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Friday, January 30, 2015

John: Killing the Christ

this is the third reading from Sunday MP, John 7:14-31. All three are read together on that day, so the interaction of the texts in the Hearer's mind and heart produce their own unique message. Like ingredients in a recipe, the interaction of lections can open new insights when read together...
Jesus has gone to the Festival of Booths (Fall harvest celebration as well as--from Leviticus--remembrance of the time in the desert) in Jerusalem. Romans would consider Him a problem. Jewish leaders saw such men as a threat to their tenuous status quo.  The honor codes and violence of the time could explode at any moment. This complex situation is conveyed by the repeated words "you/they seek to kill Me." Jesus had a tendency to avoid crowds and withdraw.

A key message Jesus gives us is about right desire. If you want to hear His words and discern, then you must seek God's will not your own. The Greek word for conversion, metanoia, literaly means a mind above. We, like Jesus' adversaries, cannot hear Him when we seek our own interests rather than our God's. Even believers are not exempt! We end up judging by appearances and failing to see the deeper meaning. In common parlance, our personal "agenda" gets in the way.

The "Jews" (be careful how you generalize this) thought that they knew where Jesus was from (Nazareth: according to appearances) yet He knows different. He is from God, something not easily discerned by those who fail to judge by right judgment.

The narrative concludes with a discussion. Some Jews think Jesus is a bad guy, others question if He is the Messiah. In a sense, their debate continues today. We are also confronted with the same choice. Will I believe He is the Christ/Messiah/Anointed/King?

Killing Jesus continues today, figuratively. When we make Him into something He isn't, we 'kill' Him and replace Him with a counterfeit. Our politics, our culture, our personal wants and agendas all contribute to it. Yet, if we keep holy silence and submit our will to Him, if we seek God's ways and not our own, then the light will dawn. The words of Jesus will be clearly the words of God. We will have to repent to get there, however, repent of being party to the plot to kill Him, whether actively or passively.  

Hebrew 11 Hoping and Hanging On

Hebrews 11:8-16
Chapter 11 of Hebrews is one of those familiar parts of the Bible. It has an almost musical repetition of the word 'faith' as it enumerates the great heroes of the Bible. As is always the case, it is probably helpful to see what is not there and to compare this list with similar lists in the Jewish writings (among many others; Sirach 44-49 is an extensive list, Wisdom 10 omits names but is similar). In the Jewish Annotated New Testament (NRSV, p421) they note the absence of priests and kings (except David in passing at the end) from the list as it reflects some "unusual choices." The reason seems to be a focus on characters who had a brush with death, had insight into the future and acted faithfully, and are alienated from their own generation. This is a helpful insight as it provides us with a key to understanding the situation of the church being addressed. They are feeling alienated and under threat. In our own times, it is especially helpful.

Faith is the substance (hypostatis) of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 1:1) gives us a key for understanding the faith of the many heroes listed. The word faith means both trusting and being faithful, it has, as in English, a connection to believing something (conviction) and acting on that belief (entrusting). As Hebrews repeats the "by faith" we see, over and over, the active engagement with God by those who received His gracious kindness. In the particular focus on Abraham today, we see summarized part of the key story of salvation. God's choice of this man, Abram, ends up for our benefit. All of us. Salvation motivated the act of God, not just a man who wanted an heir. The allusion to the "city of God" reminds us that our dissatisfaction with life (even the best of days) is a reflection of our eternal destiny. We are out of place, in a foreign land. As my dad always said, we were created to live in Eden and are not ever at home here. By faith Abraham obeyed, the active and submissive are combined in faith. God initiates (Creator/Savior) while we live out the demands of the covenant blessings. 

The challenge is fidelity to an invisible God who has made unrealized promises is difficult.  (see verse 13) They all died before the promise of Messiah was received, and we will most likely join them before the final consummation of judgment day. Faith is confident assurance in response to promises which are still in the future. No wonder so many lose their way, distracted by this city, here and now, rather than daring to "desire a better city" and hope for "a heavenly one" (even if we are laughed at as believing in an imaginary being). A city is prepared for us. We do not need to doubt that. We need to live today as sojourners waiting to arrive at our destination.

I think the author of Hebrews knew that we get discouraged, we are prone to disappointment and despair. As we remember the past heroes, it is best to think of them as people like us, rather than super powered. Being faithful is a call of all, not a select few. The excuse that "I am not a saint..." is actually a confession of sin; all of us are set apart to be holy. All. Hebrews reminds us to live with courage and intensity trusting God is keeping and will fully keep His promise.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Isaiah 51:9-16

the following are notes for the Sunday School class on the three readings assigned for the Daily Office in the book of Common Prayer, 4 Epiphany 
Isaiah 51:9-16
We begin with a plea ("Awake! Awake!") for God to show His power ("arm") to save. [Recall Jesus asleep in the boat during the storm for an example of how He is filling up every Scripture!] The two illustrations which follow demonstrate the inter-relationship of creation and salvation.
"Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the monster through?
It was you that dried up the Sea, the waters of the deep...a road the redeemed might walk" 

Rahab, in Jewish mythology, is a water dragon. Ancient Israel's neighbors included some myths about creation which included such dragons and chaos. However, the Hebrew word, rahab, means strength (see Is 30:7; Job 9:13; 27:12), pride and insolence. It is used as a code name for Egypt in Psalm 87:4, 89:8 and probably here as well. The general reference to Exodus (deliverance) is couched in imagery of Genesis (creation). It also employs mythological imagery. Mythology is grounded in history (poetry and symbolism are also true) and the Apocalypse of John will pick up this same imagery in chapter 12 & 13 in reference to Satan and his partners.

Fundamentally, Isaiah gives voice to a people who recall God's great acts of salvation in days long ago, and are desperate to see the same deliverance in their own time. v11 "so let the ransomed/redeemed of the Lord return...with and gladness, while sorrow and sighing flee." Salvation in time and place are an experience of divine deliverance. This language is echoed in the Apocalypse 21:3-4 in the final victory where "the old order of things has passed away"! Redemption is redemption and the Bible uses the same language whether referring to the end of today's problems or the end of the world.

God's response (51:12ff) is typical of what we read in Second Isaiah. "I am He Who comforts you" (one of my favorite St. Louis Jesuits songs is based on this chapter). Identity is a key issue. God is the comforter (nacham means to comfort, pity, or regretthis is the same word used to say "God regrets" in Job; see Wednesday, January 28th blog). When we look at the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) we find the word parakallo, familiar from John's Gospel as "Paraclete" (counselor, comforter) in reference to the Holy Spirit who will come after Jesus ascends to His Father. (Dare I say, another 'filling up' verse?)

God's response to their pleas? Basically, "what are you afraid of?" Your oppressors are temporal, contingent and weak. Human kings and kingdoms are transient (they die, they are like grass). God reminds them that He created sky and earth (heaven and earth is basically 'everything'). This is repeated in verses 13 & 16. So the basic premise is this, if God is the Creator then all things can be fixed. And yet another tie-in to the opening verses, He is the Lord who "stirs up the sea into roaring waves" (and the Gentiles are likened to roaring waves in Is 17:12; Ps 65 reminds God stills the roaring of the waves)

The parallel of to the first exodus from Egypt (as a new creation//redemption) continues in v16 "I have put my words in your mouth" are also found in Deuteronomy 18:18 (I will put the words in the mouth of my prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command) where God promises to raise up a prophet like Moses. 

Connecting Exodus with the return from exile is a common feature of the exiled Jews (see Ezra and Nehemiah). It is a paradigm which we find in the New Testament as well. All the stories are interconnected. As we read what happened to the Jews in Babylon, who looked back to ancient days in Egypt and the most ancient days of Creation to discover hope, we, so many years later moaning in our own exile (literal and figurative) can also cry out to God with confidence that He remains the Creator, the Comforter and the Savior.

Hence, the implied message of Isaiah in this reading: Fear not, know that I am God!
Faith saves because God is a Savior.


[Galatians has a very significant place in the New Testament. It is a foundational source for the theologies of Augustine and Luther. However, we are reminded that the arch-heretic Marcion placed it first in his canon. The reader's perspective matters.]

Galatians is written to churches in an area which is modern day Turkey. The people were descendents (circa 275BC) of Celtic invaders who came under Roman dominion around 25BC. They maintained their own language and customs. Paul visited this area three times and the letter is thought to have been written between 48 and 54AD.

The letter clearly begins with Paul is establishing his credentials as a legitimate apostle ("not from men, or a man but Jesus Christ and God the Father"). One of the realities of church life is conflict. From the beginning there have been disagreements. Sin is in the church. This is why the words "to rescue us from the present evil age" are so vital. The salvation in Jesus is a rescue operation. The age (every age) is evil. There was no golden time of pure faith. There has always and only been an evil age from which we need rescuing.

Paul had been there, and later some other missionaries had come amongst the Galatians and made alterations of what they had heard. These men said that Gentile Christians should adopt Jewish practices associated with circumcision and Torah. The missionaries are no doubt Jewish Christians (all of the first Christians were), but this group tried to conserve that Jewish identity and practice. They may well have been Pharisees who had become Jesus-believers. Now these men are afraid something vital is lost by Paul's interpretation of the Christian Way. Conservatives remind us that we must move slowly and not lose what is essential. In this case, the men were advocating non-essentials. Paul condemns (anathema in Greek) them most strongly. Whatever their sincerity and motivations, they were proclaiming a deadly lie.

I have some feelings of compassion for these "other" preachers. Paul's insights were driven by his experiences with God--he calls it a revelation (1:12). His insight into the meaning of Jesus far surpassed most in the church. Yet, I also understand Paul's passionate concern. He was seeing his church led astray by men who would replace Jesus with an inadequate alternative. These men had also, it seems, called into question his status and motivation (he is a late comer who did not know Jesus and is trying to make it easy on Gentiles to please them).

Paul responds to the criticism by providing some biography. 'I used to persecute the church but now I do not,' he says, 'and I did not learn what I know from anyone.' He spent fourteen years sharing what Jesus revealed to him with the Gentiles. For Paul, the point is what God had done in Jesus: created one family of God's children. It was about being God's children (not Jews or Gentiles), united in the Messiah King Jesus. Jesus is our representative who makes us right with God. He alone is the one in whom all people find hope.

It is like a  man who is able to walk on a tight rope (thanks to NT Wright for this analogy). We sit on his back. If we decide to get off half way across, well..... splat! Returning to Torah observance is futile, because, as Paul demonstrates in chapter 3, the Torah cannot accomplish that. Our identity as God's people is based on relationship with Him in Jesus. The Torah served its purpose, it was a "baby sitter" until the Lord arrived, but now that Jesus is here Torah is filled up in Him. The Torah is limited, it can only tell us what to do. The Torah curses anyone who breaks even one law---which we all do. So we are cursed. The only hope is Righteous One who takes our curse on (which Jesus does on the cross) Himself and frees us.

Applying this teaching to our own age, which is also an age of evil, is vital. However, we need to look first at how "I am missing the point" rather than assuming "I got it right and Paul is talking about them!" In the end, the sad reality is Paul says God wants one family. One people. One; and we are growing more divided and individualized each day. So, we are all under judgment right now, and the sorry state of the church may be the wrath (or curse) of which Paul is warning us. We have hope for ultimate rescue, but right now, we are in the thick of the mess and we, and the world, are the worse for it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Time to Decide

The Third Sunday of Epiphany

The parabolic narrative of Jonah is a veritable treasure chest from which we will take but a few jewels.
    [from the Book of Jonah 3:1-5, 10]

The closest thing we have to a prophetic message is the scant:
"Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown"
There is an ironic pun here, as the Hebrew haphak which is translated as overthrown, also means to turn around or change ones' self. (This is one of many paradoxical twists and turns in the text.) In the story, it is the Assyrian foreigners who respond correctly to God, in stark contrast to the Jewish prophet. In light of this, another paradox, the unchanging God changes, too

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed His mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

They "turned;" shub  is the Hebrew word, it means turn, but it is also used to describe repentance. "They turned from their evil ways" can also be translated they repented. This triggers a change in God.

The Lord also repents. The Lord is sorry/repents--- nacham  is the same root as Noah and it means comfort, (and also regret, be sorry, comfort oneself, feel pity). This verb appears twice in Genesis 6:6, 6:7 where God tells Noah "I regret having made mankind." The Biblical God enters time in relating to His creation. I do not understand how God does this, but in the Bible we see, again and again, God living within the constraints of time. As such, within creation, God has made His acts contingent on our own. This is why prophets are sent, because God is willing to change, if, that is, we repent first.

[from Paul to Corinth, 1 Cor 7:29-31]
 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short"

systello to draw together, to diminish, to compact; to wrap with bandages. Occurs only Acts 5:6 (in reference to a man dying and being bandaged up and buried). Paul lays out a long argument in Corinthians that we must understand the right relationship between God's Kingdom and our own temporal circumstances. As I have said before, it is all ice sculptures. We must always keep one eye on eternity, because the day draws near, faster then we realize. Do not be caught unprepared.

[from Mark 1:14-20]
Jesus said..."The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news." 

kairos/time refers to the Day of the Lord. It is the day when God acts to establish His salvation. This refers to the end of the world; which was initiated by the incarnation: the ministry of Jesus and His cross, resurrection, enthronement. In light of that we must stay clear on the difference of chronos, the chronological time of earthly realms and kairos, the theologically charged concept of the fullness of time , when all is made one in Christ.
The term "has come near" can be understood as a temporal or spatial reference: engizo is found three times in Mark, here at the beginning of the Gospel, later in 11:1 "drew near Jerusalem," which signals the end of Jesus time on earth and 14:2 in the Garden where the passion begins, "my bertrayer is near." The connection of the cross/death of Jesus with the end of the world is alluded to through the word connecting these three verses.

Three passages from three different books, each reminding us that it is over. God has passed judgment on the sinful world and He calls, invites, even demands that we turn our lives around. Time is a deception. We are led to believe that there is always more time, that we can delay. The truth is, it may not be forty days, as in Jonah, but the time is compressed and the days do grow shorter and the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Very near.

The spiritual disciplines of a repentant Christians, pray, work, study, are our response to God's offer. We may be reluctant prophets like Jonah, but we must be clear that we do not have forever to decide to respond. Eventually, Nineveh was destroyed never to rise again. Jerusalem, too, suffered a similar fate when she failed to recognize Messiah. We are also given the same chance as they, a chance to change. We also have the same burden as the ancient prophets, to pronounce to those around us God's desire and intent.

Right now, God can change, but only if we change. He does not desire the death of the sinner, but that the sinner turn and live, but as history bears out, if the sinner chooses to obstinately stay the course of sin, then death and destruction are the final destination. Do we have forty days? Forty minutes? or forty years? No one knows for sure, but it is foolish to put off for another day what we should have done long ago!

Repent and turn to the Lord in faith.
Call others to the same
That is permanent, everything else is temporary!

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


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.

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?"

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.

Friday, January 9, 2015

On The Other Hand

(continuing with Revelation 2) Wednesday we wrote about the letter to Ephesus, where Jesus commends their orthodoxy but condemns the lack of love. It is a classic critique of the church, and especially popular among those who are not concerned with all those "rules and regulations." After all, isn't love really all that matters?

Today, in the letter to Thyatira, we get the answer. Thyatira was not a particularly significant little town. [Bible Trivia: Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth in Acts 16:14 was from there.] The church is commended for its works, its love and its service. So everything seems fine, but then there is a crushing word of judgment from the exalted Lord Jesus.

"I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and leading my servants astray to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols."

Any number of current day "prophets/prophetesses" who advocate unceasingly for "tolerance" and reject the historic faith are guilty of this charge. Who is the Jezebel in Revelation 2?

The name is a 'type' and refers back to the pagan queen wife of Ahab. Her name is apparently a Hebrew twist on her Phoenician name (Ba'al is exalted) and may mean "not exalted" or "without a husband." This sort of punning mockery is similar to the twisted term "Lord of the Flies."

Jezebel was an oppressor of faithful Jewish worship of YHWH and an opponent to Elijah. She met a bitter end, and her name is associated with corruption of the faith. In Thyatira, there seems to have been those (symbolized by the name Jezebel) who were advocating a "go along" attitude with the pagan neighbors. The "who am I to judge?" impulse has a shadow side. "I refuse to persecute others for the faith" can deteriorate into "I refuse to take a stand for the truth." Jesus clearly thinks that allowing this "woman" (whether referring to an actual woman, or metaphorically to a group of men and women) free reign to spread her lies is abominable.

Offerings to other gods take many forms. The idea that "all roads lead to God" is one of those forms. The idea that it doesn't matter how you worship or who you worship is another of those forms. Jesus is clear, there is one God. The 'porneia' (sexual immorality,  fornication, etc.) is literal and figurative. The church is to be pure. Sexual immorality is appealing, it follows after our impulses and desires. It takes little effort to desire, it is a struggle to harness the desires. Such sexual wantonness is also a symbol of infidelity to God. To commit adultery is to be unfaithful to one's spouse, and the covenant with God is like a marriage.

Tough words indeed. Orthodoxy without love is not acceptable. However, love does not free one from the truth, either. To be heterodox is as bad as to be loveless. So speaks Jesus today. Another challenge to fidelity on our journey of faith.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Do Not Fear

Revelation 2:8-17
Do not fear what you are about to that you may be will have affliction...Be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life.

Death seems to be everywhere in my life lately. In the past few weeks I have done two funerals, been to another and been connected to several people who have lost someone close to them. In addition, I am working with a couple people are are actively in the process of dying. One recurring theme is fear. Several times I have heard, "I am afraid to die."

Fear is real. Most folks I know have experienced it and some folks seem to have it as a constant companion. In many cases, fear is based on the 'unkown.' We are afraid of things that "might happen" or afraid of failure, loss or catastrophe.

"What would I do?" we wonder, imagining if we were confronted by some crazed gunmen at work, or a diagnosis of cancer, or an egregious act of injustice and violence. "Would I stand up and do the right thing, would I quake in fear, would I freeze?" Those who know best, the people who have lived through terrible events are the best source of wisdom. They tell us, "You will be surprised. We never know what we will do until the moment comes. Heroes are unexpected, so are cowards." It is said that in the early church, it was those who suffered torture and maiming who were often the most merciful and understanding toward those who failed the test. It is said that those who had suffered understood that it was a power not their own which sustained them. Clearly, those who ponder this from afar (intellectually not experientially) do well to simply listen.

One constant theme of the New Testament is the surety of thlipsis/tribulation and the suffering which comes with persecution. Most of us were born in a pro-Christian world. If fidelity was sometimes cultural and somewhat nominal, it was at least publicly supportive of church. As hostility increases many find themselves struggling with the new situation. Vile statements made about Jesus are now common in public forums. Ridicule of the Christian faith is widespread and growing. People are actually suffering loss due to their beliefs.

We do well, if we seek to follow Christ, to assume that rejection is not an anomaly. Following a crucified Messiah entails cross carrying. There is little doubt that the typical middle class church lifestyle has ill prepared us for any significant trials and tribulation, however, it is also likely that those originally addressed by the author of the Apocalypse were no less prone to worry and fear in their more austere setting. In every Biblical and post-Biblical generation the words, do not fear, be not afraid, resonate. We are not the first to wonder if we can stand up and be faithful. We are not the first to worry about what faces us in dying. We are not the first to be concerned about what happens afterward.

We have two promises: We should expect to suffer for the faith. We should believe that the victory afterwards is worth anything which we might endure! In the end, we have no more and no less than any person who goes before us or comes after us. SO be not afraid. Trust Jesus. Trust God...

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

God's Desire

Today we read from Revelation 2:1-7. It is one of seven letters which are found in the beginning of the Apocalypse (which means "unveiling" in Greek; or 'revelation'). The Apocalypse is difficult to read because it is a type of literature. Extra canonical (non-Bible) apocalyptic works are not familiar to us. WE do not understand the "rules" of this type of communication. Just like editorials, news stories and commercial ads all have different rules, so do other types of literature.

Once you have read several apocalypses you get a feel for how they are written. In many ways, it is probably necessary to do this in order to get a better feel for what John is writing here.

It could be grounded in a mystical experience of some sort, perhaps on a Sunday (references seem to be liturgical). John had his vision/revelation at church during a eucharist, it seems. Whatever the actual experience, he writes using apocalyptic images. The symbolism is stereotypical to the genre. In addition, the use of Jewish Bible references is constant. There are constant references, paraphrases and allusions to the Jewish Bible---in fact, if you do not know the Old Testament you cannot understand the Apocalypse at all.

One unusual feature is the appearance of seven mini-epistles. The first one, which we read today, is to Ephesus. Each letter includes some sort of evaluation, an exhortation/warning/affirmation and some allusion to the previous vision. In the first letter we have both an affirmation and a stern warning. They are called faithful and orthodox. They are not falling prey to any of the revisionist nonsense or the heretical falsehoods. In fact, they are standing up under pressure and a little persecution. On an objective scale they are champs. 

However, God says, I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. In other words, God does not want us just to be good, He wants us to love Him well.

There are references to their works (repent and do the works you did at first), something I will not reflect on here. (I think I have spoken on that topic one hundred times.) Suffice to say, "love" is not a feeling it is an action, it is manifest in works.

Yet, it is a terrifying message. Too often Christians pat themselves on the back for not bowing to the latest deceit of the unholy trinity (world, flesh, devil). We  think "not" dong this or that is enough. We think that because orthodoxy is important, that it is all that matters.

Today God reminds us that He wants more. He wants the passionate, committed love. He does not want us to let it die down to embers. He does not want us to be satisfied with mediocrity.

He desires our love. This is pretty sublime, the eternal God wants our love! I do not know what the Ephesians did when they heard this. I do know it gives me pause. What was my love for God like in 1976 when I became an energetic Christian? Have I allowed myself to mellow out over the years? It is the sort of verse which makes one take stock.

There is reason to "give ear and listen" for their is life here. everyone who from the tree of life
(yes, that was a reference to Genesis). It is good to be faithful, but it seems God desires more. He wants us to love Him.