Why the Old Testament?

February 17, 2020

Why do we have the Old Testament in Scripture?  Or for that matter, why 2000 years of pre-history, 2000 years of history and narrative and genealogy?  Why didn’t God just send Jesus immediately?  Why is the Old Testament in sweeping grandeur and confusion necessary?

It  might sound like a silly question but it’s hardly intended as such, and it’s hardly a new question.  Since at least the early third century serious Christians like Marcion have suggested we could do without the Old Testament.  Many others have thought the same thing since, despite the Church’s insistence that we should keep those Scriptures firmly in place.

I read an article about this in a theological journal recently (starting on pages 24-25).  The author lists ten reasons why he thinks the Old Testament is crucial to Christians today:

  1. The Old Testament grounds us in the physicality of our existence in creation as creatures
  2. It reaffirms physicality, as opposed to the Greek demeaning of the physical in favor of the spiritual and non-material
  3. The Old Testament provides us with an understanding of who God is
  4. The Old Testament prepares for and fleshes  out the Gospel of Jesus Christ
  5. The Old Testament helps us to understand the Holy Spirit
  6. The Old Testament forces us to face the scandal of particularity – the reality that God does not have to operate by democratic principles but rather is free to work in very particular and specific ways, and through very particular and specific people
  7. The Old Testament helps contextualize us in terms of our role in God’s plan of salvation
  8. The Old Testament provides further evidence of God working in a sacramental  way – through physical means
  9. The Old Testament helps protect us from an understanding of the life of faith that is centered almost exclusively in the here and now, the present
  10. The Old Testament is able to treat certain sub-themes of the life of faith that might otherwise be lost

All good points.

I’ll humbly add my 11th to this list.

The Old Testament stands as solid evidence that Satan lies.  Just as he lied to Adam and Eve he lies to us and teaches us to lie to ourselves.  Specifically, he lies to us in leading us to believe sin really isn’t as big an issue as Scripture thinks it is, and that if we just had a bit of help, we could fix it ourselves.  That we might not actually need a savior.

I mean, really.  If we could just get rid of all the bad apples – start off with the very best of us, the most upstanding, the holiest, the godliest, the most righteous – we could be ok.  We could make a fresh start and everything would be just fine.  Oh wait, that was already tried, with Noah.  It didn’t work out so well after all.  Hmmm.

Well, if we just had God present in our midst.  Palpable.  Tangible.  Visible.  If He would just show himself and prove his reality through his presence, we’d straighten up and fly right, no doubt.  Certainly that would be enough to ensure we lived the way we should, in harmony with one another and in grateful obedience to our Creator.  Then everything would be just fine. Oh, wait, that was already tried, with the Israelites in the wilderness.  It didn’t work out so well after all, and not only that, we tend to try and blame God as being harsh and smite-y.  Hmmm.

Well, if God would just put all his people in one place, all the people who love him and know him, all together in one big place.  A country.  And not just any country, but a country with a government hand-picked by God.  A government based upon God’s Word and rule.  A government dedicated to making sure the people of God could live their lives out in faithfulness and obedience.  Then everything would be just fine.  Oh wait, that was tried with the monarchy and the nation of Israel. It didn’t work out so well.  Hmmmm.

Well, if God would just send Jesus back to us, so we could be with him.  Live with him.  Work with him.  Listen to him preach and teach.  Watch him heal the sick – maybe even have him heal some of our own sicknesses.  Watch him drive out demons and command the wind and the waves.  Well certainly then, that’s all we need.  Then  we would understand and not have to be so confused about everything.  Then everything would be just fine.  Oh wait, that was done also, and his disciples were confused throughout his entire ministry and up to and after his death.

Not until the resurrection of the incarnate Son of God did his disciples begin to understand.  Not until they had already been saved did they really begin to comprehend just how deeply and completely they needed a Savior.  Needed to be saved.  That no amount of right conditions could ever substitute for the God who would die to save his creation.  Who would die for us at our worst so that we could have the promise and hope of being our best.

Scripture – Old and New Testaments – gives us so many things, but one of the things I rarely hear discussed is that gift of experience.  A  reminder that we aren’t as smart as we think we are, let alone as good as we like to imagine.  A reminder that we need nothing less than a Savior, and God has provided nothing less than that in his Son, Jesus.

So keep reading the Old Testament.  There are at least eleven good reasons to do so.  What would you add as number 12?

 

 

Reading Ramblings – February 23, 2020

February 16, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: The Transfiguration of Our Lord – February 23, 2020

Texts: Exodus 24:8-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Context: Meeting with God. Perhaps there is no greater fear or desire. To stand in the presence of the Creator of the Universe, of our maker, tangibly and palpably is something people have run from or run towards since the Sixth Day. Some might look forward to having their questions answered, their hurts healed, their losses restored. Some might imagine themselves standing there defiantly before God demanding answers and explanations, furious for his allegedly mysterious ways of working. Scripture emphasizes that when God meets with his broken creation, what is more noticeable is the power of God’s presence. It is unmistakable and unlike any other experience in this world. And when God does choose to meet with his creation here and now, while we are still broken and sinful, we are in no way in any position to make demands, only to accept what He has to offer, or to reject it after He leaves.

Exodus 24:8-18 – Perhaps one of the most perplexing theophanies in Scripture. That these men could sit and eat with God?! How to explain this in light of God’s clear words in Exodus 33:20 that nobody (in their sinful state) can see God and live? Some maintain that those who dined with God never dared to look higher than the ground, and therefore the account in today’s reading only describes the ground and his feet. But I hold with those who interpret this not as God the Father, but God the Son. Only the Incarnate Son of God has feet that we could describe as standing upon a glorified ground. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are never described in this fashion. Having entered into proper relationship with God through his offered covenant and been literally marked with blood (v.8), God reveals himself. Note the emphasis in the second half of this reading on how the presence of God is described, chiefly in terms of a cloud wherein dwells the glorious presence of God. This mountaintop meeting with God in the cloud is clearly the precursor to Jesus’ Transfiguration.

Psalm 2 – The assigned reading omits the first two verses of this psalm, but the psalm is so short, and the thrust of it so unified, that there seems little need to skip those first two verses. So I’m not :-) Frankly, we need those first two verses. Otherwise, we’re inclined to nod our heads in agreement with the rest of the psalm without recognizing that we are all too often part of the nations that rage in vain, taking counsel against the Lord and his anointed. Though the Gospel reconciles us to God the Father through his anointed, the Incarnate Son of God Jesus the Christ, we would be wise to remember there is an alternative to reconciliation. However that is not another form of righteousness, but outright rebellion. There are only two conditions – reconciled or rebellious. And unless we receive the gift of God in his Anointed, there is no way for us to achieve or reach reconciliation on our own. We will remain in rebellion, which has very definite and eternal consequences. Yet the psalm ends on that positive, gospel note – we who have been reconciled are blessed! We need not fear the King’s anger or wrath because we have been delivered from it!

2 Peter 1:16-21 – In the opening of his letter Peter directs his hearers to cultivate God-pleasing qualities on top of their faith in Jesus Christ. Failure to earnestly seek this out demonstrates a spiritual blindness that risks forgetting the new lives they have received in Christ. His exhortations are not based in some supposed spiritual superiority, or from the fact that he has already perfected these qualities himself. Rather, he exhorts them because he is a direct witness to the Lord Jesus Christ. His exhortations to them are based in his experience with Jesus, and in particular in the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God during his Transfiguration. This is Peter’s only basis for exhorting others, as it is the only and ultimate rationale for calling a quality good and seeking to cultivate it. Peter recognizes – by the power of the Holy Spirit – that Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture and prophecy, and understands that such prophecies were given for this specific purpose – that the Christ might be known when He came, rather than expecting people to trust simply the word of someone claiming to be the Messiah.

Matthew 17:1-9 – In order to fully appreciate this scene, we need to train ourselves to focus on the full scene and not just on Jesus’ personal transfiguration. Reading this in light of the reading from Exodus 24 helps with that. Note the similarities in setting – in both cases followers of God are led up onto a mountain. In both cases the mountain is covered in a cloud. In both cases only a select few followers are invited up the mountaintop. In both cases the voice of God is heard. The parallels between Moses and Jesus would not be lost on Jesus’ disciples. Yet nowhere does God call Moses his Son. Clearly what is happening with Jesus is on a much larger scale than what happened with Moses. Jesus’ disciples are not invited to a meal but rather offer to build shelters. But Peter’s well-intentioned offer is rejected, and God the Father redirects Peter to what he is being given – the Son, to whom they should listen. Many years later Peter writing in 1 Peter recalls that event, recalls that experience on the mountaintop, that disclosure of Jesus as the divine Son of God and the Father’s directive to listen to him as authoritative not just for Peter but for everyone. Who could invent such a tale? Who could invent such a tale and expect others to believe him? But if there was any doubt about the full significance of the Transfiguration, the Resurrection would help to clarify further, and Pentecost would finally fully reveal not just the identity or the significance of Jesus as the Incarnate Son of God, but the intent for this Son of God for all humanity.

We should not take the witness of the apostles piecemeal, just as we shouldn’t take the incidents and teachings in the Gospels piecemeal, Sunday by Sunday, out of context and in no relationship to one another. Rather, they are part of a whole, an accumulation of words and miracles and revelations culminating in death and resurrection and ascension, and in the as-yet-unfulfilled promise of his return. The Transfiguration is not just an oddity, but part of this whole tapestry or garment, and one that, like Jesus’ clothes on that mountaintop, is filled with the very glory of the Son of God, and speaks of the eternal pleasure of God the Father in his obedient Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit.

Proportionate Love

February 14, 2020

Very interesting bit of Valentine’s Day news – for a change.  Delta Airlines announced they are giving their 90,000 workers a cumulative bonus of $1.6 billion dollars.  The details don’t indicate whether this is a one-time thing or part of an ongoing profit-sharing program.

Curious monkey that I am, I ran the math.  The video indicates every one of the 90,000 employees will get an additional two months worth of pay.  If you divide $1.6 billion dollars by 90,000 employees, it comes out to just shy of $18,000 each.  Sounds impressive!  Divide that by two, and you get a monthly salary of nearly $9000, or a salary of $108,000 year.

Managers and other specialized and upper-level administration types may get $108,000 a year (or more), but many employees get paid half that.  Or less.  So many employees will end up with a two-month salary bonus of $7000 or so.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still an amazing thing to do and undoubtedly a huge help to many employees and their families.  But it would have been fascinating if they had just divided the $1.6 billion up equally among all their employees.  It would have meant that top earners – like CEO Ed Bastian, who pulls in tens of millions of dollars a year in salary – wouldn’t much notice the extra dollars (and could have added a PR bonus by not taking the bonus himself!).  But it would mean the lowest paid workers would get a bonus that could really make a huge difference in their lives (either for better or worse, to be sure).  I imagine when you earn $20 million or more a year not many bonuses make too big a difference in your immediate living situation.  But if you’re making $15/hour, wow.  A $17,000 windfall (before taxes, of course, which could be challenging to some unprepared for that hit) could be a real game changer.

Likely Bastian is stinging a bit from last year’s exchange with Bernie Sanders, who accused Bastian and Delta of enriching themselves at the expense of poorly paid lowest-tier employees.  If Bastian had really wanted to do so in style, an across the board, equal bonus for everyone would have really made a statement.

 

 

Apocrypha: The Prayer of Manasseh

February 12, 2020

Manasseh ruled Judah in the seventh century BC, and his reign is described in 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33, and in the latter record it is noted that Manasseh prayed to God in repentance.  Scholars don’t believe this work is authentic as it doesn’t exist in either ancient Hebrew texts or the Greek version, the Septuagint.  But again it seems to be religious imagination, the work of someone who noticed a reference to Manasseh’s prayer, and even the notation the prayer was recorded in a separate work (which is lost to us thus far).  While this could be that lost record, it seems less likely to be so.

One of the challenges in the text is that it asserts the patriarchs were without sin – yet Genesis is clear that this is not the case.  It’s possible this statement is intended not as theological fact but as a description of Manasseh’s greatness of sin compared with other people of God, but it’s a bit of a stretch if so.

Apocrypha: The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Holy Children

February 11, 2020

This is another piece that attempts to link itself to canonical Old Testament book of Daniel.  However there is no textual evidence indicating this was ever part of the original book of Daniel.  There are internal issues as well that indicate it was likely authored long after the events of Daniel.  Verse 15 makes reference to a cessation of offerings or perhaps even inability to access the Temple for prayers, something that was not in issue for Daniel – at least when he first went into exile.  This verse and linguistic issues lead some scholars to theorize this was written in the 2nd century BC as issues with Greek kings – particularly Antiochus IV Epiphanes – made worship in the Temple impossible for a period of time.

Once again as I read this I’m led to see this easily as religious fiction.  Someone imagining what it must have been like to be thrown into the furnace, only to discover the miraculous preservation of God (Daniel 3)!  First a prayer from Azariah (Abednego) acknowleding the sin of God’s people as the cause for their rightful discipline in exile.  Then a longer, extended hymn of praise to God as his angel shelters them from the flames.  Once again it adds nothing to existing Scripture, though it doesn’t detract from it or contradict it either and has a certain beauty to it.

Meanwhile, in Britain…

February 10, 2020

Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, has been banned from a speaking tour in Britain because all seven of the venues he was scheduled to speak at have cancelled.  Lawmakers there several years ago wanted to deny Graham a visa to enter the country.  At issue is the Biblical stance on gender and sexuality which Graham has the audacity to adhere to.

What’s really disturbing is not just how quickly society and culture have changed in the last century.  I mean, Billy Graham visited Britain many times between 1955 and 1989, where millions of people came out to listen to him.  Billy Graham met with Queen Elizabeth on several occasions over the course of his career, and was knighted in 2001.  One wonders if he would be as warmly welcomed today.  Based on his son’s treatment, I’d wager not.  The Queen’s silence on this current manifestation is telling.

But the more disturbing thing is that Christianity and the Bible are being redefined by a small but vocal group of Christians who wish to eradicate clear Biblical teaching on gender and sexuality.  Nearly 2000 years of nearly unanimous teaching and doctrine in this regard are being classified as hate speech because of a small group of Christians in the past few decades who have decided they are free to make such an assertion.

The Church should welcome LGBTQ people.  As the church should welcome adulterers, liars, thieves, murderers, and, well, everyone.  Sin is sin.  The problem is when a small group decides the Bible can be ignored regarding sin.  That we are free to declare sin as not-sin.   That current public opinion overrides the Word of God.

Sinners need to hear the Word of God, because only there will they find the cure for sin and the death it leads to.  That solution is not a demotion of sin to a lesser or non-existent issue, or to determine some sins are no longer sinful.  Jesus is clear this is not acceptable (Matthew 5:17-20).  So I would welcome all kinds of sinners to come and hear the Word of God.  All of that Word.  Because that Word has power, as I suspect those who rejected Graham understand.  Because that Word diagnoses us with a terrible and lethal condition to which there is only on cure.

The cure for sin and the death it leads to are in repentance and trust in the resurrected Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.  Simply declaring we are no longer in need of a cure, or that we can dictate the cure on our terms arbitrarily is ridiculous.  Only when the underlying assumption is that there is no such God and therefore no Word of God and no Savior can we possibly presume to override God’s Word.  The results of this are and will continue to be disastrous.

Telling people what they are doing is sinful is no more hateful than a doctor diagnosing a patient with cancer.  Certainly some Christians and congregations do this poorly.  But to pretend people aren’t dying from sin – whatever that sin might be – is as unloving as a doctor holding back the prognosis from someone with cancer so their feelings aren’t hurt.

Franklin Graham may not get to preach in Britain, but the Word of God continues to go out in myriad forms and through myriad channels.  And when all is said and done, that Word will be the only and final word that stands.  May the world continue to seek solace and peace there, now and eternally.

Reading Ramblings – February 16, 2020

February 9, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany ~ February 16, 2020

Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

Context: The Word of God. It guides us in life and to life. It is the only reliable baseline definition of good and evil. The only unchanging rule to which we can entrust ourselves completely. But when we think we have mastered the Word, plumbed the depths of what it tells us and gives us and commands us, we find there is so much more still to hear, receive, and obey. The Word gives comfort but never a comfort grounded in our ears or hands or hearts, but only in the Son of God who, as He told us himself last week, comes to fulfill the Law and prophets because we cannot.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 – Moses’ parting words to the people of God he has reluctantly led for decades in the wilderness are coming to an end. Moses will shortly end his address, dictate the Law to be written down, and indicate Joshua as his successor. Then he will praise God, bless God’s people one final time, and make his way one last time up a mountain to gaze on the inheritance he cannot receive but the people will. He has seen, prophetically, much of what will happen in the years and decades and centuries to come. He knows God’s people will continue to disobey, continue to take for granted his mercies, continue to rebel in their hearts. He exhorts them, though, as a true prophet must, in spite of what else he might know. He exhorts them to life, and life is found only in obedient relationship to the God who created them. There will be many ideas in the centuries to come about what is right or wrong, prudent or rash. Many different voices claiming to know the way, the truth, or the life. But only the commandments of God can offer a reliable guide. They alone are trustworthy – more so than even the best of intentions which might seek to set them aside just briefly. To follow them means life. To ignore them means death. It doesn’t get any simpler or clearer, though it may not always be easy.

Psalm 119:1-8 – The great acrostic psalm, all 176 verses sprawled across 22 octets, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet and all extolling the word of God. Truly God’s word is the reliable source of right and wrong, and the one who can follow it perfectly would be truly and completely blessed! Yet the best we can do is resolve to be obedient and steadfast in our resolution.. But our resolve is weak and our resolution often fails us, leaving us to cry to God for mercy, and not to forsake us in our sin. It is not by looking to our own obedience that we can have confidence in God’s abiding mercy, though. For that we need to look to Jesus, to the only one to perfectly fulfill the Word of God, and to offer his perfect obedience to us through our baptism in faith.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 – Unfortunately this is the last piece of 1 Corinthians we will read in order as part of the lectio continua. Transfiguration Sunday next week is the last regular Sunday before Lent begins, when our readings will focus us towards Holy Week and our Lord’s great sacrifice on our behalf. Paul’s words last week warning against the untrustworthiness of worldly wisdom compared to the folly of Christ crucified allows him to circle back to what he started to talk about at the start of his letter in Chapter 1 – the divisions among the Corinthians based on which evangelist or apostle different people followed or preferred. Such divisions are not the mind of Christ (2:16) but reveal a very immature worldliness. Rather than accepting the things of the Spirit they cling to their human ways of evaluating things – judging the message in part by the eloquence of the messenger. Paul is serious here. He fully expects the Corinthians – who possess the Holy Spirit in faith – to be able to listen to the Holy Spirit’s leading and discern the Holy Spirit’s wisdom. Their inability to do this is not because they are not equipped otherwise, but because they insist on clinging to the ways of the world. Paul is building to a point – it isn’t just that the Corinthians have preferences among evangelists and apostles. The reality is that many of them have decided that Paul – who brought them the Gospel initially – should be replaced in this place of honor with others who are more handsome or more well-spoken. Paul’s apostolic authority is being challenged, and before he can call the Corinthians to obedience in the remainder of his letter he needs to remind them of not just who he is but who called him to his ministry. It is the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ that supercedes all other words, and it is Christ himself who calls Paul to be his messenger, and the Corinthians should think twice before they decide they don’t need to listen to him any longer.

Matthew 5:21-37 – Jesus has just warned his disciples and the crowd around them not to place their confidence and faith in their obedience of the Law. Undoubtedly they all nod their heads. Of course their confidence is in the grace and mercy of God! But then Jesus begins to speak to these children of God, this chosen people. You have heard it said you shall not murder. Of course they have heard. And already their hearts rise in pride. We have obeyed this command! We have never murdered! Then Jesus continues, But I say to you and the pride disappears into uncertainty and fear. Is that what God means? Not just what I do but what I think and feel? This is not good news.

Jesus is not finished yet. You have heard it said you shall not commit adultery. Again this crowd of religious people nod their heads. Perhaps not as many of them, but most of them. We’ve never committed adultery. And once again Jesus continues But I say to you…and again fear and ashes where a moment ago was pride and confidence.

We know we aren’t to place our confidence in our own righteousness but we secretly do, checking and comparing with others, assuming we stack up just as well and perhaps a bit better. We run for the cover of grace and forgiveness in our failures, but easily hop on our high horses again when we’re feeling better, more confident in our righteousness. But this too is forgiven. This too is laid on our Savior who comes to do what we cannot so we might be saved. The Law works on us, drives us to despair and confession and the sweet absolution and forgiveness that come only from the Gospel of Jesus Christ and never from our own righteousness.

We must read this section of Jesus’ teaching linked to the previous section and the previous assertion that the Law does not pass away and we dare not attempt to lay it aside for ourselves or others, but rather look to the one who fulfilled it completely.

Dreadfully Disappointed

February 8, 2020

My post the other day generated more than a few comments from people who know me personally.  Worry.  Potential offense.  I’m reminded that it’s impossible to control how someone else hears what you say, a lesson learned in homiletics and years in front of classrooms and now years in the pulpit.  Sometimes it works in your favor and sometimes it doesn’t.  Words are tricky things, as are ears and hearts.  I’m grateful for the concerned feedback, a reminder that as often as it feels as though I’m shouting into a void, these words are being heard in different places and different ears, some of them close at hand.

Dreadfully disappointed is a powerful phrase.  In a culture that demands a facile self-confidence, to express disappointment in oneself is less and less commonplace.  In our drive to replace genuine hope with vague, unmerited self-congratulatory honors, where everyone wins a prize even though every player knows darn well who actually won, our psychological radars go off when someone says something negative about themselves.

So while I have clarified my original post somewhat, the statement remains.  There are moments – not a continuity of existence but certainly moments – when I am dreadfully disappointed.  Dreadfully aware of how much more I could and should be.  Better son, better husband, better father, better pastor, better neighbor.  When I’m aware that such sentiments are probably what Martin Luther struggled with in some sense but I know I’m not a good enough linguist or theologian to employ the German word he used to describe it.

More shortcomings.

If only I had studied Latin.  And German.  And more Greek and Hebrew.  If only I read more non-stop, except for those non-stop moments of fulfilling all my other vocational hats.  To  be smarter, more eloquent, a better example…there are moments when the weight of those cumulative shortcomings hangs heavy and then passes.  I see that heaviness in others sometimes.  Something dull behind the eyes and in the tone of voice.  Sometimes we just need to acknowledge where we are and who we are.   Not necessarily so that others can talk us out of it, but so that others can stand with us.

There are moments when everything is just right – including myself.  When there is harmony and unity and things are easy.  There are moments of confidence.  But there are also moments of dreadful disappointment.  Of a desire to be more, and a wondering when such longings and disappointments will pass.

I know when they will.  A day of trumpets and clouds, a day of shouts and songs and cries.  A day when body and soul are reunited and when they are finally whole and one and perfect.  A day of deliverance, the final judgment and the final verdict before an eternity – finally – of peace I can’t even know how to desire properly now.  That’s what the Body of Christ encourages one another towards and with.  More than just slapping a smiley face sticker on someone, but simply acknowledging that this too shall one day pass.  By the grace of God and the Word that became flesh to understand my dreadful disappointment and bury it forever.

Praying for Your Pastor

February 6, 2020

Self-improvement is hard.  Mostly because it is rarely something imposed on us.  Perhaps pastors are unique in this to some degree.  Once they’ve run the gauntlet of seminary (assuming such a gauntlet is necessary to their ordination), they graduate, are examined, ordained, installed, and then pretty much left with the assumption they are doing the right thing.  Continuing education is something encouraged and exhorted to in seminary and by ecclesiastical supervisors and leaders, but at least in my denominational circles, it’s not something that is enforced.  It could be, but it isn’t.

For those of us with an acute awareness of our faults and shortcomings, self-improvement and continuing education are necessary.  I can’t avoid it for very long because I’m so dreadfully disappointed with who I am.  Perhaps this is a unique function of making the Word my vocation.  That I can never get away from the reminder that regardless of how the world perceives me and even how I’d like to think of myself, God knows better, and when I am honest with myself, so do I.  Perhaps another seminary will help.  Another book.  Another degree.  Another experiential sort of thing.  There is always so much more to learn.  So much more to master.  So much more to become, that who I already am pales in comparison.

So it is that I ordered a couple of books on preaching this week and have begun reading both of them.  The first is Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy-Tale.  While there are places we differ significantly theologically (particularly in regards to what Scripture is), he has already breathtakingly demonstrated what a woeful story-teller I am through a breathtaking character development of Pontius Pilate just prior to asking Jesus What is truth?  (John 18:38).

The second book is One Year to Better Preaching: 52 Exercises to Hone Your Skills.  I’m not sure how helpful it will be (I’m only on the second exercise).  The first exercise was to create a group to pray for me as I’m working on  the sermon through the week.

At first, I wanted to skip over this.  I know my people pray for me.  I’m grateful for this.  But it’s hardly an exercise for me to hone my skills.  The author suggests a small group who covenant to pray for me through the week, and each week I send out reminders to them on a daily basis of how they can specifically pray that week.  It’s a good reminder that pastors need prayer and sermons need prayer and even though I balked at first, I’m going to ask my prayer group for some volunteers to take this on.

But he referred to a great little essay on the topic of How to Pray for Your Pastor on Saturday.  And while I don’t know much about the author of this article, at  the very least he does an admirable job of describing the issues a pastor faces on Saturday and also on Sunday morning leading up to worship and delivering a sermon.  In particular, his description of what it is like to step up into the pulpit and survey the congregation and how that can impact the pastor powerfully in those final seconds before opening his mouth and starting to preach is noteworthy.

I do need prayer.  So do pastors everywhere.  Speaking the Word of God to the people of God is risky business.  It’s risky when they all love you and risky when they don’t.  So if you don’t already, pray for your pastor, that he do his job well and faithfully whether you like what he will say or not.

 

The Holy Spirit

February 5, 2020

One of the best parts of my job is conversations with people about faith and life and how they intersect (everywhere).  It’s unfortunate if people are made to feel that asking questions is somehow unfaithful (or just threatening).  We don’t always have answers for things, but we can be honest when that’s the case.  But discussion and honesty is crucial to growth and health in the life of  faith.

I communicate pretty regular with a young man who attended our church for  a short time before relocating.  In our recent flurry of communications, he raised the vexing issue that many in the Church struggle  with as they read the Bible – why is it that the early Church (particularly described in the Book of Acts) experienced so many miracles of the Holy Spirit while many, many congregations don’t see those things today?  Is there something wrong with our theology that makes it harder for the Holy Spirit to work in our congregations than in other sorts of congregations where manifestations of the works of the Holy Spirit are not only welcome but expected?

It’s an interesting question.  Interesting in part because this past Saturday evening as I struggled to finalize the sermon for Sunday I was treated to the very loud preaching of the pastor of the Hispanic Pentecostal congregation that leases access to our sanctuary.  They were having some sort of special service and the sound system was on full blast.  I listened as he preached for at least an hour after I arrived.  My Spanish is quite poor so I understood very little of what he said, but what he said seemed to be rather repetitive and notable not necessarily so much for what he was saying as how he was saying it.  Yellings, growlings, shoutings, cries of agony, all responded to in growing fervor by his congregants with Amens and Hallelujahs.

Hills of emotional exhortations would be crested and descended from only to rise up another, larger one until the final exhortations, when the congregation was now in a constant state of loud wailings and prayers and other emotional responses.  Music began to play.  Those  who wanted to sing sang for a while while others (mostly male) exited into the hallway just outside my door to anticipate the meal that would follow.  Whatever emotional and spiritual ecstasies were just experienced seemed to have vanished into the banter of friendly conversation in Spanish and English.  The pastor himself, who just moments earlier seemed on the brink of emotional break-down as he preached, now could be heard laughing and joking with his members as though nothing had happened.  Or as though whatever had happened had been sufficient.  Now it was time to relax and enjoy the meal together.

I am not a Pentecostal.  Nor can I or will I attempt to determine whether the Holy Spirit was moving either the preaching or the response.  I trust the Holy Spirit was present, but delineating between what is the Holy Spirit’s actual workings and what are our workings on behalf of the Holy Spirit is a discernment I don’t dare attempt.

But I can admit the experience was baffling to me.  Because I presume that to some degree each worship service is more or less like this one.  Building to an emotional and spiritual catharsis.  Perhaps of repentance and sorrow and rededication to the Christian life.  In some part the emotional and spiritual experience is the goal, the measure of whether the service was good or  not, the preacher was good or not.  I presume at some level this is linked to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  If the Holy Spirit moved you, then all is well, regardless of what comes after.  If He didn’t, either there’s a problem  in you or in the service/pastor.

I welcome correction on this if these assumptions are incorrect.

There’s an expectation that the Holy Spirit will not only show up but move and act in particular ways.  Which gets at  what my young friend was asking about a few days later.  Why doesn’t the Holy Spirit do this more often?  Why are we tempted to mock Christians who claim He does?

I think the confusion comes when we ascribe to the Church those things rightly ascribed only to the Holy Spirit.  Is the Holy Spirit present?  Yes.  Always.  I (as a Christian) don’t have to invite him to be here or hope He’ll show up.   I have been told by the Son of God himself He is present.  He is at work.  But how He works is up to him, not me, not a congregation, and not a denomination.

The disciples didn’t sit around and plan out Pentecost.  They didn’t determine how big the tongues of flame would be or how loud the sound like rushing wind would be.  They didn’t allocate who would be speaking in which languages.  They had no idea what was coming or how the Holy Spirit would work.  What’s more, they had no  idea what would result.  Thousands of converts.

As much as congregations talk about wanting growth, I can’t imagine that many if any congregations desire the kind of growth that happened that Pentecost.  Imagine 3000 people showing up for worship  Sunday morning.  Where are they going to sit?  How many services are you going to provide to accommodate that many converts?  How many times is the pastor willing or able to preach?  What about the altar guild or the folks who set up Communion?  Pretty sure Walmart doesn’t sell disposable Communion cups.  Where are you going to get that much wine on such short notice?

The early Church adapted to the way the Holy Spirit  worked but they couldn’t plan for it or predict it.  We  are in the same situation today.  The Holy Spirit can and will do what He wants.  We must and will adapt to whatever He does.  In the meantime, we’re going on with our lives, both individually and as the Church.  We make our plans and our decisions using the best information we have available, knowing at any point the Holy Spirit could render those plans obsolete or irrelevant or inadequate.  Thanks be to God!  But we don’t presume we can plan out the Holy Spirit’s activity and the results.

I’m pretty sure Luke bothers to record the miracles in the Book of Acts because they were exceptional!  They happened over a several year time-frame and in different locations and ways.  Nowhere am I given the expectation they will happen on a predictable basis, or their distribution curves will be in any way predictable.  My faithfulness is not a leash on the Holy Spirit.  Nor is my faithfulness an abdication of my duties in anticipation of divine intervention.

I can’t predict how or where or when the Holy Spirit will work.  Beyond pointing to the glory of God and the creation of faith, I can’t even speak to the why.  But what I can do is struggle to maintain the tension between affirming his presence and power and dictating what that will look and feel like.  It’s not a particularly enjoyable tension, but it seems to be Biblical.  God’s people respond in faith and trust to his gifts of life and salvation, but must leave the details of those things on a larger scale to his wisdom and means while being faithful in living out our lives as his people.