Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Reading Ramblings – March 22, 2020

March 21, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 22, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 42:14-21; Psalm 142; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Context: Yes, we’re in Lent. We are also in the time of COVID-19, and so the text from John seems almost unavoidable for us to focus on. But as we’re in the season of Lent rather than Ordinary Time, the readings are intended to work together, and they do so beautifully. They are readings of hope. Readings that do not minimize our present struggles but acknowledge them both physically and spiritually and point us to the hope we have in the restorative work of God the Father, a work evidenced by God the Son in starting the process of healing and restoration with the blind man. This is what we are to focus on rather than obsessing in fear and anxiety. Those are easy things to say when all is going well, but now that we are faced with grave upendings of daily routines, they are no less true and we are to take them no less seriously. The hope we have in Christ is not simply a hope for easy times but a hope for all times.

Isaiah 42:14-21 – Isaiah writes in another period of fear and uncertainty. The people of God in Jerusalem and Judea have been ravaged by Assyrian armies, with Jerusalem being miraculously spared from siege. But the threat of Assyria remains real. God allowed his people to be hard afflicted before sparing them from total destruction. At times it seems as though God’s rescue and mercy are far off, not according to our preferences and timeframes. But God is never absent! God works through and in all things, even those things that most terrify us. God has promised us salvation and restoration and He will make good on that promise ultimately, and in the meantime He abides with us to guide us as restored and saved people here and now. We are called to remain faithful to him and not put our faith and trust ultimately in things that have not and cannot save us. In times of fear it is easy to place our faith and trust in medicine and technology, in best practices as we come to know them. And these things are all well and good but they are not our hope! Our hope is not merely to be spared from contagion. Our hope is to be in Christ for eternity! We look forward not simply to long and peaceful lives here and now, but prepare our hearts and minds for that real and true and final rescue, where our darkness is turned into light and the rough places are made level forever.

Psalm 142 – This is a beautiful psalm of hope and confidence in our God even when things are very bad, and evil appears to have taken the day. It calls us first of all to be in prayer and supplication to God (vs.1-2). This is not because God needs to be informed of our plight, but we need to remember who our refuge and strength is. Social distancing and other precautions are all well and good but it is God alone who knows our paths and directs and controls all things. Verses 3-4 outline the fearful condition we may find ourselves in. Surely there is no rescue, no escape! But this is our perspective, not God’s. We cry out to him knowing that He alone is our source of hope (vs.5-7). And our cries are not in vain. We are confident of our God’s blessing and care not simply within the confines of this life but for all eternity. We are not forgotten. We are not abandoned. And not even death can separate us from the glorious joy of eternal fellowship with God and his redeemed. Our fellowship with one another now is a foreshadowing of this, so that we look forward eagerly to the chance to worship and be together as a sneak preview of the joy we will have forever in Christ.

Ephesians 5:8-14 – The imitation we are to make of God pertains to our treatment of one another in kindness and forgiveness as Paul just finished explaining in chapter 4. Loving one another has very tangible expressions, and we are not free to decide what we will or won’t do in terms of loving one another, but rather are called in obedience and emulation of God to be kind and forgive others. And of course, as we pursue these emulations of God we naturally should be pushing away those things inappropriate for the redeemed. We are to take seriously the commands of God as they apply to our lives, and to reject anyone who tells us these things don’t matter. Not because they can’t be forgiven but because they are inappropriate for the redeemed and can lead ultimately only to our rejection of God’s grace. We are not like the rest of the world that rejects or does not know God and therefore creates other sytems of belief and practice and claims they are fine and good. We know what is good and right and this is the path we are to pursue, seeking to please God rather than ourselves. We have been woken from the slumber of sin and ignorance of the grace and goodness of God and the right way to live. We can’t simply go back to sleep.

In this time of contagion, this means specifically that we refuse to pursue fearfulness and anxiety, that we refuse to think solely of ourselves, but rather are constantly open to how God may use us to help others, and constantly focus ourselves on his promises to us rather than fear-mongering in print or other media. We seek to focus on hope and joy, not in ignorance of what goes on around us but despite what goes on around us, confident in our Lord’s promises to us through his resurrected Son who has conquered death itself and every affliction which contributes towards or leads to it. This does not necessarily exempt us from contagion, but it does dictate how we deal with the possibility or reality of it, and how we deal with others around us.

John 9:1-41 – The issue of blindness runs throughout this story but we miss the central point if we think the blindness is just what Jesus heals in the man. That man can see now, but the others in this account remain blind. The disciples are blind, not seeing the man himself, suffering, but rather seeing only a possibility for theological discourse and intellectual stretching. They want to discern theological truths but ignore the real suffering of the real blind man right in front of them. Likewise the religious authorities are hardly at all interested in the man himself and praising God he now can see. Rather, they only see grounds for potentially convicting Jesus of sinning against the Sabbath. They are indifferent to the suffering the man has been delivered from. They too want to discuss theology abstracted from reality, and are willing even to curse the very real, healed man when he does not suit their theological goals.

The man begins blind, physically. Just as God molded man from the clay of the ground in Genesis 2, Jesus literally molds sight for the blind man from the mud of the ground. But the man still is as blind as the disciples and the Pharisees. But unlike them, his spiritual sight progresses. At first he doesn’t even know Jesus other than by name (v.10). Then he believes Jesus to be a prophet (v.17), hardly a light profession as an authentic prophet has not been recognized among the Jewish people for 400 years! Then he sees Jesus as someone worthy of following (v.27) and asserts that Jesus is sent by God (vs.30-34). Finally he professes faith in Jesus as the Son of Man, as the Messiah (v.38), worshiping him as a demonstration of what he believes to be true.

The one who started out blind is no longer blind, while those who sought deeper spiritual sight at the expense of their physical sight still cannot see, as Jesus asserts at the end of this reading. Theology happens in a real world with real people and real suffering. If we begin to be blind to those people in order to pursue our pure theology, we are dangerously mistaken and only demonstrate our blindness. While we may not be granted the power to restore a blind person’s sight, we do have the power to see God’s creation and creatures around us and seek to love them first, rather than ignoring them or seeing them as object lessons for our theology.

Holy Communion and COVID-19

March 21, 2020

As previously noted, our congregation is suspending corporate worship for the time being.  I make this decision only because I am specifically ordered to by the civil authority and because I do  not sense in this order any intention to suppress God’s people gathering together as God’s people, but only a desire to temporarily avoid gatherings that might spread infection.

This necessitates I as a pastor and my congregational leadership and members thinking about how we carry on as the body of Christ in this time.  I’ve intentionally refused to livestream or record worship services to  post  on Facebook or YouTube because  the sermon I deliver each Sunday is for my congregation.  People that by and large I know fairly well, and who know me.  When we speak to each other, we speak in the context of that relationship and trust, and the sermon is no different.  What I say to them and how I say it to them is in part conditioned by my relationship to them.

Therefore, for someone not part of our immediate community of faith to listen in could be problematic.  Without the relationship and trust, they don’t know how to hear properly what I’m saying.  This isn’t  their fault – at a very real level the words aren’t for them.  They’re for my people.  The Word of God is for everyone, to be sure. But a sermon as an explication and application of  the Word of God has to be crafted and fashioned with a hearer in mind.  Paul’s message to the Greeks on Mars Hill (Acts 17) would hardly have been appropriate to hearers in Jerusalem.

So I’ve maintained for a long time that if we’re going to post things online, they need to be designed for digestion online, by a community I cannot know, and that cannot know me.  The message has to be focused on the Word as it might apply to anyone, rather than the Word as it applies to my small flock of regular hearers.

Enter COVID-19.

Now we’re scrambling to find ways to allow our members to receive the Word of God in a sermon (as well as Bible studies and other things).  We’re going to experiment with livestreaming to our very small congregational group on Facebook tomorrow.  We’re also  arranging for  a phone-in, conference-call type solution for our many members without access to  either Facebook or the Internet.

But one question remains – what about Holy Communion?

Well, that’s going to have to wait.

While there have been efforts made over time to figure  out how to bring Communion to people  when they cannot gather for it together, those solutions are problematic to varying degrees.  Either they end up breaching the very reasons we aren’t gathering together in the first place (the possible spread  of infection) or they somehow alter what happens in Holy Communion.  Our denominational leadership prepared a brief statement indicating why some of these practices are problematic and to be avoided, while reminding us that for centuries, Holy Communion was an infrequently celebrated event.  We receive God’s grace and forgiveness daily, and while we should not willingly despise or avoid Holy Communion, when we must forego it for a period of time it does  not damage us spiritually, even though we might long to partake in it.

For now, patience.  And prayer that this outbreak will subside quickly and we can once again gather as the body of Christ to receive his good gifts to us in Word AND Sacrament.

 

Suspending Worship

March 20, 2020

After some unofficial legal counsel from two Christian attorneys, I’ve made the difficult decision to suspend worship service this coming Sunday.  To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time churches have been told not to gather for worship since the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918.

I do this in obedience to Romans 13, not detecting in the governor’s Executive Order anything specifically targeting religious institutions.  I remain wary, all too aware of how reasonable laws can be turned to troublesome ends.  I am sad, because of the comfort only possible where and when the people of God gather together in praise and prayer, responding to our Creator and Sustainer’s good gifts to us in Word and Sacrament.

But most of all I remain hopeful.  Not simply of the passing of this virus, which history teaches us will indeed pass one way or the other.  Not simply for a return to normalcy, as by many standards normalcy is problematic in and of itself.  But ultimately that God will receive glory and honor as people are shaken from the doldrums of routines and forced to confront things of a much larger scale.  There is an opportunity for God the Holy Spirit to be at work in and through his people and churches to give witness in acts of love and service to the ultimate, sacrificial love of God for his creation through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus the Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria.  

N-33-20

March 19, 2020

The Governor of California tonight issued Executive Order N-33-20.  It makes mandatory the closure of non-essential businesses, defining 16 key industries that MUST be maintained and are not subject to what amounts to a general business shutdown.  Those 16 industries are identified in this document.

The Executive Order lays out the rationale first off,  then explains that the Governor does, in fact, have the authority to make such Executive Orders and bring to bear governmental resources to enforce them.  It then references a Health Order  from the California Department of Public Health on the same issue.

Both the Governor’s order and the CDPH order it is based on deal primarily with the issue of who should be going to work and who should not.  If you aren’t in one of the 16 defined critical infrastructure industries, your job is non-essential and you should close your business.  Neither order specifies any cutoffs for gatherings, but simply indicates people should stay home except to work in one of the pre-defined industries, or to otherwise facilitate authorized necessary activities.  I cannot find a definition of authorized necessary activities that wouldn’t simply be repetitive with the key industry guidelines.

It seems people are allowed to go out for necessary things – to obtain medication or medical care, to buy food and other necessities of life from those places like grocery stores and convenience stores that aren’t simply allowed to continue operating but are commanded to.

None of which addresses the issue of what religious groups should do during this time.

I know quite a few churches in town and in nearby towns that made the decision to suspend worship even before this Executive Order.  The question in my mind is whether that is now mandatory by law, or whether it falls into the nebulous zone of authorized necessary activities.  I have little doubt the Governor and other state officials would say it does not.  But since they haven’t clarified the issue, it is undefined.

The Center for Disease Control has recommended no more than 50 people gather in any one place unless absolutely necessary, and the White House recommends no gatherings with more than 10 people, and churches that violate this are getting press attention.

But these are recommendations, not laws.  And in general, I think they are wise.

The question becomes is worship a necessary activity?  And by what definition?  Again, I have no doubt the government does not view worship (in any religion) as a necessary activity.  But how should Christians define worship?

I don’t fault congregations and pastors that have opted to suspend worship and other gatherings.  But I don’t personally feel called to follow that route.

At least not yet.

Should more clear language be forthcoming, or should someone explain to me how (since I’m not a lawyer) I am misunderstanding what the Executive Order says, then it seems to remain at my discretion as a religious leader as to whether I should suspend worship services.  As I read it, the language of the order seems to be as unclear as possible.  This prevents specific outrage (from, say, religious groups) but rather relies on a great deal of social pressure.

Worship is not a command for Christians, but it is a strong encouragement and a privilege we should not abandon lightly.  Hebrews 10:19-25 is very helpful in this regard.  It isn’t simply the legal technicality of must we worship, but the reminder that worship is a massive blessing.  It emphasizes the communal nature of our faith (note the we and us throughout).  It references confession and absolution (v.22).  It centers us in who and what our hope and faith is – hope and faith in Jesus Christ who has made forgiveness possible to us.  It is God the Father who holds us in his hands, and ultimately him who holds the power of all health and healing in his hands.  This is NOT to toss our worldly wisdom and knowledge out the door, but it is to hold in the proper tension.  Medicine and treatments and other things are blessings from God intended ultimately not simply to elongate our lives but to direct our hearts and minds back to the source of all life and health not simply temporally but eternally.  Worship is also an opportunity to focus us on what we are called to do each and every day – love God and love our neighbors (v.24).  This does not justify needless recklessness, but does remind us that many of the heroes of the faith were willing to set aside their own well-being in order to tend to the needs of others.

Because of all these things, we should not lightly abandon meeting together particularly during difficult and frightening times!  We can still be wise about close contact and social distancing as we gather for worship!

And of course the second text to consider here is Romans 13.  This passage insists that Christians are not exempt of civil authority, but should be subject to it.  Of course, this obedience is mandated up to the point at which civil authority contradicts the Word of God.  At that point, we must like Peter and the apostles insist that we must obey God rather than human beings! (Acts 5:29).

If this Executive Order does mean gathering for worship is illegal for the time being, then I in good conscience as a servant of Christ can (and should) cancel public worship.  For a period of time.  At some point though – whether a point defined by civil authority or not – I will also be equally compelled to begin calling the saints to gather for worship.  It is very possible for a civil law to begin as good and necessary but eventually be misused.  God-willing, that time will not come.

In the meantime, all of God’s people should be praying for the deliverance of the world from this new virus, and a speedy return to a healthier environment both spiritually as well as physically.

 

ANF – Justin’s Hortatory Address to the Greeks

March 18, 2020

This brief apologetic was authored by Justin Martyr in the second century.  It is – along with The Discourse to the Greeks – disputed by some scholars as to whether Justin actually is the author or not.  But barring any conclusive evidence I’ll treat it as likely his.

This is a much more thorough treatment of whether or not the Greeks should continue to believe in their deities or the Christian God.  He does this by dealing directly with not just the Greek myths in general but their particular proponents and adherents – well respected poets and philosophers.  Homer and Hesiod are dealt with as Greek poets claiming to describe divine truths.  The picture they paint of the Greek gods is one less of divine power and authority and more of very human frailties and divisions.

Thales of Miletus is referenced as the start of the great Greek philosophical traditions.  Justin demonstrates the disagreements between great Greek philosophers over the fundamentals of existence and nature, proceeding eventually to Plato and Aristotle whom Justin deals with at more length, demonstrating the lack of agreement between them over the most elemental of issues.  Justin’s major point is there is no unanimity and therefore no authority in the Greek traditions to which the Greeks can reliably adhere.  The Greek deities are hardly gods of any proper or helpful sort, and natural philosophers can’t agree on the nature of reality either in the realm of ideals or the realm of matter.

Justin then goes on to elaborate on the antiquity of the Bible compared to the relatively new ideas of Greek poets and philosophers.  He refers to various Greek ancient Greek writers already familiar to some degree with the writings of the Old Testament and specifically Moses.

One of the most fascinating sections of this writing is in Chapter XIII, where Justin relates the history of the Septuagint – the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.

Justin moves on to quote Greek oracles and prophets and eventually philosophers (including Plato and Aristotle) that side with the monotheistic principles of Scripture as opposed to the polytheistic stage of Greek deities.

It’s an impressive treatise, utilizing the respected writers of the Greeks themselves to show the religious ideas and assumptions of the Greeks are fundamentally flawed and baseless, and then offering the much older testimony of Scripture, many of the concepts of which were later reinforced by the Greeks’ own writers.

ANF – Justin on the Sole Government of God

March 17, 2020

Another disputed writing of Justin Martyr in the second century, but one certainly in keeping with the other disputed works I’ve already reviewed.

This treatise is aimed at directing his Greek readers and hearers to monotheism utilizing the sayings and teachings of Greek writers.  He calls on Aeschylus, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Sophocles, Euripides, Menander and others, citing them directly as they make statements pertaining to the singular nature of God.

Justin’s point is that Greek polytheism is antithetical to Greek writers themselves.  He is not dealing with Trinitarian issues nor should this treatise be intepreted somehow as an argument against Trinitarianism.  There is a fundamental difference between worshiping multiple, separate and unique deities (polytheism) and worshiping one single God (Deuteronomy 6:4) who is comprised of three distinct aspects or persons bound together in divine unity (John 10:30).

Once again Justin does and admirable job of apologetics by marshaling the respected voices of Greek culture in defense of Biblical monotheism.  He does not spend much time pushing for the Biblical identity of this singular god, content more with pointing out that Christian monotheism should in no way be rejected as baseless when the Greeks themselves revere writers of their own who reached the same conclusions.

Good Advice

March 15, 2020

Thanks to Janelle for pointing me to this quote from Martin Luther regarding how Christians should behave in the face of the plague – literally.  I went to verify it and seek out the source, and it can be found in this publication at the very least.

Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it.

I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.

If God should wish to take me, He will surely find me and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others.

If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.

Moreover, he who has contracted the disease and recovered should keep away from others and not admit them into his presence unless it be necessary.

Though one should aid him in his time of need, as previously pointed out, he in turn should, after his recovery, so act toward others that no one becomes unnecessarily endangered on his account and so cause another’s death.

I love his balance of practicality and faith.  He will not  act in fear, but will act with prudence.  Love for neighbor overrides love of self.  Trust in God as well as the gifts of God in worldly wisdom, medicine, and best practices all find their proper place.

Timely words for today!

 

 

ANF – The Discourse to the Greeks

March 13, 2020

I’ve been bogged down for months now trying to slog my way through Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho.  More accurately, I’ve been avoiding slogging my way through it.  At last I’ve convinced myself to skip over and come back to it, as it’s really a small book in it’s own right.  As such, I moved on to far briefer work of Justin’s, The Discourse to the Greeks.

This is an extremely short work wherein Justin argues that Christians should not be criticized for holding their beliefs because, compared to Greek mythology, the Christian God is far more noble and non-contradictory.  This is a theme he will take up again at more length in Justin’s Hortatory Address to the Greeks, which will be reviewed next.  Here he doesn’t bother to quote Greek poets or prophets but simply points to well known Greek myths – which are supposedly held by the Greeks to all be true – and recounts the abominable traits and behaviors of the gods/goddesses, boiling down in most cases to a complete lack of self-restraint.  Far from being the rulers of all things, the Greek deities are rather completely ruled by their emotions, acting unpredictably, capriciously, viciously and dishonestly.  He also criticizes the female Greek goddesses for acting too masculine and the male Greek gods for acting too effeminate at times.

He briefly contrasts the Christian faith and the Biblical writings, which are both instruction in and (in Christ) demonstration of perfect mastery of one’s passions and desires soas to live a holy life.  Rather than inflaming or justifying our base emotions and impulses, Scripture rightly identifies the wrong indulging of these things as harmful and sinful, something in line with Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who nonetheless, in order to avoid the fate of Socrates were careful to pay lip service to the deities who were flagrant contradictions of the values they sought to elucidate and instill.

This apologetic can still be useful today.

Thy Strong Word

March 11, 2020

She’s alone when I knock on the door.  The first time I met her, several years ago, it was she and her husband.  Recently relocated from further south where they had lived their lives as, among other things, active members of a Lutheran church.  But now they were older and beginning to falter a bit and to be closer to family they moved to a care facility here.  I took them Communion a few times before their daughter intervened, worrying it was more confusing for them than helpful.  A year or more passes, the daughter calls back.  Could I bring Communion to her mother now?  The confusion isn’t any better, so whatever stress entailed in me visiting seems no worse than the stress her mother normally lives with.

I’ve been making visits again for a few months now.  Her door is usually ajar and I knock.   I always tell her who I am and why I’m there.  It’s clear she’s confused, but she’s willing to receive Communion from a stranger-who-really-isn’t-a-stranger.  She often comments that she’s confused and doesn’t know what’s going on.  Today she sits on her couch with a blanket over her legs and her walker in front of her.  The television is on loud playing some black and white movie.

Since I just communed four other people in the same facility, I go to wash out one of the Communion cups.  As I finish I see a photo – clearly of she and her husband.  Many years ago.  The sun is shining on them and they look to be in their early 20’s at the oldest.  A beautiful reminder that the frail woman who looks at me hopefully but also with great trepidation was not always so.

I’ve learned that trying to make conversation with her is both uncomfortable and difficult, so I move to the brief order of service I use on Communion calls.  For the Bible reading I opt for the 23rd Psalm.  It’s the same reading I used with her last week and I know she enjoyed it and recited it from memory with me.  Since she likely doesn’t remember we used it last time, I use it again, changing the version on my app to the King James Version.  Sure enough, she joins right in for 70% of it.  She’s visibly calmer after we finish.

Now the Words of Institution, and it’s clear she remembers these as well, mouthing along in parts of it.  She recites the Lord’s Prayer with me and receives the bread and the wine.  She’s from the older tradition, and as well doesn’t trust her hands as much, so I place the wafer on her tongue and hold the small cup of wine to her lips.  I pack my things to go.

Sometimes, I open the Bible up.  And no matter where I open it to, it speaks to me.  This is the first time she’s offered much of anything conversationally since I’ve known her.  I smile and agree that God speaks to us when we’re reading his Word.  My Bible is in the other room.  Would you like me to get it?  She nods.  I find it easily on her nightstand and bring it to her.  Her whole face lights up when she takes it in her hands.  She flips through it, at a loss, looking for something but either not knowing what or where.  I notice a bookmarked page with highlighting on it.  I help her flip back to that.

Luke 12Just reading the title makes me feel better already, she says with a smile and I’m amazed at how present she is and how at peace she is.  Do Not Be Anxious.  I wonder if she highlighted that or her daughter did?  Would you read it to me, I ask her.  She hesitates a bit.  You don’t have to read all of it, just some of it I say.   She begins reading.  She loses her place a few times but corrects herself.  Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life….

The words of a man who claimed to be the very Son of God ring out in that small room with the  TV turned off.  Words she has heard over and over again across the span of a life from the young, confident girl in the photo to the frail,  confused woman on the couch.  Doing the best she can to keep from panicking.  Alone after so many years of being with a partner and a family.  His Word every bit as applicable and comforting and true as it was for the thousands who first heard him speak it 2000 years or so ago on a sunny hillside on the other side of the world.

As I take my leave and look back through the closing door, she’s still sitting with the Bible in her lap.  So much better than the blare of the television earlier.  A word not simply for waking up or going to sleep but for the uncertainties of a quiet afternoon by herself in a world  that has changed around her until she’s no longer certain who she is or where she is.  But those words are anchors, holding her fast to a truth she has clung to through all the changes of life, words that will lead her out of the confusion temporarily for now, but completely and permanently at last.

 

 

Reading Ramblings – March 15, 2020

March 8, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday in Lent, March 15, 2020

Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95:1-9; Romans 5:1-8; John 4:5-30, 39-42

Context: Fascinating themes swirling around in the readings this week. The people of God in the wilderness, newly freed from slavery and from the constant threat of their children being murdered, yet somehow distrustful the Lord can provide what they need next, in this case water. How is it that we in our suffering often fail to see the work of God present and active, shaping us as Paul asserts in Romans? Do we differ so much from the Israelites of the Old Testament in this respect? Or perhaps the theme of deliverance not because of faithfulness but in spite of unfaithfulness? God doesn’t require the Israelites to quit complaining before He provides them water. Christ dies for the ungodly, not those trying their best. Jesus offers the promise of salvation to the woman at the well before He challenges her sexual and marital practices. The grace of God is just that – grace that is undeserved. Our Lenten humility and self-examination are the results of God’s grace in our lives, not the prerequisites for it. Thankfully!

Exodus 17:1-7 – Recently freed from the Egyptians and delivered through the Red Sea, the wilderness God leads his people through is neither the expected path eastwards (which would normally hug the Mediterranean coastline but which was guarded by Egyptian garrisons) nor the easiest. It is literally a wasteland, and the worry of the people is certainly understandable to one degree. Though if Moses and his God had been able to deliver them and demonstrate great power thus far, you’d like to think they would trust in further provisioning even when it wasn’t readily apparent. Still, when your kids are tired and thirsty and you’re tired and thirsty, it’s easy to lose perspective and start complaining. Fast. Yet is God is gracious, and just as their rescue from genocide was not predicated on their obedience and faithfulness but rather God’s faithfulness, so here God provides for them, making sure the elders of the people are there to witness God’s faithfulness through Moses, and so better trust him in future situations. This issue of trust in God and his servant will resound for the next forty years, and it’s not hard to say it continues down to this very day!

Psalm 95:1-9 – This psalm always evokes in me echoes of the Venite, a traditional part of Matins worship that I grew up with (you can listen here – the Venite starts at 1:06). A beautiful psalm that fits very well with the reading from Exodus 17 and is likely based directly on it, given vs. 8-11. I’ll admit that prior to this reading, I never really thought of rock of salvation as a reference to water coming from the rock in Exodus 17. I always think of rock as immovable, secure, something to cling to in a storm or tornado, perhaps, something that will not be moved when everything else is in turmoil. But perhaps the Biblical use is more specific! Fascinating!

Romans 5:1-8 – Hands down one of my favorite Scriptural passages, though by no means one of the easiest to take to heart and live out. Paul has expounded briefly in the past chapter and a half on the center of his proclamation – the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ as the source of our faith and trust in him, which faith and trust conveys to us the forgiveness and grace of God the Father. We do not earn God’s grace, and we certainly don’t deserve it. He speaks now of the implications of this good news. We don’t have to wonder if God loves us and forgives us because we trust his promise in Jesus Christ that He has. How does this impact us? Well, for one, when we suffer we needn’t jump to the conclusion that God is punishing us. While God certainly might discipline us, He is not punishing us for a lack of faith. So we accept our suffering acknowledging we can’t know the ultimate meaning or purpose of it, but trusting and knowing that in the midst of it God is both present and at work. Christians can suffer like no other person on earth, literally, because we can assume and look for and cooperate with God the Holy Spirit as He shapes and fashions us even in the midst of suffering. We can trust this, knowing that even in the fullness of our sin God the Father was willing his Son should die on our behalf. How much more so, now that we are in faith, will God not fail to turn all things to the good of those who love him (James 2:5, and many others)?

John 4:5-30, 39-42The woman at the well is a well-known story. Perhaps it’s the scandalous nature of the woman and her past. Certainly Jesus wouldn’t associate himself with such a woman. Certainly not many Christians would willingly do so! And yet Jesus does not dismiss her or insult her or in any way reject her. He transforms not just the sinfulness of her own life (we presume), but perhaps even her role in her community. No longer the spurned woman who fetches water at mid-day rather than facing (or being rejected by) the other women of her community, she becomes the means by which the gospel comes to her village. She returns to town not simply with a lecture or even the pride of being honored with a conversation with a prophet – or the Messiah. Rather, she comes back with an invitation. I might be wrong about this. Some of you may be wiser in these things. But this guy knows all about me and we’ve never met. What if he’s the Christ? We’re told that many of her fellow Samaritans – Jewish in ancestry but unwelcome amongst faithful Jews since the return from the Babylonian exile five hundred years earlier – come to faith in Jesus. Their faith is not based in her testimony alone but in their encounter with Jesus. She invites them to explore for themselves and they do.

All of which happens not after she changes her life, but before. The Gospel comes to her, literally sits down next to her and talks with her even though she is living a life many were then and would be today aghast at. A lifestyle our culture now promotes as normal and healthy, putting directly at odds the purity many churches wish to espouse and the sinful lives many people are caught up in. If we presume the Gospel has to wait until lives are changed we misunderstand both the power of sin and the power of the Gospel. It is the Gospel that breaks through the sin, that effects change in a person they might not otherwise be able or willing to engage in on their own.

Fortunately, the Gospel doesn’t wait until we are ready for it or better suited for it. The Gospel strikes us between the eyes in the depths of our sin. While we were still weak, while we were still the ungodly, while we were still sinners. The fact that for many of us this happens too early in our lives for us to remember does not weaken the significance in the least, and should drive us to a deeper desire to share this same good news with those who didn’t receive it early on, or who may conclude it no longer is available to them.

When we take the power of the Gospel seriously, we can better anticipate the power of God the Holy Spirit at work, whether it’s drawing water from rock or creating character out of suffering or creating saints out of drunks and whores and thieves. The power of the Gospel is capable of breaking through any barrier of doubt or sin, we just never know when or how it will. We simply provide the introduction, the invitation. Come and see. This is what He has done for me. Could He be the one sent for you as well?