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eYearThroughTheBible – Announcing…
The year 2009 will be, for these emails, and the worship and educational life of our Church, the Year Through the Bible. Most people I know sense they have an inadequate grasp of the Bible, or else it has seemed boring; maybe we are familiar with scattered verses here and there, and we may suspect the Bible gets used in inappropriate, manipulative ways.
I want you to give me a year to introduce you to the 99 most important passages in the Bible. If you were familiar with these 99, you’d have a solid, deep understanding of God, your own life, and what’s going on in the universe. You might want to read the Bible all the way through, but if that’s daunting, follow me as we look at what’s really essential.
Two emails per week on these 99 key passages – and then one other email on some topic (like “science and creation” or “when the Bible was written and by whom” or “why all the bloodshed”). We will also have marvelous programs every Monday evening and Thursday morning right here at Myers Park; I will be making multi-media presentations, and we’ll have superb guests, archaeologists, historians, theologians. We’ll hear music, we’ll view great works of art, we’ll participate in drama, study maps, and talk with God – and much more.
Knowing the Bible is a life skill, like driving or swimming, and 2009 will be the year for you to get a handle on this lovely but occasionally mystifying book – and even if you think you’re a veteran master of the Bible, you’ll learn a lot with us.
I’d urge you to make this a staple of life with those around you – roommates, family, children, aging parents you visit, coworkers. We can add folks to our email distribution – and now is a great time to sign up new folks! You will also want to stir up conversation with others as we go.
You might even think of Year Through the Bible in your Christmas shopping. We are listing recommended Bibles to buy – for all ages! and including audio!
So, don’t put off becoming a decent Bible student any longer! Make Year Through the Bible your top New Year’s Resolution!
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eYearThroughTheBible01 - creation, Genesis 1
So here we go! Year Through the Bible begins now, 3 emails per week (some longer like today, some shorter like tomorrow!), with talks I’ll give in person or via podcast or dvd, groups, worship, etc. Each email will have a portion of Bible text – in italics and underlined! and then some comment. If you have trouble seeing or with the font or color please let me know. And, as always, feel free to click “reply” to converse with me, and also forward to others!
eYearThroughTheBible: Genesis 1:1-2:3
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void… And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good… “Let there be a firmament, let the waters be gathered together, and the dry land appear; let the earth yield vegetation, let there be lights in the heavens, let the waters bring forth swarms of creatures, and let birds fly above the earth; let the earth bring forth living creatures…” And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, and let him have dominion over the earth.” God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good. And on the seventh day God rested.
The Bible begins with its zoom lens set on ultra-panoramic: all that is was fashioned by God. Science can help us grasp the age (15 billion years?) and scope (trillions of light years) of God’s universe – and we’ll raise questions about whether science and Genesis can be reconciled on Thursday.
God is “before” time itself; God made time. God, from outside time, strongly cradles the universe, and us, in a loving embrace. Every moment from my birth until my death, from the age of dinosaurs through the Middle Ages until that hour when earth is no more: all are simultaneous in God’s mind and heart. The origin of it all is in God, “the Love that moves the stars” (Dante); the epicenter of it all is the birth and death of Jesus; our ultimate destiny is the same as the origin of it all – the Love that hurled the universe into existence, creation’s finally coming home to the heart of God.
Genesis 1 is not a physics lesson, but rather is a sermon, a bold proclamation of Who is the Author of the universe. The world is not here by chance, and is not randomly spinning out of control. The world and everything in it belong to God – and we view ourselves and all our stuff accordingly. Everything is loved by God, who did not wind up the world like a clock to leave it hurtling through space; God continues to nurture the world, nature’s processes, and the march of history.
We see God’s character: when the earth was “without form and void” (tohuwabohu in Hebrew, meaning “a mess”), God brought order to the chaos, beauty from what was formless. God is like that, always.
God creates by speaking: “Let there be light!” – magisterial, personal, a spoken word, just as we love and find meaning by speaking. And the verdict on this world? “God saw that it was good.” Astronauts photographed the earth, and at a distance it looks like a multifaceted, prism-like gem floating weightlessly through space. Zoom in to the first flower of Spring defying the cold, to a dolphin leaping for joy, to the eyes of the next person you see: God’s world is good.
As a kind of climax to creation, God makes man and woman “in God’s image.” There is some kinship between us and God. A relationship can happen. We are spiritual beings, and some barely discernible umbilical cord ties us to this God forever.
After laboring for six days, God rests, weaving into the fabric of creation the need we have to observe a Sabbath (Hebrew for “rest”), to stop our frantic busy-ness, to think and reflect. Rest requires trust in God, as we faithfully declare by doing nothing that not everything depends on me and my feverish productivity. If God was productive but then rested, can’t we?
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eYearThroughTheBible02 - Adam and Eve, Genesis 2
eYearThroughTheBible02: Genesis 2:7-25
Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. The Lord God put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.” So the Lord God formed every beast of the field and bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what name he would call them. But for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he took one of the man’s ribs and made it into a woman. The man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
From the grand vista of Genesis 1, the first creation story with its magisterial pace, we zoom in to a second story, earthy, folksy, about how God made people. Again, this story is neither genetically inclined nor physiologically correct. Genesis sings a loving ballad about God’s up close and tenderly personal involvement in our lives. James Weldon Johnson captured the mood, imagining God, quite pleased with creation, but feeling lonely. So God thought and thought, then sat on the bank of a river and “like a mammy bending over her baby, kneeled down in the dust toiling over a lump of clay till he shaped it in his own image. Then into it he blew the breath of life.”
Who are we? According to the Old Testament, we are some stuff (some dust, some matter) into whom God breathes God’s own breath – which explains why we are alive. We are humble, yet noble; the focus of God’s tender attention, yet entirely dependent upon a God who is as close as the next breath we draw, as vital as our own flesh. As the Hebrew word for “man” is adam, so Adam is every man, and Eve is every woman; their story is our story.
Notice the passage does not say God made a “lover” for Adam. Marriage (in the Bible) is utterly practical: we help each other. The Hebrew for “helper” means “mutual assistance, mutual correspondence.” The other animals were not such a “fit” for Adam. As Walter Wangerin noticed, Beasts of burden submit to your will, and slave away for you. Birds are beautiful in feather and thrilling in song. Cattle are personal property. Horses help you go faster; the weak use oxen to add to their strength; the blind use dogs. But none of these roles are fit for human beings, who do not use each other; they are to serve each other, and together serve the only one who is truly Lord and master: God.
As Master, God gives Adam and Eve responsibilities: “to till the earth, and keep it.” God charges us with “dominion” (Genesis 1:28) over the earth. We take a bossy view of “dominion,” but the Hebrew original implies good stewardship, taking care of God’s world, not taking over the place. Humble service instead of arrogant domination (Mark 10:43), to shelter God’s world and creatures, is our ongoing task – and privilege.
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eYearThroughTheBible03 – science and the Bible
Too often, the Church has cowered in fear over the advances of science. Certainly, many scientifically-minded folk have found reasons to shove God out of the universe they feel is best explained by equations: Charles Darwin gave up plans to become a clergyman or even a Christian after thinking through “natural selection,” and Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA, wrote that “You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Knowledge can be misused as a blunt instrument to hurt others, or to keep the very idea of God at arm’s distance.
But knowledge we always welcome. Science cannot prove God, or disprove God – but we welcome every scientific advance. God gave us brains; Jesus said “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Galileo, whose studies of the solar system frightened religious authorities who insisted the earth was the center of everything, wrote to a friend: “I believe that the intention of the Holy Bible is to persuade men to the truths necessary for salvation such as science could never render credible, but only the voice of the Holy Spirit. But I do not think it necessary to believe that the same God who gave us our senses and intellect would have us put aside the use of these…”
Do we really want to pit God against science? A doctor threads a tiny camera through the thigh up into the heart, and your father lives another twenty years? Inventors defied gravity, humans took to the air, and our Church sent a helicopter into Haiti with food to save thousands of lives? The very fact that you are right now gazing into a computer screen… should we not give thanks to God for creating superb brain and for the rapid march of science?
Skeptics scoff when they read the Bible, mocking us for being duped by a God who claimed to manufacture the universe in just six days. But not many Christians are literalists – and not many view the Bible as a physics/biology textbook. We are grateful that God “accommodated” God’s blindingly complex and gargantuan activity by expressing creation in simple stories a child can grasp. If God plopped down a pile of 700 page tomes, on geophysics, molecular biology, and relativity, would primitive people have understood? For that matter, would you and I understand? God could hand us the heavy volumes and say “That's how I did it; that’s how I said ‘Let there be light,’ how I formed man from the dust of the earth.”
For me, science prevents me from shrinking God down, and blows my mind with the grandeur of God’s work. If the pinhole of light I see in the night sky has been racing toward me for thousands of years at the speed of light, if the complex conglomeration of atoms, cells and nerves in my eye enables me to read what’s on this screen, if the force of gravity or the charge on a single electron were different by 0.00001% then life could not exist, then my jaw drops and I find myself “lost in wonder, love and praise.”
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eYearThroughTheBible04 - the original sin - Genesis 3
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eYearThroughTheBible05 - Cain and Abel - Genesis 4
eYearThroughTheBible05 – Cain and Abel – Genesis 4:1-16
Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain he had no regard. So Cain was very angry; his countenance fell. The Lord said, “Why are you angry? If you do well, will you not be accepted? If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
When they were in the field, Cain rose up and killed his brother Abel. The Lord asked, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” The Lord said, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. Now you are cursed; you will be a fugitive, a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Whoever finds me will slay me.” But the Lord said, “Not so.” And the Lord put a mark upon Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him. Then Cain went away and dwelt in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
Cain and Abel: jealousy spun out of control, love perverted into a killing. Imagine the sorrow of Adam and Eve. A broken humanity struggles not only with God, but with each other. Rivalry bedevils us, within families, among neighbors, and between nations. “How lovely when brothers dwell in unity” (Psalm 133:1) – but how grievous when they contend, hatred seethes, and violence prevails.
Cain burns with rage against his brother, Abel (whose name means something like a “wisp,” here today, gone tomorrow). But Cain’s problem isn’t with his brother. Cain’s problem actually is with God. For reasons inscrutable, Abel senses God’s favor, while Cain bears the brunt of what seems to be rejection from God. But he vents his exasperation over the unfairness of life against a weaker, younger, hapless waif of a brother.
What irony in his question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer, plainly, is “Yes you are.” We need each other on this earth, for sin is portrayed truly in this story. Sin isn’t the breaking of a rule, but an aggressive force ready to pounce. God offered Cain an extraordinary choice: “You may do well; you may master your urges!” How extraordinary. How hopeful. How challenging.
John Steinbeck’s East of Eden explores this theme. Adam Trask, thinking about Genesis 4, says, “It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself onto the lap of the deity, saying ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there. But the choice: this is a ladder to climb to the stars. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.”
Even as the story hauntingly describes how it always will go among brothers, and certainly among nations, hidden in the story is also an invitation and a promise – that we can exercise restraint, we can avoid hurting each other. A dominant theme throughout the Bible is our dire need for reconciliation – with God and with those from whom we are estranged (2 Corinthians 5:18).
And consider the paradox of the mark on Cain’s forehead: a sign of guilt, but at the same time a sign of grace, of protection. The cross of Jesus will be the same sign – of our sin, liability, guilt, and mortality, yet at the same time our hope, God’s grace, salvation.
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eYearThroughTheBible06 – best questions so far
Three questions have come my way frequently since we began. (1) Why does God say “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26)? For centuries, Christian theologians said “It’s Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” But the Old Testament doesn’t know of the Trinity. The Hebrew word for God is plural in form, so a plural verb fits grammatically. Perhaps also the author is imagining God sitting among the heavenly court of celestial beings, and draws them into the moment: “Let us…” The best possibility is simply stylistic, much as an individual author might write “We think…,” or as a king might make an eloquent declaration from the throne: “Let us…”
(2) Cain takes a wife (Genesis 4:17) – but where did she comes from? If we think there were no creatures even slightly resembling human beings, and then suddenly there were two, who had two sons, then we have a huge problem. But if we think of evolving humanity in a representative way, that Adam, Eve and their sons are focused emblems of the first hominids with spiritual consciousness, then we would expect males and females all over the place. For Cain to marry his sister would have been a prickly problem for the Israelites. But as I often say, if we get to heaven and God says “There really were no creatures resembling human beings, but then I made 2 and they had 2, and then a sister who became a wife,” we’ll say “Great.” Our salvation doesn’t depend on us thinking correct thoughts about where Cain’s wife came from.
(3) Who wrote Genesis? We have never thought the Bible was dictated by God (which is what Muslims believe about the Quran). Some have thought of Moses as the author of the first 5 books of the Bible, but there is not the slightest indication he did – and Deuteronomy actually reports on Moses’ death! We need to think back to the Bronze Age: virtually no literacy, only kings and the fabulously wealthy could afford the luxuries of papyrus and ink. Something profoundly extraordinary happened, and awestruck people looked at each other and said “That was God’s doing.” Giddily, they passed the stories along, shepherds resting around the fire at night, parents to children, generation to generation. Ancient people boasted phenomenal prowess at memorization (which we have lost since we have books!). Eventually, for posterity’s sake, the stories everyone knew began to be written down, some here, others there, one narrative after another compiled and finally making their way onto the scrolls that formed the earliest Bibles – God savoring and nurturing the whole process. So there is no one “author” of Genesis, unless we count the activity of God and the mesmerized faith, struggles and memory of the first people who knew and loved God.
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eYearThroughTheBible07 - Noah's ark - Genesis 6
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, that every imagination and thoughts of his heart were only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry he had made man on the earth; it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. God said to Noah, “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood, and cover it with pitch. Make its length 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, its height 30 cubits. But I will establish my covenant with you and your family. And of every living thing you shall bring two into the ark to keep them alive with you, male and female.” Noah did all that God commanded him. Noah was 600 years old when the waters came. Rain fell 40 days and 40 nights; the ark floated on the waters, which prevailed 150 days.
But God remembered Noah, and made a wind blow, and the waters subsided. The ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. Noah opened the window and sent forth a dove, which came back in the evening with a freshly plucked olive leaf in her mouth. They left the ark, and Noah built an altar to the Lord. When the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground, neither will I destroy every living creature again.” God blessed Noah and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. This is the sign of my covenant with you: I will set my rainbow in the clouds as a reminder of our covenant.”
Every few years some entrepreneurial explorer drags away some hunk of petrified timber from the mountains of Turkey and claims to have found Noah’s ark. None have withstood standards of proof – and I wonder: even if we found indisputable evidence of an ark (with “S.S. Noah” etched on its brow), what difference would it make? Would the Churches be packed? Would people becomeholy? Would poverty be eradicated?
Noah is an odd misfit, a total stranger in a lost world, one who proves that faithfulness is possible in this world, who pioneers the path of saints through the centuries whose trust in God render them out of sync with what is “normal” in our world.
We have stories from Israel’s neighbors about floods (such as the Epic of Gilgamesh); legends from all around the world tell of a time when angry gods hurled massive rains, inundating a world run amok. In most of these myths, various gods in the heavens debate with each other over how to treat recalcitrant human beings. One would unleash a flood, but another prefers mercy. In Genesis, we see this kind of debate internalized within God’s own heart: the one God understandably rages at an ungrateful, rebellious people, yet God loves too much to obliterate them totally. God’s “heart” is grieved by humanity, and in the end God’s heart proves to be merciful. Hope from now on will not depend on humanity getting its act together, but rather upon God’s mercy and determination that there be life. Every rainbow is a reminder of the beauty of God’s judgment and patience.
For God continues to let sin and evil lurk in this world. The next dramatic story (the Tower of Babel, Genesis 11:1-9) portrays people trying to be God – like Prometheus, scaling heights not intended for human beings, and the cost is international strife and division, confusion. The first eleven chapters of Genesis paint a sorry tale of the goodness of God being frittered away by people who prefer trying to be God instead of serving God. As we turn to the next major section of the Bible, we see how God embarks on a new strategy to save these wayward creatures.
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eYearThroughTheBible08 - call of Abraham - Genesis 12
eYearThroughTheBible08 – call of Abraham - Genesis 12:1-4
The Lord said to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred to the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and by you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abraham went as the Lord told him.
In Genesis 1-11, God dealt with the world as a whole. Now, God’s plan zeroes in on just a single man, Abraham. Living in Ur (in modern-day Kuwait/Iraq), Abraham is called by God to go – but where? Stunningly, he is just called to leave everything behind and to go, destination unknown, surrendering all security, crazily trudging north, then west, bending south, to a strange place, with nothing to hang on to but words he somehow managed to listen to from a God hardly even heard of back in Ur.
Little wonder the New Testament regards Abraham as the great hero of “faith” (Hebrews 11:8-19, Romans 4). Faith isn’t scrunching up your face and believing “There is a God!” Faith is trusting, following, something like courage, or (as Maggie Ross put it) “a willingness for whatever.” Where is this unnamed country? And what will it be like? God does not say. We do not know just yet where God will lead us; but we go, we stick close to God, trusting that if it is God calling us, then that is where we wish to go, period.
But this story’s protagonist isn’t Abraham, but rather God. History turned on its axis in a moment, as God made a threefold promise to Abraham – that he would become a great people, that he would be given land, and that he would be a blessing. This promise has proven to be humanity’s great hope, but also its gravest peril. To this day, proud peoples point to Abraham as their father, and thus claim fiercely the land as granted to them by God some 4000 years ago.
The promise that he would become the father of a great people sets up the plot Genesis will trace through chapter 22, for Sarah is already aging, and is infertile. God’s pledge of a child to this childless couple is not so Sarah can have the “experience” of having a child. Rather, God’s plan for the entire world hinges on this woman having this child – much like Jesus’ even more miraculous birth to Mary. Perhaps having children today, and our very reason for being alive, could be less about our personal fulfillment, but the fulfillment of God’s purposes, the pursuit of God’s kingdom.
The most pregnant of God’s promises, though, is that this people, in this land, will be a “blessing” to the rest of the world. Israel is to be God’s “chosen people” – but never so they can bask in the smug delight of being insiders, never so they can exclude or judge other people. Instead, there is a centrifugal force to their life with God: they are the ones God wants to use to save everybody else. They are to be “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). Israel’s history, and now the Church’s history, is measured by whether this mission is fulfilled or not.
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eYearThroughTheBible09 - laughter - Genesis 17
eYearThroughTheBible09 – laughter – Genesis 17:15-18:15
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, I will bless her and give you a son by her; she shall be a mother of nations.” Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is 100 years old? Shall Sarah, who is 90, bear a child?”
And the Lord appeared by the oaks of Mamre, as Abraham sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked, and behold, three men stood before him. He met them, and bowed and said, “Do not pass by. Let a little water be brought, wash your feet, and rest under the tree. I will fetch bread that you may refresh yourselves.” He hastened to Sarah and said “Make quickly some cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and gave a calf to his servant. They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” He said, “She is in the tent.” The Lord said, “I will return to you in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son.” Now Sarah was listening at the door of the tent. They were old, and it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord?” But Sarah denied, saying “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. The Lord said, “No, you did laugh.”
How fascinating: three mysterious visitors appear in Abraham’s yard one day. Are they men? Angels? God himself? Typical of Abraham is his extraordinary hospitality, as he is our heroic example of how we may discover the surprising presence of the divine when we welcome strangers. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).
But this story is about far more than hospitality. God’s plan to use Abraham to save humanity is at stake! Promised everything by God, Abraham turns right around and risks everything in a humorous episode (Genesis 12:10-20) in which he passes Sarah off as his sister in order to save his neck from the Pharaoh who develops a crush on her; but God’s plan won’t be thwarted, as God intervenes to protect Sarah as mother of the promise.
Never fully believing God really intended Sarah in her old age to bear a child, Abraham takes matters into his own hands, adopting Eliezar as his heir (Genesis 15:2-4); but God was more patient than Abraham. Sarah takes matters into her own hands, offering Hagar (her maid) to Abraham, and Ishmael is born, still not the fulfillment of God’s peculiar plan (Genesis 16).
Having aged far beyond their child-bearing years, Abraham and then Sarah hear the absurd news that they will still have a child. Their response? Laughter. Not happy laughter, either, but the cynical, sneering kind of laughter (barely masking their deep sorrow). But the joke is on them. A child is born (Genesis 21), and Sarah, in her giddy delight, names the child “Isaac,” which in Hebrew means “laughter”… a magnificently joyful reflection upon the theological truth embedded in the story: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
What did the angel tell Mary about the child to be born in her? “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Luke 1:37). Speaking of the salvation of the rich man, Jesus asked the same question (Mark 10:27). God’s possibility exceeds every human possibility. In fact, the Church (as Karl Barth put it) is the place where human possibility ends and God’s impossibility begins! God turns our cynical snickers into the profound laughter of joy.
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eYearThroughTheBible10 - sacrifice of Isaac - Genesis 22
eYearThroughTheBible10 – sacrifice of Isaac – Genesis 22:1-14
After these things, God tested Abraham, saying, “Abraham!” He said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon the mountain I will show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took his son Isaac, and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and went to the place which God told him. He took the wood and laid it on Isaac his son, and took in his hand the fire and knife. So they went together. Isaac said, “My father! Behold the fire and wood, but where is the lamb?” Abraham said, “God will provide.” When they came to the place, Abraham built an altar, laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar. Abraham put forth his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham.” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, for now I know you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your only son from me.” Abraham lifted his eyes and saw behind him a ram caught in the thicket. He took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the place, “The Lord will provide.”
The dramatic tension in this story is poignant – and yet we recoil from it. We are unsure which is more offensive: the abhorrent idea that God would ask a father to take his own son’s life? or the freakish possibility that a father would actually raise the knife? Artists have tried to capture the profound emotion of this story, none more powerfully than Rembrandt.
When we recall that Israel’s neighbors routinely sacrificed children for religious reasons, Genesis 22 could simply be declaring that in Israel, children are not to be sacrificed; Israel’s God is not so viciously petty. It is never the true God’s will for children to be harmed.
But clearly Genesis 22 tells us about the day that Abraham was “tested.” We are not fond of this idea, and we would prefer not to be tested by God. But the Bible’s God seems to set up situations that are tests for us, to see what is really in us, to expose how deep our commitment really is. Genesis 22 clearly expects that we will hold nothing back from God, that “withholding” what we value from God is a failure of faith.
From the reader’s perspective, we sense that God had no intention of letting Isaac be hurt. Remember: as much as Abraham loves Isaac as his child, the bigger story isn’t about this father loving his son. Rather, the story is about God using this family to save the whole world. To give up Isaac requires from Abraham an utter, total trust in God’s ability to pull off God’s intention for the world despite what we might manage to get done down here ourselves.
Finally, this story tells us far more about God than about Abraham. God provides the substitute, the sacrifice. The New Testament picks up on this theme, and the entire story of Jesus hinges on the loss of the son’s life so that God’s promise of life might be fulfilled. But we will have to explore that later on…
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eYearThroughTheBible11 - unidentical twins - Genesis 25
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, for she was barren. The Lord answered his prayer, and Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her. She said, “If it is thus, why do I live?” The Lord said, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided. One shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” Behold, when the twins were delivered, the first came forth red, his body like a hairy mantle; they called him Esau. Afterward his brother came forth, his hand holding Esau’s heel. His name was Jacob.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. Once Jacob made some pottage. Esau came in from the field, famished, and asked, “Let me eat some of your pottage, for I am famished.” Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die. Of what use is a birthright to me?” So he swore and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, he ate and drank, and went on his way.
At a basic level, there is a “moral” to this story, as Esau squanders his destiny because he must satisfy his wants – now. Disastrously, immediate gratification trumps in out over long-term adherence to God’s purpose for him.
But there is much more. Remember that this is the family God is using to bless the entire world. Why would God choose such a dysfunctional family? Parents playing favorites? Brothers deceiving one another? Back in the Bronze Age, highest privileges belonged to the firstborn son. But God uses the youngest – and as the story unfolds, the youngest proves to be a rascal. Jacob has plenty of savoir-faire, but his behavior is scandalous. Theologically, this story embodies what Paul wrote centuries later: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak to shame the strong, God chose what is despised, even things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
Are Jacob and Esau free? They make choices, many of them foolish. But their freedom has boundaries; God has built some kind of invisible fence around their lives. Seemingly, God uses these boys in spite of themselves – or perhaps we might say God actually uses their craziness for God’s ultimate purpose.
Take good notice! Jacob and Esau do not lead a conflict-free life. In their mother’s womb, at their birth, through childhood and throughout their adult lives they are driven and beaten down by conflict, treachery, backstabbing, in-laws duping one another, a race to have babies – it all reads like a soap opera. God does not smooth out a path and make our lives easy; God is involved in (and despite!) the inevitable conflicts and agonizing dramas of our lives, promising to see things through to God’s good end.
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eYearThroughTheBible12 - wrestling with God - Genesis 32
eYearThroughTheBible12 – wrestling with God – Genesis 32
Jacob sent his family and everything that he had across the ford of the Jabbok, and was left alone. A man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. When the man saw he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh. And Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint. He said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “ will not let you go, unless you bless me.” He said, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” He said, “Your name shall no more be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” And he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying “For I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose and he passed by, limping because of his thigh.
Jacob’s prodigal life was punctuated by moments of profound religious significance. In Genesis 28, he sleeps on a rock at Bethel and dreams of a ladder or stairway to heaven. As he moves into old age, he is hounded by two unresolved issues: his painful relationship with his brother Esau (from whom he’s always on the run), and his uneasy relationship with God. Do we discern the connection? Our fractured relationships with others cannot be repaired except through God; and we sense a nagging distance from God often because we have not reconciled with others (1 John (1 John 4:20-21, 2 Corinthians 5:16-19, and Matthew 5:21-24).
Both unresolved relationships come to a head for Jacob on a mysterious night by the river Jabbok. Determined to meet Esau and seek out reconciliation, he first meets up with a dreaded stranger. Is it a man? An angel? God himself? In the darkness he cannot identify his antagonist, but he wrestles with him through a restless night. We all know something of this kind of night, lying awake wrestling with our doubts, fears, a looming decision, even what Milton called “darkness visible.” Jacob’s foe is in some palpable way a divine representative – and to no one’s surprise, Jacob manages to hold his own! He is no ordinary man – and his God is no ordinary God. Maybe prayer can be like this: we hang on to a God we cannot see clearly, but we still hang on; refusing to let go, we demand, “I will not let go unless you bless me!” Out of that shattering encounter, Jacob is given a new identity, just as we are forever changed once we have done serious business with God. And then Jacob limps away, wounded!
If you have another minute… Frederick Buechner wrote eloquently about this “ancient, jagged-edged story, crude as a stone knife. It is not a very edifying story. The shrewd, ambitious man who is strong on guts and weak on conscience, who knows very well what he wants and gets it, the Jacobs of the world, all in all do pretty well. There is no law against taking advantage of somebody else’s stupidity. The world is full of Esaus, suckers. But there comes a time for Jacob to go home again. And then it happens. A stranger leaps, hurling himself at Jacob. They struggle in silence… Jacob is winning, but then suddenly all is reversed. In a moment Jacob is lying there, crippled and helpless. We sense that the stranger had simply held back until now, letting Jacob almost win so that when he was defeated he would know he was truly defeated, so he would know that not all the shrewdness and brute force he could muster were enough to get this. Jacob will not release his grip, only now it is a grip not of violence but of need, the grip of a drowning man. The darkness faded just enough so that for the first time he can dimly see his opponent’s face. And what he sees is something more terrible than the face of death – It is the face of love. Power, success, happiness are his who will fight hard enough. But peace, love, joy are only from God. God is the enemy Jacob fought by the river, and whom in one way or another we all of us fight. Before giving us everything, he demands of us everything. Will we give our lives, you and I? Remember the last glimpse we have of Jacob, limping home against the dawn. Remember Jesus, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”
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eYearThroughTheBible13 – the Lord was with Joseph – Genesis 39
eYearThroughTheBible13 – the Lord was with Joseph – Genesis 39
Joseph was taken to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, bought him from the Ishmaelites. The Lord was with Joseph and he became successful. His master made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. The Lord blessed Potiphar's house for Joseph's sake. Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking. After a time his master's wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, "Lie with me." But he refused, saying, "My master has no concern about anything in the house; how can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?" Although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her. But one day, when no one was in the house, she caught him by his garment, saying, "Lie with me." But he left his garment in her hand, and fled out of the house. When she saw he had fled she called to the men of her household and said, "See, this Hebrew has insulted us. He came to me to lie with me, and I cried out, and he left his garment with me and bled." She told Potiphar the same story, and his anger was kindled. Joseph's master put him into prison. But the Lord was with Joseph and gave him favor with the prison keeper, who committed to Joseph's care all the prisoners. Whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper.
Wily, troubled, fated Jacob eventually had a dozen sons. But he played favorites: Joseph was given a special piece of clothing (Genesis 37:3). We usually think of it a multi-colored (as in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"), but the Hebrew actually says his coat was long-sleeved. Obviously, the other brothers, wearing short-sleeves, were expected to do the manual labor in the fields, where long sleeves would get tangled in briars. Long sleeves indicated prestige and leisure. Joseph made a bad situation worse by having (and sharing!) dreams about his superiority to his brothers (Genesis 37:6). They hated him so much that they sold him into slavery, and presented their father with his long-sleeved garment soaked in an animal's blood, crushing their father's heart and winning some horrible revenge.
"But the Lord was with Joseph." He rises to a position of great power down in Egypt. Later he's back in jail, and then he's highly placed in Egypt once more. He is the prototype of the successful man, whose real success isn't defined by his position, but by his godly life, by his doing well wherever he finds himself, by his superb coping with circumstances.
Joseph also stands as a moral hero. Potiphar’s wife seduces him – but despite ample opportunity to indulge himself, he is steadfast, he does not seek pleasure over holiness. And notice his action: he does not remain seated next to her saying “No thanks.” He turns and runs – just as we should bolt quickly from many alluring situations in which we find ourselves. She grabs his garment as he sprints away; the one given a special garment by his father now has no garment at all because of his holy commitment to God. But “clothes do not make this man” (Walter Brueggemann). He is defined by “The Lord was with Joseph.”
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eYearThroughTheBible14 - you meant evil, God meant it for good - Genesis 45
eYearThroughTheBible14 – you meant evil, God meant it for good – Genesis 45
Joseph could not control himself any longer, so he said, “Make everyone leave.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. He wept out loud, so that the Egyptians heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed. Joseph said, “Come near, I pray you.” And they came near. He said, “I am your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life. The famine has been in the land two years, and there are yet five years ahead. God sent me to preserve a remnant on earth. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” He kissed his brothers and wept upon them.
We come to the climax of the fascinating story of Joseph and his brothers, a story without rival in the Bible (or any place else!) for its poignant drama. The brothers had sold Joseph, and broken their father’s heart, figuring he was a goner as a slave who knows where. But against all odds, guided by God’s intervention, Joseph ultimately ascends to the zenith of power in Egypt. Famine paralyzes the entire middle East, and the brothers are forced to go to Egypt seeking food. Of all people, it is Joseph whom they must ask for food. They do not recognize him, but he knows them – and after toying with them a while, he can restrain himself no longer, and reveals his true identity. The brothers tremble in fear, expecting the harshest reprimand, probably even execution, from this powerful brother they had so mistreated.
But Joseph looks at everything, not from a petty, “fair,” human perspective, but from God’s perspective. He is able to forgive, to work out reconciliation with his brothers. Notice that he doesn’t give the brothers a “second chance.” He doesn’t say “Try again, see if you can do better in the future.” Rather, he looks back on their sin, and dares to suggest that God actually used what they did for good. God did not force them to do evil, just as God does not cause evil in our world. But God can use it, God can manage it, for good. The Bible’s God brings good out of evil, and this is our great hope!
Touchingly, Joseph asks if his father is still alive – and they have a tearful, joyful reunion. When Jacob dies, the brothers are fearful once more, thinking “Now Joseph will dispose of us.” But he reiterates his startling theological viewpoint: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many should be kept alive. So do not fear” (Genesis 50:20-21). This is precisely what happens with the cross of Christ. The crucifixion of Jesus was evil, sinful – but God used it, managed it, for the ultimate good of us all, so many can be kept alive.
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eYearThroughTheBible15 - pharaoh, midwives and a basket - Exodus 2
eYearThroughTheBible15 - pharaoh, midwives and a basket
There arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said, “Behold the people of Israel are too many for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them lest they fight against us and escape.” So they set taskmasters over them to afflict them; they built for Pharaoh cities, Pithom and Raamses. The Egyptians were in dread, and made the lives of the Israelites bitter with harsh service.
The pharaoh said to the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, “When you see the Hebrew women on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him.” But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king commanded them. He called the midwives and said, “Why have you let the male children live?” The midwives said, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. They are vigorous and deliver before the midwife arrives.” So the people grew strong. Pharaoh commanded, “Every son born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile.”
Now a man from the house of Levi took a wife. She conceived, bore a son, and hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she took a basket made of bulrushes, and daubed it with pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the river’s bank. Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe, and she saw the basket. She saw the child, crying. She pitied him. The child’s sister, standing nearby, was sent to find a wetnurse, and she got the child’s mother. The child grew and became the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, and she named him Moses.
The grandeur of Egypt, whose pyramids and monuments still dazzle visitors today, was built on the backs of slaves, including the Hebrews. Brickmaking involved stubble collection, pushing alluvial clay into wooden molds, carrying, lifting. A pyramid required millions of bricks; we know from a scroll archaeologists found that a slave’s daily quota was 2,000 bricks – and that those who came up short were thrashed with a rod and starved.
Power can be paranoid, though: an insecure Pharaoh clamps down on his workforce, and orders the killing of the boys – rather stupidly, as the males are his future labor supply! If you want to limit population growth, you kill the females… The Hebrew midwives, in a courageous act of civil disobedience, stealthily allow the boys to live – and flippantly poke fun at the Egyptian women!
But when all looks hopeless, a certain man and woman have a son. They “hid him for three months” – but how? Then, in an act of desperation, or hope (or both), the mother places her child into a basket – but this is no normal “basket.” The Hebrew word translated “basket,” tevah, is the same word Genesis used to describe Noah’s ship. The infant is placed in an “ark”: a special seafaring craft, rudder-less, yet carrying the future hope of humanity. So much in this story seems to be “chance.” The tevah happens to float to the right spot, Pharaoh’s daughter happens to bathe at the right hour, and she in turn happens to ask a girl standing nearby (who happens to be Moses’ sister!) to find a wetnurse (who just happens to be Moses’ very own mother!!!). God is orchestrating big things in the teeth of extreme danger.
Moses thus grows up, not with the rest of the Hebrews in brutal slavery, but in the royal household, where he is afforded a superb education, and perhaps an insider’s awareness of the machinations in the corridors of power, which serves him well when he later returns to take on the powers that be in Egypt.
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eYearThroughTheBible16 - burning bush - Exodus 3
eYearThroughTheBible16 – burning bush – Exodus 3
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked; the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” He said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not come near; put your shoes off your feet, for you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I have seen the affliction of my people in Egypt, and have heard their cry. I know their sufferings, and have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, to bring them up to a land flowing with milk and honey. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people.” But Moses said, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” He said, “I will be with you.” Moses said, “What is your name?” God said, “I am who I am. This is my name forever.”
Moses is quite literally minding his business when God surprises him with a startling vocation. When God “calls” people in the Bible, there is a noticeable pattern. God calls – and the one called is struck dumb, at a total loss for words. God proposes a plan. The mere mortal objects, and usually with good reason – but God reassures. God is far less interested in ability than in avail-ability.
God sees the suffering of people – even if we avert our gaze. And God is moved, and declares “I am coming down to save my people.” Moses must be delighted, at least until he figures out God means to use him to get it done! We pray, and then we discover the answer to our prayer often is in God’s clever design to put us in motion to become the answer to prayer.
God’s assignments are staggering in scope, and they cost us something. Robert McAfee Brown said, “Moses ducks and weaves in every possible way to avoid the body blow of the assignment.” Yet God is persistent, and is able to overcome every objection, able to use us in spite of our inability, precisely through our inability.
Notice Moses is not out looking for God. He’s been on the run from God for some time! Notice also God does not relate to Moses so he can have warm, religious feelings and continue on his way. Moses is called into the thick of difficulties, to be God’s representative on behalf of disadvantaged people, even at the point where religion and politics meet, and wage battle with each other.
Notice finally that this God has a name: “Yahweh,” which is a verb in Hebrew; God isn’t static, but moves, acts, does something. The vowel a indicates that this verbal God is a God who causes things to happen, and the first y consonant indicates that this is a God moving into the future. This God Yahweh is our future, and faith is our willingness to move out boldly and courageously into God’s future, leaving behind our old business, plunging into difficulties, trusting Yahweh who will always be with us.
Where was this burning bush? St. Catherine’s monastery marks the traditional spot – but we cannot even be sure which mountain is Mt. Horeb! In a way, this is lovely – as it may suggest that God might appear anywhere, and now, not just in some lone, fixed spot, once upon a time…
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eYearThroughTheBible17 – parting the waters – Exodus 13-14
When Pharaoh let the people go, God led the people toward the Red Sea. Moses took the bones of Joseph, and the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, and by night in a pillar of fire. When the Pharaoh was told the people had fled, he changed his mind, and said “What have we done that we have let Israel go from serving us?” So he made ready his chariot and took his army, 600 picked chariots, and pursued them and overtook them by Pihahiroth. The people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and were in great fear. They cried out and said to Moses, “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the wilderness?” Moses said, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord. For the Egyptians you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you. You have only to be still.” The Lord said, “Lift up your rod and divide the sea, that the people of Israel may go on dry ground. Then the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” So Moses stretched out his rod, and the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind. The people went into the sea on dry ground. The Egyptians pursued, but the Lord clogged the chariot wheels heavily. The waters returned and covered the chariots and all the host of Pharaoh. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day, and they feared the Lord, and believed in the Lord.
Each Spring, at the Passover supper, the youngest son rises to ask, “Why is this night special above all other nights?” The answer is the story of the climax of Moses’ confrontation with the Pharaoh. The demand to “Let my people go!” instigated a series of ten plagues unleashed upon Egypt, really a lengthy contest to show who is God (Yahweh) and who isn’t (namely, Pharaoh himself). Finally, the hard-hearted Pharaoh relents, and the multitudes of Israel take off. For Israel, this is the ultimate, high moment in their religious history, akin to the role Easter plays for Christians.
Almost as if pre-arranged by God, the Pharaoh once more changes his mind and pursues the fleeing Israelites, who are bottled up between army and the sea. Many Bibles read here “The Red Sea.” But the Hebrew original is yam suf, which means “sea of reeds.” The Red Sea, dramatically depicted in Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments,” is too far south. The Israelites instead crossed through a reedy, marshy sea – a crossing no less miraculous, as the Egyptian military had not bothered guarding this natural barrier.
Due to a stronger-than-usual east wind, the waters receded long enough for Israel to walk to safety; the weight of the Pharaoh’s chariots caused their wheels to bog down in the mud – and then the waters overwhelmed the Egyptians. The rabbis taught that when the Egyptians were lost, the angels did not celebrate, but rather wept over the loss of life.
Trust is the issue in this story. The people’s courage melts away at the first sign of trouble. As some have said, it was easier to take Israel out of Egypt than to take Egypt out of the Israelites; they immediately prefer slavery to freedom, such is their fear of the future! No wonder: years of being treated as subhuman crushes the identity, squelches all confidence.
But God calls on them to trust, and to have some dignity. Elie Wiesel dramatically captured the moment: the people were running, out of breath, death chasing them, death in front of them. Moses urged them on, “Don’t be afraid, go into the water!” But then, sensing their terror, he ordered an abrupt halt, saying “Wait, think. Take a moment to reassess what it is you are doing. Enter the sea not as frightened fugitives but as free men!”
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eYearThroughTheBible18 - daily bread - Exodus 16
The people of Israel came to the wilderness, and they murmured against Moses and said, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we ate bread to the full. For you have brought out into this wilderness to kill us with hunger.” The Lord said to Moses, “I will rain bread from heaven; the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion each day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not.” Moses said, “Come near before the Lord, for he has heard your murmurings. In the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” When the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoar-frost on the ground. When the people saw it, they said, “What is it?” Moses said, “It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat. Gather an omer apiece. When they measured it, he that gathered much had nothing left over, and he that gathered little had no lack. Moses said, “Let no man leave any of it till the morning.” But they did not listen; some left part till morning, but it bred worms and became foul, and Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered. The people ate manna forty years, till they came to a cultivatable land.
Once set free from Egyptian bondage, the Israelites prove they are not skilled at staying free. Barely out from under decades of servitude to an alien culture, the Israelites begin to “murmur” – grumbling, whispering, grousing, first over the bitter water at Marah (Exodus 15:22-27), and now over the lack of bread. Psalm 78:19 asks, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” At least there was food in Egypt! Moses has led them to a land sandy, rocky, with sparse, spotty vegetation. They wonder, “Are we being led? or are we merely wandering?”
The word “manna” means “What is it?” For centuries, people who live in the Sinai peninsula have been well aware of the honey-like deposits of the tamarisk, which get packaged and sold as “bread of heaven” souvenirs to tourists. The shrub’s sap crystallizes and falls to the ground; over 500 pounds of this manna is deposited on the Sinai peninsula each year. Loaded with carbohydrates and sugars, manna isn’t tasty – except to the ants, who in fact consume what’s on the ground by mid-day. But does this make manna any less a gift of God? God provides, often in simple, mundane ways.
The people’s stomachs growl, but their souls are even emptier. Exodus 16 labels the manna as God’s “test” for the Israelites. The thrifty can’t squirrel manna away, and the greedy can’t take more than their share. This manna’s purpose isn’t merely to satisfy physical hunger, but to teach about the power of God, to school the people in how to stay free, in how to depend upon God. In the New Testament, John 6 is a profound commentary on, and stirring fulfillment of Exodus 16. Jesus feeds a multitude in the wilderness, again not just so they can have food, but so they will recognize him as “the bread of life.”
Not surprisingly, Exodus 16 is a marvelous image of the devotional life. We find ourselves in a “wilderness.” We wonder if we are in fact being “led.” We whine. We are surprised by a gracious gift of God, but don’t handle it well. We must look out each day for today’s small gift, which gets us through today, and we must look out again tomorrow morning for tomorrow’s small gift, trusting in God’s daily goodness.
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eYearThroughTheBible - thus far
Greetings! We are roughly 1/7th of our way through the Bible, and it’s been great fun, lots of enthusiasm, superb attendance at functions, much learning going on. It’s a joy and privilege for me.
Tell me about the series thus far: what is helpful, what isn’t, what questions you might have, what you hope we can cover moving forward. I love interaction, so let me know your interests and wonderings.
Monday at 7 pm, my good friend, and one of the leaders of Judaism nationally, Rabbi Murray Ezring of Temple Israel, will lecture on The Torah and Jewish Life. Among his subjects: What it means to keep kosher, observing the Sabbath, and more. A gathering at 11:00 a.m. Thursday, February 19, in Room 106-08 of the Parish Life Building will view via dvd and discuss Rabbi Ezring’s talk.
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eYearThroughTheBible19 - commandments - Exodus 19-20
eYearThroughTheBible19 - Commandments - Exodus 19-20
On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone forth out of the land of Egypt, they camped in the wilderness of Sinai, before the mountain. Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession, you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” So Moses told the people all that the Lord had commanded him. And they answered together, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, so the people trembled. Moses went up to the top of the mountain, and God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make any graven image.
You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not kill.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness.
You shall not covet.
When God led Israel out of Egypt, he did not lead them to a comfortable island resort where they could bask in indulgent pleasures. Instead, God led them to a mountain in the Sinai peninsula for the purpose of giving them the law. The Hebrew word translated "law," torah, signifies something far richer and more lively than a mere code of rules and regulations. Torah means "way," "path," implying movement, an adventure. God gives the Torah to Israel, not to oppress them, but to show them the way to life. The Maker of the universe, as an act of love and mercy, lays down coordinates by which we might map our lives, by which we can shape life together in community with others.
Notice why God has the right to lay out this Torah, this law, this life: God has saved the people. We do not obey in order to earn salvation. Rather, we are saved – and then in response to God’s grace, we live a different kind of life! Interestingly, God gave the law to Moses "on the third new moon," and this became the feast of Pentecost in the Jewish calendar. For the first Christians, the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was closely associated in their minds, not with chaos or spontaneity, but with adhering to God's way, for it is only by the power of the Spirit that we are able to be obedient to God, that we are enabled to follow faithfully in God's path.
Of even more interest is the way the people resounding commit themselves to God's laws before they have even heard the stipulations! God had rescued them from bondage in Egypt - so any response God required would be happily given. Faith is (as Maggie Ross put it) a "willingness for whatever."
We know the Ten Commandments best, but they are a prelude, something like a preamble, to the rest of the 631 commandments Moses receive from God, the solid basis upon which the Jewish community, and even the Christian Church's life, must be built. The commandments are absolute, yet full of grace and truth, ultimately a good gift of God's mercy, not anything oppressive. The law is not something God wields to keep people pinned down; rather, the law is God's love enfleshed, shaping our lives for a good end better than any we could devise for ourselves. Psalm 19 captures Israel's buoyant attitude toward the law:
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold,
Sweeter than honey.
In keeping them, there is great reward.
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eYearThroughTheBible20 - mountain party - Exodus 32
eYearThroughTheBible20 – mountain party – Exodus 32
When the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, they gathered to Aaron and said, “Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said, “Take off the rings of gold and bring them to me.” He fashioned the gold with a graving tool and made a molten calf, and built an altar before it. They offered burnt offerings, and they ate and drank, and rose up to play. The Lord said to Moses, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves, turning aside quickly. Let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them.” But Moses said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought forth out of Egypt? Turn from your fierce wrath.” And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. Moses came down with the two tablets on which the law was written. His anger burned hot, and he broke the tablets. He took the calf, burnt it with fire and ground it to powder. Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have done this?” Aaron said, “You know how they are set on evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods.’ Then they gave me gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”
This dramatic episode is packed with psychological insight. Moses has been gone for many days – but while he is on top of the mountain in intimate fellowship with God, the people are restless and impatient. They think Moses is “delaying,” and quickly they speak of him as “this Moses.” Like all the other nations of the day, Israel fashions an idol – and we know from archaeology that bulls were especially popular images for their gods, as the bull connoted strength, potency, virility.
The Lord sees their stupidity first. Speaking to Moses, the Lord refers to them, not as “my” people, but as “your” people,” whom “you” (Moses!) brought out of Egypt. Moses turns the table just as swiftly, referring to them, not as “my” people, but as “your” people whom “you” (the Lord!) brought out of Egypt! Nobody would want to claim such dim-witted followers. Interestingly, the Lord’s initial intention is bent on Israel’s destruction, but Moses intercedes and manages to change God’s mind – something to contemplate theologically!
Hilariously, Aaron tries to defend himself by blaming the people and taking no responsibility. Notice his words: “they” are set on evil, and “out came this calf.” Out came? We may humbly consider how we are like Aaron, getting dragged into rebellion against God, only to blame everybody else and never seeing our complicity. What are our substitute gods for the true God? When are we impatient? Moses continues to intercede for these people, and to make forgiveness and reconciliation possible – something with which the balance of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers is obsessed.
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eYearThroughTheBible21 - sacrifices and unintentional sin - Leviticus 1
eYearThroughTheBible21 – sacrifices and unintentional sin? – Leviticus 1, 4
When any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of cattle from the herd or flock, a male without blemish, that he may be accepted before the Lord to make atonement for him. Then he shall kill the bull before the Lord; and Aaron's sons the priests shall throw the blood round about against the altar; and the priest shall burn the whole on the altar, an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the Lord.
The astonishingly thorough detail of Israel’s sacrificial system is befuddling, astonishing, and perhaps moving to us… Israel’s religion was tangible, practical; it involved what was of immense value to people barely making a living, it encompassed your sheep, your pots and pans, your bodily habits, as our faith should.
Notice that Atonement in Leviticus is not merely God’s provision to get us out of trouble due to sin. Atonement is to be at-one with the Lord, which includes giving thanks. If you are a shepherd and you have a flock, or a farmer and you have a field, you offer the best sheep, the stud male you need, or the first wheat to ripen, the one your family is hungry for – to embody the truth that all your sheep are God’s sheep, your crops are God’s crops, you are merely the steward, the caretaker, the lucky beneficiary. We will say more about blood sacrifice in our next email. For now it’s interesting to observe what transpires in Leviticus 4:
If any one sins unwittingly in any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and does any one of them, let him offer for the sin which he has committed a young bull without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering…. If the whole congregation of Israel commits a sin unwittingly and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done and are guilty, the assembly shall offer a young bull for a sin offering and bring it before the tent of meeting; the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the Lord in front of the veil; and the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.
How can sin be unintentional? But that’s such an American question: we think of ourselves as free, focused, in charge – but do we not unintentionally grieve God? Aren’t some of the most harmful results of our lives quite unintentional? Sin is still sin; whether I meant things to turn out as they did is hardly crucial…
And notice the people as a whole, not merely individuals, might sin unintentionally! Cultures, societies (like ours!) with their mores and habits are at odds with God’s holiness, in ways we virtually cannot conceive because we are so immersed in the normalcy of our world. But God is both grieved and merciful with respect to our corporate waywardness. We are a materialistic, self-indulgent people… but God in holy mercy devises a way for us to be forgiven even of our unintentional sins – as individuals, and as a society.
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eYearThroughTheBible22 - reparations and blood - Leviticus 6
The Lord said to Moses, "If any one sins and commits a breach of faith against the Lord by deceiving his neighbor, or robbery, or oppressed his neighbor, or lied -- in any of all the things which men do… when one has sinned and become guilty, he shall restore what he took by robbery, or what he got by oppression, or the lost thing which he found, or anything about which he has sworn falsely; he shall restore it in full, and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs, on the day of his guilt offering. And he shall bring to the priest his guilt offering to the Lord, a ram without blemish out of the flock, valued by you at the price for a guilt offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord, and he shall be forgiven for any of the things which one may do and thereby become guilty."
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us that, in the face of guilt, two things must be done. The first is reparation; you pay back sheep for the sheep you stole or damaged. You cannot merely apologize, or count on insurance to make the problem go away. You leave a hole on your property and a ram falls in and dies, you have to give the owner your own best ram. Reconciliation is serious, tangible – and if it costs you your best ram, you think twice before you hurt somebody else’s.
After the first step, reparation, there is a second thing to be done – which oddly we cannot actually do; it must be done for us. When our relationships are broken, no matter how hard we try, we can never fully repair the damage. Some residue of guilt lingers. My soul, our marriage, a fractured community – the mythical bleeding never quite stops. Biblical people understood, and believed that only God's power, God's healing energy, released by the sacrifice of something precious, could bridge that gap and finish the healing. Ancient people, who dealt with livestock and blood daily, believed the very life of God was hidden, and then released, in the blood. That costly, healing power bridged the gap between reparations and total restoration, overcoming the residue of guilt.
Many old-time favorite Christian hymns have bloody, gory lyrics: "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood,” "To thee whose blood can cleanse each spot," "With his own blood he bought her," "There's power in the blood," and "There is a fountain filled with blood . . . and sinners washed beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains." Biblical people caught a glimpse in Jesus’ death of the power of God unleashed on our sin, on what we cannot rectify without the lavish, potent grace of God.
Incidentally, this fits in nicely with John Wesley’s view of the power of God’s grace: “If the crucial problem of sin is not just guilt but the spiritual debilitation and affliction of the human person, then salvation must involve more than pardon; it must also bring healing. Grace is pardon and power: we are reunited to God, made partakers in the Divine nature.”
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In my sermon on Sunday (click here to listen or watch!), I floated the idea of all of us giving up alcohol for Lent. We are not condemning drinking in the least, but we are encountering lots of carnage in people’s lives over alcohol, especially in the impact on youth and children. I also wonder if alcohol becomes too important to us, and perhaps usurps the role the Spirit of God might play in our lives: we think we need alcohol to have fun, to be social, to sleep, to cope… I believe in our particular corner of the world we drink too much.
In my sermon I issued a challenge to us to give up alcohol for Lent – and simultaneously to help us make up a money shortfall in our ministry to people in need. Every time you would order a cocktail, or pick up a bottle of wine, or a cooler of beer for a party, take the cash you would have spent and put it in a jar – and after 40 days, at Easter, bring the money to the Church to support God’s work through us. We’re calling this the “Spirit Fund” (get it?). We are underfunded in our Jubilee Plus endeavors to serve persons in crisis during these tough times – and this “Spirit Fund” can make up the difference.
It is biblical enough. In Old Testament times, certain individuals committed themselves to a holy, special relationship with God. The “Nazirites” did not cut their hair, were devoted to a special round of prayers, and did not drink alcohol for a period of time (read more about them in Numbers 6:1-8). Try being a Nazirite on for size: I hope you’ll join us.
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eYearThroughTheBible - ashes and 40 days
Ash Wednesday services at Myers Park United Methodist Church: 11 am and 7 pm today.
eYearThroughTheBible – ashes and 40 days
Ash Wednesday, a forty day period of focused prayer and repentance, marked by ashes, provides us a teaching moment. In Bible times, ashes were used as a potent symbol of remorse, grief and repentance. “I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). Having lost everything, and in utter despair before God, Job “sat among the ashes” (Job 2:8) – and later he repented “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). When Israel had deserted God, Jeremiah summoned the nation to “gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jeremiah 6:26).
Ashes are the sign of our humble humanity, as we are made of dust (Genesis 2:7), and to dust we will return (Genesis 3:19). Ashes are the residue of fire, evidence of what was but is now lost, and yet what remains – a perfect symbol for our broken existence with no hope except in God. Ashes were what remained after sacrifices were offered on the altar – again a perfect symbol for our giving our lives entirely over to God.
For Ash Wednesday services, we have to go get them or make them, but for Israel, ashes were all around them, from cooking, staying warm, burnt offerings in worship, and even in those catastrophic hours when they were victims of warfare: surveying the rubble of the city, the Psalmist prayed “My heart is withered, I forget to eat my bread; I am like an owl among the ruins. I eat ashes like bread. But you, O Lord: arise and have pity, have pity on her dust” (Psalm 102).
And forty days? Moses went up on Mt. Sinai and spoke to God face to face for 40 days (Exodus 24:18); Elijah made pilgrimage to the same mountain for 40 days (1 Kings 19:8). Goliath strutted and menaced Israel for forty days before David slung a rock at him (1 Samuel 17:16). Spies took forty days to scope out the promised land (Numbers 13:25), and Noah and his remarkable zoo floated for forty days (Genesis 7:12).
Most wonderfully, Jesus went out into the wilderness for 40 days to be tested (Matthew 3:17). How long is 40 days? Long enough to get some meaningful spiritual work done, but mercifully short enough that we are at least willing to try some labor for a while.
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eYearThroughTheBible23 – gleaning and love - Leviticus 19
And the Lord said to Moses, "Say to all the congregation of the people of Israel, You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy. When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God. You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great. You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people. You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measures of length or weight or quantity. You shall have just balances, just weights, for I am the Lord."
Scholars call Leviticus 17-26 the “Holiness code,” the Bible’s most ancient and extensive collection of God’s requirements for how to live, how to be in community, how to live justly, how to stay free, how to please and honor God. What makes these laws intriguing is that they are not humanity’s best determination about how we agree to live in society; these laws are from God. Even more than that – these laws are of God, expressive of the inner heart of God. Notice how often, after some commandment, God adds this divine signature: “I am the Lord.” The Lord is one who commands, but in mercy, wanting the best for the creatures God made, and saved.
Notice how practical the commandments are, and how there is an economic element. Don’t max out what you can profit in business, but leave plenty for the destitute. People out there are hungry – and you are responsible to God for helping them!
Notice also how these laws feel like the slogans of freedom fighters! Injustice is intolerable to God – and not just the kind of injustice that can be resolved in court. “Do not hate in your heart… or bear a grudge.” God is keenly interested in banishing all injustice, however secretive or seemingly harmless. People with disabilities are to be given wide consideration.
When Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:38), he thumbed through the pages of his memory, all the words of Scripture his parents had encouraged him to memorize, and he pinpointed Leviticus 19: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This love of neighbor (if Leviticus 19 is any clue!) evidently extends to foreigners, strangers, the outcast, the elderly, the handicapped.
In our next email, we will explore what the Law means for Christians – who are saved by grace, not a mountain of good deeds… and yet God spoke God’s will and we must have some responsibility to obey and lead holy lives.
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eYearThroughTheBible24 - Christians and the Law
Jesus said, “Do not think I have come to abolish and law and prophets; I have come to fulfill them. Not an iota will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17). But Paul said “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10:4) – and aren’t we saved “by grace through faith, not works” (Ephesians 2:8)? There is a kind of freedom from the law for Christians; yet we are responsible for living faithfully, obediently to God, as our acts and deeds, although they don’t save us, really matter, don’t they? It was James, Jesus’ brother, writing to lax people comfortable in their salvation by grace alone, who said “Faith without works is dead.”
The thicket of laws that boggle the mind in Exodus and Leviticus poses challenges in interpretation. The Israelites were a nomadic, then an agrarian people – so how do we paved-over urbanites make sense of God’s will for goats, turtledoves, and crops? There is great wisdom in striving to delve into the heart of laws that made sense in one cultural setting, and not merely ignore them because we are 21st century technological people, and not Bronze Age herders.
We do not wish to pick and choose, lifting up one commandment as holy and of God while ignoring others! We pay heed to all of the law, and ask in each instance, What does this commandment reveal about the heart of God? and What does this law tell us about the dark side of human nature – and our noble dreams?
Martin Luther taught us that the law is a tutor, and the lesson is our dire need of grace, our waywardness, our embarrassing inability to do God’s will. Even our goodness can be a massive barrier to the grace of God.
And yet we live, we act, and we strive to conform our actions to the heart of God – and the commandments give us examples, and discomforting instances, of what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Confessing our good intentions but flawed implementation, we ask for the gift of God’s Holy Spirit to do good in us, and in spite of us; Jews believed the Law was given to Moses at Pentecost – as Christians believe the Spirit was given to us, and to the Church, at Pentecost. The Spirit is not about an emotional junket with God; rather, the Spirit makes us holy, cures what is amiss in our souls, fashions a similarity to Christ in the mind and heart.
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eYearThroughTheBible25 - may the Lord bless you and keep you - Numbers 6
The Lord said to Moses, "Say to Aaron and his sons, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel:
The Lord bless you and keep you:
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you:
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them."
The oldest scraps of Bible archaeologists have ever found are little scrolls of thinly hammered out silver, with Numbers 6:24-26 scratched onto the surface. The larger one is a mere 3.5” x 1”! and both of them, found on the outskirts of ancient Jerusalem, are dated to the 8th or 7th century BCE (making them nearly 3000 years old!). How were such tiny scrolls used? Either they were worn as amulets, certainly by a wealthy person, a badge of holy words, a conjuring of divine protection – or they were placed in the grave with the body of a loved one, a simple, striking expression of faith, a recognition of the only thing that matters in the end, to see the face of God, to rest in God's peace, to be blessed by God and each other.
Paul concluded each of his letters with something greater than "Sincerely" or "Au revoir." "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you" (1 Corinthians 16:23) - a prayer, a blessing, calling down the most precious, priceless realities on somebody else. Words have power; they package love across space and time.
Exodus 34:29 reports that Moses’ face somehow glowed once he had been in the presence of God. I’m not sure a beaming face is reliable evidence of intimacy with God, as the one beaming might just be cute or bubbly. But perhaps there are marks on the face, deep wrinkles or a calm in the eyes, a smile deeper than a mere grin, as the face expresses what is beneath, in the soul – as the face of God in Jesus reveals to us the heart of God, and that changes everything for those who see.
Oscar Romero suggested that “when we leave worship, we ought to go out the way Moses descended Mount Sinai: with his face shining, with his heart brave and strong, to face the world's difficulties."
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eYearThroughTheBible26 - grasshopper spies - Numbers 13
The Lord said to Moses, “Send men to spy out the land, which I give to the people of Israel, one from each tribe.” So Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran, saying to them, “Go into the Negeb, see what the land is, whether the people are strong or weak, whether the land is rich or poor. Be of good courage, and bring some of the fruit of the land.” At the end of 40 days they returned, showing them the fruit of the land. They said, “We came to the land, and it flows with milk and honey. Yet the people are strong, the cities are fortified and large.” But Caleb quieted the people and said “Let us go up at once and occupy the land.” But the other men said, “We are not able to go up, for this land devours its inhabitants. There we saw giants, and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers.”
The long revelation of God’s law, delivered from God by Moses, which began back in Exodus 20 and continues through Leviticus, finally winds down in Numbers 10. After weeks and weeks, the people finally pick up their camp and leave Mt. Sinai. Plenty of great stories follow: God grows increasingly impatient with the people’s murmuring, revolts are fomented against Moses, and in a hilarious, comic episode, Balaam, try as he might, is unable to curse Israel, as even his donkey talks to him in God’s name (chapter 22).
The greatest drama comes once the people arrive at the promised land. Moses sends out spies (really a reconnaissance team) to scout out the land. Unanimously, the twelve report that the land is marvelous, “flowing with milk and honey.” All agree, also, that the cities are strongly fortified; and worse, there are “giants” in the land (“we felt like grasshoppers”). A minority report from two of the twelve spies says “Go.” Joshua and Caleb (whose name means “dog”) are not very interested in whether the people are capable of seizing the land or defeating their foes. Rather, they trust in God’s promise, they believe the future no matter how daunting is in God’s hands.
But the majority report is careful, full of statistics, realistic: the only intelligent option is to turn back, to give up. Are they simply lacking in faith? Were their inner souls so crushed by years of slavery in Egypt that they found it hard to muster the courage, or to trust God? What little courage the people had melted away, and most standing there never entered the land; the people wandered in the wilderness for another generation. Obviously this great moment can be taken by us today as a parable of how we face obstacles, how easily we come to feel like grasshoppers in our own eyes – but can we have faith and courage, and trust in God?
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eYearThroughTheBible27 - the Shema - Deuteronomy 6
Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
The word “Deuteronomy” means “second law,” and what we find in this book is a reiteration, a sustained reflection, on Israel’s journey with Moses through the wilderness. But instead of focusing on the itinerary, Moses “preaches” the significance of all that has happened. Standing on the high cliffs overlooking the Jordan, poised on the brink of the promised land, on the verge of realizing their destiny, the people are challenged to remember where God had led them, and to commit themselves wholeheartedly to be faithful to this God once across the river and into their new world.
When Jesus was asked (in Mark 12:28-30) “Which commandment is the greatest?” he turned to Deuteronomy 6:4-9; no single text surpasses this one in importance for Judaism. Called the Shema (which is the text’s first word in Hebrew, meaning “Hear!”), these words are repeated at least twice daily, as a declaration of allegiance, a profession of faith, a reminder of Jewish identity – and ours. Our God is unique, alone worthy of loyalty and service. Utter and total commitment to God: this is to be taught within the family, talked about among companions, contemplated when we are alone. Faith is not some little add-on to life; faith is our life, our deepest passion, our unfailing zeal.
Interestingly, verses 8 and 9 led to the custom of Jews wearing phylacteries (a small leather box containing a tiny scroll, strapped to the forehead), and posting the mezuzah on door jambs (a small box also containing a small scroll). Perhaps we would be wise to have simple reminders of God in our homes and even on our selves…
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eYearThroughTheBible28 - I've seen the promised land - Deuteronomy 34
eYearThroughTheBible28 – I’ve seen the promised land - Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Moses went up to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, opposite Jericho. The Lord showed him all the land, Gilead to Dan, Naphtali, Ephraim and Judah, as far as the Sea. And the Lord said, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, and he buried him in the valley, but no man knows the place of his burial to this day. Moses was 120 years old; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. And the people of Israel wept for Moses thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning were ended. There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to do, wrought in the sight of all Israel.
Surely this is one of the most poignant moments in the Bible, even in human history. Moses, whose long, extraordinary life has been about leading Israel to the promised land. Climbing up alone to the overlook of Mount Nebo, Moses finally gets a glimpse of his life’s objective – and then is told he will not be able to enter. So bittersweet, but so full of truth. Deuteronomy does not tell us how Moses felt, but our in our minds we can feel joy, gratitude, regret, exasperation, and the deepest sigh imaginable.
How many heroes have not been there for the climax of their own mission? Martin Luther King, Jr., on the night before his assassination, spoke eerily on this very passage in his famous sermon in Memphis (“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know that we as a people will get to the promised land, so I’m happy tonight. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…”).
For Israel, the loss is immense, but this is not the end for them! God provides new leaders. Perhaps there will never be another Moses, but there is a Joshua – and perhaps the loss of Moses “whom the Lord knew face to face” is a challenge to them, for now they perhaps need to deal with the Lord for themselves, directly, face to face.
Interestingly, the mummy of the pharaoh of the Exodus has been studied. Aaron’s tomb is viewed by tourists near Petra. But no one has ever found Moses’ tomb. Did he die at all? The New Testament has a tiny book named “Jude,” and its 9th verse claims that the devil and the archangel Michael disputed over possession of Moses’ corpse! In Judaism, and in Christianity (Mark 9:4), Moses was believed to have been taken directly to heaven. But didn’t Deuteronomy say he was buried? But who buried him? Wasn’t Moses alone? with the Lord?
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eYearThroughTheBible - tonight and questions?
Tonight at 7pm (and then again Thursday at 11am) I will make a multimedia presentation on Joshua, Holy War and Christianity, where we will look at history, archaeology, and more modern thinking to try to unscramble what to make of a war-mongering God in the Old Testament who seems to want wholesale destruction – and then how we think about God and war in our own day.
By the way, my new book, The Will of God: Answering the Hard Questions, has a section on war today and God’s will.
We are at about the one-fourth done point of our Year Through The Bible, and for me it’s been great fun so far. Please share with me any questions you have so far, thoughts and suggestions, or wishes you have for us as we move forward. And stick with us over the long haul! I promise by Christmas you’ll have a facility with the Bible and a deeper awareness of Scripture and its place in our thought and life!
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eYearThroughTheBible29 - Joshua fit the battle of Jerich - Joshua 2 and 6
Joshua sent two spies to Jericho. They came to the house of a harlot, Rahab. It was told to the king of Jericho, who sent to Rahab saying, “Bring forth these men who have come to you, for they are spies.” But she had hidden them in stalks of flax on her roof. She came to them and said, “I know that the Lord has given you this land, for we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Sea before you when you came out of Egypt. When we heard it, our hearts melted, for the Lord your God is he who is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.” Then she let them down by a rope through the window…
As Joshua commanded, the priests went forward blowing trumpets, and the people marched about the city each day. On the seventh day they rose at dawn and marched around the city seven times. The priests blew the trumpet, and the people shouted, and the wall fell down flat. Then they utterly destroyed the city… But Rahab the harlot and her household were saved…
As the Israelites cross the Jordan to enter the land, Jericho is the first strategic stronghold. (Even today, the city is embattled and at times closed to tourists because of border tensions.) Spies are sent out by Joshua (an ex-spy himself! and don’t forget how badly that spying turned out!). They suspect that a great place to dig up information will be the house of the prostitute, Rahab! Astonishingly, this immoral foreigner becomes the first “convert” to Israel’s faith. She has heard of what Israel’s God has done for these people, and speaks eloquently of her new God. How ironic: the first storyteller of Israel’s epic saga with God is a Canaanite prostitute! In the New Testament, we find this prostitute as the model of faith (James 2:25, Hebrews 11:31) – and she even marries and becomes an ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:5)!
Dramatically the spies escape through a window in the wall, and by chapter 6, Joshua’s army is back. They march around the city, fasting and praying, then blow trumpets, and “the walls came a-tumblin’ down” (as children sing it). The archaeological record at Jericho is fascinating, and confusing. Jericho is one of civilization’s oldest cities; it is the lowest (800 feet below sea level!) in the world. Walls, a tower, and skulls have been found dating for six or seven thousand years before Joshua showed up! In the rest of Joshua we read about the “holy war” waged through Israel, as God and the people fight to secure land. The issues are complex: could God order up such killings? What are the implications for politics in Israel today?
We must be humble and careful: the Christian Crusaders marched to Jerusalem back in 1099, and took Joshua 6 literally. They marched around, fasted, prayed, blew trumpets – but when the walls didn’t crumble they took matters into their own hands, broke through the wall, and slaughtered the Muslim residents of the city.
Warfare was brutal in Israelite times, and health concerns curiously dictated that cities be totally burnt, as pestilence and infection followed on the heels of battles and usually killed more than the battle itself. Also, a look at a map indicates that Israel didn’t exactly blitzkrieg the entire land of Palestine, but only a small minority of small towns in not exactly the most desirable locations… I hope you’ll listen to (or watch or download!) my sermon from Sunday on Joshua 6! and you can also listen online to the presentation I made about Joshua, Holy War and Christianity.
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eYearThroughTheBible30 - as for me and my house - Joshua 24
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him to the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many. I sent Moses, and brought your fathers out of Egypt. I brought you into the land, and sent the hornet before you, which drove them out before you. I gave you a land for which you had not labored, cities you had not built, and you eat the fruit of vineyards you did not plant.’”
Then Joshua said, “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in faithfulness. Put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River. Choose this day whom you will serve… but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” The people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods.” But Joshua said, “Then put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord.” So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day.
The last dozen chapters of Joshua have been devoted to the division of the land among the tribes. Importantly, Israel has the sense that land is not up for private ownership. God is the land’s owner, and God graciously lets Israel’s families farm the land and reap its benefits – but there is no buying and selling, no getting a leg up on the next guy… It all belongs to God.
The climax of Joshua’s career comes in this moment at Shechem, nestled between the twin peaks of Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim. A flourishing city in the bronze age, modern-day Shechem is strife-torn, with lives shredded by violence in the battle between Israelis and Palestinians. Joshua issues an extraordinary challenge to the people: now that the land has been given, now that God’s blessings are out in the open, the question becomes How will we live into our future? Set free by God, can we stay free? Or will we squander God’s gifts? Everything hinges on whether worship and devotion to the Lord are pure and wholehearted, or if temptations will lure Israel to dabble with and indulge in other gods.
Sounds easy enough to us, for we know mentally there is only one God. But in Israel, people figured there were plenty of gods. The question was “Which ones shall we serve?” Smart money placed bets on several gods, just to keep your bases covered. So what do we mean by a “god”? Martin Luther said, “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is really your god.” The gods of our society are many: success, pleasure, money, being cool or popular – whatever it is that dominates our mindset, that motivates us, that can make (or ruin) our day, that we live and die for. Joshua’s challenge is timely, and we might take up his words each day and ask: What is today going to be about? How will I live my life? What will we do together today? Joshua pronounced his family’s faithful commitment: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” What will your choice be this day?
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eYearThroughTheBible31- rule over us! - Judges 6-8
The people of Israel cried to the Lord on account of the Midianites. So the angel of the Lord came as Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, and said, “The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valor.” So in the morning the Lord said to Gideon, “The soldiers with you are too many, lest Israel vaunt themselves and say ‘My own hand has delivered me.’” So Gideon sent 22,000 home, and 10,000 remained. The Lord said, “The people are still too many, so test them by the water.” Afterwards, Gideon sent all but 300 away. The Lord said, “With 300 I will deliver you.” And God gave the Midianites into the hands of Israel. Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also. For you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian.” Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and neither will my son. The Lord will rule over you.”
What an odd military strategy – reducing your armed forces from 32,000 to 300! In the Late Bronze Age, Israel was small, a loose confederation of family units ready to be called up to fight as needed; Israel had no standing army. Instead, they had “judges,” who aren’t lawyers deciding cases. The Judges were military heroes, “mighty men of valor.” But not just men: among Israel’s earliest heroes were women, including Deborah (read Judges 4-5!). These stories are downright graphic: Jael (another heroic woman) planted a tent peg into the temple of Sisera (Judges 4:21), and Ehud stabbed Eglon, who was so fat that Ehud’s sword was swallowed up and lost in his belly (Judges 3:22).
The one essential credential that characterized these heroes? An utter, unflagging dependence upon God! Their sense was not that they fought valiantly and won, but rather that they were merely tools in God’s hands, that the victory hinged entirely on God’s intervention. God prefers to use a mere 300 soldiers instead of 32,000, lest Israel’s sense of accomplishment and power corrupt them spiritually. If 32,000 emerge victorious, they boast – and plunder and attack somebody else; but if only 300 win, God and only God gets the credit, and they go home in humble gratitude. As Paul wrote, “God chose what is weak to shame the strong, so that no human being might boast” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). So profound was the Israelites’ sense of dependence upon God that they, uniquely among peoples in those times, refused to have a king. Gideon refused their wish that he become king, stating with theological insight, “Only the Lord is our king.”
This is not only theologically intriguing, but also provides the canvas on which the story of Jesus’ kingship is painted. Only the Lord is our king! So, the answer to Pilate’s question, “Are you a king?” (John 18:37) is Yes – but his kingship is not like the pompous, militant royalty that struts across the stage of history. God still chooses the weak to shame the strong, and it is Jesus’ humility, his suffering and death, that define true kingship.
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eYearThroughTheBible32 - Samson and Delilah – Judges 13-16
The woman bore a son and called him Samson. The boy grew, and the Lord blessed him. The Spirit of the Lord began to stir him, and he went down to Timnah. Behold, a young lion roared, and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he tore the lion asunder, with nothing in his hand. But he did not tell his father or mother. Later he came to Lehi, where the Philistines came upon him. He found a jawbone of an ass, and seized it, and slew a thousand men.
Then he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, named Delilah. The lords of the Philistines came to her and said, "Entice him, and see wherein his great strength lies, and by what means we may overpower him, and we will each give you 1100 pieces of silver." So Delilah asked Samson... but he told her lies again and again... Finally she said to him, "How can you say 'I love you' when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me three times and have not told me of your strength." When she pressed him hard with her words day after day, his soul was vexed to death.
So he told her everything: "A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother's womb. If I be shaved, then my strength will leave me." Delilah told the Philistines. She plied him with drink, and made him sleep upon her knees. They shaved off his head, and they seized him and gouged out his eyes, and bound him with fetters in the prison at Gaza. But the hair of his head began to grow again.
Much later, Samson called on the Lord, "O Lord, remember me and strengthen me." He grasped the pillars upon which that house rested, and bowed with all his might, and the house fell. So the dead whom he slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during his life.
What an earthy, raucous, intriguing tale! We are reminded of the exploits of Odysseus, or Hector, or the drama of Oedipus Rex and other such legendary characters. This story has it all: passion, sex, deception, romance, combat, disappointment, revenge. Who could say the Bible is boring?
The theology tucked into the narrative reveals something of what it is to squander the gifts God gives us. Samson is powerful, and yet he has a vulnerability. That vulnerability can’t be exploited at first. But he "burns out" over time, eventually succumbing to his weakness, and he is undone. What was Samson’s undoing? Was it the woman, Delilah (whose name means “flirt”)? Or was it the alcohol? Was it ego? Or did he just get tired from too many battles?
And yet he recovers his strength, and God uses him to bring down the false gods of the Philistines. There is some fantastic parable here of loss and renewal, yet with tragic overtones.
Thirteen years ago I preached a sermon on The Protestant Hour radio broadcast entitled The Primrose Path of Dalliance, a phrase Hamlet used to depict the alluring road the gifted too often travel to their (and others’!) destruction, which usually begins with something pretty or shiny, and then a seemingly insignificant flirtation… Yet God doesn’t give up on even those who fritter away their blessings.
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eYearThroughTheBible33 – where you go I will go – Ruth 1
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem went to sojourn in the country of Moab, with his wife and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. But Elimelech died, and she was left with her two sons, who took Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth; but they too died, so Naomi was bereft of her two sons and her husband.
Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Return each of you to her mother's house. May the Lord deal kindly with you and grant you a home and husband.” She kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
Orpah kissed her, but Ruth clung to her, and said,
“Entreat me not to leave you;
for where you go I will go,
and where you lodge I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God;
where you die I will die,
and there will I be buried.
May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you." And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
Once upon a time, during the Bronze Age, when farmers barely scraped out a living from the rocky soil, the skies were stingy for a long time and the ground was dry as chalk. So the man went to a foreign land where even Israel’s god was not worshipped, but where rain fell at least occasionally. His sons married Moabite women – but then Naomi’s husband, and then her two sons died in succession.
Her grief can hardly be fathomed; and in the ancient world, widows had no social security, no property to their name… so she was in dire straits indeed. Voicing her agony (in Ruth 1:20), Naomi (whose name means “pleasant”) said “Do not call me Naomi, but Mara” (which means “bitter”).
With no option but to return home and hope for the mercy of distant relatives, she bid an emotional farewell to her daughters in law. Orpah (after whom Oprah Winfrey was named!) predictably stayed in Moab. But Ruth, shockingly, even foolishly, stuck with her mother in law, and with memorable eloquence. Her words are cross-stitched and given as wedding presents to this day.
Ruth’s story is one of unflagging faithfulness to family, but also one of conversion. She was not a believer in Israel’s God – but she commits herself to Naomi and to Naomi’s religion. Why? We do not know. Perhaps it is Naomi’s profound faith which can even grapple with bitterness openly; perhaps there is an integrity of dogged hope in Naomi; perhaps Ruth has heard rumors of Israel’s God, who is the champion of the bereft and downtrodden – like Naomi and Ruth.
If you read the rest of the little book of Ruth, you are in for a treat: the mother in law tutors Ruth in the way to lure a rich man, Boaz, and they wind up married, and give Naomi a grandson who becomes an ancestor of another famous child from Bethlehem: Jesus.
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eYearThroughTheBible34 - drunken prayer – 1 Samuel 1
There was a certain man of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah. He had two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. Now he went up year by year to worship and sacrifice to the Lord at Shiloh. Peninnah would provoke Hannah sorely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went year by year, so Hannah wept and would not eat. Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep and not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
Now Eli the priest was sitting by the door of the temple. Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. She vowed a vow and said, “O Lord, if you will remember me and give me a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.” Eli observed her mouth; she was speaking in her heart, only her lips moved – and therefore Eli took her to be drunk. He asked, “How long will you be drunk?” But she answered, “No, I am a woman sorely troubled. I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard me as a base woman.” Then Eli said, “Go in peace, and may God grant your petition.” She went away and was no longer sad. Then Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. She conceived and bore a son and called him Samuel.
The birth of Samuel marks a turning point in Israel’s story. He is the last of the Judges, and brokers the transition to kingship in Israel. Much is strange in this narrative: multiple wives, the idea of the Lord closing a woman’s womb… Ancient people knew nothing about gynecology, and women for centuries felt as if they were punished by God if they could not have children, a cruel, overly simplistic viewpoint. There are nuanced ways for us to think of children as God’s blessing without imagining that God singles out some for parenthood while denying children to others.
Notice the intensity of Hannah’s prayer – leading Eli to surmise that she is drunk. The first Christians, on the day of Pentecost, were also thought to be drunk (Acts 2:13). Our pale, innocuous, hurried prayers pale by comparison… In the fourth century, Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, prayed intently for her wayward son, leading her bishop, Ambrose, to conclude that “It is not possible that the child of so many tears could perish.” To this day, Monica is the patron saint of mothers praying fervently for their children.
Most importantly, Hannah makes a vow to God, one every parent should make. “If you give me a child, I will dedicate him to the Lord.” Children do not come so we might have the cool experience of having children. Our only ultimately important responsibility is to lead children toward God, so they might believe in God, and lead holy, good, wise lives, and discover their calling, what God is luring them towards. Parenting gets skewed when we push our kids to stay frantically busy, to “get ahead,” when in fact our delight will come in serving God together as a family, and as a Church.
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eYearThroughTheBible35 - speak, Lord – 1 Samuel 3
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim, so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down within the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.
Then the Lord called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. And the Lord called again, "Samuel!" And Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. And the Lord called Samuel again the third time. And he arose and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.
Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, `Speak, Lord, for thy servant hears.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place. And the Lord came and stood forth, calling as at other times, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for thy servant hears." Then the Lord said to Samuel, "Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel, at which the two ears of every one that hears it will tingle.
The word of the Lord was rare in those days? Was God not talking? Or had the people grown deaf? Was it a leadership problem? Eli’s eyesight “had begun to grow dim,” but is this an allusion not merely to aging, cataract-riddled eyes, but also to his inability or unwillingness to be attentive to God’s vision? Old Eli is immersed in the dark – but Samuel’s lamp still flickers during the night.
How did Samuel hear God? “He was ministering to the Lord”; he was in the holy place, he was serving – he was doing everything possible to put himself in a position to hear God speak. The word of the Lord might be rare in our days because we are busy, not getting around to serving… or listening. Our prayers, when we offer them at all, are chatty, bloated with our words, and we talk and talk to God, concluding our pleas with “Lord, hear our prayer.” What if, as Barbara Brown Taylor wisely suggested, we stopped talking and simply became still, and listened, our only words to God being “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening”?
Perhaps youth is Samuel’s huge advantage. As we grow older we should grow wiser and more deeply steeped in the things of God; but sometimes we just get stuck, we think we’ve figured it all out – and only the young are open, ready to have their minds blown, in giddy expectation that God is about to do something new, unforeseen, dramatic, inconceivable, unprecedented – the kind of thing “that will cause ears to tingle.”
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eYearThroughTheBible36 - gods and groveling – 1 Samuel 4
Israel went out to battle against the Philistines, and Israel was defeated. The elders of Israel said, “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that he may come among us and save us from our enemies.” So they brought the ark, and all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth shook. When the Philistines learned the ark had come, they were afraid, saying “A god has come into the camp. Woe to us!” So the Philistines fought.
But Israel was defeated. The ark was captured and taken to Ashdod. They brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside their god. When they rose early in the morning, Dagon had fallen face downward before the ark. So they put Dagon back in his place. But the next morning, Dagon had fallen face down before the ark again, and both his hands were lying broken off. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.
Then the people of Ashdod were afflicted with tumors, so they said, “The ark must not remain with us.” So they yoked the ark to some milch cows. The cows went straight to Beth-shemesh turning neither right nor left.
Raucously funny, this story – yet profound theologically. The ark of the covenant was Israel’s most sacred object: a carefully made box, bearing the tablets of the law Moses brought down from Sinai (go back and read Exodus 25:10-22, 37:1-9). The Israelites believed God was present everywhere – but overwhelmingly, powerfully present in this ark. They fully expected that by toting it into battle they would win. Even the Philistines feared the divine power that might flow from this sacred chest!
But no thing guarantees success for Israel. They lose the battle – and yet, even if Israel is defeated, Israel’s God is never defeated. God is not mocked. The Philistines place the ark at the feet of their idol, Dagon, symbolizing their god’s victory over Israel’s god. But, to the Philistines’ consternation, the idol topples over during the night before the ark! How perfect was William Tyndale’s translation 500 years ago? “The idol lay groveling upon the ground.” The embarrassed Philistines prop Dagon upright again, but the following night the idol falls again, this time breaking into pieces. Who’s the true God after all?
Not wishing further disaster from this ark they have stolen, the Philistines place Israel’s strange box on a cart and send it off, pulled by wild, untrained cows – which only heightens the humor. These untrained beasts “are entirely devoid of experience, so their ability to pull the cart straight toBeth-shemesh would be a manifestation of God’s intervention” (Robert Alter).
The ark is returned to its rightful place. Israel was always the little man of the ancient near east, never the grandest power to be reckoned with, and they were always tempted to revere the gods of other nations, who certainly seemed to be powerful, given the glamour and glitter of the great nations, whose ranks Israel would never join. So the Bible’s many stories of other gods being humiliated are crucial for Israel’s sense of identity. No matter what they may suffer, their God is the true God, the ultimately good and victorious one, to be followed no matter the consequences.
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eYearThroughTheBible37 - a king like the nations - 1 Samuel 8
When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. Yet they did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after gain. Then the elders gathered together at Ramah and said to Samuel, “Behold, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations.” The thing displeased Samuel, so he prayed to the Lord. The Lord answered, “Hearken to their voice, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of kings you will reign over them.” So Samuel said, “The king will take your sons and appoint them to chariots, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest. He will take the best of your fields, your orchards and grain. He will take your cattle and asses and put them to his work. In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have asked for.” But the people refused to listen and said, “No, but we will have a king over us, that we may be like all the nations.”
In Judges 6 we looked at early Israel’s peculiar political set-up. While every other nation had a king, Israel alone did not – for the Lord was Israel’s king! Repeatedly in history, Israel’s downfall came when the people looked at their neighbors and were jealous, for the pomp and regalia of greatness, but also for the apparent security a powerful monarch brought.
This craving to be “like all the nations” proved to be a disaster politically. Samuel passes on God’s warning with some wry Hebrew humor. They “ask” (sha’al in Hebrew) for a king, and their first king is named Saul (sha’ul in Hebrew, meaning “asked for”). They got what they asked for! 1 Samuel 8 could be used as fodder for the kinds of anti-tax, anti-government talk we still hear today…
More importantly, the desire to be “like all the nations” was theologically troubling. Israel was called by God to be “holy,” to be different, to be consecrated to God, not like everybody else. Their insistence to fit in should haunt us, as we too succumb to the temptation to be “normal,” to fit in, to make it in the world, when God’s call may be for us to be odd, to be different, not to be like everybody else.
Interestingly, God does not manipulate the situation and say “No king!” Rather, God yields, lets them have what they ask for. In the New Testament, Paul could speak of God giving us up to our own sinful inclinations – a sobering reminder for us to take seriously the direction and willfulness of our lives, and to seek God’s reign in our existence, knowing that God does not thoughtlessly or automatically pamper us and make our wrong-headed paths smooth. We get what we ask for.
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eYearThroughTheBible38 - the Lord does not see as we see - 1 Samuel 16
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? Fill your horn with oil. I will send you to Jesse in Bethlehem, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” The Lord said, “Take a heifer and say ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord’ and invite Jesse to the sacrifice. Samuel did as the Lord commanded. He consecrated Jesse and his sons. When they came he looked on Eliab and thought “Surely this is the Lord’s anointed.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, for I have rejected him. The Lord sees not as man sees. Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and then Shammah, finally seven of his sons to pass before Samuel. Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen these. Are all your sons here?” Jesse said, “There remains the youngest, but he is out keeping the sheep.” Samuel said, “Fetch him.” David came in, ruddy, with beautiful eyes, and handsome. The Lord said, “Arise, anoint him, for he is the one.” And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.
Israel does not need a king; Saul fills that office – quite shabbily. But God is not undone by human foibles. Failure of leadership is an open door for the Lord, who now declares There shall be a new king, a new beginning – but secrecy and a bit of deception are required for Samuel to get to David.
The greatest deception is the one Samuel must get over – the illusion that God uses the biggest, the strongest, the oldest. Sizing up the lineup of Jesse’s sons, Samuel is impressed by the big boys, the swashbuckling Eliab, the muscular Abinadab, the agile Shammah, presuming one of these will be God’s chosen leader. But it is David, the one Jesse had not even thought to include among the candidates, who is the one the Lord will use!
The Bible’s logic trumps in once more: it is the smallest, the weakest, the unlikely one that God uses, the one who relies not on his own strength, but has a “heart” for God, the one who is available to God, dependent upon God. Saul had been taller and more muscular than anybody – but his reign was failure. In the very next chapter, little David topples the giant warrior Goliath, not by overpowering him, but really by having faith that God could use his one small stone to win the day. God’s contrarian, upside-down, inside-out, penetrating vision is articulated beautifully in verse 7: “The Lord sees not as man sees. Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
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Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, YTTB, Spirit Fund
Today is Maundy Thursday, one of the sacred nights of the Christian year; we will worship tonight at 7:30. Read John 13:1-17 in preparation.
Good Friday service tomorrow evening, 7:30.
Year Through The Bible is best marked by our common worship, as we join Christians over the centuries and around the world to commemorate together the highest moments in the Bible.
If you gave up alcohol for Lent, we’ll accept your Spirit fund money (for mission outreach) any time (in person, by mail at 1501 Queens Rd. 28207, or online) – and I’d be delighted to hear any reflections you have on what that experience was like.
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eYearThroughTheBible39 - extraordinary gesture - 1 Samuel 24
Saul was told, “David is in the wilderness of Engedi.” He took 3000 chosen men to seek David in front of the Wildgoats’ rocks. Saul went into a cave to relieve himself. Now David and his men were hiding in that very cave. David’s men said, “Do to him as you wish!” But David arose and stealthily cut off the skirt of Saul’s robe. He said, “The Lord forbid I should harm the Lord’s anointed.” So he did not permit his men to attack Saul. After Saul went out, David called after him, “My lord the king!” David bowed his face, and said, “See how the Lord gave you into my hand, but I spared you. See the skirt of your robe? You may now know that there is no treason in me.” Saul lifted up his voice and wept, saying to David, “You are more righteous than I.”
Saul begins to battle inner demons, his mood softened only by the sweet music of young David. But as David grows older, his military prowess puts Saul in the shade. Saul, driven by insane jealousy to get rid of this emerging star who is wildly popular with the people, makes David a fugitive, on the run for his life. The chase leads them to En-Gedi, just above the Dead Sea.
To this day, mountain goats scale the rocky precipices near En-Gedi, where we see caves that would make great hiding places. Barely escaping Saul’s clutches, David stumbles onto a startling opportunity to save his own life, dispatch Saul, and seize the throne. In a wry dramatic moment, Saul wanders into a dark cave “to relieve himself.” Who is hiding in that very cave but David himself! Suddenly it is Saul who is vulnerable. But David, in a gesture that is almost playful, but yet full of meaning, draws his sword -- but merely cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe. Once they are out in the light of day, David shows he did not cut off Saul’s life, as he could have, but just some fabric.
David is respectful of this “anointed” one, even though Saul is not up to the task. Incidentally, the Hebrew word for “anointed” is “messiah.” The Messiah is the anointed one. Each king in Israel was anointed, was the messiah. But as various kings faltered, the hope emerged that one day a truly great “messiah” would appear. As we think of Jesus as the fulfillment of this hope, we can see how his restraint is much like David’s in the cave. David is gracious, wielding a new kind of power. He does not grasp power, but only receives it in God’s time, as God’s gift. David’s gesture is extraordinary, giving some hope of reconciliation instead of simply ending the warfare with victory for the one and defeat for the other. Jesus did not “beat” us, but emptied himself, becoming our friend.
We may speculate about what kinds of extraordinary gestures might be helpful in our world today, to bring peace among those who are at odds, instead of pursuing a hollow victory – on the world stage, and even in our homes and communities.
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eYearThroughTheBible40 - a house for God? - 2 Samuel 7
When David dwelt in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from his enemies, David the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” That same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, “Go and tell David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have been moving about in a tent. I took you from following the sheep that you should be prince over my people Israel. I will raise up offspring after you, and he shall build a house for my name. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him, but I will not take my steadfast love from him. Your house shall be made sure forever.’” King David sat down before the Lord and said, “Who am I that you have brought me thus far? You are great, for there is no God like you.”
David has just proven himself a political genius, uniting all the independent Israelite tribes under his banner, and locating the perfect capital city. Jerusalem had not been in any single tribe’s territory, centrally and neutrally located (perhaps akin to the choice of Washington, D.C. as the U.S. capital). To his new city he brought the ark of the covenant, that ancient repository of the ten commandments and the powerful sign of the Lord’s presence.
With profound devotion, David feels ashamed that he now has a house (the small palace he built for his family), but the Lord has no house at all! So he proposes that a temple be built, a shrine that would honor and glorify the God David knew had brought him to this point, the God David was determined to serve.
But the Lord, unlike the deities of other nations, feels no need for a sumptuous house, and in fact prefers not to have one built at all. Israel’s God is mobile, and can never be boxed in to any single place. This is crucial to Israel’s faith, and to ours: even when we build sanctuaries, we are humble about them; God is uncontainable, vaster than any physical structure – and therefore we aren’t safe from God just because we’re away from the sanctuary!
Remember that Israel had repeatedly asked for a king, but the Lord said, “You will have no king but myself!” But now the Lord lets them have not just one king (David), but his “house” (his descendants, hence a hereditary monarchy)! God’s preference is no king at all, but God caves in to the people and embarks on a new plan to use and bless not just this king but his entire family. God gives us a measure of freedom and turns around and uses positively what we have done that was contrary to God’s will! This is, at least, our hope…
In the same way, the Lord preferred no temple at all. But then God seems to yield, to let them have a temple. But as the Lord does so, the very drive to build is demystified – as if God says, “Go ahead, build me a house, just as you have a king. I will use the king, and the temple, for my own glory, and you dare not transgress and over-emphasize temple or king, for I am still free and fully mobile, never boxed in; I am still king, and you aren’t.”
Who utters this word of caution? Nathan the prophet. Israel was acquiring political power, but God never leaves power unchecked. As soon as somebody sits on a throne in Jerusalem, God raises up a prophet to speak words of critique from God. In God’s design for Israel, the most powerful person is not the king, but the prophet! All human authority is subject to the Word of God; every power must reckon with those ordained by God to rein in earthly power and assert the ultimate glory of God.
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eYearThroughTheBible - you are the man! - 2 Samuel 11-12
Late one afternoon, David arose from his couch and walked upon the roof of his palace. He saw a woman bathing, and she was very beautiful. David inquired, and one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah?” So David sent messengers and took her. She came, and he lay with her. The woman conceived, and she told David, “I am with child.” So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah.” David asked how he was doing, how the war prospered. David said, “Go to your house and wash your feet.” But Uriah slept at the door, and did not go into his house. Uriah explained, “The army and Israel are camping in the field. Shall I then go to my house and lie with my wife? I will not do this.” David invited him and made him drunk. But still he would not go to his house. In the morning, David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah: “Set Uriah in the front of the hardest fighting, then draw back from him, that he may be struck down.” Uriah did so, and Uriah was slain. A messenger told David. When the wife of Uriah heard her husband was dead, she made lamentation. When her mourning was over, David brought her to his house and she became his wife, and bore him a son. But the thing displeased the Lord.
The Lord sent Nathan to David. He said, “There were two men, one rich, the other poor. The rich man had many flocks, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb. He brought it up, it grew up with him and his children, and drank from his cup, and lay in his bosom. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but he was unwilling to take one of his own flock, so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the wayfarer.” David’s anger was kindled against the man, and he told Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.” Nathan said to David, “You are the man.”
The psychological insight of this narrative amazes us, and perhaps even exposes us. David, with great humility and fidelity to God, has finally risen to power – and now in one foolish moment he squanders it all, his and Israel’s innocence lost. For this story is not just one more sordid tale of sexual intrigue. This encounter tells us about ourselves, how we covet what is not ours, what should not be ours, and once we plunge into sin we begin our elaborate cover-up. We mask over our self-indulgent, self-destructive indiscretions, and spare no effort at justifying ourselves. Comically, like David, we may even be enraged to hear about sin in other people – but then we too are humbled by Nathan’s words: “You are the man!”
Archaeologists have studied a steep stone wall on top of which David’s palace probably stood; terraced houses were perched on the hill below – so it is easy to imagine David, looking out from his porch, seeing a woman bathing down below. He is drawn to her, and asks to find our her name. Her name is not just Bathsheba, but also “the wife of Uriah.” Should be the end of the story for him – but David now has power, and acts like every other potentate: he takes whatever he wants. Just as his army has “sallied forth,” so does David in the tawdry luxury of his palace. Then, as if in some soap opera plot, she turns up pregnant. The cover-up ensues: Uriah, a faithful soldier who has been risking his life for his king, is summoned home to take a little siesta with his wife. But he is noble and holy before his king, who is far from holy or noble. Soldiers were sworn to celibacy during wartime, and so he refuses to go in to his wife. David plies him with alcohol and further pleas – again, accustomed as king to getting his way, however crass his approach. But Uriah is steadfast. David then ruthlessly sends him to the battlefront, Uriah bearing the very note that will press him into a foolhardy position and cost him his life. The strategem works, and David is sure he is off the hook.
But God is not mocked. And kings in Israel are never without those nagging, harshly critical prophets of God. Nathan confronts David – but instead of denouncing him directly, he tells a story. How shrewd! David thereby is drawn in to pronounce his own judgment. With what Robert Alter calls “compensatory zeal,” David adamantly pronounces “No pity!” on such wrongdoing. Jesus taught in this same way. Instead of listing do’s and don’ts, he told stories about fathers and sons, sowers and merchants, builders and widows – and left the listeners to enter into the story and find their own place before God.
David recognizes his atrocious behavior and is duly penitent (Psalm 51 is linked to this story!). But his misstep sets in motion a long chain of painful events for his family (as told in the balance of 2 Samuel). Sin is forgivable, but there are still consequences to our behavior. Yet even more stunning is the bizarre fact that Bathsheba, who came into David’s family through the darkest door, becomes the mother of the continuing line of kings who fulfill God’s promise to David. She becomes the ancestor of Jesus himself – for God uses all kinds of people, God employs even our worst moments into God’s ultimate plans for the world.
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eYearThroughTheBible42 - Solomon's flaw - 1 Kings 4
So the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon. Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh of Egypt; he took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David, and finished building his own house and the wall around Jerusalem. The people were sacrificing at the high places, however, because no house had yet been built for the name of the Lord. Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father, but he sacrificed at the high places.
After David’s death there ensues a long battle over the succession, as David’s sons are at odds over who should become king. Solomon disposes of the competition and is anointed as king in Jerusalem. Politically, Solomon may be Israel’s greatest king. But…
Hidden in this brief introduction to Solomon’s forty year reign is a harsh theological critique of the most gifted of Israel’s kings, the one who “might have been” greatest of all. “Solomon loved the Lord,” he asked not for long life or riches, but rather for wisdom (3:6-14); indeed, “God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore.” Outwardly his reign was stunningly successful. Wealth poured into the state’s coffers, the army flexed its muscle, territory was expanded.
But – “he sacrificed at the high places,” at altars to other gods. The marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter won Solomon trade advantages and military security – but she brought with her priests to her Egyptian gods. In 1 Kings 11 we read how Solomon’s many marriages, while profitable, “turned his heart away after other gods.” What more frustrating, tragic assessment could there be than this? “Solomon loved the Lord…but he sacrificed at the high places.” Yes, he believed in God, cared about God, made good effort to obey God; but he dabbled in what was not of God, he covered his bases by looking elsewhere for security and prosperity, his heart was not single in its devotion to the Lord.
Solomon, so gifted by God, sold out in his heart by pursuing might and riches, and was severely judged by God. From the very beginning of the story we sense his priorities – as he built his own house, his luxurious palace, long before he gave thought to building a temple to the Lord. If you read these emails, you may believe in God, you may strive to be faithful to God: but how do we sell out? or squander our giftedness? or place our private endeavors before God’s work? What is our “but”? Where do we look for success or security? To what are we linked that is admirable in the world’s eyes but not of God? How does our pursuit of wisdom come to be compromised?
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eYearThroughTheBible43 - temple dedication - 1 Kings 8
Then Solomon assembled the elders and heads of the tribes in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant. The king and all the congregation sacrificed so many sheep and oxen that they could not be numbered. Then the priests brought the ark to its place in the inner sanctuary, the holy of holies, under the wings of the cherubim. There was nothing in the ark except the two tables of stone which Moses put there when they came out of Egypt. Then Solomon said, “The Lord has set the sun in the heavens; I have built thee an exalted house.” Then the king blessed the assembly and said, “Blessed be the Lord who has fulfilled what he promised to my father David, ‘Your son shall build a house for my name.’” Solomon spread his hands toward heaven and said, “O Lord, there is no God like thee, showing steadfast love to thy servants. The highest heaven cannot contain thee, much less this house. Yet have regard to this supplication, that thy eyes may be open night and day toward this house, and hearken to the prayers of thy servants when they pray toward this place. If a man sins, hear his prayer. When there is no rain, forgive us and grant rain. When a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, hear him… Blessed be the Lord who has given his people rest. Not one word has failed of all his good promise. Let your heart be true to the Lord our God, walking in his statutes and keeping his commandments.” Then the king offered oxen and sheep, and dedicated the house of the Lord, and held a great feast for seven days.
In 1 Kings 5-7 we read Solomon’s elaborate preparations to build a splendid temple, sparing no expense, utilizing the most talented craftsmen and exotic materials. The tone of these chapters is ambivalent: we sense a good bit of awe and admiration, so deep was Solomon’s devotion to God; and yet we sense a veiled disgust, for Israel had always been a simple, poor people, and Israel’s God had always insisted no temple at all was required…
The lavish expenditures were in part a great sign of faithful stewardship, and at the same time an embarrassing lunge to keep up with the grandiose pretensions of Israel’s neighbors. 1 Kings 8 narrates the pomp, circumstance, and genuine prayerfulness at the dedication of the temple. Solemnly, boisterously, the elders brought the ark of the covenant up the hill of Zion to the temple; profound prayers accompanied its opening, as king and people were determined for this place to glorify the Lord and to direct them in service.
The splendor, the strict yet tender attention to small detail, the zones of proximity to the holy of holies at the heart of the place: God is not approached casually, there is a trembling awe if we find ourselves in the presence of God; worship is not about me, I am not a consumer, but we are dumbfounded, lost in praise, stammering in wonder. Amos Wilder said “Going to church is like approaching an open volcano, where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a rail that spatters sparks, the sanctuary like the chamber next to an atomic oven; there are invisible rays, and you leave your watch outside.”
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eYearThroughTheBible44 - the kingdom divided - 1 Kings 12
Solomon slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David. Rehoboam his son reigned in his place. Rehoboam went to Shechem. Jeroboam and the assembly came and said to Rehoboam, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now, lighten the hard service and this heavy yoke, and we will serve you.” Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the old men, who said, “If you will be a servant to this people, speak good words to them, and they will be your servants forever.” But he forsook their counsel, and took counsel with the young men who said, “Tell them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. I will add to your yoke. My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.’” When Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, they answered, “What portion have we in David? To your tents, O Israel!” Jeroboam built up Shechem. But he said in his heart, “If the people go to offer sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem, their hearts will turn from me.” So he made two calves of gold, and said to the people, “Behold your gods, O Israel.” This thing became a sin…
Readers of the Old Testament are frequently confused about the political terrain behind its stories. 1 Kings 12 marks the parting of ways in ancient Israel, as the northern tribes break away from the southern tribes, and we wind up with two separate kingdoms among the people of Israel. The north is called Ephraim or simply Israel, while the south is usually called Judah.
Why the split? Solomon died around 925 BCE, and as history can well attest, the sons of great kings are frequently impish, despicable parodies of their fathers. Rehoboam ascended the throne, and was immediately besieged by contrary bits of advice. The older men wisely advised him to wield his power gently; but the young men (the Hebrew dismissively calls them “boys”) stupidly urged him to clamp down. Chafing under this oppression, the northerers rebelled, and seceded from the union, anointing Jeroboam as king in Shechem.
But Jeroboam proved no wiser. In his stab at independence he had two golden calves fashioned to rally the people religiously to his cause. Perhaps he was striving to match the spectacle of the Jerusalem temple, but Israel’s religion steadfastly refused to accept any “graven images” (remember Exodus 20:4, and also the great story in Exodus 32 when Israel made another golden bull!). Jeroboam, for all his political popularity in the north, was denounced by God’s prophet, and disaster ensued for north and south – and the rest of 1 and 2 Kings narrates the unfolding of that embarrassing story.
So much of the Bible is a long way from “inspiring.” We see events in the real world, how wisdom and folly play out, what fidelity to God in such a crazed world feels like – and in this story today we see a massive splitting apart of God’s people, tragic, but important as we try to follow everything that happens moving forward.
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eYearThroughTheBible45 - speaking and listening to God - intro to Psalms
In his lovely, simple, short, and profound book on the Psalms, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of the way a child learns to talk by taking on the language of the parents, and so we learn to pray by making the word of God our own. As Mother Teresa put it, “The beginning of prayer is Scripture. We listen to God speaking. And then we begin to speak to him again from the fulness of our heart. And he listens.”
We will forever have one-sided conversations in prayer until we immerse ourselves in Scripture, so both sides listen and speak. The parts of the Bible that may actually be easiest for us to understand, no matter our background, no matter our lack of Bible knowledge, are the Psalms. Anybody can read a Psalm and make sense of it. Most Psalms are short, and easy to identify with. The Psalms are simply prayers, and they express in profound ways our relationship to God. The Psalms teach us to pray. They have rightly been called “a school of prayer.”
How easy is it to enter into a Psalm and pray, to make its words your prayer? Psalm 130 begins, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” What depths do you know? And what depths are you in? Psalm 69 begins, “The waters have come up to my neck!” This person isn’t literally drowning – but you may be drowning in something you’ve had “up to here!” Jesus, on the cross, prayed a Psalm, the 22nd: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Ever felt forsaken by God? The Psalms are brutally honest, and they can help us know ourselves honestly, and to pray honestly before God.
And yet the Psalms, and the rest of the Bible, stretch us beyond the kind of praying that forever gets sucked into “me and my concerns.” The Bible lures us out of our small world and into God’s huge world. We begin to know God’s worries, to feel God’s pain, for people beyond our small circle.
A simple habit, practiced by millions of Christians for centuries, is to pray one Psalm per day, or one in the morning and another in the evening, just working your way through. I did this when I was in seminary – and I did it in a hospital room with a young friend who was dying. Powerful, poignant prayers… and my friend Thaniel over several weeks was ushered by beautiful Psalms through a horrific struggle with cystic fibrosis into the arms of her Lord.
Over the next two weeks, read some Psalms; pray some Psalms! Enter into their delight, their anguish, their puzzlement, their joy… and perhaps you’ll make it a lifetime habit.
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eYearThroughTheBible46 - a new (old) Psalm?
One of the most fascinating items discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls surfaced in a cave back in 1956: a Psalms scroll, dating from near the time of Jesus, by far the oldest copy of this treasured biblical book. We got a glimpse of it when the scrolls were on display at Discovery Place here in Charlotte!
What astounded scholars was this: while the wording of the Psalms was roughly identical to what we have always known, the order of the Psalms was very different. And, the scroll contains a Psalm we had never seen before!
Obviously the formation of the book of Psalms was rather fluid over many centuries, individual poems and prayers collected without a definitively final form and order. And that new Psalm (which is really quite old!)? Clearly the Jews who copied by hand this manuscript of the Psalms thought it to be part of sacred Scripture! Perhaps Jesus, his mother and his disciples did too…
So as you read and pray Psalms this week and in your life, you might consider this lovely, eloquent “new” Psalm:
Praise the Lord, for he is good;
his mercy is for ever.
The sound of a shout of salvation
is in the tents of the righteous.
The right hand of the Lord acts valiantly,
the right hand of the Lord is exalted,
the right hand of the Lord acts in power.
It is better to trust in the Lord
than to trust in men.
It is better to confide in the Lord
than to trust in noble men.
It is better to trust in the Lord
than to trust in a whole army.
Praise the Lord, for he is good;
his mercy is for ever.
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eYearThroughTheBible47 - it's about God not you - Psalm 47
Clap your hands, all peoples!
Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
For the Lord, the Most High, is terrible,
a great king over all the earth.
God has gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm!
God reigns over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted!
We miss the richness of the Psalms if we think they are merely personal, pious poetry. Many of the Psalms, such as 24, 47, 118, and 150, transport us back in time and we find ourselves swept up in the throng clamoring to see in the crowded temple of Bible times.
Israel’s worship is enthusiastic, full-bodied, loud, then silent, with lots of participation, trumpets, singing, dance, every kind of instrument… and yet there is an order to the enthusiasm. Trumpets don’t blare when they feel like it, but at the proper time; silence happens, the people clap together in a rhythm, as if all of God’s good gifts to the world are recruited into the best conceivable performance, not a spectacle for the worshippers to enjoy, but a feast fit for a king, for The King, for God.
That’s what “praise” is all about: God. In our consumer culture we think worship is for us, for our pleasure, to suit our tastes. But in Israel worship was for God, it was about God; the goal wasn’t how to be more spiritual or even to grow as a believer, but it was how to glorify God.
We need serious rehabilitation to re-learn “praise.” I was the speaker at a Pentecostal conference, and during the hymn leading up to my talk I noticed the man next to me lapsing into an awestruck wonder, as he lifted his hands and repeated over and over “Oh Jesus, you are beautiful.” He didn’t pray “Lord, help me feel better” or “Lord, here is my prayer request.” He was “lost in wonder, love and praise.”
We are even so functional about our places of worship. I love the fascinating fact that, in medieval cathedrals, many superb works of craftsmanship can be found in hidden places, where no worshipper could ever see (in the attics, behind a tower on the roof). Why? The building was intended for God, created solely for God’s benefit. This is the spirit of praise. We don’t do what we do to co-opt God to help us; we simply are thunderstruck by the mind and heart of God and we worship, we praise.
The Psalms can teach us how to worship, how it can be about God, and how even our lives when we aren’t in a worship service can be lives of praise, so we can be about God, and notice the beauty of the Lord, so that the Most High will be greatly exalted.
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eYearThroughTheBible48 - fear of the Lord and wisdom - Proverbs 1
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7).
William J. Bennett's bestseller, The Book of Virtues, tried to meet a need, and to address the frightening sense that we have lost all wisdom and virtue. In a way, Proverbs is the Bible's "book of virtues," a marvelous depository of the deepest thoughts of the aged, compiled primarily for young people, to form and shape their minds and souls, so that they might be not just smart, but wise. The theme of Proverbs is voiced in 1:1-7. In fact, the first 9 chapters are virtually a drama, the wise parent instructing the child, seductive voices luring the child toward folly, then wisdom inviting the child back home. The balance of Proverbs is a long catalog of pithy sayings, and you might look at 10:12, 11:12, 11:22, 12:25, 13:11, 14:7, 15:16-17, 16:2, 18:2, 19:13, 20:1, 21:9, 21:13, and 30:18-20 as insightful, challenging, and at times humorous examples of the sayings of the sages of ancient Israel; you might also look over our earlier eWisdom series!
The climactic theme of Proverbs? We start (and finish!) with this: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But does God want us to cower in fright? Perhaps more than we think. Before the power that encompasses the universe, in the face of God who holds life and death in his hands – should we not tremble? and fall down awestruck? And what about God’s moral authority – given the embarrassment of our sophomoric, shallow waywardness? Confession steers us toward wisdom.
Don’t lovers quake at the sight of the beloved? Aren’t parents reverently fearful when they cradle their newborn? Fear and love are inseparable: “The love of God begins in fear, and the fear of God ends in love; such love can never end, for God is love” (John Donne).
“Fear” in Proverbs is not being spooked or scared. Fear is reverence, awe, a humbled bow of adoration. When we keep straight that God is God and we aren’t, when we refuse to underestimate the grandeur of the Almighty, then we take our first fledgling step toward wisdom.
To move from jaw-dropping awe to a confident wisdom, discipline is required. Discipline means learning, habits, practice, valiant determination. Proverbs is emphatic that children must be disciplined, taught, guided toward wisdom: “The price of a wise adulthood must be paid up front, in a disciplined childhood” (Ellen Davis).
Notice the fear of God is not “the possession of,” but merely “the beginning” of wisdom. We are simply amateurs, always starting over, eager novices whether at age eight or eighty-eight…
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eYearThroughTheBible49 - your hair is like a flock of goats - Song of Songs 4
Sometimes called the "Song of Solomon," this book might require an R rating, although we will be quick to celebrate the beauty, wonder, and giddy goodness of its contents. This is love poetry, a running dialogue between a man and woman, passionately romantic and expressive of their love. The book unfolds like an ancient Greek drama: she longs for him, he longs for her, and a chorus chimes in with commentary. The tone of longing is unmistakable. "O that his left hand were under my head" (2:6). "He stands behind our wall, gazing through the lattice" (2:9). "I sought him but found him not" (3:1). Nowadays men and women just plunge in, and miss out on the kind of elusive absence that is not a lack of love, but an invisible but inexorable bond between lovers, as in Romeo and Juliet (where the "parting" is "sweet sorrow"). For true love, yearning trumps possession; waiting, yearning, and pining are their own special marvels.
To modern ears, the descriptions of the beloved may seem humorous, but be certain that in ancient Israel this poetry was not funny but moving. Of the woman he says: "Your eyes are doves… A lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens… Your hair is like a flock of goats moving down the slopes of Gilead… Your nose is like a tower in Lebanon… Your cheeks are pomegranates… Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes up from the washing, all of which bear twins" (and we assume this means her teeth are white, and that she has a full set!!! – something rare in the ancient world)… “Your lips distill nectar" – and it gets more involved and suggestive from there on. Of the man: "My beloved is like a gazelle… His locks are wavy, his arms are rounded gold, his body is ivory work, his legs are alabaster columns…" – and throughout the book they long, look, touch, part, and love. Not that their love is all sweetness. They know the shadow side: "For love is as strong as death" (8:6).
Throughout the history of the Church, many have read this book as an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church. Admittedly, ancient theologians were a bit skittish about physical intimacy; but also they detected a deep kinship between the most ardent human relationship and what goes on (or could go on) between us and God. Our relationship with God isn’t possession, but yearning; it is about admiration, passion, a devotion of the heart – and not only of our hearts toward God! If the Bible is any indication, God feels quite passionately toward us! Maybe, if you’re fortunate, somebody in your life has looked at you, even after you’ve made more than a few mistakes, and has said “I love you, you are beautiful.” If you’ve experienced this, or even if you haven’t, it is the way God regards each one of us. Maybe we can learn to look at God and, instead of saying “Hey, do me a favor,” we could simply say “You are beautiful, You are astonishing,” and find ourselves “lost in wonder, love and praise.”
But how intriguing, and wonderful is it that the Bible includes love poetry! No aspect of human life is bracketed out from Scripture. Intimacy, pleasure, beauty, love: these are good gifts from God, celebrated in this wonderful book. There is a moral dimension embedded in the book, of course; but the delights of physical love, properly exercised, are theologically celebrated in the Song of Songs.
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eYearThroughTheBible50 - why bad things happen - Job 1
There was a man in the land of Uz named Job. He was blameless and upright, fearing God. He had 7 sons and 3 daughters. The Satan came before the Lord, and the Lord said, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is none like him on earth, blameless, fearing God.” Then Satan answered, “Does Job fear God for nought? Haven’t you put a hedge about him? Touch all that he has, and he will curse you.”
Such a good question – and for us, too: Does Job serve God for nought? Why do we serve God? For what we might gain? Can our faith weather immense loss? We hear much about “the patience of Job,” and for the first two chapters he is patient indeed, refusing to waver in his faith in God, despite the horrific disasters that befall his family and himself. But beginning in chapter 3 we glimpse a new Job, railing against the heavens, literally screaming at God, blaming, cajoling, manipulating the almighty – which says something about the kind of prayer life the Bible invites us to have! Questioning God isn’t contrary to the Bible. Questioning God is in the Bible! Job's conversations with God, his "prayers" if you will, are exemplary for many of us who learn polite, sugar-coated prayers as children. Job roars his complaints to the heavens, as do most biblical characters from whom we have prayers, including Jesus himself. To cry out boldly in prayer does not show a lack of faith, but a deep faith.
We see his awful “friends” who show up with all kinds of trite theological “comfort” (like “It is God's will,” or “It must be your fault”), friends who would be better advised to sit in mortified silence and weep with their friend. Job waves off the “friends,” and lets the hard questions linger, debunking forever the simplistic notion that God rewards the faithful with obvious blessings, and inflicts suffering on the wicked; God is not boxed in by us, and much agony transpires that admits of no ready, easy answers.
Silent for an excruciatingly long time, God finally responds to Job in chapters 38-42. At first sight God's answer seems evasive, not to the point. God takes him on tour of creation. God seems to take special delight in the fierce independence of the animal kingdom. As William Brown explains, "God revels in the wildness of creation. This is no static world governed by fixed laws. The Lord's world is a messy one. God essentially challenges Job's conception of divine sovereignty, namely one of direct and decisive intervention in the course of earthly affairs. The theological point is that God does not rule with an iron fist, grinding the wicked into the dust and coercing obedience from earthly subjects. Rather, God governs with an open hand, sustaining creation, leaving both good and bad characters to weave their existence into the complex network of life. God is characterized here ultimately by creativity, and self-restraint."
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eYearThroughTheBible51 - vanity of vanities - Ecclesiastes 1
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full. All things are full of weariness; the eye is not satisfied with seeing. What has been is what will be, and there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:2-9).
There is no mood the Bible doesn't know. There is no despair you have felt that stands somehow out in the hall, in exile from God's word. The very fact that Ecclesiastes is in the Bible is poignant, ironic testimony of the goodness, the holistic embrace, of the Bible and our life in the world. The theme of Ecclesiastes is wretched, depressing: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!" The Hebrew word, hebel, means what is vain, futile, insubstantial, transient, worthless. Is everything really hebel?
The writer has conducted a grand experiment, and in his old age reflects back over his life in sorrow. He had it all: money, things, popularity, brains, even wisdom. But there is a boredom, a passing away of whatever is good. William Brown was on target: "Ecclesiastes is a confession of disillusionment about life in general and the frustration of work in particular. For an achievement-oriented society, Ecclesiastes' message speaks persuasively to those who with great and ambitious plans for success are ripe for disillusionment or on the brink of burnout, in business, politics, raising children…"
Ecclesiastes’ dreary assessment of life is in the Bible to remind us that God knows us, that our feelings are valid, but also that they are not isolated. Ecclesiastes isn't the whole Bible, although it does tell a truth about life. It is sandwiched among more hopeful books. Perhaps what it does is to invalidate a sunny optimism that blithely says "Everything is okay!" There is weariness. We get old and die. The wicked prosper. There really is a futility about life. The wise suffer. C'est la vie.
There is a hidden hopefulness within Ecclesiastes itself. The author pulled some amazing stunts we have only recognized in the past 25 years. For instance: the Israelites loved to assign numerical values to words. If a woman loved a man named "Abe," she might say "I love number 8" (since a is 1, b is 2, and e is 5, the sum being 8). The numerical value of hebel is 57 (he being 5, be being 2, the l being 50) – and can you guess how many times hebel occurs in the entire book? 57! The numerical value of "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (in Hebrew of course) is 216, which is exactly the number of verses in the Hebrew original of the book. And there are dozens of similar "coincidences" that cannot be mere chance. The author quite intentionally imposed some order on all the chaos of his reflections – perhaps as a clue that despite our weary wanderings we are really going someplace after all.
Then there is that little refrain that occurs repeatedly in the book: "There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in his toil." His advice is very simple, and crucial for us. Yes, life has this hard edge to it – which is all the more reason to take delight in simple joys, to take note of small pleasures, like a laugh, a drink, a meal, a friend. Just talk with anyone who is in declining health, and they understand how the goodness of life isn't big stuff like getting rich or owning grand items, but in sitting on the porch in the breeze, chewing a perfect steak, a cool drink, a hug, a melody, a smile.
For God is present in such moments, through all the vanity. Brown cleverly suggested that Ecclesiastes would say, "Let the chips fall where they may. For wherever they fall, God's mercy is to be found."
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eYearThroughTheBible52 - a good question and my reply
Many eYearThroughTheBible readers respond with questions, all of them good and sparking continued email conversation. I thought I would remind you of this – that questions are good and I’m open to further discussion and learning myself; and also thought I would pass on a reflection I shared with someone asking about Job.
Here is the email I received from someone who’d just read my thoughts on Job: I find my faith challenged often, and Job is particularly challenging. I understand that the good and bad live together and I assume we are left to our own designs to determine our fate. But one wonders why God would intentionally bring misfortune on Job. Just to prove a point? Help me understand why God would bring misfortune on a believer.
My reply, way shorter than it should be (and to learn more get a copy of my book, The Will of God!): There are 2 kinds of answers. 1. Scholars believe, and I think I agree with them, that the book of Job originated as follows. There was an old story about a guy named Job who had horrible things happen to him, but he bore them patiently, so God rewarded him with more than he had to start with. This story is entirely prose, and is written in a very archaic form of Hebrew. We find it in chapters 1, 2, and 42. If you lopped off chapters 3 through 41, you'd see this ancient story and notice it is all prose.
Sandwiched in between is a large round of poetry, chapters 3-41, and the tone is entirely different. Instead of bearing suffering patiently, Job rails against God, blames God, criticizes God, weeps, hollers, etc. We believe thus that an old, overly simplistic story that was told often was taken up by the author of the final book of Job to correct its superficiality, to provide a deeper, more challenging, but truer view of suffering and God. I think this is correct, and very helpful. Instead of suffering, and then sighing in resignation to say "It is of God," the final book of Job cries out against such an absurdity.
2. Even in the earlier book of Job, or in the total book of Job (if you don't buy the theory of an earlier one being reworked), God isn't the one who harms Job. God "lets" Job be harmed by somebody else. This again is true to life, and to God. God does not manipulate everything that goes on; God does not wrap us in a protective shield, or swat away evil-doers headed our way. God leaves us with freedom - and not just my freedom to be good, or bad, but also the freedom of somebody else who might love me, or might hurt me.
So I don't find the story to be troubling, but rather very true, and helpful. I'd add that another "point" of the book of Job is that we need not ask "Why would something bad happen to someone who is good or faithful?" because - and the Bible is very clear on this, over and over - good and bad things happen to people, it's dicey down here, and just because you are good and faithful doesn't mean you live long and prosper (I mean, Jesus was homeless and died a gruesome death at a young age); and just because you are evil doesn't mean you have horrible results (the wicked sometimes wind up rich and live to be 97).
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eYearThroughTheBible53 - Elijah's victory and depression - 1 Kings 18-19
King Ahab saw Elijah and said, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” Elijah answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, following the Baals. Gather all Israel to Mount Carmel, with the 450 prophets of Baal.” Elijah came near the people and said, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, then follow him. Take a bull and lay it on the wood. Call on your god, and I will call on my God. The one who answers by fire, he is God.” The prophets of Baal cried out from morning until noon, but there was no voice. They limped about the altar. Elijah mocked them saying “Cry louder, for either he is musing, or he has turned aside, or gone on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep.” They raved on, but there was no voice. Elijah then poured four jars of water on the wood three times. Then Elijah cried out, “Answer me, O Lord, that this people may know that you are God.” The fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the bull and the wood and licked up the water all around.
But Ahab told Jezebel what Elijah had done, so Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah saying “By this time tomorrow I will take your life.” Elijah was afraid, and went into the wilderness and sat down under a broom tree, and asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough. O Lord, take my life.” He came to a cave. The Lord asked, “What are you doing?” Elijah said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, but your people have forsaken you, and I only am left, and they seek my life.” The Lord said, “Stand upon the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a strong wind broke the rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, the sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face.
The first great prophet in Israel was Elijah, noteworthy for his wonder-working and courage. In 1 Kings 17 God uses him to provide food for a desperate widow and her son. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal (the Canaanite god of rain) to a contest: which God, Israel’s God? or Baal? can in fact deliver the rain? King Ahab and his queen Jezebel despised Elijah, slandering him as a “troubler of Israel” (18:17); but the trouble is with Ahab, who has indulged in a mixing of religions, a little of Israel’s god here, a little of Baal there. Elijah poses a question to the people: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? Choose who really is God!” Loading the dice against himself, he bests 450 of Baal's prophets, calling fire down from heaven, mocking Baal (“perhaps he has turned aside” - namely to relieve himself!), and bringing rain.
But coming off the heels of such a dramatic triumph, Elijah slumps into a depression, a kind of “burn-out.” His courage and faith have brought no lasting effects. Ahab still wants him dead. He’s alone. So he heads for Mt. Horeb (= Mt. Sinai) – and miraculously is fed, just when he is totally fed up. He witnesses an earthquake, thunder – but God is not in these cataclysms. Finally, Elijah hears “sheer silence.” Many translations say he heard a “small whisper,” but the Hebrew means utter, total, deafening silence. In the Bible, and for great saints through history, God is met in the silence.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right: “We are so afraid of silence that we chase ourselves from one event to the next in order not to have to spend a moment alone with ourselves, in order not to have to look at ourselves in the mirror. We are not only afraid of ourselves and of self-discovery, we are much more afraid of God – that he may disturb us and discover who we really are, that he may take us with him into his solitude and deal with us according to his will.” But we need not be afraid of discovery. Rather, silence is a changed way of using our minds. Silence is my availability, my openness to God. Mother Teresa understood: “God is a friend of silence.”
After that thick, deafening silence, Elijah is commissioned by God to plunge back into the fray, to resume the challenges of service, confronting what is not of God, yet carrying that silent presence of God into a noisy world.
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eYearThroughTheBible54 - "effective" leaders 1 Kings 21
Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard beside the palace of Ahab, king of Samaria. Ahad said, “Give me your vineyard that I may have it for a vegetable garden. I will give you a better vineyard for it, or I will give you money.” But Naboth said, “The Lord forbid I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” Ahab went into his house vexed and sullen; he lay on his bed and would not eat. But Jezebel his wife came to him and said, “Why is your spirit so low? Do you now govern Israel? Arise, eat bread, and let your heart be cheerful. For I will give you this vineyard.” So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, and hired two base fellow to bring a charge against Naboth saying “He cursed God.” Naboth was charged, and they took him outside the city and stoned him to death.” Jezebel said to Ahab, “Take possession of the vineyard which Naboth refused to give you for money; for he is dead.”
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, who came to Ahab. The king said, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” Elijah answered, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do what is evil. Behold, I will utterly sweep you away. And of Jezebel the Lord said, “The dogs shall lick up your own blood.” Ahab heard these words, and rent his clothes.
The dynasty of Omri, including his son Ahab, was admired by the political powers of the 9th century BCE world – but in Israel, their wickedness was appalling. Yes, Ahab’s army was strong, the economy was booming. He was “effective.” But he had no respect for tradition, faith always took a back seat. Faithfulness to the Lord was reduced to a mere political tool; God’s law was simply ignored when money was at stake.
In 1 Kings 21, all Ahab wants is this little piece of property. But not only is it all that Naboth has. The land, in Israel’s view, was given by God to families in perpetuity. You couldn’t sell your land, because the land wasn’t really yours to sell. All the land belonged to God. You were simply a steward, a caretaker, of the land that God gave for your family’s use forever (read Leviticus 25:23-28, and the dull sections of Joshua 13-20 where the land is divided among Israel’s families). So in Israel, kings and other wealthy entrepeneurs couldn’t snap up land and get rich while others got poorer. The land was evenly divided, forever, insuring a society of equality. You may notice this isn’t exactly a celebration of capitalism…
Ahab’s determination to secure the property is made worse because he is henpecked. His fierce, greedy wife Jezebel shames her husband, and seizes the land, mocking him in the process. False charges are filed against the innocent Naboth, and he is killed – perhaps reminding us of the time (eYearThroughTheBible41) David simply took Bathsheba and got rid of her husband Uriah.
Elijah is sent by God; Ahab and Jezebel are found out. God does not leave injustice unaddressed; God is not mocked. We may pause to contemplate all the modern political and social issues to which this story might speak, and prayerfully consider this story’s message that God’s passion is for equality, that bullying, grabbing more for me and mine, is alien to God’s vision for society, that unjust transactions are dealt with in God’s good time.
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eYearThroughTheBible55 - passing the mantle – 2 Kings 2:1-15
When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah said, “Tarry here, for I am going to Bethel.” But Elisha said, “I will not leave you.” They went to Bethel, then to Jericho, then to the Jordan… Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I can do for you before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “I pray you, let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He said, “You have asked a hard thing. Yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you.” And behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha saw it and cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and rent them into pieces. And he took up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back to the Jordan. The prophets at Jericho saw him and said, “The spirit of Elijah rests upon Elisha.”
This poignant story is about far more than how one prophet takes the place of his predecessor. Through the window of these men’s actions and words, we glimpse something of what loss, death, and hope mean for us. Elijah is in his last days, and frankly he goes to some lengths to avoid Elisha, who traipses around after him. In his sorrow, Elijah seems to prefer to face his dark future alone. Yet that future isn’t really so dark, for the very ground he covers – Gilgal, to Bethel, to Jericho – all these are places where God acted powerfully in the past, and it is God’s action in the past that indicates to us how God will act in the future. Our hope hinges on God’s history, not just our optimistic attitude.
Perhaps we have lost a teacher, a minister, a mentor or sage, and know the profound hole that opens up. Elisha is in despair when he thinks of losing Elijah. Beyond his personal loss, he knows in his gut that the task of taking up Elijah’s work is too big for him. He is inadequate. Humbly, honestly, almost humorously, he pleads for a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit!
But the future – for Elijah and Elisha – depends not on these great men, but upon God. Elijah’s sorrow is swept up and away as this great prophet is caught up in a whirlwind and taken directly to be with God forever. For Elisha, down here, this means that the pressure isn’t all on his shoulders, but he can move boldly and yet in a relaxed way, for the power required for his work is God’s. “He saw him no more” – but “He took up the mantle.”
“Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home,” or so we sing, although in all the annals of history we only know of one chariot that actually swung low and carried someone home. But the chariot defies explanation – and I believe the author of 2 Kings intended for us as readers to be puzzled, stunned, dumbfounded. God’s salvation is marvelous, but a mystery. How could eternal life with God beyond this earthly frame be anything else?
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eYearThroughTheBible56 – the cure of humility – 2 Kings 5
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little maid from the land of Israel, and she waited on Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, "Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." So Naaman went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten festal garments. So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the door of Elisha's house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean." But Naaman was angry, and went away, saying, "Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper. Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" So he turned and went away in a rage. But his servants came near and said to him, "My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you, `Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
Naaman was a man of valor, of substance, a hero with immense power. But… there is always a “but” isn’t there? “But” he was a leper. Greatness, or pretended greatness inevitably encounters humility. Naaman was great, but… His unsought humility was mirrored to him in the person of a young woman, who was small of stature, and female; he was a captain, she a captive. All other healers having failed him, Naaman was desperate enough to follow her tip. The not-yet-humbled Naaman rumbled up to Elisha’s house reining in his stallions, bearing gifts, expecting to pay his way to healing, to grease a few palms. A price was to be exacted from Naaman, but it was his own humility.
Elisha was unimpressed. After all, once you’ve seen chariots and horses blazing with fire, riding not across rugged terrain but soaring above the clouds (2 Kings 2!), a bunch of steeds pulling a cocky chieftan atop wooden wheels just doesn’t raise your pulse. Not deigning to come out, Elisha dissed Naaman, enraging him. Naaman was prideful, but perhaps pride was all he had left. Much as we might do in the privacy of the doctor’s or therapist’s office, we’ve dressed well, and mention some cool thing we did last night – but obviously we have come not for banter, but to be healed, to reveal the “but,” to expose what hinders us, hoping, blushing. The “but,” the wound, is the shutter thrown open to receive the morning sun.
How fascinating: Elisha could have come out; he could have made the trip himself to Damascus; he could have healed at a distance. But he let Naaman come to him. Elisha didn’t want Naaman merely to be rid of leprosy; he wanted him to be more deeply healed, and the medicine was humility.
Elisha’s prescription wasn’t courteous either: bathe in the Jordan. Pilgrims to Israel chuckle when they see the Jordan, hardly a river at all, more of a stream, a creek. Naaman protested: shouldn’t his cure be more dazzling, perhaps dipping himself in the pools by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Or some exotic salve imported from Ethiopia? It’s just water, it’s always been there; it’s all around, it’s what I am made of.
Faith is the crumpling of pride, best achieved through something as simple, as obvious, as unimpressive as a bit of water only Elisha or somebody desperately thirsty would think of as powerful. There was a miracle in that water. Sure, the leprosy washed downstream. Yet more importantly, when he stepped up onto the river bank, drenched and dripping, he was no longer a man, but a boy: “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child,” like the little maiden who showed him the way, like all of us when we “become like children.”
All of Christianity is a kind of return to childhood, a training in humility. All of our gestures seem silly: folding our hands, bowing our heads, kneeling. How do you get ahead or defend yourself acting in these ways? Dipping in a no account river on the suggestion of a two-bit prophet who wouldn’t even answer the door: the foolishness of God is wiser than all of us.
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eYearThroughTheBible57 - go and prophesy - Amos 7
Amaziah the priest of Bethel told Jeroboam, king of Israel, “Amos has conspired against you; the land cannot bear his words. He said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile.’” Then Amaziah said to Amos, “Flee away to Judah and eat bread there and prophesy there, but never again at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary.” Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, but a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock and said, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ Now therefore, thus says the Lord: ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword; your sons and daughters will die by the sword, and Israel shall go into exile.’”
Amos is the first of Israel’s prophets for whom we have a full biblical book of his life and preaching. Remember that Israelite prophets (check out this chronological chart!) were not foretellers of the distant future. Instead, they were God’s spokesmen for their day, frequently intruding into the corridors of power and denouncing even the king himself. And their messages were not always sunny… just as we need not expect God’s word to us today always to be rosy and cheery.
Amos is a fairly wealthy man, and a southerner, from Tekoa in Judah. Shockingly, rudely even, he leaves his region and strides into Bethel, the stronghold of the northern kingdom, to declare God’s judgment. At first he was well-received: in chapters 1-2 he suggests how God feels less than kindly toward Israel’s neighbors, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, provoking applause and “Amens.”
Then, to their surprise and chagrin, Amos turns on his listeners and dares to say that God isn’t so simply on their side and against others, but that God’s judgment falls on everyone, including the kingdom of Israel, however pious and successful and on top of things they might feel. Their sins? A lackadaisical attitude toward God, presuming that going through the motions of worship would be pleasing to God. Crass self-indulgence: in an affluent economy, they filled their lives with pleasure and consumption. Deafness to the cries of the poor: the “haves” ignored or even blamed the “have-nots.”
But God is not pleased. God is not mocked, and God’s prophet bears the bleak tidings that such a disoriented society will not endure. It will implode; it will crumble under the weight of its own folly. Amos somewhat incongruously claims not to be a prophet! But he means he is not like the other prophets of his day who simply nod and grin and bless the people no matter how out of sync with God their lives might be.
Amos raises hard questions, then, for us today: are we prepared to hear a word of judgment on our lives, and on our culture? Do we prefer religious spokesmen who blandly flatter our egos? Is our worship hollow, or does it summon us to offer our lives to God? What are the public manifestations of sin that have become “normal” today? How does even the Church conspire with the world to shut God out? Might disaster loom for a society that is self-indulgent and cares little for God?
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eYearThroughTheBible58 - let justice roll down - Amos 5
eYearThroughTheBible58 - let justice roll down – Amos 5:21-24
I hate, I despise your feasts,
And I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me burnt offerings,
I will not accept them,
And the offerings of your fatted beasts
I will not hold in regard.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
To the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Charles Schulz drew a cartoon with Snoopy lounging on top of his dog-house. Linus walks up, Bible in hand, and says, “A reading from Amos: Woe to those who are at ease in Zion.” Snoopy replies, “Well, that ruins this day.” Amos is a day-ruiner, for he questions our ease, our lazy religiosity that is convenient and self-serving. God, speaking through Amos, even claims to be offended, even nauseated by our worship – not because God detests worship, offerings, songs, and prayers, but rather because our worship is supposed to issue in a changed life, a life in sync with God’s vision for holiness, for society, for the world. Might our worship be nothing but dissonant racket in the ears of the holy God?
God’s standard is articulated poetically in this potent sermon by Amos. What is “justice”? The Hebrew word, mishpat, translated “justice,” does not mean that the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. No, “justice” in the Bible means that every person, even the neediest, is taken care of. A just society insures that all needs are met; the unjust society lets the rich have plenty while others flounder.
And what is “righteousness”? The Hebrew, zedekah, means “straight, unbending,” meaning that we take God’s laws and direction and never swerve left or right. Amos shrewdly compares our habits of justice and righteousness with “streams.” In Israel, there are many wadis. A wadi is a stream bed carved by the ravages of time among the hills, but the wadi only has water in it during heavy rainstorms, only during the rainy season. The rest of the year the wadi is bone dry. Amos suggests our faithfulness to God is like a wadi, flowing occasionally, but more frequently dry. Instead, our faithfulness to God, our diligent pursuit of justice, of caring for the needy, our determination to live straight, clean lives, is to be like “an ever-flowing stream,” like a river that flows year-round.
Too often we subscribe to what John Wesley called “the doctrine of the devil,” which is when we do good when we feel like it. A little charity at Thanksgiving or Christmas, a little prayer when we’re in dire straits: this kind of faith is like a wadi, and God is mortified. Our commitment to justice and righteousness flows today, tonight, tomorrow, without break, bringing life and refreshment.
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eYearThroughTheBible59 - unfaithful spouse – Hosea 1-3
The Lord told Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of harlotry, for my people commit great harlotry by forsaking me.” So he took Gomer as his wife. Later, she bore a son, and the Lord said “Call his name ‘Not my people,’ for you are not my people. She has played the harlot, and acted shamefully. She said ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and drink.’ She did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, who lavished blessings on her.”
Later, the Lord said, “Go again, love once more a woman who is an adulteress. Even as the Lord loves the people of Israel.” So I bought her back…
Would God tell someone, and especially a prophet, a holy spokesman of God, to marry a known prostitute? Or did Hosea marry a woman he presumed would be faithful, only to find later that she had strayed – and then discerning that somehow there was a message from God in his fractured marriage?
Hosea’s unflattering message is that Israel’s unfaithfulness to God is somehow the same as Gomer’s infidelity to Hosea. Now we may wish to argue and say, “Oh, I sin a little now and then, but it’s not that bad…” But isn’t it? Aren’t we devoted to other lovers after whom we chase? who garner the lion’s share of our attention? Don’t we give ourselves easily to the false gods of our culture, money, pleasure, success, self-indulgence, and forget that God has not just an important claim on us, but actually an exclusive, all-embracing claim on every corner of our lives? The Israelites turned to other gods, like the Canaanite fertility god, Baal – but our gods are more subtle, more “cool,” more fashionable, and perhaps therefore sneakier and more perilous?
Sometimes I think of the utter despair and piercing pain I see in my counseling work when a husband or wife discovers their spouse has committed adultery – and I imagine God’s heart, grieved by my waywardness, and I am sad, and ask for God’s mercy. Do we fathom the profound love in God’s heart for us – and how agonizing it is for God when we pay so little attention, rarely come to visit, fawn over what is decadent, and generally live as if we’re making it fine on our own without God, as if God’s love were as shallow as an occasional storebought greeting card?
Amazingly, God tells Hosea to love this woman again, to forgive, to work for reconciliation with her. Notice we do not know whether Gomer is sorry for her sin, or if she even wants Hosea any longer. But Hosea is to stay after her, to win her back. God is like such a lover – pursuing us when we are only running away, never letting us go. To drive his point home (much later, in chapter 11), Hosea shifts the imagery to that of the parent. Hear these beautiful words, which to me are some of the most beautiful and emotionally moving in all of Scripture:
When Israel was a child, I loved him.
But the more I called them, the more they went from me.
Yet it was I who taught him to walk; I took him in my arms.
I led them with cords of compassion, I bent down and fed them.
My people are bent on turning away from me…
Yet how can I give you up, O Ephraim!
How can I hand you over, O Israel!
My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows tender.
I will not execute my anger,
For I am God and not man,
The Holy One. I will not come to destroy (Hosea 11:1-9).
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eYearThroughTheBible60 - lost tribes - 2 Kings 17
Hoshea the king did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up against him, invading the land of Samaria. In Hoshea’s ninth year, Assyria captured Samaria and carried the Israelites away to Assyria. This was so, because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, but they walked in the customs of other nations. They did secretly against the Lord things that were not right. The Lord had warned them by the prophets, but they would not listen, and were stubborn. Therefore the Lord removed them, and none was left but the tribe of Judah only.
This text does not seem to be theologically insightful, but certainly we can grasp how profoundly grievous this tragic hour was to the people of Israel. You may recall that after the death of Solomon, Israel divided into two kingdoms. The north survived for just 200 years. Depending on your view of history, the ten northern tribes were crushed by the Assyrian juggernaut -- or they were unfaithful to the Lord and given up by God –- or perhaps both? The northern ten tribes (sometimes dubbed the “lost tribes”), were killed, or chained and then marched in shame to a foreign land of servitude. The southern tribes, far from gloating, grieve for them, and fear for themselves. The southern kingdom of Judah clung to its shell existence for an additional 135 years before being annihilated by the Babylonians.
The prophets of Israel, interestingly, saw the wicked, evil Assyrians as the unwitting instruments of God’s wrath on his own people! Having sinned incessantly and turned away from God repeatedly, Israel finally reaped the consequences of its waywardness – in the person of the Assyrian war-machine. They believed that, had they been faithful, God would have sheltered them from the onslaught, but that their devastation was fitting for a people rebellious against God. We do not wish to say that evil tyrants in our day are unwitting instruments of God – but we may pause to reflect on the larger, international consequences that fall upon a world not exactly devoted to God…
Notice the people were called “stubborn,” and they did “secretly” things that were not right. But there are no secrets hideable from God (1 Corinthians 4:5), and we might weigh our habits, the way we get stuck, the addictive nature of the status quo that hardens our existence that is out of kilter with God – and pray for some word from God to expose our stubbornness, to jar us loose from our old life and free us for new, joyful fidelity to God.
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eYearThroughTheBible61 - here I am, Lord - Isaiah 6
In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting up a throne, high and lifted up. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings. One called to another and said, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.” The foundations shook at his voice, and the house was filled with smoke. I said, “Woe is me! For I am lost, a man of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then flew one of the seraphim with a burning coal in his hand. And he touched my mouth and said, “Your guilt is taken away, your sin forgiven.” I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “Here I am! Send me!” The Lord said, “Make the people hear but not understand, see but not perceive. Make their hearts fat and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes lest they see and turn and be healed.” I said, “How long, O Lord?” He said, “Until cities lie waste and the land is utterly desolate.”
Uzziah died around the year 740 BCE, a time of great prosperity and political strength. But the economic boom and military security were a thin veil masking a sorry lack of integrity and holiness among God’s people. In such a time, Isaiah, one of the nobility, an educated, affluent man, was praying in the temple, and the whole building came alive for him – and it turned into his calling. St. Francis and many other saints have prayed in various sanctuaries and have heard some new direction from God, not just for their own lives, but also for the life of the larger community. Who knows? If we are attentive in worship, not there to consume but to be consumed, God might just heal us and send us.
Notice Isaiah’s reaction to God’s direct presence: he does not stand, grinning, but rather he is humbled, he senses more deeply than ever his unworthiness, his downright trepidation at the gulf between his life and God’s heart. Perhaps we are too presumptuous, presuming God’s sunny disposition toward us, for throughout history great saints and biblical characters have been awestruck, trembling in God’s presence.
God has a calling, a new vocation for Isaiah – and he responds eagerly, “Here I am! Send me!” Everything in life hinges on whether we are listening for God’s call, and then, when that call comes, our saying “Here I am, send me!”
But notice too that Isaiah’s calling is plagued from the outset by frustration. He follows his calling, he takes God’s word into the world – and his efforts are met with resistance, folly, hatred, or sheer apathy. God warned him that their “hearts would be fat,” their “ears heavy.” Serving God is like that for us: our efforts on God’s behalf do not always “work,” and do not always “make us feel better.” And yet we still go, we still follow and do as the Lord tells us. Knowing frustration and seeming failure were inevitable, Isaiah still speaks – and we have to ask if we are among those whose hearts are fat and ears heavy, who refuse to see what would be our healing, so mired are we in our old two-bit life.
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eYearThroughTheBible62 - Isaiah's preaching - Isaiah 2-3
The haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
And the pride of men brought low.
The idols shall utterly pass away.
Men shall hide in holes in the ground before the terror of the Lord.
In that day their gold and silver idols will be cast forth to the moles.
The Lord has taken his place to judge his people.
The Lord says to the elders and princes,
“It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people?”
Isaiah, the greatest of the prophets, a wealthy, highly educated insider in Jerusalem, proclaims God’s word – and even today we wilt before the heat of his words. Isaiah seems rude, and nobody is pleased with his preaching (except the Lord!), for he unmasks the people’s bogus religion and false priorities. Pride, arrogance, idolatry, turning a blind eye to the poor – all these are grievous sins for Isaiah (who speaks not for himself, but for God). Aristotle said that the opposite of a “friend” is a “flatterer.” Isaiah does not flatter, either his contemporaries in Jerusalem, or us.
We do not like to think of the idols we put in God’s place, and neither did Isaiah’s first listeners, whom Isaiah portrays like this:
They are a rebellious people,
And will not hear the Lord’s instruction.
They say, ‘Do not prophesy to us what is right,
But speak to us smooth things, illusions…’ (Isaiah 30:9-10).
We prefer to think that God should serve us, and bolster our endeavors; we wish to be flattered by God, and only to hear “smooth” words. But we then are nothing but animalistic consumers, and everything is about “me,” not God or the needy, much less holiness. The Bible is brimming over with warnings about the way we get consumed with money, how we believe money is the answer to our unhappiness, how we value others if they have money, or despise them if they don’t. Isaiah is especially concerned, as is all of the Bible, when some have plenty, while others in the community suffer with next to nothing. The biblical view is, quite clearly, that we frankly have no right to keep much for ourselves when others are impoverished. God’s good gifts are for sharing.
And there are so many other idols parading about in our culture, promising the good life, and we must be ever suspicious of them, cognizant that God and only God is the fullness of life. We have “switched the pricetags around, wasting our lives on what seems valuable but is actually worthless” (William Temple), foolishly thinking God does not see or is uninterested in many of our projects:
Woe to those who hide from the Lord and say, ‘Who sees us?’
You turn things upside down! (Isaiah 29:15).
God isn’t all sweetness and light. There is judgment. There are dire consequences to living apart from God’s plan. Our hope is recognizing and fearing that negative reaction to our lives in God’s heart. This is humility, the opening God needs to get to us, to fill us, to heal us. For all Isaiah’s harsh words, which are nothing but what we might call “tough love,” there continues to be hope. The same Isaiah who castigated Israel turned and spoke eloquently of the future God is literally dying to give us:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
For to us a child is given,
And his name will be called
‘Wonderful counselor, mighty God,
everlasting Father, prince of peace.’
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
And a little child shall lead them (Isaiah 9, 11).
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eYearThroughTheBible63 - strategy for war - Isaiah 36
Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against the fortified cities of Judah and took them. Then he sent the Rabshakeh, with a great army, to King Hezekiah in Jerusalem. He said to the people, “Say to Hezekiah, Thus says the great king of Assyria: ‘On what do you rest this confidence of yours? Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war?’ Come, make peace with me. How can you repulse a single captain among my master’s servants? Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. Do not let Hezekiah make you rely on the Lord by saying, ‘The Lord will surely deliver us.’ Make peace with me.” But they were silent and answered him not a word.
Isaiah heard it and said to Hezekiah, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib, I will defend this city to save it. Have you not known that I determined this long ago?’” And the angel of the Lord went forth, and slew 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians. When they rose in the morning, behold they were all dead men. Then Sennacherib departed, and went home to Nineveh.
The Assyrians were bent on domination of the Middle East, and one ruler after another (Tiglath-Pileser III, Sargon, Sennacherib) took turns pillaging villages in the crucial corridor between Africa, Asia and Europe which Israel occupied. Finally, when Hezekiah was king, they besieged the city. Hezekiah had prepared, having built a new, large wall around the city, along with a spectacular tunnel to ferry water from the spring Gihon up into the city during times of war. While Jerusalem was surrounded, Sennacherib bragged to his friends back home that he had Hezekiah “shut up like a bird in a cage.”
Indeed, all looked lost when the Assyrian negotiator (the Rabshakeh, the chief “cup-bearer” of the king, a secretary of state if you will) mocked Hezekiah, who decided not to surrender in the face of overwhelming odds. His reason? Isaiah the prophet had urged him quite simply (and quite foolishly in the eyes of the Assyrians and probably many of the Israelites) to trust in God. The Rabshakeh derided them, asking “Do you think that mere words are strategy for war?” The theological answer, in Israel’s case, was “Yes.” The intelligent course was precisely what Assyria offered: “Make peace with me.” All of the Rabshakeh’s questions are pertinent to us today: “On what do you rest your confidence? On mere words?” And I do wonder if by chance there is any wisdom tucked away in this text about how we reason about warfare and arms in our own time…
At the risk of being a laughingstock, Hezekiah refused to cave in, trusting in “mere words,” in prayer, in the Lord. The shocking news came during the night: the Assyrian army was slain. What actually happened? Herodotus (the ancient historian) wrote that some mice got loose in the Assyrian camp, carrying bubonic plague. But Jerusalem was miraculously delivered, which tells us something about the power of “mere words.”
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eYearThroughTheBible64 - what the Lord requires - Micah 6
eYearThroughTheBible64 - what the Lord requires – Micah 6:6-8
With what shall I come before the Lord?
And bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come with burnt offerings?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams?
He has showed you what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice,
to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Those last four lines are worth memorizing! Micah, whose very name is itself a profound theological question (meaning, “Who is like the Lord?”), lived during the days of Isaiah – but not in Jerusalem. Micah hailed from Moresheth-Gath, a small, poor village a dozen miles from the safety and affluence of Jerusalem. With considerable courage, he walked into the great capital city and denounced policies there, policies which ruined the lives of people in small hamlets like his own. Taxes on outlying villages were exorbitant, and when a flawed military policy caused armies (like the Assyrians) to trample the countryside, Moresheth-Gath and other towns bore the brunt of Jerusalem’s political stupidity.
In the midst of his preaching, which made the citizens of Jerusalem exceedingly uncomfortable, annoyed and angry, Micah produced this gem, reminding all of us even today of what God really wants from us. Worship is essential, but going through the motions will not suffice. God asks for three things, the fruit of worship, the foundations of a godly life: justice, kindness and humility. Justice, as we have noticed before, isn’t simply the good being rewarded and the wicked being punished. Rather, in the Old Testament, mishpat (justice) means that everyone, especially the poor, the orphan, the stranger, all are cared for. And notice God does not merely ask us to think mishpat is a good idea somebody had better get busy on; God says we should do mishpat. Do something – you, me, us together.
Kindness is far more than an innocuous sort of “niceness.” The Hebrew word is hesed, which means “steadfastness,” “commitment,” or even “unconditional love.” God asks a firm commitment of love from us – which results in walking humbly, recognizing our place in God’s world and before others, deferential, not thinking too highly of yourself, never thinking “I am the center of the universe,” ready to learn, never judgmental, embracing your limitations, tender with others. Humility is not a trait our culture celebrates; but Jesus was the epitome of humility, which is always honored in God’s eyes.
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eYearThroughTheBible65 - discovering the scroll - 2 Kings 22
Josiah was eight years old when he began his reign of 31 years in Jerusalem. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord; he did not turn aside to the right or the left. In his 18th year he went Shaphan to give money to the workmen to repair the house of the Lord. During the work, Hilkiah reported, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” Shaphan read it to the king, who rent his clothes and said, “Inquire of the Lord for me and the people, for great is the wrath of the Lord, as our fathers have not obeyed these words. They have forsaken me, burning incense to other gods.” Then Huldah the prophetess said to the king, “Because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, I have heard you.” Then the king read the law in the presence of all the people, and he made a covenant before the Lord to keep the commandments with all his heart, soul and might. He deposed the idolaters, and brought the Asherah out of Jerusalem and burned it. He broke down the houses of prostitutes, and broke down altars to other gods. The Passover was kept, and Josiah put away wizards and soothsayers. There was no king like him, who turned to the Lord will all his heart, soul and might, nor did any arise like him later.
Perhaps the greatest king in Israel’s long history, Josiah, came to the throne as a mere eight year old. By his mid-teens, Josiah hit full stride, employing effective economic and military strategies, helping the nation recover its strength after years of moral and economic decline under the wicked King Manasseh.
But the true greatness of Josiah, in the Bible writer’s eyes, lay in his religious reformation of the country. Passover (the holy day celebrating Israel’s freedom and identity!) had drifted into unimportance, and the temple lay in disrepair. Josiah declared a massive renovation to the temple – and a worker unearthed a scroll, buried under some rocks. This scroll, we believe, was the book of Deuteronomy. And when Josiah heard it, he reacted with immense humility, repentance, and zeal to do all in his power to be sure his people read the Scriptures – and more importantly, that they practiced those Scriptures. He banished all pretenders to piety (wizards, soothsayers, gurus who were very spiritual but out of sync with Israel’s Bible), all bogus religiosities that were a mere charade duping people; idolatrous images (like the Asherah) were burned.
Then tragedy struck. In 609 BCE, Josiah was out in his chariot fending off an Egyptian warring party that had invaded the valley near Megiddo, and he was struck dead by an arrow. He was a mere 39 years old – and we may reflect on the sad fact that this was also the age at which Martin Luther King, Jr., was struck down, a brilliant career behind him, but really just getting to his prime. Josiah’s successors on the throne in Jerusalem were not so faithful and shrewd, and his death initiated a downward spiral in Israel’s fortunes, resulting in Jerusalem’s destruction just 22 years later.
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eYearThroughTheBible66 - Jonah and the fish - Jonah 1
The word of the Lord came to Jonah saying “Go to Nineveh and cry out against it.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He found a ship at Joppa, paid his fare and went with them. But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea. The mariners were afraid… so they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea. The Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; he was in its belly for three days and three nights.
The story of Jonah has all the telltale signs of being as made up as the stories Jesus told: Jonah (whose name means 'silly') was swallowed by a fish (of which there are none large enough in the vicinity), lived for three days in its belly, was vomited onto the shore, walked to Nineveh, converted the whole city (although by what the rest of the Bible as well as Assyrian records tell us, the Ninevites persisted in lopping off heads and worshipping their moon-god). But if we get to heaven and God says "Jonah was very real, and survived three days in a real fish," we can say "Sorry" - and it won't matter, because whether the fish is real or made up, it is the point of the story that matters.
Jonah, the silly one, was asked to go to Nineveh, capital of the sprawling Assyrian empire. The Assyrian might was legendary; their brutality struck fear into the hearts of everyone. Was Jonah fearful? or did he simply find Nineveh to be a place unworthy of God’s grace? or the Ninevites incapable of transformation?
Jonah fled toward Tarshish, which scholars have never gotten located on any map. It is as if he heads off to a destination unimaginably far away (like Timbuktu). Wherever it is, it is 180 degrees from Nineveh. Like Jonah, we habitually rush in the opposite direction from where God calls us. In fact, one of the ways we evade God is by intellectualizing the Bible: “I'll think a lot about its factual inerrancy,” or “I’ll criticize those who don’t agree with my viewpoint on the Bible,” or “I'll forever harbor intellectual questions about whether the Bible is history or merely metaphor,” and thereby evade God's claim on my life.
The story is full of humor and irony. On board the ship, the heathen prayed while Jonah the prophet slept. And while the one sent by God to speak for God snored, the heathen sailors on the ship came to believe in Jonah’s God!
Jonah's prayer from the belly of the fish is an eloquent plea for mercy. This one who fled, given up as lost by everybody else, was not forgotten by God. Jesus refers to the Jonah story as a symbol of the resurrection (Matthew 12:38-41).
The fourth chapter provides a special puzzle. Jonah seemed displeased that Nineveh actually was converted! We may wonder if there are times we prefer judgment on someone (Nineveh would be located in modern day Iraq!) rather than let ourselves believe they can change and be reconciled to God. The Lord appointed a gourd, a big-leafed plant, to provide shade, which Jonah enjoyed, until a worm ate through the stalk and the leaves withered, leaving Jonah in the scorching sun, grousing irritably. God’s plan for Jonah had been huge; but Jonah’s small-minded concern is for his own trivial sense of comfort, not much else, his own ego, not God's grand plan. Hans Walter Wolff explains: "Jonah had no claim to the shade cast by the plant. The joy it gave him was a free gift. But in granting this he would simultaneously have to admit that God was free to pardon Nineveh. God is playing a theological game with Jonah, forcing him to admit God's free compassion." We too need a tutorial in grace, how to receive it, to admit our need for it, and therefore to allow it for others.
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eYearThroughTheBible67 - only a youth? - Jeremiah 1
eYearThroughTheBible67 - only a youth? – Jeremiah 1:4-10
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you.
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah Lord God, behold I do not know how to speak,
for I am only a youth.”
But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’;
for to all to whom I send you, you shall go,
and whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Be not afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you.”
Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth, and said to me,
“Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.
See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to break down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
Jeremiah has such a profound sense of being called by God that his book begins by declaring that God claimed him even before he was in the womb; God is his reason for existing. Could he have ignored the call? or said “No thanks”? Yes, perhaps – but running from God would not change God’s destiny for his life.
Like most people called by God in the Bible, Jeremiah has a good reason why God can’t use him. “I am only a youth” (the Hebrew implies he is perhaps 15?). But God brushes aside all excuses, for our abilities (or lack thereof) do not limit God. God can use whoever is willing to be used by God. And how exciting, this ringing endorsement that even a young person can be the instrument of God – and we are wise when we listen to young people in our Church, hear about their faith, their passion, which is not yet jaded, not yet domesticated, refreshingly naïve.
Young Jeremiah is given authority “over nations.” How very far this is from our sentiment that God is only about private, personal matters, that God exists for me to feel a certain way, that religion and politics don’t mix. God’s will, God’s plan, God’s work is international in scope. Quite remarkably, we who are God’s people have a kind of authority over nations! We are in a position to examine what even the great powers of the world (including even our own nation!) are doing and decide if they are in line with God’s Word or not, and to declare our opposition if God’s boundaries are trampled.
Notice the unpleasant sequence of Jeremiah’s charge: “pluck up,” “break down,” “destroy,” and “overthrow” all come before “build” and “plant.” We would prefer God just build and plant! But as Aldous Huxley insightfully suggested, “Thy kingdom come” necessarily implies, “and my kingdom go.” We have crafted lives that are out of sync with God. To build a strong spiritual foundation, we have to have our old life demolished, new footings poured. Our lives are cluttered with so much glittering junk that simply must be swept aside for God to fill us with hope. Maggie Ross was right when she said “We feel empty, but not because we are empty. Rather, we feel empty because we are full of the wrong stuff.” God’s Word wields its scalpel like a surgeon, cutting out what will undo us if left unattended, so God then can plant something new and beautiful – and then we find ourselves active as God’s agents in the real world.
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eYearThroughTheBible68 - den of robbers - Jeremiah 7
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house and say, Hear the word of the Lord, you of Judah who enter these gates to worship. Amend your ways and your doings, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ For if you truly amend your way and execute justice one with another, if you do not go after other gods, then I will let you dwell in this land. You trust in deceptive words to no avail. You worship other gods, but then come to this house? Has this house become a den of robbers?
The nation’s fortunes have plummeted. The Assyrian empire finally crumbled, only to be replaced by a fiercer foe, Babylon. Good king Josiah died, and his heirs proved to be shallow, foolish men. Immorality rambles through society – but the people still gather for worship in the temple of Jerusalem, and believe heartily that God is on their side. Jeremiah hardly soothes their anxieties, but instead declares that merely showing up in worship means nothing in itself, if a changed life is not the result.
Jesus, over 600 years later, quotes this very sermon when he walked into the same temple and found impious worship, self-indulgent more than God-focused, self-serving not sacrificial, a mere going through the motions – and Jesus physically hurled the moneychangers out of the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). In the Bible, worship is not something “lite,” a pleasant, spiritual cup of tea in a busy week. Worship is finding yourself in the presence of a holy God who demands everything of us, who is frankly intolerant of our bogus lifestyles, who is far from “laid back,” whose love is so intense that God does not rest until we belong entirely to the One who made us, until what we talk about in worship pervades every hour of every week, all we do and own.
How rude of God to attach a series of big “if’s” to those who have been so noble as to show up for worship! But the mere fact of praying or worshipping or giving or serving may betray a false spirituality; we can do religious things while our hearts are far from God, while our true intent is our own comfort and prosperity instead of the glory of God and the dawning of God’s kingdom. Jeremiah exposes a religiosity than is a charade: we say we worship God when really we are motivated by other gods like money or pleasure. We say we seek God’s will when God’s will is utterly clear – and yet that will involves us in sacrifice or humbling ourselves in service to people we may blame or dislike. Are we prepared to act radically on Jeremiah’s urgent plea from God – “Amend your ways and your doings”?
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eYearThroughTheBible69 - why do the wicked prosper? - Jeremiah 12
eYearThroughTheBible69 - why do the wicked prosper? – Jeremiah 12, 15, 18
The Lord made his word known to me.
But I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter.
Righteous art you, O Lord, when I complain to you.
Yet I would plead my case.
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
You, O lord, know me.
Be not a terror to me!
Your words were found, and I ate them.
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers.
I sat alone.
Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable?
Are you like a deceitful brook to me?
Remember how I stood to speak good for them?
Yet they have dug a pit for my life.
I have become a laughingstock all day.
The word of the Lord has become for me a reproach.
Cursed be the day I was born.
Why did I come forth to see toil and sorrow,
to spend my days in shame?
Jeremiah, uniquely among the prophets, shares his own personal anguish over the painful role he must play in the community’s life. He fulfills his vocation to speak God’s hard words to the people, and not surprisingly he winds up isolated, hated, depressed, exasperated, persecuted, imprisoned… and he puts those feelings into prayers, strident laments pointed at God. Biblical prayers are not always so polite as ours! Railing at the heavens is entirely acceptable (and even encouraged) from the Bible’s perspective! You can look at all of Jeremiah’s “laments”: 11:18-20, 12:1-6, 15:10-21, 17:14-18, 18:18-23, 20:7-18 (the verses printed above are excerpts).
I shudder when I think of the deep lesson of Jeremiah’s agony. We blithely think that if we connect with God, if we pray, worship, serve, or avoid terrible sins – or even step out boldly to do something reckless for God – all will go smoothly, life will be more pleasant than if we had not tried to reach God, results will be instantaneous and gratifying, and we will feel marvelous about the adventure. But Jeremiah, while feeling quite lonely, is not alone at all – in that Moses, Elijah, Mary, Peter, James, Paul, St. Francis and a holy host of others discovered that adhering closely to God actually subtracts creature comforts, draws the ire of others, and imperils every security. They would all say It is well worth it, to be in sync with God, to have a purpose, to live as an emissary for what is good and true – and they falsify the bogus books and grinning religious talkers who lie to us, promising personal gain, warm fuzzy feelings, and smooth sailing. There are unspeakably marvelous pleasures near to the heart of God, but they are not merely more of what the world offers, and the way to the heart of God is arduous, requiring stiff resolve, and trust in nothing else but God, who really is enough.
Most stunning is God’s reply to Jeremiah’s complaints. In 12:5, after Jeremiah has vented his rage and frustration, God answers, not with soothing comfort, but rather with this:
“If you have raced with men on foot,
and they have wearied you,
how will you compete with horses?”
Oh my. Basically God says that the difficulties he has faced thus far are merely preparing him for even greater obstacles in the future!
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eYearThroughTheBible70 - righteous shall live by faith - Habakkuk 2
eYearThroughTheBible70 - righteous shall live by faith – Habakkuk 2:1-4
I will take my stand to watch,
and station myself on the tower,
and look to see what he will say to me,
what answer there may be to my complaint.
The Lord answered me:
“Write the vision: make it plain upon tablets.
For still the vision awaits its time.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not lie.
Behold, he whose soul is not upright shall fail,
but the righteous shall live by faith.”
How typical of the Bible that the most crucial, the most influential passage from the Old Testament occurs in this little-known, obscure book of Habakkuk! Times were dreadful, as the wicked Babylonians (whose home we call “Iraq” today!) violently dominated the middle east; God’s people in Jerusalem were worse than wobbly in their faith. Imagining himself climbing up on a high tower to watch for some shift in the horizon, Habakkuk cried out to God, questioning God’s plan and its timing, for in such an awful climate it was increasingly hard to discern God’s activity.
But Habakkuk didn’t doubt God. But he did ask hard questions about why the realization of God’s plan for history was taking so long, why evil could run rampant in a world ultimately ruled by God. Faith is not something we exercise to get God to make it happen now. Faith is patience, a long kind of trust, the courage of waiting.C.H. Spurgeon said faith “is not one single act done and ended. It is continued through life. Faith is essential, all day in all things. Our natural life begins by breathing. What the breath is to the body, that is faith to the soul.”
This faith, taking the long view, doggedly hanging on, is (for Habakkuk) what the righteous live by. Being “righteous” in the Old Testament doesn’t mean being super-good, adhering to all the rules. Rather, “righteous” means “being in right relationship with God.” This right relationship is not earned, but it is a gift, all grace, which like some reflex leads to being good, and more importantly being saved. This is why the apostle Paul, when he tried to capture the whole message of Christianity in a nutshell, quoted Habakkuk! “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).
And weigh the impact of this little verse upon history! St. Augustine read this verse and turned from decadence to holiness, and became perhaps our greatest theologian ever. Martin Luther, struggling with depression and agonizing over his future, read this verse and reformed the Church throughout western Europe. John Wesley, on the night his heart was “strangely warmed,” heard this verse read and realized that a personal relationship with Christ was something very real for him; in fact, it was the only reality that mattered. The life of faith can endure difficulties, weather storms, and wait on the Lord, answering Habakkuk’s question and many modern questions about why everything today is not the way we want (or God wants!) things to be. The future is God’s, and ours is to wait in trust and confidence.
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eYearThroughTheBible71 - into exile - 2 Kings 25
Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem, and built seigeworks around it. The famine was so severe that there was no food in the city. A breach was made in the wall; the king fled by night, but the Chaldeans pursued and overtook him near Jericho. They slew Zedekiah’s children before him, and put out his eyes. Nebuzaradan, captain of the bodyguard, burned the house of the Lord, and the king’s house, and all the houses of Jerusalem. The army broke down the walls. The people who survived in the city were marched into exile. But some of the poorest were left there. The army took away the bronze and gold, and all the valuables from the temple.
The year: 587 BCE. The Babylonians, replying with violence to the foolishness of Jerusalem’s King Zedekiah, reduced God’s holy city to rubble, the majority of the population hauled hundreds of miles away to Babylon in exile. The Jews had always believed they were the chosen people, that God would protect them; but now they faced what for them was really the loss of the known world, a dizzying disorientation, the crushing of identity.
The next decades would sorely test the Hebrew faith, for perhaps their God was no god at all, perhaps their destiny had been irretrievably squandered. Clearly the prophets (like Jeremiah and Ezekiel) declared that the people had brought this on themselves, that they were not innocent victims, that their sin, their stupidity, their hardheadedness, were tragically playing themselves out.
We will see how Judaism not only survived this devastating catastrophe, but grew stronger because of it. They would learn that God is not confined to a single place, building or nation; and they would learn that God is present not merely when things go well, but perhaps more powerfully when circumstances are frustrating, incomprehensible, or miserable.
For now, we can simply listen to the cries of the Jews, their sorrowful prayers that echo over the horrible death and destruction. The book ofLamentations is a collection of community prayers, when the entire nation gathered in sad lament, pleading to the God they feared had deserted them – including these words:
How lonely sits the city that was full of people.
How like a widow she has become.
She weeps bitterly in the night, with none to comfort her.
Jerusalem sinned grievously, and now her people groan.
Many Psalms speak of the profound grief of the exile, such as Psalm 137:
By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
For there our captors required of us song and mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my hand wither.
The Nazis chanted precisely that line (“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”) when they tormented Jews in the concentration camps of World War II.
The situation of exile, of being in a strange land, far from home, is for many a metaphor of what life is like in this world for Christians. We feel dislocated, finding ourselves in a place that is not fully home, a place that calls our faith into question – but like Judaism, we can take our life here as a time of testing, growth and learning, which are the fruit of remembering.
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eYearThroughTheBible72 - inherited guilt? - Ezekiel 18
eYearThroughTheBible72 - a proverb annulled – Ezekiel 18:1-4
The word of the Lord came to me again: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine. The soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine. The soul that sins shall die.
Ezekiel, probably the most bizarre and fascinating character in the entire Old Testament, predicted Jerusalem’s destruction in 587 BCE by the Babylonians, and saw it as God’s judgment; but then he began to speak God’s word to those living in exile, striving to bolster their faith, impart understanding, and hope.
A paralyzing fatalism plagued the exiles in Babylon, believing not only that they had sinned, but that they were now paying for the sins of their ancestors. Do not think for a moment this is some ancient superstition we have outgrown. We know from Freud and his legacy in psychotherapy, and now from the study of genetics, that we inherit plenty from prior generations that seems to undo us.
To those crippled by guilt, to those who have given up hope, Ezekiel overturns an ancient parable about fathers and their children. Each soul is uniquely related to God. Yes, there are consequences we inherit from our environment, which have real effects. But God takes us one at a time, giving each person the chance, no matter what we have inherited, the opportunity to believe, the chance at hope, the possibility of faith; the miracle of grace is that each new generation has the possibility of a new beginning.Karl Barth was right when he said, “Christian faith is not something you can inherit.”
This sounds very normal to us Americans, but in biblical times, and throughout much of history, this kind of individual thinking has been quite rare. In modern culture, we have carried this notion to the other extreme, haven’t we? To us, nothing matters except the individual, and we feel too much on our own, so individualistic, so autonomous, that we forget how we are dependent on others for the good in our lives, and how we are part of a community, even in our believing, even in the God-given possibility of a new beginning.
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eYearThroughTheBible73 - valley of dry bones – Ezekiel 37:1-14
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit and set me down in the midst of the valley. It was full of bones. He led me around among them; there were many, and they were very dry. He said, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, You know.” Again he said, “Prophesy to these bones. Say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Behold I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I spoke as I was commanded, and there was a noise, and behold, a rattling; and the bones came together. As I looked there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin covered them. But there was no breath in them. He said to me, “Prophesy to the wind and say, Thus says the Lord God, come from the four winds and breathe upon these that they may live.” So I did as he commanded, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great host. He said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are clean cut off.’ Say to them, Thus says the Lord God, I will open your graves and raise you, O my people, and I will bring you home into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord. I will put my Spirit within you and you shall live, and then you shall know that I have done it.”
Behind this famous passage, one of the most memorable in Scripture (and in music – “Dem Bones”!), we hear the despair of the Jewish exiles who feel as hopeless as bones long dead, dried up, with no slight potential of life left in them. But just as God spoke, and the universe, light, earth and creatures came into being (Genesis 1), so now God’s word once again brings life where there is no life at all. How humbling, and yet how exciting, that the people’s future, and therefore my future and yours, depends not on us at all, but entirely, 100% on the love, the grace, the unmerited compassion of God. Within ourselves we have no capacity for new life. But God is the giver of all life, and of every good gift. We do not earn or deserve the love of God. We can only receive it in the way these bones take the wind, rattling, coming together, stunned and delighted by God’s future wrapped around us like a new body.
Ezekiel 37 features a fascinating Hebrew word: ruah, which means “wind” and “breath” – and also “Spirit.” The Spirit of God may be imagined as a powerful wind, which we do not see directly – but if we pay attention, we cannot miss the effects of the wind, or the working of God in the world. And not just the strong gale-force winds, but the gentle breeze, the calmness of a breath. When the risen Christ appears to the disciples, he “breathes” on them (John 20:22). God is master of wind, breeze and breath; our breathing, every good movement in the world, is in the hands of God.
Notice two other aspects of this beautiful passage. God’s motivation does not seem to be to raise us up to new life so we can have new life. Rather, God wants to declare who is God and who isn’t. God raises us for God’s own glory, so all will know how great God really is – which has the curious effect of keeping God and God’s agenda at the center of the universe, instead of me putting me and my needs at the center of things.
Furthermore, Ezekiel’s vision of resurrection isn’t just for this or that person; resurrection is of the people, a valley full, a community. We are saved, not just so I can go and be with God, but so we together take our place in the saved community of God’s people; our eternal role and delight will be to participate fully in that broader communion of the saints, which will spell the ultimate end to all loneliness, isolation, fragmentation, brokenness.
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eYearThroughTheBible74 - fiery furnace – Daniel 3
Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high. He assembled all the people before the image he had set up in Babylon, and commanded them, “When you hear the music of horn, pipe and harp, fall down and worship my image, and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into a burning fiery furnace.” So the people fell down and worshipped. But Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego paid no heed. So Nebuchadnezzar, in a furious rage, had them brought before him, and asked, “Is it true you do not serve my gods or worship my image? Who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” But they answered the king, “We have no need to answer you. Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace. But even if he does not deliver us, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship your image.” Nebuchadnezzar was full of fury, and ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter. Men cast them into fire. But Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and asked, “Did we not cast three men into the fire? But I see four men loose, walking in the fire, and they are not hurt, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” So he called for them to come out, and behold their hair was not singed, and no smell of fire was on them. Nebuchadnezzar said, “Their God has delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve any god except their own God.”
The book of Daniel, although written over three centuries after the exile, tells a dramatic story about 4 young men trying to live out their faithful commitment to Israel’s God in a foreign environment hostile to their faith. Daniel, the lead character, “resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s rich food or wine” (1:8), and was joined in this adventure in nonconformity with three friends. Not only were they courageous in distancing themselves from the lure of Babylonian culture, but they even thrived because of it (“They were better in appearance than those who ate the king’s rich food,” 1:15).
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image. Threats of a fiery furnace made no dent in their resolve. Puzzled, the king mocked them: “Who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?” Thrown into the fire, they walked unsinged, and they are not alone, for some mysterious fourth figure joined them in their ordeal.
How strange a story, in our world, where religious belief is often regarded as innocuous or very private – or the kind of thing that keeps you a long way from fiery furnaces. But through much of history, for Jews and then also for Christians, belief has been a life and death matter, and thousands have been thrown to the flames for their commitment. One governor in Asia Minor complained to the emperor that, although many Christians recanted and denied their faith, “real” Christians could not be persuaded to do so. Polycarp, strapped to the stake, declared, “Eighty six years I have served Christ, and he has done me no wrong; how can I blaspheme my savior? You threaten with fire that burns for an hour, but you are ignorant of the judgment to come.” In my book, Servants, Misfits and Martyrs, I devoted a whole chapter to those who’ve died for their faith.
We are not called to blend in and do as everyone else is doing. We are called to be holy, to follow the Lord even if it puts us at odds with our culture – which would happen constantly were we more serious about the God in whom we say we believe! We need to find those conflict points between the life of faith and the surrounding culture, and dare to be different.
Notice the substance of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s defiance. They do not say “The Lord will deliver us.” Instead, they say, “The Lord is able to deliver us. But even if he does not, we will not bow down to you.” Wow! That is the heart of commitment.
How easy would it have been just to go through the motions and do Nebuchadnezzar’s bidding, just to bow, to eat the food, drink the wine? But every action we take exposes the truth about what is in our hearts, and every action has the effect of being a “witness” to others. Nothing is more compelling than an unshakeable commitment, as the faithful are willing to bear any consequence – for people are looking, not for a silly, trivial faith, but for something worth giving your life for.
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eYearThroughTheBible75 - comfort ye – Isaiah 40
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received double for all her sins.
A voice cries, In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh will see it together.
The grass withers, the flowers fades, but the word of our God stands forever.
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand?
Who weighed the mountains and hills in a balance?
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket.
Why do you say, “My way is hidden from the Lord”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary.
He gives power to the faint.
Youths may faint and grow weary, young men may fall exhausted.
But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.
They shall mount up with wings like eagles.
They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Probably the most lovely, moving and profound speeches in all of Scripture are found in Isaiah 40-55 (used often by Handel in “The Messiah”). During the exile, a prophet whose name we don’t know, who thought of himself as a close disciple of Isaiah (who lived two centuries earlier), stood up and painted beautiful word portraits of Israel’s imminent hope. Times were confusing and fearful. Babylonian exile had been harsh and long.
But a new power was now romping across the Middle East: Persia. Was bad about to get worse? The prophet issued glorious, triumphant news: God was about to deliver the people. They shall be freed, sent home to Jerusalem, where they will finally enjoy freedom and find rest. Cyrus, the great Persian ruler, fulfilled these words, as he proclaimed in his famous edict (on a cylinder found by archaeologists!) that Israel could return home, initiating a new chapter in Israel’s history which just a few months earlier had seemed hopeless. God actually used this emperor who did not know the Lord, proving that God’s promises never fail.
…and if you have time, here is a sampler of this prophet’s eloquent preaching. I cannot think of more encouraging words…
Thus says God, the Lord,
who stretched out the heavens and spread forth the earth,
“I am the Lord, I have called you,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you,
I have given you as a light to the nations.
Behold, the former things have passed.
New things I now declare.
Before they spring forth I tell you of them (Isaiah 42:5-9).
Fear not, I have redeemed you.
When you pass through the waters I will be with you.
When you walk through fire you shall not be burned (Isaiah 43:1-2).
Thus says the Lord, to his anointed Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations,
to open doors that gates may not be closed.
I have called you by name, though you do not know me,
for the sake of Israel, for I am the Lord (Isaiah 45:1-5).
Zion had said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her sucking child?
Can she have no compassion on the child of her womb?
Even thought these may forget, yet I will never forget you.
Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands (Isaiah 49:14-16).
Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters.
He who has no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for what is not bread,
and your labor for what does not satisfy?
Come to me that your soul may live.
Seek the Lord while he may be found.
My thoughts are not your thoughts, your ways are not my ways.
For as the rain and snow come down from heaven,
watering the earth and bringing forth seed and bread,
so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth.
It shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose (Isaiah 55:1-11).
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eYearThroughTheBible76 - time to rebuild - Haggai 1
eYearThroughTheBible76 - time to rebuild – Haggai 1:1-10
The word of the Lord came by Haggai, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the Lord. Is it a time for you to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now therefore, consider how you have fared. You have sown much, but harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough. You drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. He who earns wages puts them into a bag with holes. Consider how you have fared. Go up to the hills, bring wood, and build my house, that I may take pleasure in it, and that I may appear in glory, says the Lord. You have looked for much, and lo it came to little. Why? Because of my house that lies in ruins, while you busy yourselves each with his own house. Therefore the heavens above you have withheld the dew, and the earth has withheld its produce.
After decades of exile, Cyrus the Persian’s decree allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. But the going was rough, as famine, a shabby economy, and guerilla attacks from pesky neighbors smashed the people’s enthusiasm. Eighteen years passed, and still the temple, the focus of the people’s life and faith, was still a pile of rubble. Rebuilding seemed inconceivable to the people. Logic suggested that everything else would have to pick up before they could put any energy or finances into the temple.
Then Haggai stepped in and turned their defeated attitudes on their ear. A crazy, divine logic is required: Instead of waiting until fortunes improved, priorities had to be re-set. Fortunes were atrocious precisely because the people had not established God and worship as the top priority… and Haggai was heard, and the temple got underway, and was dedicated just five years later.
A huge challenge is voiced in these verses to us and our priorities, how we think about our “stuff,” our finances, how we so often give to God whatever we happen to have left over – and for Haggai, this goes a long way to explain our hollowness, frustration and lack of peace and purpose in life.
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eYearThroughTheBible77 - for such a time as this - Esther 4
Mordecai sent to Esther this answer, “Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise from another quarter, but you will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther replied to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews, and hold a fast. Then I will go to the king, and if I perish, I perish.”
The entire story of Esther repays your effort to read it through. What drama, what suspense, what courage! After the exile, the Jews were restored to Jerusalem, but many still lived abroad, could not afford to come home, and found themselves as aliens in the Persian empire. The Persian king, Xerxes I (who ruled from 584 to 464 BC, and in the Bible is called “Ahasuerus”) is dissed by his wife, Queen Vashti, so he holds a beauty pageant to replace her. Esther, a Jewish woman in disguise, wins – and thereby has access to the king. Good timing, too, as the wicked Haman is plotting the extermination of the Jews in the empire. Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, by “chance” stumbles upon information about Haman’s plans. Xerxes, by “chance,” cannot sleep one night and reads in the royal archives about Mordecai’s heroism.
Many “chance” occurrences conspire in this story to bring about the Jews’ deliverance. God seems to be toying with the plot quite a bit – but God also needs the courageous actions of the Jews, and Esther in particular. In chapter 4, Mordecai warns Esther of danger when she decides to confront the king and struggle for the protection of her people. Ready to lose her life if needed, she moves forward – and Haman turns out to be the one hanging from the gallows, not the Jews.
The Old Testament is full of riveting drama, spellbinding stories, and they do not talk constantly about God. God is barely mentioned in Esther – but there is no doubt that in the final analysis, God is the protagonist, the director, the star of this story. David Clines was right: the “holes” in the story of Esther are “God-shaped.” Perhaps we may discern God’s hidden but certain presence in our own lives, in the normal occurrences of what happens, and we may be sure we need to act with courage and faith in a world that is not all that excited about the reign of our Lord… Take a few minutes and read Esther through!
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eYearThroughTheBible78 - the Old Testament hath ended!
We could spend 10,000 emails on the Old Testament, but in our Year Through the Bible it is now time to leave it behind – or rather to gather up what we’ve learned and carry it forward into our reflection on the New Testament!
You can help me: what have you learned? What surprised you? What still lingers as confusing? Any questions we missed that matter to you? I’m grateful as always for the privilege of having a conversation with you about the Bible… so I’ll look forward to hearing from you, and from our ongoing reflections.
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eYearThroughTheBible79 – between the testaments!
What was going on between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New? The narrative thread breaks off with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, when Israel was a tiny subset of the Persian empire. Over the next 400 years, a string of rulers (Darius, Xerxes, Alexander the Great, Antiochus Epiphanes, Pompey the Great) took turns ruling the geographically crucial but politically insignificant land of Israel. There were a few glorious moments when the Jews fought back. Guerilla fighters (Judas and the Maccabeans) drove the Seleucids out of Jerusalem, their short-lived victory still celebrated today as Hanukkah. But Judaism was endangered, the faith in grave peril.
The questions faithful Jews asked during the time between the Testaments were How can we be God's people in an alien culture ruled by pagans? Do we fit in and get along? Do we fight? Start a revolution? Just blend in? Become Romans ourselves? Not surprisingly, various movements within Judaism answered these questions in different ways. So we see Judaism developing, and becoming quite complex, with diverse views on what it meant to be Jewish. Sadducees were the fairly well-placed traditional conservatives, Pharisees were a growing movement determined to interpret God's law for a new day, the Essenes withdrew from society in search of purity, the Zealots organized to fight back with physical force. So, by the time Jesus came along, Judaism was not a single, monolithic thing, but a kaleidoscope of viewpoints trying to make sense of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament.
Geographically, Judaism spread all over the known world. This scattering of Jews to all places we call the “diaspora,” and it boggles the mind to read Acts 2, which rattles off the far-flung lands from which people made pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the great festivals!
Although the Old Testament was accepted and complete, prolific Jewish thinkers continued to write; fortunately we have literally hundreds of Jewish writings from this inter-testamental period:
The Apocrypha (which can be found in many Bibles!) is a collection of books that have always been part of the Catholic Bible, but were up for debate for centuries before finally being excluded by the Protestants; Dennis Bratcher provides a helpful article (with a great chart). Books include 1 & 2 Maccabees, which tell of the heroic guerilla resistance of the Jews to their wicked foreign overlords; and wise poetry like Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon.
The Pseudepigrapha is a much larger collection of scattered writings from the period between the testaments. Many of them are “pseudo,” that is, claiming to be written by some great person from Old Testament times (like Abraham, Enoch, Moses); many are rather bizarre… It is intriguing to read these obscure books and consider the relationship between the Pseudepigrapha and Christianity. One book, Enoch, is actually quoted as if it were Scripture in the New Testament’s book of Jude!
TheDead Sea Scrolls were largely written during this time period, and they provide us not only with our oldest copies of Old Testament books, but also share the worldview of a small group of Jews (the Essenes) who fled society in order to be more pure as Jews.
These interesting writings are not at all books that were scuttled and left out of the Bible because of controversial content. They simply were books written long after the Old Testament had been settled. Some imply a settled way of living peaceably in the Greek and then Roman worlds, while others ripple with fiery discontent, longing for radical, divine intervention to overturn things. It was into such a complex, diverse, uncertain world that Jesus stepped in the first century – as we will see.
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eYearThroughTheBible80 - we begin the New Testament!
We turn now, in our eYearThroughTheBible study, to the New Testament! If you’ve gotten behind or become slack in your reading, now is a great time to refresh your discipline.
What is this New Testament? It does not invalidate the Old, and it has its human elements on every page; the New Testament authors did not take dictation from some heavenly voice, but tried to get onto parchment what they had experienced in this most wonderful, mind-boggling person, Jesus, and his startling transformative effects on the most surprising people. This gathering of stories, memories, reflections, sermons and visions about his impact function as something of a constitution for the Church, declaring who we are as Christians, and who we aren’t. But it is that primal Wow! in response to the perceived power of God in Jesus that is this New Testament.
Barely able to breathe, the women stunned Jesus' grieving friends with a stunning impossibility: "He is risen!" (Luke 24). Seven weeks later, the Spirit - like some divine tornado - catapulted Jesus' friends out of the upper room and into the streets, where people from all over the planet "heard them speaking in their own language" (Acts 2). At the heart of things, the New Testament is that panting news, that irrepressibly fiery message about the turn of history, the hope of the ages, Jesus. How fortunate, how grateful we are that Jesus' friends ran, told, and finally wrote: "That which we have heard and seen with our own eyes, and touched with our hands... We saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was manifest to us, so that you may have fellowship with us, the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing this that your joy may be complete" (1 John 1).
A few of the early drafts of portions of the New Testament may have been written in Aramaic (the language Jesus spoke), but the final versions were composed in Greek - and not the hifalutin classical Greek of Plato or Sophocles, but koiné, a more common, popular Greek. Not many of the first Christians knew how to read, much less did they own books: so the writings of the New Testament were intended to be read out loud, and in the gathered company of believers.
The very earliest Christian writings to come down to us are the letters of Paul, penned 20 to 25 years after the death of Jesus. Paul had no idea he was composing a Bible: he was obsessed with what was going on with young Christians he had met, and so he wrote pointed letters to them, clarifying the truth about Jesus, demanding that they behave accordingly. So when we glance over Romans, Philippians, Galatians (and also the many other letters in the New Testament not written by Paul), we are reading somebody else's mail!
Eventually that mail was copied and sent to people for whom it was never intended, gathered with other letters onto scrolls, treasured by believers doggedly trying to be faithful in a culture that despised the faith - and those letters were established (within a century of Jesus' death) as the Scriptures God would use forever in the Church. How fascinating: words intended for a small batch of people with issues peculiar to them became God's Word for untold millions. Isn't this the curious way God speaks to us, in our small gathering, and to our peculiar issues - through those ancient, timely words?
We also find Acts, a narrative of the birth of the Church; Revelation, a bizarre vision about the climax of history; and four Gospels. These writings were carried in the backpacks of traders, on board ships, copied and recopied, gathered and revered, together forming Christian Scripture whose purpose is personal and life-changing: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, you may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16).
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eYearThroughTheBible81 - one, four or thirty Gospels?
The origin of the word "gospel" is the Anglo-Saxon god-spel, meaning "good story," which is the equivalent of the Greek euangelion (from which we get "evangelism"), meaning "good news." We have not one but four "good stories," the books called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; and while they may seem like ancient relics of the religious past to us, to their first readers their stories were news indeed. Something unprecedented, mind-boggling, shockingly beyond the ordinary had happened, or at least many believed so.
The gospels are something like biographies, although the writers never pretended to be unbiased. They reported events that took place, drawing out the theological significance of what happened, striving to persuade readers to join the movement set in motion by Jesus. As keenly interested as the early Christians were in what Jesus said and did, he was not (to them) merely the greatest teacher ever, or the most spectacular wonder-worker. Among many great teachers, Jesus alone suffered a horrific death but then did not stay dead. It is Jesus' identity, exhibited in his suffering but glorious vindication, that defines him, and our belief in him.
How interesting it is that we have not one, but four Gospels, which do not fit snugly together like puzzle pieces should. The four versions are a little jagged-edged, with points of conflict anybody who tries might notice; we may wish we had just one coherent narrative of Jesus' life. But the first Christians preferred the four vivid accounts treasured from the beginning, and so opened themselves to criticism, so obvious were the tensions. But good, deep, meaningful stories are like that. When lovers try to describe their beloved, they tell it one way, but then regather and from a fresh angle regale you with an especially lovely detail, a particularly pleasing anecdote. High impact public figures elicit diverse viewpoints, even among supporters. The event of Jesus was like a visit to the Grand Canyon, where not even the technological wizardry of a panoramic lens can take it all in. We have four good stories.
We have no idea who wrote these four good stories. The names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were attached later. But all four were written about a generation after Jesus died, and all four were accepted and treasured in the early Church. On TV or in novels you may hear about other gospels which were left out or even covered up - but this is a terribly inaccurate viewpoint, as you can read in my review of The DaVinci Code.
The “other” Gospels are fascinating. They were written much later than the four we know, and generally portray a divine character who dazzles the crowd more than humbly loving the lowly, who speaks in mystical codes rather than in plain, straight language everyone can comprehend. Jesus dashes off miracles, but they are gratuitous, or mean. As a child, Jesus kills a playmate who makes fun of him; when Joseph cuts a board too short, Jesus magically lengthens it. Most of these late Gospels were written by Gnostics – for whom the world was a catastrophic mistake, fashioned by a second, sinister god. Insiders, who know arcane "secrets," long to escape the cesspool of this world. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus is a Gnostic, despising this world, eager to die - not out of love, or to usher in salvation, but solely so he would not have to live on this despicable planet any longer. Here and there we find a word or a vignette that might go back to Jesus himself, but generally speaking no scholar of any repute believes these Gospels, written so much later, contain reliable historical information about Jesus.
How did the Gospels come to be? At first, stories of Jesus were passed along word of mouth. Soon, Mark, then Matthew and Luke, and then John were penned, to be read on the mission field and to preserve the good story. We plunge into the Gospels with questions - only to discover they have questions for us, questions that (when we wrestle with them diligently) redraw our map of the world, turn our values upside-down, and lure us into an adventure of joining those first disciples who put down their nets to follow this Jesus...
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eYearThroughTheBible82 - begats - Matthew 1
eYearThroughTheBible82 - begats – Matthew 1:1-25
The genealogy of Jesus Christ: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah, Judah the father of Perez by Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron… Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, Boaz the father of Jesse, Jesse the father of David the king, David the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, Solomon the father of Rehoboam… Matthan the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born. The birth of Jesus took place this way: when Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a just man and not eager to put her to sham, resolved to divorce her quietly. But an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream and said, Do not fear to take Mary, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, God with us.” When Joseph wok, he did as the angel commanded. He took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son, and he called his name Jesus.
Matthew, the first Gospel, begins with a genealogy, which seems to us like a less-than-scintillating way to start a book! But the very first note in the symphony of Jesus resounds with the melody that God has had plans for centuries to bring hope and salvation to us, that God has been at work through the people of Israel, and that this plan is not now being dumped, but rather is being fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. Each name reminds the reader of great stories out of the Old Testament, many of which we have covered here in eYearThroughTheBible! Typical of the mentality of the 1st century, the “begats” list men – but fascinatingly there are four women mentioned: Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba – all of whom were morally questionable in their lives, all of whom were foreigners, outsiders, meaning that God’s vision for Israel through history has not been just for Israel, but for all people, and not just for those who are squeaky clean morally, but for all sinners, like you and me.
Notice Joseph’s stunning courage to stick with Mary after she has turned up pregnant. Notice that the Hebrew name, Jesus, means “salvation.” Mary was probably only 14 or 15 years old (the age at which most Jewish girls married). How important must Mary be, for God became flesh in and through her? She was the first to feel his movement in her womb, the first to hear his cry. She nursed him, bathed him, bandaged his wounds, taught him to count and read. Modern people like to say “I don’t believe she was a virgin.” But Matthew is very careful to state that Jesus’ birth was like all others, and yet like no other, that he is very much human, and yet at the same time the vortex of God’s revelation and saving endeavor.
We grow accustomed to Christmas nativity scenes that lump all the Gospel stories together. But in Matthew, the angel appears to Joseph, whereas in Luke the angel speaks with Mary. Matthew tells us about the magi, the astrologers bearing gifts from the east, and that the holy family fled to Egypt, while Luke tells us about the shepherds. But the point of Matthew and Luke (and John) is that the Good News, the very best news of all history, is that God did not remain aloof up in heaven, but came down to earth in the flesh in the person of Jesus, God’s own son, God’s tangible revelation in the real world of the love of God.
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eYearThroughTheBible83 - the birth of Jesus - Luke 2
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the world should be enrolled. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. Joseph went up from Galilee, from Nazareth, to the city of David, Bethlehem, for he was of the lineage of David, with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. The angel said, “Fear not! for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will come to all people. For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will among men.” The shepherds went with haste, and found Mary, Joseph and the baby in the manger. They made known the saying, and all who heard it wondered. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.
If we can sweep our minds clear of the utter familiarity and sweetness of these words we’ve heard so often from the youthful narrator of the church Christmas pageant, we can overhear a chorus of startling theological truths, bold, beautiful, life-changing. Jesus was not born “once upon a time,” but in real history, and not just at any random point of history. No, Jesus was born during the reign of the mightiest of the Roman caesars, the great Augustus, who bragged that he had above all else guaranteed “peace.” Luke is engaging in some political subversion here: Augustus is not the true power over the world. Christ alone is.
And Augustus cannot bring peace. All he could wield were weapons and intimidation, resulting in a peace that is passive and frightened, nothing like the biblical vision of peace (the Hebrew word is “Shalom”), which is positive, active, healthy, working energetically for reconciliation between people, insuring that everyone belongs and shares in God’s good gifts.
Jesus is placed in a manger. A manger is not a little wooden crib for babies! A manger was a feeding trough for animals who were exhausted from journeying far or laboring in the heat of the day. So, the symbolism is that Jesus is what we are hungry for. Our deepest need (“the hopes and fears of all the years”) is realized in this moment, as the heavenly glory of God takes up residence in the mundane reality of earth. The heavenly host is suddenly bonded with the poorest, most insignificant people on earth in a great fellowship of song, as God is glorified.
And what is the simple commandment attached to their grand chorus? “Fear not!” By far, this is the most frequent command in all the Bible. Contemplate for a moment how much of our craziness, how much evil in the world, grows out of the soil of fear! and then reckon with the hopefulness that at the birth of Jesus it is announced that there is no more need for fear.
I cannot think of anything more moving and tender than Mary cradling this baby, nursing her son, playing with his fingers, rocking him in the darkness. God is best mirrored in such tender moments, moments we may know in our own lives. Mary had been called by God (in Luke 1:26-38) to have her entire life disrupted, even to suffer the potential loss of Joseph and the respect of family and neighbors, all to be the one in whom God took on flesh. So when she fulfills that risky, awesome task, we are moved, and even challenged to ask how we are being called by God to let the divine take on flesh in our lives.
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eYearThroughTheBible84 - Jesus' childhood
Not long after his birth, Jesus was hurriedly carried by his parents down into Egypt, for fear of the maniacal, murderous King Herod. What was that grueling journey (with a baby in tow) like? And what was the brief sojourn in the vicinity of pyramids and the Nile like? The Gospel writers, of course, deploy rich symbolism by mentioning Jesus in Egypt – for that is where God’s decisive act of salvation for the people of Israel had taken place, the location of Moses’ birth and rescue, the theater where despair was transformed into hope.
Most of Jesus’ years were spent in Nazareth, a very small backwater town of no distinction or political or economic importance, population hovering perhaps around 150. Anne Rice wrote an intriguing novel about Jesus’ boyhood (called Out of Egypt), but she relies on gospels outside the New Testament that were composed 100 or more years after our Gospels in the Bible. This “exaggerated” child Jesus strikes playmates dead who make fun of him; he fashions clay birds in his crib and causes them to fly away. The DaVinci Code suggests Jesus in these non-biblical Gospels is more “human,” but the opposite is true: this is a superhuman child with “Bruce Almighty”-like powers.
The Gospels that are in the Bible and that were written nearer to the time of the real Jesus are circumspect about his childhood, saying merely that he grew in body and in wisdom (Luke 2:52) – which would have been the expectation for every Jewish boy of his day. When very young, children learned Bible from their mothers; as they moved toward adolescence, their fathers began to tutor them in the ways of a faithful life. The “normalcy” of Jesus’ early life is lovely, as God is palpably invested in the seemingly dull routines of our mundane existence.
The Gospel of Luke does afford us a brief glimpse of a day in Jesus’ childhood. Like most Jewish families, Jesus’ made the arduous trek to Jerusalem for the high religious festivals – and at one of them Jesus manages to get separated from his parents, who panic, but then find Jesus in the temple, conversing with the rabbis (Luke 2:41-51). Luke admires this, of course – but there were many fine young men, about to become teenagers, who knew their Bibles and were eager to have conversations with rabbis, whose job was to teach Bible to young men (and yes, only to the men, which is why the fascinating story of Jesus teaching a woman in Luke 10:38-42 is so striking!).
Jesus’ early life would have been quite harsh, as his family scraped out a meager existence, just surviving. He would have engaged in household chores with his mother, and then in manual labor helping his father. We might imagine him and Joseph in a cozy basement woodworking shop, but they would have gone out from their home to construction sites, and their work would have involved cutting and lifting large stones and boulders – perhaps in the rapid development of the splendid nearby city of Sepphoris.
We may also be sure that Joseph died at some juncture before Jesus was grown, since he is unmentioned after Jesus’ birth and the temple incident. What was it like for Jesus to see his father, who raised him, and with whom he worked daily, die?
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eYearThroughTheBible85 - baptized by John – Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying “I need to be baptized by you.” But Jesus answered, “Let it be so now. For thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. When Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, alighting on him, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
The Gospels leap pretty directly from the birth of Christ to this moment when he is fully grown, perhaps in his late twenties, bursting on the scene for a lightning quick ministry of no more than three years. What’s he been doing? How fascinating: Jesus doesn’t just take off to be the Messiah. He spends years as a “normal” person, and then when he is ready, he goes out into the wilderness and hears the fiery, in-your-face preaching of John the Baptist, who screams “Repent!” not just at first century Jews out in the middle of nowhere, but across the span of 2000 years at you and me, today – the notion being that if you want to meet up with Jesus, you first have to do some repenting, some hard assessment of how your life is out of sync with God.
Then Jesus is baptized in the very shallow Jordan river (it’s more of a stream, or a creek, really). Even John himself is stunned, and asks, “Why does Jesus need to be baptized?” Karl Barth answered, “Because He is committed unreservedly to subordination to God, and He is committed unreservedly to solidarity with us.” A perfect answer, and a challenge to us: to commit ourselves without reservation to submission to God, and to commit ourselves fully to other people.
And if we think about the Trinity, God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, no passage narrates their relationship so clearly as this one. Jesus the Son wades into the water. God the Father speaks, declaring “This is my beloved Son.” And the Holy Spirit descends “like a dove” on him. The one God has this mysterious threeness, a profound relationship of love, the Father sending the Son, the Son obeying the Father, the Son anointed by the Spirit, the Spirit weaving an invisible bond between Father and Son – and the delight of the Christian life is our being drawn into their circle, as we are privileged to share in the love, community, and mission of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
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eYearThroughTheBible86 - tempted by the devil – Matthew 4:1-11
Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted 40 days and nights, and he was hungry. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” But he answered, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, He will give his angels charge of you…” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” Again the devil took him to a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and said, “All these I will give you, if you worship me.” Then Jesus said, “Be gone, Satan, for it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Then the devil left him, and angels came and ministered to him.
Take a moment and look up Mark 1:12-13, which is a simpler version of the temptation of Jesus, and then compare Luke 4:1-13, very similar to Matthew, but with the three temptations by the devil in a different order! We can presume from this that Jesus was constantly tempted, various allures swirling about him during times of testing throughout his life.
Notice Jesus was led “by the Spirit” into the wilderness. For Jesus to fulfill his mission, this time of solitude, this time of testing his soul, was required – and perhaps we might reflect on our need for solitude, which we may well fear, suspecting that dark forces will tug on us, that we will have to face our woundedness, or how out of sync we are with God’s will in our worldly life. And if we dare to be led “by the Spirit,” we may find ourselves not in lush valleys but in daunting zones of difficult challenges.
Jesus is in the “wilderness.” We may picture stretches of sand, a cactus or two. But the wilderness of Judea is rocky, looming cliffs, caves (where predators live), a parched land harboring thieves and jackals… “Temptation” merits some thought: we tend to think of wicked ideas luring us, or an extra donut crying out for consumption. But the Greek word here means “testing,” and the Gospels seem clear that God allows or even presses us to be in situations where our faith is tested, where we find out if we are serious about God or not. Eating bread is not evil – but Jesus is on a mission, and he refuses to indulge himself, so passionate is his zeal to do what God has called him to do.
But the story is about Jesus, not us. Jesus achieves what we are incapable of – which is why he can save us who succumb to temptation and fail our tests! What does it mean for Jesus to be the Son of God? Satan presumes a definition that involves dashing off a few miracles, impressing the public, wielding awesome power, crushing foes. But Jesus is humble, lowly in heart, not about power but love, not eager to impress but to persuade.
Since we are in YearThroughTheBible, it’s intriguing that Satan is obviously a student of the Bible, and quotes it to try to undo Jesus! Just to know or rattle off a verse in the Bible doesn’t seal anything, does it? Charles Schulz penned a cartoon in which a young man said to his girlfriend, “Don’t bother me now. I’m looking for a verse of Scripture to back up one of my preconceived notions.” Bible reading requires diligence, persistence, reading all the Bible, weighing its emphases, being humbled, asking not “How can I use the Bible?” but rather “How can the God of this Bible use me?”
Of course, the whole question of “What is the devil?” could occupy us for a while, too…
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eYearThroughTheBible87 - put down your nets – Matthew 4:18-22
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. He said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
While Jesus enjoyed solitude with God, he was no loner; at the very outset, Jesus made Christianity a communal endeavor. He gathered followers, friends, coworkers around himself. Surprisingly, perhaps even to themselves, they followed, not knowing where they were going or how it would work out. They saw Jesus’ greatness, consistently misunderstood his agenda, shrank back from dangers he faced courageously – but then were transformed, stunning everyone when they found themselves catapulted across Asia and into Europe to spread this new faith.
Jesus called each one “disciple,” a word that means “student.” We too are called to be students, learners. There is a mental content to following Jesus, and the “discipline” of new habits, an altered routine of conformity to the one we try to follow.
In Yours are the Hands of Christ, I devoted a whole chapter to the way Jesus called (and calls) people; I still think this is right: “God does not call us just to general niceness. God has something specific to which you and I are called. God wants me here, not there. God wants you to do this, not that. We are called to do something major with our lives, and we are called to do something seemingly small within today’s schedule.” The secret is the realization that God isn’t one silently to leave us be, mailing little gifts to us from far away – but God is the God who calls, and our hope, our delight, is in attentiveness to that calling.
Matthew quite bluntly reminds us that these guys had families, occupations, responsibilities. Fishing wasn’t a hobby, but a livelihood, and a decent one on the northern rim of the lake called Galilee. The shock of the story is their response, which was not “Thanks for coming by, Jesus, we’ll see you next week.” Rather, they “immediately” put down their nets (their livelihood, their security!) and followed, risking everything, with no guarantees. No wonder people hesitate to get involved in the Christian life: they rightly suspect that faith sheds security – and who knows how such reckless passion for God might turn out?
Yet if we speak of “the cost of discipleship,” we must also weigh “the cost of non-discipleship.” The first disciples could have stayed with Zebedee and had a nice life. But they would have missed out on their true calling, the beautiful dream, the grand adventure. Following Jesus leads to… well, we may not know where, but we know it will be wonderful, what is perfect for our lives. And we know who will be there when we get there.
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eYearThroughTheBible88 - healing a paralytic – Mark 2:1-12
When Jesus returned to Capernaum, it was reported he was at home. Many gathered, so there was no longer room, not even about the door. He was preaching the word to them. Four men carried a paralytic to him. When they could not get near him because of the crowd, they dug through the roof above him, and let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some scribes sitting there questioned in their hearts, “Why does he speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they questioned, said, “Why do you question thus? Which is easier, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Take up your pallet and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth” – he said, “Rise, take up your pallet and go home.” And he rose, and immediately took up his pallet and went out before them all, so they were amazed and glorified God, saying “We never saw anything like this!”
We plunge into the Gospel of Mark, and find Jesus on a dizzying itinerary, walking swiftly from village to village, healing, teaching, stirring up controversy. This is not the sweet, serene “still life” Jesus of our fond imagining; he is active, with an urgency, in control, and drawing huge crowds, upsetting as many as he inspired.
Capernaum is nestled along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and tourists can walk into the synagogue where Jesus worshiped and taught; check out this fantastic virtual site on Capernaum!. Archaeologists found an octagonal church from the fifth century nearby – a church built right on top of a network of connected houses from the time of Jesus. The house in the middle was like all the others, simple stone walls, broken pottery and fish hooks lying on the floor, but different, in that a few decades after Jesus the walls of this one-room house were plastered, with graffiti scribbled on the walls, scrawlings of Christian words and symbols. Scholars conclude that this is the very house where Peter lived, where Jesus healed! A moving sight – and also a beautiful image, the notion of a Church being built on the foundation of a home.
The roof was not made of shingles, but of sticks packed with thatch and dirt. So when the men carrying the paralytic climbed to the roof, they literally “dug through” the roof (and we can envision sticks and clumps of dirt falling onto the heads of those inside!) and lowered this paralyzed man. Notice why Jesus heals: Mark does not say “When Jesus saw ‘his’ faith,” but rather, “When Jesus saw ‘their’ faith.” The faith of four friends brings about the healing of another person – which may tell us something crucial about Christian friendship and community.
In the ancient world, illness was frequently chalked up to sin, although we keep them distinct. Jesus was not one to blame illness on sin, but he did see the need to heal the whole person, not just the body but also the soul. For when Jesus healed, he didn’t just heal so the person in front of him would feel better. Jesus’ healings always had a “point,” a sermon attached. These early miracles were virtually teaching “props,” and also dramatic proofs that Jesus had a right to be heard, revealing his God-ness so people would listen and follow.
Jesus’ bigger mission wasn’t healing this or that person, but rather a much larger kind of healing, salvation itself. Jürgen Moltmann wrote, “These ‘miracles’ are merely the fore-tokens of salvation and the glory of God. Healing vanquishes illness. But it does not vanquish the power of death. Salvation is the annihilation of the power of death, raising men and women to eternal life. In this wider ministry, people are healed not through Jesus’ miracles, but through Jesus’ wounds.”
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eYearThroughTheBible89 - the beatitudes – Matthew 5:1-12
Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up on the mountain, sat down, opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when men revile and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
If we thumb over and compare Luke 6:20-49, plus other passages in Luke 9:57-18:14, we realize Jesus taught these kinds of things on multiple occasions. This great collection of Jesus’ teaching, chapters 5, 6 and 7 of Matthew, is called “The Sermon on the Mount.” The “mount” in question would have been a hill rising above the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. We are reminded of how Moses received the Old Testament law from God on a mountain; Jesus now teaches with such (or even greater!) authority.
The “preamble” to this Sermon we call “The Beatitudes.” These beatitudes are not commandments! but a profound description of a life well-regarded by God, one to be rewarded by God, if not now, in the future. The Greek word makarios means “blessed, fortunate, happy.” Notice how Jesus turns all our values and perspectives upside-down! He does not say “Blessed are those who work hard, they will have a comfortable retirement,” or “Happy are those who are fit and good-looking, for they will be popular,” or “Blessed are those from fine families, for they will enjoy advantages.” Look whom Jesus regards as blessed:
The poor in spirit: those with an inner attitude of those in economic and social distress, those with a sense of dependence, gratitude, humility, those who (as Martin Luther put it) know that “we are all of us beggars.”
Those who mourn: We pity mourners, but Jesus is all comfort to them, such is their hope because of his death and resurrection.
The meek: our culture despises meekness, but Jesus values the gentle, humble spirit, not timidity, but patient trusting in God, no ego clamoring for attention.
Hunger and thirst for righteousness: we pour all kinds of worldly goods into our selves to fill that gnawing hollowness we feel, but only righteousness, a life lived in sync with God, can satisfy our thirst – and the paradox is that even this thirst isn’t fully quenched, but our delight as Christians is in continually feeling thirsty for God!
Peacemakers: In a world bent on violence, in a world where might makes right, in a world that feel secure only in weaponry, in families where a raised voice or a cold stare trumps over love, in communities where litigation decides conflict, Jesus looks fondly and hopefully upon the peacemakers.
Pure in heart: Only the pure in heart can “see” God – as if the impurity in our life clogs our vision so we never really see God at all.
Persecuted: Christians through the centuries have been persecuted for their faith, and frankly, today, in a world that is decadent and far from holy, we should find ourselves at odds with our surroundings, not blending in comfortably, finding conflicts with a world out of sync with God, and there should be cost attached to our faith, and we need not be surprised if we are hassled and treated shabbily if we stick doggedly to God’s way and truth.
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eYearThroughTheBible90 - sermon on the mount – Matthew 5:17-48
Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come to fulfill them. Whoever relaxes one of these commandments shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them shall be called great. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
You have heard it said, “You shall not kill.” But I say to you that every one who is angry shall be liable to judgment.
You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Again you have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; if anyone sues and takes your coat, let him have your cloak too. Give to him who begs from you.
You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. If you love those who love you, what reward have you? You must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.
What happened to the sweet, loving, accepting Jesus, easily satisfied with “nice” behavior? Now he is probing around among the clutter of our tawdry minds! So we exhibit good behavior on the outside? God wants more. Your inner thoughts, motives, hidden intentions – you are responsible for them all, and God is looking for purity, a clean heart. Jesus takes the basic laws of the Old Testament and, far from throwing them out, ratchets up what is at stake by cutting to the heart of what they are about, why God gave them in the first place. The demands of the Christian life are not relaxed because of Jesus, but rather are heightened. Living as a Christian is deadly serious, as perfection of our inner and outer life is required of us. But Jesus didn’t come to demoralize; he came to empower, and to show mercy. How can this be?
If this passage has no other effect, it should slam the brakes on any smug self-righteousness. Think you’re all holy and pious? Give Jesus a little time and he will expose you for the sinner, the weakling, that you are. But this isn’t bad news, but good news, for we are saved by the mercy, the grace of God, not our titanic grand actions. We are utterly incapable of what Jesus describes, and so we are cast wholly on his mercy.
And at the same time, Jesus is very serious that we live a changed life. Jesus really wants you to be set free from the tyranny of anger, from the garbage of lust, from the poison of violence. Christians, knowing they are weak and sinful, yet knowing they are loved by this Jesus, set out to be nothing less than perfect, trusting not in their moral prowess, but in the power of God unleashed in the soul determined to be dependent upon God. In such lives, reconciliation begins to happen. Women are viewed differently. Violence is stemmed. And God’s loving, wise intention for humanity is fulfilled…
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eYearThroughTheBible91 - a sower – Mark 4:1-9
Again Jesus began to teach beside the sea. A very large crowd gathered, so he got into a boat, and he taught them many things in parables. He said, “Listen! A sower went out to sow. As he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on the rocky ground, where it had not much soil, and immediately it sprang up, but when the sun rose it was scorched, since it had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which choked it and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing and yielding thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Jesus taught by the sea, as the curved ground rising above inlets formed natural theaters for him speaking from a boat near the shore. From such an outdoor location, Jesus pointed to familiar people and places from agricultural, fishing life. He did not teach abstractly, enunciating principles (such as “there are 7 things you must believe” or “God is omnipotent, ineffable” or “there are 5 keys to the spiritual life”). Instead Jesus taught in “parables,” made-up stories, but taken from real life: seeds growing, barns torn down, fish caught, bridesmaids waiting for the wedding, a dysfunctional family, sewing, eating… Life isn’t like propositions. Life is like a story, tangible, mundane.
These stories reveal what God is up to, and simultaneously throw a cloak over the head of those who resist in confusion. Jesus says these stories are to be pondered slowly, letting them do their work on our bared souls. Clarence Jordan said a parable is like a Trojan Horse. At first it looks harmless and then – Bam! It’s got you. Parables don’t have a “point,” something easily mastered and shelved. They speak freshly on each hearing.
The first parable is about a sower. If you’d like an artistic image to focus on Jesus’ words, try the Millet or the van Gogh sower… We lunge and ask, “What kind of soil am I?” And the “point” seems to be that we should be fertile soil, not rocky or thorny soil.
But think about the sower. No sower in his right mind would waste seed on thorny, rocky places. But this crazed sower is profligate, flinging seed any and everywhere. Isn’t Jesus hinting that God is like that? doling out love on any and all people? And doesn’t the Gospel spring up in the most unlikely places? No just among the really religious, but among the vulnerable, the weak, the downtrodden, the despised? And does the wild imprudence of the sower suggest something to us about how we ought to go about being the Church? that we never succumb to being ultra-careful, but instead take chances, taking the Gospel into difficult places?
Later in Mark 4, we read one interpretation Jesus put on this parable – and it haunts us, as he indicates that the ruin of the seed comes from our worry, the cares of the world, wrong priorities, superficiality, paying little attention to God’s word…
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eYearThroughTheBible92 – good Samaritan – Luke 10:25-39
A lawyer put Jesus to the test: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said, “What is written in the law?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.”
But he, desiring to justify himself, said, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among robbers, who beat him, leaving him half dead. By chance a priest came along; when he saw him he passed by on the other side. Then a Levite also passed by. But a Samaritan came, saw him, had compassion, bound up his wounds, set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn and cared for him. Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
Now they went and entered a village. Martha received him into her house. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. She said to him, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious about many things. One thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which cannot be taken from her.”
In Jesus’ day, Jews played a theological game, asking not “What is your favorite passage in the Bible?” but rather, “Which one passage is the heart of the Scriptures?” For Jesus, a pair of verses, Deuteronomy 6:4 (“Love God”) and Leviticus 19:18 (“Love your neighbor”), bring into focus what it’s all about. Living as near this intersection as possible is the secret of the full life, pleasing to God.
As a teacher, Jesus never offers tidy packages, such as “Here are 7 principles of love for God” or “There are 6 ways to love your neighbor.” Instead he tells a story, and then winds up in a story – and you find yourself in the story, too. “Love” (in the parable of the Good Samaritan) isn’t just an inner emotion, but something concrete, touching, doing, sacrificing – and not just for someone easy to love, or someone you really like. The “neighbor,” Jesus suggests, is the one who is offensive to you, the one you are least likely to “like,” a dreadful Samaritan (whom the Jews despised)… which raises awesome questions about how and where we spend our time and energy. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “St. Francis seems to have liked everybody, but especially those others disliked him for liking.” Who is hard to love? and who is the stranger? According to Jesus, eternal life seems to hinge on whether we go out of our way, find these people, and love them, selflessly, thereby fulfilling God’s plan for our lives.
Or are we like the one beaten up and left by the side of the road? And it is the stranger, Jesus, who spares no expense to bring healing to us? Or have we hurt someone and left them behind? Jesus’ stories do not have one single “point.” They open up a vista of meaning and possibility, ushering us into the kingdom of God.
Right after this parable, Luke shares a remarkable visit to the home of Mary and Martha (the sisters of Lazarus!) in Bethany (Luke 10:38-42). Rabbis frequently came to homes as dinner guests, and the custom was for the women to scramble in the kitchen to prepare food while the men basked in the presence of the wise teacher. Mary flouts custom by joining the men, leaving Martha slaving alone. Martha upbraids her, but Jesus overturns politeness and convention. For him, “a woman’s place” is not in the kitchen, but at his feet, listening, learning, being still, not frantically rushing about producing, taking the simple path. Revolutionary for women! but just as revolutionary for men, as all of us are plagued by living in a busy, productive culture that cannot fathom stopping and taking time to listen to Jesus.
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eYearThroughTheBible93 - when you have a party – Luke 14:7-14
Jesus went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, and he told a parable, when he marked how they chose the places of honor: “When you are invited to a feast, do not sit in a place of honor, but go and sit in the lowest place. For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
The ancient world featured clear rules about meals, who at with whom, who sat in places of honor, and the dignity (and shame!) attached to eating (or not being invited to eat) were defining identities.
In this case, the words of Jesus require absolutely no explanation at all. The challenge of understanding here is quite simply whether we have any intention of doing what really is very do-able. If you and I tried, by the end of the week, we could have someone to dinner who is poor, maimed, lame, or blind. This would turn our social lives upside-down, how we think about cookouts, what children are included at birthday parties… and perhaps in these words we can find a program for how to be the Church.
Bishop Dick Wills once suggested we as a Church pray, “Lord, send us the people nobody else wants.” We invite, to the feast of the Church’s life, any and all, and perhaps especially people who are different from us. Do we really “get” what Jesus is trying to tell us about who is honored and who isn’t? and in whose estimation? People love to say, “The Bible is clear!” on various subjects. On whom we eat with, Jesus could not be more clear, more simple, more direct. Are we serious about following this Jesus, who would cause Miss Manners to shudder? How can we mirror now, down here, what eternal life with God will be like, as the liturgy says, “when we feast at His heavenly banquet”?
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eYearThroughTheBible94 - a father had two sons – Luke 15:11-32
Jesus continued, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son gathered all he had, set off for a far country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that country, and he began to be in want. So he hired himself out to a citizen there, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
Then he came to himself and said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will return to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let us have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Jesus made up the truest stories… How superb a storyteller was Jesus? This parable is often called “the Prodigal Son,” although I might argue its proper title should be “the Prodigal Sons,” or “the Prodigal Father”; both sons are “prodigal” in the sense of shutting themselves out from the father’s love, and the father is “prodigal” in the sense of generous, lavish, loving recklessly, totally.
Imagine being among the first people to hear this beautifully crafted story! It pulsates with emotion, continuing to speak a fresh word of hope, like an old movie or poem that moves you to tears every time. To talk about it is a little like explaining a joke: the explanation is nowhere near as powerful as the original.
We should note that we can discover much about ourselves in these sons, but even more about God and Jesus’ extraordinary program to bring the lost home, and to shake do-gooders out of their hardness. Jesus suggests that God’s deepest pleasure is a party, the delightful joy of healed relationships. Jesus depicts the father as running and embracing – both behaviors being regarded as embarrassing for men in Jesus’ day. But this father cares nothing for his own dignity; he is passionate only about his children coming home.
You might consider Rembrandt’s marvelous painting of the son’s welcome home, or read the lovely, meaningful book on the story and painting by Henri Nouwen; I preached on this text on “The Protestant Hour” a few years ago.
And I would add that Jesus doesn’t exactly finish the story. Does the older brother come in to the party? Or remain smugly outside? Does the younger brother turn his life around? We do not know; in a sense, Jesus leaves it open-ended for us to complete our own story with the Father.
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eYearThroughTheBible95 - who do they say that I am? – Matthew 16:13-25
When Jesus came to Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say I am?” They said, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah or Jeremiah.” He said, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Jesus answered, “Blessed are you, Simon bar-Jona. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Peter rebuked him, “God forbid! This should never happen to you.” But Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are not on the side of God, but of men.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
The story of Jesus, up to this point, has been all action. Jesus is in total command of every situation, healing, teaching, moving, confronting, strong, impressive. Now, standing at Caesarea Philippi among an impressive array of Roman temples dedicated to Caesar (who claimed to be God on earth!), Jesus asks how he is being understood. Peter, that unlikeliest leader of the disciples, identifies Jesus properly (as the “Christ,” the “Messiah,” the long-awaited anointed one), but misunderstands the consequences, for Jesus and for himself. For Jesus, being the Messiah isn’t a grand, popular trouncing of all foes; his agenda is the opposite of Caesar’s. Jesus’ coronation will be crucifixion. For Peter and those who would follow, discipleship isn’t comfort and success, but “taking up your cross,” “losing your life.”
Obviously there is a startling paradox at the heart of the Christian life. God demands everything of us, but “he who loses his life will save it.” “Take up your cross.” Who took up their crosses in Jesus’ world? Prisoners condemned to death! Jesus is saying that discipleship is like that, your old cozy life forever behind, a serious life of great cost ahead, measured by obedience to another. Notice this isn’t simple-minded “unselfishness.” Jesus urges us to be utterly selfish, the best possible route for us being giving up everything and following the son of the living God, our only true joy.
The whole plot of the Gospel story turns here. Jesus now heads toward Jerusalem to give up his life, not as some bad luck or accident of history. Jesus stops acting, and becomes the one acted upon. He stops dashing off miracles, and lets himself be treated unjustly – because God is love, and love must be vulnerable, love is wounded, love bears hurt and wrong, all for the sake of winning our hearts, achieving forgiveness, turning the world upside down.
We may even discern the plot of our lives in this turn. With age, frequently we move from being actors to those acted upon. We no longer control our fate – and we reel in sadness over this loss of identity. But Jesus’ truest identity came, not when he was calming the storm or healing the sick. Jesus revealed God when he suffered, when he passively was acted upon – and so perhaps our sense of self need not be wrapped up in what we accomplish, but in how we ultimately are acted upon, how we are loved, by grace.
Using a little play on words (“Peter” in Greek means “rock”), Jesus charges Peter with the vocation of leading the new Church coming into being. According to tradition, Peter eventually traveled to Rome, where he was put to death. Archaeologists believe they have found his actual burial spot, beneath St. Peter’s basilica in Rome!
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eYearThroughTheBible96 - Lazarus raised from the dead – John 11
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. When he heard Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer where he was. Then he said, “Let us go to Judea.” But the disciples said, “They are seeking to stone you there.” Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has died. Let us go to him.” When Jesus arrived in Bethany, he found Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Many had come to console Martha and Mary. When Martha heard Jesus was coming, she met him and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said, “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Then Mary came to Jesus, fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Jesus saw her weeping, and he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They said, “Come and see.” Jesus wept. The Jews said, “See how he loved him!” Then Jesus, deeply moved, came to the tomb, a cave with a stone upon it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha said, “By now there will be a stench.” But Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you would see the glory of God?” So they removed the stone. Jesus cried out loudly, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many who saw believed in him, but others went to the authorities, who said, “If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy our holy place and nation.” So they took counsel on how to put him to death.
How moving, this drama that marks the high point of John’s Gospel, set in the village of Bethany, painted by Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Van Gogh and Blake. All the agony, all the delight of the life of faith, and the identity of Christ, are portrayed here. How many of our prayers cry out from the darkness of God’s apparent absence: “Lord, if you only had been here…”? How beautiful is verse 35, the shortest and most pregnant of the whole Bible: “Jesus wept”? How distressing that, even in the face of the raising up of a dead man, many still did not believe?
How interesting is it that Jesus’ tardiness isn’t accidental! He lingers, deliberately, not because he does not love Lazarus and his sisters. Rather, he lingers, evidently because he loves them more deeply than we might imagine, that he wants more for them (and for us) than the mere return to health of a person. It’s a sign, a preview of the fulfillment of Jesus’ mission. He declares, “I am the resurrection.” He doesn’t say, “I will give you resurrection,” or “I will perform the resurrection for you.” Instead he says, “I am the resurrection,” intimating that eternal life isn’t me getting to live on forever, but rather that eternal life is that Jesus loves me, and I love Jesus, and our future is togetherness with him, our destiny is this Jesus, about whom stunned onlookers said, “See how he loved him!”
Notice how Jesus raises Lazarus. He doesn’t drag him bodily from the tomb. Instead he speaks: “Come forth!” – just as God spoke and the heavens, earth, stars, and creatures came to be back in Genesis. Jesus utters a word, and the world changes. Lazarus is “bound,” and needs to be “let go,” a tantalizing hint that Christ would unbind us and set us free from our fears, habits, sorrows, anxieties, and death itself.
Everybody isn’t entirely happy with resurrection happening! Some believe, but others resist, and are determined to squash the power of the life of Jesus, for they understand (quite correctly!) that the resurrection spells the overturning of the status quo, that the world’s values and today’s power arrangements are all turned on their ear when the dead start living again. And so Jesus, precisely because he came to give the world what it most desperately needed, walks into the teeth of death itself…
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eYearThroughTheBible97 - washing the disciples’ feet – John 13:1-17
Now before the Passover, when Jesus knew his hour had come, having loved his own, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had put it into the heart of Judas to betray him, Jesus rose, girded himself with a towel, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. Peter said, “Lord, you wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.” When he was done, he asked, “Do you know what I have done to you? If I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. A servant is not greater than his master. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
Having entered Jerusalem to fanfare (Matthew 21:1-9), having overturned tables of moneychangers (Mark 11:15-19) – in short, having given the religious and political authorities every reason to be anxious, Jesus prepared for his final meal, his “last supper,” with his disciples. Matthew, Mark and Luke focus on the celebration of Passover, that sacred evening when Jews celebrated God’s salvation of Israel from Egypt, remembered by eating lamb, unleavened bread, and drinking wine.
John presents a poignant, extended conversation over this meal. Jesus spoke somberly of his fate, and in a high, dramatic moment, Jesus got up from the meal and washed his disciples’ feet.
In the ancient world, where all roads and paths were dusty and muddy, footwashing was a regular chore. But people washed their own feet, or the wealthy hired slaves for such a menial task. If anything, Jesus’ servants probably should have washed their master’s feet! But Jesus isn’t about being served, but serving; nothing is too menial, too humbling, for Jesus who was humility, who made himself a slave to set us free.
By washing their feet on the last night of his life, Jesus exposed our sense of social class and hierarchy as a sham. If footwashing isn’t beneath Jesus’ dignity, then nothing is beneath my dignity – and so all people become my friends, my responsibility, my privilege.
Verse 1 says Jesus “loved them to the end,” a phrase that in Greek means not just “to the end of his life,” but “fully, completely.” Jesus’ ultimate washing of his disciples came, not just after supper, but the next day on the cross. The disciples didn’t need clean feet as much as they needed cleansed lives. Our humble service to others is but a spontaneous reflex, when we grasp the immense love Christ has poured out upon us.
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eYearThroughTheBible98 - not my will but your will – Matthew 26:30-56
When they had sung a hymn they went to the Mount of Olives to a place called Gethsemane. He told his disciples, “My soul is sorrowful unto death. Sit here and watch with me while I go and pray.” Going farther, he fell on his face and prayed, “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but your will be done.” And so he prayed three times. Then he found the disciples sleeping, and said, “Could you not watch with me one hour? Behold, my betrayer is at hand.” Judas came, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs. As a sign, Judas kissed him. Then they laid hands on Jesus and seized him. Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber? Day after day I sat in the temple and you did not seize me. But all this has taken place to fulfill the Scriptures.” Then all his disciples forsook him and fled.
The shadows lengthened as Jesus prayed intently in the Garden of Gethsemane – and it is hard to imagine a more poignant moment, with wily politicians and armed soldiers stalking Jesus on the hillside, Jesus in agony seeking, shrinking from, then embracing the most difficult of all callings, the disciples drowsy with incomprehension.
Each of the 4 Gospels provides a unique, fascinating detail. In Matthew 26, one disciple drew a sword and cut off the ear of a soldier, only to be upbraided by Jesus who said, “He who takes up the sword will perish by the sword.” Mark 14 relates that one of Jesus’ followers was nabbed by his garment, but fled without it… Luke 22 states the Jesus prayed so fervently “his sweat became like great drops of blood” (a poignant foreshadowing of his fate!), but also that “an angel strengthened him.” John 18 – fascinating! – says that when Jesus said to the squadron of soldiers, “I am Jesus,” they all fell to the ground!
How ironic is Judas’s kiss! Judas did love Jesus, but with a limitation; his affection was twisted into betrayal when Jesus disappointed Judas – whom Jesus loved with no limitations at all.
“Not my will, but your will be done.” We may be tempted to hear this as fatalistic, as if Jesus in resignation simply bears his fate. But Jesus isn’t resigned. He actively seeks and embraces God’s will, which isn’t some dark luck, but is rather when, with trusting faith, we go where God leads us.
At the same time, Jesus went where we cannot go, for only he could save the world! He did so not by swatting the soldiers aside as unjust evildoers; he let them do as they wished to him. As the Bible puts it theologically, he was “handed over,” embodying the vulnerability, the suffering of holy love, so determined to win us, to be loved by us, that he gave everything for us.
Notice the dual nature of his prayer, which is a superb model for our praying. Sometimes we think we shouldn’t ask God for what we feel is selfish. Or sometimes we only pray for what we want. Jesus prays his heart: with every fiber of his being he would prefer to avoid getting arrested, mocked, and nailed to an olive tree! So he pleads passionately, “Let this cup pass from me!” To this plea, he joins a second, widening his gaze to see the big picture, God’s way which is bigger than “me and my preferences,” earnestly asking, “Not my will, but your will” – a passionate zeal to be in sync with what God is about in the world.
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eYearThroughTheBible99 - the trial of Jesus – Matthew 26:57-27:31
Those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest. The whole council sought false testimony against Jesus so they might put him to death, but they found none. Two finally came forward and said, “This fellow said ‘I can destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days.’” The high priest shouted, “Have you no answer?” But Jesus was silent. They spat in his face, and struck him repeatedly. When morning came they delivered him to Pilate the governor, who asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” When he was accused, Jesus made no answer, not to a single charge, so the governor wondered greatly. While he was on the judgment seat, Pilate’s wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him in a dream.” Pilate asked the crowd, “What shall I do with Jesus called Christ?” They all shouted, “Crucify him!” He said, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So when Pilate saw he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he washed him hands before the crowd, saying “I am innocent of his blood.” And the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then the soldiers took Jesus to the praetorium, stripped him, put a scarlet robe on him, a plaited a crown of thorns for his head. They mocked him, spat on him, and struck him on the head. Then they led him away to crucify him.
Pontius Pilate, cruel, forceful, effective, gets caught between the religious leaders, threatened by Jesus’ words, actions, and growing following, and the unruly mob crowding Jerusalem for the Passover. Confused, but determined to keep the peace, Pilate tries Jesus at the “judgment seat,” and then has Jesus executed by crucifixion, the grisly, grotesque form of capital punishment that disgraced the Roman world. Jurisdiction was a problem in this case. The religious authorities piece together some bogus witnesses with trumped up charges in a middle of the night proceeding.
The ironies in this text are many. The witnesses unwittingly tell the truth, but when Jesus had spoken of destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days, he had referred to his own body, the palpable presence of God on this earth! Pilate scoffs over the notion that this simple, weak man would be so foolish as to be thought a king; but the eyes of faith see that Jesus’ kingship is different from Pilate’s, not won by force of arms, but by love and grace. Pilate’s own wife (named Claudia Procla in the Christian tradition, which ranked her as a saint!) reveals Jesus’ innocence. The people stupidly try to rid themselves of their one hope: we shudder when we hear them cry “His blood be on us!” Strangely, and marvelously, the only thing that can save these lost souls is the very blood of Jesus they themselves shed! …and we are wise to see ourselves in this crowd. We too crucify Christ with our wayward lives, our lackluster faithfulness.
Jesus, beaten to a pulp, is forced to carry his cross to the place of crucifixion just outside the city walls. They would have tied just the crossbeam to his shoulders, which in turn would be affixed to an upright shaft of olive wood along the highway for onlookers to see, and be warned. Who is on trial in this tragic moment? Not really Jesus at all, but the powers of this world; even you and I are being tried, and the ultimate verdict on us is determined by how we position ourselves, our lives, with respect to this Jesus bearing his cross.
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eYearThroughTheBible100 - the crucifixion – Mark 15:20-39
They led Jesus out to crucify him, bringing him to a place called Golgotha (the place of the skull). They offered him wine mingled with myrrh, but he did not take it. They crucified him, dividing his garments and casting lots for them. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” With him they crucified two robbers. Those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads, saying, “Ha! Save yourself, come down from the cross!” So also the priests mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” When the sixth hour came, there was darkness over the land until the ninth hour. And Jesus cried with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. When the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
We speak of the Crucifixion. Thousands were crucified, but one stands at the epicenter of history, memory, and hope: Jesus, having hung around with the wrong people, having exposed the hypocrisy of the pious, having struck fear into the armed with his unarmed, disarming way, having loved the loveless with no thought to his own security, suffered the worst execution, reserved for the worst criminals. Painted by Grünewald and Mantegna, carved by Michelangelo, sung by the greatest musicians and believed in by humble Christians: the darkest day did turn out to be “Good” Friday.
“What wondrous love is this?” Death by crucifixion: nails shattering bones in the wrists and ankles, the weight of the agonized body finally growing too great to be pulled up for one more breath, the end usually coming by asphyxiation. The Gospels are clear: this is the glory of God, at the ugliest, most unjust moment imaginable, the love of God poured out for us all. Notice how Jesus prays, not any pious sweetness, but hurling a challenge at God, yet a challenge drawn directly from the Bible’s storehouse of prayers, Psalm 22, which he would have learned from his mother when he was a little boy. His mother Mary stands watching the lifeblood she had given him being drained out as he cries humanity’s constant question: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” When we feel forsaken, God is one with us in Jesus’ cry, and we are no longer alone.
It is not the case that God is wrathful, and somebody had to bear God’s punishment – so Jesus took our place; rather, for people who understood the value of sacrifice, who worshipped God by offering what was most precious to them, they saw in Jesus’ suffering a life offered totally to God, the radical embodiment of God’s lavish love for us, God coming down sacrificially to enter our mortal frame not merely to be in solidarity with us in our losses, but to redeem us, to raise us up to be with and very much like God forever. To think more about why Jesus died, take a few minutes for my YouTube, The Passion of the Christ.
In John 19, Jesus makes tender provision for his mother’s care. John also reports that blood and water gush from his side when a soldier pierces him with a lance. Matthew 27 reports that the curtain of the temple is torn in two just as Jesus dies, and that immediately earthquakes follow, with the dead emerging from the tombs! And in Luke 23, Jesus prays for those executing him, “Father, forgive them,” and one of the thieves next to him asks for Jesus to remember him in paradise.
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eYearThroughTheBible101 - empty tomb – Mark 16:1-8
When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, brought spices, so they might anoint him. Very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. They were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back – it was very large. Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe. And they were amazed. He said to them, “Do not be amazed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Church veterans take this story for granted, as it seems just as familiar and normal as the flowers blooming in the Spring and pretty pastel dresses. But for those who had never expected it, for those who were forlorn and desperately sad over the loss of Jesus, the shock was intense. Little wonder they were “afraid,” an emotion we don’t often associate with Easter, but appropriate, given that some unheard of power is now on the loose on our planet. This man, dead, buried, his tomb guarded, is out… and nothing in the universe would ever be the same.
The Gospels vary in their tellings of this story. In John, it is Mary who encounters Jesus in a garden place. And John continues with fascinating stories of Jesus “breathing” on his disciples, of “doubting Thomas” touching Jesus’ wounds, of Jesus feeding breakfast to his friends one morning, and commissioning Peter to “feed my sheep.” Luke tells the beautiful story of an encounter on the road to Emmaus (which we’ll read about in our next email). Luke also reports that, because it was “women” who told the story, it seemed to hearers to be “an idle tale.” Matthew mentions that soldiers were paid off so they would lie and say the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body. In two Gospels, Jesus appears around Jerusalem, in the other two way up in Galilee.
In my book, Introducing Christianity, I talk about why these stories seem so poorly-managed. The writers should have put their heads together to get the story straight! But obviously there was no effort at all to put on any kind of “front” in telling about the resurrection. It is as if the fact of the matter were so contradictory to normal rationality that words could hardly capture it all, so dizzied were those who saw Jesus, so overwhelmed those who believed, so excited were those souls set on fire by this superb news about Jesus. Jürgen Moltmann is right, I think: “The message of the resurrection brought by the disciples could hardly have lasted a single hour in the city if it had been possible to show that Jesus’ body was lying in the grave.” Perhaps more powerful is the utter transformation of the lives of those who saw, whisked from dejected, meager fishermen into preachers who risked life and limb to preach this story and none other throughout the known world.
It is intriguing to realize that the stories of Jesus’ resurrection do not seem to be driving home the message that “Jesus rose, so you can go to heaven when you die.” Instead, the focus of the first Easter stories is on the glory of God, the ratification that Jesus really is beyond fantastic, and should be followed, obeyed, imitated, and lauded. If we reduce the story and make it about “me,” we miss the universe’s most profound truth about the power and purpose of God, far larger than me and my life; our delight is being swept up on the wave of God’s relentless mission to redeem all of creation.
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eYearThroughTheBible102 - road to Emmaus – Luke 24:13-35
Two disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, talking with each other about all that had happened. Jesus himself drew near and went with them, but they did not recognize him. He said, “What are you conversing about?” They stopped, looking sad. Cleopas answered, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know what happened? concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet might in deed before God and the people? how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be crucified? We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Besides, it is now the third day, and some women amazed us, for they did not find his body at the tomb, and said they saw angels. He said, “O foolish men, slow of heart to believe what the prophets have spoken! Wasn’t it necessary that Christ should suffer and enter into glory?” And beginning with Moses and the prophets, he interpreted to them in the scriptures the things concerning himself. So they drew near to the village. He appeared to be going on, but they constrained him, saying “Stay with us, for it is near evening.” So he was at table with them, and he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened the scriptures?” Then they rose, found the eleven and told them what had happened on the road, how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
The Gospels relate several episodes from the forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and his final departure into heaven. John (chapters 20 and 21) tells lovely stories about Mary Magdalene, “doubting” Thomas, and Peter (whom Jesus asked three times, “Do you love me?”). But the most eloquent story is Luke’s masterful telling of what happened on the road to Emmaus, a small village out in the country near Jerusalem; you might reflect a few moments on the marvelous paintings by Caravaggio and Rembrandt.
The crucifixion of Christ and the first reports of his resurrection did not provoke hymns or an explosion of faith. Trudging down the road, these disciples are dejected, their hopes dashed, the story so unimagineable that they do not even recognize Jesus when he is right in front of them! “We had hoped he would be the one…” You can fill in the blank from your own life, or from the life of the world, for disappointment is rampant in our souls.
Notice: they recognized Jesus only after three things happened: 1. They delved into the Scriptures together. Too often we want to know God without troubling ourselves with the Bible, but (as Luther put it) the Bible is “the swaddling clothes in which Christ is laid.” The Scriptures are God’s divinely-ordained, merciful, gracious means by which we can know and experience God – and especially when we probe the Scriptures with other seekers.
2. Jesus was known to them in the breaking of the bread. Holy Communion is the highest moment of the Christian life, for Christ is mysteriously present each time we gather at the table and break this bread, symbolic of his act of salvation – and do so together, for we are one with him, one together because of him. And, surprisingly:
3. Don’t forget that their simple effort at hospitality was the prelude to their awareness of Christ! He was going on, but they “constrained” him to stay with them, to share a meal. Again, we often feel we do not know Christ because we never meet up with the poor, we never reach out to those desperately in need of food and shelter. But when we do, not only do we help others, but we discover Christ, alive and blessing us.
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eYearThroughTheBible103 - the day of Pentecost – Acts 2:1-47
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were together in one place. Suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, filling the house. There appeared to them tongues as of fire, resting on each of them. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews from every nation. At this sound the multitude came together, bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were amazed, saying “Are not these Galileans? How is it that each of us hears in his own language? What does this mean?” But others, mocking, said “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter lifted up his voice: “These men are not drunk, but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel, ‘In the last days I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. I will show wonders, and it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Jesus, a man attested by God with mighty works and wonders, was crucified by lawless men. But God raised him up, and of this we are witnesses.” When they heard this, they were cut to the heart. And those who received his word were baptized, some 3000 souls.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and prayers. Fear came upon everyone. All who believed held all things in common, selling their possessions and distributing to any who had need. And the Lord added to their number daily those being saved.
Thus was the Church born. Acts is actually volume 2 of a pair, the first volume being the Gospel of Luke. We see that the burgeoning life of the Church is to be the continuation of what Jesus began. Still not fully grasping what the future would hold, Jesus’ first followers thought they might just move on with their lives now that Jesus was gone. Gathered for Pentecost, a great Jewish festival celebrating the harvest, they were shocked by an experience so explosive, so extraordinary, that words could barely capture the moment: it was “like a rushing wind, like fire, like being drunk.” But this experience wasn’t something for them to enjoy, to bask in the warm fuzzy sense of God’s presence. Rather, this Holy Spirit, this great new gift to the Church, catapulted them out into the street, zealous to share the story of Jesus with anybody who would listen.
Notice how the Spirit is this profound burst of energy for the weary, directionless disciples! God’s great gift to us still is this surprising passion ignited in us, not our own doing, something that happens to us as we are available to God, open to God… and not just for me as an individual, but for you and me, together, the Church!
We can never be sure what Acts means when it says “They spoke in other tongues.” Some Christians today take this phenomenon as a litmus test: if you haven’t spoken in tongues, you aren’t really a Christian. Others think of this as something special that happened to (and only to) that first generation of disciples, who could never have reached the world in any other way. I like to think of this moment as a challenge to us to communicate the Gospel to people today who don’t know our lingo, who aren’t insiders. How will we find the words, the language, to tell people the life-changing story of Jesus? So often our jargon gets in the way, and the Spirit of God invites us to speak in new, creative ways that bring understanding, not confusion, division or judgment, hope to the hopeless, purpose to the hollow.
Interestingly, when the Gospel latched on to these people, their lives were totally changed: social status vanished as a factor, your possessions were no longer your own, everything was turned upside down – raising a few hard questions about how comfortably we Christians today continue to fit in to a culture that is far from Christ…
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eYearThroughTheBible104 - conversion of Paul – Acts 9
Saul, breathing threats against the disciples of the Lord, asked the high priest for documents, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, he might arrest them. Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He said, “Who are you?” He said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting, but rise and enter the city, where you will be told what to do.” Those traveling with him were speechless. Saul rose, but he could see nothing for three days. The Lord spoke to Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, “Go to the street called Straight, and inquire for a man named Saul.” Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard of this man, how much evil he has done.” But the Lord said, “Go, for he is my chosen instrument to carry my name to the Gentiles.”
The most significant moment in the early Church was the conversion of Saul (known to us by his Roman name, Paul), painted by Caravaggio and Michelangelo. His extraordinary impact on the progress, scope and very definition of Christianity make Paul a pivotal figure. Critics believe he ruined a simpler, earthier religion Jesus would have espoused; admirers believe Paul simply drew the truest, most profound conclusions about the mission and identity of Jesus.
Reared in Tarsus to be a pious Jew, Paul wished to stamp out this new phenomenon, Christianity. At first, division between Jews and Christians wasn’t over whether Jesus was the Messiah or not. Plenty of Jews thought various men were the Messiah… The issue was over the law and its observance, diet customs, inclusion of non-Jews. For Paul, everything changed in his mystical, startling encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.
Paul was “converted,” but not in the way we often think of conversion. He was not a wicked man who turned good. He was not irreligious, but super-religious before his conversion! Paul quite literally embodies what conversion to Christianity meant: he was con-verted (meaning “turned around”), moving now in a totally new, shocking direction – and all because of his encounter with Jesus, raised from the dead, active through the Spirit on earth. Paul’s change was sudden (although it did take him a few days in Damascus and then Antioch with various helpers before he could “see”), whereas most of us may patiently meander through longer stages along the way to becoming followers of Christ.
Most importantly, notice that Paul wasn’t converted just so he could get a ticket into heaven, or have a thrilling experience of God, or an enjoyable, comfortable life. To him, becoming a Christian was the most arduous life conceivable – for his turning around entailed a vocation, a task, a calling. At the very moment he met Jesus, he was cast in a new role, as God saved him because God had some huge work for him to do. And so it is for us. Conversion (or having faith in God), if it means anything, is never just a great thing for me to do for myself. Faith means I listen, and God tells me where I will go, what I will do, how I will serve. The world was never the same after Paul encountered the risen Lord, as he took the story of Jesus to places it had never been.
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eYearThroughTheBible105 – conversions in Philippi – Acts 16
They went down to Troas. A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was beseeching him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” Immediately we sought to go there, concluding God had called us to preach to them. We made a direct voyage to Neapolis, and then went to Philippi, a Roman colony. On the Sabbath we went to the riverside, and we spoke to women who had gathered. One who heard was named Lydia, from Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to give heed to Paul’s words. She was baptized, with her household.
Then they were met by a slave girl, who brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul crying out for many days, but Paul was annoyed, and cast a spirit out of her. When her owners saw their hope for profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and brought them before the magistrates, saying, “These men are disturbing our city!” The crowd joined in, and after having many blows inflicted, they were thrown into prison.
But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying, singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, the foundations were shaken, and the doors opened. The jailer woke, and drew his sword to kill himself, but Paul cried, “Do not harm yourself, for we are here.” The jailer, trembling, asked, “What must I do to be saved?” They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” He took them the same hour of the night, washed their wounds, and was baptized with all his family.
Paul traveled over 10,000 miles! and in Acts 16 we read of his first foray into Europe, to the “little Italy” colony of Philippi, where with great drama he founds a church with whom he continued to correspond and share warm friendship until the end of his life.
In this stirring drama, three very different people are converted, and all become one in the newborn Church of Philippi. Lydia, who was wealthy and also very religious, heard the story of Jesus, and stopped just being “religious” and became a Christian, even opening her home (which must have been a large one) to become the church building!
Then a slave girl: we know that young women under the influence of hallucinogenics claimed to utter riddles from the god Apollo – all for hire, of course. This particular slave girl is healed by Paul – and Acts 16 demonstrates how not everybody gets excited when somebody is healed… and at the same time how Christianity, when it arrived in town, upset even the economic foundations of people’s lives! Civil disobedience has stellar precedent in the Bible.
And then the jailer: who is free? and who isn’t? Paul and Silas, behind bars, were truly free, exhibiting their freedom by singing joyfully at midnight in a dark, dank, cold stone hole in the ground. The jailer outside with the keys? Not free – or not yet. He believed, and probably lost his job because of it (once he took the prisoners to his home to help them!). With sheer delight we can imagine the first worship gatherings in Philippi: wealthy Lydia sitting next to a slave girl (with whom she would never have deigned to speak the week before), sitting next to the unemployed jailer, crossing all social boundaries, defying custom and authority, living out the radical Christian life – and posing countless questions to us about our comfortable existence, and whom we go to church with…
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eYearThroughTheBible106 - justification by faith – Romans 3:22-28
There is no distinction. Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood. This was to show God’s righteousness, as in his divine forbearance he passed over sins. What becomes of boasting? It is excluded. For a man is justified by faith, apart from works of law.
After the Gospels and Acts, the remaining 22 “books” of the Bible are all really nothing but letters; we are actually reading somebody else’s mail! All are addressed to particular people with particular problems, and are pretty personal. This fact does not make these letters less relevant to us, but actually more relevant. Our faith is not something abstract in the rarefied air of “timeless truths”; our faith gets lived out in particular moments and issues among people we know. We need “timely truths,” and as we read these letters, we begin to understand the meaning of Christ in real, daily life.
Once Jesus was gone, a huge task for the early Christians was figuring out what exactly to believe about Jesus – and no letter is of more help than Paul’s letter to the Romans. His longest and most theological letter, Romans was Paul’s attempt to lay out for the fledgling Church in Rome (where Paul had not yet been) what Jesus’ death and resurrection means. Some writers have even spoken of “the Roman road to salvation,” picking key verses in the letter which, if followed, lead you to a personal relationship with Christ. But you are wiser to read Paul’s full thinking, which is moving and personal. He is not ticking off five key ingredients or points, but rather pouring out his heart to them and so to us.
We are in need of “justification” because of our sin. In the modern world, sin seems like some fossil out of our religious past, as we indulge all kinds of behavior, caring little about God’s will for us to be holy, as we explain away our aberrant behavior as stemming from psychological causes, of which we are victims. The Episcopal prayer, “We have offended against thy holy laws,” seems distant, as we have not bothered much to find out what God’s holy laws are!
But sin is as real as ever, and perhaps more lethal than ever since we are not as grieved by our waywardness as previous generations. We are very much responsible for the fact that we suffer a fractured relationship with God. A huge gulf of our devising separates us from God, one that is bridged not by our goodness, but by the cross of Christ. All fall short of God’s glory, and we dare not presume that we have fallen just 8% short, so God will give us a well-deserved boost the rest of the way, while others have fallen 87% short and will never reach heaven. All have fallen 100% short.
The more we know about God’s laws, the more we know we are vulnerable and desperately in need of God’s free gift of love. On our own we have the ability to sin, to wander lost, and then to die. Jesus died so we might be “justified,” so we might gain “righteousness,” which is not some superior spiritual attitude. God is righteous, even though we aren’t, and God’s undeserved, unearnable gift is a relationship with us grasped only by faith.
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eYearThroughTheBible108 – folly of the cross – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. It is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? Since the world did not know God, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Christ the power of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider you call. Not many of you were wise by worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth, but God chose the foolish to shame the wise, God chose the weak to shame the strong, so that no human being might boast.
Paul wrote with stunning eloquence. No passage is more riveting than this opening of his letter to Corinth, a grand city where social barriers were shattered by Christianity: many who were poor and uneducated wound up in a house church with a few of the high and mighty. To the great thinkers of every generation, we try to persuade them that Christianity is rational, intellectually substantial – and it is. But we dare not forget that at the heart of the Gospel is a kind of craziness, an irrationality, something beyond human imagining, a message that will forever strike the brilliant as utter nonsense. Face it: the story of an omnipotent God taking on flesh as a poor man, who was misunderstood and executed in the most gruesome manner, only to burst out of the grave, the story of God’s immeasurable mercy and love for even the worst of us… What kind of foolishness is this?
In ancient times the notion of any good attached to a cross was even crazier. Frankly, many of the first Christians were a bit embarrassed that a moment so shamefully disgraceful could be at the center of their faith – and they were ridiculed cruelly, and often. Graffiti have been found mocking Christianity, one with a donkey impaled on a cross.
Even the most brilliant secular thinkers have hunches that our accepted human perspective is terribly flawed. Socrates badgered poor Callicles into exasperation: “If what you say is true, then the life of us mortals must be turned upside down, and we are everywhere doing the opposite of what we should.” William Temple called the world “a shop window into which some mischievous person has sneaked and switched all the price tags around.” The Gospel isn’t a warm fuzzy blanket on life as we know it, on life as affirmed by everybody everywhere. The Gospel is radical, shattering all our values, turning the world as advertised on its ear.
It is as if God has played the grandest joke on all of humanity, a merciful joke, luring us in our laughter to realize that we depend not on ourselves but on God, not on our wits but on God’s mercy, not on our ability but on God’s grace. Thank God we need not be deceived or duped any longer by a world of wild goose chases. In “The Lord of the Rings,” Gandalf writes a letter to Frodo that echoes Paul’s letter to Corinth: “All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; From the ashes a fire shall be woken, A light from the shadows shall spring; The crownless again shall be king.”
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eYearThroughTheBible109 - the body of Christ – 1 Corinthians 12-14
Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. By one Spirit we are all baptized into one body. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the ear should say “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong,” that would not make it any less a part. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? The eye cannot say to the hand “I have no need of you,” not the head to the feet. On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable. God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the inferior part, that the members may care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together. If one is honored, all rejoice together.
This picturesque image of a big group of people as a “body” was used often in the ancient Roman world. Rulers spoke this way to keep people in their places, to prevent them from asserting their individuality, and so to keep the emperor and his henchmen in power.
For Paul, the “body” image takes on a beautiful new perspective. His purpose is to set people free to be the people God made them to be, so they might find their gifts and use them. Paul wants people, rich and poor, brilliant and plodding, to find their place in the family of God, to sense support and camaraderie, to know that together we can do more than any one of us alone. Paul even declares that the weakest member is the most important – and nobody else in the Roman empire talked that way!
The Church can imagine itself as nothing more wonderful than being the body of Christ. We discover our selves in community. We use who we are for the greater good. We suffer and delight together; we accomplish together far more, and with far more pleasure, than we can alone. And when we do what we do as Christians, then Christ is palpable, tangible – and people literally see Christ, right here on earth. Teresa of Avila wrote a lovely poem back in the 16th century that became the theme of my first book: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, No hands but yours, No feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks out on a hurting world. Yours are the feet with which he goes about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.”
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eYearThroughTheBible110 - your body is a temple – 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. I will be enslaved by nothing. The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shun immorality. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own. You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
At Christmas, children sing “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.” The Spirit’s merciful, kindly intention is to make us fit for God.
Theologians have spoken of a doctrine called “sanctification.” “Justification” (our salvation) is what God has done “for” us. “Sanctification” (meaning “made holy”) is what God does “in” us. Gordon Fee claims that “for Paul there is no such thing as ‘salvation in Christ’ that does not also include righteousness on the part of God’s people… because both ‘getting in’ and ‘staying in’ are the work of the Spirit.”
Why should it matter if we are sanctified? God made us, you and me, in God’s own image. We are the image of God, we are the way God is imaged in this world, and so we must be holy. Paul said that my body is “the temple of the Holy Spirit.” How humbling! How fearsome! How manifestly impossible it is for me to be anything like the kind of temple our splendidly wonderful God would need!
And yet I am to be, you are to be this temple. St. Basil put it like this: “The Lord commands… the Spirit strengthens. What kind of strengthening is this? Perfection in holiness, which expresses itself in an unyielding, unchangeable commitment to goodness. Such holiness is impossible without the Spirit.”
The Spirit has every right to claim my body as a temple, for God made me. All that I am belongs to God. So every thing I do with my body, everything I put into my body, every place my body goes – all is to be sanctified by God’s Spirit. Eating, physical intimacy, exercising, grooming, taking medicine, drinking, facial expression: all has the potential to be a witness to the Spirit of God! This requires considerable prayer, diligence, faithfulness, and sacrifice… but the glory is beyond imagining.
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eYearThroughTheBible111 - fruit of the Spirit - Galatians 5
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand fast therefore. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Walk by the Spirit. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit. The works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like. I warn you: those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against these there is no law.
It is fascinating to realize that the “works of the flesh” sound like the cool, fun life in America. We prize our freedom, but we squander freedom on foolishness that only separates us from God! Freedom isn’t doing whatever I want. Freedom is being set free to be the person God made me to be. The beginning of freedom isn’t willfulness, but submission. I submit to God, I yield to God, I depend upon God, and then I am liberated by the Holy Spirit to be me, the real me, the me that will live with God forever.
What does the real me look like? “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Holiness is not a matter of gritting your teeth and trying really diligently to do what God requires. We may grit our teeth, and we do try hard. But I am not able to do what God wants, I am not capable of the life God wants for me. A changed life is the gift of God’s Spirit.
As a humble believer, I know that any good that I manage is “not I, but Christ in me” (Galatians 2:20). The Spirit gets up in the morning and hounds us, pursuing a changed life, what Gordon Fee called “the reproduction of the life of Christ in the believer.” Paul described this new life, the life for which we were made, the only life that will ever satisfy us, as “the fruit of the Spirit.” Not “the fruit of my good intentions,” but “the fruit of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.”
Not only are these not against the law. They are not the law! Paul does not say, “You must be joyful, patient, faithful.” Rather, if we just calm down and let the Spirit have its way with us, we discover to our delightful surprise traces of joy, peace, gentleness in our lives, all gift, all the work of God in us. This and this alone is genuine “freedom.”
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eYearThroughTheBible112 - by grace saved through faith - Ephesians 2:4-9
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of his great love for us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, and raised us up with him, so that he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. This is not your own doing. It is the gift of God, not because of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, that we should walk in them.
John Wesley, the father of Methodism, regarded Ephesians 2:8 (“For by grace you have been saved through faith”) as the heart of the Gospel, and served as his favorite passage for preaching. Modern-day readers of the passage might zoom in too swiftly on God’s love and kindness, for we probably lean way too far toward presuming upon God’s love, taking it for granted, forgetting that we are in a considerable mess from which only God can extricate us, forgetting how costly God’s love is – to God and to us. Without God’s startling, profound love for us in Christ, we quite literally are dead, not just when we die, but even while we’re still shuffling about on earth.
We also need to pay close attention to the grammar of Ephesians 2:8. Mindlessly, many Christians say “My faith is what saves me.” But Paul never says that your faith accomplishes anything at all. It is “grace,” God’s undeserved, free, surprising gift of love toward us that saves us, nothing else. Faith is only my passive reception, my not bothering to resist grace. Faith isn’t the smartest decision I ever made, and faith isn’t how I get God over on my side. God is already on my side. Salvation is all grace, one hundred percent of the credit going to God. Faith notices; faith is awestruck, and humbly grateful.
Greek grammar tells us one more thing: after Paul says “by grace you have been saved through faith,” he continues, “This is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” What is the antecedent of “this” and “it”? Probably Paul is even including “faith” in the “this” and “it.” For Paul, even “faith” is a gift of God. If I look up one day and happen to believe in God, I cannot pat myself on the back, and congratulate myself for being such a shrewd, pious guy as to believe in God. If I even stop resisting God, all I can say to God is “thank you”… or as Paul put it, “not I, but Christ in me.” This is a paradox, but humble believers get it, understanding how you do all you can to believe, and when you get anywhere at all, you know you could never have gotten yourself there. It’s all grace.
And grace heals. There is a marvelous, therapeutic angle to grace, and faith: we believe, and in believing God heals us, changes us, transforms us.
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eYearThroughTheBible113 - draw near to the throne of grace – Hebrews 4:14-16
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
There is a strong Jewish flavor to the book of Hebrews, as the writer presumes these early Christians still think in terms of the temple, its innermost room, the holy of holies, entered annually by only the highest, most holy priest, sacrifices offered up on the altar, all as a way of bridging the gulf between sinful humanity and God. From sensing the tone of the rest of the book, we can infer that the first readers for whom the letter was intended were under much duress, and were growing weary trying to live out their new faith in a hostile world.
But here is the good news: instead of needing a priest to help us find our way up toward God, God has actually come down to us, and is himself the priest. Jesus is not just the sacrifice, but the priest who leads us to God’s presence; he is himself the holy of holies, and we join him there. Catherine of Siena wrote that the wood of the cross of Christ forms a bridge so we can leave our lost, pointless lives behind and live with God, now and forever.
The beauty of the Christian faith, its unique appeal, is precisely that God did not remain aloof, but embraced our humanity, becoming a man like other men, facing all we face, temptations, pain, hunger, joy, sorrow, rejection, even death. He can sympathize – and how marvelous is this hopeful word, that Christ feels our struggles, and is not frustrated or angry? but instead Christ sympathizes? Moviegoers were scandalized by the film The Last Temptation of Christ, but the novelist Nikos Kazantzakis and the producer Martin Scorsese were imaginatively (and offensively at times!) dramatizing what Hebrews tells us. We will never face anything that is unfamiliar to Christ.
So we are saved, not by a salvation tossed down from some safe distance, but from the inside. This is precisely the help we need, the mercy we yearn for. And so when we face frightful, overwhelming challenges, we never give up. We hold fast – or actually, we discover this Christ is holding fast onto us.
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eYearThroughTheBible114 - faith without works is dead – James 1:22-2:26
Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. If anyone thinks he is religious, but does not bridle his tongue, his religion is vain. Religion that is pure is this: to visit orphans, and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. What does it profit if a man says he has faith but no works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and you say “Go in peace, be warmed,” without giving them what they need, what does it profit? Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. By my works I will show you my faith. You believe in God? Even the demons believe – and shudder. Faith apart from works is dead.
If you want some sort of proof that Christianity is valid, look no further than this startling fact: James, Jesus’ little brother, became a Christian, and a leader in the Church! Siblings know all the foibles and pretensions of one another – so for James to be enthusiastically on board says a lot.
His words, “faith without works is dead,” and “be doers not just hearers,” require no explanation. The message of salvation must be lived out in our real, daily lives, or else we prove that we just don’t “get it.” Sadly, faith slinks about invisibly, as if faith is some mere interior feeling. Little wonder people increasingly regard Christianity as irrelevant. G.K. Chesterton once said that it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; rather, it has hardly ever been tried.
No massive mountain of good deeds can save us; it is the grace and mercy of God that save. But the saving grace of God has a healing, empowering effect, and our new life with God issues in a transformed life, in quite practical deeds that illustrate God is in us, God has made a connection and is now living through us. So our lives mirror Christ’s; we become his hands and feet in this world – and if we don’t, we may just not have any faith at all.
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eYearThroughTheBible115 - complete joy – 1 John 1:1-2:2
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard and seen with our own eyes, and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – we testify to is, and proclaim to you the eternal life made manifest to us. We are writing that our joy may be complete. This is the message, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie; but if we walk in the light, we have fellowship with each other. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. My little children, I write to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world.
This lovely opening to the eloquent first letter of John pretty much captures what the basis of the Christian life is all about. Our faith is not some vague spirituality, but is based on a historical person, Jesus, whom those who saw and touched him regarded as God incarnate, the Word made flesh. When we come to know Jesus, we no longer lead the same dark life we would lead without Jesus. We recognize and confess our sin, which is the radical rebellion against God at the core of our soul, our vain attempt to be God instead of to serve God, the way we hurt each other and ourselves, our failure to be all God intends for us to be.
Yet this superficially negative view of human life is not a bleak mood at all, but the hopeful window into new life. The truth about us is the beginning of light, and change. Jesus is our advocate, the powerful one on our side! Our sin becomes his, and the power of sin over us is (or at least can be) broken! God not only forgives, but God cleanses us, heals, changes us, gives us new, pure, holy lives.
We sing a relatively new hymn nowadays during Advent, whose lyrics relate to the sense of this text: “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus. Clear Sun of Righteousness, shine on my path, and show me the way to the Father. I’m looking for the coming of Christ, I want to be with Jesus. When we have run with patience the race, we shall know the joy of Jesus. In him there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.”
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eYearThroughTheBible116 - love one another – 1 John 4:7-12
Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God. For God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God. If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
Notice John does not say “Love is God,” but rather “God is love.” We need not infer that everything that pretends to be “love” in our world is somehow divine. “Love” is corrupted, demeaned, cheapened all the time – but our very awareness of this, our intuition that there must be such a thing as genuine, true, eternally unfailing love is a hint about the existence of the real thing, our craving for love, our need to love.
Theologians in the early Church taught us that we are lovers by nature; but our love gets disordered, perverted, pointed at the wrong things, and slammed shut behind some wall of the self. Focusing on Jesus, being open to the Spirit – these are the disciplines that re-order our misguided loving, that enable us to love truly, and when we love truly we mirror who God is. When the first Christians were being persecuted, some still rallied to their cause and believed in Christ, not because of the ingenuity of their intellectual arguments, but because of the way they loved each other.
Obviously we are not talking about love as some combustion, some feeling that erupts unexpectedly, as if Cupid really were a divinity firing arrows about. Love is a decision, a commitment, a determination. Søren Kierkegaard wrote that “to love another person means to help that person to love God, and to be loved by another person is to be helped by that person to love God.” You see? Kierkegaard’s intuition into what 1 John 4 is about already begins to re-order our loving. Love is not optional; love is not something we dole out here but not there. Love is our duty, for we are to love as Christ loved.
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eYearThroughTheBible666 - the number of the beast – Revelation 13, 16
I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and a blasphemous name upon its heads. It was like a leopard, its feet were a bear’s, its mouth a lion’s. To it the dragon gave his power and throne. One of its heads seemed to have a mortal wound, but it was healed, and men worshipped the beast. It was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months, making war on the saints to conquer them. … This calls for wisdom: let him who understands reckon the number of the beast, 666… Then I heard a voice from the temple: “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God. So the first angels poured his bowl, and evil sores came upon those who worshipped the beast… The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was in darkness; men cursed God for their pain and did not repent…
The Book of Revelation has fueled apocalyptic fantasies for centuries. Nearing the year 1000, believers expected the return of Jesus, as they did in the days of Martin Luther. In 1843 William Miller persuaded many Ohioans to sell their possessions and wait for Jesus. In the 1970’s Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth was the bestselling book of the decade, and more recently the Left Behind series made mega-profits.
But Revelation wasn’t written to predict events far in the future. John was writing to Christians in seven churches in Asia Minor, encouraging them as they dealt with harassment and persecution. The imagery is bizarre to us, but was not to them. They knew the codes, just as we know donkeys and elephants are Democrats and Republicans. The horns and heads were transparent images of Rome’s rise to dominance across the world. The beastly Roman empire had claimed divine status for exactly 7 Caesars by the time Revelation was written. Nero was the most dastardly, and even after he died by a wound to the back of his head, rumors got out that he was back and would turn up the heat even more brutally on the fledgling Church. The numerical device called “gematria” was commonly used as a code for names (a = 1, b = 2, etc.), and Nero’s name works out exactly to 666.
Revelation isn’t a code trying to mystify us. Instead, this book dares to offer hope for the persecuted faithful. The beast is vicious indeed, and Christians may and will suffer terribly (so much for any superficial beliefs that if you believe in God everything will go smoothly!). But in the long run, God will judge even the immense empire of Rome, or any other earthly power that arrogantly pretends to hold ultimate power. Evil happens now in the world. But between the lines, in the heavens, darkly but surely, God is working for God’s good purpose, which ultimately will not be denied. The hope of those first Christians is one we share, and we will consider this in our final eYearThroughTheBible on Thursday.
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eYearThroughTheBible117 - new heaven and earth – Revelation 21-22
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and earth had passed away. I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband, and I heard a loud voice from the throne: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. They shall be his people, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more. Behold, I make all things new.” Then the Spirit took me away to a high mountain and showed me the holy city, having the glory of God, its radiance like a rare jewel. It had a great high wall built of jasper, the city pure gold, clear as glass. The twelve gates were twelve pearls. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God. The city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God is its light. The gates shall never be shut, and there shall be no night there.
For Jews and then for Christians, Jerusalem stood as the center of their spiritual geography. God exists in every place, but for them the temple was the epicenter of God’s life among us. So when John writes of the hope that is pledged beyond whatever we suffer in this world, he imagines that holy city, yet transformed beyond imagining.
Obviously we need not take this passage literally. How is gold clear as glass? Or how would you pass through a gate that is a pearl? Would jasper make a sturdy wall? John is stretching language to the limits, in what T.S. Eliot called “raids on the inarticulate.” Whatever is the grandest city, place, situation we can fathom, our eternal life with God will exceed that by some explosively logarithmic factor.
And our hope isn’t impersonal as a city might seem to be. John simultaneously compares the dawning of God’s kingdom to a wedding, a day of immense joy, expectation, celebration. The secret of our hope isn’t that we’ll live in a really groovy place. The delight isn’t over what is in heaven, but who is in heaven, and that “who” is God. How eloquent: we will no longer need a temple, or lights, for God will be directly present to us, for the greatest gift God could give us would be God’s own self! What better way to end eYearThroughTheBible than to take a few moments to reflect with awe and grateful anticipation the marvelous hope that is ours, and the mind-boggling wonder and glory that is and always will be God’s.
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eYearThroughTheBible – Summing It All Up 1
Now that we have ambled through dozens of key Bible passages, I cannot think of any that sums up what the Bible actually is than these words from 1 John:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, and seen with our own eyes, and touched with our hands concerning the word of life – life was made manifest and we saw it, and testify to it… so that you may have fellowship with us, as our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing this that our joy may be complete.
Real people, with dreams, flaws, wounds and loves, were eyewitnesses to events so profound, so transformative, that their knees buckled, they blushed – and could not keep their thrilling experience of God to themselves. At first, they blurted their story out loud, a bit breathless; and then, after digesting the full meaning and unanticipated consequences of what God had done, they wrote it down to mail to others in distant lands, and in future centuries – like us.
People ask me: so is the Bible human? or divine? We believe it is both. How else would God speak to us? And the whole point of the story is that God entered into the vulnerability, pains, and delights of human existence – so we expect the words about God to be quite human.
And we need human words; really, they are all that matters. Golden tablets parachuted down from heaven would never warm the heart. We crave the power of human testimony, the sighs, emotions and commitments elicited when someone says “I love you,” “I promise…,” “We will make it through together” – even if the speaker stumbles, says “uh…,” and has a fact or two a bit crossways. The Bible has its blemishes, as critics have never ceased to point out, and as its fans have never been reluctant to admit. God entered the messiness of humanity; God entrusted God’s own self, and thus God’s message, to human authors.
Yes we believe the Spirit of God was totally involved – but not as a drill sergeant. The Spirit kept holy, loving, nudging arms around the whole process of the Bible’s composition and formation, the way a parent launches a toddler with wobbly legs, allowing a tumble or two, but insuring the child finds balance and learns to walk, run, dance, and leap for joy.
To see how lovely the messiness of the Bible can be, look at verse 4: We are writing this that our joy may be complete. That’s a profound thought: the writers of the Bible were themselves seeking joy, striving for fulfillment, and found it in putting ink to parchment to share with us! Writing gave them joy! But the word “our” might not be correct. In some early manuscripts – and we know often they do not agree precisely with one another – we find the word “your.” What if then it reads like this? We are writing this that your joy may be complete. Indeed. I have no doubt that the writers who cobbled the Bible together believed we who read would find joy in their words; that’s why they wrote them. An uncertain text; somebody made a booboo; but what a beautiful error, and we can spend eternity debating who was right, who got the most joy out of the Bible, its writers or its readers…
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eYearThroughTheBible – Summing It All Up 2
When I gave my multimedia talk on Revelation, a puzzled listener asked, “So you are saying Revelation isn’t addressed to us in modern times but was only for people back in the first century?” A light popped on in my head: yes, but not only is Revelation not describing events in our century; no other book in the Bible does so either.
At the end of Revelation, John is told, “Do not seal up the words of this book, for the time is near” (Revelation 22:10). People were dying for their faith, the rest were terrified and needed help; so Revelation was an urgent word for them. But the words were written in a book, and preserved, and treasured as astonishingly helpful a decade later, a century later, a millennium later. All the Bible has a “back then” primary reality. God gave laws to Moses for the people to obey back in the Bronze Age; Psalms were sung in temple worship services; Isaiah called King Ahaz on the carpet in the 8th century, and Jeremiah encouraged depressed exiles in the 6th; Jesus healed a real blind man, and Paul dashed off a letter to the Corinthian Christians who were misbehaving in the year 54 AD.
Think of the writers of the U.S. Constitution. Madison, Morris, and their colleagues were not predicting events in 2010, and issues facing our country today would have boggled their minds. But they laid down the basics that would forever define who we are as a people: we will have a representative government, we will never have a king, and so forth. The burden on the country, forever, will be to apply those founding principles in changing epochs.
The Bible, while it’s a bit messier than the Constitution, functions in the same way. Through its stories, songs, biographies, and letters, significant turf is staked out: the world belongs to God who made it, God expects us to be holy, Jesus is everything, we never tolerate poverty, and so forth. And the Church’s dogged existence across time is the proof that the book still works, it still applies – and for two reasons. 1. People are people; I am very much like Adam, Jacob, Peter, Dorcas, and sometimes Mary and Jesus himself, and our shared humanity before the God who made us all invigorates the truth of this human Bible.
But perhaps more importantly, as we say when we baptize anyone, 2. “The Church is of God and will endure…” The Church is not just a building or a congregation to which you belong; the Church is the people of God, enjoying a solidarity across space and time. We are the Body of Christ, and his book is our book, written long ago for the Church, copied, cherished and translated by the Church, always giving life, challenge and hope to the Church then, now and forever.
We speak of the Bible as “inspired” – and I suspect it is not merely the writers who were moved and guided by God, but also those who read. Isn’t this where the Holy Spirit does its most marvelous labor, lifting the words from the page and imprinting them, igniting something in the soul so we might “get” the words and be transformed by them? To be an inspired reader! of the inspired Word is our life’s quest.
Clergy are urged to “make the Bible relevant.” But perhaps the objective should be quite the opposite: maybe the Bible simply is relevant, and the issue is whether we can make our lives relevant, whether we can recraft an existence that makes sense in light of our Constitution, the living Word God has graciously provided for us…
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eYearThroughTheBible – Summing It All Up 3
Bibles seem a bit innocuous, or perhaps pleasant, almost a decorative item, an amulet some carry like a charm. Gilded, unread Bibles gather dust on coffee tables, and bookstores feature PC Bibles, a runner’s Bible, a Mother’s Bible, travel Bibles, the Readers Digest Bible… If the contents of the Bible provide any clue, we should think instead of vastly different kinds of printed materials: subversive pamphlets handed out around dark corners by revolutionaries, a subpoena that appears at your door informing you where you must go, a tabloid full of stunning revelations, a love note hidden in your backpack.
What’s the plot? and what’s the point of this long, sprawling gathering of all kinds of writings that someone, whether a maniac or a genius, bound into a single book? What is God’s purpose even to bother having such a thing as a Bible? There was a small, fledgling congregation at Laodicea, a place I have visited. Hot spring waters were funneled to the city via clay pipes – but the water chilled as it flowed such a distance, and came out not hot but tepid, a bit dank. God thought of their distasteful water when sizing up the faith of the Laodiceans: You are neither cold not hot. Would that you were cold or hot! Because you are lukewarm, I will spew you out of my mouth (Revelation 3:15).
Diagnosis confirmed: we are a lukewarm people, mildly interested in God, laid back in our faith, sipping on a Bible verse or two once in a while, pretty much living like everybody else in the world, our faith pasted on the outside of an otherwise normal life. We are not cold, but we certainly aren’t hot – but could God really mean that Because we are lukewarm, God will spew us out of God’s mouth?
So it seems. How odd: Bibles have been smuggled into repressive countries, and persecuted Christians have owned and read well-worn copies at the risk of their lives. We’re glad to read the Bible in English, but the story of it coming to be even in English is one of great courage and much suffering… Natan Sharansky, imprisoned by the KGB, pleaded with the guards and was beaten within an inch of his life because he wished to cling to just one possession – his Bible.
What’s the point of the Bible? It could be that God really does want us to take God seriously, for us to be “hot,” passionate, ignited, and even holy, generous, a suspicious eye cocked toward the alleged good life in our society, a yearning eye trained on the extraordinary life with God portrayed in the Bible, never letting the daily grind or lure of our vapid media culture chill the fiery wonder of God’s Word.
In my book on St. Francis, I wrote that “he took the Bible literally” – not in the sense of defending its historical accuracy, but in this: he thought he was supposed to do it. Whatever the Bible talked about became his agenda, his to-do list, the lenses through which he viewed the world; its characters were his heroes, their actions and words his actions and words. Why bother with Year Through the Bible? Could it be to put lukewarmness behind and raise the temperature on our life with God?
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eYearThroughTheBible – Summing It All Up 4
The Bible is a very long, complex book; could its purpose be something quite simple? Read it studiously or dip in at random – and the book’s clear intent might be where I just opened mine: Psalm 92.
It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to the Most High; for You, O Lord, have made me glad by Your work… The Bible invites us to a certain posture in the soul, not a clenched fist grasping, but a bowed head, palms open, not asking God for more, but in humble joy giving thanks to God. And not for a big pile of stuff: a thief or a ponzi scheme charlatan might have a lot of stuff. God’s generosity is far larger than what I happen to have! God gives the sunshine, the symphony of nature, people who have put up with you, the possibility of a new day tomorrow, the Bible, and most splendidly the love of Jesus, who was not stingy or calculating, but gave up his very life for me and you.
We may think of gratitude as good manners: you write a note; children are instructed to say "Thank you." Or we think of gratitude as a feeling you have spontaneously, or else you just don't - and far too often we don't. We nurture grievances and file complaints. Advertisers incessantly lull us into a sense of dissatisfaction so we will buy their products. Even the season of Thanksgiving becomes one more day of vacation, when the malls have sales and we gorge ourselves with a bit too much turkey and dressing.
Gratitude is slack-jawed wonder – and our deepest delight is when the Spirit ushers us out of self-absorption, and we finally, for the first time, understand: It’s not about me! We thank God that God isn’t the kind of God who places me at the center of the universe, as if God’s only reason to exist is to be a kind of butler or personal assistant. God’s purpose is bigger, more magnificent, and our privilege is to be a small part of it all, swept up in drama of the universe’s glorious, holy purpose.
When we praise, we delight in Who God is, instead of on What's in it for me... the way a lover dotes on a photo of the beloved, admiring her beauty, musing on his qualities. Praise is our amazement at God, our recognition of the power, goodness and tenderness of the creator. Praise enjoys God's love, and is glad, no matter the circumstances.
Notice how different this is from positive thinking, that great American psychological industry that puts the pressure on you to think good things into being. The good is already there, and will be there even if our thinking is sad. God is good, all the time! James 1:17 declares that “Every good and perfect gift comes down from God.” The Greek word translated “perfect” is teleios, which really means “for its true purpose.” God gives us gifts for a purpose: so we will praise God and give thanks, and be God’s people, belonging not to ourselves but to God, our lives an echo of the divine generosity as we give lavishly of what was never really ours in the first place. As the “purpose” of YearThroughTheBible, Thanksgiving just might dawn this year.
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Reflections and Looking Ahead
To you who read my emails: I wish I could bake each of you a cake, or offer some marvelous gift, or even go caroling together. I am so honored you bother to read what I send, and that we can share in this virtual conversation together about God, life, our hopes, hurts and dreams. Thank you for letting me play this small part in your life. It is good to think of God with others.
Someone asked the other day what the fee is to join my distribution. These emails have always been and always will be free. If you’re moved by them and want to do something good, make a gift through your favored agency or church to help the needy – or even better, show up and volunteer. If you don’t have a trusted giving outlet, try our Jubilee Plus! fund that does incredible good for those in need in God’s world; you can give online.
I hope you have a blessed Christmas, and not merely a “happy” New Year but also a holy one. Your list of New Year’s resolutions can be topped by an increase in prayer, service, and my email and lecture topics for January: Growth in Faith. I’m giving talks on the subject Jan. 4 (7pm), Jan. 7 (11am), Jan. 11 (7pm) – and then our Academy begins!
Over this holiday I will pray for you readers – and would welcome prayers for me, for the poor, and for the work of God’s Church.