Caught Up in Reckless Adventure

Systematic theology can be a helpful enterprise. A good one can help us frame biblical thought in ways to articulate what we believe with some clarity. Nevertheless it is good to ask if we tend to over emphasize our systematic theology of choice.

It is true the biblical text can feel like a reckless adventure. This is one reason we might feel the need for a systematic theology. Systematic theology makes things more predictable and helps us think we can know what happens next. On the other hand, reading the bible may have us feeling uneasy about what just happened or leave us with questions about why God acted that way. The biblical text brings surprise and leaves us with mystery.

We might feel uneasy about finding such a surprising unpredictable God. Yet this God is such a large part of the story that to tame Him with religious terms or to pretend we have Him figured out is to create an entirely different story. Still we formulate theories to explain biblical themes. While this can be full of good intention, it can come with a dangerous level of certainty. Systematic theology may bring assurance to some of us, but it does not always reflect what life looks like.

I fear our systematic theologies allow for a hermeneutic of dismissal. That is, permission to look past texts that do not support our systematic theory of choice. To gloss over any text or to force it down a particular path will only give us slivers of what the bible is actually trying to tell us. In the name of certainty and assurance we settle for slivers of God and slivers of grace and slivers of other things that matter.

Systematic theology comes with a temptation to be overly cognitive. If we can make it a thinking exercise then perhaps we will not have to behave differently. We sometimes give ourselves permission to make a verbal stand about something without demonstrating the behavior that reflects what we stand for. We can then preach holiness without being holy. We can then preach peace without being particularly interested in it. We can then preach grace as if it is something others should practice. We can then convince ourselves that to believe something and to say it out loud is more important than to change our behavior.

The bible was never intended to be a collection of proof texts to be pulled out on demand to make a case for our theories. The bible is the story of God’s mission in the world. All the text calls for is that the church will take it seriously. To become caught up in the reckless adventure that is the bible.

A Relational Adventure

We sometimes treat Paul’s letter to the Romans as if it is the apostle’s theory about gospel or his magnum opus of theological insights. Yet Romans is a letter. It is a specific word to a specific people in a specific situation. We should be reading Romans as a relational adventure.

We sometimes have treated it as if all that matters are the greatest hits. We pick the parts we like and treat the rest like b sides. We act as if the selected parts tell us everything we need to know about Romans.  “I am not ashamed of the gospel…” and “For all have sinned…” and “For the wages of sin is death…” and “All things work together for good…” and “If God is for us…” and “Offer your bodies a living sacrifice…” I think you get the idea.

Just saying, we tend to read Romans with presuppositions. We convince ourselves that here we have discovered the straight road to salvation. This is a certain way to miss out on a wild and unsettled Romans that is an important part of our adventure. I suspect this is a constant problem for the church. We spend a great deal of effort cleaning up the messy parts of the bible to convince ourselves of clear principles that do not match with the messiness of real life. This has likely caused many to decide the bible is not for them.

N. T. Wright has said that Romans “sweeps you along on a tide of extraordinary writing and glorious hope.” He also says “it plunges you not only into gloom, but into serious puzzles, knotty intellectual problems, and arguments that will make you wonder whether St. Paul is losing his balance…” I enjoy Wright’s description because it moves us toward Romans as an adventure.

Beverly Roberts Gaventa claims we tend to read it “as if we ride through Romans on one of those hop-on, hop-off tourist buses, seeing the same highlights every time…” Reading Romans this way will cause us to miss out on what Romans is saying and we will fail to see that the “metropolitan area is larger, more astonishing, and more disturbing than we imagine.”

Romans is literature that sees church and world in realistic ways, including the clumsy messes where we sometimes find ourselves. Even more, Romans highlights the significance of God’s action on behalf of the church and the world. Gaventa cautions us about the twists and turns on the path that is Romans. And she gives warning that it will take us “into a gospel far more vast than we usually imagine, and that gospel may take us places we would prefer not to go.”

A Written Sermon

I enjoy a good spy story. Perhaps that is why I am glad to spend time in the Old Testament book of Numbers. Chapter thirteen begins with the Lord speaking. Usually when the Lord speaks in an Old Testament text we are trained to expect something religious. Instead, the word from the Lord is “Send out spies.” The rest of the chapter is about the selection of spies, the completion of the spy mission, and listening to the spy report.

There is nothing like an adventure. I suspect each of us interpret adventure differently, but suspect we all enjoy adventure at some level. The story grabs us, we get caught up in the words and become convinced we are Nancy Drew solving a mystery or Huck Finn on a river raft. Some chart their own adventure, always ready to leap over the back fence with nothing but a loaf of bread and a pound of tea and a lot of adventure ahead.

Some of us wish things felt more like an adventure. Some might like to avoid adventure. Some wish our adventure was different than the one we seem to be on. But the fact is, we are all part of an adventure. We have fallen into a story and cannot get out of it. It doesn’t matter if we were looking for it or if we wanted to. We are here and we are in it.

The text from Numbers 13 knows about adventure. It starts off with a word from the Lord. This is not the word from the Lord we are expecting. Expecting something religious we instead hear “Send out spies.” Different translations use different words, “scout”, explorer.” Yet the fact is God is suggesting espionage. This is to be a recon mission.

Our text names the spies. One of them stands out from the others because of a name change. The spy named Hoshea is now called Joshua. We get the feeling there is more going on than a simple name change. Our story includes our own fragile ways and other obstacles. Our story includes a God always looking for a faithful voice in the congregation to speak against the majority opinion.

The assignment is given and carried out. At first, it appears to have been a successful mission with a positive report. A single cluster of grapes required two men to carry and there were pomegranates and figs. The grape clusters were so impressive they named the valley after them. But then… we discover the grapes are not the only thing that is large out there. The cities are large and they are fortified. The people are large, they are giants. So large they make the rest of us feel like grasshoppers. Everything seems so much larger than life.

This prompts a voice from the congregation. The spy Caleb disagrees with majority opinion. I cannot help but notice how we read Numbers thirteen as if we are Joshua or Caleb. As if we are the ones trusting in the promise of God. Wondering what is up with the other ten spies who have so many doubts. It is more likely we resemble the other ten spies. Sheer numbers suggest that is the case. Plus, it is not always easy to enter the places where God wants us to go. It is easier to choose our own place, at least choose our own timing. We would prefer to design a property to fit our own needs.

Yet God gives a particular land. A place that is not deserved or earned, it is promised and given. A place of grace. Who will enter this place? Who will realize no other place can replace what God has given? Who will hunger for the grapes of Eschol? Who will recognize that not just any grapes will do? I hope the passage reminds us we are engaged in mission. In our adventure the task is large, there are large obstacles and there are giants out there. Yet we must not forget that our story includes a God who always seems to be looking for impossible situations.

There is some temptation at verse 33 to make this a self-esteem sermon. “Don’t be a grasshopper… God wants you to take on giants…there are no mascots called the fighting grasshoppers… do not be a grasshopper… be who you were created to be.” But this is no message of self-esteem. This is a message for a doubting congregation who is trying to survive in a rational land by siding with the majority. This is a message about a God who is always looking to send people into impossible situations. This is a message calling for a faithful voice in the congregation who is willing to stand against the majority on the side of God.

When I suggest we are on an adventure I am not suggesting we start moving about under the cloak of darkness. Or that we begin seeking giants to engage in battle. Neither am I proposing adventure as a metaphor where we spiritualize obstacles and territory and responsibilities. I am saying we are on a literal adventure. One we cannot step out of if we wanted to. We are sent on an adventure where we are to cast suspicion that the way things are is not ok. We are sent to be a minority voice who is willing to side with a God of the impossible.

We cannot overlook the obstacles named in the text. They are significant, larger than life. They are real, no one denies the obstacles exist, not even the spy Caleb. The obstacles are real. There are giants in the land. But there is a real difference in the way one responds to obstacles.

In this text everything is large. The assignment is large. The fruits are large. The cities are large. Even the people are large. This is an adventure larger than life. Yet this text would have us know – nothing is larger than this God.

Preaching Against Evil Enchantment

C. S. Lewis did not preach many sermons. But one of his sermons “The Weight of Glory” has been on my mind recently. Here is an interesting portion of that sermon. “Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us…” As he is apt to do, Lewis reframes things in a way intended to make us think differently.

This has prompted me to become curious about the recent fascination to create adult versions of the stories we learned in childhood. So, Little Red Riding Hood crosses paths with a werewolf; Hansel and Gretel become witch hunters; even Snow White learns to handle weapons. It is possible the revival of fairy tales is due to a desire for once upon a time and happily ever after and magical things happening to ordinary people. It is possible we try to hang onto our youth by retelling childhood stories or have a simple longing for adventure and enchantment. Yet I cannot help but wonder if we turn to stories like these because we fear that we ourselves are under a strong spell? But I digress…

This conversation reminds me of Mark’s Gospel. There Jesus announces the Kingdom and then proceeds with an all-out assault against the power of evil. We find Jesus delivering people from demons and illness. Mark makes breaking a spell look mild as he portrays preaching the Gospel more like hostage release or a prison break. At one point, it is implied that evil is tied up in the back room while the Good News goes forth.

In keeping with this theme it is important (but not always easy) to remember that we are at odds with evil and not with the people who are bound by it. It would be contradictory to oppose the very people we desire to see set free. In fact, it might be more accurate to suggest that the primary involvement of people is that they have fallen into its trap. People have been lured, seduced, and captured by this evil enchantment of worldliness. With Lewis, we preach to break that spell. Following Mark’s lead, we preach to set people free.

Every Sermon Needs a Deliverer

We tend to think we can read texts concerning the Exodus safely, from a distance, because they were written about a past event in history and about a specific group of people. We have not been enslaved, we have not been forced to make bricks without straw nor do we wear the scars of slave camp. Yet, the text speaks clearly; there is only one means of rescue.

To overlook the role of God is to suggest things are ok as they are (Pharaoh’s policy). To preach Exodus is to do something radically different than to suggest that we can apply spiritual principles to our situations and work them out on our own. To preach Exodus is to do something radically different than to call on God to bless our current situations and schedules and possessions and lifestyle. Clearly there is no adventure in asking God to give His stamp of approval on things the way they are.

Preaching Exodus is to be reminded we cannot get out of Egypt on our own. We cannot cross the Red Sea on our own. We cannot survive the wilderness on our own. Exodus intentionally places us in unmanageable situations. Us against an opposing army. Us against hunger. Us against thirst. Us against the elements. Exodus wants us to know the severity of the situation – we are unable to survive on our own. But then, preaching Exodus is to be reminded that we are not on our own.

This is one of the great messages of Exodus. As long as the struggle includes two parties; Israel vs. Pharaoh, Us vs. the Wilderness, we find ourselves in a hopeless situation. Neither Pharaoh nor Israel took the Lord seriously. Pharaoh thought he could manage things by his power and resources. Israel thought they would die in the desert against this powerful Pharaoh. Everyone seemed to forget that there was a Deliverer. There is a little bit of Pharaoh and a little bit of Israel in all of us. Our preaching should challenge those notions. Every sermon needs a Deliverer.

Preacher as Fellow Adventurer

Preaching is not a side note to real life. It is not helpful words for those who are spiritually inclined. It is not someone who knows much standing before those who know less in order to tell them what they are unable to figure out on their own. Preaching is an invitation to a reality that is often overlooked for things louder and more profitable.

Preaching acknowledges that we are not the first to come this way. Patriarchs, prophets, and poets have walked in this place before. The path is not untraveled, but has become overgrown with thistles and burrs and desires and excesses. There is plenty of cover for predators who hunger for our soul. We are on an adventure and we walk into the text knowing there are risks both for entering it and for avoiding it.

This is dangerous terrain and we do not send people in alone. The preacher is not at the trailhead peddling maps, supplies, and offering advice. The preacher is strapping on gear and entering the wild with other adventurers. Together we search for sign and point out blazes left by those who have traveled this way before.

Preaching as Opportunity for Intervention

Many of the contexts we find in the biblical storyline are unfortunate, some even catastrophic.  Yet, the text takes us into these situations anyway.  So as readers and listeners and preachers of the text we cannot sidestep physical illness, rebellion, deceit, greed, prejudice, or rival gods.  We cannot ignore flood, famine, stoning, war, beheading or crucifixion.  All of these things are woven into the story.  Perhaps the surprising part of this is not that the text takes us straight into this territory, but that it finds these to be more opportunity than hindrance.

Our text is clearly not a feel good, be happy story.  It prefers to present reality as a place that God chooses to enter no matter the danger.  Certainly, the text portrays that there are few, if any, situations that are not opportunities for God to intervene.

Therefore, opportunities abound for preachers and not just because Sunday morning keeps rolling around.  Opportunities keep coming because the Gospel is in season no matter the circumstance.  In fact, the most challenging moments may emerge as the greatest opportunities to tell the story that helps us make sense of the world.  The God present in Eden and who intervened in the lion’s den is still interested in creation.  So pain and health, safety and danger, poverty and wealth, disaster and ordinary are all opportunities for Good News.

The biblical storyline clearly suggests that God intervenes in specific ways and places and among specific people.  This is not a text full of theories and principles, but an account that reports on the way that God has worked and where and when and in whom.  We do not want to pretend that we know everyone God will speak to, or when, or where.  Yet, we know that there are unlimited opportunities for this God to intervene.  So we keep bringing this text into our conversations, knowing that they are the perfect place for God to speak.