Archive for March, 2015

Reading Ramblings – March 15, 2015

March 8, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Context: We are more than halfway through the Lenten season. Although Holy Week is technically part of the Lenten season, it is celebrated in a different way starting with Palm Sunday, so there is only one more ordinary Sunday in this Lenten season.

Numbers 21:4-9 – This can be a challenging reading. God sending serpents to punish his people is not necessarily an image of God many modern readers are comfortable with. Yet we see a cycle in this reading. This is not the first time God’s people have cried out to him for help. They cried out to him in Egypt, also, when they were being systematically oppressed and killed by their Egyptian masters (Exodus 2:23-25). God rescued them when they cried out. Yet now they complain and cry out to God against his care for them. Despite God providing food and water for them repeatedly in the wilderness, they continue to cry out against him. The serpents are a reminder of the death that they would surely have already suffered in Egypt had God not saved them. Faced with actual death rather than the imagined death they complained of before, God’s people repent. And once again, God provides a rescue for his people.

Psalm 107:1-9 – Verses 1-3 are a straightforward call to praise God. Verse one asserts the goodness of God and verse two invites the worshipers to affirm this truth. The psalm then identifies four separate groups that have received the blessings of God. The reading assigned for today only includes the first group – those who wandered and experienced hunger and thirst. Although not necessarily written with an eye towards Numbers 21, it certainly might hearken back in general to when the people of God wandered in the wilderness. The importance is less the particular struggle (wandering/hunger/thirst), and more so the appropriate response now, on the other side of rescue – thanksgiving to God who provides more than just meat and bread to sate our physical needs, but satisfies our spiritual needs (v.9).

Ephesians 2:1-10 – The theme of God’s mercy in the face of our sinful rebelliousness continues. Paul reminds his hearers/readers that at one time they were indeed enemies of God, their hearts hardened against him in their sinfulness. This is a bold accusation to make, considering at least some of Paul’s hearers/readers are Jews, people who considered themselves in right relationship to God! How might Christians hear these words today, perhaps brought up in the Church and never having known of a particular time in their life when they didn’t know God?

For one, we should remember that there is still the “prince of the power of the air”, the enemy of God who, unable to assault God, contents himself with the suffering and rebellion of God’s creation. If we consider ourselves to be morally neutral without God we are wrong. As Luther stated, we are slaves. We are by nature slaves to the evil leader of this present age, but by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ our chains are broken and we are made slaves in Christ. We are saved, and we were in need of saving – whether we realized it or not. Our present condition of grace through Jesus Christ has nothing to do with our moral character or self-discipline or innate goodness. Rather, it is all to the credit of God the Father through God the Son. We have no room to boast, to feel superior or smug. We have been given everything (vs.6-7), but the emphasis is on the giver, who is God.

But Paul continues after many of us would prefer to stop reading. There is more to the story. We have been given everything in Christ, but we are no longer our own. We are indeed slaves to Christ, with the idea that we are to evidence in our lives the richness of his forgiveness and mercy. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”

John 3:14-21 – Jesus is engaged in a late-night study session with Nicodemus. Jesus’ days are rather full with teaching and the demands of the crowds and his disciples, so perhaps it is only at night that Nicodemus can find Jesus alone and able to talk with him more at length. Jesus identifies himself with the Numbers 21 incident. Jesus himself shows us how to read the Old Testament typologically – seeing in and through the Old Testament references and foreshadowings to Jesus himself.

The event in the wilderness was real and true and historical. It is not a story invented to prove a point but an actual occurrence that mattered a great deal to many people involved. Yet in that real incident, there is a foreshadowing of Christ. The bronze serpent was lifted up as the means of saving those who had been bitten by the snake. Likewise, Jesus himself will be lifted up on the cross, as the means of saving all of us who have been bitten by the snake – Satan and sin. It seems so simple, too easy to our modern ears and eyes used to relying on a pill or an injection. Simply to look up in faith, to trust in the salvation extended, and in that trust to live.

For those who object and balk at the idea of being slaves to Christ (and we all balk at one level or another, sooner or later!), we must remember the nature of Christ. Christ does not come to condemn. We are not slaves with a fearful and terrible master. Rather, Christ comes to save. We are slaves in him who offered himself in exchange for us. We are already dead. Jesus does not arrive in the world to kill those who will not receive him. There is no need for that. Like the people dying of the serpent bites, death is our condition. In being raised up Jesus provides only forgiveness, only grace and hope and life itself. Not condemnation but pardon. Not death but life.

There is nothing we can do or say to add to this. The people dying of serpent bites could only look up towards the bronze serpent and they were saved. We are directed to the elevated Son of God and told to trust and live.

Book Review: Christianity for the Tough-Minded

March 7, 2015

Another book out of the way for my seminar this summer.

Christianity for the Tough-Minded, edited by John Warwick Montgomery

This book is a collection of essays written by various students in the 1960’s.  It appears to have been first published in 1973 and then re-issued in 2001.  All of the essays defend the Biblical Christian faith in a variety of fields: Philosophy and the Scientific Method, Ethics & Society, Religion & Truth, Psychology and Religious Experience, Literature and the World-View, and Christianity and Personal Commitment.  The book is edited by J.W. Montgomery, the founder of the academy I’ll be attending.

The essays are fine, and the arguments they present are good.  The primary problem is that the essays are 50 years old.  The bibliographical citations date back to the early 20th century.  That isn’t to say that the data isn’t true, only that, to a 21st century reader, the material will present as quite antiquated.  It would have strengthened the book immeasurably if the essays – or at least some of them – had been culled from much more recent student work, addressing more current issues.

One of Those Days

March 6, 2015

This borders on being an inspirational bumper-sticker or poster.  A great gem for those of us who grew up with these cartoons!

Stifling the Truth

March 5, 2015

News reports are that Boko Haram has once again slaughtered dozens of people in an isolated village in Nigeria.  I’ve read two stories on the event.  Both stories indicate that the attackers struck during morning prayers.  Neither of the reports indicated whether the victims were Christian or Muslim.  Boko Haram has been known to kill both, though most of the time it is Christians being killed.

Interesting how such a key piece of information can be missing from reports.  Almost as if it was intentionally omitted.

I finally found a BBC report which did not specify the religion of the victims, but did mention that they were found in a mosque.

Reading Ramblings – March 8, 2015

March 1, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday in Lent – March 8, 2015

Texts: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 2:13-22 (23-25)

Context: Our culture tells us constantly that we are better able to choose right from wrong for ourselves. We needn’t – indeed shouldn’t – rely on anyone else to tell us what right and wrong is. Such obedience to an external code demonstrates a lack of individuality or independence. Of course, such an assertion demands adherence and obedience to itself, thereby contradicting the basic premise of individual thought. The Bible tells us that God knows best in all things, including human behavior. When we attempt to displace the laws woven into creation by God himself, we cannot help but err.

Exodus 20:1- 17 – God gives his people the Law at Mt. Sinai after freeing them from slavery. Under the Egyptians their every moment was governed by law – what to do, how to do it, how much of it to do. As slaves they had no freedom, nothing they could call their own. But now, as God’s people, they are free. But freedom must always have limits and constraints or else it becomes a curse, a new form of chain or law. God provides his people with broad parameters under which his people are free to live out their lives in joyful gratitude to the God who delivered them.

If we insist on seeing God’s law as limitations upon our otherwise unfettered freedom, we are unfamiliar or in denial about the nature of the freedoms we choose for ourselves, and the slavery that inevitably arise from them. Only in proper relationship to God can we hope to know and live in proper relationship to one another.

Psalm 19 – The opening six verses of this psalm assert that God as the creator of all things is proclaimed as such through his creation. The very course of the sun through the sky is evidence of the God who created and determined that perfect course under which life might flourish. God’s wisdom in creation is self-evident.

But God’s wisdom is also revealed as He reveals his created order to us. Verses seven through nine provide different words for God’s revealed law, and different benefits to us who receive it – our souls are revived, the simple can become wise, the heart rejoices, and the eyes are enlightened. The value of God’s revealed Word is as self-evident as God’s role as Creator should be self-evident. They are guides to life, and therefore a source of life.

After all, verse 12 asserts, nobody can accurately assess all their sins and faults themselves. We are all prejudiced in our own favor but the revealed Word of God dispenses such prejudice and reveals us as we truly are. In reflecting on God’s Word our way is secured. Our sin is revealed so that we might repent. Forgiveness is offered, and lives are transformed day by day to be more pleasing to our God.

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 – To assert that the Word of God revealed at Mt. Sinai 3500 years ago still has relevance and meaning and value today is ludicrous to our culture – truly folly. Of course it’s OK to live together before marriage! Of course it’s OK to redefine love to mean whatever you want it to! Of course there can’t be one single God and truth!

We nod our heads in agreement, forgetting that it was the Word of God that converted our hearts and minds as well, that taught us God’s truth as opposed to the truth that is sold and converted constantly by the world. We do not assent to the Word of God because we are wise and better than those around us. Rather, we are the weak and foolish ones who, by the grace of God, are being made wise by that very Word of God. We are to remain humble as we cling to the Word of God as the source of our power and wisdom, rather than claiming or assuming glory and wisdom and prestige that is not ours but rather belongs to God. As we remain faithful to God’s revealed Word, God will use his Word through us to bring himself glory and vindication.

John 2:13-22 (23-25) – We will be omitting the optional last three verses from the reading, ending at verse 22. The story of Jesus’ cleansing the Temple is famous. It is easy for us to condemn the money-changers and other vendors as sacrilegious or profane. Yet we ought to admire their efficiency. We ought to admire their ingenuity. Truly they had accomplished a great convenience for the thousands of pilgrims who made their way throughout the year to worship at the Temple and offer sacrifices. The idol of convenience and efficiency is often able to set up shop in the shadow of our greater God!

What decisions do we make in the name of efficiency and convenience? How do we feed those idols rather than guarding carefully the glory and honor of our God? What do we sacrifice in order to make things easier for ourselves? Our culture prizes expediency – how can we be sure that the Church does not begin to operate under the same principles?

Some things cannot be short-cut. Some things can not have their corners cut. Sometimes the time-consuming way is the best. Sometimes holiness is more important than speediness. Worship should not be rushed, and we should constantly be examining our worship practices to make sure that we continue to honor God fully and completely, no matter how old-fashioned those practices might seem.