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.
Systematic theology is intended as a helpful exercise. It helps us make sense of complicated ideas. It helps us to articulate some of the thinking that has taken place over the centuries. Yet, no matter how well we categorize our thoughts, it remains that God revealed his news to us through the complicated stories of saints and sinners. Since we are removed by time from these events, it is sometimes tempting to remove the news from the original contexts in an effort to understand it more accurately.
This can result in a topics approach to theology that can be helpful yet is still artificial. We can state with some confidence that the bible does not take a topics approach. It is a collection of experiences that tell how salvation entered history and the different ways it looked at different periods of the history. On account of that, the bible cannot be interpreted faithfully in a vacuum. It is not intended to be read in laboratory conditions. The fact remains we will be most faithful when our theology continues to have some rough edges.
To state the obvious, preaching from Joshua is a challenge. Especially for churches from pacifist traditions. Joshua is full of war. It is aggressive. It is violent. And God is involved in it. That makes Joshua an invitation to participate in a difficult conversation. Preaching Joshua should allow for feelings of disagreement but the text must be taken seriously. Preaching Joshua includes the temptation to make the text more acceptable or to force it into saying something that matches our presuppositions. Or even to dismiss portions of the text.
There are parts of this narrative that pull us into the story. Although violent, Joshua is adventurous. Partnership in warfare is not the usual way God intervenes. However, in Joshua we cannot walk over it, cannot go under it, and cannot walk around it. We must walk through it. Joshua must be seen in its place in the biblical storyline. Such warfare may not be found in other parts of the story, but it is here and we cannot pretend it is not.
Joshua is like an arena that hosts a contest involving text and listener. We struggle between rational thinking vs. faith in God. We struggle with violent warfare vs. worshipful celebration. There may even be a sense of preacher vs. God. We would do well to reread the encounter at 5.13-15 before we preach, regardless of the text for the day. Far too often, preachers have come up with a plan and afterward asked that God endorse it. We may be tempted to enter the situation asking whether God is for us or against us. The text is clear this is the wrong question. The right question is “Whose side are we on?”
Preaching Joshua will leave us with unresolved questions. But we can be certain about this God who demonstrates strength and salvation through strange strategies. Joshua makes us aware of the reality of God.
Ultimately, preaching Joshua takes us to the question, “Who will you serve?” This is the conclusion of the book. After 23 chapters of following this God through the Jordan River at flood stage, circling the city of Jericho, and wandering deeper into the promised the land, we know the correct answer. Joshua reviews what this God has already done, the answer seems obvious. Yet preaching Joshua admits it is difficult to be a disciple. It is to admit out loud that to serve the Lord is not an easy decision. This is the most serious of questions “Who will you serve?” This is where things become difficult. “We will serve the Lord” we say. And the preacher replies “No you can’t do it.” We insist we can and face a challenging future. Other gods are easier to serve. Other kings easier to follow. Allegiance is a difficult decision to make.
Preaching Joshua is to preach about discipleship. To serve the Lord means you cannot serve other gods. You cannot have a foot in two different kingdoms. To preach Joshua is to be reminded of the words that come later from Jesus “No one can serve two masters.”
How does a story like Joshua fit into the biblical storyline? How do these pictures help form my picture of God? Parts of this story may radically affect the way I think about God or the bible or how to live my life. It is easy to think of God as Creator or Deliverer; it is more difficult to learn God is connected to the slaughter of people and the destruction of cities.
People will want to know how to worship a God who is portrayed as a ruthless warrior. It would be easier to walk around these texts but we must not forget who put them here. To avoid them is to avoid God. Perhaps these texts intend to make us feel uncomfortable. The bible does not hide these things, it proclaims them.
We sometimes act as if these were questions God does not want us to ask. Yet, it is God who keeps putting these stories in our path and inviting our questions. The text may feel judgmental. But God intends judgment for healing. God is out to heal the world. We need God’s judgment because things are not ok the way they are. The world is desperately in need of God to make things right.
We just spent the past three Sundays in the book of Judges. Talk about your dangerous territory. One never knows who will come out alive on the other side. A reader of Judges may want to turn the page with caution. Perhaps this is good reason not to enter Judges alone.
What are we to think of a text where the heroine hammers a tent peg through the temple of a sleeping military general? What are we to make of the worship song that follows? What about the strange strategies attributed to God in these texts? Would any one of us think about shrinking a once formidable army to a mere 300 soldiers before going to battle? How about waging war with trumpets and torches?
What about a story of a strong man whose secret was his hair? As long as his hair remains uncut he appears as some type of super hero. His bare hands or a donkey jawbone become lethal weapons. Yet when his hair is cut he has the weaknesses of an ordinary man. Through exploits of strength and romance, Judges tells us he intervenes on behalf of God’s people.
What are we to make of a religious text that becomes militant and destructive? Reading Judges may remind us of our tendencies to separate gore from grace, to keep hate away from love, to prevent revenge from spilling over into forgiveness. We may like to keep some things in neat little categories, yet we cannot clean up this text. Judges wants us to know all these things are part of the same story.
We may not war against the Canaanites, the Midianites, or the Philistines. We may not carry tent pegs, trumpets, or jawbones to use as weapons. We may not rely on our hair as a source of strength. Yet, we do read Judges searching for a word from the Lord. May we read it together knowing that whatever we discover on the other side – God is still with us.
To preach from Judges is to enter dangerous territory. How should one preach from Judges? How does one navigate treacherous terrain where “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17.6; 21.25). How does one take a congregation into bloody battlefields where people are actively sinning against God? Who can know who will come out alive?
It is noteworthy the period of Judges comes after the Lord has rescued His people from slavery. After the Lord has guided them into the promised land. After the people insisted “We will serve the Lord.” Still, the people abandoned the Lord to serve the gods of the land. The text tells us the people “did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel” (Judges 2.10). And so “the Lord raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them” (Judges 2.16).
What are we to do with this theological narrative history of military heroes called judges? How do these stories influence our picture of God? Some questions are easier to avoid. It is easy to picture God as a creative genius or a sacrificial giver. It is something else to read Judges. What are we to do with a text that tells us that Jael hammered a tent peg through Sisera’s temple while he slept? Sure, Sisera was the enemy but do we expect his death to become part of a worship song in the next chapter? Still people will want to know how to worship the God portrayed in Judges.
We are to enter these texts even when we do not know what will happen on the other side. Sidestepping certain texts because they are uncomfortable is a sure way to miss out on some surprising themes. These stories should not be read as an end in themselves. Though they make us uncomfortable, we read them as part of the biblical storyline. We like to categorize things like justice, judgment, punishment, grace, hope, and worship. The bible isn’t interested in such categories. It throws them all into the same story where the waters get murky but they are all part of God making things right.
Nearly everyone in society is interested in the individual. People want to sell me something to ease my pain, remove my fears, make me beautiful, make me feel better. Even Christianity is full of voices that encourage an individualistic focus. Quite frankly, I wonder if they and I are reading the same bible. The bible is clear that personal change is only a fraction of the full reality of the Gospel.
Yet, we all have heard many sermons treating the text like a manual to resolve problems or remove challenges or a guide for self-help. Such preaching not only disrespects the text but minimizes the human dilemma. This temptation should prompt us to wonder if we believe the text or have faith in the plan of God.
We would do well instead to highlight what is happening in the text and help listeners understand how each of our individual stories intersect with the stories of others. Instead of trying to remove challenges we should embrace them as opportunities to walk together through the struggle. Instead of accepting society’s desire to isolate us from one another by convincing us we can be stronger selves, we recognize individuals as being part of something bigger. Preaching should shed light on how individuals live as participants in community.
Since each of us see things through our own eyes, it is not always evident that our lives intersect with the lives of others or how they fit into the activity of God. Since these things aren’t always obvious to us, it is the duty of preaching to bring us into this territory. Preaching reveals there is more to the activity of God than strengthening the lives of individuals. Preaching pulls everyone into the place where self becomes tangled up in the lives of others and the activity of God.