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Perspective

Commentary
We live in a pluralized world where all opinions seem valid, and the only perspective about which we are intolerant is intolerance itself. So, when we compare our views of reality, few of us dare to back all the way into the ultimate questions of origins and worldviews.

Yet it is impossible to read the Bible without admitting that it has a definite opinion about these things. Atheism is not an option from the biblical point of view, nor are several other ideas about values and gods in our world.

There are only several major worldviews behind all of the smaller philosophies we hold to within the human race. First, there are Naturalistic Closed System perspectives. For these, our world is self-contained, with external source of information available to us, no “God” or gods, and no revelation other than that which we discover from the nuanced clues imbedded in the matter and energy that swirl around us.

Human life, from this viewpoint, is at best accidental. We have no more meaning than any other object or substance on our planet. Were chemicals to have been combined in other ways and acted upon by differing forces or energies there might not be any human race whatsoever, or there may well have developed a species or several which differed wildly from what we have become familiar with as we look in the mirror.

A second major grouping of worldviews, which we might call Intelligent Closed System perspectives, starts at the same reference point—a closed system environment where what we see is what we get. There is no godlike spirit hovering outside and above and beyond the universe accessible to us. But unlike the undirected randomness found in the previous worldview collection, this perspective believes that life itself, probably combined with time, forms the intelligence that drives the system.

So it is, from this collective worldview family, that life and time are understood together to be the intelligence which shapes the universal system. These are the creative edges that shape existence in a closed system. From this perspective, human life is meaningful insofar as it plays out its role and obeys its “designed” purposes—aligning with activities that sustain life and refraining from any nonsense that would pretend to circumvent time. We have no eternally transcendent purpose or existence, but while we are here, we need to fit with our environment, and promote life in all forms rather than destroy it.

We recognize these worldview perspectives around us. They are in competition with one other worldview collection, the one often simply known as “religious,” and might be labeled as Creator/Creature Open System. This third worldview group believes that there is a Creator God who exists outside and before the system of reality in which we are housed, and that this God shaped the system so that it has inherent meaning and purpose. Existence is planned and intended by God. Human life is honored as a unique facet of created reality, formed to occupy a place of primary influence in the world as we know it, and reflecting attributes of the character of the Creator. Moreover, human life has been compromised in some way, and this accounts for the tragic and senseless elements of our daily walk. Furthermore, the Creator did not and does not abandon this world system to chance or fate, but invests in the renewal and redemption of all things: human life and also the other dimensions of reality. Within this worldview, the Bible is one dimension of the divine-human redemptive link, ensuring that whoever God is will not be forgotten among us, and that whatever God is doing will not be lost in the hectic shuffle of human social shifts.

Each of our readings for today assumes and probes the perspectives we hold. Can we see the world and our lives the way God does?

Isaiah 62:1-5
British mountain-climber George Mallory tried several times to conquer the peak of Mount Everest. In fact, he lost his life in 1924 on those slopes, and debate still rumbles in mountaineering circles about whether he reached the pinnacle before he died. He is the one who coined the phrase “because it is there” in response to the question of why anyone would want to climb a mountain.

“Because it is there” is a fair psychological assessment of human interaction with high places. The ancients set their cities on hilltops to command the advantage in war. Rich folk have always wanted “a room with a view” and are able to buy the higher ground for their palatial homes. Historically “high places” were scenes of religious devotion, probably because of their isolation from the busyness of human society and their proximity to the heavens.

Even little children get in on the act. Who, in northern climates, at least, hasn’t played “King of the Mountain” in a winter schoolyard, pushing all comers down icy slopes? And who among us does not relish “mountain-top experiences”: times when we feel “elated” and “elevated” and “ecstatic,” times when we are “flying high,” “sitting on top of the world,” and “on cloud nine” somewhere there in the heavenlies.

Jerusalem, of course, was located on the slopes of high rolling hills in central Judea. When David brought the traveling caravan of God’s wilderness home into the city, he pitched the tabernacle in the northern suburbs at the highest elevation. That is where he instructed Solomon to build God’s permanent earthly home, the temple, as well. And both David and Solomon, powerful as they were, had their own palaces tucked away slightly down the slopes from God’s dwelling. It was their way of declaring to all around them that the true king in Israel was the Lord God stationed at the heights of Zion.

Mountains do not often any longer carry with them the “religious” significance of earlier times. Now they are playgrounds for pleasure-seekers, tamed by skis and snowmobiles. Tunnels and superhighways ease travelers through or over the rugged places, and airplanes make them vanish altogether. The broad, the easy, the plain, and the simple beckon us. We do our climbing by way of elevators and escalators. Edward Kasner, renowned topologist at Columbia University for many years, knew more about mountains, on paper at least, than nearly anyone else in his day. He vacationed most often in Brussels, claiming that it was a convenient base from which to organize a mountain-climbing expedition to the highest point in Belgium. When people asked him how high that peak was, he replied, “Twelve feet above sea level.” That was enough of a climb for him. And he has many compatriots in our age.

True worship of God, however, demands mountains and heights and climbs of significance. Worship has an “elevating” dimension, as Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 12, telling of being “caught up” in the third heaven. “Flat” worship is boring and insignificant. Even those among us who don’t wish the exuberance of handclapping, foot-stomping music still need to be drawn out of the “depths” of our difficult times. We need to pray for “higher ground.”

Isaiah’s visions do not so much define theology as declare glory. Strong glory, like the shoulders of the mountains. Majestic glory, like the sweeping pinnacles. Firm glory, like the justice that rolls down from heaven. Beckoning glory, that calls us to bathe in the cascading waterfalls of God’s forgiving and cleansing love.

When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur...
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
how great thou art, how great thou art!


1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Encouraged by a vision that affirmed divine blessing on his ministry in Corinth (Acts 18:9–11), Paul remained in the city at least a year and a half (virtually all of 50 A.D. and well along into 51 A.D.). Then he decided to make a report back at his sending church in Syrian Antioch and took his new friends Priscilla and Aquila along (Acts 18:18). Stopping briefly in Ephesus across the Aegean Sea, Paul felt a strong pull to engage in a similar church-planting effort there. But he was already committed to his travel plans, so he left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus, and vowed to return soon (Acts 18:19–21).

It was probably a couple of months later that Paul traveled overland through Asia Minor and set up shop in Ephesus (Acts 19:1). Priscilla and Aquila had already established a solid core of converts and new leaders. Among their number was Apollos, a keen and well-schooled Jew from Alexandria, who was able quickly to understand how Jesus could be the Jewish Messiah (Acts 18:24–28).

Paul stayed on in Ephesus for more than two years (Acts 19:8–10), carrying out several regional mission journeys (note the various travel itineraries listed in 2 Corinthians 1:15-7:16), and growing a significant Christian presence in the city itself. It was during this time that members from his former congregation in Corinth contacted Paul with questions about theology, ethics and church practices. Paul’s responses would eventually become his most passionate and profound letters of Christian instruction. We know them today as 1 and 2 Corinthians.

Probably sometime in late 51 A.D. or early 52 A.D. Paul sent a letter of strongly worded reproof to the Corinthian congregation. No copies have survived, but from what Paul himself says about this communication in 1 Corinthians 5:9, it is easy to see why some might take exception to it. Indeed, it appears that several people in the congregation began to disown Paul’s authority after reading that letter, and then began to instigate factionalism in the community. Cliques grew, based upon personal preferences about which leaders were better preachers, and who had a right to claim greater sway among them (see 1 Corinthians 2-4). Meanwhile, a delegation of three men (Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus), all highly respectful of Paul’s apostolic authority, traveled from Corinth to Ephesus, bringing to Paul an oral report about the difficulties going on in the church. They also carried a written list of questions that members of the congregation were raising.

Paul quickly wrote a letter of response. Although it was his second letter to the Corinthian congregation, because the earlier communication has been lost, this one survives as 1 Corinthians in our New Testaments. Immediately in the opening passages, Paul addresses the difficulties some have at his continued influence in the congregation. He chastises the members for dividing up into parties where each waves a banner acclaiming the worthiness of a different leader. These groupings were sinful and disruptive, according to Paul, for they denied the honor that ought to be given only to the true head of the church, Jesus Christ. Such schisms also played favorites among human leaders, setting them over against each other, rather than recognizing their complementary gifts for helping the church to grow. By chapter 4, Paul was ready to give a declaration for his own apostolic authority, pleading with the Corinthians to receive his teachings as God’s own initiatives toward them.

In chapters 5 and 6, Paul painfully rehearsed some of the examples of immorality within the congregation that must have been the focus of his earlier letter. Several social sins, including blatantly inappropriate sexual relations and lawsuits between Christians, are marched out onto the platform in descriptions that must have left little doubt as to who Paul was talking about. The reflections about sexual behaviors may have reminded Paul of the queries on the list brought by Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus. To these he turns next. Apparently, there were eight questions raised:

– Is singleness a more appropriate Christian lifestyle than being married, and if so, what should married folk do about it? (7:1-24)
– How should unmarried people handle their sexual desires? (7:25-40)
– When we are offered meat that originates in local religious ceremonies involving other gods, what are we to do (and who gives you a right to tell us)? (8:1-11:1)
– What is the most appropriate way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, especially with the diversity of our congregational population? (11:2-33)
– The expression of spiritual gifts is becoming a conflict among us. How do we deal with this? (12-14)
– Did Jesus really come back to life after his death, and does it matter? (15)
– Is there a standard practice about sharing our possessions and financially contributing to the needs of others? (16:1-11)
– When is Apollos coming to provide some leadership among us? (16:12)

– Paul’s response to questions about worship practices (11:2-33) contains a reflection on two social value systems. First, with regard to differing roles for women and men in society, Paul wants to ensure that the genders are not blurred. There is a creational distinction between females and males, according to Paul, and this must not be erased, even by the freedoms found in Christ. At the same time, this gender distinction ought not to undermine the broad equality by which the gifts of the Spirit are distributed. Both women and men can and should prophesy. Spiritual leadership in the church is not limited by gender.

Second, in a review of the church’s celebration of “the Lord’s Supper,” as it was becoming known, another facet of social interaction was addressed. The “differences” within the congregation were not only of the kind where parties became loyal to different leaders (1 Corinthians 1–3), but also the manifestation of divergent socioeconomic groupings present in Corinthian society. The reason why some who attended these Lord’s Supper gatherings “go ahead without waiting for anybody else” and others “remain hungry,” was due to the divergent lifestyle practices of the rich and the poor among them. Wealthy people were able to come and go as they pleased, including showing up to worship services, potluck dinners and Lord’s Supper celebrations right at the start. The poor and the slaves, however (some likely coming from the same households), were often late to arrive because they had to fulfill their domestic work obligations first. Paul declared that “recognizing the body of the Lord” was necessary if the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated properly. This did not mean having the capacity to understand an appropriate theological theory of the atonement, or some other such cognitive ability. Instead, it amounted to remembering that all who belong to Jesus are welcome at his table, and none have more rights than others. If this socially and economically diverse group of society was indeed the body of Christ, each must live and act accordingly, making room at the table for all.

This reflection on the expression of the body of Christ at the communion meal may have significantly shaped Paul’s next reflections. When answering the Corinthians’ question about spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14), Paul further develops the Body of Christ metaphor, making it the core analogy by which both the identification and expression of unique gifts was to happen. At the center of this discussion, Paul pens one of the most beautiful hymns about love ever recorded (1 Corinthians 13). Although it is often lifted from its context to become a wedding text, this passage is the glue that holds together all of Paul’s testimony concerning spiritual gifts. Only when these are used out of love, and expressed through love, is the true community of faith is formed and nurtured.

John 2:1-11
The gospel’s unique prologue highlights several ideas. First, both Jesus and the message of Christianity are tied to the comprehensive foundational values shaping common philosophic systems of the day. “Logos,” in the Greek mind, was the organizing principle giving meaning and identity to everything else. By using this term to describe Jesus, John portrays him as more than just a fine teacher who said a few nice things on a Palestinian spring afternoon. Jesus is, in fact, according to John, the very Creator of all things, and the one who gives meaning to life itself. Apart from Jesus nothing makes sense or has any intrinsic meaning.

Second, “light” and “darkness” explain everything. Right up front, John helps us think through life and values and purpose in a stark dualism that is engaged in a tug-of-war for everything and everybody. Nicodemus will come to Jesus in the darkness of night (chapter 3), only to be serenaded by Jesus’ fine teachings about walking in the light. The blind man of chapter 9 is actually the only one who can truly see, according to Jesus, because all of the sighted people have darkened hearts and eyes. Judas will enter the room of the Last Supper basking in the light of the glory that surrounds Jesus (chapter 13), but when he leaves to do his dastardly deed of betrayal, the voice of the narrator ominously intones “and it was night.” Evening falls as Jesus dies (chapter 19), but the floodlights of dawn rise around those who understand the power of his resurrection (chapter 20). Even in the extra story added as chapter 21, the disciples in the nighttime fishing boat are bereft of their netting talents until Jesus shows up at the crack of dawn, tells them where to find a great catch, and is recognized by them in the growing light of day and spiritual insight. Darkness, in the gospel of John, means sin and evil and blindness and the malady of a world trying to make it on its own apart from its Creator. Light, on the other hand, symbolizes the return of life and faith and goodness and health and salvation and hope and the presence of God.

Third, as a corollary to these ideas, John shows us that salvation itself is a kind of re-creation. Using a deliberate word play to bind the opening of the gospel to the sentences that start Genesis, John communicates that the world once made lively by the Creator has now fallen under the deadly pall of evil and needs to be delivered. The only way that this renewal can happen is if the Creator re-injects planet Earth with a personal and concentrated dose of the original light by which all things were made. Although many still wander in blindness or shrink back from the light like cockroaches or rodents who have become accustomed to the inner darkness of a rotting garbage dump, those to whom sight is restored are enabled to live children of God once again.

This leads to a fourth theme of the prologue, namely that the New Testament era is merely the Old Testament mission of God revived in a new form. Jesus, the logos, comes to earth and “tabernacles” among us (verse 14), just as the Creator had done when covenanting with Israel, and commissioning her to become a witness to the nations. Furthermore, those who truly recognize Jesus for who he is, see in him the “glory” of the Father. This is a direct link to the Shekinah glory light of God that filled the tabernacle and the temple, announcing the divine presence. The mission of God continues, but it will now be experienced through the radiance that glows in all who are close to Jesus. The “tabernacle” that houses the glory of the divine presence is on the move into the world through this “only begotten Son of God” (1:14) and all who become “children of God” (1:12) with and through him.

On this philosophic foundation, John organizes a very deliberately shaped encounter with Jesus. It is important to read the text of this gospel closely and carefully. In doing so, new clues to John’s more subtle themes and meanings can be found. For instance, the narrative of Jesus’ life begins in what we might see as an awkward compilation of meaningless references to days:
  • 1:29 — “the next day…”
  • 1:35 — “the next day…”
  • 1:43 — “the next day…”
  • 2:1 — “on the third day…”
But if we track John’s calendar and count the announcement of John the baptizer about Jesus as the first day, the succession of daily references suddenly identifies Jesus’ first miraculous sign of turning the water into wine at the wedding feast in 2:1-11 as occurring on the gospel’s narrative seventh day. This, of course, is the great Sabbath of God, and the day on which God’s people are supposed to rest and enjoy God’s presence among them.

In other words, John subtly shows us that Jesus is himself the great blessing of God’s presence, now come among us. The Sabbath has arrived!

The seven “miraculous signs” of chapters 2-11 not only provide healing and hope to those who were first the objects of divine grace through Jesus, but they also dig deeper into biblical history to replay major scenes of the Old Testament in a way that reasserts the mission of God, while shifting its agency from Israel to Jesus. For instance, just as sin first disrupted the marriage of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, so Jesus first displays his regenerative powers by restoring the celebration at a wedding (chapter 2). Again, while Adam and Eve mourned the loss of their son through murder brought about by sin, a new nobleman (John deliberately sets this character above national, tribal, or ethnic limitations that are otherwise used to identify all other persons in the gospel) receives back his son from the dead (chapter 4). Next, Jesus encounters a man who has been ailing for thirty-eight years (chapter 5), and who can only otherwise be healed by passing through waters that have been divinely disturbed. Interestingly, Moses, in Deuteronomy 2:14, gives the only other reference to the number thirty-eight in all of the Bible, mentioning it as the amount of time that the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness, waiting for the shalom that can come to them only if they pass through the waters of the Jordan River which will be divinely disturbed in order to make the crossing possible.

In this way, John continues to portray Jesus as the new agent of divine redemption, functioning in parallel to the manner in which God dealt with Israel of the Old Testament. Jesus, too, feeds the people of God in the wilderness (chapter 6) and tames the raging waters that in the darkness prevent God’s people from entering the Promised Land (chapter 6). Furthermore, as Isaiah was told about the blindness of the people in his day (Isaiah 6), Jesus contends with similar dysfunctional eyes (chapter 9). And just as Ezekiel had to preach to the dead nation of Israel to resurrect it from the grave of exile (Ezekiel 37), so Jesus brings back to life one of his dear friends who has died (chapter 11), symbolizing the ultimate goal of divine grace.

It is only when the seven signs have been published to the world in this manner, that the “Greeks” (John’s notation for the whole world out there, beyond our tiny Jewish enclave) come seeking Jesus (12:21). Then, immediately, Jesus declares that his “hour” has come. Why? Because the salvation of God sent to this world (John 3:16-17) has been recognized through the signs and has been received by the world. It has begun to make an impact, and the world will never again be merely content with darkness. Dawn is breaking.

Application
When I was a radio announcer during my college days our station began a late-night “Contemporary Christian Music” program, one of the first in the nation. We talked about the format for a while and discussed the content. And, of course, we debated what to call the show.

An early suggestion was “The Solid Rock Hour.” Though the double entendre in that title was marvelous (“rock” for the style of some of the music, and “solid rock” as a picture of Jesus Christ), the name itself didn’t ring with any contemporary feel. Our final choice was ILLUMINATION, and both the name and the program became a major hit.

“Illumination” speaks of darkness and shadows while at the same time pointing to the growing clarity produced by light and insight. There is a lot of spirituality contained in thoughts of illumination.

It certainly expresses well the God-talk of the Bible: darkness and chaos lurk until God speaks light and life; the psalmist wanders through the valley of the shadow of death with the testimony “The Lord is my light and my salvation” on his lips; Jesus appears as the light of God entering a dark world; when he hangs on the cross darkness steals the light away and the shades of Hades appear to take over for a time; yet on Easter morning resurrection comes with the dawn. For these reasons and more John says that “God is light,” and Paul tells us to live as “children of the light.”

Alternative Application (John 2:1-11)
C. S. Lewis captured the Johannine tension of light and darkness in spiritual combat in his space trilogy about Venus. The planet Mars, in his tale, is populated by an ancient race of God’s creatures who never gave in to the lure of evil and remain holy and just. Earth, as we know, has fallen under the domain of the dark shadows, and the great Creator has posted warning signs around it in space. It is off limits to other races, quarantined until the end of time.

Venus, though, is a freshly birthed planet with a more recent “paradise” story of creaturely development. A newly formed pair similar to Earth’s Adam and Eve dance about in innocent delight.

The evil power in the universe will not allow a divine masterpiece to go long unmarred, however, and he sends a vicious Earth scientist named Weston to introduce sin on Venus by corrupting its lord and lady. In a countermove, the great Creator sends an ambassador of his own to Venus. The universe holds its breath as the future of this bright world hangs in the balance.

In these novels, Lewis pictured the tension in every human heart. Like Adam and Eve at Earth’s creation, and like the lord and lady of Venus, we are surrounded by dark powers, yet long for the light of redemption and love. Most of our lives we struggle to see more clearly.

Still, life gets lost for us, often, in the shadows. But grace breaks through, now and again, in moments of insight and illumination, and those are the moments we have to hang onto. That is why John 3:16 has become one of the most widely known verses of the Bible. It summarizes the scriptural message as that of God looking for us in love.

Like a mother who brings a child into this world, God is protective of the lives birthed on planet Earth. When sin stains and decadence destroys, God’s first thought is to rescue and redeem and recover the children God so dearly loves.
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