Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Forgiveness of Sins

           Israel’s story depicts theology and politics as they are in reality: integrated and interactive. The Covenant with YHWH, by definition, is a political situation with bylaws by which both YHWH and Israel are bound to each other. Obviously YHWH had the upper hand in this particular agreement, as He extended the law to Israel only by His grace, and by no prior worthiness. And His extension of law was not just a convenient way of keeping people “in line”; it laid out the very explanation of what life was to be about and how to go about living it. Likewise, God extended the land. The land was, like the law, intertwined life itself. Here Israel could dwell in safety, worship, plant, harvest, multiply. While this was land promised to Israel, she entered the country as a tenet, not a landowner. Even during at the height of the monarchy, King David identified himself and the nation as sojourners along with Abraham their ancestor (1 Chron 29:15). The nation of Israel was a nation because YHWH formed her, and she had a land because YHWH provided it.
But embedded within the political aspects of Israel, YHWH established the groundwork for an interactive relationship between Himself and His people. The God breathed ritual, the liturgy and the communication built into the temple and the priests of Israel, developed a medium for the people to grow in their understanding of God, learning about Him, experiencing His blessing, and experiencing His forgiveness. The relationship with YHWH progressed from the correct observance of His law, therefore law was theology par excellence.
Israel’s government, therefore, closely integrated her theology, so that a political offens,e was a theological (or relational) one, and a theological offense was a political one. When Israel broke covenant with YHWH, their relationship suffered, their national stability suffered. Ultimately, YHWH expelled the unruly tenants for their apathy and hypocrisy towards the law, something He had extended to guide their lives and to develop the God-man relationship. Obviously God knew the nation was imperfect- He had established a way to deal with sins committed against the covenant and willingly imparted forgiveness to the humble men who approached Him with humility and sacrifice according to the law. But eventually the nation became hopelessly wayward, living in lawlessness and abusing the forgiveness that God freely offered.
Eventually YHWH expelled the tenants from the Land, but He did leave a glimmer of hope for the wayward nation. Sojourners once again, Israel became landless, but the prophets suggested that the relationship between YHWH and Israel had not ended. In fact, God promised a forgiveness of sins as never before, one that would reestablish the people as God’s dwelling place, save the people from foreign rule, and purge the nation from evil. This great forgiveness of sins is what Zechariah and every other righteous Jew longed to see. It was not just about Zechariah’s own misdeeds (though it encompassed them), this was the long awaited eschatological moment of reconciliation, the forgiveness that preceded the renewed relationship with YHWH, the return from exile, and the establishment of righteousness by the Davidic King.
The lingering exilic predicament of Israel ripened her world to what would be later known as “Good News”, and in a sense, Luke and Acts are all about the forgiveness of sins. Jesus, the Logos, fulfilled for wayward Israel those words she had come to hold most dear. Forgiveness had become connected with salvation, because of what it promised to trigger- the New Exodus. Like their forefathers, Israel was under a haughty, sinful foreign power that prevented the reclamation of full sovereignty over the Promised Land. The nation had come in full circle. The land had been taken from them because they had broken covenant with YHWH their God. But the hope of the mercy of God remained; the hope that even though God had sent His people into exile, the same had promised to bring them back out. That is what Zechariah’s prophecy is all about.

76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke 1:76-79

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Judgement and Salvation

One could hardly understand the situation Luke presents in the opening chapter of his gospel without a working knowledge of the Old Testament. God’s election of Israel is the starting point for our theology of redemption, not only because Israel’s sacrificial system was a convenient prophetic way to have men learn about redemption, but also because Israel actually plays a specific role in the New Testament redemption of mankind. And one could hardly understand that role without a knowledge of God’s relationship with the people of Israel. It was through this relationship that God planned to extend his salvation to the nations.
Expectations galore accompany the messianic arrival, and every character in Luke’s story has an opinion on what ought to happen when the Messiah arrives. Even a righteous priest, a devout follower of the Law such as Zechariah, would be surprised with the outcome of Acts, not because he was wrong about what he was supposed to expect (Why else would the Holy Spirit move him to prophecy?) but because God intentionally chose an alarming method for redemption.
In Luke chapter 8, Jesus teaches the parable of the sower to a crowd of people, but later when He is alone with His disciples, the meaning eludes them, and they seek its meaning directly from Jesus. Before giving them a little help, Jesus clues them in on something going on below the radar in all his prophetic and parabolic presentations. He says: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”  Why would Jesus do this? Preaching in such a way as to cause Israel to not see or hear what is going on seems a bit cruel.
According to Luke, Jesus came as a prophet declaring the Isaianic message of divine judgment. In order to understand this important aspect of Jesus’ vocation, we must travel back to Isaiah’s book, whose main concern initially was not proclaiming salvation, but rather judgment. During Isaiah’s vision in 6:8, God inquires: “whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah responds “Here I am, send me!” The message to go out here in the first half of the book of Isaiah, however, was not good news- it was very, very bad news. Isaiah was to proclaim judgment and wrath upon the nation of Israel; in fact his ministry was a precursor to Jesus’ own. Isaiah’s job was to “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” When Isaiah asks the LORD how long this message should be preached, the LORD responds: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away”.
The beginning of Isaiah states the problem: God has rejected Israel because of what they have allowed in their land, the worst of which being the idols and pagan culture which turns Israel away from trusting their God. Isaiah chapter 3 describes their subsequent situation, the just reward for their wicked actions against both the Lord and the poor and oppressed. Therefore, God gives a message to be preached, a task to be completed. God has been warning His people to return to Him, to cast away evil and the idols of foreign nations. But since they have refused to do this, God will continue to send his message of repentance, mixed with a message of judgment. God’s salvation is extended for the repentant, but it will be clouded by this message of judgment until further notice. Isaiah’s book begins with a message of judgment in chapter 6, but ends in one of salvation, beginning in chapter 40. Interestingly, Luke supplies the reverse, beginning with messages of the arrival of salvation.  Then he progressively dilutes the message of salvation with one of judgment, until by the end of Acts, the Jews have returned back to Isaiah 6 in full. BUT also at the end of Acts—praise God in his infinite knowledge—salvation comes to the gentiles.
Jesus, like Isaiah, brought a message of repentance shrouded in a message of judgment. The humble, the ones thirsting for the Kingdom of God and His justice, those who have waited faithfully for God, all these have nothing to fear- their salvation has arrived, the wait is over, and the promises are fulfilled in Christ. They are given the eyes and ears to understand both the Kingdom of God, and the work of God in Christ. This is “believing Israel.” But Luke makes no clear distinction in the beginning. Israel is Israel and there are no clear demarcations in the first chapter at least. But this adds to my initial argument that Luke’s “Israel” means national Israel with no spiritual corpus in mind, because the Isaianic mixed message of judgment and salvation is sent to Israel the nation, rebellious and stubborn, yet still in covenant with God. If “Israel” means “the Church,” then no message of judgment would be appropriate.  Further, I would argue that the message would not make much sense. One cannot understand Jesus’ cosmic mission while neglecting His mission to the nation of Israel.