his hometown of Nazareth, recorded for us in Mark 6:1-6. The town’s people marveled at his wisdom and teaching, and yet they apparently did not believe that he was the Messiah because they knew him and his family. “He grew up here, we’ve known him since he was a kid and we’ve known his brothers and sisters. He certainly has gotten a good education somewhere, but he’s just one of us. Who does he think he is getting off acting like the Messiah?” They were scandalized by him. Jesus responded by saying “a prophet is without honor in his own country.” And consequently “he could not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” However, the text goes on to add, “but he did lay hands on a few sick people and healed them.” 

What are we to make of this? Is it true that God can only work where there is enough faith, and if he does not work does it show that the faith that is present doesn’t measure up?” Many years ago, during a serious back injury that sidelined me for 3 months, someone came to my house to pray for me.  This person told me that if someone prayed for my healing and yet I remained bedridden, it was because I did not have enough faith; because God can’t work where there is no faith. This was not an encouragement to me. How much faith is needed before God can work? Is there a barometer in heaven that has a base-line for the amount of faith we must have before God answers prayer?  I have always found solace in the words of Jesus that even if we have faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, we could move mountains. I’m not sure what that means, but apparently it doesn’t take a hyper-faith to be preset for God to work. The problem at Nazareth was not a “little faith,” but “no faith” that stemmed from stubborn unbelief.

One commentator said of this passage that it teaches us “there are certain situations where we can ‘tie God’s hands’… because of our lack of faith.” I strongly disagree. Our faith, or the lack of it, does not rule God. I do not believe that this is the lesson of Mark 6:1-6. Instead, I believe the among the lessons of this text is that familiarity with the messenger can often interfere with accepting the message. (Sometimes the hardest people to reach are those in our own family.) The text also teaches that God works where he wills; in most cases he has chosen to work in response to our faith, but sometimes he chooses to work where there is no faith in order to produce faith in hearts filled with unbelief. We see elsewhere in Mark that a person’s faith was not necessary for a miracle (Mark 1:31). We also see the sometimes it was the faith of friends and family that was recognized (Mark 2:5; 7:32). At other times (Mark 9:24), it was a matter of “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Even in this little town of  “no faith” (Nazareth), God chose to heal some who were sick.  

Faith is not a commodity we offer God in order to merit a hearing. Rather, faith is a position that we adopt wherein we choose to trust God and submit to his will for us no matter what the circumstances. No sincere child of God should ever be judged for a lack of faith just because they do not receive that for which they ask—they are probably hurting enough as it is. Instead, they should be encouraged to trust in the Lord with all their heart, even in the midst of God’s silence (Mark 7:26; Matthew 15:23). It is in this position of trust alone that they will find the growth of a deeper dependency on their Heavenly Father and a greater usefulness in his Kingdom because they have learned how to persevere (James 1:3).

The Tale of Two Gods?

There was a heresy in the second century AD named after Marcion of Sinope (ca. 85-160) that claimed the God of the Old Testament was not the same deity as worshipped by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Marcion believed that the Yahweh of the OT was a “demiurge” (subordinate to Supreme God) which had created the material universe; a tribal God of Israel characterized by wrath and jealousy. He also believed that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is revealed in the NT as a God of love and compassion. (See Marcion’s work Antitheses)

Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, has a similar perspective on the God of the OT: “petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, blood thirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (p. 31) Wow! Sounds like an all- round bad guy.

I would not place Andy Stanley, Pastor of North Point Church in Georgia, into the same category as either Marcion or Dawkins, but he nonetheless has walked onto thin ice having suggested that Christians need to “unhitch” the OT from their understanding of faith and solely focus on the Resurrection of Jesus. He believes that we need liberation from the Law of the OT to the grace and mercy of the NT.

Perhaps you have shared similar feelings as you’ve read through the OT. You’ve run across things that God said or did that just rankled your senses. What are we to make of this, especially as we compare it to the NT? Not to over simplify, but I would like to point out two things for you to think about that may help you work through this supposed discrepancy:

First, it is important to read the Bible (OT and NT) over and over on a regular basis— from beginning to end, from front to back, in order to gain a sweeping view of God’s character and actions. Most of us find ourselves (naturally) put off by babies being slaughtered and tribes being eliminated because of the sin of one of its members. However, if we focus just on these and ignore context then we can make as wrong an assessment of the OT as the arborist who judges the health of a forest on the basis of one or two trees. While I still struggle with some passages in the OT, the more I read the more I see God revealed progressively as a God of compassion and mercy. For example, I read through the book of Jonah this morning and saw this clearly portrayed. Jonah was commanded by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the great enemy of Israel, and to preach judgment. Jonah ran away from the task. Why? Because he was a chicken? No. Look at Jonah’s response when God suspended his judgment because Nineveh repented: “That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing (initially) to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents in sending calamity” (4:2). Jonah knew the character of God and he thought it was just plain wrong that God’s mercy should be available to any nation other than Israel. (Aren’t you glad Jonah is not God?)

I also think of the example of Moses in Exodus 33–34, whose view of God was deepened by the events surrounding the punishment of Israel for worshipping the golden calf. Poor old Moses was frustrated. He felt caught in the middle between an unruly people and a God who threatened to abandon them because of their disobedience. In hindsight, we see that all of this was a test of Moses’ faith to bring about the desired effect of making him yearn for a deeper knowledge of God… “teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” (33:13) And so, God brings Moses back up on Mount Sinai where he puts the frustrated leader in the cleft of a rock while the “backside of God’s glory” passes by: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished….” (34:6–7) A God of justice- absolutely! A God of compassion and mercy- yes!

Second, and this is basic, there is no indication that Jesus ever adjusted the thinking of his followers to worship any other God than Yahweh of the OT. Instead, he came to further reveal his Heavenly Father. Jesus’ stinging rebuke of the Pharisees and his call for sinners to repent were just as poignant and powerful as any of the OT prophets. In fact, he did not come to set aside the OT and its call for obedience and righteousness, but to fulfill them—to show what obedience and righteousness looked like. What seems to soften the NT for us is that God becomes personalized in Jesus Christ. We see Yahweh’s compassionate and loving nature more clearly hallmarked in the life and sacrifice of God’s very own Son because of his great love for us. And we receive his open invitation to receive the forgiveness of our sins and to enter into the Family of God through faith in Christ’s work for us.

Does that mean justice and righteousness are set aside in the NT by the work of Christ? On the contrary, “he (God) did it to demonstrate righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 3:26) Christ died, the righteous for the unrighteous, so that the just demands of the law might be satisfied. Justice being accomplished, God showed his mercy in justifying (putting in the right) those who have faith in Christ. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

No, the OT and NT do not contain the tale of two Gods. They contain the story of one God who progressively revealed himself to his people Israel as they grew in their understanding of him; ultimately revealing himself to the whole world in his Son. Someone described the OT as a house standing without the roof and the NT as the roof without the house. The OT ends somewhat abruptly, begging to be completed by something new that God was going to do. The NT begins somewhat enigmatically with a Jewish remnant again captive to a foreign power, waiting for a new Moses to deliver them. Jesus appears as that Deliverer—not only of Israel, but of all the nations who would believe—”For God so loved the world….” The Bible is a well-built house where justice and mercy meet in both Testaments and whose doors are open to anyone who repents and believes in Jesus.

NOTE: STARTING THIS COMING SUNDAY (Dec. 1), PLEASE CHECK OUT THE MENU ON MY HOME PAGE FOR DAILY MEDIATIONS FOR THE FIRST WEEK OF ADVENT.

Meditation on My Back Deck… “in thy light we see light”

I was sitting on my deck the other morning as the sun was just coming up over my neighbor’s house.  I noticed its rays shone at such an angle that I could see a whole new world of single-strand cobwebs running from the deck chairs to the deck itself, from the deck to the trees, and from branch to branch among the trees. It looked like a system of super highways that was built over night. I had never noticed them before nor did I see them any longer after the sun had risen to another angle. My point is that I would not have seen them at all unless the sun was shining just right.

While you could call this a “Meditation on the Back Deck,” CS Lewis wrote a more perceptive essay  on the same topic called “Meditation in a Tool Shed.”

I was standing today in a dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with specs of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree moving outside and beyond that, ninety-odd millions of miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experience.

Psalm 36:9 reads “For with Thee is the fountain of life; in Thy light we see light.” (NASB) It is interesting that Columbia University (NYC) has this for its logo In Lumine Tuo Videbimus Lumen, “In thy light we see light.” At one time Columbia (as so many colleges) was founded upon the conviction that God’s Word formed the very basis of understanding the world and therefore of all knowledge. In fact the seal of the university depicts a woman seated on a throne holding an open Bible in her right hand bearing the inscription Logia Zonta, “The Words of Life.”

Things have changed quite a bit at Columbia U over the years, but what remains the same is what we read in Psalm 36:9 that God is not only the source of life but His truth forms the basis of understanding the world and is the context for knowledge.

Jesus said “I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” John 8:12  In the context, the Pharisees were in the toolshed of unbelief. They saw the Light and even saw some pretty miraculous things by it, but most of them did not step into it to believe and follow.

Stepping into the light of following Christ means that we will see things differently. It is a life of wisdom and discernment not governed by the way our culture thinks but by the truth of God’s Word spoken in Scripture and embodied by the Word which became flesh and dwelt among us. In other words, we have a different core from which our thinking starts. We may come to a similar conclusion (or not) as our culture, but for reasons that flow from having the “Light of the world” at our core.

I marvel at all the protests and cultural movements that I have seen impact society in my lifetime:  the Civil Rights movement, the Anti-war movement during Viet Nam, the Women’s Liberation movement, Black Power movement, Black Lives Matter, Free Love movement, Gay Rights movement, Anti-nuke movement, Pro-choice and Pro-Life movements, Occupy Wall Street movement, Social Justice movement, #MeTo movement, to name just a few. These movements have always pushed me beyond my comfort zone and challenged me as a citizen, a Christian and a pastor.  I always wanted to understand the truth in each movement and the issues raised and not merely reacting against the movement because of the politics of its advocates nor adopting a position of support just because it was consistent with my own political views.

Invariably, as I looked at these issues in the light of God’s truth the first thing I saw was my own sin and need for repentance. I saw how I had failed by omission or commission to live according to the light of God’s truth in a lot of these areas that were being pointed out by these cultural movements. I had become a part of a system that helped create an injustice that was being pointed out by protest. In other words, I needed to deal with my own sin and complicity before I could speak to the hypocrisy and double standard of my culture.

For example, how do I respond to the #MeTo movement? I honor and respect women as equals before God not because of the movement, but because I live in the light of God’s truth spoken by Scripture and lived out by Jesus in his relationship with women. However I also recognize my own flawed heart and repent of the times I’ve objectified women and failed to be sensitive to how other men talked about women more as conquests than as people. I have also failed to see the brokenness of those women who have suffered sexual abuse and predatorial fears since childhood, and the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. It is the oppression of the powerful against the powerless, much like what is mentioned in the Bible about the oppression of widows and orphans by the rich. The light of God’s truth helps me to see this.

Yet, the light of God’s truth also enables me to see the hypocrisy of our society that in all of its protests it still seems to be driven more by power and wealth than by justice and equality; more about winners and losers than healing, more about revenge than forgiveness, more about getting ahead by destroying others. Why is there no movement to put an end to any media advertising that objectifies and uses women in sexual or suggestive ways in order to sell products? We did it for smoking, why not for this? To prevent cancer is important, but to prevent the moral cancer of our cultural soul is even more a priority.

In keeping with this, why can’t we prosecute the purveyors of pornography? Is it really “free speech” or “artistic expression” protected by the First Amendment? Most thinking people will agree that pornography is obscene and is not in keeping with any community’s standards. But then our toolshed culture argues about the very definitions of obscene and prurient. At the same time prostitution is still against the law in most places. I’m not advocating for its legalization but is this not a double standard? Some say that pornography is victimless and actually cuts down on rape and unwanted sexual advances in our society. Oh really? If you think that porno has not had an impact on the lives of the sexual abusers that have been exposed and deposed by the #MeTo movement, then you are living in a dark toolshed indeed!

There is also the double standard of those in Hollywood and the entertainment industry  who are the most outspoken supporters of the #MeTo movement.  It seems like these very same celebrities are oblivious to the fact that the movies they make and the clothes they wear at the Emmy’s continue the culture of objectification and violence against women.

We may live in this toolshed culture but we do not need to live in its’ darkness. “In your light, we see light.” God’s light enables me to see the need for repentance and owning up to my sin. God’s light also helps me to see the sin and hypocrisy of my culture so I can be a part of the solution to the very issues raised. We have stepped into the light, let us live like it!