Wednesday, October 30, 2013

This week's lesson: atonement

Most theories of the atonement begin with two facts:
  • There is something wrong with us.
  • But God's love makes it right.
And as you study this week's lesson, you will need to remember both facts.
Unless you're Eastern Orthodox, after all, you probably think of the atonement in one of two ways:
  • Christ's death pays the price for our sins.
  • Christ's death shows how much God loves us.
The first view was developed by Anselm; the second by Abelard.
The first is often called "the Satisfaction Theory of Atonement," while the second is often called "The Moral Influence Theory."
The first says atonement is external and objective, i.e. God acts to change our status with Him so that we are declared righteous (even though we're not); the second says it is internal and subjective, i.e. we are transformed by our knowledge of God's love until we are "safe to be saved."
Unfortunately, the first raises questions about the way God makes things right . . . while the second tends to downplay the fact there's something wrong with us.
  • Unless we're careful, after all, Anselm's "Satisfaction Theory" can easily turn God into a monster -- a heavenly child abuser who forgives us only because He can punish Jesus.
  • Unfortunately, Abelard's "Moral Influence Theory" makes it all too easy to trivialize our sins -- to view them as honest mistakes of ignorance that are easily set right with a little help from Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories.  
In short, both views are models of the atonement -- and like all models, they achieve clarity only by leaving out certain facts.
That's why both views of the atonement are so popular -- and both views may be needed by you (and your Sabbath School class).
If you're naturally brash and confident, for instance, then you may want to remember the great strength of Anselm's theory, i.e. there really is something wrong with us.
But if you tend to worry and fret about your relationship with God, then remember the great strength of Abelard's theory, i.e. God's love really does make everything right.
Yes, brash or fretful, confident or fearful, you still need the atonement . . . 
Whatever that atonement may be.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

This week's lesson: the sanctuary

Let's talk about the power of 30.

By the age of 30, after all, your taste in music is pretty-much set for life -- if you're not listening to rap or grand opera by that age, in other words, then you're probably not going to start.

Likewise with smoking. Getting a tattoo. Learning to drive stick-shift.

Or following God.

Yes, some people make that choice much later in life -- sometimes, much, much later. (Our church once baptized two sisters in their 90s, so I know it happens.)

But studies suggest that most people make that decision in their teens . . .

And studies also suggest that, once we've made that decision, then our view of God doesn't change all that much. No, we tend to stick with the same-old answers to the same-old questions, just as we listen to the same-old "Golden Oldies" on the radio.

But when Stephen spoke to the Sanhedrin about the sanctuary . . .
  • He didn't talk about its presence in the center of the camp as a symbol of God's immanence.
  • He didn't talk about the Most Holy Place as a symbol of God's transcendence.
  • And he certainly didn't spend a lot of time explaining the symbolism of the lamps, the basins, the altars, and the Table of Shewbread.
No, his focus was on the fact that it moved -- that it stayed with God's people every step of the way to the Promised Land.
In much the same way, God moves with us through life. 
  • When we are 13, He leads us through all the issues of adolescence.
  • When we are 45, He leads us through all the issues of middle-age.
  • And if we should live to be 97, then we can be sure that God will lead us through all the issues that come with that age.
In short, God is not frozen in time; He is not locked in to one, particular stage of our lives . . . anymore than His sanctuary was locked in to one particular place on this earth.
No, the sanctuary moves.

So do we.
And so does God.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

This week's lesson: sacrifice

I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? (Psalm 50:9-13, NIV)
Most gods work like a vending machine.

Not the God of Israel.

Yes, most gods make you pay for what you get – an attitude embodied in the Latin phrase, "DEO ET DES" (i.e. "I give so that you might give").
  • Want a good grade on tomorrow's exam? Then you need to offer some flowers to the god of wisdom.
  • Need a sunny day for tomorrow picnic? Better light a candle for the god of weather.
  • Starting a new business? Drop a twenty in the offering plate, promise you'll pay tithe, make a big pledge to the church's building fund . . . 
And you'll discover that you can't buy God's help – not at any price.

You see, God doesn't need anything from us: not our money, not our time, not Special K loaf we brought to the last church potluck. 

What's more, God doesn't get anything from us that didn't come from Him -- and that includes our money and time (though I'm not entirely sure He's responsible for the Special K loaf).

Finally, anything we give back to God is infinitely outweighed by the gift He's already given us: the gift of Himself through Jesus Christ. 

In short, God takes this whole idea of sacrifice, and turns it upside-down.

He's not a vending machine, in other words.

No, He's a loving Father – a loving Father with a pocketful of quarters . . .

And He'd love to spend them on us.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

This week's lesson: "Heaven" on earth

Imaginary numbers are real.

And if you're like me, then this is where algebra started to get weird.
  • I mean, ordinary numbers (as in 1, 2, 3, 4) made sense.
  • Negative numbers (as in -1, -2, -3, -4) made sense.
  • The idea that ordinary numbers had square roots (as in the square root of 4 is 2) made sense.
  • But the idea that negative numbers had square roots called imaginary numbers (as in the square root of -4 is 2i) . . . 
Okay, that didn't make sense -- but it was useful. Even if I couldn't picture imaginary numbers, in other words, I could still use them to solve problems . . . and in that sense (at least), I was happy to call them "real."

Unimaginable, but real.

In much the same way, it's difficult to understand just exactly what The Adult Sabbath School Quarterly means by its insistence on "the physical reality of the heavenly sanctuary" -- and any attempt to do so quickly gets bogged down in questions of where this sanctuary is located, how it was made, and is there a souvenir stand nearby where you can buy postcards and chocolate.

Yes, the heavenly sanctuary is unimaginable.

But just like those imaginary numbers, it's still useful.

It's a sanctuary, remember. As such, it reminds us that "God has pitched His tent among us" -- and as such, it provides a useful metaphor for God's presence in Creation, the Tabernacle, the Temple, the Incarnation, and the Church.

Then again, it's a heavenly sanctuary -- and as such, it reminds us that God's presence does not depend on these things. No, Creation may disappear. The Tabernacle may be replaced. The Temple may be destroyed. Jesus may be caught up into heaven. And the Church may sorely disappoint us . . . but God is still with us; His sanctuary still remains.

In short, the heavenly sanctuary is real . . .

At least for some values of "real."

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

This week's lesson: the heavenly sanctuary

This is not heaven.

If we get nothing else from this week's lesson, it's the fact that God does not have a local address -- no, there is no place in all Creation to which you could point and say, "There, that's where He hangs out when He's not on the job."
That's because God made the Universe -- it's His creation . . . and asking where God lives in our Universe is like asking where L. Frank Baum lives in the Land of Oz. ("Does he have an apartment in the Emerald City -- or maybe an estate out in Munchkinland?")
And yes, we can talk about the incarnation, and the tabernacle, and the Temple in Jerusalem -- but for now, let's nail down the simple fact that we don't need to go any place special in order to find God.
Which is another way of saying that we can find God any place. 
No matter where we might be in all this creation, in other words, we won't be in heaven.
But no matter where we are, we can go there from here.