Posted by: Dan | August 16, 2005

Incomparable God, Incomparable People?

One of the major themes that seems to regularly emerge in theological studies of the Old Testament is the incomparability of YHWH. YHWH is nothing like the other gods, nor is YHWH like any other kind of ruler, lover, person or thing. Indeed, it is incomparability that is the definitive characteristic of the God found within this story. This God is odd and (perhaps to the exasperation of the reader) strangely indescribable.

Similarly, Israel, as the first-born child of God, is to be an incomparable people. As a nation of priests set apart to mediate the divine presence and blessing to the nations they should stand out in peculiar — and sometimes painful — ways. Unfortunately the history of Israel often details the way in which the people tragically fail in this calling. Instead of being a peculiar people they become just like (and sometimes even worse than) the nations around them.

Even after the coming of Jesus this point remains. Granted Christians affirm that Jesus is the “human face of God” and a revelation of God's mystery — but the revelation of Jesus is genuinely incomparable. Jesus picks up on many of the things that set YHWH apart from all else, especially in his affirmation of strength in weakness and glory in shame. The notion that one should triumph on a cross is perhaps the oddest thing imaginable. In fact, it would not be imaginable had not Jesus done exactly that.

Therefore, if the Church is the people dedicated to following Jesus they should also be, at the very least, what Rodney Clapp calls “a peculiar people.” These Christ-followers should be exceedingly odd. We get a glance of this oddness in both the Pauline epistles and the description of the early Jerusalem church in Acts. Unfortunately the Church, just like Israel, has done a fine job of failing in its vocation and instead of mediating God's blessing to the ends of the earth it has become just like (and sometimes worse than) the other institutions around it. It has succumbed to the lure of power instead of embracing weakness, and has embraced a self-protecting pragmatism instead of traveling the road dictated by suffering love. Consequently Christians today end up looking just like everybody else and the whole idea of living like the Church in Acts seems too absurd to even contemplate. If we are to follow Jesus we must recover the oddity that is peculiar to Christ-followers.

This is one of the reasons why debates about “Christian relevance” continually miss the point. We should not worry about being relevant, we should worry about being the people of God — and we can trust that, when we do so, the world will also be transformed.

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