Sunday, July 26, 2015

OT as Icon: Literary Patterning and Christological Interpretation

In Genesis 1, many commentators (most famously Meredith Kline) have noticed a literary pattern of forming and filling:

Day 1:  Creation of Light                     Day 4:  Creation of Luminaries (Sun, Moon, Stars)
Day 2:  Division of Waters                   Day 5:  Creation of Birds and Sea Creatures
            (Upper/Lower and Sky)
Day 3:  Division of Waters and Land   Day 6:  Creation of Land Creatures and Humans
            (Creation of Vegetation)

Day 1 is the forming of the habitat and conditions necessary for the creatures of Day 4 to exist and flourish (in this case, flourishing means the luminaries' ability to "divide the day from the night and [to be] for signs and seasons, for days and years, and [to be] lights in the division of the skies to give light on the earth").  The same holds with Day 2 and Day 5, Day 3 and Day 6, respectively.  The first three days are collectively formation, with the subsequent days filling, finished off with the Sabbath day of rest.  By the seventh day, the earth is habitable and furnished, as it were, ready for the divine dwelling.

This pattern of forming-filling-dwelling is all over the Old Testament: Exodus 25-31 describe how the Tabernacle is to be formed, while 35-40 detail how it is completed and furnished, ending with the dwelling of the Lord in its courts (v. 34ff.).  Joshua 1-13 describe the Conquest of Canaan (making it inhabitable for the Israelites) with 14-24 detailing the filling of that land.  There is no dwelling narrative here, as the Tabernacle is among them.  The pattern appears elsewhere in the Old Testament, but this is sufficient for now.

As we come to the New Testament, we quickly run into the concept of the "fulfillment" of not only Old Testament prophecy, but also the recapitulation of its narratives: the Israelites go to the wilderness for a period of 40 after passing through waters, are tested by the enemy, and fail.  Jesus goes into the wilderness after baptism for a period of 40, is tested by the enemy, and succeeds (using the book of Deuteronomy no less!).  He reverses the failures and problems of Old Testament history, bringing them to completion and perfection in Himself, so that the oikonomia of God through Abraham's seed might be fulfilled.  St Paul discusses this principle in 1 Corinthians 10, using the Rock in the Wilderness as his guide: "Now all these things [the whole OT history and institutions] happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonistion, upon whom the ends of the ages have come" (v. 11).

One of the famous problems with this sort of interpretation is that it can seem to have no boundaries, the well-known example being St Augustine's interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  It has also seemingly led some modern interpreters to say that there is no real historical content to the OT stories themselves (if Adam or Abraham or David were just types, why do they need to have actually existed?  They can be understood as myths or founding legends.  Both of these, though, are false trails: the former since there is a very clear boundary that guides all such interpretation -- the regula fidei, the rule of faith, that is the Life of Jesus Christ as found in the Gospels and Tradition of the Church (the Creeds being understood as horos, guide rails, of the Faith).  Within those boundaries, though, there is plenty of room to breathe and pastorally apply the Scriptures (remembering that the point of the Bible is not information, but formation into Christ by the skilled hands of the Church's "apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers" (Eph. 4:11)).  The second trail is harder to deal with, and is beside my present point: we have not yet come to an understanding of history in modern biblical studies that corresponds to how the ancients understood the stories of the passage of their times (neither 'objective' nor 'fictional' as we understand myth): history is apocalyptic, showing the truth of, behind, and shot through reality, rather than a bare description of events (more on this later).

When reading the OT Christologically (or Christotelically), the forming-filling-dwelling pattern becomes helpful, and a possible way to minimize the dangers of the first problem listed above.  The OT histories, narratives, persons, and institutions are the formation of salvation within history so that the Son of God might fill the whole world with His Presence and come to dwell among it. If the OT is the forming, that means that the whole of it can be "profitable for doctrine [teaching], for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16): it has been "breathed by God" for such a purpose, much like the Spirit indwelt the builders of the Tabernacle or the Spirit hovered over the waters of the primordial "welter and waste" (Gen. 1:2).  This means that the New Testament (at least) is the filling, or furnishing, of this reality for the dwelling of the King.  Here we see the construction of the Temple of God (1 Cor. 6:19 individually; Eph. 4:15-16 corporately, among many others), patterned out by the OT, filled by the Pascha of Christ, lived by the people of God: this will be finished when the Body reaches its terminus or telos: perfect love (1 Cor. 13:8-13, understanding the "perfect" of be God's Love, poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit).  We live, in other words, in the filling time, recapitulating in our own existence the filling of Christ of the OT forms: His Cross and death become ours in baptism, renewed in repetance, and completed in Eucharist.  As we move forward into history (the progression of time from one moment to the next), we see that the linear feel it has is more complicated: all events resolve in the Cross of Golgotha, awaiting their full share in the Resurrection, which we only take part in via firstfruits now.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sermon: Psalm 43

I was very graciously hosted and received at Chippewa United Presbyterian Church this morning.

The words of Psalm 43, along with Psalm 42, comprise one song, held together with the refrain "Why are you cast down, o my soul? and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God."  The Psalmist has expressed his desire to worship God, to be attendant to the festivals; yet the Lord's hand -- in the form of enemies -- is heavy upon him.  It feels, he says, as if "all Your breakers and Your waves have gone over me."  He is drowning, he who just a few lines earlier confessed that his soul was parched for God. We come to the center of the poem, then, and it is beautiful: "By day the Lord commands His steadfast love," His hesed, that love expressed through the covenant by which He bound Himself as Husband and Lord to Israel, "and at night His song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life."  Still, though, the enemies taunt, saying, "Where is Your God?"  This causes the Psalmist, at the start of Psalm 43, to call for God's judgment: "Vindicate me, o God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!"  He feels trapped by the enemy, unable to make headway against the accusations of divine abandonment.  The vindication, the defense, and the deliverance are one and the same, found when God sends "out His Light and His Truth" which lead the Psalmist back into the worship of God, where he so longed to be, revealing the Hope his soul had panted after.

There are many ways in which we could interpret and apply this Psalm to our lives.  The most obvious, I think, is the psychological: we've felt the despondency that the Psalmist does -- the crushing weight of intrusive and persistent thoughts that claim the absolute absence of God.  Here the spiritual principle of speaking to our soul, reminding it that He is faithful, just, and good, is appropriate and helpful.  But let us go on to another way of looking at it.  The phrase "an ungodly people" could well be translated as "an impious nation."  We know the current cultural and social moment in which we live.  We've seen, in only a few months time, the normalization of pornography and sexual abuse with 50 Shades of Grey, the cultural exaltation of what Scripture and Church Tradition considers sin (in a number of ways), the continuing plague of racism, and the codification into law of that which leads us away from Christ.  Many Christians are in distress, wondering "where is God?"  It is easy, and arguably right, to be "cast down" and "in turmoil" right now.

The answer, though, is in front of us: prayer.

We often pooh-pooh prayer.  We say, "I feel like all I can do is pray" and other similar sentiments.  All we can do?  St James teaches us that "the effective prayer of a righteous person has great power" (5:16). Why, then, do so many of our prayers seem to go unanswered, especially as we pray for our nation and our culture?  James says, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (4:3), that is, we ask selfishly: we want comfort, security, prosperity, fame, exceptionalism, instead of God's will for ourselves and our nation.  James goes on to say "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."  We must, that is, seek after God's righteousness, who in turn makes us righteous, that our prayers might be effective and powerful.  "Submit yourselves, therefore, to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.  Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Be wretched and mourn and weep.  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you" (4:6-10).  There is hope, then, in our collective and persistent repentance.  Repentance is a form of judgment, looking at our own turning away from the Life of God, and turning once more, as the old Shaker song puts it, "for by turning, turning, we come 'round right." The Psalmist, then, surrounded by "an impious nation," does not call for their judgment, but his own: "vindicate me, o God!"  The Hebrew is a bit more striking, "Judge me!"  As St Peter says, "it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God" (4:17).  Once we judge ourselves by God's Spirit, taking particular care to remove the logs from our own eyes before helping to wipe the sawdust from our brother's, then we can pray effectively and powerfully.

What is the content of our prayer?  The Psalmist tells us: "Send out Your Light and Your Truth; let them lead me" (v. 3).  When we pray for the leading of Light and Truth, we are not praying for pious niceties.  So often when we use terms like these, we take them as nothing more than metaphors; the Scriptures instruct us differently.  What is God's Light? "I am the Light of the world; whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of Life," our Lord says in John 8:12.  What is God's Truth?  "If you abide in My Word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free," (8:31-32), in which our Lord tells His disciples, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (14:6).  "Send out Your Light and Your Truth" is the language of prayer to ask for the coming of the Son of God into our midst, that He might lead us to salvation.  As we see in the Gospels, though, this is a task best done in fear: the sinners -- prostitutes, tax-collectors, Gentiles -- expected the harsh wrath of God, while the Pharisees believed themselves to be "on the right side of history."  Jesus overturned this: those who were in sin repented, while the religious held on to their own righteousness, instead of seeking God's in Jesus Christ.  If we have humbled ourselves, seeking first God's kingdom and righteousness, He will lead us: where, though?

"Let them bring me to Your Holy Hill and to Your Dwelling!  Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise You with the lyre, O God, my God."  God's Light and Truth, Jesus Christ, leads us to Church, to worship Him "in Spirit and in Truth" (John 4:23).  Why?  Here is where God has made Himself present, in the Body of the Son.  Here is where we can be purified, made clean, forgiven of our sins, saved from the enemy, nurtured to health, and equipped for mission.  Here is where we learn to pray, and learn that prayer is the foundation of all Christian life.  We may not be able to do great works, in fact it is probably better if we don't, as pride can easily creep into our hearts and poison us; but we can, no matter our physical ability, no matter our intellectual attainments, no matter our capacities and capabilities, pray and pray together. It is no wonder, then, that the author of Hebrews admonishes us to "not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (10:25).

It is in the midst of worship, as well, that all things become clear.  We see all that is happening in the world, even our own nation: Ferguson, Baltimore, the burning of churches in the South, the emptiness of churches in the North, Chattanooga, and we are liable to take over the role of the enemy and ask, "Where is your God?"  We might even be tempted to say, "All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence" (Ps. 73:13).  It seems that evil is in the ascendency, what use is living the Christian life?  The Psalmist says, "If I had said, 'I will speak thus,' I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.  But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end" (v. 15-17).  Here, in the Church, we see the end of evil: we see the Cross, where Satan and the demons poured out the worst they are capable of, murdering the Lord of Light and Life; yet this Cross has become, for us, a symbol not of shame or defeat, but of unconditional victory: "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself" (2 Cor. 5:19); "By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh" (Rom. 8:3).  Evil is defeated, even if it yet prowls around as a "roaring lion" -- for God's Light and Truth have been sent, leading us to worship Him, Father, Son, and Spirit for our salvation and the salvation of the whole world.  This is why the Psalmist can end, as we should today, by saying: "Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God."  Hallelujah, our God reigns!  Amen.