Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Restoration: Salvation Defined (Part 1)

November 30, 2014

Well, you've heard the saying "better late than never," right? It could be applied to the Parousia (i.e. the Second Coming of Christ) just as easily as to this blog entry. "Sacrilegious," you say? Perhaps a little, but in the Spirit of Christ, please forgive me! My telos (that's Greek for "goal") was to have this blog posted by Monday, immediately after the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist while the body and blood of the Lord Jesus were as fresh on my mind as in my mouth (albeit communion wafers aren't all that fresh, but I digress). All things considered however, I guess Tuesday is as good a day as Monday to reflect theologically and if I may say eucharistically on the assigned readings for the First Sunday of Advent.

I can't help but laugh a little as I draw the parallel between my blog being a day late (and a dollar short, sorry but I couldn't resist the pun) and the apparent lateness of the Lord's return. Of course, the season of Advent is primarily celebrated by many if not most congregations as a time of preparation for the Christ child, the "Word made flesh" who dwelt among us through the mystery of the Incarnation (John 1:14). In all honesty however, I fear catering to a consumerist culture has far more to do with this emphasis than theological conviction. Isn't it true and don't the lectionary readings teach us that the season of Advent is just as much about looking back to the Incarnation as looking forward to the Second Coming?

Many grand doctrines are celebrated during the season of Advent including the human condition and its need for vast improvement (theological anthropology), the great hope that vast improvement is indeed on the way and in fact has already begun (eschatology), and best of all the eschatological agent of change we hope for is none other than Jesus our Lord and Savior (Christology). But what good is talk of a Savior without a grasp of salvation (soteriology)? Just what does it mean to be saved? This is the great soteriological question and we find its answer in the readings from the First Sunday of Advent.

Personally, I like to begin with the psalm because it sets the tone of prayer conducive to a Spirit-filled interpretation (biblical hermeneutics) and drawing out of the text (exegesis). Psalm 80 has a clear soteriological theme held together by the following litany:
“Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (v. 3).
“Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (v. 7).
“Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (v. 19).

I added emphasis to draw the reader's attention toward both the rising urgency and intimacy invoked with each successive petition, “LORD” being the common transliteration of God's covenant name. Notice that to “restore” is inextricably linked with if not synonymous to “be saved.” Secondly, notice use of the corporate "us" and “we” as opposed to the individual “I” or “me.” The psalmist begins by commemorating the national crisis during the time of Joseph when famine (i.e. the loss of sufficient food supply) literally threatened the children of Israel with death.

Juxtaposed to the recalling of a very real famine, the psalmist metaphorically describes the people struggling under the weight of God 's purported wrath:
“You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves” (vv. 5-6).

The English Standard Version (ESV) of verse 6 is even more poignant in its description:
“You make us an object of contention for our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves.”

The psalmist here describes what we today know all too well: the shame of objectification. Though we are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God our Creator, neighbors and enemies alike often treat us as mere objects to either amuse or abandon as they see fit. We often lose the experienced reality of having been formed in the image of God. This lost reality is in dire need of restoration not just for us as individuals but for the human race in its entirety.

To make matters worse, adding insult to injury, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that we ourselves are not completely innocent in relationship to God and neighbor. Even our very best efforts “and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” (Isaiah 64:6). However in the verse directly preceding this infamous (proof)text, we learn an interesting fact concerning the doctrine of sin:
“But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (Isaiah 64:5b).

Popular theology tells us that our sin drives God to hide from us. Here, the prophet Isaiah teaches us the opposite is true. Because God hid, sin was the result. The psalmist understood this also and therefore implored God to “let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:3). If the hiding of God's face is an invitation for sin and our damnation (consider the things we do when we think no one is watching us), then the revealing of God's face is an invitation for righteousness and our salvation:
“For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV).
    “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”
    (Romans 8:1 ESV).

Let's face it. In our Gospel reading, Jesus paints a scary picture of the end (i.e. the Eschaton) complete with a somber warning to remain vigilant at all times (Mark 13:24-37). As God's soon coming agent of eschatological hope, Jesus' warning must not be taken lightly. However, as one who received revelation from the risen Christ in a way that none of us have ever experienced, the apostle Paul assures us “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:8-9). In fact, despite the recurring sense of shame, guilt, and God's supposed wrath, not only the apostle, but also the prophet, and the psalmist all conclude with notes of salvific hope and notions of God's ultimate acceptance (e.g. Isaiah 64:8; Psalm 80:18).

Prior to the Christ event, which begins with the Incarnation, we too may sometimes cry out to God with the psalmist, “You have fed us with the bread of tears, and given us tears to drink in full measure.” But our gracious Host the Lord Jesus Christ calls us to a very different meal and a different confession altogether:
“[A]nd when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me'
For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" 
(1 Corinthians 11:24-26 ESV).

Starting from the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms down through the apostolic witness of the New Testament, the eschatological hope of Advent is held high as an open-ended invitation to a never-ending celebration of humanity's final redemption. All are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb! The supper may seem to be off to a late start but the Second Coming of Christ is as sure as the Incarnation. The “time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” is at hand (Acts 3:21). Remember, better late than never!

Readings were selected according to the Revised Common Lectionary. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). Other Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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