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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunday School: Which Narrative part 2

(NIV) Isaiah 49

14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
    the Lord has forgotten me.”
15 “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
    I will not forget you!
16 See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
    your walls are ever before me.
17 Your children hasten back,
    and those who laid you waste depart from you.

There are several narratives which could serve as the "core" story of our life. Here are three:
1. There is no god, there is no meaning to life, we are here by accident and all that happens occurs in a cold dark universe. In response we can choose despair, or denial. I am alone and on my own...
2. There is a God, but He is demanding and punishes us for our errors. He must be feared and obeyed. We must earn everything. His eye is ever watchful to find a mistake. Anything that goes wrong is His hand of judgment.
3. God is a loving Mother, a faithful Father. God desires to save us and loves us. His plan is for our good. Her desire is to comfort and renew us.

Last week we ended in prayer together with the third model. What happened? Some were full of joy, others were terribly uncomfortable. I was told "I can't wait to come back" and "I don't want to come back." 
But my question is "If...
If God so loved the world that He sent His only Son and He sent His Son to save the world...
If Jesus says God is like a Father who runs to welcome back a wayward son and celebrate his return...
If Jesus says from the cross, "Father forgive them"...
If Jesus says to the sinner, "Your sins are forgiven," to the sick, "I do will it, be healed," to the demon possessed, "be free," to the hungry, "sit down and eat (and later 'I give my flesh for food')," to the dead, "rise"...and to the fearful in despair, "fear is useless, what is needed is trust....only believe."
If the ministry of Jesus was constantly focused on freeing people from the Kingdom of Darkness.
If Jesus said "As the Father has loved me so I have loved you," "I want my joy to be in you so that your joy may be complete," "fear not little flock it has pleased the Father to give you the Kingdom."

Then what if these promises shape our narrative?

We return to the image of a mother and baby.
We are not babies any more. Babies must learn to love others and to discipline their wants and desires. Babies are self centered. But the basic needs of a baby remain with us forever. As we learned to love others we were wounded and harmed. Our imperfect self was nurtured by imperfect parents and we grew up in an imperfect world. Let's call that "Original Sin and life in a Fallen World."

Adults are to be mature, but we still have needs for care and love. The wounds of life make us less trusting. We withdraw in distrust and fear. Our mistakes make us guilty and shameful. We build walls to protect ourselves, closing off hope so we aren't disappointed. We have negative feelings and thoughts--anger, fear, sadness, despair--which take away our joy. The world is full of beauty and good, but danger and evil and ugliness find a way to ruin things. And in the spirit realm any number of demons wreak havoc in our souls.

Those who believe/trust/live in Christ's Kingdom (He said it is near) have a power (Light, Life, Love) at work which competes with the Darkness of a Fallen World. Jesus is not just a moral teacher or a hope for life after death. He is active among us now (or can be if we tap into Him!) But it is easy to lose hope, to not believe, to not embrace the promises of God. We can say "God is love," but in the secret of our heart we can add, "but not for everyone, not all the time." We can trust God, but "not totally." We can say Jesus is the Savior but then limit that salvation to heaven.

That is the difficulty of the church. Her members are of divided mind. Followers of Christ, but not too close, so as not to be too disappointed when He fails us (again). And not being close and not having trust only produces more experiences which lead us to despair a bit more, trust and hope a bit less, and withdraw with a bit more fear, anger and sadness. Just a bit mind you, just a bit. But over time those bits add up and we become more like those who are outside Christ...

And we don't see the Kingdom near. And so let's ponder. If the Gospel is true, what is God up to among us? And how can we come to know and experience all the abundance of the Kingdom?
Find a friend or two and discuss that. How would you be different if you believed that God desires to do such good things, here and now, in you and through you? Why would Jesus say these things if they are not true?

Step out in faith, (with confidence) ask God to fill you with a bit more trust, a bit more joy, a bit more hope... And thank Him for giving it! 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

What Kind of King, Jesus?

In Jesus' day, the last "King of the Jews" had been dead for well over 500 years. In the interim, the years of exile, conquests by numerous foes, and the current oppression of the Roman Empire made a mockery of the idea of a Jewish King. God's promise to David was arguably an empty one. Yet, the Jews had clung to this hope, at times energetically, longing for salvation and deliverance.

In today's Gospel Pilate asks, "Are you the King of the Jews?'' Jesus an itinerant preacher, healer and exorcist is not an obvious candidate for such a title.

Days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, I saw a news report that the French Air Force launched numerous attacks on ISIS strongholds. My emotional reaction was positive. Of course it was; I am a partisan. I like my team and want my team to win. I grew up in a military family. I played war growing up and was drenched in the mythology of good guys and bad guys my entire childhood. Saviors were good guys who beat the bad guys---whether a knight in shining armor, a lone sheriff staring down the bad guys, or soldier in battle. I internalized the message that a real man is a good man who will fight to protect his family and his country. I fantasized about being a good guy. ISIS has made a strong case that they are bad guys! Crushing the bad guys feels good!

But as Tolkien showed us in Lord of the Rings, Power is seductive. Power used in the cause of righteousness is addictive and consuming. We listen to the lament that the White House lacks direction. We hear the call for strong leadership and a strong military. Few of us would disagree. It just makes sense to us, right? Meet a threat with sufficient force to eliminate the threat. Action heroes are saviors. Power must be used to make the world better.

This is not a new idea. It was certainly present in ancient times. Rome worshiped her conquering heroes as gods! The Jewish Scriptures extol military victories of Joshua, Judges and Kings (and Maccabees). This message of power is echoed in the the Apocalypse. Our God reigns, our God is mighty to deliver us, our God comes in wrath to bring vengeance upon a sinful world! Bad guys are going to get hell and aren't we happy to be wearing white hats.

But there is, as Paul Harvey says, the rest of the story.

In the four Gospels, King Jesus, it turns out, is no conquering hero. The injustice of Roman oppression is not punished. Jesus does not summon an army to release the captives or establish a truly just society. Jesus does not take up sword and shield and lead an army to throw out the Roman occupiers. Jesus is not the King we long for at all. If you were a Jew who thought Jesus was the Anointed King come to save you from Roman abuses, would you be tempted to critique His lack of strong leadership? His inability to act decisively to rescue His people? His failure to rid the world of the Roman threat?

Lets be clear, the mind numbing atrocities of ISIS are repugnant evil. Murdering teenagers at a concert or blowing up innocents on a sidewalk cafe are beyond reprehensible. But, you are ignorant of history if you think that the Roman occupation of Judah was any less oppressive, unjust or malignant. Thousands of Jews were crucified and slaughtered. Thousands. Their lives no less significant because they lived long ago and far away. The horrors of Jesus' day are not any less horrible because it happened to them and not us.

So what am I saying?

I am saying that we know the answer to Pilate's question.
"Jesus, are you the King of the Jews?"

But what kind of King is He?

He is a King who handed Himself over to the Evil Empire of His age---and suffered and died.
By His wounds we are healed.

He is a king who loved the unlovable and embraced the unembracable.
He is a king who forgives the unforgivable and loves those who hate Him.
He is a king who wears a crown of thorns and is enthroned on a cross.

Today we can bomb ISIS into non-existence but tomorrow a new evil will take its place. Remember the great war against Nazis and Fascists? the cold war against communism? There are, 1 John tells us, many anti-Christs. ISIS must be defeated as it is another diabolical manifestation of satan's dark realm. But, ISIS is no the ultimate issue...You and I are confronted this day with a question that runs deeper than current events; an eternal question for every age.

What kind of King is Jesus?
He is a healer. An exorcist. A teacher and a reconciler. A man who loved children and outcasts and prophetically confronted the power brokers of church and state. Our King is the high priest and the sacrificial lamb. He is the light and love of God for a dark and sinful world. He is a king who refuses to summon the army which could save Him from a tortuous death on a cross.

Jesus is the True King of the World...
And if such a man is our king, how then shall we live as citizens of His Kingdom?
It boggles the mind...

Sunday School: Which Narrative do You Believe?

Sunday School

There is a connection between our thoughts and feelings, our believing and our living. This is more than the mind-body connection. It goes to what is in the mind (content) and how that impacts our life.
My sabbatical reading took an unexpected turn. Planning to read on St. Paul's Apocalyptic understanding about Justification and Genesis Commentaries, I entered Phase II with a readiness to study and learn. While I studied and learned, I found myself, whether drawn or pushed, immersing myself in books on Healing, Deliverance and Contemplative Spirituality. I read about seven or eight books, each one layering its insights to overlap and reinforce the other. Even the Daily readings (psalms and Bible lections), my devotional, and the devotional pages sent to me by others seemed to fit together to communicate a consistent message.

1. Loving God is the way to encounter God. Our intellects (theological knowledge) are too limited. Understanding Scripture must be also an effort to encounter (be encompassed by) God.
2. Faith is central. Not just head belief in ideas but heart entrusting, life transforming, risk taking, self giving trust and faith.
3. God has made promises which we must choose to believe/trust or else we live outside the Kingdom of Light and remain in the dark.

I want to spend our first class investigating this. However, I am being led to try to make it more like a cooking class than a lecture hall. Teaching about prayer is best done by instruction and practice.

As I have taught and written hundreds of times, Biblical Faith has three components:
*What do I believe? --this is contentual and has a cognitive element. It is in response to revelation. It is a work of reason. It is expressed in a creed. It is expounded in a catechism. It is the work of theology. It is words, thoughts and ideas. It is believing in the sense of thinking.
*Do I care? -- this is has to do with personal relevance and engagement: feelings, emotions, desires. There is a passive aspect to it (in the sense that moods affect it and we cannot generate feelings sometimes). This is our 'reaction' (gut level). This is the dimension of self investment: motivation and energy. This is the place where head and heart meet and generate choices.
[it may be true, but if I do not care it won't impact me.]
*Do I live it?--the realm of the active Will: action, response, behavior, speech, choice. It may be in my head as a "fact/factoid" and it may "mean the world to me" emotionally, but if it is never incarnate in my life then it is an idea and passing feeling. What I say and do, how I actually live it out matters too. And the "living" shapes and reinforces the "believing/thinking" and the "feeling/caring." We can live a life which makes the Kingdom life less important to us (this is why Jesus says it is so hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom, or why an unforgiving person cannot receive God's mercy, and you reap what you sow.) Human life is organic. Real lives lived in reality impact what God can do!

The three dimensions form a 3D cube. There are three sliding scales of positive or negative. Believing, Caring, Living can each be "more or less." (Like those surveys: Very weak, weak, strong, very strong)

Lastly, how is (tripartite) "Biblical Faith" lived out? Am I alone or am I with others? Am I Adam in the Garden, isolated and alone (individual), or am I unconscious and simply part of the whole without personal investment (Israel in the desert) or am I personally the church, in the communion of saints and a member of the body of Christ? As I finished writing these notes I got a text, almost immediately. It was a quote from Hebrews 10:23 "Let us hold hast to the confession of our hope without wavering for He who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching."

I call this a sync. Words which seem to come from God to direct me. I heard confirmed what I had chosen to teach this day.
Deep faith in God.
Lived out together.
No wavering and doubt.
Committed to love and care for one another.

A couple weeks ago, as I pondered my "day approaching" I had a picture/vision of this room and as I looked out I saw Ashley sitting here--- where she sits. And I suddenly saw here hold her baby son and I was filled with such joy at the love I see there. And God seemed to say, "Do you remember in Isaiah when I said that even if a mother could forget her child, I could never forget you"? (Is 49:5) And I texted Ashley and told her what I felt in  my heart from God and she said I could share it.

That is a promise of God.
God says lots of things in the Bible. Judgement texts with threats. Mercy texts with hope. Love texts with commitment to be kind and forgiving, patient and faithful. God says He will doom the land, but He also says He will save it. How we read the Bible is determined by the Primary Narrative which is in our heart.

Do you believe, at core, the message of God's revelation is bad news? or is it Good News?
Jesus answers the question. Yes judgement is real, but at core, The Narrative is a promise of salvation.

Do we believe it? Do we care? Will we act on our faith and be faith-filled and faithful? Will we engage others (love) and trust it together?

What I learned from my readings, (many readings by authors of diverse backgrounds, from hundreds of years ago and dozens of years ago) is that if we want to live in the Kingdom, live in fuller communion with God and see the power of God manifest, then we need to believe, care, and act--together. One important way of doing that is to openly declare our understanding of the Good News: what is the narrative which you believe? Do you see God as a Mother who loves His child? if so, what then would you expect from such a God?

Meditation and Contemplation upon these things (going deeper and deeper) is fundamental to our personal growth in Biblical (three dimensional) faith and it is a faith which prospers best in a faith community. As such we are going to practice such a "Triune-Faith" experientially.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Matthew 17 & 18

Gospels are a unique literary type. We easily see them as biographies (why wouldn't we?) and assume their purpose is to bring us information about historical events (which prove Jesus is God). This, of course, has some element of truth. The stories are events from the life of Jesus and the church. Jesus is the Son of God/God the Son and the Gospels are a testimony which invites us to believe. But they aren't a biography in the modern sense. The point is not to provide us with a birth to death story of Jesus' life. They are Gospel--Good News--about the Kingdom of God and Jesus' role as Messiah King.

Matthew, with his own purposes, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, provides us with an account of the Gospel. Scholars assume he used Mark as a basis and added another source, a collection of  sayings (in common with Luke) as well as his own sources either oral or written. In addition, the times in which he lived (20 to 50 years after Jesus) influenced how the message is transmitted. The changes he makes to Mark reflects this. One difference is that Mark says "Jesus taught" and Matthew has provided us with numerous chapters of the actual content of the teaching. The relationship of the church to Judaism also changed over the decades. It was more a Gentile church by the close of the first century than a Jewish sect.

Mt 17:1-8 The Jewish Scriptures contain extensive narratives about Moses, and one hears echos of that here. In fact, Moses and Elijah (Torah and Prophets) are identified. This remind us that Jesus is a Jewish Messiah and the New Testament is an extension of the First Covenant(s). The light shining out of Jesus is not an uncommon thing--God manifests as light frequently with holy people. The metamorphoo (changed into another form, transfigured) is a revelation of Jesus' inner being. Daniel's prophecies about the (one like a) Son of Man are found here as well. The Voice explains that Jesus is the beloved Son (remember the baptism, remember God to Abraham about Isaac), however, unique to Matthew, is the declaration "with whom I am well pleased." Rather than "rabbi" (per Mark) Peter calls Jesus "Lord" here. In addition, only Matthew says that the apostles fell on their faces, and Jesus touched them and said "Rise and have no fear." Such additional elements remind us that --if we meditate on the event--we will understand the awe-some (and frightening) nature of this event.

17:9-13 As they come down the mountain (an image and metaphor much used to contrast a "spiritual high"--like retreats--and "real life"--the grind of every day) we learn that Jesus calls this a "vision" (horama. only time used in a Gospel; quite frequent in Acts about Peter and Paul). What exactly happened is hard to know (was it something that everyone could have seen or was it limited to just the three? Apparitions of Mary have frequently been limited to the children who see her, while others in attendance may "experience something" but do not see her themselves). The theological discussion about Elijah is further clarified in Matthew. He states that it is John the Baptist. Christian depictions of John (his clothing) are an overt illustration of this. Matthew also adds a prediction of the Lord's passion here. The glory is not without the cross. (However much happy-clappy spirituality would imply that it is joy and abundance all the time) I prefer the bright lights to the bloody suffering, how about you?

17:14-21 "Reality" hits us at the bottom of the hill. A man comes to Jesus (Matthew has him kneel--notice Matthew wants his reader to understand who Jesus is, His exalted status, by making shifts to Mark's account). It is an epic fail by the apostles who are unable to cure/exorcise the man's demon afflicted, epileptic son. Jesus' reaction is harsh. Matthew (and Luke) both add the word "perverse" to Mark's original "faithless" (which may be an intentional allusion to Moses in Deuteronomy 32:5) This is not characteristic of Matthew, who generally replaces Mark's "faithless" with "ones of little faith." What makes this so hard to meditate on is the sorry state of the church in its healing ministry in the industrial West. Our healing team has certainly struggled with this, and most churches either don't even try, they preach against it (saying "healing ended with Jesus and the apostles"---ignoring church history and the thousands of cases which prove that wrong!) Matthew, as is his tendency, omits much detail from Mark's account. Jesus heals the boy and he is "cured instantly" (in Mark the boys convulses terribly and becomes like a corpse, the people say he is dead and Jesus takes his hand, lifts him up and he arises). The baffled apostles ask, "Why couldn't we do it?" In Mark Jesus' answer is that there needs to be prayer. In Matthew it serves as an illustration of the problem. You have "little faith" (Matthew) but he also uses the statement about faith the size of a mustard seed. Ironically, the mustard seed is called the smallest of all seeds in a parable. The statement is found also in Mt 21 when Jesus curses the fig tree. Small faith may be a problem for healing, but it is enough to raise a mountain and throw it in the sea! The healing ministry, I think, is the great divider between big and little faith. We need to believe more and act as true apostles of Jesus! Note in Mark the emphasis is on the (supplicant) father's faith in Jesus to heal (and a prayer for more faith) while here it is on the disciples' lack of faith as ministers.

Mt 17:22-27  The second prediction of the His death and resurrection make clear the centrality of that. Matthew emphasizes the apostles' distress (against Mark's "confusion" and "fear"). The "expectedness" of the cross and resurrection is an important part of the story. It illustrates God's plan.
In tandem with this is one of the more "amazing" stories of Jesus. He knows from afar that Peter (note Jesus calls him Simon) was approached about the failure to pay the half shekel Temple tax. It becomes a Christological illustration (as Son He should not pay His Father/King). However, Jesus does not want to "scandalize/cause to stumble" so He has Simon Peter fish up a miracle! This seems to indicate Jesus has no money. The tension of fidelity to the Jewish faith and the freedom of Jesus are in play here.

Mt 18:1-14 We see the issue of scandal coming up again in this section. It is thought that some of the sayings of Jesus were grouped thematically and perhaps that is why this section has a bumpy feel... The apostles ask Jesus who is the greatest in the Kingdom? In Mark the disciples are arguing with one another about who is the greatest? Matthew's streamlined version emphasizes the child more. Children were loved in Jewish homes, but it was hardly a child-centered society like ours can tend to be (in family values areas). A child has no more status than the poor, the sick, the outcast and the folks whom Jesus seems intent on saving! It is hard for successful middle class types to understand the radical nature of Jesus' message. We prefer to be assertive and powerful. Jesus illustration with the child, I think, helps us understand what "saved by faith alone" really means. It is when we feel smallest and most helpless that we must rely on God. For most of us, God is Plan B (or C). We trust God , but trusting is easiest when we feel power and control over our lives. Jesus says greatness is in abject weakness. But what else would a crucified Messiah think?

The child-scandal connection is made in what follows. Jesus is very protective of the poor and weak and makes clear that those who cause them to fall are better off dead. How often do we, in our righteousness and education, trample on the faith of "little ones" which don't measure up to our standards?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Back! Thursday Bible Study

Sabbatical is over. I will resume writing and posting my Bible Study reflections, Sermons and Sunday School Notes.

This week our readings are taken from Maccabees. This book is not in the Protestant canon of Scripture, but it is a fascinating story of the Jews during the time between Alexander the Great and Jesus. It recounts the efforts of the Jewish people to throw off the oppression of the Syrian  overlord who was trying to Hellenize them (make them like the Greek culture). Issues of Jewish laws (dietary and circumcision) became life or death. Earlier we read of the slaughter of families, including the murder of babies. It is not far removed from the atrocities of ISIS in today's news reporting. One fascinating aspect of the story is the tension between two approaches to God's salvation (in the sense of the Jewish Bible). The (so-called) Old Testament (think of it as Jesus' Scripture) is very much focused on God's salvation. The word salvation has many dimensions: healed, rescued, forgiven, restored, blessed with health and abundance. When a person cried out to (YHWH) God, the salvation longed for was generally in this plain of existence.

Divine causality (what we receive as a gift) and human causality (what we must do for ourselves) are overlapping but separate realms. What should one do in the face of insurmountable odds, limited resources, and grave suffering? What should one do when the (Jewish) faith is at risk of annihilation and extinction? Maccabees (like Exodus and Ezra/Nehemiah) is the story of the Jewish people surviving another threat to their existence. It is the context for our New Testament as the religious practices of Jesus' day were deeply influenced and affected by the events unfolding in Maccabees.

Does God help those who help themselves (in 1 Maccabees they take up arms and fight many battles, just like under Joshua, Judges and Kings)? Is God's gift of salvation in and through our human choices and behaviors? Or is it something for which we wait more passively? Is it beyond our control and too large for our efforts? Must the deliverance be an intervention "from heaven" and a  miraculous work of God? (This is more the emphasis in some of the other Maccabean writings--there are four in all) The dilemma is expressed in the story of the Sabbath massacre. A large group of Jews, unwilling to fight on the Sabbath, were put to the sword in their desert hiding place. This created a crisis; and the Maccabees decided that they would fight on the Sabbath to stay alive. The paradox, is they were fighting for their Law, including the Sabbath. "Sometimes you have to break the law to save the law..." is certainly a problem.

Revelation 20-22
Coming from the end of this work, these readings are full of the same mysterious images and references which constitute "apocalyptic" (An English transliteration of the Greek word meaning "unveiling" or "revelation"). In contrast to the "historical" Maccabees (with its details of human wars and God helping) the Revelation is mystical, heaven focused and God driven. It shows the impact of the unseen spiritual realm on the earthly realm. While there are dozens of approaches to this work (history, timeline for end of world, symbolic expression of the past, present, future or any age) clearly the message is that some day "this" world will end and with it the dark power of earthly rulers opposed to God and the spiritual entities (devil) behind it all. In The Revelation the struggles of this life (think wars and oppression) are actually spiritual warfare between competing "kings": God the True King (and His Messiah) versus human and demonic "counterfeits."

The story line is familiar, (and while I think Jesus Himself has made it clear that "no one knows the day or the hour" and implies the end will take us by surprise) enemies are punished, all people are judged, and the reign of God comes down from heaven to earth. Tuesday's reading is especially poignant for me as it my preferred text for funerals. No more tears, no more death, no more sorrow, no more suffering--such things will pass away. This is the Christian Hope (and the hope and desire of every human longing to escape life's burdens). The Apocalypse of John is written to give hope, it is an exhortation to faith and and entreaty to remain faithful. The justification of that struggle is the promise of God. "Better days are coming" is the Christian attitude to every disaster.. Better days are coming when God and His son reign among us and are our Sun and Light, our Temple.

There is not time nor space for a detailed analysis of these chapters. I did that in my bible study years ago. However, most of the imagery comes from the Jewish Scriptures. The references are piled, one upon another, as the Torah, Prophets and other writings are incorporated into this text before us. Another point, during this time period numerous apocalypses were written by both Jews and Christians. We do well to understand these writings in the context of that ancient literature. Biblical books are written in Hebrew and Greek. We translate them into English so we can read and understand them. The work of "translation" requires additional effort, however. The "rules' of literature must be understood. For example, the heavenly Jerusalem is a cube. It is 144 cubits (12x12). There are 12 gates (each one a pearl) and 12 Foundations. The names of the sons of Jacob and Apostles are attached to them. This is a reminder that Christianity is Jewish to its core. Trying to figure out how a pearl is a gate is beside the point. The author frequently says " it is like"... Apocalyptic is dream language, it has multiple meanings and allows for many meanings. It is overfull and too much for our minds to comprehend!