Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Reading Ramblings – January 27, 2019

January 20, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 27, 2019

Texts: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:16-30

Context: Easter is later this year (April 21), which pushes back the start of Lent as well, so there is a longer liturgical season of Ordinary Time at the start of this year than there was last year.. While the Sundays are notated in context to Epiphany, we’re not in the season of Epiphany any longer (since last week) and the Epistle reading follows the lectio continua tradition rather than linking up as tightly with the Gospel and Old Testament.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 – Having returned from exile in Babylon, the people of God are gathered together again to hear the Word of the Lord in fullness, with explanation. The Word of God their parents and grandparents had forgotten and fallen out of faithfulness to, leading to God’s discipline by destroying Jerusalem and the Temple and leading his people into exile. But now they are home again. God’s graciousness and mercy has given them another chance, a new opportunity to be the faithful people their ancestors were not. An emotional day, but ultimately a day of joy and celebration. To hear of their special relationship to the Creator of the universe should not be a cause for sadness or fear but ultimately joy. To them was entrusted the Word of God, his revelation to his Creation of his identity, their fallen condition, and his promises to restore creation and all those who would trust in this promise. God’s Word is still as source of joy and strength and peace today when people flounder with no anchor, no base, no sure footing in an ever-shifting culture and world. To hear the Word of God is a privilege and a joy!

Psalm 19 – Some might object that knowledge of a Creator is impossible, that the very nature of such an entity is by definition beyond our ability to grasp. But this is not true, according to God. We can indeed grasp the existence of and even some of the attributes of the God behind creation, as creation itself is a witness to his existence and nature. The way that all of creation works together is a testimony to the coherence of God’s Word, and as God sustains creation in good order, his Word to us can do the same for our lives. In fact, the Word of God ultimately is better than creation itself, more beautiful and worthy than any single aspect of the natural order around us. As we grow to marvel in creation, and as we unlock some of the inner workings of the natural world, we must be careful to not presume that such knowledge is greater than the knowledge of the Creator himself. Such is a serious sin as it creates an idol (ourselves or our own understanding) in the place that belongs by definition only to the Creator himself. God’s Word guides us in the life of faith that can marvel in God’s creation, engage with it intelligently and in the expectation that we can and will understand some of it, and yet ultimately reserve the thanks and glory to God alone.

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a – Paul continues his exploration of the nature of spiritual gifts, stressing that rather than competing for certain, more highly prized gifts, the Corinthians should recognize that the varied gifts of their members are for the greater good of the whole community. The creativity of God the Father is expressed in the variety of gifts that God the Holy Spirit is able and willing to bestow on God’s people. The gifts are to be seen for what they are – from God, for his people, rather than matters of individual pride and preference. All are necessary, all need to work together or the body of Christ will not function smoothly. Each gift has value. Each has a function and a contribution to the good of the entire body. To all desire the same gift makes no sense, any more than it would make sense to have a body comprised entirely of a single body part. It makes no sense, and in fact is not what God the Holy Spirit intends. Paul seems to be dealing with a matter of dissension among the Corinthians, trying to set them at peace with one another rather than arguing about whose gift is greater or more desirable. Paul desires the Corinthians to quit squabbling and focus on bigger issues, and ultimately the most desirable gift of all, which is increasing love for one another as an expression of love for God.

Luke 4:16-30 – Once again the reading of God’s Word is the center of the episode. The Nehemiah text featured an audience to whom the Word was new – beautiful and terrible, overwhelming to them. But here we see an audience familiar with the Word, expecting more from both the Word and the speaker. They are not impressed with what they are given. They want more. Apparently they want to see Jesus do some of the impressive things that He has done in Capernaum (Mark 1:21-34). They either want him to prove himself to them, to earn their approval, or they wish to benefit personally from his gifts since He’s a local boy. In any event, Jesus isn’t interested in campaigning for their support or placating them with healings and miracles of their own. In fact, He seems to deliberately provoke them, making it clear that their home-town relationship to him does not entitle them to preferential treatment nor obligate him to earn their approval. As God the Father rejected his own people in the past and showed favor to outsiders, so God the Son can and will do the same. It’s clear from their reaction that they understand his implications perfectly. They don’t believe that He could be the Messiah, and so who is this carpenter’s son to speak so insolently to them? Their reaction does not speak faith or even a desire for faith in this man. In their pride they rush to punish him, to show him who is more powerful and more deserving of honor. But they have no power over Jesus. Whether this is Luke painting a miracle in very muted tones, or whether Luke is simply describing the crowd’s inability to effectively manhandle Jesus, the fact remains that they do not control his identity or his destiny. They may not place their faith in him, but neither are they able to dictate his fate.

The Word of God elicits either faith or disdain, either a recognition of our shortcomings and rebelliousness, or an arousal of our pride and anger. The person who truly hears what the Word of God says is called to a response. But whatever the response, it has no power over the Word itself. It cannot rescind it or alter it or compel it to silence. The Word of God remains, and while darkness and evil people may continue to strive against it, they have not and will not overcome it.

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Missed It by *that* Much

January 18, 2019

I was interested in an article reporting how the Pope was asserting that families – parents – have primary responsibility for the faith development of their children.  Pleased at this, I was also perplexed at the reported recommendations related to this admonition.  First of all, don’t fight in front of the kids, and secondly go ahead and breastfeed your children in church if they’re hungry.  It seemed like two odd pieces of advice, so I sought out a transcript of his sermon given on the observance of Jesus’ Baptism, and was able to find this.

First off, I agree wholeheartedly with the Pope’s basic assertion.  God created families in order to raise children in faith.  Long before the Church existed, or the priesthood, the family existed.  From the beginning, in fact.  The Church exists as a resource for parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.  It exists in part to help the family communicate and explain the faith to children as they grow, but it cannot replace the family.

But in terms of practical advice he could have given in relation to this assertion, I can’t help but lament.  Certainly, children should not have to watch their parents fight incessantly or vehemently.  If fights are particularly heated, or if they become abusive in any way, this is something that children should not have to see and parents should receive professional help to improve upon.  Immediately.

But if parents disagree on occasion, it’s important for children to be able to observe how parents resolve conflict.  So long as it isn’t in any way abusive or excessive, parents pass on valuable skills to their children by allowing them – as they grow older and are better able to process what’s happening – to watch the parents express their disagreements and then work together towards a solution.

As for breastfeeding, this seems to have simply been a contextual comment, perhaps off-script and prompted by the noise of children around the Pope at the moment.

But to help instruct children in the faith, they have to see their parents acting in faith.  Praying as a family.  Reading Scripture together and discussing it.  Bringing the Word of God into other discussions and decision-making settings.  Faith needs to be seen not just as a theoretical thing, but as something breathed and applied.  Not just a Sunday morning thing but part of everything that the family is and does.  If kids think that you get along well and never fight, but also never see you pray, never see you reading the Bible or otherwise engaging in the life of faith at home, they’re still likely to struggle with continuing in the faith as they get older.

Parents need to live out the life of faith so that their children can see it.  Hopefully the Pope will have more to say on this topic in the future!

 

I Must Break You

January 16, 2019

I’m pretty sure that I’ve never seen any of the Rocky movies.  Not the full, uncut, uncensored, unadapted-for-television-audiences movies.  I’ve seen bits and pieces and probably watched the original on TV sometime in the early 80’s.  But by the time I was close to getting out of high school there were already on Rocky IV.  I didn’t see it.  But the Cold War meeting of Rocky Balboa and Drago hardly needed to be watched.  We breathed it in the air and ate it in our breakfast cereal.

One line from the movie caught the attention of my best friend.  Drago says to Rocky in the ring “I must break you.”  Powerful words.  No mercy.  No kindness.  Nothing but the imperative to destroy and break Rocky as a fighter, as a man, and of course thematically, as an American.

But tonight, teaching a class on the first chapter of Romans to a group of women in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I realized how appropriate this line is on such a grander scale.  I think Satan would be happy to put it in his own mouth as he gloated over the recently fallen creation, over Adam and Eve choking on the forbidden fruit, on the penalty of the Law – Death – being introduced into perfection.  But the phrase is better and ultimately more appropriate in the mouth of God.  Insisting that none of our pretenses, none of our objections, none of our rebuttals can be left to stand in false defense of our sinfulness, of our brokenness, of our abject, filthy rebellion against the one true God and Creator of all things so that we might pretend to justify our rebellious acts, our eating of our own forbidden fruit as though nothing were wrong.

Paul won’t let that be.  God the Holy Spirit says through St. Paul I must break you.  Your objections.  Your false hopes.  Your pathetic excuses.  Your sham righteousness.  I must break you of all those things.  Completely.  Brutally if necessary, as brutal as a thrashing in the ring between two formidable opponents.  But it has to be done.  We must be backed into the corner with no defense, no strength, no illusions of how defeated we are, how completely unable we are to argue our way out of the power and righteousness and Law of God.  Ignorance?  Don’t be ridiculous.  Wisdom?  Don’t waste my time.  Create your own truth?  Go ahead, see how that works out for you in the end.  One by one batting away our feeble attempts to block, our limp jabs and efforts to push God away from us and leave us in peace as basically all right.

We’re not basically all right.  Not by default.  And nothing we do or create or say or believe can make us right.  Only God can.  Only the God who created us can restore us from our fallenness.  Only the Word by which all creation came into being is the Word that can proclaim  forgiven.  Only the presence of the Holy Spirit of God can guard us from the ever-present whispering temptations to shift our reliance back onto ourselves, to claim some of God’s glorious forgiveness and grace as our own, some of his holiness as our own.

We either accept it completely from him or we have nothing at all.  He must break us of our delusions to the contrary.

That moment when people finally realize this, when they cut through the crappy theology in pop-worship focused more on entertainment and self-improvement and feel-good  effects rather on the truth that we are hopeless without God, that moment is amazing.  To watch the struggle, the rejection, and – if fortunate enough and honest enough – that recognition of this truth, that is amazing.  That moment when someone admits that even when they do something nice or kind or good, there’s a stinking little pellet of  self-centeredness at the heart of it is exquisite.

To be able to tell them that only the Bible will tell them this.  Every other philosophy and religion or lack thereof will tell them just the opposite.  That there is hope, and that hope is inside of them.  All they need to do is open themselves to enlightenment.   Submit themselves more rigorously in obedience.  Strive with all their utmost  to attain God’s grace and share  his love, trust the whispered promises of social science and genetic modifications and all other manner of  controlling the production of human life.  Only the Bible, only when God’s Word is preached and taught in fullness and truth do we hear the terrifying, offensive truth.  You can do nothing.  You have nothing.  You are guilty as charged and deserving of the full penalty of the Law.

Only in the Word of God are we fully broken.  And only in the Word of God are we more fully restored.  Forgiven.  Healed.  Perfected.  Only when we have nothing left of our own can we be capable of receiving what God has to offer in his Son, Jesus the Christ.  We must be completely broken down, so that He can restore us to more than we ever knew we were or could be.  Only when we are stripped of confidence can we truly hope.

Brutal and beautiful.

You’re Not that Great

January 15, 2019

Thanks to my wife for sharing this short essay with me.

Amazing how blasphemous this sounds, that we would caution our children that they aren’t the greatest?  The brightest?  The hope of all humanity and creation?  How dare we limit them in this way?

How  dare we not?

A sense of centeredness is crucial.  It doesn’t demean gifts and abilities or potentials, but it does temper expectations.  It does prepare our children for a reality that is unpredictable to say the least, and certainly unfair at times.  It teaches them to do the best with what they are given, but to recognize that their best may not ever be valued by the world for what it is.

And what it is, is themselves.  The uniqueness of each individual not based on what they accomplish or do, but simply the reality that they are.  They are created by a God of infinite imagination – unique in all of history.  Bearers of the imago dei.  Beautiful and to be cherished simply for the fact God the Father (not just Mom and Dad!) saw fit to call them into existence, that God the Son saw fit to die for them that their existence might have a future, that God the Holy Spirit would desire to dwell within them eternally.

I pray my children know that they are loved and valued regardless of whether they ever become movie stars or Wall Street brokers.  Whether they develop the cure to cancer or die from it at any early age.  Whether they  amass a fortune to be used for the benefit of others or make a simple living by living simply.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have hopes that the world will see how extraordinary they are, but it does mean that as they see themselves as extraordinary, they should understand that this doesn’t necessarily make them exceptional.  It doesn’t necessarily entitle them to certain things in life.  But it does entitle them to a great deal both now and eternally.

Not because they’re that great, but because God is.  Because this is his story, ultimately, not theirs.  And only when we keep that in mind, only when we remind ourselves that as creative as we might be, we remain creatures eternally distinct and different from the Creator, only then are we able to navigate the twists and turns of our lives with a sense of peace, of purpose, of joy, and hope.

 

Into a New Year

January 14, 2019

I’m not sad to see 2018 go.  I have no guarantees that this year – or even today – will be any better or easier, but at least symbolically I’m not sad to see 2018 in the rear view mirror.  Writing has been difficult.  Self-disclosure has felt dangerous and pointless.

But with the passing of the year is the reminder that years are not bottomless.  We only get so many of these spans of time and none of us are certain how many are allotted to us.  I don’t say this in an attitude of despair because I am convinced that new and better things await beyond the handful of years we are given.  It’s simply a reality to live with.

Someone said something I read in the not too distant past and, while the author and the context are lost to me, the gist of it remained.  Here and now, in this handful of years we call our lifetime, we possess one thing that we will not have in the eternity that awaits those who put their faith and trust in God the Father Creator, God the Son Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit Sanctifier – the ability to live our lives out in faith.

In eternity we will know.  The mystery and uncertainty will be gone.  The Triune God will be an omnipresent reality we cannot ignore even if we are never able to fully comprehend him.  But here and now, in however long we have to live, we live by faith.  Certain of things unseen.  Hopeful in something intangible.  Not without reason, not without evidence, but still in faith.  I have the opportunity not simply to teach or dictate that faith to my children and everyone else in my life, but to demonstrate it.  To show what it looks like in the decisions I make because of my faith.  In the forgiveness I will need to ask for repeatedly because not all of my decisions are good and helpful.  And in the trust and confidence that my repentance is heard, forgiveness is already given, grace is here and now and not simply there and then.

Today, while we may still call it today, we live by faith.  Welcome, 2019.

 

Reading Ramblings – January 13, 2019

January 6, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 13, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Romans 6:1-11; Luke 3:15-22

Context: As we continue to consider the miracle that God would become man and dwell among us, we turn next to the baptism of Jesus for consideration. Here, we see once again for the first time since the birth narrative that there is more to this Jesus of Nazareth than meets the eye. Nothing less than the voice of God the Father and a vision of God the Holy Spirit attend Jesus’ obedience to the Father’s will in baptism. The Son of God becomes fully human, and places himself under the Law, even a Law that is not dictated previously in Scripture. In doing so, the Son becomes fully one of us under the Law so that He might redeem us from the Law.

Isaiah 43:1-7 – God’s promises to his people are due to the obedience of his perfect, suffering servant who is the subject in much of the previous chapter. Because of the servant’s perfect obedience, God does not forsake his people, and despite whatever may come against them they need never fear the absence of their God. God speaks of his great love for his people, how He treasures them among all his creation. He will not forsake them to remain scattered, but will gather them together to care for them. His mention of Egypt may intend to recall how God freed his people from slavery in Egypt generations earlier. Cush is another offspring of Ham, the cursed son of Noah from Genesis 9, and is also the name of a region that afflicted God’s people during the time of the Judges. Cush was also a threat to Judah during Isaiah’s lifetime during the reign of Hezekiah. God reveals that He is uncompromisingly for his people, and will not allow any threat to stand against them.

Psalm 29 – God is due glory and praise. This stems first of all simply from his existence, from who He is as the creator of all things. His very name is worthy of praise and glory because He alone is without creation, without beginning and end. As such the Lord is greater than any aspect within creation, since He called creation into being. The most powerful forces we can imagine in our world – the oceans, magnificent trees, fire, or even the barrenness of the wilderness – are nothing in comparison with the power of God. They respond to his commands, and there is no power that can stand against him. This is the God that we worship! This is the God who reveals himself to us and stands by us and dwells within us! The imminence of God the Son’s presence in his incarnation should never lead us to forget the transcendent and eternal glory of God! And we should not doubt that He will fulfill his promises to give strength and peace to his people.

Romans 6:1-11 – The Son of God did not come into creation as a moral role model, to show us what we ought to be like. He came because none of us are capable of the perfect obedience that He was. He comes to offer that perfect obedience, that final act of sacrifice to us as our own. Our lives in faith are bound up with his life, death, and resurrection. As such, we do not simply gain a greater capacity for obedience, but rather we are raised from death to life. We are set free from the mastery of sin to condemn us to death under the Law. What we have now is not merely a better life here and now, but an eternal life that has begun in our baptism and extends forward. It is real here and now, and not simply when Christ returns. As such, we can meaningfully begin to work against sin and towards being more like the perfect person that is already within us and will one day be revealed fully and completely. The saving act of justification that the incarnate Son of God accomplishes on our behalf makes possible a faithful life of sanctification, a turning away from sin by the power of God the Holy Spirit. While we will never fully be free of sin in this life, we must remember that sin is no longer our master, but rather Christ is.

Luke 3:15-22 – We are drawn to forceful personalities and fascinating characters. We revere those who speak with authority. As such, we are apt to err in putting our faith and trust in others. John the Baptist quickly redirects those who begin to think that maybe he is the one who was promised in the prophets, the servant who would redeem God’s people. Such a mistake would be fatal, either to those who put their faith in John as well as to John himself if he began to think in such a manner. But John doesn’t give in to the temptation for personal glory or the error of thinking he is someone he is not. He knows his role, and he knows as such that the promised one of God is close by, almost at hand. What he will do is far different and greater than what John does. And only of this one, Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, can God the Father say without reservation You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.

We should mistake Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, for nothing less than who He is, the one who comes to clear the threshing floor so that God’s beloved people might be preserved and those who refuse to heed his call might be separated. And note that Luke characterizes this message as good news (v.18). Though we pray that as many will be saved on that day as possible, it is a day that is not only necessary it is good. It will bring to an end the power of evil in this world, and truly set God’s people free at last and for eternity.

Reading Ramblings – January 6, 2018

December 30, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: The Epiphany of Our Lord – January 6, 2018

Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-15; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Context: The celebration of Epiphany is an ancient church practice that is first reliably mentioned by Clement of Alexandria who died in 215 AD. Early celebrations are pegged in early January, either January 6 or 10. As with many traditions, these celebrations were not universally acknowledged or celebrated, but began in particular places and gradually gained traction throughout Christendom as ecclesiastical hierarchy became more established and could share such practices to larger areas. It is traditionally celebrated in conjunction with baptismal themes, and with Christmas forms a two-part emphasis. Christmas emphasizes that the divine became human – was actually born as Jesus of Nazareth at a particular time and place and to a particular couple with all of the attendant specifics and details that Matthew and Luke provide us. Epiphany celebrates the reality that the man Jesus of Nazareth is also the divine and eternal Son of God. The word epiphany itself is Greek and refers to a sudden realization or revelation, when something very important becomes suddenly clear. In this case, what becomes clear is the divinity of Jesus.

Isaiah 60:1-6 This passage is likely chosen for the emphasis on light in the early verses. As St. John proclaims Jesus is the light of the world (John 1:1-5), light is also the means by which we can see clearly. The first two verses describe the reality of the birth of the Son of God, the entry of divinity incarnate into the dark realm of creation that Satan has lorded over since the Fall in Genesis 3. What we could not do for ourselves – create or sustain light – God does for us in his presence. This light will not simply be for the people of God, but will draw others to itself as well. Jesus comes as a Jew in the first century, yet his presence has and continues to drawn people from all of history and geography to him in faith. For God’s people who have suffered much, the arrival of this light is good news in terms of reconciliation, healing, and restoration. For much of the last 2500 years God’s people have been scattered to far corners of the earth, but this arriving light will bring them back together in joy and blessing. Those who have been beggars are suddenly wealthy and rich with the blessings of God manifest in material fashion. This blessing comes as the peoples of the world are drawn to the light of God’s presence among his people, and bring gifts to honor him. Note the mention of gold and frankincense that are later associated with the magi in Jesus’ early childhood (not at the manger!). We would say that this prophecy has come partially true already, and many would see it even more fulfilled since the establishment of a new nation of Israel in 1948. However I believe that the bulk of this prophecy remains yet to be fulfilled. It is fulfilled additionally in terms of the Church, to which people from all over flock in faith. But it remains to be finally and completely fulfilled in the return of Jesus, the theme that takes up the end of the liturgical church year next November.

Psalm 72:1-15 – This psalm was likely utilized for (or composed for) the inauguration of a king in Jerusalem. The psalm is designed to be general, applicable for any king, and grounded in the fundamental understanding that the king’s primary responsibility is to ensure justice and righteousness to the people. If the king can do this, all is well. If the king can’t – and what king can undertake such monumental tasks perfectly? – then problems will result. These aren’t optional responsibilities – they are the foundation of the very kingdom itself and the king can’t ignore them to focus on other things. If he can do these things he will be a blessing to his people and deserves to reign long and prosperously, free from the threat of foreign foes. It is good, right, and proper that people should pray for such a king. His success and longevity will mean their own safety and longevity as well. Of course because such a king is not humanly possible, this psalm also serves a prophetic role, pointing the congregation to look forward to the perfect king to come who can establish perfect justice and righteousness not for the span of just a few years or even decades but rather for all eternity. Such a king must be more than merely human, he must ultimately be God incarnate.

Ephesians 3:1-12 – The God-Man Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, is not simply the redeemer and deliverer of the Hebrews, those who trace their lineage to Abraham. Rather, He comes to redeem all humanity, to graft in others to the tree established with the root of Abraham (Romans 11:11-24). His dominion is to extend to all of creation and all are invited to dwell in his rule. But though this is implied in God the Father’s original promises to Abraham (Genesis 12:3), the concept had become a bit distorted over time. St. Paul indicates that God the Holy Spirit is now re-establishing that clarity in a way He hadn’t done in previous centuries. There is no greater secret spiritual knowledge to gain than what God the Holy Spirit himself reveals – God the Father’s desire to reconcile all peoples through the sacrifice of his Son. This was God the Father’s plan from the beginning, and having thus fulfilled it through the perfect obedience and sacrificial death of God the Son, Jesus, we can be confident that we have every benefit and blessing that God the Father intended to give us. Nothing is withheld!

Matthew 2:1-12 – Baptism is one common theme of Epiphany, the other is the wise men who come to give honor to the young King of the Jews. They recognize Jesus for who He is as they interpret the stars. When Herod presses his Hebrew scholars, they refer to Micah 5:2 for the location, but what about the star? What prompts the magi to journey to Judea based on a star? There are two places that could be construed as prophetic in regards to a star and a king. The first is Numbers 24:17, part of the prophecy of Balaam. The second place is Tobit 13:11-15. Tobit is not considered canonical by most Protestant Christians but was made canonical by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in 1546 in response to the Protestant Reformation. It was deemed canonical in the Eastern church as early as the 4th century. However the Jewish people never recognized this or the other Apocryphal writings as canonical for the Tanakh, which is why most Protestants don’t accept them. Based on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Tobit is believed to have been written in the 2nd century BC.

Either of these writings could be what prompted the wise men (astrologers, magicians, court counselors, etc.) to ponder the meaning of a mysterious star in relationship to Judea. However this does not seem to have been the expectation of Jewish scholars, since they don’t appear either to have noticed the star or considered it in any way significant. The arrival of the magi causes quite a stir in Jerusalem, or was it merely Herod’s consternation that troubled the population?

None of this matter to the magi. They wish to worship the king, and they follow the star to the place where Jesus and his family live. Not the manger, as we typically think (and nativity sets like to portray). It is likely that they visit Jesus and his family in Nazareth. Luke 2 tells us that after fulfilling all the obligations of the Law, takes Mary and Jesus back to Nazareth. This would have taken a couple of months at the most. From Nazareth they likely flee Herod’s vengeance as Matthew 2:14-15 describes. Although it is tempting to interpret Matthew 2 so that the Holy Family moves to Nazareth only after returning from Egypt, we know this isn’t the case because Luke 2:4 indicates that Joseph (as well as Mary, as per Luke 1:26-27) are from Nazareth.

Demon Run

December 21, 2018

I don’t know why it is, but I received another call today from someone wanting help with evil spirits.  The man on the phone was apparently going through the phone book, calling churches and asking if there was anyone there who could come out and help him with some evil spirits.

I began with asking questions.  He described a visual and aural experience, small bluish spherical things that flew through his window and into his apartment, moving to various places.  The heater vent.  The bathroom.  The closet.  Back to the heater vent.  Out the window again and then back in again.

The voices talked amongst themselves as well as to him.  They wanted to stay.  They wanted him to leave.  He told them he wouldn’t.

I asked if he felt any sense of threat or danger from these entities, and he said he didn’t.  He described multiple occurrences of both the visual and aural experiences over the course of a day or so.  They caused him no trouble at night and he was able to sleep fine.

He claimed to be a Christian, but acknowledged he hadn’t been to church in over a decade.  He was an artist, and basically just quit going.  Not through a lack of faith or belief necessarily, but, you know.  Life.

I asked him about drug and alcohol usage, and he claims that he was not under the influence of anything when these events started happening.  He indicated that he took blood pressure medication but nothing else.  He claimed no history of mental illness.

I presume that what he described was real.  It would be easy to just shrug it off, to claim that he really was under the influence, or that there was some other matter at play but that doesn’t seem necessary.  So I talked to him about what I thought his best course of action would be.

He called presuming that somebody could come out and just take care of the problem – drive the evil spirits off.  But I told him that demons aren’t  the same thing as termites.  You don’t just call up an exorcist like you do a pest  control company.  It isn’t a matter of spiritually tenting your home and then the  problem is gone – at least  for any predictable amount of time.  Hollywood and popular imagination has done a good job of assuming that evil spirits work like this.  Misreading the Bible can leave one with that impression as well.  Jesus casts out demons with authority but then again, He’s the Son of God.  While his followers are said to cast out demons their track record is decidedly more spotty.  Jesus himself in Matthew 12:43-45 indicates that evil spirits can return.

So I talked with him about going back to church.  A Roman Catholic one since that would be most familiar to him, though I also invited him to come to our worship as well.  But that he needed to start bringing himself back into line with his perceived identity as a follower of Christ.  To begin to be and do the things that Christians do – worship, pray, sing, read Scripture.  Doing this would transform him, and in transforming him would also transform his environment from one that was neutral at best into one that was filled with the Holy Spirit’s presence.  The evil spirits would leave in time because it would no longer be a comfortable place to be, filled as it would be with God’s presence and Word.

I talked for a while. He listened, and claimed to understand.  Whether he did or not I can’t tell.  I could have gone out and visited his apartment and prayed over it.  Perhaps that would have helped.  Well, perhaps it would have driven away the evil spirits for a time.  But the more important issue was not the evil spirits but this man and his relationship to his creator and redeemer.  I pray he takes my advice, and the changes that come about far exceed removing voices and visions and bring him more  firmly into the arms of his Savior, a comfort that will sustain him in all times and all situations.

St. John Wang Yi Zinzendorf the Baptist

December 17, 2018

Preach the Gospel.  Die.  Be forgotten.  ~ Nicolaus Zinzendorf

This mantra has been stuck in my head for over a year now.  While there is some doubt as to whether the words were ever written or spoken by Zinzendorf in exactly this format, the spirit of them is definitely attributed to him.  In a world that seeks immortality through works and words and the acclaim of others, the Bible calls us to obedience to the God who created us, redeemed us, and alone can grant us immortality not simply in the memories of others but in flesh and blood and spirit.

Faithful obedience is not often glamorous.  Not often memorable.  Not often noteworthy.  It’s the decision to get up in the morning and do what needs to be done.  Laundry.  Cooking.  Earning a living.  Faithfulness to those around us.  Restraint.  Hardly laudable qualities in a modern culture that calls after fame and glory in 120 (or 280) character tweets or 4-second vines.

This past Sunday we considered Jesus’ words to John the Baptist – blessed is the one who is not offended by me.  John the Baptist is remembered 2000 years after his untimely death.  He remained faithful to the one who created him, the one who would redeem him.  Whether that faithfulness changed the world around him was not to be John’s concern, any more than whether or not he would ever be freed from prison.

Persecution is hardly new, and it isn’t something that I think we should seek out.  But if we attempt to be faithful, persecution is apt to find us in one way or another.  John the Baptist found this out.  Jesus knew this.  Pastor Wang Yi now lives with this reality.  While we don’t have any words known to be written personally by John the Baptist, I like to think that perhaps he might have said something similar to Pastor Wang Yi.

I pray that if I find myself in a similar situation my words will be very similar, seeking not to be remembered – so very, very, very, very few of us are, even for a short time! – but to be faithful.

Reading Ramblings – December 23, 2018

December 16, 2018

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday in Advent – December 23, 2018

Texts: Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-56

Context: The big day is nearly here, and the Advent readings at long last turn their full attention to the details preceding our Lord’s birth. This birth was not something new, something that had not been hinted at. The prophet Micah directly prophesies that a great leader will arise from this very humble town. But more details are not provided, so that Mary is stunned to find that she will play an important role in the fulfillment of God’s promises, something she is obediently resigned to even though she can scarcely understand it. Yet over time, as the reality of the situation grows, she comes to see God’s gracious and powerful hand at work through her body, and gives true thanks and praise to the one who blesses his people not just for a time, but forever.

Micah 5:2-5a – Micah is the sixth of the Hebrew minor prophets, from the town of Moresheth (1:1) in the hill country to the south and west of Jerusalem. He is a contemporary of Isaiah, also ministering in Jerusalem in the second half of the 8th century BC, during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Similar to Isaiah he preaches against the leadership of Jerusalem, joining in Isaiah’s prophesies not of God’s continued blessing, but of destruction to come because of the sins of God’s people. Chapter 5 includes a prophecy now understood to refer to the Messiah, who would come out of the town of Bethlehem rather than one of the great cities. This leader will rule God’s people, and reference is made to the Gentiles (5:3b) who will be brought under him as well. Security and peace will result from his presence. These are all promises that have been fulfilled in part and will receive final fulfillment on the day of our Lord’s return. So it is that Christmas and the birth of the Christ-child must also be held in tandem with the Last Day as the complete fulfillment of divine promises to Eve, Noah, Abraham, David, and you and I.

Psalm 80:1-7 – The imagery of a shepherd is common throughout prophetic references and descriptions of the Lord’s anointed servant and son, the promised Messiah. So it is hardly a surprise that Jesus will use this language to describe himself and his work (John 10). If He is the shepherd, then we are the sheep in need of saving, who are in angst thinking that our shepherd is absent and we are left to fend for ourselves. In his presence is where we find the peace and comfort of knowing that all is well and no danger will befall us. This psalm is also candid in admitting that the shepherd’s temporary absence is due to the sinful willfulness of the sheep. Yet there is hope that the shepherd will not turn away forever, but will restore safety and joy to his sheep.

Hebrews 10:5-10 – Paul continues his demonstration that the work of Jesus as the Messiah was foreshadowed in the Israelite and Jewish practices under the Mosaic covenant. But what was accomplished only partially and imperfectly under that covenant is completed perfectly in the death and resurrection of the Son of God. The sacrificial laws were useful but limited – they could only absolve partially and imperfectly, having to be repeated regularly as they were not intended for the complete absolution of sin once and for all. That work is accomplished in Jesus.

Luke 1:39-56 – Many of us know the story of Mary’s visit to her relative, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, many years older than Mary but now miraculously pregnant as well, six months along. I imagine that Mary’s visit is an attempt by her family to blunt the shock of her pregnancy out of wedlock, but perhaps it is Mary’s idea also to verify Gabriel’s message. If her relative Elizabeth really is pregnant, then she can trust that God is at work, even if she can’t understand why He’s involving her.

As such it seems to me only fitting that it is only after seeing Elizabeth, only after being convinced that Gabriel was not just a bad dream, only after verifying that it is God indeed who is mysteriously at work can Mary fully give praise to him. And what praise it is! The Magnificat (so named from the Latin of praised) is one of the premiere expressions of thanksgiving and praise to God, often compared with Moses’ song of praise after God delivers the Israelites from the Egyptians through the Red Sea ( Exodus 15).

What strikes me as a reader in this post-modern age where the self sits at the center of all things, is how unselfish Mary’s song is. She of course acknowledges that she herself is the one giving him praise (vs. 46-47), but she does so because God is her savior. And his salvation of her and all humanity puts her in a position of peculiar and unique honor as the theotokos, the Mother of God, so that all future generations will acknowledge her blessed role in God the Father’s redemptive work through the incarnate God the Son. This is a great thing that God accomplishes – not just that Mary should bear the Son of God, but that Mary bears the very means of her own salvation, the means by which she might call on God as her savior.

Then the remainder of the song focuses on God, not her (the first few verses are really focused primarily on God as well, but she involves herself also). She elaborates on the traits and attributes of God the Father – his holiness, his mercy, his strength, the way He dismantles the proud and arrogant and provides for the humble and poor, how He acts both at an individual level as well as a corporate level, on behalf of all the descendants of Abraham. All of these attributes will be at play in the deliverance of creation from the grip of Satan through sin and the Law. God’s holiness cannot allow evil to remain unjudged. God’s mercy will not permit his creation to struggle under Satan’s rule for long. God’s strength alone is capable of delivering us from Satan. God is committed to unseating the effects of sin – the abuses of power and privilege and money so often marveled at today but a consistent feature of human experience since the fall (consider Lamech’s bragging in Genesis 4:23-24!). All of this on behalf of all creation, even those elements of it that we ourselves scarcely consider or wish to think about. Nobody is forgotten or overlooked, nobody is too poor or too inconsequential to receive the saving grace of God the Father through the death and resurrection of the incarnate God the Son.

A beautiful song of praise from a bewildered young woman in a backwater town in an unsettled stretch of the Roman empire. A young woman who otherwise would be lost to history as so many, many others are. But her faithfulness and obedience leave us extolling her simple acceptance of God’s will, and her beautiful expression of praise to him.