Reading Ramblings – March 21, 2021

March 14, 2021

Date: Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 21, 2021

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10: 32-45

Context: God does things not only differently but, within the context of human experience and history, sometimes new. But his newness is never random innovation but a furthering of what has been the plan in place from the beginning. One covenant becomes old and a new covenant arrives, but a new covenant already foreshadowed in the oldest stories of God’s people. The kingdom of God inaugurates a new way of being among its citizens, but that new way of being is actually the way we were created in the first place, and we are not so much adopting new ways of life as being restored to our first ways.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 – Jeremiah is the longest of the prophetic writings with the exception of Isaiah, and we know more about Jeremiah than we do any of the other prophets, with most of that information contained within Jeremiah itself. He was called to the prophetic ministry in roughly 627 BC and continued in that role until perhaps 587 BC, for a career of 40 years or so. We aren’t sure how old he was when he began, but not likely older than 20. He might have ties to David’s priest Abiathar, whom Solomon exiled in favor of Zadok. All of which might mean Jeremiah has links to the former northern kingdom (Abiathar was a descendant of Eli), which might explain his affinity for themes common to other northern prophets such as Hosea. In this reading Jeremiah conveys the promises of God of a new covenant, a new relationship between God and his people. But it seems to indicate the relationship that will exist once Christ has returned and final judgment has taken place, when the faithful of God will continue in eternal, perfect fellowship with him, where He will truly be their God and they will truly be his people. All of them will know God personally and for themselves, and will no longer need to be taught who God is.

Psalm 119:9-16– We read from one of the acrosstic psalms, this sectio headed by the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, beth. The theme of this section is harmonious with the rest of the psalm which is an extended meditation on the Word of God. Would we desire to be free from sin (or more so than we are now)? How else than by the study of God’s Word and the applying of it’s precepts can this be accomplished? This is not simply study and academic or theological mastery but an applied use of this knowledge in order to guard our way – our lives. It isn’t – generally speaking – that we don’t know enough of God’s Word. Rather, the bigger problem is our unwillingness to live it out. Therefore the psalmist prays for God to keep him from wandering as we are prone to do (v.10). The psalmist is indeed a student of the Word of God, and describes the many ways he treasures it in vs.12-16. But the key is that all of this study and proclamation are applied in his own life, that I might not sin against you (v.11).

Hebrews 5:1-10 – We could spend time talking about the beautiful theology here that describes Jesus as the greatest last and only perfect high priest, the one who can – like human high priests of old – empathize with us in our sinfulness because He too was tempted. But unlike other priests, the one who himself is not sinful and therefore can atone for us perfectly and fully in his own sacrifice. Great stuff. But let’s be honest, what most people are immediatley captivated by is Melchizedek. So go ahead and read through Genesis 14. We meeet Melchizedek starting in verse 18. We are told first that he is a king, and secondly that he is a priest of God Most High. These roles are not combined when God allows for kings to rule his people later on. But Melchizedek is both. Not only is he both, he is king of Salem, which we would link to Jerusalem, meaning that a full millenium before David conquers Jerusalem and makes it his capital, Jerusalem is already ruled by a devotee of the Most High God. Moreover, this king provides Abram with bread and wine, which our minds link to the Last Supper and the bread and wine of the new covenant in Jesus Christ. That’s all we know about Melchizedek, other than a brief mention in Psalm 110, which in turn is quoted by Paul (most likely) in Hebrews. Rather than try to discern the mystery in this person, I like to focus on this reality – the Bible tells the story of God’s people as ancestors of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. It does not necessarily tell us about all of God’s people, or all the things we might be curious to know about the Holy Spirit’s work. If we despair that God’s people seem to be dwindling, we ought to remember the Holy Spirit is bound to surprise all of us not simply with how He does things but what He’s doing and how far reaching it is!

Mark 10:32-45 – The opening two verses of this reading are considered optional in the lectionary but I think they provide good context for the main reading assignment. For the third and final time in Mark’s gospel, Jesus provides his followers with an glimpse of what lies ahead. I love the way Mark talks about those traveling with Jesus. His disciples are amazed, but the larger group of followers that trail behind are afraid. What is the cause of the disciples amazement? The previous sections of the chapter don’t seem to point clearly to an answer, unless they are contemplating the hundredfold promise of recompense in eternal life. And if this is the case, perhaps we can understand James and John’s request more clearly. They want glory, but they want the highest glory, which in that day was indicated by nearness to the host at a banquet. The closer you sat to the host, the more honored you were.

It’s easy to take offense at their request, to see it as a self-serving move of glory. But perhaps there is another aspect. James and John believe what Jesus says. They believe that Jesus will truly reign. They believe He is the true and eternal king, and their request takes this at face value. We know you will rule forever and we look forward to that reality so firmly that we already know where we want to sit at the celebration banquet table!

Like the other disciples it is easy to be indignant with them. But perhaps their honesty is simply blowing our own cover. Who among us does not expect – or at least hope – to be seated in a place of honor in the kingdom of heaven? Who among us is truly free of even the smallest shred of ego or pride of place? Perhaps it would be better to be more honest about that and hear Jesus’ response to James and John as a response to our own ambitions. Jesus doesn’t get to decide who is most honored in the Kingdom of Heaven after himself. God the Father is handling the seating chart, and therefore we should trust that wherever we end up sitting, it will be glorifying first and foremost to God, and will in no way be able to be construed in any way as a slight or derogatory statement about us.

Reading Ramblings – March 14, 2021

March 7, 2021

Date: Fourth Sunday in Lent – March 14, 2021

Texts: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

Context: The solution to our sinful condition must come from God alone. We are not capable of adequate repentance or changes in our lives to merit God’s love and favor in and of ourselves. As much as we dislike our situation we are powerless to change it. Therefore we must depend always and only on God’s Word of grace to us rather than looking to ourselves for justification, for evidence we are worthy. There is no worthiness in ourselves, but we are made worthy to the glory of God when we receive the gift of the Son of God’s blood on our behalf.

Numbers 21:4-9 – Another passage of God’s people complaining about God’s lack of provision for them. It might be somewhat unremarkable, but part of the remarkableness of this passage is not simply the matter of poisonous snakes and God’s rescue of his ungrateful children, but the passage immediately before it. The chapter opens with some of God’s people being taken captive by a hostile kingdom. They ask God to allow them to free their friends and family and God grants this. We see a more appropriate relationship between the people of God and their God, relying on him for deliverance and remaining faithful to their promises to him. They understand it is God providing for them and are grateful for it – the complete opposite of our reading for today. It helps make what might otherwise seem a rather harsh response from God a bit more understandable. How short our memories are! How quickly we are to perceive a lack of care on God’s part, and in other moments to be completely trusting! Yet God’s people eventually return to trust, albeit after a somewhat painful experience!

Psalm 107:1-9 – The psalmist calls God’s people immediately to an affirmation of God’s goodness and his enduring, steadfast love (v.1). We are reminded of how He has saved us and gathered us together (vs.2-3). But that doesn’t mean we never deal with difficult things. Israel’s wilderness wanderings are remembered in vs.4-5. There were definitely times when, by their eyes and measures, God had no idea what He was doing and seemed to be leading them to their death. God’s people are called not just to remember the difficulty though, but how God provided for them, ultimately establishing them in a city rather than leading them endlessly through a wilderness (v.7). God is to be praised for this specific example of his goodness and steadfast love, one of several examples the psalmist will allude to. The psalmist will end (v.43) as he begins, calling the faithful to recall not simply their difficulties – we’re naturally inclined to do that! – but also God’s steadfast love.

Ephesians 2:1-10 – Reliance on ourselves is no such thing. Any time we are not reliant on God we can be assured we are relying on Satan. We would still be relying on Satan were it not for the grace of God brought to us by God the Holy Spirit, who presents to us God the Son on the cross for us. Our life stems from Christ’s death. This offering was made before we were even aware of it – before we were even born, frankly. God’s solution to our sinful slavery to Satan stands objectively in history and need not be questioned. Nor need anything more be added to it. Like the Israelites in the Old Testament reading, we only have the choice of whether to trust God’s Word. Do we believe He can and will save us from our sin, or will we die in our stubborn rejection? Our salvation is not our doing – not even our faith is our doing. We either trust God’s Word or we don’t. If we do, then the love of God in Jesus Christ is what saves us, as it becomes subjective – to and for us. And if we don’t trust God, it doesn’t change the reality of what He has done for us, but rather shows how we refused. But we should never doubt that God desires we trust him, and trust that his love towards us is real and true and good and that regardless of who we have been in the past, He is ready to work with us and through us to further his plans and his glory.

John 3:14-21 – Jesus allows Nicodemus to engage him in discussion but Nicodemus’ apparent confusion is no deterrent to Jesus disclosing who He is and why He has come. What God did on a smalll scale for his people in the wilderness – saving them from serpent venom – He will do on the large scale through Jesus, lifting his Son up on the cross that any and all who look to him in hope might live. Jesus is provided as the cure to our sinfulness. His presence in that respect is one of salvation, not judgment. The judgment is already in place. Sin is already at work in our bodies. He does not introduce anything new into the equation in terms of our condition. We are no worse off with Jesus here. Rather, He provides the alternative to the natural ramifications of the sin in us, just as the bronze serpent in the wilderness offered an alternative to the natural ramifications of deadly venom in the bloodstream. The judgment of God has already been rendered on a sinful creation, and that judgment is guilty. There is no one who does not fall under this judgment both in terms of being brought sinful into the world and in their own sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. The poison is already working in us. Will we trust the promises of God the Father in Jesus the Christ that faith and trust in his death and resurrection will remove the poison and save our lives?

Every person who encounters must answer this fundamental question – who is Jesus of Nazareth? He leaves three options to choose from, as C.S. Lewis once observed. He might be a lunatic, a crazed man with delusions of grandeur. He might be an evil man, knowing he is lying outright and that his lies will likely lead to his own death as well as the deaths of those around him. Those could both be options, unlike the popular alternative, that Jesus was a good teacher who was misunderstood. Good teachers don’t claim to come from God to deliver people from their sins! He’s either a liar, a lunatic, or the third option – Lord. Maybe He is exactly who He claims to be, and does exactly what He asserts He does for us.

This is the question each person must answer about Jesus. And a liar or a lunatic can’t save us from our brokenness. Only a Lord can do that.

Reading Ramblings – March 7, 2021

February 28, 2021

Date: Third Sunday in Lent – March 7, 2021

Texts: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 2:13-25

Context: Sin mangles and obfuscates our relationship with God, ourselves, one another and creation. We are incapable of knowing what is truly best or right. Every faculty we have is affected – our will, our reason, our emotions, our senses. There is no means for us to obtain a clear and objective understanding of ourselves and reality. Therefore God must reveal these things to us or we will remain in perpetual darkness. God reveals truth about how things are supposed to function, and the sinfulness in us rebels against it. It seems too foreign, too difficult. And we do not trust or cannot clearly define the place where God’s will becomes obscured with our own sinfulness. We may be able to learn much about the world and ourselves and one another, but our knowledge must always be checked against what God has revealed to us.

Exodus 20:1-17 – God delivers his people from slavery and genocide. Exclusively by his own means and power, He demonstrates his authority over one of the most advanced polytheistic religious landscapes of the day. The Egyptians are shown their gods and goddesses are incapable of preventing God from doing as He pleases – their gods are as nothing! God also demonstrates his identity and power to his own enslaved people. The relationship He established with them is a distant memory, but his salvific actions on their behalf are current events to them, and they are firsthand witnesses. But witnessing the power of God does not ensure a proper relationship with him. God must not simply dazzle us but instruct us. He leads his people physically through the Red Sea and the wilderness in power and majesty, but He must still reveal the depth of their brokenness, the depth of their need for him. So long as we presume to be able to handle things on our own terms, we remain indifferent to God and feel it our prerogative to pick and choose from his decrees. Such an attitude is dangerously ignorant of the depth of our sin and our utter dependence on the grace and mercy of God to save us from it. In encountering the revealed Word and will of God we either are humbled by our own brokenness and receive his Word gladly, or we reject it completely and insist on being suffocated by our own sinfulness.

Psalm 19 – The proper response to the Word and will of God is, of course, to receive it with gladness and trust! After all, we can see in nature and within ourselves the truth of what He tells us. We can recognize that, despite our propensity to prefer our ways to his, his ways are actually objectively better. As the Word of God curtails my own sinful impulses it isn’t hard to see how that curtailment benefits not just others but myself as well. Verse 12 is key here – who can discern his errors? We are unable to see the depth of our sinfulness and must trust God to reveal it to us. Like children refused their demands we grouse at God at times and consider him too harsh. But as with a good parent, what God restricts or permits is always ultimately for the best not just of ourselves but all of creation around us. As we find our proper place as creatures rather than gods, we can hope for actual healing and reconciliation in part as we await for the final declaration of our righteousness in Christ, and the restoration of perfection to creation.

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 – Paul prefaces the heart of the issues facing Corinth, a confusion of the way of God with the way of the world. Like the Corinthians we are people of the world. Trained and molded in worldly schools and businesses, trained in worldly ways of thinking and making decisions. We absorb this naturally. But in Christ we must constantly, actively consider the reality that we are creatures of the world as well as new creations in Christ, and this can and should set up in us conflict. We should each encounter moments when the Word of God leads us in one direction when our instinct, preference, or common sense leads us in the opposite. The entirety of Scripture shows us a God who leads in ways unexpected, whether it’s leading his people out of slavery and into a barren wilderness instead of to more welcoming and suitable climates, or using the incarntion and death of his eternal Son to accomplish victory over sin, Satan and death. Intuition is flawed and must be questioned constantly. The lines we arbitrarily draw between worldly wisdom and God’s wisdom and will are just that – arbitrary at best and not always helpful. And when we must make a choice between the two, the correct and best option is never the worldly way.

John 2:13-25 – Not even our religious lives are free from error in understanding and practice. It is easy to read the Bible and come to the conclusion that those people were somehow stupid and we are not. They did not accept Jesus and we have. They needed to be chastised and redirected, but we do not. By the grace of God we live on the other side of the Incarnation of the Son of God, and therefore can look back to his life and work and compare that to the Word of God to find it in harmony and fulfillment. But if we presume that we have everything figured out and are free from error in our religious thinking and doing, we are more than likely mistaken. Only God can tell the extent of that error, for the time being. But we should presume that, like God’s people throughout history, we need to take his Word seriously. And in humility we should recognize we will not have his Word perfectly incorporated into our worship life either corporately or personally.

The last few verses of this reading are fascinating and instructive. Faith in Jesus is not perfect. It is sufficient, but it may well also be mistaken in areas and always prone to the selfish manipulations of sin. So it is that Jesus does not entrust himself even to those who believe in him. This is the same Greek word that describes our faith in Jesus. Jesus does not have similar faith in us, as it were. He comes to save us – we contribute nothing towards his work, not even our approval or faith. We add nothing to what Jesus has done, we can only accept what He has accomplished on our behalf.

Jesus understands – as Peter’s rebuke in last week’s Gospel from Mark 8 makes clear – that even his faithful followers are sinful still and prone to be dangers to themselves and, in regards to his incarnate ministry, even to Jesus himself. While we give thanks to God the Holy Spirit for bringing us to faith, we need to remember our faith is not perfect. This should temper our interactions with brothers and sisters in the faith from different traditions/denominations, emphasizing the importance of holding to the core tenets of the faith while recognizing that on smaller issues we are likely to disagree and such disagreement should not be unloving or uncharitable and not treated as matters of eternal significance. We will fail in this – as in all things! – and should seek forgiveness regularly for it.

Reading Ramblings – February 28, 2021

February 21, 2021

Date: Second Sunday in Lent ~ February 28, 2021

Texts: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 5:1-11; Mark 8:27-38

Context: Lent emphasizes repentance as a result of self-examination. Our awareness of our sinfulness drives us to repentance and reliance on the grace of God in Jesus Christ rather than our own assessment of ourselves as somehow worthy or deserving of God’s good graces. The readings emphasize the unilateral movement of God towards us, rather than what is often described in certain Christian circles as a bilateral movement – if we do this, God will do that. Scripture makes it clear we bring nothing to the arrangement. We can only respond to what God does for us.

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 – Another reading from Genesis grounds our human condition and God’s solution to our sinful rebellion in the oldest stories of God’s interactions with his people. Abram is 99 years old and still does not have the heir God promised him. It should be clear that, literally, Abram does not have it in him, and neither does his wife. Nor would anyone expect them to! The emphasis is that God will do what God has promised. This comes directly after Abram and Sarai attempting to fulfill God’s promises by their own mechanisms (Genesis 16). What looks nominally as success is not the same as God fulfilling his promise to them. Rather than chastising or punishing Abram and Sarai, God renews his pledge to them, signifying this by renaming them, something only the head of a family or clan could do. God is to be the head of Abraham and Sarah and they are to trust and obey him as they would their earthly father. In return God does for them what no earthly father could do – provide them a family despite their advanced ages.

Psalm 22:23-31 – Jesus quotes from the opening of this psalm as He hangs near death on the cross on Good Friday. But the portion we read this morning is profoundly different. The speaker is no longer afflicted, forsaken, and seemingly beyond all rescue. All the pressures of time and space in the opening 2/3 of the psalm are now gone. The speaker now praises God at leisure, enjoining the congregation of the faithful to join him (v.25). He testifies to the goodness of God, standing on the other side of his tribulations and trials. This transition began in v.21b, but comes to fullness through the end of the psalm. Assurance is made that all of creation will one day witness what the speaker now affirms. All will one day worship God, ascribing to him his proper due as the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier of all the faithful. This we are called to remember and proclaim in Lent as well as at all times. Our suffering and sinfulness are not the final words in our lives. We anticipate life and victory! We anticipate perfection and the end of all suffering! It is our duty and opportunity to proclaim this here and now, when the victory is far from obvious to so many. Our faithfulness will act as a pointer to the presence and goodness of our victorious God until the day He is revealed in fullness.

Romans 5:1-11 – Our culture deems suffering of any kind to be an evil avoided at all cost, whether through terminating unwanted life on either end of the age spectrum, or by attempting to prevent any word that could conceivably hurt or offend someone. This is testimony to the reality that suffering shouldn’t exist in creation but does. Good efforts to completely eliminate suffering inevitably result in other forms of suffering sometimes far greater than the initial suffering addressed. Christians might seek to avoid or inflict suffering but it is inevitable. What isn’t inevitable – or intuitive – is the Biblical principle that even in suffering God is at work. Therefore Christians suffer as no other people on earth. With hope – not just for the end of suffering, but that even in the midst of suffering God the Holy Spirit is present and active. Our suffering can have meaning and purpose because of the work of God the Father through God the Son, Jesus the Christ, who suffered and died and rose from death in victory, assuring us that suffering and death are not the last words in our lives, and that hope is therefore always present and will not disappoint us!

Mark 8:27-38 – Peter has the right answer but the wrong understanding. He knows the words to say but doesn’t understand what those words mean. His faith is real despite it being misguided. Peter is rebuked but not excommunicated. Knowledge can be increased. Wisdom can be received. Error can be corrected. Jesus’ rebuke is intended to bring Peter back into line and his proper place as disciple rather than lord.

Jesus outlines a path by which He offers himself for the life of the world. This makes no sense and Peter recognizes this. But the glory of God the Son is made most manifest in his willngness to divest himself of his glory that He might offer himself in our place to suffering and death. It is by refusing to do things the expected way, the simpler way, that He accomplishes the greatest and most lasting of things – victory over our enemy Satan and the sin that riddles our life and leads us towards death. We are saved, but that saving is entirely due to the actions of God the Father through God the Son on our behalf, which we are brought to faith and trust in by God the Holy Spirit. We are passive recipients of the eternal goodness and mercy of God. It as though we are plucked unconscious from the ocean and saved from certain drowning. Even if we come to our senses in the midst of our rescue, our well-being depends entirely on trusting to the efforts already underway on our behalf rather than rejecting them in denial of our situation or in preference for another rescue plan.

Lent drives us to consider our helplessness to save ourselves, and more importantly to give thanks and praise to the God who refused to allow us to simply drown in our sin. The reality of Good Friday is truly horrific, and yet through this most unlikely of means, all creation is extended the forgiving grace of God.

The New America

February 19, 2021

Maybe Australia can be the new America. Somebody has to refuse to cave to these massive companies and their arrogant demands to dictate the terms (and exceptions) by which they should be allowed to operate simply because they’re big.

Ashes, Ashes…

February 17, 2021

Another Ash Wednesday, and Christians around the world will participate in an ancient rite linking us to our mortality and to the promise of God that in Christ, our death is not the end. Growing up in a particular culture and religious tradition I presume a certain uniformity to rites such as the Imposition of Ashes. But that would be mistaken. Things are done in different ways and different places, something that shouldn’t be surprising but a good reminder of our unity in the midst of variation.

Death – Again

February 16, 2021

I’ve written repeatedly over the years on the topic of how a Christian approaches death and burial (here, here, here, here, and here). I keep revisiting the topic because the topic continues to be revisited in our larger culture. Burial was considered the norm for many, many years. In part because of religious tradition and no doubt in part to simply not having many other options. But these days, options are what people are all about. And as awareness increases of the rather unhealthy amount of chemicals normally used to prepare a body for burial and the amount of space dead people take up, options continue to evolve. Not surprisingly some of these options embrace some rather non-traditional (to say nothing of unBiblical) approaches to creating a palatable way of thinking about death and the great beyond (or lack thereof).

The latest article is here. As opposed to burying, burning, or liquifying the body, this option turns human bodies into compost in the span of 30 days by letting nature take its course, probably with a bit of eco/bio – friendly encouragement. The result is compost, literally. Fit for use in your garden or wherever.

Once again, when I die, I expect my body will decay. That will happen regardless of the particular means by which my body is disposed of. But how my body reaches that state of decomposition and why can matter a great deal, particularly as a Christian who hopes and trusts in the resurrection of the dead, and therefore of the Biblical beauty and dignity and sanctity my human body is imbued with. Unlike many other religions and philosophies the Bible is unilaterally pro-matter. Matter matters, you might say. We are created physical and spiritual beings. Our wholeness exists in the combination of the spiritual and the material. The Biblical picture of life after death is not immaterial or incorporeal but very, very human. Perfected, to be sure, but human – body and spirit.

If you’re interested, a handful of good Biblical reference points on this would include Job, the Psalms, Isaiah, John, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, just to name a few.

As such, I want those who live on after me to know what my hope is. What my trust is. What I look forward to. And therefore what I do with my body as well as why I do it matters. That’s much more what people need to think about rather than the particular means.

What we do generally is associated with a why, though, and we may not control that why. So the composting company has a why to go along with it’s what, a means of helping people be comfortable with the idea of death itself as well as the particulars of their own death and the aftermath. The article references the idea of a giant circle of carbon exchange moving from the universe and into human bodies and back into the universe. Goodness. Am I really just a collection of carbon molecules? Am I not also spiritual and unique from any other person in all of creation? The Bible isn’t clear as to whether a pattern of carbon exchange will end when my Lord returns, but I’d much rather people understood that there’s a Lord who is returning than provide them some sort of psycho-chemistry lesson!

Not surprisingly, the Catholics are the ones objecting to this new body-disposal system, though I’d argue all Christians should object to it. A brief doctrinal statement on this issue can be found here, and does a great job of explaining why Church traditions are more than just traditions, but means of ensuring the proper message is sent and received by those who live on after the deceased.

It may well be possible for someone to choose the compost option and still strongly convey their hope in Christ through their memorial service. But the problem remains that only the people present for that service are going to hear the Christian message. Others who find out about how my body was made into compost are going to assume – rightly so – that perhaps the company’s way of explaining such an option appealed to me and was somehow my belief as well. That would be more than just unfortunate, it would be unfaithful of me to allow that risk.

I’m not a big one for visiting grave sites. I don’t have a personal need to do that. But I do see a value in having a place not just to be remembered, but to remind people that, barring our Lord’s return first, we’re all going to die. How do we live our lives in a way that acknowledges this without obsessing about it or pretending that our death is somehow made better by being ecologically sensitive? My death is transformed by Christ and him alone. Without such hope, being ecologically conscious or not really makes no difference and has no lasting meaning as we’ll all ultimately be vaporized when our sun explodes.

Legalized Drugs

February 15, 2021

Our state legalized marijuana several years ago. I believe it was purely a move motivated by money – the thought of tax revenues on legalized cannabis are certainly near-irresistible on paper. But legalizing drugs causes a host of problems when characterizing the crime that goes hand-in-hand with illegal drug sales.

Case in point – the murder of two college students last month in town. They were found shot in the head in their vehicle, one dead at the scene and the other dying after time in the hospital. It turns out they were probably shot when they attempted to sell half a pound of marijuana. The people allegedly buying it decided to just take it and kill the two students instead.

It’s a horrible situation to be sure. But I was appalled at how the situation was described by the county Sheriff. The victims of this terrible crime were two college students who made some bad choices and fell victim to what is often thought to be a victimless crime – the illicit sale of drugs, in this case marijuana. You see marijuana is legal here from a legalized, licensed dispensary. Buying and selling it from anyone other than a licensed dispensary is illegal, a nuance that may or may not have been lost on the two young men.

But the sheriff’s description makes it seem like a tragic happening in an otherwise rather innocent context. As though the two murdered boys really weren’t doing anything all that bad. They made bad choices and fell victim. Let’s be accurate, their bad choice was trying to illegally sell drugs. We used to have a name for those folks – drug dealers – and the understanding is that they were anything but innocent. In fact, it was common knowledge as I was growing up that however popular and accessible drugs might be, there was an inherent risk and danger in acquiring them, let alone trying to sell them. Drug dealers didn’t fall victim. They took calculated risks based on an assumption of reward. Knowing those risks, they were often prepared to defend themselves. If they failed to protect themselves, it was understood this was a reasonable risk of dealing in illegal drugs. The people involved in that line of work were understood to be dangerous and sometimes well-organized and backed by powerful gangs or criminal networks who wouldn’t take kindly to an amateur setting up shop in their territory.

But because pot is legal, it creates this confusion, as though there really aren’t still drug dealers and gangs and crime syndicates who make an obscene amount of money selling illegal drugs. Maybe not marijuana so much, but then again, maybe still. The people I know who are habitual pot users don’t always (or ever) buy from dispensaries as the prices are oftentimes higher and the quality not necessarily better. They have a network of friends and aficionados who can generally supply them what they need.

The impression of dabbling in drugs as legal or victimless clouds the whole arena considerably, creating a smoke screen (ha!) that hides the very real and brutal side of drug dealing. I have no idea if these two murdered college kids sold pot or other drugs on a regular basis. Probably not, or they might have been more cautious. But they should have known that this is what they were doing – acting as drug dealers, which is an inherently dangerous and illegal line of work. If they had thought about it in those terms they might still be alive.

Reading Ramblings – February 21, 2021

February 14, 2021

Date: First Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2021

Texts: Genesis 22:1-18; Psalm 25:1-10; James 1:12-18; Mark 1:9-15

Context: The season of Lent begins. This takes us out of Ordinary Time, and marks the binding of the texts together thematically, something that will continue until June and the season of Pentecost. Lent is the season of self-examination and penance, an anticipation of both the inconceivable sacrifice of the Son of God on Good Friday for our sake, and his glorious vindication on Easter morning. It is the oldest and in many ways deepest season of the Church Year, predating Christmas. We are called in this season, whether we deprive ourselves of meat or some other pleasantry as was once more traditional, to consider our sinfulness that necessitates the blood of Christ to be poured out for us. In some ways this is awkward because Sundays are not technically counted as part of the season of Lent and remain mini-celebrations of Easter. It is awkward also because we live in Christ’s victory over our sin. Our self-examination then is not in uncertainty over whether or not God has forgiven us – He has! Rather it serves as an opportunity to allow the Holy Spirit to lead us away from sinful habits in our lives we might overlook, and to focus our hearts and minds more specifically on what we receive in Christ.

Genesis 22:1-18 – What God did not require Abraham to give – his only son – God the Father does not withhold in his only-begotten Son, Jesus the Christ. The experience of Abraham in this chapter has troubled many people. It’s important to note that we are told immediately this is a test. We are to be under no illusions as to what is going on here or if God truly desired Abraham to sacrifice his son. God is testing Abraham. Translations vary as to how they translate the Hebrew, whether as test, tempt, tried, prove. Perhaps this chapter is valuable as a litmus test for our attitudes towards God. Is He truly the loving father who cares for us, or is He a trickster or a capricious entity? Abraham did not necessarily know at this point, but Abraham likely also did not see God’s request as problematic. Sad, to be sure, but child sacrifice was hardly unknown in that age and area of the world. And, as Luther asserts in his commentary, Abraham demonstrates a strength of faith that trusts God is capable of anything He desires, including restoring Isaac should He require Abraham to sacrifice him. Because of God the Son’s obedient sacrifice on our behalf we need never wonder whether God might as a similar thing of you and I. We are free in his grace and mercy to be advocates of human life from conception through old age.

Psalm 25:1-10 – The Lord must teach us his ways and we must want to learn them constantly as they often contradict worldly wisdom and expectations. Yet faithfulness insists that it is far better to listen to God’s Word than the dictates of human conscience or public opinion. Vindication will come, whether in our lifetime or not until our Lord’s return and all things are revealed for their proper worth (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). We rely on the grace and mercy of God that He continues to remind us of his revealed will. He continues to repeat his Word to us over and over, knowing both our poor memories and the active distortion sin causes whether from within ourselves or from the broken world and people around us. But we can be assured that God’s way is best. Not that it will be the most popular (it won’t be) or the easiest (it won’t be) or that following it might not entail sacrifices large and small. But of all the shifting sands of human ideas and conventions and desires, the Word of God stands as one firm rock we can cling to in confidence.

James 1:12-18 – What caught my eye in this reading are verses 12-15. In particular verse 14 which identifies temptation as an appeal by a person’s own desires. We typically say temptation comes from within, from the world, and from Satan. But the reality is that temptation is only really temptation if it’s something we want. The world or Satan might suggest to me the idea of starting an illegal dog-fighting business, but since I am disgusted by the very idea, it’s not a very real temptation. But if it’s suggested to me by Satan or the world that I do something I already have a desire to do, even though I know it’s wrong? That’s a temptation. Abraham was tested rather than tempted, in part because he had no internal desire to slay his son. God did not appeal to some sinful deficiency or proclivity on Abraham’s part but rather demanded obedience to a command. Thus, by James’ definition, God certainly didn’t tempt Abraham even had James not just asssured us God doesn’t tempt people!

Mark 1:9-15 – Jesus as the Second Adam must demonstrate his willingness and ability – as far as his human nature and will – to remain faithful to the leading of God the Father where Adam failed. His past obedience is affirmed and commended by God the Father’s exclamation of approval at his baptism. But that obedience is only the start – obedience must be maintained, and if perhaps Jesus was shielded from direct Satanic attacks as a young man, now that He prepares to launch his public ministry He must face Satan in the fullness of Jesus’ human weakness. He must face Satan as one of us. Mark does not record the interchange that occurs, and apparently considers even the outcome of that temptation to be so obvious as to not need stating! Matthew 4 and Luke 4 both provide fuller accounts of the nature of the temptations Jesus faced as well as Jesus’ fidelity to his heavenly Father.

If we rely on James’ (and the Holy Spirit’s) insights to temptation, it’s easy to see Satan’s offerings to Jesus find no footing for temptation. What Jesus desires is to be obedient to his father, and perhaps at this early stage of his ministry Jesus is not yet worried about the very real and very painful sacrifice He will be called upon to make. While Jesus may be weaker later on, and find temptation more difficult to resist (Mark 8), here He deflects Satan’s offerings with ease, relying not on angelic protection or some other unique power but rather with the Word of God.

Jesus enters the wilderness in a re-enactment of the Exodus. The Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness because they were too afraid to enter the Promised Land. Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness, but is faithful and obedient while the Israelites were not. He functions here as a summation of Israel and all the people of God, being faithful and obedient where they and we can not and are not.

In verses 12 and 13 we hear elements of prophecy as well, particularly Isaiah 43:19-20. Jesus is accomplishing already what was prophesied, a restoration of the harmony and peace of the created order. That restoration is very limited for the moment, but reveals what Jesus is about, and what the kingdom of God He proclaims in vs. 14-15 will be like.

Condemning Without Examination

February 11, 2021

This article is a fascinating example of the importance of analyzing the intent of a communication. What is it the writer or speaker or producer wants to occur in my thoughts or actions after ingesting their work?

The tone of the article throughout condemns the various bans on facemasks throughout Sweden during the COVID pandemic thus far, repeatedly juxtaposing Swedish stances on the issue with the larger body of established evidence. We are to shake our heads at those poor Swedes whose government agencies have failed them during this crisis by communicating inaccurately and ineffectively. We will, rather the author intends it or not (which means they probably do) also likely lament the supposed fate of the Swedes. After all, if their government directly contradicted prevailing medical opinions, was silly enough to even communicate their concerns about the safety of facemasks to the international medical community, and then did a terrible job at communicating the need for facemasks and under what conditions, the average reader would likely conclude that things in Sweden are far worse than places that followed more conventional wisdom and communicated clearly and strongly to require facemasks as protection against COVID.

But while this is likely the inference of the average reader, the article nowhere bothers to confirm this reaction (let alone dissuade it). The author clearly feels Sweden was out of place in the course of action it has taken in downplaying the efficacy and safety of requiring citizens to wear masks. The author certainly substantiates with external links that such a course of action stands in marked contrast to what most of the rest of the world recommends. But the real proof in whether a travesty has taken place or not is whether this decidedly different approach resulted in a pandemic situation worse than those countries pushing mask wearing. In other words, going a different direction can be good, bad, or indifferent based on the results. Or it can be simply dismissed as bad in itself – taking a path contrary to the established norms of the larger group is always bad, regardless of whether what the larger group recommends is actually helpful or not. That’s ultimately what this article leaves you with.

But that’s not necessarily true. It can be. But as a rule of thumb, a guideline to live life by, it can be very dangerous and misleading, and is actually a logical fallacy – an appeal to the majority (ad populum, to use the Latin). Just because more people think something is true – or because a particular group of experts think something is true – does not necessarily mean it’s true. It’s certainly something to take into consideration! But the demonstration of whether they’re right or not must lie somewhere else or in something more than opinion.

So let’s do some research. Sweden has a population of roughly 10,400,000 people. The World Health Organization says there have been just over 604,000 reported cases of COVID, and just under 12,4000 deaths. That pans out to an infection rate of the overall population of about 6%, and a mortality rate of COVID infection of 2%. For comparison, the US has a population of 330,000,000. The WHO reports US COVID numbers as just over 27,000,000 infections and 468,000 deaths. That comes out to an infection rate of 8% and a mortality rate of 1.7%. Arguing for any number of mitigating factors like population density and we could generously say that the infection rates are roughly similar and perhaps the mortality rates are a smidge higher in Sweden than in the US.

What about a European comparison? Germany has a population of approximately 83,000,000 people, of whom 2,320,000 have had COVID leading to 64,200 deaths. That comes out to an infection rate of not quite 3% and a mortality rate of not quite 3%. Germany’s infection percent is half of Sweden’s but it’s mortality rate is 50% higher. Interesting trade-off.

The United Kingdom has implemented increasingly extremely restrictions and punishments to discourage gatherings and travel and stem the high rates of infection. The UK has a population of 68,000,000, of whom 4,000,000 have contracted COVID and 115,500 have died. That yields an infection rate of almost 6% and a mortality rate of just under 3%.

So it would seem that while Sweden’s advice on health masks has been at times contrary to prevailing ideas on the efficacy of face masks, and at other times confusing to the point of being almost useless, the resulting levels of infections and deaths have not been noticeably higher than those countries that have imposed very harsh restrictions and mandated facemasks in all public spaces (at the very least!).

Perhaps COVID isn’t the best way to examine issues of what and how governments communicate to their people. Or if you’re going to do that, you should focus more exclusively on that rather than implied judgment about whether what was communicated (however poorly) was the right thing to try and communicate or not. I think you could write an article showcasing poor communication skills without also implying pretty heavily that not only was the communication poor, the message was wrong.