Sunday, March 29, 2015
Sunday, March 22, 2015
Sunday, March 15, 2015
The following is the sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church in Petersburg on March 15, 2014.
- Lectionary: Year B, Lent 4
- Text: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:(10-) 14-21
- Audio as it was preached (30 minutes)
The Bible is full of different kinds of stories. Some are feel-good, others are more challenging. Some are peculiar, and a few are quite bizarre. Today’s story about the snakes attacking the Israelites falls into the bizarre. Not only bizarre, but also quite challenging because the picture of God is not particularly flattering; and it wouldn’t be at all irresponsible to say that the God here resembles a petty, vengeful, and capricious deity of the nations surrounding Israel.
What do we do with this story? It’s in the Bible. Two common ways of dealing with this text are: We can ignore it – that’s an option. Or, we can take it as a factual description of God – that’s another option. Neither is particularly appealing.
Another option is to ignore the details found in Numbers 21 and rather go straight to John 3 where Jesus takes this story and applies it to himself. But that too, on the surface raises some problematic questions. One is that it completely ignores that Numbers speaks of God causing death. Another is that the snake and Jesus appear equated to one another.
Yet another option is to read it strictly as something that happened in the past with no bearing upon our present-day view of God and on our lives. There is value in this method. For example, the Hebrews – the Israelites – were a strict monotheist, where the only heavenly power was YHWH. In a setting where all events, particularly unexplainable ones, were attributable to a deity, the Israelites had no choice other than to attribute both good and evil to YHWH. The other nations and peoples had multiple gods and spirits who could be responsible for a subset of acts, but the Israelites did not. It was only late in Hebrew history, perhaps as late as after the Jewish exile, in which the concept of a devil or Satan first appears in concrete form.
But what about the serpent in Genesis that caused the Fall of Adam and Eve? Good question. In ancient mythologies, serpents were ambiguous creatures. They could be both good and evil, a bringer of life as well as a source of death, they could be wise but also cunning. Even during Jesus’ time, the “good” aspects of serpents were recognized, with him making a statement, “Be wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.” In later times including ours, the symbol of the medical profession is that of a serpent wrapped around a pole. The point here is that the serpent found in Genesis 3, as it would have been seen from the ancients’ eyes, could not be considered unambiguously evil and the connection with Satan certainly was not present. It was only in the Christian era that the connection was finally made as fact.
But I noticed something interesting when I re-read the story of the Fall in conjunction with the story of the attack of the serpents in Numbers. They seem to have a number of characteristics of being parallel accounts. Genesis tells the story from a broad perspective that includes all humankind. The Numbers account reads like a similar story, but told in a context specific to the Israelites.
The Fall, Revisited
In our modernist, individualistic, Western minds, Adam and Eve represent two individuals. But they are actually archetypes, or symbols that represent the beginnings of humankind. They may have been individuals, but that is not the point of the Genesis account. The points of the Genesis account is that humankind is responsible for their own troubles, because they sought to take control of their own destinies. To us it doesn’t seem fair that the decisions of individuals so long ago affect us today. But this wouldn’t have troubled the original tellers and readers of Genesis because all humankind continue to succumb to the desire to be in control of themselves.
Likewise the story of the Israelites complaining in the wilderness is a story about them wanting to wrest control away from God. They were tired of the provisions from God – the manna. Not only tired, but they detested it; they called it worthless. They wanted to return to Egypt, the thing that was forbidden to them. This is similar to Adam and Eve rejecting their God-given food and desiring the one thing that was prohibited to them. Notice too, that both stories revolve around what God has given to the people for their food.
As in the Genesis story, was it literally everyone that complained and asked to return to Egypt? Perhaps, but even if not, in the collectivist, group culture of the ancients, the idea that a select few’s actions negatively impact the entire tribe or nation was not a problematic concept. We see this concept illustrated many times in the Old Testament – e.g., Achan’s sin at Jericho, David’s sin in taking a census. This is similar to the idea that Adam and Eve’s sin infected all humankind for all history.
What happens when the people decide that they no longer want God’s directions and provisions? They encounter serpents. In both cases the results of their encounters are given as death. In the Genesis account, physical death is not immediate, but their ultimate destiny becomes certain. In the Numbers account, physical death comes swiftly for those bitten by the vipers.
In both cases life is forfeited and there is no way back. The curse of death falls and envelops humankind and the Israelites.
However, God’s love compels him to reverse the curse.
The details are different in each story. In Genesis, it is God who takes the initiative. In Numbers, it is the people who ask Moses to intervene with God on their behalf. But in both cases, it is God who provides the means to break and reverse the curse of death. And in both cases, just as the curse was brought on by a serpent, the curse will be broken through a serpent.
In Genesis, God curses the serpent. Its status will be lower than that of all the other creatures. God also describes how humankind will continue to struggle against sin and its effects, but gives hope by giving them the possibility of defending themselves against the curse of sin and death. This is the most appropriate reading of Genesis 3:14-15. The idea that the serpent represents the devil and the striking of the serpent’s head represents Christ’s defeat over Satan, is a late interpretation; one that is not present in the text of Genesis. In fact, the word “crush” so often seen in translations is not in the text; rather the word is “strike” or “bruise” in both lines of 3:15b – hardly a fatal blow. So at this point, Adam and Eve are not given a prophetic vision into the future destruction of evil, but are given a picture of an ongoing battle between humankind and the curse. They are given enough hope so that they can continue on with their immediate lives.
Likewise in the wilderness, the Israelites receive a hope of reversal of their curse of death. But the curse itself is not removed – the vipers remain to trouble them. God commands Moses to create a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, and raise it up so that anyone bitten by a viper can look upon it and have the curse reversed. This is almost a magical action because people of this time believed that in some cases a representation of their problem could be the cure or solution. It shows how God is willing to accommodate misunderstandings that people have, in order to be merciful.
It is interesting that the word that is often translated as serpent in Number 21:8 is literally, seraph, meaning “fiery” and a word that is found elsewhere (Isaiah 6) in the Old Testament to represent an angelic being. Perhaps it isn’t coincidence that seraph appears in Numbers and cherubim (kerub), which can be translated “winged creatures wielding flaming swords” (CEB) appears in Genesis 3:24.
In both cases then, the curse falls upon the people but God intervenes to make a way to reverse the curse and bring hope. But will the curse always remain with humankind and with the Israelites?
Jesus becomes the curse to destroy it forever
I think that what I discussed so far is the appropriate context in which to finally understand Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus that is found in John 3:10-15 and Paul’s exposition found in Galatians 3:10-13.
John 3:10 "Jesus answered, "You are a teacher of Israel and you don't know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don't receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don't believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. (CEB)
Galatians 3:10 All those who rely on the works of the Law are under a curse, because it is written, Everyone is cursed who does not keep on doing all the things that have been written in the Law scroll. [Deut. 27:26] 11 But since no one is made righteous by the Law as far as God is concerned, it is clear that the righteous one will live on the basis of faith. [Hab. 2:4] 12 The Law isn't based on faith; rather, the one doing these things will live by them. [Lev. 18:5] 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us—because it is written, Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed. [Deut. 21:23] (CEB)
Just as Adam and Eve are archetypes that represent the entirety of humankind, Jesus is the new archetype that represents all of humankind. It is, in this sense that Jesus Christ is our substitute. Jesus did not go to the cross to satisfy some kind of God’s wrath or to intervene in some supposed penalty imposed by God. Rather, Jesus willingly took upon himself all that the curse of sin and death represents, and destroyed it by becoming the archetypal curse itself and taking it into the realm of death. Through his resurrection, Jesus Christ demonstrated that the power of sin and death would remain in the grave, and that the power of love and sacrifice survives. This power of love is the power to restore and redeem all humankind from the curse that has infected them.
Thus we can see now how it is appropriate that Jesus represents himself as a serpent. The serpent represents the curse, and Jesus becomes the curse. In physics when matter and antimatter collide, both particles are annihilated and great energy is released. When Jesus, the source of life, took upon himself the curse, the very opposite of who he is, could a similar thing have happened? Both the man Jesus and the curse of death, as they were before, are annihilated and no longer exist. In its place a new archetypal man, Jesus Christ, is resurrected with the unlimited energy to restore, heal, and re-create all who come to him and trust him. (The details of the metaphor aren’t perfect, but I hope the illustration suffices.)
Summary: We are Part of the New Creation
I think 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 provides a fitting summary and conclusion.
2 Corinthians 5:14 The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: one died for the sake of all; therefore, all died. 15 He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised.
16 So then, from this point on we won't recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn't how we know him now. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!
18 All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people's sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.
20 So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ's representatives, "Be reconciled to God!" 21 God caused the one who didn't know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God. (CEB)
We are no longer captives to the curse of sin and death. We are part of the new creation. We have this message to spread to the world: that God’s love compelled him to take sin and death upon himself so that all humankind could be rescued from it. If God is like that, who or what do we have to fear? What is stopping you from trusting God and being reconciled to him?
Let us pray…
Thursday, March 12, 2015
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Unquestioning obedience, or faithful questioning? Which hermeneutic a reader of the Bible uses can either lead to violence or love.
The above is, in a nutshell, the thesis of this book by Derek Flood. Christians have frequently struggled with the amount of violence in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, though there is still plenty to be troubled about in the New Testament. Two common options for dealing with these is to skip it altogether (common in liberal Christianity); or, justify violence and maintain it is still applicable today (conservative and fundamentalist Christianity).
Derek proposes a third option: to accept it as reality of how the culture and the times saw God and violence, but to question if it is really ever was representative of God's ways. Ask the question, how does the text fit into the overall trajectory of the Bible which culminates with the command for enemy-love that Jesus gives? This is the hermeneutic of faithful questioning that Derek proposes as the most appropriate way to read the Bible. He suggests that this is how Progressive Christians ought to read it.
Derek highlights some of the most problematic passages in both the Old and New Testaments to argue his case. He shows how the Hebrews and Jews did not have issues with conflicting views of God in scripture, but rather used them as springboards to argue and dialog about the nature of God; that for them, scripture is not the final authority, but a tool to lead them to greater understanding. Derek shows how Jesus and Paul used scripture in this way: not as the final say, but as starting points; and that they had no difficulties in intentionally changing or omitting portions of texts in their interpretations.
Derek also discusses the common arguments raised by inerrantists, infallibists, and literalists (i.e., conservative and fundamentalist Christians) against this kind of hermeneutic. His key argument is that Jesus spoke about leaving the Holy Spirit to guide future Christians into greater truth. His next argument is a corollary: that Paul writes about how "we have the mind of Christ" and because of that, no static text can be the final authority. Inspiration is found in the act of reading; not inherently in the words.
Derek's conclusion is that in order to defend the authority of a static text, force and violence must eventually be used. When a person or a religious group sees the Bible in this way, they must defend their "rightness" and the violence found in the Bible is justification for their means. In order to disarm violence and embrace enemy-love taught by Jesus, this static reading of the text must be abandoned to a more robust and flexible hermeneutic.
This book will appeal to many Progressive Christians and questioning believers. It provides a way out of the rigidness of traditional ways of reading and interpreting scripture while still maintaining faithfulness (Derek would say it is more faithful ) to God and his inspiration of scripture. This book will help liberal Christians take another look at the problematic parts of the Bible. And hopefully for those who hold to a conservative position on scripture, it will at least help explain how Progressives can claim faithfulness while rejecting inerrancy, infallibility, and literalism.
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Sunday, March 08, 2015
Monday, March 02, 2015
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How to Bake Pi by Eugenia Cheng is a fascinating look at mathematics from an atypical perspective. In this work Eugenia shows how math is far larger, varied, and more encompassing than merely solving equations. She introduces each of her chapters with a "recipe" involving real food as an analogy to illustrate the points she makes.
In the early part of the book Eugenia describes how many people find math difficult and drop away at different stages. For some, arithmetic is hard. For other algebra or geometry is where they drop away. For some it might be trigonometry. For others calculus. And so on.
In my own personal experience, I found that I could not get past the plateau of calculus. This book finally gave me insight into why: up to calculus, math was still primarily about solving problems/equations and finding the "right" answer. Starting with calculus and going further into advance mathematics, problem-solving and finding the "right" answer is no longer the goal. My belief was that math was about solving problems, and so calculus increasingly made little sense in my mind. Perhaps if I had known what this book describes about math, I may have had a chance to get past the wall of calculus.
The first part of the book discusses abstractions and generalizations as one of the key goals of math. The second part of the book discusses Eugenia's field of specialty: Category Theory, and how the purpose of this meta-math (or math of math) is to simply math.
The final chapter brings all the earlier pages together as Eugenia summarizes the knowledge and makes a case to have her readers come away with the belief that math isn't hard. She does so by applying in her literary work the principles she discusses in this very chapter: she uses her discussions to bridge the knowledge and belief through understanding. So in the end I find that her math "principles" apply to not just math, but to cooking and to writing.
What is contained in this book is probably of most interest to someone familiar with high school math and onward. Many of the examples given assume a basic knowledge of algebra and geometry.
Eugenia alludes to math education a number of times in her book. Although this is not a book about math education, I believe that the reader can discover a vision for math education that she would like her readers to leave with. I think that this book will be an interesting and helpful volume for aspiring teachers and math educators, from elementary through high school and even into higher ed.
(This review is based on ARC supplied by the publisher through NetGalley.)
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