Jesus’ deep joy

March 4, 2014


George Buttrick never fails to inspire, without any of the trite sentimentality associated with that word. Here is one of his reflections from The Parables of Jesus:

“Like a wedding” is a description of the Christian life which in our persistent glumness we have refused to allow. Yet Jesus used it frequently. Old Testament prophets had said with daring, “For thy Maker is thy husband” [Isa 54.4-10, Hos 2.19]; and John the Baptist had claimed as his sufficient honor that he was the friend of the Bridegroom, his joy being to hear the Bridegroom’s voice [John 3.29]. The dominant note of the new religion was deep joy.

The scribes and Pharisees might fast. Religion to them was not joyous; it bound on them burdens grievous to be borne. By its dreary routine of rules and shibboleths men might gain merit, but not a song. Jesus came to lead them from that slavery into a new land of promise. They would still be under the law — God’s decrees welling up within the enfranchised soul — but it was a law whose service was perfect freedom. “The water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” [John 4.14].

The disciples of John the Baptist might fast. Religion to them was not joyous. It was a warning of impending doom, a fleeing from the wrath to come. To feel the holiness of God as a fan winnowing the grain from the chaff, or as an axe of retribution laid at the root of the tree, was life compared with the mechanical righteousness of the Pharisees; but it was not jubilant life. Jesus drove the Arch-Fear from the sky and revealed instead a Face of infinite pity, a Holiness inseparable from Compassion. The rainbow was set against the storm. The abounding sin was swallowed up in more abounding grace.

…Jesus replaced the weariness which hangs upon the soul’s quest for its own righteousness with the “large delight” of serving another’s need. Joy is not in defiance of pain, or in pain’s respite. It is through pain, — that pain borne for others by which the world is saved. He, “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the Cross” [Heb 12.2], had entered into joy’s deep secret. Therefore He could say with utter truth, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full” [John 15.11]. It was joy like a wedding — the marriage of earth and heaven!

[George Buttrick, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), 4-5. Reprint of the original edition from Harper & Brothers, 1928. The parable is from Luke 5.33-35 and synoptic parallels.]

In particular, the joy through pain of Christ and his disciples is much appreciated. This is not self-imposed for one’s own sake but only insofar as it is for another’s sake. And here is one more wonderful moment later in the book:

There are pulpits quick to indulge in orgies of denunciation but tardy to preach the positive tidings of life abundant. There are ministers’ associations and reform organizations more eager to expel disintegrating forces than to engage in the less spectacular task of constructive goodwill. So ready to banish the demon — so loath to welcome Jesus! Yet, if we would but know, when He comes to rule the demon flees of himself!

[p. 76]

Why choose Christ?

February 3, 2014

George A. Buttrick

As you would expect, a Presbyterian will turn this question around. I love the way Buttrick, professor at Harvard University during the 1950’s and 60’s, does this:

Bible history is focused history. The forwardness climbs to a lighted hilltop, and all history beyond that point is in that light, moving on to the fulfillment of the light. The focal point is Christ; and the lighted hilltop, though the light is darkness, is Calvary. …The Bible makes no apology for this faith: it proclaims it with boldness and remorse and rapture. When our modern mind asks, “But why choose Christ?” the Bible answers, “Men did not choose Christ. Rather they have hurried him to some new Cross in every generation. He chose them, as in every contrite pondering of Him He chooses us.” When our modern mind asks, “But why take one event long ago and far away as the clue to history?” the Bible answers, “Why not, if it finds us? Why assume that truth is in a logical syllogism, scientific formula, general law, or philosophical abstraction?”

And he continues with his usual rhetorical energy:

This fact compounds the daringness of the Bible. How could anyone find it dull? Our dreary factualisms are dull. Our so-called “universal laws” are dull, cancelling the vividness of the event in favor of a deadly sameness. Our political conventions are dull, filled with windbag clichés. Our divorce is dull, and our industrialism with its chimney smoke smudges out both landscape and life. But the Bible is not dull. It may be incredible, a wild dream, a madness, and an ecstasy, but it is not tedious: a flash of light, rather, and a spurt of blood — blood of God in our human flesh! …

We cannot analyze Calvary. It is too late, for it has pierced us. That, at least, is the outright avowal of Bible history. Redemption through a person accents the Biblical conviction that history as a whole must be construed through persons, not through “movements” or “patterns.”

[George A. Buttrick, Christ and History, pp. 25-26.]

Buttrick was a Presbyterian pastor in NYC for 28 years before his appointment at Harvard in 1955. In addition to his books and lectures, he edited the influential multi-volume set, The Interpreter’s Bible.