Thursday, March 29, 2007

'...But I liked the story the folksinger told'.

I only ever got half way through the popular book called Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. It wasn't that I didn't like it. On the contrary, it is a very entertaining read. It was frustrating at points but genuinely funny at other times. And sometimes profound.

I never finished it because, on an flight from New York to Atlanta, I was talking with a Jewish person about Jesus, and the only literature that I had on me was the book I was reading. I hope that some things in Miller's book was helpful.

Anyway, read this expert from Blue Like Jazz and then I have a question, and a bit of a survey...

A long time ago I went to a concert with my friend Rebecca. Rebecca can sing better than anybody I've ever heard sing. I heard this folksinger was coming to town, and I thought she might like to see him because she was a singer too. The tickets were twenty bucks, which is a lot to pay if you're not on a date. Between songs, though, he told a story that helped me resolve some things about God. The story was about his friend who was a Navy SEAL. He told it like it was true, so I guess it was true, although it could have been a lie.

The folksinger said his friend was performing a covert operation, freeing hostages from a building in some dark part of the world. His friend's team flew in by helicopter, made their way to the compound and stormed into the room where the hostages had been imprisoned for months. The room, the folksinger said, was filthy and dark. The hostages were curled up in a corner, terrified, When the SEALs entered the room, they heard the gasps of the hostages. They stood at the door and called to the prisoners, telling them they were Americans, The SEALS asked the hostages to follow them, but the hostages wouldn't. They sat there on the floor and hid their eyes in fear. They were not of healthy mind and didn't believe their rescuers were really Americans.

The SEALs stood there, not knowing what to do. They couldn't possibly carry everybody out. One of the SEALs, the folksinger's friend, got an idea. He put down his weapon, took off his helmet, and curled up tightly next to the other hostages, getting so close his body was touching some of theirs. He softened the look on his face and put his arms around them. He was trying to show them he was one of them. None of the prison guards would have done this. He stayed there for a little while until some of the hostages started to look at him, finally meeting his eyes. The Navy SEAL whispered that they were Americans and were there to rescue them. “Will you follow us?” he said. The hero stood to his feet and one of the hostages did the same, then another, until all of them were willing to go. The story ends with all the hostages safe on an American aircraft carrier.

I never liked it when the preachers said we had to follow Jesus. Sometimes they would make Him sound angry. But I liked the story the folksinger told.

Now... I liked the story too. Isn't it a TOP illustration? Doesn't it resonate? Almost every other sermon I wonder if I can squeeze it in somewhere. It's that kind of illustration. It fits in with the current desire to preach a 'beautiful' Jesus, and it works perfectly with our current language with regard to sin: we are 'broken and hurting' (rather than willful and rebellious).

But my question: Is it a true representation of Jesus' command to 'follow him'?

I don't want to buy it simply because it resonates with me. So I did a little work in the Gospels. Here are the results of my survey:

  • Take a read of THESE verses. They are far more aggressive than Miller's illustration may suggest. It is far more in line with Bonhoeffer's bold statement: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." There is no softened look. There is not question (will you follow me?), but a command. This is not the 'hero whispering', it is the Lord commanding.
  • I found THESE texts to be more neutral on the topic. There isn't the suggestion that these men have a sense of 'brokenness'. They are called to follow, and they simply do.
  • But THESE are verses of people who follow because they were healed, or cared for. They are Jesus getting down beside and with suffering people. Interestingly, he makes no command to follow him -- they just follow.
  • THIS verse from Luke comes very close. 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick': the captive whose very need means that he is invited to follow.
  • And the most interesting result: Miller's illustration has the strongest case in the Gospel John! THESE verses are all from John.

I'm aware that this is a lot of words for a Blog, but it may make a good Bible Study for some Home Group or something. Or...comment away...

Do you like the illustration? Is it exegetically or theologically accurate? Does it ring your bell?


Megan said...

Is it possible that it's true, but not complete? In other words, the Incarnation makes real the incredible condesencion of God to us--to seek and to save sinners. A rescue mission, if you will. But that, because it ignores the willful rebellion that is also true of our status as sinners, it doesn't do justice to redemption, to justification, to the fact that the judgment for sin has already been poured out and the penalty paid? So, maybe it illustrates the incarnation without illustrating the Cross?
Pure speculation....The story resonates, but I think it's lacking something.

Justin said...

I think that you are onto something, Megan. True, but not complete. (Which would be true of every illustration, even the ones in the Bible!)

The illustration is clearest, I think, as an illustration of the incarnation and of redemption. He came and sat in this enslaved and dark world with us, in order to free us and lift us out of it. I think that the John references go down this path in particular.


SUDS said...

We'll I am preaching on John 10:1-21 THIS Sunday.

I think it has to be both. John 10 - 'I am the gate for the sheep' and 'I am the good shepherd' provide beautiful images of Jesus lovingly gathering his sheep and lovingly laying down his life for his sheep... but he doesn't ever say that he is part of the flock.

We follow him because he is THE good shepherd, in contrast to the bad shepherds of Israel. Jesus, on one hand seems so tender in his call for us to follow him, but he is scathing to those who shepherd God's people and leader them away from him, those who lead them to destruction. Cf. Ezekiel 34 which I think Jesus is applying the the Pharisees who stand before him in John 10.

Any thoughts would be appreciated, without trying to hijack Justin's post.


Craig Tubman said...

"Jesus on the one hand seems so tender in his call for us to follow him, but he is scathing to..."

Suds, may be good to think this through....either Jesus is tender to us in his call, or he isn't? Perhaps there is a nice link with his view towards the Jewish leaders in Luke 17:1-3.

Justin - good post, well picked up and it would make a great bs!
In my mind is the travelogue from Luke 9 - 19. These chapter are not the call to follow, but rahter the reality of following - Tough stuff!
The illustration is good for incarnation - the manger is God reaching out, but actually following Jesus is a fish that may be too big to be seen in a Navy SEAL curled up on the floor.

But then maybe I'm just becoming one of those people that Miller doesn't like hearing the call to follow from?

Anonymous said...

How about this?

When Jesus meets the rich fool, e gives the guts of the gospel call and the man says no, and leaves sad. Jesus doesn't run after him or stroke his worried head to reassure him it is safe.

Jesus' command is not safe (on one level). From this episode you could change the illustration that after the SEAL said 'come!', and they didn't, the SEALS left for the aircraft carrier alone.

Scott T

Martin Kemp said...

The fact that the guy is a SEAL quite possibly adds the missing element. Note he puts down his gun and gives the call, and presumably the gun is there to shoot the crap out of the jailers (ie the devil, evil, death etc). So the fact that he's a softie with a weapon he's not affraid to use is kinda on the money.

cyberpastor said...

I've always thought of Jesus' call more like that of Arnie to Sarah Conor in Terminator II - "Come with me if you want to live!"

Martin said...

I think the image of the SEALs is spot on. Jesus does far more to draw us to him than we could ever deserve. He is willing to descend to us in our sin, as Justin said. And he will wait with open arms for us to follow him for our entire earthly lives.

It's the people's responses that don't quite match up with reality. I think a large number of people respond to Jesus' harsher calls, others follow the humbler voice of Jesus, and others won't ever follow.

Like the SEALs, though, Jesus will pursue us over and over, trying again and again to bring us to his Light. And as with the SEALs, when we do respond and follow, there are still earthly dangers--those dangers might be even greater. But now we can trust that we are being led to perfect safety by someone wiser and stronger than we can ever be.

Justin said...

Thanks all.

Martin -- Do I know which Martin this is. I'm suspecting the one in my Home Fellowship Group, but I can't be sure.

For the record -- I'll be using the illustration.

But please keep commenting, should you desire...

Martin said...

You going to blog last week's sermon, Justin?

Benjamin Ady said...

The story strikes me as inherently untrue. Seals, especially in the middle of a situation like that, aren't going to act that way.

The ending is especially untrue. "The story ends with all the hostages safe on an American aircraft carrier". The thing is, they were safe. To paraphrase something Golding said in an interview about Lord of the Flies: "Who will resuce the Navy Seals?"

An American Aircraft carrier group is one of the most concentrated deadly power machines on the planet at this time. The hostages have, in a sense, swithced over from being victims to being perpetrators. Now they are being safely cared for by a government which is illegally torturing and detaining lots of people from all over the world. Is this a better situation for them?

I don't understand how ... being "rescued" by Jesus MTWABP. Remember Gideon who (like other heroes mentioned in the "faith" chapter), after he was ... rescued and raised up by god, became a world class asshole of the worst sort? (I'm not sure why I brought that up ...) my friend Banzai says I am reacting to things beyond what was written or included in the post. he's probably right.

Steve Ko said...

Nice, pretty interesting analysis. I like the ESV usage. woohoo

N Tasker said...

This is a story told by David Wilcox (the folk-singer). I have heard him do it a number of times in concert, and sadly Donald's story doesn't do it justice... nonetheless.
The illustration is meant to be about the incarnation, God becoming one of us, being tempted in everyway we are tempted, experiencing pain and sorrow etc etc. I am not sure if the end of the story is the main point. Having said that, it is God's kindness that calls us (Romans 2) as much as it his command to follow. Where does one end and the other begin? Now we're getting somewhere...
PS I heard my first Dave Wilcox album when Robin and Dave were living with us. I got it one week before Greg died and it helped me through that time (and many more since!).

Justin said...

NT -- Yes. I agree that the illustration works in this way. I wrote to Megan:

The illustration is clearest, I think, as an illustration of the incarnation and of redemption. He came and sat in this enslaved and dark world with us, in order to free us and lift us out of it. I think that the John references go down this path in particular.

I'm intrigued by this:

Having said that, it is God's kindness that calls us (Romans 2) as much as it his command to follow. Where does one end and the other begin?

I wonder if The Apostle John's record of Jesus as Good Shepherd helps: The Shepherd is with sheep both caring and protecting, and commanding and leading?

Maybe that image is where it begins and ends.

Burraneer Ave: That was a whirlwind 6 months...