Archive for June, 2019

Reading Ramblings – June 16, 2019

June 9, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Holy Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019

Texts: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Acts 2:14a, 22-36; John 8:48-59

Context: Confusion about the nature of the Trinity has likely always existed, though it rose to dangerous heights in the early centuries of the Church. Seeking to make Christianity more compatible with Greek philosophy and logic, Arius of Alexandria preached that the Son of God was the first creation of God the Father, not truly, equally divine with the Father. After all, this made much more sense than the notion that one God could exist in three distinct, co-equal persons. The Church rightly refuted his ignoring of Scripture (John 10:30), and sought to more clearly articulate what could and could not be said about the Triune God as described in Old Testament Scriptures, the recorded teachings of Jesus, and the writings of the Apostles now constituting the New Testament. It remains a slippery topic. Holy Trinity Sunday evolved over many centuries, finally officially instituted in the 13th century under Pope John XXII, and elevated to higher office in the Roman Catholic calendar in 1911 by Pope Pius X.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 – This text was formative to Arius’ position that Jesus is synonymous with wisdom here, and that these verses therefore teach that the Son of God is the first creation of God the Father, prior to all other creation. However these verses in the larger context of Proverbs set forth one of the two main female metaphors in the book, Lady Wisdom, who is to be sought out by the young man (1:8) as opposed to her alternative, the adulteress woman who appears in many chapters, enticing people to sin and ultimately to death. Lady Wisdom calls from the gates of the town, in full witness of all citizens, with nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of, and offers her wisdom to any and all. Wisdom is one of the many aspects or attributes of God. Wisdom cannot be thought of separately from God, as He is the source and definition of all things and all attributes. As such, in the act of creating, wisdom is bound up and into creation. Those who abide by the wisdom of God woven into us and everything around us are in better harmony with our Creator. God’s wisdom cannot be separated out from creation, as though it were one option of many.

Psalm 8 – A psalm of praise of God the Father in his role as creator, a common theme in the psalms and throughout Scripture. Who is God? God is the one who created heaven and earth. While God is to be praised for his many acts of mercy and grace throughout creation history, it is creation itself that is the beginning point for our worship of him and our experience of him. It is unique in all the Biblical songs of praise, in that it from beginning to end is directly and exclusively addressed directly to God. While verse 2 is problematic for interpretation, the sense of it points to God’s exclusive creative role, placing him above any possible foe or opponent, and therefore making hope and faith in him consistent. Eventually this psalm becomes interpreted as referring to Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God who receives glory and dominion because of his obedience to the Father. God the Father has created, has developed his plan of salvation which God the Son is obedient to by the power of God the Holy Spirit. The Son’s obedience to death has earned him the glory of dominion now given him by the Creator of all things.

Acts 2:14a, 22-36 -The second half of Peter’s Pentecost speech turns from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to the identity and role of the Son of God Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth. Peter preaches the resurrection of Jesus as the proof and evidence of his claims to divinity and equality with God the Father. Peter alludes in passing to the compelling demonstrations of power associated with Jesus (v.22), but no mention of any of Jesus’ particular teachings. It is not simply the teaching of Jesus that is compelling, as though faith is ultimately wrought by his moral admonitions or ethical exhortations. Rather, faith is placed ultimately in his death and resurrection. The two must go together, and the latter must predominate. It is easy to die. Rising from the dead is considerably harder! So if God the Father has raised Jesus from the dead, it is a vindication of everything He said and did, and we are right to put our faith and trust in him. By the power of the Holy Spirit, faith moves back from the resurrection backwards to what Jesus preached and did. Resurrection is the conviction of those who put him to death, that they were wrong, dead wrong, and Jesus was right.

John 8:48-59 – In order to pick up the intended direction of Jesus’ rebuttals, it’s important to read the middle section of Chapter 8. In verse 33 the Jewish leaders attempt to refute Jesus’ assertion that they are in need of being set free through reference to Abraham. They are not stupid and are not simply ignoring hundreds of years of history in which God’s people have been slaves – to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians, to the Persians, to the Greeks, and now to the Romans. Rather, they mean they are free from the blindness of the world because of the promise and word of God revealed first to Abraham and later to his descendants. Jesus continues to use their mention of Abraham in vs. 33ff as he contrasts the Jewish leaders plotting to kill Jesus with Abraham who actually listened when God spoke to him. The implication is that because Jesus is speaking the word of God, they should listen to him instead of plotting against him.

Their defense where our reading picks up today is that of course they should not be listening to Jesus. Jesus is not speaking the Word of God, but rather speaks the lies and half-truths of a demon or one like a Samaritan who does not follow the fullness of the Law or worship God properly in the Temple. Now the Jewish leaders take up Abraham again. Jesus claims that those who listen to him won’t die! Yet Abraham listened to God – as Jesus reminded them in v. 40. Abraham is certainly dead, however! Dead and dust by now! Other examples of God’s faithful who died abound. Consider the prophets – they died as well, as do all people. Surely Jesus can’t be claiming to be greater than Abraham and the prophets of God! But what Jesus is doing is asserting that while Abraham and the prophets died, they are not dead. They are dead to us, but not to God. So it is that when Moses asks God to identify himself in Exodus 3, God responds that He is the God of Moses’ forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. God does not say I was the God of your forefathers, but asserts that He is the God of the forefathers. The relationship is current and active. He is, as He speaks to Moses, still the God of these people because while they are dead to Moses, they are not dead to God. Jesus utilizes this concept in a different context, recorded in Matthew 22 and concerning the resurrection of the dead.

But Jesus advances the thought further. The relationship is not simply between God the Father and Abraham. Jesus has a relationship with Abraham as well, one in which Abraham is alive and capable of rejoicing and observing/seeing. Perhaps this means that Abraham is alive to see the Son of God Incarnate, carrying out the work of redemption that will lead to the undoing of sin, death, and the power of Satan. How can this be possible? Jesus young! No, Jesus isn’t. He’s much older than that. In fact, He predates Abraham. And his words, I am at the end of v.58 are the words used by God to Moses in Exodus 3, the holy name of God. Jesus here claims to be one with the Father, one with the God of the Old Testament. He claims no less than co-existence and co-equality with the God of the Old Testament, an offense punishable by death, and v.59 demonstrates that the Jewish leadership understood very well the claim that Jesus was making.

It is not possible to treat Jesus as a misunderstood moral leader. He claims to be God, and this is not the sort of claim ethical teachers make, because it would make them liars. Unless Jesus actually is divine, in which case He isn’t lying, He’s far more than one of many moral models, and we would be wise to put our faith and trust in him as the source of our forgiveness and reconciliation with God!

Book Review: Peculiar Speech

June 6, 2019

Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized by William H. Willimon

 

This was another suggested text for the preaching workshop I attended in Chicago this week.

(As an aside, if you preach regularly to the people of God, consider checking out this resource – Craft of Preaching.  They sponsored the event, but also provide some good theological resources for those called to proclaim God’s Word.)

This is a fantastic book.  Willimon’s style is enjoyable.  He’s a deeply intelligent man able to convey his ideas in understandable ways without sounding condescending.  He has some fantastic things to think about if you preach to the people of God, not the least of which is to remember that you are preaching to the baptized, to people who are ostensibly the people of God.

My one complaint is that – particularly towards the end of the book – Willimon drifts increasingly into ideas of the Church as adversarial to the powers and structures of the world.  Of course this is true.  But choosing to be adversarial rather than simply preaching the love of God the Father in God the Son Jesus Christ through the power of God the Holy Spirit can be problematic. Yes, the Church must never allow itself to be coopted by the powers of this world (something the Church is very poor  at), but we must also as the Church proclaim the truth and reality of Romans 13.  The Gospel is subversive by its very nature, but if we begin to glory in that adversarial quality, we risk sins of pride and disobedience.  It is truly a difficult line to walk sometimes, particularly in times where the expectation of defiant and inflammatory rhetoric tempts us to grandstand.

Otherwise, there is a lot of good food for thought here if you preach on a regular basis!

Book Review – Justification is for Preaching

June 5, 2019

Justification is for Preaching, Edited by Virgil Thompson

I recently attended a preaching workshop in Chicago.  It was a great workshop, but like most workshops, if there’s a reading list, the workshop is more or less a rehash of prominent ideas from the reading list.  This workshop was no exception, which is both good and bad.

This was one of the suggested texts, a collection of essays in a jubilee volume celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Lutheran Quarterly.   As with many such collections, the essays vary greatly in tone and helpfulness, ranging from the very esoteric and academic to wonderfully applicable theological nuggets.  If you’re a fan of Oswald Bayer or Gerhard O. Forde, they figure prominently and repeatedly in this collection.

I very much appreciaged Forde’s essay Forensic Justification and the Christian Life.  There he grapples with one of the challenges in Lutheran theology – how to describe the Christian life in such a way that it does not either render the Law toothless and optional, or contradict a very Biblical theme of God doing all of the real work of creation, redemption and sanctification.  He picks up on St. Paul’s language of saint and sinner for this.  Typically, we emphasize that we are born anew in Christ through faith and baptism and maintain a sort of dual identity  of saint and sinner throughout our lives, with the sinner gradually, more and more weakening as the saint in us grows.  We are typically exhorted heavily towards this end, or we tend to de-emphasize it in order to better highlight the work of Jesus in our justification and redemption.  Forde does a good job of offering a third alternative where the in-breaking kingdom of God within me expands over time within me, so that the sinner in me is eventually completely squeezed out (at death or our Lord’s return).  The emphasis is the ongoing grace of God the Holy Spirit at work in me, rather than my bulging faith-muscles.  Very helpful.

Also of interest was Forde’s article Preaching the Sacraments, where he discusses the connection between preaching and the sacraments (defined as confession, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper in Lutheran circles) and the importance that preaching not undercut the Sacraments.

If you like theology, and particularly if you are called to a vocation of preaching (or perhaps if it is your vocation to listen to sermons!) this is a helpful book.

The Cost of Education

June 4, 2019

The cost of education is something parents need to grapple with.

This is usually used as a means to spur parents to save for their children’s college education.  In which case, it’s not doing a very effective job by all accounts, as the price  tag of higher education continues to skyrocket, necessitating the need for student loans.

When I started my undergraduate degree at a major state school, tuition and fees per semester was $498 for 12 or more credits.  Not including books, room & board, etc.  I could work part time jobs to pay for my college education without taking out student loans.   Not really practical for most students these days (presuming the concept of working to pay for your education is even part of popular parlance these days).

It’s easy to take out student loans, but paying them back is often overwhelming.  So overwhelming that people are actually leaving the country after graduation in order to avoid repaying them.

And whatever they learned at college, they don’t appear to have learned the concept that if you borrow money from someone else, you ought to pay it back.  They’ve learned some brutal practicality – following your bliss can be very expensive, and regardless of what your bliss pays, if you borrow money you’re going to be expected to pay it back at some point.  So if your bliss requires you to skip out on that debt, so be it.

 

Travel Thoughts

June 3, 2019

It is still a source of amazement to me that in the span of  a few hours I can be thousands of miles away from my starting point, with nothing more accompanying me than a wallet, a phone, and a change of underwear.

Nothing makes me so aware of the copious room for improvement in my prayer life than those few seconds as I’m sitting on an airplane hurtling down a runway about to take off (or land).

Am I the only one who never outgrows that momentary feeling of excitement and astonishment that I am trusted enough to pay someone else to use their car for a few days and they just hand me the keys and off I go?

 

Reading Ramblings – June 9, 2019

June 2, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Pentecost – June 9, 2019

Texts: Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 143; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:23-31

Context: Pentecost (meaning 50th day in Greek) began as the Jewish feast of weeks or feast of firstfruits, stipulated multiple times in the Old Testament (Exodus 23:16, Numbers 28:26, Deuteronomy 16:10; 2 Chronicles 8:13). It occurred 50 days after the first day of the feast of unleavened bread. Later, the festival was associated with the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai to Moses and the Israelites in Exodus 19:1, although this connection is certainly not clear or necessary from the texts. Pentecost is essentially a harvest festival, denoting the firstfruits of the spring harvest. It is second in importance only to Passover in terms of the three Jewish high holy celebrations. As such the description of Acts 2:5 that there are Jews from every nation under heaven is very reasonable. The Christian celebration of Pentecost gradually came to be called Whitsunday, as those who were baptized on this festival Sunday wore white clothing. The celebration is noted by Irenaeus and Tertullian. The readings for today indicate that the Holy Spirit’s arrival (John 14, Acts 2) is the effective beginning of the undoing of the reign and effects of sin and Satan (Genesis 11), the response to our cries for mercy and forgiveness (Psalm 143).

Genesis 11:1-9 – Sin drives us apart. It drives us apart first and foremost from God, and secondarily from others. Theologians speak of sin as making us incurvatus in se, turned perpetually inwards on ourselves. We are the centers of our lives, and our desires and wishes are what naturally preoccupy us rather than proper relationship with our Creator. Following the flood we saw this self-centeredness in Ham’s disrespect of his father, Noah, as well as Noah’s own drunkenness. Next we see it on a larger scale, as the growing population of the world collectively rejects the command of God to subdue the earth as they grow in numbers (Genesis 1:28, 9:1,7). Instead of obedience, their sin turns them in on themselves and their own glory and accomplishment. Our sinfulness leads us to wistfully wish that God had not confused our languages. What might we have accomplished if we had not been scattered! If we had not turned against each other based on language and customs! Our sinfulness prevents us from seeing the greater evils we might accomplish as well, or the potentially more thorough devastation we might inflict on one another if, like Adam and Eve, we did not seek protections against the sin we find in ourselves and one another. I read God’s work here as merciful, actually a protection of us against ourselves and one another, a protection that begins to be unnecessary with the Holy Spirit’s coming. In the defeat of Satan and sin and death, the effects of the Fall begin to be unraveled. Not completely, but partially. Unity in Christian love across all languages and ethnicities is a testimony to this unraveling, and should point both believers and unbelievers towards the final coming judgment and restoration.

Psalm 143 – A cry for mercy and forgiveness against our crushing enemy the accuser, the Satan. Apart from God we cannot hope to prevail against this enemy, who crushes us with the reality of our sin and rebellion against our Creator. We are hopelessly separated from our Creator and unable to re-establish right relationship on our own. Only if our Creator comes to us, only if He is the initiator of reconciliation can there be any hope. We pray that God would come to our relief (v.1), which acknowledges that God is always present, but only God can decide to come to us as relief rather than judge (v.2). We wait, without peace, until we hear a word from our God that indicates his forgiveness and grace rather than his holy punishment of sin (v.7). When that word comes (v.8), our response is to cling to it as our sole source of hope, and to seek further understanding and embracing of God’s revealed Word and Will as the only proper and sure guides for our lives (v.8). Asking for divine direction is not an attempt to manipulate God or earn his favor, but is the only reasonable response to a God who forgives our trespasses.

Acts 2:1-21 – The account of the first Pentecost. The Holy Spirit comes in tangible power, differently than when Jesus conveyed the Holy Spirit to his disciples in John 20:21-23. A different kind of power is now manifest. Their authority to forgive sins was already present, but the power to preach the Gospel, to lay before others the choice of life or death, sin or sanctity grounded in the reality of the empty tomb of the Son of God, that only comes at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit undoes in a limited sense the separation of language given in Genesis 11. The point is not to obsess over speaking in tongues, but rather to see that God’s graciousness in Jesus Christ is available every bit as universally as judgment for sin has been. None are excluded, all are welcomed into the Holy City described in Revelation 21 that is not a competitor to God in heaven, but is actually the city where God and the victorious Lamb dwell once again with their creation.

John 14:23-31 – Anyone can claim to be a Christian, and in our post-Biblical, post-Christian culture a majority of Americans still do. But the mark of a follower of Jesus Christ is obedience to his teaching, which is no different than the teaching of God the Father in the Old Testament. Regardless of what you want to call yourself, if you refuse to submit your will and understanding to the revealed will of God, you reject the very presence of God and expose yourself to the only alternative to his perfect will and grace: judgment. This is our natural condition. But the presence of God the Holy Spirit brings the gift of faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, with an attendant recognition that our ideas and standards are untrustworthy, and only God the Father’s will can be trusted as the rule and norm for our lives. This trust in turn will be the source of our peace. Seeking peace in the structures and relationships of a sinful world can only lead to despair and disappointment. But placing our hope in the promises of God – forgiveness, grace, resurrection, eternal life – can center us in a peace that is not disturbed regardless of the awful events that might transpire around (or even within!) us.

Receiving the presence of God requires that we receive his grace, and his grace is brought to us in the good news of Jesus Christ. But that grace also comes as we learn what that good news does – not simply freeing us from the fear of death but freeing us to live as God’s creatures rather than as our own masters. Jesus commands his disciples in Matthew 28:16-20 to go and make disciples. But this process of discipleship does not stop at preaching Christ crucified and resurrected and providing baptism. It also consists of teaching obedience to everything that Jesus commanded, which again, is nothing short of the commands of God the Father in his word. We cannot accept the grace and forgiveness of God without accepting also his revealed Word as it tells us how to live. We will fail to live as He calls us to – we remain sinful and imperfect. But there is a difference between acknowledging the truth and goodness of God’s will and trying to live it out but failing, and rejecting the Word of God as truth in favor of any other teaching or system, internal or external.