Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Reading Ramblings – October 29, 2017

October 22, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Reformation Sunday (observed) – October 29, 2017

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

Context: Reformation Sunday is always the last Sunday of October, as close to October 31 as possible, which is the date Martin Luther is credited with tacking up a list of 95 talking points – mainly around the issue of indulgences – in 1517. In case you haven’t heard, this year is the 500th anniversary of that momentous event. We have no reason to believe that Luther expected the many massive changes that would come from his request for academic and theological debate. I view the Reformation as an unfortunate necessity. Would that the Church would have simply reformed, as Luther hoped! Instead, a violent schism emerged and has remained to this day, prompting multiple other, small schisms among non-Roman Catholic Christians. We should observe this day in worship of God the Holy Spirit who restored the Gospel to the forefront of much of the Church’s message, rather than as a day celebrating division and disagreement. We look forward to that day in eternity when our divisions cease, and we are united in the peace that can only come from the Prince of Peace himself.

Revelation 14:6-7 – This is the traditional text (at least in Lutheran circles!) for Reformation Sunday. It was popular in the years after the Reformation to claim that this angel is actually Martin Luther. I don’t think that’s a reasonable interpretation, but it is a passage that many see Luther as embodying with his insistence on proclaiming the eternal Gospel. This passage occurs after two very troubling passages that describe the grand cosmic war waged against God the Father’s plan of salvation and his chosen people, both the Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church (Chapter 12). Chapter 13 describes two dreadful beasts representing the machinations of Satan in this world to lure and force people to abandon worship of the one, true God and worship instead human powers and institutions. Yet in the midst of such terrible times, there are still those who remain faithful to God, marked with his name instead of the beast’s. And while the powers of Satan ravage the world below, they are unable to prevent God’s angels from continuing to empower and encourage the faithful in true worship through the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ. As such, God’s people are not to necessarily rely on some miraculous deliverance from suffering in this world, but rather that in the midst of that suffering they are never forgotten or abandoned by their God, who alone in the sinless death and resurrection of the Son of God has provided for their eternal security.

Psalm 46 – What hope we have in our God, the Creator of the Universe, Redeemer of Creation, Fashioner of Faith! What little hope we have in the world around us, rocked as it is by catastrophes both natural (vs.2-3) and human (v.9). How often we are exhorted to put our faith in ourselves, in our leaders, in our philosophies, in our sciences. How predictably often our hope is disappointed and betrayed. Only God can cure what ails creation and each one of us. Only God can lead us to the river that runs through the holy city. Only God can inspire the psalmist (circa 1000 BC) to see the holy city and the river running through it that St. John will also see roughly 1100 years later! Only God is so amazingly consistent in the smallest of details, and therefore trustworthy in the most sweeping of promises. Our hope and strength can only be in God alone, and our hope will not be disappointed. One day we all will gather by the river that flows from the throne of God!

Romans 3:19-28 – The law cannot save us (v.20). Whether God’s Law or human law, no law is capable of saving us from the sin, the inherent disobedience that reigns not just in our actions but more deeply in our thoughts, words, and hearts. Matthew 5 serves as a good corollary chapter, explaining that mere outward observance of the law does not remove the inner disobedience. So it must be God who provides an alternative means of righteousness to every one of us. Something unexpected though certainly not unannounced (v.21). That righteousness consists of faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the resurrected Son of God. Just as sin has uniformly condemned us (v.23), so God offers a uniform source of righteousness and forgiveness in his Son (vs. 22, 24-25). And not in some intangible way, but in the very literal and physical blood and death of his Son. So it is God alone who justifies – who makes us right with him (vs.25-26). So can we boast of our salvation in Jesus? Have we done anything to merit boasting, to justify it? Hardly! Does the recipient of an expensive gift credit himself with graciously receiving the gift? Hardly! Rather, it is the giver who is praised and thanked as the source of the gift. So we give thanks to God through Jesus Christ our Lord by faith worked in us by God the Holy Spirit, for the gift of righteousness and salvation that is first to last his creation, and therefore trustworthy.

John 8:31-36 – Jesus theological opponents are not stupid. I don’t think they are simply asserting that they have never been literal, physical slaves – as though they were forgetful of Egypt, or the Assyrians or the Babylonians or the Persians or the Greeks or now the Romans. Much of the history of God’s people – the overwhelming majority of it, in fact – they have been slaves and subjects of other peoples. What his opponents are asserting however is a religious, spiritual freedom. They have remained faithful to God regardless of what temporal authority ruled the day. But Jesus won’t have this argument, either. Spiritually their worship of God is corrupted by sin, and is the very reason for their exile in Babylon and the myriad masters they have served since. Sin prevents them from experiencing the theological, spiritual freedom they assert they have always have. The reality is that they have always been slaves to sin. Only the one without sin is free, a true son of the father (they brought up Abraham, but Jesus is reaching beyond Abraham to the Father/Creator of all things!). Jesus is the only Son of the Father, eternally faithful, obedient yet equal to and with the Father. Only the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus, can truly claim to be a full and obedient Son of his heavenly Father. Everyone else are slaves who, while participating in the household, are not actually part of it.

But the Son has the authority of the Father, both in the theological, Trinitarian sense as well as the Roman and Hebrew sense his hearers would be thinking of. When the son comes of age his word is as binding as his father’s. Jesus, in being perfectly obedient to death and resurrection, will accomplish the will of his Father, which is to set people free from their slavery to sin. They can’t accomplish this on their own. The slave can’t simply declare that she is no longer a slave! It is not possible, because it requires an authority the slave does not have. Only the master of the household can grant manumission, can declare authoritatively and in binding fashion that he who was once present only as a slave is now present as a free participant in the household, even a son or daughter of the master.

We may not rely on Abraham as the source of our righteousness, but we are always prone to rely on other things and ourselves. We might acknowledge our imperfection, but take some level of comfort that at least we’re better than those other people. We are constantly tempted to see in our broken and imperfect efforts at occasional obedience, something worthy of offering to God of our own creation, as partial justification for his love and forgiveness. God will have no part of this. We either accept the full and complete and perfect forgiveness offered to us through the substitutionary death of the Son of God, and with that the Lordship of the Son of God over our lives here and now, or we die in our sin. Our imperfect and occasional attempts at obedience mean nothing on their own and without Christ. Only with and in Christ do those efforts have any real and lasting meaning, not in our salvation, but in helping to shape us into the people God will transform us into for eternity.

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Reading Ramblings – October 22, 2017

October 15, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 22, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9(10-13); 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Context: How sovereign is your God? How predictable and obvious are his ways? Do you have him figured out? Do you know what He’s going to do and how He’s going to do it? Then your God is not the Biblical God. The God of Scripture is not limited. He doesn’t simply work through the faithful and obedient and righteous. How many times have modern popular Christian authors stressed the importance of faithfulness and obedience lest you frustrate God’s plans for your life? Consider this – God called and blessed and enabled a ruler who did not know him, did not worship him, was not obedient in any sense of the Word – all for God’s glorious and sovereign plan, for the sake of his own beloved people! Our God works however and wherever He pleases, and through whomever. This should humble our haughty attitudes in all aspects of our lives and towards all people and institutions in our lives, even those we disagree with.

Isaiah 45:1-7 – What a fascinating passage of Scripture! We need to recall that Isaiah is writing around the close of the eighth century BC – roughly 739-701 BC. Yet the events that he is writing about in Chapter 45 won’t take place for another 200 years. Those who deny the reality of divine inspiration and therefore the reality of prophetic writing thus hypothesize that the book of Isaiah is actually compiled over a long period of time, including some of Isaiah’s actual material but also material written much, much later, by those influenced by him and seeking to carry on his tradition. I hold with the traditional view that Isaiah has authored all of the book of Isaiah, and that in places he is speaking – by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – about things that will take place long after his death. Cyrus is the King of Persia who successfully conquers the Babylonian empire and issues the famous decree that allows the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. So when God says in v. 4 that He is using Cyrus for the sake of God’s people, this is very true. Through Cyrus God will free his people to re-establish themselves in Jerusalem, a place that will remain central until not long after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. To achieve his purposes, God will enable Cyrus and give him success, a promise similar to the one God makes to Joshua in the Old Testament. God is not forcing Cyrus to do these things, but encouraging and enabling him so that as he applies his free will, he meets with great success. This passage does not necessarily mean that Cyrus will come to faith in God as the one, true God, but rather demonstrates how God can work through anyone and any situation towards the fulfillment of his divine plan and purpose. If God can do this with someone completely ignorant of his identity and existence, how much more can God work in the lives of his faithful people?!

Psalm 96 – A good friend of mine just released his first worship CD, and the opening track is based on this psalm! What an exultant hymn of praise to the Creator of the Universe! He alone in his creative mastery is God, and there are no others, no rivals, no alternatives. But God the Creator is also God the just (v.10), not the petty, vindictive deity we find in so many mythologies. Not only are people to give God glory and praise (vs.7-9), but all creation itself should and will also give God praise (vs.10-13) for the same reason, that God is just. In terms of theology, this brings to mind Paul’s line of thought in Romans 8:22-23. Creation itself groans and anticipates the future glory to be revealed by a just God who will perfectly judge sin and evil and free creation from their despicable control.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 – We made short work of Philippians – shorter than appropriate, no doubt, but now we move on to 1 Thessalonians. Acts 17 describes Paul’s initial work among the Thessalonians. His work there seems to have been short-lived yet also impactful, so that now there is a Christian community in Thessalonica, and an active one at that! Now their reputation has spread far and wide, so that other churches can relate the story of how Paul was received at Thessalonica. Apparently his early converts were not so much the Jews of Thessalonica but the Gentiles, those worshiping idols (v.9). They received the Gospel joyfully and fully turned from their idolatry to commit themselves to patiently waiting for Christ’s return. You can hear the joy and pride in Paul’s voice, his gratitude that while his time in Thessalonica was cut short, the Holy Spirit was hard at work and continues to preserve those faithful people who first trusted the promises of God in Jesus Christ.

Mark 22:15-22 – Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and so does theology from time to time. The Pharisees were a non-priestly group of ultra-orthodox, ultra-observant Jewish men committed to total obedience to the Laws of Moses. They despised the Roman presence and influence among God’s people, yet here they are willing to cooperate with the Herodians, a term we assume denotes Jewish people who supported Roman presence and rule and thought that complicity with the Romans would ultimately be beneficial to the Jewish people (certainly more so than fighting against them had proved to be!).

Matthew tells us what the intent of all of this is. They want to entangle Jesus in his words – they want him to say something that will incriminate himself either with the Romans or with the crowds. If he misspeaks against Roman law, then He can be arrested and incarcerated – removed from the public sphere. The Jewish crowds love Jesus (Matthew 21:26), a fact that makes it hard for the Jewish leadership to either undermine his authority, assassinate him (Matthew 26:3-5), or otherwise remove him.

Bringing up the issue of taxation seems the perfect means of getting Jesus to upset one side or the other. On the one hand, taxation is an important stream of revenue to the Romans and a primary means of evaluating whether the provincial authorities are doing their jobs – and therefore get to keep their jobs or advance. Interfering with taxation in any way is a serious issue to the Romans. On the other hand, the Jewish people hate Roman taxation, which they consider to be severe and oppressive. Jesus truly ought to be caught, unable to respond without either endangering himself with the Romans or alienating himself with the crowds who suffered under Roman taxation.

But Jesus is no ordinary itinerant preacher, wild-eyed prophet or rabble-rouser. The Son of God clearly shows the reality that they must live under. They are never to short-change God what He is due, but God does not collect taxes or issue currency. For these things, whether they like it or not, they are dependent on the Romans. Their use of Roman currency demonstrates that they have a debt to the Romans that they need to pay. They cannot pretend that they have no debt or obligation to the Romans just because they are the people of God.

His response neither condemns taxation, which could lead to his arrest, nor does it approve of or justify the ruthless level of taxation which the Romans exacted from the people. The people are to give God what is His – worship, praise, honor (Psalm 96!) – and to give to the Romans what is their due – taxes. The religious leaders might have viewed Roman taxation not just as excessive, but also as insulting or even scandalous. To pay money to a pagan government? How could God ever consider such a thing as appropriate? But such a point of view – 2000 years ago or today – forgets that there is no power on earth beyond God’s power, and that God is perfectly capable and willing to work through any variety of means, institutions, and persons to accomplish his will. Today’s passages – similar to the Romans 13 passage from a few weeks ago – reminds us that in all things we are to trust and acknowledge the majesty and sovereignty of God!

Reading Ramblings – October 15, 2017

October 8, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 15, 2017

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

Context: While we struggle to make our world better, both individually and as a society, events continue to remind us that our efforts are flawed at best and oftentimes seem pointless. The power of sin in a broken creation rages, whether in the power of hurricane winds and rain or in a rain of bullets on unsuspecting people. As Christians, we continue to strive for improvement regardless of the setbacks. We do so in the understanding that one day, not by our power but by the power of our God, creation will be remade. Perfection will be attained. Peace will come. Suffering will end. Struggle will cease. In the light of those great promises we continue to place our shoulders to the wheel here and now, being shaped in the process into people suitable for life in such a beautiful future.

Isaiah 25:6-9 – God is the actor in this passage, the one who sets the feast for his creation, people who come from every background and walk of life. The richest and most desirable of food and drink are offered, food fit for a king! Mountains in the Old Testament are symbolic of the power and presence of the divine. It is in God’s power and presence that his creation will be feasted, once He has removed from creation the pall that lies over it, the shadow of sin and brokenness and rebellion. Death itself He will destroy and remove, setting his people truly free to celebrate not just for a time but for eternity. As we wait for this day we sometimes seem foolish. We are sometimes defined as part of the problem rather than heralds of the solution. It is easy to see our pointing towards the horizon as foolish and unfounded optimism. We bear these reproaches in good grace. One day the truth will be revealed, and our waiting will be shown to be faithfulness that leads to eternal joy.

Psalm 23 – There are those who take exception to the depiction of God’s people as sheep. It’s not an attractive comparison, to be sure. Sheep are not particularly bright or creative or brave. They very much need someone to watch over them. Some people find this offensive, and argue that Christians are now, in Christ, to consider themselves lions rather than sheep. But this is a patently unBiblical change of roles. We are sheep, and we have a shepherd whether we want it or know it or not. In Christ we have the good shepherd who knows how best to care for us. He knows where the best food and water is – not the stuff that will give us indigestion or make us sick. He knows when we need rest and insists that we do so, echoes perhaps of God’s love and care for us in giving us the Sabbath day of rest. His care extends to the edge of and through to the other side of the Valley of the Shadow of death. Nothing can separate us from our good shepherd who leads us to the feast on the other side of that dark, silent valley. Once again the imagery is of the God who provides a feast and celebration for his people. We are solely the guests, lavish recipients of God’s outpouring of love on his children.

Philippians 4:4-13 – Paul concludes his letter to the church in Philippi with final exhortations and encouragements. First and foremost they are called to rejoice in the Lord’s forgiveness and grace. This is the constant spirit of the Christian, regardless of the difficulties of life. We give thanks to God and rejoice that He sustains us even in our tribulations. In this state of gratitude our difficult times are mitigated, so that we can be reasonable in all situations, knowing that our Lord is coming back for us. This assists us not only in being reasonable, but also in avoiding excessive worry or anxiousness. Not that we have to hide from God what is on our hearts and minds (as though that were possible!). Rather, knowing that He has given us all things through his Son, we are bold to come to him in prayer, lifting up not only petitions for what we need but also thanksgiving for what He daily provides us. In this flow of rejoicing, giving thanks, praying, and anticipating our Lord’s return we will find that the peace of God sustains us in all things. This peace has a source and a context, and it is Jesus the Christ. It is not something that we create for ourselves or can provide to others. It comes only from and is based only in our relationship with the Son of God. This peace comes from God through Jesus Christ, but we take an active participation in that peace by choosing to focus on those things that are good rather than on things that are not. Paul concludes this section by thanking them for the gift that they have sent him via Epaphroditus (2:25). Paul does not want to focus on his need – that would be in contradiction to what he has just exhorted them to in the previous verses! His situations have been varied indeed, but he exudes the peace of God that he has just assured the Philippians that they too can experience!

Matthew 22:1-14 – Once again a feast is prominent in the story, but there’s a problem. Those who are invited to the feast don’t wish to attend. They have better things to do than celebrate with their king. Note the patience and persistence of the king! He has gone to such elaborate preparation, yet still takes time to pursue the invitees. Yet they persist in rejecting his pleas, to the point of violence. Seeing that their hearts will not be changed, the king sends his soldiers against them and destroys their city. The opening verses target God’s own chosen people, the Jews. They are the ones invited to his celebratory feast, yet they do not wish to come. They refuse to come and will resist his persistent pleas with violence. Many scholars see the king’s punishment of these people as prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Romans, following a large Jewish uprising.

The king now extends the invitation to those who did not previously receive one. These guests recognize the bounty and grace of the king and fill his hall as the invited guests had been intended to. Jesus now points towards the Gentiles – the non-Jewish people – who will receive the Gospel and respond to it where God’s own invited people would not. Yet among those who do respond is one – at least one – who does not bother to prepare himself for the event. What is the wedding garment that the man should be attired in? Some scholars say it is the works of faith appropriate to someone invited by the king. Others say it is the grace found in Christ. The parable seems to rule out the former. None of this second group of invitees is likely to have on hand a garment suitable for a wedding. It remains then that the king himself has provided the appropriate attire yet this man sought to enjoy the king’s generosity inappropriately, flouting the king’s graciousness and insulting his host. Might this be the one who insists that she needs no forgiveness, no grace – she is good enough on her own merits! Surely the king will be pleased with the humble and honest life she has sought to live?

This is not possible. The king invites, the king clothes, the king provides the feast. Those who attend do not do so on their own terms. The idea is ludicrous and insulting! As though no invitation was necessary, as though anybody who so desired could wander in and out at their leisure, without regard for the king. Such a misunderstanding is a dangerous and potentially eternally fatal one. Scripture describes a loving and gracious God but this does not mean a God who can be ignored – either in his invitation or in the manner in which his invitation is accepted. The king remains the king, after all.

Isaiah Help

October 2, 2017

Here’s a helpful blog post on the Old Testament reading assigned for this coming Sunday (according to the 3-year Revised Common Lectionary, LC-MS edition).  If you’re interested in the Hebrew linguistics, he picks out some of the interesting words and wordplay going on in this passage.  Very beautiful and helpful!

Reading Ramblings – October 8, 2017

October 1, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 8, 2017

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

Context: The beauty of Scripture is that it points to the Savior of the World, Jesus the Christ. One of the remarkable aspects of Scripture is how common metaphors and images are created and then picked up by others. The metaphor of a vineyard first appears in the time of David. It is picked up again hundreds of years later by Isaiah. And hundreds of years later, Jesus surprises his hearers who might have assumed they knew what He was going to say. What the psalmist first crafted as a metaphor for God’s obligation to his people, God utilizes as an indictment against a fickle and rebellious nation.

Psalm 80:7-19 – It makes sense to begin with an examination of this psalm, since it predates the other vineyard passages. Here the psalmist recounts the Exodus and settling of the Promised Land with the metaphor of a vine transplanted from Egypt. By God’s grace, that vine grew prodigiously! It expanded and spread until it shaded the mountains and the mighty cedars. Yet despite the flourishing of the vine, the psalmist accuses God of neglecting his vine and allowing it to be jeopardized through his neglect. God is called to return to his people and once again lavish his care upon them. Note also that the language could easily be reinterpreted to be about the promised Messiah, a point made clearer at the end of v.15. God sends his only Son but allows him to suffer and ultimately to be cut down, only to raise him again to glory under the power of the Father’s right hand. God’s people have a right to call upon God in times of need. We are welcome to call out to God to ask for his favor and renewed protection. What looks to be dead and lost is not so to God, who by turning his face of favor can restore what is cut down and burned with fire.

Isaiah 5:1-7 – Isaiah’s prophecy starts off in a breathtaking series of explosive accusations and judgments against those who considered themselves to be God’s favored people. Not so, Isaiah reveals! Rather, God is preparing to bring judgment against Judah for her leadership’s lack of trust in him and widespread ignorance or ignoring of God’s covenant requirements. The psalmist called upon God to protect and prosper the vineyard that He planted, but God uses that same language here to show the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of his people. God has given his people everything they need to thrive as his people, yet instead, they produce bad (sour/wild) grapes (v.2). What is there to be done for such a vineyard? Nothing except to destroy it, which God describes in detail in vs. 4-6. His people are themselves called in v.3 to determine whether his intended course of action is just or not. Has God been unfaithful, or has his people? Has God withheld his blessing, or has his people withheld the obedience and honor due to him alone? What did God expect from his people? Justice and righteousness, reflections of the God who planted them and whose face they should daily seek.

Philippians 3:4b-14 – We continue in Philippians as we did in Romans before, not necessarily matching up with the Gospel & Old Testament lesson in terms of themes. Paul is clear here – his own righteousness is worthless and wholly inadequate compared to the righteousness of Christ. If Paul thought that worldly standards made sense, he had no reason to abandon them to pursue the Messiah who appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Rather than being a success or praiseworthy by the world’s standards, Paul appears as one of no account. A troublemaker, a rabble-rouser, a preacher of strange ideas and philosophies. He has given up everything the world values in order to possess Christ. Nothing matters to Paul but to know Christ. Not in an esoteric or intellectual way but in a manner that possesses his entire life in turn and directs him to serve his Savior as a wandering evangelist, as a legal defendant, as the very opposite of staid security so prized by the civilized world. This is Paul’s all-consuming concern. For him it looks like relentless evangelism. For another brother or sister in the faith it might look like devotion to children or vocation. Whatever it is that we are called to do we do it for Christ, thereby knowing better the power of his resurrection which enables us to serve others out of love for Jesus. By this we suffer as we are called and enabled to, knowing Jesus in his sufferings in an entirely new way, until at the last, we approach death and become like Jesus in facing our mortality. And through faith in Jesus and his resurrection, as we approach what appears to be our ultimate defeat – death itself – we find instead that we have attained righteousness and resurrection from the dead!

Matthew 21:33-46 – I’m sure we’ve all at one point or another heard a pastor start off a sermon with an object lesson or story, and we realize we’ve heard it multiple times in the past. Not that one again, we say as we settle back, glancing at our smartphone. We know where it’s going and the only thing we’re eager for is the story to be over with so we can get on to something more interesting. Jesus is accosted by the chief priests and elders (v.23) of the people in Jerusalem, when He begins to tell about a vineyard. They know the passage from Isaiah. They know the psalm. They think they know whichever way He’s going to phrase the story. They know that Isaiah’s prophecy had to do with their ancestors, not them.

But Jesus goes another direction. He builds another condemnation against God’s people not based on the words of Isaiah hundreds of years earlier, but on what God’s people were already planning right then and there! The leaders have been plotting to kill Jesus for some time (12:14), and Jesus calls them out on it publicly. Who would be so foolish and evil as to plot to kill the son of the landowner? The very people parading their righteousness for the masses and holding themselves as superior to the very Son of God.

The parable works on multiple levels. The common people listening to Jesus would have understand the unpleasant situation of working land for an absentee landlord. They would understand the temptation to render the land ownerless so that they might claim it for themselves. But they would understand that despite this temptation, such an action would be sinful and, if discovered, would merit the full penalty of the law for the breach of trust and contract. If the people knew what was on the hearts and minds of the religious leaders, they would be shocked!

The religious leaders understand all too well who Jesus is speaking the parable against. They know their own hearts and are convicted. But they remain steadfast in their resolution that Jesus must be safely removed from the public scene and into their power.

Reading Ramblings – October 1, 2017

September 24, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 1, 2017

Texts: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-10; Philippians 2:1-18; Matthew 21:23-32

Context: The distinction between justification and sanctification is crucial. What God the Father does through God the Son to save us sets in motion a process that only finishes in eternity – our being made into the holy and righteous sons and daughters of God the Father that we are made through faith in God the Son. Yet we are always looking for ways around this, either to blame others for our sin or to claim a righteousness based on our works rather than on the work of Christ. Both are futile, and leave us exposed to the wrath of God that demands our faith and trust in what He has done on our behalf.

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 – We are prone to looking for excuses for our sinfulness. We want others to bear the responsibility for our transgressions. Modern psychology has convinced us that we can’t truly be held responsible for our own problems, yet God says otherwise. Rather than helping us to place blame elsewhere, God holds us responsible for our own sin. Just because we were influenced or affected by others does not remove our moral culpability before a righteous God. Instead, we are called to repentance and to changed lives made possible by the power of God the Holy Spirit who leads us to God the Son, Jesus Christ, as the source of our justification – our being made right – with God the Father. God’s goal is always straightforward – that we would choose life in him rather than death on our own terms.

Psalm 25:1-10 – If this sounds familiar it’s because we recited it on Pentecost Sunday, just a few short months ago. Verses 1-3 are a plea for help in a difficult situation, ending with the acknowledgment that those who trust in God will not be put to shame. Verses 4-5 ask for the Lord to guide and lead the petitioner in the right ways, while verses 6-7 are a plea for mercy and forgiveness. Knowing God’s will and being able to perfectly accomplish it are two separate things. Verses 8-10 are an affirmation that God indeed will lead and guide his people, and that the Lord will act in love and faithfulness to his people. Forgiveness goes hand in hand with seeking the Lord’s leading and guidance out of sin and towards a life that is more in keeping with his ways.

Philippians 2:1-18 – We are prone to think of ourselves first, but as followers of Christ we are to follow his example of humility, even humility to the point of death. Paul exhorts the Philippians towards this goal acknowledging that he himself takes pride in their successes towards this end and would lament their failures. Despite his imprisonment, he can still look to them as a source of encouragement and hope, and they should consider themselves as such for mutual rejoicing.

Matthew 21:23-32 – Jesus deals with challenges to his authority by forcing his inquisitors to examine their own consciences. The goal is repentance, not simply avoiding a question. Jesus is not shy in other places (notably John’s Gospel account) of giving his authority as God the Father. But here He gives an opportunity for repentance. Matthew gives us a glimpse of the thought processes involved by the religious leaders. To acknowledge John the Baptist’s authority would condemn themselves because they did not submit to him. But to deny John the Baptist’s authority would expose themselves to the judgment of the crowds, who were convinced that John was a prophet sent by God. Without a convenient answer, they opt to avoid the question and so does Jesus.

Jesus then tells a parable to demonstrate the position which the religious leaders have just placed themselves in. They are like the second son, who claims to be obedient to his father and yet is not. Likewise, the religious leaders claim obedience to the law of God while rejecting the authoritative voices that God sends to them – notably in John the Baptist and Jesus himself. But those who are all too aware of their sinfulness and need for grace – they recognize God’s calling to them in John the Baptist and Jesus. While their lives have previously been in offense to God and a rejection – for whatever reason – of his call on their lives, they have come to repentance, seeking baptism from John and now listening and heeding Jesus. As such they are more obedient and therefore better sons and daughters of their heavenly Father than the religious leaders who promise to be obedient and then are not.

Repentance and the the corresponding forgiveness of God the Father cannot help but create change in our lives. We are not free to dictate to others exactly how this will look, yet Scripture provides plenty of examples of the sorts of things we should expect. What we cannot expect is to repent and be forgiven without any need for change in our lives. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the grace of God. It is not simply an intellectual shortcoming but a matter of unfaithfulness to the one who has set us free to live for Him rather than for ourselves.

Reading Ramblings – September 24, 2017

September 17, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 24, 2017

Texts: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 27:1-9; Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Context: The readings today focus on two aspects of God that go necessarily together – his wholly other nature as expressed in his unrelenting grace and forgiveness. This is something we never fully wrap our heads around, but experience in shocking and awe-inspiring fleeting glimpses and realizations.

Isaiah 55:6-9 – This passage beautifully expresses the twin aspects of God’s otherness expressed through his grace. The hearer is called to throw themselves into the presence of God. Rather than hide in our sin and guilt we are invited into the very presence of holy and righteous God. There we find now what we expect and what we all too easily deliver to ourselves and others – judgment and condemnation. Rather we find the unexpected. Abundant pardon. Compassion. It makes no sense to us and yet this is our hope and our joy. It is the wholly other nature of God that forgives and has compassion on the repentant heart. We learn that coming into God’s presence isn’t something to dread but rather something to look forward to, a practice and way of living that continually transforms us and sets us free.

Psalm 27:1-9 – God is not our enemy! We will surely face adversaries in our life, but God is not one of them. Rather, He is our strength and refuge. He is who we flee to in times of distress, not who we flee from. And for this reason we are always steadfast. We rest in the reality of a God who transcends and transforms each moment of our lives in the promise and hope of perfect life in him. We cannot be defeated! The best our enemies can do is kill us, but we rest in the hand of the God of Life who has conquered death! Our hope is not guarded by the fickle and transient things of this world – money, power, influence. These things fade. They can disappear in a moment. Those who one minute praised us the next minute can demand our death (something Jesus is well-acquainted with!). Rather our hope is anchored in the constancy of God, which no power in all of creation can shake. We may suffer, we may endure loss, we may experience injustice and neglect and abuse. But none of these things shake us loose from the hand of God who holds us and promises us deliverance and victory in him!

Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30 – We leave behind Romans in order to move on in the lectio continua tradition to Philippians. Paul writes to the church in Philippi that he founded on his second missionary journey (Acts 16). While disagreement is ongoing about where and when Paul wrote this letter, it is possible that he wrote it towards the end of his ministry, perhaps during his imprisonment in Rome in the early 60’s, immediately preceding his execution by Nero. Paul writes to thank the Philippians for a gift that they have sent to him (4:10-20; 2:25), and his tone throughout the letter is one of joy and gratitude – a striking combination for a man in chains!

We skip Paul’s opening salutations and thanksgiving to begin with the real start of his letter. He is imprisoned but his imprisonment cannot contain the Gospel. His guards know why he is imprisoned – or more accurately, for whom he is imprisoned. It seems that there might be other Christians likewise imprisoned who are inspired by Paul’s boldness to be more bold themselves in their Christian testimony, however these might also be Christians who are not imprisoned but rather are ministering to Paul during his imprisonment. Because of the grace of God to Paul, he is confident and looks forward to the resolution of his case, confident that regardless of the outcome Christ will be glorified and Paul himself will be granted whatever courage necessary. Paul knows he might not prevail in his case, but even this does not discourage Paul, since if he is executed he goes to be with his Lord! And if he prevails and lives, then God will continue to use him to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Thus Paul exhorts the Philippians to continued steadfast faithfulness both in how they live as well as what they preach and believe. Whatever suffering they might endure comes as a gift from God uniting them to Paul and to their brothers and sisters everywhere in the faith who also suffer. What an encouragement to us to see in our own sufferings for the faith, whatever they might be, that we stand in a long, long line of faithful men and women who remained steadfast even to death if necessary, so that Christ might continue to be proclaimed even to their persecutors!

Matthew 20:1-16 – If there is a passage that better conveys the wholly other nature of God in terms of his compassion and mercy, I don’t know what it is. Anyone who gives this passage more than a cursory reading will be struck by the complete bizarrity of it all. Anyone who ponders it long enough is likely to detect within themselves at least a faint hint of disagreement. This isn’t how it should work. And yet it is, in terms of how the kingdom of God operates. This links the reading to last week’s reading which focused on forgiveness and also was intended to convey something about the nature of the kingdom of God.

Our sense that this is unfair stems from the idea that what we do and contribute is of some value and merit on it’s own to God, which therefore God must recognize as more valuable than the contributions of those who come later to the faith. In every other aspect of our lives we presume that our labors and contributions determine our reward – or at least should. We get paid for the hours we work. If we work longer hours we expect overtime or more pay or more time off. If we put in a lot of effort into an essay or school project we expect a better grade than the person who throws something together at the last minute. In this kingdom, our labors have value and merit in and of themselves and necessitate or deserve differing levels of recognition or compensation.

Not so in the kingdom of heaven. You and I contribute nothing to this kingdom. The only contribution that matters is the one that Christ makes on our behalf through his perfectly obedient life, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised return. Here in this parable we see the totality of what it means to put on Christ. We must fully cast off ourselves, at least in terms of what we do and contribute. None of that matters. None of that means anything because it is wholly and completely inadequate in the kingdom of God, even when compared to the lackluster lives of others who profess faith in Christ. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) We think this falling short means different things for different people. The ax-murderer falls a lot shorter from the glory of God than dear sweet Grandma Perkins who spent her life ministering to the neighborhood children. By our measurements this is true, but not by God’s. Both fell short. Both sinned. And those sins were equally condemning to both of them if they hoped to win God’s grace by their good deeds.

We must fully put on Christ, so that what matters is not us by Christ in us and over us. And for this reason God can give lavishly to all that respond to the Holy Spirit’s call, whether they arrive early or late, baptized and raised in the Church or raising hell outside the Church until a late repentance. It is only the grace of God that brings us to him, and therefore it shouldn’t matter whether that grace is received early in life or late. Of course, we would say that it is a blessing to come to it earlier rather than later – as most late converts will readily assert. Yet there is the sinful temptation of some who came early to the grace of God to lament that they somehow missed out by doing so, and therefore deserve more compensation. Those who came early have already received that compensation in terms of a lifetime of knowing God and his love and grace!

Book Reviews

September 13, 2017

A quick review of two books I recently finished up.

The Humor of Christ – by Elton Trueblood

This short book  encourages readers to consider that Jesus exhibits humor in some of his teachings.  Trueblood is uncertain whether the Gospel writers recognized the humor as such, but thinks that they are still able to convey at least echoes of it in conveying the words of Jesus faithfully.  He spends time discussing various forms of humor (irony, exaggeration, etc.) and also defending the use of humor as a time-honored and well-respected way of teaching thoroughly in keeping with Jesus’ identity and work.  The book finishes with an examination of several particularly difficult passages in the Gospels that Trueblood thinks could be explained adequately only through seeing in Jesus’ words a humor.

I don’t have a problem with his premise, but the book was not an enjoyable read.  It’s not very long (124 pages) and concludes with a list of all the various passages where Trueblood thinks humor might be at play.  This is a good thing for Christians to keep in mind – that Jesus was not necessarily a dry and humorless man, and that indeed his popularity with the common people might have been based in part on his willingness and ability to use wit and humor both in his teachings as well as in his exchanges with hostile authorities.

Reasons: Skeptics Should Consider Christianity by Josh McDowell & Don Stewart

I’m not sure how I came by this book, but it’s a handy little apologetics text.  However, the fact that it’s now 30+ years old means that its handiness is tempered by age, particularly as it addresses scientific matters.  Not being a scientist, I’m not sure how well the argumentation presented in this text holds up, and I assume that there are better, more up to date resources for answering challenges to the Biblical account of creation centered around geological data and natural selection.  However the philosophical and theological portions of the book remain very solid and helpful.  Not a bad book, but all in all you should probably find a more recent book and keep this on the shelf as a back-up resource.

Reading Ramblings – September 17, 2017

September 10, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: 15th Sunday after Pentecost – September 17, 2017

Texts: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-12; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Context: Last week’s readings were the warm up for this powerhouse collection of verses. The kingdom of God is for those who receive it like a child who receives good gifts from her parents, without any illusion that she has earned them somehow on her own. And what is the greatest gift that can be bestowed? Forgiveness. There are a lot of things we like. There are plenty of things we want. There are essentials that we can’t live without, and the foremost of these is forgiveness. It is this that God the Father gives to us through faith in God the Son, Jesus, through God the Holy Spirit. This is our core need, our existential crisis par excellence. Forgiveness allows me to live not just a few days, like food and water do, but eternally, regardless of whether I have food or water. I receive forgiveness not because I’m a good guy, but solely and completely because of the grace of God the Father in Jesus the Christ. As this sinks in I can’t help but want to change how I deal with others, particularly those who cause me harm. But failure to allow my heart to be changed towards others is not only a coldness, it actually removes me from the grace of God.

Genesis 50:15-21 – Guilt runs deep, even among those who apparently didn’t think very much of their treachery and betrayal so many years earlier. Guilt can be spurred on by fear of retribution, and this doesn’t make the guilt any less real. Joseph’s forgiveness does not change the wrongness of what his brothers did to him. Joseph does not forgive because he wasn’t hurt, or his brothers didn’t know what they were doing. And while we would be tempted to say that Joseph forgives because he sees divine purpose at work, our other readings should guard us against this interpretation. We don’t forgive just because we can see how something bad has been used as something good. Seeing the grace of God in his own life, Joseph extends grace to his brothers. What God did in preserving Joseph’s life is not simply for Joseph, but for others – the Egyptians who in their own way mistreated him, as well as his brothers who mistreated him.

Psalm 103:1-12 – This psalm praises God first for his holy name, and for the blessings and benefits that derive from relationship to God. The first blessing is forgiveness, the redemption of our bodies from the sin of disease which in turn saves us from eternal separation from God (the pit). But God is not content to just save us, He in his grace and holiness exalts us, raising us far above our station to his glory. Starting at verse 6 the discussion switches to the Lord’s righteousness in how He deals with his people. Firstly, He reveals himself and his good will and purpose to them through Moses, a reference to Mt. Sinai and the entire wilderness experience. There He showed that He was slow to anger, forgiving over and over again. Yet God is no pushover. While He deals first and foremost in love his anger can and has been and will be aroused against sin and rebelliousness. Yet his people need not fear his anger (v.10), unlike those who reject him. Instead, God’s people are the constant recipients of his steadfast love and forgiveness.

Romans 14:1-12 – While we could stretch to make this passage fit in with the theme of forgiveness, this is not really the emphasis, and we remember that this is a lectio continua passage, rather than a passage selected for meshing well with the other readings. Paul is concluding his letter to the Roman Christians with insight and directions about the Christian life. He began this in Chapter 12 with encouragements to utilize the gifts of the Holy Spirit in humility and love. He extended his scope in Chapter 13 to include the Christian’s relationship to the secular civil authority – here the Roman Empire but long understood to mean all civil authority. Now he settles in to some very specific examples of how Christians are to remain humble in love and faith with one another. Not everyone will have the same level of faith or understanding in the faith. This is not an occasion for ridicule or derision or scoffing, and certainly not to argue with one another when the issue is not fundamental to the life of faith. Paul uses an example of diet and another of observing holidays. There may be legitimate differences of opinion in these areas and that is fine. Both sides need to set aside their opinions or preferences when dealing with one another and hold to their practice as they best understand it to be the will of God in their life. This is a profound passage, with some very real implications for Seventh Day Adventists as well as internal disagreements within denominations and congregations!

Matthew 18:21-35 – Easily one of the most powerful and convicting parables in all of the Gospels, Jesus drives home the reality of our situation before God and therefore the foolishness of our refusing to show mercy and forgiveness to others. Our debt is so great as to be almost unfathomable, unimaginable. And the injuries we receive from others are so comparatively minor, that it is laughable and obvious to anyone objective that forgiveness is not only required, it is proper and right and good. The one who insists on standing on the Law in dealing with others will find that they forfeit the grace of God and are treated in kind – on the basis of the Law. And on such a basis no one can stand, all are condemned. This is the essence of the final verse. We who throw ourselves on the mercy of God should be quick to extend mercy to others. The imagery here is appealing and sympathetic. We feel for the fellow servant who is mistreated! But we shouldn’t presume that we owe forgiveness only for small issues or to those who ask. Joseph’s mistreatment and betrayal by his brothers was deep and abiding. It resulted in much pain and suffering over the course of many years. The fact that God used his situation for a greater purpose doesn’t negate the severity of the offense, and yet Joseph recognized that in light of God’s great mercy and grace, the only appropriate response could be to forgive his brothers.

Forgiveness is a crucial and distinguishing mark of the Christian faith. While it has become popular to talk about forgiveness in our larger culture aside from God, the rationale is far weaker there. True, forgiveness can be healthy in terms of ridding ourselves of bitterness and hate. But only in the shadow of God’s immense forgiveness can our forgiveness of one another really ever make sense. We do it not to make ourselves healthy, but in acknowledgment of the sacrifice of Jesus the Son of God in order to extend forgiveness to us. Forgiveness is not an indulgence on our part, it is a command of the One from whom all forgiveness ultimately comes.

Forgiveness may be a process, but it is never an option. If we must begin by praying honestly to God and admitting our hatred and unwillingness to forgive, so be it. But end that prayer by asking God to give the strength to do what we cannot and will not do on our own. Ask him to change our hearts so that forgiveness is not just a possibility but a reality.

Reading Ramblings – September 10, 2017

September 3, 2017

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 10, 2017

Texts: Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 32; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:1-20

Context: How important is forgiveness? Essential. Non-negotiable. It is the most fundamental thing humans need, the remedy and treatment for the terminal condition of sinfulness that we are quick to excuse in ourselves but not in others. Having received forgiveness in Christ, Christians are the first to understand how important forgiveness is between one another, even when it is less than convenient.

Ezekiel 33:7-11 – God speaks sternly to his prophet, Ezekiel, impressing upon him all that is at stake in proclaiming God’s Word to his people. The stakes are life and death and eternity, and Ezekiel is to take them that seriously. I’ve extended the assigned reading to include verses 10 and 11 because they help contextualize the apparent harshness of God’s words. Obedience is possible where God’s Word is proclaimed, where sins are pointed out, where repentance is offered and accepted, and therefore where forgiveness is given and received. Without the Word of God to accomplish these things, the only alternative is death, and God does not desire our death. God desires that the wicked would see their sin, repent, and accept his grace and forgiveness. It is not up to Ezekiel to determine who should and who should not hear that message – that message is for everyone!

Psalm 32 – We’ve already used this psalm once this liturgical year, back during the first week of Lent. But it’s a powerful psalm, so I don’t begrudge seeing it again! I’ve extended the reading from the first seven verses to the entire psalm, once again to provide proper context. It begins with the assertion that forgiveness is a blessing from God, and that to receive such a blessing we need to be brutally honest about our sinfulness. So earnest are you to bestow this blessing that when we try to hide away from you, you pressure us with your presence, with the Holy Spirit howling in our conscience. For those in Christ there can be no true peace until we have laid bare our sin – all of it – to God and received his forgiveness – all of it. When we do we discover the forgiveness of God, and wonder why we ever tried to avoid repenting! At verse 6 the psalm turns from confession to exhortation, leading the speakers and hearers to see in themselves the promised blessings of forgiveness if they will humble themselves in repentance. The psalm ends with a call for celebration and praise of the God who forgives so richly and deeply and freely. In his forgiveness alone is true peace and joy to be found!

Romans 13:1-10 – As part of the lectio continua, the Epistle lesson continues in Romans and does not blend very well with the overall theme of forgiveness found in the other readings. Certainly, it seems these days that most of us should ask for repentance for our attitudes and thoughts and words about our government and our leaders, whether elected or appointed, whether our desired candidates or not. Paul’s words in verse 7 are particularly condemning for many of us. What do we owe our government and our elected officials? Certainly our taxes. But just as certainly respect and honor. Of course we might be quick to argue that some don’t deserve our respect and honor. Yet I would argue Paul intends respect and honor for those who hold office because of the office itself, not necessarily because we personally find them personally worthy of respect and honor.

Failure to do this creates a debt, something we don’t tend to think about, and Paul insists that we should have no debt beyond the ongoing debt of love we continually owe one another. Contrary to modern definitions of love that allow (or demand) that we define what love means for ourselves, or be bound to the particular definitions of someone else, love is bound up in obedient conformity to how God has created the cosmos to function. To claim to love while denying and ignoring these directions is not love, but rather the very antithesis of it. Only in following God’s Word can we be certain that we are not doing wrong to our neighbor, even when they are certain otherwise.

Matthew 18:1-20 – First off, this is way too huge a section, covering way too many important topics, to be treated as a single pericope! But we’ll do the best we can! This chapter begins an extended and important discussion of forgiveness, and the corresponding difference between greatness as measured in the Kingdom of God as opposed to things we are used to. In heaven it is not strength that leads to greatness, but the realization of weakness as a child who is under no illusion as to receiving everything he has from his parents. Only those who can and will receive what is offered to them rather than insist on earning or offering of their own (illusory) power can enter the kingdom of heaven.

As such, deterring anyone from receiving the good gifts of God has done a terrible thing, and Jesus doesn’t mince words about just how valuable each person is to God, so that anyone who leads someone away from God has great reason to repent. Moreover, so serious and dangerous is sin, that it could lead us away from the love of God, that we would be better off lopping off body parts rather than continuing to allow them to lead us into sin. While few people think that Jesus is serious, He’s undoubtedly using striking language to convey the reality – we don’t take sin seriously enough. It isn’t that God can’t and won’t forgive our sin, but the danger lies more in the possibility of our sin leading us away from repentance and receiving the gifts of God.

Sin is serious. So is forgiveness. It is inevitable that we will sin against one another, and when that happens it is imperative that we forgive rather than harbor hatred or ill-will towards one another. Towards that end we must be honest with one another, honest enough to say when we’ve been hurt or injured by the words or actions of someone else. If reconciliation is not immediately possible, we should avail ourselves of those who know the situation and can assist in vouching for the damage done and the need for reconciliation. This means of course we need to be open as well if someone approaches us about some way that we have harmed them!

Note that nothing is said about complaining privately to other people and never approaching the offending party. Nothing is said about backstabbing or otherwise violating the Eighth Commandment. Resolution is only achieved through honesty and open communication, and resolution and reconciliation is always the goal. Reparations – if appropriate – are an entirely separate matter, and may even be foregone in order to reconcile (think 1 Corinthians 6:1-8). The kingdom of heaven values reconciliation and forgiveness above pride and vindication. This is a hard lesson for us to learn, regardless of which end of the exchange we are on!