10.01.2017 Preaching Text: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient…” (Philippians 2:7b-8)
If nothing else, the Bible deals in reality. Sometimes that reality is stark and unvarnished. Sometimes it even offends.
Our reaction in these instances can be heightened by the tendency among many modern interpreters, perhaps especially today’s pastors, to use an alien lens through which to explain what we encounter in the Bible.
Which is to say that new, external, and extra-biblical philosophies, churned out mostly by academicians, are recruited to reorient the Bible’s self-understanding. Examples of such modern interpretive inventions might include positivism, scientism, rationalism, existentialism, deconstructionism, post-Modernism, multiculturalism, even Marxism in whatever form.
In each case the Bible is recast to fit the requirements of whatever secular philosophy is currently in vogue. When this happens philosophical theology has replaced biblical theology.
With the possible exception of politics, both left and right, no secular philosophy is more commonly employed than psychology. Rather than a stimulating mixture of lofty sentiments and tough sayings, of life-giving grace and stern warnings, the hard edges of the Bible now must be reinterpreted to meet the demands of the therapeutic. Thus the Bible can only legitimately fill us with an easy sort of warmth.
Yet, as we know, life isn’t all peaches and cream. It’s difficult. And the Bible isn’t shy about saying so. It doesn’t sugarcoat things to make us feel good. Instead it raises problems – very real problems – so that we are better able not only to admit them (rather than deny them) but to face them with spiritual insight and a divinely assured hope.
Take the Exodus passage. Jahweh once again harshly admonishes Israel. Having dramatically led them out of Egyptian captivity and toward the Promised Land, Israel just wants to give up.
We object to Jahweh’s harsh response to their pleas. After all, to be in the desert with nothing to drink is hardly a minor concern.
Biblically, however, the point of the story is not the thirst, or the hunger. It’s Israel’s refusal to trust in God’s Promise. (Let’s not forget that God, both here and elsewhere, never does fail to supply their legitimate needs.)
Even still, we object to Jahweh’s tone. It’s harsh and insensitive. It’s neither warm nor fuzzy. No psychologist would talk to his or her patients this way. The compassionate practitioner must understand and never judge.
But is Jahweh’s tone really as problematic as we assume? All of us at one time were children, right? I don’t know about you, but I can remember any number of times my parents made firm judgments I found less than congenial.
My oldest brother, Chris, has always been a great debater. In fact, when he was about 4 or 5 he would argue repeatedly with my mother. My father told me years ago that at the time he had advised her to just stop debating him. Why? Because she’d always lose!
The fact is, the best response to a child’s demand to know why he or she has to comply with a parent’s command is often simply to say, “Because I said so.”
This seems harsh to the child, and unfair. Yet the parent’s intent is not to harm the child but to care for him or her. The parent has experienced more of life and thus understands the consequences of certain behaviors in ways the child simply cannot.
Not only that, I don’t think children actually want to have to make certain decisions, outward appearances notwithstanding. Even when they’re screaming in protest, they secretly want an adult or authority figure to help them make the right choices.
The reason is simple. Children are simply not equipped to make certain kinds of decisions. It frightens them to have the kind of power and freedom which forces them to choose things about which they have neither the wisdom nor experience to properly adjudicate.
Chris had a friend, Bill, back when we were kids. His parents let him do pretty much anything he wanted. They let him run wild. And as a result his childhood was often a troubled one.
One day Chris came home and told my parents that he had noticed a list of “rules” Bill himself had written and posted on his bedroom door. I remember my mother expressing genuine sadness that Bill’s parents were so derelict that he was forced to come up with his own set of rules and guidelines.
To this, in both the Exodus and Philippians readings, we encounter the problem of freedom. Most of the time, we unthinkingly assume freedom is an unalloyed good. It’s the basis of our Constitution, after all. We celebrate being a free people. More than that, we believe it’s our right to make our own choices.
Yet the dirty little secret is that freedom can be scary. It’s been said, in fact, that many if not most of life’s problems are the result of the anxieties and fears created by freedom. Standing on our own, before God, is perhaps the scariest thing in the world (the finite standing before the infinite, or the holy).
A common coping strategy for eliminating this anxiety is to craft our own solutions to life’s problems, rather than patiently wait for God’s. Out of fear we jump in to “fix” our situation rather than allowing God to lead us in God’s way and, indeed, in God’s time.
In Exodus, the Israelites, out of fear, do precisely this, and refuse to trust God’s promise.
In studied contrast, Paul, in Philippians, offers an alternate method. Though he himself was God, Jesus becomes man, with all the limitations that go with that. And as a human he chooses to become a slave, in effect trusting God and doing only what his Lord and Master wills. Every decision he makes, in other words, is already decided for him, even that of humbling himself and obediently submitting to the Cross. (Note what happens afterwards.)
We too are human, God’s children. And since God made us, God alone possesses the wisdom and insight to know what we truly need. This, of course, doesn’t always accord with what we want. In fact, the parent’s command often seems to us altogether harsh if not unreasonable.
The point, ultimately, is that God, our Holy Parent, as with any earthly parent, wants what’s best for us, even when we think we know better. It’s not out of cruelty or meanness that God issues commands that to us appear harsh, but out of a heartfelt desire that we be spared suffering, and instead know a kindly joy and peace.
Shortly after converting to Christianity, Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter, wrote a song entitled, You Have to Serve Somebody. I think this gets it right. The only question is what or whom it is we choose to serve.
Paradoxically, then, to serve the idols of this world (including our own decision-making) is to know servitude, while to serve the Divine Author of life is to know freedom.
To be constrained by God’s will is, in sum, freedom, while to be enslaved by life’s otherwise idolatrous freedoms proves but its opposite. Amen.