Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Reading Ramblings – April 23, 2017

April 16, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday of Easter ~ April 23, 2017

Texts: Acts 5:29-42; Psalm 148; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Context: Easter is not a single day but a season, eight weeks that take us to the day of Pentecost and the last major season of the Church year. The readings during the season of Easter emphasize the power stemming from Christ’s resurrection, as well as on elaborating the Easter story itself. Although the assigned Gospel for Year A in the three-year lectionary cycle is Matthew, John’s Gospel is the key one for the high holidays of the Church year, and we’ll revert to Matthew after Pentecost for the remainder of the liturgical year. Also during Easter the Old Testament readings are replaced by readings from Acts that emphasize the resurrection power unleashed in the Holy Spirit.

Acts 5:29-42 – Jesus’ crucifixion was to be the end of his preaching. No doubt the religious authorities expected his followers to disperse rapidly after his execution. But because of his resurrection, his disciples who up until that point were timid and clueless are now emboldened and articulate. Where once they feared the power of the religious authorities they now considered themselves bound to an even higher authority. Confronted with this unexpected turn of events, the Jewish leadership convenes to form a plan. It is Gamaliel who speaks to his colleagues and advises temperance. That which is not from God will flounder on its own – and history is littered with pretenders to the title of Messiah and their disappointed followers. But the true power and authority of God cannot be thwarted, and for 2000 years this has proven true as followers of Jesus Christ, based on eye-witness testimony of the resurrection, continue to share good news with those around them.

Psalm 148 – God’s creation is exhorted to praise him. The heavens and the heavenly host is first exhorted, then the objects of the sky. Next come the mighty creatures of the oceans and the very seasons themselves. Next the earth itself is summoned to praise, creatures of the earth, then the human powers of earth and finally the classes of people considered lowest – women, children and old people. God is to be praised by all of his creation for raising up a horn of salvation, a reliable and trustworthy deliverance in his promised Messiah, Jesus.

1 Peter 1:3-9 – What a beautiful description of the reality of the life of faith! Peter begins with blessing and praising God the Father as the author of the plan of salvation brought to fruition through God the Son, Jesus the Christ. Because of God the Father’s mercy, He has extended life to those who hold faith in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. That life is characterized as a glorious inheritance, far surpassing our best conceptions of inheritances here and now that can be frittered away or destroyed. God’s faithful rejoice in his mercy and his promises despite the reality that life can be very challenging and that God’s faithful have often and regularly been singled out for persecution and destruction on account of their faith. But even in our sufferings, God’s faithful are called to rejoice, trusting that the worst of the world and our defeated enemy Satan can only inevitably be to the glory and praise of God the Father when Jesus returns in glory.

We, the faithful who have not seen Jesus resurrected in the flesh nonetheless can love him and trust him based on the faithful account of his disciples. In doing so, we give thanks to God for what He accomplishes in the faith He himself places within us – our eternal salvation.

John 20:19-31 – John continues the description of Jesus’ Easter appearances. Since Luke tells the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, John instead focuses on Easter evening and Jesus’ appearance to his worried disciples in the locked upper room. The reports are strange and hard to make sense of. Jesus has been seen alive by multiple people, men and women, in Jerusalem and beyond. Finally, the ten disciples see him for themselves, and He offers them compelling proof that He is truly alive again. They are not seeing a ghost, they are not hallucinating. They are able to touch his body, explore his wounds, and verify that it truly is him and not somebody else.

His visit is not simply cordial. He conveys to them the peace of the Holy Spirit and the essence of the Church – the declaration of forgiveness. The Church is to be the one who speaks what Jesus has accomplished, assuring individuals in repentance that their sins are truly forgiven through the death and resurrection of Jesus. While Jesus himself could forgive sins during his ministry (Matthew 9), He is free to delegate that message to his disciples and his Church.

Thomas is not present and is understandably skeptical. Despite the multiple reports of the women and the disciples, he is adamant that he will not believe unless he can see and touch for himself. His insistence on this should be comforting to those who worry that the disciples were weak-minded or easily swayed or fooled. Thomas would fit in well with our post-modern doubt of all things!

But when confronted with the resurrected Christ, Thomas is immediate in his declaration of faith and worship. He is convinced by his personal encounter with the resurrected Christ. John assures that while Thomas was blessed to receive such assurance, the eye-witness testimony of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection should be more than adequate to convince someone of the truth of the matter. The resurrection is incredible, but not beyond belief. John invites us into the same confession of faith as Thomas, to not remain doubting or dubious but to explore the evidence and to believe.

Maundy Thursday

April 13, 2017

I was surprised when researching the history of Maundy Thursday.  I understand the idea that it is based on the Latin word for command, mandatum.  But I always assumed that this was in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper.  Jesus commands his disciples to take and eat, take and drink.  However the actual service is based on Jesus’ command in John 13:34.  And specifically, the term for this day became associated with Jesus’ demonstration of the kind of love He was commanding by washing his disciples’ feet.

This is a worthy commandment (nice of me to agree with Jesus, eh?).  It is incumbent upon all followers of Jesus to take it seriously.  But by making Maundy Thursday about this, about us and what we do to and with each other, it takes our focus off of Jesus, and that is problematic to me.  Each Gospel writer sees fit to spend a substantial portion of their account of Jesus’ ministry on his last week of ministry.  John spends five chapters alone on the evening of the Last Supper!  I can’t help but think that we are intended to look and listen to Jesus rather than look to ourselves on this night.

So I like this short essay that explains how Lutheran theology ‘hijacked’ Maundy Thursday a redirected the focus towards what Jesus gives to us – himself – rather than what we do to and for one another.

Interpreting Sacrifice

April 11, 2017

Kudos to this pastor for taking a stab at arguably one of the most difficult passages in the Bible – Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22.  I don’t know who this pastor is as his blog site has no personal data.  And I thank him for his post because he helped me to clarify some of my own struggles and responses to this passage, and together, we hopefully can help make sense of what God is doing.

Firstly, I think it’s important to clarify a few points of order.  Genesis 22 begins with the clear word to the reader/hearer that this is a test.  The reader/hearer is never under the assumption that what transpires in the following chapter is a directive of any kind from God regarding human sacrifice.  Nowhere in the Bible does God demand or even permit human sacrifice or child sacrifice.  There are plenty of passages that speak to this implicitly and explicitly (Leviticus 18:21, 27:28-29; Deuteronomy 12:31, 18:10, 2 Kings 3:27, 21:6; Jeremiah 7:31).

Secondly, though God does not want child sacrifice, we have nothing in Scripture that clearly indicates Abraham’s spiritual background.  In other words, it would be reasonable to assume that Abraham was not a lifelong follower of the Biblical God.  As such, Abraham would have been very familiar with neighboring religious practices that made use of child or human sacrifice.  The Bible indicates it was a practice among the Ammonites who worshiped Molech.  Scholars have argued that Phoenician Carthage practiced human sacrifice.  The deities from this area have been found in carved sculptures in northern Israel (Hazor), which means that possibly child sacrifice was practiced in those regions by followers of the deities Tanit and Baal Hammon.

A.R.W. Green researched this topic and reported evidence of human sacrifice throughout the Ancient Near East, including  Mesopotamia, Egypt and Syro-Palestine.  In other words, while we today would gasp in horror at this test, it would not have necessarily been such an uncommon test for Abraham.  In other words, Abraham would have been familiar with deities who demanded such things.  So this would actually be a real test – would Abraham be willing to actually give what he actually believed God might actually ask of him?  Or would He refuse?

This test would not have worked in Moses’ day – just a few hundred years later.  Thus the clear indication at the beginning of Genesis 22 that this was only a test.  Moses’ hearers would have been just as aghast and confused at God’s request as you and I, so Moses clearly prefaces the episode with the disclaimer that this is just a test.  Scripture makes it clear that God does not permit or desire such sacrifices, and therefore we don’t need to be concerned that He might ask us to do so.  Even if the “sky opened up and God’s voice boomed down”, we would do right to say no.  It’s clear that such a voice could not be God’s voice.  God might test us in other ways, but not in this one because we already know his clear will in this regard.  I would be far more concerned about the sky opening and the voice of God demanding that I give my entire IRA to someone in need.  That’s not necessarily an impossible (unBiblical) demand.  I can only pray that I would have the faith of Abraham to obey.

There is a confusion about midway in the essay as to the nature of God and his relationship to his rules.  The issue – though not raised this way in the Lutheran Pastor’s essay – centers on what makes something good, and how is God (or the gods) bound in this regard?  It’s an issue that Plato records Socrates dealing with in Euthyphro.  Is good an abstract absolute that the gods must obey, or is good something that the gods determine, and therefore subject to change at the discretion of the gods?  It seems like quite the conundrum.  The Biblical answer to this issue is that neither option is correct.  Good is not an objective absolute – a pre-existing condition to which God is bound.  Nothing pre-exists the Biblical God.  But by the same token, good is not an arbitrarily defined thing.  God doesn’t decide today that the color pink is good and the color green is evil, but then decide thousands of years later to change this.  God doesn’t have to decide what is good because God is good.  It is the definition of God himself.  God could no more command something that was evil than He could create a rock so big He couldn’t lift it.  It’s a matter of philosophical categories and not confusing them.

So God didn’t arbitrarily decide that human sacrifice was demanded of Abraham and then change his mind later.  The preface to Genesis 22 makes it clear that God never intended for Abraham to actually sacrifice Isaac to him.  But Abraham didn’t know that about God yet.

I like the way the author wraps up his essay.  He acknowledges that most of us have a limit to our faithfulness.  Would I really cash out my IRA and give it to someone else because I thought God was asking me to?  That would require a lot of faith.  I’d like to think that if I was convinced that this was definitely God speaking to me, that I would trust him enough to obey.  That’s the goal, of course.

But we all fail at times as well, so we need to focus first and foremost on what God has sacrificed in his Son Jesus, and that this sacrifice is not a moral example for me to follow, it’s actually atonement for my inability to obediently follow God’s directives in my life.  Maybe I’d be willing to cash in my IRA.  But am I willing and able to allow God to dictate my thoughts and actions every moment of the day?  Hardly.  So rather than debate about whether I could be faithful in the big things, I need to recognize that I’m not even faithful in the little things.  I don’t simply need help to be faithful in epic proportions, I need to be saved from the sin that is so much a part of me that I’m blinded to it.

So if you hear a voice from heaven telling you to sacrifice your child, don’t.  Period.  But if you hear a voice from heaven telling you to sell your house and go to a strange land?  Well, do some serious praying and talk with some brothers and sisters in the faith that you really trust.  If you really believe it’s God calling you to this, and if it doesn’t require you to abandon the vocations He’s already given you (spouse, child, etc.), then I pray you’ll have the faith to follow.  And just as importantly, that I would.

 

 

Reading Ramblings – April 16, 2017

April 9, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Easter Sunday – April 16, 2017

Text: Exodus 14:10-31; Exodus 15:1-18; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18

Context: Easter is the center of the Christian faith. Jesus either rose from the dead as He prophesied, thereby affirming his identity as the Son of God, or his life and death have no greater meaning and purpose for us today. Some want to see Jesus as only a kind teacher, but a kind teacher doesn’t claim to be God. A more comprehensive examination of what Jesus said and did leads us to one of three conclusions. He might have been crazy – suffering from delusions of grandeur or some other form of mental illness whereby he believed himself to be divine. But that’s not a person we should follow. Jesus might also have just been thoroughly evil, knowingly lying to his followers about himself and everything else. The final option is that Jesus is who He claimed to be – the Son of God come to save us from our sins and death by offering his life sacrificially for us. The empty tomb leads us to only the third conclusion, and this leads us to celebration of the goodness of our God and his triumph on our behalf. He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Exodus 14:10-31 – The single-most formative event in the Old Testament, in terms of creating a sense of identity as the people of God is God’s rescue of his people from slavery and genocide in Israel. This victory is accomplished in stages. The first stage is actually bringing his people out from Pharaoh’s land, having decimated the Egyptians through a series of brutal plagues and demonstrations of power. But the final victory comes when God draws Pharaoh out of Egypt to pursue the Israelites with his powerful army. Few things could have been as terrifying as hearing the rumble of chariots, watching the immense dust cloud they raised advancing on the horizon. The Israelites are not warriors and are probably not very well armed. They anticipate a massacre. But God delivers his people and instead destroys their enemy. This foreshadows Christ’s victory on Easter morning, and also prepares us, his Easter people for a two-stage revelation of the fullness of God’s victory. Jesus has freed us from the power of sin and Satan and death, though we still see these enemies dangerously active and ominous on our horizon at all time. But on the day of our Lord’s return, the true victory will be obvious to everyone.

Exodus 15:1-18 – Moses and the people of God burst into song as they watch the waters cover over the powerful army of Pharaoh. God has accomplished the unimaginable – the utter defeat of the most powerful empire in the area, and the miraculous salvation of his people through the Red Sea. This song captures the haughty arrogance of Pharaoh and his glittering troops and chariots before their total and complete devastation at God’s hands. Likewise we are to praise the Lord who delivers us from our enemies and promises to bring us to his chosen place. Victory is complete already, but we anticipate witnessing the full repercussions of that victory when our Lord returns in glory and honor.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11 – The Gospel, the good news of God, focuses exclusively on our Lord and his victory over the power of death and the grave. This is the first importance. We often want to turn our focus too quickly to our response to this victory, to the process of our sanctification. But sanctification is only possible when we receive the justification won for us in the death and resurrection of the Son of God. To pass too quickly by his victory and obsess about our response is to miss the Gospel. The resurrection is not incidental to the Christian faith, it is the center upon which it stands or falls. Either Jesus rose from the dead and we are saved from our sins, or He didn’t and we are still in our sin and guilt. Hundreds of people could attest to our Lord’s post-resurrection appearances. This was Paul’s message. He did not create it, he simply relayed it faithfully and it became the center of faith for those who heard it.

John 20:1-18 – John’s description of Easter morning focuses on Mary Magdalene, rather than the other ladies reported in the other gospels. This is not contradictory, but complementary. John fills us in on Mary’s particular experience which differed from what the other women experienced but was related to the same truth of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Peter and John race to the tomb to see for themselves. Mary presumed that someone had taken or moved the body, but the sight of the burial cloths on the floor of the tomb made it clear this could not be the case. Nobody would have taken a naked dead body from the tomb, taking the time to remove the burial cloths from it first. So it is that John believes that Jesus has risen from the dead.

Mary followed Peter and John back to the tomb, and as they depart she remains behind. The two disciples do not appear to have spoken to her or otherwise indicated their conclusions to her, and so she weeps under the assumption that the body has been moved or stolen. So certain of this is she that she pays no real attention to the angels. So certain is she of this that she mistakes Jesus for the gardener, hoping that perhaps he knows the whereabouts of the body and can let her know.

The details are simple but compelling. Writing many years later, they are still crisp and clear in John’s mind. It is these details, this reality, that has been the center of John’s life for decades. The tomb is empty. Jesus is risen. Reconciliation with God the Father has been accomplished. Forgiveness is delivered. Grace reigns. Where we would settle from deliverance from debt, from tyrannical government, from sickness or disease, Jesus comes to deliver us from nothing less than Satan, sin, and the grave itself. He is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Reading Ramblings – April 9, 2017

April 2, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Palm Sunday – April 9, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 118:19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; John 12:12-19 and Matthew 26:1-27:66

Context: Palm Sunday has a rich and ancient tradition, accumulating a variety of names from the regions where it was observed. It is the last Sunday of Lent, but has also come to be associated specially with Holy Week, which traces the last week of Jesus’ life from his arrival in Jerusalem for the Passover to the Last Supper on Maunday Thursday, his execution on Good Friday, and his resurrection on Easter morning. To set the tone for the entire week, which encompasses multiple worship services, the entire Passion narrative is often read on Palm Sunday.

Isaiah 50:4-9a – The Lord’s Servant speaks in these verses, describing the Lord as the source of his strength and the strength He gives to others. As opposed to God’s people Israel, his servant is obedient, even through suffering and persecution. He endures these things by the Lord’s power so that He is not ashamed, not disgraced. Instead He professes his steadfast faith in his God who will vindicate him, and by whose power He can endure the transient afflictions of his adversaries. They are verses of boasting – not in the servant’s own power but in the Lord’s power who sustains him.

Psalm 118:19-29 – This is a psalm of confidence in God, assurance in the Lord’s promises. The psalm evokes entrance into Jerusalem or perhaps the Temple courtyards. The speaker is confident of being granted entrance because the Lord is the speaker’s salvation. While peers may scoff and deride, the Lord will grant victory to his faithful follower, and his adversaries will be put to shame as he becomes the foundation stone of God’s work. Surely this is something only God can accomplish – working through means and persons that the world rejects! The psalm ends in rejoicing with the approach of the Lord’s favored one. It is a moment of celebration in God’s faithfulness in his sacrificial servant. This is the Lord’s gift – the perfect and atoning sacrifice that ends all sacrifices. God is to be praised for his faithfulness to his creation, for saving his creation.

Philippians 2:5-11 – Jesus had every right to demand glory and honor from the creation He entered into. But He did not. This is to guide us, his followers, in humility with one another. We do not seek praise and glory, but rather seek to be obedient whether it is recognized and appreciated or not. Jesus was willing to maintain his humility even to the greatest of shames and insults – his public crucifixion. How much more should we be willing to bear any indignities in our lives! Jesus’ obedience resulted in his ultimate glorification, and we too look forward to being glorified in and through our Lord. But our glory and vindication is a secondary matter. The first matter is the glorification and worship of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the Biblical story – it is the story of a gracious and loving and all-powerful God who wins his creation back from rebellion and sin, that He might be properly worshiped and glorified.

John 12:12-19; Matthew 26:1-27:66 – Easily the longest reading of the Church year, the Gospel for Palm Sunday carries us from Palm Sunday to Good Friday evening. It encompasses the giddy emotional heights of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the depths of his family and followers’ despair as his dead body is laid in the tomb. It encompasses the faithfulness of his mother and inner circle who gather at the foot of his cross to hear his last words following the betrayal of his own people to death.

It’s appropriate to hear the whole sweep of the Passion narrative before focusing on individual pieces of it through the coming week. People may not make services on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then Easter Sunday, but they will hear the whole story on Palm Sunday. It also helps to ensure that people don’t simply skip the harder services mid-week to only hear the happy stories of Palm Sunday and Easter. Easter is necessitated by Good Friday. Resurrection can only be properly appreciated and welcomed after death. By skipping the somber tones of Maunday Thursday and Good Friday, the joy of Easter morning is muted. As Jesus himself once observed, he who is forgiven little, loves little (Luke 7:47).

So it is that Lent is necessary as the proper contextualization of Easter. We follow our Lord and his disciples through the temporary joy of Palm Sunday to the bewilderment of Maunday Thursday and the atrocity of Good Friday. We gather Saturday evening for the bridge service that leads us from the despair of Good Friday to the first proclamation of Easter victory. And Sunday morning we give thanks because the tomb is still empty, pointing the way towards our own, future empty graves.

Reading Ramblings – April 2, 2017

March 26, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 2, 2017

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:17-27, 38-53

Context: Palm Sunday is technically the last Sunday in Lent, but it has gradually been absorbed into the larger observance of Holy Week, leaving the fifth Sunday in Lent as the last. As such, the readings culminate the Lenten season of self-examination and repentance. The tone is a climactic anticipation – truly we are dead in our sins and unable to save ourselves! The Old Testament and psalm both heighten this sense of anticipation – where is our rebirth from dry bones? Must we wait on the watchtowers for the dawn? The Epistle lesson from Romans points us ahead – no, we need not wait for new life! We have new life in Christ! Here, now, today. Not perfectly of course, which leads us to doubt if we really have received new life. But Paul assures us we have. I opted for the abridged Gospel lesson, which shows us the new life – life from the dead – that Jesus is capable of giving. Lazarus being raised from the dead foreshadows our resurrection in Christ made possible through his victory over his own grave Easter morning.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 – This vision comes towards the end of a series of the Lord’s commands to Ezekiel to prophecy against various powers. Ezekiel is also commanded to prophecy in chapter 37 but the structure is markedly different from the surrounding chapters. Though the breath of God brings the reconstituted bones to life in this passage, it is not the same as the first breath of life given to Adam in Genesis 2. The interpretation of the vision is provided in vs. 11-14. We can read it symbolically, but there is good reason to also read it literally – if the bones represent the whole house of Israel, all of God’s people, then it encompasses past, present and future. This means those who have already died as well as those who still wait for the Lord’s salvation. The promises in this vision should include not just deliverance from spiritual lifelessness, or hopeless situations in general, but also deliverance from death itself in resurrection.

Psalm 130 – A psalm of hopeful waiting, a song of hope in the midst of struggle and loss. This could mean adversity but it could also mean despair over their sinful condition. The speaker is in dire circumstances, yet is hopeful that the Lord will hear and respond because the speaker is forgiven (v.4). Trusting in forgiveness, the speaker is free to wait for the Lord’s arrival and the speaker’s deliverance. The final three verses exhort the congregation of God’s people to hope in the Lord’s love and redemption, redemption enough for all of Israel and all Israel’s sins.

Romans 8:1-11 – Paul speaks the reality that the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return of the Son of God creates in those who trust in him. The condemnation of the Law against the sin in us is removed. We could not set ourselves free – only God could, and He has. In faith, we are recreated so that we desire the things of God, not simply what we want for ourselves. The problem is that we are only too well aware that we do still have sinful and selfish impulses, and these get the better of us often. It would be tempting to think that the new life we are promised in Christ is either a false promise, or we have not actually received it. But Paul assures us this is not the case. The Spirit of God dwells within those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. How can this be? Because only by the Spirit’s power can such a confession be made. The transformation is not simply begun but actually completed by Christ. Only in our resurrection or his return in glory will this be made obvious at last, though. This is our hope – that we will be freed from our sinful natures just as we will be physically raised from the dead. Ezekiel’s vision is a reality in Christ, and the cries of the psalmist are answered in the Easter dawn.

John 11:17-27, 38-53 Jesus exercises power over death itself, commanding a man who has been dead for four days to come out of his tomb. Jesus’ power is total – over the elements, over demons, and over death itself. Technically Lazarus is raised from the dead as opposed to resurrected. Lazarus eventually does die again, but in resurrection we will never die again, just as Jesus cannot die again. Death is the one enemy we are powerless against. While we race to figure out how to tweak our genetic code to eliminate death, we are promised eternal life through faith in the resurrected Son of God.

The community of faith is in the business of removing burial clothes. Together we remind one another that we are alive, not dead. As such we are to put off the habits and practices of the dead and live like the living. It wouldn’t be appropriate for Lazarus to continue to wear his burial wrappings. Now that he is alive again his community surrounds him to free him from the inappropriate wrappings and lead him to more appropriate attire. Christian community does this in leading others to conduct themselves like the new creations they have been made in Christ. Biblical injunctions to Godly living are not the means towards life, but the logical behavior of the living. Our behavior has no power to save in and of itself, but through faith, our obedience to God’s revealed way of living glorifies him and benefits those around us. Our actions cannot earn us God’s approval, as they are only appropriate – we don’t congratulate or praise the living for breathing or eating, because those are just the natural behaviors of someone who is alive.

The readings this week point us towards the approaching Holy Week. Jesus takes our death on himself, becoming dry bones so that we might receive the breath of life from God the Holy Spirit. We celebrate with Lazarus in anticipation of Jesus’ own glorious resurrection on Easter morning, and anticipating our own resurrection when our Lord returns.

It Bears Repeating

March 20, 2017

As we get closer to Easter, the number of articles, television specials and other commentaries on the Bible and Jesus are likely to snowball.  Very few of them will be faithful, helpful, or accurate.

This essay is an old one and came out around Christmas rather than Easter, but the points are salient and need to be reiterated over and over and over again.  Because the false assertions never let up.

Reading Ramblings – March 26, 2017

March 19, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 26, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 42:14-21; Psalm 142; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Context: We are blinded by sin. It’s easy for us to forget this, to treat sin as a matter of what we do or don’t do separate from our ability to rationalize or understand things. But blindness affects not only what we do but how we perceive and relate to the world around us. There is no aspect of us that is unaffected by sin. The readings for this Sunday center around the issue of blindness, and the vision and light God desires to restore to us. The result is God’s glory but also our very real and eternal benefit.

Isaiah 42:14-21 – Previous chapters have spoken words of comfort and encouragement to God’s people while deriding the foolishness of those who place their hope in idols and false gods. In Chapters 41-42 God the Father elaborates on his Chosen Servant, the one through whom He will deliver his people and bring judgment on those who resist his sovereign and divine will. Today’s reading picks up God’s voice in a song of praise to God for his action. God who has restrained himself as He watches his own people wander away and others seek to dislodge him from his people’s hearts, but that restraint has come to an end and God will act powerfully and irresitibly (vs. 14-15). So pervasive and all-encompassing will his actions be that the ways will be unknown. The blind will be guided, and the darkness that surrounds them will turn to light as the ground levels, making their passage possible. But those who persist in blind worship to idols will be shamed and shown as fools. Israel was supposed to be God’s messenger to the world, bringing the light of God’s Law to the nations. He has failed this utterly. Israel is blind and deaf to the revelation of God, and so his blindness and deafness exceeds that of all others. Yet in all of this the goal is not to remove or eliminate the Law of God, but rather to magnify it to show it for the true glory that it is – the very purpose and intent of God the Father. All creation will one day fully understand that God’s Word has been right in every respect all along.

Psalm 142 – The psalm is introduced by way of explanation – composed by David in a cave. Perhaps this is a reference to the events of 1 Samuel 22:1, or perhaps 1 Samuel 24. Regardless, it is a beautiful cry to God for help and guidance. The speaker recognizes their limitations. They are overwhelmed with fear because their enemies wait for them, but they have no ally to stand with them, nobody to watch over them and protect them. Human help fails, but God can save and so it is right to cry out to him for deliverance. The speaker exhorts God to save them so that they might praise God and join those who love him and rely upon his mercy and grace. Throughout the psalm the idea of vision and perception is woven. Traps are hidden, God is told to look to the speaker’s right side, and none takes notice of the speaker’s plight.

Ephesians 5:8-14 – We are new creations in Christ, through faith and baptism we die with Christ and are raised to new life in him – our old behaviors and ways of thinking about the world are no longer appropriate or relevant. Having summarized in vs.3-5 some of those previous ways of acting and thinking, Paul exhorts the Ephesians rather to walk in light, since what happens in the light is good (as opposed to the list of bad things previously, which happen under cover of darkness and shadow). Exposure to the light is the means by which the dark things lose their power. Personal transparency in our temptations and struggles is a means of freeing ourselves from their destructive power. Our first instinct is to hide our sinfulness and temptation but Paul assures us that the opposite is far better for us!

John 9 – This healing episode in Jerusalem is an extended consideration of the nature of blindness and the power of God to heal our blindness and give us sight. The physical restoration sight to the man is only the beginning of this process. Through the episode, the man who can now see is moving towards spiritual sight and understanding. He moves from not knowing who Jesus is (v.11 – the man called Jesus) to recognizing him as a prophet of God (v.17) to finally worshiping him as the Son of God (v.38).

In contrast, the religious officials remain blinded the entire time, refusing to see in Jesus’ actions the hand and affirmation of God the Father. Instead they lash out in frustration at the formerly blind man, angered that they are powerless while Jesus, who they seek to expose as a fraud or an apostate is able to do amazing things. The man with restored sight is last described humbly worshiping Jesus. The religious leaders are last described in proud indignation, throwing the healed man out of their sight.

The man had no predetermined attitude or knowledge of Jesus. As such he was able to be led to proper faith in a very short time. The religious leaders were convinced that they fully knew and understood Jesus (John 7:27), yet they do not (John 1:10). They remain blind as they insist that they alone can see clearly.

Our sin blinds us, and even those saved in Christ do not have full sight restored – yet. This should lead us to a degree of humility in regards to those things of the faith that are not explicitly defined by Scripture. We see our savior, but if we are convinced that we completely apprehend him, completely understand him, we are on dangerous ground, possibly demonstrating blindness to what He is doing among us or where He wishes us to follow him.

Reading Ramblings – March 19, 2017

March 12, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017

Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95:1-9; Romans 5:1-8; John 4:5-30, 39-42

Context: God continues to pour out his grace and blessings upon a rebellious and sinful creation, a creation that doubts and hesitates to acknowledge the obvious good that God has done in the past, or to see him as capable and active in providing it now, and therefore uncertain as to whether He is trustworthy in the future. We pause and doubt and wonder and question, but God simply continues to bless. Without pause or doubt or question.

Exodus 17:1-7 – We are uncertain where Rephidim was, but it was the last stop before reaching Mt. Sinai and there was no water there. The multitude (perhaps 2 million people!) following Moses and the burning pillar of cloud and fire out of Egypt are acutely uncomfortable in every sense of the word. The secure if ugly routines of life they were accustomed to in Egypt have been shattered. They wander in the wilderness trusting blindly the cloud and the Moses. Where are they going? What are God’s intentions? And why wander in the wilderness where death can come quickly through heat and sun and exposure, through thirst and starvation and sickness or hostile tribes? They, like us, grumble and complain. But God responds not with judgment and wrath but with water. In these tense moments of uncertainty God confirms both his miraculous and blessed power and care for his people, as well as Moses’ position as his mouthpiece. There is no situation that God cannot overcome, no obstacle that cannot be removed. God’s people are reminded to trust in God’s provision. Where we see only rock and sand, God is capable of bringing forth water, life, and hope.

Psalm 95:1-9 – I grew up singing these verses almost every Sunday as part of our worship liturgy, and the melody floats through my head even still. While rock connotes strength and is more likely intended in the sense of a strong foundation upon which to build a fortification, in combination with the Exodus text we can see that in the wilderness God was literally the rock of their salvation, drawing water from stone. As such, how can they – or we – do anything other than praise and worship God for his goodness, goodness that is not simply objective and impersonal, but intensely specific – He is our salvation! He holds all of creation in his hands. His sovereignty is not like an earthly ruler who can command people but not the elements. God commands all of creation, and in this awesome knowledge we offer our homage as part of that creation. Our worship is fitting and appropriate and only natural.

Romans 5:1-8 – An unfortunately placed chapter division is where we start, with a conclusion based on what Paul says in 4:24-25. Jesus was killed for our sins, and raised as the source of our justification – our being made right with God the Father. Because of this (therefore) we know that through faith in Jesus Christ as the source of our justification, we are at peace with God the Father. We stand here and now – not just someday – in his grace and we look forward to the full glory of God to be revealed in the return of our Lord. We rejoice in this hope, but we also rejoice in whatever our circumstances of this world are at the moment, even in suffering. Paul is not saying we should seek out suffering, but rather that when we encounter it in our lives we don’t encounter it passively as victims, but actively as glorious victors in Jesus Christ who can be fully confident that our God is present with us in our suffering. As such, we endure. Moment by moment we discover that what we thought we could not survive or endure, we can by the grace of God. We grow stronger knowing that He sustains us moment to moment. This alters who we are, it changes our character. It shapes us as people of faith who know what it means to rely on God and to have God demonstrate his ability and willingness to carry us. This inevitably leads us to be people of hope. People who know God’s strength in the past can hope for his strength in this moment and in any future moment to come. We do not despair and give up. Our God lives and reigns and He is with us and for us! We know this intellectually and theologically but in the midst of suffering this knowledge becomes palpable, the very means by which we endure. How do we know that God is for us? Because He sent his Son to die for us. Not to die for us at our best, in our intermittent shining moments of nobility, but rather in the depths of our depravity and sin. Jesus stretches his arms out to receive the nails seeing us when we most would wish to hide from his sight. If Jesus will not die for me at my worst, I cannot trust that He died for me at my best.

John 4:5-26 – By the standards of the day, this conversation should never have taken place. Rarely between a man and a woman. Rarer still between a Jew and a Samaritan. Rarer even further between a rabbi and a common person. But Jesus meets with the woman at the well, engages her in conversation, answers her questions, points out the sin in her life, and allows her the room to come to her conclusions. In the process an entire town is changed. This woman is changed. And for those who have ears to hear, we are changed as well. Where we would be quick to judge and dismiss or ignore, Jesus listens and in the brief relationship that develops, the Holy Spirit works faith in the hearts of many.

All of these readings emphasize God’s faithfulness. We are fickle and prone to doubt and changes of mind and attitude. God is not. He is committed to his creation and to his faithful. So committed that He offers his Son in exchange for the sins of anyone who is willing to take God at his Word and trust that the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ are actually for them. Not simply objective historical events to be studied and debated, but the power to subjectively change every single person who will allow themselves to be reborn and transformed.

God’s saving power is not given and then taken away, however. He saved his people from slavery and death sentences in Egypt, but even in their repeated failures and rebellions afterwards He remains their God of deliverance. He doesn’t reject them and send them back to Egypt. He continues to guide, sustain, and sometimes to discipline them. So it is with you and I.

Reading Ramblings – March 5, 2017

February 26, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday in Lent – March 5, 2017

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

Context: This is the first Sunday in the liturgical season of Lent, which is in my opinion the most curious of the liturgical seasons. It balances the acknowledgement that every Sunday is Easter Sunday again, a celebration of our Lord’s dramatic victory of sin, death, and Satan through his resurrection from the dead. But at the same time the season has a somber edge appropriate to the self-examination and confession of our sinful need for a savior. Jesus undergoes his Passion because of you and I and our sins, to save you and I personally and specifically. Balancing the celebrative with the contemplative is an interesting homiletical challenge! Being in Lent, we are no longer in the liturgical season of Ordinary Time, and will not return to it until June 18 after Pentecost and Holy Trinity Sundays. At that point the lectio continua will resume, but with the middle of Romans instead of 1 Corinthians.

Genesis 3:1-21 – A season for the contemplation of our sinfulness logically begins with the source of our sinfulness, the primordial sin of our ancestors Adam and Eve. Sin is disobedience from God, and we struggle to consider that such a simple exertion of self-will against divine will could brook all the chaos and suffering we know in our world and lives. But this is so. One command in the beginning, not ten. One act of disobedience, not the myriad failures you and I experience daily as a result. While we may source our own sinfulness in Adam and Eve’s, it is inaccurate to try and shift the blame fully to them. We participate actively in sin, whether large or small, whether societally abhorrent or privately nagging. Disobedience is disobedience, and the excuse that it is just a small matter fails to recognize that rebellion on a small scale inevitably leads to rebellion on a grand scale (consider the murder in the next chapter!).

Psalm 32:1-7 – A beautiful psalm not only of confession, but confidence in God’s forgiveness. It acknowledges the guilt that we suffer when we sin (vs.3-4), and though we are inclined to want to hide our sinfulness from God and not talk about it, it is only in the act of honest confession that we receive relief (vs. 5-6). So it is that we can and should encourage one another to constant confession. Self-examination is something that leads us closer to God, not farther away. As we confess our sin we are forgiven, a blessed state indeed! As Christians this continual act of confession is not because God has not forgiven us already. Rather, it is the means God gives us for remaining aware of our dependency on him, and guarding our hearts and minds from being misled by others or our own brokenness into determining that something God has declared to be sinful is, in fact, not sinful. Such an error is dangerous, and confession based on the Word of God is a strong tool to keep our hearts and minds aligned in Him, rather than our own spurious feelings and ideas.

Romans 5:12-19 – Romans is an amazing book for connecting Scriptural dots. I’m often asked by people new to the Bible how and what to read first. Genesis 1-3, at least one of the Gospels, and then Romans is my standard response. Romans connects the implications of Genesis 1-3 with the good news of Jesus Christ in a personal way. Death and sin are our inheritance. But in Jesus, we are set free from those chains, receiving instead grace and righteousness instead of condemnation in guilt. In Adam, all humanity was condemned. In Christ, all humanity has been redeemed. Salvation is a reality that only need be received, not earned.

Matthew 4:1-11 – In order for Jesus to redeem humanity, He must remain obedient where Adam was not. So it is that before He begins his public ministry, He must – weakened by fasting – withstand the temptations of Satan. It’s easy for us to dismiss this as a rather trivial matter. But Jesus is truly human as well as truly divine. He has a human will which truly could deviate from his heavenly Father’s commands. The temptations of Satan are real. He tempts Jesus physically in his hunger. He tempts Jesus’ pride and vanity by asking him to prove his identity. And he tempts Jesus in regards to his work and mission, by offering another way to accomplish allegedly the same goal. Jesus withstands all three temptations by relying on the Word of God to correct Satan’s misuse of God’s Word.

We who face temptation have the same weapon at our disposal to withstand temptation. The Word of God is more than capable of thwarting Satan’s temptations, or the suggestions of the world, or our own sinful desires. Knowing God’s Word is essential to detecting misuses of that same Word.

Lent is a time of reflection and confession of our sinfulness. But we reflect and repent in the light of the empty tomb. The resurrected Christ assures us that our sins are forgiven through faith in his once-for-all sacrifice. There is nothing more to be added to his work. Although we are weak and will fall prey to temptation where Jesus did not, our hope is not in compensating for those failures or making up for them in some way by becoming a better person. While striving to be a better person is a noble pursuit, we dare never allow it to become the means by which we try to show God our own worthiness of his love. He loves us, assuredly, but if we wish to stand on our own merits, we must keep his Law perfectly, at all times. As with Adam and Eve, just one failure condemns us, because there is no way to make up for failure. Only when we rely fully on the sacrifice of Christ can we be assured that his death and resurrection have forgiven every single one of our sins – past, present and future.