Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Reading Ramblings – April 5, 2020

March 29, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 118:19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; John 12:12-19

Context: Normally I prefer the longer reading for Palm Sunday, that takes us all the way from the night before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem all the way through the crucifixion. But this year seems like we ought to do something different. In the year of COVID-19 and shelter-in-place and social distancing, perhaps the shorter reading just of the triumphal entry that John provides will work. A different approach, but then this day has been observed in a variety of ways based on different times and places so it’s hardly inappropriate. Jesus enters Jerusalem not for the first time but the last time, fulfilling prophecy and signaling He is about to accomplish what He was sent ultimately to do – to offer himself as a sacrifice. It’s a day full of promise, a day we ought to relish for what it is without rushing too far ahead to what is coming. The King is entering his city! Acknowledged by his people! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Isaiah 50:4-9a – These verses look ahead to the full scope of Holy Week, but they are also appropriate here and now. Jesus allows himself to be carried by the praise of the crowd into Jerusalem. Allows prophecy to be fulfilled. Allows himself to be who and what He has come for. He remains perfectly obedient. Not passive, but actively obedient to the words poured into his ear by God the Holy Spirit. Knowing what lies ahead, how the shouts of joy will be replaced with demands for his death. But through all of this, He trusts in his heavenly Father’s will and plan which will include his vindication. His enemies will be defeated not by his divine power but through divine love. A defeat which has the power to transform them in that defeat from enemies to sons and daughters. God is not satisfied with simply defeating his enemies, but rather in converting them, saving them from the death and defeat that is the rightful fate of our one true enemy, Satan.

Psalm 118:19-29 – This psalm is a beautiful responsive psalm of praise to God who delivers his people. It can be divided into two major sections – vs. 1-18 and vs. 19-29, with calls to worship and praise both starting and ending the psalm. The psalm specifically deals with he who comes in the name of the Lord (v.26). It is this person who rightly speaks in this psalm and to whom the people of God ascribe praise and blessing. The irony is that the one who comes in the name of the Lord is also a sacrifice to God (v.27). Yet this one can proclaim that he shall not die but live (v.17). He is the righteous one who can enter the gates of righteousness (vs.19-20) and proclaim the salvation of the Lord (v.21) despite he himself being despised and rejected (v.22). Only the Lord God could choose to work his salvation in such an unlikely way, and for that He alone deserves all glory and honor (vs.23-24). The congregation responds in blessing upon the one sent in the name of the Lord (vs.26-27) who is the answer to their prayer for deliverance (v.25). He is the embodiment God’s steadfast and faithful love (v.29). Definitely words appropriate to Jesus on Palm Sunday, and definitely words of blessing and praise appropriate to we his people by faith, who He has saved and delivered!

Philippians 2:5-11 – All this praise and glory might go to your head. It would mine, and I doubt there are many people who could resist the temptation to lord their supremity over others, or flaunt their blessedness in the face of those despising and persecuting them. Yet even here Jesus is obedient, refusing to indulge in the temptation of vanity or self-glory or pride. The very Son of God who refuses to use this identity as a means of glorifying himself, when his duty is to glorify his heavenly Father. He didn’t simply avoid self-glory He obediently emptied himself and became the most base and lowly of us. He stooped to do things – like washing his disciples’ feet – nobody else would consider appropriate for themselves, let alone the Messiah! And He was obedient to being branded a criminal and executed as such, publicly humiliated and shamed and seemingly thoroughly discredited. Even then, He trusted in his heavenly Father as the source of his vindication rather than seeking to vindicate himself. These are all wonderful things to recite and proclaim about the Son of God, and ignore Paul’s admonition at the beginning – we are to seek to be just this humble, just this desirous not of personal glory and gain but only of obedience to God that He might receive the glory!

John 12:12-19 – Lazarus has been raised from the dead but Jesus withdraws from Bethany to a nearby town to avoid the Jewish authorities plotting to kill him (John 11:54). Ephraim was not far from Bethany, apparently, and so as the Passover grew closer, Jesus returned to Bethany and the house of Mary and Martha and Lazarus and is the guest of honor of a dinner there, probably on Saturday night after the Sabbath ended at sundown. It is the next day, Sunday, when Jesus begins his final entry to Jerusalem. However he was not alone! There were many people at the dinner party the night before, a celebration of Jesus and what He had done so recently for that small family. These people had returned to Jerusalem that night after the dinner. Now they hear Jesus is on his way and they go out to meet him. The words of Psalm 118 seem very appropriate for a man who can raise the dead. While they may not understand him fully as Messiah or the divine Son of God, they can affirm that He is someone who obviously comes in the name of the Lord, else how could He perform such an amazing miracle? They acclaim him King of Israel, which further indicates their faith that He is a holy man at the very least, and perhaps much more than that – the promised Messiah and son of David who would be king. His manner of arrival would further contribute to this idea, so that John draws the connection with Zechariah’s prophecy in chapter 9. John further admits the disciples – himself included – didn’t understand the full significance of these events until after the resurrection. Until after the Holy Spirit had enlightened them and opened their eyes to the Scriptures as Jesus had promised them (John 13, 16; Luke 24).

We see in this scene excitement to be sure, but we should be cautious in seeing here full faith in Jesus as the Son of God and promised Messiah. But that faith was growing in the crowd, particularly given the witness of Lazarus being raised from the dead. Faith and joy and trust are the only reasonable responses to seeing the clear work of God. The work of the Pharisees to compromise or discredit Jesus has failed. The power of God is stronger than their plans, and their misunderstandings and misperceptions cannot and will not stop the truth of God from playing out. It is not our faith and understanding that determine what God can and cannot do. God does what He will, and we are called in faith to recognize it for what it is and respond in the appropriate obedience and praise.

Is the State Closing Churches?

March 26, 2020

As I was scanning through news articles today I found two blog posts by a pastor in Mississippi.  Both strongly oppose the notion that the State can cancel worship services for any reason.  Both are defiant in insisting that churches not only should and can but must remain open and providing worship services to their people.

The first post is here, dated March 16.  He insists the Church is not subject in any respect to the State.  I would first be interested in whether his church is filed with the State of Mississippi as a non-profit organization in order to receive tax benefits for himself and for his members.  If  his church is, he has acknowledged a special relationship and subjection of his church to the State.  He might want to argue this is voluntary, but it at the very least would be a glaring contradiction of what he states in this blog entry.

I also find it interesting he nowhere mentions Romans 13 in terms of the relationship of Church and State.  He might find this irrelevant, arguing Romans 13 applies to individuals rather than a corporate congregation.  But a congregation is nothing more than the assembling of individual Christians, so the point seems to be a very fine one at best.

Finally, has the State of Mississippi actually ordered churches not to hold worship services?  Here in California the language of our Governor’s Executive Order of a week ago was very vague. The implication is clear – people should not be gathering for any reason.  But he specifically does not mention religious groups.  Nor does the Department of Public Health document he refers to in the Executive Order.  By implication Christians are to stay home and not gather for worship.  But I’m sure legal counsel would say explicitly banning religious gatherings would be a nightmare, opening the governor and the state to all sorts of legal challenges.  While larger congregations that continue to gather are facing public backlash and social shaming, I haven’t seen accounts yet of them being faced with criminal charges.

The second post, dated March 20th, is here.  Again, although he makes exceptions for personal conscience it’s clear he sees suspending worship services as a violation of God’s commands.  The difficulty  is in finding said command.  Hebrews 10:19-25 is perhaps the closest the New Testament gets to a command concerning worship.  Of course the understanding of God’s people is that corporate worship is part of the life of faith, and Christians received this from the Jews and continued it – and rightly so.  But there is a legalistic tone here I find difficult to resonate with.

He asks at one point  if we want to be the first generation in 2000 years to cancel all the worship services?

First, what he’s specifically addressing is American Christian congregations, in which case our timeline is considerably shorter – only the past 250 years or so.  Even if every congregation in America refused to allow members to gather (something I doubt is actually happening), worship would be continuing in other places in the world where the outbreak is not as advanced as yet.  Secondly, there have been other situations where Christians have voluntarily opted not to meet for worship, such as the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918.  For  short periods of time in particular places in our country and around the world, the people of God have opted not to gather for corporate worship.

I understand his concerns and I share them.  Under the guise of civil law or the good of society governments in the past have curtailed religious freedoms and instituted religious persecutions.  This is a very real thing and a very real concern, and the Church must always be on the guard against any such infringements.  And if restrictions on gatherings continue in place for a prolonged period of time the people of God will need to determine, on a congregation by congregation basis, whether or not to allow corporate worship with some appropriate guidelines and safeguards in place.  After all, people are still out and about for shopping.  So long as social distancing is observed and reasonable care given to cleaning and disinfecting, there is no reason why people couldn’t gather at least in smaller groups to worship together.  A mega-church might have difficulties offering enough services for thousands of people to gather in smaller numbers, but it could reasonably be done.  The vast majority of American congregations are a few hundred members or smaller, and therefore scaled-down worshiping cohorts wouldn’t be too difficult to accommodate.

It might also be instructive to remember that God’s Old Testament people were unable to properly worship for 50-some years when they were exiled in Babylon.  They found other ways to gather, but they understood it to be not the same thing as worship in the Promised Land, in Jerusalem, in the Temple.

The focus of God’s people must always be on God and not on intermediate things – no matter how good and helpful those things might be at times or in general.  The Christian faith is communal, but it is also flexible when necessary.  It is, however, a constant dialogue in terms of trying to discern when flexibility is unfaithfulness – a very real possibility whether it is engaged in by command or voluntarily.

Again, I’m empathetic.  I wasn’t going to cancel worship until it became clear this was a necessity.  And I plan to begin corporate worship again as soon as seems reasonable to do so, Executive Order notwithstanding.  But in the meantime I am willing to rest in the freedom we have in Christ to say, for the time being, we can continue to pray and worship privately for a short period of time.

There haven’t been any further posts from this site on this subject, but it would be interesting to know if they’ve had any changes of stance in the last week or so.

Contributing in the Time of COVID-19

March 26, 2020

I’ve been struggling with what I have to contribute during this time of COVID-19, social distancing, and the temporary  suspension of public worship.  A lot of churches are recording or streaming worship services.  Many of them seem to be larger congregations with a fair amount of technical resources, staff, and worship resources.  I’m sure you can find pretty much any style of worship from highly liturgical to very contemporary.

In light of this, the idea of recording a full worship service which quite easily could just be me and perhaps a musician seems superfluous.  Are people going to sing solo at home?

My particular gifts – such as they are – lie in preaching and teaching.  So thus far I’ve focused my energies on how to provide these gifts to my people (or at least most of my people) via the Internet.  While worship is comforting, it seems somewhat odd to simply broadcast it being done without anyone participating.  Corporate worship is just that – corporate.  It is the gathering of God’s people together to receive the gifts of God in Word and Sacrament and respond in prayer and praise.  Trying to replicate or imitate a gathering for people quarantined at home is complicated at best, and perhaps misguided at worst?  I’m struggling to figure my way through it.

Teaching can be done through the Internet, asynchronously.  I did that professionally for many years, and a Bible study is not much different in that respect than an online lecture.  Likewise a sermon can be streamed as a sermon – while delivered to a group of people – is listened to individually.  It is crafted with a group of people in mind (and sometimes with specific individuals within that group in mind!), but it is listened to by each individual person separately.  Not necessarily physically separate, but it is heard by individuals.  So it can be recorded and listened to at home as well.  Opportunities for interaction can’t be duplicated unless you have some sort of interactive medium for that, and I’m going to experiment with Zoom to that end tomorrow hopefully.

I suppose it’s major events like a pandemic that force the Church as a whole to grapple with these questions as doing what we’re used to doing becomes impossible or problematic.  God’s people need to be reminded of his grace and mercy even in a time of fear and sickness.  We need to be encouraged to not let our fear overwhelm our opportunities to love our neighbors.  We need to have our focus continually refocused on what our hope is, the return of our Lord.  Worship is one means of doing this, but it seems weird to ‘pretend’ to worship together when we really aren’t.

That’s not meant to be an indictment of those who are recording or live-streaming their worship services.  It’s just me thinking out loud about all of this and trying to figure out how  I respond as a shepherd during this time of isolation.  I’d love to hear other thoughts on the subject, if you’re willing to share!

On Considering Death

March 25, 2020

Thanks to Jo Anne for sharing the following C.S. Lewis quote:

“How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

As I began verifying the quote it was quickly apparent it has received a lot of Internet attention in the past several weeks.  Many people are rushing to caution against interpreting C.S. Lewis incorrectly and thinking he would encourage us to not take precautions against COVID-19.  How quickly we want to interpret things to support our point of view or discourage competing views!

Rather than go this direction, I’ll offer this observation.  Lewis lived in a time when mortality was a much more real thing.  Not that people have ceased dying since the mind-20th century, but certainly our familiarity with death has continued that drastic decrease already underway in Lewis’ day.  As he points out aptly from history, death has long been an all-too-familiar companion to vast majorities of people.  Glancing through history books where the sweep of empires roils back and forth through the pages should give ample evidence death was more common and more brutal than we are accustomed to thinking of it these days.  Lewis himself served in World War I and lived through World War II.  He understood firsthand what it looks like when millions of people suddenly encounter death.

Now, death is an anomaly in the West.  At least death before a certain age.  Now we presume death is something primarily for the unfortunate few with pre-existing conditions or for the elderly.  We hide death away in sanitized rooms with strict visiting hours and palliative care to mask the reality of death for those who would prefer not to face it head on.  The ever-increasing average life span in the last century has lulled many people into a false confidence that death may – for now – be an unfortunate eventuality, but  we need pay it little mind until we are of a certain age.

Frankly our secular culture demands this.  If there is nothing more to life and existence than a random assemblage of atoms for an infinitesimally small period of time and then nothing but a rather swift dissipation, then this life becomes extraordinarily important.  Ironic, as we insist life is random and without meaning that we should cling to it all the more tightly!  Yet this is who we are.  Enlightened materialists unable to cope with the cold reality of the meaninglessness we have clothed our lives in, yet scoffing at the foolish theists who insist on the nobility and meaning and purpose of our bare, unadorned nakedness.  It is not what we accomplish that gives our lives meaning, they dare to say, but simply that we are.  Silliness, of course.  And our culture returns to ignoring death as long as possible, studiously occupying ourselves with any number of equally unimportant and random details.

Lewis holds a far more realistic point of view, which is that life is desperately unpredictable despite our attempts to make it predictable.  None of our advances have changed this reality but, given a broader range of alleged understanding we pretend our information is somehow power.  And it isn’t that we don’t have some power.  Anti-biotics and better understandings of hygiene have greatly improved both quality and length of life, as have advances in dentistry, surgery, and a host of other -ies.  But it only takes another global conflict of the micro-biological (COVID-19) or macro-biological sort (warfare) to remind us how easily our routines and control is upended.

Another important thing to bear in mind when reading Lewis’ quote is that he is speaking to Christians.  His words make no sense (or have no basis for making sense) to a non-theist.  Only the Christian can truly live this life in confidence and hope and joy, knowing that death is an unpleasant passage to something much grander and larger and better.  The Christian should not despise this life, but they should hold it in the proper relationship to the scope of eternity – if that is possible.  So we exhort the living continually and mourn the dead in Christ for a time.  We acknowledge our mortality with an even eye and a steady hand, neither rushing towards it prematurely nor fleeing from it inordinately.

This allows the Christian to be brave and courageous, and to take risks for the sake of loving our neighbor that may be admirable to non-theists but must ultimately  be (in their eyes) the height of folly.  So it is that Christians have always laid their lives down in service to those in need when nobody else was willing to take the risk.  Christians have died with the victims of plague and casualties of war they tended to, just as their patients died.  Their courage and love has been often noted, and hopefully will be emulated today and for as long as we wait for our Lord’s return.

So don’t be too quick to co-opt Lewis’ words to either disparage precautions against contagion or to summon Christians to adherence to social distancing.  Rather, in Christ may his followers live this day in joy, loving God and neighbor as we are given opportunity to do so and without too much over-calculating of the possible costs.  All of the costs have ultimately already been paid for us by Christ.  Let us love our neighbors who insist on safe distances between us and them, but let us be the first to show love and care for those who do not have that luxury.  We are all of us in the Father’s hands.  What more could we ask for?

 

 

Apocrypha – 4 Maccabees

March 25, 2020

This is the last of the apocryphal writings, at least so far as they are put together in The Apocrypha: The Lutheran Edition with Notes.

This final entry seems one of the most easiest to dismiss as non-canonical.  The primary theme in this writing is the supremacy of reason over emotions, a thought prevalent in Greek philosophy.  It may have been authored as late as the first century AD but it is difficult to determine.  The author utilizes both Biblical stories as well as extra-biblical historical events to demonstrate how reason rules over the emotions rather than the reverse.

He draws on King David as well as inter-testamental events, most particularly the martyrdom of Eleazar and seven brothers who were martyred under Antiochus Epiphanes as part of his effort to force the Jews first into apostasy and eventually into full Hellenization.  4 Maccabees expands upon the account in 2 Maccabees 7 about these seven brothers, providing quite gory details about each one of the seven, and providing them with lengthy admonitions as they were brought forward for torture and execution, proclaiming eloquently how it was better to die faithfully than to live a lie.  4 Maccabees ends with the final words of the mother to her children.  The author seems to lose his original focus, so caught up is he in the graphic depictions of torture and death he has provided.

Reason as an attribute or quality in and of itself is not a dominant theme in Scripture, unlike wisdom.   I see reason as such subsumed into the larger and far more Biblical category of Wisdom.  For wisdom recognizes and sets the boundaries on what we can reasonably deduce or ascertain, recognizing first and foremost that even our reason is no longer trustworthy since the Fall.

I’m glad I took the time to finally read these works.  They aren’t writings I’m going to spend further time and effort except as necessary for clarification or to answer specific questions.  But it’s good to have a general idea of what they say and to recognize how they differ rather markedly, usually, from canonical Biblical writings.

 

Apocrypha – 3 Maccabees (Ptolemaika)

March 25, 2020

Likely authored towards the  end of the third century BC or early second century BC by an Egyptian Jew, 3 Maccabees deals primarily with the efforts of Ptolemy IV to overthrow the Jewish people and God’s defense of his people.  Thus the traditional title is confusing because it deals with events which occurred well  before the rise of the Maccabees. The more ancient title of Ptolemaika makes more sense since the main character described is Ptolemy IV Philopator.  Because it does not appear to have been authored in Hebrew or by a recognized prophet it has remained outside the Biblical canon despite the Roman Catholic decision to include it based on the Apostolic Canons.  These  were believed to have apostolic authority although that is no longer believed to be the case by many scholars.

The book begins in mid-thought, as though it were originally part of a larger work or the introduction to this work has been lost.  The historical events in the broad sense are true and accurate though this writing attributes divine and angelic elements to those events which sound as though they are exaggeration or embellishment, though of course it is possible they are true as well.

Again, this seems an unreliable text even as it deals with actual events.

Apocrypha – 2 Esdras

March 24, 2020

Another apocryphal writing claiming authorship by the Old Testament figure Ezra.  This, like 1 Esdras, contains historical errors which make this almost impossible, such as claiming (in 1:40) the advent of the Biblical prophet Malachi (who dates to roughly 430 BC) even though the book claims to be written by Ezra in the neighborhood of 574 BC.  The Jewish people did not view this book as canonical, and I think we are right to treat it similarly.  Many scholars argue this book was likely written in the late first century AD, after the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Romans.  If this is the case, the author is projecting back to the first destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in light of the second destruction by the Romans.

The book itself is primarily a recounting of a series of visions and angelic visitations attributed to Ezra.  As such, the genre of the book is most accurately apocalyptic, having to do with end times and seeking in large measure to answer the question of why so many people apparently will not be saved.  It affirms the bodily resurrection of the dead (1:23, 31) and also seems to refer to the Messiah (2:41).

An angel by the name of Uriel is the primary messenger to Ezra, providing him with a series of seven visions designed to grant Ezra comfort and a modicum of understanding as to how and why God does things they way he does.  Those who reject God are condemned and those who suffer as God’s people are encouraged to maintain strength and hope as their trust will be vindicated.

Strike 1

March 24, 2020

Although I’m not overly happy with the technical qualities of the first sermon I posted to the Internet, given the last minute rush to figure it out at all I don’t consider it a strike.  But I was very disappointed today.

I’m a Windows user, as far as computers go.  Though I dabble in Apple products (such as their early generation computers were the norm in high school and college labs, and I use an older model iPhone) my daily work for decades has been done on Windows-based PCs.  Although I enjoyed brief experiences with UNIX and Linux, I never considered them reasonable replacements for Windows.  And more and  move I’ve migrated from proprietary software options (such as Microsoft Office) to freeware solutions (such as OpenOffice).  That is also the case for the software I’ve used to generate audio files over the years – Audacity.

So I hooked up the mixing board and mics to a new computer I had installed Audacity on and put together my first Internet-destined audio file.  The only problem is that when I went to upload it to YouTube, it was rejected because it’s an audio file rather than a video file.  Now I have to figure out if there’s a way to fold the MP3 data into a video file that YouTube will recognize and accept.

Some might ask why I don’t just film me doing the Bible study and post said video.  It would be much simpler, ’tis true.  But I’m a rather cantankerous person at times.  I naturally resist the cultural obsession with visualization and our predilection to juding everything by looks rather than content.  As such, I take opportunities to kick against these goads , resulting in the predicted discomfort (such as losing a District election several years ago by one vote, in no small part because I refused to provide a photo to be used with my bio).

The current example is not wanting to film myself.  Go online and you’ll find scads of preacher videos.  What’s the first thing you notice before you hear a word out of their mouths?  What they look like.  Old or young?  Hip or outdated?  Liturgically vested or skinny jeans?  This is how we’re trained, but the Word of God encourages us to move past these surface level things to examine what’s underneath.  Oftentimes a nice exterior hides rottenness within.  Likewise, if we can ignore how someone looks, we might find they have something valuable to say.

My congregants already know what I look like (and I feel bad for them in that regard!), but those who don’t know me (and who aren’t compelled by a divine Call to listen to me on a regular basis!) should judge me not by what I look like or how I dress but rather by what I say and whether what I say is in line with what God says to us in his Word, the Bible.  If I’m going to reach a larger audience, I want to reach that audience not with me, but with Christ.  And while I’m sure there are plenty of preachers who can upload videos of themselves without a hint of pride, I’m not sure I’m as immune to the temptation to value what I’m doing  by the number of views or likes or whatever other means of cultural approbation we come up with.

So I kick, and it hurts.

I’m hopeful I’ll figure it out, but it’s a learning curve I’d much rather not have to be climbing at the moment!  I’ll keep you posted.

Apocrypha – 1 Esdras

March 23, 2020

With this entry in my Apocrypha posting series, we move from those books associated with Western Christianity to apocryphal writings more prevalent in other Christian  traditions and Judaism.  Again, these are generally not accepted as canonical – on the same level as the books of the Old and New Testaments, but various groups at various times have either included them alongside the canonical Scriptures or even included them with them.

1 Esdras purports to be written either by the Old Testament prophet Ezra or a near-contemporary of his, providing specific details about Ezra’s work in rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple in the late 6th and early 5th centuries.  It draws heavily on Old Testament passages from 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah.  However it also has several direct contradictions of Biblical passages in Haggai and Esther.  The author undoubtedly did not intend harm in their retelling and reworking of the Biblical accounts, but we should treat it as such, rather than a work inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The book details the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple.  It begins briefly with the timeframe directly before the fall of Jerusalem and then leaps to the time of Cyrus the Persian and the decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild.  As with other apocryphal writings it expands greatly on the Biblical material, purporting to record specific prayers and exchanges between Biblical and extra-biblical figures.  One such example is an extended section detailing a competition between three bodyguards of King Darius of the Persians, with each describing what they think the strongest thing in the world is.  One claims wine, another the king, and the third women.  The latter position, voiced by Zerubbabel (who cheats and also includes truth as the alternate, strongest thing) is judged the winner.

The work concludes with Ezra’s reading of the Law to God’s people.  Again, an interesting book to some degree but certainly not as reliable as the Old Testament canon.

Reading Ramblings – March 29, 2020

March 22, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fifth Sunday in Lent, COVID-19 2nd Sunday of Lockdown – March 29, 2020

Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:1-53

Context: We’re in the second week of lockdowns from COVID-19. A second week when we are unable to gather together to encourage one another in hope, both in terms of getting through this pandemic as well as in the larger sense of God’s grace and forgiveness to us which leads us to eternal life and freedom from all such suffering. The readings summon us to faith and hope in our God who works when all hope seems to be lost, who restores us from dry bones, from the depths, from condemnation and sin and from our greatest existential fear, death and the grave. The readings for this Sunday are uniformly hopeful, encouraging, upbuilding – the focus we need not only in a normal season of Lent, but certainly during Lent in the midst of contagion.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 – Ezekiel is part of the first wave of hostages taken from Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 598BC. He apparently spends the entire rest of his life, and the entirety of his formal prophetic ministry, in exile. As such, he speaks to God’s people separated from the land God had promised them, and the city and Temple where they could sacrifice to God and worship him. These are a people in shock, in despair. God had allowed his people to be defeated. Allowed them to be disgraced. Allowed them to be carried away into exile. Would they ever see Jerusalem again? Would they ever be allowed to worship at the Temple again? In a few short years, with another wave of exiles they would have their answer. No, there would be no going back for them. For their children, perhaps. But the adults – they would likely die in exile just as the Israelites had died in the wilderness after refusing to enter the Promised Land when God first brought them to the Jordan River (Numbers 13-14). All their worldly hope is lost and gone. All the plans of their leadership through alliances and diplomacy and military might have failed. But what they could not do for themselves, God alone is capable of doing. Their national spirit was inadequate but the Holy Spirit of God is not. God’s people appears to be defeated and at an end, but out of death the Lord can and will bring life. Hope is not lost. They are to look to him exclusively for their hope, and He will not disappoint them. He will bring his people home.

Psalm 130 – This psalm is the 11th of the 15 psalms of ascent (Psalms 120-134) used by pilgrims on the journey to Jerusalem. It is also one of of the seven psalms grouped as the penitential psalms in the 7th century by the Roman statesman and monk Cassiodorus in the late 6th or early 7th century. Luther referred to this psalm as a proper master and doctor of Scripture – meaning it encapsulates the Gospel beautifully. The form of the psalm is an individual speaking, the voice of one speaking on behalf of and to many. The essential plea is for mercy (vs.1-2). Overwhelmed by sin and death (out of the depths) the speaker calls to God, asking for mercy. Some might find this a counterintuitive move – isn’t God the wrathful God waiting to punish our sin? No, the speaker insists (vs.3-4). The Lord is not waiting to pounce on us for our sins – rather the Lord is merciful! Only with God do we find forgiveness for our sins, because we certainly are not quick to forgive ourselves, or find forgiveness from others. Besides, sin is first and foremost always sin against God, therefore his forgiveness is the only real and lasting forgiveness, the only forgiveness that matters in an eternal sense. Therefore, our lives are lives of faith receiving of God’s forgiveness but also looking forward to his approach or arrival, at which point sin will be banished and we won’t have to struggle in the depths any longer (vs.5-6). Finally the speaker exhorts the assembly of the faithful (vs.7-8). They are exhorted to hope in the Lord and his promises. The Lord alone is fully and perfectly faithful. His love is not fickle but steadfast. His redemption is not feeble but more than adequate, and He has promised to redeem his people from all their sins. The psalm leads us from our own condition – despair and being overwhelmed by sin and death in our lives – to the condition made possible by God alone – life in and by the grace and mercy and love of God. But this text is more than symbolic about the fate of God’s people and their homeland. It is also very much a text about resurrection, about life from death, about restoration possible only in God, as we see in the Gospel text. For God’s people the themes of communal restoration and bodily resurrection have long been woven together, and this text is a powerful and striking example of that.

Romans 8:1-11 – How quickly we gloss over verse 1! Yet here is the Gospel! Here is the fullness of Scripture in so very few words! Where once there was only condemnation under the Law, there is now no condemnation – all because of Jesus! Jesus alone did what no human being could do since the Fall. He perfectly obeyed his heavenly Father in every respect. He offered himself as the greatest and final sin offering, and by his blood has freed all those who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, put their faith and trust in him. How do we know this is true for us? The Spirit of God dwells within us. And as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 12, it is only by the Holy Spirit we can acknowledge Jesus as Lord. This is consistent with what Jesus says in Mark 9. This passage only has meaning for those who know what guilt feels like, who know what it feels like to stand accused and guilty under the Law. As Jesus says in Luke 7:47, the one who thinks they have little to be forgiven of responds in love to God and neighbor far less. But to those who know their guilt, who know their knowledge of their own guilt is inadequate at best, these verses should bring shouts of joy, tears of relief, and transformed lives. Because of Jesus there is life from death, forgiveness rather than condemnation, hope rather than fear!

John 11:1-53 – John does such a masterful job of telling this story it would be a crime to carve it up just to shorten the reading time! Take time to read through this over and over again. Those who think the Bible is nothing but fairy tales should read this passage over and over again. There is nothing fantastical in any of it – until the end. This is no never-never land but rather the brutal reality we each have to face, both in the lives of those we love and our own selves. Death. The grave. Burial cloths. To mourn or be mourned. This is our reality. The past is unchangeable though we often imagine it changed. The future holds the resurrection of the dead but here and now we must bury the dead, or be buried. Here we are in the depths, as the psalmist described it, and we can only cry out to Jesus as Martha and Mary do. If only you could alter the past! If only we were in the future with you already!

Jesus does not offer Martha – or you and I – that. But in the midst of her loss, in the midst of our fear and COVID-19 lockdowns and the specter of death around us, in the midst of all this Jesus stands with Martha and you and I and doesn’t simply make promises for the future. Rather, He promises that right now, in the midst of fear and sickness and even death, here and now, for you and I and Martha Jesus is the resurrection. Our hope embodied and incarnate. He stands with Martha, and the Holy Spirit of God stands with you and I in the midst of self-quarantine and social distancing and nothing can or will separate the Holy Spirit from you and I. Nothing can or will separate or distance the love of God in Jesus Christ for you and I. No power on earth or hell, no plan of Satan can change how God feels about each and every one of us, and the offer made to us in the death and resurrection of the Son of God of life not just someday, off in the future, over the rainbow, but here and now. Life. Hope. Joy. Peace. In and with Christ that’s how it was, that’s how it is, and that’s how it will be forever.