Wednesday, September 20, 2017

A Window in Jericho

Tamar was only pretending to be a prostitute when she became pregnant by her father-in-law, Judah, and bore a son who wore the scarlet thread. But we'll see the scarlet thread again...this time, hanging from the window of a real prostitute: 

Rahab.

Rahab was a prostitute in the city of Jericho, the first city that Israel encountered on her sojourn from the wilderness into the Promised Land. When Israel sent spies to scope out the city, it was Rahab who sheltered them and kept them from being captured. She believed the rumors that she'd heard about God. (And we saw on Monday this week how she was one spared in an ever-broadening circle of God's all-encompassing plan.) 

The spies made an arrangement with the prostitute and when they returned with the full army of Israel, they looked for the scarlet thread hanging in her window. This was the sign that this was her house, that she remembered them and the promise they'd made to her, that she believed them, and that she had done what they asked and was prepared, with her family, to be saved. 

Really, the two parties could have chosen any sign. She could have left a lantern burning in plain sight. Or perhaps she could have placed a certain pot on the window sill. Maybe she and her family could have gone up on the roof and waited to be brought down. She could have hung the rope that she let the spies down with out the same window they'd escaped from. 

But they chose a scarlet thread. 

Now, here's what's cool about the Rahab story. We're told that because of her fear of the Lord, she saved not only herself, but her whole family. The spies told her she was welcome to bring them into her home, and anyone in her home would be saved. So we know that her loved ones were there with her. This makes her the saving grace of her family.

Or, in Israel's terms, a kinsman-redeemer (literally: family-saver). 

So then, trace Rahab's descendants a little ways. Rahab, the prostitute, the most despicable woman in all of Jericho, who was the only one to fear the Lord and protect Israel as she came into her Promised Land, married an Israelite - from the tribe of Judah - named Salmon. She gave birth to a son named Boaz. 

Boaz is the most famous kinsman-redeemer in all of the Bible. He is the man who married Ruth in the book of Ruth, the closest relative to the daughter-in-law of Naomi, whose husband and sons had all died at a terribly young age. He is the man who provided for Ruth in his fields, then brought her home and married her, giving her (and Naomi) an heir to continue the deceased men's line in Israel's history. That son, that heir, was Obed. Obed was the father of David. 

Then we trace David's line all the way down to Jesus, who goes to the Cross as the firstborn Son, the second Adam, the brother of all brothers, Son of God, Son of Man...

...kinsman-redeemer to all who call upon the name of the Lord. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Scarlet Thread

You may have heard it said, somewhere in some Christian circle, that there's a "scarlet thread" that runs through the Bible, meaning, of course, that it is Jesus's blood that holds this whole God story together. Tied to the very roots of Creation, it was poured out on the Cross and runs through rivers of living water to bring life to a world teetering on the edge of death. It's all very poetical and beautiful.

But, uh, there's also an actual scarlet thread running through the Bible. And it, too, is pretty interesting to trace.

We first see the scarlet thread in Genesis 38 in a rather interesting story.

So here's what happened: Judah, a son of Israel, married off his son to a woman named Tamar. The son dies, having had no children with his wife, and in the kinsman-redeemer social construct of Israel, Judah's next-eldest son marries Tamar. But he also dies having no children. Judah realizes he's only got one son left, so rather than risk losing a third son without heirs, he sends Tamar home and "promises" to send for her when his youngest son is old enough to wed. 

Of course, he never sends for her, and she grows impatient. So she disguises herself as a prostitute and tricks Judah himself into sleeping with her. She ends up pregnant from the encounter, and just as he is about to have her stoned to death for becoming a whore, she reveals that he is the one who slept with her - thinking she was a whore - and she is spared. Bearing twin boys, she goes into labor. One baby sticks his arm out of the womb, so they quickly tie a scarlet thread around it to indicate that he is the firstborn. But then, he pulls his arm back in and his brother is actually born first.

This is the story of Perez and Zerah.

There are some interesting things we have to pick up on in this story if we want to truly trace this scarlet thread through the Bible. 

First, this is a story of Judah. Judah is one of the twelve tribes of Israel, meaning he is one of the twelve sons of Jacob. When Israel's disobedience finally catches up to her and her kingdom is split, Judah becomes its own nation, a remnant, the preservation of something special about Israel. 

Perez - the twin with the scarlet thread tied around his wrist - is a direct great-great-great...ancestor of David, the King that God promised would always have a son on the throne. David is a direct great-great-great....ancestor of Jesus, which means that Perez was, too. 

Oh, this tribe of Judah.

And we know, too, that Jesus is the "only begotten," which means "firstborn" son of God, but we know, too, that Adam was, well, the "first Adam" (Jesus was the "second Adam"). So we look at this story where the "firstborn" son sticks his hand out and is given the scarlet thread, and we look ahead to Jesus, who had His hand on the earth from the very first, and this is the scarlet thread. But the first Adam thwarted everything and came wholly first into the world in flesh and mud and holy breath. 

Perez and Zerah from "In the beginning" to "I am with you always." 

And then there's the woman. She dresses herself as a prostitute; God's always accused His people of whoring on Him. And yet, this unfaithful, disgusting, despicable people is the very same one who bears the Son of the scarlet thread. The world may mock and laugh and scorn and scoff and even pick up stones and say that Israel deserves to die for her unfaithfulness, but God, the Father, steps in and spares her. And all of a sudden, the Father Himself has brought a Son into this world through the "unfaithful" woman, a promise He made from the very beginning and finally has kept, even as the world waits. 

This is the first story of the scarlet thread, and we see how clearly it ties (see what I did there?) into the one we're more familiar with. 

Just wait 'till you see where it shows up next....  

Monday, September 18, 2017

Resident Aliens

Christian thought generally leads us to believe that up until the birth of Jesus, the Jews were God's chosen people, and only after the resurrection did the promise of God extend to the Gentiles. Sure, we know that from the very first covenant, God had in mind the whole of humanity, but clearly, He's got a preference for Israel that extends from the time of Abraham all the way through to the ministry of Jesus (who had a thing for ragamuffins). 

But it's not so simple. 

If you look closely at the Old Testament, every time God's people are brought one step closer to their promise, a few more "outsiders" are let in. 

When their scouts head out to see what Canaan looks like, they come upon a prostitute named Rahab. She and her family are the only ones spared when Israel sacks Jericho, and they do not live as outsiders or remnants of the fallen; no, they become an integral part of the community of God's people. How do we know? Because one testament later, we find out that Rahab is an ancestor of Jesus. 

When the people of Israel are trying to figure out how to celebrate the Passover, it's said that "there may be foreigners among you who want to eat the Passover meal with you." And God's opinion on this? They can. They have to be circumcised and ritually clean at the time, but simply not being biological Jews is no excuse to exclude them from a table that they want to sit at.

When Israel is retaking their land after exile in Babylon, Ezekiel is given the instructions for dividing up the land and settling the tribes back into it. These instructions clearly say, "This land will be for you. It will also be for the foreign residents who live among you.... Think of them as Israelites." (47:22)

There are, of course, other examples along the way, but just look at this progression: one woman/family is spared, then a good number of foreigners are welcomed at the table, and finally, a greater number still are given land among the inheritance of Israel. The prostitute recognized the power of God, the good number were circumcised and cleansed as a sign of their commitment, and the greater number still are integral to the community of God. 

Isn't it cool? 

So often, we look at this as black and white. One moment, Israel; the next moment, the world. But God's been working from Israel out toward the world the whole time, in all these small but significant ways that are so easy to miss if we're not paying attention. 

It really makes you wonder what kind of small but significant things He's up to in your own life that are slowly but surely leading you to a bigger theology and a greater love.... 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Love

We read a passage like the one in Ezekiel 20 that we've been looking at all week, and we're upset. We can't believe that God would refuse to help someone (note: He only asks them to choose, the true exercise of free will). We are appalled that He would pour out His fury on anyone (note: only relational love can produce true fury, and love is not afraid to get angry). Then, we get to the end of the passage and see that He will make Israel obey His commands. 

How dare He! 

In the (post)modern world in which we live, love has no right to make demands. Love can't expect anything. It has to be freely given or it's not really love. If there are conditions on it, well...you simply can't call it love. 

Again, we have confused true love with "tolerant permissiveness." The Bible tells us what love is.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love isn't jealous. It doesn't sing its own praises. It isn't arrogant. It isn't rude. It doesn't think about itself. It isn't irritable. It doesn't keep track of wrongs. It isn't happy when injustice is done, but it is happy with the truth. Love never stops being patient, never stops believing, never stops hoping, never gives up. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

Nowhere in there does it say that love doesn't have expectations. Quite the contrary. If you look at a lot of these things, they assume that love does have expectations.

Why would love need patience if it didn't expect anything? If whatever you do is totally fine because I love you, I have nothing to be patient about. You are what you are, and that's cool. Right? What does love believe in without expectations? We don't believe anything unless we expect something specific. We believe that the sun rises in the east in the mornings; that means we expect in the morning for the sun to rise in the east. Having this expectation doesn't mean we don't value the sunrise. No, many of us treasure it. 

What does love hope in without expectations? Hope requires an expectation. If there is not a reasonable expectation of something occurring, we say it is "hopeless." If you are diagnosed with a terrible illness, you probably hope you will get better. Why? Medicine gives you the hope of getting better. But if your disease is so rare that no treatment exists, you cannot expect to get better. So you have nothing to hope in. Expectation does not diminish our hope; it is the very foundation of it. If love hopes, it expects. 

Love doesn't give up. If it doesn't expect anything, what would it have to give up on? That doesn't make any sense. 

Over and over again, we see that love has expectations. And if love has expectations, then it is fully consistent that the God who is Love would have expectations. Love cannot exist without them. 

In this case, it goes back to what we were talking about with the God who would not let persons turn to Him for help. He's not saying you have to do all the things He wants you to do without question because He's God and that's His decree. No, He's saying, choose. Really choose. If you choose love, if you choose covenant relationship, if you choose to come back to Him, that choice has consequences. 

Choosing love comes with expectations. It cannot be any other way. 

Again, that's not cruel. That's not a power move. That's not theologically troubling. It's just God telling His people that if they want to exercise their free will, they have to make an actual choice and not live by whim and they have to embrace the fullness of that choice. Choose love, and that means something. 

It means, among other things, that you're inviting God to believe in you, to trust you, to hope in you, to never give up on you. It means you're giving God the opportunity to expect something from you, and God is simply saying that if He's going to love you, you'd better live up to it. (Of course, we know that we are fallen and can't fully measure up, but that's no excuse for willful failure. As Paul would say, By no means!) 

It's not just about living up to it, though. It's about knowing that God is investing this much in you. That's what it means to be loved. It means you know that God is believing in you, that God is trusting in you, that God is hoping in you, that God will not give up on you. That has to change the way you live, doesn't it? That has to inspire you to say yes, I'm choosing love. And I know what that means, but I want to have the same expectations of myself that God has of me. It's an invitation to live bigger. 

How could we ever think that was cruel? How could we ever think that was unloving? How could we ever think that is not what God desires for us? 

As we've seen all week, the problem is not God; it's us. We have forgotten what love and free will really are. Then, when God holds them out to us, we turn up our noses and look away. No, we say. That's not what this is. 

Oh, but it is. It's what it has to be. 

Otherwise, it's nothing at all. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Love and Fury

The other part of this passage in Ezekiel where God addresses the faithfulness of His people that we really struggle with is the idea that God would pour out His fury on anything, let alone on His own people. Indeed, that's the problem we have with a lot of the Old Testament - this so-called "loving" God spends an awful lot of His time, it seems, being angry.

To the (post)modern mind, anger simply is not love. Love is, you know, tolerant permissiveness, a passive acceptance of everything for no other reason than that it seems important to us. (This is not, of course, love, but it's what this world seems to think love is.)

What we were looking at yesterday - that God is inherently relational - can help us to shed some light on His fury. Because His fury is, as is everything He does, relational. 

That's what we seem to be missing. When most of us think about God as pouring out His fury, we think about it as a power move. All-mighty, all-powerful, all-perfect God pouring out His wrath unilaterally, just because He can, just because He's God and we're not and He never wants us to forget that He is that far above us. We think of His wrath in the same way that we think of His miracles - shows of power meant to confirm, once more, His authority.

This is one way to look at fury, but it's not the loving way to look at fury. It's not the relational way of looking at fury. 

See, God's fury doesn't come from a mighty hand, but from a wounded heart. It's not one-directional, as power poured out. Rather, it is at least two-directional, a combination of disappointment/frustration with His people and a tremendous grief. Disappointment and frustration move outward; grief moves deeper inward. If only we could see the heart in God's fury....

It's like a parent. When you're a parent and your child does something dumb, something they should have known better than to do, you get upset with your child. You're disappointed in their decision to commit this act, frustrated that they didn't make a better choice, and grieved that you may not have had enough of an influence on them to keep them from doing it in the first place. In other words, you taught them better. They ought to have known better. 

No one would say that you're evil for being upset with your child. No one would say that if you truly loved your child, you wouldn't care what they did. No one would say that you don't have a right to be angry. Almost universally, this world would understand the tension you feel between your disappointment/frustration and your grief, which manifests as anger. Almost universally, every other parent would look at you and say, "Been there. I'm sorry." 

It's this kind of understanding that we need to have about God's fury. Like the parent who feels precisely this same thing when a child goes astray, God's fury is inherently relational. It just is. It's not because He's God and we're "mere humans," just cosmic pawns in His eternal game. No. It's because He is our Father, and we've done something dumb. He is disappointed, frustrated, and grieved, and at the same time that He's upset with us, He's upset with Himself, wondering if somehow He failed us. Wondering if He had enough of an influence that we shouldn't have done it in the first place. For sure, God thinks, He taught us better. 

This isn't inconsistent for me. When I hear persons talk about how they can't understand how God can get angry with His people and claim to be a God of love, I don't share that sentiment. I don't know how God could love us, really love us, and not get angry with us. I don't know how we could be His children if He didn't get cheesed off with us every now and then. 

Like all children, we often misunderstand this. We stomp to our rooms, pouting, declaring, "God hates us." But it's not that at all. God loves us. He loves us enough to get angry with us. He loves us enough to show us His disappointment. He loves us enough to bear His grief for our sake. 

We're not wrong to believe in this love. What we have to remember, though, is that God's love is true love, not the (post)modern myth of tolerant permissiveness. It's truly relational.

Just like His fury