Lent 1

I found the material in the devotional guide, Surviving the Bible very interesting this week. Particularly the section entitled, Digging Deeper (p. 90-91).

In this section is the discussion of how God “weakens” Godself in order to relate to humanity. God does this by entering into a series of covenants by which God limits Godself in terms of what God can and, after the covenant, cannot do.

The particular covenant we read about this week is the covenant with Noah. Its fancy name is the Noahide Covenant. This is a covenant God made, not just with humanity but with the entirely of creation. As for me [God], I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you as came out of the ark. (Genesis 9:9-10) God promises never again to destroy the earth by means of a flood. Legalists might note that God only restricts Godself of one means of destroying the earth, that of a flood, and leaves open the possibility of variant destructive methods (fire, shockwave, etc). But I believe that the point of the covenant is that God will not destroy the earth, period. The sign of this promise is the rainbow.

In ancient cultures a sign of the cessation of hostilities was when a tribal chieftain would “hang up their war bow” in a gesture meant to indicate that, as far as they were concerned, the conflict is over. It is the same thing as “burying the hatchet.” God hung up God’s war bow (rainbow) in the sky as a sign that God will not make war on creation anymore. This is a pretty significant limitation of God’s power! And notice, there are no conditions! This is the point of the covenant.

More covenants will follow, the Covenant with Abraham, the Mosaic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant and finally the new covenant God made through Jesus Christ. In all of these covenants, and I believe this is the most important thing to recognize here. God purposefully weakens Godself, empties Godself of full and unlimited authority, in order to show grace and love to God’s creation.

Consider God’s willingness to be weak, to give up prerogative and advantage. We have an easier time thinking about Jesus doing this because of his humanity. But because we believe that the divine and human natures of Jesus fully share all of their experiences, (This doctrine: communicatio idiomatum guarantees no schizophrenic Jesus) whatever Jesus experiences is also the experience of God.

Central to this experience is what is known as the Kenosis or self-emptying of Jesus famously laid out in Phillippians 2:1-11. This passage is so important to understanding the absolutely central idea of Kenosis that, even though it is not one of the readings for Sunday, I will quote it in full:

2If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. 

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. 

There is more going on here than simply being humble, God consigns Godself to a voluntary weakness in order to show the fullness of God’s power in love.

It is this idea of Kenosis which will form a central piece of Martin Luther’s development of his Theology of the Cross in which God chooses to demonstrate God’s power through God’s willingness to be weak and despised. Luther will say that God is found “under the opposite” of where we would expect God to be found.

We modern people, I believe, have a real problem with this. In fact, I think it’s the biggest problem modern (read: affluent) Christianity faces.

We like that it means that God is with us when things are down for us. But there is more to it than this. The Theology of the Cross and the idea of Kenosis it is drawn from seem to imply that suffering is going to be a regular part of the lives of the faithful. And if one wants to encounter the God of Jesus Christ this is the place (situation) in which that encounter is going to happen.

Now, this may have been inescapably true in Jesus day, even in Luther’s day, but we are convinced that we should be able to avoid most kinds of suffering today, especially with all of our technology and material.

But, and this is a really important but, if we avoid suffering we avoid the cross and are, in fact, not really following Jesus. This is a really complex conversation but I believe much of modern American Christianity is, in its most popular social expressions, a rejection of Kenosis and the Theology of the Cross in favor of a theology of glory, triumph and power.

In these systems faith and discipleship are measured in: how well and swiftly any ailment, challenge or infirmity is removed, how “blessed” one is financially and materially and, how fulfilled one is in utilizing God to make their own dreams for their life come true. The national expression of this form of Christianity would likewise position the nation as God’s particularly beloved possession by virtue of its strength, influence and material wealth.

Those churches which spend a lot of time on the Book of Revelation are eager to see in that prophecy Jesus shake off his weakness and vulnerability and take up the sword of real power. In my conversations with many Evangelicals when I bring up the self-emptying Jesus of Phillippians they quickly pivot to Revelation with a statement such as, “Well, that may be how it was in Jesus first coming, but when he comes again he will come in power and (Insert your favorite whoop ass comment her).”  The whole “Left Behind” series of books was predicated on Jesus shuffling off weakness and picking up an assault rifle in a final conflagration leading to the destruction of the earth (but not by a flood!).

These books have sold millions and millions of copies, especially but not exclusively, among Evangelical Christians. Today, the “Left Behind” image of the end times is assumed to be orthodoxy and it has a profound effect on, not only people’s faith, but on national policy as it is influenced by this constituency.

And yet… this is not AT ALL what I read in Revelation. I honestly don’t know where the theologies of power applied to Jesus are derived from aside from being pieced together like Frankenstein’s monster from fragments of Scripture and wishful thinking.

Lent is all about discovering the meaning of this central injunction of Jesus, He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”(Mark 8:34) The cross is not one of any number of particular burdens we may happen find ourselves suffering with (although “bearing one’s cross” is an expression often used this way), it is the point at which God intersects most profoundly with the world. This means wherever there is suffering, injustice, cruelty, weakness and pain, etc. there is the cross, there God has chosen to be and there the followers of Jesus are called to be.

Honestly…really honestly…who wants that?

But honestly that is the consistent message of the New Testament. Of course, another equally important piece of Good News is that since our relationship to God through Jesus is based on God’s grace we don’t go out and seek suffering to merit salvation. BUT if we want to know where God is to be found at any particular time it is not in the glorious, rich and powerful but in their opposites.

This message is on fire in Africa. Christianity is growing in Africa at an amazing rate. In America and Europe…not so much.

I don’t see an end to this post coming, organically, anytime soon so I’ll just end it by asking, what are your thoughts?


  1. Nancy Centrella

    This was a good text for me. The thoughts presented are ones I have struggled with for many years. I have never felt that I had a good relationship with my mom. Not the kind of mother/daughter relationship I had hoped for.
    As she had gotten older in stead of getting better it seems to just get worse!
    Pieces of discussion which I have underlined include “giving up the notion of winning in the conventional sense”…..”God doesn’t save us from ourselves” “…”The toughest part of being part of a larger family is that, just as we raise each other up so we can tear one another down”
    The prayer for the week especially spoke to me
    “” God, remind me that Love isn’t easy or safe, but it’s always worth it”
    I hope it is worth it because I sometimes wonder why I keep going back for “more” of how I have disappointed my mom.
    I do know that it makes me more aware of the relationship I have with my own children and their families. So the pattern doesn’t continue!

    • Pastor Frey

      Sometimes the “Greatest Generation” has an easier time expressing disappointment than joy. That was my experience anyway. I say this not to judge or criticize but simply as an observation. In the text for Lent 2 (which is what I just posted on as I write this) we see this in Peter. Jesus discloses the length to which he will go to demonstrate God’s love for the world and Peter answered with a rebuke, a criticism (Mark 8:32). Jesus gives it right back to him, “Get behind me Satan.” (Ouch) But maybe Jesus is not so much counter-rebuking Peter as inviting him to get behind him because that is where a follower is to be found … following behind. Peter will abandon Jesus in the end, but even that abandonment doesn’t separate him from Jesus’ love. Jesus restores the relationship at breakfast by the sea (John 21:15-19). God’s amazing grace in Jesus has the power to restore all of our relationships, and will do so! What a gift to live in this restoring love in our relationships now instead of waiting for the world to come.

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