Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Word of Power

Harold Camping, the radio preacher who predicted the Rapture would come last May, had a stroke recently. His speech has been slurred. Some people see this as punishment from God for being a false prophet. (What an unfortunate time to be an atheist! All they can say is that it is meaningless happenstance, nothing more.)

I think the disappointment, humiliation and universal scorn he had to bear might have had a lot to do with the 89 year old's health problems. What is ironic is that instead of seeing the end of the world at large, he has instead witnessed the end of his world as a authoritative preacher of the Bible. Very few of his former listeners are going to pay attention to him, should he return to the airwaves. The board of his Family Radio network is going to be questioning the wisdom of spending 100 million dollars on advertising a wrong rapture date. This isn't going to help their contributions either. This isn't a time for gloating; it's a tragic ending to a hitherto impressive career.

Like a lot of people who have disgraced themselves in the ministry, Camping lost sight of the heart of the faith: the Gospel. The word means good news. It is the good news how God in Christ is working to redeem the world, not smash it to pieces like a frustrated child. It is surprising how little of the Bible is apocalyptic: 2 books and a handful of chapters scattered among 66 books. The fact that it draws so much attention in certain sections of the Church says more about them than about God. It's like someone constantly rehashing how bloody it will be when the surgeon cuts the patient open and ignoring the fact that the patient will have a better life ahead of him.

Today we read the entire first chapter of Genesis. Never mind the controversy of whether it's bad science or good poetry; notice how lovingly the creation is described. God creates not just vegetation but, according to Everett Fox's closer translation "sprouting-growth, plants that seed forth seed, fruit trees that yield fruit, after their kind and in which is their seed." God doesn't just create life but says, "Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living things, and let fowl fly above the earth, across the dome of the heavens!" And then "Let the earth bring forth living beings after their kind, herd-animals, crawling things, and the wildlife of the earth after its kind." And after making each, God sees that they are good and blesses them. This is not a mere catalogue; this is a craftsman looking over his work, lingering on the details and saying, "I did a good job." And he's not eager to see it thrown in the dumpster. He's going to restore it, however hard it will be.

And he's going to do it with his word, his God-breathed word. That's the literal translation of the Greek term usually rendered "inspired by God." God weaves the world into existence with his words. And he uses words to restore it. He calls Abraham, sends him to the distant land of Canaan, and makes a agreement, a covenant, with him. All words but words of power. He calls Moses, sends him to Egypt to free his people, and at Sinai, he makes them a people by binding them to him in a covenant. The preamble of that covenant becomes the basis of the ethics of the Western world. They are called in Hebrew "the Ten Words." God-breathed words. Words of power.

God's people want a king. God calls David, the legend against which all subsequent kings are measured. But the power of the kingship seduces. God calls the prophets, who speak his words of judgment to the powerful and his words of comfort to the powerless. Through the prophets, God calls his people back to the Spirit of his original words. The people listen and then forget. They do this over and over until they are so lost, they end up exiles. Then they remember and write down his words. And they put his words into action. They become people of the Book, God's Word. God-breathed words. Words of power.

The people return home as God promised but they squander their freedom. Their would-be king seizes power with the help of a powerful empire, who becomes the new oppressor of God's people. Starved for God's word, the people cry out. And God sends his Word, his living Word, his deepest expression of himself, to his people, as one of his people. And he speaks words of power. They try to silence the living Word with the power of death. But the Word cannot stay silent, cannot stay buried, cannot be stopped. And the living Word sends out his disciples, his students, to speak his word to others and make them students. And the word spreads. And the word, the God-breathed word, is love, the most powerful word there is.

Since then the word has covered the world. But we haven't always trusted the power of the God-breathed word of love. We have trusted in our own power, our power to manipulate, to intimidate, to harm, to kill. And we have tried to spread the word that way. And people don't trust the word of love when it hides behind the point of a sword. If we trusted the power of the word, we wouldn't need a sword, a least not one of iron or steel. When Paul describes the armor of God in Ephesians 6, the only thing that is not purely defensive is "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."

God made the world with words of power. He will recreate it the same way. He has entrusted to us the words of power. If we mean it when we say them, if we live what we say, who can stop the power of the God-breathed word of love?

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