A King who Frees and a Boy with a Gift

Last week we focused our attention on a passage from the gospel of Mark. pathIt was a prophetic passage, a passage where Jesus told the disciples about the future of the temple. Imagining ourselves in the place of the disciples we tried to find encouragement in the fact that Jesus is the Lord of history and in his promise that he will never leave us nor forget about us. Our attention today is drawn to two vaguely similar passages that seem to speak to us about the future, Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 and Revelation 1:4b-8. This type of writing is known as ‘apocalyptic’. Writers of apocalyptic think of their vivid, allegorical work as unveiling what is hidden, it might be the future or it might be the way things really are right now. Daniel writes (vv.13-14), “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship . . . .” When the veil of this age is drawn back we see the truth—Jesus is the King and his dominion is without end.

Last week we focused on the comfort we find in recognizing God’s providence, mysterious and shadowy though it is. JohnpToday I want to draw our attention to a different aspect of life in the kingdom. Let’s look at the text from the first chapter of John’s Revelation. What we read is essentially John’s opening address to his readers: “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” I would like us to focus on the next line:

“To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom.”

John is claiming that Jesus the Christ is king and we are free!

I want to tell you part of a story, a story created by the Jewish novelist and rabbi Chaim Potok. The story is set in the 1950’s. It features a boy named Asher Lev.[1] Potok’s story opens this way: “My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Curcifixion. I am not an observant Jew” (9).

The fact that Asher Lev is Jewish is not particularly important for our reflections today. Those of us from conservative Mennonite backgrounds would probably find it easy to relate to Potok’s description of Hasidic Judaism in this story or in his others. LevFor our purposes today, though, Asher Lev could just as well have been Mennonite, or Christian Reformed or Muslim or even an atheist. But his relationship to the faith of his ancestors is significant for Asher Lev. Both his father and mother came from a long line of scholars and rabbinic emissaries, with roots in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Potok writes, “little Asher Lev was the juncture point of two significant family lines, the apex, as it were, of a triangle seminal with Jewish potentiality and freighted with Jewish responsibility. But he was also born with a gift” (11).

As a child growing up in a Hasidic Jewish neighborhood in New York City Asher began to draw, first with crayons and then with pencils. “My dearest companions,” he says, “were Eberhard and Crayola. Washing for meals was a cosmic enterprise” (12). Asher drew his room, his family’s apartment, his mother perspiring in the summer heat under long-sleeved modesty. His mother would urge him to draw pretty things, like birds and flowers. At first Asher would tell his mother when he had made a new drawing. “[Is] it a pretty drawing, Asher?” she would ask.

Asher would respond, “No Mama. But it is a good drawing.”

“You should make the world petty, Asher,” she once whispered.

Her son responded, “I don’t like the world, Mama. It’s not pretty. I won’t draw it pretty” (32).

If his mother was ambivalent, his father was less encouraging. Gazing at one of the four-year old Asher’s drawings, he said, “You have nothing better to do with your time, Asher? Your grandfather would not have liked you to waste so much time with foolishness” (17).

“It’s a drawing, Papa. . . . A drawing is not foolishness, Papa” (17).

Asher’s father assumed his son would outgrow his strange fixation. Their people did not indulge in such frivolous art. Asher’s father was an important man in their community. He traveled on behalf of their rabbi, the mystical leader of their international community. Asher’s father made arrangements for Jewish families to escape the Soviet Union. He studied the great tradition of Torah commentary. He spent his time on serious matters.

Asher’s uncle was the first person to really notice the boy’s talent, to take it seriously. “This is a six-year-old boy?” he once asked while watching Asher draw. “A little Chagall,” he added.

“Who is Chagall,” Asher asked.

“A great artist” was the response.

“Is he the greatest artist in the world?”

“He is the greatest Jewish artist in the world,” his uncle replied.

“A regular Chagall,” he murmured as he left.

“No,” the boy said, “My name is Asher Lev” (35).

Sometimes Asher would dream of his father’s great-great-grandfather, who managed the estate of a Russian nobleman. The man would be dozing in the sunlight while Asher drew him, but inevitably the estate manager would awake. Towering above the young artist, he would fly into a rage at the sight of Asher’s drawing, “Wasting time, wasting time,” he would thunder. “Playing, drawing, wasting time.” Asher would wake up terrified (39).

As the youngster grew older he began to see the world as lines and planes. Potok writes that Asher “could feel with his eyes” (105). His mother once asked him why he liked to draw. She wondered how it felt. She assumed it was a good feeling.

“What does it mean to you, my Asher?” she said. “Because it may hurt us” (104).

One day in Hebrew school, without thinking about it, Asher began to draw in his copy of the Torah. He drew a caricature of the respected rabbi on a page of Leviticus. The boy sitting in front of him looked back to see what was going on, then he shrieked: “You defiled a holy book! Asher Lev, you desecrated the name of God! You defiled a [Torah]! (118)”

The teacher’s report made its way to Asher’s home. Asher’s father is speaking now, “If you were genius in mathematics, I would understand. If you were a genius in writing, I would also understand. . . . But a genius in drawing is foolishness, and I will not let it interfere with our lives. Do you understand me, Asher?”

“Yes, Papa.” It is foolishness (136).

But Asher could not stop drawing; he began to visit museums. He saw the work of Chagall, Picasso and Hopper. He started painting with oils. He copied the work of famous artists, some of it scandalous. He made no progress in school however. His teachers were unable to engage him. Even as he neared his teens, Asher’s knowledge of Scripture did not improve.

“You are a scandal,” one of his friends said. “The world knows you are not studying Torah. . . . Your father journeys through Europe bringing Jews back to Torah, and here his own son refused to study Torah. Asher you are a scandal” (158).

After returning from Europe Asher’s father found his art supplies and saw his studies of scandalous subjects. He pronounced Asher sick, said he was becoming a pagan. He said it would have been better if he had not been born.

Asher did try a little more in school. He worked on the subjects he knew his father cared about but it was too late. The relationship between him and his father was broken. His gift, his unshakable passion was an embarrassment and a barrier.

Before the boys in their community came of age they would each meet with the esteemed rabbi. The man already new about Asher; he had known his grandfather personally. Before the meeting Asher was told to be careful and to remember to whom he was about to speak. He met with the rabbi in the evening. Upon entering the rabbi’s office Asher concluded “[h]e seemed more a presence than a man” (183). Their conversation was brief. That night the rabbi introduced Asher to an artist. The man was not a strict observer of Torah but someone who knew Asher’s world as well as the world of art.

The rabbi had recognized Asher’s gift. With deep reluctance, with the knowledge that Asher’s father would disagree, the rabbi made a connection that would enable Asher to find his way in the world. It would take him out of the community of his birth, but it would allow Asher to receive his gift with integrity. The old rabbi set the young man free.

Potok’s story does not end here. A good story couldn’t end so easily. Asher’s education and entry into the world of modern art would be complicated. But it could never have been easy. Truth isn’t easy; honesty isn’t easy. But the rabbi’s action set the young man on a new course. The rabbi gave Asher the chance to accept his gift, to cultivate it and with it to engage the world as only Asher Lev could. . . .

In his speech at the Areopagus in Athens Paul says that it is God who “gives to all mortals life and breath and all things (Acts 17:25).” In saying that God gives us the gift of life Paul wasn’t saying anything new. He was merely reflecting the second chapter of Genesis, which describes God breathing life into the nostrils of the creature fashioned from clay.

Like Asher we are each in possession of a gift—not artistic genius necessarily—but life itself. And the character of each of these gifts is unique. FullSizeRenderIt is shaped by our family of origin, our talents, our experiences, the place in the world we call home, even our limitations. It’s a truism to say there is no one in the world exactly like us. But the problem with truisms isn’t that they are false—it’s just that they can become boring. Canadian’s love hockey, maple syrup and wear lumberjack shirts, true but maybe a bit boring (well, that isn’t actually a truism is it?). So at the risk of being boring let me repeat: Like Asher we are each in possession of a gift—not artistic genius necessarily—but life itself. And the character of each of these gifts is unique. It is shaped by our family of origin, our talents, our experiences, the place in the world we call home, even our limitations.

That is all true; however, the state of things is such that there is no straight line between the gift and our putting it to full use. Like Asher Lev, we are often week versions, frail versions, immature versions of our true selves. Even out attempts at being ‘genuine’ or ‘true to ourselves’ are pockmarked and peccable.

In Potok’s story the forces that keep Asher’s gift from being fully used are obvious. In fact the limitation of the story in our context is that it gives us the impression that the things that keep us from being fully alive are entirely external. In Asher’s case it was the force of religious tradition and the press of pragmatic concerns. We could each probably identify some external factors that make it difficult to accept the gift of our unique life. Most of us are comfortable with this sort of thinking, with the belief that our problems are ‘out there.’

A sober assessment suggests that for most of us in this late modern age tradition is probably more helpful than it is harmful, so too is the accountability that comes from community. We need such things. Without them our lives tend to disintegrate, broken down by the malaise of choices and meaningless opportunities. Scripture suggests those things that keeps us from fully and rightly exercising our unique gift of life are as much internal to ourselves as they are external. The passage from the first chapter of John’s Revelation uses the word “sin” to say that. I’m quite sure that some of us come from backgrounds where that word was overused, similar in spirit maybe to that of Asher Lev. But listen to how the Reformed theologian Neal Plantinga describes sin. He says sin is best understood “as culpable shalom-breaking” (NWSB, 14).

Describing sin as “shalom-breaking” means it is a distortion of a whole and well-ordered creation, the twisting of the goodness of things. It isn’t random, pilled on guilt. Sin interferes with the way things were intended to function. Sin disrupts peaceful flourishing. It inhibits the full use of our gift. The reality is that there are such forces and desires at work within each of us. We are jealous, ashamed, deceitful, distracted and sometimes even violent. We think too little of ourselves and sometimes too much. Sin prevents our good use of God’s gift, this thing we call our life.

Scripture tells us that . . . but we observe it too. All around us is unrealized potential, lives not fully ignited. However, what Scripture also tells us is that this isn’t the most true thing. JesusWhat the writers of Revelation and Daniel, of the gospels and the Torah, the prophets too, what they all claim—what they unveil to us—is that in God’s kingdom things are different. With Christ as our king the power of sin is broken. We are free! Not free to do whatever we want. That is a modern, liberal account of freedom. It is really another form of bondage. That sort of freedom would bind us to the whims of our shifting desires.

Christ the King doesn’t just set us free from sin. He sets us free for making use of the unique gift we each carry. Christ the king sets us free to be the creatures God has called us to be, creatures—male and female, young and old—who bear the image of God. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Paul writes to the Galatians (c.5), “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” We might add, there’s no reason to submit to that yoke, it doesn’t rule us. Jesus the Christ is king.

[1] My Name is Asher Lev (Knopf, 1972).

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