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Friday, January 23, 2015

Reflections on Isaiah 47:1-15; Hebrews 10:19-31 and John 5:2-18

Those readings are from the Morning/Evening Prayer lectionary on Sunday (on which I base Sunday School teaching)

Is 47 is a classical Biblical reversal. Babylon was the dominant power of that age and it had included Judah in its conquests. (deutero)Isaiah has spent time professing God alone is God and mocking the gods of Babylon (whose temples dominated the landscape of the exiled Jews) and explaining that idols, which must be made and then carried, can hardly be worthy of worship or trust. Chapter 47 declares the abysmal end of Babylon. She will go from 'all powerful queen' to a throneless peasant grinding grain in the dust. In place of her robes she is reduced to dishonor and nakedness. [This is the archetype used in the Book of Revelation to pronounce similar judgment on the Roman Empire--and by extension every Empire since!] The loss of husband and children are 'types' of her desolation. Her predicted disaster and ruin are declared by God as final. And when it came to pass, it was final.

One verse seems especially relevant to our times: "your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray"... The technological advances of Babylon had been unparalleled. She stood secure in those and believed she would never fall. She saw herself as sufficient. This is why she is the type used in the Apocalypse--Babylon is every human institution which fails to see its place in God's plan. A reminder to every nation which replaces God with itself--especially the trust in scientific advances. As we all know, progress in knowledge produces equal parts of blessing and threats. Cures and plagues can pour forth from the same biological research. Computers and robots can be helpful or destroy us...

Hebrews 10 explains that Jesus is the High Priest who has made the perfect sacrifice (once and for all) which provides access to the heavenly realm. Hebrews employs sacramental language, discussing the unseen heavenly Temple and its relationship to our human adventure in the concrete world. We have access, here and now, to the Father in and through Christ Jesus. Hebrews is big on hope, and the foundation for the anchor of hope is God ("for He who promised is faithful"). Often times I am in prayer for people whose faith is wavering, but sometimes it is an issue of hope. Despair, even among Believers, is common. God can do anything, we just wonder if He wants to and if He will? Hebrews is written to people in a tough spot, struggling with the "cost" of discipleship. The reason we can pay the price is we know whom we serve, a faithful God who has given us covenant promises. As God is faithful and trustworthy, we are challenged by the author to stir up love and good works among us (the Greek word literally means to pester!). Christianity is a communal affair (and our contemporary individualism is condemned here). Go to church and be active without "neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some." It appears even in the early church missing services was a problem. As attendance in church in our time continues to fall, we do well to hear these words with fresh ears. For they are tied to a dire warning of losing the salvation we received and experiencing judgment and punishment. Say what you will about threats from the pulpit; the Bible is full of them.

John 5 could be an illustration of what Hebrews warns us. Jesus asks a man if he wants to be healed (as he lay beside a pool which was thought to be stirred by angels and the first one in got healed). The man fails to answer the question and instead explains the obstacle (no one to carry me in the pool in time) to healing. How often in the healing ministry do we hear reason after reason piled up to explain why it is impossible! Jesus needs no angel or water, He simply commands the man to walk (which, by the way, He authorizes His followers to also do). The man is warned to "sin no more so something worse does not come upon you." Illness is a sign or type of damnation, it is a pointer to the possibility of eternal misery. Jesus makes clear that there are worse things than temporal suffering. The man, who was healed, had been confronted by leaders for carrying his mat. He blamed Jesus ("the man who healed me told me to") much as Adam blames God ("the woman you gave me told me to"). When asked who the man was, he declared I do not know. However, after meeting Jesus again and being warned not to sin (which in the Fourth Gospel is first of all unbelief and failure to trust Jesus) the man goes off and tells the officials "it was Jesus." How is that for gratitude? Jesus heals me, so I turn His name into the authorities. The Gospel author says that healing on the Sabbath was a reason for Jesus' crucifixion. The man who had been healed (three Greek words are used: made whole, made healthy and a third which conveys being made whole or saved) fails to recognize Jesus and be faithful to Him. His own wants satisfied, he seeks to ingratiate himself with the enemies of the One who offered him salvation. A warning for those who would pray to God for wants and needs and not also obey and worship God as members of His covenant people.

Ancient words and contemporary applications. As we read these words in Scripture we are invited to hear God speak to us!  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Limitations

I ran across something I had written in seminary at Leuven some thirty years ago. Belgium is famous for remarkable tapestries, and many are hundreds of years old. There were large tapestries hanging in many museums and they were a common feature of life over there. One could say that the artists "painted with threads."

As you draw closer to a tapestry, you are able to see the threads, the little fibers woven around each other, the frayed sections. However, as you look at each thread you soon realize that there is no way of ever knowing, up close and personal, how these particular threads will function in the larger tapestry. Is it part of a nose, a boot, a feather, a leaf? Sometimes the same colored thread are in each of those. It is only when you step back and take it all in that the individual threads make sense.

We live life "close to the threads." We see our lives and the immediate interactions which we have (and even then only some). Our spouses and children are busy with their days and we only intersect for hours (or minutes) each day. Their inner life (thoughts and feelings) are mostly hidden from us. We do not always know the repercussions, in fact, we rarely know the repercussions f our lives, especially as they echo into the future. How do we fit into the grand scheme of things? We cannot know because we are only aware of a few isolated strands.

The Lord God (see Isaiah 40-46) sees the whole of it and sees each part. He is the grand artist, working with living fibers which have freedom (to some extent) of choice. He, however, has a large vision of the whole. So we are placed at birth and given opportunity. Sometimes He reworks with other fibers to do what we should have done. It is all so complex. Yet, we have faith that He redeems. He makes all things work together for the good. He finds a way to achieve His ends. His Word goes forth and does not return empty.

How does the suffering of some create life and joy for others? How is such suffering redeemed? How is it possible to make sense of it all? The short answer is hope, or trust, or faith. We cannot work out the details, but then, we recognize that we only see a few fibers. How are we to imagine that our fibers somehow are part of a grand and glorious tapestry of great beauty?

In the end, there is no way for us to explain this hope, but it is not a foolish hope. No more foolish than a brown fiber hoping it is part something so beautiful that for hundreds of years people have come to see it hung on a wall.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A non-Catholic Pope?

What would a reaction be around the globe if the Roman Catholic church announced God had directed them to choose an as Pope a Presbyterian minister, or a Muslim cleric or Hindu priest?

My guess is it is unthinkable. It certainly would be for me. One can argue that it is irrational and unreasonable. You got to be a Catholic to be the Pope---seems a good rule.

In recent weeks our Morning/Evening Prayer lectionary has included daily readings from Ephesians and Isaiah 40-45. These prophecies are from "deutero-Isaiah" which is set in a different time (around 515BC; Isaiah lived in 700's BC) from chapters 1-39 of Isaiah. I want to look at two themes here: the return from Babylonian exile and the supremacy of God. 

Context matters. Having been exiled created a crisis of faith. While Isaiah (and other prophets) had warned of God's pending punishment before the fact, the time spent in Babylon still created a challenge for Jews who grew up there. The pagan gods were being identified as successful, YHWH was mocked as a minor god who could not sustain His people. Polytheism was rampant. What was a Jew to believe?

The unnamed writer of the chapters beginning with Is 40 (probably part of a school of scholars who were connected to the actual Isaiah the prophet) utilizes language and themes found in the Isaiah scrolls, but his style is also different. There are few places where we see more clearly the expression of monotheistic glory.  God declares the futility of idols, laying out a detailed argument. Is 43:12 "so you are my witnesses, declares the Lord, and I am God," 44:6 "I am the first and I am the last, and there is no god but me." 44:24 "it is I the Lord who made everything." And this reaches a crescendo in Is 45:6 "I am the Lord and there is no one else" and 45:14 "Only among you is God, there is no other god at all."

Think of the impact of these words on Jews living in foreign lands, surrounded by temples to other gods (and five hundred years later this was still true for the Jesus-Believers). Our God reigns is not an experience, it is a declaration of faith in the face of contrary evidence!

Now comes the part which, stunningly, illustrates what the supremacy of the God of Israel means. 45:1 Thus says the Lord to Cyrus, His annointed one....

Let that settle in. Cyrus (Persian, pagan king, non-Jew) my Annointed (Christ, Messiah)... What happened to King David and his lineage? Isn't Messiah a Jewish King? We are prone to overlook the importance of all this. What does it mean for God to identify a foreigner as His chosen one, His messiah?

I think it a reminder that our God intervenes on behalf of His creation and on behalf of His people. Isaiah 45 says Cyrus does not know God and does not know God is using him. Yet God will do these great deeds through Cyrus so Cyrus "may know it is I the Lord" (repeating a theme in Exodus where God acts so Pharaoh will know who God is).

Perhaps it is in the unexpected that we most readily see God. It is so easy to take for granted the sustaining power of the Creator. We are tempted to doubt and disbelief by current affairs and conditions. We hear the (reasonable) criticisms of those who reject our faith [If God is, then why does XYZ happen--or--if God is, then why doesn't XYZ happen?]. The powers of the world seem untethered to do their own thing. Yet, a prophetic voice gives us insight into the hidden reality. 

There is only one God, there is no other. YHWH is His name: the Father of Jesus Christ, the Creator, the Redeemer. Our feeble human attempts to control the gods by manufacturing idols did not die in ancient times. They continue to this day (more subtle perhaps, but idolatry nonetheless). We call our "gods" by other names: career, family, nation, success, pleasure, wealth. We dedicate ourselves to pursuing temporal things as if they were eternal. Perhaps the old gods are re-emerging again in post-Christian society. Probably that is not all bad. After all, these false gods are demons (so says Paul) and they have always been among us. Better to unveil them. Better to know, too, the words of Isaiah 40-45. Stunning words of an unexpected Messiah and "the only God", "Creator" and "Redeemer," Who alone is worthy of our trust, worship and obedience.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

What is the difference between a church member and a disciple

We had our leadership retreat this weekend (it is called a Vestry in our tradition). Over the years we have had numerous approaches, like many things in my life, I have downsized as I get older. The approach Friday night and Saturday morning was very basic. We prayed over the daily readings, we had quiet time with one of the readings, we had a time for small group discussion and a large group sharing. The next day I asked one question, "What is your goal for the coming year." One goal. Get it done. Success!

The reading for the day was the call of Levi in Mark's Gospel. 
"Come follow me," Jesus said.
Discipleship.

Church leaders think about church and worry about church. Questions tend to center around "What do we need?" Churches want to increase income, increase ministries, increase volunteers. "We need" is a church focused approach.

Learning from Jesus, following Jesus, relationship with Jesus, obedience to Jesus is what discipleship is all about. Being a disciple centers on what Jesus wants.

What is the difference between being a disciple and being a church person? Focal point. The focal point of a church member is the church. It is an organization. The focal point of a disciple is (following) Jesus. Now, there are some who think the two are exclusive, which is false. IF I am a disciple then I am a church member. Jesus' followers are called 'the church.' However, it is possible to be in the church, even active in the church, and not be a disciple. Churches are institutions and like Rotary or the Garden Club one can be very involved (even to award winning levels) without a personal commitment to the core of the institution. As someone said to me Friday, lots of teachers don't like kids. Anyone who has ever done something they hate knows that.

SO where are you with Jesus? If you are centered on Him, churchgoing is part of the deal. It, however, you are involved in the church it is not enough. He is Lord. Focus on Him!

Friday, January 16, 2015

More than a Prediction

[Isaiah 42] "This is my Servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one, in whom I delight."

The Hebrew word "ebed" occurs 800 in 714 verses of the Jewish Bible according to the Strong's reference in the Blue Letter Bible. It means a slave or servant, and is used in a derivative sense of those who submit to the authority of another, frequently God.

The servant canticles in Isaiah (of which this is one) are significant in Christian circles because they are frequently associated with Jesus in the New Testament. As such, the verses (or partial verses) are assumed to be "predictions about Jesus." Such a view is compounded by never reading anything except the verse (and ignoring its Biblical context). While Jesus fills up the deepest meaning of these canticles, I think it helpful to understand there is more here.

First of all, interpreting the Bible goes back to the Midrash of ancient rabbis and the first Christians. Remember, for them the truest meaning of the text was HIDDEN. Who is the servant? In the Jewish Study Bible (p867) the following figures are identified as possible: Cyrus (cf Is 45:1), the author of Isaiah 42, the Messiah, and the Israelite nation as a whole.

It is the latter interpretation which seems to be implied by what follows in Is 42:18ff!

Who is so blind as my servant, so deaf as my messenger I send? Who is so blind as he chosen one, so blind as the servant of the Lord? 

No one ever applies those verses to Jesus! SO what then to think?

The word servant, probably here in Isaiah, is the nation Israel (hence the blind and deaf reference). However, within Israel there are some who are faithful, in a sense they are the "real" servant [how often do we differentiate between "true" and "false" versions of something?]. So while the servant (all) is blind, the servant (all should, some will) is also going to bring justice. However, in looking at this text, later generations will go on to say, the Messiah is the perfect fulfillment of this text (v 1-4), while leaving v18ff out of the discussion because one would not apply those verses to Messiah. In conclusion, Jesus is the fulfillment (completion, perfection) of the mission of Israel. What applies to Israel applies to Jesus. Remember, in fulfillment of the Scriptures means, first, the whole of the Biblical revelation (God's plan of salvation). Jesus fills up all of it. 

This is why we Christians call ourselves the children of Abraham or the new Israel. We apply the text in a way which goes beyond what it originally meant. The Bible is read as a past referent, a present application, and a future promise. Salvation and revelation have occurred, are occurring and will occur. The multi-dimensional nature of time and human existence are present in God's word. We must read with all the angles and options in mind. Reality is bigger than our simple efforts to grasp and explain it.

The church, as the Body of Christ, must now continue to fill up the words of the Scripture. We, today, are the servant--too often blind and deaf, yet in a mission of justice and reconciliation in service of our God and His Word.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

What do you think about Duke...?

Today at Bible study things really went off the tracks. Our daily readings this week have been the Ephesians 1-3 and Isaiah 40-43. I prepared, but always allow them to ask a question to begin. Two questions later I was explaining Isaiah 6.... Then at class's end I was asked, "What do you think about Duke providing a call to worship for Muslims?"  http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/15/us/duke-call-to-prayer/index.html

It is a hard question on many levels. I spoke about my concerns with Islam (radical and regular) and my awareness and insights into my own prejudices. I tried to look at it from several angles. What I hear about Islamic nations trouble me. It is hard to know what to do about the growing influx of a religious culture which has a large segment of hostile agents active in it. On the other hand I support religious freedom. I know the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists. There is much to consider here, and so much that I do not know...

What I do know, however, is whatever "solution" we come up with will have repercussions which we do not intend. In an imperfect world, I am certain, things will continue to be imperfect. I know that I pray for the conversion of Muslims to faith in Jesus Christ, but I also pray that Christians will be converted!

As we were by then thirty minutes late I told them that we needed to start eucharist, and I was going to pray for world mission. (which we did) I had not read the assigned readings for eucharist. Generally I do not prepare a homily, I just tie them into our class discussion. Sometimes the connections are astounding. Today was one of those days! I share what we read this morning at eucharist after our discussion about Duke and Islam.

Genesis 37:17b-20 (summary: Joseph is looking for his brothers, while he is a way off his brothers see him and plot to kill him.) The story from Genesis is a reminder that while we 'project' so much on the outsider, it is those closest to us who frequently do us the most harm. It seemed a reminder that Muslim terrorists did not kill anyone in Memphis this year, but many lost their lives at the hands of those closest to them...

Luke 6:27-36. In the context of our discussion of Islam, well, it was breathtakingly challenging. Imagine if someone asked Jesus, "Lord, what do you think of Islam?"

"But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same....But love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return...and you will be children of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." 

A dozen "what abouts?" pop up in my head in reaction to Jesus here. Such advice seems politically naive, impractical and perhaps even immoral. It seems to advocate for a submission to evil. It seems illogical and simplistic...

Yet Jesus, living under a brutal occupational army (Rome), was quite familiar with the evil done by foreign empires. He is no naive innocent in isolation from the real world. More importantly, Jesus is the Son of God, the Word of God (enfleshed) the annointed one. His words are the truth that will set us free. How do I ignore His words?

So I ask you, did God speak to us today in the Gospel? 
and if He did, what then shall we do? 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Modern Day Prophets



“When Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied--together there were about twelve of them”
Today’s reading from Acts 19 differentiates Christian baptism from (John's baptism of) mere repentance. The key is the work of the Holy Spirit which produces two fruits: speaking in tongues and prophesying.
We need to ponder how these two fruits of baptism present in our lives [I suggest reading 1 Corinthians 14.] Aside from Pentecostal churches and the ocassional charismatic in Catholic of mainline circles, praying in tongues is disparaged among many Christians and feared by others. Time does not permit a defense of this prayer form here and now. It is enough to say that if it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit in baptism then we should all consider it worthwhile...

Paul says that he wishes we all spoke in tongues, but he recognizes the limits of such prayer, which is an unknown communication in the spiritual realm. For this reason he says “even more I want you to prophesy.” This is because prophecy ‘builds people up’, ‘gives them sound counsel’ and ‘provides them with comfort’. Note the three descriptors of prophecy. This differs from popular usage where the word prophet means “someone who predicts the future,” sort of a religious version of those “psychics prognosticating for the National Enquirer.”

However that is not what the prophets of Israel do. Nor is it what we baptized Christians will do. We are confused about the true nature of prophecy and have allowed the gift to lie fallow and unused.
A look at Israel’s prophets reveals a group of men enamored with God who speak His word to the His people. Abraham Heschel’s book is one of the most important books I have ever read. (The Prophets Volume 1&2). There he makes a statement which provides crystal clarity for our own vocation as baptized Christians. “…prophets see the world from the point of view of God.”
As children of God we share in God’s nature by the Holy Spirit. we literally care about what God cares about (though our flesh is at war with this). In Jesus we know the mind and heart of God. We understand His concerns. We are authorized to speak on His behalf.
To prophesy is to proclaim justice, compassion, mercy and wrath. It is to hate sin and evil and condemn. It is to love even the sinner, longing to heal human brokenness wherever it is. The prophet is on fire with a vision of God’s Kingdom which provides for the health, wealth and dignity of all persons; while demanding love and obedience from all. The prophet is upset by even the smallest sins because, like God, he understands the horrible effects of sin.

Christian baptism designates us as ambassadors chosen to tell the world that sin produces wrath and death. This message is the “future-telling” of a prophet. “If you continue on this path you will die. If you fail to turn away from sin, turn around and return to your God, if you continue to live outside of covenant then you will suffer the consequences.”

So (in the ancient past) the predictions of Assyrian and Babylonian exile were made and so they came to pass. Yet, such 'predictions' (better to see them as warnings) are spelling out the consequences of breaking covenant. A message of those who know God, listen to God and love His truth has insight into the future results of present activities, just like we can warn a friend that drinking can cost one's job or flirting can destroy one's marriage.

There are, however, also more hopeful insights into the future. A prophet knows that God is King. He rules in covenant mercy. He has vowed to be the One who rescues His people and redeems His children. And so, the prophet knows, that better days are coming when God will make all things new. We announce reconciliation and renewal with confidence! We proclaim the Kingdom...

This is prophecy. It is God-given task to speak for God (literal meaning of pro--phecy is to bring to light). We share God’s will with others. We confidently announce the message of our God. We can declare with certitude that those who reject God and disobey will perish; those who trust, love and obey Him will live abundantly.
We can declare that God has made His choice and demands that we make ours. He has chosen us to be His own: holy, just and righteous. The choice is now ours.
All of us are prophets by virtue of baptism. We know God. We know His will. We are sent to proclaim that message to His creation. Today. Every day. This is what the first Christians did when they were baptized. It is what the Holy Spirit would have us do as well.