Immanuel

 

Some “What ifs” of a familiar Christmas passage

Isaiah and Ahaz

The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.  He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. Isaiah 7:14-16

What if Ahaz (king of Judah) had believed Isaiah’s word from God that God was with him?  Isaiah gave Ahaz a timeline for the future of the kings of Israel and of Aram.  A young woman/virgin would conceive, give birth to a son who would be named “God with us”.  That boy would reach the age of knowledge of right and wrong, probably twelve years.  By that time the neighboring kings of Israel and Aram, who Ahaz feared, would no longer be a threat. But, only if Ahaz believed God was with “us” [and not trust in a military alliance with Assyria].  Read verses 17 and following to discover the terrible things that would happen if Ahaz did not listen to the word from God.

What happened:  Ahaz made an alliance with Assyria and traveled there.  He liked the altar he saw there and had one made to use in Jerusalem—he may have been required by the treaty to erect an altar for Assyrian gods.  Israel became a dependent of Assyria.  During the time it took the young woman’s son to reach twelve, the kings threatening Ahaz and Judah were defeated and, one of them, Israel, ceased to exist as a nation.

What would have happened if Ahaz had trusted in “God with us”?

Five hundred years later

 “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 This all happened so that what did the Lord through the prophet speak would be fulfilled: 23 Look! The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him immanuel,” which means “God with us.” Mt. 1:20-23 (NET) [Emphasis from NET]

What if the angel was reminding Joseph of Isaiah’s word to Ahaz of the consequences of not trusting “God with us”?  Then we might conclude that an important part of the message was that Joseph’s trust in God (Immanuel) was essential in the days to come. Challenges included social disapproval due to Mary’s pregnancy, a quick decision about immigration to Egypt under the threat of death, and a son would be born into a world hostile to the message of “God with us.”

For Isaiah, Immanuel meant trusting God, rather than turning to military alliances (violence).    The freedom fighters of a century and a half before Joseph, the Maccabees, decided that only by violent revolt against Syria and a military alliance with Rome could the people of God practice their religion as they should. Their contemporary, writer/compiler of the Daniel experiences, called for faithful living like Daniel and friends, teaching wisdom, and trusting the visions of God’s control of history. The “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time were part of the ruling class that gained power after the successful revolt against the Seleucid (Syrian) government.  The Jewish leaders had chosen violence as a way to protect the temple and their way of worship.   After the Jews gained their independence, the Romans used the treaty with them as a pretext to take over Judah.  Some of the chief priests and legal experts maintained their alliance with Rome for personal economic advantage as well as to protect their religious practices.

Later, the legal experts were frequent opponents of Jesus during his teaching ministry.  At the time of Jesus’ torture and execution, we know that the chief priests worked with the Romans to seek the death of Jesus – Immanuel.  Did the angel bring a word of warning to Joseph because the Jewish leaders, like Ahaz, had made accommodations with the superpower of the day, rather than trusting Immanuel?

What if the Persian astronomers had continued to look for the star they had seen in the East and gone directly to Bethlehem, rather than to Jerusalem?  Although Bethlehem was only five miles from Jerusalem, it is possible to plot a path from “the East” directly to Bethlehem.  One could conclude that they gave in to popular notions of kingship and went Jerusalem because it was the center of political and military power.  If the Persian astronomers had continued to seek the star’s guidance, would the deaths of the boy children around Bethlehem have been avoided?  The “chief priests and keepers of the law” were more concerned with maintaining their alliance with Herod than seeking “God with us”.  Could the astronomers have refrained from telling Jesus’ location to Herod?

A dark shadow extends from Ahaz, through the Maccabees and their descendants, the “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time including with Herod.  It continues through Caiaphas and his allies who were willing to allow the Romans to kill Jesus to protect the place of the ruling classes in Palestine.  We are compelled to ask whether it extends to “collateral damage” of drone strikes and assassinations by order of governments ostensibly seeking peace, freedom and order.  Does it extend to the displacement of Palestinian Arabs and Syrian Arab Christians from land owned by their families for many generations?  The question must be asked even if we acknowledge some moral distance between Herod’s massacre of Judean boys and drone strikes.

Consider, then, the line, connecting Isaiah’s understanding of Immanuel with the wisdom teachers in Daniel-who anticipate shining like stars if death came (Dan. 12:3) -rather than doing violence.  The line extends to the angel’s challenge to Joseph to trust Immanuel and to the angel’s message of peace at Jesus’ birth. The line extends to and beyond Jesus’s weeping over Jerusalem: “If only they knew what made for peace.”*

For Joseph, the “Immanuel” message was a warning of difficulties leading to violence, but also the assurance that God is with him.  But he was encouraged to be faithful.  Today many people of God argue that goodness/justice/freedom of worship can only continue through ultimate reliance on military solutions (although some acknowledge the need for development and diplomacy).   Also, Christians want to use political power to protect, ensure and enforce Christian practices on society.  Ahaz as well as the “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time also sought to protect their control of the political and economic order.  The consequences of this choice in Isaiah’s time, in Joseph’s time, and Jesus’ time should challenge us to reexamine these texts for guidance today.  The answer begins with our willingness to hear the Isaiah and the angel’s message, Immanuel:  God with us.

 

*[Isaiah, the Daniel editor and the gospel writers see faithful covenant living as an essential base for trusting Immanuel.  I hope I have not obscured that base by focusing on the issue of political/military alliances and the reliance on violence versus trust in God.]

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Nothing separates us from God’s love

God has taken charge; from now on he has the last word.”  Ps. 22:28 (Message)

 

Psalms of lament usually begin with the psalmist’s declaration that he is in a really bad place.

Psalm 10

Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you pay no attention during times of trouble?
The wicked arrogantly chase the oppressed;
the oppressed are trapped by the schemes the wicked have dreamed up.
Yes, the wicked man boasts because he gets what he wants;
the one who robs others curses and rejects the Lord.
The wicked man is so arrogant he always thinks,
“God won’t hold me accountable; he doesn’t care.

 

Other Psalms such as Psalm 34 and 69 have similar beginnings.  But, when we read a psalm, we have an expectation that things will change; that God has been present throughout the difficulties, that God will provide help. We read the whole Psalm to understand and interpret and understand the beginning of it.

The first words from Psalm 22 are much more familiar in the King James.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  What from this Psalm would Jesus have us understand?  On the cross, nailed in such a way that he could hardly breathe, he spoke no more than that first line.  Surely Jesus, just as the Psalmist, was speaking from his immediate pain and isolation.  Soon he would be thinking about remembered trust and confidence in God.  Had Jesus not been nailed to the cross in such a position, I believe he have quoted the whole psalm with the movement from a sense of distance from God to full confidence that God was with him.  Consider the context of the scripture to see if there is support for this view.

Context is everything:

An insurance company’s lawyer was questioning an old farmer in court.  The company did not want to pay his claims for injuries. These occurred when their client ran a stop sign and hit the farmer’s trailer that contained his favorite mule.

Lawyer: “Didn’t you tell the police officer “I fine” when he arrived?

Farmer:  Well, that morning I loaded Old Bessie into the trailer and started down the road.  Hadn’t gotten far . . .

Lawyer (interrupting): “Just answer the question.  Did you say, “I’m fine”?

Farmer:  I loaded old Bessie into the trailer  … .

Lawyer:  Just answer the question.  Judge, please instruct the witness to answer.”

Judge:  Why don’t we let the witness continue?  I want to hear what he has to say.

Farmer:  I had Old Bessie in the trailer and we were driving down the road to the vet’s when this red car came zipping through the stop sign and hit the truck and trailer.  I was trying to get out of the truck to check on Bessie who I heard moanin’ and groanin’.  I was afraid she was a goner.

About that time a trooper came up and saw Bessie was a goner so he pulled out his gun and shot Bessie.  I was still trying to clear my head and get over to Bessie when the trooper came up to me with his gun still in his hand.  He said, Hey, old guy, how are you doin’?

I said: “I’m fine, I’m fine”!

Context!

Jesus’ Context:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  So, what is the context?

I think there are three parts to the context.  First, is Jesus’ situation.  Nearly all the disciples have deserted him.  Jesus has pressure on his lungs due to the pull of his arms from his nailed hands.  He feels the burden of the sins of people of all ages have put him on the cross.  As a loving son, he asks John to take care of his mother, Mary.  Jesus knows that like in the parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:28-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19) we have tried to put ourselves in God’s place.  But, as the loving Jesus still speaks words of forgiveness to the criminal crucified with him.  He includes us in the words “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”  We were forgiven, not because Jesus was “forsaken”, but because Jesus interceded with a loving God on our behalf.  A contemporary Christian song include the words “the Father turned his face away”.  Another contains the words “The wrath of God was satisfied when Jesus died”. *  Where do those phrases come from in scripture?  Doesn’t scripture say that God wants to forgive?  How can one say that God deserted Jesus without saying that the Trinity was split apart?  When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing” he clearly assumes his role as our intercessor in the model of Moses and Ezekiel.  After the resurrection, Jesus would be seated at God’s right hand to continue that intercessory role.  Finally, Jesus concludes with a commitment to the Father.   “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

That is the immediate context.

Context of the original words

Psalms of lament like Psalm 22 frequently begin with the psalmist in a bad way.  Awake! Why are you asleep, O Lord? (Psalm 44:24) “You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.” (Psalm 88:6)  Do we conclude that is the whole truth about the Psalmist?  What is the usual way of interpreting a Psalm of lament?  “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.”  Psalm 69:20.  Would Jesus use the first words of Psalm 22 in a way to contradict the later verses?

Then look at the context of the words Jesus quotes from Psalm 22, especially the latter part of the Psalm.

28 God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word.

29 All the power-mongers are before him
—worshiping!
All the poor and powerless, too
—worshiping!
Along with those who never got it together
—worshiping!

30-31 Our children and their children
will get in on this
As the word is passed along
from parent to child.
Babies not yet conceived
will hear the good news—
that God does what he says.

Psalm 22, The Message

 

Broader Biblical context

Several passages in John tell us that Jesus and the Father are one.  Especially note John 10:30 and John 16:32. Jesus speaks further of this identity in John 17.    Paul understood what Jesus meant when he wrote: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.”  God was present with Jesus in his hour of deepest need.  This text, for me, does not say Jesus was forsaken and condemned that I might be forgiven and accepted.2  Therefore we can be confident that God will be with us when we experience great need.  Surely, in this hour, Jesus temptation to despair was greater than any we can experience. The writer of Hebrews assures us, that Jesus was “tempted in every way as we are”.   Did Paul think about Jesus at the cross when he wrote these words?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39 NET

How do we embrace the whole of the Psalm in our understanding?  I would like to believe that Jesus, with the Psalmist would affirm:

God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word. Psalm 22:28

 

 

*Michael Card, “Love crucified alone”;  Stuart Townsend, “How deep the Father’s Love”.  Other similar:  Natalie Grant, In Christ Alone; Chris Tomlin:  “You Are My King” 2I’m forgiven because you were forsaken” These songs do an excellent job with most of the Gospel story.  But they obscure an important part:  God was always reconciled to us, God always wanted to forgive us and God always wanted to restore us.  It is we as humans that need to change and be changed. I am still working out the implications of this.  Our understanding of God and how he forgives and restores leads to important actions.  Believing in a punishing God leads to sentences for persons guilty of crimes that feature jail first, rather than restorative justice; solitary confinement rather than opportunities for education and improvement; and capital punishment rather than compassionate care.  I am still thinking through this aspect of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

My thinking on this topic was shaped by reading Darren Belousek, Atonement, Justice and Peace.  Any confusion is mine.

 

Other scriptures to consider:

“When you all run away from me and leave me alone, I won’t be alone, because My Father is with me.” (John 16:32).

Corporate Lament

  • Examples include: Psalms 12, 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129

Personal Lament  (these psalms fit more than one category)

  • Examples include: Psalms 3, 4, 5, 7, 9-10, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27*, 28, 31, 36*, 39, 40:12-17, 41, 42-43, 52*, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 64, 69, 70, 71, 77, 86, 89*, 120, 139, 141, 142

  

Laughing at leaders/respecting leaders Two Biblical perspectives

Laughing at leaders

Making fun of those in authority has been long a way of disguising political criticism.  In our day, little effort is made to hide the criticism such as Saturday Night Live, but in the times of autocratic rulers, open satire could bring banishment, imprisonment or death.  Setting the events in long ago and far away provides additional disguise for the criticism of contemporary rulers.  There is Biblical precedent for laughing at rulers.  For the Hebrews who suffered under the oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes (ruled 175-164 BCE) the choices were accepting suffering in silence, accepting the Antiochus’ brutal efforts** to make them become like the Greeks or join the guerilla activity leading to active rebellion.  The later leaders of this rebellion were known as the Maccabees.   Making fun of leaders was part of the scheme by the Daniel editor to bring down the oppressive ruler.  One group of Jews relied on the stories and visions of Daniel for guidance.  That guidance included ridiculing the rulers; showing the examples of faithfulness to the Torah of Daniel and friends; and affirming the appropriateness of civil disobedience; and the teaching of wisdom.  Hope in the resurrection completed their arsenal of weapons against the oppressor.

In Daniel one food offered to idols brought wisdom according to the king.  Vegetables, Daniel’s health food, God’s food, did just as well.  The lack of details about the connection between details here and in the Levitical Code suggests that this was more than faithfulness to the food code of Leviticus.

Why would the king kill all of his of his advisors?  Did this ruler decided to fire (kill) all his advisers instead rather than being embarrassed by his forgetfulness?  The experts listed in chapter two were the king’s chief advisors, religious experts, the spokesmen of the king’s gods.  The king later praised the God whose diet gave more wisdom to the dream’s interpreter than the king’s diet.

Arrogant and boastful leaders seem to be present in all ages.  The Babylon king had been warned about taking credit for the blessings of God and the accomplishments granted him.  Our Hebrew writer (chapter three) sees God reducing this braggart to a cud-chewer for a year to help him learn humility.

Simple worship characterizes Hebrew ritual.  In chapter four, the odd statue and the variety of participants, plus the repeat in naming of them suggests that this is a weird, highly complicated worship setting.  The Hebrews would find this amusing.  This contrasts with the simple presence of the four in the furnace.  The humor of the contrast of the wild commands of the kings—contradicting his earlier threats—versus the silent power of the fourth one in the furnace is clear.

Chapter five brings the five-finger terror to the ruling classes of Babylon.  The Babylonians desecrated the temple vessels by using them in a pagan banquet.  (This paralleled the pig sacrifice at Jerusalem in 168 BCE.)  The overthrow of the Babylonian dynasty affirmed the message of the visions that God would overthrow the evil empires. Violent revolt such as the Maccabees promoted was not necessary.

The foolish Babylonian leaders jealous of Daniel thought that the “god for a month” plan (Chapter 6) would bring down their enemy. The Babylonian leaders sought the rank and status that Daniel was given.  But if they could trick the king, Daniel would be fed to the lions. Daniel’s prayers to the eternal God continued, so, it was the schemers that the lions consumed.

How God works

Throughout these accounts we see God exposing the arrogance and foolishness of lords and kings. God exposed and defeated them by various means. Faithfulness to God (and in chapter 11, the teaching wisdom), not violent action was required of Daniel and friends.  Whether violence was an option is not the question here.  The reality was that God showed how puny and helpless rulers were in the presence of God’s power.  The Daniel writer used humor (as well in the later chapters visions of God’s power) to remind his fellow sufferers that God would defeat their enemies.

 

(*My speculations about humor in Daniel were provided some scholarly support when I discovered an article on court jesters.  David M. Valeta, Court or Jester Tales? Resistance and Social Reality in Daniel 1-6, PERSPECTIVES IN RELIGIOUS STUDIES 32(2005) 309-324.) On Daniel and opposition to Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, see Apocalypse against empire: theologies of resistance in early Judaism.  Portier-Young, Anathea, Grand Rapids, Mich. : William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011

 

Respecting leaders

Psalm 72

What model do we have for understanding what a leader should be?  This psalm provides important principles.  In the New Testament Mary confirms these principles in her prophecy before Elizabeth.

Actions worthy of respect:

May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.
May he endure[a] as long as the sun,
as long as the moon, through all generations.
May he be like rain falling on a mown field,
like showers watering the earth.
In his days may the righteous flourish
and prosperity abound till the moon is no more.

May he rule from sea to sea
and from the River[b] to the ends of the earth.

Respect will come

May the desert tribes bow before him
and his enemies lick the dust.
10 May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores
bring tribute to him.
May the kings of Sheba and Seba
present him gifts.
11 May all kings bow down to him
and all nations serve him.

More actions worthy of respect

12 For he will deliver the needy who cry out,
the afflicted who have no one to help.
13 He will take pity on the weak and the needy
and save the needy from death.
14 He will rescue them from oppression and violence,
for precious is their blood in his sight.

15 Long may he live!
May gold from Sheba be given him.
May people ever pray for him
and bless him all day long.

Respect and prayer

This Psalm was likely written for David, a military man and apparently a ruler with administrative ability.  The book of Samuel and Kings detail his battles and efforts to establish control over Israel and the areas conquered.  But military and administrative skills are not mentioned here.  Compassion is the main theme for which the King is praised.   We will want to respect leaders who achieve greatness by caring for the poor and helpless.  These verses should also be the content of our prayers for our leaders.

 

“Bread of Life?” Too many carbs!

bread.jpg

How do carb hating Americans begin to understand Jesus’ words on “bread of life”? My mother baked bread. She encouraged Julia to bake bread and Julia has baked bread at nearly every other week for the nearly 50 years of our marriage. I really enjoy her bread. During tomato season a BLT, usually without the B, is a frequent feature of my lunch. Colder weather brings out my carefully seasoned cast-iron skillet for grilled cheese with the addition of mustard, then meatloaf or sprouts or Lebanon bologna or whatever compliment is available.

Until my Meniere’s was brought under control bread toasted was a first food welcomed after a bout of nausea. (That and Cheerios which I still associate the Biblical character Legion. After recovery from nausea, getting dressed and eating food again—Cheerios usually—I felt I, like Legion, was “clothed and in my right mind.”)

But bread “of life”? For the first century citizen, according to a bit of research I did, bread made up a third to a half of the diet by volume. On this year’s Thanksgiving Feast table, I am not sure I saw any bread—there was some in the stuffing/filling/dressing. Probably the five loaves and two fishes the boy carried in his bag would give us a volume of ten to one or so. He probably ate the dates his mother packed.

In an era when Wonder Bread was first introduced, Consumer Reports experiments determined that rats could not be kept alive with the bread. How can we gain any sense of Jesus’ “bread of life” saying? Even with the vitaminized version of bread today “in a healthy diet” as the bread loaf label says, do Jesus’ words have any clarity? Has this rumination brought me any closer to a first hearer’s understanding of Jesus’ words? Can the tools of historians and cultural anthropologists cut through the veil of 21 centuries to open up the truth of what Jesus was teaching? Will eating a Biblical diet bring me closer to Jesus?

 

 

Grace for the journey

Do “Marvelous grace” or “Wonderful grace of Jesus” aid us in living as Christians?

Much-loved songs like the ones mentioned above celebrate one kind of grace. Being ‘saved by grace’ is often thought of as referring to a past, usually datable event (at least in my upbringing). “Marvelous grace of Jesus” jumps from the initial experience of grace to the final grace of God’s presence. As joyful as it is to sing, “Wonderful grace of Jesus” wouldn’t it be good if it had a verse celebrating grace for dealing with the issues of life? Due to the familiarity of Eph. 2:8 “By grace are you saved through faith…” grace is most associated with the initial saving event in our lives. Perhaps the importance of grace to that event cannot be overemphasized. But does grace stop there? In the songs referred to above there is a jump from that initial event to heaven. This is the common pattern in many songs and hymns. * A notable exception is the verse from “Amazing Grace” that concludes “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.” “Open the wells of grace and salvation” comes close. Without mentioning grace other gospel songs reflect the spiritual pilgrimage. But what pattern do we find in the use of grace in the Bible?

Definitions

The word ‘grace’ (NIV) occurs 116 times. Some of them refer in general terms to the goodness of God or signs of the goodness of God, such as in Luke’s account of Jesus: (“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.”; or the description of Stephen in Acts 6:8.) “Grace” and “saved” or “salvation” occur together frequently and are synonymous at places. Salvation, too, has a continuing aspect. While we were saved (past), we are being saved (present), and we will be saved (future). The middle tense of saved is ‘grace connection’ for this essay.

Grace for weakness

Paul in a very familiar passage connects this aspect of God’s goodness to a weakness in his life when he reports that God has told him:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Would it be appropriate to conclude that whenever we become aware of a weakness in our lives, God’s grace is already available to deal with that weakness?

Grace for growing

Beyond using our gifts, especially in giving, God’s grace is available to us for growing as Jesus’ disciples:

“Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. (Acts 20:32)

An important part of that growth is seeing the pattern of attitude and behavior of those around us who are not followers of Jesus and determining to live as God created us to live.

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, (Titus 2:11, 12)

Avoiding error by learning more about Jesus will keep us growing.

Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

Grace and generosity

Paul seems to see a special kind of grace that leads to generosity with gifts of money.

But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us —see that you also excel in this grace of giving. (2 Cor. 8:7)

Grace gifts

Another part of ‘grace for living’ is “grace gifts”. (The word in Greek for grace is charis, and charismata for grace gifts.) Romans 12:6-8, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 12:1-14 give us lists of ‘grace gifts’ that all Jesus’ followers have.

In Hebrews also we are encouraged to use these gifts of grace.

Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. (Heb. 13:10

How is God’s grace working for growth in your life? What songs and hymns have been of help to you?

 

*I would be glad if anyone would bring to my attention songs that include something about ‘grace for living’.

Another patriotism? Love of the Father

Bible Knowledge Quiz

How many times does each of the following phrases occur in the New Testament?

God of hope      God of love      God of peace       God of wrath       God of judgment

[Find the answer below]

What kind of God do you serve and worship? What image of God comes to mind when you think about God? When you feel the need for something or someone beyond yourself for support or comfort, what vision of God do you have or feeling about what God is like?

For me this question was a puzzle, especially when others in the small group talked of a grandfatherly person on whose lap they could climb or a large, fearful elderly person. The only image that came to me was from a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon of Calvin at school. When Calvin was not learning as expected, a large, ugly scary looking teacher grabbed him by the ear and dragged him to the blackboard to ‘teach him’. The other image I had of God was of a very large dark area with bits of light showing around the edges. Later, I realized that image of God looked somewhat like photographs of complete solar eclipse at the height of the eclipse.

What kind of God do you think of when seeing “In God we trust.” on coins? When you recite the new version of the Pledge of Allegiance using the phrase, “under God”? The God of the Hebrew Bible, which we call the Old Testament, is sometimes seen as a violent, revengeful and judging God. That may have been a major component of my image of God. With the benefit of teaching, reading and meditation, I realized that image needed to change. Most important was God’s image/likeness/appearance in Jesus.

From the Bible

Jesus assured us that if we have seen him, we have seen the father. The God that Jesus showed us is a God of love, compassion and justice. Through Jesus we see how God was leading his people in the past and what he was expecting of his people in the future. That includes today. At times governments have expected or required actions of the people of God that differ from our example, Jesus. Often governments have assured citizens that their duty is to kill their enemies, proclaiming the support of God for this. Political leaders declare that duty to the state or patriotism should motivate us to do whatever the commander-in-chief or king or Caesar tell us to do. But is that what the God revealed in Jesus wants us to do? Perhaps redefining ‘patriotism’ can help us think more clearly about how our actions could be guided by the image we have of God as revealed in Jesus.

Patriotism defined

The other ‘patriotism’ I would like to propose is love of our Father in heaven (not the father land). The usual understanding of ‘patriotism’ is love for or devotion to one’s country that includes love of the ‘fatherland.’ Those feeling this kind of patriotism will fly flags, have “God and Country” or “God bless America” bumper stickers and feel having “In God we trust” on our coins is important. Other believers in a more standard patriotism emphasize the importance of protecting family, friends and property and are willing to give and take lives to protect others.

Actually, the root of “patriotism” is the Latin “pater” or Greek “patria” just means father. There is nothing in the word root itself suggesting love of nation/land/country. I am thankful that I was born in the United States. God has blessed us with natural beauty and rich resources. However, at times the activities of our government, its leaders and those who support its purposes conflict with our love of the father. Our heavenly father through his son, Jesus, tells us to love our enemies so that we can share the love that the father has for us with all those who were our enemies.

Our Father, the God of peace

The other patriotism, the love of God the Father, includes living the life and sharing in the death and resurrection that the Son of God experienced. The phrase “God of peace” occurs many more times in the New Testament than the others is a clue to the kind of Father we serve. You check, but the phrases “God of wrath” and “God of judgment” do not appear. “God of hope” and “God of love”, only once each. But, “God of Peace” occurs many times. (From Willard Swartley’s book: Covenant of Peace.)

Can we connect Jesus words: “My kingdom is not of [like] the world’s kingdoms or my servants would fight” in John 18 with later words from Jesus?

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (I John 2:15)

Love of the Father: Another patriotism.

 

 

Exodus to exile

Isaiah 40 : Preparing for the suffering servant

For a people who have been torn from their homeland, their center of worship and perhaps from their God, comfort was needed. So, the prophet begins Isaiah 40 with assurance that their punishment is over, that Yahweh is coming to them with mercy. The Hebrews need to be reminded what their God is doing. The Hebrews that the prophet was writing to, were captives. While one need not think of the Hebrews being in a refugee camp (remember Jeremiah’s instructions to “seek the peace of the city …”) their situation was not pleasant. So the prophet begins his messages with words of comfort.

The New Exodus theme appears a number of places in chapters 40-55 of Isaiah. But Chapter 40 does not make a return to Judea explicit. Israel is told that they will not need to do the fighting to defeat. Just like at the Red Sea, God clears the way. Instead of water pushed aside, roads will be straightened, hills leveled, and valleys filled in to make the journey easier. According to The Message, rocks and ruts will be removed. But, wait— God is coming to His people! That is the way his glory will be revealed.

Then in verse ten the prophet declares what God will do when he arrives. “He is going to pay back his enemies.” There is little detail about the when/how/what of that payback. In contrast with that image of God, the next of God’s word through the prophet returns to the spirit of the first verses of the chapter with the gentle shepherd image.

Acknowledging the God of Judah and Babylon

The prophet’s listeners may have experienced the harrowing journey to Babylon (900 miles-on foot?) or maybe their children heard the stories that were passed down to them. God’s promise to clear the way and take care of the enemy contrasted with what happened about seventy years earlier. The contrast appears also with the Psalm 137 tells us they refused to sing songs of Zion and Ezekiel found a valley of dry bones. So in verses 12-17 the prophet forcefully reminds the Hebrews of their foundational belief in a Creator God of the entire universe. This was not just a God of Judah. Their God is present and in control in Babylon as well.  Then the prophet contrasts God with human creations called gods. Verses 21-24 describe how God maintains the universe. In various ways the power of God over the whole world is emphasized.

Waiting for strength

The first and last sections of Isaiah 40 are the most familiar ones of the chapter due to familiar songs based on them. The “wait” songs should remind us of the connection between 40:28 and 40:31. Both contain the words “weary” and “faint”. Humans may be weary or faint, but God is always strong. In other passages the word, “wait” nearly always comes as a command from God in the context of violence by evil humans.  The “wait” verses in Psalms and the prophets, the oppressors of the poor, weak, or oppressed may have been fellow Hebrews. Here, those waiting to be rescued from the oppressor are all people of God. Here they are given assurance God will be the one to defeat the oppressor. God’s people will be given youthful, eagle-like strength to return to covenant living as God deals with the enemy. But the explicit return to Judah is not made.

Given the beginning of the Isaiah 40, one might assume that the author is encouraging the travelers headed from Babylon to Jerusalem. But could the author’s audience be the Hebrews who stayed in Babylon (were they a majority of the Hebrews)? Next we need to ask, for what are God’s people to wait? The first verses of the chapter suggest a road or path is being prepared. But even though the prophet mentions Jerusalem, I don’t find the text making the return to Judah the focus. Due to the use of Handel’s Messiah, “Comfort ye”, “He shall lead his flock” and “And the glory”, we think of Isa. 40 as a Christmas passage. But Isaiah 40 may be leading us toward Easter. Isaiah 41-53 tells us about the suffering servant. But if we are to think of the suffering servant “waiting,” that seems at odds to “rising up with wings like eagles”. Perhaps Isaiah 40 points toward the suffering servant looking forward to the vindication of his/their suffering.