How to Behave?

In the last couple years it seems that the Christian Right has become notorious, perhaps even moreso thas the evangelical preachers who make the news as much for their personal excesses as for their message. Such exaggerations (one might even call them desecrations) of Christian faith have served to poke ridicule at anyone who still professes to be a Christian.

Of course it’s always easy to mock and scorn.  People do it because they think that buy mocking someone else they are elevating themselves — but of course we all know that we are never really impressed by someone who spends their life poking fun at others.  We might laugh for a while. One of those embarrassed laughs where we know it’s something we shouldn’t be laughing at but we say we can’t help ourselves. But in the end we realize that someone who is that cruel to another person would be just as happy to be cruel to us; that they aren’t a friend, and they aren’t really someone we want to spend time with.

I’ve been wondering what might be the right way for a real Christian to behave in this society gone mad.  It’s a real and serious question.  I’ve been a committed Christian since age 16.  I had a real conversion experience at that age and have been moved to share my faith and to help others, Christian or not, ever since then.  But I have always been aware of the fact that the God whom I serve has not always dealt with humans in the same way.  Not that God changed.  But because humans changed.

If you start out with the biblical story God’s first ‘interaction’ with man was all about obedience:  don’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Of course eating of any tree against a directive would have given them the knowledge of good and evil — if they ate they did evil, if they didn’t eat they did good.  duh….

Human society then was simple.  As more humans came along, times changed and man’s concept of the supernatural changed so God did things a little differently.  Why?  Well, that’s up to Him to explain, but Abraham waited over 100 years for a promised son, and then God asked him to kill that promised son.  Of course it was just a test and Abraham never killed his heir, but he passed the test of obedience.  Seems a bit uncouth by todays’ standards, but humankind was very different back then.  Through centuries humans heard little from God but some of them maintained their faith and others didn’t.

As far as Christians are concerned the Bible story mostly ends with Jesus and the band of his followers who were responsible for the writing of the Bible.  When the early church solidified the Bible as composed of 66 specific writings — we call them ‘books’ even though some of them aren’t more than a few dozen paragraphs.  What God has been up to for the past 2000 years has been up for interpretation.  Some are more kind than others.  Some have lost their faith.  Some still shine brightly as examples.

For many years I re-read the Bible once per year.  It’s not that hard to do.  30-45 minutes a day for a serious reader and you have slogged all the way through in a year or less.  You can even purchase “Bible in a year” Bibles where someone has laid out a  daily reading in a unique format designed to get you through the task rather than to read things in situ.  They usually give you a little Old Testament, a psalm, and a little New Testament.  Makes for easier reading that way.

When I thought about this topic I wanted to highlight one particular aspect of the way God has dealt with humankind — which is how has God communicated His reaction to human society?  I wanted a simple story to share but I didn’t want to have to write the whole story myself.  I looked around for a while and tried Protestant and Lutheran and Wesleyan sources.  I looked at summations written by people not associated with one particular church and finally a found  article I have quoted at the end of this blog.  It happens to be from a Catholic source — I’m not Catholic but I’m not one of those that says just because I don’t belong doesn’t mean everything they say is false — so I read it, I realized that I might not have said everything quite the same way, and they use a translation of the Bible that picks individual words I might have translated differently — but all in all it’s a fairly accurate account of the way God’s prophets of old behaved.

You see, it’s consistent in the Christian story that even if God didn’t try to force the entire population of the world into one mold, that God did have a message that was periodically updated  and sent to God’s followers.  Those missives were sent through his prophets — a rag tag group the likes of whom you’ve probably never met in your 21st Century life.

The question that keeps coming to my mind, and perhaps the question that might come to yours when you have read the article is simple.  If God used such bizarre methods to speak to followers back then, what might he do today?  The message throughout wasn’t usually one of world destruction – although, by way of example, you do have the story of Ninevah and of the Flood — so sometimes the message have been more general than just to God’s followers.  But most of the behavior of the prophets was about getting followers to do what they were supposed to be doing.

And I wonder, what message we would hear today if a prophet were to be sent to true believers? If such crazy antics were used in the past — to obscure the meaning so that only the serious would pay attention — how might a message be cloaked today?

I don’t have an answer.  I’m watching and waiting to see what happens.  For those who have accepted Jesus as Savior this world is not their home.  They are waiting for a kingdom who’s builder and maker is to of this world.  The Trumps and the political parties, the wrangling, the lies, the insanities — all of that and more are of little interest except as they affect how the believer behaves in the midst of it all.  Do you go along?  Do you stand up?  If you stand up, what do you stand up about?  And why?  And for how long?

The prophets are among the oddest and most eccentric characters of the Old Testament. 

That might actually be an understatement. Put bluntly, the behavior of Old Testament prophets was so bizarre that by today’s secular standards of sanity they would end up institutionalized, or, at the very least, in some form of intensive therapy.

Consider Isaiah, who stripped off all his clothes and wandered around naked (Isaiah 20). Or Jeremiah, who not only hid his underwear in a rock but then went back to retrieve it after a “long time” (Jeremiah 13). Jeremiah apparently didn’t mind parting with under garments, but he couldn’t be separated from the cattle yoke he had fastened to his shoulders until another prophet broke it off (Jeremiah 27 and 28). Yet another eyebrow-raiser was Hosea, who married a prostitute and named their daughter Lo-ruhama, which means ‘unloved’ (Hosea 1).

Then there was Jonah, the run-away prophet who spent three days in the belly of a whale before answering God’s call. When he eventually got around to preaching in Nineveh, the entire city repented. For any other preacher this would have been a joyous outcome. But Jonah—a prophetic Puddleglum if ever there was one—was so upset that his doomsday prophecy wasn’t fulfilled that he begged God to kill him, a request that went unanswered.

Jonah then went into denial. Convinced that a local apocalypse was still in the works, he left the city and picked a vantage point from which he might safely watch the whole fire-and-brimstone show. Jonah had no pity for the Ninevites, but when a small bush that had been sheltering him from the scorching-hot sun died, he went berserk, asking God once again to just end his misery.

But the weirdest of the lot may be Ezekiel. After witnessing a vision of God flanked by four chimerical creatures, the prophet ate a scroll that had been given to him (Ezekiel 1and 3). Ezekiel was called to be a prophet, but his ministry initially did not involve any prophetic words, as God had rendered him mute (Ezekiel 3). Instead he took to drawing, depicting an image of Jerusalem under siege on a clay tablet. Then he lay down on his side, with an iron pan separating him from his clay art. After 390 days had passed, Ezekiel rolled over and repeated (Ezekiel 4).

After his clay tablet stunt was over, Ezekiel went new diet of barley cakes baked over cow manure (Ezekiel 4). Next Ezekiel used a sword—yes, you read that right, an actual sword—to shave off his beard, dividing his hairs into thirds. He set one third on fire. He scattered another third around the city and stabbed it with his sword. He threw the remaining third into the wind. But the hair histrionics were far from over: Ezekiel had saved a few hairs from such abuse, which he sewed into his clothing. Then he burned some of those hairs too (Ezekiel 5).

The weird stuff didn’t stop when Ezekiel finally started speaking. In Ezekiel 6, he prophesies against the mountains. Six chapters later, he goes into lurid detail—at least by biblical standards—about the sexual depravity of two sister prostitutes. Later, he prophesies over dry bones in a valley. As Ezekiel stands speaking to his captive audience, he has a vision of the bones coming to life (Ezekiel 37).

One crucial detail has been omitted in these accounts: the actions of Ezekiel, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah were commanded by God, which means that we cannot dismiss their behavior. Indeed, these men were not prophets in spite of their eccentricities. Rather, their actions were at the center of their ministry. In the Scriptures, they are explained as symbolic acts that convey divine messages along with their words. For example, the stripping of Isaiah symbolized the future humiliation of Egypt and Ethiopia at the hands of Assyrian conquerors. Jeremiah’s yoke signified the servitude of the Jews to Babylonia while Ezekiel’s dung-warmed meals foreshadowed their exile, where they would be forced to eat unclean food.

Jonah might seem an exception to all this, but God ended up using his wayward journey to symbolize Christ’s sacrifice and three-day descent into hell.

Looking back on Jonah and the others from the perspective of the New Testament we begin to see a sort of harmony between their bizarre behavior and their prophecies of both doom and deliverance. There is an incarnational logic to their ministries: these prophets were not just speakers of the word—they lived it out in their lives, through their actions, their choice of clothing, and even their very bodies. They are thus witnesses to how totally transforming and disruptive the Word of God can be when we let it consume our whole lives.

Now, this message may not have been as clear to the Jews of their day and those living in the centuries immediately afterwards. And the mystery of the prophets would have only deepened when all prophecy suddenly ceased with Malachi, ushering in 400 years of silence.

But, with the coming of Christ, we can look back at these prophets and see them as foreshadowing Him—not just through the prophecies that told of His coming, but through their prophetic actions. Christ was, after all, the Word Made Flesh in the fullest and richest manner possible. And, like the prophets, Christ’s behavior was utterly bizarre, disruptive, and confusing according to conventional social standards of the day. This was, after all, someone who promised to rebuild the temple in three days, dined with prostitutes and tax collectors, drove demons into a herd of swine, healed a blind man by rubbing mud in his eyes, and once walked on water.

It doesn’t get weirder than that.

— reposted from The Catholic Exchange



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