Writings: All Writings

God's Promise to a Violent World

Ekklesia Project Conference

Author: John C. Nugent

07/12/13+ Share

This sermon discusses why witnessing to God's peace is central to the narrative of Scripture and mission of the church. It uses the kingdom of priests image to illuminate how churches should order their lives in order to fulfill their specific role.

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Greetings from Delta Community Christian Church. It is a privilege for us to be with you again this year. Unfortunately, as a network of house churches, we don’t really have a preacher; so you are stuck with me instead. I find it interesting that both the opening and closing sermons of a conference about peace are being delivered by members of the Stone-Campbell tradition—a tradition that has largely abandoned its pacifist roots. I take this as a sign either that we are beginning to recover from our historical amnesia or that you all are doing your best to help us further along. Either way, we are grateful. Introductions aside, we have gathered for a few days to talk about peace. My aim in this sermon is not to teach you anything from the Scriptures that you don’t already know about peace, but to help us all remember just how central peace is to the story of Scripture and the role of God’s people in that story.

God’s Judgment

We begin in a somewhat awkward place in God’s story—perhaps the most violent place in all of Scripture: the Genesis flood. Genesis 7:21-23 summarizes the deadly consequences of this divine act: “God blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.”

These words are terrifying. How could a God of peace possibly commit such wide scale carnage? For some people this story poses no problems. To them it is simply a Jewish spin on a well-worn ancient Near Eastern tale and tells us nothing about the God Christians worship. I wish I could brush it aside that easily, but I can’t. The Jews did not tell stories just because their neighbors did. Rather, they were telling us in words quite similar to their neighbors what their God is like, what this world is like, and why God would create a peculiar people from childless Sarah and Abraham.

The World’s Problem          

To hear what Genesis says to us about God, this world, and God’s people, we should recognize that Genesis does not really talk about God’s people until chapter 12. The first 11 chapters focus, instead, on why this world and this God needed a particular sort of people. They culminate in a remarkable promise that God makes to a rampantly violent world. Yet we cannot appreciate just how remarkable this promise is without realizing how violent the world had become before the flood and how detrimental the problem of violence is for humans and all creation. According to Genesis 1-11, violence is not simply one of many symptoms of creation’s fallenness, it is the central symptom. This is evident in the social consequences of sin and the social interactions that follow the fall and precede the flood.

Sin’s Violent Consequences

The violent consequences of sin are first spelled out in Genesis 3. Enmity grows between the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of Eve. As a result, serpents violently strike at the heels of humans and humans counter with deadly blows to their heads. Adam’s relationship with the soil is equally antagonistic. The soil stingily withholds its produce, humans must scratch at it with our sharpest instruments to harvest its fruit, and thorns and thistles find their own way to scratch back. Of course the only consequence of sin that addresses how fallen humans relate to one another is that Eve’s desire will be for her husband and that he will rule over her. This power struggle is not limited to male/female relations, any more than the cursed soil or return to dust would be limited only to men. Rather, Adam’s ruling over Eve represents the fall of leadership itself into domination. It anticipates persons with greater power using it to their own advantage at the expense of weaker parties. We see this at work when the rich oppress the poor, the strong oppress the weak, and the majority oppresses the minority. And when the mere presence of the stronger party does not intimidate the weaker party into complying, violence is right around the corner.

This is exactly what we find in the three scenes of social interaction that follow the fall and precede the flood. It begins with Cain’s violent murder of Abel, but it doesn’t end there. Cain’s murder estranges him from the soil, which makes him a wanderer. Yet Cain’s greatest fear is not that he will not find enough food, shelter, or companionship as he wanders, but that wider society will find in his violent offence just cause to kill him. God also fears that self-righteous citizens will strive to make the world a safer place by eliminating all potential threats. So God deters the first would-be “war against terror” with the prospect of divine reprisal, saying, “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance” (4:15).

Having been banished from the soil, Cain seeks refuge by founding a city. This city does not prove any safer. One of Cain’s descendants takes multiple wives, kills another man, and ignores God’s exclusive claim on life by issuing his own threat of revenge. “If Cain is avenged sevenfold truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (4:24). Though God used the threat of revenge to limit violence, Lamech escalates that threat to justify his own violence.

This trend culminates in the final scene of social interaction prior to the flood—the cryptic account of Genesis 6—which begins: “When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose” (vv. 1-2). The language here deliberately echoes Lamech who also “took” multiple wives for himself. At that time, we are told, the nephilim roamed the earth. These giants are described as mighty men of name. It is traditional to interpret the sons of God in this passage as angels and the nephilim as their hybrid offspring. Yet the wider context suggests that the sons of God were a primitive form of human kingship. They were probably more like warlords who employed giant mighty men, like Goliath, to enforce their rule.

In sum, Cain begat Lamech, Lamech begat multiple Lamechs, and multiple Lamechs dominated their subjects, warred against one another, and brought God’s creation to its knees. Whatever you make of the identity of the sons of God, their influence resulted in wide scale violence. This is why God floods the earth according to v. 13: “And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them.’”

God’s Promise

The early chapters of Genesis therefore depict an epic struggle between God and a violent world. Before the flood, God appeared to be losing. Afterward, the world stood defenseless before the torrential divine rains. But then something entirely unexpected happens. Rather than bring humanity to its knees in perpetual compliance, God permanently retires the weapon of mass destruction that could ensure victory. The bow that God hangs in the sky served as a powerful reminder of God’s promise never to destroy the world again precisely because bows were the primary offensive weapon of hunters and warriors. In suspending this globally destructive bow, God was officially waging peace against a violent world. Yet to wage peace is not simply to surrender. Instead, God was shouldering the burden of finding some other way to restore the peaceful creational harmony that humans seem bent on distorting.

The human response in chapters 10-11 is ironic. Rather than cooperate with the peace-waging creator’s mandate to spread throughout the earth, Nimrod—a man who wielded a bow—defiantly founds a city. Interestingly, he and his kin are depicted just like the nephilim. Nimrod is described as a mighty man and the inhabitants of his city try to make a name for themselves. Thus, Babel is an obvious successor to Cain’s city and also the precursor to its namesake, Babylon—the powerful kingdom that violently overthrows Jerusalem and dominates the ancient Near East by the power of spear and bow (Jer 6:23).

What would God do about such defiance? How would God keep the promise? Scattering their languages was an important first step because it diffused earthly power through a multiplicity of kingdoms. This kept humanity from developing a mighty kingdom that would inevitably lord over the world in “sons of God” fashion. Yet the absence of a unified domineering world order falls short of the presence of God’s intended order of peace. So the preface to the Bible story ends with an unanswered question: How will God’s promise to a violent world be kept?

The answer to this question begins in Genesis 12:1-3:

“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’”

Abraham does not know how God will bless all nations through his offspring, but he does know that it means leaving behind his stake in the city of Babylon. His intention was not, however, to remain city-less. Hebrews 11 captures his hope well, beginning in verse 8:

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going…For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (8-10).

And a few verses later it says of Abraham and his descendants, “If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, God has prepared a city for them” (vv. 15-16).

It is clear in these verses that God’s people have to leave behind Babel-like cities in order to receive a better city from God and that they will not inherit this city until the restoration of all things. What is not clear is how exactly God’s people ought to inhabit the cities in which we live and how our peculiar habitation participates in the fulfillment of God’s promise to a violent world.

They do not gain clarity about these matters until long after Abraham’s time. Such clarity begins with God’s first words to the Israelites after delivering them from Egypt. Exodus 19:5-6 reads, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”

1 Peter is perhaps most famous for applying this kingdom of priests image to the church (2:4-5), though Revelation does so as well (1:5-6; 5:10; 20:6). Scholars and preachers have also made much of this image, especially as it pertains to the holiness and election of God’s people and the priesthood of all believers. Yet little attention has been paid to several dimensions of the daily lives of Israel’s priests and how they might enrich our understanding of what kind of cities God’s people ought to be as they leave behind the cities of this world and strive toward the eschatological city of God. If we truly wish to participate in God’s promise to a violent world, our congregations ought to emulate Israel’s priests by being cities of exile, cities of refuge, and cities of sacrifice.

Cities of Exile

We begin with cities of exile. The ancestral head of Israel’s priesthood was Levi. We know nothing of this man’s life except for one act of violence. In Genesis 34, he and his brother avenged the rape of their sister, Dinah, by deceiving and slaughtering all the males in the city of the rapist. Their father Jacob was furious about their excessive retaliation and cursed their progeny, saying, “I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel” (Gen 49:5-7). For Simeon, this meant receiving territory within the tribe of Judah (Josh 19:9); for Levi, it meant being scattered throughout all of Israel’s tribes, subsisting as aliens or exiles in the territory of others with the Lord alone as their portion (Num 18:20).

As exiles among their own people, the Levites foreshadow the future “landlessness” of Israel and the Church. This may have been God’s intention from the beginning. After being equipped on Palestinian soil, the Israelites were sent into the world as exiles in order to point others to God’s reign wherever they might end up. Jeremiah prepared them for what that might look like in Babylon (Jer 29:4-7), the refortification of Ezra and Nehemiah made provisions for exilic presence even in Palestine, and Isaiah anticipated their eventual mission to all nations (Isa 49:6). By the time of Jesus, God’s people had, by and large, made the adjustments necessary for long term exilic existence.

But exile was not simply a matter of geography. It was a statement of faith that all lands everywhere belong to Israel’s God. Even when they occupied the Promised Land, according to Leviticus 25:23, God’s people considered themselves aliens and tenants on divine turf. The Babylonian exile did not fundamentally change this. It was God’s land before exile and after exile. What changed is middle management. Under Torah, middle management belonged to a plurality of leaders among Israel’s tribes. God’s people later entrusted that power to a human king, a choice that eventually collapsed under the weight of its inadequacies. After terminating the monarchy and forcing the Israelites into exile, God transferred middle management to the nations. The Israelites had to permanently adjust to this—even in Palestine. The land would still have a human ruler, but that ruler would not be one of God’s people. Someone else would determine what laws would be binding on the land’s inhabitants. Someone else would protect the borders from foreign invasion. Someone else would oversee the broad-ranging economic issues impacting the region. God’s people now, like God’s people of old, have to demonstrate radical faith and trust that divine oversight of these middle managers will suffice to provide the basic needs of God’s people and the nations.

Exilic living thus requires God’s people to adopt a servant posture wherever they live. Since God owns the land and has given it to others to manage, we are freed from holding the scepter. Like Israel’s priests who were free to study Torah, tend the tabernacle, and facilitate the wider public’s worship and instruction, now all of God’s people are free from running the world so we may serve the world with the life-giving resources only we possess. The Church’s servant posture is not a demotion but an honor. It is the kind of posture that God’s strategy for keeping God’s promise to a violent world requires.

So what does this mean practically for our congregations? From the widest angle lens, exilic living entails learning to “live lightly.”

* Such light living requires us to remain flexibly adaptive to where God’s Spirit might lead us. Since God is at work in unseemly and unexpected places, we must posture ourselves wherever we are to be able to go when and where God’s Spirit directs.

* Light living requires us to walk cautiously within our host cultures. Since human culture is a deeply ambivalent project that is founded upon human sin and violence, we must bear faithful witness to the life-giving culture that Christ has pioneered on behalf of all cultures.

* Light living requires God’s people to forsake all aspirations of lording over the lands in which we live. Servanthood is not a style of ruling over the world but an alternative to such rule that is indispensable to the unique role we play in this world. 

* And light living means recognizing that our daily bread comes from God. We must therefore share generously with fellow exiles and resist accumulating what we are not willing to give away, lend, or leave behind as God calls us forth in mission.

Cities of Refuge

The second type of city that informs the church’s priestly vocation may be called cities of refuge. In ancient Israel, a person who accidentally killed someone was encouraged to flee to the nearest city of refuge (Num 35:9-28). These cities were designed to prevent someone from prematurely exacting vengeance upon an innocent slayer. The Levites were placed in charge of these cities (vv. 6-7). They were responsible for providing a safe haven for the accused until a proper trial could be conducted (Josh 20:4-5). The priests themselves played no part in the slayer’s trial or, if guilty, execution.

We are not told in Scripture why they were selected for this intermediary function. Perhaps priests were deemed uniquely qualified to render impartial hospitality precisely because they were uninvolved in forms of tribal management that would give them a vested interest in bringing suspected murderers to premature justice. They did not run the tribe, judge its cases, or execute its criminals. Their relative disentanglement from ordinary civil structures positioned them perfectly to mediate peace, especially on behalf of those whom others might fear or shun.

The unique role of priests within Israel was much like Israel’s role among the nations. After driving a good number of Canaanites from the Promised Land, the Israelites were given no responsibility for executing judgment throughout the world. Though they firmly believed that God had a vested interest in judging and punishing the nations (e.g., Ps 59, 67, 82, 96), they did not assume the role of doing so themselves. Their role was to bless, not to punish. Should the nations ever stream to Zion for instruction, then God would arbitrate between them, broker a lasting peace, and transform their weapons into farming equipment (Isa 2 and Micah 4).

Israel’s hands off posture toward international judgment is confirmed not only by Jesus’ hands-off approach to institutions of judgment, but by Paul’s instructions to Christians in Rome. Using priestly language, he instructs believers to offer their bodies as living sacrifices that are holy and pleasing to God and warns them not to conform to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. This renewal, according to Romans 12, entails a distinct way of dealing with enmity that includes extending hospitality to strangers, blessing and not cursing those who persecute them, not repaying evil with evil, living peaceably with all, never avenging themselves, and supplying their enemies’ needs so as to overcome evil with good. It did not likely cross the minds of the early Christians that society would fall apart if they did not take it upon themselves to judge wrongdoers. They believed that vengeance belongs to God and that God has ways of punishing evil without their help.

So what does this mean practically for our congregations? In general terms, it means serving as mediators of God’s peace.

* Mediating God’s peace requires us to extend risky hospitality to the poor, the alien, and the sinful. This means more than sharing a pew and directing a portion of the church budget toward strangers; it means welcoming them into our homes for genuine fellowship.

* Mediating God’s peace requires respectful disentanglement from the world’s mechanisms of judgment and prosecution. Since this world’s weapons are unfit for the battle Christians are waging, we must obey God in doing what coercive power cannot and only suffering love can.

* Mediating God’s peace requires rigorous preparation in conflict resolution and reconciliation. If we are to offer credible peace to enemies in situations where peace is not desired, we must first learn peace where it is expected, by pursuing it with one another.

* And mediating God’s peace requires us to share our daily bread not only with friends and family, but also with strangers, aliens, and enemies. God causes the sun to shine on all humans and has called believers, when our enemies or the least of these are hungry, to feed them.

Cities of Sacrifice

The last type of city that enriches our understanding of the church’s priestly witness may be called cities of sacrifice. Because Levi took the blood of the Shechemites into his own hands, his descendants were denied a portion of the Promised Land. God turned that curse into a blessing by giving them responsibilities that required their scattering among the tribes as an integral component of their priestly vocation.

What we have yet to discuss is why God exchanged the Levites’ curse for a blessing. In Exodus 32, immediately after accepting God’s covenant, the fledgling nation pressured Aaron to lead them in worshipping a golden calf. God was furious, so Moses summoned to himself all who were on God’s side. Only the sons of Levi stepped forward. Moses then strapped them with swords and sent them among the people to kill their own kin. Because they forsook such bonds and shed familiar blood at God’s behest, Moses said to them, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day” (v. 29). Formerly, the man Levi spurned the blood of strangers for the sake of family honor; now his sons spurned the blood of family in order to honor God’s exclusive claim on blood. This reversal of priorities constituted their ordination into priestly service.

To serve God as priest is to honor blood and God’s exclusive right to it. This perspective is required of those who would oversee all divinely ordained sacrifices and maintain the sanctuary in which they would be offered. Having demonstrated this perspective, specific Levites were authorized by God to shed blood in order to atone for sin, to prepare animals for consumption, and to decree when God has given an enemy over to Israel to be slain. The priests did not, however, receive the right to take life; they are only charged to carry out God’s specific instructions for how and when life may be taken. If any single theme dominates the priestly instruction about sacrifices, it is that they must be implemented exactly according to God’s bidding (e.g., Lev 16). Life is too important to improvise the shedding of blood (Lev 10:1-3).

The theme of sacrifice echoes widely throughout the Old Testament and carries forward into the New. God’s people were incapable of living a pure life, so God commissioned them to offer pure animals to stand in for the life they should live and to remind them to renew their commitment to that life. Yet surrendering the best of their flocks did not elicit the best of their lives, so God intervened by giving heaven’s best, who is Jesus, to be and to offer the true obedience and sacrifice that God’s people could not offer. Jesus was thus the “end” of sacrifice both in the sense of fulfillment and in the sense of termination. His death fulfills the ultimate purpose that the sacrificial system first served, and it strictly forbids and therefore terminates all future blood-letting to atone for sin (Heb 9:26-28).

So what does this mean practically for our congregations? Broadly speaking, cities of sacrifice are cities in which God’s sacrifice to end all sacrifices is remembered and proclaimed.

* So as heralds of Christ’s sacrifice, we must honor the sanctity of life by never taking it into our own hands, whether by killing our enemies, aborting unwanted children, or engineering the death of the infirm.

* As heralds of Christ’s sacrifice we must proclaim God’s exclusive right to give and take life when society’s commanders, lawmakers, and doctors usurp that right for themselves.

* As heralds of Christ’s sacrifice, we must recognize that our daily bread comes at the price of toilsome labor, scraped soil, and slain animals and should therefore give thanks for the workers who strain their backs, the fields that yield their crops, and the animals that forfeit their lives.

* And as heralds of Christ’s sacrifice, we must remember that sacrifice in the breaking of bread, lest something else usurp Christ’s central place in our worship.

Conclusion

So as we look back upon the Bible story we see that violence is not just another symptom of sin; it is the central symptom. Nor is being witnesses to God’s peace the exclusive vocation of only some congregations or believers; rather, it is the fulfillment of God’s promise to a violent world and it frames the full narrative of Scripture and mission of the church.

Israel’s priests have much to teach us about our mission, but perhaps the most significant lesson is that the most responsible thing for God’s people to do is to be the peace-making, set apart people that God has called us to be. We must trust that our seemingly irresponsible contribution to world peace is our most vital responsibility and that God will meet all other needs some other way. We must have the faith to resist the temptation to appear more responsible in the eyes of our neighbors by taking it upon ourselves to do what God has left for others to do. As Israel needed the Levites to be the Levites and to do what only they could do, so the world needs the church to be the church and to do what only we can do.

In 2 Cor 5:19-20, the Apostle Paul summarizes the Church’s role as follows: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” In the Old Testament they were called cities of refuge; Paul called them embassies of reconciliation. Whatever we call ourselves, we must be the kind of people through which God’s promise to a violent world is always visible and always accessible to those who need it most. 

[I expand greatly upon the priestly kingdom image in the epilogue of my book The Politics of Yahweh. Besides going into greater depth with each type of city, I discuss a fourth type of city: cities on a hill.]