Thursday, December 18, 2014

The God You Get

Last time we talked about how children have an “innate concept of God” that includes “characteristics, like immortality, creative power and omniscience...” And then we talked about how the Jews fleshed out this picture of God through their experiences in the Exodus and the Exile. Their revelation is that God is not a mere tribal deity but the God who created all people, who is a God of justice and love who makes and fulfills promises. One of his promises is to restore the creation we have ruined through his Messiah, the anointed One who will set things right and set up God's kingdom on earth. And this led many of the Jews to expect a holy warrior very much like King David. And that was especially true when they found out that they had invited in the pagan Romans and they had installed a puppet king named Herod. He was so ruthless that he even killed his sons and his wife if he detected disloyalty. The people wanted him gone in the worst way and longed for God to send someone to depose Herod and kick out the Romans.

God knew the nature of the worst enemy of his people and it wasn't what they expected. It wasn't a person, like Herod, or a group of people, like the Roman Legions, or even a system, like the Roman Empire, ruled by an Emperor who called himself a god and where only a small minority of the population were citizens with full rights while millions were slaves with very few rights. All of these were evil but they weren't the ultimate cause of evil. That lay closer to home. As Jesus said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of a person's heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, slander, arrogance, and foolishness.” (Mark 7:20-22) Evil is not an abstract entity that resides outside us. It is the inner attitude that tells us we know better than God when it comes to what is good for us and what is bad for us. It affects the way we think, speak and act. It affects what we do and what we neglect doing. It turns us into our own worst enemy as well as the enemy of each other's best interests.

One of the big problems humans have is classifying people as either good or evil. That is, we tend to see people we don't know as falling into either of those categories. When it comes to ourselves or those we love, however, we tend to equivocate. We usually see ourselves as basically good people, who sometimes aren't our best selves. We also see our loved ones that way. Sometimes we will concede that someone who is close to us has a dark side. But we have a hard time admitting that, say, Hitler liked dogs and children or that someone as beloved as Bill Cosby could be as terrible as 20 women now allege. Now remember that Cosby has a wife and kids and friends who presumably have the same trouble reconciling those allegations with the man they know and love. My wife once worked with a woman who was later murdered by her then-estranged husband. We knew them both and were shocked. We never suspected that he could do such a thing.

The Bible is clear that no one is truly innocent. We all have moral flaws. Some are relatively minor, some are assuredly not. For instance, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 20 boys are sexually abused. 28% of youths between the ages 14 to 17 are sexually victimized. 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men have experienced severe physical violence at the hands of their spouse or intimate partner. The U.S. homicide rate of 4.8 murders per 100,000 people is among the highest in the industrialized world. On the other end of the scale, in 41% of marriages one or both spouses admit to infidelity, either emotional or sexual. An estimated 1.6 million people cheat on their taxes resulting in a loss of $270 billion by the U.S. Treasury's estimate. Of 1000 people surveyed, a full 60% said they told no lies in the last 24 hours, making one wonder if that was a lie. A more disturbing study has shown that between 1/3 and 1/2 of the most acclaimed medical research is untrustworthy, either by being wrong or significantly exaggerated. Finally between 13 and 15% of the traffic in this country exceeds the speed limits by 10 miles an hour. Speeding contributes to 30% of all traffic deaths.

Didn't find yourself in any of those statistics? That's because I stopped listing them. We all know that we fall short of God's standards and we know that even small sins can contribute to big miseries. So Jesus came to deal with the real problem, not certain people but the evil that infects all people. He died to wipe out those sins and rose to give us a new and transformed life.

But this wasn't what the people expected. They wanted someone to change the world by shedding the blood of bad people; they didn't expect a good person to change the world by letting his own blood be shed. Not even Jesus' disciples expected that. Only after his resurrection, after he explained how it was there in the Hebrew Bible all along did they see it.

And they realized that God did not send just anyone to accomplish this. God sent his son. Not only did his resurrection vindicate what Jesus taught about sin and atonement, it also vindicated what he said about himself. Jesus was not the Messiah everyone expected not simply because he was crucified; he was not the Messiah people expected because he was God. Jesus revealed how much God loved human beings—enough to die to save them. And he revealed that not only was God loving, but that God is love. There is more than 1 person in the Godhead but they are so indivisibly united in love as to constitute one God.

People naturally expect a God who created the world. The Jews experienced a God who was just but merciful, a God who made promises and liberated the enslaved. Jesus revealed an expected side of God: one who is self-sacrificial, transforming love; a God willing to let go of his prerogatives as deity and become one of us; a God who triumphs over pain and sickness and death with eternal life; a God who shares his life and love with all who open their hearts to him and who, shouldering their cross, follow him.  

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