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How Our Conception of God Can Become an Idol

This is a short sermon I preached at Portage Chapel Hill United Methodist Church at the early morning Communion Service on Transfiguration Sunday, February 10, 2012. If the members of the congregation were going to “give up something for Lent,” I suggested giving up our current conceptions of Jesus and spending Lent praying for clearer vision of who Christ really is.

Here’s a link to the audio.

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An Ideal Transformed

This is a sermon I preached at Portage Chapel Hill United Methodist Church, Portage, Michigan (USA), on January 21, 2007. The text was Luke 4: 14-21.

Our story begins 600 years before Christ. It was a dark time in the life of Israel. Foreign invaders had taken away most of their land and abducted most of their people. Only one of the tribes of Israel was left: the people of Judah. But now the end had come for them, too. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon stormed in with his troops, and the Promised Land – the land that their God had given them – was taken from them. They were marched off in chains, forced to live in ghettoes throughout the empire. It was called “the Babylonian Captivity,” and it looked like the end. They were far from home, and they had no reason to suppose that they would ever get back.

But miraculously – out of the ashes – they emerged as a new cultural and religious force, for it was during their captivity that the religion of Judaism came to full flower. Before this they had been a nation, but now they saw themselves as a people with a distinct cultural identity that didn’t depend on their geographic location. No matter how far-flung they might be spatially, they could still remain close spiritually.

How? By becoming “people of the book.” It was during their years of dislocation that a new class of scholars called “scribes” began to appear. These scribes were men who knew the scriptures thoroughly and taught them systematically to the people.

Picture this: refugees who are spread out all over the map of the Mediterranean world yet bound together in spirit by the sharing of the same stories and by the observance of the same religious practices – even down to eating the same kinds of food and wearing the same kinds of head gear. They had never before had such a strong sense of identity.

Now. . . among these various groups of refugees, a document begins to circulate. It is written under the pen name of Isaiah, a greatly-revered prophet from an earlier time, but in style and substance it differs from the writings of the earlier Isaiah. As this document makes its way from one Jewish enclave to another throughout the empire, hope swells, for it opens with the words, “Comfort. . . comfort my people, says your God.” And that’s exactly what it does: it both comforts and excites them. For this document – what we now recognize as the second half of the Book of Isaiah – describes a new vision for the people, a new ideal.

Here is one sample of writing from that document, from Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because he has anointed me,
He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
To bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And release to the prisoners,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
And the day of vindication of our God. . . .

There were nuances in the text that they didn’t catch at the time, but this is what jumped out at them: they believed that God was telling them they would return home in triumph and that they would be a great nation once more.

A generation passed. A new imperial army rolled across the map, and now the Babylonian Empire gave way to the Persian Empire. Cyrus, the new emperor, didn’t like how the Babylonians had displaced their conquered peoples, so he decreed that everybody – not just the Jews, but people of all nationalities – could go back to their former lands. Unfortunately, he didn’t offer a comprehensive relocation package, but he gave them permission to go back if they were able to bum a ride.

The prophecy about going back home looked like it was about to be fulfilled literally except that, when they were offered the opportunity, most of the Israelites didn’t really want to go back home after all. That was just a nostalgic thought for them. They got group solidarity from dreaming and singing about it, but they didn’t really want to do it. This was a new generation. They had made lives for themselves in their various parts of the empire. They didn’t want to pack up and leave.

A few did go back, but they had an uphill battle. Palestine was all torn up. Samaritans and other people had taken over part of the land, and they didn’t feel like giving it back. It took over 100 years just to get a wall built around Jerusalem. You can read about their trials in the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

We can make quick work of this next part of the story. Around 300 years before Christ, another imperial army wound its way around the Mediterranean Sea, led by Alexander the Great, and the Persian Empire gave way to the Greeks. The Greeks had the most advanced culture of their time, but they weren’t any good at ruling the world. Around 150 years before Christ, the Jews in the Holy Land took advantage of the empire’s weakness and won their independence, but it was only temporary. . . for another imperial army had already begun marching across the map of the western world, and about 30 years before the birth of Christ, they showed up outside the gates of Jerusalem. The Greek Empire gave way to the Romans. The Jews in Palestine put up with Roman domination for a while, but about 70 years into the so-called Common Era, they tried to win their independence again, this time with disastrous results. Israel was wiped off the map, and they remained that way for nearly 2,000 years.

Over 600 years earlier, the Jews had believed that God was telling them they would return home in triumph and be a great nation again. They pointed to the scroll of Isaiah as their proof text. But they had already entered a new and better phase of their life as a people. From now on, their influence on the larger culture would be much more powerful than it had ever been before, because now they were citizens of the world. Their influence from now on would be pervasive, from within the nations. There were hints of that in the Isaiah scroll, but they failed to see it. What they really needed now was for someone with prophetic insight to give them a new ideal – a new sense of mission – and to encourage them to embrace their dispersal among the nations as a good thing.

Someone did try to tell them that. He came from the town of Nazareth, and his name was Jesus.

He traveled throughout his home province of Galilee, telling his people about the possibilities. As a people, they were soon to be spread out in communities all over the globe. “You are the light of the world,” he told them. “Let your light shine everywhere you are.”

He told them that they were the little bit of leaven that would be worked into the dough and make it come out right.

In the banquet hall of the world, he told them, “You are the salt.” They would provide the essential ingredient that no other nation could provide. But Jesus emphasized repeatedly: If you’re going to be the salt, you’d better make sure you don’t lose your distinctive flavor, or else you’ll lose your reason for being. What was it that made them distinctive? Neither their unique apparel nor their special diet. “It isn’t what you put into your mouth that makes you holy,” he said. “It’s what comes out of your mouth that matters: words of kindness, of justice, and of truth. That’s what distinguishes you as God’s people. That’s what will change the world.”

One Sabbath morning, Jesus visited his hometown of Nazareth. There was a lot of commotion as he entered the synagogue. They invited him forward to read a passage of scripture and to expound it. They had heard a lot about him and they were waiting for him to say something noteworthy.

He stepped to the front and the attendant handed him the scroll of Isaiah. Opening it, he read these words:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me to bring
good news to the poor,
To proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To let the oppressed go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

He closed the scroll, gave it back to the attendent, and returned to his seat. Nobody said a word. Then he looked back at everyone and said, “This scripture has been fulfilled. . . in your hearing. . . today.”

The members of the congregation shook their heads. By what stretch of the imagination could anybody say that that scripture was fulfilled here and now? The problem was that they were interpreting it one way and he meant something else. They thought he was talking about the old, fond hope of the return to Israel’s glory days. But in Jesus’ hands, the text took on new meaning. It sounded like the expression of an old ideal, but when he read it, it became an ideal transformed.

The Nazarenes thought the prophet Isaiah was speaking to them, promising that God would release them from bondage. But Jesus read the passage differently. Now the speaker was Israel, and the audience was the world. Israel was anointed to bring good news to the brokenhearted and captive of all nations, to free people everywhere from every kind of bondage by introducing them to the Living God. In Jesus’ hands, the Isaiah scroll was no mere prediction of better times to come for Israel; it was a summons – a mission statement for God’s people. Jesus extracted from the text what was best in it: the call to ministry.

From this time forward, he was saying, the people of God would be identified by the way they served. In that moment, Jesus announced the arrival of a new day in which God’s people would be the ones busy flinging open prison doors, healing the sick, and bringing life out of death. That may not have been the old ideal, but that was God’s ideal.

Unfortunately, the people of Nazareth liked their old ideal just fine, and it angered them that one of their own kinfolk would try to rewrite history. In response, Jesus told them that God’s people are the ones who follow God’s ideals. “You can hold onto your old ideals if you want to,” he seemed to be saying, “but if you do, you won’t be God’s people anymore.”

That was too much. Without even waiting for the benediction, they grabbed him, ran out of the synagogue with him, and headed for the nearest cliff. But he “passed through the midst of them, and went his way.”

There’s a moral to this story, but it’s a hard one to listen to. The Nazarenes were good people. They were just like us. They read their scriptures and they thought they understood them, but apparently they did not. It was an honest mistake. Isaiah 61 really does look like it’s talking about a return to the glory days of Israel. We probably would have thought the same thing if we were in their place. Their mistake was not misinterpreting the scripture. Their mistake was being so sure of their rightness that they could neither hear nor accept what God was trying to tell them.

This story invites us to ask ourselves: What is it we’re missing? What are we not hearing?

We can’t imagine being wrong. Neither could the Nazarenes. They, at least, had Jesus right there in their face, telling them they were wrong. We’re not so lucky. Since he’s not right in front of us, we don’t even stop to consider what we might be missing.

The Nazarenes would have done well to have looked carefully at another passage from that same Isaiah scroll, this time from chapter 55:

Your thoughts are not my thoughts,
Neither are my ways your ways, says the Lord,
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
My ways are higher than your ways,
And my thoughts than your thoughts.

God is always way beyond us, but sometimes we catch glimpses of what God is doing. The Isaiah scroll was full of such glimpses. When the Jews read that scroll, they thought they heard God promising to restore them to their lands and to their former glory. But all the while, God was trying to tell them something more, something so new and different that they couldn’t catch the sense of it, even though it was right there in their scriptures all the time.

What is it we’re missing? What ideals have we in contemporary Christianity embraced, thinking they must surely be God’s ideals? What are we failing to see?

Let us learn this crucial lesson from the people of Nazareth. Let us turn honestly to God in prayer and say, “We don’t know what your ideals are. Show us. Teach us. Open our blind eyes.”

This should be our prayer: “Give us your vision, O God. Fill us with your aspirations.”

For as the heavens are higher than the earth
So are my ways higher than your ways,
And my thoughts than your thoughts.

What is it that God is trying to tell us as a people, but we can’t hear it because we’re too set in our ways, too absorbed in our own thoughts?

What is it that God is trying say to you?

A Comedy I Didn’t Take Seriously Enough

Sometimes you can fail to hear God’s voice because you’re being too serious.

In January 1996, I was doing graduate work in Philosophy at Saint Louis University. This involved taking graduate courses, teaching an undergraduate course, and doing research that would lead to my dissertation. I was a year and a half away from finishing the program, and I was very serious about it all. In fact, I was on fire with it. God had impressed certain things upon me that I wanted to get out to my people. I envisioned a larger audience than just a classroom full of students. I wanted to get the word out to people everywhere.

It was a message about God’s involvement in all of life. Taking that idea one step further, it was also a message about the mysterious ways in which our lives are intertwined, not only because we are all related to God (whether we acknowledge that fact or not) but also because there are connections between us that only God knows about. These were the days before social media, but what seems much more obvious to us now was already being shown to me back then — that our friends or our friends’ friends may be related to each other in ways that we don’t know about, because the subject never comes up. With social media, we now have the opportunity to see that our friend Sally Singleton knows our coworker Maurice Chillingworth — a fact of which we would never have guessed. But back in 1996, God was impressing upon me the lesson of Stanley Milgram’s “Small World” Experiment from the 1960s: that we are all interrelated in surprising ways that only God knows about. Not only was this fact being emphasized in my prayers and meditations, but also one of the spiritual implications of this fact: that God is (among other things) calling us to move in ever-wider circles and learn from the people God wants to bring into our lives.

As I said, I was on fire with this idea in January 1996, and I sensed that God was about to reveal to me a way to convey the idea to others. But the Spirit kept telling me that I was censoring the Spirit. Again and again it told me to lighten up. What God wanted to give me would be closer to a cartoon than a philosophical treatise.

Finally, I relented. I told God that I would accept the revelation in whatever form it would come.

The very day I prayed that prayer, I was given the idea for a comedy. It was about a super-serious professor and a wise-cracking journalist who had 10 days to find an alien operative or the world would be destroyed. I would get across the serious philosophical idea through the unfolding of the story itself, because these two would end up having to rely on a network of associates in order to find the alien operative. But there was also something important about Mr. X (the person they were looking for), and when they found him, his identity would change the meaning of everything that had led up to that moment.

It took me years to write this comic-strip novel, because I thought it was frivolous. My wife could always tell when I was working on it, because I’d be chuckling or (at the very least) smiling while I was typing. No other writing project I’ve ever done has given me such joy. But I sat on it for 21 years because I couldn’t justify spending my time on it. I had more important things to do, or so I thought. In the meantime, I wrote a book about my experiences with God in the work world (Customer Service and the Imitation of Christ) and another one about my philosophy of God in secular life (What Does God Do from 9 to 5?), and I still believe that those books were also inspired by God. But during the summer of 2016, the Spirit tried to get my attention again, and this time I listened. I stopped telling Him that the novel was too silly, too trivial, and too much fun. I sat down and wrote it. It was half done when I started, and I got the whole thing finished in time for my target date: April Fool’s Day, 2017.

Last week, Kirkus Reviews had this to say about the resulting novel, Small World:

They said that the author “has somehow taken the philosophy of Hegel and the experiments of Milgram that demonstrate there are only five or six degrees of separation between any two people; mixed in equal parts Marx Brothers, Watergate, Douglas Adams; tagged his characters with monikers straight out of Dickens, film noir, and Snow White; and wound up with a snide, witty, completely entertaining romp through human nature and all its foibles…. Johnson, a philosophy professor, has more up his sleeve than great writing and a funny, extremely readable story; readers will also have fun searching between the lines for deeper implications and references.”

Okay, Lord. I get it now. Thank you for your patience.

The Story of Life: The Dawn of Civilization

When I pray, I’m talking to the God who was there when primitive humans first started domesticating plants and animals, and using fire. I talk about that in this YouTube video.

The Lady or the Tiger?

I’ve been talking about my belief that God is involved in the ongoing Story of Life. In this YouTube video, I tell about an assignment I had in high school, shortly after I became a Christian, and what happened when I prayed about the assignment.

Click here to watch the video. It will open in a separate screen.

The Story of Life and My Testimony

As a fairly new Christian, I was surprised to discover that my testimony seemed like a different genre from the testimonies of other Christians. Mine seemed much more secular than theirs. That was how I started recognizing the importance of the Story of Life. I talk about that in this video.

Meditating on the Story of Life

This is the first of a series of videos on the practice of meditating on the Story of Life. For most of my life as a Christian, I have deliberately kept in mind the Story of Life when I’m praying. In this video, I use The Junior Wall Chart of History to explain what that means and why I find it helpful in my spiritual life.

Why Congregational Histories Aren’t Congregational

My article, “The Problem with Congregational Histories” is on pages 28-29 of the latest issue of The Congregationalist. I argue that “congregational histories are not written in a way that is even remotely ‘congregational.'”

Click here to find out why.

(It will take you to the September issue, then scroll down to page 28.)

First Review of Small World on Amazon (USA)

My book Small World has received its first review on Amazon (USA):

“This is a small book (less than 150 pages) that is a page turner but not one to read quickly. It includes philosophical, political, social and a bit of religious dilemmas. While it is a mystery it is very thought provoking.”

I also received an email the other day from a young man who said that he “thoroughly loved it,” and added:

“I have never heard of a plot line anything like it before and loved the various twists and turns. I really felt like you were able to flesh out the characters very well in such a short time frame.”
If you’ve read the book (or either of my other books), I’d love to hear from you! You can either leave a comment here or click here to go to my new author site on WordPress.

A Story about How We’re All Connected

I haven’t contributed much to this blog lately, because I’ve been putting the final touches on my latest book, Small World. It’s a parable about the unseen connections between us all, and in the past year, I’ve felt that it speaks to the issues we’re facing as a people (at least here in America).

A journalist and a reclusive professor have 10 days to find someone named Basil or the world will be destroyed. They know nothing about him except his first name. They have, however, discovered a communication device that gives them clues, but only the Professor can read it, and the journalist has excellent reasons for doubting the professor’s sanity.

They soon realize that they are links in a chain, and that each person in that chain will bring them closer to their destination, but the stakes become higher with each new acquaintance. Along the way, they must kidnap a Reality TV star, trust a woman with a mysterious past, and get the cooperation of a dysfunctional family of clones, all while eluding competing journalists, gangsters, and soldiers.

It’s a comedy with a serious intent. And I hope my readers will come away with a new appreciation for the phrase, “We are not alone.”

Here are links to the main retailers:

Amazon (paperback and Kindle)

Barnes & Noble (paperback and Nook)

Smashwords (multiple eBook formats)

Kobo (eBook)

(Apple iBooks has the book but I can’t locate the URL. If you have the iBooks app, you can search for it that way.)

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