Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Reading Ramblings – January 31, 2021

January 24, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Law and Religious Freedom

January 18, 2021

Religious freedom is a complicated thing. Efforts in the United States to redefine the First Amendment unofficially to mean freedom of worship instead of freedom of religion understand this. The practice of one’s faith intersects with many different aspects of larger culture and society, not always in ways either convenient or appreciated by the larger culture that doesn’t share the particular religious beliefs of the adherent.

As such, the temptation to pass laws ostensibly for one reason even when they directly impact religious freedom is ever present. And certainly as a society becomes less religious as a whole, such efforts are likely to increase both in frequency and scope, effectively limiting or curtailing religious freedom without officially declaring aspects of a religion unacceptable.

So it is that in Europe, laws restricting Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter methods have been passed – initially in Belgium last year and now upheld against legal challenges this year. Advocates maintain such restrictions are for the benefit of animals, ensuring they are slaughtered humanely. However ironically, advocates make no attempts to demand changes to how animals are raised and spend their lives, oftentimes in cramped, unsanitary and squalid environments. Critics of these laws interpret them as mainly efforts to eliminate religious practices of Jews and Muslims in Europe, and have little to do with whether kosher or halal slaughter rituals are actually inhumane or cause more stress or pain to animals than modern slaughter techniques.

Opponents to the legislation argue that ritual slaughter techniques are not necessarily less humane, and further protect animals not just at their moment of death but in their lives as well.

Specifically, the Belgian law requires animals to be stunned before being slaughtered, while both Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter requires the animal be fully conscious. Both religious traditions argue that done properly, their ritual slaughter techniques cause no stress or pain to the animal, while modern techniques of stunning can introduce great trauma and pain, briefly normally but for longer timeframes when done improperly. Critics also note the Nazi’s banned kosher slaughter in 1933.

Neither the Nazi law or the current law was religious in nature. The laws simply insisted that humane treatment of animals was the main issue. But without demonstrable research that ritual methodologies are unduly inhumane, that argument seems weak at best. Both Jewish and Muslim scholars insist that care for animals is of paramount importance to their traditions as well.

Such legislation is worth noting as similar techniques abridging religious practice are being rolled out in the US as well, such as efforts to eradicate long-standing religious practices and protections. Again, the legislation is not presented primarily as religious in nature, but rather claims to achieve ends that almost everyone would agree are good, while destroying freedom of religious practice – at least one aspect of it – in the process.

Losing rights and privileges can happen abruptly and brutally. But it can also happen slowly and piecemeal and under the guise of accomplishing important and good things.

Reading Ramblings – January 24, 2021

January 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuing the Squeeze

January 16, 2021

Political pressure to redefine what freedom of religion and the First Amendment mean in our country continues. Those who feel this can be easily defined and resisted in terms of political parties would do well to be more observant.

In North Dakota this week a bi-partisan bill was introduced which would eliminate protection for clergy regarding Confession, ostensibly, though the wording of the bill itself is disturbingly less specific. Senate Bill No. 2180 removes a clause exempting members of the clergy from mandatory reporter requirements regarding suspected child abuse or endangerment.

Traditionally our country as part of freedom of religion has respected particularly those sacramental aspects of religious practice. A long-standing aspect of Roman Catholicism as well as several other mainline Protestant denominations centers on the confession of sins and the declaration of absolution by a duly installed minister or priest, with or without penitential requirements. Those who are baptized followers of Jesus Christ are either required or encouraged to confess their sins privately and specifically to a priest or pastor, who may require the confessor to perform a penitential act, such as recitation of prayers or the rosary, as part of absolution – the wiping away of in the eyes of God of sin(s). Confession is Biblical (James 5:16, John 20:19-23), and the Church has long stood by the practice that whatever is shared in confession is private, exempt from reporting or other recriminations beyond the penance potentially imposed by the priest. The idea being that the forgiveness of God is separate from (and superior to) whatever other forms of justice we may rely on here. The Church should not be seen as part of a temporal system of power or justice but rather unique, an outpost of the Kingdom of Christ. A priest might encourage a parishioner to present themselves to the authorities, but the priest should not do so themselves, either of their own volition or under the compulsion of the law, else people refrain from being open and honest in their confession.

California attempted a similar measure last year ago that failed. The impetus in both situations was the alleged protection of children, the idea being that priests who might have been guilty of pedophilia and child abuse might have confessed their sins and received absolution, and had those confessions been subject to mandatory reporting laws (a relatively recent legal innovation) the abusers might have been stopped earlier. It sounds like a reasonable rationale, although I’m not aware of evidence indicating mandatory reporting would have been of much use – meaning nobody has proven that abusers were confessing their abuse.

As I noted a year ago, confession is a core element of historic Christian practice. A priest/pastor and parishioner might engage in any number of different conversations, any of which could lead to a guilty party turning themselves into authorities. Eliminating the protection of confidentiality from the practice of confession and absolution is a stark intrusion into the practice of the Christian religion. Under the assumed benefit of protecting children, Christian life and practice is severely disrupted. The fact that such a disruption would likely go unnoticed by the vast majority of confessing Christians is not the issue. Rather the basic issue is whether freedom of religion is maintained, or whether continuing political pressure to modify it and make it more compatible with contemporary (and transient) cultural preferences is advanced.

Tragically, I assume it will only be a matter of time before the protections of the confessional are stripped away. This will not be to the benefit of our society or culture as a whole, but rather another step (and hardly the last) in the denigration and eventual dismantling of religious freedom in our country.

Contemplating Failure

January 13, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Freedom of a Christian

January 11, 2021

The Freedom of a Christian by Martin Luther, translated and edited by Adam Francisco

I was sent this copy of Luther’s work as an end of the year thank you from 1517.org, as I’ve purchased some of their materials and attended some of their conferences in the past.

This is a short read – Luther’s actual piece is only 36 pages. There’s a short introduction and then another short essay by the Executive Director of 1517 and another short essay by Adam Francisco. Luther’s piece is beautiful and very illustrative of the difference between what makes us holy (the blood of Christ) and what makes us better (doing things for those around us out of love and gratitude for what God has given us in Christ). Are Christians commanded to do good works? Of course. But that command is intended to make us better, not to save us. The command is there to reinforce good decisions and actions in our lives that directly benefit those around us rather than as some form of repayment to God for his gift of forgiveness.

Luther’s language (and this translation) is very easy to understand and he provides some good, practical examples of how and why this understanding of good works and the Law is correct. He is not as vitriolic as he is in some of his other writings. Then again, this was authored in 1520, at the beginning of Luther’s career, just a scant three years after his (in)famous public posting of his 95 Theses. This is a good read for every Christian – whether you’re a Lutheran or not. It answers fundamental questions about the Christian life in simple language.

The additional essays are superfluous, basically repeating Luther’s main points. But they fill the book out a little bit and better justify the purchase. A great work, a great translation, and good devotional material throughout a Christian’s life!

Reading Ramblings – January 17, 2021

January 10, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Ramblings – January 10, 2021

January 3, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Ramblings – January 3, 2021

December 27, 2020

Date: Second Sunday after Christmas – January 3, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Steps of Transformation

December 21, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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