Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

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.

Apocrypha: The Prayer of Manasseh

February 12, 2020

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

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

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

February 11, 2020

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

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

Meanwhile, in Britain…

February 10, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Ramblings – February 16, 2020

February 9, 2020

Reading Ramblings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praying for Your Pastor

February 6, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Reading Ramblings – February 9, 2020

February 2, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 9, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 58:3-9a; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2; Matthew 5:13-20

Context: What is the life of faith in Christ like? Is it a settled comfort on the world’s terms? Does it abide by the status quo or popular culture or the latest scientific or philosophical theories? Or is the Christian life grounded elsewhere, in something that does not change, is not subject to revision, does not change in truth even though it appears out of fashion with current thoughts and trends?

Isaiah 58:3-9a – What is the spirit of the Law versus the letter of the Law, and which would we prefer to follow? We opt often for the letter of the Law, presuming that by satisfying the mechanistic instructions we are somehow placating God. Or we opt for the spirit of the Law, ignoring what is actually said in favor of doing things they way we prefer to do them, thinking God will be pleased with our creativity or innovation. But in either case we err. The spirit and the letter of the Law go together, and what we do is no more important than how and why we do it. If we think we can buy God off with obedience in one area while we take liberties in another, we are wrong. God knows our hearts and minds. He sees through our shams of self-righteousness. The Law is unrelenting, pursuing us until we cry out that we are indeed guilty, begging for mercy rather than haughtily presuming to stand on our few laurels. The Law cannot deal otherwise with sinners, but once we acknowledge our sin and inability to fulfill the Law, once we receive the Savior and Redeemer given by God rather than insisting on justifying ourselves on our own terms, the Law becomes a blessing to us, guiding us in obedience and the blessings of God.

Psalm 112 – The assigned reading for today excludes v.10. Perhaps it seems harsh and out of keeping with the overall joyful and positive tones of the first nine verses? But it tracks very well with Paul’s message to the Corinthians in today’s reading – those who are led by the Spirit operate by a different standard that will often be offensive to the one who is not led by the Spirit. Any way that is not God’s way will ultimately perish and come to nothing, whether the intentions of those who create and follow it are good or evil. This psalm articulates a truth we are often inclined to downplay – that the righteous, those who follow the way of God in faith through Jesus Christ – are blessed by God. And this blessing may well involve material blessings. Focusing on exceptions – where the righteous suffer or are persecuted by the world or crushed by the sin rampant around them or in the natural order – does not change the truth presented in this psalm. We should also be careful not to overly spiritualize this psalm. It speaks materially as well as spiritually. To be right with God is to be blessed, and those blessings are not exclusively eternal or spiritual but are realized in what we have here and now, treating whatever material riches we possess not as ours but rather as God’s, and handling them lightly in respect to our quickness to share with others and bless those in need. It may appear as folly to the world, but the one who is led by the Spirit understands the true source and nature of God’s blessings both here and now and in eternity.

1 Corinthians 2 – First century Roman society valued a good speaker. For centuries Greek and Roman scholars had taught the ways of thinking clearly in logic and philosophy and speaking eloquently and persuasively through rhetoric. Oftentimes this would involve elements of flattery soas to render the hearer well disposed to the speaker. Oftentimes this would be towards the benefit of the speaker in patronage or other types of support. Telling people what they want to hear has always been an effective way of making one’s way in the world. But to tell people what they don’t want to hear, what offends them and drives them to despair – that’s a difficult message to speak and oftentimes does not result in great affection on the part of the hearers! Contrary to the wisdom of the world, the cross of Christ stands stark and bare, and Paul crafted his message soas not to soften that starkness. To abandon following false gods and goddesses with their promises of material benefit or health in favor of the God-man who calls us to pick up our crosses and follow him to death – what a very difficult message! How counterintuitive! How unwise – by worldly standards! But God is the sole possessor of wisdom and discloses this wisdom through his Holy Spirit. What you and I could not conclude on our own is revealed to us by God the Holy Spirit, so that we recognize true wisdom from the myriad alternatives the world constantly offers or demands we pay tribute to. Those in Christ, those with the Holy Spirit of God revealing wisdom to them will often disagree with what the world says or how the world says they should live. Such disagreement is not folly though the world will call it such. The wisdom of God will one day be vindicated publicly and completely, just as the wisdom of God in Jesus the Christ was vindicated through his resurrection from the dead. We must cling to God’s wisdom even if it means forsaking the approval of the world around us.

Matthew 5:13-20 – The Christian life will look different from all other lives. There will be overlaps and similarities, but there will be places where the injunction to love our God and love our neighbor separates us from all other forms of generic kindness. To think of the Christian life as no different from any other life is to fundamentally understand the Kingdom of God Jesus brings into existence during his work of salvation and in our lives today by extension of the Holy Spirit. However this fundamentally different life is not to be a source of pride, as though we were somehow earning the love of God. Nor do we envision or preach or practice a Christian life apart from or separate from the Law, because only the Law of God is perfectly wise and perfectly in tune with the will of God in creation. Jesus comes to do what you and I cannot – fulfill the Law perfectly. This does not free us now for disobedience, but rather frees us from the fear that must naturally accompany any law we are unwilling or unable to perfectly follow. Christ frees us not from the demands of the Law but from the condemnation our failure would otherwise bring us.

This sets us free to be salt and light in a bland and dark world. It sets us free to act boldly in the confidence of the grace and forgiveness of God, not seeking out sin and disobedience but not allowing Satan to batter us with our sin and failures. Only in Christ is there true and complete and eternal freedom, empowering us to live for him, to love with him even when the world would rather we didn’t or threaten us not to. The world has no power over us, because we have been given the world in Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 2:14-16). He has overcome the world for us and set us free from it!

Reading Ramblings – February 2, 2020

January 26, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: The Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord, February 2, 2020

Texts: 1 Samuel 1:21-28; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

Context: Also the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, the readings center around Mary and Jesus and are out of order from the readings we’ve had thus far in Ordinary Time. It’s not considered a festival or feast Sunday. The Gospel reading focuses on the subject of Mary and Joseph bringing their month-old son to the Temple in Jerusalem – a reasonable feat since they have stayed in Bethlehem since his birth and the journey is not too great. There Jesus’ identity and purpose are further attested to by Simeon and Anna. This is linked with the Old Testament lesson of 1 Samuel and the birth of Samuel and his dedication to God’s service at the worship site at Shiloh (this is before the Temple was built). There is the emphasis on the faithfulness of God and our response to that faithfulness in praise and worship. Both Old Testament and Gospel emphasize being where the Lord is present (his house), and the psalm echoes this response as well. The Hebrews reading highlights the humanity of our Lord, his willing obedience to all the constraints of the Law, obedience that began with his parents’ obedience and faithfulness.

1 Samuel 1:21-28 – Samuel is a fascinating figure, standing at the changeover in Israel’s history from a theocracy to a monarchy, albeit a monarchy established in the context of a theocracy. Samuel appoints both Saul and David, but appoints them not as kings (melek in Hebrew) but as princes (nagid). He stands at the end of the period of the judges and the beginning of the kings. But he himself comes from miraculous background and beginning, his birth being God’s answer to a weary, barren wife’s prayer. We should refrain from assuming God answered her prayer because of her promise (that if God gave her a son she would dedicate him to God’s service). But rather because God answered her prayer, she could make good on her promise. Samuel is unexpected, but wanted, as opposed to Jesus who was unexpected at the very least, and perhaps not necessarily desired by either his father and mother, initially. Samuel comes as the replacement to the wicked priest Eli and his sons, while Jesus comes to replace the sinfulness in all of humanity with his own righteousness. Hannah offers sacrifice to God and dedicates Samuel to the Lord, while Mary and Joseph come to fulfill the commandment to redeem the firstborn son (Exodus 13:11-16). The faithfulness of the parents should be noted in both situations, as setting the stage for and therefore directly impacting and enabling the respective ministries of their sons.

Psalm 84 – In the context of the Old Testament and Gospel this is a beautiful psalm extolling the beauty of being in God’s house. Could there be any better place in all creation to be than where God is present? The psalm combines several different elements that may mean it was either partially a pilgrim psalm when journeying to Jerusalem (vs.5-7) or perhaps part of a more ritual rite within the city involving the king (vs. 8-9). Surely to be where God dwells is a blessing in and of itself, irrespective of other honors or worldy estimations (v. 10). So for Hannah to bring her beloved child to serve God at Shiloh was not simply to fulfill a vow but to give Samuel the best she could give him, even if it meant not having him grow up at her side. And for Mary and Joseph to bring Jesus to the Temple – where a few verses later in Luke 2 a young Jesus will be found studying the Word of God with the greatest minds in Judaism – it truly is appropriate for the Son of God to be in his Father’s house. Do we look to Sunday worship with the same anticipation? Is it the same source of joy to us? Do we trust the very presence of God through his Word and Sacraments? Certainly it should be that a day in God’s court is better than a thousand days elsewhere!

Hebrews 2:14-18 – Having elaborated on how Jesus as the Son of God is superior to angels, Paul goes on to detail the miracle that despite his divine identity, Jesus is also really and truly human, incarnate, a brother in our humanity. Now Paul describes how this was necessary that Jesus might destroy the power of Satan and death from the inside out, from within our flesh and blood, as one of us. And this was for us – for human beings, not for angels. Further evidence that Jesus is not just an angel (v.16), which perhaps was one alternative explanation for Jesus’ miracles and resurrection. No, this is not the case at all, Paul states. Jesus is above the angels yet a brother in our humanity. Only in having the fully human option to sin, but refusing to exercise it in rebellion against his heavenly Father could Jesus convey his perfect righteousness to us as though it were really ours. And moreover, Jesus now has an empathy with us that is unique within the Trinity. He knows what we face, how Satan tempts and tricks us. He knows the weakness of our flesh. He knows the bitter pain of having loved ones die. Jesus as our advocate and intercessor knows our needs and predicaments intimately, because He faced them himself. Could we have a more interested, compassionate, empathetic redeemer?!

Luke 2:22-40 – The Temple is the center of Jewish life, but it is the background here. While Joseph brings Mary here for purification and to redeem their firstborn son as required by Law, Jesus quickly becomes the focus of the Holy Spirit’s inspired revelations. It is not the Temple here who brings sanctification and redemption to God’s people through sacrifices, but rather this baby is the salvation of God intended not just for the Jewish people but for all people. Simeon and Anna both speak prophetically not just to Mary and Joseph but to anyone who will listen. This child is special – this child is the long-awaited redeemer. Joseph and Mary and Jesus fulfill all the requirements of the Law. It is not just Simeon who can depart in peace but they do as well, obedient to the Word and will of God as it applies to their young family and infant son. Luke declares the child grows in strength and wisdom as well as in the favor of God. While we don’t know very many details of Jesus’ youth we can trust Luke’s assessment – based on his discussions with those who knew Jesus then, and most likely including Mary his mother – that even then the presence and favor of God was palpable with Jesus. This boy was destined to accomplish all that had been spoken of him, whether by Gabriel or Mary or Simeon or Anna. He would replace the Temple itself as the only source of sanctification and redemption through the final, perfect sacrifice of his own sinless self on our behalves as the means of defeating death and Satan and restoring all of creation to the glory God had always intended for it.

Apocrypha: Bel and the Dragon

January 22, 2020

Another writing associated with the Biblical Daniel’s life, but deemed non-canonical by Jews as well as modern Protestants.  It does not exist in Hebrew and was most likely composed in Greek.  It is considered canonical by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.  It sometimes appears as Chapter 14 in the book of Daniel, though does not make sense there in terms of the overall flow of the book of Daniel.

The story itself involves Daniel’s interactions with the Persian King Cyrus over the matter of two revered idols – the first a statue named Bel and the second what was probably a very large snake.  The King inquires why Daniel does not worship Bel, and Daniel responds that Bel is simply a statue, not a god.  The King protests that Bel devours a great deal of food every single day – 12 bushels of wheat, 40 sheep and six measures of wine.  Daniel counters that it is the priests who attend to Bel along with their wives and children who are eating the provisions – the  statue does not eat them.

When interrogated the priests of Bel swear the statue is the only one consuming the provisions and offer for the King himself to set up the provisions and then lock and seal the temple with the priests outside of it.  Daniel agrees with this but secretly also has the king strew the temple floor with ash.  In the morning the food is gone as usual, despite the temple still being sealed.  However there are footprints everywhere from the priests and their children, proving they had a secret way into the temple and were themselves consuming the provisions.

The second event is very similar but apparently involves a large snake.  Daniel feeds this snake cakes made out of boiled fat, hair, and pitch.  These apparently clog the snake to the  point that it bursts open and dies.  This angers the people and the King, so Daniel is placed into a lion’s den with seven lions for six days.  At the end of that time, sustained in part by a visit from the prophet Habakkuk, Daniel is alive and vindicated.

This seems to best fit as a work of religious fiction.  It doesn’t necessarily contradict anything Scriptural but doesn’t  fit  well with the canonical accounts of Daniel.  Rather, it seems to exaggerate the existing account of Daniel in the lion’s den, something that certainly could be true but doesn’t seem to serve any great purpose.