31 Jan

So I Baptized an iPhone…

The mood was set perfectly.  Friends gathered around the baptistry as  I stood  with Andrew who joined me in the water to give his life to Jesus.  Andrew was about to become a new man when all of a sudden an iPhone leaped for joy out of the hand of the one videoing.    He was capturing this glorious moment in high definition on a shiny new iPhone.

We all watched in horror as the iPhone hurdled the railing, smacked the floor beside the baptistry,  and then dove neatly into the baptismal waters.  I think it was actually more like a backflip but either way I’d give it a perfect 10.  Like a scuba diver, the iPhone submerged peacefully to the bottom, capturing every glorious second on its still recording hard drive.  I froze…for a second.  It was one of those, “no way that just happened moments.”  Finally, I reached down into the deep, rescued the iPhone, and handed it back into the hands of its owner who was as in shock as anyone. An awkward pause later, I let out a chuckle to break the tension that everyone felt over an iPhone that sought redemption.  Moments later, Andrew became a new man in Christ.  What about the iPhone?  Read on.  And as you do, let’s explore something together.

What is the role of technology in the life of a Christian?  Does it help or hurt us on our journey? The answer isn’t quite that simple.  Maybe a better question to ask is, can or should technology  be “baptized” or redeemed?  No, I don’t mean iPhones taking the plunge.  What I do mean is something deeper.

Critiquing the role of technology is not easy for me.  As I write this, I am pounding the keys of an expensive laptop computer.  To my left is an iPad with digital Bible apps and note taking apps where some of my research has been ever so “efficiently” done and is now digitally stored and ready to “quickly” access.  To my right is a Kindle e-book reader where I have “frugally” purchased and “consumed” some of the information to be reflected upon in this present task.  A few feet away sits a large, flat screen television that beckons me to engage it rather than critique its high tech “brothers and sisters.”  On my wrist is an “advanced” watch displaying the exact time to the second, reminding me of deadlines and how with each passing moment my time to finish this current work is slipping away.   A few more feet away sits an iPhone, ready to make sure I don’t miss the demands of any one of hundreds of possible scenarios in which I might be summoned to action through an email, text message, Facebook message, or even a good “old fashioned” phone call.  Why, then, is writing this essay difficult for me?  Because I know two deeply engaging and vitally important questions are being asked of me.  First, does modern day technology truly help or hinder my desire to be like Jesus?  And second, what has been lost in the advent of a high tech world?  Again, these questions are far from simple, “yes” or “no” answers. However, they must be asked.  This is my attempt to develop an ethic that seeks to wrestle with these questions as I engage the role technology plays in the life of a disciple of Christ.

While it is tempting to think of technology in electronic terms, such as computers or gadgets, it should rather be thought of in terms of its end goal:  to make life better, more efficient, simpler, and ultimately, more practical.  Technology is defined by Wikipedia, a community based encyclopedia made possible only by advanced technology, as

“the making, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function.” 

Note that the telos (goal) of technology is to “solve” and “perform” and that this is only made possible through the use of a man-made tool.    This is interesting considering the word originally stemmed from the word techne which referred to an “art, skill, or craft.”  It is easy to to dismiss the questions raised here by disregarding technology as neither moral nor immoral.2

This approach, however, misses the crucial task at hand and fails to see that technology has a creator who designed that technology with a specific goal in mind.  A knife was invented by someone with the end goal of acquiring the ability to cut.   Certainly that same knife can be used for both good and evil.  Will the one who wields it cut food or will they cut people?  The one who holds the technology has the decision to make on how to use it.  Therefore it is both the original telos of technology and the telos of the one using it that must be examined.   This creates an array of scenarios:

1)   A technology is designed with a good purpose and is used for good.  i.e. a knife being used to cut food.

2)   A technology is designed with a good purpose but its purpose is changed in the hands of man. i.e. a steak knife used to attack another person

3)  A technology is designed with an “immoral” intent and is used by man for that purpose, such as a machine gun being fired at a crowd of people

4)  A technology is designed with an “immoral” intent but in the hands of “good” is repurposed for good.

5)  A technology is designed with an “immoral” intent but is destroyed in the hands of good to keep it from accomplishing its original purpose.

With each of the above, there are interactions between the telos of the creator of the technology and the telos of the one wielding that technology. This leads to either the exploitation of the technology or the redemption of it.  Any technology left unredeemed is dangerous.  This danger is perhaps most prevalent, however, in a sixth option:  A technology is designed for “good,” is then used for “good,” but too much of that “good” turns into a “bad” thing.  Such has been the case with modern technology.

Whether it be “low tech” or “high tech,” old or new, the telos of most technology, at least the ones I have most often encountered, is to allow a task to be done with greater ease, more efficiency, more practicality, or some combination of each of these.  It is here, however, that the telos of technology stands in juxtaposition with the way of the cross.   While technology promises to make life easier and more efficient, the cross asks for nothing less than inconvenience and death to self. 3

Does this simply make all technology “bad” or sinful?”  Not necessarily.  It can however prove to be a stumbling block or an “off ramp” from the Way of Christ that results in the following teleological distortions.

First, technology offers the telos of saving time.  It is a promise it cannot keep up with in the long term.  While the Enlightenment opened our eyes to information, modern technology gave us access to that information.  The “Information Age” inevitably became mostly intertwined, for better or for worse, with the church, the Gospel, and the Christian.  The lure of fulfilling technology is nearly inescapable lest one “escape” to the wilderness without a GPS in hand.   Why do we acquire new gadgets?  The new one is faster and we will save more time and be more efficient if we have the new one.  The telos then of each “new” technology is to save time.  Ironically, what was fast a year ago now seems painfully slow.  Has the device actually slowed down?  In most cases, unless the device has not lived up to its original promise, no.  Instead, the world has sped up.  A “faster” world demands faster technology.  A “dial-up” pace is no longer acceptable.  I remember marveling at the “abilities” of a dial-up internet connection just a few years ago.  Now, however, I become angry when my broadband equipped mobile phone briefly fails and achieves only “ancient” dial-up speeds.  It is never enough.

This “need for speed” is not only unhealthy, it breeds addiction, and leads to the second stumbling block of technology – the promise of fulfillment.  This process is subtle but steady.  Technology creates a desire.  It is a desire to consume.  That desire become insatiable because it is utterly dependent on technology’s ability to “keep up.”  The only thing that can fulfill the desire is something newer, better, and faster.  Whether we care to admit it or not, this can be a form of idolatry.  “Surely not!” we are tempted to declare.  The words of Jesus leave no doubt.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.” 4

Technology promises a treasure.  That treasure is saving time and being fulfilled.  How, then, can we know if our hearts are invested in technology’s “treasure?”  We have to look no further than how deeply our wallets have invested in technology.  Technology has promised treasure and our hearts and our wallets have followed.  Only Jesus, however, has true treasure and can fulfill the deepest desires of mankind.    The “God-shaped hole”5  inside of man cannot be filled with a gadget.  Discipleship is not a speedy process and any attempt to speed it up comes with a cost.

The question then must become, “What effects does an unredeemed technology have on the follower of Jesus?”

Christians are called to follow “the Way” of Jesus Christ as a “people on a path.”6

This Way is an invitation to life in the very “way” intended by the One who designed the Creation.  Only He can know best how it should be lived.   Technology offers shortcuts.  The Way of God, however, is a journey and a process.  It cannot be rush.  As Kallenberg points out, the way of God, is a process of “orienteering” which is only done through hands-on experience, learning from failure, and hard work. 7

The Way of God has never been a shortcut.  Moses spent forty years as a goat herder in the wilderness before God sent him back to Egypt.  Israel spent forty years in the wilderness learning to walk with God.  Even Jesus, who only spent around 33 years in the flesh, appears to have spent 30 of those years growing in “wisdom, stature, and favor with God and man.”

The impact of a high tech world cannot be underestimated on discipleship.  While Christ offers a narrow journey that requires self-denial, deep trust, bold faith, and rejection, technology offers another way.  It is a “super-highway” that promises a “broadband” speedy journey into fantasy, pleasure, “fulfillment,” and an avatar that allows you to be whoever and wherever you desire.

The impact of this type of journey is not only felt in Christian discipleship but also in the discipline of education.  Leonard Sax shows the impact technology has had on young people who have “learned” information but failed to acquire vitally important skills.  In his book, Boys Adrift, Sax offers the following vitally important wisdom from Dr. Frank Wilson, a neurology professor at Stanford, who reflects on how difficult it is for many current medical students to understand the concept of the heart working like a pump. Wilson says this is difficult because,

“these students have so little real-world experience. They’ve never siphoned anything, never fixed a car, never worked on a fuel pump, may not even have hooked up a garden hose. For a whole generation of kids, direct experiences in the backyard, in the tool shed, in the fields, and woods, has been replaced by indirect learning, through [computers]. These young people are smart, they grew up with computers, they were supposed to be superior – but now we know that something’s missing.” 9

Technology offers the goal of making a person smarter by having more information but, in the end, it fails.  The consumer of information has become consumed by the information in a way that nothing is actually “made” but only bought, 10 or to perhaps state it better, borrowed, using the so called expertise promised by technology.  Expertise, however, without experience, is only a myth.  It is not the Way of the cross.   Being a disciple is not about gathering information but about gathering the experiences that come through a process of learning from failure.  Jesus allowed his disciples to fail knowing they would learn and be shaped by the very things that were difficult and that hurt the most.  This is a vital process that produces craftsmanship much like apprentices during the Renaissance learned after thousands of hours learning from a master.  These  men were appropriately called journeymen. 11

Life is a journey.  It is a story.  Any technology that seeks to shortcut that journey or offer an alternate story should be considered a threat to the telos of the Gospel.

Next, the telos of technology is often productivity and efficiency.  Being high tech is meant to save time.  Nothing about this telos may appear distorted on the surface.  Most people today see work as a burden.  Technology promises to ease that burden by making a task less difficult.  It is here that we see a “fallen” world, an old “aeon,” creeping onto the stage.  In the beginning, work was not a burden.  Adam delighted in his work in the Garden of Eden.  It was a privilege, better yet, a delight to partner with God as a co-worker in the Kingdom.  What was Adam’s job?  It began with naming the animals and then caring for them.  It also included caring for all of God’s glorious creation and exercising a God-given task of ruling.

Everything changed at the fall.  Work became a curse – a burden.  From that day until this present one, technology has offered to ease that burden.  The problem with this promise is that it is not healthy on any level for a person to live a life of ease.  Growth takes place in the difficult places, in those “dark nights of the soul” that are so necessary for the disciple to endure.  Bly suggests we need not of ascent, but descent.  This descent takes  a person on the much needed, humbling journey down to the basement kitchen.  Bly says,

“for young men who have graduated from privileged colleges, or who have been lifted upward by the expensive entitlement culture, their soul life often begins with this basement work in the kitchen.” 12

It is the “kitchen” where technology takes a back seat to work.  Without this journey, we are tempted to ascend too quickly, miss the value of hard work, and develop a sense of entitlement.  Technology instead offers the “easy” way to the top.

This offer comes in several ways.  One of those ways, as just mentioned, is to reduce the work load.  Another, perhaps not as obvious, way is to offer an alternate identity.  If we can harness the power of technology we are led to believe we can be someone who can rule again.  Sadly, these dominions come in created fantasies that only technology can produce.  As one recent video game maker offered in a commercial for its gaming system – “Live in your world.  Come play in ours.”  In other words, “Your world is work. That’s not fun.  It’s not good enough.  Come inside to a fantasy world where you can play and everything can be yours.”  This sounds eerily similar to the temptation that led to the fall in the Garden.

This identity can also take the form of an earned identity.  We are led to believe that if we harness technology in a way that helps us produce enough we will be valuable.  It is the story of Babel retold a thousand ways as man seeks to build or technologically advance his way to God.    There is, however, only one way to God, and that is the way of the cross of Christ. 13

Technology, then, should be seen as potentially offering a way of distraction.  This is perhaps most seen in Jesus’ parable of seeds in Luke 8.  One of the seeds falls on soil with weeds.  Jesus explains that the original intent of the seed is good.   But the one who “hears” over time is choked out by “life’s worries, riches, and pleasures” (Luke 8:14.  Technology has the potential to be the weeds.  The wielder of these technologies must then ask the question, “Are the ‘weeds’ of technology choking true discipleship in my life?  If so, what am I going to do about it?”  These weeds do not come up without a fight.  They are deeply rooted.  Pulling them causes pain and even threatens the good roots of the good plant.  Technology has developed a similar choke-hold on many.

Technology can distort the nature of quality by replacing it with quantity.  One has to look no further than Facebook for this to be seen.  It is a place where people have hundreds, if not thousands, of “friends” while only truly being “liked” by a few. 14    In a similar way technology distorts authentic community by providing a synthetic alternative where “more” looks better but only offers less.  This has been evidenced in recent years trough the cability technology has offered to download music through websites such as Napster.  This music was “free” and could be downloaded by anyone.  The problem with the music,however, is that the quality was drastically reduced in order to make the file size small enough to download.  Many became obsessed with acquiring any and all music they could download regardless of the quality.  Ironically, only a decade before, the CD promised a high quality music experience that exceeded anything ever heard before on the cassette or 8-track.  The CD was expensive but it provided quality.  Soon enough, people were less concerned about the quality of the music because it costs them too much to get it.  Instead, they turned to the free, low quality version.  The same comparison could be made between the DVD and YouTube.  No less is true in discipleship in a high tech world where the temptation is to trade the quality of a journey that costs something for a cheap alternative that offers more while actually delivering less.

Technology also presents another stumbling block in that it has a tendency to replace the “joy” of work that was intended in the Garden with a mechanism.  The danger of technology is that it can easily become corrupted, or fallen, even when the telos is originally good.   An example of this is seen in the invention of the clock.  While most assume the telos of the first clock would have been to work more efficiently, this was not the case at all.  The first clocks were designed by monks who desired joyous reminders to balance intervals of the soul-elevating tasks of labor and prayer. 15

The clock did not make them work more efficiently but allowed them four to five hours of reading and prayer.  It was invented, in ways not too dissimilar from the Sabbath, to produce freedom.  The technology of the clock sadly became the measuring tool for efficiency and became a device, not for freedom, but for the “enslavement” of the work force.  This technology “devolved” as it evolved.  The clock gave birth to the stop-watch and was championed by Frederick Wilson Taylor who in 1911 took the stop-watch to the steel plant and invented rigid systems of efficiency for which he could declare,

“In the past, man has been first, in the future the system must be first.” 16

His prophetic words still ring true today.  A technology that began with good intentions grew into an oppressive system.

It is exactly here that an ethic on technology must be engaged.  Technology, when left unredeemed, is counter to the Gospel.  By “unredeemed” I mean any technology whose telos either begins with, or is turned into, something that counters the way of the cross of Christ.  Technology, like all of creation, must be subjected to the redeeming power of God.

This is not an easy task because there is no formula for “baptizing” an iPhone, although I’ve tried.  So what about that iPhone?  Amazingly it worked just long enough for us to all watch the whole incident on its wet screen before finally giving up the ghost.   But when the owner took it to Apple, something quite remarkable happened.  Although the phone would not stay powered up, it showed absolutely no signs of water damage to the Apple technicians.  And so…they gave the owner a brand new one.   I guess you could it was at least an echo of redemption.  In the end, we must come back to the end goal.  If the telos of any technology has hindered, distorted, or replaced the telos of the Christian Way, it must be uprooted, or should I say…unplugged.

 

Footnotes

1 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technology

2 Brad J. Kallenberg, God and Gadgets: Following Jesus in a Technological Age [Kindle Edition] (Eugene, Oregon:  Cascade Books, 2011), e-book location 450 of 4685.

3 Luke 9:23

4 Luke 12:34, NIV

5 The description of a “God-shaped hole” is most frequently attributed to Blaise Pascal from his Penses. The original idea can be found in Penses 10.148

6 James Wm. McClendon, Ethics: Systematic Theology Volume 1 (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), 50.

7 Kallenberg, e-book location 377 of 4685

8 Luke 2:52

9 Leonard Sax, Boys Adrift (New York, Basic Books, 2007), 29-30.

10 William T. Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 37.

11 Xan Hood, Sweat, Blood, and Tears (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010), 139.

12 Robert Bly, Iron John (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004), 70.

13 Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1996) 27-32.

14 This is a play on words to reflect the way in which users of Facebook can “like” something posted by another user by clicking the “Like” button underneath the posting.

15 James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009),  174-175.

16 Smith, 176.

23 Nov

The Two Tables

Have you ever noticed… how many things take place in the Gospels around a table?  With Thanksgiving coming in a few days, most of us will be focusing our attention on a table as we gather with those we love and celebrate the “blessings” in our lives.  This blog entry is a retelling of a famous parable that contains a common theme in the Gospel of Luke – the table.  I’ll let you figure out which parable as you read.  My goal here is to recreate the original shock that Jesus’ audience would have experienced when he told this parable.  And then to show what it may mean to us today.  This parable is crucial to our understanding of both the present and future Kingdom of God.  Jesus seems to show that both center around…a table.  The following story is written from the perspectives of two men and two tables…

Table # 1

“This is my table.  I am so blessed to recline here.  The food is amazing and plentiful and I have all I could ever need, not to mention the fellowship of those chosen ones who share my likeness.  Ahhh… the benefits of being a son of Abraham and a son of  Father God who is so good to bless me this way.  I have lived my life in obedience to Him. He is so kind to take care of me and to reward me. Oh Lord God of Israel I take my place at the covenant meal!  A purple robe and the finest of linen He has provided to show where I belong and to Whom I belong to.  It’s not that I’m proud…but don’t I have reason to boast in Him?  It is an honor to wear my allegiance for all to see. I love to proclaim where my loyalty lies and to proclaim the results of living for the Father.   To and from the Temple courts I greet my brothers who, as fellow sons of Abraham, share in the blessings of the Father.  Proudly I enter the Sanctuary to worship the One who has provided both now and forevermore.   Forever and ever I will fellowship with the righteous and recline with the rich, those chosen to share in the inheritance.    Oh to be a part of the community of the redeemed and to be on the side of the Redeemer.

If only the one who begs understood.  For even now he sits outside the gate and cries out for my help in the name of Father Abraham.  A little relief is all he asks.  But doesn’t he understand?  I know the misery of that poor soul must be ever so intense but there is a fundamental distance between us that cannot be traveled, a divide that cannot be traversed.  The die has been cast, the distance has been fixed.  It’s not that I do not wish to help but, how can I when it is not really my place?  God has made His assignments and who am I to change what He has established?   The “set apart” he has blessed and invited to the table.   My table is before me and I have been chosen and called to share in the feast of the elite.  But will I see him every day – he who cries out for my help?  Couldn’t his family have taken care of him?  Were his brothers so ignorant too?  It’s not that he has asked me for very much but that he has failed to understand his place in this life and his destined future.

But one thing is for sure.  I know my place and I know my future.  The Father has called me by name and invited me here to the table.  I am Lazarus, the comforted one, the blessed one, the helped one, the child of the King.  I have traded rags for riches, crumbs for the eternal presence of the Creator, begging for Banquets, uncleanliness for unashamedness, sores for salvation…and I’ve traded my tears for …Table.  Yes, this is my table and I will dine with my Provider and my family here forever.  It is the Feast of the Forgiven with the One who forgives.  The haves and the have-nots of the world gathered here in harmony for here we are all truly rich.  Those who once longed for a share of the crumbs from the tables of the rich and those who once shared the wealth of the table with the poor now commune at the Heavenly Table in the Eternal Banquet.  Yes, I am so blessed to be seated in the heavenlies!”

Table # 2

“I was so blessed to recline there.  A roof over my head, a servant at my side, and the favor of the Almighty. The banquet was the finest and the food  plentiful and I had all I could have ever needed at the table.  Am I not a chosen seed of Abraham and a son of Father God who selected me and blessed me?  I lived my life in obedience to Him and I prospered.   It was my reward, my place, my heritage, my destiny. Hadn’t he provided from birth the wealth of the world to those who belonged to Him?  My purple robe and fine linens showed everyone my status in the Kingdom and who I belonged too.  My splendid home on the hill proclaimed the favor of the righteous.  And my gates…they protected me from an unclean and defiled world.  Yes, Lord, I have kept myself pure before You.  I was so proud to be a part of the family of the righteous, the clean, the unadulterated – and I wore my allegiance with honor for all to see the benefits of the chosen ones.  Oh how I knew and kept the law.  I studied the commands day after day after day, keeping every letter of the law, proclaiming it boldly from the Temple courts.  Couldn’t everyone see that I lived my life for the Lord my God?  Didn’t my blessings prove His preference and confirm my standing? Every day I went to and from the Temple courts fixing my eyes on the path before me, guarding my gaze from unclean things and joining my fellow brothers in the worship of the Almighty.  We were sons of our wealthy father Abraham and didn’t we share in his favor and in his riches?

Even the punished ones who sat at my gate knew who I was in the Kingdom and longed to walk in my shoes and to share in the abundance of the God who provides for the righteous and blessed.  Yes, I gave thanks to Almighty God, the Giver of all, the One who provides both now and forevermore, the One… who is my help.   Eleazar! God is my help?  Lazarus!  God is his help?    But I lived inside the gate and communed with the righteous.  I reclined with the rich and took my place with the chosen ones!    I kept myself pure and my ways upright.  I lived according to the Law.  I walked among the righteous.  I gave my alms.  I shared my crumbs.   I, I, …I claimed my seat of honor and my table overflowed and was always  full.      Oh…Father Abraham…my table was always… full.    There were no vacant seats – I had given them to the “blessed” ones, the “chosen” ones, to my five brothers…my…brothers!”

Two men, two tables.  With which will you dine?

Conclusion:  Making “Seven”

There is no clear evidence of the “numerology” in this parable  but I’d like to suggest there is more than meets the eye.  I believe it has to do with a number Jesus uses in this parable.  I think Kenneth Bailey’s chapter on this parable in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes would agree.

The number six represents evil in the world.  Why does Jesus specifically choose “five” as the number of brothers the rich man has in this parable?  Perhaps it is to show that the 5 brothers + the rich man = 6.  They embody evil.  What was their crime?  Jesus does not tell us of specific laws they have broken but he tells this parable in a way for the listener or reader to discover the “crime” that lands the rich man even in hell.  So what’s the crime Jesus is suggesting here?  The crime of inequality.  The crime of injustice.  The crime of ignoring poverty.

Did you know that if you make more than $25,000/year  you are among the top 10% of the world’s most wealthy?  If you make more than $50,000/year then you move into the top 1%.   The only reason Jesus suggests in the parable that the rich man is guilty is…he failed to care for poor Lazarus.  He failed to invite him to the table.

What if…just what if…on one of those days…the rich man had stopped as he entered his gate?  What if he’d allowed his eyes to meet the eyes of poor, forsaken Lazarus?  Maybe, just maybe, he would have felt a twinge of compassion and invited him to his table.

Salvation is not just “going to heaven when we die” it is about bringing a piece of heaven to earth while we live.  I believe Jesus is suggesting here that the implications of such an invitation are truly life-saving.   But not just for Lazarus.  Yes, the rich man could have helped “save” Lazarus from hunger and from shame on any one of those days.  But he could have also “saved” himself from…himself.  He cared for his five brothers and himself.  What if he’d cared for Lazarus?  You do the math.  5 brothers + 1 rich man + 1 poor Lazarus.  Seven.  The number associated with God.  Maybe our mission in life isn’t just serving others for their sake but also for our own.  What could have happened around that table of seven?  Attitudes could have been revealed.  Selfishness could have been exposed.  Eyes could have been opened.  And the Kingdom of God could have been experienced both then and perhaps forevermore.

Who is your “Lazarus?”

Identify the “sixes” in your life that keep you from seeing the Kingdom.  Now pull up an extra chair.  And turn them into “sevens.”  Invite Lazarus to the table.  Experience the Kingdom of God.  It may “save” both him…and you.

12 Oct

The Living Scroll

It happens almost every time. It happens when I’m teaching. It happens when I’m listening to a sermon.  It happens in classes I’m in. When the Word of God is read people tune out.  As soon as the speaker begins to speak or teach again they tune back in.  I understand that people sometimes think the Bible is boring to read.  Maybe that’s because they are genuinely not interested.  But usually it’s because we think we’ve heard it all before.   But there is always, always, always….so much more.  What I find when I read and study God’s Word is that the more I look at it, the more I hunger over it, the more I realize how much deeper it goes.  I could spend the rest of my life studying it and it will continue to speak to me in fresh ways.  That’s what makes the Bible a LIVING literature!  We hunger over each word of it (see past entry titled “Hagaaaahhhhh” for more on that).  Today I’d like to share another of those “hagah” (hunger) moments I had recently.

Last week while preparing to teach one of my freshman Story of Jesus classes at Lipscomb University I found something that I’d never seen.  It may be totally “off” but I wanted to share a discovery from Luke 4 which I thought I was quite familiar with.  It’s the story of Jesus going into His hometown synagogue in Nazareth.  I love this story.  As a rabbi, Jesus has been invited to participate in the Sabbath service in the synagogue.  The scene is far more dramatic than we can imagine when we place it within its cultural context.  The synagogue attendant (more on that in a moment) has just brought the sacred scrolls into the room.  Some are crying in reverence that the Word of God has come into their presence.  Some are dancing with joy that God’s voice will be heard in the Text on this day.  All eyes follow the scrolls as they are carried and intentionally placed in the middle of the synagogue to show their importance.  The excitement grows as each person, young and old, anxiously waits to hear a Word from the Creator, the Almighty God who spoke then and still speaks today.

On this Sabbath day, Jesus is one of the “Scripture readers” (as we call them today).  I know you’ve heard it before, but stay with me for a moment.

During Jesus’ time the synagogue attendant, called the hazzan, was responsible for, in addition to other duties, arranging the Sabbath “service.”  Today this would be like the person who sets our Sunday morning “order of worship.” But most “church goers” today might tune out if we did things the same way today.  Why?  Because most of the service consisted of readings from the Word of God.  The “sermon” portion of the service would have lasted only a few minutes.  The hazzan would select “Scripture readers” to read a lengthy portion of the Torah. He would also select a reader to read a shorter selection from the prophets and then offer the short “sermon” called a dereshah.  So the synagogue Sabbath service was arranged around three specific parts as follows:

  • A lengthy reading from the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
  • A shorter series of readings from the Haftorah  (the prophets – typically Isaiah or Jeremiah)
  • A Dereshah (short “sermon” showing how the Haftorah had been experienced in the reader’s life)

These assigned Sabbath readings were believed to have originally been put into order by Ezra and the scribes.  The Torah was broken down into 52 readings which equalled about 5 or 6 chapters per Sabbath.  There was also a corresponding haftorah reading from the prophets that was assigned to accompany the Torah readings. To this day, Jews still follow this same Torah and Haftorah reading schedule on the Sabbath.

So on this particular Sabbath in Luke 4, the Torah reading and the accompanying Haftorah reading have already been scheduled.  The hazzan has selected rabbi Yeshua (Jesus) on this day to read the Haftorah and give the short dereshah (a short “sermon” telling how it can be applied).

The Torah has been read by the selected reader.  And now it is Jesus turn to stand.  You ALWAYS stood to read from the Word of God. He is given the selected Haftorah reading which on this day was from the scroll of Isaiah.  What a beautiful passage He has been given on this day.  It is one of hope and freedom.  As a rabbi Jesus does something that would have been permissible. He strings together a series of Texts from the scroll of Isaiah He has been handed.  According to the reading schedule that is still in place today, the assigned reading appears to have been Isaiah 42:6-7.  But Jesus weaves together this passage with Isa. 61:1-2 and Isa. 58:6.  These are Messianic prophecies of hope about how a coming Messiah would declare a Jubilee with “the Spirit of the Lord.”  The Jubilee was essentially about release, return, and renewal.

Early on in Israel’s history (Leviticus 25) God had crafted a year of Jubilee for the Israelites.  In the 50th year all prisoners were to be set free and land was to be returned to original owners.  It was also a year of rest for the land as no crops were to be harvested in the 50th year.

Luke tells us that when Jesus reads these Texts from Isaiah, “the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.” (4:20).  You could hear a pin drop.  The Word of God has been declared!  And now…they anxiously await…”what is this rabbi going to offer in the dereshah about this wonderful passage of hope!”

It may have been the shortest dereshah they’d ever heard.  It was also the most unbelievable.

Jesus sits down, hands the scroll back to the hazzan and offers 8 words that change everything.   “Today… this Scripture…. is FULLFILLED in your hearing.”    What has He just said?  Right there in the midst of his hometown of Nazareth, Jesus has just declared that Jubilee is here…in the form of… HIMSELF!    He is proclaiming Himself to be Messiah, the ONE who would proclaim Jubilee for Israel!  He has come to “preach good news to the poor.”  He has come to “proclaim freedom for the prisoners.”  He has come to “give sight to the blind.” He has come to “release the oppressed.”  He has come to proclaim God’s Jubilee!!!!!

Most people think that at this part in the Story that the Jews in the synagogue are angry.  They will become angry alright.  But not yet.  Luke shows us clearly that after Jesus declares Jubilee they “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” (4:22)  In fact, the “question” they ask next  is more affirmative of this than we’ve typically read it.  They ask, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  We should hear this as more of a declaration than a question.  “This is our hometown boy!  He’s the son of our very own Joseph!  We’ve watched Him grow up right here in Nazareth.  He’s one of ours!”  The God who spoke then is now speaking to them in the present.

It’s a whole additional aspect to this story that I won’t delve into much here but many people from Nazareth believed the Messiah would indeed come from their hometown.  So they believed at first that Jesus WAS indeed that Messiah.  Until he quickly shows them that his Messiahship is not exclusive to them.  How quickly they turn on Him.  They go from being ready to proclaim Him the Messiah to wanting to push him over a cliff to stone Him.

You’ve held on this long, so come with me a little further to let me show you the “hagah.”

If you follow what I’ve mentioned above there is something obvious missing in Luke 4 that I can’t believe I’ve never thought to look up! And I must give credit to one of my students for asking. So what is it that do we NOT have in the Story that might give additional insight?  The Torah reading for that Sabbath day!

I excitedly reverse-traced it  by looking through all the Torah readings to see which one of them connected to the passages that Jesus read aloud from the Isaiah scroll. I had a feeling this might give us even more depth to what Jesus was showing His audience in the synagogue that day.  And what I found stunned me!  While there wasn’t a reading that accompanied Isa. 61:1-2, the Torah reading that accompanies Isa. 42:6-7 was…Genesis 1:1-6:8!

Why is that such a big deal?  This reading of course contains the story of Creation.  But what’s WITHIN the Story of Creation?  The first Sabbath!  On the seventh day, God rested.  Now look back with me at Jesus’ usage of the three Isaiah passages in Luke 4.

17The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Do you see it?  As previously mentioned, for the Haftorah Jesus takes the liberty to weave together a tapestry of SEVEN specific phrases from the assigned Isaiah scroll!  Why does he take this liberty and why seven?  I am suggesting here that it is to  parallel the Creation Story in the Torah reading!  Here’s what I mean.  Creation begins with:

The “Spirit of God hovering over the waters.”  Look at the parallel in Jesus’ beginning – “The Spirit of the Lord is on me…”

Jesus is not only declaring the Jubilee He’s showing us, like at His baptism when the Spirit also comes down and “hovers over Him,” that what He has come to offer the world is a NEW creation!

And what is the seventh phrase Jesus uses?  “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  It’s a parallel to the seventh day of Creation when God “rests” and enjoys His creation.

So what does all of this mean?  I believe that Jesus uses these seven phrases to both declare Jubilee AND declare that He is offering to recreate our fallen world through his life, death, and resurrection.  Paul picks up on this and declares now that WE are made new when he says in 2 Cor. 5:17 that “If anyone is IN Christ, he is a NEW CREATION.

This is truly “life between the trees!”  Jesus has come to restore Garden living by making “all things new.” He has come to declare the Jubilee against the curse placed upon the world by Satan.  He has come to restore what God started with “in the beginning.”  Those seven phrases from Isaiah declare that mission. And it was a mission that started in the Garden.  God recreating, through Jesus, a new and restored way of life.  Jubilee in the beginning.  Jubilee through Jesus.  And Jubilee for disciples today.

The next time the Word of God is read aloud, tune in and then dig deep.  He might be saying more than meets the ear.