Monday, August 10, 2009

Divine Perceptions and Certain Reality

2 Samuel 18:1-33

In the movie, “Bruce Almighty”, the character “Bruce” is not having a good way with his career. His life is better than most. Like many of us he has friends and blessings he seems to take for granted and he has a job many might kill for, but he wants “more”. There is nothing wrong with a little ambition, of course, until one is blinded by this ambition, and “Bruce” was because he was so stuck on getting what he wanted that he was unable to see the good he already had.

Sound familiar? I know I’ve been there, and it took a pretty hard and painful fall before my eyes were finally opened, even if my vision is still a little fuzzy! And this is exactly what had happened with “Bruce” except that when he “fell”, his immediate reaction was that of anger. He “blamed” the Lord for being a “mean kid with a magnifying glass” who treated him as an ant on a sidewalk, taking a perverse pleasure in burning off “Bruce’s” antennas. Bruce was pretty sure the Lord was spending His days doing little more than trying to figure out ways to “smite” him. This “personal” Lord was falling down on the job! And “Bruce” believed he could do the job better.

The really sad thing is that this very strange and very narrow “theology” expressed by “Bruce” is not unlike what so many remember as the “old time” religion in which the fiery depths of hell seemed to be the primary focus to be used as a spiritual “weapon” with which to beat people into submission and get them to “tow the line”, while the grace and mercy of the Holy Father came in a distant second, if at all. The basic theme and prevailing image is that of a “God” who is interactive with humanity ONLY if He gets to clobber someone!

Some now refer to this as “or else” theology, and in some traditions it is still very much alive (though I would hesitate to say alive and “well”). There is nothing entirely untrue about such apocalyptic expressions, but over time the collective Church has come to realize – much to its dismay - that not only is such theology far too narrow but that many have chosen to walk away from such “by the sword” theology because the emphasis leans toward punishment and eternal condemnation rather than redemption and eternal life. Jesus emphatically states in John 3:17 that “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved”. Far too many took – and still take - a very strange and perverse satisfaction in the knowledge that SOMEBODY’s gonna get it in the end!

It is an odd thing that we can essentially agree on the same things but express our beliefs by different emphases. It is commonly known, for instance, that the Puritans chose to come to America to escape religious persecution, but it is not often mentioned that they chose to escape from a predominately Christian Europe, kings and queens often referred to as “defenders of the faith”. Simply stated, they did not believe in a state-sanctioned and –sponsored church and wanted a church all their own in which they would be free to express their own theology. In the end, it was John Winthrop’s own personal theology and his Massachusetts “city on a hill” that was supposed to be the ideal of Christian living and governance turned out to be far more oppressive and restrictive than the ‘government’ church from which they sought to escape. There was nothing entirely “wrong” about what Winthrop believed to be true, but his firm belief system and “state-sanctioned” church did not allow that others may not see things exactly the way he did. He became a reflection of the very repression he sought to flee from!

We all have a particular way of thinking when it comes to the Lord, and much of how we see Him has to do with how we were raised and taught and what traditions we come from, religious or otherwise. Our perceptions have to do with how we’ve been treated in the past and how we’re treated now. We are told that some women who grew up in abusive homes cannot conceive of the Lord as “Father” because their own earthly fathers were so abusive. Many see the Lord as “punisher” and “judge” while others think of Him in more redemptive terms such as “savior”. I, for one, have a hard time calling Him, or referring to Him, as simply “God” because it just seems a bit too familiar, a little too “chummy” and lacking a certain sense of reverence.
Surely we can each name someone in our past or present who absolutely rejects the usefulness of the Lord and His Church because of a bad experience with preachers, deacons, and other Christians in the past, regardless of their capacity. And of course, we can all reasonably conclude that the essence of the Lord has not changed, but many have a particular perception of Him based not on scriptural content or context but based almost entirely on personal experiences with persons associated with church.

Though I cannot say that many scholars or theologians would agree with me, I cannot help but to wonder if the writer of 2 Samuel was not using the story and conflict of King David and his son, Absalom, as an illustration of the emotions the Lord may feel toward those who actively rebel against Him and then suffer perhaps a premature death before they were able to make peace and come to terms with Him. This may not have been on the writer’s mind and we may be looking at nothing more than a historical account of the curse and reality of what David’s house was doomed to become after he impregnated Bathsheba and then order her husband’s death as a way of covering up his indiscretion and sin: “the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me … I will raise up adversity against you from your own house” (2 Samuel 12:10, 11).

It is clear that the Lord is capable of anger. If we believe in the Incarnation – that Jesus is the Lord God in the flesh – then we must necessarily believe the Lord to be capable of compassion. If we believe that King David was truly a man “after [the Lord’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), then we must believe that the Lord continued to use King David in a positive way as a ‘shepherd’ of His people in spite of the challenges with which David was personally confronted. And if we believe the Lord God to be capable of love, then we must necessarily believe Him to be capable of grief and mourning.

King David chose to flee rather than confront his own son in battle. One might come close to suggesting that David may have run out of fear, but the expression made by the King in wishing for his own death rather than having to endure the pain associated with the death of his own son makes clear that David was not concerned for his own hide. He was an experienced and savvy man of war! Absalom would not have stood a chance! To fight, rather than to flee, would have been more to David’s human nature and inclination, we might think. But to think of King David ONLY in such terms would ignore the many facets of his entire being. He was capable of much more than simply making war. Like the rest of us, he was not merely one-dimensional.

And it makes me wonder about the many dimensions of the Lord and how those dimensions are reflected in our own being, especially within the context of having been created in this same divine image. We are obviously not created to physically reflect a divine image because such a physical image does not exist. And we can be reasonably sure that we are all called forward in Christ to be a reflection of a Divine Image and New Covenant in witnessing to the entire world, beginning in our own neighborhoods and communities. But the Image we reflect is the image we perceive, and this image is not always the one we might freely choose. Rather, it is more likely to be the image that has been imposed upon us over an extended period of time that we are incapable of seeing the Lord any other way. If judge, then judge. If vindicator, then vindictive. If law-enforcer, then law-enforcing.

There is another element to consider. If our perceived image of the Lord leans more toward ‘enforcer’ than anything else, if we see Him primarily as merciless against the evil-doer, then we might be more inclined to overlook His grace and mercy – period. We become so consumed with this almighty, all-powerful “smiter” of evil that we fail to see the Holy One, our heavenly Father, who is capable of experiencing grief. We see a “warrior God” who destroys and vanquishes and banishes, but we cannot see a “Savior” because the “warrior God” is interested only in beating one into what would essentially be involuntary submission. And if we cannot “see” a Savior capable of love, it is reasonable to suggest we cannot “know” a Savior capable of love. And if we cannot know a Savior capable of love, we cannot rest and take comfort in our Savior’s love.

It is not a matter of choosing between “which God” is more pleasing to us because to dismiss one element of Him is to dismiss Him entirely. To dismiss one facet of His existence is to live in ignorance of ALL He is. It’s sort of like living with one’s spouse for years before finally one day saying, “Oh. I didn’t know that about you”. It’s not necessarily that this element of surprise did not exist, but it could be more evidence that we simply chose not to see it – out of love. You know, sort of like those annoying habits that are cute early in the marriage but soon become like fingernails on the chalkboard?!?!

David’s grief was expressed in knowing the pain he was experiencing at the loss of his child. You and I must always be consciously aware that this death that would have separated us from our Father did not happen – because the profound sacrificial love expressed by David’s willingness to die in place of his son was endured by Christ in place of His children. Judgment was rendered that very dark day, dear friends, and we were spared so that we could be finally and completely reunited with our Holy Father. This is, indeed, the very essence of love, and it is the entire Being of a redemptive Savior of the world.

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