Total Pageviews

Friday, February 28, 2014

God Sighting

I got a call recently from an inner city minister with whom we work. Our church hosts a dinner and a VBS for the families with which he works. We have funded many activities and our volunteers have formed relationships with the kids. It really is one of the ministries of which I am most proud. One of the parents died recently, leaving his wife and multiple kids behind. As is usually the case there is no money in a working poor family for funerals. Our church was able to provide the balance owed on the funeral, food for a gathering afterward, and a sum of money for the widow to provide basic necessities for her family the coming month. It is more a blessing to us to be able to do such a thing. Jesus is really clear that ministry is about such things.

In the course of our conversation he asked if I knew anyone who had a car they wanted to get rid of. My first reaction was probably shock. No, I don't have a bunch of people asking me to take cars off their hands. I have in the past had people donate cars, three or four times, but it was because I made a public plea. [And sometimes I fear my parish gets sick of being asked over and over] Anyhow, I told him, I hope in a nice way, that I didn't. Which, of course, ended up being untrue. Because this Sunday a couple on their way out the door said that they had a car to donate if anyone needed it. And I said, "o my gosh yes!" At some point today, I think, that widow will be blessed with a car.

In my theological understanding of God [which means my inadequate attempt to talk about eternity] He loves and cares for people. He does not control everything (the Prince of this world is Satan). He has given "freedom" (always limited by external factors) to creation. There are laws which cannot be broken (like gravity or logic) and laws which can (moral laws and expectations). God asks people to do right, but does not make them do what He wants (hence sin). Somehow the appearance of sin in the world has impacted human capacity for choice (we are "fallen" and unable to rise above ourselves). God, however, if He does not control everything has also not abandoned it all. He is not a clock maker who creates and then wanders off to let creation sink or swim on its own. He has chosen, out of love, to give creation a free hand, but He regularly intervenes. Theologically, I believe God is an interventionist. I think God is active but not in control of everything. in my mind, the people in this church have responded to Jesus (and Bible and Holy Tradition); as that response goes deeper His activity among us increases. People who long for Him and are open to Him become more frequent recipients of His activity (hence, Jesus, the perfect man, was in full connectivity; The Light shines more brightly in the ones who love and obey Him). A godly poor family, a godly inner city worker and a godly parishioner were all open to God. He heard the cry of the poor and someone responded to His prompting to provide for them. In all of it the Divine fingerprints are barely seen. My job was to connect the three parties for the benefit of all and to God be the Glory!

Because God intervenes, rather than controls, intercessory prayers make sense (both as motivation for and means to God's actions). Equally important, the faithful being faithful, which is the primary way God intervenes. And when the subtle push comes from God be open. Needs are everywhere and the means to provide for the needy are as well. The church is most faithful in its journey of faith when it listens for God and is open to His interventions.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

1 John 5

Unfortunately, because we have three assigned readings each day, there is much which I cannot reflect on each day. While I have been delving in Genesis, the Gospel of John and the letter of 1 John have also been part of our cycle.

Yesterday, while not explicitly stated, in response to 1 John 5 I wrote about the issue of the authority of the Bible. 1 John 5 emphasizes the central role of Jesus in the economy of salvation and the truth claims centered on Jesus. The scandal and offense of Christianity is our declaration that what Jesus says about Himself is true. He is the way, the truth, the life, the ONLY perfect revelation of God.

As we finished the 1 John today I wanted to more overtly reflect on the text, in particular, verses 13-17. Like most of the letter, it is not always easy to read and understand exactly. Like most of the letter, there is an almost circular return to previous themes. The writings attributed to "John" (a Gospel, three letters and Revelation) have a mystical quality not found in the other New Testament writings.

In v 13 the author declares that he writes so that his readers know that they have eternal life. Eternal means more than endless, though forever is part of the promise. However, living forever is no blessing (see the Vampire myth or old folks home reality). I have known people who longed for death, broken down by physical infirmities and emotional loss. There is life and there is existence. Fullness of life forever is the promise. This confidence should fill us with joy as we contextualize whatever else is going on. It is a reminder that "better days are coming!"

Next there is verse 17: All wrong doing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal (NRSV, RSV) Sin that leads to death (another way to translate it, see NIV) is a huge bone of contention for Evangelicals who dislike Catholic delineation of sin as mortal and venial. 1 John 5 serves as a basis for Catholic belief. All sin is bad, but everything bad is not deadly, seems to minimize sin to some. For others, the idea that God considers cussing at someone who makes you mad to be the moral equivalent of torturing them to death, is morally incomprehensible. There are degrees of wrong. In the end, like all such debates, it is hard to discuss with people because of their vested assumptions. I think the idea of non-mortal sin (sins which do not lead to death) is a helpful reminder that we can breathe a bit when we talk of sin. This is a key, for example, in debates on marriage. If it is not life and death, then we can talk about it, right?

A sobering thought is found in verse 19, 1 John 5 declares we know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. I have written about this before. Jesus refers to the Prince of this World. In the literature in the "John school of thought" there is a division between God's kingdom and the world. Jesus no doubt saw Himself as an invader into Satan's realm, a Savior come to deliver those imprisoned in satanic darkness. This, for me, makes better sense of the world. I understand God's creation to be an incomplete first step, redemption and renewal are the second and third. In my mind, Jesus has accomplished "the landing" (like D-Day) and He is now at work behind enemy lines. The war still rages even if victory is assured. It is hard to defeat someone who has returned from the dead. Yet Satan's fury continues unabated. The certitude of victory does not imply that the battle is done.

Lastly, John 5:18 repeats a theme found in 1 John 3:6&9. Those who are born of God do not sin. It is pretty confusing as He also says that not all sin is deadly and that implies we do sin. When he says everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil (3:8) it seems that there is no way out. In the either/or approach of John if you sin you belong to the Devil. [This is why tossing Scripture verses around is dangerous, things are often more complex than any one verse communicates...] Perhaps then we can say we have not sinned, we belong to Jesus? 1 John 1:8 blows that one out of the water: If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. John 2:1 also gives comfort, if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.

So what to make of this? I think it is best to understand the declarative (we do not sin) to be an imperative. Here is what I mean. In setting expectations for children it is common to say "We do not push and hit here" or "We respect each other." Hitting, we may go on to explain, is bad. Then we exhort the children, "we are good boys and girls. we do not hit." Obviously, all the children do not always comply with this. Just as obviously, we do not tell a child who breaks the expectation that they are bad. We call them back to the standard. It is an invitation to a better way. Do Christians sin? No, they are in Christ. Yes, they fail to live their vocation. Is sin of God or Satan? Satan! Are we of God or Satan? God, but sometimes we fail to be who we are. The reality is that those who have chosen Satan (the anti-God party is everywhere) exist. It is equally true that Believers can follow their own hearts and engage in sin, or be seduced by the world and sin, or fall for Satan's temptations and sin. Sin is,sadly, every where in in the church. As 1 John reminds us, over and over, it should not be, so we should not sin, but when we do, Jesus is our hope for forgiveness.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Coming Cataclysm

My guess is people have always fretted about "what's next?" even as they survived this crisis or that. The church has been an up and down affair since Stephen. The irony, of course, is sometimes we are best when times are bad, and less than faithful in times of peace and prosperity. There is a reason why the blood of martyrs is called the seed of the church.

The 1970's (my youth) were not particularly tough for Christians in America. It was still "the old days" in terms of much of our public values. Church going and Jesus believing were accepted as the norm, even if the recent revolution of the 60's had done serious damage to the insititution of the church. For many of us, it seemed more a prophetic corrective than a problem. Short term it may well have been, but well into the 21st century things appear less pleasant.

Recently I have run across some concern about laws in various states to protect "religious liberty" (chiefly in the right to refuse to be involved working a "gay marriage"--which as you know I think is a legal fiction). On the other side, pro-LGBT elements have a different view. They see it as the freedom to deny basic services to human beings based on prejudice against them. As I step back to ponder what is really going on, in honesty, I must admit that there is not ONE thing going on. There are a myriad of things. There really are faithful people who would be kind to LGBT folk but who honestly and sincerely think that gay marriage is wrong morally and a problem for our society. Granted, those who disagree think this is crazy, but they do. However, there are also a number of folks who are mean and cruel. They would probably deny every type of service to GLBT (and probably some other groups of people). It is foolish to deny that racism and prejudice exist. Always has and always will. (Humans are imperfect and sinful). Likewise, there are many pro-LGBT who honestly think they are advocating for basic human rights. They are worried and concerned that medical professionals will deny treatment, restaurants will deny food, etc. This concern may be overblown, but it is real and at times a fair concern. However, many pro-LGBT are also Leftists, and their agenda is greater than simply providing human dignity to oppressed groups. They are also secularists, anti-Christian and anti-church.

If this were only about being nice to people, then the pro-LGBT folks would be nice to everyone. Some are but some aren't. Those that aren't are a vocal and growing segment of the population. Here is where Liberal Christians are messing up. The Liberals who believe in Jesus are naive in thinking that Secularist Liberals spewing vitriol about Jesus/Christianity will somehow draw the line and accept Liberal Christianity. Not going to happen. One interpretation of the Book of Revelation includes the idea that the Whore of Babylon is the church sold-out to the World. Insert Liberal Christian church for Whore and Secularist Liberals for World and you have the basic idea. [The primary reference of Babylon is Rome, as in the Roman Empire; the sold out church is the one which plays the whore for the Roman Empire. Many Evangelicals recognize the clear allusion to Rome but mistakenly assume it means the Roman Church. The problem of an a-historical approach to Scripture.]

Many of my Liberal friends who disagree with me, post their opinions in public forums. They no doubt delight in the myriad positive comments made on their behalf. However, they are slow to react to statements like "Those people who are against gay marriage always use the Bible. They need to stop forcing their Bible on us. This country is not based on the Bible" etc etc etc. Liberal Christians also tend to undercut Jesus as "a" way, a personal spiritual preference (sort of like strawberry or chocolate or mocha). In direct contradiction to the scriptures (NT primary message is arguably that Jesus is THE only way to the Father; theological implications of this include various schools of thought about 'non-believers' some of which I have written about frequently).

So what is the cataclysm? The laws currently being offered are meant to defend religious liberty, and the vehement attack on that is based in part on a desire to squash religion, period. In any age a well intended law can be reapplied in a new context for nefarious purposes. The people advocating pro-LGBT positions within the church do so at their own risk. The ones who dislike Jesus will not stop once the more traditional church is crushed under its thumb. In two decades, as the last group of people (who remember religion/church as a good thing) die out there will be few advocates, political or judicial, for the followers of Jesus. The anti-Bible propaganda grows in intensity. IF the debate was on interpretation it would be different. It isn't. The use of the Bible to make moral decisions is under attack. It is the Bible they hate, not the use (or misuse) of the Bible. The efforts to impose freedom FROM religion grow ever bolder and more radical.

Many Leftists complain that they feared Bush was going to make America a theocracy. There was wide spread panic among writers and commentators on the Left that the Religious Right was going to impose its faith on all Americans. Whether this fear was genuine or not, I do not know. What I do know is the religious right is always dealing with a corrective; the example of Jesus, Holy Spirit, the long tradition of church teaching and most centrally, the Scriptures. Too much 'servant mentality' is present there to make long term oppression by Christians of non-Christians a likelihood. Inside the church prophets always spring up to criticize the abuse of power by Christians. The Christian faith is inherently better than the participants of Christianity. But what spirit, what word, what tradition is at the heart of the secularist, the non-believer or the anti-Christian? Where is the prophetic spirit in those movements to assure us that our faith will not be mocked and demonized and our freedoms limited and even trampled? Why would they ever be trusted to give us freedom to worship the Lord obey Him? It will not happen overnight, it may be decades in the unfolding, but the harsh critique of Jesus and His church continues to grow in intensity. We are more secular today than we were a decade ago.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Christian and the Law

In two rabbinic commentaries, the authors referred to the Book of Leviticus as ‘strange’. What they meant by this, is that it is foreign to us, concerned with issues which we cannot comprehend. Yet, if the Torah is the key to the Jewish Bible (it is) and if Leviticus is at the center of the Torah (it is) and if ancient literature is chiastic and gives pride of place to the middle (it does), then we can be very sure that Leviticus, however strange (or boring) we may find it, is very important to God.
Leviticus begins with an extremely detailed description of the different kinds of sacrifices which the priest was to make to God. Sin offerings and communion offerings, bulls, goats, grain are all mentioned. The repetition demonstrates that worship of God is important enough to be done right.
The sacrifices are important because of the Biblical understanding of God’s relationship to His people. This insight is as true today as it was three thousand years ago. The mechanism of this worship (sacrificing animals) is not something which makes sense to us at all; but we do well to recall that Jesus’ death on the cross is described as the fulfillment and perfection of the Temple sacrifices. [Since 70 AD they do not occur, the physical Temple was gone, but Jewish scholars began with Leviticus in their studies of Torah in the centuries after Christ because “spiritual” worship demanded it…]
The spiritual principles are still in force. The people of Israel entered the Promised Land in a covenant relationship with God. God said He would scour the land clean of the pagan practices which He abhorred. As such, the pagan practitioner were replaced by the Israelites. But God’s covenant was clear. You have been chosen because I love you, not because of anything you have done to earn it (with allusions to the promise to the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob). Yet, we read last week, the grace is not free; the covenant bond is an offer: LIFE and DEATH. Those who walk in His ways, love, obey, cling to God will live; those who walk away and turn to other gods and their pagan practices will die. (If you act like them you will be scoured away like them!)
Obedience to God means obedience to the Law. [Jesus’ teaching today reminds us that freedom is not lawlessness.] Leviticus makes clear that the Law consists of three interpenetrating streams: cultic/worship, personal ethic, and civic morality/social justice. The Jewish faith (and Christian) cannot accept the idea that worship and behavior are unrelated. You cannot worship if you are not living right, but living right without worship alienates one from God….
A central Biblical concern, and the primary concern of Leviticus, has to do with order. God separates and divides (we see this in Genesis 1, which was written by the same school of Priests—God divides day and night, water and land, etc.) The priest is duty driven to keep order and provide the rituals which keep the peace with God and each other.
The divisions are manifest in the dyads: holy/profane, permitted/forbidden, Divine/Human, Heaven/Earth and, of course, CLEAN and UNCLEAN.
Sanctifying time and space acknowledges our concrete existence, and our real relationship with God. The purpose of sacrifices in Leviticus includes two movements; it brings God down to us and brings us up to God. That is always the reason for worship. To commune with God, and it continues to be the purpose today!
God dwells among people of pure/clean heart. He resides among those who trust Him, love Him, and obey Him. Human sin is a God-repellant. He is pure and holy and no sin abides in Him. Nor does He abide with sin (look at 1 John which we read this week for the Christian take on that).
Because God is HOLY, we, too must be holy. (Jesus says ‘perfect’) WE receive it as a gift, God sets us aside and makes us holy; yet it is also a task, God demands that we walk in His ways and comply with His expectations. Grace never absolves us from discipline and fidelity.
Today, like then, we are a people of God, engaged in sacrifice. Ours is a spiritual sacrifice, offered in and through Jesus (or offered by Jesus in and through us, His body on earth). But to follow Jesus is not to escape the demands of Law, at least those which are still in effect. Jesus says that our dealing with others must be pure and good, self-giving even to the point of suffering. And when we suffer, He makes clear, we do not inflict pain on the other. It is an ethic of non-violent, self-denying love which imitates His ministry and Cross. Christians die for Jesus, we do not kill for Him.
So this incomplete reflection comes to an end. There is too little time to reflect on each command in Leviticus 19. Perhaps the verse we should end with is one which Jesus Himself was fond of quoting. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. It summarizes everything. But that means we must read everything in order to understand what God means by the word ‘love’. Leviticus 19 is a start. The one who reads it looking for principles of behavior is a true disciple of the Jesus Matthew tells us about today. The depth of God’s intent for the world is revealed in Scripture, especially Torah. It includes right worship, right moral behavior, and right social interactions. It always has and always will; especially for us who have placed faith in Jesus.

Friday, February 21, 2014

"Face" the Pain

I wish I could read Hebrew because the Jewish Bible authors wrote in Hebrew. There is so much we English readers do not see in a text. Genesis 32&33 are the famous story of Jacob and Esau meeting and Jacob wrestling with "a man" (God?). The Hebrew word "face" occurs seven times. The translated as "ahead" are also the Hebrew word for face.

When Jacob deceived his father Isaac, it was because the old man was too 'blind' to recognize his face. Now, after many years of suffering deception and learning to become a better man, Jacob returns to his homeland to face his brother. Esau's last words were "I will kill Jacob" so the meeting is fraught with tension. Jacob divides his family in two camps because he fears that they will be annihilated and he wants to save some. (Parallel to Isaac sacrifice in that God's promise of progeny seems at risk: key learning moment--God is faithful).

Jacob sends all manner of gifts to Esau as an offer of appeasement. The Hebrew word is literally blessing and echoes the stolen blessing from Isaac. Forgiveness is an unearned grace. But in reconciliation restitution/penance is required. One must give back what is taken (and Jewish Law will later declare a 20% surplus should be added to what was taken. Jacob's extreme generosity seems to be an illustration of that principle). Our English translation does not overtly say blessing, but the connection in Hebrew ties together the story.

A man appears to wrestle with Jacob the night before his meeting with Esau. We are left befuddled by it all; although there is an interesting parallel to Exodus 4:24-26 where He (God?) plans to kill the son of Moses but is prevented by the circumcision by Zipporah, the mother. [Frequently the Bible is enigmatic and we do well to be silent before the mystery and worship--rather than engage in the demeaning efforts to conform God's word to our own limited and insufficient theologies and theories.] Whatever else the wrestling match means, it is clear that Jacob hangs on and fights all night, he is crippled by the experience, but he receives the blessing which he demands at the break of day. He leaves, limping, to go meet his brother, carrying a new name: Israel (which means God rules, but is understood as God fights in a passive sense, i.e. one who fights God). The implications for prayer and spirituality are staggering. Like his grandpa Abraham (who argued about Sodom) Jacob stands up to God. In the end, Jacob announces his shock, I have seen God face to face (that word face again) and lived.

If he has prevailed with God, whether he prevails with his brother is yet to be answered. His humility and subservience to Esau are an act of repentance (even if in contemporary expectation he failed to make a detailed confession and admission of guilt). The genuine kindness of Esau stand out as a model of mercy. Ironically, the man who lost his blessing appears to have been blessed none-the-less. He may not be the chosen one, but his life is full of abundance and his spirit appears to have been satisfied. Jacob describes the encounter, "if I have found favor in your eyes, then take this gift from my hand, for I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God."

Such words seem almost blasphemous, equating a brother to God. Yet, we see here (I think) an echo of the great commandment of Jesus. Love God. Love your neighbor. And the reminder of  1 John (how can you love God Whom you have never seen if you cannot love your brother whom you have seen?) The stunning insight of he Jewish faith (revealed to them by God) is that our human relations are central to our relationship with God. Man is in the image of God (hence no idol is needed). The one who loves God must love those in his/her world. It is, after all, where we see God's face.

The Christian faith is that Jesus IS God. However, if every human face cannot be a window to God, then Jesus' human face could not; He is human after all and shares totally our nature. Jesus is the perfection of what is present within every human. It is alluded to here, I think, in Jacob's testimony. The sacramental nature of the world, God is present IN and THROUGH, is most completely manifest in God present in and through humans. Jesus is perfectly THE HUMAN FACE of God, but all of us are as well. The transformation of Jacob is complete, his restoration is done. Reconciled with the brother he wronged, he has diminished his unworthiness of the grace received by God's blessing (and in his prayer Jacob made clear to God he knew he was unworthy).

In the chapters ahead, Jacob, a much more passive fellow, will continue to suffer at the hand of deceivers. God's purifying love in his life: a mercy which is also a pain and dying (the cross) and a reminder to us that joy and prosperity are not the whole story for the children of God. You and I have our own sins to repent and our own suffering to endure. It is the way things are in the Journey of Faith...

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Journey and Flight

Jacob decides to go home, so he packs up his wives (two official, two handmaids doubling as wives) and his brood of twelve boys and one girl. His father-in-law Laban discovers it later and gathers up a group to pursue his family. Why did Jacob flee? Throughout his years of service, Laban had repeatedly changed his wages in an effort to get the better of the young man. What we see is economic injustice (on a  micro level) which will be a concern of Israel's prophets and the Lord Jesus as well. One of the key principles of spirituality is that we are to be just in our dealings with one another.

However, God's hand of blessing is on Jacob, so no matter what trick Laban pulls, God still prospers Jacob. This leads Laban's sons (who appear here for the first and only time) to complain that Jacob is taking away their father's wealth. Note, this parallels the complaint of Essau to Isaac. Note the difference. Jacob was deceitful with Essau, but here with Laban he is not. No doubt the Torah wants to show the moral growth of the Patriarch (even as he reaps what he has sown). This is a good reminder to us that we need to be steadfast in doing right, regardless of the consequences.

The Hebrew verb 'to steal' has more meanings than the English word. When Jacob sees the hostility of his in-laws Genesis says that Jacob "stole Laban's mind" which is translated as "kept him in the dark." The theme of stealing runs throughout the story. Rachel steals her father's household gods, Jacob is a thief (his brother's blessing) and an accused thief (of Laban's flocks, not true), Laban tried to steal from Jacob by his unjust dealings. One might say that this is a long narrative trying to draw us into reflection on the commandment: Thou shalt not steal.

In Bible study yesterday we discussed how often we "know" things that we "understand nothing about." For example, we say that one should "love" or "forgive" or, in this case, "not steal." Yet, we are uncertain of the content of the word. What does it mean to love or forgive. When is it stealing? What is it concretely? Ask that question and deer in the headlights appear.... "Well, um, it means that, um, well, I can't exactly put it into words but..."

Jacob is being reformed of his trickster ways, at great cost. His struggles are not all of his own making, yet they fit his crimes. In life God seems content to do that with people. I hasten to add that Jacob, unlike us, is a key player in salvation history. We do well not to overestimate our own significance and God's need to reorder things on our behalf. Yet, it is fair to think God has His way with us all, and seeks our good. Like Jacob, each day, we are on a journey. We have allies to travel with and adversaries who do us harm and pursue us. In some cases our conflicts are as intense as Jacob's but often times they are more mundane.

One message of Genesis seems to be that God will shape and form us by our life and choices. When we suffer and struggle it may be a blessing. It may be that today's hard times are setting the stage for tomorrow's glory. Jacob needed to move back and he was inspired to do so by Laban's mistreatment. Like the early church, it took a bad thing (persecution) to get him moving. In both cases, the end result is a huge benefit to humankind (The Jewish people and the Christian church). Family politics will result in a great nation in the Promised Land. All of us are called to be faithful in our little corner of the earth. Like Jacob, God has promised us bigger things (even if not as big as his!) and like Jacob sometimes we must flee the problem situation. However, in faith, flight is not just 'from' it is also 'to.' In the Journey of Faith we are all headed to the Promised Land. In the travel let us walk in the paths of God.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


We are reading Genesis in our Morning Prayer lectionary and Sunday morning we read from chapter 29. The story of Jacob is somewhat troubling. He is, after all, the actual Father of the tribes. Abraham is the great-grandfather, technically. Jacob is portrayed as a usurper, a grasper, someone who from before his birth was reaching out to grasp what belonged to his brother. Jacob uses deceit to gain his brother's blessing (with his mother's inspiration it should be added)--going so far as to wear his brother's clothing and place lamb wool on his body to fool the blind old man. The Torah text leaves us hanging as to God's view of it all. No editorial comments are provided. No judgment made one way or the other.

Jacob has a resemblance to a common figure in ancient narratives the world over: the trickster. Jacob is 'the thief' who is adept at burglary, taking what is his brother's and making it his own. However, as Jacob leaves (his brother threatened to kill him once their father, Isaac, died) he reveals that deceit is his sole strength. Esau is a red, wild man. An outdoors man who is adept with the bow. Jacob is a self described smooth skinned, inside guy. He is the archetypical sissy and momma's boy.

Jacob comes to find his true love, Rachel, and works seven years to earn her from his uncle (and future father-in-law). The narrative blows over seven years with little detail. We are told Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her. Wow, she must have been something! However, as many of us already know, on the wedding night, the veiled bride with whom he is wed is not Rachel, it is her sister Leah. The shocked Jacob cries to his father-in-law What is this you have done to me?...Why did you deceive me?

Why indeed?
The trickster now tastes his own medicine. The deceiver reaps what he has sown: deception. Later in the story his grown sons will sell his favorite into slavery (Joseph) and deceive him with a story that their brother must have been consumed by a wild beast. Jacob will suffer much in the years ahead. Perhaps that is the point.

God has given the world to our care. We shape it and make it. Our choices, for good or ill, help create the spiritual and physical environment in which we live. We need to be careful, as Jesus said, because we reap what we sow. What goes around comes around. The measure with which we give is the measure which we receive. Jacob illustrates that that is not always a good thing for us, especially in our acts of deception!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Real Life is Within Reach

[Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Matthew 5:21-37 (1 Corinthians 3:1-9)]
The first five books of the Bible, called the Torah, contain The Instructions of God which has guided the Jews for some three thousand years. The Book of Deuteronomy, literally the second law, is a recapitulation of the previous books of the Torah and is presented to the reader as a long sermon by Moses. The narrative context is the escaped Hebrew slaves (the Israelites) standing at the brink of entering the Promised Land. Based on the language similarities to Jeremiah, there is reason to believe that the book as we have it is actually a reworking of the ancient revelation for a new time. Probably, it is aimed at the Jews in Babylon who prepare to return to the land from which they have been exiled for seventy years. This can be discerned in the frequent declaration that the covenant between God and Israel is not just the first generation, but includes the descendants of those people. As such, the book is intentionally geared for the new generation. It is, therefore, our own, for we, too, are children of Abraham in Christ.
The primary promise of the chapters from which we take today’s excerpt is that God will restore His people. A promise of restoration (or salvation, or redemption) is no light thing. For people adrift in the chaotic seas, or wandering in the darkness, the promise of harbor or light are welcome. The original audience of the book of Deuteronomy were such people. I would argue that we are too.
As chapter 30 begins, God says He will search out those who are dispersed and bring them back. “The Lord will open your hearts to love Him, with all your heart and soul, so you may live.” A sweet promise indeed to people who feel incapable of mustering such love on their own. God will do for us what we can’t do ourselves.
Today we read from later in the chapter. The message is simple: love the Lord, walk in His ways, keep His instruction so you can thrive. Here is the purpose of God’s law and commands; they are given so that we can live abundantly. It is not to earn heaven, it is to bring heaven to earth. It is our part of the bargain, our synergistic cooperation with God’s Holy Spirit unleashed in the world. It is an obedience which declares not so much “ain’t I good” but rather “Isn’t God good!”
The choice is laid out before the Hebrew slaves in the desert and their exiled Jewish ancestors five hundred years. It applies to us, living our own exile and exodus, seeking a glimpse of God in a world where other gods run amuck.
I lay before you, life and abundance, death and destruction. Choose LIFE. Our covenant with God is that: life. The promise not yet fully realized, sin and death still wreak havoc in us and among us. The Messiah King may reign in heaven, but here below other dark princes have their way to the detriment of us all.
So we hear the words: if you and your children would live; love your God, obey His instruction, and cling to Him! Rabbi Friedman notes that the word cling is first used of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:24. The marital imagery of our covenant with God is present here. In fact, the rabbi counts no less than 17 words and images which appear here and in the early chapters of Genesis, a fact, he reminds us, that ties together the beginning and end of the Torah and serves as a reminder that it is all one message. It reveals also the amazing hand of God, as the Spirit has led the inspired authors and editors in constructing this Holy Book.
If Deuteronomy reinterprets Moses for a new setting, the return from exile; then Matthew provides us a ‘Tritonomy,’ a Third Law in his Gospel. Jesus says He has come to fulfill not destroy the Law. You have heard it said, but I say to you. Jesus reworks the ancient revelation for much the same reason that the author(s) of Deuternonomy did; a new context and a deeper application of what it means. The problem with Law is lawyers. We have conflicting interpretation (and every three year old is a lawyer, we are razor sharp in arguing our case from the time we learn to talk). We argue about definitions and details and seek loopholes to escape the guilty verdict. Always the loophole! "I have never killed anyone," we seem satisfied to say, secure in our innocence. Yet Jesus turns it all on its head by going to the depths of our hearts and souls. He interrogates our desires, our wishes, our hidden thoughts and feelings. Suddenly, we are all judged: GUILTY as charged, your Honor.
Why would Jesus do this?
For one, because the heart is the garden in which sinful acts grow. Desire precedes choice. First the thought, then the behavior. Jesus goes to the source of the problem: we are messed up, we are sinners.
But Jesus does not do this to make us feel bad, to unmask us as secretly evil. Like His Father, Jesus has come so that we might have life. Real Life. Fullness of Life. Life freed from anger and violence, freed from lust and disordered appetites, freed from lies and deceit; Life freed from the pain and suffering caused by sin.
As I have made clear numerous times, Jesus is the fully-filledness of the Exodus story. He is the fully-filledness of the Torah. He is the fully-filledness of the promise of God: in Jesus our hearts are made new—though now being made new is a struggle.
Some day we will enter that Land of Promise and enjoy the blessings of loving God, listening to God and clinging to God. Someday, together, we will gather to love and worship Him Who will provide us with every blessing for which we long.
In the meantime, clinging to the promise, we worship and love as best we can. Loving with divided hearts. Listening with faulty ears. Clinging with weak hands. Knowing that it is enough, for He is faithful and He has promised to search the world over to bring us home to Him!