the god’s aren’t angry [synopsis]

14 11 2007

Below is my attempt to piece together my notes from Rob Bell’s talk a few nights ago.  Hopefully it provides a somewhat coherent translation of his message:

The stage is bare, except for a large replica of a stone altar in the center, lit by a single spotlight.  The lights dim, opera music begins to play, and Rob steps out on stage.  After a welcome of applause from the audience, he begins with, “So there’s this cavewoman…”

He begins to talk about how she noticed a plant outside her cave, and it bears fruit that she is dependant upon.  The cavewoman also notices (over a year or a million) that this plant is affected by forces outside of its control, that when it rains it seems to do well (although too much could wash it away) and that when the big ball of fire in the sky is too hot, the leaves tend to dry up.  Sometimes the plant produced an abundance of fruit, and at other times it was fruitless.

The cavewoman is married to a caveman, and the caveman hunts.  When he comes back and sits around the fire with the other men he went hunting with, they tell stories of the hunt.  And common themes begin to arise from within the stories.  Sometimes the animals they hunted were easy to hunt down, as if they were willing to be caught.  Others were more elusive, and escaped.  However, in all these situations, there were forces involved that were beyond the hunters’ control: sometimes a hunt was short, at other times they took days.  Sometimes the hunt was plentiful, other times they came back empty-handed.

The cavewoman also noticed that there was a ball of light in the sky at night, one that seemed to oppositely correlate with the ball of fire during the day.  And this ball of light seemed to have rhythms and cycles-it would wax and wane.  The cavewoman also noticed that, in rhythm with the moon, her body also experiences regular cycles.  And at various times she and the caveman were drawn together through rhythms and cycles, and at times that act brought about within her a new life, and like the plant that sprouted and grew outside her cave, so this new life sprouted and grew within her.  And so the cavewoman and caveman and their descendents lived and produced and depended on these cycles and forces that were out of their control.

Eventually these forces (like the wind and rain and drought) took on personalities, were given human habits and natures, and eventually were given names.  Through various cultures and times and places, these forces eventually took on the shape of gods and goddesses in the ethos of earth’s peoples and cultures.

And when these gods seemed to become angry (through drought or famine or natural disaster), people would take a portion of their crops and offer them to the gods, hoping to appease them and prove their thankfulness.  These offerings often occurred on high places like the tops of hills and mountains and plateaus, because it was believed that the gods and goddesses were far from us.  It was understand that what made them deity was the fact that they were so utterly different from humans-they didn’t dwell with people or talk with people or even really care about people all that much.  And so to get ‘closer’ (more in proximity than relationship) with the deities of the weather and crops and fertility and keep them happy, altars would be built in high places and upon them portions of crops were burned and offered.

But the alter had a flaw: what if you lack crops because of a draught?  Because of the circumstances, you already have less than you normally would, and your survival is already in a precarious situation.  But now the gods and goddesses seem angry with you, so you sacrifice and offer more of your crop than normal because you must not have offered enough last time.  So you offer a portion of your crops when things are going well, and then you offer more when they’re not, and then when things don’t get better, you offer even more…until you have hardly enough to survive on through the next season.  You need to keep offering more to appease the gods, but not you’re running out of food.  And this is the problem with the alter: it produced a profound sense of anxiety.  You never knew where you stood with the gods.

So the people began to sacrifice that which was most valuable to them (their own children) in hopes that they could show their devotion to the gods.  Surely they would appreciate the sacrifice of our first born child?  And so this became a common practice in various cultures at various times.

Now in the Biblical book of Genesis (chapter 12) we find the beginning of the story of Abraham.  And Abraham hears from God.  Which is huge.

At this time and place in history, everyone understood that you didn’t hear from gods-there were detached from this place.  But the Hebrew people tell this story about a man named Abraham and a god who is one, and is the one who created all things.  He is the Creator god.  And this god interacts with humans in their time and space.

This God tells Abraham to leave his father’s household.  Back then this didn’t just mean your father’s physical house-the roof and four walls you’ve been living within.  Your father’s household meant your father’s worldview and explanations of how the world works, his beliefs and his gods and his idols.  And this God who interacts with humans tells this one human to leave all of that. 

This God invites this human, Abraham, into something different.  Something new.  This concept was completely groundbreaking for its day.

And this Voice grows in power and stature in the life of Abraham.  In chapter 22 of the book of Genesis this God asks Abraham to offer his child, his firstborn son.  And this isn’t anything earth-shattering for Abraham, it’s not some random request for him to do something that has never been done before, because this is a common practice at the time.  So Abraham takes his son and he climbs a mountain to find a ‘high place’ and he is about to offer his son to appease this god, but God steps in and tells Abraham to stop, and then to look over into a bush where Abraham finds a ram, which he then substitutes as the offering.  So the story ends, and this is the beauty of it, with the God who provides.  In Sumarian culture (from which this story was birthed) this is a complete switch-up in events.  It was completely and absolutely unexpected.

It offers the possibility of a whole new world.  Instead of us providing, it’s a God who provides for us. 

Next in the Bible is the book of Exodus, which is a story about Abraham’s descendants (now called the nation of Israel) that have been freed from slavery by the nation of Egypt, and they spend decades in the wilderness learning a new way to be human.

Then we have the book of Leviticus, which is basically a compilation of detailed instructions on how to kill things properly for God.  We hear this and we think, “How primitive.  How barbaric.”  But in this age, you never knew where you stood with the gods, and the book of Leviticus starts with: “Come near, do this, and you and God are okay.”  God wasn’t distant-he invited you to draw near.  And then you went through the ritual and action of a peace offering…and then there was a celebration.  But even the idea of the sin and guilt offerings were completely revolutionary for their day.  The fact that you could go and make peace and reconciliation between yourself and someone you had done wrong to?  Unheard of at that time.

And so this system grew into a machine, with the alter and the Temple and the priestly courts and their bi-weekly rotations.  This huge system developed, and it was all centered around the idea that by performing sacrifices, this is how you know God.  And the sacrificial system was fostered by the priestly system and a group of Jews called the Sadducees, and money and religion became deeply intertwined.  Because when people came to offer their sacrifice, a portion of that was given to the priests and Sadducees, and so they accumulated great wealth and position.  And so at this time, around 2,000 years ago, the masses are starving…yet the Sadducees are living in villas and surrounded by opulence and wealth.  It is this huge massive system that is now oppressing the very people it claims to save.

And then this Rabbi shows up from a rather obscure area, and in the midst of this entire system, in the middle of the Temple courts, he proclaims that “one greater than the Temple is here.”  This Rabbi, named Jesus, insisted that there was this new reality (he called it a ‘kingdom’) and that it was the next thing, and that it was greater than the current system.  “There’s this new thing happening…”  And so he takes whips and cords and he drives out the money changers from the Temple, from this place of sacrifice, and this act is incredibly symbolic, telling everyone that God is no longer with this system.  He even claims that if people would destroy the Temple, he would rebuild it in three days.”  Some people missed his point, that an end was coming to the Temple system and that he was bringing a new thing.

But the current system had a vested interest in continuing, and now Jesus is a threat to its existence.  So those who are profiting from it have him killed.  And so Jesus raises all sorts of questions, like:

“Does your god like bloodshed and violence?  What kind of god is your God?”  Every time he is tempted to fight violence with violence, he refuses.  Instead of taking up the sword, he commands his followers to put theirs away.  Instead of fighting back against Rome, he sacrifices his own life.  See, Jesus is offering something new in the realm of mankind, and if he were to resort to violence, it wouldn’t be anything new…it would just be reverting back to the old ways.

Now there was this guy by the name of Vincent Donovan and he was a missionary to the Masai people in sub-Saharan Africa.  This group of people is known for being the most resistant to outside beliefs and forces in the world, and he went to live with and among them.  But as he went from group to group and family to family, he noticed this one person standing on the edge of the village, watching.  And as he went to the next village, he noticed the same person, always standing away from everyone, always watching.  Finally, Donovan approached this man and asked why he was always at the edge of the village and apart from everyone else.  The man replied that he had been shunned and cut off from his people for something he had done.  Donovan asked him why he didn’t come back.  The man said: “We do not have a path back into the community for what I’ve done.  That sort of thing does not exist among our people.”

That still happens, doesn’t it?  People find themselves on the edge of the village, not welcome or allowed back in.  Not accepted.  We have the same old gods…only the names have changed.

The first Christians wrestled with Jesus’ sacrifice from within the framework of the Temple system.  This was their tradition and heritage, it was how they knew that they could know God, and so they had to view Jesus’ sacrifice from within that scope.  And the author of the book of Hebrews took it to new levels, saying that “he appeared at the culmination of the ages…”  Basically, that Jesus and what he did signified a turning point in human history.  She also went on to say that the purpose of his sacrifice was “to do away with sins,” that it was for the purpose of reconciliation, “making peace with all things.”

God has acted to make peace.  It’s already been done.  And so the new Christians simply invited people to trust this new reality, this thing that already was.  For them, it wasn’t about four easy steps…it was about peace that has already been made, and we just need to trust it.  Something has happened in the way the world works.  For the New Testament writers it’s all about a new way to understand things, and it’s not a list.  It’s already been done!

So this all brings us to the nature of religion:

What about the shedding of blood?  The author of Hebrews says that it is “impossible for blood to take away human sins.”  It never actually did anything.  There was nothing magical about it.  Psalm 50, Micah 6, Hoseah…God doesn’t want bloodshed.  So the author of Hebrews says that the shedding of blood, that entire process, was never for God…it was for us.  Because we need symbols.  We need tangible exercises and rituals to understand things.  Rituals help us believe truths and deal with the anxiety and shame that prevents us from knowing where we stand.  So the whole system was for our benefit, not God’s.

What, then, is repentance?  We tend to say, “Just repent, and then do this…”? 

But that’s not it.  Repentance is what happens when your eyes are opened to what has already been done at the culmination of the ages.  And it’s followed by joy.  You are invited to celebrate it!

The purpose of a ritual, then, is to open our eyes and tap us into the peace that was already made in Christ.  If it doesn’t, then it’s not Christian. 

What opens your eyes to the reconciliation and New Day of God?  Is it prayer?  Is it taking a walk?  Whatever it is, it’s a ritual that opens our eyes and keeps us tapped into that.

Now there are some who say that with Jesus, the entire sacrificial system is long-gone, that it’s history and has nothing to do with us anymore.  But the New Testament writers don’t say that.  They don’t do away with the system, they re-appropriate it…in the form of doing good for others.  One writer by the name of Paul says to spend yourself in doing good, that in that way we become a living sacrifice.  Basically, this is what reconciliation looks like when it takes on flesh and blood.

Rob then tells the story about people in his community and church.  One woman he knew was left by her husband, because he wanted to spend more time with his girlfriend than her.  She was left with their four children.  She now had to raise them, house them, take care of them…but couldn’t do it now that she was on her own.  One evening a couple from the church dropped by and asked if they could take her for a drive.  She said sure.  The drove for a short while, and then pulled into the driveway of an unfamiliar house.  Then they asked her: “Can we take you on a tour of the house we just bought you?”

One of his neighbors is a lady that always seems to be in tune with what’s going on around her and in the neighborhood.  A few weeks ago she was sitting out on her porch, and she noticed a lady coming down the street, pushing one shopping cart in front of her and pulling one behind her, with a couple children holding onto each.  The carts were full of basic household goods and appliances.  Rob’s neighbor could just let her go by, she had to enter into this somehow, so she asked the woman with the shopping carts, “What are you doing?”  The woman said she was moving from their place on 3rd Street over to another place on 11th.  Rob’s friend handed the woman her car keys.  “Here.  Use my car to move.”  A few hours later the woman came back with her keys.  As she handed them to the neighbor, she said, “Thank you.  No one has ever trusted me with anything before.”

And a few years ago, Rob was having lunch with a good friend and talking about how busy he was and that everything was just wearing him thin.  His friend said, “You know, you don’t have to live like this.”  Rob said he knew, and then continued to talk about just making it through the next couple of months and then things should get better, he just needed to…

“You don’t have to live like this.”

Yeah, I know…I just have these next few weeks to finish up…

“You don’t have to live like this.”

His friend just kept saying it.  “You don’t have to live like this.”  Rob realized later that his friend was fighting for him when Rob couldn’t fight for himself.  He was reminding him that peace had been made.  Reconciliation is here.  And in all of these instances (and more), this is what it looks like in time and space, flesh and blood.

Peace has been made between all things on heaven earth. 

Our God is love.

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One response

13 07 2008
Daniel Korol

Thanks alot!

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