Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Reading Ramblings – November 1, 2020

October 25, 2020

Date: All Saints Day – November 1, 2020

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

Context: All Saints Day evolved as the number of Christians martyred for their faith became too numerous to celebrate on the specific anniversary of their personal date of execution. Remembering those martyred for their faith also merged with remembering Christians who died in the faith but not because of it. Readings for today naturally focus on the eternal hope we have in the resurrection of the Son of God from the dead. Frankly, I wish the readings for this day were different for each of the three cycles of the Revised Common Lectionary. There are so many other beautiful texts we could draw from, such as Job’s profession of faith in a bodily resurrection from the dead (Job 19:23-27)!

Revelation 7:9-17 – St. John is privileged a glimpse at the gathering of all the redeemed in Christ gathered around the throne of God. Some interpret these verses as applying only to those who perish in the final cataclysmic disasters and confrontations immediately preceding Christ’s return, but I think a wider interpretation is certainly possible and perhaps even warranted. The preceding verses detailing all the Tribes of Israel and numbers of completion (12, 100, 1000) indicate an emphasis on completeness – everyone is present who should be. Nobody is forgotten or overlooked. Additional emphases in v.9 about the immense number of people also point towards an interpretation that includes not just those martyred for their faith, and not just those who die in the tribulations immediately preceding the Day of Judgment (unless such language includes all of creation history as precursor to that day!). The net effect is one of both celebration and comfort. Whether we live and die in obscurity or enjoy the prestige of wealth and celebrity, all are present. John doesn’t (or isn’t able) to specifically identify important people in this gathering. The important thing is that everyone is there.

Psalm 149 – Foreshadowing the great song that runs through the early chapters of Revelation, this psalm is beautifully appropriate on this day when we remember the author of all creation as well as the salvation of mankind. What starts out as a beautiful psalm takes a curious turn in the second half, transitioning from praising God to wielding swords, executing vengeance and punishments, binding rulers and judging them! Does this work? Is this faithful?! It is. Praise of God and the wielding of the sword for his vengeance is distinct from our own sinful inclinations to draw our swords not so much in praise of God, and to implement our own vengeance or justice rather than the Lord’s. The rulers of this world may well require this sort of deposing, unwilling to cede their authority to the one and only King of Kings. But Jesus’ promises in his empty tomb are not simply an escape from sin and the pretensions of personal and worldly power we struggle with now, but a defeat of any and all powers that do not acknowledge and welcome Christ’s rule on Christ’s terms. Kingdoms are by nature anything but neutral, and in this psalm stand for those powers that would not only resist the reign of the righteous Lord of all, but would in the process seek to enslave and imprison those who are rightly citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

1 John 3:1-3 – We are given the Father’s love. What an apt metaphor. Just as a baby does nothing to earn the love of her parents, so we receive the love of God, a love that precedes our birth and extends beyond our death. Yet those who embrace the receive and embrace the love of God will look strange to a world that does not itself know God. Here in this world the love of God – which John always links to obedience, as per Jesus (John 3:36, or 1 John 5:2) – will often be labeled as the opposite. We see that more and more in popular media, where Christians are condemned for obedience to the Word of God rather than embracing the arbitrary and constantly shifting definitions of love our culture wants to substitute. But one day the truth will no longer be hidden, and people will no longer be able to peddle their own substitutes for God’s truth and love (Romans 1:18-23). One day, we are promised that as we come into the full presence of God, we will know ourselves and one another for who we truly are in Christ – perfect, holy, righteous, children of God.

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes may seem like an odd choice for the Gospel lesson on All Saints Day. Though we must admit that, more often than not, those who are publicly acknowledged the title of saint are usually the lowly and the humble, those whose lives are wrapped up in a fair deal more sorrow or mourning or hungering or thirsting than most of us would aspire to for ourselves. Perhaps the essence of sainthood lies in that tenacity of faith that has no strength or time for a snappy, snarky comeback to the putdowns of the world, but simply clings desperately to the promises of life in Christ. The essence of sainthood is the absence of nearly all other significant, personal details, attributes, or accomplishments, and therefore by worldly standards may well indeed look undesirable, pointless, or wasted. But this tenacity of faith as small as a mustard seed and perhaps silent and well outside the spotlight is who we are in Christ. Not that our identities are lost or absorbed in him, as in some Eastern philosophies and religions, but that we can only be truly and best and fully known as ourselves in and through him. Almost like the reverse of the various digital photo filters so ubiquitous these days on smart phones, everything about us that is sinful and broken is stripped away in Christ and all that remains is actually everything that never was – you and I as we were envisioned by God the Father at the dawn of all creation. There is no room for any form or shape of worldly glory or beauty, as though any such thing were even possible outside of God!

To such saints, obvious or hidden around us, the promise of Christ is the kingdom of heaven and a reward there not dependent on elections or stock performance, that can never be threatened by the uncertainties of our daily existence here and now. So it is that, with what breath we have and while we have it, we can with the psalmist rejoice in the goodness of God and be glad despite whatever struggles we bear for the time being. And for those who pass from this life through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, we can mourn their passing for the way it lessens life for those who remain, while looking forward to that day when we will all be together again forever!

Updates to Roman Catholic Doctrine

October 21, 2020

News outlets made some brief mention of a new papal encyclical released earlier this month, but largely it was ignored. Curious, seeing Pope Francis takes this opportunity to potentially end the Roman Catholic Church’s tolerance of both capital punishment and war. A good article summarizing this can be found here.

Based on Scripture, the Roman Catholic Church has long recognized the legitimacy of both capital punishment and “just” war, even as it often encouraged world powers and leaders to carefully consider the application of both these tragic tactics. But now, Pope Francis may just have effectively overturned 2000 years of Roman Catholic understanding in a single letter. It all hinges, I suppose, on how authoritative a papal encyclical is. As near as I can tell, the answer is it depends.

Within the Church, encyclicals were historically letters from a bishop (not just the Pope) to other church leaders, either in a limited or specific area or on a larger, church-wide scale. But there is obviously some confusion or at least a lack of consistency in defining what an encyclical means today, as my Roman Catholic go-to site demonstrates. An encyclical has a particular style and form to it, particularly in both how it begins and ends. But not all encyclicals follow this form.

Popes have various distinct ways of communicating their thoughts on subjects of interest. Papal bulls and briefs are two common options, though Popes also speak through speeches as well as more specific writings. This all is interesting enough, but then we have Pope Pius XII’s statement in his encyclical Humani Generis in 1950 (section 3) basically saying once a Pope has communicated his thoughts on a controversy, the controversy is essentially ended. In other words, when a Pope speaks in an encyclical, his statements can be binding on the Church.

I’ll be reading and commenting on Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti encyclical shortly. For now, I’m just amazed at how many different forms of communication a Pope might employ, and how those various forms are known more by their physical characteristics as opposed to their level of officialness. To my mind, it would seem to make sense that if a Pope wished to issue a binding decision for the entire Church for all time on a subject, it would take one form. An opinion that was considered guiding but not necessarily mandatory would take another, etc. Maybe that’s actually the case and my Protestant ignorance and Internet research simply hasn’t made that clear to me yet, in which case I’d VERY much appreciate some pointers from some of my Roman Catholic readers on how to better understand this issue!

In the meantime, it’s fascinating to think that war and capital punishment might just have been officially condemned by the Church, despite the fact God commands in Scripture the exact opposite in various places, notably Genesis 9:6 on the issue of capital punishment along with Exodus 31:15. I can see how an argument might be made that war is one of the things Scripture describes but does not prescribe, and sections (like most of the book of Joshua) describing war commanded by God are exceptions and special circumstances rather than an acknowledgement that war is something we are free to instigate on our own as a last resort. Saints Augustine and Aquinas – some pretty heavy hitters in Roman Catholic theological tradition – both specifically write to the contrary on the topic of war, but I suppose since they weren’t Popes, their opinions or interpretations can be superceded.

Christ Jesus or Jesus Christ?

October 19, 2020

I’m leading a study of 1 Corinthians and we were going through the opening chapter Saturday morning when a question was raised. Is there a reason St. Paul would say Jesus Christ as in v.5, and in other places Christ Jesus, as in v.30?

In one sense, the answer could simply be literary variety, so the same phrase or words don’t become too repetitive. But then thanks to Janelle, who forwarded me this article, with some further food for thought!

It’s good to remember that Christ is a title, not Jesus’ last name or family name. And as the article points out, Jesus is very specific in terms of the incarnate Son of God as the particular man Jesus of Nazareth, and may emphasize his humanity. Christ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word messiah, and may emphasize Jesus’ divinity. Together, they hold a central Christological concept – that Jesus the Christ was both true man and true God. Depending on what Paul is saying he may want to emphasize one of these two natures a bit more than the other.

Of further note in 1 Corinthians 1, when Paul says Jesus Christ he usually doesn’t just say Jesus Christ, but rather Lord Jesus Christ (with the exception of v.9, where instead of lordship Paul emphasizes Jesus’ sonship to the Father. When Paul places Jesus’ humanity first in this chapter he reinforces Jesus’ lordship. Jesus is our human lord as well as the divine Son of God. Jesus has a role in each of our lives, that of Lord. Present, not past tense. His lordship is here and now today, not just back then during his lifetime or somewhere in the indefinite future when He returns in glory.

It’s good to pause and think about the words of Scripture, especially when they’re so familiar we almost don’t even see them any more!

Reading Ramblings – October 25, 2020

October 18, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Reformation Sunday (Observed) – October 25, 2020

Texts: Revelation 14:6-7; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

Context: Today we observe Reformation Sunday, as near an anniversary as possible to Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, asking for a theological discussion primarily centered on the issues of indulgences. Unknown and unanticipated to Luther, this would precipitate a series of unfortunate events and missteps resulting in a split in the Roman Catholic Church, a rift which has spawned innumerable forms of the Christian faith. The Reformation changed the world not just theologically but in many other aspects as well, as Eric Metaxas’ biography of Luther admirably enumerates. But chief among them all is the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – the good news that what we cannot do on our own to erase our sins or establish our purity is done for us by Christ, and it is on the basis of his bitter sufferings and death, and his glorious and victorious resurrection from the dead that we are assured of our forgiveness as we trust his work on our behalf. In this season of acrimony and strife in the public space, all Christians should pause to give thanks to God for Jesus Christ. And while I can’t expect our Roman Catholic brothers & sisters to celebrate the Holy Spirit’s use of Luther, I pray they might at least acknowledge his clear and insistent declarations that it is God alone who saves!

Revelation 14:6-7 – The Good News of Jesus Christ as the sole means of salvation to any who would place their faith and trust in him (John 3:16) is indeed eternal. Often obscured, often an affront to our sinful desire to justify ourselves, the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be and will be eternally proclaimed – a call to faith and trust here and now, and our victorious refrain in glory and eternity. The emphasis on the diversity of peoples to whom the Gospel will come is interesting as Luther was adamant that Scripture and worship should be in the language of the people, rather in Latin – or any other language – they couldn’t read or understand. The goal of the Gospel is that God would be rightly acknowledged and praised as the Creator as well as the sole definition of goodness and righteousness. As such, He alone is able to rightly punish evil while calling all to faithful repentance that leads not to judgment and condemnation but mercy and life in Jesus Christ eternally.

Psalm 46 – There are several Korah’s mentioned in Scripture, as far back as one of Esau’s sons in Genesis 36. But the Korah we understand this and other psalms to be related to is mentioned in Exodus and then more notably in Numbers 16. Korah was a descendant of Levi and therefore of the priestly class. However Korah led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, objecting to Moses and Aaron’s more lofty position before God as intermediaries between God and the people of Israel. God judges Korah for his disobedience, destroying he and his household and several other leaders involved in the rebellion. But Numbers 26:11 indicates Korah’s sons did not die with him, and they become associated with the service doorkeepers to the tent of meeting (the Tabernacle). Another group of Korahites are indicated as powerful fighting men (1Chronicles 12:6), but they are Benjamanites not Levites. It is most likely that the door-keeping Korahites are the ones associated with sacred singing and with certain psalms. If they are descended from the Korah of the rebellion in Numbers 16, it is interesting this psalm refers to the earth giving way – the fate which befell Korah and those who rebelled with him!

Romans 3:19-28 – Paul has just concluded his condemnation of all peoples – Jews and gentiles alike- in their disobedience and rebellion against God and his order. What hope do we have if not even the Chosen people of God who knew his laws and sought to keep them could be saved by them? Paul points clearly and plainly to our hope, hope based not in ourselves but in the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. Just as all have fallen short of God’s expectations because of sin, so all may be saved through the righteousness of the incarnate Son of God and his death not for his own sins but for ours. All sin stands condemned before God, and in Jesus all sin has been atoned for – past, present and future. We are saved through Christ’s blood as demonstrated in his resurrection from the dead. The debt of sin to death has been paid by him in full. Therefore we have hope. Death does not own us in our sinfulness, but our sin that would lead to eternal death has been paid for already in Christ’s death. In faith, we are set free from eternal death. Not because of ourselves but only and completely because of Christ!

John 8:31-36 – We are slaves to sin. As Americans just as surely as the Jews of Jesus day and everyone in between. We are not free on our own. We are not morally neutral, able to determine whether we are in need of God’s love in Christ or not. Rather, we are slaves and must be freed from the death which is our sinful due. The Word of God clearly tells us this and points us to look towards a solution, a solution not in ourselves but from God, though one of us (Genesis 3:15). We learn in this exchange that you can be a master of God’s Word, knowing it forwards and backwards and yet blind to what it’s telling you. The Jews believed their freedom was earned by their obedience to the Law and through the sacrificial system. But Jesus makes it clear that salvation comes through him alone. Only if the Son sets a slave free is that slave truly free. The slave cannot determine for themselves that the terms of their service entitle them to freedom. The Law and the sacrificial system were intended not to erase sin but to drive God’s people to reliance on him for forgiveness and grace – on his terms, not theirs.

How far are the religious leaders and experts in the Word of God from what the Word actually says? They are so far off the path they not alone fail to see Jesus for who and what He is, they believe they are justified in plotting his murder, that somehow breaking the Fifth Commandment will actually please God, the same God who commanded his people not to murder! Likewise, whenever we feel justified in acting against the Word of God we would do well to set aside our arrogance and return in repentance to the one who died that we might be set free.

Parents as Teachers

October 12, 2020

COVID has forced many parents to become teachers to their children. Our society in the last half decade has worked hard to convince parents this is a job better left to experts. But parents are their child’s first and best teacher. Not sure you agree? Here’s a great essay that defends that notion not just with Scripture but with a lot of data.

How could congregations better resource future and current parents to take on this task? How could congregations become the place where cultural assumptions – such as that both parents must work – begin to be challenged? How might congregations begin to insist that the well-being of children is not necessarily served best by economic advancement of the family unit at the expense of time for children and parents to be together?

Important questions for the future, not just in a time of pandemic.

Reading Ramblings – October 18, 2020

October 11, 2020

Date: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 18, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Context: The dividing line between worldly affairs and divine providence is fuzzy at best, non-existent most likely, and a source of endless debate and confusion. Suffice it to say we fail to adequately marvel at the glory and power and wisdom of God who can use even those ignorant or directly opposed to him for his own purposes. The accusations of Christians on either side of the political spectrum who denounce Christians on the other side as patently against God’s will have a disturbingly scant acquaintance with God’s Word and how God works in ways not only mysterious to us but through means that ought to be completely unacceptable to him! We can be sure that God’s will is going to be done, and we can be sure of his Word that guides our actions. But the interplay of these things and innumerable other variables should remind us in humility to be hesitant in asserting we know what God is doing and how He is doing it in any single given situation. Rather, we should constantly give thanks and praise and look forward in hope to the promised deliverance and will of God in our Lord’s return.

Isaiah 45:1-7 – Cyrus here mentioned is Cyrus the Great who as prophesied by Isaiah destroys the Babylonian Empire and allows the Hebrews to return to Jerusalem. He is widely regarded historically as a benevolent ruler, bestowed with the title The Father by his people and credited not simply for overthrowing other rulers and empires but also in establishing a stable one in his wake. But it is safe to say that Isaiah’s description of him here is accurate. He does not know the God of the Bible. Not in anything other than perhaps a passing or even academic way. He certainly does not acknowledge the God of the Hebrews as his god, as the source of his life or his successes. And he certainly could not know that among his many achievements, one of them – perhaps the smallest of them at the time – was the fulfillment of prophesy regarding the people of God. God is able to take even a pagan, foreign ruler and work his will through him. No doubt to anyone other than the Hebrews this would have looked circumstantial at best, yet Isaiah’s words over 100 years earlier testify to the power and glory of our God who is unparalleled.

Psalm 96 – Certainly a God who is able to work out a complicated plan that encompasses all of created time and space is worthy of praise! Certainly He should be the subject of and recipient of new songs constantly detailing his care and love for his creation, and his remarkable way of bringing things to pass we couldn’t conceive of otherwise, let alone accomplish for ourselves. There is, in fact, nothing more we can do than receive him and acknowledge him in joy and gratitude for who He is as well as what He does. Certainly any alternative gods are nothing but idol fancies compared to this God who works his will through even the most unknowing and even ungrateful tools!

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 – We move on to another letter of Paul’s as the lectio continua aspect of the liturgical season of Ordinary Time continues. Some scholars think 1 & 2 Thessalonians to be Paul’s earliest letters (although others favor Galatians for this distinction). Dating of the letter is more or less reliably tied to somewhere in the vicinity of 51AD, with 2 Thessalonians following within a matter of weeks or 1-2 months at the most. Paul has only recently left Thessalonica, where he had to leave due to disruptions and attacks by his Jewish opponents (Acts 17). Timothy & Silas remained a while longer but rejoined Paul in Corinth, which is likely where Paul is writing from, having received reports that, despite the mistreatment of Jewish opposition, the Christians in Thessalonica remain firm in their faith. These ten verses are the introduction and thanksgiving sections of Paul’s letter, identifying the authors and the intended recipients and outlining Paul’s exuberance to hear the Thessalonians remain strong in their faith. Not only personally and inwardly but in ways that are observable and reportable, so that the young Christian congregation in Thessalonica is already being talked about elsewhere (1:7-8), an undoubted aid to Paul as he continues his missionary work.

Matthew 22:15-22 – Opposition to Jesus continues. Jesus’ popularity make it continually difficult to isolate him and arrest him without a crowd that might intervene or cause a commotion sufficient to summon swift – and brutal – Roman reprisals. We can better appreciate Judas’ instrumentality in notifying the Jewish leaders when and where to capture Jesus alone! But for now, they continue to try and trap Jesus in his words, pushing him to answer complicated questions that will either cause the crowds to abandon him (if He supports Roman taxation) or allow the Romans to arrest him for sedition (if He counsels against paying taxes). And as before, Jesus continues to elude these theological traps.

The issue of taxation has always been a sensitive one, particularly to a people hard-pressed to pay burdensom taxes to a foreign power or a disinterested domestic one. The leaders flatter Jesus, but more likely are playing to the crowds around him. Their flattery is likely intended less to goad Jesus to one particular response, but a way of gathering the crowd around him to give witness to either his complicity with Roman rule or his blasphemy of God. Once again, they are disappointed!

But Jesus isn’t really answering their question, because their question really isn’t real. They aren’t interested in Jesus’ economic policies. They aren’t seeking God’s will in Jesus’ answer, they believe it is God’s will they entrap Jesus in his words to demonstrate his falseness as a prophet – let alone as possibly the messiah! – and save God’s people from apostasy or persecution. Their question is intended to trap Jesus, and Jesus won’t be trapped. He gives an answer that really isn’t an answer to a question that really isn’t a question. For us to take his answer as some sort of authoritative statement on taxation is most likely incorrect.

After all, Jesus isn’t striking a balance here. Is there a balance in the kingdom of heaven? Does anything else in Jesus’ teachings in Matthew lead us to an understanding of our life of faith as one of compromise between the powers of this world and the kingdom of heaven? Is there any power of this world outside the kingdom of heaven? Jesus’ answer here leaves his adversaries – and you and I – to sort out the answer, and we as followers of Christ have the added benefit of the rest of Scripture (including the more explicit Romans 13) to guide us in our answers.

Painfully Helpful?

October 5, 2020

For those who have a hard time thinking the Genesis account of creation and humanity being descended from one single set of parents could be true, I think this is an interesting and relevant article. Being neither a geneticist or a genealogist, it’s possible I’m not understanding it correctly. But the main gist is we’re more closely interconnected than we (and evolutionary theory) tend to think we are.

Though scientists are quick to discount that a single couple – married to each other, actually – could be the source of all our genetic linkages, if I’m understanding this correctly there’s not a scientific reason we couldn’t be, other than that it would too closely sound like Genesis and we can’t have that.

Curious and open to better explanations or applications of this article if you’ve got them!

Finding Us

October 4, 2020

The readings for this Sunday are challenging ones to hear. Isaiah 5:1-7. Matthew 21:33-46. Talk of vineyards to be sure, but more pertinently talk of failure and disappointment. Failure and disappointment on God’s part with the chosen people He called for himself. As good Christians (or perhaps just as Lutherans), our response is to read His Word and find ourselves in the stories. To apply what should be applied to our lives. To repent, watch, and be ready.

There’s a tendency to see these two stories, separated by some 700 years, as essentially the same, allowing the Old Testament reading to dictate our hearing of Jesus’ parable. Isaiah conveys God’s displeasure with his people who, instead of being a holy and obedient people are as savage and wild as those God hasn’t called into covenantal relationship with himself. He could have just skipped the whole process of tending to them and protecting them – the end result was no different. Not that God didn’t know this, of course, but rather that his people should be ashamed to presume upon the grace and protection of God as some sort of birthright when they clearly had no interest in being the sort of people He called them to be.

We can tell Jesus’ story is somewhat different. The problem isn’t the harvest – there’s definitely a harvest! – but rather the tenants, an element completely absent from the Isaiah text. So we understand Jesus not to be angry with God’s people in general or total, but more specifically with the leadership of God’s people, the chief priests and elders who should have been stewarding God’s people in preparation to receive the Messiah. Instead, they are rejecting the Messiah and in effect trying to keep the people for themselves. They wouldn’t see it this way, of course, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation, a situation Jesus speaks to bluntly in this story. It’s clear his hearers know who He has in his crosshairs, yet their response is not repentance but a continued insistence that this man must be done away with.

So we try to fit ourselves into this. It’s easier with the Isaiah text, because who among us would deny our fruit is somewhat sour, to say the least? Who among us can pretend our fruit is perfect and sweet and exactly what God should expect from us? We stand condemned in our sin.

And we know that this isn’t the point of Jesus’ story, we understand He’s targeting the leaders of God’s people, and so we presume we must hear it as a warning to the leaders of God’s people, the ordained or commissioned or Called workers as well as to the lay employees and volunteers. Anyone with authority over God’s people in any fashion. We aren’t sure what the warning is about, but we presume Jesus intends us to hear it as a warning and be on our guard against something.

But we have a hard time defining what that is. The Messiah has come. The Son of the Master of the House has arrived and we acclaim and proclaim him. We seek to follow him, imperfectly of course but yet faithfully. Our leaders should be careful of obstructing God’s people from God’s son, perhaps with sermons that focus not on the Son but rather on social justice or other issues we presume are highest on God’s list of priorities. But this is still a stretch, still awkward.

Is there another way to hear Jesus’ story of tenants and a land owner?

Perhaps if we allow Jesus to guide us, through his quoting of Psalm 118. Go ahead and follow the link to read the psalm BUT, as you do so, read it as though Jesus is speaking the words of the psalm. Not just the one verse He quotes directly, but the entire psalm. Read it as though Jesus is speaking Psalm 118 for the first time ever, composing it on the spot, as it were. And bear in mind the context. This is Holy Week. The Holy Week. The first Holy Week. Jesus rode into town on Palm Sunday a day or maybe two ago. He’s cleared the Temple courtyards of moneychangers and animal sellers. Now He’s being pressed to defend his actions. His adversaries are gnashing their teeth, chomping at the bit to get at him and get him out of the way. Tension mounts. In just a few days Jesus will be arrested, tried, convicted, executed, buried. And just three days after that, He will be alive again.

Read Psalm 118 in that context.

Pretty wild, eh? Eerie how well the entire psalm fits not only Jesus but Jesus at this particular moment in time, on the cusp of fulfilling the fullness of his Incarnate purpose.

And it transforms this from a text applying to you and me and church leadership throughout all time, into a declaration of victory against the group of men standing in front of him. Close enough for him to smell the sweat on their brows as they grit their teeth in the sunlight, aching to get rid of him and unable to do anything but pretend they’re listening just like everyone else. But they aren’t. This group of men with murder in their hearts, who refused to acknowledge John the Baptist and now refuse to acknowledge Jesus. This group of men in their fine robes and tefillin. With their tallits practically on permanent display, so convinced they’re right, so convinced they are doing the will of God in plotting murder.

We lose many interpretative options when we presume every single thing Jesus says is only for edification, only for justification and sanctification. Perhaps some of the things He says only He can say – perfectly, sinlessly, poignantly, stingingly. Perhaps sometimes all we can do is listen and give thanks to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world through his insistence on obedience to the will of God rather than his own. Through suffering and death and blood and burial, to resurrection and ascension and victory and honor.

Reading Ramblings – October 11, 2020

October 4, 2020

Date: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 11, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:4-13; Mattew 22:1-14

Context: The verses for this Sunday emphasize the abundant grace and love and blessing of God. In a world where everything is measured out and sized up, where we try to get a steal of a deal and then turn around and get better than market price when we sell it, this abundance and this generosity is strange. It sounds wonderful and yet it might raise feelings of unease as well. Surely there must be some sort of hidden fee, surcharge, or other cost we don’t know about! Surely there is a catch! But there is no catch. This however, does not mean we can expect to appropriate the goodness and grace of God on our own terms rather than his. He gives us all, and in return we acknowledge him as the source of all good things. To think that we could give thanks to anyone or anything (including ourselves) other than God is not merely foolish it is arrogant and ultimately false. God receives the glory for all He has done, is doing, and has promised yet to do. Come and receive! Be seated at the banquet as his guest!

Isaiah 25:6-9 – A stunning and beautiful passage, a reprieve from the promises of discipline and disruption that precede and follow. After chapters of premonitions of judgment and disaster both on God’s own people of Judah as well as surrounding nations, Chapter 25 begins a section promising that despite these things, disaster will not be the final word. Rather, disaster is to be seen as part of God’s ultimate plan of reconciling all of creation to himself. And when that is accomplished, what a party it’s going to be! Will there be anything lacking? Hardly! Will there be anything to mar the beauty and joy and lavishness of that celebration? Will there ever be a moment when we realize the weekend is over and now it’s time to go back to the grind of the workweek? No. God’s grace is not just sufficient it is overabundant, and those who trust in that grace will not be disappointed in the least. Our Lord Jesus the Christ has already accomplished the victory over sin, death and Satan that make this eternal celebration possible, and now we await God the Father’s perfect timing to ensure that as many as possible will participate in his joy.

Psalm 23 – Few sections of Scripture are as widely known and deeply appreciated as the 23rd Psalm. A beautiful picture of our relationship to the loving care and guidance of our Good Shepherd, who cares for us in all aspects of our life, and leads us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and to the eternal banquet reprised in Isaiah 25. The psalm depends not only on the goodness of the Good Shepherd, which in light of his sacrificial life, death, and resurrection cannot be doubted, but also on the obedient trust of you and I as the sheep. This psalm is not a promise of an untroubled life, but rather the assertion that we can have the peace of our Lord with us regardless of the circumstances that may whirl around us, as we focus on His voice rather than the voices of the day. This requires a daily renewal and recommitment on our part to choose his voice, his pastures, his waters, his pathways rather than run off in search of what we presume to be better options. When we do (and we will!) we can trust the shepherds rod and staff to guide us back as we repent and focus once again on his voice.

Philippians 4:4-13 – Paul concludes his letter to the Philippian Christians with an enjoinder to maintain their focus on good, rather than the difficulties either he or they face. This is not a generic call to positive thinking. Truth, honor, purity, loveliness,commendability – all these things are unthinkable for Paul outside of God and what we have received in Jesus Christ. This should be our clear understanding and articulation as well. God is the source and definition of all that is good, and therefore we give him thanks and praise whenever we recognize his creativity and beauty and goodness expressed in this world. All this focus on positive things from God should make rejoicing easy and second nature! How can we complain who have received all things in Jesus Christ? How can we who have been brought to faith by God the Holy Spirit doubt the same Spirit of God is at work in the world around us as well, and in the hearts and minds of even those most commitedly against him, seeking their conversion to his glory? This rejoicing will in turn have practical effect as we reach out with the love of Jesus Christ to those around us who might be in need, as St. Paul himself was. Nothing is impossible to those who place their faith and trust and obedience in the resurrected Son of God!

Matthew 22:1-14 – The vast emphasis in this parable is the goodness of God. God who provides all things and welcomes all to him. Yes, there will be those who deny him and his goodness. But this does not make his goodness and his welcome any less magnanimous or desirable! Who would turn down such an invitation in favor of slaving away at work? Who could possibly seek to turn God’s graciousness and glory to disgrace or offense? Those who insist on doing so will receive their due, tragically. But still the call goes out, and none are overlooked or not invited. Both bad and good receive invitation to the Lord’s bounty.

But as we touched on in the Old Testament reading, we receive the graciousness of God in Jesus Christ. In other words, we cannot possibly presume another source for our blessings here and eternally, nor should we arrogantly give the thanks and praise due to God to another. He provides everything, from the clothes we wear to the feast to the feast itself. To reject some portion of this in favor of our own ideas or own preferences is not simply foolish, it is arrogant and insulting. Only in giving God the glory and praise and honor appropriate are we responding as we ought to. After all, if the owner of a company decides to give her employees a massive bonus, would it make sense to send thank you notes to the CEO of another company, or to insist on receiving the bonus on our own terms rather than on the terms of their generosity?

The closing statement in this parable might seem troubling, as though God picks and chooses who He will save and refuses to save others. But it’s clear from the parable that the invitation of God – God’s choice – includes everyone from greatest to least. It is not a matter of whether all are invited. All are invited, but not all will respond in appropriate repentance and joy. As such, few in this verse should probably not be interpreted numerically, as though to say only a small number of people will be saved. Rather, in comparison to the universal invitation of God, not everyone is willing to receive from him.

Reading Ramblings – October 4, 2020

September 27, 2020

Date: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 4, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Context: The vineyard. A beautiful and terrible image and metaphor that runs through both the Old and New Testament, describing the relationship of God to his people, and more often than not how his people have not been who they were created and designed to be. They did not bring forth the fruit they should have. Not because they couldn’t, but because they wouldn’t. Failure is to be expected. Sin remains part and parcel of creation. But when sin becomes the rule rather than the exception, the goal rather than the missed efforts towards the goal of obedience, now the tragedy of the metaphor becomes clearer. We as God’s people today need to be mindful we are not exempt from the sins of our forefathers. The Word of God speaks to us as it has to others for thousands of years, and we would do well to heed the warnings, to give thanks for the grace of God as we continually uncover the sin at work in our lives and strive to work with the Holy Spirit to overcome it.

Isaiah 5:1-7 – Talk of vineyards has a lot of cultural familiarity in Jesus’ day. Not only were vineyards a common feature of the land of Galilee and Judea, they were well-known Scriptural parlance. As Isaiah begins his song, his hearers likely thought they knew the way it would play out. But Isaiah’s words strike a very discordant note. God’s people are not the beautiful fruit of the vine, superior to all others because of God’s love and care. Rather God’s people are themselves a disappointment a failure, of no worth to the God who planted them! Jesus’ contemporaries knew Isaiah 5 as a judgment against their ancestors, a judgment that ultimately resulted in their being uprooted from the vineyard into exile. So powerful and pervasive was that historic lesson that Judaism could rightly be described as a reaction to the Babylonian Exile, an effort to ensure the lessons of God were never forgotten. But in the process, God’s grace and forgiveness were also easily set aside. Whenever our focus becomes ourselves rather than God, even if the goal is obedience to God, we are going to veer off into either a harsh legalism or a permissiveness that are equally dangerous to our identity as children of God saved by grace through faith rather than works so that no man may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). To save us, God is more than willing (and able) to uproot us, to prune us in ways that are unpleasant in the moment but aimed at our preservation and thriving for eternity.

Psalm 80:7-19 – The prayer and privilege of God’s people is always repentance. Recognizing our sin, we turn our eyes to our God who promises his forgiveness, and who has demonstrated his grace in countless ways large and small not simply through history but in our lives as well. We know and trust that grace is God’s default mode. The fact that God is the vineyard owner and planter in the Biblical metaphors means his default mode is love, to plant and tend and nourish. It is to these aspects of God we appeal when we are convicted of our sin, when we acknowledge our deserving of punishment and death. We appeal to his grace to replant us, restore us, and bring us to all we were intended to be, trusting in his forgiveness.

Phillippians 3:4b-14 – The tension of the Christian life is resting in the identity assured to us by God in our baptism, our identity as his children and inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven. This by his grace and mercy in Jesus Christ, not because our own efforts at righteousness are ever adequate. But at the same time we srive earnestly for obedience. Aware of who we are in Christ, and who we will be in eternity, we strive to make our lives here and now more consistent with that identity. We take sin seriously, not because God can’t or won’t forgive, but because sin has power to draw us away from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Sin distracts from who and what we are, and the mature in Christ realize this (to continue on to verse 15).

Matthew 21:33-46 – Jesus reapproaches the vineyard motif. His listeners likely presumed he would commend their obedience, the lessons they learned from the Babylonian exile. They likely presumed their obsession with obedience to the Law would exempt them from divine critique. How surprised they must have been to hear judgment! How surprised they must have been to be told they were ignoring the will of the vineyard owner still! That they were facing judgment just like their ancestors were! That they might once again lose the vineyard, and more perplexing, that it might be given to others!

Who else could possibly produce better fruits than the people God himself chose, planted, nurtured, cultivated? The thought must have sounded preposterous! And insulting. And Jesus’ educated listeners understood all too well who the parable was aimed at, and the implications Jesus intended them to take from it.

These parables retain power and pertinence to God’s people today, warning against our complacency that too easily presumes God’s will is our will, and that there is no discipline left for us. The Jewish people had the Word of God as well and still felt his judgment and pruning. If we presume the Gospel exempts us from similar pruning, we are likely dangerously mistaken, and potentially in for just as big a shock as God’s people 2000 years ago.

We turn repeatedly in repentance to the Lord of the vineyard. Not simply for sins long past that we hash over again and again, but in vigilance against sins of routine and tradition. Humanity has not changed so very much in 2000 years, and we are still prone to the same sorts of errors and laxness as those before us.

Lord preserve your church and people from anything or anyone that would cause us to look away from the owner of the Vineyard or his heir for our hope and comfort!