Archive for February, 2020

(Not) Paying the Piper

February 26, 2020

It’s refreshing to see the recent court ruling indicating the Federal Government does have the right to deny certain grants and funding to states or cities that refuse to cooperate in enforcing Federal Law.  At issue is the matter of immigration policy and sanctuary cities or states that explicitly mandate local law enforcement to not assist Federal agents in any way not dictated explicitly by law.  These cities or states set themselves in opposition to Federal Law in an area (immigration) that is clearly a Federal rather than a state or local matter, and then expect there be no ramifications – particularly financial – to their defiance.

I don’t consider myself an advocate of big government at all, but clearly immigration policy is a Federal issue and should be.  The idea that 50 different states could determine 50 different policies is ridiculous and dangerous.  So is the misguided notion that we are assisting people by requiring them to live in enclaves of half-protection instead of offering a clear and direct path to citizenship if that is their intention.

Hopefully there will be some recognition, if this ability to withhold Federal funding from non-compliant cities and states continues and  gains momentum, that we are indeed ruled by Federal as well as State law, and individual states should not have the arbitrary right to flout this reality without facing consequences.  If people are unhappy with our immigration policies, the solution is to push for change, not to simply claim we won’t abide by the particular rules we don’t like.

No Free (or Cheap) Lunch

February 25, 2020

Without a doubt the best deal in town for lunch is Costco’s food court.  But that good deal is getting a little less sweet, as Costco has indicated it will require a Costco membership in order to purchase food at their food courts.

Costco claims the food courts have always been intended for members only but this policy was rarely or never enforced.  That’s going to change in March, when at least a basic Gold membership will be required to purchase food.  A Gold membership is $60 a year.  If you plan on eating at Costco at least once a week, that will add roughly a dollar to the cost of your meal each week – still a really good deal overall.

I’m curious as to why Costco would do this.  Their food courts are always packed, so perhaps it’s a matter of them being too popular and needing to cull back their sales somewhat.  Are they losing money on the food court?  Is  it a loss leader intended to bring in new customers and retain existing ones?  The Internet is full of debate but I wasn’t able to find any definitive answers as to whether Costco makes money on their food courts.  But I’m guessing they do.  So why reduce that profit?

This is one of  those decisions I scratch my head at.  Any of you readers have a theory on why Costco would do this?

Knowing Good and Evil

February 24, 2020

This was the premise Satan offered Adam and Eve in terms of why they should eat the forbidden fruit.  They would be like God, knowing good and evil.

Lent begins this Wednesday and Genesis 3 is the assigned Old Testament reading for the first Sunday in Lent.  It makes good sense, to go back to the beginning in terms of how we got here – in ashes and dust and death.

But I was pondering Satan’s assertion.  How does God know good and evil?  God is good and perfect.  There is nothing evil in him – so how does He know evil?

Satan’s statement was, predictably, a certain level of truth wrapped and distorted with lies as well.  In and of himself, God could not, it would seem to me, know evil.  He could know of it in terms of obedience or disobedience to him, harmony or disharmony with all that is good and perfect and right.  But how would God himself know evil, when He is only and always completely within himself – the three persons of the Trinity – good and holy and perfect?

God did and does know evil.  But when Satan spoke to Eve, God knew evil in particular and (to the best of our knowledge through God’s revelation) only one way – in the rebellion led by Satan.  In Satan’s willful disobedience, and in the third of the heavenly host who were misled by him into rebellion, God indeed did know evil.

And that knowledge would be shared by Adam and Eve.  They too would understand – far more intimately and personally than God himself – evil.  But they would gain a type of knowledge shared only by Satan and his followers, a knowledge of participating in evil. That type of knowledge God cannot have as  it would be contradictory to his very essence.

What Satan promises then is not so much that Adam and Eve will be like God, knowing good and evil, but rather that they would be more like him, Satan, having tasted good and lost it forever because of their willful disobedience, their willful participation in evil.




Reading Ramblings – March 1, 2020

February 23, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday in Lent, March 1, 2020

Texts: Genesis 3:1-21; Psalm 32:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Context: The Latin term is quadragesima – 40 days. But the Old English lencten, which means spring, is the source for the English word Lent. Several Church Fathers in the fifth century, including St. Jerome, will refer to a 40-day period of fasting based on apostolic tradition, but we have no written verification of that source any earlier than the 400s AD, and we have other, earlier sources such as Irenaeus indicating there are differences in the length of the fasting time. The length of Lent as it became institutionalized is no doubt driven by periods of fasting or difficulty in Scripture, such as Israel in the wilderness for 40 years, or Moses on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights, or Jesus’ fasting for 40 days in the wilderness prior to his temptation by Satan. Fasting has long been associated with Lent though the length of time varies from area to area.

Genesis 3:1-21 – The story of God’s salvation of creation begins with the story of creation’s fall into sin. The great tragedy of perfection marred and twisted by disobedience to God’s Word. Satan plants ideas and doubts into the heads of Adam and Eve, using some of God’s words but altering others. It’s clear Adam and Eve know what is expected of them. It is not a fall from ignorance. Satan flatly contradicts God – to eat the fruit will not lead to death. To a change, yes, but death? How silly! And that is enough for Eve to evaluate the fruit and how desirable it is. And it is enough for Adam to follow her in disobedience. The Fall is simply the first disobedience of creation, creating an avalanche of all sorts of sins that will ripple out through Genesis and the rest of Scripture and our lives still today. Sin that leads to death, contrary to Satan’s assurances. Sin from which we cannot escape, but can only be saved. Sin that requires a Savior who can and will do what you and I can’t and won’t. Perfect fulfillment of God’s commands.

Psalm 32:1-7 – The common oversimplification that God’s people in the Old Testament believed they were righteous is just that, oversimplified. This psalm is a beautiful example of a very good understanding of sin and the need for forgiveness. Sin is present always, but God’s forgiveness covers over it as though it were not there. It is our duty to be honest, confessing our sins and seeking God’s forgiveness. Failure to do so results in the conscience torturing us – or perhaps it is the Holy Spirit of God that accuses us constantly until we admit our wrongdoing and seek forgiveness and a setting of our mind against repeating the sin? But as soon as we bring our confession to our God, He forgives our iniquity, providing us with the only true peace that exists – reconciliation with God. The term maskil which describes this psalm is a Hebrew term that means wise or enlightened. Certainly to acknowledge our guilt before our God and seek his forgiveness is the height of wisdom!

Romans 5:12-19 – Paul’s argument is Jesus is a second or new Adam. Without sin. Capable of perfect obedience to the will of God, which now requires quite a bit more than simply avoiding the fruit of a particular tree! Paul quickly dismisses the notion that without the Law (given through Moses at Mt. Sinai) there could not rightly be sin. Of course there was sin – right there in the beginning in the Garden of Eden – and that sin had not disappeared but propogated. Proof of this is that death was in the world long before Moses brought the Law of God down the mountain to the people. Where Adam’s disobedience brought death, Jesus’ obedience brings life. Jesus’ perfect life and sinless death makes it possible for the reign of death to be overthrown, and those in Christ to reign in life instead. Note that nowhere in this discussion does Paul mention our own righteousness or good behavior. There is no place for that here. The only consideration in our righteousness is the righteousness of Christ extended to us through faith and trust in the promises of God. There is nothing we can add to this, and nothing we can substitute for it. Jesus alone is the source of our reconciliation with God.

Matthew 4:1-11 – Weakened by fasting and exposure, Satan arrives to tempt Jesus. The meeting was planned by God the Holy Spirit Matthew makes clear. This is no coincidence. One wonders if perhaps Satan arrives after a conversation with God similar to the one recorded in the opening chapters of Job? Once again Satan uses the words of God – at least some of them – as a basis for tempting Jesus. It worked with Adam, perhaps it can work here as well? But he begins with a simpler appeal – turning rocks into bread. Surely the Word through whom all things were created can do such a simple thing? Surely such a simple act would not be sinful! If blindness can be turned to sight and deafness to hearing, if lameness can be healed and death itself overruled, what is turning a few stones to bread? The issue is not the alteration of creation but rather obedience to the Word of God, and if God the Father or God the Holy Spirit have not given Jesus permission to do such a thing, than to do it on his own initiative would be sinful. To fulfill his own, personal desire rather than rely exclusively on the Holy Spirit who brought him into the wilderness in the first place would be sin. Jesus rebuff’s Satan’s suggestion by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3.

Perhaps inspired by Jesus’ use of Scripture, Satan next draws from Psalm 91 to tempt Jesus to test God’s protection and in the process, demonstrate his identity. Satan’s choice helps us to understand this psalm ultimately as being about Jesus. But once again, does Jesus presume upon the Father? Does Jesus dictate to the Father how and when to save him? Jesus has come rather to obey only and completely the Father, even unto death. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 to show Satan’s suggestion is inappropriate.

Finally Satan makes an offer he likely can’t fulfill. Worship him and he will provide Jesus with the kingdoms of the world. This is likely not a temptation to greed, but rather a temptation to circumvent God the Father’s plan. Why endure years of laborious ministry and then suffer and die on a cross? Wouldn’t this be easier? Don’t the ends justify the means? Hardly. Obedience is the end, and without obedience, nothing else can be accomplished. Jesus rebuffs Satan with a paraphrasing of the first commandment from Exodus 20.

Jesus remains obedient where Adam and Eve failed to. He resists Satan’s temptations rather than give in to them. He insists on listening to God the Father rather than substituting his own ideas about things. Jesus maintains the perfect obedience you and I are unable to, so that He can offer his righteousness to us through faith.

The Holy Spirit Is Faithful

February 21, 2020

As we approach Transfiguration Sunday, I’ve struggled this week to figure out what to preach.  Of course we can preach straight doctrine about the two natures of Christ, but how is this made relevant to my congregation?  How can I help make what happens on an obscure Galilean hilltop 2000 years ago relevant to men and women in the 21st century dealing with their own issues?

I trust that the Holy Spirit will guide me each week in preparing a sermon.  Some  weeks the ideas flow easily, and others are more of a struggle.  Sometimes I don’t feel sure until Sunday morning.  Sometimes I’m not sure even when I’m in the pulpit, or as I come out of it.  But I trust He will give me words to say, that  He won’t leave his people bereft.

But sometimes his promptings come from unexpected quarters.  As I spent time this morning with a young man I’m mentoring in his recovery from drug addiction, what should he bring up in conversation but the Transfiguration?  What are the odds of that?!

And from that conversation came the basis for my approach for the sermon Sunday.  A little counter-intuitive, perhaps, but no less important than Jesus in his blinding glory.

Thank you, Lord.

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.