Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Reading Ramblings – January 31, 2021

January 24, 2021

Date: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 31, 2021

Texts: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

Context: The one to come after Moses. The one who must be listened to, or Moses himself will condemn those who ignore his words. Powerful prophecy. A prophecy Jesus will refer to in his disputations with Jewish leadership in John 5. One who speaks with authority as Jesus does in his ministry, not simply quoting and citing the great scholars and rabbis before him but speaking authoritatively about Scripture as the Word made flesh. It is easy to maintain all of this in the realm of doctrine and history and theology, but the Word made flesh continues to confront and challenge us today. Each of us is not only vulnerable to but guilty of assuming the world’s ways of thinking and acting, or trying to justify our personal preferences with cherry-picked Bible verses. Each of us must submit humbly in repentance and allow the Holy Spirit to show us where we are off base, where our theology is inadequate to the love of neighbor we are commanded.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 – In Chapter 17 of Deuteronomy Moses addresses the Israelites before his death and prophecies that some day they will have a king, something that is a considerable amount of time away! Here in Chapter 18 Moses prophecies as to another great prophet God’s people must be on the lookout for, who will bear God’s Word to them in a way they can hear, as opposed to direct, unmediated divine presence and communication such as what happened in Exodus 19-20 around Mt. Sinai. In Jesus’, the mediation will be his incarnation, his human nature. The Word of God is made man to dwell among us as one of us, while also retaining his full divine nature. As such Jesus speaks with the authority of God the Father himself, an authority that people marvel about even in the early days of his public ministry (see the Gospel reading). The Jewish people understood they should be watching for the prophet Moses prophecies to arise, but Jesus is not what they expect and so He is rejected by many people. Of course it’s easy for someone to claim the mantle of prophet or claim that God is speaking to and through them. Such claims are not to be made lightly. Hebrews 1:1-2 make it clear that the fullness of God’s authoritative speaking comes in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. Jesus is the fulfillment of Moses’ prophecy, and the fullest proclamation of God’s Word to and for us.

Psalm 111 – This and Psalm 112 are considered related thematically and stylistically. The psalm is an acrostic using letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and consisting of twenty lines arranged in ten verses. The theme is the praise of God and both psalms start with Hallelujah (praise). The psalm dwells on various reasons God should be praised, centering on his acts of provision and power. But after such a praise oriented psalm the final line has a rather odd tone – a call to not simply praise God but to live according to his Word. This will become the dominant theme of Psalm 112.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 – The subject matter here may seem odd at first. After all, it isn’t typical in Western culture to worry about food being sacrificed to idols. In other parts of the world this is a far more reasonable concern! It was a big issue for the Corinthians who lived in a pagan and pluralistic culture where meat was rare – particularly for the poor – and most likely available via pagan temples and markets. Likewise these pagan temples and markets were likely common meeting places for the wealthier members of society, and we have ample invitations to dinners hosted in the dining areas (tricliniums) of these temples in Corinth. The question is theological but Paul begins his response (which will cover chapters 8-10) by calling the Corinthians to look beyond themselves and their theological acumen to their brothers and sisters in Christ. It is not simply a matter of right theology but also concern for one another in the faith that dictates the best response to this particular issue. In love for one another we voluntarily hold back from exercising our rights or acting in ways that might be theologically correct but inconsiderate of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul will give more detailed responses in Chapter 10, but wants to lay the groundwork first in Chapter 8 and then illustrate what he means in Chapter 9.

Mark 1:21-28 – This may be Jesus’ first public teaching. It is noted first of all for his authority in teaching the Word of God, and secondly for his authority over unclean spirits. The Greek says the man is “in” a spirit rather than “having” a spirit. The man may not be possessed as we typically imagine it but is being influenced by the spirit’s presence. We were informed in 1:10 that the Holy Spirit of God descended upon Jesus, and we witness now a confrontration between the Holy Spirit of God empowering Jesus and an unclean spirit. While it is not unreasonable to swap out the word unclean with the word evil in describing this spirit, Mark likely chose his words carefully (inspired by the Holy Spirit as he records Peter’s own Holy Spirit-inspired preaching and teaching). Jesus was recently washed by John the Baptist. While Jesus had no sins of which to repent and be washed clean of, John’s washing does indicate cleanness as opposed to the uncleanness of the spirit now confronting Jesus. This is likely the semantic intention of Mark in choosing this adjective – cleanness vs. uncleanness as a condition of a repentant heart as opposed to some ceremonial or ritual definition. This spirit is not only outside the inbreaking kingdom of God in Jesus the Christ but actively opposed to it, and as the unclean spirit causes the man to speak aloud, the words it uses are intended to thwart or complicate Jesus’ efforts at establishing his rule. The spirit’s words indicate an awareness of not just who Jesus is (the Holy One of God) but what his presence in creation likely means (the destruction of all unclean spirits and hearts opposed to the rule of God). As we hear in other accounts of Jesus dealing with demons, the demons understand Jesus’ presence as indicative of judgment. We assume they fear it is the final judgment when they will be banished eternally (see Mark 5:7). They fear – and rightly so – their final defeat and the end of their limited power in creation. Their fear is rightly placed, but their timing is off. Jesus is not here to usher in final judgment immediately, so instead of destroying the unclean spirit He commands it to be silent and to leave the man. While Jesus’ purpose is not the final judgment, He does have authority to command the unclean spirit who has no choice but to obey, if not quietly or happily! The power of God the Holy Spirit at work in Jesus the Christ cannot be denied by any power in heaven or on earth. Satan and his forces may rage against the inbreaking kingdom of God but they are powerless to stop it.

Christmas Revisited

January 19, 2021

Yes, I know. Wrong time of the year. Whatever. These days if you can find something beneficial and good, go with it even if it’s not seasonal.

This is a succinct article summarizing research into the holy sites in Israel – sites associated with the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth the Son of God. Having been blessed to visit Israel in 2012, I’ve seen many of the sites listed in this article. And as someone with some historical knowledge, I viewed and experienced them from two perspectives. The first is as a pilgrim, someone following centuries of footsteps to places revered by followers of Jesus the Christ, trusting in their footprints to lead me to the right place and grateful for a bit of contextualization and familiarization with places formerly just words in a book and pictures on the Internet.

The other perspective was more as a historian who knows that sometimes things aren’t what they seem, even if they were well-intentioned. Knowing the turbulence of this particular area of the world in just the last 2000 years (or even 1400 years!), I had to realize there was a possibility the venerated sites our guides took us to were not, in fact, the actual place of Jesus’ birth or death or burial.

I reconciled these two perspectives with the knowledge that even if these sites weren’t the sites, there actually were (and therefore are) sites – perhaps ignored or forgotten or erased by the transient irritations of vying potentates. The incarnation of the Son of God in creation, including geography and time, means that Jesus was here. Actually and really and remarkably well-documented, historically. I could relax and enjoy the experience not as a skeptic but as someone of faith who recognizes it is just our human nature and attachment to physical things and places that make such pilgrimages necessary and useful. I could experience these places knowing that, even if they weren’t the places, they were close. In the ballpark, so to speak.

But I have to also admit, as the article noted above supports, that some of these traditional sites have been traditional for a long time. Prior to the 300’s AD and the sudden interest of a converted Roman emperor. As such, it is not unreasonable to presume that the location – if not necessarily the particular walls and accoutrements over and around it – is actually the right spot. While we can be suspect of sinful (even when well-intentioned) human nature looking to make a quick buck off of tourists, there are certain places that have been venerated for a long time. Not because the site itself is divine but because the act of veneration, of being in the same area where the Son of God walked or cried or bled is one particular aspect of a life of faith. Not a necessary one, but a special one. And it can – and should – be enjoyed as such for what it is.

Reading Ramblings – January 24, 2021

January 17, 2021

Date: Third Sunday after the Epiphany, January 24, 2021

Texts: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

Context: How much do we trust the Word of God? We trust it as truthful, but do we regard that truth as inclusive as to it’s power? Do we trust the assertion of Isaiah 55:11, that the Lord’s Word accomplishes that which it purposes? Job doubted the power of God’s Word – or did he? Perhaps he actually trusted the power of God’s Word to turn hearts to repentance, and wished to withhold that opportunity for Nineveh, which was the heart of a pagan and dangerous empire? We see the power of God’s Word as men respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship, setting aside their lives and livelihood for the less practical role of disciple. Yet today I fear many Christians distrust the power of God’s Word, and resign themselves to the ways and tools of the world to accomplish their ends. They trust the power of princes more than the power of God for practical purposes. But God’s Word that accomplishes the impossible is also the Word that calls us to repentance for our distrust, and assures us of God’s continued love for our quaking hearts.

Jonah 3:1-5 – This is the only time a reading from Jonah occurs in the three year Revised Common Lectionary cycle. The book itself is short but dense with meaning, notwithstanding it’s enigmatic ending. Chapter 3 finds God speaking his Word of command to Jonah to share God’s Word of warning to the people of Nineveh. Recently chastened by the power of God’s Word in the belly of a whale, Jonah now obeys where he formerly presumed not to. God’s Word sparks repentance among the Ninevites at a level truly miraculous from the greatest to the least of them (v.5), which is better fleshed out in the next four verses we skip over where the King of Nineveh commands repentance of the entire city, not simply in thought but in action through sackcloth and ashes and fasting – and this is to extend to the animals as well! The power of God’s Word is also demonstrated in its reach – Jonah is sent to preach a warning to a pagan people, people who may have heard of the God of the Israelites but who do not acknowledge him as their god. Yet such is the power of God’s Word that it is capable of even striking concern into the hearts of those who despise or ignore him. How much more should we expect God’s Word to be efficacious in the hearts and minds of those who do claim to know and worship him!

Psalm 62 – Psalms 39, 62 and 77 each make a reference to Jeduthun. This may indicate he had some role in authorship but it might also be reference to a melody he is credited with. Psalms 39 and 62 are credited to David and Psalm 77 is credited to Asaph so perhaps the melodic citation is more accurate. He is noted several times in 1 Chronicles and in Chapter 25 is indicated as associated with worship (presumably) music, specifically harps, lyres and cymbals. The psalm itself exhorts to confidence and trust in God. Verses 1 and 5 are challenging to render accurately in English. The ESV uses the word silence, but that word has a different connotation in English than the Hebrew intends. The psalm is not talking about a parrticular form of waiting – waiting without speaking, for example. Rather the Hebrew word more closely connotates trust, reliance. Our concerns and fears are placed in God’s hands to await his response in faithfulness. Only God can be trusted this completely and fully – human beings are either willfully evil (vs. 3-4) or at best, transient and severely limited in power (vs.9-10), even forceful or violent power. Although we are called to trust God at all times, this really only becomes evident during difficult times, when we are confronted with our own lack of ability to manage a situation. In these times we are reminded that all power belongs to God (v.11).

1 Corinthians 7:29-31 – The Lectionary makes an additional three verses optional and I’ve decided to leave them off as I think these verses capture Paul’s intentions very clearly. I wonder how many Christian marriages would benefit from the Church actually preaching all of this chapter on a regular basis, as well as Paul’s other Holy Spirit-inspired words on marriage. Apparently that’s considered too risky or ill-advised or no longer pertinent. Although the Church would never say those things, silence in this area of Scripture seems to have done far more harm than good, given current divorce statistics. Instead we focus on broad theological realities which are of course very important but unhinged from their very tangible applications, such as marriage. Yes, the time is short. How short? We don’t know. Clearly it isn’t/wasn’t as short as Paul expected. Yet our basic attitude should be exactly what Paul espouses here. He is not espousing spousal neglect, which the rest of this chapter makes abundantly clear. Much of his letter thus far is practical teaching about how to live life in this world. This teaching is necessary to clarify sinful practices and establish holy guidelines because, of course, we are part of this world. But as Paul emphasizes here, the present form of this world is passing away! This is not escapism, but rather a practical reminder that what fills the majority of our days and hours is passing away. At the very least it passes away from us in a span of years or decades as we are drawn through death into eternity. But it is also passing away in that history and creation have a terminus. These things are not infinitely cyclcial but rather linear, part of a divine plan that includes a divine conclusion. With this in mind we live our lives and engage in our relationships, in Christian love and gentleness but also with the understanding they cannot bear the weight of our eternal hope (see Psalm 62 above).

Mark 1:14-20 – Once again the Word of God accomplishes powerful things, no less impressive than the repentance of the Ninevites, it calls ordinary people into discipleship, into personal relationship with the Triune God who creates, redeems and sanctifies all of creation. This relationship with God transforms and may alter all of our other relationships. It reprioritizes our entire life. Not everyone is called to discipleship in such a specific way as the Apostles (obviously) or dedication to the Church and it’s work.

Note also the similarity in what Jonah was commanded to preach and what Jesus preached! Both are a call to repentance, an acknowledgement there is a God against whom our thoughts, words and deeds are in a state of rebellion. Both indicate there is a judgment or reckoning coming, but that this judgment needn’t be feared if there is genuine repentance. It’s important to remember here the Biblical concept of repentance is much more extensive than our current notions of being apologetic or sorry. It isn’t simply lip service. It is both an honest acknowledgement of being in the wrong – being guilty – as well as a commitment to an opposite course of action, a course of action characterized by obedience rather than rebellion.

As such, the call to repentance is every bit as valid and urgent today as it was 2000 years ago or 2800 years ago. Judgment is not simply the objective return of the Son of God in glory to bring creation history as we know it to an end. Judgment comes at the end of our respective lives, the time and date and circumstances of which we are not privy to. As such, putting off the call to repentance is never the appropriate response. The call is always imminent, always relevant, always pertinent.

Contemplating Failure

January 13, 2021

At what point is it reasonable to contemplate failure? At what point is it reasonable to consider helplessness? Does the post-modern philosophical landscape even permit such an option? Or must everything be a strident, insistent-even-if-delusional declaration of eventual success and dominance?

I wonder this as I watch COVID numbers continue to tick upwards. Our state has been among the most strict in the United States in regards to limiting business operations and attempting to mandate personal behavior. Yet our state has been the media spotlight over the past month for skyrocketing cases of COVID-19, particularly in the greater Los Angeles area.

Nine months of devastating economic restrictions have put who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses at risk of failure. Nine months of unending doomsaying and worst-case scenarios have battered our collective psyches. Masks are the norm now inside buildings. People are literally afraid to get too physically close to anyone they don’t know. A cough or a sneeze sets an entire grocery store on edge.

Yet despite all of these mandates and what seems to be – at least anecdotally – fairly good compliance with them, COVID continues to rage, numbers continue to tick upwards. Case numbers are what catches our eyes. Mortalities are on a far smaller level, though of course no mitigating contextual data is given to determine whether these mortality rates are unusual or unexpected for any sort of respiratory infection. California struggles with a growing case number despite some of the strictest protective policies in the country. Neighboring states where people can still eat at restaurants or have a drink at a bar don’t seem to have as severe a situation.

Is it possible to admit our attempts to outsmart the virus have failed? Is it reasonable to do so? At what point – if any – do we resign ourselves to the reality of a contagion we can’t contain? Are we capable of saying our intentions were good but ultimately of uncertain effectiveness?

Perhaps this isn’t possible to a Western culture where scientism is fast becoming the official religion, where God is presumed dead or non-existent and we are the determiners of our own fates. In a culture where the State is presumed to have all the answers it becomes rarer and rarer to admit that efforts were unsuccessful, let alone misguided. Everything must have a patina of success to it, even if the core is considerably tarnished. We must constantly slap ourselves on our collective back for our ingenuity and resourcefulness and tenacity even if we can’t prove that what we did or didn’t do actually had much of an effect.

My Biblical Christianity, in contrast, does allow for this. Allows for us to do the best we can but also admit that our best efforts may be, definitionally, not only inadequate but misguided and ultimately even, at odds with an authority higher than our own. My Biblical Christianity allows for a world in which we are not the eventual victors by our own efforts, but rather rescued from our good intentions that are fatally flawed and marred by sin, including our ability to admit our inabilities and limitations.

Some might see this as a fatalism of sorts that destroys the importance of striving for better. Historically though, this is obviously patently untrue as Christians have been at the forefront of working to make the world a better place for everyone. Rather than resign ourselves to God’s uncontrollable and largely unknowable divine workings, we rest in his love and grace and forgiveness and take seriously his original commands to us to be caretakers of his creation (Genesis 1:28). Biblical Christianity both conveys the truth that we can and do and should take seriously that we can effect positive changes in the world, but also that there are limitations both to what we are intended to accomplish and what we are able to accomplish. This emphasizes not so much our failures and limitations as the goodness and grace of God. We are forbidden from seeing ourselves as the ultimate authority and therefore do not labor in vain under that burden. Rather we are free to apply ourselves the best ways we can conceive of. It should also mean we are free to admit when our efforts have been incorrect or ineffective without stigmatizing ourselves or others for it.

Perhaps our efforts to contain the Coronavirus have not been successful. Perhaps they’ve even been somewhat pointless. Perhaps rather than trying to keep it from spreading at all we should focus our efforts on protecting those who are most vulnerable while allowing the younger population in work and school to shoulder the difficult but necessary work of gaining some sort of herd immunity that alone will ultimately render the virus less dangerous to everyone.

This is the long-game point of view. I believe it is the point of view of most scientists and immunologists. Someday COVID-19 will be no more dangerous or feared than the common cold or flu. This means it will still be dangerous to a small population group and that will likely never change, but the vast majority of the rest of the population will not be unduly threatened by it. Some experts hope vaccines expedite this process. But we also have no idea whether a vaccinated person who does not develop the symptoms associated with Coronavirus is capable of carrying the virus and infecting other people. We have no idea how long immunization to the Coronavirus lasts, and evidence seems to suggest it doesn’t last more than a few weeks or months at the most. The net result is an approach to the virus that demands fearfulness even when following all the proper protocols.

Perhaps this isn’t the best approach. Perhaps this only draws out the damage a new virus causes not only physically but psychologically and emotionally and socially. I just wonder if anyone is capable of admitting this might be the case and exploring that possibility intelligently, or if any such admission would immediately be silenced as traitorous unless backed with clearly defensible data. I tend to suspect it’s the latter option. In which case I guess the only thing we can do is pray for continued strength and healing even with potentially flawed policies in place. And we can keep an eye on places where alternate approaches are being tried in hopes those prove more successful. And we can continue to speak our truth about our proper role in creation. Caretakers, not owners. Creatures, not gods. We can encourage one another to continue doing our best and we can also consider a variety of options rather than insisting on a single approach.

Reading Ramblings – January 17, 2021

January 10, 2021

Date: Second Sunday after the Epiphany – January 17, 2021

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Context: The liturgical season of Epiphany started Janury 6 – 12 days after Christmas. Last Sunday was the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord, so this is the second Sunday after the Epiphany. Epiphany is a Greek word meaning appearance or manifestation. As Christmas celebrates the humanity of our Lord, the season of Epiphany calls us to contemplate his divinity, that in Jesus of Nazareth the very Son of God came to dwell with and among us. However the season of Epiphany ended last Sunday, and this Sunday marks the first Sunday of Ordinary Time in the liturgical year – Sundays not part of a particular season. As with Ordinary Time later in the year after Pentecost, the Sundays are noted in relation to the last major festival. That means right now the Sundays are noted in respect to Epiphany, just as later in the year they will be noted in respect to Pentecost. As such, while psalm, Old Testament and Gospel readings all work together in some respect, the Epistle readings revert back to more or less consecutive readings from particular books in the New Testament, in this case 1 Corinthians.

1 Samuel 3:1-20 – Some mistake the silence of God as evidence He is not here, or at least not paying attention. Yet this reading makes it clear first of all that silence is not unusual with God, and secondly that He is indeed paying attention. Eli perhaps thought God would not care that his sons were extorting God’s people (1 Samuel 2:12ff). Evil often seems to run unchecked, leading some to conclude God does not exist or does not care. Scripture repeatedly reminds us that all of creation will be accountable before God, and that sometimes such accountability will come here and now as well as in eternity. God’s people are therefore to cling to what is right, to resist evil both in themselves and others, and when evil seems to prevail, trust that God who is sovereign over all things will indeed set things right in his own time. The existence of evil in the world around us is a constant reminder of the evil that lurks within our own selves, and a call to daily give thanks to God through whom temporal forgiveness and eternal reconciliation are made possible because of the incarnate obedience of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ.

Psalm 139:1-10 – Verse 6 functions as the balancing moment for the first half of the psalm. God is indeed sovereign and omnipresent, sustaining all of creation moment by moment in his power, and this includes you and I. How will we react to this knowledge? Some react against it, angry and frustrated, seeking to establish what independence and separation they can from God by rejecting him completely. But the psalmist realizes this ever-presence of God is actually a beautiful thing, a blessing too marvelous to understand. This should help us interpret the next six verses not as the author (and therefore we as the speakers) lamenting there is no place to run or hide from God, but rather as thanksgiving that there is literally nowhere in all of creation where we are without God’s sustaining presence. Our lives may take us in diverse directions and we may lose all connection to the familiar and the beloved in this world, but nothing can remove us from the constant presence of God. He who created us (vs.13ff) abides with us in Spirit every bit as much as He did in the incarnate Christ.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 – Paul writes to a group of Christians with some rather major misunderstandings of their lives of faith. They are Christians – Paul has asserted this from the beginning of his letter to them and in no way wavers from this point. He knows they are in Christ, but that doesn’t mean they know how a life in Christ looks and works. They – like us – need to be taught and reminded, lest worldly ways of thinking creep in and ultimately displace or distort the truth of forgiveness through the blood of the resurrected Son of God, Jesus the Christ! In this section Paul is likely paraphrasing or quoting popular phrases – either in Corinth in general or particularly in the Christian congregation there. They emphasized their freedom in Christ to their detriment, engaging in or permitting behavior amongst themselves that was dangerous and scandalous. Our freedom in Christ is not freedom to be our own masters, determining right and wrong as we see fit. Rather our freedom in Christ means we have been bought with the blood of Christ. We are not free – but we are free from the slavery of sin. We are not free to be our own masters, but we are free finally to submit ourselves to slavery in Christ, knowing him to be the master we were created for and in whom we have all good things. Even those areas of our lives we guard most zealously in terms of control, whether our sexual behaviors (Chapter 5, 6:15-18) or our business dealings (6:1-11), all are subject to the authority of Christ.

John 1:43-51 – Jesus begins calling his disciples in the Jordan River valley just outside of Jerusalem very shortly after his baptism. Arrangements and agreements are made here which are later activated once Jesus and the others have returned to Galilee and made the necessary arrangements with their families. John the Baptist encourages his own followers to become followers of Jesus by pointing out Jesus as the promised Messiah (1:29-37).

I tend to see a lot of humor going on in this passage. Nathanael’s incredulity that Nazareth might have something valuable or good to contribute to the world at large. Jesus’ assessment of Nathanael as an honest man – perhaps too honest for his own good? Nathanael’s immediate declaration of faith that Jesus is in fact the divine Son of God and promised Messiah simply because Jesus knew where Nathanael was previous to their encounter. And Jesus’ reminder that we too often expect too little of our God, who is always willing and able to provide vastly more than we could conceive of asking for.

Jesus begins his ministry with the affirmations of God the Father (1:32) as well as John the Baptist (1:29-31) as to his identity. His disciples are convinced despite their previous interest in John the Baptist. His disciples exhibit a healthy uncertainty and reluctance to jump to conclusions. But they are also clearly convinced in short order of Jesus’ identity and purpose, even if that identity and purpose will continue to also be confusing and elusive to them (John 6:16-20). So we are called to follow in faith, not because we have all the answers but because we are convinced that Jesus alone has the words of eternal life (6:68)

Reading Ramblings – January 10, 2021

January 3, 2021

Date: The Baptism of Our Lord – January 10, 2021

Texts: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Romans 6:1-11; Mark 1:4-11

Context: The emphasis in the readings is on God’s power and authority. God the Father is the creator of all things and also specifically creates with his Word, the Genesis text emphasizes. What God declares, is. The psalm further reinforces this power and again emphasizes the voice of God. God’s creative power is unleashed specifically in baptism, whereby we are created anew. John the Baptist indicates Jesus will baptize in and with the power of the Holy Spirit. As the Word of God made flesh, what Jesus is not symbolic but actual, a key difference between the baptism He brings as opposed to John’s baptism. This is elaborated on in Paul’s beautifully inspired words in Romans. Sin truly has been killed in us as our defining and controlling quality. We are freed from slavery to this sin and therefore are free to resist it, even if imperfectly. Though we still see our sin we must count it as nothing compared to the power of the Word of God declaring us alive in Christ through baptism. All of this highlights the importance of baptism in the Christian life. At Jesus’ command we submit ourselves to the re-creative power of the Holy Spirit on the basis of the obedience of Jesus the Christ to receive reconciliation with God the Father.

Genesis 1:1-5 – Initially the selection of this reading might seem odd for a Sunday commemorating Jesus’ baptism. We might try to find some corrolation with the waters mentioned in v.2, but this is secondary (and more likely symbolic of nothingness or chaos) compared with the primal creative work of God in v.3. How does God the Father accomplish creating? He speaks. The creative power of God the Father is in his Word, which John tells us in the opening of his Gospel is made flesh in Jesus the Christ. So when the Word of God institutes baptism, He does so not symbolically but with power, a power consisting of the giving of the Holy Spirit of God present at the creation of all things. Baptism is a moment of God’s creative powers. This should not push us to make baptism into some sort of Law. We are commanded to be baptized (Matthew 28:16-20, Acts 2:38; Romans 6:1-11, etc). Anyone professing to be a follower of Jesus the Christ will submit themselves or be submitted to baptism. But baptism is not a Law restricting access to the grace of God. For the miscarried child or someone who is killed or dies before they can receive baptism, we do not say this precludes them from God’s grace and mercy. It is simply the normal course of action for someone of the faith as indicated in 1 Peter 3:21.

Psalm 29 – This psalm begins with a command – for the people of God to ascribe – to give voice to – the qualities and attributes of God the Father He has revealed to us. We are to acknowledge God for who He has shown himself to be. This would be in contrast to attributing these qualities to any other entity or person, real or imagined. Some translations say give or bring rather than ascribe, but the idea is the same. But then the psalm moves on to focus not on what we ascribe/say/bring/give but rather remind us what God accomplishes through his voice. His voice is the voice of power, and the most powerful and frightening or intimidating natural phenoma we can point to are at his command. This culminates in the most amazing of reminders – the Lord of all creation uses his voice and power for the benefit of his people! He is the source of their strength and blessing! Surely, the God who creates and can destroy is more than able to bless and strengthen, so that his people should all the more have reason to ascribe to him glory and strength and holiness!

Romans 6:1-11 – We can’t outsin the grace of God. God’s grace is bountiful, Paul concludes in Chapter 5. Which might lead some to mistakenly or mischievously argue that by sinning more, we show God’s greatness better by giving him more opportunities to forgive! This is unthinkable! We have been changed. How great is that change? As great as the change from life to death. As definitive and all encompassing. We have died – it is already an accomplished event in our lives – to sin. When did this happen? At our baptism. Baptism is not merely some perfunctory act of symbolism. It has spiritual connections to the very death of the Son of God. Spiritually we die with him and are buried with him. And as Christ was raised from the tomb, our baptism raises us spiritually to new life. Paul uses strong language. Our sinful nature didn’t simply die, it was crucified! It was nailed to the cross of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit who brought us to faith! Therefore we can’t simply choose to sin as though this is somehow appropriate to us or glorifying to God. Just as a living person can’t pretend to be a corpse – or visa versa – we can’t pretend at something we aren’t.

Mark 1:4-11 – Mark (recording Peter’s testimony) begins his story of Jesus with John the Baptist, the one who prepares the way for the Messiah according to prophecy, and the one who clearly differentiates himself as the messenger rather than the messiah (vs.7-8). The difference is in power and authority and purpose. John the Baptist can only point the way – the Messiah is the one who will accomplish the bringing of the HolySpirit.

But John’s baptism of Jesus does accomplish something beyond prophetic fulfillment – it provides an opportunity for God the Father to express his love for his Son as the Son is obedient to his Father’s will as prompted by the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist testifies that he witnesses this event as well (John 1:32-33) as verification of both his own purpose and Jesus’ identity as the Messiah.

In his baptism – which Jesus does not need for his own forgiveness of sins – Jesus immerses himself in us, our situation, our brokenness, our sinfulness. He emerges from the water not washed clean of sins but rather with our sins on his shoulders. His willingness to do this, to stand in our place, is I believe what prompts the Father’s outburst of joy and love. His Son is obedient to the Father’s plan, fully knowing this will lead to a very brutal end (according to his humanity).

Reading Ramblings – January 3, 2021

December 27, 2020

Date: Second Sunday after Christmas – January 3, 2021

Texts: 1 Kings 3:4-15; Psalm 119:97-104; Ephesians 1:3-14; Luke 2:40-52

Context: It’s the last Sunday in the season of Christmas, and the readings today center on the Word of God, the Word John testified in the Christmas lesson who came into the world and the world did not know him. That Word – since the Fall – undergirds the world but is a stranger to much of the world that lives in denial or rejection of it. Jesus as the Word made flesh is fully consonant and consistent with the written Word of God. Jesus is the embodiment of the wisdom of God, wisdom sought by and granted to Solomon. Wisdom by which life is ordained and sustained, and which we are wise to live in accordance with. Jesus cannot be inconstent with the Word of God as He is the Word of God. Therefore He is drawn to that Word even at a young age, and is obedient to that Word in terms of his relationship to his parents. To live at odds with the revealed Word of God would be sinful, and Jesus has come to be just the opposite – perfect.

1 Kings 3:4-15 – Solomon ascends his father David’s throne, the living embodiment of God’s promise to David of a royal dynasty. He is not a child when he begins his rule – probably being about 40 years old and used to court life and undoubtedly familiar with his father’s style of rule and the nuances of power and influence and control. Yet despite his comfortable upbringing he humbles himself before God, and rather than asking for the things we might be inclined to in our selfishness, asks for wisdom. God responds by not simply giving Solomon his request but blessing him in numerous ways. Solomon will not prove to be a perfect king, but he will be a good one, guided as he is by the gift of God’s wisdom. By abiding in the wisdom of God Solomon can be assured he will know how to govern God’s people. In doing so he foreshadows Jesus, who in combining the Old Testament roles of prophet, priest and king will perfectly rely on obedience to God the Father throughout his Incarnate ministry just as He has relied on it through all eternity. What Solomon does impressively but imperfectly Jesus will – as the Suffering Servant Isaiah prophesied – accomplish perfectly but not impressively, by worldly standards, going so far as to allow himself to be thoroughly humiliated in public execution. But just as Solomon’s wisdom remains famous even to this day, Jesus’ perfect obedience remains more so, and of infinitely more value and import to us today than the wisdom of Solomon.

Psalm 119:97-104 – A psalm fitting for King David to have spoken, following his dream and God’s gift of wisdom! Psalm 119 is an acrostic extolling the perfection of the Word of God as a rule for life. God’s law is the source of wisdom, a wisdom that is deeper and more sure than the wisdom of the world (v.98). Likewise, to be intelligent in the ways of the world is necessarily of secondary importance to being wise in the ways of God (v.99). It’s possible to be quite intelligent by worldly standards yet repeatedly struggle because of a rejection or denial of God’s wisdom (v.100). The world offers options the Word of God often calls us to reject or avoid, and in time we find that this is better, even if it requires a sacrificial obedience in the short term. Over time, this teaches us to hate false options and disobedient choices, knowing that adherence to God’s wisdom and Word is inevitably the better choice.

Ephesians 1:3-14 – The key in hearing Paul clearly here is to listen to what he says, and avoid the urge to fill in things he doesn’t say. God the Father is to be praised for Jesus the Christ, through whom we are blessed completely in terms of our sanctification and justification before God. These are things we don’t sense here and now, can’t discern objectively, but they are spiritual realities that will, in time, be made physically plain and clear as well. And indeed, God who knew all things at the start of creation truly did and does choose us for his own, as we are his creations and are rightly intended for relationship with him. Is there anyone the Father did not choose? There is nothing in Scripture that would lead us to that conclusion and so we don’t add that in here. This isn’t a matter of God wanting or choosing or predestining some and not others. His good gifts are poured out to all of his creation, even though not all of his creation will accept them. The source of our redemption is not in some hidden decision of God’s at the dawn of creation, but rather in the blood of the crucified Son of God (v.7), as part of his plan to unite all things once again (v.10). If some reject and resist this plan it does not mean God has predestined them as such, only that He allows them that option, just as He allowed Adam and Eve the choice between obedience and disobedience – with all the attendant consequences. Chris is the center and cause and means of all the things we are blessed with – spiritual blessings (v.3), adoption (v.5), the praise and glory of God the Father (v.6), redemption and forgiveness(v.7), an inheritance (v.11), and the sealing of the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our future inheritance (vs. 13-14). All things come through Jesus, the crucified Christ-child.

Luke 2:40-52 – Jesus is the Word of God incarnate. As such, it’s only natural He would gravitate to where that Word is central – the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of God’s dispersed people. Luke is assembling various reports concerning Jesus – essentially interviewing different people to get their stories. I presume he spoke with Jesus’ mother and she shared this story with him. Did she share others? Did Luke only choose this one to include among several others? Or did this one stand out in Mary’s mind? We won’t know this side of eternity. But the passage gives us insights into the character and devotion of Mary and Joseph as they raised their family. They were obedient to the expected duties as God’s people, a theme seen last week in their redeeming Jesus at the Temple according to Exodus 13 and also offering the appropriate purification sacrifice for Mary after her pregnancy. These are people who take the Word of God and their identity as his people seriously. It is to be expected they emphasize this with their children as well, and Jesus takes this to heart perhaps a bit more strongly than was expected! For four days Jesus found not only conversation and people to teach him humanly regarding the Word of God, He was also sustained somehow in these efforts! People must have given him food and shelter so He could continue his inquiries and learning. His surprise at his parents’ surprise is touching but also a little bittersweet. Already the bonds of son and parent are beginning to unravel, a process fully completed as Mary watches her son crucified. Jesus is not willfully disobedient but rather caught up in the excitement of the Word. Jesus will have other, later experiences in the Temple, most of them confrontational. But here, as the young boy on the verge of manhood He exhibits dedication to the Word of God and the Temple as the appropriate place for that Word to be explored. In due time He become in his own right the replacement of the Temple, the fullness of the Word made flesh rather than the Word surrounded by impressive stones.

Book Review: Steps of Transformation

December 21, 2020

Steps of Transformation: An Orthodox Priest Explores the Twelve Steps by Archimandrite Meletios Webber

A friend of mine in the midst of recovery shared this book with me as she is converted to Orthodox from more traditional evangelical Christianity.

This is an excellent resource for anyone trying to understand addiction and the people embedded in addictive behaviors. It essentially is a series of reflections – some theological and others more clinical in nature – on addiction, addicts, and finally the Twelve Steps. Arguably the book’s strongest feature is the introductory sections on addition and people in addiction. The author does a good job of plainly explaining many of the thought processes involved in addiction that are so puzzling and infuriating and heartbreaking to those who love and care for them. Recognizing that traditional tools for dealing with other people (communication, rationality, honesty, etc.) are practically ineffective with people active in their addiction can be hugely comforting, and hopefully will direct friends and family to support groups such as Al-Anon designed for those who aren’t addicts themselves but have addicts in their lives. The author spends almost no time at all on these organizations but those with addicts in their lives would likely benefit immensely from a support network of others in similar situations.

Bible verses are quoted throughout and there are attempts to find examples of each of the Twelve Steps in Scripture, often in the parables of Jesus. References were also made to Orthodox saints and writers which, as a non-Orthodox Christian were curious to me and spurred me to outside research for more information.

Some of his language early on points to a perceived or real hostility among Orthodox Christians of the Twelve Steps as an alternative to Orthodox Christianity. Webber works hard to demonstrate why the Twelve Steps insist upon being so vague and non-specific about higher powers and the God of our understanding, which was helpful for me as I have been critical of the Steps for this in the past. Keeping perspective that the Twelve Steps are first and foremost focused on helping someone leave behind drinking or other addictive behaviors is critical. But at the same time Webber argues that the Steps offer a deep spirituality, however it is a depth I often see lacking (at least externally) in many of the recovery people I work with regularly. The steps are easy to pay lip service to, since many of the changes are -as Webber admits – internal and deeply personal and subjective. They’re hard to measure in any quantitative or qualitative fashion beyond whether a person is remaining sober or not.

This is a great resource for anyone with an addict in their lives, but it will make most sense to those who also are Christian. While aimed at Orthodox readers it is not done so in a way that is exclusive or which prohibits other Christians from benefitting.

As is generally the case in practical theology, there are aspects I think he should have mentioned as differences rather than focusing so much on trying to show the Steps as consistent with Orthodoxy, or at least not contradictory. For instance, his discussion in Chapter 12 of Steps 8 and 9 (making a list of all people we have harmed and being willing to make amends, and then actually making amends where possible) completely ignores the limitations of these steps compared to the deeper healing offered in Confession and Absolution. Many addicts have criminal backgrounds in the not-so-distant past. Sponsors are not protected or exempt from being subpoenaed and forced to disclose things a person in recovery may have admitted to them. A list of persons harmed and needing amends made to could be used against an addict when obtained from their sponsor, and for this reason some addicts are very honest that they can’t put everything down.

The rite of Confession and Absolution is however (at least for the time being) still recognized by the State as a sacred place, the contents of which cannot be disclosed and which a recognized priest or minister cannot be forced to disclose to others. Although there are active efforts in various places to begin undoing the private nature of Confession, at least for now Confession can offer a much deeper healing in that it can allow the recovering addict to be fully, brutally honest. And of course, making amends is not the same as seeking the forgiveness of God. Only in Confession and Absolution can the promises of forgiveness in faith in Jesus Christ be articulated by another human being and, perhaps, finally truly heard and accepted in a way not possible with generic corporate confession or through the Twelve Steps.

Again, I strongly recommend this book to those with addicts in their lives, or those who care for those with addicts in their lives. Certainly it should be required reading in seminaries where future ministers are trained in practical theology. Webber speculates that perhaps addiction has become a far more common occurrence in our time and place as opposed to in Jesus’ day. Perhaps that is true, both in terms of our psychological climate as well as the increasing availability and cultural acceptance of more and more addictive substances, as well as the increased anonymity possible in a culture where the family is fractured. If these things are true, it will become increasingly important that pastors and religious leaders be more familiar with the nature of addiction and the addicted mindset.

Reading Ramblings – December 27, 2020

December 20, 2020

Date: First Sunday after Christmas – December 27, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 111; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

Context: Christmas is not a day but a season, a time of the liturgical church year to observe with wonder that God would become man, the eternal Son of God through whom all creation was spoken into existence was born as one of us, with a name and under the Law, themes of both the Isaiah passage and Galatians and also bound up in the Gospel account. The psalm calls us to praise the great works of God, and verse 1 stresses the public nature of this praise and worship, just as Jesus’ presentation at the Temple becomes a very public (and no doubt curious and stressful for his parents!) event.

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 – With this reading we’ve covered almost all of Chapters 61 and 62 from Isaiah since Advent began. While the speaker might be Isaiah, it makes better sense to hear these words in the chosen Suffering Servant Isaiah has introduced already, the Messiah himself. This indeed is what God does for his servant when He has completed his work, and that work is made clearer in the opening verses of Chapter 62. That work remains incomplete, at least from our perspective, and won’t be revealed in the fullness of completion until our Lord’s return. God will accomplish the reconciliation of his beloved people, symbolied here by Jerusalem and bound up in identity with the heavenly counterpart of Jerusalem, Zion. The day is coming when the splendor of the Lord will return in power and glory and at that time the people of God – resurrected and living both – will shine forth in a shared radiance. God’s people may look weak and inconsequential now, but a time will come when their true value, as established in the sacrificial death of the Son of God, will be evident to everyone. The mention of a new name in 62:2 plays well with the birth of Jesus, Emanuel, God with Us, who in the name dictated by God the Father himself becomes the Word and promise of God made flesh.

Psalm 111 – A powerful hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God. There are no requests for divine assistance here, only acknowledgement of God’s glory in who He is and what He has done for his people as well as all creation. Psalm 111 and Psalm 112 are sometimes treated as a complementary pair. Psalm 111 calls forth praise based on who God is and what He has done, while Psalm 112 focuses on how the people of God or the person of God lives their life. Because of God in Psalm 111, therefore the life of God’s people is described in Psalm 112. Psalm 112 is introduced by the last verse of Psalm 111. Although written from the standpoint of an individual reciting it, Psalm 111 is an applicable psalm of praise for the entire assembly of God’s people – the individual does on a small scale what the people of God do corporately across time and space. Structurally, verse 1 describes what this psalm will be about, and verse 2 provides the rationale by which the psalm is appropriate. Verses 3-6 rehearse the works of God in the history of his people, and verses 7-10 deal with the goodness of the commands God has given to his people. Verses 2-9 as a whole fulfill verse 1, while verse 10 moves into a different space, emphasizing the response of God’s people (beyond praise and thanksgiving as in the rest of the psalm) in obedience to the good commands of God.

Galatians 4:4-7 – The great transformation, the event which moves the people of God from children under guardianship of the Law to sons/daughterse and heirs and members of the family of God forever. We have been redeemed under the Law and from the Law by the Son of God who fulfilled the Law on our part. We are now taught how to come to God the Father by God the Holy Spirit of God the Son. We are the recipients and God is the active entity throughout. The Sender, the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit crying out on our behalf to God the Father, so we might learn how to do it ourselves. Enabled and emboldened to call God our Father, we find that we have indeed become his children to whom He responds in loving faithfulness giving us the inheritance we were created for, redeemed to become eligible to receive, and which God the Holy Spirit in the gift of faith makes our own. All of this bound up in the Christ child, the first visible step of God’s plan of salvation, witnessed to not just by shepherds and farm animals but expectant people of God like Simeon and Anna.

Luke 2:22-40 – The Christmas story doesn’t end in the manger. The birth of Jesus renders Mary ritually unclean, as per Leviticus 12, and requires sacrifice. While it is conceivable that they could have fulfilled this back home in Galilee, both Mary’s physical condition after the birth as well as the proximity of the temple in Jerusalem likely made it reasonable and desirable that they stay on with relatives in Bethlehem for 40 days after the birth.

The reality that Jesus is also the Son of God does not negate the Levitical law. Jesus will later state that He has not come to abolish the law but fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), and this is true even from his infancy. Mary and Joseph adhere to the expected requirements of the Law pertaining to their newborn son. But in case they might begin to say to themselves after the birth that the visitations and dreams were flights of fancy, they meet Simeon and Anna in the temple grounds. These devout figures serve as prophets – speakers of God’s Word and wisdom. Simeon’s primary message is to Mary and Joseph, who are astonished (despite the angelic dreams and visitations!) at what he has to say. Anna speaks to others, linking Jesus to the anticipated redemption of Jerusalem. It must have made for quite a spectacle!

Luke neatly completes his narrative of Jesus’ early years with the summary verses 39-40. By ancient standards, this was certainly more than adequate in terms of biographical detail. Ancient biographies emphasize what a person did to become noteworthy. Our modern ideas of biography are heavily influenced by modern psychology and the idea that in order to understand a person fully we need to understand everything about them, not just the noteworthy things. So it is that we hunger to know more about Jesus’ childhood. Luke only tells us that the child grew and was strong and wise and favored by God. The implication is also that his parents, who began so faithfully fulfilling the requirements of the Law in his regard, continued in this fashion.

Simeon’s words have come down through the Church as the Nunc Dimittis – the opening words of Simeon as translated in the Latin Vulgate of the Bible by St. Jerome in the fourth century. Simeon’s words are also seen as the last of the three great canticles (or sacred songs) of the New Testament – the first being Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1, then Zechariah’s song also in Luke 1.

While it has often been traditional to interpret Simeon’s words as indicating that he is ready to die, this is certainly not a necessary interpretation and may be overstating Simeon’s point. The assumption is that Simeon was advanced in years, but the text doesn’t specifically tell us this. Rather, Simeon’s song is an acknowledgment that God has fulfilled his promise to him to see the Messiah. He can leave the Temple grounds secure in this knowledge, and no longer needs to look anxiously each day to see whether today is the day that he will see the Messiah. His words ring true to us today, and particularly at Christmas time. By the eyes of faith, through the historical words of eye-witnesses, we too have seen God’s salvation incarnate. We anticipate eagerly when we will see him face to face in glory and for eternity!

Annunciation – the Sitcom

December 19, 2020

Perhaps interpreting Mary’s confusion in Luke 1:26-38 as an attempt to unravel a theological or existential riddle is a bit heavier and serious than intended. What if Mary is simply perplexed by the enthusiastic joy of Gabriel as messenger? And if this is the case, perhaps meditating on Fra Angelico’s depiction of the Annunciation is less helpful to a modern Christian who is far more at ease with the promptings and cues of another art form (?) – the sitcom. If so, perhaps the episode might look something like this:

Scene: God, sitting at a giant celestial desk. Feet up (in sandals). Smoking a cigar. Long white robe, radiant white lighting around him. A computer screen is on his desk. Across the desk from him sits an angel with an iPad and conversation is already ongoing as the opening credits and theme song (Amazing Grace being rapped to jazzy music). Music fades out and conversation picks up as God takes his feet off the desk and leans across earnestly to the angel.

God: All right, I’ve got big news. It’s time!

Angel: What time?

God: The time!

Angel: The time?

God (nodding smugly): That’s right, the time. It’s time for the Incarnation. Time to fulfill that promise back to Eve so she quits nagging me. I think I’m allergic to those fig leaves she keeps waving around (laugh track).

Angel (visibly flustered and excited): You mean right now? Without warning? Without planning?! Ohmygosh, we have so much to do! So much to figure out!

God (leaning back again enjoying the angel’s agitation): Naw, it’s pretty simple. Me and the Holy Spirit have the basics worked out. But I figure we need to clue in the Mom, Mary of Nazareth.

Angel (tapping quickly at the iPad, then scrolling and looking increasingly perplexed): Her? Sir, but she’s nobody!

God (laughing): No she’s not! I made her! She’s Mary of Nazareth! (laugh track)

Angel: I mean, she’s really not anybody of any import. No last name, no real social standing, a few notable ancestors but otherwise, I mean, sir, surely you want someone who’s a bit more of an influencer? (laugh track)

God: Naw, this will be great! Really hit home with the poor and disenfranchised! You know me, I like to work from scratch, do the unexpected!

Angel: Yes, well, the duck-billed platypus certainly was unexpected, sir! (laugh track)

God (shaking his head angrily): That was a great idea! I can’t help it if you all insist on categorizing everything so narrowly! Sheesh, I might as well have just let things evolve out of goo like Satan wanted if I’d have known you were going to all be so uptight! (laugh track)

Angel (sighing and shaking his head with an eye roll): Yes sir, if you say so sir. Anyways. How are we going to clue this girl in?

God: Gotta be gentle. She’s young. Really young. Probably skittish. We need someone with a light touch.

Angel (continuing to peruse iPad): Hubert and the heavenly choir are suggesting an angelic flash mob and free-style annunciation, sir. (laugh track)

God (shaking head vigorously): No, I’ve got those guys in mind a little later on for some late night work with some shepherds out in some fields (laugh track). Who else have we got?

Angel: Pickings are slim, sir. Although Michael did win the celestial office pool on when you’d announce this was happening. He was within 10 months of today – definitely the closest of the angels. He’s going to be pretty happy about his winnings! (laugh track)

God (sputtering): Michael!? Are you nuts? In his armor and covered in demon blood or whatnot? (laugh track) I said a light touch! Somebody a bit more nuanced. Who else could we send?

Angel (setting aside iPad and shaking his head): That’s pretty much it, sir. Everyone else is already on other assignments.

God: What about Gabriel?

Angel (visibly shocked): Gabriel? Sir, you can’t be serious!

God: Why not? Gabriel’s a good guy. I’ve used him before, right?

Angel: Yes sir, and not with very good results. You asked him to explain and clarify some visions you gave to Daniel hundreds of years ago, sir.

God: Yes, that’s right! I remember now! See? I told you he had experience.

Angel: Sir, he gave some of the worst explanations ever. Worse than IKEA assembly instructions (laugh track).

God (looking concerned): Really? His explanations weren’t helpful?

Angel (rolling eyes): About as helpful as a child trying to explain a smart phone to their grandparents! (laugh track)

God (shuddering visibly): Oooh…that’s not good. Not good at all. Still. He’s been moping around for a few hundred years now. Maybe he needs a second chance. Grace and forgiveness and all that. (laugh track)

Angel: Sir I really don’t think that’s a good idea. This is a really important event – arguably the most important in creation history. We can’t risk him complicating things.

God: It’s a simple message. Nothing complicated. No visuals. Mary – congrats! – you’re having a baby! I’ve got full confidence in you! Even have the name picked out – Jesus – one of my favorites! Gonna be really successful. Piece of cake. Even Gabriel can’t screw it up! (laugh track)

Angel: What if she has questions?

God: Questions? What could she have questions about? It’s just a baby, after all! Go ahead and send Gabriel!

Angel (sighing heavily and tapping on iPad): Yes sir. He’s on his way.

* * * * * COMMERCIAL BREAK * * * * *

Fade in to new scene – humble 1st century mud and straw home in Nazareth, Galilee. Mary, a young girl of about 13 or 14 is seen in very poor clothing, sweeping the dirt with a straw broom. Natural lighting. Nobody else around. Suddenly, very bright light! Mary drops broom and holds her arms up to shade her eyes. Stumbles back and falls to the ground. Gabriel appears in the midst of the light, smiling broadly.

Gabriel (in very thick, Texan accent): Well hooooooowwwwdeeeeee!! (laugh track – Mary looks perplexed but remains silent)

Gabriel: Well if you ain’t just the cutest little thing since I don’t know when! (Mary looks perplexed)

Gabriel (looking worried and hastily pulling out a crumpled paper and smoothing it out and reading it in extremely thick Texan accent): Oh, uh, hey! Um, Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Mary continues to look puzzled)

Gabriel (sighing in exasperation, rolling his eyes, wadding up the paper and tossing it over his shoulder): Oh please, give me a break! Honey, this is so exciting! I can’t believe I’m the one who gets to breatk the news to you, and they give me this “Greetings O favored one” schlock! Good grief girl, this is BIG! Exciting! Everything is going to change and you’re ground zero! This is bigger than the giraffe! Bigger than the whale! It doesn’t get any bigger or more exciting than this and I’m the one who gets to tell you! Look, you’re going to have a BABY! Not just any baby but a special baby. Not Joseph’s baby – trust me, I know you ain’t been misbehavin’ (laugh track) but this is God’s son!

Scene shift – back to heaven, God staring nervously at a monitor on his desk with the angel from before behind him looking over his shoulder.

God (annoyed, pushing the angel back): Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’ve got this guy named Luke…he’s going to smooth over the rough edges. Everything’s fine! (laugh track)

(Scene shift – back to the room with Mary and Gabriel, Gabriel just finishing up with “and of his kingdom there will be no end!” still in very heavy Texan accent)

Mary (visibly puzzled and perplexed): How will this be, since I am a virgin?

(Cue flashing red lights and alarm noises back in God’s office room. God and angel throwing papers in the air in visible panic. Cut back to Mary & Gabriel with Gabriel arlready talking, clearly making things up as he goes along)

Gabriel: – and a little seed is planted in the mommy’s tummy and it grows into a baby! (looks very satisfied. Mary slaps her forehead with the palm of her hand and shakes her head in frustration)

(scene shift back to heaven, God at desk with head in his hands. Angel on floor next to him in fetal position crying. Sound of Mary & Gabriel’s voices over the monitor: “That was the worst explanation “ever!” Gabriel: “Funny, Daniel told me the same thing.” [laugh track]. )

(scene shift back to Mary’s room. Gabriel sitting cross-legged on the floor, dejected, halo askew, Mary sitting on a chair nearby staring at him and listening)

Mary: I mean, that’s it? That’s the best you can do? Look this is all really confusing but it would be a little easier if I just had some idea how it’s all going to work!

Gabriel: Honey, I don’t even know how sex works (laugh track – Mary looks surprised and a little scornful). I just know that you’ve been picked for something really important. Probably the most important job since, well, since that whole incident back in the Garden of Eden – I told him that Tree of Knowledge was a bad idea. (laugh track, Mary shakes her head bemused but still listening)

I don’t know how God is going to work this, but your child, He’s something special. He’s the one God promised to Eve way back then. Her descendant that would stomp on the serpent’s head. That’s who you’re going to bring into the world. That’s who’s going to be growing inside you. Not Joseph’s kid, but God’s. Don’t worry, we’ll figure out how to let Joseph know what’s going on – probably with a different messenger after this fiasco, though. (laugh track, Mary looks questionably relieved).

This kid, he won’t just be special and important to you. He’ll be special and important to everyone. We’ve all (jerking thumb skywards, laugh track) we’ve all been waiting a long time for this. A long time for God to send his Son into creation. To undo the Fall. To kick Satan’s butt and end the power of sin and death in all of creation. It’s a really big deal, despite the fact that thosands of years from now people are going to compete to find the uglieset sweaters to wear to commemorate this event. I’ll never understand humans. (laugh track).

So, whaddya say, Mary? Are you on board with this? Are you ready to be a nearly not single-mother? I don’t have all the answers, but He does (jerking thumb upwards again, sympathetic audience noises). He’ll be there every step of the way with you, I promise. Whaddya say?

Mary (pausing dramatically, then smiling beatifically – cue light shining on her, faint glow of halo appearing over her head): Sure, why not. I mean, I’m nobody. I’m just a servant. If God wants to do it this way, who am I to say no?” (audience applause. Gabriel gets excitedly to his feet – makes victory pump, audience laughter)

Gabriel (looking upwards as spotlight appears on him): Ok Boss! Beam me up! (Gabriel covers his mouth as though he’s said something he shouldn’t, Mary scratches her head, puzzled, audience laugh track)

(light increases in frequency until whole screen is whited out, fade back in to God’s office in heaven, God and angel high-fiving each other behind God’s desk.

God: Make sure you’re taking good care of Luke – we’re going to need him to do some heavy-duty editing. But I’ve got a good feeling about this. A really good feeling!

Angel: Yes sir. You were right sir, Gabriel was the perfect choice.

God: Of course I’m right! I’m God!

(laugh track, cue commercial break and roll credits)