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Transformation

Commentary
Oscar Wilde penned a powerful story about behaviors and definitions and justice called The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian was a handsome young man, a model of physical beauty and moral virtue. People complimented him on his good graces. Parents pointed to him as an example to their youth. One artist even painted an exquisite portrait of him.

Dorian idolized the painting. He woke each morning to admire it. He ended every day with a gaze at his mirrored perfection. Someone so lovely could do no wrong, he began to think, or at least would not be punished for it. In his vanity, he became selfish and indulgent. He sampled the sins of the streets. He debauched himself in the opium dens of London’s darker dives.

Of course, Dorian’s crimes and carelessness took their toll. Soon the perfect portrait on the wall began to haunt him. The picture of a radiant and wholesome young man gleamed down on his puffy face and diseased body and glazed eyes. If only he could look that way again! If only the portrait could absorb the marks of his sin!

And miraculously, that’s what happened. Before long, his youthful glow returned. The more he caroused at night, the healthier and handsomer he became. And on the wall, the painting slowly became etched and lined with the wickedness of Dorian Gray.

What a life! Each day, people marveled at his virtue and eternal youth. And by night he wallowed in every vice, with no recrimination. The now ugly painting on the wall absorbed every evil and tallied each painful degradation.

Dorian could no longer endure even a casual glance at the horrible picture. He hid it in the attic and only occasionally sneaked up to survey the damage. Over the years, what little resemblance there may have been between young Dorian Gray and the grotesque monster in the painting was all but lost.

But the painting remained a sacramental testimony of his wickedness. It was a haunting conscience, an inviolate judge on the life and times of Dorian Gray. It stood as accuser. It never lied. It drove him mad.

One night he could stand it no longer. Knife in hand, he ascended the stairs to the attic courtroom and attacked the awful witness that spoke silently for the prosecution.

When his servants searched the house the next day, looking for Master Gray, they found only the wretched body of a ghastly old man in the attic, knife through his heart. And on the wall beamed the handsome and virtuous face of the painting of Dorian Gray.

Wilde’s story summarizes two themes that linger within each of us. The first is a sense of morality. Dorian knew right from wrong. He realized there was a proper way to live and a style of life that was evil and degrading. God made us with a conscience, says the apostle Paul, and no one is without excuse in matters of morality.

Second, Wilde pointed a finger to justice. Blind justice. Standing there weighing our deeds with her scales, meting out punishments. We would like to be excused. We would like a way out, a miraculous painting that absorbs our punishments and lets us off with only an ugly glance. But we know it will never happen. We get what we deserve, if not now, then when we die. Dorian Gray got his; we will get ours.

Unless someone does something about it. Unless there is a way out of this mess. Unless God might be gracious and transfer the ugliness of our sins to Jesus. This is what Abraham anticipated. This is at the heart of Paul’s New Testament theology. And this is the clear and direct message of Jesus on the road to the cross, as his disciples, especially Peter, looked for other ways to make life better.

So, we, too, had better listen to the message of the gospel. Even its warnings.

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
If Genesis 1–11 is analogous to the cosmogonic myths that informed the societies among which young Israel was wrestling for a place, the rest of the book has a character not unlike that of the ancestor hero stories which also shaped other national cultures. Once again, comparing the tales of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph to the mythology of neighboring civilizations does not imply that these biblical tales are false or untrue. Rather, it is helpful to see the way the literature functions in defining the identity of the emerging culture; ancestor hero stories provide a genre of comparison. In other words, the narratives of the patriarchs are not merely documentary history through which Israel could fashion a set of lively bedtime stories. Instead, the very heart of Israel’s identity was shaped as the nation reflected on certain aspects of the lives of its forebears. For this reason, there is no complete history of Abraham, or entire biography of Isaac, or fully developed life of Jacob. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to formulate these from the limited amount of historical information given about each.

Instead, the purpose of these stories, particularly since they appear to emerge from the Sinai covenant-making events of Exodus, is to provide a basis for Israel to understand who she is as a nation. This becomes more apparent when the essential focus of each major story cycle is probed.

Although later references to Israel’s ancestral parentage would emerge as the standardized phrase “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” the second part of Genesis contains three major story cycles in which Isaac is only a footnote to those of Abraham and Jacob, and Joseph is added as a key player in the larger drama. In rough overview, Genesis 12–50 may be outlined in this manner:

Abraham Story Cycle (chapters 12-25)
Jacob Story Cycle (chapters 26-36)
Joseph Story Cycle (chapters 37-50)

Each of these story cycles adds a unique element to Israel’s self-identity when read backwards from the covenant-making ceremony at Mt. Sinai. In this way they form, with Genesis 1–11, a deliberate extended historical prologue to the Suzerain Vassal treaty by staging that event over against the prevailing worldviews of the day, and within a certain missional context that illumines the purpose of Israel’s existence and the reason why Yahweh takes such interest in this tiny nation.

Abram is an Aramean from the heart of Mesopotamia, whose father Terah begins a journey westward which Abram continues upon his father’s death. Whatever Terah’s reasons might have been for moving from the old family village — restlessness, treasure-seeking, displacement, wanderlust — Genesis 12 informs us that Abram’s continuation of the trek was motivated by a divine call to seek a land which would become his by providential appointment. This is the first of four similar divine declarations that occur in quick succession in chapters 12, 13, 15 and 17. Such repetition cues us to the importance of these theophanies, but it ought also to cause us to look more closely at the forms in which the promises to Abram are made.

In brief, Abram’s first three encounters with God are shaped literarily as royal grants. Only in Genesis 17 does the language of the dialogue change, and elements are added to give it the flavor of a Suzerain Vassal covenant. This is very significant. When Abram receives royal grant promises of land or a son, he seems to treat these divine offerings with a mixture of indifference and skepticism. He immediately leaves the land of promise in Genesis 12 and connives with his wife Sarai and her handmaid Hagar to obtain an heir in Genesis 16. Even in the stories of Genesis 13-14, where Abram sticks with the land and fights others to regain his nephew Lot from them after local skirmishes and kidnappings, Abram turns his thankfulness toward a local expression of religious devotion through the mystical figure of Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20). Only when God changes the language of covenant discourse, bringing Abram into the partnership of a Suzerain-Vassal bond, does Abraham enter fidelity and commitment to this new world and new purpose and new journey.

Genesis 12 - Royal Grant: LandAbram’s Response: Leave the Land

Genesis 13 - Royal Grant: LandAbram’s Response: Fight over the Land

Genesis 15 - Royal Grant: SonAbram’s Response: Connive to get Ishmael as Son

Genesis 17 - Suzerain-Vassal: Land, Son; Renaming, CircumcisionAbraham’s Response: Faith and Trust (cf. chapter 22)

For Israel, standing at Mt. Sinai in the context of a Suzerain Vassal covenant-making ceremony, the implications would be striking. First of all, the nation would see itself as the unique and miraculously born child fulfilling a divine promise. Israel could not exist were it not for God’s unusual efforts at getting Abram and Sarai pregnant in a way that was humanly impossible. Second, the people were the descendants of a man on a divine pilgrimage. Not only was Abram en route to a land of promise, but he was also the instrument of God for the blessing of all the nations of the earth. In other words, Israel was born with a mandate, and it was globally encompassing. Third, while these tribes had recently emerged from Egypt as a despised social underclass of disenfranchised slaves, they were actually landowners. Canaan was theirs for the taking because they already owned it! They would not enter the land by stealth, but through the front door; they would claim the land, not by surreptitious means or mere battlefield bloodshed, but as rightful owners going home. This would greatly affect their common psyche: they were the long-lost heirs of a kingdom, returning to claim their royal privilege and possessions. Fourth, there was a selection in the process of creating their identity. They were children of Abraham, but so were a number of area tribes and nations descending from Ishmael. What made them special was the uniqueness of their lineage through Isaac, the miraculously born child of Abram and Sarai’s old age. Israel had international kinship relations, but she also retained a unique identity fostered by the divine distinctions between branches of the family. Fifth, in the progression of the dialogue between Yahweh and Abram there was a call to participation in the mission of God. As the story of Abram unfolded, it was clear that his commitment to God’s plans was minimal at best until the change from royal grants (Genesis 12, 13, 15) to the Suzerain Vassal Covenant of chapter 17. Each time Abram was given a gift he seemingly threw it away, tried to take it by force, or manipulated his circumstances so that he controlled his destiny; only when God took formal ownership of both Abram and the situation through the Suzerain-Vassal Covenant of Genesis 17 was there a marked change in Abram’s participation in the divine initiative. The renaming of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah were only partly significant for the meaning of the names; mostly they were a deliberate and public declaration that God owned them. To name meant to have power over, just as was the case when a divine word created the elements of the universe in Genesis 1, and when Adam named the animals in Genesis 2. Furthermore, in the call to circumcise all the males of the family, God transformed a widely used social rite of passage symbol into a visible mark of belonging now no longer tied to personal achievements like battlefield wins or hunting success, but merely to the gracious goodness of God, and participation in the divine mission.

Romans 4:13-25
At the conclusion of his third mission journey, Paul arrived in Corinth, either late in 53 or early in 54, and stayed three months with his friend Gaius (Acts 19:1–3; Romans 16:23). When he found that another acquaintance (and a leader in the Christian congregation located in Cenchrea, one of Corinth’s seaport suburbs) named Phoebe was making a trip to Rome (Romans 16:1), Paul quickly penned what has become the most orderly summary of early Christian theology.

Because Paul had not yet made a visit to Rome, this letter was less personal and more rationally organized than was often otherwise true. Paul intended this missive to be a working document; the congregation, already established in the capital city of the empire, would be able to read and discuss it together, in anticipation of Paul’s arrival, which was planned for some months ahead (Romans 1:6–15). Paul summarized his working theme and emphasis up front: a new expression of the “righteousness of God” had been recently revealed, with great power, through the coming of Jesus Christ (Romans 1:17).

Paul moves directly from his brief declaration about the righteousness of God into an extended discourse on the wrath of God as revealed against wickedness (Romans 1:18). Because of this, many have interpreted Paul’s understanding of God’s righteousness as an unattainable standard, against which the whole human race is measured and fails miserably. Only then, in the context of this desperate human situation, would the grand salvation of Christ be appreciated and enjoyed.

But more scholars believe that Paul’s assertions about the righteousness of God have a positive and missional thrust. In their understanding of what Paul says, it is precisely because of the obvious corruption and sinfulness in our world, which are demeaning and destroying humanity, that God needed again, as God did through Israel, to assert the divine will. In so doing, the focus of God’s righteousness is not to heap judgment upon humankind; instead, God’s brilliant display of grace and power in Jesus ought to draw people back to the creational goodness God had originally intended for them. In other words, the Creator has never changed purpose or plan. The divine mission through Israel was to display the righteousness of God so that all nations might return to the goodness of Yahweh. Now again, in Jesus, the righteousness of God is revealed as a beacon of hope in a world ravaged by evil bullies. The power of God is our only sure bodyguard against the killing effects of sin and society and self.

This more positive perspective on the righteousness of God fits well with the flow of Paul’s message. In Romans 1:18–3:20, Paul describes the crippling effect of sin. We are all alienated from God (1:18-25). But we are also alienated from each other (1:26-32), so that we begin to treat one another with contempt and painful arrogance and destroy those around us in the malice which blinds us. We are even, says Paul, alienated from our own selves (2:1-11), not realizing how tarnished our sense and perspectives have become.

We make excuses about our condition (2:12-3:20), claiming that we are actually pretty good people (2:12-16), or accusing society and religion of raising moral standards to levels that are simply unrealistic (2:17-3:4), or even blaming God for all the nastiness around us and within us (3:5-20). Yet the result is merely self-deception, and continued rottenness in a world that seems to have no outs.

Once the stage has been set for Paul’s readers to realize again the pervasive grip of evil in this world, Paul marches Abraham out onto the stage as a model of divine religious reconstruction. God does not wish to be distant from the world, judgmental and vengeful. Rather, Jesus come, the fullness of God’s healing righteousness revealed.

The story of God’s righteousness as grace and goodness begins with Abraham. God has always desired an ever-renewing relationship with the people of this world, creatures made in God’s own image. Paul describes God’s heart of love in 3:21-31, using illustrations from the courtroom (we are “justified” — 3:24), the marketplace (we receive “redemption” — 3:24), and the temple (“a sacrifice of atonement” — 3:25). Moreover, while this ongoing expression of God’s gracious goodness finds its initial point of contact through the Jews (Abraham and “the law” and Jesus), it is clearly intended for all of humankind (3:27-31).

This is nothing new, according to Paul. In fact, if we return to the story of Abraham, we find some interesting notes that we may have glossed over. “Blessedness” was “credited” to Abraham before he had a chance to be “justified by works” (4:1-11) In other words, whenever the “righteousness of God” shows up, it is a good thing, a healing hope, an enriching experience that no one is able to buy or manipulate. God alone initiates a relationship of favor and grace with us (4:1-23). In fact, according to Paul, this purpose of God is no less spectacular than the divine quest to re-create the world, undoing the effects that the cancer of sin has blighted upon us (Romans 5). It feels like being reborn (5:1-11). It plays out like the world itself is being remade (5:12-21). This is the great righteousness of God at work!

Mark 8:31-38
Every parent of young children can identify with this: a little boy was asked his name, and he replied, “John Don’t.” Sometimes it seems that parents have only “no’s!” for their little ones. “No, Sarah.” “You mustn’t do that, Matthew.” “John, don’t!”

It may sound harsh, but when we say “no” to our children it is often a matter of safety, a means of survival. We say it to keep them from falling out of a window or stepping out into a busy street or drinking poison.

Adults need “no’s” in their lives too. But for adults it is not always a matter of safety or survival. Usually, it has more to do with self-definition. To truly say “yes” in life, we must also learn to say “no.” This is Jesus’ message to his disciples. He has said no to glory to go the way of the cross for the benefit of the world and his disciples. They too, if they truly wish to follow him and call him Lord and Master and Teacher, must learn the meaning of “no” as they move toward the great “yes” of God.

Think of it. If you can’t say “no,” then you lose the power to say “yes.” If you are capable of doing anything, if there is nothing you wouldn’t do, then you have no character. Character is something we define by drawing lines, by closing off possibilities, by saying, “I am this because I am not that. I cannot be that because I want to be this.”

That is really the point of the negatives in the Ten Commandments. God is not trying to play the killjoy. God is dealing with us in grace. “Do not have any other gods before me,” God says; “if you do, you will miss the real thing your life is all about. Do not look for happiness in illicit sexual encounters; if you do, you will miss the one greatest joy of your sexuality that you could find. Do not speak an untruth, or you yourself will become a lie.”

G. K. Chesterton put it marvelously. He said that art and morality have this in common: they know where to draw the line. That is definition. That is closing some things and shutting other things out. Only when we draw lines can we develop some sense of character, some understanding of personality, some consciousness of identity.

Our religious pilgrimage often begins in places and among peoples that know no limits. One day we wake up in the slippery and enticing world where boundaries are gone. We can say “yes” to everything, and in so doing suddenly become a slave of fad and fashion. We don’t even know who we are anymore.

That is when the cry of desperation erupts from our lips: “Save me, Lord!” Grace works within limits: “no” to this and “yes” to that. Any true pilgrim will never crawl to the road toward the kingdom of God until she or he learns the power of the word “no,” a word that defines the beauty of God’s great “yes.”

Application
Time after time God initiated a restoration of relationships with humanity. All are welcome to be part of the team. As part of our latter days, in fact, God sent in Jesus to spur the team to new spiritual victories. Jesus is the expression of God’s righteousness inserted recently into our world, and the means by which we are attached to the eternal righteous endeavors of God. Jesus is the glue that binds the team together and keeps us connected both to the owner and the game.

Jesus has clearly expressed his divine power and wisdom. Enough so, in fact, that winning the real game of life means playing by a set of rules that has not been used for a long time on planet earth. It is like the “deep magic” of Aslan in C. S. Lewis’ great tale, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Most don’t understand it, but without it, the game becomes a never-ending cycle of violence in which there are only losers.

It is not self-preservation but service that counts. It is not superiority but selflessness that wins points. It is not stridency but sacrifice that finds recognition from the owner of the club. Jesus is building a team that will change the world. Unfortunately, on that day, too few people seemed willing to show up at the try-outs.

There is a scene in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring where a partnership is forged among those who would accompany Frodo on his journey to destroy the ring of power, the symbol and driving force of all that is evil. The movie version makes for a very gripping visual illustration, and the original literary text is equally as moving. What comes through as the bond that unites these creatures is a sense of selflessness. Each subsumes his will to the greater cause and trusts an unseen and transcendent good for an outcome that will bless all of Middle Earth, even if the trek itself causes the demise of any or all of the compatriots.

So it is in Jesus’ small glimpse of the mission of God. In a world turned cold to its Creator, in an age riddled by delphic oracles and temple prostitutes and emperors claiming divinity, in a little corner of geography where messianic hopes ran high, God called together a strange team to make its mark by playing a different game. These folks are part of a great divine mission of transformation. Still, many are losing nerve, getting weak-kneed, and slipping back from the light of grace into the shadows of fear and alienation. They need a great pep talk from the coach, and it resonates through the voice of scripture. “Come on, people! You started brilliantly! But you have lost heart, and you’re losing the game! Remember who you are! Remember whose you are! Get back in, and let’s see this thing through! You are winners, but you have to play the game!”

Jesus took the road to the cross, and now he calls others to join him in that same pilgrimage. The Cost of Discipleship, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted,is self-denial. The words of scripture are a strong call to that vocation, not as an end in itself or as a means to a self-help goal (like dieting), but rather as a counter-cultural missional testimony. Those who travel this road do not get to Easter without first enduring Good Friday; they do not presume a glorious outcome that gathers the media like paparazzi vultures, but sense that the journey of service brings light in darkness, hope in despair, healing for pain, and faith where power corrupts and destroys.

Alternative Application (Mark 8:31-38)
Robert Frost summarizes well the transformations of life in his famous poem “The Road Not Taken.” He writes of finding himself in a forest of trees on a glorious autumn afternoon. He was walking down a path, and there was a fork in the way. Which direction should he go? When he made his choice and picked his direction, he said to himself.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by.
And that has made all the difference.

That is true for all of us. Years ago, you chose to settle in a particular town and your decision has had lasting effects on how you understand community and neighborhoods and even race and ethnicity. You chose your course of education. Think of what you could have been if you had gone into engineering instead of medicine! But think also of who you have become because of the decision you made way back then.

You chose your friends, and they have made you into something too. You chose your spouse, you chose your house, you chose your church. And see what you have become because of it all.

Earlier decisions influence later decisions. Because you chose the career you did, you have touched people in a new way. Because you chose your friends well, you have become more friendly, more loving, more trusting. Think of what you would be like today if you had stayed in that crowd you used to run with.

And because you chose your church, you have grown in Christ. You have learned of the grace of God, of the strength of his holiness, of the joy of service and fellowship and commitment.

George Mueller’s life is a great example of this. Mueller was one of the finest persons who ever walked this earth. He set up orphanages around the world to care for the little ones who had no one else to look after them. He provided for the poor. He preached the love of Jesus, and he lived it every day.

Someone once called Mueller a success. He said, no, he wasn’t a success. He was only a servant, a servant of his Master who had loved him to life.

Well, said the reporter, how did you manage to do all you’ve done during the course of your life?

“I don’t really know,” responded George Mueller. “As I look back on my life, I see that I was constantly brought to a crossroads which demanded a choice of which way I should go.” He said that once he had started to follow in the steps of Jesus, all the rest of the decisions that came after seemed easier.

That kind of spiritual “success” begins when we hear again Jesus’ challenging call and command. What do you want out of life? Where do you hope to be ten or twenty years from now? Why do you hope to be there?

“Follow me!” It will change everything. But the outcome is the only transformation that matters.
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