Summary: The inherent paradox in scripture and Christian life
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? This is probably the best known paradox of all time.
Here are some more light-hearted paradoxes are that you might like to consider:
Twelve-ounce pound cake
Diet ice cream
A paradox, as you probably know or have worked out, is a seemingly true statement or group of statements that leads to a contradiction or a situation that seems to defy logic or intuition.
A more serious example is the paradox of American power: at the beginning of the 21st century, the United States is as powerful as no nation before it, yet as dependent on the global community as never before.
A rather different example is from science, known as the Faraday paradox: diluted nitric acid will corrode steel, while concentrated nitric acid doesn't.
Today's Bible readings are all paradoxes, determined to tease us. Although I ought to point out that the whole of the Bible, and the whole of Christian faith, is all paradox, so this nothing unusual. Our first reading today was from Exodus: a bush burns, yet is not consumed by the fire's energy. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells his hearers that they need to loose their life in order to find it. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul reminds his hearers that evil is not to be avenged, but responded to with love.
These are not easy readings for us. When Paul visited the city of Thessalonica on his missionary journeys the city authorities didn’t like what he was doing and saying, in the book of Acts they said this about Paul and his companions: “these people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also... saying that there is another king named Jesus”. Preaching the gospel should aspire to turning the world upside down, or put more modestly, to re¬setting the world's default settings, so these readings, although not easy, should be something to trouble us too much.
So, we have this story from Exodus of Moses and the Burning Bush. There are two basic paradoxes here. The first paradox is the bush which is burning but not consumed. I remember once trying to remove some pampas grass from the manse garden in Twyford - it was probably the pride and joy of some former minister, but we hated it, and struggled with it for weeks trying different ways to remove it before I gave in and bought a pick axe. One strategy that I tried was to get it out was to burn it, but it was all to no avail as it quickly started to grow back even more vigorously then it had before. So, the paradox is that the bush Moses encounters burns, but is not consumed.
The second paradox in this reading is God's name. The word translated 'Lord' is both unpronounceable and untranslatable in the Hebrew. The letters can be written in English letters as YHWH, but that can’t be pronounced or translated in English. The nearest people have come to something pronounceable in English is Yahweh, from which Jehovah derived, but that doesn’t mean anything in the Hebrew. The nearest we’ve managed to get, and it’s a very long way from what the letters really mean is “I am”. My point is that the name of God is profoundly mysterious. What we are dealing with here is a complete mystery, because we are dealing with God. So, the paradox is that God seems to be totally mysterious and unknown, but can be known so closely and so well in Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit.
Moving on to our reading from Paul’s letter to the early Christians in Rome, we can see that this good general advice for rubbing along as Christians in the church and the world. But if we read this simply as general community advice we miss a deeper point, and that is that this is a description of Jesus's life. Was Jesus not 'patient in suffering' and perseverant in prayer? Is this not the story of the one who even though he was 'troubled in spirit' loved his own 'to the end', and prayed in Gethsemane that he might be spared the tor¬ture of the cross? Was Jesus's ministry not dis¬tinguished by the radical hospitality he shared with those on the margins of society, a bold association 'with the lowly'? And was not Christ's life, death, and resurrection the revealing of God's glory to those who were strangers to Israel, the Gentiles?
When Paul advises us to bless those who persecute us not only is this an echo of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, but so too is this what Jesus does. If Jesus's life itself hadn’t gone the way of refusing to repay evil with evil, then Paul's advice would be hopelessly tragic, prone always to being thought unrealistic. Yet Paul's teaching is the most real we can imagine precisely because he is describing the way the world now is in Christ. So, the paradox is Paul reflecting the life and teaching of Christ when he tells us not to respond to evil with more evil, but with love.