Apocrypha: 1 Maccabees

January 9, 2020

This is perhaps one of the  most  useful apocryphal writings I’ve read thus far.  It provides practical, detailed historical information for changes in the Holy Land in the centuries between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Jesus.  It is not considered canonical for several reasons, the most  obvious one being the Jewish people did not consider it canonical.  It was authored sometime after 134 BC and written in Greek rather than Hebrew, which many consider reason to rule it out of canonical status as an Old Testament book.  The apostles and Jesus do not refer to this book either.  St. Jerome and others assert Flavius Josephus as the author but there is considerable skepticism of this claim.

As a historian, the overall  arch of these events has been known to me for years, but it was wonderful to finally read the actual material itself.  It goes into great detail, outlining multiple battles with multiple different powers and personalities.  It is bound together by the figure of Mattathias and his sons – John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar (to a lesser extent) and Jonathan.  We are witness to the initial interactions between God’s people and the Roman Empire – a relationship that would prove fateful for the next several hundred years.  We hear about the institution of what we know today as Hanukkah as well as several other festivals that don’t appear to be observed any longer.

This is definitely a worthwhile read as a historical document.  Certainly it has value as such whether or not it is considered canonical, and I have no difficulty seeing how this could be a valued part of Hebrew history without being given canonical status in the Old Testament.  Theologically it demonstrates powerful faith in God against overwhelming odds, and details in very straightforward, non-theological terms how God miraculously enabled his people  to triumph against far more numerous and powerful enemies.

Grateful

January 8, 2020

I’m often critical of the pervasiveness of technology in our culture today.  I’ll likely remain critical.  But I would be dishonest and remiss if I weren’t to also say that I’m grateful.

I’ve been tinkering with computers to one degree or another for close to 40  years now, and I can only say I’m so very, very, very,  very, very grateful for how easy it is to get a system setup and running these days compared to way back when.  I just set up a brand new PC in about 20 minutes.  That includes opening the box and unpacking it.  Granted, with this ease comes a lesser degree of control, but frankly, 99% of people using computers don’t need or even want the level of control we used to have to have in terms of installing drivers and this and that and the other.  In 20 minutes my system  is configured (mostly on its own) and connected to the Internet.  I’m already downloading and installing the additional freeware I want to use.

It’s amazing, and I’m grateful.

But still, get off your smartphones people!

 

Audiophora

January 6, 2020

What sort of new challenges for the new year?  That’s the question I try to ask myself.  What can I contribute to my own growth as well as reaching others with the Gospel in some respect?  For a long time I’ve resisted the trend of jumping online in terms of uploading worship services or sermons to YouTube or other social media.  I’ve long maintained that for an Internet audience, content needs to be created specifically for such an audience.  What I preach on Sunday morning is to my congregation.  It won’t necessarily translate universally (nor should it, I argue).

But it’s also obvious that online resources are a logical thing to do.  What I lack is both technical assistance towards this end or partners in any other sense of the word.  I’d like to do something with people, but that’s not necessarily something I can dictate.

So I’m putting together a light-weight recording studio upstairs at church, and will begin doing short audio recordings suitable for an online audience.  As I’ve considered this, I’ve come up with an idea to go along with it – audiophora.org.  I’ve registered the domain name but haven’t started setting up the site yet, so don’t bother trying to find it  :-)

The idea is that it would be an indexed collection of short (3-minutes or less is what I have in mind) audio files.  Some of it would be definitional in nature  – theological terms and concepts with concise definitions.  Each entry would in turn be cross-indexed with other terms, verses, etc. that come up as part of that definition.  So if I do an entry on salvation, say, then it would be cross referenced to other concepts brought up in the definition of salvation but not themselves defined there (like savior, sin, etc.).

All of this should be searchable as well as hyperlinked, so people can either find something precise or follow the rabbit-hole of hyperlinks as long as their heart desires.

Perhaps there will be full-scale studies here as well, but also broken down into bite size pieces.  Maybe one verse at a time, with a larger file entry for an entire chapter as well, or even an entire book.  I’m open to suggestions, and it would be fun to collaborate with other folks who would like to contribute, either in terms of words, concepts, etc. they would like defined, or who might even want to contribute their own audio  explanations of certain things.

Ah, but that name, tho – audiophora.com.

It’s a combination of audio and adiaphora.  Audio because, well, duh, they’re sound recordings.  Adiaphora is a philosophical and theological term which has come to mean something that isn’t either explictly commanded or forbidden.  So what color carpet should a church have?  That’s adiaphora – there’s wiggle room to make decisions.  It doesn’t mean there aren’t good things to consider, but it means the  answer isn’t a forgone conclusion via Scripture.

I’ll start setting things up in the next week or so and then do some trial recordings.  I’ll be eager for feedback and input if you’re so inclined.

Reading Ramblings – January 12, 2020

January 5, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday after the Epiphany/Baptism of Our Lord – January 12, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 3:13-17

Context: If the season of Christmas calls us to contemplate the divine becoming human, the season of Epiphany calls us to affirm the divinity of the man Jesus of Nazareth. Properly distinguishing and maintaining the divinity and humanity of Jesus has traditionally been one of the central doctrinal battlegrounds. What does it mean that Jesus was both true man and true God? As soon as we attempt to say much more than this, we are likely to stray off the Biblical path into one heresy or another. We struggle to affirm the reality that Jesus is a true person in the fullest sense of the word – not just physically but in terms of his mind and will. Thus, He can be tempted, and if tempted, then it is possible for him to sin, just as Adam did. But we also maintain that in Jesus is also the full divinity of God the Son – He truly is the Word made flesh to dwell among us. Most properly, we bow in praise and adoration of God the Father who could envision such a means of victory for us, God the Son who in obedience came to be the Son of God made flesh, and God the Holy Spirit who directed and guided not just Jesus but you and I still today.

Isaiah 42:1-9 – John the Baptist likely had this passage in mind when he inquired of Jesus if He was the Messiah or not, one of our Gospel readings for Advent last year. Certainly this passage points to a special servant with a special relationship to God the Father as well as God the Holy Spirit (v.1), through which this servant will be divinely enabled to bring justice to the nations. Moreover, God the Father promises that this special servant will be a covenant (v.6) to the nations, evoking Exodus language when God created a covenant specifically with the Hebrew people. This new covenantal relationship brings about a fundamental change in the created order – bringing light, sight and freedom (vs.6-7). God communicates his intentions through Isaiah nearly 700 years before the birth of Jesus. The Word by which creation came into being will itself enter into creation as the Word made flesh, promised by God the Father himself.

Psalm 29 – A call to praise the God of creation, acknowledging him as the source of all strength and power, and therefore accorded highest glory and praise in his holiness. God’s power is described in a series of comparisons. God is more powerful than the great waters that thunder. God’s voice is greater and therefore can exert control over even this least controllable aspect of the natural world. God’s voice is also stronger than mighty trees as well as strong animals. Kadesh is a wilderness area in the north-central area of the Sinai Peninsula, yet even here God’s voice is supreme. All created order is dependent upon the voice of God that continues to create and sustain all things, so that the most appropriate response is to glorify and praise him. Because this powerful creator God is not anonymous or distant, but rather rules over his people, providing them with strength and blessing and peace in his protection. This all-powerful creator God need not be feared because He has expressed his love in relationship to his creation and particularly to his people who trust in him and praise him.

Romans 6:1-11 – What does the victory achieved by the servant of God bring to us? For Paul’s critics, his repudiation of the Law as a means to salvation must have meant Paul advocated for a libertine freedom from the Law, so that sin would be embraced because of the grace of God which alone provided forgiveness. Paul makes it clear this is not what he advocates, and any such effort to abandon the Law as a guide and protector in life is not just dangerous but foolish. Jesus has died for us and we through faith participate in that death. That death frees us from sin, not for sin! Because it isn’t simply Jesus’ death we participate in, but his resurrected life. Our life in eternity is one guided and governed by the Law, because the Law is not an arbitrary addition to creation but is woven into it and by extension, into us. It is an expression of what holiness means and looks like, and as we are now holy in the death and resurrection of Christ, we should cling to the Law not as a hope for salvation but as our future, holy reality. We are dead to the mastery sin once exercised over us as we failed to keep the Law perfectly. Jesus extends to us through faith his perfection, so that we have fulfilled the requirements of the Law and our sin is forgiven us until it is finally and eternally removed from us!

Matthew 3:13-17 – Jesus comes to be one with us, one of us, and specifically to save us from our sin, our condemnation under the Law that Paul claims we are free from in Christ. Thus Jesus arrives where John the Baptist is calling people to repentance, and where people are confessing their sins (v.6). John as the last of the Old Testament prophets well knows that Jesus alone of all people has nothing to confess, and John rightly protests Jesus’ intentions to receive his baptism of repentance. Jesus simply tells John to allow it now, in order to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus’ response acknowledges that what is about to happen is not necessary because of any sin of Jesus, but because Jesus has come to bear our sin. The one who is without sin will become the perfect, sacrificial lamb upon which the sins of all humanity will hang and die. Together, John and Jesus play their parts in this reality, and it is not necessary that John fully understand the why of it all. Isaiah conveyed the word of God that prophesied his special servant would be called in righteousness (Isaiah 42:6), and Jesus and John participate in that righteousness as they stand in the Jordan River together.

Further, Matthew asserts through his account of the Holy Spirit’s descent that Jesus is indeed the prophesied special servant. Jesus is the one who will accomplish all the prophesied renewals in the created order. God the Father picks up again the language He expressed to Moses (Exodus 4:22) and through the prophet Hosea (Hosea 11:1), as Jesus becomes all of Israel, all of God’s people in one person. One person, no less, called out of Egypt as Matthew earlier pointed out. Jesus comes to take the sins of the world upon him and offers in exchange his own holy righteousness and perfection. Through the one perfect sacrifice, atonement is made for all, and those who respond in faith to this promise receive that atonement in full.

God’s people could not be perfectly obedient, but Jesus can and will be perfectly obedient on their behalf, ultimately delivering them not just from political and economic slavery, but from sin and Satan and death. God the Father here is likely making less of a statement about Jesus’ Davidic ancestry (Psalm 2:7), and not a random statement of Trinitarian mystery and reality, but rather an assertion that Jesus now assumes all of humanity upon his shoulders. His obedience becomes the obedience of all, and Jesus stands in as the perfect son Adam was created to be but failed to be.

Jesus’ baptism then, ultimately, is for us, not for him. It marks the start of his public ministry and denotes the particular type of ministry Jesus will perform – that of saving the people of God from their sin by being the faithful son no other person in all of creation can be. John the Baptist calls people to repent of their sins and receive baptism as a sign of their sincerity and the reality of their forgiveness. Jesus enters the waters as the means through which that forgiveness will be granted. Jesus is the One with us and the One for us.

Reading Ramblings – January 5, 2020

December 29, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday after Christmas, January 5, 2020

Texts: 1 Kings 3:4-15; Psalm 119:97-104; Ephesians 1:3-14; Luke 2:40-52

Context: The readings this morning all stress the wisdom inherent in God’s Word. God as the author of all creation obviously can reveal wisdom to us in many ways, whether through the order and diversity of creation, or through his revealed, sacred Word, and most importantly through his Word made flesh, the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. As we consider the birth of our savior we cannot consider it rightly apart from this relationship, made clear in the prologue to John’s Gospel. It is not possible to receive the Wisdom of God in his Word separate from his Incarnate Wisdom, nor is it possible to somehow separate Jesus from the revealed Word of God. The two are one in the same, and both together provide us all we need to know about the world and ourselves and who we are created to be.

1 Kings 3:4-15 – Solomon is in his 40’s when he comes to the throne – hardly a little child! Yet he is wise enough to be humble, knowing the task he has inherited is massive, and even for someone raised in the court and familiar with matters of state there can never be enough wisdom for proper decisioin-making. Solomon’s request is not simply for wisdom in matters of state, but the underlying, deeper wisdom to discern good and evil. His response demonstrates a wisdom as well as humility, and God responds by rewarding Solomon with even greater wisdom and favor. But we should be cautious to treat God’s benevolence as arbitrary. Only with the possession of great wisdom, and the ability to discern good and evil can any other blessing really be received. Riches and honor are fleeting without wisdom, and many would argue length of days is also dependent on wisdom, if recent Internet trends of eating Tide pods and trying to swallow spoonfuls of cinnamon are any gauge! In blessing Solomon with divinely-given wisdom, God equips Solomon to handle the other blessings well. Not perfectly – as we know from Solomon’s full story – but better than many in his position would be expected to!

Psalm 119:97-104 – Studying the Word of God is never a pursuit without tangible benefits. Wisdom, understanding, self-discipline, obedience – these are the natural fruits of making the Word of God our primary emphasis and focus in life. Notice the blessings inherent with such study are all personal – they do not guarantee us any situational, external benefit over those who are less wise. It remains very true that sometimes those with the greatest power are the least wise. But wisdom is not dependent on external power. Wisdom and understanding can still be ours even if physical power is not. Self-discipline and obedience can be ours, even if we are denied full agency to carry them out. Likewise, the benefits of such wisdom and understanding cannot be stripped away. They remain sweet regardless of how others might try to tear us away from them. Study of God’s Word remains ever with me (v.1), a promise not simply for this life but all eternity.

Ephesians 1:3-14 – Paul packs a lot (again!) into a few number of verses, and it pays to take our time in making our way through it. Verse 3 asserts that only in Jesus, the Christ, do we receive the fullest blessings of God the Father. Apart from Jesus it is not possible to receive all of God’s blessings, though even those who reject and deny God often are blessed through his sustaining of all creation. Those who receive the full blessings of God in Jesus Christ recognize that God has chosen us from the beginning of creation. Here is where interpretation can go astray. Does the fact that God predestined you and I to faith mean He has done so while intentionally excluding others? No! It was God’s good will and pleasure – his predestination – that all be saved, all be included in his Kingdom. You and I in faith are evidence of that, as we certainly could not find or seek God out on our own! This is inclusive language, not exclusive. All are intended to receive the blessings of God. But not all will. That is not because God willed it to be so, but because of the sin at work in us and around us that prevents some from receiving the fullness of God’s grace and love.

Verse five continues this theme. God predestined that all should receive his grace and love, and only our explicit rejection of this intention and offer can exclude the grace of God the Holy Spirit from being ours. In other words, yes, we can reject the predestined grace of God. This idea offends some Christians, who insist that what God intends can never be thwarted, and leading them to extrapolate from these verses something they do not say – that only some are predestined for grace, while others must – logically – be predestined not to receive it. While this may retain the absolute sovereignty of God (by a particular definition), it unfortunately not only says more than what Scripture says here, it also contradicts other passages of Scripture that explicitly tell us God desires that all would be saved, and therefore, logically, could not possibly have only prepared some for salvation (Ezekiel 18:23 always comes to mind here). Jesus is the means by which God makes his grace available to all, and we in faith are privileged to give God the praise and honor He deserves!

Luke 2:40-52 – Certainly the Word made flesh would understand the value of studying God’s Word. Caught up in the thrill of engaging the Word of God with others, Jesus remains behind at the Temple rather than joining his family for the return trip to Galilee. In the jostle of extended family it would be easy for Mary and Joseph to assume Jesus was with cousins or others in a different part of the caravan. But after a day’s travel, they realize this is not the case and hurriedly return to search for him. They backtrack over all the places they were, and the place they stayed, hoping to find him. The three day delay before finding him may not be three days in Jerusalem, but may also include the day they traveled away and then rushed back (well into the next day). Finally they go to the Temple – perhaps to pray for God’s mercy in returning their son to them! Imagine their surprise to see Jesus in discussion with the greatest minds in Judaism

While Jesus was not willfully disobedient (a violation of the fourth commandment), his fervor for the Word of God distracted him from obedience to his parents. When reminded of this filial duty, Jesus submits to their authority (in obedience to the fourth commandment) and returns home with them. Jesus does not use his divine nature to override the requirements of his human nature – his divinity does not exclude him from obedience to the Law because perfect obedience to the Law is precisely why Jesus has come in the first place. He must do what Adam did not – remain obedient to God. The Incarnate Word cannot contradict the revealed Word because they are one in the same!

Reading Ramblings – December 29, 2019

December 22, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday after Christmas, December 29, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 63:7-14; Psalm 111; Galatians 4:4-7; Matthew 2:13-23

Context: Mercy and grace. Undeserved. Not as a reward but a gift. That is the theme that runs through the readings for this Sunday. The gift of the Christ-child was certainly neither deserved nor earned, neither before or after his arrival. The history of humanity is one long litany of failure, of sinful brokenness and cruelty and outrage against God, other, and self. Only in God do we find faithfulness that is breathtaking. We worship the baby in the manger because He alone of all human beings deserves such worship, because He alone of all human beings is not merely human, but divine.

Isaiah 63:7-14 – Mercy and grace follow judgment. The gift of forgiveness from God requires both that He judge sin for what it is, and that we acknowledge sin as what it is, seeking forgiveness from it. So we always look forward to that mercy and grace, regardless of what we find ourselves in the midst of at the moment. Like Job, we may not understand the Lord’s ways but we can declare his goodness, knowing his final Word to us is made flesh in Jesus the Christ, a word of hope and life and restoration through forgiveness. Weeping may tarry for the night but joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30). The Incarnate Son of God in the manger is the first faint hues of light on the edge of the horizon, heralding the coming day and the joy of the Lord that is ours in faith and trust.

Psalm 111 – This psalm does a beautiful job of giving God proper credit, something we often fail to do. We are trained to see the world as a system of cause and effect, natural consequences, impersonal laws. But the psalmist sees everything as it is – the direct and ongoing work of God, for which God is to be praised. For which He is to be given thanks. His power sustains all things and his Word remains the foundation of the cosmos. We may probe creation until our Lord returns and never plumb the depths of it fully nor surmount the heights. All we discover and learn should lead us not to glory in our intelligence or ingenuity, but to give glory to the Creator of all things, including us. Moreover, God is more than just the sustainer of a now-broken creation, He is the one who provides salvation and redemption (v.9), a miracle of such proportions it seems ludicrous to so many, and yet so easily taken for granted by the faithful. This psalm is a beautiful meditation launching point for our lives.

Galatians 4:4-7 – Paul touches on the profound mysteries of God made flesh, the Son of God entering into creation to become one with humanity so that He might redeem us. In so doing, the Christ replaces the Law. Not that the Law disappears or has no value or purpose still – it is the fiber of which creation and we are woven. But the Law could only do so much and was only intended to do so much. To watch over us until the Christ could deliver us. The Law acted as our guardian, so that we were obedient to it because otherwise we would have been lost to such depths we can’t even imagine. But now that the Christ has come, we are delivered from mere obedience, as a servant would obey a master, and made sons and daughters of God. The redemption of Jesus – which the psalmist just proclaimed nearly 1000 years earlier – frees us from the punitive aspects of the Law, so that we might live the Law by choice rather than necessity, out of thanks and joy rather than fear and loathing. We have been given the ability to see the Law for what it is and who it is from, and to know we will one day be perfectly attuned to that Law in every thought, word and deed. We are heirs to the kingdom of heaven where the Law will be restored perfectly and we will once again be perfectly obedient. God chose to accomplish this in the most unexpected of ways, from the inside out, so the requirements of the Law could be fulfilled in the Christ, and then extended to you and I in faith. The justice of God is maintained, but his mercy prevails in those who trust his gift to us in the Word made flesh.

Matthew 2:13-23 – What would we be without the Law? It isn’t difficult to imagine. We can flip through the newspaper or review history to see what people have resorted to by flouting the Law or presuming to be exempt from it. For this reason God alone is to be praised, as the psalmist exhorted us, because all others have fallen short of the deliverance or redemption they might have set out to provide. Words and promises are cheap but very expensive and ultimately impossible to fulfill. It is not in the creature to exceed his nature, and we, like Humpty Dumpty, cannot put ourselves or one another back together again. Cycle after cycle, ruler after ruler, empire after empire, program after program – all promising deliverance if we will only turn a blind eye to the Law for a few uncomfortable lifetimes. All in ruin, all drenched in blood.

Such promises fall short of delivering the good they depict, but they rarely fail to deliver the brutality that inevitably results when the Law is set aside. So Herod sets aside Thou Shalt Not Murder and dozens of babies and toddlers die. Families ripped apart in horror and grief, never to be the same in this life. We can’t hear the echoes of their screams of rage and loss, but we hear that same rage and loss in countless places around the world today as the Law continues to be pushed aside in the name of progress or whatever other term is thrown around. People continue to demand exemption from the Law, and therefore people suffer under the loss of the Law. Loneliness where relationship was to be preserved. Filth where holiness was to be preserved. Exhaustion where rest was to be preserved. Anarchy where order was to be preserved. Death where life was to be preserved. Betrayal where fidelity was to be preserved. Loss where property was to be preserved. Distrust where integrity was to be preserved. Gnawing, insatiable hunger where contentment was to be preserved.

Children are the closest we can imagine to being free of this lawlessness, the closest thing to innocent we can imagine, though of course they aren’t really innocent. A lack of agency is not a sign of purity, and dependency never displaces the self-centeredness that is the black rot that fills our hearts. We call this account the massacre of the innocents, but the real massacre of innocence occurred in Genesis 3, when Satan tempted Adam and Eve into disobedience and death. In Christ we are promised a certain peace in our own mortality, but we look forward to the ultimate restoration of order and perfection and innocence.

If we cry for these children we should cry for those around us today. If we spend our outrage on these long dead we shortchange the living. The Law of God cannot be circumvented or superseded, and we must be always watchful of our own hearts and the words of others when a claim to the contrary is made. Those children in Matthew 3 are dead. But so are their parents and siblings who weren’t murdered, and so are the soldiers who followed orders and the king who gave them. Only the King who gave himself freely over into death still lives, and in his life alone is both the fulfillment of the Law and the promise of eternal deliverance from Satan and all those who would insist along with him that the Law is evil and wrong.

Reading Ramblings – December 22, 2019

December 15, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday in Advent – December 22, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 7:10-17; Psalm 24; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Context: The final Sunday of Advent and the Christmas story begins to emerge in earnest. The Old Testament reading from Isaiah is the context understanding the virgin birth of Jesus – in both cases an unlikely event precedes the rescue of God’s people. The psalm calls us to prepare for the king’s entry, while Paul writing to the Roman Christians emphasizes the continuing work of Jesus as King in commissioning his ministers and evangelists. Matthew details Joseph’s preparation and call to obedience in continuing his engagement and marriage to Mary despite her pregnancy. God is with us, true uniquely in the incarnation of the Son of God, and true to God in the abiding presence of our Lord through his Holy Spirit!

Isaiah 7:10-17 – The news is bad – the northern kingdom of Israel has allied with Syria to fight against Judah in order to force Judah into an alliance against Assyria, the empire growing in dominance to the east and north. However Judah has already made a treaty with Assyria, recognizing the futility of trying to fight against Assyria. But she faces the very real and present threat of a combined Israel and Syria here and now, a coalition which could be disastrous against the much smaller Judah. What is to be done? King Ahaz of Judah counts on Assyria to protect Judah. But God sends Isaiah with another message to King Ahaz, a message of reassurance. God protects his people, and Israel and Syria will not succeed in their efforts against Judah. God offers King Ahaz the rare option to request a sign from God to give him greater confidence. In false humility Ahaz declines, but God will not be thwarted. He gives a sign of a virgin giving birth. Some think this refers to a young woman present in the group Isaiah is speaking with. Perhaps a wife or consort of the king, or a well-known young woman of marriageable age. If the sign is to be of value to Ahaz, it must be demonstrably, measurably true. It can’t simply be a promise of Jesus’ birth 700 some years later. Matthew, guided by the Holy Spirit, sees this however as also prophetic of the Son of God’s birth, a connection earlier Jewish scholars and rabbis did not make.

Psalm 24 – This psalm deals with the kingship of God. It begins with an assertion in vs.1-2 that God’s sovereignty is grounded in his unique and absolute role as creator. God rules because God created. By definition then, any other claims to ownership are false. Verses 3-6 deal with the confessing congregation. Verse 3 questions who has the right to stand in the presence of God the Creator and absolute sovereign. Verse 4 answers the question – only the righteous may do so. Verse 5 is a promise of God’s blessing to and on such a person, and verse 6 is an affirmation of this blessedness. God’s people are always to strive for cleanness of hands and pureness of heart, but our confidence lies not in our imperfect efforts but the perfect obedience of the Son of God conveyed to us through our faith in his atoning death and resurrection on our behalf. The final four verses of the psalm form an entrance liturgy, a call and response exchange identifying the king of glory. The king seeks ceremonial entrance to his people, and is identified by his strength and power. As the sole creator and therefore the only and ultimate king, no other power or rival can stand against him and his victory is demonstrative of his identity. The people of God are to take comfort and courage from our God’s strength and dominion!

Romans 1:1-7 – Paul introduces himself to the community of Christians in Rome, some of whom he knows from other settings, and all of whom he hopes to meet when he arrives in Rome to have his case heard by the emperor (Acts 25). As such he sends this letter as a means of introduction that they might better know him and what he preaches. Every word in this introduction is laden with meaning we easily overlook! To summarize, Paul both identifies with the Roman Christians (as a servant of Christ) but also as one with apostolic authority. That authority is directed towards sharing the gospel which belongs to God, and which God himself promised and disclosed beforehand through the prophets and their words that foreshadowed and prophesied Jesus and his work and ministry. It is this Jesus that gives Paul his authority, authority Jesus derives from his dual identity as a descendant of David as well as his divine nature as the Son of God. Paul, furthermore, is directed in his apostolic work to speak the gospel to those beyond and outside God’s chosen people the Hebrews. An introduction that says immense amounts in very sparse terms, and which foreshadows Paul’s great theme in Romans of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25 – Joseph is in an awkward position. To marry a woman suspected of infidelity would be a dark blot on his good name. He could ask for her to be punished, which at one point in time would have meant death for her (Leviticus 20:10) as well as her paramour if he could be identified. Under Roman occupation she likely could not have been given a death sentence even if that practice was still expected by the Jews. Given the turn of events in John 8, it is likely more a matter of public humiliation and shame rather than execution. And Joseph wanted to spare her even that. But in what might be one of the most compelling dreams in all of recorded human history, Joseph is assured by a messenger from God to go ahead with the plans to finalize his marriage to Mary. Part of this is via an unlikely passage in Isaiah 7, a passage that no Jewish authority apparently ever viewed as relevant to the Messiah prior to Matthew’s gospel. But it is given to Joseph as evidence Mary’s situation is not a matter of lust but rather prophetic, divine action.

Joseph, convinced the message was real, responds in obedience. He goes through with the marriage but refrains from consummating it until after Jesus is born. Joseph takes on the responsibility of earthly father to the Son of God, providing for Mary and Jesus and their other children. He disappears from the Biblical narrative very soon after Jesus’ birth and childhood in Luke 2. While there are many apocryphal stories elaborating what happened to Joseph beyond what Scripture mentions, there is no way to corroborate them. Despite assertions of a long life by the apocryphal document The Story of Joseph the Carpinter as well as be St. Epiphanius in the 4th century, and despite claims by the Venerable Bede writing in the 7th century that Joseph was buried in the Valley of Jehosophat, it is far more likely he died prior to Jesus’ public ministry (less than 30 years after Jesus’ birth) and was buried in Nazareth.

Apocrypha: The Letter of Jeremiah

December 12, 2019

Luther treated this very short writing as a sixth chapter to Baruch, but the Septuagint and other early copies of the document indicate this is an independent writing.  It is attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, but most scholars both in antiquity and modernity agree that this is not from Jeremiah, and it was written by someone using his name some time after the Babylonian Exile and perhaps after the return to Jerusalem.

The Letter of Jeremiah is a simple and short treatise against idolatry.  It reminds me of passages in Isaiah, such as in Isaiah 44, that show the futility and silliness of exalting a carved or shaped piece of wood or stone to the status of a deity.  While this and Isaiah both focus on the physical ridiculousness of idols, The Letter of Jeremiah spends more time talking about all the actions these idols cannot take and all the things they cannot do – all things any god worth their salt should be able to do!

The letter exhorts God’s people to remain faithful to him and not be lured into idolatry when they are led off into captivity.  It concludes with the simple statement Better therefore is a just man who has no idols, for he will be far from reproach.  Not a call to faithfulness per se, but rather a simple statement that a man of good integrity is better off on his own than throwing his lot in with useless idols.  Or in more Biblical parlance, a just man means one in good standing with the one true God.  In either case, it should be obvious to anyone that idols come from nothing, are nothing, and lead to nothing.

This lacks the poetry evident in many of the prophets, including Isaiah.  While it doesn’t contradict Scripture, it certainly doesn’t add anything to it either, and at best elaborates on things Isaiah says.

Weekly Devotion

December 11, 2019

Romans 15:4-6

A popular credit card advertisement for many years now uses the tagline What’s in your wallet? Through varying and uncertain conditions and circumstances and a variety of unexpected characters, this tagline is always the last word of the commercial. Perhaps we should see whether our alternate credit card provides equal dependability, the commercial suggests. If not, the implication is clear – we should switch credit cards!

Paul’s words in Romans 15 might be summed up as a reminder to the people of God to examine what’s in your wallet? In all the ups and downs and twists and turns of life, what do we depend on? Where is our hope placed? Paul speaks by the authority of God the Holy Spirit when he asserts that all of Scripture – which when Paul was writing meant the Old Testament – is given for our instruction and for our encouragement.

How does it do this? It points us to Jesus. And in Jesus is our hope and assurance. Scripture is not merely historical, it points us to Jesus and reminds us of everything He provides us. It reminds us how God worked through over 2000 years of Hebrew history to bring the promised Messiah into our world. At just the right time and just the right place to accomplish his plan of salvation. God’s meticulousness and his faithfulness despite our disobedience is a continual source of comfort and hope and encouragement. And only God’s Word speaks authoritatively and most fully about God’s work to and for and despite us. A work which came into power when Jesus was raised from the dead and then ascended back to heaven leaving the promise of his return.

The world offers many possible things to hope in. Many people place their hope in their wallets – literally. In the bank accounts they can access at a moment’s notice. In retirement accounts or Social Security checks. Some place their hope in their good health and vigor, or in the promise of medicine and science to alleviate the struggles of the world. But for the people of God, our hope can be carried in our wallets – thanks to digital Bibles! – but is not the wallet itself. Our hope is Jesus the Christ, the returning king, and the kingdom of God He will bring into fullness when He returns.

O come, O come Emanuel!

Book Review: How the Church Can Help Alcoholics

December 10, 2019

How the Church Can Help Alcoholics by Father Gene Geromel, Jr., Claretian Publications, 1980

I couldn’t find this book on Amazon.

Properly, it’s more a pamphlet than a book, a brief English and Spanish discussion of alcoholism and how the church can minister to alcoholics.  Much of  the pamphlet discusses identifying alcoholics and ways to address alcoholism rather than avoiding it or ignoring it or misdiagnosing it.  There is far less practical direction for church workers as they address alcoholics in their congregations.

An important thing to realize is that there are alcoholics in likely any and every congregation.  The statistic cited in this pamphlet is that one of every twelve drinking Americans is an alcoholic.  It doesn’t take a lot of complicated math to realize that even in a small congregation there is likely one or more alcoholics.  The Church needs to recognize this, and individual pastors and priests need to be aware of it as well.

This wasn’t something I learned about in Seminary, but it didn’t take long to learn about it on the job.  And don’t by any means presume that just because your congregation is mostly older folks that there aren’t any alcoholics.  A young alcoholic who never deals with their addiction will eventually become an old alcoholic.  Barring an accident, suicide, or general health failure linked to their alcoholism.  The first alcoholic I dealt with up close and personal in ministry was in his 70’s.

The pamphlet stresses the importance of confession and absolution, and rightly so.  It stresses the need to preach the value and worth of every person, including an alcoholic or the spouse or family member of an alcoholic, and rightly so.  The pamphlet also stresses the importance of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon as resources for coming to grips with alcoholism.

The importance of pastoral care is pertinent to alcoholism as it is to every other facet of life.  Law and Gospel are both important.  Care for those around the alcoholic is critical.  None of this is easy and very little of it can be scripted.  But what you also find is that there are frequently recovered alcoholics in your congregation as well.  When the reality of alcoholism can be addressed as a community of faith, it gives those who are in recovery a means of sharing their story, and that process is often helpful not just to them but those around them.  If there’s one place alcoholism shouldn’t be ignored, it’s in the Church.

A short read, and as indicated, pretty general in nature but a good reminder of the reality of alcoholism in Christian congregations and the responsibility of God’s people to address it head on with the Law and Gospel of God and the forgiveness of sins found  not in recovery but only in Jesus Christ.