Every Sunday in worship we pray the Lord’s Prayer with its opening petition – “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and with its closing petition – “And deliver us from evil” – literally, “from the evil one.”
Sometimes when we are praying these words I will look up at the clearstory windows high above the sanctuary, letting my eyes drift from the front to the back, and what I see in the color progression of those windows is the reality of what I am praying. The color sequence of the clearstory windows in our sanctuary run from shades of blue in the front panel, to shades of brown in the second panel, to shades of yellow and green in the third panel, to shades of purple in the fourth panel, to shades of red in the back panel. The official explanation of the meaning of these colors and their progression in our windows is that they are an interpretation of the ministry of Christ: from the blessed beginning in the Jordan (blues), to the testing of the barren wilderness (browns), to the growth and fruitfulness of His teachings and healings (greens and yellow), to the gathering storm of His betrayal and arrest (purples), to the crisis of the cross (reds). Without words or images – in color alone – this story is told in our clearstory windows. And it is not just the story of Christ. It is our story too. With all of their infinite variations, our lives unfold through the same seasons of blessing, growth, storm and crisis. No less than Christ, we will face storms, and we will both have to survive them and make sense of them. And there is a line of interpretation that says the reason why Christ came was to confront the horrors and to conquer the chaos, a line of interpretation that I find to be particularly compelling after an event like what happened a week ago in Colorado.
Hymn #512 in our Chalice Hymnal is the Joy Patterson lyric “When Aimless Violence Takes Those We Love.”
When aimless violence takes those we love,
When random death strikes childhood’s promise down,
When wrenching loss becomes our daily bread,
We know, O God, You leave us not alone.
When passing years rob sight and strength and mind
Yet fail to still a strongly beating heart,
And grief becomes the fabric of our days,
Dear Lord, You do not stand from us apart.
Our faith may flicker low, and hope grow dim,
Yet You, O God, are with us in our pain;
You grieve with us and for us day by day,
And with us, sharing sorrow, will remain.
Because Your Son knew agony and loss,
Felt desolation, grief and scorn and shame,
We know You will be with us, come what may,
Your loving presence near, always the same.
The theological center of this hymn is “Emmanuel” (Matthew 1:23/Isaiah 7:14) – the fact that in the incarnation “God is with us.” This Biblical truth is most powerfully explored by the New Testament author of Hebrews in his discussion of why God became flesh and dwelt among us –
Christ had to be made like us, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.(Hebrews 2:17-18)
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.(Hebrews 4:14-16)
This is the first point in this line of interpretation: because of the Incarnation – God becoming flesh and dwelling among us – God “gets” it. God in Jesus Christ is not some remote and disinterested deity who has to be made aware of our circumstances and then persuaded to care about our situations. Because God became flesh – in Christ God is not “ashamed” to call us His brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11). And if this was all there was, it’s not nothing! Having an empathetic God is certainly a vast improvement over the capricious gods of the ancient world who toyed with humanity and had to be placated so as not to do us harm. If this was all that Christianity offered, then it would be enough! But there is more, much more.
You see, the Gospel tells us that not only does God come and share our troubles and sorrows; God actually does something about them. God not only sits at our bedsides and gravesides patting our hands as a compassionate friend, God in Jesus Christ rises up to challenge and defeat the powers that seek to work us woe. This is the under-recognized and under-appreciated truth of I John 3:8 –
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.
It was the 20th century Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulen (1879 – 1977) who introduced me to the concept of the “conflict motif” of the New Testament. He argued that the proper “frame” for the story that the New Testament tells is a worldview in which God’s carefully ordered creation has become dangerously disordered through the rebellion of subordinate beings. These “principalities and powers” now actively contend against God, His will and his ways. That this is so is clearly implied when we pray: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and “deliver us from evil.” It explains the temptation narratives at the beginning of each one of the synoptic gospels and all of their exorcism stories. Christ’s coming was the invasion of a rebel controlled planet and the decisive moment – the “D-Day” – of the protracted struggle between God and chaos that the Bible tells.
A more contemporary teacher of this line of interpretation is Gregory Boyd. His 1997 book God at War (IVP) is a wonderful introduction to what he calls the Bible’s “Warfare Worldview” – just another way of talking about the “conflict motif.” Gregory Boyd succinctly sets the dilemma that we who are “Biblical” in our point of view must face –
If one views the cosmos as meticulously controlled by an all-loving God, then suffering forces you to question either the genuineness of God’s love or the genuineness of evil. But if a person sees the world as a veritable battlefield, ravaged by eons of conflict between powerful invisible forces, then suffering begins in a perverse way to make sense, for this is what war looks like. (73)
And it is this idea that this world is a spiritual battlefield that Gregory Boyd so ably explores. He traces the Bible’s description of God’s conflict-with-chaos (“chaoskampf”) as one of its primary interpretive categories, and he helpfully addresses the Bible’s use of symbolic cosmic monsters who threaten to devour the world – “leviathan” and “behemoth” in the Old Testament, and the beasts of the book of Revelation in the New Testament – as ways of making sense of the painful gap between the world as God intended it and the world as we presently experience it. There are powers in the universe that have rebelled against God and that remain hostile to God. There are forces at work that threaten to “reverse creation.” And what this means is that what happened in Colorado last week is not somehow part of God’s plan, but is rather just more proof of how deranged things really are. And when the cry goes out – “Why doesn’t God do something about it?” The Gospel answer is that God has, and that God is!
A classic analogy that is often used to explain what God is doing about human suffering and the problem of pain is the distinction between D-Day and VE-Day during WW 2. The allied invasion of Europe that we know as D-Day decisively established the beachhead that determined the war’s eventual outcome, but that victory was not won until later, until VE-Day. Similarly, Christ’s first coming, just like D-Day, decisively established the foothold of God’s final victory over the chaos that threatens to reverse creation, a victory that will not be fully realized until Christ comes again – the cosmic VE-Day (I Corinthians 15:20-28). This means that we now live in-between the “already” and the “not yet.” The decisiveness of D-Day has already taken place, but the climax of VE-Day has “not yet” come. And so while we know the triumph of what is coming, we are still thick in the battle. Casualties are still being taken. As Martin Luther voiced it in his magisterial hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God” –
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; His rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.
And here is the second point in this line of interpretation, not only does God “get” it, but God is actually doing something about it. Not only does God feel our anguish, but God is directly confronting and actively defeating those forces that cause it. “But the end is not yet” (I Corinthians 15:24). The defeat of darkness is well underway, but it’s still incomplete. And so when chaos strikes a painful blow – and chaos will continue strike painful blows until the very end – our consolation comes from knowing what it is that God is doing, and understanding that any damage that might be done is only temporary. “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). This is why Paul could sing –
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?3 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died — more than that, who was raised to life —is at the right hand of God) and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)
Here there is no suspension of reality – the trouble to which we are subject is real and it is varied – but it is not ultimate. Suffering does not get the last word. And so –
We glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hopedoes not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)
The colors in our story run from the promise of blue, to the brown of testing, to the yellow and green of growth, to the purple of gathering storms, to the red of painful crisis, to the white of final triumph.