Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Ps 29: A Missional Reading

   Psalm 29 announces the eternal reign of the LORD. It portrays the revelation of the LORD's power through the imagery of a thunder storm. By doing so, Ps 29 subverts the claims of the Canaanite god Baal who was the storm god. This psalm models a missional use of culture to teach the truth about reality and God using the language of Israel's religious context.
Psalm 29
Ascribe to the Lord, you heavenly beings,
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
    the God of glory thunders,
    the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
    the voice of the Lord is majestic.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
    the Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon leap like a calf,
    Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord strikes
    with flashes of lightning.
The voice of the Lord shakes the desert;
    the Lord shakes the Desert of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord twists the oaks
    and strips the forests bare.
And in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
    the Lord is enthroned as King forever.
11 The Lord gives strength to his people;
    the Lord blesses his people with peace.

Psalm 29 is a hymn of praise that serves to declare the eternal kingship of the LORD. This is a psalm of orientation. It reminds us of the power, grandeur and prestige of God. It uses imagery drawn from its ancient Near Eastern context. It uses the imagery of creation and a thunderstorm. This language evoked feelings of awe for its original readers because it touched on core elements of Ancient Near Eastern religious thought. We need to read between the lines to hear its rich message in our 21st century world.

In Israel’s day, all nations worshiped and served different gods and goddesses. One of the key ways of demonstrating the power of a god or goddess was through stories of the gods controlling and shaping creation. If a god had power over creation, this god could claim to be the true King. Another important element to show a God’s strength was the ability to create and sustain life. Rain was central to the well being of ancient people who depended on rainfall for the growing of food. For the ancient Canaanites, one of the most powerful gods was Baal. If you read through the Old Testament, Baal is one of the foreign deities that God’s people often turned to during times of apostasy (e.g., 1 Kings 18:20–40). Baal was the Story god and thus served as a god of fertility. The rain that he sent fertilized the earth and brought forth crops for the ancients.

In Psalm 29, the psalmist draws on language that is similar to the type of images associated with Baal and other similar gods. But there is one major difference. This is a psalm that declares boldly that it is the LORD who is the true king.

As we’ve been reading through the laments of Book 1 of the Psalter (Pss 1–41), we’ve repeatedly read prayers for protection from enemies. As part of these prayers, the psalmists have proclaimed their own integrity, devotion, and commitment to the LORD. We need to read these statements of integrity against the competing religions of the day. If the psalmists had lost their trust in the LORD, it would not mean that they would have become atheists as some do in our day. Instead they would have turned to some other god or goddess—perhaps the god or goddess of the people who were oppressing them.
Psalm 29 works against this by subverting the claims of competing gods. The Scriptures declare that the LORD is incomparable to any other god and in fact by the time of Isaiah the prophets declared of the LORD, “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other” (Isa 45:22). Yet the false worship of idols continued in Israel. Psalm 29 thus uses imagery that others used to worship Baal and shifted the language to make it about the LORD. The psalmist does this to lift up the LORD as our true source of security in the world. He is King. He alone can be trusted with our lives. 

Commentary on Psalm 29

Psalm 29 unfolds in three movements: vv. 1-2 is an invitation to the hosts of heaven to worship the LORD, vv. 3–9 describes the coming of the LORD in a storm, and vv. 10–11 contains God’s blessing on God’s people.

Psalm 29:1–2 exhort the hosts of heaven to give the LORD the honor due his name and worship him in all of his splendor. Psalm 29 begins not with God’s people on the earth but with the beings in the presence of God in his heavenly courtroom. We saw a similar exhortation in Ps 148:1–2. The scope of the worship implied in Ps 29 will be all inclusive: everyone everywhere will grant the LORD the honor and glory due his name.

The imagery for the LORD is majestic and emphasizes his overall awesomeness. The phrase “splendor of his holiness” emphasizes distinctiveness of the LORD as ethically perfect, the one who stands above and beyond creation, and who acts rightly in all circumstances.

Verses 3–9 give the basis for this call to praise. In these verses, the coming of the LORD is portrayed through the imagery of a powerful thunderstorm that is roaring and coming off the sea toward the temple. The thunder is likened to the voice of the LORD. It shatters the silence and echoes out across the waters. In the ancient world, the waters of the sea represented a chaotic and destructive force. Here the LORD’s voice in the thunder demonstrates God’s superiority over all other forces (vv. 3-4).

In verses 6–9a, the voice of the LORD subdues and strikes mighty trees, nations, and deserts. All of the place names in these verses stand outside of Israel proper. The implication is that the LORD is not merely the true King of Israel, but is indeed the King of all Creation. The storm imagery is vivid. Imagine the most severe thunderstorm you’ve experienced and feel the power of the language here as the psalmist helps us to feel coming of the LORD.

Verse 9b gives the only fitting response to the awe-inspiring arrival of the LORD in the storm. All who have gathered cry out, “Glory!” Glory is the perceived awesomeness and weightiness of God’s presence. It is an acknowledgement of God’s greatness and our smallness in his presence. It is the feeling that we get when we stand before a majestic mountain or a huge waterfall or come other wonder of the world.

Verses 10–11 make explicit the message of the storm imagery. The LORD is King of Creation and rules forever. The earth is secure for God’s people. The LORD strengthens them and extends his blessings to them.
This psalm invites us to ground our security in the knowledge and assurance that the God of Creation is alive and well. He sustains our world, but more importantly for us as we seek to live faithfully, he promises to sustain us as we journey through this world on mission.   
© 2016 Brian D. Russell  

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Mission and Holiness

In 1 Corinthians 9:19-22, the Apostle Paul describes his method of reaching the Mediterranean world with the Gospel.

NRSV 1 Corinthians 9:19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.

Paul describes an outreach strategy that modern thinkers would describe as contextual or indigenous. Paul worked to offer Christ to persons in terms of their own culture and thinking. Paul’s encounter with Greeks on Mars Hill is a classic example of this strategy. Paul’s conversation with a group of people on the Areopagus is recorded in Acts 17:16-34. He uses one of the Athenian’s own religious altars—one ascribed “To an Unknown God” as a vehicle for the proclamation of the good news about Jesus. In other words, Paul attempted to use some aspect of his target audiences own culture and belief system as a starting point or doorway into a conversation about Jesus Christ.

At least on the surface, most of us gravitate toward Paul’s strategy of “becoming all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” If we wish to live an evangelistic and missional lifestyle, there is much to learn here. This is a key element to learning to speak human.

For me, there is a key question: How does one embody such a mission strategy and stay true to the Gospel? Common answers such as, “I just follow Jesus” (though true) do not quite cut it because they are overly simplistic. In order to be the sort of persons who can follow in the footsteps of Paul and his co-workers (let alone the footprints of Jesus), we need to be profoundly touched by God. We need to be so rooted in God’s character that we are capable of adapting ourselves to new challenges, structures, and circumstances without losing the substance of who we are in Jesus. This means that deep character is more important than surface character.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The clothes make the (wo)man.” In my thinking, this is completely backwards. If we want to be adaptable so that God can use us to reach the many, then we need to embody an ethos in which “the man [or woman] makes the clothes.”

This is not easy. It is even dangerous. In fact, Paul immediately follows up the above text with two strong warnings:

1) Paul uses an athletic metaphor to describe the seriousness of the danger:
NRS 1 Corinthians 9:24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25 Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27 but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.

Those of us who wish to reach out with God’s love to all persons need to realize the level of commitment necessary. Just as the athlete must continue her or his training to stay on top, so must we who follow Jesus be intentional and consistent in the nurturing our own relationship with God. To be an elite athlete requires a commitment to a training regimen that empowers the athlete to improve performance over time.

2) Then, in chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians, Paul reminds his readers of the unfaithfulness of Israel despite the fact that the Israelites were eyewitnesses of incredible acts of God.

The lesson is clear: our past history with God is no guarantee of our future faithfulness. Reflecting on Israel’s past tendency to be unfaithful in spite of God’s faithfulness, Paul warning in 1 Cor 10:14 “If you think you are standing strong, be careful that you don’t fall.”

The conclusion is this: our own personal holiness cannot be separated from the mission that God calls us to fulfill. Character matters. When the character of Jesus truly resides in us, we can adapt ourselves to new contexts and God will use us to reach others who desperately need the good news that is found only in Jesus. If we follow Jesus boldly, he will lead us into the darkest places in the world so that we can serve as light as Jesus shines through us.

1) How adaptable am I to new situations?
2) Am I more likely to be influenced by culture or to influence the culture for good?
3) What habits do I keep that help to nurture my soul and replenish me so that I am ready to reach out and serve others?
4) Reflect on your own understanding of the relationship between a missional lifestyle and personal holiness.

© 2006 Brian D. Russell, Revised 2016.

My latest book (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World offers reflections on how to read Scripture in light of God's mission to bless all people.