Sunday, January 15, 2012

Devotion #004: Justified Before God

Luke 18: 9-14

What does God want from us?

We can never live up to the standards he requires of us. The only way for us to escape our just punishment is to accept God's mercy through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But having done that, what should we do? We have acknowledged God's authority over us. We want to obey him. But our sinful hearts make it impossible for us to obey and please God the way Jesus did. How are we supposed to deal with God after being saved when we know that we can't ever be what he wants us to be?

Context is important for this. We are not removed from God. He is not a legislator who sits far away and hands down stone tablets chiselled with arcane regulations. We are in a loving relationship with God. For Israel, the Mosaic law was a way to demonstrate and reinforce their commitment to that relationship. It was also a way to make Israel aware of their own perfidy and sinfulness, to make them realise that they had "the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out".

We wrong God. When we sin against him we wrong him, and that has consequences for our relationship. There is always more forgiveness - God's grace and love are infinite. But we can only come back into right relationship with God when we acknowledge that we are not there at the moment. If your best friend stays overnight and drinks all your milk, you will forgive them - but things will become much more fraught if they refuse to acknowledge that anything improper has occurred.

Consider the story Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax collector: a man who held to every iota of the Mosaic law compared to one of the lowest classes of sinners in first-century Judea. But it is the sinner who goes home justified because he acknowledges he needs to be. The Pharisee thinks that his actions make him righteous, and he fails to see that like all human beings - save one - he has wronged God.

We can maintain a loving and close relationship with God despite the knowledge of our inability to properly obey him. But we have to remain active within that relationship. God is always reaching out to us, but we still have to reach back.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Best of the Best: Digital Mumbles

Digital Mumbles got me excited about music. Until recently music was only background noise to my attempts to build a cultural identity for myself, or white noise used to blot out distractions when I was writing an assignment. Sometimes I used it as a means of expression - playing sad music when I was sad, all the classic music tropes - but I didn't get anything out of the music. The flow of emotion and intellect was outwards rather than inwards, and quite shallow.

Mumbles has a fierce love of music, but what inspired me was her taste for music: refined but not pompous, earnest but considered, willing to make value distinctions without losing enthusiasm for the subject. Reading her blog ensured that I was listening to inspiring music - not always to my taste, but always presented with context and guidance that illuminated what made me like or dislike a track.

Good places to start are her recent hour-long radio special or her Alignment Week, in which she matched tracks with the Dungeons and Dragons alignments.

Devotion #003: Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Jesus' parables are stories which use earthly concepts as analogies for the kingdom of heaven. These concepts are mostly agricultural; not only would they have been familiar to his first-century audience, but they make sense all over the world. Every culture has to grow food.

The context of this parable is important. Jesus' authority has just been questioned by the Jewish religious leaders, and he has refused to answer on account of their hypocrisy. Immediately after the parable, Luke tells us that the religious leaders wanted to "lay hands" on Jesus because they perceived that he had told the parable against them. This seems to be an example of their pride but also their knowledge of their own sin: the parable has a broad application, but the religious leaders assume that it is directed only towards them. This parable therefore sits in a section of Luke that illustrates Jesus' opposition to the contemporary religious establishment, and it explains why his message is so different to the teachings of the religious leaders.

The story Jesus tells is fairly straightforward: wicked tenants escalate their evil as the landlord escalates his attempts to restore the proper relationship. After the tenants kill his son the landlord will come and destroy them and give the vineyard to others. Jesus grounds this ending by quoting from Psalm 118:22, linking the parable to prophecies about the messiah and implicitly declaring himself the Messiah. His audience is presented with two options: they fulfil the terms of their lease and obey God, or be ejected from the vineyard and destroyed. Salvation is not a matter of following rules and regulations, but a binary choice: accept his authority or reject his son.

The religious leaders do not recognise Jesus' authority even though it is evident in every word he says and even the manner in which he performs miracles. This is their failing. Obedience and the struggle to be a good person is nothing if you do not submit to the Lord's authority - which is coterminous with his son's. Unlike the scene in Luke where Jesus tells this parable, we are living after the crucifixion and resurrection, so Jesus' authority has even greater significance: we are not cleansed of our sins unless Jesus was perfect, and we are not free from death unless Jesus conquered it. Obedience and salvation on one hand, rebellion and death on the other: easy choice.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sense Of It #001

Touch - Dark Matter by Andrew Bird: The agonising brush of a soft hand moving over a second-degree burn, fading out into a kind of pleasure never felt except immediately after pain.

Taste - Atom Bomb by Fluke: Salt and lemon and the slightly bitter taste of metal.

Scent - Swim Until You Can't See Land by Frightened Rabbit: Sea salt and petrol are dismissed by the nose as commonplace and unimportant, focusing the mind upon hints of lavender and rosemary. Melting plastic is barely detectable.

Sight - I Can Walk In Your Mind by The Servant: That one girl from the last weeks of your last year of university is standing in front of you, staring deep into you and looking perplexed. She unfolds backwards into a slide show dissecting your personality faults - but the windows burst inwards and the glass turns to snow.

Non-Daily Devotion #002: Lamentations 5:17-22

Lamentations certainly lives up to its name, huh? Today's text is the last few lines of the fifth poem in Lamentations where the author sums up Israel's suffering and appeals to the Lord.

There is a powerful contrast between the kingdom of Israel ("for Mount Zion lies desolate") and the kingdom of the Lord: "your throne endures to all generations". Much of the Old Testament is contrast between God's eternal faithfulness and the changeable loyalty of Israel, but in Lamentations we instead find a contrast in power, with Israel's faith strongly asserted while the author appeals to the Lord's covenant with Israel. The author is being very honest with the Lord: we are weak, you are strong, we're supposed to be your chosen nation! Where are you?

Christians often feel the same way. We feel abandoned and alone in a sinful world, in our own sinful nature, wondering when the Lord will get around to saving us.
He already has.
We know that the Lord has not "utterly rejected us". He may be "exceedingly angry with us" but his perfect wrath is tempered with perfect love and grace. We have what Israel did not have: the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The Lord's everlasting faithfulness has been demonstrated for us in that he sent his own son to us, who died for humanity's salvation even as he was put to death because of humanity's evil.

The author of Lamentations knew that Israel would be saved, but not when. Our salvation has already arrived, and if we have accepted Christ's sacrifice for us, then we are already saved. We don't fell saved; we don't feel enthroned in the kingdom of God; mostly we're just wandering through life doing the best we can, trying to obey God. But that struggle is a response to salvation rather than an attempt to stay alive. None of us know when we will fall asleep, or when Jesus will return, so we share an ambiguous timeline with the author of Lamentations - but it is for the end of struggle rather than the fulfilment of salvation. We are not awaiting the kingdom of God because we are already there. We are waiting for when obedience will no longer be a struggle.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Response to Stimulus: Phillip and the Ethiopian

That is, Acts 8:26-40, which contains a road trip and the miracle of quantum tunneling.
  • God has a plan for his followers. Phillip is directed to the chariot of an official reading the prophet Isaiah, which contains prophecies about Jesus. The official has a context for the good news which Phillip delivers.
  • God's plan is not always explicable (it is often ineffable). Phillip "found himself at Azotus" rather than asked God to go there; his subsequent preaching in the towns between Azotus and Caesarea was not his idea but God's.
  • Phillip's sudden displacement was not only for the purpose of getting him to Azotus, but seems to have also been for the benefit of the newly baptised Ethiopian.
  • The Old Testament is not separate from or alien to Christianity, but is vital to how we understand Christ and his relationship to us and to the Father.