John T. Willis

Friday, August 25, 2006

Passing On Traditions

Paul writes: "So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to THE TRADITIONS that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter" (2 Thessalonians 2:15). In teaching Corinthian Christians about the Lord's Supper, Paul says: "For I RECEIVED from the Lord what I also HANDED ON to you" (1 Corinthians 11:23). Later, in the same letter, Paul says concerning his teaching on the resurrection from the dead: "For I HANDED ON to you as of first importance what I in turn HAD RECEIVED" (1 Corinthians 15:3).

Faith in God has always been based on and rooted in TRADITIONS passed on from one generation to the next. In biblical times, this was ALWAYS done orally, even when one wrote a letter or some other kind of document. All biblical "books" are compositions intended to be "read orally" or "performed dramatically" before an assembly of people. Moses entrusted God's law to the Levites with these instructions:

"Every seventh year, in the scheduled year of remission, during the festival of booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God in the place that he will choose, you shall READ this law before all Israel IN THEIR HEARING. Assemble the people--MEN, WOMEN, AND CHILDREN, AS WELL AS THE ALIENS RESIDING IN YOUR TOWNS--so that they may HEAR and learn to fear the Lord your God and to observe diligently all the words of this law, and so that their children, who have not known it, may HEAR and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess." (Deuteronomy 31:9-13).

Near the end of Colossians, Paul writes: "And when this letter has been READ among you, have it READ also in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you READ also the letter from Laodicea" (Colossians 4:16). "Read" here certainly does not mean to read silently to oneself, but rather to read orally before the whole community of believers.

Similar instructions appear in 1 Timothy 4:13: "Until I arrive, give attention to the PUBLIC READING OF SCRIPTURE, to exhorting, to teaching." (Revelation 1:3 gives the same instructions).

Peoples in Bible times had very few written materials. They were accustomed to hearing and learning by oral presentations. Thus, structure, repetition, word plays, stories, songs, poetry, and the like were indispensable to their faith. Unfortunately, oral reading and dramatic presentation of God's word has largely been lost in contemporary society because of easy access to written works, including the Bible. Experience shows that beliefs of any people are inseparably connected with affirmations of faith they HEAR and SEE PERFORMED in assembled communities. Our strongest beliefs arise from songs we sing repeatedly. The people of God need to work hard to restore this vital aspect of transformational faith building.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Where is your God?

The Bible declares boldly and unashamedly that God is invisible. 1 Timothy 1:17 affirms: "To the King of the ages, immortal, INVISIBLE, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen." John 1:18 says: "NO ONE HAS EVER SEEN GOD."

Opponents of God's people seek opportunities to expose weaknesses in worshippers' trust in an invisible God. When those in positions of power and wealth apparently control the actions and freedom of speech of the weak and needy; when believers suffer loss or embarrassment or reversals; when efforts or projects or undertakings of honorable, devoted, well-meaning people fail--covert and overt enemies of God's true servants cry out with sneers: "Where is your God?"

1. Joel summons the priests to beseech Yahweh to spare his people so they will not be a mockery and byword among the nations; then asks:
"Why should it be said among the peoples,
'Where is their God?'" (Joel 2:17).
His thought is: If other nations overrun God's people, they will proclaim jeeringly: "Where is their God whom they have often extolled and in whom they claim they trust?"

2. God's people in exile confess they are there because Yahweh is punishing them for their sins. But in repentance, they anticipate the day when Yahweh will graciously forgive them and restore them to a close relationship with him. Speaking as one person, they declare:
"Then my enemy will see,
and shame will cover her who said to me,
'Where is the Lord your God?'" (Micah 7:10).

3. Several psalms contain this same concept. The author of Psalm 115 cries out:
"Why should the nations say,
'Where is their God?'
Our God is in the heavens;
he does whatever he pleases." (Psalm 115:2-3).
The subsequent poetic lines point out that those who make idols of silver and gold [and one might add, wood and stone] worship what they control: lifeless human creations which do not have the ability to speak or see or hear or smell or feel or walk or do anything good or bad (Psalm 115:4-8). The true God is under the control of none of his creations. He is completely free to do whatever he wills. The most convincing human arguments against his existence, his power, his goodness, his love cannot prevail against him.

4. The composer of Psalm 79 has experienced the Babylonian destruction and devastation of Jerusalem and her inhabitants in 587 BCE. The psalmist painfully confesses that God's people deserved this punishment (Psalm 79:8-9), and cries out for Yahweh's intervention, because the nations are "taunting" and "mocking" and "deriding" the crushed people of God. Among other things, the power pleads:
"Why should the nations say,
'Where is their God?'
Let the avenging of the outpoured blood of your servants
be known among the nations before our eyes." (Psalm 79:10).
[Similar cries in a different circumstance appear in Psalm 42:3, 10).

Mocking jeers of the opponents of God's servants are not surprising. Those who crucified Jesus used this precise approach to tear down our Lord's trust in his Father (Mark 15:16-32; Matthew 26:67-68; 27:27-31; Luke 22:63-65). When worldly-minded people taunt and mock and sneer at those who are trying to serve God, it is very difficult to remain genuinely faithful. Let us pray that God will be there for us when such times come.