Reading Ramblings – June 30, 2019

June 23, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Third Sunday after Pentecost ~ June 30, 2019

Texts: 1 Kings 19:9b-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

Context: Followers of Christ are called to be just that – followers. Those who profess Jesus Christ as Lord also confess that they are not Lord. But the living of that reality is considerably more challenging than we might like. We expect or desire God to act in certain ways but He remains stubbornly resistant to our attempts to second guess or control him. We can either resign ourselves to the reality of having a God and a Lord, understanding our proper place and role, or we can spend our lives in attempts to either deny him or usurp him.

1 Kings 19:9b-21 – God’s question is superfluous. God already has the answer, as God himself brought Elijah to this cave at Mt. Horeb, where God revealed his covenant to Israel hundreds of years earlier. But does Elijah know the answer? At the place where God gave his people the covenant, Elijah complains before God that God’s people have abandoned that covenant. Elijah is certain that he is the last of the faithful ones, despite the fact that not long beforehand, there were many Israelites who responded to Elijah’s call to seize the prophets of Baal so that he might execute them. Now God comes to Elijah, testing whether Elijah himself is able to discern the Lord’s presence as he claims. Elijah recognizes the Lord not in power and majesty and might, but in the unlikely low whisper. Likewise, Elijah is led to understand that while the Lord’s power may not be evident, He is still at work in some of his people. Elijah is not the last or the only one, nor even the greatest of God’s people, necessarily. What Elijah has not accomplished, God will accomplish through others that Elijah is only the messenger for. Elijah obeys God in humility, knowing that the purpose and plan of God must naturally be much greater than Elijah’s own desires for personal vindication or glory.

Psalm 16 – We read this one barely two months ago! Not that the psalm is bad, but again, with 150 to choose from, I’d like to think that we wouldn’t be repeating psalms within a given 52-week period! Not that it’s a bad psalm, mind you. Verses one and two are critical. God is not one of many options, He is the only option. One is reminded of Peter’s response to Jesus recorded in John 6:68 – Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Those who refuse to acknowledge this will eventually suffer the consequences (v.4). Only in God can we have true blessing and hope, can we find true wisdom, and can we hope for something beyond the grave. The blessings of God are not simply psychological well-being in this life, but literally eternal blessings. What appears to many as foolishness or wishful thinking is actually the only source of real, true, eternal joy.

Galatians 5:1, 13-25 – What is freedom? Is freedom simply the ability to do whatever I want? If we are free, isn’t it contradictory to heed a call to stand firm, a command not to submit to a yoke of slavery. What if I want that slavery? Doesn’t my freedom allow me to do so? No. Because our freedom does not consist in the exercising of our will or desire, but in conforming our will and desire to our Lord, to the one who has bought us with his blood (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). This is because we acknowledge that our will and desire is flawed and incapable of leading us to freedom on its own. Freedom consists oddly enough in being slaves, something Paul brings home in v. 25. He provides a good overview of what our lives should be like and what they should not be like in vs. 13-24. But the rationale for valuing one set of things over the others is given at the last, v.25. In other words, we are not choosing Christ because of a superior set of moral imperatives – though to be sure they are just that! – or because his way of living lines up better with our own. Rather, we are chosen in Christ. Christ does not belong to us, as though we have acquired him. Rather, we belong to Christ, as He has acquired us through his sacrificial death and by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God bringing us to faith that Jesus really is the Son of God and therefore really does command our lives. Once again, God doesn’t act as we expect, allowing us to find and choose him. Rather He finds and chooses us, then empowers us to live lives that truly set us free from our slavery to our sinfulness and brokenness.

Luke 9:51-62 – Faith would be simpler if the effects of receiving it were so obvious. Reject Jesus? Boom! Instant fire from heaven! Yet this isn’t how Jesus works. He not only does not affirm their desire, He rebukes them for even considering it! A strong word used frequently in the New Testament to indicate a strong rebuttal and rejection of what was just said or done. Of course you aren’t going to call down fire from heaven! What in the world could you possibly be thinking?! Pride. The desire for acclaim or respect, there are all sorts of motivations we can confuse with the will of God. We want God to act in ways that make us look good. If God doesn’t vindicate us, completely eliminate our enemies, it’s easy for us to mistake that for a failure either on our part or God’s part – like Elijah facing Jezebel’s wrath or the disciples irritated with the Samaritans (who they were inclined to dislike anyways) – and despair. And we are more prone to getting wrapped up in our issues so that the call to obedience can seem faint and weak. Every bit as faint and weak as our good intentions – or our alleged good intentions. I’ll follow you anywhere! Oh really? This isn’t a campaign for earthly glory or gain – you may want to reevaluate your conviction. Let me first go and bury my father. Oh really? Are you sure you’re not just using an excuse to put off obedience to your Lord? Let me go and finish my family obligations, Lord. Oh really? Be careful what you claim to commit to. It’s easy to talk big with no follow-through.

Having a Lord is something we fundamentally as American Christians don’t understand. We have no other point of comparison in our lives. We easily mistake complacency for obedience, comfort for dedication. We presume that God is not calling us to certain things that are socially unacceptable or personally distasteful, while being quick to deny the grace and love of God exists for those that we find socially unacceptable or personally distasteful. We’re quick to claim grace and forgiveness for ourselves but deny them to those we disagree with or deem undeserving.

Fortunately, our God is gracious and merciful to us even in the midst of our sinful attempts – consciously or unconsciously – to control him. Lord, forgive us our errors, and continue to illuminate them so we might conspire with your Holy Spirit to abandon them. Amen.

Church Seeks Pastor

June 17, 2019

That was the title of a mailer I received a few weeks ago.  Unsolicited, I might add.

It’s a slick, good looking 4″x6″ mailer card. Sturdy.  Full of pictures of smiling people of all ages and nationalities in a variety of presumably service settings.  The sort of thing I imagine is quite effective in some denominational or non-denominational circles, but hardly in mine.  At least, as far as I know.

It shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose.  In a day and age where many American churches have adopted all sorts of ideas, assumptions, practices, and language from corporate America, why not solicit for a new theological CEO the same way?

In our polity, congregations in need of a new pastor coordinate with regional officers of our denomination who provide a list of vetted names to the congregation for their explorations.  The congregation can get names from other venues, but that’s frowned upon by our officers.  While we affirm the Holy Spirit’s guidance and involvement in all of this, we effectively spend a lot more time on politics and other human endeavors than we do in prayer.  If the Holy Spirit would just send us memos or something, it would be a lot simpler.

Though I’d argue a lot less comfortable, as well!

This methodology of advertising for a pastor is questionable at best, in my opinion.  Anyone can curate a few photos and come up with a perky-sounding description of the congregation.  And for a pastor in a difficult parish or situation, how tempting would it be to say What the heck?  Why not just send them a note and see what the Holy Spirit does?  And while I won’t ever claim the Holy Spirit couldn’t work in a situation or through a means like this, it amps up the human aspect more than I’m comfortable with.    I’ll trust they’re working this through the more established or traditional avenues as well, but this was a new approach to me.

No, I won’t be responding!

Reading Ramblings – June 23, 2019

June 16, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 23, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 3; Galatians 3:23-4:7; Luke 8:26-39

Context: After the excitement of Pentecost and Holy Trinity Sunday, we settle into the steady rhythm of the longest of the liturgical seasons – Ordinary Time. With the exception of the observance of Reformation Sunday (a Lutheran thing) on the last Sunday of October, and All Saints Day on the first Sunday of November, Ordinary Time will carry us all the way through to the end of November, and the start of the new church calendar year with Advent. Observances tied to the life of Christ give way to Gospel lessons centered largely in his teachings. The readings today all have themes of judgment, whether against God’s false people or against demons. We remember at all times that judgment is coming, and while we don’t need to fear this in Christ, we should never lose sight of the reality.

Isaiah 65:1-9 – It is easy for God’s people to get the wrong impression of themselves, to think that they are inherently good and obedient and it is for this reason that they go to church and claim Jesus as their Lord. The reality is that we are not basically good people, but basically sinful and rebellious in thought, word, and deed. This remains true for God’s people, though we should in daily repentance be constantly waging war against this sin. But equally possible is for the follower of Christ to make peace with their sin, to engage in it eagerly and without guilt and fear. This state of affairs is dangerous, both to them individually and to the church that may be influenced by them. The danger of sin is not that we cannot or will not be forgiven, but rather that we might one day prefer our sin to repentance, and ultimately reject the grace of God as unnecessary. These words at the end of Isaiah are aimed at God’s people, not those beyond his Word, and his Church today needs to hear these words and remember that we are just as capable of becoming just as lost.

Psalm 3 – Danger lurks not just within our own hearts and in church buildings but also beyond us. This psalm reads as a prayer for help against external enemies, and we might naturally assume that these are not followers of God. But verse two is interesting, and perhaps hints that it is followers of God that are also arrayed against the psalmist, convinced that either his sinfulness excludes him from the salvation of God, or that God has abandoned him and will not rescue him in his time of need. Both are dangerous assumptions to make about anyone who calls on the name of the Lord! The language shifts from present tense (vs.1-3) to past tense (vs. 4-6) and back to present tense (vs. 7-8). This may indicate that a present prayer for help is lifted in light of previously answered prayers for help. As God has preserved and helped in the past, so the psalmist reasonably expects him to again. He can therefore wait for God’s deliverance in confidence, concluding with a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord.

Galatians 3:23-4:7 – In light of readings having to do with judgment it is only reasonable that the Christian would want to know what their relationship to the Law is. Followers of Christ still sin, so how is it that the Law no longer condemns? How is it we can have hope? First and foremost we have hope for forgiveness (faith, mentioned in v.23). But this forgiveness is not merely the tit-for-tat exchange of righteousness on an piecemeal basis for individual sins. Rather, this forgiveness actually changes our entire relationship to the Law, removing us from the punitive and damning power of the Law through Jesus Christ. Christ is what has accomplished this, not through the abolition of the Law but through complete obedience to and fulfillment of the Law, which He conveys to you and I through faith. The Law remains, but we are declared holy and perfect and righteous – not on our own merits but on the merits of Christ alone. The distinctions we create between ourselves have no bearing on our salvation. Prior to Jesus the Law kept us in check and preserved us from the unrestrained evil that otherwise would have flowed from us. But Christ has now freed us, so that we are not restrained by the Law any longer. This doesn’t mean we break the Law, but rather that our natures are no longer in exclusive opposition to it. We are free now to obey the Law, to recognize it as the good gift of God that it really is. In Christ we reach our maturity, as it were, freed from forced obedience to the rules of the household, coming into our identity as heirs in the household who see the rules not as evil restrictions but the good sense of the head of the household, God the Father. When this occurs we are truly part of the family, because we are at one with the family rather than in opposition to it.

Luke 8:26-39 – This story is fascinating on so many levels. Of course the story of the demon-possessed man elicits our awe and sympathy. But also the fact that this story does not take place in Jewish territory but rather the Hellenized area on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. Note the demons’ response to Jesus’ presence. They know who Jesus is, prompting the man’s voice to identify Jesus accurately. The demons are also afraid. They recognize in Jesus the one who has the authority to command their eternal departure into the abyss, to Hell. They recognize in Jesus’ presence on earth the reality of judgment and condemnation. But this is not yet the time for that. And while it is easy for us to think that Jesus should just go ahead and deport these demons back forever to the depths of Hell, such is not the time. They are granted leniency, though some theologians think that Jesus tricks the demons by allowing them to flee to the pigs, knowing that the pigs will drown themselves and the demons will then be trapped and unable to flee. The response of the townspeople is also telling. They can see the change in the demoniac. They also see the cost. An entire herd of pigs destroyed so that one man might be free. I’m fairly certain most churches these days would see this as an irresponsible use of the gifts of God! How easy it is to put a price on the Gospel, calculating ROI and measuring out pennies grudgingly. How extravagant (and limitless!) is the generosity of God and his resources. While there is nothing wrong with being good stewards of what God has given us, we need to always remember what He has given us things for – not simply our own enjoyment or preferences, but that we might be obedient to his commands to love Him and love our neighbors. While economics are a necessity of human life, we perhaps should strive to expect God’s generosity to flow more freely as his Word is proclaimed, breaking the chains of sin and Satan and setting people free to life in Christ.

Finally, note the conclusion. The man wishes to become a disciple of Jesus and to go with him and his existing disciples. Undoubtedly this would have complicated things as the man is very likely not Jewish, and would not be accepted in Judea and Galilee. But aside from this, the man has another duty that Jesus wishes him to fulfill. Go home. Continue to be a witness to the power of God in Jesus of Nazareth. First of all in the fact that he is returned to his senses, freed from his demons. Secondly in the sharing and telling of what God has done for him. This two-fold witness to a town undoubtedly with very few Jewish people might be the first explicit evangelism outside of the people of God, and undoubtedly planted seeds that could grow and thrive when the news of the resurrection reached these people.

Reading Ramblings – June 16, 2019

June 9, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Holy Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019

Texts: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Psalm 8; Acts 2:14a, 22-36; John 8:48-59

Context: Confusion about the nature of the Trinity has likely always existed, though it rose to dangerous heights in the early centuries of the Church. Seeking to make Christianity more compatible with Greek philosophy and logic, Arius of Alexandria preached that the Son of God was the first creation of God the Father, not truly, equally divine with the Father. After all, this made much more sense than the notion that one God could exist in three distinct, co-equal persons. The Church rightly refuted his ignoring of Scripture (John 10:30), and sought to more clearly articulate what could and could not be said about the Triune God as described in Old Testament Scriptures, the recorded teachings of Jesus, and the writings of the Apostles now constituting the New Testament. It remains a slippery topic. Holy Trinity Sunday evolved over many centuries, finally officially instituted in the 13th century under Pope John XXII, and elevated to higher office in the Roman Catholic calendar in 1911 by Pope Pius X.

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 – This text was formative to Arius’ position that Jesus is synonymous with wisdom here, and that these verses therefore teach that the Son of God is the first creation of God the Father, prior to all other creation. However these verses in the larger context of Proverbs set forth one of the two main female metaphors in the book, Lady Wisdom, who is to be sought out by the young man (1:8) as opposed to her alternative, the adulteress woman who appears in many chapters, enticing people to sin and ultimately to death. Lady Wisdom calls from the gates of the town, in full witness of all citizens, with nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of, and offers her wisdom to any and all. Wisdom is one of the many aspects or attributes of God. Wisdom cannot be thought of separately from God, as He is the source and definition of all things and all attributes. As such, in the act of creating, wisdom is bound up and into creation. Those who abide by the wisdom of God woven into us and everything around us are in better harmony with our Creator. God’s wisdom cannot be separated out from creation, as though it were one option of many.

Psalm 8 – A psalm of praise of God the Father in his role as creator, a common theme in the psalms and throughout Scripture. Who is God? God is the one who created heaven and earth. While God is to be praised for his many acts of mercy and grace throughout creation history, it is creation itself that is the beginning point for our worship of him and our experience of him. It is unique in all the Biblical songs of praise, in that it from beginning to end is directly and exclusively addressed directly to God. While verse 2 is problematic for interpretation, the sense of it points to God’s exclusive creative role, placing him above any possible foe or opponent, and therefore making hope and faith in him consistent. Eventually this psalm becomes interpreted as referring to Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God who receives glory and dominion because of his obedience to the Father. God the Father has created, has developed his plan of salvation which God the Son is obedient to by the power of God the Holy Spirit. The Son’s obedience to death has earned him the glory of dominion now given him by the Creator of all things.

Acts 2:14a, 22-36 -The second half of Peter’s Pentecost speech turns from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to the identity and role of the Son of God Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth. Peter preaches the resurrection of Jesus as the proof and evidence of his claims to divinity and equality with God the Father. Peter alludes in passing to the compelling demonstrations of power associated with Jesus (v.22), but no mention of any of Jesus’ particular teachings. It is not simply the teaching of Jesus that is compelling, as though faith is ultimately wrought by his moral admonitions or ethical exhortations. Rather, faith is placed ultimately in his death and resurrection. The two must go together, and the latter must predominate. It is easy to die. Rising from the dead is considerably harder! So if God the Father has raised Jesus from the dead, it is a vindication of everything He said and did, and we are right to put our faith and trust in him. By the power of the Holy Spirit, faith moves back from the resurrection backwards to what Jesus preached and did. Resurrection is the conviction of those who put him to death, that they were wrong, dead wrong, and Jesus was right.

John 8:48-59 – In order to pick up the intended direction of Jesus’ rebuttals, it’s important to read the middle section of Chapter 8. In verse 33 the Jewish leaders attempt to refute Jesus’ assertion that they are in need of being set free through reference to Abraham. They are not stupid and are not simply ignoring hundreds of years of history in which God’s people have been slaves – to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians, to the Persians, to the Greeks, and now to the Romans. Rather, they mean they are free from the blindness of the world because of the promise and word of God revealed first to Abraham and later to his descendants. Jesus continues to use their mention of Abraham in vs. 33ff as he contrasts the Jewish leaders plotting to kill Jesus with Abraham who actually listened when God spoke to him. The implication is that because Jesus is speaking the word of God, they should listen to him instead of plotting against him.

Their defense where our reading picks up today is that of course they should not be listening to Jesus. Jesus is not speaking the Word of God, but rather speaks the lies and half-truths of a demon or one like a Samaritan who does not follow the fullness of the Law or worship God properly in the Temple. Now the Jewish leaders take up Abraham again. Jesus claims that those who listen to him won’t die! Yet Abraham listened to God – as Jesus reminded them in v. 40. Abraham is certainly dead, however! Dead and dust by now! Other examples of God’s faithful who died abound. Consider the prophets – they died as well, as do all people. Surely Jesus can’t be claiming to be greater than Abraham and the prophets of God! But what Jesus is doing is asserting that while Abraham and the prophets died, they are not dead. They are dead to us, but not to God. So it is that when Moses asks God to identify himself in Exodus 3, God responds that He is the God of Moses’ forefathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. God does not say I was the God of your forefathers, but asserts that He is the God of the forefathers. The relationship is current and active. He is, as He speaks to Moses, still the God of these people because while they are dead to Moses, they are not dead to God. Jesus utilizes this concept in a different context, recorded in Matthew 22 and concerning the resurrection of the dead.

But Jesus advances the thought further. The relationship is not simply between God the Father and Abraham. Jesus has a relationship with Abraham as well, one in which Abraham is alive and capable of rejoicing and observing/seeing. Perhaps this means that Abraham is alive to see the Son of God Incarnate, carrying out the work of redemption that will lead to the undoing of sin, death, and the power of Satan. How can this be possible? Jesus young! No, Jesus isn’t. He’s much older than that. In fact, He predates Abraham. And his words, I am at the end of v.58 are the words used by God to Moses in Exodus 3, the holy name of God. Jesus here claims to be one with the Father, one with the God of the Old Testament. He claims no less than co-existence and co-equality with the God of the Old Testament, an offense punishable by death, and v.59 demonstrates that the Jewish leadership understood very well the claim that Jesus was making.

It is not possible to treat Jesus as a misunderstood moral leader. He claims to be God, and this is not the sort of claim ethical teachers make, because it would make them liars. Unless Jesus actually is divine, in which case He isn’t lying, He’s far more than one of many moral models, and we would be wise to put our faith and trust in him as the source of our forgiveness and reconciliation with God!

Book Review: Peculiar Speech

June 6, 2019

Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized by William H. Willimon

 

This was another suggested text for the preaching workshop I attended in Chicago this week.

(As an aside, if you preach regularly to the people of God, consider checking out this resource – Craft of Preaching.  They sponsored the event, but also provide some good theological resources for those called to proclaim God’s Word.)

This is a fantastic book.  Willimon’s style is enjoyable.  He’s a deeply intelligent man able to convey his ideas in understandable ways without sounding condescending.  He has some fantastic things to think about if you preach to the people of God, not the least of which is to remember that you are preaching to the baptized, to people who are ostensibly the people of God.

My one complaint is that – particularly towards the end of the book – Willimon drifts increasingly into ideas of the Church as adversarial to the powers and structures of the world.  Of course this is true.  But choosing to be adversarial rather than simply preaching the love of God the Father in God the Son Jesus Christ through the power of God the Holy Spirit can be problematic. Yes, the Church must never allow itself to be coopted by the powers of this world (something the Church is very poor  at), but we must also as the Church proclaim the truth and reality of Romans 13.  The Gospel is subversive by its very nature, but if we begin to glory in that adversarial quality, we risk sins of pride and disobedience.  It is truly a difficult line to walk sometimes, particularly in times where the expectation of defiant and inflammatory rhetoric tempts us to grandstand.

Otherwise, there is a lot of good food for thought here if you preach on a regular basis!

Book Review – Justification is for Preaching

June 5, 2019

Justification is for Preaching, Edited by Virgil Thompson

I recently attended a preaching workshop in Chicago.  It was a great workshop, but like most workshops, if there’s a reading list, the workshop is more or less a rehash of prominent ideas from the reading list.  This workshop was no exception, which is both good and bad.

This was one of the suggested texts, a collection of essays in a jubilee volume celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Lutheran Quarterly.   As with many such collections, the essays vary greatly in tone and helpfulness, ranging from the very esoteric and academic to wonderfully applicable theological nuggets.  If you’re a fan of Oswald Bayer or Gerhard O. Forde, they figure prominently and repeatedly in this collection.

I very much appreciaged Forde’s essay Forensic Justification and the Christian Life.  There he grapples with one of the challenges in Lutheran theology – how to describe the Christian life in such a way that it does not either render the Law toothless and optional, or contradict a very Biblical theme of God doing all of the real work of creation, redemption and sanctification.  He picks up on St. Paul’s language of saint and sinner for this.  Typically, we emphasize that we are born anew in Christ through faith and baptism and maintain a sort of dual identity  of saint and sinner throughout our lives, with the sinner gradually, more and more weakening as the saint in us grows.  We are typically exhorted heavily towards this end, or we tend to de-emphasize it in order to better highlight the work of Jesus in our justification and redemption.  Forde does a good job of offering a third alternative where the in-breaking kingdom of God within me expands over time within me, so that the sinner in me is eventually completely squeezed out (at death or our Lord’s return).  The emphasis is the ongoing grace of God the Holy Spirit at work in me, rather than my bulging faith-muscles.  Very helpful.

Also of interest was Forde’s article Preaching the Sacraments, where he discusses the connection between preaching and the sacraments (defined as confession, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper in Lutheran circles) and the importance that preaching not undercut the Sacraments.

If you like theology, and particularly if you are called to a vocation of preaching (or perhaps if it is your vocation to listen to sermons!) this is a helpful book.

The Cost of Education

June 4, 2019

The cost of education is something parents need to grapple with.

This is usually used as a means to spur parents to save for their children’s college education.  In which case, it’s not doing a very effective job by all accounts, as the price  tag of higher education continues to skyrocket, necessitating the need for student loans.

When I started my undergraduate degree at a major state school, tuition and fees per semester was $498 for 12 or more credits.  Not including books, room & board, etc.  I could work part time jobs to pay for my college education without taking out student loans.   Not really practical for most students these days (presuming the concept of working to pay for your education is even part of popular parlance these days).

It’s easy to take out student loans, but paying them back is often overwhelming.  So overwhelming that people are actually leaving the country after graduation in order to avoid repaying them.

And whatever they learned at college, they don’t appear to have learned the concept that if you borrow money from someone else, you ought to pay it back.  They’ve learned some brutal practicality – following your bliss can be very expensive, and regardless of what your bliss pays, if you borrow money you’re going to be expected to pay it back at some point.  So if your bliss requires you to skip out on that debt, so be it.

 

Travel Thoughts

June 3, 2019

It is still a source of amazement to me that in the span of  a few hours I can be thousands of miles away from my starting point, with nothing more accompanying me than a wallet, a phone, and a change of underwear.

Nothing makes me so aware of the copious room for improvement in my prayer life than those few seconds as I’m sitting on an airplane hurtling down a runway about to take off (or land).

Am I the only one who never outgrows that momentary feeling of excitement and astonishment that I am trusted enough to pay someone else to use their car for a few days and they just hand me the keys and off I go?

 

Reading Ramblings – June 9, 2019

June 2, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Pentecost – June 9, 2019

Texts: Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 143; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:23-31

Context: Pentecost (meaning 50th day in Greek) began as the Jewish feast of weeks or feast of firstfruits, stipulated multiple times in the Old Testament (Exodus 23:16, Numbers 28:26, Deuteronomy 16:10; 2 Chronicles 8:13). It occurred 50 days after the first day of the feast of unleavened bread. Later, the festival was associated with the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai to Moses and the Israelites in Exodus 19:1, although this connection is certainly not clear or necessary from the texts. Pentecost is essentially a harvest festival, denoting the firstfruits of the spring harvest. It is second in importance only to Passover in terms of the three Jewish high holy celebrations. As such the description of Acts 2:5 that there are Jews from every nation under heaven is very reasonable. The Christian celebration of Pentecost gradually came to be called Whitsunday, as those who were baptized on this festival Sunday wore white clothing. The celebration is noted by Irenaeus and Tertullian. The readings for today indicate that the Holy Spirit’s arrival (John 14, Acts 2) is the effective beginning of the undoing of the reign and effects of sin and Satan (Genesis 11), the response to our cries for mercy and forgiveness (Psalm 143).

Genesis 11:1-9 – Sin drives us apart. It drives us apart first and foremost from God, and secondarily from others. Theologians speak of sin as making us incurvatus in se, turned perpetually inwards on ourselves. We are the centers of our lives, and our desires and wishes are what naturally preoccupy us rather than proper relationship with our Creator. Following the flood we saw this self-centeredness in Ham’s disrespect of his father, Noah, as well as Noah’s own drunkenness. Next we see it on a larger scale, as the growing population of the world collectively rejects the command of God to subdue the earth as they grow in numbers (Genesis 1:28, 9:1,7). Instead of obedience, their sin turns them in on themselves and their own glory and accomplishment. Our sinfulness leads us to wistfully wish that God had not confused our languages. What might we have accomplished if we had not been scattered! If we had not turned against each other based on language and customs! Our sinfulness prevents us from seeing the greater evils we might accomplish as well, or the potentially more thorough devastation we might inflict on one another if, like Adam and Eve, we did not seek protections against the sin we find in ourselves and one another. I read God’s work here as merciful, actually a protection of us against ourselves and one another, a protection that begins to be unnecessary with the Holy Spirit’s coming. In the defeat of Satan and sin and death, the effects of the Fall begin to be unraveled. Not completely, but partially. Unity in Christian love across all languages and ethnicities is a testimony to this unraveling, and should point both believers and unbelievers towards the final coming judgment and restoration.

Psalm 143 – A cry for mercy and forgiveness against our crushing enemy the accuser, the Satan. Apart from God we cannot hope to prevail against this enemy, who crushes us with the reality of our sin and rebellion against our Creator. We are hopelessly separated from our Creator and unable to re-establish right relationship on our own. Only if our Creator comes to us, only if He is the initiator of reconciliation can there be any hope. We pray that God would come to our relief (v.1), which acknowledges that God is always present, but only God can decide to come to us as relief rather than judge (v.2). We wait, without peace, until we hear a word from our God that indicates his forgiveness and grace rather than his holy punishment of sin (v.7). When that word comes (v.8), our response is to cling to it as our sole source of hope, and to seek further understanding and embracing of God’s revealed Word and Will as the only proper and sure guides for our lives (v.8). Asking for divine direction is not an attempt to manipulate God or earn his favor, but is the only reasonable response to a God who forgives our trespasses.

Acts 2:1-21 – The account of the first Pentecost. The Holy Spirit comes in tangible power, differently than when Jesus conveyed the Holy Spirit to his disciples in John 20:21-23. A different kind of power is now manifest. Their authority to forgive sins was already present, but the power to preach the Gospel, to lay before others the choice of life or death, sin or sanctity grounded in the reality of the empty tomb of the Son of God, that only comes at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit undoes in a limited sense the separation of language given in Genesis 11. The point is not to obsess over speaking in tongues, but rather to see that God’s graciousness in Jesus Christ is available every bit as universally as judgment for sin has been. None are excluded, all are welcomed into the Holy City described in Revelation 21 that is not a competitor to God in heaven, but is actually the city where God and the victorious Lamb dwell once again with their creation.

John 14:23-31 – Anyone can claim to be a Christian, and in our post-Biblical, post-Christian culture a majority of Americans still do. But the mark of a follower of Jesus Christ is obedience to his teaching, which is no different than the teaching of God the Father in the Old Testament. Regardless of what you want to call yourself, if you refuse to submit your will and understanding to the revealed will of God, you reject the very presence of God and expose yourself to the only alternative to his perfect will and grace: judgment. This is our natural condition. But the presence of God the Holy Spirit brings the gift of faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, with an attendant recognition that our ideas and standards are untrustworthy, and only God the Father’s will can be trusted as the rule and norm for our lives. This trust in turn will be the source of our peace. Seeking peace in the structures and relationships of a sinful world can only lead to despair and disappointment. But placing our hope in the promises of God – forgiveness, grace, resurrection, eternal life – can center us in a peace that is not disturbed regardless of the awful events that might transpire around (or even within!) us.

Receiving the presence of God requires that we receive his grace, and his grace is brought to us in the good news of Jesus Christ. But that grace also comes as we learn what that good news does – not simply freeing us from the fear of death but freeing us to live as God’s creatures rather than as our own masters. Jesus commands his disciples in Matthew 28:16-20 to go and make disciples. But this process of discipleship does not stop at preaching Christ crucified and resurrected and providing baptism. It also consists of teaching obedience to everything that Jesus commanded, which again, is nothing short of the commands of God the Father in his word. We cannot accept the grace and forgiveness of God without accepting also his revealed Word as it tells us how to live. We will fail to live as He calls us to – we remain sinful and imperfect. But there is a difference between acknowledging the truth and goodness of God’s will and trying to live it out but failing, and rejecting the Word of God as truth in favor of any other teaching or system, internal or external.

Don’t Forget the Seed

May 30, 2019

Last night’s Bible study was very instructive.  We were working our way through the parable of the sower in Mark 4.  Before we continued on to Jesus’ explanation, I had the class flesh out what they thought the various aspects of the story represented:  sower, seed, path, rocky soil, weeds, good soil, etc.  Good conversation and some good insightful answers that often paralleled Jesus’ own explanation.

When Jesus’ disciples ask him to explain the parable to them, he defines the seed as the word.  What did the disciples make of this explanation?  If we assume Mark’s gospel is more or less chronological, this comes pretty early in Jesus’ ministry and the disciples would likely presume the word to mean what Jesus was proclaiming himself in his ministry – the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.

At which point the hearers might have wondered what the gospel, the good news, really was.

I asked the class what they thought Jesus meant by the word in his explanation of the parable in Mark 4.  One said the commandments – this is how you ought to live your life.  Another thought love was the word.  It was clear there was a struggle.

These are answers we like – that the word is basically instructions, insights, secret tips on how to live our best lives now.  Variations on familiar themes.  Encouragements, exhortations, pleadings, even threats – do what you know to be right or else!  Those are things we can deal with.  We can’t fulfill them, of course, but we can allow ourselves to be whipped into a frenzy for short periods of time, believing we can and must and will fulfill them.

But that places the word in ourselves.  We are the answer, the solution, the key to a bountiful harvest in our own life.  We would essentially be Buddhists.  Or Hindus.  Or Muslims.  Or secular humanists.  Or pretty much any other belief system on earth, all of which ultimately place the responsibility for change and accomplishment, for enlightenment or obedience squarely on our shoulders.  Do it.  Discern it.  If you do, you can be proud of your accomplishment (though this is a relative accomplishment, in relation to other people but almost never our own metrics, let alone  God’s!).  If you fail to do it, it’s your own fault and you deserve what you have coming to you.

Only the Bible gives us a word that is outside of ourselves.  Completely, totally, forever outside of ourselves.  And that Word is the Word made flesh, the Son of God, Jesus.

So I wrote out John 3:16 on the board for the class, suggesting that this is a good encapsulation of the good news, the gospel, the word, the seed.  Then, substituting whoever or whosoever with an actual name, I repeated this verse to every single person using their name.  I gave them the seed.

How easy is it to talk about the seed, to reference the word but never define it, never spell it out?  How easy it is to presume that everybody understands what Jesus means by the word, when even his own disciples probably didn’t get it.

This is my job, and I need to remember it and break it down as simply as possible as often as possible.  I’m scattering seed.  It’s not my seed.  It’s not my job to make the seed grow – I can’t do that.  I can simply scatter the seed.  Explicitly.  Spelling it out, as it were, to make sure people actually get the seed.  Are they a well-worn path or rocky soil or full of weeds?  I can’t know that for sure, and I may not be the one to discern that.  But I cast the seed.  If that person is a hardened path with no crack for the seed to fall into, I pray someone else, at another point in time  will cast the same seed again, when perhaps the ground will be more receptive.  That someone else will scatter the word again, when the soil is less rocky, or when more of the weeds have been pulled.

But for the love of God, make sure to preach the Word!  Clearly.  Without assumptions.  Spell it out.  Make it personal and specific.  Make sure you don’t pass over good soil and toss out lint or chaff or anything other than the seed of God, the Word of God!