Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Reading Ramblings – July 21, 2019

July 14, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost ~ July 21, 2019

Texts: Genesis 18:1-14; Psalm 27; Colossians 1:15-29; Luke 10:38-42

Context: Two women, separated by roughly 2000 years but perhaps little else. Both tending households. Both given the unique opportunity to serve the Son of God (I side with those who see in Old Testament accounts of a physically present God a pre-figuring of the Son of God, Jesus). Each one listening in to a conversation the Son of God is having with someone else in the household. Each one preoccupied with their duties yet hoping perhaps for something more. So many different nuances in these passages. Hospitality. Domesticity. The presence of God with his people, and the love and care of God for his people even when they are focused on other things.

Genesis 18:1-14 – The assigned reading only goes through the first half of verse 10, indicating that the intended focus is on Sarah serving, rather than the divine exchange with her regarding a promised son and clarifying the relationship between this passage and the Gospel. However the story is so classic that it seems a shame not to finish it out! Sarah is busy with her duties. Her husband sits at leisure with his guests. She does all the work, yet Abraham has the honor of being the host who presents the meal to his guests. Yet as Sarah labors behind the scenes, seemingly unnoticed, it is clear that she is not unnoticed. The Lord inquires of her. But this is hardly necessary. The Lord who created Sarah knows her better than she knows herself. And He loving passes over her dishonesty and incredulity. More important things are afoot, and Sarah is remembered thousands of years later because of them and the promise that she would bear in the birth of Isaac.

Psalm 27 – The assigned portion of this psalm is just the second half – verses 7-14. Again I believe this is done to narrow the focus but I prefer to read complete sections of Scripture rather than fragments whenever possible. These words might well have been spoken by Sarah or Martha in their hearts, but the texts are silent on the matter. Likewise the texts are effectively silent as to what prayers Sarah and Martha might have prayed and waited for answers on, though Sarah’s thoughts in Genesis 18:12 might be interpreted as evidence of many years of frustrated prayer. The emphasis in the latter half of this psalm is patience, trust not only in the Lord’s care and presence but his timing, which may not always line up with our own preferred timelines. The psalmist faces adversity in the form of enemies. If this is a psalm of David then it might refer to the rebellion of his son Absalom. But the main emphasis for the speaker is rightness with God, proper worship and contemplation of the divine more than a particular prayer for deliverance. Deliverance is presumed: the Lord is capable of delivering the psalmist from any situation, and while the psalmist prays for such deliverance from this present situation (vs. 5-6), the psalm as a whole is more an assertion of the Lord’s ongoing and eternal goodness, and the importance of right relationship with God as the foremost concern.

Colossians 1:15-29 – I’m not sure why the assigned reading skips vs. 15-20. Yes, it’s a discrete unit of thought and therefore easily removed, but if the point of lectio continua is to read portions of Scripture in whole, it makes no sense to exclude this. And in fact, what appears to be a tangential discussion of the nature of the Son of God is in fact very important in tying together the assurance of forgiveness and redemption in v. 14b with the reality of who the Colossians used to be in v.21. It is because of the eternal and divine nature of the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah, that the Colossians can rest assured of their grace and forgiveness. These are real things they can trust because of the reality and trustworthiness of God the Father himself, acting through and in God the Son. It is our faith that binds us to these promises.

But invariably the focus is drawn to vs. 24-25. What is Paul saying here? Were Christ’s sufferings somehow insufficient or inadequate? Is Paul adding to what Christ accomplished, improving upon it, extending it somehow? We must be careful with the language here. The concept of affliction is never associated with Christ’s redemptive death. Jesus dying for our sins on the cross is never described in Scripture as an affliction. But the nature of his public ministry might well be described as a long series of afflictions(Matthew 8:20, etc.). And Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that they will likewise endure many things for his name (Matthew 10:25, etc.). So Paul’s meaning here might be better translated as furthering the afflictions which Jesus suffered, just as many of the faithful over the centuries have endured terrible things for the sake of Jesus’ name. Paul’s sufferings in this respect have no bearing on salvation – they are not meritorious for the forgiveness of sins as Jesus’ afflictions and suffering and death were. But they are instructive to those who come after, just as Jesus’ personal ministry style was instructive to those who came after. All this to the end of making the Word of God fully known (v.25).

Luke 10:38-42 – The Gospel reading is the centerpiece text on any given Sunday. I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable with this, as it might mislead people somehow into thinking that it’s really just the red-letter aspects of the Bible – the things Jesus specifically said or did – that are somehow qualitatively better than the rest of Scripture. It might be said that they are oftentimes clearer, clarifying Scriptural interpretation for us, but the entire Bible is the Word of God. Yet it is true that the Old Testament points forward in various ways to the incarnation of the Son of God, and there is a logical rightness to making this incarnation the focal point.

Once again the woman in the domestic setting, providing for the needs of her honored guests. But it is not just a guest but the Son of God she serves, and as such He knows her and her concerns, perhaps a long history of sibling jealousy or small skirmishes based on personality differences. And yet clearly there is more to it than this, as Jesus declares in v.41. Martha has many things on her mind, perhaps perpetually. Yet only one of those many things is important, and only one of them sits in her house, present and tangible, teaching and sharing. Surely this is more important than a meal?

Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell Martha to quit making the food and come in and sit down. It isn’t what she’s doing that’s wrong, but rather how she’s feeling, and her desire to compel her sister to the same priorities as herself. Rather than reinforcing Martha’s request that Mary come and help her, Jesus makes it clear that He will not do this, but rather affirms Mary’s priority. Compare this to Psalm 24. David had many things on his mind as well but he knew what was most important. It is this Martha has lost sight of.

Jesus is the one needful thing. Our acts of service are demonstrations of love of God and neighbor and the world has need of them. We can’t all sit at Jesus’ feet 24/7. But even as we labor in our vocations, we can keep our eyes fixed on him, knowing that what we do ultimately is for and because of him. This should guide not just our actions but our motivations and attitudes.

Reading Ramblings – July 14, 2019

July 7, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost ~ July 14, 2019

Texts: Leviticus (18:1-5)19:9-18; Psalm 41; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

Context: How we treat one another matters. It is not simply a matter of getting along, of utilitarian best practices. Rather, it is a reflection of our relationship with our Creator, and an acknowledgment of his wisdom and holiness. We are not free to innovate. The readings reflect both the divine imperative in this matter as well as pictures of how this plays out and makes a real difference in our individual and corporate lives.

Leviticus 18:1-5, 19:9-18 – The first five verses of Chapter 18 set the context for the lengthy discourse on divinely instituted morality and ethics. This context is necessary to properly receive all that follows, including the verses assigned in Chapter 19. In these verses, as elsewhere, each directive is ended with the reminder I am the Lord. More accurately, I am YHWH, and God identifies himself by the name He gave to Moses in Exodus 3. The God who directs the Israelites in their personal and public life is the God who brought them out of slavery and saved them from the genocidal policies of the Egyptians. He is the same God who currently sustains them in the wilderness and has promised to bring them to their own land. He is the God they have pledged covenant faithfulness to, and receive their protection from. As such, these directives are not to be questioned or ignored but followed faithfully with the understanding that to do so is to walk in the way of a good life (18:5). These particular directives remind us that what we have is not exclusively ours, but is ours in a larger communal context. God does not socialize property, but makes it clear that what is given personally is not exclusively for personal use. Likewise, both our private feelings (19:17) as well as our public actions are guided by an overarching love for our neighbor as a fellow creature, a child of God. It might reasonably be argued that these edicts apply first and foremost to those who share faith in our God, it would also seem highly unreasonable to insist that they only apply to our brothers and sisters in faith.

Psalm 41 – This is a very personal and touching psalm, yet broad enough that most any of us might find these words appropriate at one point or another in our lives. The first three verses assert how the Lord blesses and protects the one who has consideration for the poor, a phrase which can only likely mean not merely an awareness or pity but an active response to specific poverty as per Leviticus 19. As such, it may be that the sin referenced in v.4 is a sin of omission or commission in this regard – failing to adequately care for the poor. Could it be a reference to Bathsheba, and David’s appropriation of another man’s wife, a man poor in comparison to the power of the King of Israel? Perhaps, but it is not necessarily the case. Verses 5-9 flesh out skillfully the impact of unfaithful friends, of those who do not practice the good will and love of neighbor highlighted in Leviticus 19. How brutal such betrayal and malice is! But verses 10-12 make it clear that despite the ill-will shown to the speaker, God has restored him and protected him from the evil intentions of others, and therefore God is rightly to be praised in the doxology (a short expression of Christian praise of God) of v.13.

Colossians 1:1-14 – Having concluded Galatians, we continue in the lectio continua tradition of Ordinary Time by starting through another of Paul’s letters, this time to the Colossians. Today’s section is comprised of the traditional first parts of a properly organized Roman letter. First there is the greeting that identifies who the letter is from and who it is directed to (vs. 1-2). Then there is a section for thanksgiving, which Paul normally uses to give thanks to God on behalf of the addressees. This is no perfunctory thanks, but a detailed and personalized section. Similar to the Thessalonians, Paul gives thanks to God for the faithfulness of the Colossians as expressed in their love of those in Christ, all of which is motivated by their identity in Christ and the glories they look forward to when they are reunited with him eternally. Paul credits Epaphras with the solid foundation of the Colossians’ faith. Paul speaks highly of Epaphras here and commends his ministry. He is mentioned again near the close of this letter and described as one of you, likely meaning he hails from Colossae and may have been part of the church there before joining Paul in his missionary work. This might explain then why Paul mentions Epaphras once more in his letter to Philemon, where Epaphras is identified as a fellow prisoner with Paul (Philemon 1:23) who sends greetings to Philemon. But Paul doesn’t simply give thanks for the Colossian Christians, he prays specifically for their continued knowledge, wisdom, and faithful living out of these gifts, and that they be strengthened towards endurance and patience and joy.

Luke 10:25-37 – Jesus applies and describes love of neighbor in terms that would be very challenging for his hearers. They likely interpreted the directives of Leviticus 19 in a narrow sense, limiting them to just their fellow Jews. But Jesus makes it clear that such an application is not appropriate. Neighbor is not defined by theological or cultural similarities, but transcends these categories. We should be quick to note that this parable is typically used to exhort us to being good neighbors. But the reality is that each of us has a limit to how much we can love and who we can love. Good intentions are no substitute for the perfect and total love we are called to by the Law of God. There is only one who perfectly fulfills love of neighbor as the moral imperative, and that is the Son of God himself, who both suffers the ill-will of his fellow-man like the man in this story, and in turn shows perfect and selfless love not just for those like him but those who sought to do him harm. It is hard to read this parable and not hear Jesus on the cross interceding for his antagonists, asking God to forgive them in their ignorant hatred.

Reading Ramblings – July 7, 2019

June 30, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost ~ July 7, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-7; Galatians 6:1-18; Luke 10:1-20

Context: We’re settling into the flow of Ordinary Time. We are working our way through Galatians and Luke, and hopefully in the meantime using the texts of this season as a way of bringing out the full counsel of God – preaching on a variety of Biblical themes as they apply to the life of the Church and individual Christians. The readings today loosely center on the issue of power and pride. Who are we to thank when things go well for us, or when adversity or evil are overcome? True pride and boasting can only rest in God, through whom we are granted victory and deliverance over and from those things that are first and foremost opposed to him, rather than us.

Isaiah 66:10-14 – Jerusalem has not had an easy go of it with Isaiah. God is displeased with his people and their rejection of his will and way in favor of their own ideas of good and evil. For this reason punishment has come and will continue to come. But if we think God has abandoned his people in his heart, we are sorely mistaken. What has been pruned will burst forth in new growth. What has been punished will shine with restored identity and relationship. God will be once again the comfort of his people, to his glory rather than theirs. What we too easily dismiss as global politics or the convoluted machinations of geo-political forces we should more rightly consider to be a realm where God works out his will and plan. While we may not have the clarity of Isaiah’s words to guide us in interpreting these things, we can nonetheless celebrate when God achieves victory over evil, when his Word is freed for proclamation and changing the hearts and lives of people. We can trust that God is never absent, only hidden, and we can seek God where He can most clearly and reliably be found – in the Son of God made flesh, hanging on the cross for you and I and raised from the dead for you and I.

Psalm 66:1-7 – This is the proper relationship of creation to Creator – the entire earth engaged in praise of the God who created her! What Isaiah speaks specifically to the people of Jerusalem will one day be true on a global scale. This will be based, like Isaiah and Jerusalem, on the acknowledged actions of God on behalf of his creation. While the Exodus is specifically referenced (v.6), we will one day be privileged (I pray!) to see how God was equally at work in many and various ways on behalf of a creation beleaguered with sin and lost in rebellion. For this reason we should beware of pride and arrogance on both the personal and national level. Perhaps this is a good reminder, so close to the Fourth of July and celebrations of American independence. We should be cautious in reaching around to pat ourselves on the back, and more rightly place our hands together in praise and thanksgiving to our God!

Galatians 6 – The assigned reading omitted vs. 11-13, but there’s really no reason to do this and it makes more sense to keep them in there. Paul is writing to a community struggling with identity. Are they first and foremost Jews who happen to follow Jesus, so that the rigors and requirements of the Jewish faith are first and foremost in their minds and Jesus perhaps an afterthought? Or are they first and foremost followers of Jesus who happen to be Jewish, so that the importance of those rigors and requirements settle into a decidedly secondary place behind the all-sufficient work of the Son of God? His hearers are struggling with the matter of pride – pride in living out scrupulously the details of their Jewish heritage to the point where these become more important than the gift of the Son of God in Jesus the Christ. This is dangerously incorrect! Rather than take pride that you are a better Jew than someone else, or rather than take pride that you are a better Christian than someone else, we ought always to view ourselves with humility and therefore our brothers and sisters with charity. Our goal ought not to be victory or boasting about ourselves, but rather helping our brother or sister in the faith. Each of us has different loads to bear, but we can help one another with those loads. An uncharitable nature is not simply unpleasant, it might be a warning sign of deeper issues with our faith. Our boasting should be in Christ alone, who alone has done what is necessary for our salvation!

Luke 10:1-20 – Jesus sends out his disciples on a mission trip. He sets the overall parameters for how they are to conduct this work (vs.1-12) and empowers them specifically to accomplish it (vs. 5-6, 9-11). It is inferred that they will not be universally accepted (vs.13-16), and that some of their opposition is demonic (v.17). It is also inferred that powerful things happen when the disciples of Jesus are received, when their peace is received.

But all these manifestations are secondary. It might be cool to command a demon to leave someone, but that’s not the true work. The true work is in hearts and minds being brought to faith in the Son of God who makes the manifestations both possible and meaningful. Without a final and authoritative victory – the victory of the Son of God in sacrificial death for creation – the smaller victories are meaningless. What good is it to cast out a demon if you don’t know the source of the power you wield? What good is temporary deliverance or healing separated from the source of eternal life?

Much more is on the line. The true agony of those who reject the Word of God, like the inhabitants of Chorazin (a town about two miles away from Capernaum, in Jesus’ home territory) and Capernaum itself is that their rejection has eternal consequences. With such stakes, how can petty pride ever really be appropriate? How can it ever be seen as something grossly inappropriate?

True pride can only be in the Lord Jesus Christ, who not only saw Satan fall like lightning but facilitated that fall. Whether this refers to the primal casting of Satan and his followers from heaven in their initial revolt, or whether this refers to Satan’s expulsion from the heavenly courtroom following Jesus’ victorious ascension, or whether this refers to Satan’s final expulsion to hell on the Last Day is difficult to ascertain and perhaps irrelevant. They are all related, all part of a single fall, as it were. The victory is accomplished only through Jesus, and only in his name is boasting ever appropriate and proper!

People of the State

June 26, 2019

Our state legislature is considering adopting an assembly concurrent resolution encouraging religious leaders to reject conversion therapy and not recommend or promote it within their circles.  ACR-99 has no binding effect – it does not create a law.  It’s simply an encouragement from both houses of the state legislature indicating the hope of the people of the state.  The governor is not required to sign an ACR, but I’m sure he will sign this one.

What I find interesting is how religious leaders are encouraged to act in the best interests of the people of the state by rejecting conversion therapy as an option for people with same-sex attraction.

I’m a citizen of the state, and yet I’m being told my best interests arbitrarily are not to be considered.  Likewise, those desiring conversion therapy in hopes of mitgating  or eliminating same-sex attraction are being told that their best interests are not considered, despite them being citizens as well.

Religious leaders do  not interact with people primarily in terms of their citizenship of a state or a country for that matter.  At least in the Biblical Christian understanding, ministers are ultimately to deal with people as children of God.  Creations and creatures being their most fundamental identity rather than the state flag on their drivers license or their voter registration cards.  And as such, how I interact with people will be driven by that level of identity understanding, not the whims of the current cultural or political climate.  It is not possible for me to adequately love people – as the ACR indicates – reliably from any other source or through any other identity.

I haven’t had to refer anyone for counseling for same-sex attraction issues.  Yet.  But I take issue with the state implying I should take my cues on how to do this from them rather than from the Word of God.

Socialism and Sin

June 24, 2019

I’m not a socialist.  Not because I don’t think that this model isn’t attractive, but because of my understanding of human nature and the issue of sin.  Contrary to the popular optimism of socialism in general and particularly current advocates for socialism in America, history is one long description of humans wracked with sin.  Some of them wealthy, some of them not.  Some with good intentions and some not.  Utopian ideas rest on the idea that we will eliminate or overcome these traits so that socialism can function properly, otherwise it is doomed to failure.

This is a fascinating and brief article on how people who do like the idea of socialism see things.  Or at least how some of them see things.  I’ll just comment briefly on some of the assumptions I see inherent in this mindset.

The article is spawned by the split between the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, and his ex-wife, Mackenzie Bezos.  Since there was no pre-nup agreement, she is now in her own right a multi-billionaire, and has pledged to give a great deal – perhaps all – of that wealth away.

The author of the article thinks that this ought to be standard operating procedure for billionaires, and that this should be achieved both through taxation as well as changed social expectations for  billionaires.

It’s interesting to me that ultimately the goal of this author isn’t simply to increase philanthropic giving by the richest people in the world, but to actually reduce their overall net worth and prevent them from maintaining or increasing their net worth.  In other words, it isn’t enough to give some of your money away – you should give it away until you’re no longer a billionaire.  Since there are only 2000 or so billionaires in the world, this seems like a manageable process, I suppose.  But it also strikes me as arbitrary.

As the author states in the fifth paragraph of  the article, the goal is not philanthropy but the elimination of wealth inequality.  Philanthropy is merely one mechanism – along with higher taxes and altered societal demands/expectations – by which to accomplish this.  But why just billionaires?  Presumably, when we have eliminated billionaires through these mechanisms, the attention will then shift to multi-millionaires.  Anyone with a net value of over $500 million perhaps.  But then when that is accomplished, the focus will shift lower, to $100 million or more.  And where after that?  What will wealth equality look like?  When everyone has a million dollars in the bank?

It may sound easy and reasonable to demand that billionaires divest themselves of their money, but how low can you go before people begin balking at the demands made of them?  Frankly, the average middle-class family in America is vastly more wealthy than a stunning percentage of the rest of the world.  When do we start forcing them to divest themselves of their wealth?

I think a better articulation of the author’s real goals would be helpful here.  What is the expectation in terms of wealth equality, and how is it sustainable over time?  What are the mathematical models that demonstrate it is both possible and sustainable?  Alas, mathematical models are not so good at accounting for human nature and sin.

Also, let’s define what the author means by giving away nearly all of their wealth.  Is $900 million acceptable?  $100 million?  $1million?

It’s interesting that this process is to be vigorously monitored.  Watchdogs are to be responsible for insisting that such a divestment of wealth is not simply undertaken, but that it is undertaken well.  And here I’m confused.  If wealth equality is the real goal, then why is the concern over ensuring that well-vetted humanitarian programs are the recipients of the monies?  What if J.K. Rowling decided to just write out checks to individual people for one million dollars (or whatever the assumed amount of wealth equality will be)?

I assume that’s unacceptable because many people wouldn’t know how to handle that sudden windfall.  There would need to be support services and mechanisms to help them.  To prevent them from falling back into an inequal wealth situation.  More watchdogging and regulation etc, etc, etc.

I also find it interesting that the author feels that there is no need to invent new philanthropic organizations or  mechanisms, and those that choose to do so are castigated for this.  Wouldn’t you think that someone capable of inventing Amazon or Facebook might be equally skilled at coming up with new ways of doing philanthropy and addressing humanitarian issues?  Again, a curious insistence on regulation rather than recognizing that someone who amasses billions of dollars might be rather good at other things as well.

None of this addresses the issue that millions of dollars are donated annually to very good causes.  Yet despite high-profiling and large amounts of money, malaria is still a very real threat to much of the world and poverty does not seem to be appreciably abated in most of the neediest places.  How is throwing additional money at these problems going to fix them to a point where wealth equality then becomes feasible?

Good intentions can be derailed by sin.  Dishonesty, greed, envy – these are deeply woven into our human natures.  Hence the need for constant vigilance in the socialist future envisioned by this author.  But such vigilance seems ultimately to be inadequate.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to improve the human condition, but simply forcing people to give up their money to other people hasn’t – historically – been very effective for very long.  Politics and economics alone are inadequate to dealing with our human situation.  Until we take seriously the theological aspects, we are doomed to continued failure.

Reading Ramblings – June 30, 2019

June 23, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday after Pentecost ~ June 30, 2019

Texts: 1 Kings 19:9b-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

Context: Followers of Christ are called to be just that – followers. Those who profess Jesus Christ as Lord also confess that they are not Lord. But the living of that reality is considerably more challenging than we might like. We expect or desire God to act in certain ways but He remains stubbornly resistant to our attempts to second guess or control him. We can either resign ourselves to the reality of having a God and a Lord, understanding our proper place and role, or we can spend our lives in attempts to either deny him or usurp him.

1 Kings 19:9b-21 – God’s question is superfluous. God already has the answer, as God himself brought Elijah to this cave at Mt. Horeb, where God revealed his covenant to Israel hundreds of years earlier. But does Elijah know the answer? At the place where God gave his people the covenant, Elijah complains before God that God’s people have abandoned that covenant. Elijah is certain that he is the last of the faithful ones, despite the fact that not long beforehand, there were many Israelites who responded to Elijah’s call to seize the prophets of Baal so that he might execute them. Now God comes to Elijah, testing whether Elijah himself is able to discern the Lord’s presence as he claims. Elijah recognizes the Lord not in power and majesty and might, but in the unlikely low whisper. Likewise, Elijah is led to understand that while the Lord’s power may not be evident, He is still at work in some of his people. Elijah is not the last or the only one, nor even the greatest of God’s people, necessarily. What Elijah has not accomplished, God will accomplish through others that Elijah is only the messenger for. Elijah obeys God in humility, knowing that the purpose and plan of God must naturally be much greater than Elijah’s own desires for personal vindication or glory.

Psalm 16 – We read this one barely two months ago! Not that the psalm is bad, but again, with 150 to choose from, I’d like to think that we wouldn’t be repeating psalms within a given 52-week period! Not that it’s a bad psalm, mind you. Verses one and two are critical. God is not one of many options, He is the only option. One is reminded of Peter’s response to Jesus recorded in John 6:68 – Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Those who refuse to acknowledge this will eventually suffer the consequences (v.4). Only in God can we have true blessing and hope, can we find true wisdom, and can we hope for something beyond the grave. The blessings of God are not simply psychological well-being in this life, but literally eternal blessings. What appears to many as foolishness or wishful thinking is actually the only source of real, true, eternal joy.

Galatians 5:1, 13-25 – What is freedom? Is freedom simply the ability to do whatever I want? If we are free, isn’t it contradictory to heed a call to stand firm, a command not to submit to a yoke of slavery. What if I want that slavery? Doesn’t my freedom allow me to do so? No. Because our freedom does not consist in the exercising of our will or desire, but in conforming our will and desire to our Lord, to the one who has bought us with his blood (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). This is because we acknowledge that our will and desire is flawed and incapable of leading us to freedom on its own. Freedom consists oddly enough in being slaves, something Paul brings home in v. 25. He provides a good overview of what our lives should be like and what they should not be like in vs. 13-24. But the rationale for valuing one set of things over the others is given at the last, v.25. In other words, we are not choosing Christ because of a superior set of moral imperatives – though to be sure they are just that! – or because his way of living lines up better with our own. Rather, we are chosen in Christ. Christ does not belong to us, as though we have acquired him. Rather, we belong to Christ, as He has acquired us through his sacrificial death and by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God bringing us to faith that Jesus really is the Son of God and therefore really does command our lives. Once again, God doesn’t act as we expect, allowing us to find and choose him. Rather He finds and chooses us, then empowers us to live lives that truly set us free from our slavery to our sinfulness and brokenness.

Luke 9:51-62 – Faith would be simpler if the effects of receiving it were so obvious. Reject Jesus? Boom! Instant fire from heaven! Yet this isn’t how Jesus works. He not only does not affirm their desire, He rebukes them for even considering it! A strong word used frequently in the New Testament to indicate a strong rebuttal and rejection of what was just said or done. Of course you aren’t going to call down fire from heaven! What in the world could you possibly be thinking?! Pride. The desire for acclaim or respect, there are all sorts of motivations we can confuse with the will of God. We want God to act in ways that make us look good. If God doesn’t vindicate us, completely eliminate our enemies, it’s easy for us to mistake that for a failure either on our part or God’s part – like Elijah facing Jezebel’s wrath or the disciples irritated with the Samaritans (who they were inclined to dislike anyways) – and despair. And we are more prone to getting wrapped up in our issues so that the call to obedience can seem faint and weak. Every bit as faint and weak as our good intentions – or our alleged good intentions. I’ll follow you anywhere! Oh really? This isn’t a campaign for earthly glory or gain – you may want to reevaluate your conviction. Let me first go and bury my father. Oh really? Are you sure you’re not just using an excuse to put off obedience to your Lord? Let me go and finish my family obligations, Lord. Oh really? Be careful what you claim to commit to. It’s easy to talk big with no follow-through.

Having a Lord is something we fundamentally as American Christians don’t understand. We have no other point of comparison in our lives. We easily mistake complacency for obedience, comfort for dedication. We presume that God is not calling us to certain things that are socially unacceptable or personally distasteful, while being quick to deny the grace and love of God exists for those that we find socially unacceptable or personally distasteful. We’re quick to claim grace and forgiveness for ourselves but deny them to those we disagree with or deem undeserving.

Fortunately, our God is gracious and merciful to us even in the midst of our sinful attempts – consciously or unconsciously – to control him. Lord, forgive us our errors, and continue to illuminate them so we might conspire with your Holy Spirit to abandon them. Amen.

Reading Ramblings – June 23, 2019

June 16, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 23, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 3; Galatians 3:23-4:7; Luke 8:26-39

Context: After the excitement of Pentecost and Holy Trinity Sunday, we settle into the steady rhythm of the longest of the liturgical seasons – Ordinary Time. With the exception of the observance of Reformation Sunday (a Lutheran thing) on the last Sunday of October, and All Saints Day on the first Sunday of November, Ordinary Time will carry us all the way through to the end of November, and the start of the new church calendar year with Advent. Observances tied to the life of Christ give way to Gospel lessons centered largely in his teachings. The readings today all have themes of judgment, whether against God’s false people or against demons. We remember at all times that judgment is coming, and while we don’t need to fear this in Christ, we should never lose sight of the reality.

Isaiah 65:1-9 – It is easy for God’s people to get the wrong impression of themselves, to think that they are inherently good and obedient and it is for this reason that they go to church and claim Jesus as their Lord. The reality is that we are not basically good people, but basically sinful and rebellious in thought, word, and deed. This remains true for God’s people, though we should in daily repentance be constantly waging war against this sin. But equally possible is for the follower of Christ to make peace with their sin, to engage in it eagerly and without guilt and fear. This state of affairs is dangerous, both to them individually and to the church that may be influenced by them. The danger of sin is not that we cannot or will not be forgiven, but rather that we might one day prefer our sin to repentance, and ultimately reject the grace of God as unnecessary. These words at the end of Isaiah are aimed at God’s people, not those beyond his Word, and his Church today needs to hear these words and remember that we are just as capable of becoming just as lost.

Psalm 3 – Danger lurks not just within our own hearts and in church buildings but also beyond us. This psalm reads as a prayer for help against external enemies, and we might naturally assume that these are not followers of God. But verse two is interesting, and perhaps hints that it is followers of God that are also arrayed against the psalmist, convinced that either his sinfulness excludes him from the salvation of God, or that God has abandoned him and will not rescue him in his time of need. Both are dangerous assumptions to make about anyone who calls on the name of the Lord! The language shifts from present tense (vs.1-3) to past tense (vs. 4-6) and back to present tense (vs. 7-8). This may indicate that a present prayer for help is lifted in light of previously answered prayers for help. As God has preserved and helped in the past, so the psalmist reasonably expects him to again. He can therefore wait for God’s deliverance in confidence, concluding with a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord.

Galatians 3:23-4:7 – In light of readings having to do with judgment it is only reasonable that the Christian would want to know what their relationship to the Law is. Followers of Christ still sin, so how is it that the Law no longer condemns? How is it we can have hope? First and foremost we have hope for forgiveness (faith, mentioned in v.23). But this forgiveness is not merely the tit-for-tat exchange of righteousness on an piecemeal basis for individual sins. Rather, this forgiveness actually changes our entire relationship to the Law, removing us from the punitive and damning power of the Law through Jesus Christ. Christ is what has accomplished this, not through the abolition of the Law but through complete obedience to and fulfillment of the Law, which He conveys to you and I through faith. The Law remains, but we are declared holy and perfect and righteous – not on our own merits but on the merits of Christ alone. The distinctions we create between ourselves have no bearing on our salvation. Prior to Jesus the Law kept us in check and preserved us from the unrestrained evil that otherwise would have flowed from us. But Christ has now freed us, so that we are not restrained by the Law any longer. This doesn’t mean we break the Law, but rather that our natures are no longer in exclusive opposition to it. We are free now to obey the Law, to recognize it as the good gift of God that it really is. In Christ we reach our maturity, as it were, freed from forced obedience to the rules of the household, coming into our identity as heirs in the household who see the rules not as evil restrictions but the good sense of the head of the household, God the Father. When this occurs we are truly part of the family, because we are at one with the family rather than in opposition to it.

Luke 8:26-39 – This story is fascinating on so many levels. Of course the story of the demon-possessed man elicits our awe and sympathy. But also the fact that this story does not take place in Jewish territory but rather the Hellenized area on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. Note the demons’ response to Jesus’ presence. They know who Jesus is, prompting the man’s voice to identify Jesus accurately. The demons are also afraid. They recognize in Jesus the one who has the authority to command their eternal departure into the abyss, to Hell. They recognize in Jesus’ presence on earth the reality of judgment and condemnation. But this is not yet the time for that. And while it is easy for us to think that Jesus should just go ahead and deport these demons back forever to the depths of Hell, such is not the time. They are granted leniency, though some theologians think that Jesus tricks the demons by allowing them to flee to the pigs, knowing that the pigs will drown themselves and the demons will then be trapped and unable to flee. The response of the townspeople is also telling. They can see the change in the demoniac. They also see the cost. An entire herd of pigs destroyed so that one man might be free. I’m fairly certain most churches these days would see this as an irresponsible use of the gifts of God! How easy it is to put a price on the Gospel, calculating ROI and measuring out pennies grudgingly. How extravagant (and limitless!) is the generosity of God and his resources. While there is nothing wrong with being good stewards of what God has given us, we need to always remember what He has given us things for – not simply our own enjoyment or preferences, but that we might be obedient to his commands to love Him and love our neighbors. While economics are a necessity of human life, we perhaps should strive to expect God’s generosity to flow more freely as his Word is proclaimed, breaking the chains of sin and Satan and setting people free to life in Christ.

Finally, note the conclusion. The man wishes to become a disciple of Jesus and to go with him and his existing disciples. Undoubtedly this would have complicated things as the man is very likely not Jewish, and would not be accepted in Judea and Galilee. But aside from this, the man has another duty that Jesus wishes him to fulfill. Go home. Continue to be a witness to the power of God in Jesus of Nazareth. First of all in the fact that he is returned to his senses, freed from his demons. Secondly in the sharing and telling of what God has done for him. This two-fold witness to a town undoubtedly with very few Jewish people might be the first explicit evangelism outside of the people of God, and undoubtedly planted seeds that could grow and thrive when the news of the resurrection reached these people.

Reading Ramblings – June 16, 2019

June 9, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Holy Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019

Texts: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Acts 2:14a, 22-36; John 8:48-59

Context: Confusion about the nature of the Trinity has likely always existed, though it rose to dangerous heights in the early centuries of the Church. Seeking to make Christianity more compatible with Greek philosophy and logic, Arius of Alexandria preached that the Son of God was the first creation of God the Father, not truly, equally divine with the Father. After all, this made much more sense than the notion that one God could exist in three distinct, co-equal persons. The Church rightly refuted his ignoring of Scripture (John 10:30), and sought to more clearly articulate what could and could not be said about the Triune God as described in Old Testament Scriptures, the recorded teachings of Jesus, and the writings of the Apostles now constituting the New Testament. It remains a slippery topic. Holy Trinity Sunday evolved over many centuries, finally officially instituted in the 13th century under Pope John XXII, and elevated to higher office in the Roman Catholic calendar in 1911 by Pope Pius X.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 – This text was formative to Arius’ position that Jesus is synonymous with wisdom here, and that these verses therefore teach that the Son of God is the first creation of God the Father, prior to all other creation. However these verses in the larger context of Proverbs set forth one of the two main female metaphors in the book, Lady Wisdom, who is to be sought out by the young man (1:8) as opposed to her alternative, the adulteress woman who appears in many chapters, enticing people to sin and ultimately to death. Lady Wisdom calls from the gates of the town, in full witness of all citizens, with nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of, and offers her wisdom to any and all. Wisdom is one of the many aspects or attributes of God. Wisdom cannot be thought of separately from God, as He is the source and definition of all things and all attributes. As such, in the act of creating, wisdom is bound up and into creation. Those who abide by the wisdom of God woven into us and everything around us are in better harmony with our Creator. God’s wisdom cannot be separated out from creation, as though it were one option of many.

Psalm 8 – A psalm of praise of God the Father in his role as creator, a common theme in the psalms and throughout Scripture. Who is God? God is the one who created heaven and earth. While God is to be praised for his many acts of mercy and grace throughout creation history, it is creation itself that is the beginning point for our worship of him and our experience of him. It is unique in all the Biblical songs of praise, in that it from beginning to end is directly and exclusively addressed directly to God. While verse 2 is problematic for interpretation, the sense of it points to God’s exclusive creative role, placing him above any possible foe or opponent, and therefore making hope and faith in him consistent. Eventually this psalm becomes interpreted as referring to Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God who receives glory and dominion because of his obedience to the Father. God the Father has created, has developed his plan of salvation which God the Son is obedient to by the power of God the Holy Spirit. The Son’s obedience to death has earned him the glory of dominion now given him by the Creator of all things.

Acts 2:14a, 22-36 -The second half of Peter’s Pentecost speech turns from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to the identity and role of the Son of God Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth. Peter preaches the resurrection of Jesus as the proof and evidence of his claims to divinity and equality with God the Father. Peter alludes in passing to the compelling demonstrations of power associated with Jesus (v.22), but no mention of any of Jesus’ particular teachings. It is not simply the teaching of Jesus that is compelling, as though faith is ultimately wrought by his moral admonitions or ethical exhortations. Rather, faith is placed ultimately in his death and resurrection. The two must go together, and the latter must predominate. It is easy to die. Rising from the dead is considerably harder! So if God the Father has raised Jesus from the dead, it is a vindication of everything He said and did, and we are right to put our faith and trust in him. By the power of the Holy Spirit, faith moves back from the resurrection backwards to what Jesus preached and did. Resurrection is the conviction of those who put him to death, that they were wrong, dead wrong, and Jesus was right.

John 8:48-59 – In order to pick up the intended direction of Jesus’ rebuttals, it’s important to read the middle section of Chapter 8. In verse 33 the Jewish leaders attempt to refute Jesus’ assertion that they are in need of being set free through reference to Abraham. They are not stupid and are not simply ignoring hundreds of years of history in which God’s people have been slaves – to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians, to the Persians, to the Greeks, and now to the Romans. Rather, they mean they are free from the blindness of the world because of the promise and word of God revealed first to Abraham and later to his descendants. Jesus continues to use their mention of Abraham in vs. 33ff as he contrasts the Jewish leaders plotting to kill Jesus with Abraham who actually listened when God spoke to him. The implication is that because Jesus is speaking the word of God, they should listen to him instead of plotting against him.

Their defense where our reading picks up today is that of course they should not be listening to Jesus. Jesus is not speaking the Word of God, but rather speaks the lies and half-truths of a demon or one like a Samaritan who does not follow the fullness of the Law or worship God properly in the Temple. Now the Jewish leaders take up Abraham again. Jesus claims that those who listen to him won’t die! Yet Abraham listened to God – as Jesus reminded them in v. 40. Abraham is certainly dead, however! Dead and dust by now! Other examples of God’s faithful who died abound. Consider the prophets – they died as well, as do all people. Surely Jesus can’t be claiming to be greater than Abraham and the prophets of God! But what Jesus is doing is asserting that while Abraham and the prophets died, they are not dead. They are dead to us, but not to God. So it is that when Moses asks God to identify himself in Exodus 3, God responds that He is the God of Moses’ forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. God does not say I was the God of your forefathers, but asserts that He is the God of the forefathers. The relationship is current and active. He is, as He speaks to Moses, still the God of these people because while they are dead to Moses, they are not dead to God. Jesus utilizes this concept in a different context, recorded in Matthew 22 and concerning the resurrection of the dead.

But Jesus advances the thought further. The relationship is not simply between God the Father and Abraham. Jesus has a relationship with Abraham as well, one in which Abraham is alive and capable of rejoicing and observing/seeing. Perhaps this means that Abraham is alive to see the Son of God Incarnate, carrying out the work of redemption that will lead to the undoing of sin, death, and the power of Satan. How can this be possible? Jesus young! No, Jesus isn’t. He’s much older than that. In fact, He predates Abraham. And his words, I am at the end of v.58 are the words used by God to Moses in Exodus 3, the holy name of God. Jesus here claims to be one with the Father, one with the God of the Old Testament. He claims no less than co-existence and co-equality with the God of the Old Testament, an offense punishable by death, and v.59 demonstrates that the Jewish leadership understood very well the claim that Jesus was making.

It is not possible to treat Jesus as a misunderstood moral leader. He claims to be God, and this is not the sort of claim ethical teachers make, because it would make them liars. Unless Jesus actually is divine, in which case He isn’t lying, He’s far more than one of many moral models, and we would be wise to put our faith and trust in him as the source of our forgiveness and reconciliation with God!

Book Review: Peculiar Speech

June 6, 2019

Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized by William H. Willimon

 

This was another suggested text for the preaching workshop I attended in Chicago this week.

(As an aside, if you preach regularly to the people of God, consider checking out this resource – Craft of Preaching.  They sponsored the event, but also provide some good theological resources for those called to proclaim God’s Word.)

This is a fantastic book.  Willimon’s style is enjoyable.  He’s a deeply intelligent man able to convey his ideas in understandable ways without sounding condescending.  He has some fantastic things to think about if you preach to the people of God, not the least of which is to remember that you are preaching to the baptized, to people who are ostensibly the people of God.

My one complaint is that – particularly towards the end of the book – Willimon drifts increasingly into ideas of the Church as adversarial to the powers and structures of the world.  Of course this is true.  But choosing to be adversarial rather than simply preaching the love of God the Father in God the Son Jesus Christ through the power of God the Holy Spirit can be problematic. Yes, the Church must never allow itself to be coopted by the powers of this world (something the Church is very poor  at), but we must also as the Church proclaim the truth and reality of Romans 13.  The Gospel is subversive by its very nature, but if we begin to glory in that adversarial quality, we risk sins of pride and disobedience.  It is truly a difficult line to walk sometimes, particularly in times where the expectation of defiant and inflammatory rhetoric tempts us to grandstand.

Otherwise, there is a lot of good food for thought here if you preach on a regular basis!

Book Review – Justification is for Preaching

June 5, 2019

Justification is for Preaching, Edited by Virgil Thompson

I recently attended a preaching workshop in Chicago.  It was a great workshop, but like most workshops, if there’s a reading list, the workshop is more or less a rehash of prominent ideas from the reading list.  This workshop was no exception, which is both good and bad.

This was one of the suggested texts, a collection of essays in a jubilee volume celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Lutheran Quarterly.   As with many such collections, the essays vary greatly in tone and helpfulness, ranging from the very esoteric and academic to wonderfully applicable theological nuggets.  If you’re a fan of Oswald Bayer or Gerhard O. Forde, they figure prominently and repeatedly in this collection.

I very much appreciaged Forde’s essay Forensic Justification and the Christian Life.  There he grapples with one of the challenges in Lutheran theology – how to describe the Christian life in such a way that it does not either render the Law toothless and optional, or contradict a very Biblical theme of God doing all of the real work of creation, redemption and sanctification.  He picks up on St. Paul’s language of saint and sinner for this.  Typically, we emphasize that we are born anew in Christ through faith and baptism and maintain a sort of dual identity  of saint and sinner throughout our lives, with the sinner gradually, more and more weakening as the saint in us grows.  We are typically exhorted heavily towards this end, or we tend to de-emphasize it in order to better highlight the work of Jesus in our justification and redemption.  Forde does a good job of offering a third alternative where the in-breaking kingdom of God within me expands over time within me, so that the sinner in me is eventually completely squeezed out (at death or our Lord’s return).  The emphasis is the ongoing grace of God the Holy Spirit at work in me, rather than my bulging faith-muscles.  Very helpful.

Also of interest was Forde’s article Preaching the Sacraments, where he discusses the connection between preaching and the sacraments (defined as confession, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper in Lutheran circles) and the importance that preaching not undercut the Sacraments.

If you like theology, and particularly if you are called to a vocation of preaching (or perhaps if it is your vocation to listen to sermons!) this is a helpful book.