Christianity 201

August 30, 2017

Lessons from a Text Sung More Than Studied

We’re paying a return visit to Jack Levison at the Patheos blog Spirit Chatter. Click the title below to read at source.

Jacob’s Ladder and Esau’s Tragedy

Every year, without fail, we sang the chorus Jacob’s Ladder at church camp. Sung by a hundred Long Island high schoolers, it was interminable. (It never sounded like this. Wow!) We certainly had no idea this was a Negro Spiritual with a history that stretched back 150 years or so.

So we sang it. We sang the life out of it.

We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.

We sang the next verse.

Every rung goes higher, higher,
Every rung goes higher, higher,
Every rung goes higher, higher,
Soldiers of the cross.

And the next, which began, “Sinner, do you love my Jesus?” You can figure out by now how it continued.

We ended with the last stanza, which was a little more rousing because it had a dollop of guilt loaded onto it:

If you love him, why not serve him?

The problem is not the song (though the way we sang it was a problem) but that it’s often all we know about the story of Jacob’s ladder, in Genesis 28:10-19, this week’s lectionary text.

The story is so much bigger, better. Another stunner in a long line of stunners in the book of Genesis.

Here, with his head on a stone, Jacob has a dream in which God reiterates a promise first made to Abraham and Sarah, then to Isaac and Rebekah, and now, finally, to Abraham and Sarah’s grandson.

I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.

This promise, in one form or another, pops up at various places in the book of Genesis, just in case we thought that God, who is otherwise pretty invisible—there are very few thunderbolts thrown—had backed out of the human drama. (Who could blame God for that?!) It’s like the Cascade Mountains after a takeoff from Seattle; peeking through the clouds, you see Mount Baker, Mount Rainer, Mount Hood, Mount Saint Helens, and Mount Adams. They pop through the clouds, a line of them, the way these promises punctuate the human drama in Genesis.

In this story, the cushion for the promise is a dream: a ladder between earth and heaven. What’s so important about this dream? I’ve got five things for you to think about.

  • A sad son. What precedes this dream is really pathetic—and it’s about Esau. Esau saw that his father “Isaac had blessed Jacob” and sent him to find a wife not from the Canaanites (the inhabitants of the land). So what did Esau do? He imitated Isaac by taking a(nother) wife, Mahalath, Abraham’s granddaughter. We talked last week about sibling rivalry. It’s pathetic. Esau wants Isaac’s approval, so, like Jacob, he too marries a woman not from the Canaanites.
  • A brother blowing it. Esau doesn’t pick a granddaughter through the line of Isaac but through Ishmael, the bastard son of Abraham and Hagar. If he did it on purpose, he was a screwup. If he did it without realizing it, he was a loser. Either way, Jacob is still the pretty boy.
  • A divine snub. Jacob gets the dream, wouldn’t you know? Not Esau. The rich get richer. Why can’t Esau have his own dream? Why can’t Esau spend a night at the Gate of Heaven?
  • An uncommon adventure. Jacob was scared poo-less. It says as much: “And he was afraid.” I think it’s better to translate this, “He was scared poo-less (more or less)” because he then says, “This place is frightening!” (It’s the same Hebrew root.) Don’t be tricked by a translation like “This place is awesome.” That’s too tidy and trendy. And let this be a lesson to us. We sometimes think people in Bible-times had lots of visions, boatloads (like Noah) of God-experiences. They didn’t. Nope. This was a big-time exception–and Jacob knew it.
  • A useless oath. Jacob didn’t let the promise sink in. He had a vision, a very active one, by the way, of angels going up and down, but the main point, that God would be with him, just didn’t sink in. So afterwards, he made a vow: if God would be with him and take him home, he’d make the stone pillow a shrine and call it God’s House and, more important, give a tenth of his stuff to God. You see? Jacob didn’t get it at all. He bargained for what he already had, what God had already said.

For a bunch of mostly white, teenaged Long Islanders, the chorus, Jacob’s Ladder, was boring. Atonal, too. But its real problem is that it’s all many of us know about the real story and what comes before and after it. Not any more. Read this week’s lectionary—the whole of Genesis 28—and listen to this podcast to discover some other things you’ve missed in this profound story of how you can meet God.


The podcast is available at the website of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Houston.

 

October 18, 2012

The Serpent’s Words Still Echo

This summer I met Clarke Dixon who is a new pastor in our community. He blogs at Pastor Clarke’s Sermon Tidbits, where I found this under the title,  Genesis 3 and The End of a Golden Era

Golden Era is a time we look back upon with fondness, a time we think of as having something special about it. We might think of the golden era of cars, which for me would be the 1980s as I could still do my own oil changes on the cars I owned from that era. Since those cars I have not even been able to find the oil filters never mind change them. And we might think of the golden era for music.  Eighties again with bands like U2, and REM, and other bands I could easily spell. As for the Bible, there is no doubt that Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are a golden era. In those good ole days God “saw that it was good.” Also, Adam was over the moon about his new partner Eve and both of them could enjoy a full relationship with God. All is good. But it didn’t last very long. In fact in my edition of the Bible there are 1048 pages and the golden era is done by page 3! So what went wrong?

We might jump to the conclusion that everything went wrong when Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit and that this is primarily a matter of obedience. However things began to unravel before that and in fact the disobedience was a symptom of a bigger problem. What is the root problem? Let’s look at where it all starts going wrong:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,  3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”  (Genesis 3:1,2 NIV)

You can’t hear the serpent’s tone but you can imagine it: “Did God really say . . ?” I imagine the tone to be one that sows ominous seeds. It is a bit like my Dad’s complaint about how the Irish (which includes my Mum, my brother and I) will ask a question while giving the answer they want to hear: “you don’t really want to do that, do you?” On the lips of the serpent to Eve, “Surely God didn’t say something as silly as that, did he?” The seeds of doubt are sown. Eve corrects the snake somewhat, but then comes the punchline:

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.  5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  (Genesis 3:1-5 NIV)

The seeds of doubt give way to a blooming assault on trust.  The serpent’s words may as well be “God is a liar, listen to me for I know better.” This is not merely a matter of obedience, this is primarily a matter of trust as Eve and Adam end up placing their trust in the serpent rather than God. Not only that but Eve trusts her own judgement, and Adam likewise, over God’s:

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  (Genesis 3:6)

We live in a time and place where the serpent’s words are like an echo that keeps coming back like a broken record (did I mention record players and the golden era of musical gadgets?); “God didn’t really say that, did he? God doesn’t really even exist, does he? You don’t really believe that, do you? Your religion is full of fools who are lying to you, trust us.” Seeds of doubt in previous generations have given way to a blooming assault on trust in our day. How must we cope as we see the core problem of the fall in Genesis 3, misplaced trust, replayed over and over again in our day? Two things:

  1. Training in apologetics. With Adam and Eve the problem was not merely that they stopped trusting God, but rather that they placed greater trust in the serpent and in their own ideas. And so today, I don’t think the problem is that people stop trusting God, or fail to place their trust in God, so much as they place greater trust elsewhere. Experts say this and that about such and such, and “we trust that, end of story”. However, there are many wonderful experts who have much to say about the same things from a Christian perspective and who evidence a wonderful trust in God. We do well to learn this stuff! There are many great resources for apologetics available, we might even call it a golden era of apologetics (email me for recommendations if you like).
  2. Follow Jesus. Just as there was a temptation at the beginning of humanity, there was a temptation at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. If you take a moment to read Luke 4:1-13 you will see something remarkable. With every temptation Jesus responds to the devil with “it is written” and a quotation from the Old Testament. “Actually, what God says is . . .” and Jesus begins his ministry with a complete trust and confidence in the Father.

As we live in such a skeptical society as ours, assaulting trust on every side as if we are somehow stuck in Genesis 3, let us commit to being more knowledgeable Christians who follow Jesus closely. And remember, by the grace of God the golden era is ahead of us!

November 9, 2011

The Front of the Book

If we’re honest, most of the tensions and debate within some Christian circles are concerned with issues arising out of the front of the book (Genesis) and the back of the book (Revelation).  Not that the 64 books in-between don’t also present their share of challenges; such is the nature of ‘seeing through a glass darkly;’ the last word, darkly, surprisingly accepted by my spell-checker.

When it comes to the front of the book, much ink has been spilled and much fellowship has been fractured by division between young earth creationists and old earth creationists.   Websites like Answers in Genesis and Answers in Creation present the two sides to the debate; while bookstore shelves can be confusing since all the books sit — generally alphabetically — in a single section called “Creation Science” or as a subset of the apologetics section.  If your church wants to have an evening or a weekend where this issue is presented, it’s entirely possible to book a speaker or ministry team and overlook checking which side of the discussion they subscribe to.

Old earth creationism also allows for the possibility of what’s called theistic evolution; or the idea that evolution was the means God used to bring us to the point where we find ourselves now, or what we could term ‘the age of man.’  My personal belief is that I can accept the idea that the ‘days’ of Genesis 1 are not necessarily literal, I can accept the idea that much of Genesis 1 and 2 are somewhat poetic in nature, trying to explain something so far beyond our understanding, just as words can’t describe the vision John experienced described at the back of the book.  I just think there are too many flaws — both scientific and theological — in evolutionary theory to go down that road.

But not all old earth creationists believe in theistic evolution, which makes for a bit of a divide within their community.

Still, the idea of a 6,000 year-old earth with an apparent age — the view I long subscribed to — is equally tenuous when you go out in the evening and look at stars, the light from which may have originated more than 6,000 years ago.

Does it matter?

I think that believers who are trying to understand the nature of God — to really know him — should be asking themselves questions on this issue from time to time.   It should neither be an obsession nor should it be a concern if we can’t fathom all the nuances of creation; but it should be somewhere on our radar.  In fact, I believe our idea who God is will actually shape our opinion on some of the facets of this kind of discussion.

Why mention this today?

I was reminded that this discussion rages on while stopping by Internet Monk, one of the longest running Christian blogs, and certainly a very Christianity 201-ish (or 301-ish) place for deeper discussion.   A recent item there looked at the responses of Peter Enns to an interview that Albert Mohler — a young-earth, six-day creationist — did on National Public Radio; responses by Enns which included this one and this one.

Enns writes:

I am writing, rather, for the sake of those who are living with the consequences of what Mohler says they must believe–those who feel trapped in Mohler’s either/or rhetoric, that to question a literal interpretation of Scripture concerning creation puts one on the path to apostasy.

I find the phrase ‘path to apostasy’ particularly intriguing.  Does a ‘liberalization’ of our view on this subject put other doctrinal understanding at risk?  Does it change our doctrine of man, our doctrine of the nature of God, and perhaps even affect our doctrine of salvation? Or does this issue stand apart from other theological implications.