The message of the ancient Christmas carol “Lo, How a Rose ‘Eer Blooming” rang out this morning in SPU chapel. No, we aren’t in Christmas withdrawal here on campus. Rather, at the beginning of winter quarter we are privileged to enter together into reading Matthew’s gospel and in so doing, to consider Jesus, this Rose of whom “men of old have sung.”
I am struck by Dave Nienhuis’ chapel reflection drawn from the third chapter of Matthew: Jesus’ first public act is to identify with humanity’s brokenness, sinfulness, and with the “least of these” as he stepped forward to be baptized by John, a baptism of repentance for sinners. When questioned by John, Jesus’ explanation of this puzzling action (Jesus wasn’t a sinner!) is that His baptism by John will “fulfill all righteousness.” (3:15)
So what does this kind of righteousness look like? One answer lies in the next passage, Jesus’ wilderness temptation. By considering how Jesus was tempted, we may conversely understand the nature of his righteousness. Henri Nouwen, in In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership outlines Jesus’ temptations:
- Temptation to be relevant. “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (4:3) For someone fasting, nothing is more relevant than bread. Likewise we can all too easily feed off of a perceived relevance we think we can offer. But as Nouwen suggests, “The leader of the future will be the one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there.” p. 22
- Temptation to be spectacular. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” (4: 6) The stardom and individual heroism of our competitive society easily shapes our thinking, deceiving with the idea that we are to be self-made, strong individuals who spectacularly can do it all on our own. “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God. Therefore, true ministry must be mutual….it is servant leadership in which the leader is a vulnerable servant….” p. 44-45
- Temptation to be powerful. “I will give you all the kingdoms of this world in their splendor….” (4: 9) Nouwen describes this as the temptation to replace love with power, as it offers an easy substitute. “…the temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love.” p. 60
Lord – thank you that you lead us not into temptation, but save us from sin and death. May we seek your kingdom and your righteousness.
Celeste Cranston, Director of the Center for Biblical and Theological Education
I was glad to recently meet with two SPU School of Theology graduate students, Sophia Agtarap and Aaron Willett, who are doing a practicum on biblical literacy. Check out the fruit of some of their labor – very interesting!
Reverend Celeste M. Cranston, Director of the Center for Biblical and Theological Education
Special thanks to Professor Langford for his willingness to share these reflections from his recent communion homily.
I remember well when my children were younger and at the questioning phase. It seemed they were more interested in asking the question than in my answer. “Mommy, what’s God look like?” “how does fire work?” “why is Grandpa old?” or “where did the sky come from?” - the endless barrage of inquiries often didn’t slow for a response. Nonetheless, most of the time I dutifully attempted an answer, assuming this was my job as parent. But in hindsight I wish I had more often just listened and mused with them about the wonder of God’s world and the impossibilities of knowing.
As I read scripture, I’m spending more time these days asking questions of the text than looking for answers. And I’m coming to believe that this process may be one of the most important steps in learning to read God’s word. Perhaps as God’s children we come to know him more completely as we live in the unknowns, dwell in the mysteries. But for most of us adults, this goes against the grain. We want an answer and we want it now!
From this week’s Lectio scripture (Gen 25-36) I ponder:
- Why the repeating theme among the patriarchs (Abraham/Sarah, Isaac/Rebekah, Jacob/Rachel) of infertility in their beloved wives? (Gen 16:1, 18: 10-11, 25:21, 29: 31)
- What kind of craziness occurs when Jacob takes Laban’s spotted, speckled, and streaked livestock and mates them in front of fresh-cut tree branches peeled to make white stripes on them, and then as a result the livestock bear young that are spotted, speckled, and streaked? (Gen 30: 32-43)
- What is the significance of Rachel’s theft of her father’s household Gods as she and Jacob’s clan were leaving? (31:19) And what are the overtones in the text when Rachel hides them by sitting upon them and then lying to her father by saying it is her period? (31:35)
- Does Jacob wrestle with God or with a man? (Gen 32:22-32) What does he say about the experience? (32:30) What does the text say? (32: 24-25) Why don’t these two seem to match?
- What are we to make of the gruesome story of Shechem’s rape of Dinah and Jacob’s son’s deceitful response regarding circumcision that leads to the manslaughter of an entire unsuspecting city? (Gen 34)
- Why the extensive genealogy of Esau, father of the Edomites, between the story of Isaac’s death and the account of Joseph and his dreams? (Gen 36)
As I ponder, I am drawn closer to the incomprehensible God of scripture: the one who revealed himself in a burning bush, who came in the form of a helpless baby born to a virgin, who proclaimed that the poor are blessed. The upside-down kingdom of God is manifest in the midst of many questions.
“We tend to value answers more highly than questions, as the goal worth achieving, as the finish line. Midrash, however, equates questions with intimacy. Midrash values the question, and the sacred language that gives rise to it, as ground for meeting with God.” (The Burning Word: A Christian Encounter with Jewish Midrash, Judith M. Kunst, p. 32-33)
May we experience the holy meeting ground with God as we ask, seek and knock, and then as His children may we wait patiently in hope and faith and trust.
Celeste M. Cranston, Director of the Center for Biblical and Theological Education
I’m pleased that Dr. April Middeljans, Assistant Professor of English at Seattle Pacific University, has written a post for the CBTE blog which relates to this week’s lectio on Genesis 2:4 through chapter 3. Enjoy!
The narrative of Adam and Eve’s “fall” in Genesis is perversely sketchy. We might expect more detail about an event that plunged the world into sin. Why would God cordon off part of his “Good” creation with caution tape? Why is knowledge, of any sort, a bad thing? Why would it be a sin for a human being, purposely created in God’s image, to be “like” God? What is the serpent’s motivation in all this, anyway—especially if it, too, is God’s creature? To fathom the story’s puzzling gaps, many scholars have turned to the literary imagination. (John Milton wrote his ten-book poem Paradise Lost to “justify the ways of God to men”—feeling, perhaps, that the biblical account left a little to be desired.) While literature, by its own nature, resists absolute and explicit answers, it can provide a metaphorical midrash that helps plumb the depth of complex Scriptural truth.
In Perelandra (1943), C.S. Lewis imagines an alternate Eden on Venus where he can explore the nature of innocence, the psychology of temptation, and the ambiguous line separating good and evil. Here a sinless Green Lady and her King have been forbidden by their creator, Maleldil, to sleep overnight on a certain island. A malevolent force inhabiting a human body (the Un-man) has entered this world, and Elwin Ransom has been sent from Earth to help the new Eve resist corruption. While scripture makes no mention of Satan in the Garden, Lewis’s Un-man is an explicitly evil antagonist (perhaps an avatar of the Nazi threat during World War II). At the same time, Lewis reveals evil to be insidiously banal at heart: as Ransom endures the Un-man’s ceaseless taunting, he muses that “if the attack had been of some more violent kind it might have been easier to resist.” He is horrified by the thought that “on the surface, [there were] great designs and antagonism to Heaven which involved the fate of worlds: but deep within. . . was there, after all, nothing but a black puerility, an aimless empty spitefulness . . . ?” (123). These immature, ignoble tactics suggest that the cause of humanity’s downfall lies not in some overwhelming external force but rather some weakness within.
As Lewis imagines it, evil may arise not only out of banality but also, ironically, out of good intentions. We tend to think of temptation as something that appeals to the baser part of our nature. But those in a state of innocence would not yet have a baser nature, or a full comprehension of evil or wrong. Thus a tempter would need to appeal to the innocent’s sense of good and right in order to turn her from it. The Un-man tries to convince the Green Lady that breaking Maleldil’s interdiction will in fact fulfill his will—that to disobey would help her become what Maleldil desires her to be: “He longs . . . to see His creature become fully itself, to stand up in its own reason and its own courage even against Him. But how can He tell it to do this? That would spoil all. . . . Do you think He is not weary of seeing nothing but Himself in all that He has made? If that contented Him, why should He create at all?” (117). The Un-man follows this tactic by building a dramatic image of noble sacrifice, arguing that it is the Lady’s “duty” to risk this disobedience for the sake of making the King and their unborn children free. Here he paradoxically uses the Lady’s love for others to cultivate a sinful egotism.
Ultimately Lewis suggests that the path toward or away from sin depends on the precarious balance between free will and obedience. Ransom works to convince the Lady that the seemingly arbitrary interdiction actually ensures human freedom: “In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your own eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are his will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?” (118). Ransom himself struggles with “joy of obeying”; when his mission seems in peril of failing, he berates Maleldil for not intervening. But he eventually comes to realize that God has in fact intervened through him, by sending him to Perelandra; and as the free-acting, material embodiment of God’s will, he concludes that he must physically destroy the Un-man—the evil incarnated in Eden. While it may seem a simplistic, even totalitarian solution, through it the novel insists that the war over the human soul is fought not just in the mind, but within material creation. The earthly death and resurrection of Christ—freely given to the world—is the supreme testament to this truth.