The second of three Lenten lectures in Chipping Barnet (see previous post for the first) focused on the way God uses human agents to execute his purposes. The end of Nineveh came at the hand of the Babylonians in alliance with others.
We explored the way in which in the book of Jeremiah things said of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar echo what is said about God and vice versa (see, e.g., 21:2,5, 6-7 and cf. 21:7 with 13:14). Nebuchadnezzar is God’s instrument (see 27:8). God worked through Nebuchadnezzar and takes responsibility for the actions of the Babylonian king.
Is this the same with us? The famous saying (wrongly?) attributed to St Teresa of Avila is meant to encourage us: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours … yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.” But what if I use my hand to strike someone? Did Christ strike?
In some ways the answer may have to be “yes”. Being God’s image means that humanity represents God on earth. As a member of the body of Christ what I do Christ does. This means, of course, that God is often badly represented and that Christ is often dishonoured. We often bear false witness to who God is.
Nebuchadnezzar also bore false witness. More generally, Zechariah 1:15 testifies, “I am extremely angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was only a little angry, they made the disaster worse.” This maybe makes all divine judgement somewhat mysterious. Vis-à-vis the victim God accepts responsibility for what happens through his agents but his rogue agents are held to account and their deeds do not in fact truly and fully represent God.
Habakkuk complains about injustice and violence to God because he believes God to be ultimately responsible for the havoc caused by Babylonian oppression. His complaint in chapter 1 includes in verses 5-11 a flashback, frequently but wrongly designated God’s first reply to Habakkuk’s first complaint. The flashback is based on an earlier prophecy in which God announced that the rise of the Babylonians (Chaldeans) is his work, cf. Jeremiah 5:15-17 (and see 4:11, 13, 18 which are echoed in Habakkuk). The prophecy likely re-appears here in an ironic form which already hints at the wrong brought about by this divine deed.
Habakkuk positions himself at the beginning of chapter 2 to get an answer from God. The answer comes in form of a command to document on tablets a revelation which in its received form talks about the oppressor and the victim. The fate of the oppressor is at first only hinted at in Habakkuk 2:4 – a swollen appetite which is not judicious is unhealthy but this is not spelled out. The second half affirms that the righteous will live, if only they remain loyal. Verse 5 then offers more detail. The more-ish wine will be the drunkard’s downfall and someone who is as greedy as death itself may well be "death" in due course.
What do we learn about the cross? We remember that the fact that it was humanity that condemned Jesus and put him on the cross does not mean that God can wash his hands off what happened any more than Pilate. It would of course be disastrous for our faith if God had not been involved in some way on the cross. But he was. “God put [Christ Jesus] forward as a sacrifice of atonement.” (Romans 3:25). “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” (Romans 8:3). This does not mean that we can easily read off God’s purposes from these events because the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate were rogue agents of God just like Nebuchadnezzar and we often are.
The third lecture explored further what we must say and what we must not say about God’s involvement on the cross. We must say that far from being uninvolved God is implicated in the death of Jesus and that Jesus suffered God’s condemnation of evil. But we must not say that the cross shows God’s condemnation of Jesus. It would be simplistically wrong to say that God punished Jesus for our sins but we can and must say that Jesus suffered God's punishment for our sins.
Furthermore, the cross does not balance God’s justice with his love. God’s justice is an expression of his love. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)