One of the unintended and unhappy consequences of St. John’s Armageddon vision is that it has inflamed the imaginations of the biblically illiterate ion consuming endtime fantasies, distracting them from the day valor of dogged obedience, sacrificial love, and a alert endurance. This is exactly what St. John did not intend, as even a cursory reading of his Revelation makes evident. When people are ignorant of the imagery of prophets and gospels, and untutored in the metaphorical language of war in the story of salvation, they are easy pray for entertaining predictions of an end-time holocaust at Mount Meggido in Israel, conjured up from newspaper clippings on international politics. Jesus told us quite clearly that the people who make these breathless and sensationalist predictions are themselves the false Christs and false prophets that they are pretending to warn us against (Matthew 24:23-26).
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God reveals himself in personal relationship and only in personal relationship. God is not a phenomenon to be considered. God is not a force to be used. God is not a proposition to be argued. There is nothing in or of God is that is impersonal, nothing abstract, nothing imposed. And God treats us with an equivalent personal dignity. He isn’t out to impress us. He’s here to eat bread with us and receive us into his love just as we are, just where we are.
Holiness is the most attractive quality, the more intense experience we ever get of sheer life – authentic, firsthand living, not life looked at and enjoyed from a distance. We find ourselves in on the operations of God himself, not talking about them or reading about them. But at the very moment we find ourselves in on more than ourselves, we realize we also might very well lose ourselves. We cannot domesticate the holy. Moses didn’t take a photograph of the burning bush to take home and show his wife and children. Isaiah’s singing angels were not accompanied by a Handel oratorio, which he then purchased on a CD for later listening at his leisure. John didn’t reduce his vision of Jesus into charts which he used to entertain religious consumers with titillating views on the future.
Holiness is a furnace that transforms the men and women who get too close to it. Holy, holy, holy is not Christian needlepoint – it is the banner of a revolution, the revolution.
The Christian mind can discern the divine wisdom in the forms in which angels are present to us. To the half-converted mind, hankering after miraculous visitations and supernatural sensations, God says, “Nothing doing. I am supernaturally present with you, but you will only know it through the duties and responsibilities of the immediate life around you.” But to the devout Christians, intent on faithful intercessions and patient burden-bearing, the Spirit on occasion gives visions and dreams to fortify the faithful with the knowledge that we are surrounded and supported by heavenly hosts in our warfare. Angels are for encouragement, not for entertainment.
Evil is not minimized, but it is put in its place, bracketed between Christ and prayer. There is a detail listing of evil and a courageous facing of evil, but no explanation of it. Nowhere in the Bible is there any attempt to answer the question, “Why does a good God permit evil?” Evil is a fact. The Bible spends a good deal of space insisting that certain facts are evil, and not minor blemishes on the surface of existence. But the Bible does not provide an explanation of evil – rather, it defines a context: all evil takes place in an historical arena bounded by Christ and prayer. Evil is not explained but surrounded. The Revelation summarizes the context: admit evil and do not fear it – for “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4); endure evil, for you are already triumphant over it – “ I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). The Revelation expands the apostolic and dominical words into visions. By putting evil in its place and enumerating it accurately in the precise part of the story where it belongs, it is seen as finite episode and not a total triumph.
Pastors were never very important to me. I liked them. They were nice, and they told great stories, but they never seemed to be very serious about God, and I was. They just seemed peripheral to ordinary life, whereas in my dad’s butcher shop, things were very serious. My father took everybody seriously and treated them with dignity. I got the image very early on that he was a priest…Everyone was treated the same, there was no discrimination with anybody.
In judged Jerusalem [during the time of Jeremiah] it was impossible to confuse material prosperity with God’s blessing. It was impossible to confuse social status with God’s favor. It was impossible to confuse national pride with God’s glory. It was impossible to confuse rituals of religion with God’s presence. The clutter of possessions was gone; the trappings of status were gone. And God was present. All the cultural and political and religious and social assumptions and presuppositions that interfere with the clear hearing of God’s word in Jeremiah’s preaching were taken away. Conditions had never been better for developing a mature community of faith.
Religions that we make up for ourselves always reduce reality to what we feel comfortable with, or what makes us comfortable. We love being insiders. We feel secure when we are with cronies who talk our language and sing our songs and don’t rock the boat. It hardly matters that such a life is banal. It is safe…The danger is not to our humanity, but to our sense of running life on our own terms, managing people and things with ourselves at the center. The larger the world, the less of it we can subject to our won control. But that is a miserable ambition and a certain prescription for boredom. It is God’s world and God rules it. Our wholeness comes from participating in what God is doing, not manipulating what we can manage. So the Bible continually protests all forms of isolationism.
All truth must be experienced personally before it is complete, before it is authentic. This truth, that God shapes us, that we are shaped by God, was Jeremiah’s from the beginning. He had lived it in detail. He had been on that potter’s wheel from before his birth. No word would mean more to Jeremiah than this one, formed by God. Jeremiah experienced his life as the created work of God. He was not a random accumulation of cells; he was formed by loving, skilled hands….
The life of faith is very physical. Being a Christian is very much a matter of the flesh – of space and time and things. It means being thrown on the potter’s wheel and shaped, our entire selves, into something useful and beautiful. And when we are not useful or beautiful we are reshaped. Painful, but worth it.
A people’s lives are only as good as their worship. The temple in Jerusalem was the architectural evidence of the importance of God in the life of the people. All the lines of life crisscrossed in the temple. Meaning was established there. Values were created there. Worship defines life. If worship is corrupt, life will be corrupt. For fifty-five years lust and violence in the temple had percolated into the streets and homes and villages of the nation. Josiah began by cleaning up the temple.