“OUT WHERE THE RUBBER MEETS THE ROAD! THAT’S WHERE IT’S AT!”

It was some years back (maybe ten, something like that) but without effort I can see him as though it was yesterday (“were yesterday” if you prefer). There we were, a people in dire need of being gospeled and there he was with the tone and air of someone very wise and experienced. What he had to say was so well known to him that it wasn’t exactly boring to him but it was too bad that he had to say it one…more…time. Had we gained his eminence and knowledge we should have known what he was informing us about but obviously………
There he stood very casually dressed telling us in that understanding tone that it was all right for us to want to get things “right” when we assemble (you know, our singing and reading and prayers and engaging in the Lord’s Supper—“that kind of thing”) but it’s outside the building that “the rubber meets the road.” He had his soft-covered translation opened at some text and frequently gestured with it as he held it in his fist, rolled up, the way we often hold a rolled up magazine. What we carry to the assembly is only paper and ink. (A devout Hindu Christian in India some years ago gently instructed me on some things I was not to do with my Bible and some places where I should not set it down.) It was well known to our speaker anyway, it’s not having a paper and ink copy of the Holy Scriptures, it’s living them—out where the “rubber meets the road.”
It would be tragic—beyond tragic—if we thought that the sum total of our life with and for God is what happens during our gatherings and our getting all our religious convictions correctly in line. But, dear God, demeaning what happens, what hungry and reverent hearts purpose to happen, what they seek to experience in His nearer presence when they come to Supper with the Lord Jesus and in fellowship with one another in the Lord Jesus in heartfelt obedience—to speak dismissively of all that and more, is crass ignorance of who we are and what our gatherings are about.

Our speaker with his fistful of rolled up NT, his very casual dress and his (not quite) bored tone plainly told us that he knew so well what we obviously didn’t, went on to tell us that we needed to be kind and compassionate, honest, and in general we needed to be virtuous. Even that was spoken to us in a calm lecturing fashion. Having by this time exorcised all the wonder from the rolled up NT he waved from time to time, from the hymns we sang, the prayers the Suppering with and on the living Lord Jesus and the collection that was Jesus-imaging (2 Corinthians 8:9), he patiently moralized until closing when he offered an invitation to respond to “the gospel.”
There was no revealed mystery here, there was no declaration of war in the name of God and His Holy Son against all the rulers of the darkness of this world and their influence in us or around us and on behalf of a suffering and kept-ignorant world; there was no muted astonishment about sins forgiven, no presence of burdened people who needed their hearts lifted or cleansed or assured; there must have been no happy Christians made glad and further inspired.
He needed to put all that and so much more to the side, less important than our moral response away from this sacred (yes!) gathering, and take us out there “where the rubber meets the road.” What ignorance! What injury! When the moral becomes all and the religious becomes nothing. When the moral is spoken of in patient (or earnest) tones and the lovely mystery of the religious is (virtually) dismissed in very casual dress and with the waving and pointing of a fistful of rolled up Scriptures. (See the contrast in John 2:13-17 and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and Malachi 3:16.)

They had been looking for Him for some days, asking friends and neighbors, (“Have you seen our son Jesus?”) and when they finally found Him in the temple they told Him, using an active imperfect verb, of their unceasing effort and concern). Bless me; he was a twelve year-old boy, the visit from up north to Jerusalem, the trip with all the excitement, his peers, the laughter, the games on the way, the running, chasing, the stories, the chores, the social joys and the anticipation of seeing the big city and the vast crowds. Wonderful! Life “out where the rubber meets the road” with its pleasures and responsibilities.
All that, without apology, and then He turned in loving religious reverence to the Temple. Just a building, and yet, not “just” a building, but a place dedicated to the telling of “the ancient story of miracle and the mystery of prophecy explained.” A place where the morally fine (and now gathered) people were reminded of their calling, of their peculiar existence as the People of God, and of their service to their God and the human family He loved so much.
“Oh,” He said, when they found Him in the Temple, listening to the teachers and asking them questions, and in response to HIS PARENTS’ distress He said, “I thought you would have known I must be about My Father’s business.” Luke 2:41-49
Poor boy Jesus. No matter, He would understand better when He was older and wiser, that being in the place of worship while it was…“yes, all right,” what really mattered only happened out “where the rubber meets the road.”

(Holy Father, help us please. Give us servant ministers who drink deeply from your Holy Scriptures and learn of you and your Holy Son so that we will be enlightened and empowered to be about your business. This prayer in the Lord Jesus.)

 

WOE’S ME THAT I IN MESECH AM

It’s said of the famous Thomas Carlyle, who just about worshiped heroism, that he believed God was alive until his hero Oliver Cromwell died. I am no worshiper of Cromwell or David, the son of Jesse either but it’s hard not to admire the courageous even when we know they’re terribly flawed.

David in one of his psalms confesses grievous wrongs and heartfelt repentance (Psalm 51). I don’t need to rehearse the story of his heartless murder of not only Uriah but the troops under him to cover up his adultery with Uriah’s wife or of his numerous other great wrongs. But these wrongs are not the entire story of the life of David and the one truth that God Himself kept front and center was this: David turned to no other God, would worship no other God, confessed his shame to no other God and sought forgiveness of no other God. It was that that made him the model king among all the other kings of Israel who had their flaws too. See texts such as 1 Kings 9:4; 11:4; 14:8; 15:3; 2 Kings 14:3; 18:3 and elsewhere.

We can’t dismiss or make light of David’s evil (or ours, or mine) but we mustn’t dismiss his refusal to let his evil silence him—he still wrote songs praising, glorifying, exalting and calling people to trust in God and he still reigned as a king! What should he have done? Should he, while he never forget the horror of his evil (Psalm 51:3 and the psalm in entirety)—should he have been silenced by a fear that he would be branded “hypocrite”? Should he have slunk off into isolation and a faithless silence and spoke no more in praise of a God worthy of praise though he himself was unworthy? Would robbing God of honor by lifelong silence make up for giving God’s enemies a right to jeer? (See 2 Samuel 12:10, 14.) Because he cannot excuse his own wickedness must he refuse to speak the truth about his Lord in an attempt to encourage others to praise and honor the Lord in their lives? Should he not speak of evil as evil because he has been evil, should he have been soft on sin because he was a sinner?
You can imagine, can’t you—the curled lips of those who knew what he had done (and who didn’t know?) when they heard him sing his newly written Psalm 40 or Psalm 23? How could he bear it? How could he speak? How could he sing? But he did, thank God, and we’ve been blessed by his not being driven into silence by fear and shame! He wasn’t the only one whose sin was ever before him. Many of us live in fear as a result of our dishonor and dread the curled lips. I often wonder how Peter must have felt when he made his first appearance to the brothers after his shameful denial of the One he swore before everyone he wouldn’t deny, and then he swore he didn’t know Him. How does one find freedom from that crushing fear and shame? Some among us are brave and their sense of God’s glory and worthiness enables them to dismiss their fears—there are fears much greater than the fear of death. Pip, in Great Expectations feared dying at Orlick’s hand but he feared more, he said, dying without Estella, Joe and Biddy knowing how he had tried to make up for his inexcusable ways. David, Peter and Cromwell wouldn’t and couldn’t slip away silently into a life of “peace and quiet.”
In one of his letters* Cromwell claims that he had been evil and that during the wartime he had been long been evil in evil days but (as he saw it) he was called to do the will of God even though he knew he wasn’t worthy and didn’t do it well. It was in response to that letter that Carlyle wrote what follows and compares Cromwell with a certain preacher who flogged Cromwell when he read his letter. Carlyle in turn flagellates him, a critic who apparently never faced real inner or outer warfare and never misbehaved in such a way as even gave rise to a “credible rumor” against himself and Carlyle makes the point that people like Cromwell are as unrecognizable as their old fashioned clothing. (I’ve altered the wording and added some words in parentheses only a very little, for clarification).

“For the soul’s furniture of these brave people (people like Cromwell) is as old-fashioned and unintelligible as their Spanish boots and lappet caps. Reverend Mark Noble (one of Cromwell’s critics), my reverend imbecile friend, discovers in this letter clear evidence that Oliver was once a very dissolute man, that Carrion Heath** spoke truth in that Flagellum Balderdash of his (an insulting reference to the tail of a microscopic creature). O my reverend imbecile friend, hadst thou thyself never any moral life, but only a sensitive and digestive (one), has thy soul never longed inwards for the serene heights, all hidden from thee, or thirsted as the hart in dry places wherein no waters were? It was never a sorrow for thee that the eternal pole-Star had gone out, veiled itself in dark clouds? (The only sorrow you ever felt was) a sorrow only that this or the other noble patron forgot thee when a living fell vacant? …O modern reader, dark as this letter may seem, I will advise thee to make an attempt towards understanding it. There is in it a tradition of humanity worth all the rest. Indisputable certificate that man once had a soul; that man once walked with God, his little life a sacred island surrounded with eternal issues and gods. Was it not a time for heroes? Heroes were then possible. I say, thou shalt understand that letter; thou also, looking out into a too brutish world, wilt then be able to openly confess with Oliver Cromwell—with Hebrew David… (Carlyle then quotes this from Cromwell’s letter):
                    Woe’s me that I in Meshec am ***
                    A sojourner so long,
                    Or that I in the tents do dwell
                    To that Kedar belong!
“Yes, there is a tone in the soul of this Oliver that holds of the eternal things. With a noble sorrow, with a noble patience, he longs towards the mark of the prize of the high calling. He, I think, has chosen the better part. The world and its wild tumults, if they will but let him alone (and he gets freedom)! Yet he too will venture, will do and suffer for God’s cause, if the call come. What man with better reason? He hath had plentiful wages beforehand (when) snatched out of darkness into marvelous light: he will never earn the least mite. Annihilation of self…as Novalis calls it, casting yourself at the footstool of God’s throne, “To live or to die for ever as Thou wilt, not as l will.” Brother, (still addressing the preacher critic) hadst thou then never, in any form, such moments in thy history? Thou knowest them not, not even by (giving occasion to) credible rumor? Well, thy earthly path was more peaceable, I suppose. But the Highest was never in thee, the Highest will never come out of thee. Thou shalt at best abide by the stuff; as a cherished housedog; guard the stuff—perhaps with enormous gold-collars and food to eat: but the battle, and the hero-death, and victory’s chariot carrying men to the Immortals shall never be thine. I pity thee; brag not, or I shall have to despise thee.”

* Carlyle’s Letters of Cromwell, Volume 1:97
** James Heath, a Cromwellian biographer
*** Cromwell’s letter alludes to Psalm 120:5. It reads to me like a tired warrior’s song, one who had wanted inner peace but found only war. War and living in darkness away from home is at least the metaphor. It would fit Cromwell’s sense of himself. Mesech was to the extreme northwest in Asia Minor, far away from God’s land and Song of Solomon 1:5 tells us Kedar tents were black.

CURIOUS LITTLE PIGMY

1In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. Then the king of Assyria sent his field commander with a large army from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. When the commander stopped at the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field, Eliakim son of Hilkiah the palace administrator, Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph the recorder went out to him.

The field commander said to them, “Tell Hezekiah:

“‘This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: On what are you basing this confidence of yours? You say you have counsel and might for war—but you speak only empty words. On whom are you depending, that you rebel against me? Look, I know you are depending on Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff, which pierces the hand of anyone who leans on it! Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who depend on him. But if you say to me, “We are depending on the Lord our God”—isn’t he the one whose high places and altars Hezekiah removed, saying to Judah and Jerusalem, “You must worship before this altar”?

“‘Come now, make a bargain with my master, the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses—if you can put riders on them! How then can you repulse one officer of the least of my master’s officials, even though you are depending on Egypt for chariots and horsemen[a]? 10 Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this land without the Lord? The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it.’”
………………………….
13 Then the commander stood and called out in Hebrew, “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! 14 This is what the king says: Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you! 15 Do not let Hezekiah persuade you to trust in the Lord when he says, ‘The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’
16 “Do not listen to Hezekiah. This is what the king of Assyria says: Make peace with me and come out to me. Then each of you will eat fruit from your own vine and fig tree and drink water from your own cistern, 17 until I come and take you to a land like your own—a land of grain and new wine, a land of bread and vineyards.
18 “Do not let Hezekiah mislead you… Have the gods of any nations ever delivered their lands from the hand of the king of Assyria? 19 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they rescued Samaria from my hand? 20 Who of all the gods of these countries have been able to save their lands from me? How then can the Lord deliver Jerusalem from my hand?”
21 But the people remained silent and said nothing in reply, because the king had commanded, “Do not answer him.”
(NIV, used by permission)

Sometime when you are in the mood and are able to make the time, imagine the situation as it occurred. Nearly two hundred thousand marauding legionnaires of the most brutal army in ancient history surrounded the little city of Jerusalem. The troops just waiting the word to cover the city as voracious ants do a tormented animal. In the meantime, while the shrewd Rabshakeh spoke to Jewish representatives about terms of unconditional surrender Assyrian engineers checked the walls and gates, to see the best places to begin to turn the city into a ruin as they had done with so many others.
Of Sennacherib’s spokesman George Adam Smith said this,
“Curious pigmy, very grand thou think yourself , and surely with some right as delegate of the ‘king of kings,’ parading thy cleverness and thy bribes before these poor barbarians; but the world, called to look upon you both from this eminence of history, grants thee to be a very good head of an intelligence department, with a couple of languages on thy glib tongue’s end, but it judges that the secret of all that is worth living and dying for in this world lies with the starved and speechless men, women and children before you.“
Rabshakeh spoke to the Judean representatives and shouted up veiled threats and lying promises to the frightened and silent people lining the walls. That was the rhetoric outside the walls but the speech within when Hezekiah was on his knees and spread out the Assyrian letter of threat and insult (37:14-20), the Lord heard the prayer and read the letter and His response as 37:14-38. Outside the walls 185,00 fierce Assyrian troops shouted “NO!” to Judah’s longing for peace and life but in the night God 185,000 times whispered, “But I say YES.”
It’s forever a mistake to seek the curse or extinction of the People through whom GOD seeks to bless the world.

(Holy One, help us your blundering people to be indeed the People through whom you work to bless the world. Will you not cure me, cure us, that we will be this? Will you continue to trust us to be such people in speech, spirit and service? Do this we pray. Deliver us from the paralysis of fear and our crippling self-serving. Where else can we go for help if not to you? This prayer in Jesus’ name.)

BEHOLD “THE MAN!”

It makes no sense to me to confine our faith in the Lord Jesus to the materials of the Gospels. The Epistles and Acts are part of the divine revelation and open our eyes to His Person and work. But there is tremendous power in the surface reading of the Gospels, though they are far from “biographical sketches.” If our studies of the epistles obscure or hide or deflect us from Jesus the Person then our studies have become our enemy. The Holy Scriptures, particularly the NT, weren’t written to distance us from HIM and hide HIM behind theological pursuits. (Note His sad but trenchant warning in John 5:39-40 with Luke 19:41-44.)

The strength of the Church of God (1 Corinthians 1:2; 10:32; 11:22; 15.9; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:13; 1 Timothy 3:5, 15), in spite of its faults, errors, and omissions (and they have been, and are, real and many), is not in its sometimes disputable creed as it has drawn it up on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, but in the power of the indisputable person, purpose, truthfulness and character of its Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.
In spite of all the critics, the Gospels have conveyed to the minds and hearts of millions of men and women a living image of Christ. They see Him there; they hear His voice; they listen, and they believe Him and they believe in Him. It is not so much that they accept certain doctrines said to be taught by Him, though it is true that they do, it’s that they accept Him, Himself, as their Lord and their God.

The sacred fire of trust in Him descended upon the Apostles, and has from them been handed on from generation to generation. It is with that living Person that any form of unbelief has to deal and as long as the Gospels practically produce the effect of making that personal figure a reality to human hearts, (and they do) so long will the Christian Faith, and the Church of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1), in that central unchanging commitment be a vital and permanent force in the world.
A prominent and influential skeptic insisted that he cannot define the grand figure of Jesus so he can’t really make a commitment. But who would dare to define Him? They can’t define Him but a countless host down the generations have sung, written, prayed and lived righteously, joyously and at ultimate cost to themselves and their loved ones in a pursuit of a deeper image of Him.
Men and women can feel and know what they cannot define. The skeptic, it would seem, would have us to wait coolly until we can answer all the difficult questions about Him and our faith in Him before we act on that faith or speak confidently about Him.
The skeptic said we are often obliged, by the pressure of events, to act without full proof and sometimes on what turns out to be bad evidence. He thought that very reasonable indeed and his view and practice is followed to this day and it will continue to be the case. But it doesn’t follow, the critic said, that Christians should do that when there is no pressure to act.
But isn’t a strange ignorance of human nature to imagine that there is no pressure on humans in this matter. No one looks at the injustice, brutality, cruelty, and moral insanity seen everywhere in this life and wonders? No one experiences this and does not want there to be something better? This isn’t pressure?
Jesus, who understood and felt the human heart and mind better than all the skeptics looked at over-burdened animals as they passed by, urged to greater effort by their insensitive owners, someone who watched oxen, fitted with roughly-made yokes that tore their flesh, drag ploughs daily from one end of a field and back—He looked at them and thought of people and He was heard to say, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me…for My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30) The attraction of Jesus more than outweighs many a critical difficulty under the pressure of the burdens and the sins of life.
That same unbeliever admitted the force of this influence on individuals. “If (he said) a man can find a friend, the embodiment of all his hopes, the mirror of his ethical ideal, in the pages of any, or of all, of the Gospels, let him live by faith in that ideal. Who will, or can, forbid him? But let him not delude himself that the notion that his faith is evidence of the objective reality of that in which he trusts. Such evidence is to be obtained only by the use of the methods of science, as applied to history and to literature, and it amounts at present to very little.”
Well, a single man’s belief in an ideal may be very little evidence of its objective reality. But the conviction of millions of men and women, generation after generation, right from the beginning, of the truth of the four Gospel witnesses, and of the human and divine reality of Jesus Christ they describe, has at least something of the weight of the verdict of a jury. In daily life, thought and practice the figure of Christ lives! The Gospels have created it; and He makes Himself present as a personal fact in life, alike among believers and, yes, unbelievers too.
This unbeliever himself, in spite of all his skepticism, appears to have his own type of this character. “The narrative of the woman taken in adultery, (he says), if internal evidence were an infallible guide, might well be affirmed to be a typical example of the teachings of Jesus.” Internal evidence may not be an infallible guide; but it certainly carries great weight.
                                                 BEHOLD “THE MAN”

This piece leans heavily on an essay written by Henry Wace in 1889 in a devastating response to T.H. Huxley, the noted “agnostic”. I’m not a specialist in Huxley (or anyone else for that matter) but what I know of him from his published letters and biographies has led me to think he had doubts about his doubts. Sigh.

AUTHENTIC GODHOOD, ANOTHER LOOK

In Euripides’s Alcestis the Spartan king, Admetos, is to die unless he gets a substitute. His wife Alcestis offers herself as his substitute but the thought of losing her is driving Admetos crazy. Hercules (Heracles), son of the gods and a regular guest at Admetos’s house comes to visit, notes the gloom and misery everywhere, learns of the situation and goes out and rescues her from Death.
The poet Robert Browning zeroes in on the reputation of Hercules as a helper of humankind against the forces that are too strong for it. He makes the point that this going to humanity’s defense is one of the authenticating marks of genuine godhood and has the chorus singing this:
Gladness be with thee, Helper of our world! 
I think this is the authentic sign and seal 
Of Godship, that it ever waxes glad, 
And more glad, until gladness blossoms, bursts 
Into a rage to suffer for mankind, 
And recommence at sorrow: drops like seed 
After the blossom, ultimate of all. 
Say, does the seed scorn the earth and seek the sun? 
Surely it has no other end and aim 
Than to drop, once more die into the ground, 
Taste cold and darkness and oblivion there: 
And thence rise, tree-like to grow through pain to joy, 
More joy and most joy,—do man good again.

Browning stresses not only the theme of suffering to help humanity, he stresses the gladness of heart in which the enterprise is undertaken. It isn’t a grim, reluctant, foot-dragging approach to the matter (Heracles “strode” off to effect the rescue). And it was “for the joy set before him” our Savior despised the pain and loss barring His way. Only a blind theology gives the impression that God has a hard time loving sinners! Only a blind Ecclesiology and Pneumatology teaches the blessed Church of the Lord Jesus Christ that it is to be the enemy of sinners. What nonsense! What a blatant denial of the Incarnation, Cross & Resurrection!
P.T. Forsyth insisted that the coming of God as the weak and wounded Jesus Christ is not only not surprising, it would be astonishing if He had not come in Jesus Christ, in a rage to suffer on humanity’s behalf. In this, Forsyth doesn’t have in mind only the tender side of God, His gentle love and compassion though he does have that in mind; he’s thinking of God’s infinitely holy character that hates all that stands between Him and the human family He has Fathered (Acts 17:29). If God was moved in love, it was a holy love. Christ doesn’t come simply blessing, being sweet, talking kindly and taking us in His loving arms—He comes sharing the suffering of the judgment that holiness must bring upon Sin in order to deal with it!
The forgiveness of sins, the reconciliation of the world is achieved through love’s judgment on Sin—the word of the cross says that! And it’s love judgment on Sin on behalf of sinners! Romans 11:32.
And it had to be God’s Incarnation, God’s cross or it wouldn’t be the love of God that worked the rescue. And it had to be a representative human in and through whom reconciliation was accomplished because a repentance worthy of the nature of Sin must come from humankind if we wish to live in immortal glory. In the cross Jesus repents for us. I don’t mean he repents so that we don’t have to—I mean what R.W. Moberly and McCleod Campbell have taught us, that He alone could give humanity a repentance which gives complete homage to the righteousness of God and to which we can (by faith in Him) add our “amen”. Our repentance is His for His mind alone knows the nature of Sin and denounces its very existence, denounces its usurping His life-bringing place in human hearts (see Romans 8:3 where He condemns Sin that made its home in humankind).
Those who are His do not see what He and He alone has done and draw the conclusion that they don’t need to repent since He has done it or equally bad, nod some tame approval of it and stroll our way home, hands in pockets. There is nothing “legal” about this! It’s “relational”. Those who are His  are part of Him (1 Corinthians 6:15; 12:12)!!! Part of Him, telling again through suffering and joy and speech the Story of His own once-and-for-all doing for humanity and for them, them who are sinners like everyone else!
“Nothing in my hand I bring/Simply to Thy cross I cling/Naked come to Thee for dress/Helpless turn to Thee for grace…” is true in every syllable but we still “cling, come, turn” to such a Lord Jesus. By faith we offer Him as our representative; Him, who did for us what we could not for ourselves. And in offering Him we offer back nothing other than God’s being and doing, Himself as the Lover of humanity and of each of us in particular. but we offer! We offer in repentance and faith that which the gracious God works in us (Romans 2:4; Philippians 1:29; Acts 18:27). It’s that that we freely offer in and through Jesus Christ but we do offer it! The Christ into whom we are baptized is not “any old Christ”—we become part of a Sin-killing, Life-bringing, Righteousness-embodying Lord Jesus. We don’t just smile approvingly and wish Him well—we become one with Him, for Him, for ourselves and for the world!
It was God and it was God in Christ who came to our rescue. The motivation for this coming/sending of God is that God “so loved the world” (John 3:16-17). We can’t take it all in. We can’t take it all in because we have neither the intellect nor the purity of heart. We’d have to be God to take it all in—it’s a God thing!

Not to be able to see that in the cross blinds us to the possibility of seeing it anywhere else in the world.
There is no authentic God but that God; the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ!