The Trouble With Exodus

As the buzz would have it, there is much to find troubling about Ridley Scott‘s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Mainstream reviewers are bemoaning the lack of meaningful dialogue, the strangeness of God-as-an-11-year-old-boy, and even the racism in the casting. One critic, writing for OnFaith, suggested that the value of the movie is in the way it projects our discomfort onto the ancient story, giving voice through Pharaoh to a question we have longed to ask: “Is this your god? Killer of children?”

Yes, Exodus is troubling. And there is no ‘solving’ it. But we can at least locate it in the story the Bible tells. In a sense, the trouble with Exodus is that it is only Episode 1.

There are many ways to paint the arc of the Biblical narrative, but one way of seeing it as with Exodus as the beginning. After setting the backdrop of a good world that God made on purpose and with pleasure, the Bible shows us how everything began to fall apart at the seams. Humankind’s relationship with God began to fray, as did the male-female union. It’s not long before brother is killing brother, and by Noah’s day gangs of tribal violence are having the day. At Babel, society is fragmented. By Genesis 11, it seems that all that God has joined together, humans have torn asunder.

And then, God call Abram. And soon, there is a family—three generations with the call and covenant restated and reinforced. But this family finds themselves in trouble. Brothers once again are turning on one another and soon, they find themselves in Egypt. God meets them there, in this strange land, and for a season, they enjoy prosperity. It isn’t long, however, until Egypt began to oppress the foreigners and exploit them for their own gain. This is where the Exodus story begins.

Episode 1: God comes to save his people and judge their enemies.
This is the central theme of the Exodus: God hears the cry of his people, and God acts to save them and to judge their enemies. The killing of the firstborn male in Egypt is a symbolic act of striking down the strength of the enemy. Furthermore, it is a act that stops evil in its tracks. No offspring will carry this wickedness to another generation. It is God’s mighty “Thus far, and no more” announcement to the embodiment of evil and oppression in that day. As uncomfortable as this might be for post-modern sensibilities, even in our world, we have been confronted with evil so heinous we have no choice but to say, “This must be stopped.” There are people who need to be rescued; and there is evil that needs to be ended.

The Old Testament shows a God who offers little explanation for evil but plenty of action to limit and contain evil. Why this incomplete action? Stay tuned…

Episode 2: The people who need saving also deserve judging.
There were hints of this even with Abraham: his lying and his wife’s unbelief. There were foreshadows of the fracture when Jacob’s sons sold Joseph into slavery. But eventually, the seeds of discord bore the fruit of destruction. After the height of glory during Solomon’s reign, the nation splits in two. The succession of mostly wicked kings in the northern kingdom, Israel, lead to their doom at the hands of Assyria. But the southern kingdom falls some 200 years later at the hands of Babylon. God’s people need judging, and God isn’t afraid to use wicked nations to do it. 

Episode 3: The people who deserve judging also need saving.
The story doesn’t end with the realization that everyone has got it coming from God. After all, hadn’t God promised to use Abraham’s family to bless (i.e., ‘save’) all the families of the earth? Now that Abraham’s family had a share in the wickedness, would God scrap his project of creation and decide not to save anyone and to judge them all instead? The story of Jonah—among others—shows us a God who remains committed to saving all people, even the ones who were clearly ‘the enemy’. Ninevah is representative of all the empires who oppressed God’s people. And yet God sends a prophet to Ninevah.

It is at this point in the Old Testament that we find that things are more complicated then they seem. There aren’t simply ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’; God’s people and pagans. The people who need saving also deserve judging, and the people who deserve judgment also need saving. But how?

These three movements in the Old Testament bring the story to the edge of a cliff. Would God abandon his plan to save his world? Or would God forget his promise to do it through Abraham’s family? How can God judge even those he wants to save and save even those he needs to judge?

Enter, Jesus– the seed of Abraham and the representative of Israel; the everlasting God himself, come in the flesh at long last. In Jesus we see not only the faithfulness of God but also the wisdom of God. Jesus is the surprising, unexpected Episode 4.

In Jesus, YHWH comes to save and to judge. But Jesus accomplishes this in a most unexpected way. Jesus, the Gospel writers find many ways to tell us, is fully human and fully God– and thus he is the one doing the judging and the one receiving the judgment, the one doing the saving and the one being saved from death through resurrection. He is the warrior who conquers by losing, the Savior who rescues by dying. Jesus takes the weight of all that is evil and sinful and wrong in the world upon himself, standing in not simply for ‘Israel’ but also for ‘Rome’—not only the covenant people but also the enemies and outsiders.

Jesus saves and judges by taking the judgment upon himself.

And that is tremendous news.

So, as you watch the movie and read and re-read the Exodus story, it’s quite alright to be troubled. Just keep reading. It’s not the end. That’s the trouble with Exodus– it’s only Episode 1.

“Let not your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me.”– Jesus.

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Is There a Difference Between Public Statements and Pastoral Exhortation?

[NOTE: This is a follow-up piece to my initial response to the reactions to Hillsong’s decision to decline making a public statement on ‘LGBT issues’. The first piece, ‘It’s Too easy to Dismiss Hillsong…and Miss Our Shared Problem’, can be found HERE.]

Well…Now that Pastor Brian Houston has made his position clear— via Paul’s letters, no less– the same writer at First Things (who suggested they were shifting) is concerned that we are making too much of the distinction between public statements and pastoral exhortation. Apparently, if we believe something we must say it every time we are asked, regardless of the setting.

This is worth exploring more.

Does the New Testament give ground for speaking differently to those who are followers of Jesus and those who aren’t?

Jesus reserved his strongest and clearest words for religious leaders and his own disciples– calling Pharisees ‘brood of vipers’ , telling Peter he was colluding with the devil, etc. But when pressed for specific answers, Jesus seem to evade Pilate: “What is truth?” he asked. Now, perhaps this is contextual: Jesus didn’t want to reveal His Messiah-ship to the greater public yet. But considering the amount of things to confront Roman rulers about, Jesus seemed strangely silent when on trial.

So, let’s go to the oft-cited John the Baptist’s confrontation of King Herod for his adultery. What is never said is that Herod was a Jewish king (a puppet king of Rome, but symbolically Jewish no less). John the Baptist does what a long line of Jewish prophets have done: speak the truth to power. And for this, he is beheaded– joining again the long tradition of Jewish prophets being persecuted for speaking the truth to power. But this is not a case of confronting a secular empire. Herod is confronted because he ought to know better; he comes from the chosen people of God. He is technically under covenant obligations. Caesar, on the other hand, is not. And so, I submit, neither Jesus nor John the Baptist confronted Caesar on ethical grounds. To be sure, Paul would challenged Rome on the claim of who the real ruler of the world was…but not on the basis of ethics.

Speaking of Paul. Much is made of how clear Paul was in 1 Corinthians. I agree. I preached through 1 Corinthians this year and tried to be as clear as Paul was in teaching the text. But the letter opens with these words: ‘To the church in Corinth…’ Not, ‘To everyone in Corinth…’ Paul isn’t broadcasting to the general public; he’s writing to a congregation he planted. And what did Paul lead off with when in public? Well, if his speech at Mars Hill is any indication, he tried to make a connection with their world and then draw a line to Jesus as the Messiah. Paul didn’t lead off with ethics; he opened with the core Gospel proclamation: Jesus is Lord!

To be sure, once you accept that Jesus is Lord, you will have to accept a new to live. And Christian ethics– as I have also made clear elsewhere— is not a collection of random rules, but the path to genuine human flourishing. I don’t disagree with the notion that Christian preaching must include Christian ethics, and specifically Christian sexual ethics. The question is one of sequence–which comes first?– and setting— where do we say what?

But for some Christians, this distinction doesn’t exist. It seems they want us to go randomly down the street telling perfect strangers that we don’t support gay marriage or aren’t for homosexual relationships.

OK, perhaps that’s a caricature of their argument. Sorry. The logic of the First Things piece is: If asked a clear question, give a clear answer, even– or especially– if it’s about Christian sexual ethics. I understand the desire for this. But again, I suggest that neither Jesus nor Paul gave the same answer or the same degree of clarity in every setting. Isn’t this what Paul meant when he said that he tries to be ‘all things to all men in order that he might win some’? Isn’t this what the poet Emily Dickinson says to us about telling the truth?

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

What is most troubling about the First Things piece is the use of fuzzy logic. It is a ploy– a ploy, if conscious, a trap if not– of bloggers to cite A (a true event or statement) next to B (a troubling trend or topic) and by placing them side by side insinuate that A is part of B, even if it is not. In this case, A = the statements made by Hillsong pastors in two press events; B = the troubling trend of pastors not preaching traditional (Pauline) Christian sexual ethics. And by placing Hillsong’s media statements in the context of Christian preaching, the reader is left with the impression that Hillsong is compromising, that they don’t preach the Bible, that they are embarrassed about the truth…and on and on. Not only is this sloppy thinking; it is pretty close to slandering our brothers and sisters.

Don’t confuse a media statement for a sermon; a press conference is not the same as preaching. Please: let’s not unfairly characterize another church’s preaching by what is said in a media setting.

I’m sure we will continue to wrestle with what should be said in public and how and why. But perhaps we can try to think a little more carefully about what the New Testament does or does not model.

What Does It Mean to “Take a Stand for Jesus”?

Nobody’s talking about Duck Dynasty star, Phil Robertson’s comments in GQ anymore.

Which is why I thought this might finally be a good time to talk about a question that I kept thinking about during the uproar.

[To be clear, when the interview went viral and the temporary suspension from A&E ensued, there were several issues that were worth discussing. There were issues related to civil liberties, and I think Russell Moore and others did a good job addressing that. There were issues related to the complexities of how human sexuality works, and there were Christians who addressed that.]

But the question that kept nagging me as Facebook and Twitter exploded with opinion, was this:

What does it mean to take a stand for Jesus?

It became clear to me that many Christians believe that speaking out against gay marriage in particular or homosexuality in general is the equivalent of taking a stand for Jesus. The logic goes something like this, “If Christians are silent about the truth, then the lie will win. Therefore we must be bold and call sin, sin.”

Can we talk about this? Let’s consider a few things:

1. Jesus didn’t take a stand for himself.
There were many occasions when people tried to trap Jesus–usually religious leaders, mind you– that he gave a circuitous answer. He didn’t often give them the “black and white” response they were looking for. That is not to say, of course, that Jesus was what we would call “soft on sin.” Certainly not. It’s just that He didn’t pay much attention to answering their “hot button” issues in their terms. 

Many Christians want other Christians to give a stock answer to the issues of our day. But Jesus seems to not engage on the grand level of “issues”; He stoops low to the personal and the individual. He talks to the woman caught in the act of adultery; but when asked about when a man could divorce his wife and not be guilty of adultery, Jesus reframes the question. He’s not a puppet of our social agendas.

And when Pilate puts Jesus on trial– Pilate, the one who represents the systerms and structures of the world– Jesus remains silent. He simply won’t go there.

I keep wondering why.

2. When Peter tried to take a stand for Jesus, Jesus told him to put his sword away.
When they came to arrest Jesus, Peter knew this was his moment. Don’t be a coward, Peter. Stand up! Speak up! Do something! So he did. He drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant! We often think of Peter’s cowardly denial, but forget that moments earlier Peter had done an incredibly risky thing; this could have gotten him arrested or even killed.

It was brave. It was remarkable.

And it was wrong. Jesus picked up the severed ear, placed it back on the man’s face, healing the wound, and told Peter to put his sword away. No need to “take a stand Peter”.

Why?

3. Jesus knows that death and darkness don’t win.
It may seem like weakness, but it is really strength. It may sound like foolishness, but it is true wisdom. It may seem like we’re letting the enemy win and have his way, but God will have the Day.

We don’t have to live or act from a place of panic. We are not the Kingdom-bringers; Jesus is. And Jesus brough the Kingdom by laying down his life. The cross redefined power and wisdom at last. Now we know what Love looks like.

How would you live and speak and love if you knew that the Light wins?

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Am I saying that across the board, Christians should be silent? Nope. There are many issues– from abortion to trafficking to violence– that we can and ought to speak up and do something. And we have the privilege in America of engaging these “issues” through social and politlical action. This is a privilege not to be squandered.

What I am saying is that we need to think carefully about the why and the how.

Some things must be addressed in the public square for the good of the society— because the powerless will suffer unless we speak for them. Other things are trickier because in a pluralistic society, there may be little agreement on what the “good of the society” means. But even if you were convinced you were “speaking out” for the good of the city, it is not the same thing as “taking a stand for Christ”.

To preach Christ and Christ crucified– this is the Gospel. And the Gospel, as Leslie Newbigin argued, is “public truth”– it is for the whole world to hear and know.

From that public truth comes a set of implications– and yes, moral implications.

IF Christ is the crucified and risen Lord and Savior, then this is what we must now do: repent, put our faith in him, trust His Spirit for the power to live in a new way with a new community of Christians.

But we do not start by announcing morality to the world. We start by preaching Christ.

This is my reading of 1 Corinthians. Paul addresses “the church of God in Corinth”; Paul begins with “Christ crucified” and then goes on to the moral and ethical implications of this truth; Paul then concludes with “the risen Christ” who gives us power to become new. [For the podcast along with my sermon notes of this new series on 1 Corinthians, click HERE.]

I wonder if we would do better to stop trying to “take a stand for Christ” and to seek instead to embody Christ– His cruciform Way that appears weak and foolish to the world but is the power and the wisdom that triumphs in the end.

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For further reading: Last year around Good Friday, my pastor, Brady Boyd, wrote a blog on a similar theme, pointing us once again to our Savior. Read it HERE.

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ADDENDUM
Since not all readers will scroll through the comments, I’m going to add some notes I’ve written in the comments in response to some thoughtful questions:

What about John the Baptist confronting Herod, Jesus confronting the Pharisees, and Peter (later) confronting the Sanhedrin?

All these are examples of confrontations with Jewish leaders— Herod was a half-Jew who called himself “king of the Jews” and John the Baptist was exposing him as a fraud; Pharisees were Jewish leaders who opposed Jesus and trusted in their own obedience; the Sanhedrin were rulers of the Jewish synagogue who claimed to know what God was but yet rejected Jesus;

What’s my point? Jewish leaders in the early NT would be analogous to church leaders in our day– they are people who are “of the faith”, who claim to know and worship God, and who ought to know better. Paul says judgment begins in the church…Paul talks about sexuality in fairly clear language to Christians, in a letter to a church he knew well…and he does so in love. In a similar way, we can and should talk about it to our church, our faith community– in sermons, small group convos, personal convos and more!– not in a “megaphone” to “the world.”

For all the above reasons, I think the situation in Corinth is worthy of reflection because it was the first (and largest until Ephesus) pagan city in which the Gospel took root. And Paul’s modus operandi is to address, pastor, teach, correct the church, not the “culture at large.” Part of the challenge of accepting this as American Christians, is we still think we’re living in Jerusalem (a city of shared religious beliefs) and not in Corinth (a “secular” city of pluralistic beliefs).

What’s the point in preaching Christ (as Savior) if we do not make clear what they need saving from?

It is true that preaching Christ means proclaiming Him as Savior and Lord…which implies something to need saving from…So what concept of sin is needed?

I think of Paul in Romans saying the Gentiles have some sort of law written on their hearts. In our day, most outside faith don’t accept Christian sexual ethics or morality. But many have some place where they draw the line: they agree that injustice and exploitation is wrong, they agree that extreme selfishness is wrong, etc… Perhaps our approach is to find that desire and show how they don’t have the power to (fill in the blank): love like they want to, care like they should, etc. We can then point to Christ as the Savior and Lord. (This, I think, is what Timothy Keller does REALLY well in his sermons.)