Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Book Review – Muslims, Christians, and Jesus

November 2, 2021

Muslims, Christians and Jesus by Carl Medearis

Gifted to us by life-long Bible translators, this book offers personal insights in how Christians can meet and build relationships with their Muslim neighbors. The author speaks with confidence and experience in this regard, sprinkling the book with real life anecdotes about interactions with a variety of people in a variety of settings.

It’s clear Medearis’ overriding concern is to demonstrate that Christians and Muslims can co-exist, can be loving and good neighbors, and can engage in meaningful religious discussion based around common elements of Christianity and Islam. Towards this end he would much rather sidestep some of the most awkward conversation points that might arise, preferring to encourage his readers towards that common ground. This is important to keep in mind. If you’re inclined to see discussions with others primarily as an opportunity to engage in debate – whether academic, historical, or theological – you will probably be less than thrilled with Medearis’ approach.

For someone unfamiliar with the basics of Islam, the Qu’ran, or Islamic history Medaris’ suggestions might not raise any eyebrows. And even as someone with at least a passing familiarity with each of these areas, I’m willing and able to give Medaris a lot of latitude as his goal is not confrontation but conversation, and this is desperately needed at all levels and all over the world! Combatting an us-versus-them attitude is not only unhelpful but contrary to the command of Jesus to love our neighbor.

Medearis purports both anecdotally and directly an attitude that promotes the idea of spirituality against religiosity. Only by refraining from some of the broad connotations of spirituality and thinking of only the worst excesses and abuses of religiosity can I come close to sympathizing with his position, which I think I find ultimately to be either unhelpful to Christians or dishonest to them. I understand his emphasis on Jesus only to be particularly helpful in cross-cultural discussions, but it falls short ultimately as a way of living the Christian life. Only by attempting to live life as an isolated Christian without meaningful Christian community can such a Jesus only theology work, and such an isolated life is contrary to Jesus’ own practice and the direct instructions of the Bible.

Medearis does a good job at introducing the basic tenets of Islam, providing a brief historical overview of Muhammad and Islam and explaining differences between the three major sects of Islam.

This is a good starting reference for Christians who feel led, or interested, or realize they have an opportunity to build a relationship with a Muslim person. His insistence on doing so not as a means to an end but simply as a fulfillment of the command to love our neighbor is admirable. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for meaningful, deep, and sometimes complicated and difficult religious dialogue down the line. It just acknowledges that’s not where things should – or can – start.

Law and Kings

October 10, 2021

This morning we worshiped with a small LCMS congregation in between Tacoma and Olympia. For Bible study, they’re working their way through 1 Kings and we joined them for the latter 2/3 of Chapter 2. This section deals with the transfer of power and how the new king Solomon dealt with several questionable characters his father David had shown mercy to but remained potential sources of future problems. Since Solomon was not the eldest son of David, to whom the throne would have been expected to pass, Solomon’s position is a bit precarious, as this section highlights.

Four individuals receive judgment from Solomon based on combinations of past and present actions. Adonijah, who had already attempted to take the throne while David was still alive; Abiathar, priest under David but who had also supported Adonijah’s claim to the throne; Joab, David’s general who also had supported Adonijah’s claim; and Shimei, a kinsman of King Saul who had cursed David during his dispute with another usurper son, Absalom.

The passage reads rather harshly. Abiathar gets off the easiest – he’s banished and replaced in his role as priest. The other three are all executed by order of King Solomon. It’s a passage that may strike our sensitive ears rather dissonantly. How is it that Solomon, soon to be bestowed with divine wisdom, should condone the execution of these people his father saw fit to spare?

We must remember Solomon is king, but not just any king. He is king over the only Biblical theocracy in all of human history. He rules the people of God by the Word of God, in conjunction (at least theoretically) with the priests and prophets. Disobedience to the king is the same as disobedience to God. Those who thought it was their duty to determine who the king should be erred grievously in doing so. And those who felt they were not bound by the king’s law or their own promises discovered this was not the case. Just as God’s people are not exempt from his Law and are in danger (as the opening of Hebrews 2 warns us) of being drawn away from the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ and suffering the condemnation of the Law.

We see in these historical passages both grace and judgment, and are called to remember we have not simply a Savior but a Lord, and that Lord is due and rightly expects our obedience. Our obedience won’t be perfect, flawed as we are with sin. But we must remember always who is the only proper and fit ruler of our lives – and it isn’t us! When we feel we can dismiss the Word of God for our own ideas or the ideas of our culture and day we err grievously and need to come back to repentance. The warnings of Psalm 2 are just as appropriate in our day and age as they were in Solomon’s!

Reading Ramblings – October 17, 2021

October 10, 2021

Date: 21st Sunday after Pentecost – October 17, 2021

Texts: Ecclesiastes 5:10-20; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 4:1-13(14-16); Mark 10:23-31

Context: A challenging group of readings in a culture where earning and buying is how we are taught to define our worth. In a culture where display of what we have accomplished (or what we want others to think we’ve accomplished) drives massive debt and the corresponding anxiety that accompanies it. Where we are taught to work hard to save up to spend and have fun in the so-called Golden Years, even if it means sacrificing time with children and family and friends in the short term. But the Biblical message is clear and consistent – these goals are not only unhealthy they are misleading. In the short term because wealth is fickle and sometimes fleeting, and in the long term because wealth can distract us from what matters most and eternally – our relationship with our Lord and Savior.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-20 – Traditionally ascribed to Solomon despite the enigmatic attribution of Qoheleth, which means preacher or collector in Hebrew. Solomon is said to have written this challenging work in his old age, reflecting on a life of pleasure but also a life spent looking for meaning. This chapter begins with an exhortation to fear and honor God which forms a natural transition to a warning against the major distraction in our lives – an obsession with wealth. This obsession is dangerous whether still in the pursuit of wealth or after the acquisition of it. There is never security from this obsession, never a point at which the pursuer can be sure they have enough and can rest. Acquisition means nothing without expending, and so peace is never achieved despite the false promises that wealth brings security. In fact, wealth can be lost in an instant, perhaps far easier and faster than it is acquired! The alternative is a more balanced perspective on life that keeps wealth in proper context. Wealth may or may not be attained but life can still be enjoyed as the gift from God that every life is, whether rich or poor. We are designed to work (Genesis 1:28), but to work in right relationship to God rather than in an unbalanced drive for riches. When we lose track of who we were designed by and for, the inevitable result is sorrow and loss.

Psalm 119:9-16 – The second section of this great acrostic psalm echoes some of the language and concepts of the reading from Ecclesiastes. The young man is exhorted to seek not riches but God and his Word, and to guard and keep it as the rich man guarded and fretted over his treasure. God’s Word is more than capable of delighting us more than the passing wealth and trinkets of this world if we only recognize this! What better way to live our lives than with our eyes fixed on our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, from whom all blessings flow whether in times of need or plenty, and who alone promise us a peace that passes all understanding? This requires an intentionality on our part. We can become distracted (as Paul reminds us in the reading from Hebrews 4) and lose our focus. We must daily re-affirm our intent to remain fixed on God’s Word and statutes.

Hebrews 4:1-13(14-16) – Paul continues on the theme he began expositing at the start of Chapter 2 – the risk we are at continually of drifting away from the faith and hope we have in Christ. This is a real possibility (as opposed to those who would teach that salvation cannot be lost) given the reality of our enemy Satan and his powers, as well as the sin within each one of us. Certainly based on the other readings it would be reasonable to read into Paul’s concerns the role of wealth and material riches that seem to distract so many from the most important things in life, but Paul isn’t necessarily talking about wealth specifically. The problem with the Israelites was not the pursuit of wealth but rather a lack of trust in God. An obsession with wealth could certainly be interpreted as a lack of trust in God in some instances. Our trust is ultimately in our great high priest, Jesus, who unlike the limited and imperfect high priests of old has made perfect atonement for us in his own blood, yet understands our weaknesses and distractions and intercedes for us with the Father and Holy Spirit on our behalf not only in justification but in strength for sanctification.

Mark 10:23-31 – For the Jews of Jesus’ day (and for Christians today who subscribe to the heresy of prosperity theology), wealth was understood to be a sign of God’s pleasure with a person. This wealth in turn could be used to give to the poor and sponsor other good works which would in turn further increase God’s pleasure with the individual. So if a rich person who could give to the poor actually was disadvantaged in some way in entering the kingdom of heaven, what possible hope could the average person have? This is the astonishment and dismay of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus’ response is clear – it is not possible to us, but only to God. We cannot do what is necessary to earn our place in the kingdom of heaven, but we can receive membership by the grace of God through forgiveness found in the saving blood of Jesus Christ shed on our behalf. The second part of Jesus’ teaching, in response to Peter’s reminder that the disciples have given up everything to follow Jesus is more complex. Jesus assures Peter these sacrifices are not unnoticed, and nor are they uncompensated, both now and eternally. In embracing Jesus, the believer is united with all the faithful through space and time. The believer becomes part of Jesus’ own family (Matthew 12:50) with innumerable brothers and sisters! This is a reality here and now, though we too often value it too lightly and think of it too infrequently. Family ties are complicated things and sometimes it is easier not to dwell on this reality in this world, and the obligations it may place on us to place our riches second to the needs of our family members. These realities are true here and now. As Luther noted in Christ we are lords of all things and subject to none – although this reality is rarely recognized by those around us! We are at the same time the servant of all, so that our lordship is hidden in our poverty, our lack of control, our willingness to suffer if necessary rather than reject the citizenship we have in the kingdom of heaven. All of this Peter and the disciples and you and I receive here and now – and we look forward to the age to come and the eternal life we will have free of the persecutions that haunt us here and now.

Wealth is not our servant here, nor is it our hope. It is often just the opposite. It often becomes our master, whether we have too little or too much. And it betrays our hope by oftentimes loading us with fear, distrust, and other attendant difficulties. Only in holding our poverty or wealth lightly and continuing to insist on focusing on Christ and his eternal gifts to us does wealth better remain a tool rather than a temptation.

Reading Ramblings – October 3, 2021

September 26, 2021

Date: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 3, 2021

Texts: Genesis 2:18-25; Psalm 128; Hebrews 2:1-13; Mark 10:2-16

Context: Life is a blessing from God. We do not own it, and we are mistaken when we believe we are free to arbitrarily create or end it on our terms. Disengaging life from the Creator is a dangerous path leading to unforeseen consequences both short and long term. We should rightfully leave life in our Lord’s hands, trusting in him rather than risking drifting away from him (Hebrews 2:2) into our own ideas and methodologies.

Genesis 2:18-25 – Although some prefer to read Genesis 1 & 2 as two separate accounts of creation, they needn’t be read in that way. Some read vs. 18-19 as out of order with the account of creation in Genesis 1, but this is not a necessary reading. God’s intent from the beginning was to have a suitable helper for Adam, and had already created the other creatures that were then brought to Adam prior to creating Eve. The relationship of man and woman as created by God is unlike any other relationship in all of creation, so that St. Paul can proclaim in Ephesians 5:32 that this is the profound mystery of human marriage – it echoes and reflects the relationship between Jesus and his Church. This passage declares the profound beauty in our created natures as male and female, and helps us look forward to when these natures will be restored to perfection individually and in relation to one another and our Creator.

Psalm 128 – The pilgrims move towards Jerusalem, lifting their spirits and passing the time with the citation of the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134 & characterized by the word ascent in their opening lines). They are reminded in doing so of the blessings of God, blessings both already received and realized and those yet to come. These blessings are understood to be part of the covenantal relationship, the proper relationship between God and mankind described in Genesis 1&2. In our fallen state this relationship (and these blessings) are experienced in a limited and imperfect sense. In this sense, this psalm can be taken as prophetic – these are the blessings we look forward to in our Lord’s return and our resurrection to perfected life.

Hebrews 2:1-13– I think the passage is fine ending at verse 13 instead of continuing on to the end of the chapter as the lectionary provides the option for. The emphasis here is also on what we look forward to in our Lord’s return, a reality glimpsed by those privileged to see Jesus after his resurrection. Salvation has come, but salvation can be lost Paul clearly indicates at the start of this passage. Satan is always working to pry us away from our faith and trust in Christ and lead our hearts and minds after other things. Paul cites Psalm 8 as evidence of the glory that is rightfully ours and which has been lost in sin, but to which we will be restored through Christ. Paul emphasizes Jesus’ incarnate nature and work on our behalf, by which we are privileged to call our Lord and Savior our brother. We have much to look forward to!

Mark 10:2-16 – Is it too much to read the first verse!?!?! Good grief! For the careful reader, this verse has meaning and helps explain the context of the question posed to Jesus. The geographical context of the Jordan River and Judea should remind us of John the Baptist and his fate as detailed in Mark 6. John the Baptist was arrested and ultimately executed for his stance on marriage that angered Herod’s wife Herodias (who formerly was married to Herod’s brother). Now Jesus is posed a question on marriage and more specifically divorce, likely with the hope that Jesus would run afoul of Herodias as well and suffer a similar fate to John the Baptist!

Jesus’ words on marriage are challenging in a culture where divorce is presumed a right and option by most people – including Christians! But if the marriage relationship is an echo or image or foreshadowing of the revealed relationship between Christ and his Church, we should not be surprised that divorce is prohibited. What God has joined together should not be separated, including by the participants. Some are quick to argue that there are cases where divorce is necessary – in the cases of abuse or negligence. While we would acknowledge that our sinful human nature sometimes makes divorce inevitable or even necessary, this does not legitimize it in broader application. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 provides additional insight regarding when divorce is permissible – but even then it seems clear the hope and goal would be reconciliation and healing. A high view of marriage should be the goal of the Church, the congregation, and the married couple, and all levels of community from family and friends up through the congregation should be blessings and assets to married couples in helping them honor their marriage vows to one another and God.

Book Review: Crux, Mors, Inferni

September 22, 2021

Crux, Mors, Inferni: A Primer and Reader on the Descent of Christ by Samuel D. Renihan

I didn’t realize this was a self-published book. I’ll admit I’m biased to some extent, at least when looking for thorough, more scholarly books, against self-published titles under the assumption that if it was good enough, somebody would be publishing it other than the author. I realize that’s no longer necessarily true and the Internet provides many options in the realm of self-publication that only complicates the matter further.

That being said, after reading this I don’t feel the self-publication category suits this book and I’m curious why a publisher didn’t pick it up.

I found this book while looking for resources on The Apostles’ Creed. And of all the statements in the Creed, certainly the most confusing one is that Christ descended into hell. If I’ve heard or read a compelling discussion on this statement I don’t remember it. That’s not meant as criticism against my profs or Confirmation pastors, but perhaps a comment on my memory or, more likely, a comment on the confusion apt to surround this statement which is in turn based on 1 Peter 4:6 and somewhat on Ephesians 4:7-10.

Renihan does a good job with this topic, dividing the book into two main sections. In the first section he lays out the Biblical (and somewhat extra-Biblical) topography of creation – heaven, earth and hell as we typically talk about them. He then argues that the Biblical understanding leads logically and naturally to understanding a localized descent of Christ’s spirit into hell – not to suffer, not as part of his defeat, but as the turning point, the beginning of his glorification after his incarnate process of humiliation. Jesus goes to announce and confirm his victory over sin, death and Satan to the deepest recesses of Satan’s stronghold, and we should not interpret this descent as intending to give the dead a second chance at the Gospel (as is argued by the Mormons). In the second section he examines how Reformed theologians dealt with (or failed to deal with) the Creedal assertion of Christ’s descent into hell, often transforming it into a euphemism for death or burial or a spiritual suffering as opposed to an actual localized descent of Christ’s spirit.

I like his work and his argument. He is not exhaustive in his exegetical/Biblical examination. He picks and chooses and that’s probably a necessary evil. I don’t necessarily argue with the verses he opts to cite. However most of his argument rests on a single point that he substantiates mostly with references to Apocryphal writings rather than canonical Scriptures.

His basic thesis is that sheol is the destiny of all (prior to Christ’s death on the cross). It is the abode of the dead. But it is separated into three areas wherein the lowest two are intended for suffering and the upper third is a place of comfort and peace for the righteous dead, referred to as the bosom of Abraham in Luke 16. Renihan also supports this understanding with a reference to the three heavens (2 Corinthians 12), so there is a symmetry with three levels of heaven and three levels of hell, with the uppermost level of hell not a place of torment but rather of comfort – if not heavenly bliss. Jesus’ parable of Lazarus in Luke 16 depicts not the divide between heaven and hell, Renihan argues, but rather the divide between the upper portion of hell for the righteous dead, and the middle level of hell (for the wicked dead) and the lowest hell (for Satan and his demons).

It’s a compelling argument, I have to admit, but I’m still hesitant to embrace it completely. Though admittedly, by accepting it completely it certainly provides for a level of reasonable interpretation of otherwise difficult parts of Scripture. The only real exception to this is Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross – today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43). Renihan makes reference to this but frankly it’s one of the weaker aspects of his argument.

How does all of this matter?

Renihan argues for the Patristic understanding (as supported by Ephesians 4) that Christ descended into hell to demonstrate his victory over Satan and sin and death, in no small part by leading those spirits of the righteous dead out of the upper level of hell and into heaven. From that point on, those who die in faith in Christ do not descend into Abraham’s bosom, the highest region of hell, but rather their spirit goes directly to be with their Lord in heaven, a reality described in Revelation 6:9-11.

It’s the most thorough treatment of the descent of Christ into hell I’ve encountered to date, and has a lot to back it Scripturally as well as in historical Christian exegesis. But I’m still staying on the fence until I have the opportunity to read a bit further. I’m definitely open to good recommendations on the topic!

The second half (2/3?) of the book was of less interest to me, emphasizing how Reformed theologians and preachers dealt with this statement of the Creed while clearly finding an actual, localized descent of Christ’s spirit into hell untenable with their overall theology.

This is definitely a worthwhile read. His writing is very accessible and doesn’t presume advanced theological training or linguistic competency in Greek or Hebrew, though he references the Greek in several places and provides translation as well. Certainly worthwhile exploration on the topic!

Reading Ramblings – September 26, 2021

September 19, 2021

Date: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ September 26, 2021

Texts: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 104:27-35; James 5:(1-12)13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Context: I’m out of practice a bit, but hope to catch up a bit in the coming weeks! We’re still in Ordinary Time, so that’s something!

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29 – Let me reiterate at the outset that I great dislike slicing and dicing sections of Scripture (or any written material, for that matter). Most often this is done to remove extraneous or unnecessary material (as it is here) and thus shrink down the overall reading and the time required for it. If you’re married to the idea that worship can’t be more than 60 minutes long, shortening the readings gives the preacher more time to preach. Circumstances dictate whether that’s a good thing or not. So here we don’t want to take the time to read about what manna was, we’re simply focused on the central conflict and why God had to provide it in the first place.

Ungratefulness, a theme related to the reading last week from James, is what’s at play here. But the greater story is God’s providence. The short memories and general ungratefulness of a people in a difficult transition from settled city life to long-term campers is secondary to the provision God extends. Provision not just in the physical manna to feed a perceived physical hunger, but further in his grace and mercy against a rather unattractively ungrateful people. Even Moses is perturbed by everything and his role in it, yet God remains calm in providing bread for his people’s temporal needs, just as He will provide the Bread of Life in his incarnate Son, Jesus the Christ, to provide for his people’s eternal needs.

Psalm 104: 27-35 – In line with God providing manna in the Old Testament reading, the psalm selection emphasizes creations’ dependence on the Creator. The first 27 verses of this psalm extol the works of God in creating and sustaining. He alone is the cause behind all the causes and effects in the created order. As such, creation looking to the Creator starting at verse 27 is only reasonable and logical. Here the verses deal not only with the physical needs of food and shelter, but emotional needs like fear and existential issues such as death. All of which culminates rightly in praise to God as the author of creation and the author of our faith and hope and salvation.

James 5:(1-12)13-20 – Prayer is the language of faith. Prayer is the appropriate response in all situations, though we tend to think of it more often when we’re in need or facing difficulties. Perhaps that’s why James leads off with such situations in this section starting at verse 13. But it’s great that second in the list is a reminder we can pray when we’re grateful and happy just as much as when we’re lacking and fearful! Verses 14-15 are interesting in this time of pandemic and sickness and fear. A wonderful reminder that healing ultimately comes from God, whether He chooses to dispense it miraculously by the Holy Spirit through prayer or equally miraculously through vaccines or other medical options.

Some Christians interpret these words as directive regarding what we are supposed to do – anoint with oil. Certainly anointing with oil has a rich and deep history in Scripture, but this is mainly because it was also cultural and historical. Oil was used not just as a beauty product but also as a balm for healing. As such, it can easily be argued that James is basically instructing the Church to provide necessary medical care as opposed to rejecting or refusing medical care as though these aren’t means by which God can sustain his creatures! James also provides a link between illness and sin, something few churches are willing to preach about!

Throughout this section the reminder is that while physical illness and need are real and valid things that prayer can be brought to bear on, our greater need is for the affliction that runs deeper in us and ultimately is the cause of all sickness and disease and brokenness in creation – sin. Ensuring that we don’t neglect the spiritual care of people while going overboard to treat their physical afflictions is certainly something the Church must remember at all times!

Mark 9:38-50 – The initial verses in this section are striking. Jesus does not demand his disciples stop others from using his name to perform miracles. These other people presumably are not committed followers of Jesus (not among the 120 or so that formed his extended discipling group beyond the 12). They would not be privy then, we can assume, to the fullest of his teaching. They might be running with just the barest of understanding of who Jesus is and what He is here for. There must be some level of actual faith at play, since demons could refute the mere name of Jesus (Acts 19:15), yet these people were missing so much for whatever reason! Yet Jesus insists they be allowed to continue their work. Their work is good as done in faith and in the name of Jesus.

What an interesting lesson might there be here to learn for our congregational or even denominational conflicts? To remember that as we have faith in Jesus we are considered his, even if we may be missing out on some beneficial doctrinal understanding. The Universal Church of believers spans far more corners of belief than we are likely to be comfortable with. And while this is not an excuse not to preach and teach the Gospel to the best of our ability, there is a comfort that comes from knowing that even when someone doesn’t necessarily understand all they could or should, they are still in Christ.

Book Review – The 3D Gospel

August 24, 2021

The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame and Fear Cultures by Jayson Georges

This book was recommended by my friend and colleague JP. It’s a short read (74 pages), but it is likely to give lifelong Christians more food for thought than many much longer books.

The author worked overseas in Central Asia for close to a decade before returning to the US. He has firsthand experience with some of what he talks about in this book. His premise is that in Western Christianity the Gospel is primarily proclaimed and described as a motif of guilt/innocence. We stand guilty of sin both inherited and personally committed. The punishment for this guilt is death and separation eternally from God’s presence. However Jesus comes to pay the penalty of our sin and extend to us his innocence, making reconciliation with God the Father possible. This motif works well in our culture where rule of law is paramount over most anything else.

Sound familiar? It should.

But Georges posits two other motifs more dominant in other parts of the world.

The first is the shame/honor motif. There are cultures in the world where the primary driving concern culturally is not the rule of law, per se, but rather the idea of creating/maintaining honor – both personally and for the larger family – and avoiding shame. Using this motif, the Gospel is the story of our dishonor, exchanging the glory and honor God bestowed on us in creation and obedience for a the lie of honor on our own terms. All our lives have become now an effort to manufacture real or false honor to remove the shame we are born with. Jesus accomplishes this for us, and extends to us once again the honor we were created for and with.

The second is the fear/power motif. There are cultures in the world where the primary driving concern culturally is how to appease the spirits who are among us and can either bring us harm or blessing. Control over these spiritual forces is attempted through charms, totems, rituals and magic, just to name a few. Certain actions or words are avoided at all costs because of the danger it may expose the person (and their loved ones) to from spiritual powers. The Gospel is explained in this motif as Jesus coming as the greatest of spiritual powers to defeat the demons and other spiritual powers of this realm. Those who accept Jesus come under his protection, and need not fear the posing spiritual powers of this world any longer. There is no further need for charms or spells for protection as the individual believer receives power from the Holy Spirit.

Georges maintains this three-fold way of interpreting the Gospel is demonstrated in Scripture itself, and wise Christians (as well as those who work cross-culturally) should be aware of these three motifs and know when it might be appropriate to engage one over another when sharing the Gospel with someone from another culture. Georges references the book of Ephesians as a Biblical example of all three Gospel dimensions being referenced. Ephesians 1:7 and 2:5 reference the guilt/innocence motif. Ephesians 1:5 and 2:19 reference the shame/honor motif. And Ephesians 1:19-21 and 6:10-11 reference the fear/power motif.

It seems clear that Georges’ personal experience cross-culturally is with the shame/honor motif (as well as his native, Western guilt/innocence motif). The fear/shame motif is not explained quite as deeply in this book, but it is still well presented. Georges takes time to document various Bible verses that deal with or at least acknowledge each of these three motifs. Although the idea may seem strange at first considering how deeply we’re embedded in a guilt/innocence culture, Georges’ observations are solid and worth further consideration.

Considering the Gospel in a fuller sense than simply the forgiveness of sins can be very helpful, and certainly provides no little amount of fodder for personal reflection and meditation. While elements of all three motifs will be found in varying degrees in every culture, most cultures will have one of the three more dominant than the other two. This is a great little read that might be very helpful if you engage in any cross-cultural relationships!

Reading Ramblings – August 29, 2021

August 22, 2021

Date: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 29, 2021

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4; Psalm 96; 1 Corinthians 7:17-24; Mark 5:1-20

Context: Something different this week.  I’m preaching in two small congregations in Northern Arizona on Sunday and the pastor serving them both is preparing a sermon for the previous Sunday (8/22) entitled Go When God Calls.  Since he’s setting things up for a mission-oriented sermon I decided to step away from the assigned three-year lectionary readings and select a set of readings that highlight different aspects of mission work.  The Old Testament reading and the psalm both emphasize the going aspect – sometimes God calls us to pack up and leave where we are and go somewhere else.  The Gospel and the Epistle reading each highlight that God doesn’t always call us to massive changes – geographically or otherwise. 

Genesis 12:1-4 – The seminal text in terms of God calling someone to faith and trust in him as well as calling them to relocate.  Abram is called to leave his family – a far dicier proposition in those days than it is for many people today.  The larger family unit provided stability and protection, a very close social network of people committed to one another as well as to the good of the family as a whole.  An interesting aspect is that Abram’s father, Terah, had moved his family as a whole from Ur of the Chaldeans.  They were headed towards Canaan, but ended up stopping in Haran instead.  At the time, Ur was likely very close to the northern edge of the Persian Gulf but those waters are thought to have receded considerably since then.  Haran is located about 30 miles south of Şanlıurfa in Turkey.  The journey from Ur to Haran would have been approximately 750 miles, so no wonder they decided to stop!  But just because the family was done traveling doesn’t mean God’s intentions were done.  He calls Abram to complete the journey without his two remaining brothers, taking only his wife Sarai and their nephew Lot and their servants, slaves and possessions.  They would not be returning to Haran.  God calls Abram to be faithful and trust in him – not even revealing directly where he will be headed though would likely have been roughly a 600-mile journey. 

Psalm 96 The lectionary assigns this psalm to be read at a midnight Christmas service. It is an eminently missional psalm, both calling people around the world to faithful worship and praise of God as well as calling for God’s glory to be declared throughout the world (v.3). God is not the narrow, limited God of a particular people or place. As the Creator of all creation, praise is due to him by all of his creation. Of course, due to sin and the demonic lies of Satan not all of God’s creation recognize him as God any more or acknowledge any power greater than what they can identify with their senses. For this reason God’s glory must be declared continually. Whatever other false gods may be worshiped ought to be replaced with praise directed to the one, true God of all. The work of mission is to share the good news of this God with those who have forgotten or been misled into false worship of false gods or blinded by the conviction that there can (and must) be nothing greater than ourselves. The Church as God’s people in all places and times is entrusted with the primary responsibility of declaring these truths both to her own people, who must always be reminded, and to the world beyond. Ultimately even nature itself will give God praise, and all of this truly is good news, because when the Lord comes He will establish righteousness and faithfulness.

1 Corinthians 7:17-24 – Paul is responding to questions from the Corinthians regarding marriage, believers, and unbelievers. But this section in the middle is more generalized. Some might be called to exotic or unusual service, such as Paul himself. But Paul never presumes this is the expectation or goal for every believer. Rather, God the Holy Spirit is the one who determines how each should serve. Ideally, issues of ego should not enter into matters. Where has God called you? Coming to faith in Christ is no excuse for divorcing an unbeliever. Likewise faith in Jesus does not require other changes in status, even from slave to free (though Paul acknowledges the latter is more to be desired than the former if possible). Change is possible, but is not always required. Seeking to understand how God has equipped us to serve – as well as where and what – is the duty of the individual Christian as well as their Christian community around them. The blessings of Christ are real and present and not dependent on our marital or economic status or any other markers of this age and world.

Mark 5:1-20 – What often gets lost in reading this passage is the ending. This man – likely not Jewish if he was living in the non-Jewish Decapolis – seeks to join Jesus’ disciples. His intentions no doubt are sincere but Jesus denies his request. There is no hint of Jesus seeing this man as unworthy of such a calling, but undoubtedly understands that the presence of a Gentile amongst his inner circle would cause innumerable problems in having his message heard and received by his primarily Jewish audience. Rather, Jesus redirects this man’s desire to serve and follow to his hometown, to people who already know him and will likely be very soon aware (if they aren’t already) of the radical transformation and change in fortunes in his life. This man will have the opportunity to give glory to God in telling how Jesus delivered him from slavery to demons.

Unlike many other recipients of Jesus’ blessings, this man is not commanded to remain silent but rather commanded to speak! Commanded to share specifically the amazing story of what Jesus did for him. The result is that people marveled, to be certain. But also the result is likely such that when Christians begin to travel after Easter to share the good news, the people in this area will already know about Jesus despite not being Jesus. They have a living witness to his power right in their midst.

Some Christians have an amazing story to tell about Jesus’ deliverance in their life. Perhaps deliverance from drugs and alcohol and other addictions. Perhaps deliverance from abusive relationships. Perhaps deliverance from the blindness of disbelief or false belief. Such stories can be powerful opportunities of witnessing to people who knew the former circumstances of these converts. Incredible transformative stories are never required of those who come to faith in Jesus, despite the erroneous but well-intentioned doctrines of some Christians who insist there must be a conscious conversion story or spiritual evidence such as speaking in tongues. But the Holy Spirit can use all believers and their unique stories as He best sees fit. The Church’s job is to ensure all know their stories are a gift from God to be used to his glory rather than their own.

Reading Ramblings – August 22, 2021

August 15, 2021

Date: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 22, 2021

Texts: Isaiah 29:11-19; Psalm 14; Ephesians 5:22-33; Mark 7:1-13

Context: Whenever this reading from Ephesians 5 comes up I feel compelled to focus and preach on it because it is so misunderstood in our time.  The readings as a whole today have a theme of the contrary nature of human ideas and rules with divine, and the Ephesians reading sits nicely in that context.  We have our ideas about things.  Some of our ideas are better than others.  But all must be subjected in humility to the divine will and wisdom.  Even as we seek to be faithful to our Lord’s wisdom and will we are apt to wander astray and allow additional ideas to infiltrate, ultimately to our detriment, and therefore a humility is always appropriate with one another in order to remain not only wise, but unified.  Personally, this is a challenging set of texts this week as I’m preaching and it’s a congregation I’m just visiting, not the installed pastor of!

Isaiah 29:11-29 – Verse 16 calls out to me as the pivotal point of this passage.  God is speaking to his wayward people.  A people who have not witnessed the powerful works of the Lord as in generations past.  What they know of God is secondhand.  This has led them to presume their own understandings of God are the important thing at one level – so that following the rules laid down by tradition or doctrine replace an actual relationship with their Lord (v.13).  In part this is God’s doing (vs.10-12).  In part it is our human sinfulness both within us and in the world around us combined with the active workings of our enemy Satan to draw us away from a vibrant trust and faith in our Creator God.  Today nothing characterizes our American culture so much as an insistence that we are the creators.  Or at least that there is no conscious Creator, and therefore might (or ability) makes right, and we are free to recreate ourselves and one another and our world in whatever form we might prefer.  Verses 17-19 seem like a modern laundry list of goals science promises to deliver us – avoidance of climate change or climate change in our preferred direction, triumph over our physical bodies and limitations up to and including death and aging, and social justice and equality for all.  But we are not the authors and accomplishers of these things – God is.  While we are free to faithfully pursue our caretaking of the world we are not free to do so by disregarding or denying the reality and truth God the Creator has woven into the fabric of reality itself.

Psalm 14 – We might object to this caricature of the atheist as someone who is purely evil.  And certainly such a straw man would be easy to knock down with examples of good-hearted non-believers.  But the deeper truth this psalm directs us towards is that without a God above us who gives us truth and defines right and wrong for us, we will inevitably redefine truth and right and wrong to suit our own preferences and desires.  We will exalt evil as good and denigrate good as evil.  We will ignore the physical world around and within us and insist on becoming not simply masters but tyrants over both.  It is not possible to have truth or moral grounding apart from the God who Created all things and wove those realities and definitions into his creation.  Whenever we attempt to define these things without reference to our Creator, we will inevitably, eventually wind up completely opposite to what He designed and intended.

Ephesians 5:22-33 – The readings all point us to the error and danger of substituting our own ideas and rationalizations for God’s revealed order and rule in creation.  Most Christians would nod in agreement with this in the abstract, but we suddenly choke and sputter when it strikes at some of our current assertions of what love really means and looks like.  Surely equality must be God-pleasing?  Surely we can redefine what equality looks like to suit our preferences?  Or is equality something God has already provided a definition for in the dawn of creation?  An equality based not on function but on his Creation of each one of us as his sons and daughters?  Equal but different?  Called to honor and love and respect one another within the bonds of marriage that preserve our essential differences and call us to be equal within those differences?  That’s a hard pill for many people to swallow these days.  We’d rather focus on real and potential abuses of these verses as justification that St. Paul is not serious or is misogynistic.  To put these verses off till our Lord’s return so we don’t have to grapple with the challenges of them here and now.  But Paul is clear.  Marriage is, in fact, our clearest depiction of our Lord’s relationship with we his people, his Church.  Imperfect, but striving in our marriages to mirror the divine relationship full of grace and mercy and truth.  And a reminder that our own preferences – no matter how deeply held or sacrosanct – could be just as flawed as the Pharisees and the Israelites and even the fools who say in their hearts there is no God

Mark 7:1-13 – How easy – and dangerous! – it is to presume our own ideas are actually fulfillments of our Creator God’s wishes and commands.  How easily good intentions lead away from God’s intentions.  How crafty and deceitful are our own hearts, even when we are not conscious of it!  How easy it is to fulfill the letter of the law while completely missing the spirit of the law, replacing the intentions of the law (love of God, love of neighbor) with something more expedient.  And of course, how easy it is to justify things with the cover of righteousness or the Gospel, defending actions that are patently unloving by invoking the name of God.  If we think we are above this or beyond this we are in the greatest danger.  If we presume our traditions are beyond reproach and must be guarded against any criticism or – gasp! – change, we are in danger.  Good things can be gradually turned to bad ends.  Original intentions can be lost so that we go through motions no longer understanding their original intentions or benefitting from the intended outcomes. 

Thank God we are forgiven in Christ, but thank God also the Holy Spirit continues to work among us, striving to unify us and lead us towards fulfillment of the law not in hopes of earning God’s favor but in joy and thanksgiving for his grace and mercy!

Death and Collective Guilt

August 13, 2021

I don’t consider myself a real aficionado of Texas-style (or maybe just more traditional American) folk music. A bit too twangy. But playing pool in bars with juke boxes for most of my life you pick up a taste for a little bit of everything, and all that absorbed country music made me a bit more open to the twang than I otherwise might be. I discovered Nancy Griffith in the mid-90’s hot on the heels of the success of her Grammy-winning album Other Voices, Other Rooms. Twang notwithstanding, I fell in love with Griffith’s story-telling. Songs like Love at the Five and Dime and Gulf Coast Highway are still some of my favorite songs for the powerful stories they evoke in the small space of a song. I had the pleasure of seeing her in concert in the early 90’s and it was a wonderful experience to hear that clear voice in person.

She died today and that’s sad, as all deaths are.

I went back to listen to some of her songs this evening. They still bring a smile to my face or tug the heart strings in a way few other songs or artists do.

By chance I happened upon another of my favorite songs of hers, It’s a Hard Life. I still love the song but what caught my ear, in the midst of the rising racial tensions in our country was the last verse, a sort of confession on Griffith’s part that:

I am guilty I am war I am the root of all evil

She believed the words and the visions and promises of some great people like Walt Disney, Walter Cronkite and Martin Luther King, Jr. She believed their promises that change could come and was coming. And decades later, realizing those visions had not materialized the way she had assumed they would, for everyone rather than just specific demographics, she holds herself accountable. Though she’s not at the wheel of control, by implication she is guilty for those who are at the wheel of control, either by her support of them or her failure to stop them.

It’s a hard confession to hear after her stinging examples of prejudice that occurs in every culture and can take myriad forms. She confesses guilt that this still exists and she has personally failed to prevent it.

In the way this kind of corporate confession is currently being wielded or demanded in our country, it’s erroneous. It is misplaced. It assumes that we individually are capable of preventing people from reaching power or using power if they are not worthy of it or misuse it or fail to use it to full capacity. And it assumes at a deeper level that these things – prejudice and racism of all stripes – can actually be defeated and destroyed by our own efforts. If we just have the right leaders. The right policies. The right educational systems. The right corporate policies.

Unfortunately for Griffith and you and I and those who struggle under the oppression of real prejudice and racism, this isn’t true. Not that we don’t work towards it. Not that we can’t make improvements. But to remove these things is beyond our control. It is not in us to do so. Or more accurately, like Griffith’s confession, the sin we would stand against is present within us as well. Perhaps not in the same forms or to the same degrees, but there all the same.

And in that sense the corporate confession is appropriate. We all share in the common affliction and malady of sin. None of us is capable of removing it from ourselves let alone another person. And so we continue to struggle with sins as old as humanity. Some people are constantly amazed that a particular program or regimen failed to root out a particular sin. That is a sinful error as well, though a well intentioned one. Anything designed by a broken and sinful person is going to turn out in one way or another broken and sinful and inadequate as well.

Griffith’s bleak confession would be the last statement in her life and every life if there were not a deeper, greater hope than our own visionaries and programs. Thank God, there is.

There is only one hope for the defeat and removal of sin. One hope promised long ago in a primal garden, and one hope accomplished 2000 years ago on a cross by a man who claimed he was more than a great teacher or a great moral model, an inspirational speaker or a worker of wonders, but in fact the very Son of God. Who promised that in his voluntary and innocent death and burial, the sin within us would be overcome. All we had to do was believe this was true and who He was and what He accomplished. And for an anchor for that faith and trust He asserted He would rise from the dead after three days.

That hope and promise remain today. I pray that Griffith shared in that hope. That her disappointment in herself and others was overcome by a hope and trust in Jesus Christ. I pray it was ultimately that hope that inspired her to write and to sing and to become an inspiring voice to others and future generations.

Because I’d love to hear that clear voice in person again someday when she can sing of victory instead of defeat.