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theology

Grandfather God

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When I saw God
He had a long, white beard
And He’d bring me gifts
At the end of the year
But the big one comes
In the by and by
From the Santa Claus
Up in the sky
—Kurt Kaiser, Tell It Like It Is

How do you see God?

Still from Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Monty Python tapped into our collective view of God as a grumpy old man in the sky.

I can tell you how Anglo-American culture has depicted him. He’s an old man who lives in the sky surrounded by clouds and shining light. A few apparently see him as a doting grandfather who lets them do whatever they want but who takes a prurient interest in their sex lives. This God has a touch of dementia and sleeps most of the day. He’s kindly and permissive but also passive and weak. He may cheer you on, but he won’t offer any real help beyond time-worn platitudes and old stories about people who never had to deal with all the stress you have to deal with—a mortgage and a gay child and getting the recycling out on time.

We’ve also had the wise-old-man God who is slightly amused by our difficulties. This God looks like Morgan Freeman and treats us with professionalism and excellent customer care. He dresses impeccably and just quietly knows everything. He’s not bad as gods go but still a grandfatherly sort.

More common I think is the grumpy old man who watches you with critical vigilance, waiting for you to slip up. You will often find this God in Christian churches where his sternness helps keep everyone in line. Oh, not that anyone explicitly says that God is an angry grandfather, but when you hear about God’s wrath at sin and the horrible punishments he meted out to his own people, the Jews, it’s not hard to draw your own conclusions. Fortunately, this God is only angry with unbelievers. Believers get a pass because Jesus took their punishment himself. Jesus shields them from God’s wrath.

Strangely enough, Jesus endorses none of these views of God. He taught his disciples not that God was an angry grandfather but that he was a loving father. What if instead of peevish old grump, we saw God as a father in his 30s with young children? What if we imagined him down on all fours giving horsey rides to his kids, then picking them up, tossing them in the air, and catching them? What if God is young and full of life and laughter? What if he delights in his children? What if he longs for his lost children so much that he makes every effort to find them as Jesus says he does in Luke 15? This is the father Jesus tells us about, a father who loves you and delights in you, not a stern taskmaster nor a cruel tyrant nor a nitpicking judge, but a loving, joy-filled, life-affirming father who wants for you all that is best—all the intimacy of a lover, of family and friends that you long for.

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The Dead Man Came Out

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Allowing or Causing

Near the end of Batman Begins, Batman (Christian Bale) confronts Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) in a speeding train. After a fierce fight, it becomes plain that Batman has won, and Ra’s al Ghul expects to be killed. “Have you finally learned to do what is necessary?” he asks Batman. “I won’t kill you,” says Batman, “but I don’t have to save you.” That distinction, between killing and failing to save, is what sets Batman apart from the criminals and from the vigilantes in the League of Shadows. As the audience, we feel the justice in the distinction: killing a man is morally different from letting him die.

Or is it?

What about a doctor who refuses to perform a life saving operation on a child because the child belongs to a hated enemy?

Good Mary, Bad Martha?

I know about Mary and Martha from Luke chapter 10. Martha complained to Jesus because Mary was not helping her with dinner. Jesus rebuked Martha for her anxiety about many things and refused to make Mary help out. “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). I’ve heard dozens of sermons echoing Jesus’ praise for Mary, making it easy to approach the story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection with the notion that Mary is good and Martha is bad.

Both sisters make the same accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I think it is important that we see this statement not just as a fact (Too bad you weren’t here; you could have done something) but as an accusation (Why did you delay coming? You could have prevented our brother’s death, but you didn’t). The sisters were hoping for a healing that never came. They knew that Jesus endangered himself by coming. The Jews were seeking his life. The last time he was in Judea, the crowd had picked up stones to stone him, but he had eluded them. So Jesus had good reason for not visiting at all. John makes it clear, however, that it was not concern for his life that held him up. Jesus deliberately let Lazarus die. He tells his disciples, “[F]or your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” His purpose in letting Lazarus die was to strengthen the faith of his followers.

If a mere man were to do such a thing, we would be appalled. We would call him callous and unfeeling for letting a good man die so he could have a teachable moment with his followers. John intends to astonish us with Jesus’ audacity. Here is a man behaving in a way that only God is allowed to behave. Only God allows good people to die young without being guilty of wrongdoing.

There is a difference, though, between Martha’s accusation and Mary’s. Martha immediately follows up with an astonishing profession of faith: “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” What tremulous hope flickers in that affirmation! Even now. You could have prevented his death, but even now you can ask God for anything—anything!—and he will give it to you. Martha believes—incompletely to be sure, and with fear and trembling—that Jesus can raise her brother from the dead.

To make sure we don’t miss it, Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.”

“I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Martha does what we all do. She tries to take comfort in knowing that her brother will rise again at the last day. But what comfort is there in the all-too-present grief from knowing that your loved one will live again in the distant future? Doctrine is cold comfort. It is also academic. Trust in that future resurrection may bring some comfort into the present, but we can’t test it in any meaningful way. What does it matter now whether the doctrine of the resurrection is true?

Jesus will not allow Martha to take refuge in doctrine. He tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

Then, “Do you believe this?”

Do you really believe, Martha, that God will give me whatever I ask? Do you really believe that I am the source of all life? Do you really believe that death is not the end for those whose life is entrusted to me?

“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

Martha makes her most extraordinary profession of faith. Her trust is not in cold doctrine but in the warm presence of the living Christ who stands before her. Trust in a person is so much more complicated than trust in a doctrine. The doctrine will always behave the same way. It will not ask more of you than you think you can do. It will not make any greater demand on you than to assent to its truth. But Jesus might do anything. He has already let Lazarus die. He can raise him to life. But will he? In declaring her faith in the person of Jesus, Martha allows him to be, really to be, in control of the situation. I trust you. Whatever you do will be right.

Martha returns to her sister, her heart poised on the knife’s edge of faith. She tells Mary that Jesus is asking for her, and Mary goes to him right away. Mary makes the same accusation as her sister, but there is no accompanying profession of faith. Both sisters share an offense against Jesus. We sent for you and you did not come. If you had been here, if you had only been here, our brother would not have died. You let him die. You could have prevented it.

The Offense

Jesus makes no excuses for letting Lazarus die. Elsewhere in John, Jesus claims to do only what he sees his Father doing, so we can assume that it was God’s will and purpose for Lazarus to die. Jesus tells us why: “[I]t is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Lazarus will die for my glory. Jesus lets Lazarus die, lets Martha and Mary experience the grief of his loss, lets them experience doubt and anger and fear and turmoil, all to bring glory to his Father and himself. What kind of God is this, who aggrandizes himself at our expense? John tells us, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” Jesus loved them, and he let them suffer.

There is an important lesson here, especially for parents. Our natural inclination is to prevent our children suffering. We want to protect them and keep them safe. No matter how old they get or how capable they become, we want to keep them from getting hurt. But growing up requires suffering. No one can become mature without experiencing pain, loss, trouble, grief, despair, discomfort, sorrow, remorse,―the list of life’s hurts is endless.

Fortunately, Jesus shows us how to allow suffering. We do it with compassion, by suffering with those who suffer. The glory of God is not just in raising the dead. It is in dying with them and then raising them. It is not just in healing the sick. It is in being scourged and flayed for our healing. It is not just in delivering the prisoners. It is in descending into hell to deliver them. The glory of God is no light thing. It is weighty and majestic. God himself endures suffering to achieve his own glory. Should we be surprised if he asks us to suffer, too?

How easy it is to be offended at a God who allows suffering! How hard it is to trust him! Trusting God is work. It is not for the fainthearted. It is not for quitters. It requires persistent, unrelenting effort. But consider the rewards. “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” Lazarus died. Martha and Mary grieved and were offended at God. But Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and many put their faith in him. The faith of those many was not possible without death and grief and offense.

“Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus asks Martha.

Many have become offended at God. They have buried their offenses to cover up the stench of corruption in their relationship with God. Jesus wants to call out the dead man. Allowing him to do so will be painful, but enduring that pain will result in lasting faith for ourselves and for others. In your suffering, seek God’s purpose, and allow him to glorify himself.

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Taking God Literally

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Listening to the gospel of John over the past couple of days it struck me how often Jesus was misunderstood and how little he did to make himself clear. Moreover, those who misunderstood him almost always did so through taking what he said literally. When he drove the moneychangers out of the temple, he told his critics, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it.”

“This building has been under construction for 46 years, but you will rebuild it in 3 days?”

Not even his disciples understood him. John lets his readers know what it all meant, but in doing so, he lets slip that no one got it until after Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus makes no effort to explain that he was talking about the temple of his body, but it became a part of Paul’s teaching later on.

Later, Nicodemus reveals his own ignorance in taking Jesus’ talk about being born again as a literal rebirth. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus has to break it down for him. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, and spirit gives birth to spirit.” He was talking about a spiritual birth that would open Nicodemus’ eyes to spiritual truth. Paul picks up on this too.

The woman at the well supposes that the living water Jesus talks of giving her will make daily trips to the well unnecessary. He has to explain to her that he is talking about something spiritual. He tells her that God is on the look out for people who will worship him “in spirit and in truth” rather than worshiping in a particular place—and by doing so segregating themselves into “mountain worshipers” and “temple worshipers.”

A couple of chapters further on, Jesus tells the crowds following him that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. To make matters worse, he sounds as if he wants to be taken literally: “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink,” he explains. What kind of crazy talk is this? Is Jesus recommending cannibalism? Many disciples abandon Jesus at this point. They can’t make sense of what he is saying. But the Twelve stick with him, not because they understand him any better, but because they trust him anyway.

Again and again, Jesus says things that his hearers try to shoehorn into a literal interpretation. Again and again, Jesus either leaves them to try and work it out for themselves or patiently explains that he’s talking about spiritual things. When Philip insists that Jesus show them the Father, Jesus sounds really disappointed. You can almost hear him say, “Really, Phil? I’ve been showing you the Father this whole time. How can you even say that?”

Even when he is facing Pilate, Jesus continues to use metaphorical language, although he is careful to explain it to the gentile.

So, what does all this mean? I think it calls into question how much we really understand of God’s word when we insist on taking it literally. Jesus insisted that God’s word is true, but the truth he was interested in was not whether 2 million Israelites could really survive in the desert for 40 years or whether Jonah could really survive for three days in the belly of a big fish. No, the truth he was interested in was the revelation of God’s character: his love and faithfulness and righteousness. The truth that the world needs to hear is that God loves them and has good plans for them if they will only turn from trying to do everything themselves and making a mess of things. They don’t need to hear our unscientific theories about how God could have created the world in a literal six days. They need to hear Jesus say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

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