Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Reading Ramblings – November 17, 2019

November 10, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost – November 17, 2019

Texts: Malachi 4:1-6; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-36

Context: The second-to-last Sunday of the Church year, and we hear yet more warnings about the coming of our Lord and the importance of watching and waiting.

Malachi 4:1-6 – Scholars argue about whether or not Malachi is really the prophet’s name. There is no indicator of the author in the book itself, possibly. 1:1 is usually translated with Malachi as a proper name, but the Hebrew could be less specific and refer only to messenger. It was written no earlier than 516 BC, since it references the rebuilt temple. Some time has likely elapsed since this terminal date, as there appears to be lethargy on the part of priests and those carrying out duties associated with the temple. The particular verses reference the day of the Lord, when the Lord will destroy evil and wickedness once and for all. The sureness of that day should not be doubted, but neither should it be feared by God’s faithful. While it will be a day of destruction for those committed to evil, God’s people shall be as innocent – and safe – as young livestock, oblivious in some ways to the destruction wreaked on evildoers. This passage also foretells the return of Elijah – or more specifically an Elijah-figure – as a forerunner of the Lord’s coming. As Jesus indicates John the Baptist is this figure (Matthew 11:13-14), we should be anticipating our Lord’s arrival and celebrating here and now the victory which is so assuredly his on that day.

Psalm 98 – The psalm is one of victory, accenting the celebration appropriate to God’s people as they anticipate and experience his victory, a victory chiefly expressed in providing salvation. While this might be appropriate on any number of small scales (deliverance from the Egyptians in the Exodus, God’s preservation of our lives in the midst of danger) it is accomplished fully and finally in the victorious return of our Lord Jesus. That day will be one of joy and celebration for God’s people, manifest in joyful singing and songmaking. The celebration will include nature herself, as all creation breaks forth in joy and relief at the final return of our Lord (Romans 8:19-23).

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 – One of the issues facing the young congregation in Thessalonica is that some of the converts to Christ were under the impression that because his return was expected soon, there was no need to trouble themselves with work. Free from the constraints of earning a living, they found uses for their time as busybodies. Paul addressed this in his first letter to them (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12, 5:12-15), but the issue has apparently not disappeared yet. Paul referred in his first letter to the hard work he and Silas and Timothy engaged in soas not to be a burden financially to their new converts, but now Paul points to their hard work as an example to the Thessalonians that idleness is not appropriate. Here he states it very clearly – if you aren’t willing to work, you shouldn’t expect to eat. This does not address hardship issues for people who can’t work or can’t find work, but for those who could be working but simply don’t want to, there is a very real problem needing to be fixed. In verse 12 Paul addresses these people directly – this is not just Paul’s opinion, but the name of Jesus Christ is invoked to indicate the serious nature of this admonition. Butt out of other people’s business and earn your living.

In verses 13-15 he addresses the issue of idleness to the congregation – those around these idle busybodies who no doubt are more than a bit frustrated by this point. First, he exhorts them not to let this situation dissuade them from doing good and showing love. This is important, as it’s easy for a bad experience in the past to dictate our future attitudes and behaviors. We are to struggle against this and continue to do good. What the congregation can and should do, however, is coordinate. Since it was popular to celebrate a lunch or agape feast after worship, it would be easy for these idle persons to take advantage of the community’s food. Or perhaps they were accustomed to accepting dinner invitations to various people’s homes, thereby being fed without working. Now, the congregation as a whole needs to be aware together of what is going on, and take action together. A coordinated effort. This person refuses to work. We are all aware of this now, as well as the reality that any future idleness is in direct contradiction to the command of Jesus Christ (v.12). As such, we won’t enable this person in their sin. We will not extend invitations to dinners or lunches anymore. We are not being rude or unkind, but trying to show love by prompting these persons to recognize the inappropriateness of their continued idleness, feel shame in it, repent of it, and change from it. Paul’s last admonition is crucial – these people are not your enemies. They are confused brothers and sisters in Christ, and they may in the future be stubbornly disobedient brethren. But continue to work with them in love. Deny them the options that allow them to remain without work so that they are forced to return to work.

Luke 21:5-36 – Jesus prophesies to his disciples about things to come, both at the personal level (v.16) and on a local level (vs.20-24) and on a creation-wide scale (vs.10-18, 25-36). The people of God are not promised an easy life. In fact, we are warned ahead of time we will face persecution from even some who are closest to us (v.16). The world hates us for holding fast to Christ. American Christians find this hard to believe, having been insulated for so long from the suffering so pervasive and consistent throughout the world and history.

Christians for centuries have scanned the horizons of current events, struggling to anticipate their Lord’s arrival in the headlines and catastrophes of their day. We are to be similarly watchful, never forgetting that our Lord is returning, and that the signs He gives are general, but adequate. It isn’t as though we can say to ourselves the world is at peace, there are no struggles or disasters, so clearly the Lord isn’t showing up any time soon. Rather, we are blessed that we should be in a constant state of readiness, so clearly does the world appear ripe for our Lord’s return! We may live or we may die, in peace or in warfare or persecution. But we should not fear for our true lives, hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3). Those lives are secure in Christ (Luke 21:18-19).

Reading Rambling – November 10, 2019

November 3, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost – November 10, 2019

Texts: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 148; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8, 13-17; Luke 20:27-40

Context: The final three Sundays of the liturgical year form a kind of mini season of their own. Unofficially, but pointedly. The three Sundays end the Church year where it began – in anticipation of our Lord’s return. But while Advent leads us to such anticipation through the story of our Lord’s Incarnation, these last three Sundays talk more openly about his Second Coming, his return in glory to put sin, death, and Satan to flight eternally and inaugurate a new creation, a physical reconciliation of heaven and earth, as it were. This culminates in the final Sunday of the liturgical year, sometimes referred to as Christ the King Sunday.

Exodus 3:1-15 – We have here a theophany – the glory of God revealed somewhat directly to someone in creation, in this case as a bush on fire but not consumed by the fire. Elsewhere in in the Old Testament (Genesis & Exodus, particularly) the presence of God is also described as the angel of the Lord. Clearly based on the rest of this passage, this is not just a messenger but God himself (v.6). God chooses to engage Moses’ curiosity and then to reveal his identity to him, first in reference to Moses’ ancestors (v.6) and later by name (v.14). It is clear Moses knows of this God from his reaction of prostrating himself (v.6). Only after God tells Moses who He is does Moses become afraid. God’s purpose here is to let Moses know God’s plan for his people the Israelites, and the particular role Moses will play in this plan. It is a role Moses is reluctant to accept, but God is insistent upon. God will deliver his people from slavery and genocide, which is a foreshadowing of Jesus saving us from sin, death, and Satan. And just like the Israelites, we have seen God working out this plan through his Son, but we have not yet been brought fully out of captivity as the people of God were. We look forward to that day, when no mere Moses but rather the very Son of God returns in glory and splendor to usher us in to an even more perfect promised land.

Psalm 148 – Basically following the order of creation in Genesis 1, the psalmist exhorts to praise all the various creations of God. Everything and everyone God has made have been made for praise of him first and foremost. This is their proper and rightful function. The physical, material universe as well as the living creatures within it find their proper role in praising God. Verse 5 makes this explicit – it is by God’s command that they exist at all, they owe their entire being to him and so should give him praise. Verse 6 should probably be interpreted less as a dogmatic statement about the eternality of creation, but rather emphasizes God’s creative and sustaining power. That which He created, He sustains. Verses 11-12 designate the various segments of humanity from highest to lowest (at least according to cultural values of the time). Finally God’s chosen people are exhorted to praise him in the last two verses, acknowledging him not only as creator but also as savior, rescuing them over and over again from their enemies, and providing them with leaders from Moses and Aaron to the judges to King David who lead them and guide them as an embodiment of his saving works, the tools and means through which God protects and watches over his people. They above all people are exhorted to praise God because they have the deepest relationship with him.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-8, 13-17 – Now we hear the themes of the day more clearly. Paul writes to clarify confusion among the Thessalonians. In his first letter he wrote to comfort them and assure them their deceased friends and family in Christ would by no means miss out on the joyful moment of Christ’s triumphant return. But apparently confusion persists. Perhaps they have received a letter alleging to be from Paul telling them the Day of the Lord has already come (v.2). Certainly they’ve heard some contradictory information that Paul wants to clarify. As he does throughout 1 & 2 Thessalonians, his primary means of doing this is to remind them of what he’s taught them already. In v. 5 he reminds them of this – there are certain things that must precede our Lord’s return, and if we get panicked as to whether or not He has already come back, we need to think back on these things. The lawless one is not clearly defined by Paul – or any other Biblical book – but seems to point to a final, arch-enemy of the people of God and proclaims himself to be god. Interpretations to peg this man of lawlessness as some historical figure have the problem in that any historical figure, no matter how arrogant or evil, has disappeared into death without our Lord returning. While we know the source of this lawless one’s power (Satan, v.9), he has apparently not arisen yet, though undoubtedly there have been many prototypes. The net result, however, is not for God’s people to fear, but rather to cling to what they have been taught in Scripture, rather than allowing themselves to be led astray by falsehoods and delusions. So we wait, but we wait actively for our Lord’s return, concerning ourselves with his Word so we are not among those to be deceived through the shallowness or perfunctory nature of their faith in or knowledge of the Word of God. This is not to raise the false argument that faith is primarily cognitive, but to the best of our respective, God-given abilities, we should come to the Word of God joyfully and thankfully to hear of his love for us, and in so doing inoculate ourselves against false and erroneous beliefs and ideas.

Luke 20:27-40 – We look forward to our Lord’s return. We joke about looking forward to having better looking/younger/stronger bodies in the resurrection than we do now. Yet we have more questions than answers when we consider this topic. How will the resurrection and life in eternity as body and spirit together work? What we must be careful of doing is making assumptions based on how we know things to be now. In this case, we can’t assume marriage works (or perhaps even exists) in heaven as it does here. The key seems to be v.36 – we will not give or take or be given or taken in marriage in resurrection eternity because we will never die. Earthly marriage – or our conceptions of it as fallen creatures – is limited in nature because we die. When we no longer die, our earthly conceptions or practices of marriage will no longer work the same way. We will be sons (and daughters) of the resurrection, rather than sons and daughters of sin and brokenness. This will make us equal to angels in that we are eternally in the presence of God. It does not make us the same as angels, but brings an equality to bear, and equality perhaps best described as mutually enjoying the presence of God eternally. Perhaps this will be enough to fill and satisfy us completely.

I’ll admit I have a hard time with this teaching. The thought of not being married to my wife for eternity is a cause of sorrow to me (though perhaps less so to her!). Yet I ultimately have to trust the wisdom of God. I can’t know what eternity will be like, other than that it will be completely and totally good – something I have no ability to conceive of accurately. Thus I trust that if marriage does not exist in eternity, we will be fine with that when we reach there. In the meantime, I should not distrust the Word of God because it doesn’t make logical sense to me all the time. My logic is limited and flawed, affected just as much by sin as my mortal body. In faith I trust God to make these things known in their proper time and measure, and to appreciate his gifts to me here and now even in my fallen state.

The Apocrypha: Judith

November 1, 2019

It’s been on my list for a while to read through the apocryphal books – writings in a sort of limbo, neither uniformly recognized or accepted by the Jewish people, and not uniformly recognized or accepted by Christians.  These books were written in the four centuries between the last of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi, and the time of Jesus and the Apostles.

I’m using this text –  The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition With Notes.  As noted in a recent exchange with Doug, a long-time reader, if this meant it was a translation of these books by exclusively Lutheran scholars, it would make me a tad nervous.  But the actual translation is the English Standard Version.  Rather than include these apocryphal books as part of the Lutheran Study Bible – also the ESV translation but with study notes from Lutheran scholars, theologians, and pastors – our publishing house (Concordia Publishing House) opted to publish them separately, in part because modern Lutherans are by and large unfamiliar with and skeptical of these books.

This particular edition includes those apocryphal writings included in the Latin Vulgate of the 4th century, plus three other books – 3 & 4 Maccabees and Psalm 151.  The Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament included  all of the books in this collection with the exception of 2 Esdras.  This collection of apocryphal writings also mirrors the books Luther included with his German translation of the Bible.  So, the apocryphal writings in this collection fall into some broad categories.

The CompositionsJudith, The Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus (Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach), Baruch, The Letter of Jeremiah

The Histories 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees

The AdditionsOld Greek Esther, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon

The Prayers and SongsThe Prayer of Azariah, The Song of the Three Holy Children, The Prayer of Manasseh

The Apocryphal Books in Other Christian Traditions1 Esdras, 2 Esdras, 3 Maccabees (Ptolemaika), 4 Maccabees, Psalm 151

This collection has some excellent preface sections which trace both the history of the apocryphal writings in relation to the Christian church, as well as the overall history of the Jewish people from the Persian period which started at the end of the 6th century BC and the Roman Empire which encompasses the New Testament period and beyond.  One thing I was surprised to learn was that the rejection of the apocrypha in Protestant circles is due in large part to the English translation societies of the 19th century.  Up until that point, it was not uncommon to have the apocryphal books published along with the Old and New Testaments.

Prior to this, the Church as a whole seemed to have difficulty deciding if these were inspired sacred texts or not.  The Jews translated them and included them with their Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) but did not count them as canonical – on equal footing with the other 39 books of the Old Testament as Christians know it.

But the apocryphal writings were widely known and even quoted and used by the early Church.  This was likely because the early Church – predominantly Jewish – used the Septuagint, which included the Apocrypha.  As such there are quotations from or allusions to apocryphal writings by many of the Early Church Fathers.  The Apocrypha is considered canonical by both the Eastern Orthodox Communion as well as the Roman Catholic church.  When Luther translated the Bible into German, he collected the Apocrypha into a single section between the Old and New Testaments, as did the King James Translation in 1611.

Confusion is just that, and so I’m skeptical as I begin reading these.  It’s very possible for a writing to be orthodox and helpful but still not the same thing as the inspired Word of God, something the Church has acknowledged since earliest times, but hasn’t always agreed on in application.

Judith is the first book in the collection.  It purports to be a historical account of the deliverance of the people of Judea thanks to the bravery of the woman Judith.  The problem is that it’s obvious from language and other issues that the work was composed (orally or otherwise) far later than this – after the conquests of Alexander the Great and the process of Hellenization which overtook much of the Middle East.  There are also challenges in the historical and other inaccuracies throughout the book (claiming Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Assyria rather than Babylon, claiming an army could travel over 300 miles in three days, etc.).  Also, it has the challenge of glorifying sexual seduction to accomplish the will of God.  Granted, the seduction is never consummated, but it is certainly aimed at as part of an overall deception.

I have a hard time accepting this as a divinely inspired work with these and other issues.  It seems more likely to be a well-intentioned fable, a morality play of sorts exhorting hearers/readers to trust in God rather than man.  As such, the moral of the story is good but don’t see how it is necessary.  It doesn’t add anything to Scripture, either the Old or New Testament.  The theme runs throughout many books in the Bible that are far more reliable in the details they provide. I don’t even find the style to be particularly impressive, and it borrows heavily on styles and motifs found elsewhere in Scripture.  Overall it strikes me as highly derivative.

I’ll review each of the included apocryphal works separately as I finish them.  While I don’t pretend my opinion is in any useful sense authoritative, I’m also not the first person to weigh in with my opinion and so I feel it’s fair game to do so without impugning the canonical books of the Bible, which I do wholeheartedly acknowledge as divinely inspired.

 

Leading and Serving

October 31, 2019

The last six months have been interesting for our Sunday evening open house.  Two of our core  members moved away last April to pursue further studies across country.  Another of our early regulars will be leaving at the end of the year.  We’ve wondered how these departures would impact who showed up.

We’ve noticed a marked uptick in attendance by friends of our children.  We now regularly have a teen-aged Russian guy coming by to game with our kids (and enjoy taunting us with his predilection for eating everything with ranch dressing).  Others have been coming as well, but he’s our regular.  And with him, on an increasingly regular basis, comes his mother, a recently naturalized Russian.  She has become closer friends with my wife over the last year or more.

Two weeks ago we got into a religious discussion.  We invited her to join a new Bible study I am leading at my congregation.  But with her busy schedule between work and school, she hasn’t had time.  But she’s clearly interested.  So we started talking about how to get the ‘big picture’ of Scripture.  Then she asked for help for a scholarship program in her graduate work.  We talked about the difference between how the world (and business schools) talk about leadership and how Jesus and the Bible talk about leadership.  We talked about the difficulty of maintaining humility in a world that essentially values pride as a necessary qualification for leadership.

I shared with her Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10:42-45, and showed her how Jesus made this teaching tangible in John 13:1-17.   And I talked about God as the ultimate example of humility and servant leadership and commitment to others in John 3:16.  We talked about the challenges and limitations of applying these truths in a business setting as a CEO or CFO or COO.  There, service to other is defined in terms of shareholders and perhaps clients/customers.  Commitment and service to others is often seen as a means to another end, like profitability, or employee retention/attraction.  We talked about how hard it is as broken, sinful people, to stay focused on serving others when the point of an MBA program is essentially the promise of skills necessary to make one successful in business leadership, and many people desire those skills and positions not for serving others but for pride, greed, etc.

All of this discussion with someone who is not Christian, but recognizes a universal need to have  some greater, deeper calling outside of yourself.

Christians should have a lot to say on this topic of servanthood and leadership but we all too easily are like James and John, confusing the standards and benefits of the world for the standards of the kingdom of heaven.  We can shake our heads and laugh condescendingly in at these two chuckleheads in Mark 10, but we share their assumptions, even though we have Jesus’ teaching and example in hindsight where they didn’t!

We talk about servant leadership, but we really mean doing things the way we want, presuming others are best served with our ideas until we quit bothering to listen.  We talk about serving but we often times mean ruling, dictating, demanding, forcing if necessary.  In the interest of higher ideals, to be certain, but reliant very heavily on the tools of the worldly leadership trade.  Tools that authorities have always kept on hand to ensure things run the way they want them to.

We don’t talk about servant leadership the way Jesus demonstrated it.  We don’t mean leadership that washes filthy feet.  We don’t talk about leadership that allows itself to be maligned.  We don’t mean leadership that suffers being called a liar and a thief.  We don’t mean leadership that leads by patience, day in and day out, year after year.  We don’t mean leadership willing to die for others rather than seek personal  protection or glory.  We hold these things lightly.  We see them as signs of weakness.

Just like the Jews did.  Just like the Romans did as they mocked Jesus with a fake royal robe and crown before leading him away to die.  What leader would suffer such a fate?  Isn’t it the mark of a true leader to avoid such shame, such failure?.  A leader who does things these ways, the way the kingdom of heaven does them, is no leader in our world today.  We don’t trust it if we see it.  We don’t respect it if we encounter it.

Challenging realities to face for someone who aspires to leadership, whether in the corporate world on in the church, which all too often prefers to borrow corporate principles rather than stick to Biblical ones.  Because it isn’t easy.  It isn’t perfect.  None of us have the perfect wisdom and insight of Jesus, and so have to make do the best we can with what we have.

I look forward to future conversations, and marvel how God the Holy Spirit continues to foster these possibilities.

Weekly Devotional

October 30, 2019

1 John 3:1-3

You can hear the wonder in John’s voice. When was the last time you felt that wonder? The wonder that you, right now, here today, are a child of God’s? Isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it beyond belief, so wondrous as it is? You and I – sinful, broken, self-centered, stubborn, envious, petty – you and I are children of God. Not because we paid for it, not because we demanded it, not because we earned it, but simply because God says we are and we believe him. I cannot make you a child of God. Only God can do that. I can – and should! – share that wonderful truth and reality with you, but only God can declare it so.

It must be God’s declaration, on God’s terms. Adam and Eve discovered the hard way that, as with any petulant child who more privileges than he is capable of handling, the bite of the apple didn’t convey adulthood so much as make us child-like in all the wrong ways. Children not so much of God as children of sin and evil. All the worst aspects of children. God as the Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier is the only one capable of reversing the judgment declared in Eden. The only one capable of making us his children again.

And if this is who God says we are, who are we to argue? I can’t doubt God’s Word! I certainly can’t claim to have better knowledge than the Creator as to whether or not the Redemption is mine. Does God say it’s mine? Then it’s mine! As I accept his promise, does his promise become real and true for me? Of course!

The world has little use for children. They don’t earn and they don’t spend. But in the Kingdom of God, only children can receive the love of God the Father. A love we can never fully comprehend this side of eternity, but a love we spend our lives in earnest desire to be more and more worthy of.

Religious Trends

October 28, 2019

Here’s another article about the ongoing trend of millenials  (those born between 1981 and 1996) away from religious life and particularly Christian religious life as defined by a corporate/communal worship service.  This isn’t anything new, but it does remind us that things are not changing, and are not going to change anytime soon.

The title of the essay is problematic, as there’s no exploration of why millenials are trending this way at all, other than a passing reference to being in the stage of life where family, finances, and career tend to overwhelm all other priorities.  But this is hardly anything new or unique to millenials.  Every generation has to balance and manage these demands during this time of life, and for far larger percentages of our population, this was done alongside (or perhaps more accurately enabled through) active, sustained, committed participation in a religious faith community.  Primarily Christian.  The Church.  This isn’t so much an issue with religion in general in America, but with Christianity.  According to this data, 70% of Americans consider themselves Christian (not including Mormons).  Non-religious make up almost 20%, which leaves only about 10% of the population that follows other religions.

So blaming the demands of work and finances and family doesn’t cut it as the reason millenials are no longer participating in churches as earlier generations did.  But the article does point out some of the ramifications of this change.

Yes, people are lonelier.  But let’s draw a few more tangible connections, please.  Loneliness is likely a high contributing factor to rising levels  of both depression and suicide.  More pertinent to this is the recognition that Christianity and the Bible offer something in very short supply these days – hope.  A reason to continue on in the face of periods of bleakness or sorrow.

The article also references lower levels of sexual activity among young people as another aspect of the pressures on millenials.  But what about some  deeper analysis, please?  Could reduced levels of sexual activity be linked to less attachment to Christian community and  a much decreased emphasis on the value and beauty of marriage?  Dating apps may be decreasing in popularity, but they are also being singled out as likely culprits for increasing rates of sexually transmitted diseases.  And of course if traditional Judeo-Christian teachings on sexuality are being increasingly ignored, then the overwhelming prevalence of pornographic access at the click of a button with virtually no safeguards or obstacles also is likely to play a big part in changing levels of sexual activity.

Of course the article doesn’t deal with the biggest issue of all – as rates and levels of regular worship continue to drop, there is a very real risk (likelihood?) of people abandoning not just worship but the faith.  Rather than temporal mental health or social health, Christianity posits that what we believe has eternal consequences.  That’s not something most articles like this want to deal with or know how to.  The reality is that increasingly these people may not simply be lost to the Church for the time being, but eternally.  That’s a huge deal.

Millenials  aren’t coming back to church.  How many of them were really there before?  How many of them were raised in worshiping families where weekly worship was a priority, no matter how hard the work week had been?  How many of them were isolated from actual worship in youth ministry bubbles where fun and games eclipsed actual engagement with the Bible and Christian teachings, and where discussion of how faith applies to life were limited to purity rings and other one-off experiences?

We can look at lots of factors contributing to why young people are less and less interested in church, even if they still consider themselves to be Christian in some less-easily defined way.  But I think we need to include the Church itself in those factors.  Somehow, the faith was not transmitted to millenials (and the generations following them, don’t doubt it) in a meaningful and applicable way.  If most  younger Christians are essentially moralistic therapeutic deists, the Church has to wonder if it contributed to this tragic mistake?  If church is about being nice, can’t people get that other places?  School programs, work programs, TED talks, any number of other options.  What makes church unique if not the very message and heart of the Bible and Jesus and faith?

No, the youth aren’t coming back.  Not for a long time.  How is the Church going to adapt to this and plan to deal with it?  Especially given the reality the article notes, that collection baskets have suddenly gotten lighter?  And how does the Church attract a younger demographic that is going to see – and not entirely incorrectly – that a sudden surge in interest in evangelism is driven perhaps less by actual love of neighbor and more as an effort to prop up and sustain a model of doing church that is less and less sustainable as membership levels continue to drop?

Again, it should be noted: these are large scale trends.  There are (thankfully!) always exceptions to the rules, both individual congregations and even larger communities where this is not the case.  But it does mean that sooner or later these larger trends will begin to affect these places that may not really notice the change right now.

 

Reading Ramblings – All Saints Day

October 27, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: All Saints’ Day (Observed) – November 3, 2019

Texts: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Context: All Saints’ Day – in one form or another – replaced celebrations of individual martyrs when Roman persecution created too many martyrs to be observed separately. The observance also moved from only honoring those who were executed specifically for being Christian to remembering all those of the faith who have preceded us into glory. This is not a day of sorrow, though of course we miss those who have passed into glory. Rather, it is a day to celebrate the promises of our Lord that the grave is not the final word in our lives, and that the resurrected Son of God will gather all the faithful living and dead together for an eternal celebration.

Revelation 7:9-17 – Those gathered around the throne do not sing their own praises. They do not laud themselves for their faithfulness, for their willingness to suffer and die for the name of Christ. They do not locate their salvation in some merit of their own, as though their supreme sacrifice in faith was worthy of God bestowing salvation on them. No, salvation belongs to God the Father on the throne, and to the Lamb, the Son of God who lives though he was slain. He alone is worthy of praise, even in light of the sacrifice these faithful made. Likewise, our lives are to be lives of faith and praise of our Lord and Savior, rather than directed at congratulating ourselves or enticing others to give us praise.

Psalm 149 – Our living God is worthy of living praise, praise that echoes his works of the past but is always new, always being added on to as we experience the work of God in our lives in the present. Such praise is not simply private but a public affair – we sing the praise of God together as we share what He does for us individually. It does not seem to be a very staid or stoic praise, either! It is decidedly un-Lutheran, but reflects the exuberance of God’s people before their God. That anyone else should expect such praise and glory, any earthly king or prince is ridiculous! It will be the people of God’s privilege and duty to ensure that all such powers do submit on that final day, so that none may remain in their lofty places of personal majesty, but rather all will come together in worship and adoration of God alone. All – which includes the living as well as those who have entered into glory already.

1 John 3:1-3 – What is love? It is the love of God bestowed on an undeserving creation that clings to him in faith and trust. It is his calling of his faithful children, rather than rebels or thieves or any number of other names that might more accurately describe our sinful hearts. Instead He calls us his children and gathers us to himself that we might know his love eternally. One day, that love and our relationship to him will be obvious to everyone, even those who deny his reality and hate his faithful. They are unable to see who we are, who God the Holy Spirit makes us into through faith – sons and daughters of the Creator of the Universe! Rather, we are subject to mockery and ridicule by a world that deems itself wise. The reality of our relationship to a very real God is not yet visible to the world, but it will be one day. It is this hope we press toward, the hope of what God has already made us and will reveal in fullness not just to the world but to even us, who can’t see our identities clearly through the fog of sin and ignorance. But trusting his Word, trusting that we are his holy children, we strive to make our lives more holy, more reflective of the reality He declares to us. We await the day when, raised from the dead we stand with all the faithful through history, revealed in the glory of Jesus Christ and joining our voices in praise of who He has made us to be through his great love!

Matthew 5:1-12 – How do we set out to make our lives more holy? In a sense, they can’t be any holier, as God has declared us righteous through faith in Jesus Christ. Yet we remain sinful as well, and here is where our holiness can and should be cultivated. Yet, curiously, as Jesus characterizes those who receive the kingdom of heaven, their role is wholly passive. They are poor in spirit, yet they receive the kingdom of heaven. They do mourn, and they are comforted. They are meek, yet they inherit everything. They hunger and thirst, and they will be given what they hunger and thirst for. They are merciful to others – finally an actionable item on their/our part, and only made possible by the mercy first shown us in Jesus Christ. Pure in heart, because they are destined to see God and so have been made pure in heart through faith. Another actionable item – peacemakers. And finally they are persecuted, yet will receive the kingdom of heaven.

So in terms of this particular teaching, the only actionable things of God’s people are mercy and peacemakers. We grant mercy to others who do not deserve it because we have received God’s mercy. And we strive to make peace with one another because we have been set at peace through Christ. These are not actionable items our world thinks very highly of. Where’s the ambition? Where are the lofty goals and grand intentions?

If we desire to style ourselves as Christian superheroes, perhaps we need to rethink our goals and particularly our reasons for those goals. Mercy and peacemaking are things we are called to as part of the kingdom of heaven despite there being no personal glory in them, and perhaps precisely because there is no personal glory in them. Yet as we think back on those Christians influential in our lives but now in glory, perhaps mercy and peacemaking were aspects of them that made them so influential, even if we couldn’t pinpoint those traits at the time (or even now!).

Bad Bibles

October 25, 2019

I’m often asked to make recommendations for the Bible.  Meaning, which one should I buy?  Not being a linguistic genius or blessed with the time to read every available translation or paraphrasing and compare and determine for myself what is best, I rely on old standbys.

The King James Version is beautiful and classic but largely inaccessible to people uncomfortable with an antiquated English language.

The New International Version is fine up  through the 1984 edition, but the more recent edition makes deliberate choices to omit masculine pronouns in reference both to God as well as humans, I imagine in a play to not offend anyone obsessed with gender issues these days.

I prefer the English Standard Version.  Readable but still with attention to detail and accuracy.

But I’m grateful when I come across thoughtful critiques of different translations.  I’m not personally familiar with the New American Bible but the author of this series of blog posts makes some excellent points.  His critiques are aimed at translational decisions made by the editorial team of the NAB.  He critiques some of the unpoetic, clinical language chosen for this translation, which loses both beauty as well as great theological significance in some passages.  He critiques editorial choices that blur or narrow great theological significances conveyed in the original languages and maintained faithfully for literally thousands of years in translation.  And he critiques changes in verbiage that obscure or even hide the actual meaning of the original languages, perhaps with an eye towards making the Word of God less offensive to contemporary cultural preferences.

All of which seem very legitimate reasons to me NOT  to suggest the NAB, even if it is approved and endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church.  Thoughts?

 

Weekly Devotion – October 21

October 22, 2019

Genesis 32:22-32

Jacob’s journey home is anything but heartwarming. He’s spent 20 years away from home, leaving behind an angry brother who sought his death, a mother who schemed with Jacob to gain the advantage over his brother, prompting Esau’s anger, 14 years of hard work for a man who became his father-in-law, deceiving him on his wedding night by marrying him to Leah rather than Rachel. Laban tries to trick and cheat Jacob at every turn, but God has preserved Jacob, increased his wealth vastly, and provided him with many sons. Finally, Laban’s family turns against Jacob and with divine direction, Jacob flees to return home with his wealth and family. Only divine intervention spares Jacob from an attack by his father-in-law and extended family, and now Jacob receives word his brother Esau is coming out to meet him – with 400 men, a small army.

Jacob does all he can to ensure at least some of his family survive in the event Esau attacks. He does all he can to buy his brother’s good will, but now on the last night before they meet, alone after sending the last of his family ahead of him, Jacob is left by the Jabbok River. Alone except for his fear and anxiety.

Here, God comes to him. More accurately, the pre-incarnate Son of God, Jesus, comes to him as a man and wrestles with him through the night. Jacob has no time for worry or fear about Esau, as his attention is fixated on this struggle. Jacob brings his characteristic tenacity to the duel, never giving in, never breaking off. And the Son of God, who comes to Jacob not to crush him in defeat, gives Jacob encouragement for the tasks ahead of him with Esau, leaving him with both a new name and a blessing.

God enters into our struggles with us and for us, and his presence leaves us changed forever as well. Jacob walks forward towards his encounter with Esau with a limp, a reminder of how he grappled with God himself, and a reminder that it is not his own power that preserves him. God is with and for him, and so his encounter with Esau ends well.

May we have the faith to reach out to God in prayer, to grapple with him in his Word and the presence of his Holy Spirit. And may we each leave such encounters strengthened and encouraged by God’s gentle strength, and more aware than ever who it is that sustains us each moment of our lives!

Reading Ramblings – Reformation Sunday (Observed)

October 20, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Reformation Sunday (Observed) ~ October 27, 2019

Texts: Revelation 14:6-7; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; Matthew 11:12-19

Context: Properly understood, Reformation Sunday is not a celebration of division within the Church, but rather a thanksgiving to God the Holy Spirit who restored the emphasis on Jesus the Son of God who alone grants grace and forgiveness as we trust in his promise to do this. The power of the Law to condemn us for failing the Law is no longer in force. Christians are of course still bound to the Law – it isn’t as though we needn’t mind it any longer. We of all people should adhere to it knowing it as the revealed Truth of God! But we no longer fear the condemnation of the Law because we are delivered from it through faith in Jesus Christ, who suffered the full measure and penalty of the Law on our behalf.

Revelation 14:6-7 – In Lutheran circles this is the traditional first reading of the day, though I would prefer it if we varied it a bit year to year. While these verses were claimed by some to be talking about Martin Luther and his work in restoring the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, this really isn’t an emphasis I’ve ever heard, and it seems a bit of a stretch. We should and will properly give thanks for the Holy Spirit’s use of Luther, but we dare never mistake him for the Gospel itself. The Good News is Jesus alone on our behalf. We are free to worship God without fear because we are forgiven in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit testifies on our behalf before our heavenly Father.

Psalm 46 – We can hear echoes of Luther’s hymn A Mighty Fortress in this psalm, though there are plenty of other places in Scripture that use this language as well. Where else can we turn when things are difficult? Though insulated for two centuries from religious persecution, individual Christians have clung to Christ as their rock and fortress in times of personal, emotional, economic, relational, and other crises. Christians who have faced physical persecution for their faith understand as well that everything can be taken from us – even our very lives – but not our hope. We are terribly fragile creatures, but the power of God cannot be shaken, and we are promised God’s power on our behalf. Not necessarily to make things the way we would prefer them to be, but rather to deliver his promises to us in Jesus Christ, and to make good on those promises in his perfect timing even should we meet death lifting our voices in prayer to him. God will accomplish his will and plan, and promises we will be part of that, even if the world succeeds in blotting out our memory, God knows every one of us and will never forget or forsake us!

Romans 3:19-28 – Yes, everyone is under the Law. Nobody can excuse themselves from the way God has created all things to operate. We may rage against the Law, but our rage does not remove us from it’s power to condemn us for our sins. Nobody can claim to be righteous on their own merits, either from perfect obedience to the Law, or from some sort of personal exemption from the Law. Indeed, the power and purpose of the Law, Paul asserts, is to condemn, to make us conscious of our failures and our need, before a righteous and holy God, for a savior who can deliver us from the penalties of the Law we deserve. So while obedience to the Law cannot make us or declare us righteous, God has revealed another means, another source of righteousness, external to ourselves, in the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. Faith and trust in the promises of God the Father delivered through the Son of God is our source of righteousness. God offers this redemption, this forgiveness and grace freely to anyone who will receive it. Therefore God is the exclusive object of worship and praise for his goodness, for He alone is the source of our salvation. So while we can and should seek to live our lives according to the Law, and while it is necessary and right that those who transgress the Law may suffer temporal punishment for their sins, we should not presume that God grades on a curve, and those who have scored higher on the Law are somehow more deserving of God’s grace and forgiveness, as though He owes it to them for their good works. Rather, we humbly receive the grace of God for ourselves, and humbly pray that all others would receive it as well, welcoming them into the kingdom of God as brothers and sisters rather than as inferiors.

Matthew 11:12-19 – This is a confusing passage in Matthew, which is perhaps why I tend to favor the reading from John instead, since we’re given a choice in the lectionary! Context is important here. John the Baptist sits in prison, ostensibly as protection from Herod’s wife who is none to happy with John’s condemnation of her marriage. John’s disciples are sent to make sure Jesus truly is the Messiah, since John probably never considered the Messiah’s arrival would mean imprisonment. John’s disciples return, undoubtedly convinced by what they see and hear from Jesus. But what of the crowds who remain, and who themselves may wonder what role John the Baptist plays in all of these amazing things? Is Jesus simply a greater teacher and miracle worker than John the Baptist? Should they ignore John in favor of Jesus?

Jesus asks them what they thought of John the Baptist. Why did they go out to see him, to walk out from Jerusalem to the Jordan River to listen, to camp overnight, to wade out into the muddy water to be baptized? Did they go out because John said what people wanted to say, changing his message when Pharisees and others arrived? Hardly! Did they go to hear John because of his fashion sense or because he spoke eloquently like the many schools of Greek philosophers and orators? Hardly! Such people sought a good living in a palace, not the rough life of the wilderness! Could it be they went to hear John because in listening to John, they knew they were listening to the Word of God? Was John then a prophet – the first true prophet of God in 400 years? Yes, indeed. That is why they went, and that is who John was and is – even as he sits in prison. And not just any prophet, but the very prophet the last prophet – Malachi- prophesied about! The forerunner of the Messiah!

John was given the most important task in all of human history – preparing the way for the Son of God. Yet that glory and honor is peculiar to here and now and our world so desperately in need of salvation, and doesn’t translate into eternal glory or prominence. As such, whether John is free or imprisoned, alive or dead is secondary to whether he has done his job well. He has reaped the reward of a sinful world for such faithfulness – he is imprisoned. He suffers violence from the powers of the world convinced they can silence the Word of God if they silence the speaker. Before John’s arrival, the Law and the Prophets testified about the Kingdom of God’s coming, but John’s task was to announce it’s arrival – a related but different message with some particularly thorny ramifications for the powers that be, whether worldly or spiritual. John has spoken the Word of God never before spoken in human history – that the Messiah has come, the kingdom of heaven has arrived. Things are in motion.

And if this is the case, and that is who John is and the role he plays, how important is it that we listen! That we hear John for who God intended him to be, pointing out the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! How important is it that while we don’t disregard John, we don’t confuse his glory with the far greater glory of the Son of God incarnate here on our behalf!

We prefer to set the pace, to determine things according to our good pleasure. But the kingdom of God is only according to the pleasure of God. If we think we can dismiss God’s messengers because they don’t suit our expectations or preferences, we play a dangerous game. A foolish game, the winners and losers of which will one day be revealed before all of heaven and earth.

Whoever has ears, let them hear!