Just wanted to post a brief notice that the Genesis sermon series and the Wednesday night Matthew sermon series have now been added to the sermon archives of the Walking Together Ministries site. I had been posting sermon audio and links to the manuscripts on the sermon page of www.cbcnlr.org as well as weekly links in the sidebar of the homepage here, but they are now posted in the archives here as well. All sermons from here on out will be posted at www.cbcnlr.org as well as here each week, like we used to do. Thanks so much!
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. 36 And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Afshin Ziafat has shared his rather fascinating story with Decision Magazine.
I was born in Houston and grew up in a devout Muslim home. My dad was very involved in the Iranian Muslim community…Growing up, I was taught the five pillars of Islam and told that if I did them to the best of my ability, then maybe I’d get to Heaven.
I spoke Farsi, not English, so God, in His incredible plan, provided a Christian lady who tutored me, teaching me the English language every day by reading books to me. When I was in the second grade, she said, “Afshin, I want to give you the most important book that you’ll ever read in life.” As she handed me a small New Testament, she asked me to promise to hold onto it until I was older…
Every day, I’d read under the covers in my bed with a flashlight so my parents wouldn’t see what I was doing. Meanwhile, at my high school, a Christian student sat across the table from me at lunch and told me about Jesus. I’d debate against him each day, and then at night I’d go home to read more about Jesus.
One day, I got to the Book of Romans, and the third chapter completely changed my life. I read about a righteousness that comes apart from what I do for God. This righteousness comes as a gift to be received by faith. I was struck by Romans 3:22, which says that this righteousness comes to all who believe. I thought I was born a Muslim and would always be a Muslim, but that verse said that this righteousness was for anyone who believes, of any ethnicity. A couple weeks later, a guy invited me to an evangelistic crusade, where I heard the Gospel proclaimed and came to faith in Christ…
I decided to hide my newfound faith. I would sneak out to church, intercept mail from the church I was attending and keep my Bible hidden.
But my dad found out. He’d seen my Bible, and he’d also seen other evidences in my life. He sat me down and said, “Son, what’s going on? There’s something different about you.”
I said, “Dad, I’m a Christian.”
“Afshin,” he said, “if you’re going to be a Christian, then you can no longer be my son.”
Everything in my flesh wanted to say, “Forget it. I’ll be a Muslim.” I didn’t want to lose the relationship with my dad. So even I was surprised when I said, “Dad, if I have to choose between you and Jesus, then I choose Jesus. If I have to choose between my earthly father and my Heavenly Father, then I choose my Heavenly Father.” My father disowned me on the spot.
Ziafat would go on to become a pastor and, by God’s grace, he now has a relationship with his father, though his father has yet to come to faith in Christ. But the story raises a question that is, as we have seen, a most literal question for many people in the world today: if following Christ meant losing the peace of your home and family life or even losing your home or family itself, would you still follow Him? Would you follow Him if it cost you everything and everyone? Jesus speaks to this difficult question in Matthew 10.
Man, I just don’t know. Back in the day I considered Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon’s book Resident Aliens to be truly revolutionary. It had a counter-cultural ecclesiology that eschewed both Constantinianism and liberal enculturation. I have read more of Hauerwas than Willimon since then, but, based on this autobiography, Willimon has become as frustrating as Hauerwas has become in some regards.
Don’t get me wrong. The book is engaging and often laugh-out-loud funny. It is also often very insightful. Willimon’s take on the modern ministerial emphasis on self-care, for instance, was intriguing and most-welcome as was his righteous exasperation with, say, Robert Schuller. His recounting of his conversation with Schuller, by the way, was utterly fascinating.
A good friend recommended this book and, truly, I am glad he did. He thought that Willimon’s many references to South Carolina would interest me. They certainly did! Willimon grew up in the upstate whereas I grew up in the mid-state of South Carolina. We are of different generations, to be sure, but I truly did find his frequent allusions to South Carolina—the state, her history, her characteristics, and her foibles—familiar.
And I’ll say this: Willimon really is quite humorous and is a wit. There were some great turns of phrase and memorable lines, many of which are highlighted in my Kindle version of the book and will soon be catalogued in my database of quotes and quips and illustrations.
Also, I appreciated how Willimon was able to see the virtues of those with whom he would not normally be associated. Specifically, I thought that his handling of Billy Graham and his speaking at Duke Chapel was gracious and even appreciative.
So what’s my problem? My problem is that Willimon sometimes seems a bit too cute for his own good. Some of the provocating seemed a bit forced. Also, he takes some well-deserved swipes at ministerial ego while, sometimes quick on the heels of these swipes, demonstrating quite a robust ego himself. To be fair, he seems more than aware of his own struggles in this area and admits as much. And, to be even fairer, I myself struggle with this without the added benefit of having Willimon’s mind and accomplishments! Ha! So I should perhaps be careful. Even so, there are, at points, underlying currents of self-focus that were a bit jarring to me, perhaps because I understand these. So maybe these were cautionary for me as well.
But I suppose my main problem is the way in which Willimon (and Hauerwas) are so willing to betray their own brilliance and willingness to go against the liberal status quo when it comes to questions like homosexuality and gay marriage. Like Hauerwas, Willimon offers no attempt at a substantive biblical rationale for, say, allowing gay weddings at Duke Chapel or his disregard for conservative Methodism’s desire to remain orthodox on these questions and issues. His comments on these important issues (again, like Hauerwas’) seem so trite to me, so ill-formed, so very capitulatory.
Want an example? Here you go:
Same-sex marriage? Being in the fidelity-promoting, promise-keeping, forgiveness-receiving business, the church, you’d think, would be eager to find one more occasion to make people make promises, welcoming anyone who dared to put his or her life at the mercy of the future with another human being. Go figure. (Kindle Locations 2393-2396).
Yeah, go figure, Will. Surely those who agree with Willimon’s position here must admit that this kind of reasoning—with its utter lack of engagement with scripture, its avoidance of the fundamental issues involved with the question, and it’s quaint, shrug-of-the-shoulders dismissiveness of those who hold to the church’s view on this question (i.e., to what genders constitute a marriage biblically defined) as held for the greater majority of two millennia—is not the way forward. I anticipate the objection, “It’s a memoir, not an academic paper.” Yeah, I know, but this kind of thing is what I hear increasingly from guys like Willimon and Hauerwas who are hailed as fearless thinkers. It is because I appreciate their earlier work so much that I find this so very frustrating. Here’s another example:
Methodist political junkies predicted there was no way in God’s name the six hundred members of the 2004 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference would elect me as bishop. No campus minister had been elected bishop.
I had been absent from my home conference, South Carolina, for twenty years.
I had allowed Duke Chapel to be used for same-sex unions.
I had never led a prestigious Methodist church.
My negative paper trail was miles long.
Some were still sore about my Christian Century article “My Dog the Methodist,” a spoof of UMC evangelism fiascoes.
I had ridiculed the alleged evangelicals of the Confessing Movement as having nothing to confess but “I believe in straight sex.”
Few bishops forgave me for calling the Council of Bishops “the bland leading the bland.” (Kindle Locations 2779-2788)
Will Willimon sounds in this memoir like somebody who is titillated with his own naughtiness, with his own acerbic wit. Same-sex unions at Duke Chapel?The Methodist Confessing Movement has nothing to confess but “I believe in straight sex”? Oh Will! You’re such a rascal.
I think, if I try to get behind my own irritation, that I regret that I cannot take Willimon seriously. His mocking reference to the Confessing Movement has helped me understand why, and the reason why is this: Tom Oden. Tom Oden, the Methodist theologian who broke with the theological and leftist faddishness of his youth and rediscovered the classical orthodox consensus of Christianity via the church fathers, has had a major impact on me. And to hear issues that Oden considered very serious shrugged off with such patently absurd tripe really disappoints me. And it disappoints me because this is coming from the author of Resident Aliens, a book that is so very very brilliant and biblical and insightful.
I am a Baptist, but were I a Methodist, I must say I would be an Oden Methodist and not a Willimon Methodist on these issues. (And, yes, I know that Oden listed Willimon appreciatively in Requiem. There is much to be appreciative about when it comes to Willimon. But note too how, in Willimon’s 1995 review of Oden’s Requiem, his major beef is that Oden is making too much of homosexuality as a problem.)
I grieve to see Willimon and Hauerwas fold with accommodationist compromise on issues of biblical sexual ethics. And to see them do so with such seeming ease and disregard for the real issues at stake saddens me.
95% of this book was fantastic. 5% of it saddened me. 95% is pretty good, right? However, that 5% is pretty important stuff.
Apparently even the rebels we love can be domesticated by the dominant culture. It is lamentable.
25 As soon as Rachel had borne Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own home and country. 26 Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, that I may go, for you know the service that I have given you.” 27 But Laban said to him, “If I have found favor in your sight, I have learned by divination that the Lord has blessed me because of you. 28 Name your wages, and I will give it.” 29 Jacob said to him, “You yourself know how I have served you, and how your livestock has fared with me. 30 For you had little before I came, and it has increased abundantly, and the Lord has blessed you wherever I turned. But now when shall I provide for my own household also?” 31 He said, “What shall I give you?” Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything. If you will do this for me, I will again pasture your flock and keep it: 32 let me pass through all your flock today, removing from it every speckled and spotted sheep and every black lamb, and the spotted and speckled among the goats, and they shall be my wages. 33 So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come to look into my wages with you. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats and black among the lambs, if found with me, shall be counted stolen.” 34 Laban said, “Good! Let it be as you have said.” 35 But that day Laban removed the male goats that were striped and spotted, and all the female goats that were speckled and spotted, every one that had white on it, and every lamb that was black, and put them in the charge of his sons.36 And he set a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob pastured the rest of Laban’s flock. 37 Then Jacob took fresh sticks of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white streaks in them, exposing the white of the sticks. 38 He set the sticks that he had peeled in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred when they came to drink, 39 the flocks bred in front of the sticks and so the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. 40 And Jacob separated the lambs and set the faces of the flocks toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban. He put his own droves apart and did not put them with Laban’s flock. 41 Whenever the stronger of the flock were breeding, Jacob would lay the sticks in the troughs before the eyes of the flock, that they might breed among the sticks, 42 but for the feebler of the flock he would not lay them there. So the feebler would be Laban’s, and the stronger Jacob’s.43 Thus the man increased greatly and had large flocks, female servants and male servants, and camels and donkeys.
1 Now Jacob heard that the sons of Laban were saying, “Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from what was our father’s he has gained all this wealth.” 2 And Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him with favor as before.3 Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.” 4 So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah into the field where his flock was5 and said to them, “I see that your father does not regard me with favor as he did before. But the God of my father has been with me. 6 You know that I have served your father with all my strength, 7 yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God did not permit him to harm me. 8 If he said, ‘The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped. 9 Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me. 10 In the breeding season of the flock I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream that the goats that mated with the flock were striped, spotted, and mottled. 11 Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am!’ 12 And he said, ‘Lift up your eyes and see, all the goats that mate with the flock are striped, spotted, and mottled, for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me. Now arise, go out from this land and return to the land of your kindred.’” 14 Then Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? 15 Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has indeed devoured our money. 16 All the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, whatever God has said to you, do.” 17 So Jacob arose and set his sons and his wives on camels. 18 He drove away all his livestock, all his property that he had gained, the livestock in his possession that he had acquired in Paddan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac. 19 Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household gods. 20 And Jacob tricked Laban the Aramean, by not telling him that he intended to flee. 21 He fled with all that he had and arose and crossed the Euphrates, and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead. 22 When it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled, 23 he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him for seven days and followed close after him into the hill country of Gilead. 24 But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.” 25 And Laban overtook Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsmen pitched tents in the hill country of Gilead. 26 And Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done, that you have tricked me and driven away my daughters like captives of the sword? 27 Why did you flee secretly and trick me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre? 28 And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? Now you have done foolishly. 29 It is in my power to do you harm. But the God of your[c] father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ 30 And now you have gone away because you longed greatly for your father’s house, but why did you steal my gods?”31 Jacob answered and said to Laban, “Because I was afraid, for I thought that you would take your daughters from me by force. 32 Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In the presence of our kinsmen point out what I have that is yours, and take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them. 33 So Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two female servants, but he did not find them. And he went out of Leah’s tent and entered Rachel’s. 34 Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them in the camel’s saddle and sat on them. Laban felt all about the tent, but did not find them. 35 And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.” So he searched but did not find the household gods. 36 Then Jacob became angry and berated Laban. Jacob said to Laban, “What is my offense? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me? 37 For you have felt through all my goods; what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsmen and your kinsmen, that they may decide between us two. 38 These twenty years I have been with you. Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, and I have not eaten the rams of your flocks. 39 What was torn by wild beasts I did not bring to you. I bore the loss of it myself. From my hand you required it, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. 40 There I was: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. 41 These twenty years I have been in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. 42 If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands and rebuked you last night.” 43 Then Laban answered and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do this day for these my daughters or for their children whom they have borne? 44 Come now, let us make a covenant, you and I. And let it be a witness between you and me.” 45 So Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. 46 And Jacob said to his kinsmen, “Gather stones.” And they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap. 47 Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. 48 Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore he named it Galeed, 49 and Mizpah, for he said, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of one another’s sight. 50 If you oppress my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no one is with us, see, God is witness between you and me.” 51 Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and the pillar, which I have set between you and me. 52 This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass over this heap to you, and you will not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, to do harm. 53 The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac, 54 and Jacob offered a sacrifice in the hill country and called his kinsmen to eat bread. They ate bread and spent the night in the hill country. 55 Early in the morning Laban arose and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned home.
In the early 90s there was a Christian rock band named “Big Tent Revival.” They were great and they lasted around a decade producing a number of award-winning albums. They also happened to be one of the few bands that ever actually came through my hometown of Sumter, SC! Their big hit was a song called “Two Sets of Joneses.” It is a really catchy song that compares and contrasts two different young couples and the different paths they took in their lives.
This here’s a song about two sets of Joneses
Rothchild, Evelyn, Rueben, and Sue
And just for discussion through random selection
We’ve chosen two couples who haven’t a clue
Rothchild was lucky to marry so wealthy,
Evelyn bought him a house on the beach.
Rueben and Sue, they had nothing but Jesus
And at night they would pray that he would care for them each
And the rain, came down,
And it blew the four walls down
And the clouds they rolled away
And one set of Joneses, was standing that day
Evelyn’s daddy was proud of young Rothchild,
He worked the late hours to be number one
Just newlyweds and their marriage got rocky,
He’s flying to Dallas, she’s having a son.
Rueben was holding a Gideon’s Bible,
And he screamed “it’s a boy” so that everyone heard
And the guys at the factory took a collection,
And again God provided for bills he incured
And the rain, came down,
And it blew the four walls down
And the clouds they rolled away
And one set of Joneses, was standing that day
So what is the point of this story,
What am I trying to say
Well is your life built on the rock of Christ Jesus
Or a sandy foundation you’ve managed to lay
Well needless to say Evelyn left her husband
N’ sued him for every penny he had
But I truly wish that those two would find Jesus
Before things get worse than they already have
And the rain, came down,
And it blew the four walls down
And the clouds they rolled away
There’s two sets of Joneses
Which ones will you be?
Li de di, li de di, li de di, li de di
Li de di, li de di, li de di, li de di
Li de di. li de di, li de di, li de di di di di
It was a cool song, especially that closing Li de di, li de di, li de di, li de di part! Ha! A lot of early 90s evangelical youth group kids were singing those li de di’s!
I thought about “Two Sets of Joneses” earlier this week when studying Genesis 30 and 31. Moses seems to be clearly “Two Sets of Jones-ing” Laban and Jacob. As these chapters unfold the contrast becomes greater and great, with Laban taking one path (the path of control, manipulation, and self-centeredness) and Jacob taking another (the path of trust and faithfulness). We have already seen that both Laban and Jacob, his nephew, are flawed people, like us all. They were both capable of deceit, for instance. Even so, as these verses progress, we see that Jacob has matured and is taking a different path, whereas Laban had built his life on a “sandy foundation he managed to lay.”
Let us “Two Sets of Joneses” our text and consider the contrast between these two men.
Since I first read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian some years ago I have been fascinated and at times bewildered by his amazing use of language. Honestly, his often obscure turns of phrase and his sometimes arcane words are one of the delights of the book. One of his favorite tools is the “like some” comparison. Having just finished Richard Poe’s Audible version of the novel, I was struck again by the vivid imagery of these “like some” statements. So I pulled up my Kindle version of the book and copied and pasted the thirty-something instances. (After creating this list I noticed a longer list of similes from Blood Meridian here that was compiled in 2017. Biblioklept includes all of the “like” similes whereas this list is only the “like some’s,” but check out that longer list as well.) Enjoy!
like some fairybook beast (p. 2)
like some wholly wretched baptismal candidate (p. 26)
like some demon kingdom summoned up or changeling land that come the day would leave them neither trace nor smoke nor ruin more than any troubling dream (p. 45)
like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself (p. 52)
like some deserter scavenging the ruins of a city he’d fled (p. 55)
like some heliotropic plague (p. 71)
like some great pale deity (p. 86)
like some loutish knight beriddled by a troll (p. 96)
like some instrument of ceremony (p. 101)
like some drunken djinn and resolve itself once more into the elements from which it sprang (p. 106)
like some fabled equine ideation out of an Attic tragedy (p. 110)
like some tatterdemalion guard of honor (p. 114)
Like some ignis fatuus belated upon the road behind them. (p. 115)
like some crazed defector in a gesture of defiant camaraderie (p. 132)
like some fabled storybook beast (p. 132)
like some third aspect of their presence hammered out black and wild upon the naked grounds (pp. 145-146)
like some strange vendor bound for market (p. 151)
like some reeking outland nurse (p. 153)
like some changeling (p. 155)
like some pale and bloated manatee surfaced in a bog (p. 163)
like some more ancient ossuary (p. 170)
like some terrible hatching (p. 207)
like some egregious saltland bard (p. 214)
like some queer unruly god abducted from a race of degenerates (p. 248)
like some storied hero (p. 264)
like some great balden archimandrite (p. 265)
like some wild thaumaturge out of an atavistic drama (p. 266)
like some scurrilous king stripped of his vestiture and driven together with his fool into the wilderness to die (p. 275)
like some medieval penitent (p. 275)
like some immense and naked barrister whom the country had crazed (p. 277)
like some dim neolithic herdsman (p. 282)
him like some mad dowser (p. 283)
like some naked species of lemur (p. 291)
like some monster slain in the commission of unnatural acts (p. 319)
8 Go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house, that I may take pleasure in it and that I may be glorified, says the Lord.
Of all the stories surrounding the amazing life of Francis of Assisi, I think the most compelling is the story of his efforts to restore the little church of San Damiano. In the year 1205, Francis, a young man in the midst of a spiritual crisis, wondered into the ruins of a little church called San Damiano. While there, he says he heard the voice of God speaking to him through a suspended crucifix. The voice said, “Francis, can’t you see that my church is in ruins? Build my church!”
Many people would have interpreted these words to be a call to become a great reformer in the church across the world. But not Francis. On the contrary, he interpreted it with all the literalness of a child. He took it to mean to that he should literally rebuild that church, the church of San Damiano. So, one stone at a time, Francis starting building. He would go out and beg for stones. In fact, Francis started working on rebuilding a number of churches that had fallen into ruin.
Eventually, Francis would become known as “Saint Francis” and would, indeed, be used by God as a worldwide church reformer. But I like to think that Francis became so great precisely because Francis had no notion of greatness. I believe that Francis was used to build something amazing precisely because he was willing to build something small.
Of all the lessons we can learn from Francis, I think the lesson of how to start is one of the greatest.
Once you have become convinced of the need to get back to what matters most, how do we begin? Once we desire to see the temple of God built in our lives (to use the analogy we are using to interpret the book of Haggai), how do we start? Where do we begin?
Let us remind ourselves of what matters most. What matters most in life is an authentic and viable union with God’s person, God’s plan, and God’s priorities. For Israel, this was symbolized in the temple, the rebuilding of which they had neglected for sixteen years after returning from exile in Babylon. But Haggai the prophet had been sent by God to call them back to what mattered most, to the rebuilding of the temple, to the restoration of what mattered most. And so, through Haggai, the call continues to this day. We too are being called to return to what matters most, to rebuild the temple, we might say, to return to an authentic and viable union with God’s person, God’s plan, and God’s priorities.
But how? How do we start?
1 And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate. 2 And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” 3 And the chief priests accused him of many things. 4 And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” 5 But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed. 6 Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. 7 And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. 8 And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. 9 And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. 12 And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” 14 And Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.
In 1975 Bob Dylan wrote his song “Hurricane.” The song is about Rubin Carter, a boxer who was convicted in 1966 of murder. (You may recall Denzel Washington playing Carter in the 1999 film, “The Hurricane.”) Dylan’s song was a protest song against the widely-perceived injustice of Carter’s case. Ten years after it was written, in 1985, a New Jersey Circuit Court judge granted a writ of habeas corpus and Rubin Carter was set free.
The song is a blistering indictment of the perceived injustices of our justice system, an opinion that many believe was finally confirmed by Carter’s release. In the song, Dylan lays out the evidence for Carter’s innocence and, in general, lampoons the courts for convicting Carter of a crime he did not commit. Dylan sings:
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game
Those are powerful words and stinging words! A land where justice is a game.
In truth, those words are a phenomenally apt description of the “court” proceedings recorded in the gospels in which Jesus was ultimately condemned to death. Furthermore, these proceedings are cautionary tales that reveal lasting traits about the nature of man.
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11 But Moses implored the Lord his God and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your burning anger and relent from this disaster against your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14 And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.
One of the more interesting and tragic figures in Christian history is Marcion. The 3rd edition of The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes that he was a heretic, “the son of a Bishop who excommunicated him on grounds of immorality,” who died around the year AD 160. The ODCC then summarizes his significance and beliefs:
His followers were certainly the chief danger to the Church from dogmatic unorthodoxy in the latter half of the 2nd cent. By the end of the 3rd cent. most of the Marcionite communities had been absorbed in Manichaeism, but they continued to exist in small numbers down to a much later date.
Marcion’s central thesis was that the Christian Gospel was wholly a Gospel of Love to the absolute exclusion of Law. This doctrine…led him to reject the OT completely. The Creator God or Demiurge, revealed in the OT from Gen. 1 onwards as wholly a God of Law, had nothing in common with the God of Jesus Christ. Study of the OT indicated that this Jewish God constantly involved himself in contradictory courses of action, that he was fickle, capricious, ignorant, despotic, cruel. Utterly different was the Supreme God of Love whom Jesus came to reveal. It was His purpose to overthrow the Demiurge…[Jesus’] Passion and Death were the work of the Creator God.
Of the New Testament, Marcion only accepted “ten of the Epp. of St. Paul (he either rejected or did not know the Pastorals) and an edited recension of the Gospel of St. Luke.”
Marcion was indeed interesting and indeed tragic. Even so, his central idea—that the God of the Old Testament was an evil demiurge to be rejected and that the God of the New Testament whom Jesus revealed is utterly different—is a belief that rears its head (often, admittedly, in subtle and even somewhat muted forms) even today among Christians. I know of no Christian who would say such a thing outright, but I have encountered Christians who almost seem to speak of the Old Testament picture of God as inferior or even foreign to the New Testament picture.
Interestingly, our text might be the kind of text that Marcion, mistakenly, would have pointed to, for it appears to depict God as almost being chastised and argued down by Moses from decisions that might strike us on the surface as beneath Him. But is that what is really happening here? Is God being petulant and temperamental? Most certainly he is not. Rather, in God’s exchange with Moses concerning His anger towards the rebellious Israelites we find a beautiful picture of divine grace and mercy. More than that, what we find in Exodus 31:11-14 are images that will find their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart has been a very important book in my life for some years now. While my first reading of it did not wallop me in quite the immediate and spectacular way that Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines did when I read it over twenty years ago, it did occur to me, after first reading Renovation of the Heart, that here was a book with which I needed to grapple and which would be a very important tool in my life and ministry. Indeed, since that time, I have taught the book to a small group at Central Baptist Church in North Little Rock (using the LifeSprings Church Resources video curriculum of the material), have used it in one-on-one personal counseling with a church member (who now is a big Willard fan because of how this book helped him), and used it as my text for teaching the theory, philosophy, and theology of spiritual formation to the Fall 2017 OBU@NLC freshman class.
In truth, I think that I have never encountered a book that offers such a well-reasoned, biblically-grounded, theologically-sound, and practical approach to the issue of how the soul is formed and what it looks like to follow Jesus. Willard argues that we live from the inside-out and the spiritual formation does not happen through mere behavior modification (what he calls elsewhere “the gospel of sin management”), though all of us have been and constantly are being formed. The heart must be changed, must be renovated, for Christian spiritual formation to unfold as it should.
As Willard unpacks what this means and what it looks like, the reader will be challenged to think much more deeply about discipleship and about the Christian life. Willard does a phenomenal job of discussing the constituent parts of the self and how these varying aspects of the self work. The reader will encounter helpful and thoughtful explorations of terms that he or she may think he or she knows well, but about which he or she has possibly never given serious and informed thought: spirit, heart, will, choice, thought, feeling, soul, body, denial, ideas, information, images, pride, disciplines, character, duplicity, surrender, participation, contentment, abandonment, etc. Willard is a masterful guide through these important terms and concepts.
Willard believes that the reason we are not seeing real and genuine change in the lives of Christians is because we have not thought well about these matters and, as a result, are not taking the steps that are necessary to lead to real change. We are not, we might say, putting ourselves in a position where actual change is possible.
I suspect the key concept might be Willard’s concept of VIM: Vision, Intention, Means. I say I suspect this might be the key concept because there are truly so many revolutionary ideas here that it is hard to settle on one. Even so, the idea of VIM, when embraced and prayerfully reflected upon, is a very helpful and, in one sense, “simple” way forward. At the very least, VIM establishes a baseline for genuine change. We will not change without a vision of what we would like to be, without an actual intention to do so at all costs, and without the employment of Christ-honoring means toward that end.
Willard’s idea of the stages of discipleship is very insightful:
His unpacking of this progression needs to be read, contemplated, and grasped. It was, I thought, one of the more powerful sections of the book, and as I have shared this particular idea with others they have attested to its great usefulness as a way of thinking about where we are in our walks with Jesus.
Willard’s theology of the body is extremely helpful. His concept of “assault/withdrawal” is a very effective way to understand the nature of human conflict and the ways that relationships disintegrate.
I could go on and on, but I hope that the above will give you a sense of what you’ll encounter in Renovation of the Heart. The material is challenging. This is a book that needs to be read slowly, carefully, and repeatedly. I find something new each time I teach it.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is very near the top of my personal list of books that have had life-changing impact on me. Yet it is also a continuing challenge for me, as I have certainly not lived out all of its concepts as I should. I will return to Renovation of the Heart again. In truth, it’s arguments and truths are never far from me.